The Lost Empire – From Dystopias to Documentaries by Ahrvid Engholm (Sweden)

    Imagini pentru moscow mordor

    In Russian literature, the major trend has been dystopian fiction. It reflects the aftermath of the “lost Soviet empire”.

    Imagini pentru Per-Arne Bodin

    So said Stockholm University professor of Slavic languages, Per-Arne Bodin, during a well-attended lecture at Hornstull’s library September 8th.


    From left: Prof.Per-Arne Bodin and Ahrvid Engholm

    The title of his talk was “Russian Literature – from Dystopias to Documentary Novels“.

    He talked about Russian literature after the fall of the USSR, but began with summarise the bleak practises of Soviet fiction – it was all centrally directed.

    Modernism was forbidden.

    Kafka, Joyce, Pasternak and others were banned.

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    Soviet decrees forced an endless stream om social realism upon the readers.

    Subjects authors may cover were regulated – hero workers, the joy  of  collective farms and all that – and even language.

    No dirty words, no dialect words, even interpunctuation was controlled.

    (My note: a small stream of otherwise not totally Politically Correct writers were allowed, like Ray Bradbury, Isaac Asimov, Arthur C. Clarke. They tended to sell-out their limited print-runs very fast! We also have underground – so called samizdat – literature, but that’s another subject.)

    Professor Bodin then spent the rest of his talk – well over an hour – on the situation in literature after the failed coup d’etat of 1991 and the dissolvement of the USSR. All flood gates opened and a tsunami of new books flushed out.

    And the leading trend became dystopian fiction!

    The early post-Soviet years were difficult, with hyper-inflation, confusion, corruption, etc.

    The dystopian feeling materialised in what the writers covered.

    He went through many of the Russian dystopian tales that have been translated to Swedish, which are surprisingly many.

    We have for instance the new publisher Ersatz, founded by a former student of Prof. Bodin, which has specialised in doing Russian translations. (See info in Swedish and English)

    Some of the authors covered during his talk:

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    Tatyana Tolstaya (born 1951) is actually related to the Leo Tolstoy.

    Imagini pentru tatiana tolstaia The Slynx

    Her novel “Kys“/The Slynx (Därv in Swedish) tells about a Russia  after WWIII where society is like during the 16th Century. People have to eat rats. Books rare and banned, under the pretext that they are radioactively contaminated and spread disease. Mutants roam the countryside. There are lots of references to Russian literary history, which in the Swedish translation has been transposed to Swedish literature – we get Bellman instead of Pushkin.

    Imagini pentru Vladimir Sorokin

    Vladimir Sorokin‘s (born 1955) “Goluboe Salo”/Blue Lard (Blått fett, in Swedish) is set in a satirical dystopian future. Russia is under Chinese rule but scientist clone Russian classic writers, and from them extract Blue Lard which is a new energy source.

    Imagini pentru vladimir sorokin goluboe salo

    It is sent back to the Stalinist era in an attempt to change the course of history.

    This novel has a lot of profanity, sex and homosexuality,” Bodin explained. “It was prosecuted, but acquitted as the court said that the pornographic contents had ‘an artistic intention’.”

    Imagini pentru Vladimir Sorokin Blue Lard

    Vladimir Sorokin’s “Den oprichnika”/Day of the Oprichnik, in English (in Swedish I det heliga Rysslands tjänst) describes a resurrected czarist Russia and the absurd day of a government henchman.

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    Telluria” (Tellurien, in Swedish) is perhaps the strangest book of them all. Russia (and also Europe) is split into numerous, medieval small states after a devastating war, all those ruled by different ideologies, People seek refugee in the expensive drug telluria, which is consumed by driving a nail into your head (!).

    Imagini pentru Dmitry Glukhovsky

    Russia after the nuclear war has in Dmitry Glukhovsky‘s (born 1979) series of post-apocalyptic novels, starting with Metro 2033 (same title in Swedish and English), been reduced to the Moscow subway system.

