Can you remember your first time? Mine was with Dr Zhivago. I was fifteen, seduced into reading my first Russian literature by Omar Sharif. Then came Anna Karenina, War and Peace, Crime and Punishment, Turgenev’s short stories, The Master and Margarita, Chekhov’s plays, the poetry of Pushkin and Akhmatova. I was a teenager galloping through the Russian Classics, drunk on their depth, breadth and ambition, devouring the descriptions of imperial cities, tormented aristocrats, glittering ballrooms and brave, down-trodden peasants; of war, death, love, religion, of battles for the soul. Russian writers seemed to me to aspire to something nobler, deeper, darker, richer. The Russian Revolution, two world wars, the Cold War, Stalin followed, my mind opened to pain and suffering through Solzhenitsyn and Irina Ratushinskaya.
Then, as a student and later a BBC journalist, I read mainly prescribed books and newspapers. With the collapse of the Soviet Union I began a career tracking down “stories”, not literature. Real-life Russia was more exciting, trips to Moscow and Vladivostok better, Gorbachev and Putin more challenging. And in this atmosphere, I found myself asking: Where had all the writers gone? Who was writing the great Russian novel now?
It took me years to reconnect with Russian literature, to ditch the news and the nostalgia and to tackle the modern thrillers, sci-fi, satire and surrealism by men and women from all parts of the Russian-speaking world which were, thanks to a parallel wealth of translators, available in English.
Publishing in the Age of Putin is not easy. Pussy Riot and homophobia, Crimea and Ukraine, have exposed the limits of Kremlin tolerance. Bookshops and libraries are closing, and more writers are emigrating online. It’s the same all over the world, but according to The Moscow Times, in the capital only 226 bookshops cater for a population of 12 million; in Paris, a city with a population five times smaller, there are 700 bookshops.
But what of creativity in adversity? Thanks perhaps to the harsher spotlight directed at Russia today, possibly also thanks to this year’s centenary of the Russian Revolution and the accompanying exhibitions and new commissions, I see a greater interest in Russian writing. There’s been an explosion of poetry, of ebook reading. Today you can read not just about Moscow and St Petersburg but about Kiev and Makhachkala. Today, novels, stories and poems feature oligarchs and drug addicts, prisoners and poets, political activists, corrupt policemen and soldiers, office workers and farmers, and as many women as men.
For my own reawakening my personal thanks go to the indefatigable literature programmers of the British Council in the UK and Russia (see one example of their work here) and to the Translation Institute in Moscow. Download their wonderful Read Russia Anthology for free here (courtesy of Read Russia).
Personal thanks too to my fellow riveters Anna Blasiak and West Camel for helping make this Riveter possible.
Over the past few years I’ve been lucky to read, meet and interview some ground-breaking Russian authors, such as Hamid Ismailov, Maria Stepanova, Dmitri Bykov, Ludmila Ulitskaya, Zakhar Prilepin, Alisa Ganieva, Boris Akunin, Andrey Kurkov, Zinovy Zinik, Oleg Kashin and Mikhail Shishkin. They’ve bowled me over. You too can meet some of them here in this, the second edition of our magazine, our “Russian Riveter” – a selection of Riveting Reviews, and, of course, Riveting Reads.
By Rosie Goldsmith