Live Stream of “Centrifugal Forces: Reading Russia’s Regional Identities and Initiatives”, March 26-28

slavic poster 43The proceedings of the UVa conference, “Centrifugal Forces: Reading Russia’s Regional Identities and Initiatives, ” March 26-28, will be broadcasted as a free online streaming event. Please find instructions to access the stream here. A PDF version of the instructions with screen caps of each step is available for download at the bottom of the page.

Updates regarding the conference will be posted on the official Twitter account for the event, @RussiasRegions. We welcome and encourage the participation of diverse online audiences. While watching the live stream, you can direct questions to the panelists via Twitter (@RussiasRegions), or email at <>. Throughout the event, a team of graduate students will be monitoring the Twitter and email accounts to communicate your questions to the associated speakers.

For more information on the conference, please visit 
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Remembering Valentin Pikul

Valentin_Pikul02Valentin Pikul (1928-1990) is almost forgotten author today. However, he was the most read author in the Soviet Union in 1970-90s.  Although Pikul is not well known by Western audiences, his works sold over a million copies in Russian markets between 1967 and 1979. In addition to producing more than two-dozen novels, Pikul published hundreds of historical miniatures. This story, Drown Me, or Be Damned, describing the trials of John Paul Jones in the American Revolution and the Russian Imperial Navy, appeared in the 1988 anthology, Blood, Tears, and Laurels.
Pikul was born in Leningrad, now St. Petersburg, but he grew up primarily in the small town of Molotovsk, now Severodvinsk, on the shores of the White Sea. At the outbreak of WWII, Pikul and his mother were visiting relatives in Leningrad. In the ensuing violence, they became trapped by the blockade of the city that lasted over 900 days. While residents of the city endured bombings, starvation, and brutal winters, Pikul and his mother managed to escape the siege by traversing the frozen surface of Lake Ladoga, popularly called ‘the road of life’.
Upon his return to the Russian North, Pikul enrolled in the Midshipman school in the Solovetsky Islands, and throughout the duration of the war, he served as a cadet on the minelayer vessel Grozny. During this time, he developed a strong connection to the sea, and an enduring fascination with naval history. After the war,  Pikul became an author, and his writing flourished in a literary circle led by Vera Katlinsky. Shortly after his 32nd birthday, Pikul moved to Riga, where he produced most of his best works.
Pikul’s rich historical imagination resonated broadly with adolescent and adult readers alike, who enjoyed the author’s vicarious experience of pivotal scenes, events, and interactions from lesser-known annals of the past. In addition to providing audiences with the thrill of historical adventurism, Pikul’s texts promoted international collaboration through the presentation of common bonds uniting dissimilar nations and peoples.
In this regard, the figure of John Paul Jones serves not only as a heroic naval personage, but also as a personal bridge connecting the legacies of America and Russia. While John Paul Jones is most notably remembered as one of the founders of the American Navy, who fought vehemently against the British in the American Revolution, he also served with distinction as an Admiral of the Russian Imperial Navy in the Russo-Turkish War, and his efforts allowed Catherine II to proceed triumphantly through the annexed territory of Crimea with her ally Holy Roman Emperor Joseph II.
Despite looming hostilities of the Cold War, Pikul encouraged readers to reconsider bonds with people of different national and ethnic backgrounds. The popular reception of Pikul’s work demonstrates the resonance of themes promoting international collaboration, peaceful cultural exchange, and the ever-present possibility for rapprochement to settle the conflicts of divided peoples and institutions.

By Michael Marsh-Soloway

                                               Drown Me, or Be Damned

Translated from the original Russian by Yuri Urbanovich and Michael Marsh-Soloway

The American Ambassador to France Mr. Porter studied cemeteries trampled by time for all six years of his tenure in Paris. In 1905, his investigations finally yielded success. In the graveyard of Grange aux Belles, he found the grave of a person about whom there were already several books written, one by Fennimore Cooper and another by Alexander Dumas.
“Are you sure that you have found Paul Jones?” inquired the Ambassador.
“I will open the coffin and look at his face.”
“Do you think that the Admiral has been well preserved?”
“Of course! The coffin was filled to the top with embalming alcohol.”
It was unsealed, and after а strong vine spirit splashed out from the coffin, everyone was impressed by the striking similarity of the deceased’s face to the plaster mask of Paul Jones preserved in the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Two well-known anthropologists Pageleon and Kapitan examined the remains of the Admiral very carefully and came to a conclusion:
“Yes, before us is the notorious ‘Master of the Sea’ Paul Jones, and there are even traces of pneumonia in his lungs, from which he suffered at the end of his life.”
The body was placed into a metal coffin, on the cover of which was installed a small round porthole like that of a ship. A squadron of U.S. battleships set off for the shores of France across the Atlantic. In Annapolis, the Yankees were erecting a ceremonial crypt, so that Admiral Paul Jones would find his final resting place in America. Paris had not seen such an impressive procession for such a long time!
The coffin with the body of the sailor was escorted by French regiments and a cortège of American midshipmen. At the head of the funeral procession marched the Prime Minister of France, carrying a top hat in his hand. Orchestras played triumphant marches. Behind the gun carriage walked ambassadors and ministers from different countries in ceremonial style. The Russian naval attaché mentioned with a smile to the Ambassador A. I. Nelidov:
“The Americans firmly remembered that Paul Jones was the founder of the U.S. navy, but they have forgotten that the Admiral earned his rank not from America, but from Russia… After all, from us!”
. . .
The son of Scottish gardener, Paul Jones began his life like many other poor boys in England, as a sea cadet. He got to know the taste of the sea on a slave ship traveling from Africa to the American colonies. He learned how to predict danger in the darkness and the fog, but his soul was outraged by the cruelty of his countrymen. The young sailor left the slave traders’ ship, swearing to himself never again to serve the British crown.
“British ships deserve only to be sunk like rabid dogs!” shouted Jones in a seaport tavern…
The new world hosted the fugitive. In 1775, the American War for Independence had begun, and Lieutenant Paul Jones offered his service to a country that was not yet even printed on the world map.
Washington declared, “I recognize the spirit of this man…Let him fight!”
Jones gathered a crew of ruthless daredevils, who knew neither their fathers, nor their mothers, and who grew up without roofs overhead. With these men, he crushed the English on the sea in such a manner that sparks were flying from the haughty bravery of this ‘Master of the Sea’. They boarded ships in brutal battles, decided by the strike of a saber or a spear. Jones captured British ships, and tugged the dishonored vessels to American harbors, where now ashore he was gloriously honored by clamoring crowds of people…
Paul Jones turned to Washington and stammered, “And now I want to burn the skin of the English king in his English sheepfold. I swear to the devil, it will be so!”
In the spring of 1778, a seemingly peaceful commercial vessel appeared on English shores. In reality, however, the ship had 18 canons hidden beneath its hull. It was the corvette, “Ranger”, masked as a merchant ship.
“What’s new in the world, friend?” the sailors asked the harbor pilot when he boarded the deck of the corvette.
“They say,” he turned to the captain, “that close to our shores roams the traitor Paul Jones, and he is such son of a bitch, such a swine, that sooner or later he will be hanged!”
“How can it be so? You Englishmen have such a good opinion of me. Allow me to introduce myself: it is I, Paul Jones! But I am not going to hang you…”
In a thunder of grapeshot and hand grenades, while encouraging sailors with whistle and song, Paul Jones drowned British ships at their own shores. The London Exchange was experiencing a fever. The prices for all goods grew steadily, and bank officers declared bankruptcy as cargo ships sat idly in the harbors.
The pilot of the corvette pointed into the distance, where the city lights were flickering, responding, “There is Whitehaven, as you wished, sir. What are you planning to do here?”
“This is my homeland,” answered Paul Jones, “and one’s homeland sometimes needs to be visited even by a prodigal son, such as I!”
Showered by a warm nighttime mist, the sailors, led by their captain, descended into the city, seizing the fort, destroying all of its cannons, and after having burned down the British ships anchored in the harbor, again disappeared into the endless expanse of the sea…
The King, who was dispirited, lamented, “I am ashamed. Is the glory of my fleet merely myth?”
“What is to be done?” replied the admirals to the King. “Jones is uncatchable, like an old hull rat. There is no rope in your majesty’s navy, which wouldn’t generate bloody tears from the desire to strangle this impudent pirate on a mast!”
By then, Paul Jones had already descended into County Selkirk. In the castle, he encountered only a duchess, to whom he expressed his deepest apologies for the disturbance. Meanwhile the men from The Ranger were dragging all of the duchess’ silverware to the boat. In taking his leave from the fair gentlewoman, Jones personally obliged himself, until the end of his days, to repay the Selkirks out of his own pocket.
“But I am not such a robber as the English think me to be,” stammered Paul Jones. “If my glorious men have such a desire to have supper only on silver, then let them eat like nobility! They have so few joys in their lives!”
Soon after having rested with his crew in France, he again appeared in English waters aboard The Bonhomme Richard. This time he was accompanied by French ships under the banner of someone named Landais, who had been discharged from the fleet for insanity. Jones recruited him into his own service.
“I myself, when I fight,” Jones affirmed, “lose all sense of self. So this crazy man fits in perfectly with the matters that we are going to undertake…”
On the traverse of the Flamborough Peninsula, Jones saw through the fog, the high riggings of the fifty-canon ship of the line, The Serapis, which by its right was considered the best ship of the Royal Fleet, and behind it, the wind propelled the astonishing frigate, The Duchess of Scorborough.
At first, the Englishmen called to them on a bullhorn, “Identify your vessel or we will drown you!”
Paul Jones in a clean white shirt, rolled up his sleeves to his elbows, and answered with unusual rage:
“Drown me, or be damned!”
In this risky moment, ‘crazy’ Landais dashed behind the commercial vessels. Thanks to Landais’ obvious foolishness, the small Bonhomme Richard, squared off one-on-one with the thunderous royal opponent. The first artillery shot of the British rang out, and the American ship started leaking and burning. Throughout the volley, several cannons blew up during the first moments of the fight. The ships pounded with such fury for one hour, then another, then three, and the battle came to a close under the moonlight. While tacking sharply, and as showering sparks streamed down from burning sails, the enemies came so close to each other that the mizzen-mast of The Serapis suddenly crashed down before Jones’ feet, and he seized it with his own embrace.
“I swear,” shouted Paul Jones enraged, “I will not let go of the mast until one of us sinks to the bottom of the sea!”
The deck became slippery with blood. The Bonhomme Richard continued to fight in the crackling fires, losing cannons, masts, and spars. In the flames, one could hear whistling, obscenity, and song. The wounded Paul Jones continued to inspire his crew.
“Get ready to board the ship! Board the ship!” somebody screamed from aboard the Serapis.
“You are welcome!” Jones beckoned. “We will teach you a lesson that you will never forget!”
The English soldiers flew overboard, slashing with sabers, however, the power of the royal artillery also did its bidding: The Bonhomme Richard was sinking into the abyss with an audible hiss. The sea was already flooding over its deck, and suddenly they heard from The Serapis:
“Ahoy, it looks like you are finished. If you are surrendering, then stop fighting, and behave like gentlemen!”
Paul Jones suddenly threw a hand grenade at the English, with the quick reply, “Why do you think so? We haven’t even begun to fight!”
“It’s time for you to finish this story.”
“I will finish this story so fast, that you, I swear by the devil, that you won’t even have time to pray.”
The Bonhomme Richard collided into the side of The Serapis with full force; boarding hooks flying high clenched the wooden sides, and the two warring ships grappled with one another. Hand-to-hand combat commenced, and in this moment from the sea approached the ‘crazy’ Landais with his ships. Without understanding who is friend or foe, he covered the fighting parties with hot grapeshot, which immediately knocked out half of the English, and also half of the Americans.
“Now, he’s really lost his mind!” Paul Jones exclaimed, bleeding from his wounds.
But at this juncture, the captain of The Serapis surrendered his sword to Paul Jones.
“I congratulate you, sire! I have lost this match…”
The Bonhomme Richard was lost in the abyss with grappling ropes ripping as it sank, releasing huge gurgling air bubbles from the hold. A tattered, star-studded American flag was raised over the mast of The Serapis.
“And we are again on deck, men!” declared Jones to his crew. “We will board The Countess of Scarborough, and take it too!”
The victors headed for French shores on the two captured vessels. The burial rites of the fallen were read, the wounds were mended, barrels of wine were opened, canisters of “Yankee hash” were boiled, and the men cavorted and sang:
Cast a line in Puerto Rico, The cannibal waits onshore, Hum diddly hum!
Pray for our patron, dear Father, And we from our cannons, strike square between the eyes, Ah- ha- ha- ha!
The fight is now over, tonight we feast, And then we’ll sleep soundly, Hum diddly hum!
Everyone gets a piece to taste thigh, rump, breast, stomach, We clean the boiler down to the bottom, Ah- ha- ha- ha!
This spirit of rough times in this sailor shanty of antiquity was born in the stuffy taverns of the New World.
Flexible and dark, he looked entirely not like a Scot, but a Native-American Indian Chief. The look of his gloomy eyes pierced right through his interlocutor. His cheeks drilled in by the winds from all latitudes, were almost brown, like dates, and summoned to mind tropical countries. This is the extremely proud young face of friendliness that breathed contemptuous reticence. So this how his contemporaries remembered John Paul Jones.
Poets in Paris composed verses in his honor, but he did not like to be indebted, so he immediately paid for them with compositions of pleasant lyrical elegies. Parisian beauties started fashioning their hair in the image of sails and riggings in honor of the victory of The Bonhomme Richard. France, hostile to England from olden times, showered Jones with unprecedented favors. The King of France appointed him a knight of the crown, and in the Parisian opera, the sailor was publicly crowned with a wreath of laurels. The most distinguished ladies sought momentary interactions with him, and they displayed kindness in kind with a torrent of love letters.
Jones justifiably expected that the Congress of the country, for which he did so much, would appoint him to the rank of Admiral. He was outraged, when across the ocean, only a bronze medal was forged in honor of his exploits. Around the name of Paul Jones, which thundered across all the seas and all the oceans, had already begun the intrigues of politicians. Congress was jealous of his glory, and Paul Jones felt betrayed.
“I agree to shed blood for the freedom of mankind, but I do not wish to sink the burning ship for the gratification of shopkeeper-congressmen. Let Americans forget what I was, what I am, and what I will be!”
. . .
In distant snow covered St. Petersburg, the public had long followed Jones’ exploits. Catherine II, an experienced and cunning politician, immediately understood that beyond the ocean, a great country with an energetic people was now being born. She declared “armed neutrality” in support of America to win its freedom. Meanwhile, on the steppes of the Black Sea, brewed a new war with Turkey, and Russia always needed brave young captains for its fleet.
“Ivan Andreich,” Catherine II bid to the Vice Chancellor Osterman, “It would behoove us to entice the boisterous John Paul Jones into our service, so I ask you to submit a request through our ambassadors.”
Jones granted his consent to enter the Russian service. In April of 1788, Paul Jones enlisted and was promoted to the rank of Rear Admiral as indicated on his Russian documents.
“The Empress received me with the most flattering attention that adequately affords a foreigner,” he told his friends in Paris.
The Russian capital opened the doors of its estates and palaces. Jones was showered with invitations to dinners and luncheons for intimate receptions in the Winter Palace. The British merchants, as a sign of protest, closed their stores in Petersburg. Hired British sailors, who served under the Russian flag, openly resigned. British intelligence sharpened its teeth and claws, waiting for the chance to ruin the career of Jones in Russia.
As a sailor next to the Russian throne, Jones conducted himself in Republican fashion. He boldly presented the texts of the U.S. Constitution and the Declaration of Independence as gifts to Catherine. The Empress, like a discerning woman answered him:
“I have a premonition that the American Revolution cannot fail to ignite other revolutions. The fire will spread!”
“Your Majesty, I venture to think that the principles of American freedom will open your many prisons, the keys of which we will drown in the ocean.”

