Literature Under Putin

Today there is an interesting piece in the Chronicle for Higher Education which interviews two of Russia’s most famous writers, Victor Erofeyev and Andrei Bitov.



Now Russian literature has lost that “mainstream idea,” Erofeyev says, and there is “chaos,” made slightly coherent by a “civil war” between two points of view. One is that old humanist perspective, he says, inherited by writers like his older fellow delegate Andrei Bitov, that “evil is outside not inside the human being” and should be defeated. Erofeyev says the other wells up from “disillusionment” and asks, “If the human being is so good, why is our society so bad?” That perspective constitutes nihilistic “news for Russian literature. … If evil is inside human beings, why should you change conditions?” … “There is no censorship,” he says. “Books are totally free.” He concedes it might not be a good idea to write books that “make a propaganda of drugs” and other antisocial activities. “You would have problems with distribution,” he observes, “or you could have problems, but not direct problems. … Let’s say the tax people could come.” Indeed. Last year, Boris Akunin, the native Georgian and famed Moscow mystery writer, experienced just that. After the Kremlin launched a full-scale economic attack on Georgia, its now Western-leaning former republic, Russian tax authorities — the same ones that destroyed the Yukos oil company and sent liberal oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovsky to Siberia — publicly went after Akunin … In his hotel room a few floors below, Andrei Bitov, 69, hair and beard white and close-cropped like that of prisoner Ivan Denisovich, rolls his cigarettes from large boxes of Drum shag. The longtime president of Russian PEN, outfitted in wan green shirt and cargo pants, Bitov laughs at the idea that he, possibly like Putin when everything plays out, is against term limits. “It’s like always in Russia,” he says in halting English. “You are like a monarch. No changes.” Lovers of Russian literature revere Bitov for Pushkin House, one of the Soviet Union’s first great postmodernist novels. After his “crime” of publishing it in the United States, Bitov says, he was “prohibited from the profession” and “lost any possibility to travel.” He couldn’t publish in the Soviet Union from 1977 to 1986. Like Erofeyev, Bitov calls warnings of a return to the USSR “a cliché,” saying many ordinary Russians “are satisfied, they are planning their next day.” He agrees with Erofeyev that “books are still free.” Yet Bitov speaks with a wariness Erofeyev, 10 years younger, rarely exhibits. “Power is concentrated in one personality,” he acknowledges, not bothering to name which one. Does he think it only a matter of time before laws stripping Russian voters of power are followed by others curtailing travel and other “personal” freedoms? “I don’t know,” he says, “I hope that it will not happen. Because already they [the new elite] became rich, and now they are busy keeping their property. … They can’t go back.” Patience is the key, Bitov counsels, both for Russian writers and Westerners watching the anarchic literary present play out. “Time will tell us what will happen,” he advises. “My old mother used to say we need three generations, because we lost three generations.”