Сталин, сталинизм и о тенденциях в современной российской литературе в содержательном интервью Ольги Славниковой в New Yorker.
Lopate: Olga, how much of a presence is Stalin, and everything that followed, in your fiction?
Olga Slavnikova: Stalin and Stalinism have a presence, unfortunately, in any Russian prose today.
Lopate: Even the prose of the young writers who grew up in the post-Soviet situation?
Slavnikova: Of course, yes, even for them. The fact is that my grandfather, Nicholas—when Stalin died he cried, he cried for the first time in his life. But he cried not because he was sorry for the great leader but because he no longer had the opportunity to kill him himself with his own gun. It is a whole family saga: my grandfather was repressed. He spent time in the camps. He was a natural marksmen. He literally, as the old hunters did, could hit a squirrel in the eye. And when he emerged from the camps he would hunt and he would hunt the biggest game Russia had to offer. One day I’ll write a book about it, but now I just want to say one thing: my grandfather’s story about the hunt made a great impression on me. Stalinism is not only what the state does; it’s also what the people do, how they react to what the state does. And the fact that the people really did participate in this—that they would demand that “enemies of the state” be dealt with—is also an important part of the whole situation.
Lopate: And it’s part of the situation in your latest novel, “Light Head.”
Slavnikova: Absolutely. People who have suffered misfortunes, who have been repressed or persecuted, they need to find someone a scapegoat, someone to blame for it. And when they point him out, when they say, “There he is! That’s the bad guy, that’s the enemy,” then they feel better. Which is more or less what happens in my latest book, “Light Head,” when the agents of state security take a typical Muscovite office worker and make him the cause of all of the evils of the world that they live in. I’m very disturbed by attempts going on right now to restore a positive image of Stalin. My grandfather Nicholas thought it was a badge of shame for the nation as a whole that this person died peacefully in his own bed. Even in the most monstrous evil person you can find some sort of human characteristics. But the restoration of a warm, kind attitude towards Stalin is a terribly dangerous thing because it can easily lead to a warm, kind attitude towards Stalin’s heirs.
Lopate: Now, you are the director of the Début Prize that is awarded to young Russian writers. There are thousands of manuscripts entered each year. And a growing number of them are in the science-fiction and fantasy genres. The critic Lev Danilkin says that the next great Russian novel will be found in science fiction. Why do you think this has happened?
Slavnikova: It happens because Russian life is itself at the core fantastical. Sometimes in order to resolve a particularly complex mathematical problem, you have to put an imaginary entity into the equation. Similarly, in order to explain the situation in Russia, sometimes what you have to do is take an element of imagination, of fantasy, enter it into this equation and then the entire situation somehow unfolds and becomes much clearer.
Lopate: We have a situation in the West: when you ask about Russian writers the names that come to mind first are Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Chekhov and Gogol to a lesser degree, and Bulgakov, but in Russia is it the other way around? Are Gogol and Bulgakov the most influential today?
Slavnikova: There are two tendencies in Russian literature. One that emerges from Gogol and one that emerges from Pushkin. Both of these great traditions are alive and well, they continue today, and which one is the greater or more influential writer I will not take it upon myself to say. You can see from the manuscripts young writers are submitting to the Début Prize that today they have an unparalleled degree of freedom in not only what they write about but how they write it, and what their approach is. And it seems to me a really sad thing that when people think of contemporary Russian literature, they think, in the best case, of Bulgakov [who died over seventy years ago]. There’s been a tremendous amount of wonderful literature written since then. It doesn’t get translated enough or maybe not always well enough into the major world languages. But it is this rich, rich treasure trove and I feel really sorry, in a sense, for many of those here, for whom this treasure is not available yet.
I believe that probably the greatest enemy that world literature has is the book wholesaler. Because he is convinced that he already knows the reader through and through. And, at the same time, what he thinks of the reader is not very flattering: he thinks that the reader is an idiot. And then, through his decisions, he actually creates that reader.