. . .
The Rear Admiral left for the Black Sea, where he raised his flag on the mast of the Vladimir. He raised his own sailing squadron that smashed the Turks under Ochakov in the Dnieper Estuary. The brave buccaneer now performed in a different guise, consisting of dusty Cossack trousers with a curved saber at his hip. Paul Jones smoked Ukrainian shag tobacco from a pipe, and drank Cossack vodka, downing it with chuck jerky, garlic, and cucumbers. At night aboard the Zaporizhian sharp-nosed vessel, The Seagull, after ordering that all oars be wrapped, the Rear Admiral sailed lengthwise past the Turkish fleet. Aboard the flagship of the Sultan’s navy, Paul Jones etched his resolution with a piece of chalk:
-Paul Jones
The Russians were delighted with his prowess, but he himself was delighted in the unparalleled courage of Russian soldiers and sailors. At the battle of the Kinburnsky Peninsula, Jones shook hands with Suvorov ‘like century-old friends’, as Suvorov described it, and the Turkish fleet suffered a terrible defeat. Paul Jones might have been an excellent seaman, but he was an incompetent diplomat, and his relationship with Prince Potemkin soon became detrimental to his standing. British intelligence, with an invisible eye watching Jones even in the Dnieper floodplains, waited for the moment to strike!
The blow was very painful, for it was during this period that James started petitioning for the development of trade between Russia and America. He made plans for the creation of united Russian-American squadrons, which were to be based in the Mediterranean Sea as a guarantee of universal peace in Europe, but with Prince Potemkin, he quarreled all at once. The British rained down on him from St. Petersburg a torrent of lies and dirty rumors claiming he was guilty of smuggling, and that he shot his own nephew, and so on. There was no affair without bribery at the capital summit. Much is still not clear to historians, and due to the lack of documents, the corpus of legends based on lies of this time period only muddles the real picture. But historians discerned something in this all the same. Paul Jones was neither in the favor of the Russian navy, nor of the Empress herself. He never tired in ‘educating’ her of the constitutional spirit, touting the Republican way of life everywhere he went.
But after all, his resignation was submitted. Suvorov gave him a fur coat.
“In spite of it all, I will return to Russia,” Paul Jones said with conviction when the horses set off carrying the carriage to the gate.
After roaming around Europe like a homeless vagrant, he finished his run on seas and oceans in Paris.
Paris was different, having experienced revolution. The Keys of the Bastille were forwarded across the ocean as a gift to Washington, with the words: “The principles of America opened the Bastille!” Henceforth, from Paris, the sailor set about his own project, the amazingly successful construction of a 54-cannon vessel, which the French hid beneath a broad cloth.
Catherine recognized features of Paul Jones in conversations with those close to her: “Paul Jones possessed a very quarrelsome wit, and was deservedly celebrated by despicable riffraff…”
This phrasing of the Empress is easy to decipher: “despicable riffraff” always surrounded Jones. There were always these people, craving freedom. They were his fellow Jacobins.
Then began a new phase of life.
From the window of his own squalid garret, The Мorraine Survey, he saw the tiled roofs of Paris and sweetly dreamed of powerful squadrons setting off into the ocean for the battle against tyranny.
. . .
Like all progressive people of Paris in his time, Paul Jones joined the Masonic Lodge of the Nine Sisters, which absorbed the best minds of France. In those years, he was surrounded by poets, philosophers, and revolutionaries, and he carried on the tutelage of his sincere friend Mrs. Telisen, the natural daughter of Louis XV. France wished for Paul Jones to head the revolutionary Navy, but the “surveyor of the seas” was already sick. Yes, he was sick and impoverished. He already carried on with a walking stick in his hands, but the white shirt of the sailor looked then, as it did on the eve of a battle, consistently waving, flashing dazzling purity.
Death struck him on July 18, 1792.
He died at night, all alone, when he was only 45 years of age.
He died standing up, leaning against as cupboard, holding in his hands an open volume of Voltaire’s works. A surprising end! Even in death, the admiral did not fall, and even death could not unclench his fingers firmly gripping the book.
The American Ambassador did not attend his funeral.
The French National Assembly dedicated the memory of a man who well served the cause of freedom with a moment of silence.
12 Parisian sans-culottes in the Phrygian red caps brought the foam of the seas to his grave. Then it was decided to move his body to the Pantheon of great men, but in the whirlwind of subsequent events, this all was somehow forgotten.
The place where Paul Jones was buried was also forgotten. In the end, most people forgot of Paul Jones…
But Napoleon thought of him on a dismal day in France, when Admiral Nelson destroyed the French fleet at the Battle of Trafalgar.
“I am sorry,” Napoleon remarked, “that Paul Jones did not survive until our present days. Had he been at the head of my fleet, the shame of Trafalgar would never have befallen the head of the French nation.”
In 1905, the historian August Buél found a man in America, who preserved the memoirs of his great-grandfather, John Kilby, a sailor from Jones’ command of the Bonhomme Richard. This Kilby wrote about Jones:
“Although the British proclaimed him the worst person in the world, I am obliged to comment that this kind of sailor and gentleman was unlike any I had ever seen before. Paul was brave in battle, kind in his interactions among us simple sailors, and he fed us excellently, and in general, he behaved as he should. If he was not always given a salary, then it is not his fault. It is the fault of Congress!”
Paul Jones took his place in the American pantheon.
Recently, one of our country’s historians N.N. Bolkhovitinov offered the monograph describing the fate of Jones’s legacy:
Honor your war heroes, as best as you can. Every school pupil knows about Paul Jones, and texts about the valiant captain should be found alongside biographies of George Washington, Ben Franklin, Abraham Lincoln, and Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Initially, we were somewhat surprised to see Paul Jones in such brilliant surroundings, but ultimately we decided that Americans know best just whom should be honored most. We, generally speaking, least of all conceive of the details, which somehow diminish the merits of the famous admiral.
Upon reflection, we can say the latter. Of course, somewhere in the depths of Paul Jones’ soul, there has always been the adventurer with the manners of a typical pirate of the eighteenth century. Does it not link his fate to the struggle of American independence, if he had not become an admiral in the Russian Navy? Who knows? Perhaps, he would have slid into the usual business of piracy on the high seas, but if he had remained in this bloody arena, Paul Jones would have probably left our history, appearing instead on the most brilliant pages of sea brigandage.
But life writes itself according to the fate of this remarkable man, and Paul Jones will remain in the peoples’ history as an Admiral of the Russian Navy, as a national hero of America!

