At the moment, the world is fascinated with the film adaptation of the penultimate sub-chapter of the Hunger Games trilogy, Mockingjay. The YA dystopia has gathered an unprecedented popularity amongst adults too. Its theme of oppression and totalitarianism reflects our modern history, the states of North Korea or the Soviet Union are two examples. Russian authors produced finest dystopian novels over the recent decades.
Dystopian fiction is a rather novel but insanely popular genre. Human progress threatens to destroy nature with the advent of global industrialization, nuclear weaponry and other formidable things humans brought in. But perhaps the biggest impact on this genre had the Russian communism and European Nazism, dictatorships that keep terrifying the world. One could have thought that utopia/dystopia should be a well-represented genre in Russian literature. However, the list is rather small – we have Chernyshevsky’s What’s To Be Done, Zamyatin’s My, Strugatsky brothers’ and Platonov’s novels in the XXth century and that’s about it. The post-Soviet literature, freed from the state censorship, gave us a lot more gems, half of them are already available in translation, which means that this genre of Russian literature is what foreign publishers, and hopefully readers, want. I will start with a classical dystopian scifi, often dismissed by literary snobs as genre fiction for plebs. Yet, commercially these are one of the best exported titles in Russian fiction.
Dmitry Glukhovsky debuted with a post-apocalyptic novel, Metro 2033, that became a smashing best-seller in Russia in 2007 and later a very popular computer game. The book has since been widely translated. Its sequel, Metro 2034, was equally successful. The Metro Universe set in the post-nuclear Earth with the remaining mankind lurking in the dungeons, the biggest is Moscow Underground (metro). All the tube stations are like mini-countries, while the dark tunnels are darl places of chaos. In Metro 2033, One of the stations, VDNH, and maybe the whole mankind, are in danger, and the ordinary guy named Artyom has to travel across the entire Metro to save his people. In the sequel novel, another tube station, ironically named after the Crimean military base – Sebastopolskaya – became cut out of the main metro system. And as always the world is in need of another hero.
In his latest novel, The Future, recently translated into German, Glukhovsky has indeed touched the future of Europe. What if people became immortal? Would we become a happy society? Or it will be highly stratified society ruled by dictators? And what is the price that we’ll have to pay for immortality? Overpopulation. The Future is a gripping, passionate, adrenaline-packed and philosophical story, and ultimately it’s about love, powerful, unforgiving and all-forgiving. It’s a bona fide international block-buster, hands down.
Russia is big yet many books are based in Moscow or St Petersburg. And the reader loves exotic locations. How about the Ural Mountains famous for their precious stones, the land described in Bazhov’s fairytales.
Olga Slavnikova set her dystopian novel 2017 here, but called the Urals their ancient Greek name, Riphean Mountains. 2017 marks the centenary of the Great October Socialist Revolution in Russia. In Slavnikova’s novel the centenary’s merry celebration turns into another ugly and violent revolution. Yet this phenomenon of the cyclical Russian history is only a background to a love story. The main character Krylov is a historian and the precious stone enthusiast (Danila the Master in Bazhov’s fairy tales). His ex-wife is a capable entrepreneur owning a funeral business. Krylov’s new love, Tanya, the Stone Lady, is the antipode of Tamara, skinny and ephemeral (Bazhov’s the Lady of the Copper Mountain). The plot of 2017 is full of twists, yet the prose is slow and exquisitely metaphorical. It is, by no means, an easy read, it makes you think about material and spiritual world and why people tend to choose one or the other. Krylov is a man of both and Tanya and Tamara drag him into opposite directions. Love, treasure hunt, revolution, philosophy and beautiful writing, 2017 is an entertaining read that doesn’t patronise your intelligence.
Fazil Iskander is an Abkhazian writer, a classic of Soviet and modern Russian literature, whose writing is known for unparalleled humour and satire. His novella Rabbits and Boa Constrictors is a fairytale allegory of the Russian state, whose notorious figures are recognised in these rabbits, boas and anacondas. The allegory helps to dissect the psychology and the mechanics of the dictatorship state, with its bureaucracy, submissiveness of its inhabitants, – ‘their hypnosis is our fear‘, one of the rabbits realises. This book is a Russian cousin to Orwell’s Animal Farm.
In Anna Starobinets’s The Living the future world is like one organism where information is the biggest commodity. All the inhabitants are completely immerse din this virtual reality called Socio (an allusion to our modern day smartphones, web2.0 and Facebook). The living world is immortal and everybody is immortal and has a unique ID in this world. It doesn’t matter who is your biological ancestor, it is important who you were in your past life, before the Pause. No borders, religion, countries , nations – just the Living. But one day somebody is born without an ID, a treat to the Socio and the Living.
