Russian Literary Boom Linked To Authoritarianism

Literary critics feared that after the Soviet collapse, the easy availability of popular romance novels and thrillers would seduce Russian readers away from deeper works. Now they attribute a literary revival to the country's new authoritarianism.

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Russia might be the land of Dostoyevsky and Chekhov, but with the fall of Communism came a rush of popular romance novels and thrillers, which had been banned by the Soviets.

In the 1990s, some Russians began to fear their country had become a literary wasteland. Now, critics of the Russian government say its turn towards authoritarianism is sparking a literary revival. NPR's Gregory Feifer has our story from Moscow.

GREGORY FEIFER: Crowds peruse new titles at a book fair held in a central Moscow art gallery.

Mr. DMITRY BYKOV (Writer): (Russian Spoken)

FEIFER: In a crowded hall, one of the country's most popular writers, Dmitry Bykov, reads from his latest book. Afterward, Bykov dismisses any accusations that Russia's great literary tradition is in peril.

Mr. BYKOV: (Through translator) Reality itself is in constant crisis. So in that sense, the fact that people say Russian literature is in crisis is the best sign that it's actually alive and well.

FEIFER: In the 1990s, several new Russian writers came to prominence with books full of black humor mocking Soviet life and Russia's new, wild capitalism, and describing visions of a dark, utopian future.

(Soundbite of bird)

FEIFER: Vladimir Sorokin is one of Russia's most prominent writers. At his country dacha outside Moscow, surrounded by birch trees and sporting his trademark mane of white hair and goatee, Sorokin says Russia's new authoritarianism is providing a treasure trove of subject material.

Mr. VLADIMIR SOROKIN (Writer): (Through translator) I've always been interested in exploring violence. In our society, the individual is repressed from birth.

FEIFER: Sorokin has just completed the sequel to his novel "Den' Oprichnika," which describes Russia in the year 2027. The country has been separated from the West by a new great wall and is overrun by royal terror squads who indulge in gay sex and drug abuse. Sorokin says it's a metaphor for the kind of place Russia became under former President Vladimir Putin.

Mr. SOROKIN: (Through translator) Once again, the authorities in the Kremlin have become completely closed off from the people. They are becoming cruel, unpredictable and corrupt. They have taken the place of God, and they are forcing people to worship them.

FEIFER: Sorokin says fiction writing is one of the last remaining pursuits in Russia in which free expression is still allowed, but Sorokin has run into trouble.

In 2002, members of a pro-Kremlin youth group made headlines ripping up copies of one of his novels and throwing them into a giant toilet. Sorokin was later taken to court on charges of pornography that were subsequently dropped.

Sorokin and a handful of other writers are becoming better known abroad, but Natalia Ivanova, an editor of the literary journal Znamia, says the best Russian writers are young and barely known.

Ms. NATALIA IVANOVA (Literary Editor, Znamia): (Through translator) The Russian literature today is like a cake with many layers. They have mass popular literature and middlebrow literature, but we also have very good, complicated literature for the elite.

FEIFER: But Ivanova says even as Russia's literary scene expands, it's being threatened by a shrinking readership. Under the repression of the Soviet Union, she says, literature was the main form of escape.

With the proliferation of movies and television shows today, she says, Russia is in danger of turning from a country of readers into a country of viewers.

Gregory Feifer, NPR News, Moscow.

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