                           Biographies of the Editor and Translator

Professor Yuri Urbanovich was born in Tblisi, the capital city of the Republic of Georgia. He received his M.A. in International Relations from the Moscow State University of International Relations in 1972, and his Ph.D. in International Relations from the Diplomatic Academy of the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs in 1984. In 1992, Dr. Urbanovich was invited by the University of Virginia’s Center for the Study of Mind and Human Interaction (CSMHI) to coordinate dialogues defusing the “velvet divorce” between Baltic States and the Soviet Union. Currently, Dr. Urbanovich is teaching three seminars, Post-Soviet Challenges: National Ethnicities, Rise & Fall of the Soviet Union, and America through Russian Eyes.

Michael Marsh-Soloway is a Ph.D. Candidate in the Department of Slavic Languages and Literatures at the University of Virginia. Throughout the spring of 2014, Michael embarked a tour of Moscow and St. Petersburg to conduct archival research for his ongoing dissertation project, The Ontological Necessity of All That is Imaginary: Mapping the Mathematical Consciousness of F.M. Dostoevsky. In 2011, he participated in the U.S. Department of State Critical Language Scholarship, and studied at Bashkir State Pedagogical University in Ufa, the capital of the Republic of Bashkortostan in the southwestern Urals. His research interests include the Russian novel, linguistics, and film.

**The editor and translator would like to express special thanks to Sergey Nikolaevich Dmitriev, Editor-In-Chief of Veche Publishers in Moscow for granting us special permission to publish the first rendering of this work in English. It is our sincere hope that the text will inspire interest among Western readers to investigate further the diverse writings and life experiences of Valentin Pikul.



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Poet Laureate Viktor Sosnora on Poetry and Poetics

By Michael Marsh-Soloway

SosnoraViktor  Sosnora was born in Alupka on the Crimean Peninsula in 1936. During WWII, Sosnora and his family endured the blockade of Leningrad for over a year, before being evacuated to the Kuban region in the Russian South. Soon thereafter, however, the Kuban region was occupied by Nazi forces. He once pretended to be dead after a bullet grazed his head to avoid detection by advancing Nazi soldiers. Sosnora was captured three times by the Gestapo, and interrogated because of his family’s connections to detachments of Soviet partisan groups. He was released each time on account of his young age.

In 1945, Sosnora moved to Warsaw to reunite with his father, who served as a regional commander in Rokossovsky’s army. After touring Europe, the Sosnoras ultimately settled in the city of Arkhangelsk on the White Sea. In 1958, Sosnora enrolled in the Department of Philosophy at Leningrad State University, supporting himself by working as a factory electrician.

Shortly after his twenty-third birthday, Sosnora became the youngest author in the Leningrad Writers’ Union. His poems first appeared in print in 1960, and in 1962, he released his first book, January Downpour, which included a foreword by Nikolai Aseev.

Throughout his lifetime, Sosnora attained popularity among diverse artistic circles and peoples. In Paris, he worked alongside the likes of Elsa Triolet and Louis Aragon. Despite losing his hearing as a result of complications from an operation on his pancreas, Sosnora continued to correspond with authors and readers around the world. In 1987, he toured the United States, and participated in poetry readings with Allen Ginsberg and FD Reeve.

In May of 2011, Sosnora delivered the following essay “Poetry and Poetics” as part of his acceptance speech, when he was awarded the title of poet laureate of the Russian Federation, the highest national honor awarded to Russian writers in the arena of poetry. His books are printed numerous countries, including the United States of America, Germany, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Bulgaria, Hungary, Italy, France, and others still.

The publishing group Lenizdat released a collection of his poetry titled “My Life” (“Zhizn’ moya”) in 2013.  Currently, Viktor Sosnora resides in St. Petersburg, where he continues to write, make public appearances, and participate in ongoing artistic discourses. He provided the translator and the University of Virginia with special permission to print this translation.


Emily Lygo. “Chapter 4: Viktor Sosnora.” Leningrad Poetry 1953-1975: The Thaw Generation. Bern, Switzerland: Peter Lang AG, 2010, 173-175.

Darra Goldstein. “An Interview with Viktor Sosnora.” The New York Review of Books. October 13, 1988.

Viktor Sosnora “Zhizn’ moya.” Izbrannye stikhotvoreniya. Laureat Rossijskoj natsional’noj premii “Poet”. Izdatel’skaya gruppa “Lenizdat”. Sankt-Peterburg, 2013.

By Alexander Borisenko

By Alexander Borisenko

Poetry and Poetics

By Viktor Sosnora

Translation by Michael Marsh-Soloway

Yes, forgive me, I will not be speaking about poetry, but about poetics. Poetry is a term used too broadly, and poetry is everything: nature, and impressions, and love, and dreams, and reality, and velocity, and the sun, and darkness. It is possible to enumerate without end, and vocality, and muteness, etc., and all the like. In general, take a walk, soul, if only to provide something poignant for the soul.

Poetics is a term that is much narrower. It entails verse, not what, or about what, but how something came to be written. And here, we are stalking with paradox: just as somebody’s verses captivate the soul, so to say, tickle the nerves, summon laughter and tears, you then close the book as if you hadn’t really read anything at all.

A minor digression.

Soviet society in Stalin’s memory was not able to give “I”, but “we”, which reduced into, how should we frame it, poetic mooing. There could never be speech about the poetics of Soviet poets, and poetry predominated slavish labor.

In Leningrad, for thirty years, I guided different literary unions, of which it seems, there were no less than ten.

Why did these young poets show up? Somebody inculcated in them the notion that at the literary unions they could learn to compose verse. Did they learn? No. So, they went to the philology departments. Did they learn? No. The dream of the Soviet and post-Soviet intellectual  that it is possible to teach somebody the arts was never realized. It couldn’t be.

I would be very careful in using the word “poetry”. In my dictionary, in general, there is no such term. But, while reading contemporary “poetry”, I discern, that in these rhymed or unrhymed texts, there is something indiscernibly “poetry”. It is, for the most part, rhymed or free-verse discourses on moral, common, or quasi-political themes. And in general, this term “poetry” is inapplicable today, yes, and may it always be.

The term “poetry” is a self-actualization, and so on, and so on.

If a poet is rhythmically interesting, it means that the rhythm of his own organism has been captured for them. Rhythm, and not “meaning”– we will leave meaning for the philosophers. And veritable prose should be rhythmic. Gogol justly called his “Dead Souls” a poema. If there is no rhythm in one’s scribbles, then it isn’t prose, but rather, belles-lettres.

But if this is the case, just what is this notorious “poetry”?

I think it is rather more likely a genetic manifestation, if not a literary one. More seemingly, it is a paranormal manifestation, rather than one that bears explanation. I am speaking about great poets, and not about good and different poets, of which there are exceedingly many, but appreciably, they are unified. I would try to account for this appreciation, let us state the result of Pushkin, who had in his ancestry the Moor Gannibal. Yes, this manifestation is true for Pushkin himself, his brother Lev, and his teacher Batyushkov.

Batyushkov had two brothers and an uncle, and they departed from “normal” life into “paranormal” life—all four ultimately did, only three did not write verses, but Batyushkov wrote them.

It seems to me that it is time for Russian literature to depart from amorphous definitions of so-called creativity toward practical definitions that have long been made by Western literature. That is to say, from sanctimony to reality- this sharply individual arrangement “I”. I am eurhythmics.

We are still not able to be ourselves, that is, to give an account to ourselves- what and from where? It is an honest account. And what we should do, while it agitates the particulars, is a way of life. It is an abundantly everyday gaze at the surrounding life and at the self. It couldn’t be simpler to cast back the particulars toward Batyushkov. You shouldn’t be surprised by this paranormal manifestation, as it’s known among the common people, “madness”, or as we will say directly, geniuses. In the arts, this affair is trivial. We will say, beloved Hemmingway during Soviet time was of this Pleiades of paranormal types, and before him, Flaubert, his teacher Maupassant, the Japanese author Akutagawa, Virginia Woolf, etc.; and of our authors, Khlebnikov, Mayakovsky, Tsvetaeva, Mandel’shtam, namely an entire Pleiades of “paranormal” geniuses.

Аreasonable question: what is there for normal poets to do?

Well, nothing. Live in your own comfortable normal society and partake of the fruits of this society.


And beyond this period: live, as it’s advertised in the TV commercial:

-Doshirak- with love! [1]

April, 2011


[1]: Doshirak, a popular brand of instant noodles sold in Russia.

(c) Featured pictures by Alexander Borisenko

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Chasing the Black Hen or Phantasmagoria in the Provincial City

Discussing the “New Epic” in Contemporary Russian Poetry

In an interview with “Vrijj Nederlands” in 1982 describing Russian poetry, Joseph Brodsky mentioned that in his opinion, there were only two outstanding poets left (Eugenii Rein and Yurii Kublanovsky – E.D.): “but whatever will happen with Russia in the future, it will always have new literature, simply because of the Russian language. Russian is that kind of language, that it’s impossible to cease the existence of literature in this language. Literature continues regardless of what people do” (1).

Some thirty years later, with the situation being one of an ongoing crisis of individual lyric expression, we are indeed seeing a notable new tendency in contemporary Russian literature: a growing interest in non-lyric poetry (non-linear expression) that critics have called a “revival of narrative poetry” or epic narrative. Often it is described as a “new epic,” which has become a new literary phenomenon in the 21st century (2).

(c) Alexander Borisenko

(c) Alexander Borisenko

What is a “new epic” and how does it differ from an “old epic’?

