THE RISE OF BULGAKOV DIPLOMACY

Liesl Schillinger / Foreignpolicy.com, 31.08.2015

The Russian classics occupy an unassailable position on every passionate readers shelves. Theyre the
books you reread Chekhovs plays and short stories, Anna Karenina , The Brothers Karamazov , The
Master and Margarita and of course, no library is complete without War and Peace. But which
contemporary authors do Russians read? Do you know? And have you read any Russian authors besides
Tolstoy or Dostoevsky or anyone who has been alive and writing fiction in Russia for the past 40 years?
Would you know where to start, if you wanted to?

During the Cold War, some dissident fiction and memoir emerged from behind the Iron Curtain, from
Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn to Boris Pasternak and Vasily Aksyonov; the CIA devoted funds and men to
finding out what disenchanted Soviets were writing and helped them, covertly, to publish it. When the
Soviet Union ceased to exist in December of 1991 and the borders crumbled, the ramparts of Russian
literature remained strong, but global interest in the country and its literary output waned. As Owen
Matthews wrote earlier this year in Foreign Policy, Doctor Zhivago, published nearly 60 years ago, was
the last Russian novel to become a genuine American sensation.

Yet today, as Vladimir Putins newly assertive Russia has magnified the countrys presence on the world
stage, a spotlight has again landed on the countrys literary arsenal. While the Russian Federations
borders creep outward, and relations between Washington and Moscow approach a level of hostility
rivaling the Cold War chill, the bulwark of Russian literature is being reinforced. Belatedly, it appears,
Russia has perceived the value of soft diplomacy to shore up the nations reputation overseas and is
buttressing this underused resource.

In late June, the first ever Books of Russia festival was held on Moscows Red Square. Putin attended,
alongside his cultural advisor Vladimir Tolstoy, a great-great-grandson of Leo. It was there, amid banners
and traditional costumes, that a group of international scholars, publishers, translators, and Russian and
American officials announced an ambitious literary initiative. They were joining forces to publish a
treasury of Russian literature in English, at least 100 volumes strong, spanning three centuries and
possibly more. The undertaking was convened by Read Russia, an American NGO founded in 2012 thats
devoted to the promotion of Russian literature and book culture, along with Rospechat, Russias Federal
Agency on Press and Mass Communications, and Moscows Institute for Literary Translation, the
projects principal sponsor.

The collection, tentatively titled the Russian Library, has been hailed by its instigators and many readers
as a much needed, laudable effort to improve the English-speaking worlds understanding of Russias
past, its present, and even its future through literature. And yet, the politics underlying the initiative
make some observers uneasy, even as they yearn for under-recognized works to get proper exposure.
Culture and patriotism; patrimony and propaganda; how are these opposing forces allied in todays
Russia, and can they exist separately?

Its remarkable, when you think of the number of Russian authors that command the worlds respect and
move individual emotions not just Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, and Chekhov, but Lermontov, Turgenev,
Gogol, Babel, Akhmatova, Bulgakov, Goncharov, and others that an official undertaking like this one
has not been completed long before now (even if the husband-wife translation team of Richard Pevear
and Larissa Volokhonsky are powering through Russias greatest hits on their own initiative). Its also
remarkable that so little word of Russias excellent contemporary writers like Dmitry Bykov, Lyudmila
Petrushevskaya, Mikhail Shishkin, Viktor Pelevin, Olga Slavnikova, Lyudmila Ulitskaya, and Vladimir
Sorokin, to name an important handful has made it beyond the melted Iron Curtain. To find out about
current Russian writers who matter, you need to read Russian or befriend a grad student. American
bookstores rarely carry any Russian authors but the ones you read in high school or college.
Why should we want to read them? Because to lack a sense of a countrys current literature is
to lack a sense of a countrys current mindset. The political and cultural shifts that have
occurred in Russia over the last quarter century make the intellectual quest of Read Russia
unusually relevant and timely. That said, Russias relationship with its writers has always been
complicated, and it still is. In imperial Russia, Pushkin was censored by the tsar, despite his
universal renown; Dostoevsky was nearly put to death. During the Soviet era, dissidents were
suppressed, censored, and exiled, and any writer who hoped to publish and thrive within the
system had to belong to the Union of Soviet Writers and to project the values of Socialist
Realism. If, in Communist times, Moscow had attempted to promote the work of the states
favored authors overseas, their efforts would have been (rightly) dismissed as propaganda.
Armaments, not books, were the calling card of the Soviet Union. But the current Russian
literary landscape displays more nuance.

Internationally, in recent decades, many other countries have recognized that authors are assets to a
nations reputation. In the 20th century, Germanys Goethe-Institut and Spains Cervantes Institute
spread offices across the world, shoring up their countries intellectual and social standing. (France
created the Alliance Française in the 19th century for the same purpose.) But the Soviet Union largely
looked inward, not outward, showing little interest in cultural outreach, apart from the occasional
Bolshoi world tour. Early in the Yeltsin era, in 1992, a Russian Booker Prize was inaugurated. It was the
first nongovernmental literary award to be bestowed since the Bolshevik Revolution. However, since
Russias economy was stumbling badly at the time, little was done then to increase global attention to the
nations literature; it was not a priority. The current strengthening of Russian literary clout, by some
lights, can be seen as playing catch-up with everyone else.

