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Baltic Russian Literature: Writing from Nowhere?

  • Author
    Taisija Laukkonen

Following the disintegration of the Soviet Union, a new “Russian minority”[1] began to take shape on the territory of the independent Baltic States (Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia). It was new in a number of ways. Historically, whether large or small, a Russian community had always been present in these territories. However, the independent cultural status of this minority within a separate state was not a foregone conclusion, even though there were precedents, as, for example, in Lithuania between the First and Second World Wars.

The post-Soviet Russian diaspora in the Baltic countries was relative not only in and of itself, but in comparison with other communities in the post-colonial world. First, the transformation of a group from the status of linguistic and cultural dominance to one of a minority occurred without a change of residence. This is most unusual in traditional diasporas. Second, certain cultural pretensions remained with regard to differences in the prestige of literary traditions.[2] In this regard, the enthusiasm for the “preservation of Russian culture” that was characteristic of the Russian diaspora beyond the borders of the Soviet Union throughout the 20th century was no longer appealing, given the disappearance of the obvious obstacles to repatriation and the absence of virtual participation in the life of modern Russia.

This has caused the new Russian diaspora to look for a different basis for its identity, and one of the directions that seemed necessary was the identification of cultural boundaries, which also appeared to be needed. Historical precedents of this kind of cultural mission are, on the one hand, assimilation of the achievements of Western cultures, and on the other, eastern, northern, or southern exoticism. In classical Russian literature, the images of the representatives of the Baltic nations were often developed through exotic dismissal. During the Soviet era, the pre-Baltic republics were considered Westernized outskirts of the Soviet Union and, as such, the bearers of the prestige of Western culture. However, in the post-Soviet “world without borders” the newly emerged Baltic nations are neither one nor the other: too familiar to be considered exotic and, at the same time, not Western enough as far as the real West is concerned. Therefore, the writers of Russian-German, Russian-French, and Russian-English cultural cross-border exchange appear to play the role of intermediaries in a culturally prestigious and seemingly equal dialogue, whereas Russian authors in Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia, having to develop their identity through their position in a cultural “beyond”, find themselves needing to struggle for legitimacy, uniqueness, and value in such a cultural dialogue.

 

Relations between the new national (Baltic) states and their Russian minorities are somewhat ambiguous. On one hand, the states were not interested in supporting or culturally advertising anything Russian, which, in the minds of some of the population, was synonymous with Soviet. On the other hand, attention to minorities is one of the most important characteristics of a contemporary democratic country, all the more so for members of the European Union. However, it does not mean that the dialogue with Russian culture is imposed from above. The cultural prestige of the Russian literary tradition is sufficiently high, compared to that of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania, that those authors who are interested in accessing a wider international market cannot help but see a whole range of new opportunities in such a dialogue.

Despite the similarity of the general situation in the three Baltic states, the status of local Russian literature is different in each one. This is only partially associated with the percentage of each state that is ethnically Russians.

In Lithuania, there is just one professional literary periodical in Russian, the “Vilnius” magazine, which is published twice a year, sometimes even less frequently. It publishes mainly translations of Lithuanian authors into Russian and reviews by Lithuanian literary critics. A smaller portion of the magazine is devoted to work by local Russian-language writers. Although the Lithuanian Union of Writers can boast more than a dozen who are Russian-speaking, their activity goes almost unnoticed. In Latvia, in contrast, literary life is noticeably active, with numerous literary clubs and several periodicals. In Estonia, there is, in addition to periodicals, an electronic magazine called Novye Oblaka [New Clouds] that unites young Russian-language writers in Estonia. In addition, the “Eesti Kulturkapital” Fund grants awards to local Russian-language writers annually.

Since Russian-language literary activity is more evident in Latvia and Estonia than it is in Lithuania, the latter is represented by only three authors on the New Literary Map of Russia[3] – which claims to represent the entire Russian-language “literary world” – whereas Estonia is represented by eleven authors and Latvia by sixteen. By comparison, Finland is represented by as many as four authors, even though its Russian-speaking community is noticeably smaller than that of Lithuania. Moreover, Russian authors from Latvia (Sergei Moreyno and Sergei Timofeyev) and from Estonia (Yelena Skulskaya and Andrei Ivanov) have been among the nominees for the “Russian Award”[4] twice during the six years of its existence, whereas there has not been a single recipient from Lithuania.