One of the founders and the creator of the term “new epic,” Feodor Svarovsky, assesses the current state of Russian poetry as a continuous crisis of first-person lyric expression (or linear poetic reflection).  In his opinion, the long line of Russian lyric poets that originated in the Silver Age was focused mostly on the inner world of their heroes. Svarovsky argued that it is simply not enough for modern literature and described it as a crisis of traditional direct lyric expression, evident also in European literature in general.  It coincided with Ilya Kikulkin’s opinion that the “’poetic I’ appeared infantile and vulnerable and had lost any vestiges of the heroic” (3). Svarovsky pointed out a way out of this crisis: a new paradigm of poetic utterance – a narrative poetry without the author’s presence or emotional reflection. According to Svarovsky, “the author of the new epic poem recounts not his own, but other people’s experiences, words, actions and circumstances” (4).

In his notable “New Epic” manifesto in 2007, Feodor Svarovsky explained:  “I have long felt the impossibility of writing in the modernist paradigm of the 20th century predetermined by the authors of Silver Age and then continued by the authors of the beginning-mid 20th century as direct lyric expression…I don’t believe in a crisis of meaning… It is simply that after the secularization, after the crisis of humanism and establishment of the postmodernist approach to culture that took place in the 20th century, the personal linear expression (by which I mean the author’s expression of individual’s feelings, thoughts and experiences) is not effective anymore for the achievement any significant aesthetic effect… What needs to be done for words to acquire their previous importance? I think we need to change the type of author expression” (5).

By this Svarovsky suggests a change of focus from the lyric hero to whatever is organizing the existence outside the author’s personal experience, feelings, etc. But what is it? The answer depends on the author’s and readers’ religious and philosophical views. It could be Fate, Providence, Destiny, unknown powers or even well known powers that govern life”.

In his opinion, the difference between the “new epic” and the “old” is that the traditional epic narrative described heroic events that occurred in the past and influenced lives, which could be real events. But the “new epic” suggests that what lies beneath all these events is always an unknown power, and it could happen anywhere (in space, in the past, in the future, in the imagination). An author’s goal is to cause an emotional, aesthetic, intellectual contemplation “on these transcendental powers” by describing these events without interpretation

Svetlana Gudkova  described  several distinct features of  “new epic” work: the synthesis of prose and poetry for the sake of creating  an enthralling  plot with many acting heroes, whose fate depends on some transcendent  power; the absence of the author’s presence or his or her narrative voice; the occurrence of supernatural powers;  the marginal and trivial heroes; incorporation in the poetic text of many cultural symbols and clichés from traditional ballads, folklore, classical literature, and even borrowing storylines from famous serials (6).

All of this sound like complete phantasmagoria, and indeed the new epical forms often are rhymed long stories (poems or ballads) with a fascinating and constantly developing plot or series of bizarre events. The authors’ presumption of the poetic story as life itself is beyond readers’ comprehension, which shifts the focus to more complicated, metaphysical processes. Readers can only guess at the nature of these processes, or what powers are behind the heroic actions of marginal heroes.

The “new epic” is flourishing and developing into a leading tendency in Russian poetry

According to Svarovsky and Rovinsky, a large group of contemporary Russian poets can be considered as contributing to the “new epic” movement. Among them Linor Goralik, Sergei Kruglov, Maria Stepanova, Andrei Rodionov, Arsenii Rovincky, Boris Khersonsky, Pavel Goldin and others (7). This group of unambiguously talented authors is diverse and uses differing poetic tools, from quasi-folklore to historical chronicles to create enthralling stories in verse.

This short essay introduces in particular the works of two popular poets: Sergei Kruglov (Narodnie pesni) and Maria Stepanova ( Proza Ivana Sidorova). Both poets are widely read in Russia. Their poetry shows the distinctive features of a new epic movement, even though their poetic personalities are different.

Sergei Kruglov represents a rare combination:  a poet-priest. After graduating from Krasnoyarsk University, he worked as a reporter for the local newspaper in Siberia. In 1999, Kruglov was ordained as a priest of the Russian Orthodox Church. His first Live Journal publications caught the interest of the public by their combination of great poetic gift and his strong Orthodox spirituality. In 2008 he won the Andrei Bely Prize for The Mirror (Зеркальце, 2007) and The Typist (Переписчик, 2008). The echo of Orthodox Christian philosophical thinking is evident in his work:

©Alexander Borisenko

©Alexander Borisenko

The smoke of prayers
Rising here and there over Russia!

Crawling, blending into a dark storm cloud,
They sprout lightning, they thunder, they howl fearsomely
Clash powerfully —
What a battle of prayers raging
Above the country! How it swirls,
No worse than the sparkling juicy battles of Uccello!

No, the Lord sighs bitterly, the analogy with a painting is inappropriate —
These are real people after all,
Here they squabble in such a non-picturesque fashion,
Pushing each other aside, trying to climb closer to Me,
Heads and hands seething
In the cauldron of this perpetually boiling country!

Excerpt from Nathan and the Elections of the Ruler.
Tr. by Vitally Chernetsky (8)

Kruglov’s Folk Songs (Народные песни, 2010) are variations on traditional Russian folk stories and songs and introduce well known (for Russians) personages. What makes his narrative poems unusual is the ability to bring both the “tragic” and “beautiful co-existence of God and our neighbors”(ближние) into his poetic expression. Kruglov is well aware of his mission.  In his hypostasis of a priest, Fr. Sergei is concerned with the “low, rejected, smoky, sore sky of/our life” flowing into “oblivion”. He believes that “transformation in lives is always the manifestation of the mercy of the Lord, incomprehensible to humans “(9).  The poet Sergei Kruglov successfully brings his sacred knowledge to readers through vibrant polyphonic narrative.

Re-telling the folk stories in his own words, Kruglov masterfully incorporates motifs of Russian folklore in verses. One of them is Russian Fairy Tale (Русская Сkазка) – a quasi-folklore poem with classical Russian fairy-tale characters: Sirin-Bird (Птица Сирин),  Nav-Morevna (Навь Моревна  ( 10) etc.

SirinIn the poem, the story describes how the evil personages of Russian fairy tales from a book that is forgotten on the rainy terrace intrude into the imagination of a little girl. They threaten to conquer the beautiful August night and destroy the peaceful world around her. Even it is only in the child’s imagination, an almighty power stands as a protector.  The epic confrontation between good and evil may be real or just in the imagination of the little girl – the author does not make a distinction. For the author, it is important that the final triumph of goodness over evil spirits is a manifestation of the inconceivable love of the Lord.


Птицу Сирин в небесах молнией сразило,
Пала – и течёт
Мёдом лета позднего.
Костяные лики лет щелку отворили,
Смотрят: не пора ли? –
Цепи ржавы, гроб хрустальный
Грянется, расколется,
Кровью вытечет на дно
Голубое наше злато, дымное, берёзовое! –
Милая, не плачь, не бойся –
Костяная навь морочит,
В чёрных гранях душной ночи
alexander-gerasimov-after-the-rain-a-wet-weranda-На террасе деревянной, в сад, распахнутый дождём,
Среди туч – забыта книга,
Колокольный звон берёз
Осень-Волхв пояла, скрыла
В кладях памяти, в пещерах, в тридесятых тронных залах, -
Слышишь хохот?
Навь-Моревна торжествует, яблоки роняет сад!..
Спи, не бойся, доченька!
Помнишь, как там в сказке дальше:
«Жила-была мертвая царевна…» -
Дождь стихает, гроб висит,
Август-Зеркальце разбилось: нет
На свете краше, выше, глубже, постоянней,
Нет страшней и безысходней, слёзней, обречённей
Этой ночи в августе,
Этих мест и этой речи,
Страшно мёртвой вживе, сказочной, последней, -
Спи. Выходят семеро,
На руках несут царевну; плывет месяц-кладенец;
Серебро течёт и тает; небо любит нас;
Спи, моя хорошая.
1994 (11)

(Sirin-bird was struck by lightning in the skies/
She fell down and flowed /
Like late summer honey. /
The bony faces of years opened a crack/
looked: was it their time? /
Rusty chains, a crystal coffin/
would clap and crack, /
they would flow to the bottom like blood./
Our gold is blue, it’s smoky birch! /
Dear, do not cry, and do not worry. /
In the black edges of sweltering nights /
evil spirits would fool us. /
On a wooden terrace / in a garden washed /
by rain under the clouds /
a book was left forgotten. /
Birches were ringing as bells. /
Fall-Magus sang, and hid /
in its memory’s treasures as in a cave. /
Do you hear the laughter? – /
It’s in a far away kingdom’s chambers /
Nav-Morevna triumphs. /
The garden drops its apples! /
Sleep, fear not, my little daughter! /
Remember how the story continues: /
“There once was a dead princess…” – /
The rain subsides, the coffin hangs/
August-Mirror shatters – there is
no other night in the world more beautiful, higher, deeper, permanent /
terrible, hopeless, tearful, or doomed /
than this August night, /
than this place and these words. /
The frightening and marvelous dead is now alive /
Go to sleep. Seven come out, /
in their arms they carry the princess. /
Silver flows and melts; heaven loves us. /
Sleep, my darling.)

A Hero, the Black Hen, and a Sleeping Girl in a Russian Provincial City

By Dmitrii

By Dmitrii

Maria Stepanova is a prominent author and an editor of web-portal  Her  acclaimed The Prose of Ivan Sidorov  also includes the activity of  quite different  powers that bore resemblance to Bulgakov’s devilry.  In 2007,  Stepanova published The Prose of Ivan Sidorov (Проза Ивана Сидорова) on her blog in Live Journal under the name of Ivan Sidorov – hence the title (12). It immediately caused a stir among Russian critics and readers alike. Her poem became a hit and was staged in theatre in November 2007. One year later it was published and has since then become the representative example of “new epic” poetry.

Its title “Prose” indicates that it is a story-in-verses, or the synthesis of prose and poetic text. Mark Lipovetsky call it a “verse narrative” (13) and described it as a “roundelay” (хоровод) of a modern phantasmagoria.  Ghouls-criminals, the Black Hen from Pogorelsky’s story Tale of the Black Hen and Bulgakov’s motifs, as well as a mystic-cop series merge into “one muddy lump”(14)  in a story where the undertone is the agonizing guilt of the main character Aleosha.

So what is it about this story that attracts the attention of readers?   The story is at first too incredible to take seriously.

russ2In a small provincial Russian city, the phantasmagoria starts one winter night with a half-drunk man coming off the train into the train station. The quiet, dreamy life of a provincial town is transformed when the main hero appears, the marginal Aleosha. Readers do not know anything about his prior life, but it is clear that some traumatic experience has brought him there.

In the provincial town, so to speak,
but in a low-minded way
with white steep cliffs,
with on-shore over the giant strides,
with the tubes of heavy industry,
with women, similar to the touch
like bottles with tight tops, arrives a drunken man.
The city, say, under the Snowy Shroud. The lights are off.
Carefully-painted, fences are dark, and even in the square there are no cops”.