    Imagini pentru Dmitry Glukhovsky metro 2033

    Small republics have been founded around the different underground stations. There are libertarian ones, a communist, one with Jehova’s Witnesses, a Hitlerist one, etc.

    Russia being reduced and dissolved is perhaps the ultimate nightmare for the Russians,” Bodin said. “That’s why so we see so many dark visions about it.

    Imagini pentru Olga Slavnikova

    We also have Olga Slavnikova‘s (born 1957) “2017” (same title in Swedish and English) in which the 100th anniversary of the Russian revolution is prepared in a Ural city.

    Imagini pentru Olga Slavnikova 2017

    A professor hunts for valuable gemstones, in the mountains where strange spirits are believed to roam. It’s a hard society with outbreaks of violence, where old and new values clash. Her novel won the Russian equivalent of the Booker prize in 2006.

    Imagini pentru Boris Akunin

    Perhaps not science fiction but bordering alternate history is Boris Akunin‘s (born 1956) “Leviathan” (same Swedish title, Murder on the Leviathan in English).

    Imagini pentru Boris Akunin Murder on the Leviathan

    It’s about the czarist policeman Fandorin in 19th century Russia, a world of nobility, bomb-throwing anarchists, palaces, conspiracies and upper-class luxury. Maybe that’s a reflection of the lifestyle of today’s oligarchs?

    Detective novels have become big in Russia,” Bodin said.”Another thing is realistic, documentary novels. The dystopias have maybe lost its flair. The disasters can’t go on forever…

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    Leading among the realistic writers is of course Svetlana Alexievich (from Belarus, but she writes in Russian), last year’s Nobel Prize winner.

    Imagini pentru Lyudmila Petrushevskaya  Imagini pentru lyudmila ulitskaya Imagini pentru Lydia Chukovskaya

    From left : Lyudmila Petrushevskaya, Lyudmila Ulitskaya, Lydia Chukovskaya

    But Bodin also mentioned Lyudmila Petrushevskaya, Lyudmila Ulitskaya and Lydia Chukovskaya (who died in 1996).

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    What is important is that while TV is controlled and they try to control the Internet, literature in Russia is still relatively free,” Bodin said.

    It’s still a place for  free voice where people write what they want, even criticism to the present government. There are lots of independent book publishers and books are everywhere.”

    You can find most books in electronic pirate editions, not only all the Russian classics but also new books. Copyright is seen as relevant and realistic as a creature from Mars…

    Prof.Bodin’s lecture ended with Q&As.

    Are there  any limits to what authors can write, one in the audience asked:

    Well, somewhere there may be a limit,” Bolin answered. “But there are no ‘official’ writers, like there used to be. And if there’s much debate around a book, the sales skyrocket. Books are discussed on literary programs and so on. There are problems, but the problems are of different types than in Soviet times. We’ll have to follow the development.”

    As the library personnel struggled to collect all the chairs after packed meeting (70-80 in the audience) I approached Professor Bodin with the book I was reading at the moment, Masha Gessen‘s The Man Without a Face: The Unlikely Rise of Vladimir Putin, which exposes the  dark side of Mr. Putin and chronicles the chaos, power struggle and corruption around the fall of the Soviet Union. I asked:

    Is Gessen’s Putin book true?

    I was afraid you were  going to ask that…” was his cryptic reply.

    Imagini pentru big russian bear cartoons©Paul Combs

    ©Ahrvid Engholm

    Imagini pentru We Modern People: Science Fiction and the Making of Russian Modernity

    We Modern People
    Science Fiction and the Making of Russian Modernity” by Anindita Banerjee

    See also:

    Meeting Russian fantastic author Olga Slavnikova – Ahrvid Engholm (Sweden)

    The Russians in Stockholm : Russian SF presented in the Stockholm Culture House – Ahrvid Engholm (Sweden)


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