Skip to main content
Outdated Browser

For the best experience using our website, we recommend upgrading your browser to a newer version or switching to a supported browser.

More Information

Russia and the Former Soviet Union

Confronting the Past: Russian Literature in the Twentieth and Twenty-first Centuries
By Julia Trubikhina

Read Julia Trubikhina's introduction or scroll down to find stories and poems, organized into themes such as "Transformation," "Leaving Home," and more.

At a Russian event at the PEN America World Voices Festival in May 2017, a story casually told by Elena Kostychneko, a courageous reporter for one of the last independent newspapers in Putin’s Russia, Novaya gazeta, struck an unexpected chord. Speaking at a session entitled “Feminism Po-Russki: Three Writers on Women in Modern Russia,” Kostychneko told of a fellow journalist’s grandfather, who went to the front in World War II as a first-year medical student. Only a teenager at the outbreak of the war, he brought his notebooks with medical school notes with him—in case he’d need to perform surgery, which they hadn’t had time to study before the war broke out—and also because he was fearful of an exam in organic chemistry that he might have to take when he returned!

Suffice it to say that he did have to perform many surgeries as a “military doctor.” He used those notebooks as a diary, writing between the lines of his school notes. When he was on his way back to the motherland from Germany, officers of a special NKVD unit checking his luggage showed no interest in his modest trophies of china or clothes, or whatever else he was bringing from abroad, but they confiscated his notebooks, which were immediately burned—right in front of him. This story encapsulates for me something eminently essential about the Russian twentieth century: its central battle between cultural, historical, and individual memory on the one hand and state-sanctioned amnesia, unexpiated traumas, and the painful deferral of understanding or interpretation of the past. (I mean “deferral” in the Freudian sense of the belatedness or latency of the trauma, its Nachträglichkeit—Freud’s term for the mode of retroactive understanding of the traumatic or sexual meaning of events that happened earlier.) These motifs of memory, trauma, and ways of transcending and interpreting the past seem to be shared by the texts in all of the theme-based sections of this excellent Russian collection: “Love Stories,” “Leaving Home,” “Transformations,” and “Money and Possessions.”

The Russian twentieth century was indeed filled with relentlessly tragic events—World War I and the Russian Revolution; Russia’s bloody Civil War; Stalin’s devastating collectivization of agriculture that alone left at least five million people dead; the Stalinist Terror, with its hundreds of thousands slaughtered and countless more sent to the gulag; and World War II, known in Russia as the Great Patriotic War, whose cumulative losses remain the subject of hot academic and ideological debates. Russian literature of the twentieth century can be seen as a mirror of sorts, reflecting and refracting the cataclysms of that tragic century. The Silver Age authors, the Symbolists and post-Symbolist modernist and avant-garde writers, were all harbingers and often champions of the twentieth century, even though some of them started their literary careers and became famous in what was still the nineteenth century. (Silver Age, the term created by analogy to the Golden Age—the age of Pushkin—a century earlier, traditionally refers to Russian literature and art from the last decade of the nineteenth and the first two decades of the twentieth century.) As a result of the Russian Revolution, Russian literature was violently broken into three distinct currents: the new Soviet literature; literature that is alternatively dubbed “delayed” or “deferred”; and the literature of Russian exile shaped in the early 1920s in such centers of Russian emigration as Prague, Berlin, and Paris. (“Delayed” or “deferred” here refers to authors who did not flee the country but whose texts could not be published for many years—until Khrushchev’s partial destalinization after Stalin’s death in 1953, or in the late 1980s, during Mikhail Gorbachev’s Perestroika, and, eventually, after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.) While in the first postrevolutionary decade of the regime the borders between these three currents were still somewhat permeable, after Stalin’s ascent to power the separation seemingly became total. The new state-sanctioned art of propaganda, Socialist Realism, erased for many years the memory of some of the greatest Russian writers of the twentieth century, some—like the poet Nikolai Gumilyov or prose writer Yevegeny Zamyatin with his great dystopia We—completely, others—like Mikhail Bulgakov, Anna Akhmatova, or Osip Mandelstam—partially. Or it displaced them into children’s literature before destroying them altogether, like Daniil Kharms or Nikolai Vvedensky, or relegated them to work in translation, like Boris Pasternak. Such writers as Marina Tsvetaeva, one of whose poems is included in the “Love Stories” section of the present collection, or the great prose writer Andrei Platonov (included under the theme “Money and Possessions”), were banned and “rediscovered” only during the post-Stalin era known as the Thaw. Émigré writers, such as Vladimir Nabokov, had to wait even longer and were reclaimed by the reading public in Russia only in the late 1980s and 1990s.

