I’ve had a soft spot for Russia since I was a kid. As a child of the 1970s, I did most of my growing up in the Reagan 80s, and the only Russians I knew were more like cartoons than real people. I wasn’t yet quite sophisticated enough to know that “The Russian Nightmare” Nikita Koloff was really a red-blooded American meat head and that I was in no real danger of being on the wrong end of a Russian Sickle. I wasn’t old enough to understand the degree to which Rocky IV was a propaganda film, but part of me always wanted to pull for Drago, even after an arena full of his own countrymen, won over by Rocky’s superhuman ability to take an ass beating and remain semi-conscious, began chanting the American’s name. Then there was Yakov Smirnoff, who made a career out of one joke about how bad things were in the USSR, like some kind of Russian Jeff Foxworthy. Taken altogether, the picture of Russia painted onto my young psyche was a land of steroid-fueled commie cyborgs and poor schleps standing in line for toilet paper, the Big Red Machine having failed them even when it came to wiping their own butts.
Add to all of this the constant threat of nuclear annihilation and the fear that Russian soldiers might, for some inexplicable reason, attack a school in the middle of nowhere, as they did in Red Dawn, and it’s easy to see why I was fascinated by and terrified of Mother Russian in roughly equal measure. Perhaps that’s why Dostoevsky and Chekov held such allure for me later in life. Here was a completely different view of Russia, one populated with “faded aristocrats all in serious denial … or crowded into a dank cell to hear a holy monk preach about why we must love our enemies” as Francine Prose writes in the introduction to Razzkazy: New Fiction From a New Russia. The vision of Russian I got from its best literary exports was perhaps as incomplete as the cartoony one I had as a kid, this time skewed toward the mustiness of bona fide genius. Of course, it’s been a long time since the days of Czars and the Revolution, and today’s Russia is almost as far removed from the Russia of Dostoevsky as it is from the Russia of Gorbachev, black market blue jeans, and contraband Beatles tapes.The writers working in Russia today are the first generation of writers to come of age in the post-Soviet era. Judging by the vision of Russia we get from the news, these writers live in a land of political strife and domestic terrorism, ruled by a homophobic, punk-rock hating, possibly autistic quasi-dictator.
Luckily we have this anthology which collects twenty-two short stories by contemporary Russian writers, most of them translated into English for the first time, to help us sort all this out. The stories here give us glimpses into a Russia that often seems as familiar as it does utterly foreign. Razzkazy (Russian for “stories”) begins with Linor Goralik’s “They Talk,” a patchwork of overheard conversations. Some of the eavesdropping here is ominous (“Do you know how I knew it was spring here? I found a skull in the garden.) and some is decidedly more banal (“…this, you know, sort of middle-aged lady, not really old, the kind of one, like, actually quite beautiful…”). “They Talk” is one of those experimental stories that I always end up thinking I should like more than I actually do, or worrying that there’s something I’m not smart enough to grasp holding it together. Or maybe I’m just more of a traditionalist when it comes to story structure than I like to think I am. Either way, “They Talk” doesn’t really hold together as a story for me. It is, however, a perfect lead-off for this collection, giving us a feel for the pulse and the vernacular of a Russia that is, like every other place, too big and too complex to cover with any one single voice.
The rest of the stories in this collection represent a dizzying array of styles and voices, like a reflection of modern Russia in the shards of a broken mirror. Many of these stories take us inside the Russia that we see on the evening news. Arkady Babshenko’s “The Diesel Stop” and German Sadulaev’s “When the Sky Doesn’t Fall” take place on opposite sides of the conflict in Chechnya. “The Diesel Stop” follows a Russian soldier who gets sidelined by dysentery and accidentally goes AWOL. On his way back to the front lines, he gets detained in a prison camp that falls somewhere between Catch 22 and Kafka on the absurdity scale. Sadulaev, meanwhile, gives “When the Sky Doesn’t Fall” the full-blown magic realism treatment, populating the his war-torn world with werewolves and dragons. Roman Senchin employs a decidedly more realist style in “History,” the sad tale of an elderly man who gets arrested after unwittingly getting caught up in a political protest. Many of the other stories here directly or indirectly deal with real-life current events from a street-level view.
Stories like these seem uniquely Russian, the kinds of stories that could only emerge from this specific place and time, but many of the stories here have a more universal quality. Olga Zondberg’s “Have Mercy, Your Majesty Fish,” for example, explores the (dis?)connectedness of the internet life through the protagonist’s social media habits. Ilya Kochergn’s “A Potential Customer” features a protagonist who is as inept at building civilizations in a computer game as he is at navigating his love life, while Kirill Ryabov’s “Spit” presents an urban world as mean and bleak as anything this side of Cormac McCarthy.
The thing that surprised me most about Rasskazy is the degree to which the dissident streak in Russian literature, the one that sent Dostoevsky to the gulag, is still alive and well. If the vision of Russia that we see on the nightly news were 100% accurate, it’s likely that Vadim Kalinin would be rotting in jail alongside the ladies of Pussy Riot. His story “The Unbelievable and Tragic History of Misha Shtrikov and His Cruel Wife” tackles Russian attitudes toward homosexuality and concludes with a not-so-subtle jab at Russian military when one of the characters, following a traumatic brain injury, is finally fit for military duty. It’s also one of the strangest, most surreal stories I’ve ever read, featuring a protagonist who becomes–quite against his will–a male prostitute so desirable that the Russian economy comes to depend on foreign tourists lining up to sodomize him.
While a lot of the stories here show that modern Russian is a place so strange and mundane that writers have to employ the surreal to explore it fully, it often comes across as a place not all that different than modern America. “I wish somebody’d start a revolution,” the narrator’s friend Primate muses in Zakhar Prilepin’s “The Killer and His Little Friend.” “Why not? I could shoot as much as I wanted,” he continues. The narrator finds this encouraging until he realizes “exactly who he wanted to shoot at.” Given the polarized mood of the American political mood these days, It’s not hard for me to imagine that same conversation happening here. I’m not sure whether finding so many of the rasskazy here so relatable should be heartening or frightening, but it makes this collection all the more compelling.