9 books I don’t mind being excited about this year

A Reader’s Guide to Andrei Bely’s Petersburg by Leonid Livak (University of Wisconsin Press)

What the publisher says: “Bely expected his audience to participate in unraveling the work’s many meanings, narrative strains, and patterns of details. In their essays, the contributors clarify these complexities, summarize the intellectual and artistic contexts that informed Petersburg’s creation and reception, and review the interpretive possibilities contained in the novel. This volume will aid a broad audience of Anglophone readers in understanding and appreciating Petersburg.”

What J.T. says: Andrei Bely’s symbolist masterpiece remains one of my favorite recent discoveries in Russian literature and the most fun reread, even after writing a chaotic term paper on its color symbolism. Between the shadows and the suddenlys and the familial and sociopolitical strifing and the erratic characters and the terrible weather, there’s a lot to pick apart in Petersburg. Like the green, germ-infested waters of the Neva, these details cascade over the reader all at once, to the point where confusion is completely understandable, and any attempt to help us piece together the puzzle is welcome. At least in my book.

Currently Reader’s Guide to Andrei Bely’s Petersburg is priced out of range for most parties aside from libraries. I doubt this will doom it irrevocably, but…could we have a cheaper paperback version? Pretty please?

The Dark Double: US Media, Russia, and the Politics of Values by Andrei Tsygankov (Oxford University Press)

What the publisher says: “Although many observers argue that US-Russia relations are a simple reflection of elites’ political and economic preferences in both countries, these preferences tend to arise from pre-existing belief systems that are deeply rooted in the public and accentuated by mass media. In Dark Double, Andrei P. Tsygankov focuses on the driving power of values and media, in addition to political and economic interests, in structuring US-Russia relations. By analyzing mainstream US newspapers and other media sources, Tsygankov identifies five media narratives involving Russia since the Cold War’s end and studies them through a framework of three inter-related factors: historic and cultural differences between the two countries, inter-state competition, and polarizing domestic politics. He shows how Americans’ negative views toward Russia draw from a deep wellspring of suspicion and are further enhanced by a biased media that regularly exploits such negativity, Russia’s centralization of power and anti-American attitudes. Given the intensity of our current impasse with Russia, Dark Double represents an important intervention that forces us to think about the sources of conflict in a new way.”

What J.T. says: To my knowledge, while earlier books have mapped broad schools of thought within American rusology/discourse (see the introduction to Laruelle/Radvanyi’s Understanding Russia: Challenges of Transformation), there has yet to be one which mines media narratives specifically. (Aside from Tsygankov’s previous book Russophobia, maybe.) So get ready for a potentially novel albeit one-sided romp.

New Russian Drama: An Anthology, edited by Maksim Hanukai and Susanna Weygandt (Columbia University Press)

What the publisher says: “New Russian Drama took shape at the turn of the new millennium—a time of turbulent social change in Russia and the former Soviet republics. Emerging from small playwriting festivals, provincial theaters, and converted basements, it evolved into a major artistic movement that startled audiences with hypernaturalistic portrayals of sex and violence, daring use of non-normative language, and thrilling experiments with genre and form. The movement’s commitment to investigating contemporary reality helped revitalize Russian theater. It also provoked confrontations with traditionalists in society and places of power, making theater once again Russia’s most politicized art form.

This anthology offers an introduction to New Russian Drama through plays that illustrate the versatility and global relevance of this exciting movement. Many of them address pressing social issues, such as ethnic tensions and political disillusionment; others engage with Russia’s rich cultural legacy by reimagining traditional genres and canons. Among them are a family drama about Anton Chekhov, a modern production play in which factory workers compose haiku, and a satirical verse play about the treatment of migrant workers, as well a documentary play about a terrorist school siege and a postdramatic “text” that is only two sentences long. Both politically and aesthetically uncompromising, they chart new paths for performance in the twenty-first century. Acquainting English-language readers with these vital works, New Russian Drama challenges us to reflect on the status and mission of the theater.”

What J.T. says: The Columbia Russian Library has excelled in diversifying its offerings in terms of genre, form and time period, and I can only welcome its recent decision to tap post-Soviet writing. New Russian Drama made this list as an experiment in reading outside one’s regular reach: my dislike of so-called politicized work and preference for prose are fairly known, but I do remember reading a GLAS volume of post-Soviet drama long ago and enjoying it more or less. So here goes!

Criminal Subculture in the Gulag: Prisoner Society in the Stalinist Labour Camps by Mark Vincent (I.B. Tauris)

What the publisher says: “Despite continued interest in the Gulag, academic scholarship has failed to move beyond the strict divide between ‘criminal’ and ‘political’ prisoners. This is largely due to the lack of memoirs from outside the intelligentsia and misconceptions perpetuated in mainstream culture, which has led to a disproportionate focus on vory-v-zakone (‘thieves-in law’) – who in 1950 made up less than 10% of the Gulag’s ‘criminals’. Mark Vincent draws on neglected materials – including song collections, Gulag newspapers and journals, tattoo drawings and dictionaries of slang, alongside reports from the state-funded Moscow Criminological Bureau – and uses a variety of disciplinary methodologies to reconstruct a fuller picture of Gulag daily life and society.”