This rupture of the twentieth-century national literary process, as well as Russia’s general logocentricity—with literature, especially after the revolution, largely replacing for Russian readers philosophy, history, even religion—defined literary development after Stalin’s death, during the Thaw, during the subsequent stagnation of the regime in the 1970s and 1980s, and even beyond the fall of Communism. On the one hand, the Soviet state assigned the “official” literature a central role in shaping a new Soviet man, thus granting the official Soviet writers privileges unknown to writers in the West, such as state-sponsored apartments, cars, and country houses, as well as publishing runs in the millions of copies. On the other hand, suppressed or nonconformist literature, a stronghold of resistance to the state’s control, enjoyed, unofficially, a status of great importance often envied by western authors. Similarly, literature of the first, postrevolutionary wave of Russian emigration had a strong sense of mission, even messianism, in advancing the tradition of the “true” Russian national culture. In this sense, the triumphs of the émigré writer Ivan Bunin, the first Russian winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature, and the success of Vladimir Nabokov, the most important émigré writer of a younger generation, were recognized by members of the émigré Russian literary world as justification of their existence. This branch of Russian literature was sharply severed by World War II, when many émigré writers died or were once again uprooted and dispersed.

In the Soviet Union, the relaxation of censorship during the Thaw, ushered in after Stalin’s death by the new Soviet leader, Nikita Khrushchev, at the Twentieth and Twenty-Second Communist Party Congresses, the two party congresses that dealt with Stalin’s legacy and his “cult of personality,” created a new generation of Russian writers and dissidents, the so-called shestidesiatniki (“people of the 1960s”), who started a painful process of reclaiming the long-suppressed names and texts of both the “delayed” and émigré Russian literatures. In addition, new authors who could not have been published before became overnight sensations, among them Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, later another winner of the Nobel Prize. When the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968 put an end to what remained of the short-lived Thaw, the process of reclamation did not end. It was furthered by the proliferation of self-published and smuggled literature (samizdat and tamizdat), as well as the subsequent wave of emigration. Many writers, among them Solzhenitsyn, the poet Joseph Brodsky, the prose writer Sergei Dovlatov, and others, emigrated in the 1970s, creating a new branch of Russian literature in exile in the US, Europe, and Israel. The collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 ended the seventy-year-old rupture among the three currents of Russian literature and created a new, paradoxical reality: few tangible “borders” between texts and authors of the present and past, but new divisions among the millions-strong members of the Russian diaspora. Many authors in the present collection, who write in Russian and publish both in Russia and abroad, live and work in countries other than Russia—some in the West, others in the countries of the so-called “near abroad,” the former national republics of the Soviet Union. As the political situation rapidly changes and ideological divisions in present-day Russia once again drive the Russian literary process, a new reassessment of Russia’s historical past and the reclamation of its memory are inevitably emerging and, undoubtedly, will be shaping new generations of Russian writers.