Vladimir Makanin’s Escape Hatch is a novella juxtaposing two worlds: one is a fragile refuge of intelligentsia, existing in the form of an underground bunker, and the rest of the world is the overground city, devastated by wars and conflict, the escape hatch is all the connects them. The book reminds me of a phrase, ‘an ostrich buried his head in the ground’. If we hide ourselves from the world, eventually there’ll be no way back. The narrowing escape root is a metaphor of a painful extinction of a beautiful animal who failed to adapt to the abruptly changing environment.
Viral pandemics? Here’s Yana Vagner’s Vongozero, now available in French translation. It is story of a family struggling to survive in Russia crumbling in the deadly flu pandemic. The novel was initiated as a series of blog posts in LiveJournal, a popular social media network, and it’s definitely the people’s choice. If you fancy a daunting and realistic thriller a la 28 Days Later sans zombies with a Russian setting, here you are. N.B. Do your vaccinations in time.
Of course, the modern giant of Russian literature Vladimir Sorokin can’t be forgotten when it comes to dystopia, a genre he’s been writing in the recent decade. The Day of the Oprichnik portrays Russia in 2027. The country looks like the military dictatorship of Ivan the Terrible, with Oprichniki (the medieval KGB) terrorizing the population. The novel is written in a stylized prose mimicking archaic Russian, which adds to the political satire. On one hand, the absolute monarchy, xenophobia, self-rule of the Oprichniki, repressions are metaphorical glimpses into Russia’s various horrible eras, on the other – they are an ever-present part of Russia’s sociopolitical landscape. These historical parallels emphasize the fact that Russia has, in fact, never changed in its core and attitude to people.
The novel was followed by The Sugar Kremlin, a collection of short stories set in the same time. Both books are considered a dilogy, they have won prestigious awards in Russia and have been nominated for International Booker Prize in 2013. Sorokin’s latest book, Telluria, that is yet to be translated, continues the absurdist and satiric trend: it is set in the middle of the XXIst century and follows the fate of both Russia and Europe that were plunged back into dark medieval age. Orthodox communists and Crusaders, centaurs and cynocephals (dogheads), everyone’s mind is not on God’s Kingdom but the Republic of Telluria (aka Russia split into feudal bits) and its magic metal that brings happiness and unites the land.
Another giant of Russian post-modernist literature, Victor Pelevin has a couple of dystopias in his back-list. The Yellow Arrow is a railway-themed allegorical novella. The train, a metaphor of Russia, which encompasses the entire world for all the characters, goes towards a crumbled bridge. If Russia has ever known quiet periods, they were just ebbs, receding worries, before tsunami.
Tatiana Tolstaya‘s The Slynx is probably the most elegantly-written dystopia I’ve ever encountered. Tolstaya is the living master, the golden standard of Russian language. Here we see the world after a nuclear apocalypse, most of technology, culture and language are wiped out. In a post-nuclear Russian village (called Fyodor-Kuzmichsk that once was Moscow) people may live like animals, and often look like ones with atavisms like horns and tails appearing among the folk, but the scariest thing is the Slynx, a forest-dwelling monster and a metaphor for fear of the unknown. The few books found after the Explosion are taken from people and are stored in the book depository, where Benedict , the main protagonist, works: he reads books and copies them by hand for preservation purpose, randomly, from children literature to specialised technical guides. He likes Olen’ka, another scribe working in the depository, and they get married. Olen’ka is a daughter of the Chief Sanitar, most powerful man in the village, so Benedikt is positioned as a successor. And here’s the plot starts to thicken.
Reading a lot doesn’t mean understanding of what’s written. Benedict is unable to educate himself enough to see the world around him, and despite being obsessed about books, he still lives like a caveman. So people who govern and have access to all the information don’t necessarily preserve our culture.
Andrei Rubanov‘s Chlorophilia, now available in German, stands out amongst its cousin novels about bleak future because of its inventive setting. The XXIInd century Moscow, where all the Russian population now lives, is plagued with giant green stems of an unknown origin that ascend for hundreds of meters overshadowing the old landscape. The pulp of the plant is edible and has invigorating/psychotropic properties. Poor people, underclass, junkies live on the ground, the more privileged you are the higher you reside, closer to the sun. The rich people from China, who rent the Siberian land, occupy the top. Savely Herz, a journalist, secretly taking the highly purified stem for invigoration, has it all: a successful career, a beautiful woman and an apartment at high elevation. Yet, he’s about to find out things that will shake the country and threaten his own life. The book reminds me of The Day of Triffids, a story of the man vs nature. It’s also a story of sin and atonement. The man uses nature the way he wants, unaware of consequences or simply thinking he can outsmart everyone.
Well, we can only outsmart ourselves.
update: The Reader’s Mini Guide to Modern Russian Books is out now on Amazon Kindle/paperback here.