Since Putins ascendancy, which brought with it the rise of a billionaire oligarch class, the Kremlin has
put muscle into increasing the value of Russias literary holdings. In 2000, the Debut Prize was created by
Putins friend and metal mogul Andrei Skoch to identify and reward young writers. The quality of the
writing varies, but the awards intention is to foster a new creative class, and generous prizes in six
categories help the winners gain the financial freedom to write (a winner at the 2012 Debut Prize awards
in Moscow told me his award would go toward buying an apartment).

n 2006, Russias Big Book Prize was launched 3 million rubles for the best book of the year (of any
genre); and in 2009, the billionaire Mikhail Prokhorov (now the owner of the Brooklyn Nets) established
the NOS Literary Prize to recognize exceptional contemporary fiction. (Back in 2004, Prokhorov founded
an arts-minded charitable foundation that advances Russian cultural institutions and initiatives at home
and abroad. His sister Irina Prokhorova, an award-winning literary critic, historian, and the founder of
Russias New Literary Observer magazine, attended the Russian Library conference in Moscow in June.)
And in 2011, the Institute for Literary Translation opened in Moscow, with the goal of promoting
Russian literature around the world.

It was amid this wave of renewed interest in the written Russian word that Read Russia emerged in New
York in 2012. Peter Kaufman, a lifelong enthusiast of Russian literature and associate director of the
Columbia Center for New Media Teaching and Learning, was named Read Russias president. In 2014, he
announced the first Russian Literature Week in New York, comparing the value of Russias literary
oeuvre for foreign readers to a driveway full of sapphires and emeralds the greatest areas of
excitement lie in polishing off gemstones that may become future classics. (Disclosure: I moderated a
Read Russia festival discussion of three translations Zakhar Prilepins Sankya, Mikhail Shishkins
Maidenhair, and Arkady and Boris Strugatskys Definitely Maybe.)

The putative repertory collection that Kaufman and Vladimir Grigoriev, deputy head of Rospechat,
announced in Moscow this summer will serve a similar purpose as the Library of America, in the United
States, or La Pléiade, in France, except that its works will appear in another nations language: English.
Kaufman told me in July that there is a great deal of excitement among scholars and translators here,
about this effort to make up for lost time. It wont hurt, he said, to learn a little about Russia and to
think about some of the things Russians think about when they think about literature. Antonina Bouis, a
New Yorker admired for her translations of Solomon Volkov, Yevgeny Yevtushenko, the Strugatskys, and
Bulgakov (among others), said earlier this month that the Russian Library corrects a history of neglect:
Its a brilliant idea. I think whats going to be very valuable is its going to be a scholarly edition; they will
find the right expert in the field to present each book and explain it to the general reader.

his kind of responsible curation has clear value, beyond the literary content of the titles that appear.
And yet, the very fact that this projected series, conceived to inform and enlighten Western readers, may
also serve to buttress Putins aims makes some people wary including some supporters of the Russian
Library. One of the participating scholars, speaking on condition of anonymity, explained, The problem
here is that, despite the very noble nature of the project, which is long overdue and timely and necessary,
the Russian authorities are using it to make a good face. And thats why I am split. I dont want to add my
two pennies to the Kremlin bank. Kaufman responds rhetorically to detractors, If people want to say its
useful for Putin, or Obama, or [Ukrainian leader Petro] Poroshenko, what can I say? If Dostoevsky or
Mayakovsky is useful for those people, I cant really speak to that point. I think every act has some
element of history-making in it, of politics, of art.

In any case, it wont be Putins circle that decides which titles to choose, which translators to employ, and
which prefaces to seek. That will be the task of a scholarly panel at Columbia. Politics aside, bestowing
literary laurels is always a fraught process. At the end of the Moscow meeting, the experts debated for an
hour which books to publish first. Nobody could agree; the discussion had to be postponed. The Russian
Librarys editorial advisory board (which includes scholars from Princeton, Harvard, Oxford University,
St. Petersburgs Pushkin House, and Moscows State Museum of Literature) will convene intermittently,
at offices at Columbia University Press. When they meet, they will wrangle over which writers are worthy
of inclusion. Questions will arise: Do you retranslate existing translations of, say, Solzhenitsyn or
Pasternak, from the Soviet period, which arguably underserved the original Russian? Do you redo classic
translations, quibbling over their quality? Which 21st-century authors will last? How many volumes
should be devoted to each century; or should the scope reach back to the 12th century and pull in The Lay
of Igors Campaign? Theres a lot of distance to cover, but, Kaufman said, Were already in the race;
weve got the go-ahead. Its a question of which titles will finish the first heat in front, and then well run
again.

Even those who bridle at Russian involvement must accept that you cant select, translate, edit, annotate,
bind, and circulate a hundred books without significant committed financial backing; so why not make
books while the sun shines? Diplomacy is a requirement not only for statesmen and cannons, but for
scholars and canons. If a reader, down the line, picks up one of the titles that the Russian Library
negotiations have produced a novel by Pelevin, Petrushevskaya, or Sorokin, or maybe Bely or
Goncharov and comes away with a political conclusion, wheres the harm? Books are ambassadors that
speak for themselves.


   
 
 

© « »

Rambler's Top100 Rambler's Top100