The most intriguing aspect of so many texts in the present collection is that they seem to be unable to put to rest the memory of the Soviet past. The dovetailing of memory and trauma in personal stories of love and loss is the subject of the excerpt from The Wondrous Deer of the Eternal Hunt, a book by Svetlana Alexievich, a Belorussian journalist and nonfiction writer who was awarded the 2015 Nobel Prize in Literature. Known throughout her career for creating a collective Soviet voice from the polyphony of oral testimonies by individual Soviet people—from World War II to the Post-Soviet era—she has, in her collection The Wondrous Deer of the Eternal Hunt, one hundred Soviet men and women of different generations resurrect their very personal memories of desire, their quest for happiness, and their failure to find it. Everything turns into memory, and everything that is concealed or suppressed in memory can be recalled and revealed. In her own words, her book shows “ . . . that people yearn for immortality. That human mysteries are fragile and merciless. That pain is an art . . . . That everything Russian is filled with sorrow.” In the present excerpt, Gleb, the narrator’s lover and then husband, is a man profoundly damaged and marked by his labor camp experience. A prisoner of the gulag from the age of sixteen to nearly thirty, Gleb would not trade that experience for anything because it truly shaped his identity. The suppressed years of torture and fear conceal what his alternative identity might have been, a person he never had a chance to become. His appreciation of every moment of his happiness, of having a family, stems from the recognition of its fleetingness; his loneliness comes from a life that never allowed any space for privacy. Only in death can his “real” face finally come through: “By morning he became handsome. The fear had left his face . . . . And I saw his fine, elegant features. The face of an oriental prince. That’s the kind of man he really was! He had never been like that with me.”

Marina Tsvetaeva wrote “To kiss a forehead is to erase worry” (1917) simultaneously with her cycle “The Demesne of the Swans” (1917–21), a poetic diary of the “Russian smuta of the twentieth century”—the Civil War. The cycle’s poems romanticizing the White army were, according to her daughter Ariadna’s memories, Tsvetaeva’s immediate reaction to the wild, elemental force of the Russian Revolution. The Revolution also ushered in a polyphony of voices, bringing new musicality and folkloric motifs to Tsvetaeva’s poetry—incantations, spells, and folk song. Tsvetaeva’s fellow émigré poet Vladislav Khodasevich once described her poetry as “a nucleus of meaning in the shell of music.” “To kiss a forehead is to erase worry” resembles a love spell based on repetition of identical formulae followed by their enactment. The kisses on the eyes and on the lips that arouse one to life and desire are framed by two kisses on the forehead—at the beginning and at the end of the poem—which grant blissful oblivion.

In the excerpt from Petroleum Venus, a novel from a very different, post-Soviet era, Alexander Snegiryov draws on a different kind of love. The protagonist, a young architect and father to Vanya, a fifteen-year-old boy with Down syndrome, becomes his son’s sole caregiver. The protagonist undergoes a painful transformation—from egocentric defiance of the world to, through the suffering and the death of his son, acceptance of life’s intrinsic value and a profound sense of freedom and love for all people, including his disabled child. The central image of “Petroleum Venus,” a painting that Vanya takes from an artist killed in a car accident, reads ambivalently as both a vulgar pop-culture symbol of the oil-rich aughties (a naked blond against the background of Russian birches with black oil poured over her like a modern Danaë’s shower of gold) and as a depiction of Vanya’s own teenage mother, who abandoned him and allegedly served as the painting’s model. Vanya falls in love with the painting and, more generally, with beauty, setting off a chain of events leading to his death. “Petroleum Venus” thus becomes a myth of contemporary Mother Russia, both enticing and dangerous, forgetful about her past and indifferent to her own children.

The selection of texts united in the present collection under the theme “Leaving Home” encapsulates a variety of experiences of “otherness.” Neighbors disparage neighbors, migration and emigration raise many issues of painfully divided identity, and prejudice and fear sometimes give way to a new appreciation and understanding. Thematically close to the texts of this section is also a nonfiction graphic piece on the life of enslaved migrant workers in Moscow by Victoria Lomasko, a young writer and artist known for chronicling the Pussy Riot trial (“Slaves of Moscow”* in the “Money and Possessions” section of the present collection).

Pears from Gudauty,” a story by one of the most well-known contemporary Russian women writers, Ludmila Ulitskaya, both ironically and seriously reveals the ugly underbelly and truth of the state-sanctioned propaganda of “Soviet friendship of the peoples.” As a Jewish child, vacationing in the Caucasus with her mother and buying pears from the mistress of a farm in Gudauty, a village in Soviet Abkhazia, the narrator listens to the mistress’s never-ending litany of derogatory comments about every ethnicity in the Caucasus (some, she says, are so bad that “I’d rather have Jews”). The pears “ran out at the same time as she ran out of people.”