The adventures start when the drunken Aleosha finds a sleeping girl and the black hen in a waiting room, and brings them to a small hut: “ In a waiting room a screaming hen runs across./In the glass doors emerges a night patrol./ A sleeping girl – below the steering medium-sized adult bike –/and where is her mother? and who is she, trash?’

During the course of events in the poem, Aleosha becomes the central point of bizarre6212_mesto-vstrechi-izmenit-nelzya_or__1024x768_( events involving a gang of supernatural criminals and the police.  The following events describe the violent clashes between the supernatural criminal powers led by the Black Hen, and the Moscow police forces (МУР). The modern day setting is suddenly interrupted by powers beyond the comprehension of the heroes or readers. The personages become mere elements in unpredictable processes, real or imaginary, and the narrative moves into a metaphysical space.

Aleosha is by no means a true hero: when the police forces arrive in the small house to arrest a band of supernatural criminals led by the Black Hen, all of its inhabitants are hiding under the bed.  By the will of an unnamed power, Aleosha transforms into a cockerel, but he bravely protects the Black Hen in prison. All of heroes are saved at the end, but during the supernatural gang’s party with their leader, the Black Hen, there is the appearance of the beautiful Major Kantariya from the Moscow police forces looking for her lost daughter:

Rocking on black, smartly styled heels,
a beauty comes out of the shadows, with a gun in her hands,
and holding two targets in one sight,
she says: “Whoa, gangsters!
I am Major Kantariya from the Moscow MUR,
it’s done, and I reached my goal.
Hands behind your back, stay facing the wall.
I have a special price for your lives,
but I put them to an end
if those who are here
will not return to me here and now

At the end, Aleosha was saved from evil spirits and had a final chance to talk to his dead wife, who was incarnated as the Black Hen. Their conversation gives a final closure for Aleosha’s guilt and grief. The Black Hen then ascends to heaven, leaving Aleosha on this earth to proceed with his life.

The synopsis of this story reveals a modern ballad (it was even compared to a popular TV series “Место встречи изменить нельзя “).  But behind the post-modernist absurdity is a story about lost love and guilt, as well as about all conquering mother’s love for her child. The tragic person of Major Kantariya in a search of lost child became one unforgettable symbol in the poem:

They left in a hurry like this: in front there was
 a beauty with her daughter pressed to her chest,
 and wrapped in a warm cloth.
Behind them left an angry man,
and the hen looked away from the basket
like a nail, not packed to the cap.
They wandered on white, and then went through the blue,
and from the hill they looked back, like a single soul:
at inanimate cops  near abandoned house,
who were standing in the winter dusk,
without breathing in the snow dust”

The transformation of  the Black Hen into Aleosha’s dead wife, her asking supernatural forces to return the girl to Kantariya, the tragic and magnificent monologue of the “invisible power’  at the end of the poem completely change our perception of the poem. We understand that at this moment the girl by her mother’s love is returned from another world.

© Alexander Borisenko

© Alexander Borisenko

Stepanova synthesizes timeless emotions and ideas of human fate with symbols of pop culture and modern folklore. Through the appeal to readers’ imagination and using recognizable cultural symbols and the surroundings of the Russian provincial city, Stepanova succeeds in creating a modern day epic story about the eternal search for happiness and forgiveness. Like a hundred years before, provincial Russia continues to be a place where the idea of humanity grows through chaos and despair.


1. Yosif Brodsky. Bol’shaia kniga interv’yu. M.: Zakharov, 2000, p. 199

2. Svarovsky F. Neskol’ko slov o novom epose. Zhurnal RETs: Novyi epos, 44 (June 2007),

3. Kukulkin Ilya, NLO, 2002, p.275.

4. Svarovsky F., Neskol’ko slov o novom epose. Zhurnal RETs: Novyi epos, 44 (June 2007),

5. Ibid.

6. Gudkova S. New Tendencies in Contemporary Poetry: Artistic Species of M.Stepanovs’s Book “The Prose of Ivan Sidorov”.  Izvestiia Rossiiskogo Gosudarstvennogo Pedagogicheskogo Universiteta im.Gertsena. 2009, n.118, pp.12-15.

7.Svarovsky F. Ibid.

8. Sergei Kruglov.Tr. by Vitaly Chernetsky. Jacket 36. Late 2008. A free internet literary magazine

9. Viazmitinova l. Ipostasi Sergeia Kruglova. NLO.,  2011,  n.110.

10. Навь Моревна ( or прекрасная Марья Моревна -  пленница Кащея ) is one of  the most ancient and mythic goddesses in traditional Slavic beliefs. Sometimes she is a pagan-goddess in the image of tall woman with long hair, sometimes a beautiful girl in white. She is not only a nightmare from the palace of Kaschei, but the personification of fate, responsible for changes in human lives.

11. Kruglov S. Narodnye pesni. M.:Zentr sovremennoi literatury. 2010. 116 p.

12. Stepanova M.  Proza Ivana Sidorova. M.2008. 74 p.

13. Lipovetsky M. Roodina-zhut’: o “Proze Ivana Sidorova” Marii Stepanovoi. NLO, 2008.n.89, pp.248-256.

14. Ibid.

 The excerpts from poems and translations of contemporary authors are used under Fair Use for educational purposes only.

©We are grateful to Alexander Borisenko for kindly allowing us use his pictures on this website.

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Russian Literature in XXI Century: New Directions?

In the explosive, unpredictable world of contemporary Russian literature at the beginning of the 21st century, there appeared a phenomenon of non-commercial literature that became more visible and more attractive to readers then the traditional readings of the 90s – commercial prose. Modern Russian writers are diverse and incredibly talented, and they did the almost impossible: they restored the Russian public’s trust in the written word after decades of government-ruled literature. It started with the appearance of the post-modernist works of the 90s. John Narins observed in his recent essay in “The AmericanReader” that “the first and perhaps key act of resistance was an attempt to restore the power and authority that had long been attached to literature in the Russian tradition, to re-establish reverence for the Writer as Sage, the Writer as Teacher and for literature as access to Truth.” He noted that this was accomplished to an extent.

post-modern1The post-modernist works at the end of the 20th century were one of the outlets of the negative feelings of the society in crisis and explain the withdrawal into the theatre of the absurd and dark irony. Victor Pelevin, Lyudmila Petrushevskaya, Vladimir Sorokin were on the front lines of the new literary wave at the beginning of the new millennium and their contribution to the renaissance of Russian literature is essential. Pelevin’s Chapaev I pustota is one of the best books of our times, as well as works of Petrushevskaya and Sorokin.

During the last decade, however, the Russian literary process, under the influence of a shift in the socio-cultural and psychological demands of society, entered a new stage. The period of “Post-Soviet mourning” concluded with the 2007 appearance of the Librarian (Bibliotekar) by Mikhail Elizarov – a bright and tragic concept of the “lost post-Soviet generation” in Russian society. The “alternative literature” of Pelevin, Petrushevskaya and others gradually made its way to a return to more traditional literature, to a reflection on the historical and humanistic aspects of the present day, to an everyday reality,  as well as to a calmer discussion of the painful past and future direction of Russia.

©Alexander Borisenko

Contemporary Russian literature, as anything else, indicates the shift in public literary tastes and as a mirror reflects the change in the perception of its future and the need for positive new ideas, or maybe, a return to traditional values. The tradition of expectation from the writers of the words of truth which originated in the time of Dostoevsky and Leo Tolstoy is still alive, and many Russians are looking for answers in literature. Recently, the tremendous and unexpected success of the book of stories Everyday Saints and Other Stories by Archimandrite Tikhon (Shevkunov), which has been the number one bestseller in Russia for nearly a year and won the prestigious Big Book Award  for most popular book in 2012, confirms this shift in public expectations.

The author himself explained his success in this way: In this book I want to tell you about this beautiful new world of mine, where we live by laws completely different from those in “normal” worldly life – a world of light and love, full of wondrous discoveries, hope, happiness, trials and triumphs.”

This also explains the phenomenal influence of writer and public intellectual Dmitrii Bykov on the emergence of interest in an affirmative explanation of Soviet history and the success of his Ostromov, set in revolutionary St. Petersburg.

The world of Russian literature today is immense; it offers to the reader a variety of genres written by many exceptionally talented writers, who are almost completely unknown to the Western public. In addition, the appearance on the literary scene of authors from remote corners of the Russian federation such as the Caucasus region of Dagestan, Siberia, and the Urals, has added their colorful, vibrant works into the mainstream of Russian literature. The voices of today include the writers of the Debut Prize – young and talented, fearless, and free from the limitations of the past.

All of this modified the literary landscape in Russia very quickly; today’s situation contrasts the past view of the Russian literary scene with one of the “thriving of conceptualism and metaphysical realism ( trends-contemporary-russian-literature). It is likely that contemporary literary processes in Russia will lead to the emergence of works equal to the great classical works of the past. It is difficult to predict when this will happen, however, or to speculate on whom we will call the next great Russian writer in the future.

The goal of this essay is to outline trends and bring to the surface questions about the possible directions in which Russian literature might go: will it be the rebirth of the traditional Russian psychological novel, or the growth of absurdist post-modernist writing, using the works of contemporary authors as examples?

There are a number of trends that have the potential to become distinctive characteristics of the Russian literary process in the future. Is it possible to define the options as New Realism vs. Magic Realism? The conventionality of such formula is evident but it does not cover the whole spectrum of today’s Russian literature.

Olga Slavnikova

In the “post-Pelevin era” (even if he continues to be a major player in the literary process and one of the most influential writers), the appearance of literature that overcomes conventional conceptual limits is obvious. One cannot characterize, for example, the prose of Olga Slavnikova as pure “magic realism” (or metaphysical writing). In her best works she goes far beyond the limits of any “isms”. Her short novel Bazilevs is reminiscent of Chekhov’s stories and one of the remarkable works that cannot be defined outside terms of the tradition of Russian classic literature where psychology is often intertwined with metaphysical ideas that inform the phenomenon of classical literature.

Slavnikova’s magnum opus, 2017, the winner of the Russian Booker prize in 2006, is one of her most unusual works. Generally speaking, it is an acclamation of Beauty, which overpowers human beings and takes revenge on them through destruction. The meaning of Slavnikova’s novel goes far beyond the fable of the adventurous novel, or love story, or satirical reflection on contemporary Russian society. It appears that all this is subordinated to one general idea that beauty as the quality of spiritual and metaphysical power can become a force in itself and restore the natural balance by destroying the intruders. This acclamation of breathtaking beauty makes her novel an extraordinary happening in the Russian literary landscape. Slavnikova’s descriptions of the natural harmony that confront the intruders are such an astounding hymn to the beauty of the fictional Riphean Mountains that they merit placement among the classics: “The undaunted Anfilogov felt himself on the brink of a serious depression. Beauty was pouring over him from all directions. Anfilogov scooped it up when he wanted to make dinner, out of the smiling river; sunlight fell on Afilogov through this beauty – through the branches, through invisible aerial nets and the sun itself was transformed from the ordinary natural lamp you don’t look at into the focus of the beauty, the radiant object that irritated his nerves.” (2017, translated by Marian Schwarz, p.103)

Another trend is the emergence of the traditional Russian psychological novel that was conventionally called “new realism.” Among many other authors are Zakhar Prilepin, Roman Senchin, Babchenko, Denis Osokin, and Alexander Ilichevky, whose writing represents the flourishing of the traditions of classical psychological prose.

