The Soviet Union dissolved in late 1991, but its influence continues to be felt in literature that’s emerged from the nations that were once joined together under its flag. Some authors have opted to chronicle the weight of history, the transition to a capitalist society, and the political unrest of recent years in the form of fiction or poetry. Others have opted for a nonfiction approach, documenting the historical strands that feed into contemporary politics in and around contemporary Russia.
Here’s a look at nine books by authors with ties to the region that help explore a complex sociopolitical landscape and showcase the effect of history on everyday life.
Tatyana Tolstaya’s fiction frequently moves in unexpected directions–her novel The Slynx is a post-apocalyptic dystopia unlike any other, both absurdist and chilling, with some brilliantly bizarre imagery. The stories collected in her new book Aetherial Worlds encompass a range of moods, and cover subjects ranging from the lives of academics to the weight of 20th century Russian history. Tolstaya’s stories move effortlessly from stark realism to metafictional and surreal, and it makes for a concentrated dose of one writer’s take on life.
In this novel, Ukrainian author Serhiy Zhadan tells a tale of family, crime, desperation, and community. The novel’s protagonist leaves the city behind in order to take over a gas station previously run by his brother. Rather than the comforts of home, however, he discovers a strange landscape, and a world in which the phrase “ghosts of the past” has a decidedly literal meaning.
If you’ve followed any coverage of Russian politics in the last decade or two, you’re probably aware that various political protest movements exist. Valery Panyushkin’s book explores a host of them, including everyone from activists fighting for a more democratic Russia to those who want a revived Soviet Union to re-absorb various independent states. It’s a dizzying guide to a chaotic sociopolitical landscape, with a host of harrowing moments along the way.
Poet and activist Kirill Medvedev is among the most fascinating literary figures out there right now. Among other things, he, in his own words, “gave up copyright in my own work in 2004.” His reasons for doing so have a host of political resonances that pertain directly to both Putin-era Russia and questions of capitalism and ownership. It’s No Good collects his poetry and essays and gives a good overview of the range and importance of his work.
How Totalitarianism Reclaimed Russia
Masha Gessen’s writings on contemporary Russia are invaluable for those looking to learn more about the nation’s contemporary politics and recent history. Gessen has written books on Vladimir Putin and Pussy Riot, and her latest book explores Russia’s move towards totalitarianism in the post-Soviet era. Since its publication, it’s been a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Awards, and won the National Book Award for Nonfiction.
Mikhail Shishkin’s fiction has won a host of prominent literary awards in Russia since 2000. His thoughts on the clash between the Russian literary tradition and modern Russian politics make for fascinating reading–this interview is one example. Calligraphy Lesson is the first collection of his short stories to appear in English, and demonstrates another side of Shishkin’s work.
For some journalists, using comics to recount a news story can be the best way to convey information, a sense of place, and the dynamics of the personalities involved. (The works of Joe Sacco and Sarah Glidden come to mind.) Victoria Lomasko’s Other Russias falls into this category: with a dynamic blend of words and illustrations, her work gives a sense of everyday life in spaces all over contemporary Russia.
The Last of the Soviets
Winner of the 2015 Nobel Prize, Belarusian author Svetlana Alexievich’s literary work has chronicled the human elements of history, focusing on everything from the effects of war on those who wage it to the aftereffects of the Chernobyl disaster. Secondhand Time explores the collapse of the Soviet Union and the societal changes that followed; it’s based on interviews conducted over the course of over twenty years.
Sometimes, crime fiction can be one of the most illuminating glimpses of a society. Andrey Kurkov’s Death and the Penguin, for instance, explores the world of organized crime in contemporary Kiev. It’s the story of the unlikely bond between a writer and a penguin; it’s also a story about the threat of constant violence, organized crime, and the harrowing choices that can arise in a turbulent society.