What J.T. says: Russia Reviewed does not cover books about the Stalin period. Nevertheless, my curiosity about the lay gulag population compelled me to include Criminal Subculture in the Gulag on this list. In history/ “Global Russia” classes past, when we discussed the Soviet penal system (to the extent it ever came up at all), it was always through the prism of dissident or political prisoner experience. I’ve tried filling in the blanks on the vory-v-zakone via outside reading, but aside from some…graphic representation in Danzig Baldaev’s criminal tattoo encyclopedias, the vast majority of the prison population has thus far gone unmentioned. Which is strange, if one considers the high probability that they were responsible for bringing prison songs and slang into mainstream Soviet society.

For this reason, I hope Vincent’s book is appealing to both academic and lay readers, so that even if I don’t review it here, I can “spread it around” as much as I can, like a bee performing a pollen dance.

Pale Horse: A Novel of Revolutionary Russia by Boris Savinkov, trans. Michael Katz (University of Pittsburgh Press)

What the publisher says: “Translation of a Russian novel, providing a fictionalized account of the assassination of grand duke Sergei Alexandrovich, written by the leader of the terrorist cell who actually organized the real murder.”

What J.T. says: Would it be more productive to read Savinkov’s work as an actual novel or as a historical document? Eh, there’s likely a way to reconcile the two.

In Gogol’s Shadow by Andrei Sinyavsky, trans. Josh Billings (Columbia University Press)

What the publisher says: “Andrei Sinyavsky wrote In Gogol’s Shadow while serving time in a Soviet labor camp. Opening with Gogol’s funeral, this unorthodox biography strips the man away from the myth. Sinyavsky challenges the deeply held Russian and Soviet view—promoted by Gogol—that Gogol was first and foremost a political writer, whose biting satire was part of a quest for his country’s salvation. In Gogol’s Shadow reveals a writer more obsessed with language than with politics. Gogol’s attempt to force his art neatly into the function of exposing social ills is undermined by his uncanny imagination and inventiveness. Over the course of his investigation, Sinyavsky’s own style comes to recall the digressive, free-flowing prose of the author of Dead Souls and The Government Inspector. This irreverent and incisive analysis of Gogol’s life and work is a path-breaking exploration of literary creativity in times of strict censorship and ideological control.”

What J.T. says: For such an intriguing author, there are surprisingly few biographies of him available in English. There’s Henri Troyat’s Gogol: Biography of a Divided Soul, Simon Karlinsky’s The Sexual Labyrinth of Nikolai Gogol, and of course, Nabokov’s hot take. And soon, there will be this one. Which not only aims to move beyond a purely political interpretation of Gogol’s work but also claims to approach his prose style. Sign me up!

Rock, Paper, Scissors, and Other Stories by Maxim Osipov, trans. Boris Dralyuk, Alex Fleming, and Anne Marie Jackson (NYRB Classics)

What the publisher says: “Maxim Osipov, who lives and practices medicine in a town ninety miles outside Moscow, is one of Russia’s best-regarded writers. In the tradition of Anton Chekhov and William Carlos Williams, he draws on his experiences in medicine to craft stories of great subtlety and striking insight. Rich in compassion but devoid of cheap sentiment, Osipov’s fiction presents a nuanced, collage-like portrait of life in provincial Russia—its tragedies, infinite frustrations, and moments of humble beauty and inspiration. The twelve stories in this volume depict doctors, actors and actresses, screenwriters, teachers, entrepreneurs, local political bosses, and common criminals whose paths intersect in unpredictable yet entirely natural ways: in sickrooms, classrooms, administrative offices, on trains, and in the air . Their encounters lead to disasters, major and minor epiphanies, and—on occasion—the promise of redemption. ‘Life is scary, whether you’re in Moscow, St. Petersburg, or the provinces,’ Osipov’s narrator tells us in ‘The Cry of the Domestic Fowl,’ which opens the collection. And yet, he concludes, the ‘world doesn’t break, no matter what you throw at it. That’s just how it’s built.'”

What J.T. says: I smell a Stargorod. But let’s wait and see.

Russia’s Futures by Richard Sakwa (Polity)

What the publisher says: “Russia is back as a major force in global politics, but what does this mean? Is Russia the dangerous revisionist foe that meddles in Western elections and tries to subvert the liberal international order? Or is it a country desperately trying to maintain security and enhance prosperity at home, while re-asserting a place as a great power in the world today?

In this erudite and balanced study, renowned Russia scholar Richard Sakwa explores the current debates on Russia, placing them into historical context and outlining the fundamental challenges currently facing the country. Post-communist Russia had to grapple with a unique set of problems, including reconstituting the political system, rebuilding the economy, reimagining the nation, revitalising society and rethinking Russia’s place in the world. The solutions are still being sought, but this hard-hitting study argues that the failure to create an international system in which Russia’s transformation became part of a revised world order has made the search far more difficult than it may otherwise have been. Although Russia is one of the oldest states in Europe, in its contemporary guise it is one of the youngest. Russia has had many pasts, and given its size, centrality and complexity, it will also have many futures.”

What J.T. says: I’m mostly in it to see how he handles the “multiple futures.”

A book yet to come

What J.T. says: A watchlist put out in January and relying upon a handful of booksellers’ sites obviously lacks the foresight to include books slated for publication much later in the year. Thus this spot is reserved for any or all of those later books. Precisely which one will fill this space remains obscure for now. Maybe it will be yours?

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