Whither the Russian Novel?

Speaking of Russia, interesteing discussion of Russian literature at Slate. It seems that in the land of Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy, and Chekhov popular novels are now about sex and violence.

To the dismay of traditionalists, pulp writers have become the dominant influence in contemporary Russian literature. Most prominent among them is a former lieutenant-colonel with the police, Aleksandra Marinina, who has written 17 novels featuring a female detective, Anastasia Kamenskaya, who single-handedly takes on the Russian mafia. Vulnerable, harassed, and underpaid, Kamenskaya often dabbles in hypnotism and other esoteric rituals to survive the cruel world of post-Soviet Russia. Victor Dotsenko, who spent 10 years in a Soviet prison after being convicted for rape, is almost as popular as Marinina. The Rambo-like hero of his bestselling novels is a Russian veteran of the Afghan war who does violent battle against the Russian mafia. Both writers use a rough prose style peppered with criminal jargon and allusions to the violent, oligarchic, and hyper-sexed world of ’90s Russia. They seem to have hit upon a winning formula: Dotsenko has sold almost 20 million copies, and Marinina is not far behind.

Is this a case of American decadence bringing down the Russian Soul? No, not really. Rather it seems to reflect the chaotic changes that ripped that country after the fall of the Soviet Union:

These writers are popular because they depict the reality of a country that morphed into a violent mobster state in the years following the Soviet collapse. Contract killings were rife, prostitution was ubiquitous, former state enterprises were taken over by the mob, and conspicuous consumption was the defining character trait of the new Russians. Frankfurt’s thesis is similar. The fair’s organizers argue that the ’90s in Russia were so disorienting and frightening that average citizens didn’t want to deal with fantasy at all. Reality was crazy enough, and so they craved books that spoke to their fears and their newfound desires and that made sense of the confusing world around them.

About the author

Kevin Holtsberry

I work in communications and public affairs. I try to squeeze in as much reading as I can while still spending time with my wife and two kids (and cheering on the Pittsburgh Steelers and Michigan Wolverines during football season - oh, and watching golf too).

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