The dichotomy between East and West and the identity crises that arise from various attempts at bridging the gap between the two inspire several prose excerpts in the collection. Such texts as “The Bed” by Vladimir Vertlib and “The Stone Guest” by Hamid Ismailov tackle the issues of otherness and memory in the context of emigration and labor migration. “The Bed,” an excerpt from Vertlib’s first novel Zwischenstationen (Way Stations, 1999), draws on his autobiographical experiences of emigration and displacement. Vertlib, whose Russian Jewish family emigrated to Israel in the 1970s and then moved briefly to the US before finally settling in Austria, grapples with issues of exile, identity, and memory—both of his Jewish heritage and of Austria’s historical legacy. The excerpt in the collection is a tragicomic reflection on the teenage narrator’s stay in the US. Feeling uprooted and lost in Brighton Beach, New York, he is in futile pursuit of becoming “someone like everyone else.” The piece chronicles his interactions with fellow immigrants and his own parents, constantly on the lookout for odd jobs and berating the other “others”—those who, his parents keep telling him, do not deserve their legal status in the US, and “the colored people who purportedly make the streets unsafe.” The deadpan, seemingly simple style of the piece resonates with self-deprecating irony.

The Stone Guest,” by Hamid Ismailov, an Uzbeki writer living in London whose books are banned in his home country, is a story of an Uzbeki sculptor, Shurob, living in Moscow and seemingly well-assimilated into Moscow’s art community, whose life gets off its comfortable track when a poor relative, a labor migrant from Uzbekistan, pays an unexpected visit. The vestiges of Shurob’s tamed and comfortable “otherness” (“a ceramic dish of black raisins,” “the embroidered tablecloth”) are literally shattered and soiled by his nephew Sangin and his fellow migrants who turn Shurob’s Moscow studio into a temporary encampment of modern-day nomads. This is a sad and ironic narrative of an attempt at erasing one’s family’s past and memory: they always catch up and come to haunt you like a “stone guest”—the allegory of fate and doom in the story of Don Juan and, for a Russian reader, specifically in its version by Pushkin.

The excerpt from Yuri Rytkheu’s 1966 novel A Dream in Polar Fog has “East” meet “West” in the icy land of Northeastern Siberia. In his stories and novels from the late 1950s onward, Rytkheu, a well-known Soviet and Russian author, chronicled the daily life and struggles of his own indigenous Chukchi people. His prose, translated into many European languages, has long captivated Europeans with its wealth of ethnic detail, recreating his vast and haunting land as a myth. West is the “home” left behind in 1910 by the protagonist, a young Canadian sailor, John MacLennan. When his ship “Belinda” is trapped in ice in the Bering Strait, MacLennan blows up his hands trying to break the ice with dynamite. At request of his captain, he is to be taken by the local Chukchi to a doctor in Anadyr’, a Russian port, but the blizzard prevents him and his guides from reaching their destination before his gangrene spreads. The excerpt describes his treatment by a Chukchi shaman woman, Kelena, who, together with two Chukchi men, saves his life by amputating his hands. Fear, prejudice, the inherently “patronizing” sense of superiority of a white westerner looking down on his indigenous companions Toko and Orvo as “primitives” and “savages,” eventually gives way to understanding and empathy, as MacLennan realizes that his ship has left him behind. He will be forced to settle among the Chukchi and cope with his own handicap in a new land. As readers, we have the first glimpse of such understanding when, in the middle of his surgical amputation, he recognizes that the “hideous face” of the shaman woman looks at him “with untold tenderness.”