Ilichevsky’s recent novel Anarhisty is such a splendid continuation of classical literature about Russian provincial life with its long teas and conversations about great ideas from the past, the ways of love, that even the naturalistic scenes regarding drug addiction and humiliation do not spoil the impression of freshness and hopefulness.

Zakhar Prilepin’s talent is already prominent; his writing style combines the classically clear integrity of his language with the ability to reveal the inner universe of his heroes by very simple means. His early novel Sankya about a young rebel was devoted to the theme of the individual’s rights to action against a hostile and unjust society. His novel-in-stories  Grekh (The Sin), winner of the National Bestseller of the Decade (2008, 2011), is considered to be one of the best contemporary Russian novels and is a strong testimony of the return to the traditions of Russian psychological prose. It is an incredibly optimistic and bright work even in its brutal openness to life’s problems.

Roman Senchin is one of the most prominent representatives of the “new realism”. His novel Eltyshevy  ( The Eltyshevs) is one of the remarkable novels of 2010; it was nominated for Super National Bestseller and for Big Book Award. The story portrays the demise of the ordinary Russian family in the Siberian village where brutality rule lives, and life and death are only happenings without any significance to people. In his novel Senchin shows Russia’s path to a dead end, to life devoid of any spirituality, and at the end the disintegration of society and collapse of humanity. Could it be that his portrait of the disruption of contemporary life in Russia is one of the distinctive features of the new realism? If so, it is in jeopardy of becoming some kind of proletarian realism by Maxim Gorky, who contributed to a de-spiritualisation of Russian literature by some of  his books.   Roman Senchin’s powerful message might compel the reader to contemplate and even cry. This message, however, is devoid of any hope, the hopelessness is embodied in the essence of the novel and it continues till the end where seemingly the people’s lives “were pointless and stupid”, as were their passion and love, and even their deaths.

©Alexander Borisenko

The realism of Senchin’s book cries out about the state of contemporary life in Russia, and in doing so conveys the need for bringing back the ideas of the great Russian humanists into ordinary life. The best Russian writers of today are searching for their answers to the eternal Russian question: Chto delat’? (What is to be done?) Their answers are as different as the writers themselves, but their openness to the world and their talents deserve to be recognized; we’ll continue to discuss the recent trends in contemporary Russian literature.

By Elena Dimov. Edited by Margarita Dimova

© Featured  pictures by Alexander Borisenko


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Excerpt from the Novel-in-Verse “Gnedich” by Maria Rybakova

Contemporary Russian Literature in Translation

We are happy to introduce the  novel-in-verse  Gnedich  by Maria Rybakova. Maria is one of the winners of the Russian Prize in short fiction for Gnedich.

Maria Rybakova was born  in Moscow and studied Greek and Latin. At the age of 20, she moved to Berlin to continue her studies. In 1999, her first novel, Anna Grom and her Ghost  was published in Moscow. Several other novels and short stories followed. Rybakova’s books have been translated into German, Spanish, and French.Maria Rybakova earned her Ph.D. in Classics from Yale University and currently is faculty at San Diego University.   In 2012, her novel  A Sharp Knife for a Tender Heart was nominated for the prestigious international Jan Michalski award. The author, who is currently teaching Classics and Humanities at San Diego State University, is working at her fifth novel.

Gnedich  is a novel about the life of Nikolai Gnedich (1784-1833) – a romantic poet, librarian, and first translator of The Iliad into Russian.  It is written in verse, and is a fine example of the revival of the poetic tradition masterfully explored by Pushkin in Eugene Onegin. Like The Iliad itself, the novel consists of twelve Songs or Cantos, and covers the life of Gnedich from his childhood to his death.

The poetic language of Gnedich is refined, it combines the clarity of Rybakova’s syllabic verses and the sophistication of her metaphors with distinct, novelistic depictions of certain landscapes, people, and their interactions. In a review in the Times Literary Supplement, Andrew Kahn noted Rybakova’s gift for “seamlessly layering different registers, such as the vernacular of Pushkin’s generation and the archaic of high-style epic,” which lends a unique texture to this “winningly touching novel.”

Мария Рыбакова. Гнедич.  Moscow: Vremia, 2011.

Poet Gnedich

Nikolai Gnedich (1784- 1833) was a Russian poet and translator best known for his translation of the  Iliad (1807-29).




Excerpt from  Sixth  Song

“In the hallway he took
a note from the tray and opened it.
It was from Semyonova.
Why is it that he did not recognize her name
despite seeing it many times?
It was the same handwriting:
long delicate lines, uncertain, tilted,
like a teenager’s,
and on the same fine watermarked paper.
But why the name was unknown?
He always unsealed her letters with a shiver
but not this time.
The letter’s magic omens
were only the Russian alphabet.

This was the name of a woman
with whom he had fallen out of love.

He had ceased loving her,
but she called him
to come in the morning to give her
another lesson in recitation.

As a seminarian,
he invented his own method of tragic speech
and became not himself
but the shadow of the fallen heroes in the war
or the step-mother who loved her stepson,
one of the many who’ve died but live
in funeral decorations of the theater
when the curtain rises between
our lives and the life everlasting.

When he was becoming a god or a woman
he knew that the life he was destined to live
was only a chapter
in the big thick book of opportunity.
Rising on tiptoes and turning his face to the sky
he captured the audience with his voice…
*           *            *           *
The beauty
also was rising on her tiptoes
and turning her face to the skies,
and the sky looked at her face
as if at its own reflection.

Out of the grey the sky became a purple evening.
The servant brought some coffee in china cups,
and the conversation switched to intrigues at the theater,
then he was given his coat in the hallway
and went out into the Petersburg winter night,
which fell at four in the afternoon.
He left the fairy tale
in which all wishes come true
and entered the Greek epic where the hero
wants only one thing – to be faithful to fate.
And if death was waiting for him,
he would love his defeat.

But how beautiful were years
Semyonova was everything to him:
how she put the big vase with flowers on the floor,
how she threw back her head
exposing her white throat,
and resembled a swan,
He thought:
you could swim in my tears,

Translated by Elena Dimov. Edited by Austin Smith

Seventh Song

He wrote his thoughts down
in the small notebook
without hope that someone would read them.

The soul’s breath,
the prayer,

my son’s lovely soul,
your father created you
at my lips by his kiss.

Infinity is in
the forest breeze,
in the man’s voice
but since we went around the globe
it’s no longer here.

the Greek marble,
the poem of Simonides,
contour on a vase,
hard as the justice of ancient times
that punished the smallest of crimes
by death.

aren’t you the amber?
Saadi asked the piece of clay
No, I am simple dirt
that lived with a rose

dying like a flower
that dries without leaving a trace
of August’s fragrance.

It is unlikely that to doubt immortality
means to deny God.
We are so small and the world is so big,
our pretense for eternity
is clearly exaggerated.

Who put gates on the sea?
Who uttered:
Hitherto shalt though come, but no further:
and here shall thy proud waves be stayed?

In the night between the 18th and the 19th
I had a wonderful dream:
someone with the voice of Batyushkov
told me that Homer and Jesus, son of Sirach,
lived in almost the same times
and not far away from each other.
But Homer had so many words:
hilly, mountainous
powerful, quick, the fastest
and the other had so many thoughts!
Homer was a chatterer
and Sirach’s son was a contemplative.
Annoyed by these words
I woke up.

Gnedich wrote down dreams in the morning, thoughts in the evening.
During the day he worked at the library
where he got a salary
and had a desk near the window.
There were always new books in neat piles,
he cataloged them,
writing in his clear handwriting
the title of every volume on a note card
he put it in a box,
an aide put the book on the proper shelf,
but he always was afraid the youth got it wrong
so Gnedich went to check
to be sure everything was in its place.
This continued into evening.
He forced himself not to look out the window,
not to pay attention to the people going by,
not to count the weeks and months
not to think
that he had already spent years in this hall,
that more years came and went,
and then a few more.
Instead he wished to rejoice in
the titles of the books,
the clarity of his own handwriting,
the fact that the library
had more collections,
that it expanded like the capital
that the aisles between shelves
were similar to streets and canals,
only straighter, and that there
the shadow always reigned,
and there was never any wind; he consoled himself with silence
which was so similar to eternity that between these walls
the shadow always reigned,
and there was never any wind; he consoled himself with silence
which was so similar to eternity that between these walls
you might not to be afraid of time.

He knew that he would never get old, that the illnesses
would beat him before life could make him tired,
and that a life devoted to cataloging
was not so bad: and something (the library cards) was growing
but look at the years – they are contrary.
We have only those which are not inscribed
and they are becoming fewer
with every spring.
We need to look at life philosophically,
he used to say
reaching for the bread with butter wrapped in paper;
then shook crumbs from the table and
took out a little volume of Pascal.
Something childlike in his soul sighed:
ah, why I am not as clever as he is!
What a blessing it would be for a soul
to soar into the pure empyrean space.
and notice neither dust nor bread with butter.
But the voice fell silent and the eyes were reading.

When I am looking at the blindness and misery,
at the silent world, at the darkness, where a man
is abandoned, alone, lost
in this corner of the universe and doesn’t know
who sent him and why,
nor what will be after his death –
I am terrified as though while sleeping
I was blown to a desert island
and, upon waking,
don’t know
how I got there
or how to get out.

And the library suddenly ceases to be
a library
and the straight hallways cease to be straight
and the catalogs disintegrate
and the letters become
just hooks and squiggles
and in the midst of it Gnedich (but is he Gnedich?)
grasps with one hand for the desk
and with another for the chair
so he will not fall into the gulf
that from the left is tearing the floorboards,
and then from the right.

Beyond the walls, it feels like Petersburg,
or some other city
where people walk on the streets,
having not yet managed to die.
A blizzard
rises like a slow snake
over the Finnish swamp
and moves toward the capital, gaining strength.
It sings and, within its song there is
as much meaning as in the aria that
the public will listen to in the evening.

