On February 13th, 2018, Dr. Alexander Erokhin gave a lecture entitled “Transformations of literary biographies and reputations in today’s Russia: Victor Pelevin, Zakhar Prilepin, Alexander Prokhanov, Lyudmila Ulitskaya.” Dr. Erokhin is a Fulbright Visiting Scholar at the University of Illinois and Director of the Department of Publishing and Book Science at the Institute of Social Communications at Udmurt State University.
Dr. Erokhin’s talk detailed the characteristics of contemporary Russian fiction writers and the conditions under which they write. As he explained, on one hand, contemporary writers in Russia enjoy unprecedented freedom of expression, though, one the other hand, writers are deprived of any high status, as the government does not consider literature a main concern of the state.
Dr. Erokhin focused on four very successful contemporary Russian authors: Victor Pelevin, Zakhar Prilepin, Alexander Prokhanov, and Lyudmila Ulitskaya. These authors all publish in print (rather than online), are highly awarded, have stable print runs, and are popular abroad. As Dr. Erokhin explained, he chose these authors for their range of readers (high brow to low brow) and also their political and aesthetic divergences. For example, Ulitskaya is a consistent supporter of democratic values, which she believes are articulated in Russia through the intelligentsia. However, Prokhanov and Prilepin are explicitly nationalistic and anti-Western. As Dr. Erokhin argued, these divergences have been illuminated by the Crimea crisis. He also argued that these discrepancies not only reflect the writers’ beliefs, but they also influence the aesthetic components of their work (i.e. mimetic vs non-mimetic). Dr. Erokhin identified Prilepin and Ulitskaya as representation of a realistic style. Conversely, Pelevin’s style reflects the disintegration of society and the individual mind after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Prokhanov’s style is eclectic, representing a mix of realism, naturalism, and postmodern means of expression. However, as Dr. Erokhin explained, all of the authors are similar in their attitude to the literary and cultural traditions of Russia. In fact, they all stress that they belong to the traditions of both contemporary Russian literature and the literature of Soviet Russia.
Dr. Erokhin delved deeper into each author’s biographies and the specifics of their asthetics. He began with Prokhanov, who began his career in the late 1960s as a traditional Soviet author — that is, a socialist realist. Though his mentors (including Trifnov) were representatives of urban prose, Prokhanov combines urban prose with the lyrical traits of village. However, since the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, his writing has moved mostly to military issues (i.e. his 1982 novel The Tree in the Center of Kabul). After Perestroika, he became one of the opponents of the liberal reformists, Boris Yeltsin and his team. According to Erokhin, Prokhanov amalgamates parts of realism with naturalism; he switches between themes of decay and resurrection in his novels; and his protagonists often search for the blissful feeling of peace and quiet, which usually ends in disillusionment. According to Prokhanov, today’s world is fundamentally corrupted, politically and spiritually.
Ulitskaya also represents an older generation of Russian writers with Soviet roots. She entered the field of writing rather late (1980s) because of her Jewish and dissident background. Since the early ’90s, she has been popular among both the liberal intelligentsia and a broader audience, both in Russian and abroad. Her stories trace the lives of Russian Jewish intellectuals emigres and their family chronicles. According to Dr. Erokhin, in her eyes, it is only the intelligentsia who are able to name the past and the present of Russian history, ethically and aesthetically. Unlike Prokhanov’s bombastic portrayal of Russia’s national heritage and glory, Ulitskaya focuses on everyday life and ordinary events, and her languages expresses the importance of the mundane and quotidian existence.
Dr. Erokhin then turned to Pelevin. Similar to Ulitskaya, Pelevin has antagonistic views towards the Soviet regime, however his critical attitude is grounded in different sources, such as Eastern mysticism and science fiction. He began writing in the early 1990s with great success, winning numerous awards, and is now considered one of the best contemporary authors. However, his later works of the 2010s have been met with disapproval. According to Dr. Erokhin, Pelevin attempts to move away from popular fiction into the realm of the “high brow” literature by transforming literary fiction into a transhuman, automatized discourse — in his texts, literature is becoming nonhuman. In his works, contemporary intellectual practices are corrupted and incantation of classics, such as Tolstoy, becomes a sort of laughter. Despite this, Pelevin is hesitant to comment on contemporary politics and the neorealistic movement of writing, rather he continues to show a ironic attitude towards these issues.
According to Dr. Erokhin, Prilepin is the only author that is exposed to the more diffuse, non-traditional strategies of literary production, such as online and offline community building, as well as rap music. He is effective in promoting his role as one of the radical, artistic, political leaders of Russian writers. He uses his involvement in the Eastern Ukrainian crisis, as well as his connections to adviser’s of Putin in order to promote himself as such. Like Prokhanov, he believes the best way to overcome Russia’s misfortunes is to return to healthy instincts in order to teach the nation to distinguish between good and evil in politics and ideology. For example, in his 2014 novel Ob his protagonist repeats this the thought that only senses survive, while ideas breakdown. According to Dr. Erokhin, in both Prilepin and Prokhanov’s work, one has to deal with the naturalization of phobias by means of realistic poetics.
In his lecture, Dr. Erokhin also singled out tendencies of Russian contemporary writers, basing his argument on the four writers detailed above. First, he noted the tendency to return to universal, political, ideological, and historical issues of classical Russian literature (beginning in the 19th century), called “metaphysical resurgence” or a “spiritual revival” by some critics. Second is the tendency to search for new literary heroes, specifically those who are able to be socially, spiritually, and politically active. According to Dr. Erokhin, there is also the tendency to interpret social and historical reality of Russian history through the lens of communities (i.e. labor camp prisoners, the Orthodox church, etc.). Third, is the prominence of aesthetic discussions that reassess the relations between fiction and reality. Fourth, is the tendency to attempt to normalize Soviet period — in fact, as Dr. Erokhin explained, without this, the spiritual resurgence of Russian literature would be incomplete. Last is the tendency to attempt to consolidate Russian speaking culture and literary world around a set of national values and a notion of a consistent history.
Dr. Erokhin ended with a word on the Russian book market and its relation to contemporary literary discussions. According to him, the market for translations is stable, giving Russians an excellent opportunity to become acquainted with the best books abroad. However, world literature in Russia is mainly supported by commercial authors and popular fiction– that is, science fiction, detective novels, and such. Dr. Erokhin suggests that this causes a loss of contact between Russian writers and world literature, and jeopardizes the continuity of Russian literature.
Nadia Hoppe is a PhD student in the Department of Slavic Languages and Literatures. Her research interests include 20th and 21st century literature, gender studies, and critical theory. Her dissertation traces the use of toilets in Soviet literature, art, and film.