Two poems in the section entitled “Leaving Home,” “An Uncoincidence, A Noncoincidence” by Larissa Miller and “Soul, you are a street” by Aleksey Porvin (two poets of very different generations and poetics), “leave home” only in order to come back, to organically claim the territory of Russia’s rich poetic tradition. Miller, a well-known poet and author of many books of essays and memoirs, writes poetry of exquisite simplicity, as if she were intentionally bypassing postmodern obscurity and complexity and harking back to the transparent yet metaphysical verse of Tiutchev or Georgy Ivanov. Existential tragedy mirrors the tragic times (“the time is mute,” “the weather unflyable”), as man is trying to fill “the gap between then and now” and recapture the past that has been irretrievably lost. In Porvin’s “Soul, you are a street,” as in much of Porvin’s poetry in general, his lyrical energy of abstract, metaphysical nature always departs from the specific and concrete. The central metaphor of soul-street creates a trajectory of growth (in the last line, literally, that of a stem that “grabbed the sun” between the street’s cobblestones), as well as of a spatial expansion of memory, the live memory of Russian poetry in which this “secret stem,” as Nabokov would call it, takes root.

The clever comics of the graphic writer and artist Ilia Kitup, who was born in Lithuania and lives in Berlin, are situated in the cultural gap between the West and Russia, allowing him to draw humorously on well-worn cultural stereotypes of Mother Russia (bears wander the streets there! Russian frosts are eternal!) and conspiracy theories that both reinforce and undermine them (these bears are remotely controlled! The frosts are generated in secret refrigerators in the Kremlin cellars!). Russia and its capital city, Moscow, become a myth in their own right: they can be anything and everything at the same time, a Neverland where one might as well go down (into the underground) only to go up and find oneself on the moon.

In “On the Moscow Metro and Being Gay,” Dmitry Kuzmin, an openly gay writer, translator, and literary curator, founder of the Argo–Risk Publishers and editor of the legendary Vavilon Internet project, raises his voice in defense of gay rights in Russia and speaks extensively about his identity as a gay man—and about love. The central image and metaphor of the piece, which also gave it its title, is the metro that the author had to take to get home to a suburb from downtown Moscow. The metro can be seen both as a locus of love and of “possibilities of communication,” and as a “space where no communication is possible,” where passengers “are engaged in a never-ending warfare of all against all.” With the Stalinist past dovetailing into the present in Putin’s Russia, its infamous antigay laws become simply one of the ways to perpetuate “the system of state-sponsored violence,” to find yet another channel for hatred. As Kuzmin considers making public statements as an openly gay man his personal responsibility while antigay hysteria in Russia reigns supreme, he nonetheless also envisions a future—and this is a vision of love, a kind of “I have a dream” moment. This not-so-distant future is the time when sexual identity will be fluid, when all classification systems dividing people into categories (straight, gay, or any other) will be replaced by the freedom to fall in love just because of the mutual attraction of free individuals, when one will be able to “smile at someone beautiful in a metro car without having to think of the gender of that individual.”

The individual and the personal are never far away from the collective memory in all the Russian, Soviet, and post-Soviet poetry, fiction, and nonfiction in the present collection. The injuries and trauma of the Soviet past, at times concealed and suppressed, always bubble close to the surface of things, infusing the works and their characters with despair but also with extraordinary resilience. The unflinching, almost cruel, sometimes ironic authorial gaze of the writers, such as the excellent contemporary authors in the cluster of texts united by the editors under the theme “Transformations,” is like the gaze of a surgeon: pitiless—but also full of compassion. And this, apart from the more obvious transformations in the plotlines, allows unlikely hope and love to blossom in the midst of darkness, scarcity, and misfortune. Thus Yurka Krivov, the young protagonist of Natalia Klyuchareva’s “None of Your Business,” an unexpected Christmas story, transforms himself into a mature adult, prematurely, in a desperate attempt to transform others—his alcoholic parents. He fails, of course, and then literally transforms his own identity by officially changing his name. However, the real “Christmas” transformation happens later, when he, who was treated with no compassion as a child, shows pity for his hapless and now demented mother.