He cannot remain at the service.
He grips his fur coat and throws it over his shoulders,
his hands barely obeying him, as if
they belong to someone else;
he descends down the stairs,
steep as a cliff, -
the one who descended to the bottom is already not the same
as the one who began descending. A snowstorm
hits him in the face:
- This will teach you humility -
but does he need to be taught? He always knew
that he was a nonentity,
and this nothingness under the weight of the fur coat
moves his feet along the street,
and the blizzard again whips at his cheeks,
and, in tears,
he says: – I am still something!
Moisture and wind blind his eyes, but he feels
the warmth and salinity of his tears,
wanders up to his house, inserts the key
into the keyhole.
He shakes the snow off the heels, and his
poodle Malvina, ears waving, hastens to meet him.
In a hurry he starts a fire to warm him up,
but cannot get warm.
When I am looking at your blindness and misery,
at the silent world,
at you in darkness,
as though you were brought to a desert island
and were left there….

He gets up and walks around the room
walking, walking, walking, and trying to reassure himself that
he has a body,
that there is furniture around him and wallpaper on the walls,
his glance falls on the bookshelf
and his cheeks flush with shame:
for some reason he still keeps
the fruit of his youth’s madness –
the novel “Don Corrado de Guerrera;
or the Spirit of Revenge and Treachery of Spaniards”.
He wrote it through long lonely nights
when he was twenty
imagining this would win the hearts of his female readers.
He takes the book with two fingers and
cast it into the garbage.
He thought he was a writer,
but it turned out not to be so.
(We know who we are merely when we are loved,
we are those who are loved, and only that.
Otherwise there is nothing).
He falls into a chair and buries his face in his hands.
Malvina caresses his feet, a cat on a couch
is awakening, stretching paws
and showing the world his fair belly;
the room is getting warmer
and Gnedich is sleepy but he forces himself
to get up and go to the desk
where there is a copy of the “Iliad.”
He should light candles,
otherwise he will go blind
(already a Cyclops), and pour the fresh ink.

A sun then
a sun then touched
the valleys
a sun touched the valley with rays
then again
now the morning sun – which rays – merely struck the meadows….
climbed into the sky
from the ocean, where waters
roll softly, deeply flowing
they (who are they? Two armies or
dead Greeks with the living?)
they met each other
it was so difficult to recognize the dead
the living ones loaded them onto carts
washed off the blood, felt
tears roll down
but Priam forbid them
to cry out in grief
and in silence
they put their dead into the fire
and when it had eaten everything, they left
to go to the sacred city of Troy,
the Achaeans too put their dead in a fire
and when it had eaten everything – departed
to the empty ships.

He falls asleep and he dreams about the empty field.
And in the morning he cannot remember his dream.
He carefully dresses in front of the mirror
and goes to work
where he stays until evening, and in the apartment
Elena enters with a soft smile.
She cleans while he’s not there,
cleans the dust from them plaster heads in the study room,
from a clock, and from many-a ‘book.
Before there were less;
once there was only one sofa, and now there are three,
and the carpet on the floor, belike looks Persian,

The three-foot mirror need be cleaned again
so there are no smudges.
Master is reflected in it.
(She almost forgot his face;
before ’twas the porter as let her in,
and now a valet).
But she reckons there are more books,
more candles burned down.
There is a woman on the wall dressed like a savage-

maybe she is an outlandish queen.-
Elena kneels
to pull out the paper basket from the desk,
and there she finds a small book in the trash
and another one.
What she can do? Carry them to the garbage?
What if he looks for ‘em?

But if she leaves ’em,
They ’ull say she worked badly.
So she hides the books at her bosom
If they ask her, she will bring ’em,
if not, she’ll throw ’em out later herself.
Elena shakes up a bed in his bedroom.

Do the gentries
have noble dreams?
Or do they dream the same filth as everyone else?
Coming back home at night, she hopes to
have some noble dream,
sumthin’ like princess from that pic’ter
or dances as that agoin’on
in them stone manors.
For at the river-sides are such low banks
and beggars a-sittin’ at the bridges,
danglin’ their stumps,
main thing to not look at them for long
so they won’t spook ye at night.

(2011)Maria Rybakova.

( 2012) Translated by Elena Dimov.

Translations of the excerpts of works by contemporary writers are used for educational purposes only.


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Dmitrii Bykov

Wikimedia.Dmitrii Bykov, 10 Dec 2011.jpgDmitrii Bykov

Dmitrii Bykov

Dmitrii Bykov is maybe one of the most popular and prolific writers in Russia today but is not known to the broad public in the West as much as Pelevin, Ulitskaia or Sorokin. It is not surprising: his works are not translated into English. The epoch of his discovery in the West is coming after the appearance of the first translations of his works: the novel Living Souls was translated in 2011 by Cathy Porter for publishing by Alma Books.

But in Russia Bykov’s status is unique.  Nick Harkaway after the conversation with him noted:  Bykov is elemental; a huge man with a huge voice and huge passion. In Russia he’s basically a rockstar – radio host, biographer of Pasternak, novelist, poet, TV personality… he’s a kind of cross between Melvyn Bragg and Bob Geldoff; a cultural force who takes delight in causing outrage to enlighten“.

Indeed, the writings and the personal qualities of Bykov put him in the center of public attention in Russia. This is due not only to his unquestionably huge literary talent, but also to the magnetism of his personal appeal which has made him “a cultural force”, or as Rachel Polonsky noted in recent  article for “The New York Review of Books ” the citizen poet”.

Dmitrii Lvovich Zilbeltrud (Bykov is his alias) was born in 1967 in Moscow. It was the year  of the 50th anniversary of the Communist revolution in the Soviet Union celebrated with a big pomp.  Paraphrase his words, it could be considered as the sign of his future fate:  it influenced his formation as a person and his interest in the history of Russia in some “mystic ways”.

After school Bykov spent two years in military service. Bykov remembered it with his usual irony:  “Well, speaking frankly – my most honorable honorarium was a regular double portion of food in the Soviet Army, where I served for two years like most Soviet students. That was my pay for the rhymed letters which I had been writing for our regiment’s cook who was in love with a romantic schoolgirl. . []

He graduated from Moscow University in 1991 with the degree in journalism, and started to work in Sobesednik and Vremechkoand also to cooperate with Ogonyok – famous pro-democratic media outlet in Russia at that time.

The Soviet Union ceased to exist in 1991. However, Bykov’s fascination with the processes of the formation of the Soviet state emerged in almost all his novels. Even more, the global changes in Russian culture and the fates of many remarkable people who happened to live during these unfortunate times  in Russia became the major focus of his literary works. Bykov started to write prose in the early 90s.  On the question what led him into writing, he answered:

“I really don’t know. I understand only that the reasons for this strange choice are mysterious and dramatic. Balanced and self-satisfied people tend to do something else. Maybe I clearly realized from early childhood that I wouldn’t do well in any other sphere of activity. Maybe the only reason for writing is a fear of death. Maybe – and this version sounds preferable – I was too fond of reading and understood even before school that writing was the only serious and powerful way to influence things: all other methods are expensive, traumatic and temporary.[}

One of the most famous representatives of the so called modern Russian “Magical Historism”, Bykov produced bestsellers with frequency. Among them: JustificationОправдание», 2001), Orthography ( "Орфография", 2003), Removal Service («Эвакуатор», 2005) ZhD («ЖД», 2006) Ostromov,(2011)  Boris Pasternak («Борис Пастернак», 2005) were all acclaimed by the critics and received broad recognition among the public in Russia. Bykov also published six books of poetry.

Probably one of the major characteristics of some of his novels could be described as the attempt to create the whole new reality in his books, and recreate the history of the Soviet Union through the “magical” (metaphysical) point of view. Modern Russian critics often consider this kind of literature as the departure from the traditional spheres of the literary interest such as “psychology or the social analysis of everyday (meaning contemporary) life” (Mark Lipovetsky and Alexander Etkind.  "The Salamander’s Return" in Russian Studies in Literature, vol. 46, no. 4, fall 2010, p.7.)  Association with the “Magical Historism” in their eyes is clear departure from the  traditional literature: “ Such post-Soviet  authors as Pelevin, Sharov, Sorokin, and Dmitrii Bykov are indeed heirs to the “junior branch” of late Soviet and anti-Soviet literature (the Andrei Siniavsky branch). Those authors’ greatest vested interest lies in two spheres of human experience, which they combine in strange and shocking permutations. The spheres are history and religion.”

However the influx of the religious ideas into the writing and the historical approach to the literary work is continuation of the traditions of the great Russian classic writers and as such could be only welcomed. It answered  to the demand of Russian society in clear understanding of the processes that led to the disaster of the Soviet period in the history of Russia. Bykov offers his version. Together with his bright literary talent, scholar’s knowledge of Soviet history, it creates the phenomenon of Bykov’s popularity in Russia and makes his novels bestsellers.

Especially it appeared in his recent work Ostromov whichwon the National Bestseller prize in 2011. In his own words “It’s a novel about the 1920s, about the so-called "Case of the Leningrad Freemasons" – their trial, banishment and further adventures. Some more words in addition: being based on real facts, this novel – called The Pupil of the Magician (– is a strange mixture of mystic, picaresque and satiric prose, something between The Master and Margarita and the Twelve Chairs, but more sentimental and surely much worse.” 

The opening lines of Ostromov are striking and one immediately becomes enveloped in the narrator's story:

Part One. Spring:

"There exist houses where nobody has been happy.

Such house is not glad to itself. It stays at the town's outskirts, at the end of a crooked street, blocking it and by itself meaning a dead end. Behind it is the ravine, burdock, the umbrellas of angelica, goutweed, the rusty carcasses of the beds, overgrown lilac, where sometimes you find something that after you can not even remember the idea of the lilac without a chill. There is the end of the city, the beginning of the chaos. Everyone who walks in there wants to leave.

Such a house stays aside from life, in a wrinkle of time, built by gloom, a grim man, who made the shameful mistake at the moment of his birth and realized that it was not possible to correct it. He builds it for his family to torment his wife and to tyrannize his kids. Or for the office where he intends to do bitter and meaningless business; or it could happen that the priest who doesn't believe in God moves in..."

[Translated by Oleg Dimov]

This genre is not unusual in Russian literature; Bykov remembered Bulgakov as one of his predecessors  and indeed his writing continues the traditions of beloved by Russians Master and Margarita. There are also other writers working in this genre: such as Sorokin.

