Russian literature

Foreign Policy magazine ponders about Russian literature for non-Russian audience:

The last Russian novel to become a genuine American sensation was Doctor Zhivago, which was published the year before Pasternak won the 1958 Nobel Prize in literature. The most recent nonfiction book of comparable fame was Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s The Gulag Archipelago, which was published in the West in 1973. Since then, no Russian writer has enjoyed true breakout American celebrity.

Noble efforts to translate and promote Russia’s contemporary literature persist, but today in the United States, only about 4.6 percent of books translated into English were written in Russian, placing the language far behind French, Spanish, and German. “Great books are being written in Russia today,” Dmitry Bykov, Russia’s leading contemporary critic and a biographer of Pasternak, said in a radio interview. “But not nearly enough get translated.”

Russia’s “general cultural rot has affected literature to an even greater extent than other cultural production.” Chad Post of the Three Percent translation project at the University of Rochester provides a more benign explanation: “poor distribution networks” in the United States. But Natasha Perova, whose famous Moscow publishing house, Glas, announced it was suspending work in late 2014, says the American market is more to blame. These days, people buying from Perova’s U.S. distributors “seem to have an allergy to everything Russian,” she says. In the early 1990s, “everything Russian was welcome because the world had great hopes for Russia. We thought Russia would be 
reintegrating into the European context. But it gradually went back to its former practices, and people turned away from us.”

Russia still produces more books than most other countries: Some 120,000 new titles were published in Russian in 2013, according to government figures. But today, Russia’s writers are content providers vying for attention in a vibrant marketplace of entertainment and information. 

In the past, Russians looked to their literature for a design and philosophy of life. In the works of Tolstoy and Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Alexander Pushkin and Anton Chekhov, Russians found their moral nuts and bolts, wrestling with the forces of history that threatened to break them apart. Writers, in short, were asked to live more deeply than ordinary mortals.

Today Russian writers are no longer deified at home, let alone abroad. Yet at least the right to publish in Russia holds good; in comparison with the centuries that came before, the past 23 years have been largely free of censorship. Even if Russia is now entering another cycle of oppression, writers will be there to document every turn of the screw — and the best among them will produce classics.

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