The personal transformation of a Soviet Cinderella, a nameless eighteen-year-old girl, into a young woman in a beautiful new dress is, in Ludmilla Petrushevskaya’s “Milgrom,” ultimately a way to tell a story of very different transformations, but also of transcendental permanence. Petrushevskaya, probably one of the greatest contemporary Russian writers and winner of many national and international awards, writes unsentimentally, with “a great artist’s great heartlessness,” as William Deresiewicz once aptly wrote in a review of Petrushevskaya’s work. The story of the girl who breaks out of her awkward shell with a new dress turns into a story of the eponymous seamstress (Milgrom is denied a first name), an old Jewish woman with a life of unimaginable hardship, which is, however, not unlike that of innumerable other Soviet people: behind each window “live only Milgroms, Milgroms, Milgroms.” In due course, the happy girl, in yet another inevitable transformation, will also turn into yet another Milgrom, whose unrequited but undying love for her son is similar to what the now grown-up girl’s love for her own son will be in the future. In the stark and cruel scarcity of Soviet life shown in Petrushevskaya’s equally spare and unfrilled prose, transcendental and redemptive permanence transpires at the end of all hopeless transformations: “nothing at all but a timid and tender love.” In “The Golem in the Mirror” by Nadezhda Gorlova, as in Andrei Tarkovsky’s great film Mirror, in which the Soviet past and present are superimposed in a sort of visual double exposure, the features of a demented and eventually dead Jewish grandmother merge with those of her granddaughter: it’s a Golem that keeps returning, threatening to get out of control. The mechanism of time is broken: a “murky Venetian mirror . . . cracked in two in the fall of 1917,” and as a result, “any face bears a scar and the clocks run backward.”

Aleksandr Chudakov’s great novel A Gloom Is Cast upon the Ancient Steps, the opening pages of which, “Arm Wrestling in Chebachinsk,” are included in the present collection, chronicles—with little sentimentality but with great tenderness—the multiple voluntary and forced transformations of the novel’s many characters, including the autobiographical narrator, in the collective survival of Soviet people in the aftermath of the Purges and World War II. Chebachinsk, a provincial town lost in the steppes of Kazakhstan, becomes a modern-day Babel, a native place for the Kazakhs, a voluntary destination for Russian settlers, and a place of forced exile of former gulag prisoners of all nationalities, the deported Chechens and Russian Germans among them. It aptly exemplifies a collective Soviet experience: as the country transforms itself into a superpower, emerging from the purges and the war, its population, in order to survive, is transformed into scavengers and hustlers, innumerable Robinson Crusoes, getting by in a feudal subsistence economy.

As one reads the fiction, nonfiction, and poetry in this Russian collection—the texts spanning almost one hundred years of Russian literature, from 1919 to the first decade of the twenty-first century—one feels both “dread and wonder” (an expression used by William Deresiewicz in his review of Petrushevskaya’s work) at how the never-evanescing presence of collective memory and its heavy inheritance informs all these narratives, all these visions of happiness or misfortune. Its eerie undercurrent is felt in the very matter-of-factness of mentioning daily humiliations and deprivations, of friends, family members, or classmates being imprisoned, tortured or shot. In the opening excerpt of Alexandr Chudakov’s novel, the narrator and protagonist Anton comes back to Chebachinsk because his beloved grandfather is dying and wants to discuss “inheritance issues.” The excerpt ends in a cliffhanger: his grandfather’s inheritance is being sought by different claimants. One is ultimately left with a feeling that so are we: the inheritance issues of twentieth-century Russian history remain unresolved and will very likely shape what is to come in the twenty-first.

Watch Dr. Trubikhina’s webinar on teaching the Russian literature in this collection, entitled “Confronting the Past,” and sponsored by the National Humanities Center:

(Watch on YouTube.)

Texts discussed in the webinar include the oral history “The Wondrous Deer of the Eternal Hunt;” the short stories “Milgrom” and “None of Your Business;” the novel excerpt “Arm Wrestling in Chebachinsk;” the essay “On the Moscow Metro and Being Gay;” and a work of graphic reportage, “Slaves of Moscow.” 

Educators, for a sample lesson plan from the unit, see A Dream in Polar Fog: Sample Lesson Plan and the novel excerpt “A Dream in Polar Fog“—Ed.s

Read More


Back to Learn