Not only in the fiction, but also in his biographical works, Bykov understands Russian history as the scene of the powerful and incomprehensible interactions. His books are intriguing and make you to re-think old clichés, as it happens with his acclaimed biography of Boris Pasternak which was published in 2005 in the series Zhizn’ Zamechatel’nikh liudei and became a bestseller. It was the first time that a biography of a writer became a bestseller in Russia. It was written in a wonderful language, and not only his literary skill or the knowledge of the details of Pasternak’s life made the biography a bestseller.  The biography was written through the prism of joy of the literary genius of Pasternak:  maybe for the first time in history Pasternak’s life was portrayed as the joyful life even in the terrible circumstances of his fate and the fate of his country. As if the gift of Pasternak’s poetry went into the written words of Bykov. His analysis of Doctor Zhivago was outstanding but was not accepted by all critics:

Doctor Zhivago is a symbolist novel written after symbolism. Pasternak himself called it a tale. The book undoubtedly ‘went through Pasternak ’because he was one of few survivors.  It had to appear – because somebody needed to rethink the history of the last fifty years of Russian history from the position of symbolic prose which is paying attention not to the events but to their origins. But this kind of interpretation could be possible only in the second half of the century, with the account of everything that these events brought. The failure of the Hozhdenie po mukam was an indication of it.  We have to admit that only one full novel about the Russian revolution exists- written by Pasternak, because his book was written not about people and events, but about the powers which preside over the people, and the events, and the author himself.

Only from this point of view should we  look at this book.  The novel of Pasternak is a parable full of metaphors and exaggerations.  It is unreliable, as life is unreliable at the mystic historic turning point.

The novel’s plot is simple and its symbolic plan is obvious. Laura – Russia – combines unpreparedness to life with the amazing domestic alertness, there are the fatal women and the fatal country attracting the dreamers, adventurers, and poets…

Yuri Zhivago in the impersonation of Russian Christianity of which the main characteristics according to Pasternak were sacrifice and generosity, (Bykov. Pasternak, p.721-723.)

Public activity

Some words should be said about Bykov’s public activities. His many appearances in the media and his public activity create the image of a powerful writer involved in the life of his country and willing to influence the social and political processes in Russia. Bykov has periodically hosted a show on the radio station Echo of Moscow, and he was one of the hosts of an influential TV show Vremechkotill 2008.

In 2005 he published the New Russian Tales’ How Putin became the president of the United States– his attempt to renew the genre of satiric prose, invented by Saltykov-Shchedrin:  “in 1999  I began without any hope for the fast publication to write the New Russian tales… In Russia this genre was  invented by Shchedrin, reinvented  by Gorky, and renewed by your servant’.

His personal appeal to mass media could be seen as evidence of Bykov’s  motivation to make a statement about the current state of affairs in Russia, and it was accepted by the public. Especially important was his appearance at many public events  in the context of the recent mass manifestations  in Russia at the end 2011 and – beginning of 2012.

It appears that nowadays you can see Bykov anywhere: at the manifestations waving the flags, in social media where his page is extremely popular with the readers, in video-clips etc.  It manifests his credo: writing as a way of influencing modernity and challenging the traditional views of history and the role of the person in history.

By Elena Dimov.  Edited by Bud Woodward.


Bykov is reading his poem “I was not happy in my life for one minute.”..

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The Latest Novel by Dmitrii Bykov


Below is a fragment of the chapter, “A Manual on Levitation”, from the 2010 novel Ostromov, ili uchenik charodeiia : posobie po levitatsii, Ostromov, or the Sorcerer’s Apprentice, by Dmitrii Bykov. The Ukrainian literary organization, Portal, comprised of authors, publishers, and editors, awarded the work “Best Form” in 2010. It was the best-selling book in Russia throughout all of 2011.

Translated by Kristina Uvarova
Edited by Michael Marsh-Soloway


A Manual on Levitation

Aleksey Alekseevich Galitsky was a hopeful man and it ruined him. Until 1918, he played at Berk’s private theater, but Berk left and the theater closed. It was easier for Galitsky than it was for many: he did not have to provide for a family, preferring bachelor comforts and non-burdensome contacts to household fetters. In 1918, he was 48, he was robust, and as it was said, he was trusted. His search for income brought him to a group of lecturers, PCCMS (PECUCU) – The Petrograd Commission of Cultural Management of Scholars, which was founded by the passionate propagandist of the spoken word, Tabachnikov. Tabachnikov proposed that oral speech is mastered more easily than written speech, and consequently all the teaching at schools for the victorious proletariat should be converted to provide for verbal lectures toward all branches of knowledge, but above all, toward reading aloud, and for this Galitsky proved indispensable. He was there rain or shine, he got under way in high school and university classes, but then, when Tabachnikov expanded his power, he went to the factory workers; his voice heightened, wheezed, and Galitsky read.

Surely it was joyless activity. Aleksey Alexeevich never admitted this to himself and boasted to his friends that an audience always infuses him with gratitude and energy. But it was hard to read to the children, or to the workers, especially in long, cold auditoriums with dusty windows. The new repertoire basically consisted of verses by the proletarian poet, Kirillov, which were long and passionate, like bright red ribbons. The verses didn’t affect the spectators and were objectionable to him all the same, and even the old folk almost wholly fell into unlawfulness. He strayed away from the routine, instead mustering the compositions of Balmont and Minsky, who in their own time had enough red ribbon, but he contrived to drag a love note, no more than five stanzas. During the remaining time, the proletarians were drowsily fixed as they always tired before any labor.

But there was such happiness to go back home on foot through the sleeping city where, for some reason, he did not meet not a single one of the legendary thieves, about whom so much has been gossiped. Aleksey Alekseyich went on through snowy Petrograd, the fair city without lights, and read aloud to frozen drifts all that he wanted. These returns were saved only by his blessed memory and the readings in front of proletariat he completely forgot. They provided him with a poor ration and it was all that was required of them. Well, sometimes he appeared grateful in the proletarians’ eyes and even astonished, with which the love toward art always begins. And shortly somebody from among the grateful proletarians informed against him. They didn’t get together after the work day for listening about the old regime; and Tabachnikov set a great scandal for Aleksey Alekseyich.

He shouted that his innovative theory met unbridled resistance, that there is a necessity to read to the workers and not lyrics about the bouqu-u-u-ets (which Galitsky had never read in his life), but to give them basic knowledge, at least of physics, and in case the actors are too useless to read from a course on physics, then at least let us give them an unperturbed program, so that nobody acts audaciously! Aleksey Alekseyich felt that something important was not said and hence he grinned widely out of delicateness, submitted his resignation from PCCMS, and suggested that he should find other opportunities so that nothing terrible happens… In a minute Tabachnikov calmed down, became softer and even called him his dear friend, he shook his hand for a long time and swore to return Galitsky to his position as soon as the opponents of the oral reading calmed their villainous heat, and you know, took a deep breath.

So Aleksey Alekseevich remained without service, but as we know, he was a hopeful man, so he didn’t lower his head, and turned to Victor Petukhov the director of SHKURa number five, althought it was called the Grade A school on the Vyborg side. Petukhov was also an experimenter, but so was everybody else. Nothing was to be taught in simplicity, everything only with the help of an unprecedented methodology. So it seemed to Petuhkov that for proper assimilation one needs an active body, and in general he expressed that the memory of the body was stronger than that of the mind. Every physical law corresponded to its own physical exercise. Aleksey Alekseevich came to the Petuhkov and offered him his service. Already in the fall of 1919, he started teaching a course, where, with time, the comrades of SHKURa‘s members had been drawn. They not only put on “The Tale of Tsar Saltan”, and “The Flea”, but also took up Shakespeare. Of course, it had to all to be within the limits of the antimonarchical repertoire, just to strike social evils under the curtains, but Aleksey Alekseevich contrived here to twist his own evil, to read them Bryusov, and to see in their eyes…

What could be seen in the hungry yellow eyes of high school students in 1919? But it seemed to him that that his word was cascading upon a gentle soil, and indeed, as though a pair, hunted and hopelessly abased, began to bloom and even imitate something, Aleksey Alekseevich invited them to his home to drink carrot tea and to talk intimately, and several times, he was trusted to lead the lesson when the philologist was ill, but most unbearable was the demand of Petuhkov to sit during the reading of “Eugene Onegin”, so that the whole class also sat.

But there was such happiness to arrive home on foot in that wonderful hour, when the day declines into night, but it was still luminous and just above Petrograd stretched a carrot-tinged, no better to say apricot dawn! How pleasurable it was to read to the trusting booby, Anisimov, anything from a beloved work, noticing that he asked more and more meaningful questions! In everything, positively in everything, it was possible to find charm and meaning, and if you could look with uncomplicated eyes, Aleksey Alekseyich Galitsky could have been happy at this post, if Petuhkov had not committed an offense with something before the authorities and his school was dissolved. What’s more, the dejected Anisimov and Malakhov, who had just understood and committed something to memory, went to work: one of them to the depot, another one to the Trotsky tobacco factory, and there they were immediately destined to forget everything that they were taught by the eccentric artist.”

Translations of the excerpts from the works of modern writers are made for the educational purposes only.

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Scenes from Russia

Excerpt from “Balustrade in Bykovo” by Maria Stepanova

By Dmitrii

“Russian Gothic,
Church and mallows…”

“Русская готика
Церква и мальвы….”

[Maria Stepanova. Stikhi i proza v odnom tome. Moscow: NLO, 2010.p.94]

About the author: born in Moscow in 1972, Maria Stepanova is one of Russia’s leading contemporary poets and the chief editor of the online cultural portal Among her many awards are the Andrei Bely Prize (2005), the Hubert Burda prize (Germany, 2006), and the Lerici-Mosca Prize (Italy,2011).

Excerpts from works of contemporary writers are used for educational purposes only.

© Featured image from the photo-gallery :

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Strelnia Elegy by Joseph Brodsky

Excerpt from  Strelnia Elegy
by Joseph Brodsky

Translated by Margarita Dimova

Light of the palaces and castles, the palaces and castles’               light,
the flowerbed of brick roses, blooming in the winter,
what native scenery of sudden losses,
what a beautiful whistling from years past.

As if you see someone’s footprints, long familiar,
on the snow in the sleeping land,
as if in front you is not the shore you longed for,
but the former land of clamorous love.

As if I will forget myself and everyone else,
and you have already left, even said goodbye,
as if you have left from here forever,
as if you have already died far away from this beach.

You suddenly came into the train
and saw for a moment the sunset and the roofs,
but I still stand waist-deep in the water,
and listen to the distant and beautiful thundering of wheels.

You are here no more. And will be no longer.
The light of oblivion flies back to the golden funeral feast,
in the land of sorrow and pain,
a beautiful radiance on an unknown life.

The street lamps still glow white in the darkness,
the same ship is freezing in the bay.
The new snow is whirling and the goats bleat,
as if this new life will not pass you.

You are here no more, and will be no longer.
It’s time for me to leave this place for the new path.
There is no oblivion. Nor is there pain or sorrow.
You are here no more, thanks be to God.

They bring me a horse and with my foot in the stirrup
I see in front me the same golden Strelnia,
the bay still glowing white in the darkness.
The new snow whirls and the goats are bleating.

In the Tsars’ Village in wintertime
a shadow of vain love appears before me
and life runs again in January’s darkness
like the frozen wave to the beautiful shore.

- Joseph Brodsky  (1960)


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