There’s a prevailing opinion that in America that it is very, very difficult to get anyone to read literature in translation, that it doesn’t sell here and people don’t want it. But that is exactly the opinion of this sort of wholesaler. The reality might turn out to be something completely different.
Lopate: Martin asked you a question, Olga. Do you want to answer?
Slavnikova: Actually it’s true, in Russia there are always things going on that would be very difficult for anybody, for a regular European, to even just survive. It really is a very dangerous country. You’re on the outskirts of town, it’s a dangerous neighborhood, it’s late. Here’s the test. One side of the street is lit and the other side of the street isn’t lit. Which side of the street is the Englishman going to choose to go down. I’m certain, of course, that the Englishmen would choose the lit side of the street, it seems safer. And of course, the Russian is going to choose the dark side, because nobody can see him there and he can see everything better. And the Russian knows from experience that the dark side of the street is the safe side. The truth is that it really is a country where there is always a lot of tension and things are always changing. And when they change, they change dramatically. So there is always something to write about. It’s another story that a high price is paid for that information, for having all that to write about. And sometimes it’s a price that a writer can’t pay. It is the truth that writers, in order to write, need a certain amount of peace and free time. In the nineteen-nineties, when there was a terrible economic crisis and people were shooting on the streets, I saw a lot of talented young people who lost themselves in that situation. They didn’t die, but they weren’t alive.
The ideal situation, of course, would be if a writer could live the first half of his life in a country like Russia and the second half in a calmer place where you could use all of that material. But the ideal is not something we usually get in this world.
Lopate: Martin has written about late capitalist society, and your novels are about the absurdity and the condition and the excesses of Russia’s new capitalist, post-Soviet society.
Slavnikova: The worst thing that’s happened to Russia in recent times, it seems to me, isn’t the economic crisis; it’s not even the rise of criminality. It is the loss of dreams. In the nineties it was explained to us that the only thing that is of value is money, the unit of value in Russia is the American dollar. And everybody’s interested in the most practical things you can imagine; no one seems to be interested anymore, for example, if there is life on Mars. A large portion of the human soul, the human spirit, has been shrunk essentially. And that’s very, very bad.
Lopate: You grew up in the city of Yekaterinburg, in the Ural Mountains region, and were educated there. Did the Soviet Union look much different from that vantage point than it might have if you were growing up in Moscow?
Slavnikova: Yekaterinburg was a closed city. You would never see foreigners there. They could only get there by special visa and special permission—by invitation. And around Yekaterinburg there were a series of smaller closed cities that didn’t even have names; they only had numbers. They were essentially military cities where scientists would work on various projects for the military. Essentially, it was a continuation of something that was thought up by Stalin. They would arrest scientists and take them there, whether they wanted to [go] or not, and they would pay them incredibly minimal amounts. But their whole life would be only their work and it turned out to be a relatively productive thing for science. Living in Yekaterinburg, they felt themselves, first of all, common workers in some gargantuan single factory, and at the same time part of one enormous target for an American missile. Moscow was a much, much freer city. And yet, it was nevertheless still a frightening…a terrible city.
Lopate: You studied journalism at Ural University. You began your career as a journalist. But had you always wanted to write fiction?
Slavnikova: When I was a student in the journalism department, the journalism department was essentially a Party organization. And all of the press was part of a Party organization. I realized that I just couldn’t do it. And I understood that the only way that I could say what I wanted was through imagination—through things I could think of myself.
Lopate: As I was not able to locate copies of your earlier novels, “A Dragonfly Enlarged to the Size of a Dog,” “Alone in the Mirror,” and “Immortal”—have they been translated into English? Many of them won major prizes.
Slavnikova: I hope that these two novels are likely to be translated very soon. There are plans for doing it. They are currently looking for the appropriate translation. “Light Head” has already been translated, [but] not published yet.
There is one thing I’d like to add. This is my first opportunity to say how excited I am, how much I like Martin Amis’s work. The complex, strange flowerings of his prose are exactly what I love in literature. Russia has the advantage of having some very excellent translations of English language literature. I hope that you will have something similar.