As I sat in Pushkin House, listening to four young, prize-winning authors present their work, it dawned on me that I was witnessing the start of a cultural revolution for Russia. Having had the good fortune of being born after the hardships of the austere, Soviet Union, these remarkable young women were able to write in a frank, unaffected way that, in all honesty, comes as a breath of fresh air for those who have become accustomed to the somewhat oppressive tones of Dostoyevsky and co. Their subject range was diverse, their skills as writers were raw and unashamed and the youthful, free-spirited atmosphere that emanated from their work was almost palpable. They weren’t just writing for themselves, they were writing for an entire generation of change.
Set out as a panel discussion, the four speakers sat on one side of a large table, facing the audience. It was fantastic to be given the somewhat rare opportunity of hearing extracts read out by their authors in their original language and in the tone and style that the writers had always intended. Fortunately, as the only non-Russian speaker there, I was made privy to intermittent English translations!
The stories themselves covered a surprisingly wide variety of subject areas, ranging from urban love stories to experiences of hitchhiking through rural Russia. It’s fair to say that the older generations of the audience were slightly shocked by the open content of these works and by the modernity, freedom and unashamed naivety that they inspired. A large discussion formed around Lavrinenko’s chosen extract; a homosexual love story. What was most interesting was the reaction by older generations of the audience towards the writer’s nonplussed attitude concerning such supposedly ‘taboo’ content. One audience member quite rightly noted that Lavrinenko could easily have been talking about a heterosexual couple in her work, that’s how little attention she paid to the sexual orientation of her protagonists. For someone like me, who belongs to the young generation of writers who were speaking, and who does not have experience of such traditional, conservative Russian culture, this felt like a small, but powerful, breakthrough. The cultural modernisation of Russia was taking place right before my eyes and it seemed that these young women were leading the way. I had only just met Lavrinenko and her contemporaries but I couldn’t help feeling extremely proud of what they had achieved.
In fact, in the face of each of these authors, my pride was insurmountable. Each of them had won the Debut prize for literature, one of Russia’s most renowned literary competitions, uniquely for authors under the age of 25! It was with complete and utter awe that I received this information; they were all my own age and had already not only been published, but had also won prizes! It was almost too much to take in. Natasha Perova, founder, owner and publisher of Moscow-based GLAS publishing house was evidently just as proud of all of the writers and her enthusiastic introduction to each one of them was contagious.
Unfortunately, the key speaker and judge of the Debut prize, Olga Slavnikova, was unable to attend but in an introduction to GLAS’s latest publication of short stories, she describes the work of these young authors as being “the most ingenious and honest literature in Russia since 1917”. She also writes that she believes literary talent to stem from a young person’s first, difficult encounter with adult life and with the concept of making it on their own in the world. “This sort of loneliness, like any other, has huge creative potential.” As Slavnikova quite rightly points out, these women do have issues of their own to deal with; issues born of the trials and tribulations that come with growing up in a modern, revolutionised society, issues encountered by every human being. Contrary to some of the audience-member’s beliefs, it was not within a pearly cloud of post-Soviet bliss that these authors produced their works. It is in fact an even greater show of skill that these writers were able to break away from the deep-set, literary clichés of their overbearing historical legacy and write about the real problems young people face in today’s society. Once again, the air was rife with revolution!
It’s a shame that these authors spent such a short time in the UK as, unless you visit Russia, it may be hard to catch them talking live about their works any time soon. I would, however, highly recommend getting a copy of their work which is available in two short-story volumes by the publishing house GLAS. Even if you have no prior knowledge of Russian culture or of Russian literature, this is universally powerful writing that speaks to a much greater collective than that of Russia alone. These works provide a unique insight into the real-life Russia of today that is untainted by biased or corrupt media representation. More importantly, these young writers are inspiring, talented and incredibly enthusiastic. The evening I spent with them at Pushkin House felt personally and politically significant and their imminent, worldwide literary success could not be more deserved.
For upcoming events, visit the Pushkin House website.
To purchase a copy of the Debut prizewinners’ work, go to: http://www.debutprize.com/
Images: Matt from London on Flickr; Pushkin House