In my opinion, the defining factor here is the absence (or presence, for that matter) of an established literary tradition. This, in turn, is connected to the unofficial, uncensored literature that came to light at the end of 1980s. It undermined the existing literary hierarchy and demanded a re-examination of the history of Russian literature of the second half of the 20th century. From this point of view, Latvia and Estonia find themselves at an advantage as compared to Lithuania. Authors from Riga (the capital of Latvia), united by the Rodnik [Brook] magazine, cooperated with the samizdat (self-publishing)[5] in Leningrad (now St. Petersburg) and, therefore, influenced the development of contemporary Russian literature.[6] The importance of Estonia for unorthodox Soviet culture is also without doubt, first because of the Tartu School of Semiotics led by Yuri Lotman, and second because of the literary works of the unofficial novelist Sergei Dovlatov. As a result, the new generations of Latvian and Estonian authors rightfully consider themselves heirs (at this point in time) to a prestigious tradition of unofficial Russian art in its local form. It is commonly thought that, in Lithuania, it was mainly Soviet Russian literature that developed – the symbolic value of which is now called into question.

Whereas national literary institutions are mainly interested in the participation of local Russian literature in the dialogue between two cultures – and as a rule, it is local authors who translate contemporary Latvian, Lithuanian, and Estonian literature into Russian – Russian critics and prize juries prefer authors whose creative writing fits into a wider intercultural context.

Recently, two Baltic novelists, Lena Eltang (Lithuania) and Andrei Ivanov (Estonia), have become unexpected discoveries for Russian critics. The literary trajectories of these authors are different, and they vividly demonstrate the difference in the status of Russian literature in both countries. The first novel by Lena Eltang was published in 2006 in St. Petersburg and appeared on the shortlists of two prestigious Russian awards (“National Bestseller” and an Andrei Biely[7] Award). Her next novel, Kamennye Klyony [Stone Maples], became the first recipient of the “Nos” [Nose] award,[8] which aims at “identifying and supporting new trends” in contemporary Russian literature. Only then did Lithuanian society at large become interested in this Russian writer, who had resided in Lithuania since 1989.

The story of Andrei Ivanov is entirely different. His novel Hanuman’s Travel to Lolland was first published in 2009 with the support of the Eesti Kulturkapital Fund and received the Fund’s award. In 2011, the novel was republished in Moscow and was included on the shortlist of the “Russian Booker” prize. Thus, it was the Estonian cultural industry that facilitated the publication debut of the book.

Although Ivanov, as a writer, is often compared with Eltang, their literary trajectories are different, as are the texture and the subject matter of their novels. The main characters of Ivanov’s mischievous novel are Hanuman, an Indian, and the narrator Eudge, a Russian-Estonian. The two reside illegally in a Danish refugee camp. Their dream is to visit Lolland, a Danish resort. Russian critics see the refugee camp – with its mixed lot of representatives from “third world” countries, contrasted with well-off Danish citizens – as a parody of contemporary Europe. According to the author, the first version of the novel was written in phonetic English, but the final one was done in Russian. The very name of the novel is misleading for the reader, sounding as it does like a travelogue, whereas, as far as the plot goes, the main characters never travel to Lolland.

Lena Eltang’s works are often compared by critics to the intellectual crypto-detective novels of Umberto Eco, and to the refined language of Fowles and Borges. Her novels are narrated in the first person, but are always refracted through the specifics of various “personal” genres. For example, her first novel, Pobeg Kumaniki [Blueberry Shoot], appeared in LiveJournal as notes of a fictitious character, who many readers believed really existed. The book was also published in the same way, as notes of either a student, or a madman named Moses-Morass, and in e-mails and diaries of characters (members of an archaeological expedition to Malta or their correspondents) that probably exist only in the imagination of the main character.

Eltang’s novels are far from unambiguous. To the best of my knowledge, the first attempt to translate Pobeg Kumaniki [Blueberry Shoot] into English was a fiasco, due mainly to the tight texture of the language and its close resemblance to poetry. The main character of the second novel, Sasha Sonly, a woman with Russian roots, lives in Wales, owns a boarding house called “Kamennye Klyony” (Stone Maples), keeps a diary and communicates with her surroundings by writing notes. This novel also consists mainly of letters, diaries and notes in guest books; here, too, the author creates a polyphonically complicated multi-layered “reality” rather than the pretense of an objective narrative.

In their attempts to determine the cultural-geographic coordinates and language characteristics of Eltang’s and Ivanov’s novels, Russian literary critics may well begin from different points, but, in my opinion, they converge on one and the same key word: “nowhere”. Here, for example, is what Tatyana Grigorieva writes about Ivanov’s novel:

The first paradox that holds up the narrative is reality itself, described vividly, in detail and even somewhat naturalistically and transformed into a fantastic “nowhere” populated by wild characters speaking a wild language.[9]

In his review of Kamennye Klyony, Andrey Uritsky connects the language characteristics of the novel with the author’s place of residence, with the help of the “nowhere” category:

The parabola of Eltang’s biography is reflected in her novels: a Russian-speaking writer who lives in a city once located on the Western outskirts of the Soviet Empire, but now situated on the Eastern outskirts of the European Union, apparently has to use an airy, semi-transparent language almost devoid of any “meatiness”; an almost “distilled” language in which profane words or colloquialisms would be impossible. And, evidently, she has to place her characters in the historical and geographical space maximally distanced from Russia, as well as from the location of her current residence. The simplest way to determine such a location would be to use the word “nowhere”. As a matter of fact, the author herself lives in the same “nowhere”. The “nowhere” of Eltang’s second novel is Wales.[10]

The fact that the word “nowhere” is the most suitable for describing the inter-cultural situation of Russian-Baltic novelists and their characters is evidence of their attempts to culturally assimilate distant territories, despite the authors’ geographical proximity to the Russian border. The multicultural background and language properties on which their novels turn – and in a certain way depend – immediately confer on their authors the title of innovators in the Russian medium, and when translated into European languages, guarantee the recognizability of their themes.

As far as poetry is concerned, Orbit (www.orbita.lv), a publishing and multi-media project founded in 1999 by Russian poets in Latvia (Sergei Timofeyev, Arthur Punté, Semyon Khanin, George Wallick, and Vladimir Svetlov), enjoys the widest recognition. Orbit experiments with different ways of representing poetic texts and emphasizes the inter-cultural context. In this case, however, the context is more pointedly European, rather than an abstract “nowhere”. For example, in his review of Orbit’s fifth collection of works, Stanislav Lvovsky puts forward as a key metaphor a fragment of Alexei Levenko’s poem that cites the lyrics of a song called “Europe Is Our Playground” by the group Suede. Andrei Levkin, for his part, makes the notion of “TransEurope” a heading for his preface to Sergei Timofeyev’s book Sdelano [Done]. There is also a musical allusion to it: a famous album by the group Kraftwork is named “Trans-Europe Express” (1977). It is important, however, that Europe is understood as a field for cultural games rather than a specific cultural-language space, as a transitional territory rather than a place of residence.

In summary, it is important to note that Russian literature is as multi-layered in Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia as it is in the contemporary Russian literary space as a whole. One can find virtually anything here: from naive poetry and popular literature to language and innovative intermediation. Therefore, strategies aimed at assimilating the Russian-European borderline are evident and successful. This allows us to talk about the primary task of Baltic Russian literature from the point of view of a literary metropolis, to comprehend the intercultural European “nowhere” from the perspective of its own cultural experience.

It has to be noted that many Baltic writers, in one way or another, do touch upon the issue of the Russian minority. This topic is of keen interest not only to the local Russian-speaking population, but also to those in government institutions. As a rule, local writers receive awards for strengthening literary and cultural ties. That being said, authors who confine themselves to simply developing the minority problem without focusing on their own intercultural situation run the risk of never attracting a wider market of Russian and foreign readers. For example, the novel by P. I. Filimonov entitled The Zone of Non-Euclidian Geometry which received an Eesti Kulturkapital award in 2007 and was translated into Estonian in 2010 – has not yet aroused the interest of Russian readers. Some novelists and poets who are recognized as authors of the European borderline often find themselves in the spotlight of social attention and, as a result, successfully address more local topics; for example, the action of Ivanov’s second novel, Gorst’ Prakha [A Handful of Dust] – nominated for the Russian Award – is set in Tallinn and describes the recent situation developing around “The Bronze Soldier”.[11] The main character of Lena Eltang’s new novel, Drugiye Barabany [Other Drums], is a Lithuanian. Orbit’s bilingual projects sustain the mutual interest of Russian and Latvian writers, and so on.

Thus, the Baltic Russian author is in double demand, from both the metropolis and the local public, but each one makes his or her individual choice. We must simply acknowledge that the authors who achieve the greatest success and recognition are those who combine their European identity with an interest in a specific cultural borderline situation in their literary work and their strategies of self-representation. Their novels are more frequently translated into other European languages.

 

 



[1] Jeff Chinn and Robert Kaiser, Russians as the New Minority: Ethnicity and Nationalism in the Soviet Successor States, Boulder, CO 1996.

[2] As Pascale Casanova shows in her book The World Republic of Letters, ethnic literary territories are not equal; many of them relate to one another in terms of dominating or dominated. These relations are not necessarily political in nature; sometimes we must recognize that the domination of a specific literary tradition stems from the prestige of that literary tradition; in other words, its importance is derived from how ancient, developed, and recognized it is. See Pascale Casanova, The World Republic of Letters, trans. by M. B. Debevoise, Cambridge, MA  2007.

[3] New Literary Map of Russia, accessed  2011-11-15 at: www.litkarta.ru

[4] The “Russian Award”, established in 2005, is given to foreign Russian-language authors.

[5] “Samizdat” (self-publishing): The term refers to literary works that could not be officially published in the former Communist-ruled Soviet Union, since they were deemed incompatible with official government propaganda. Such works were often printed illegally using personal typewriters and then distributed among trusted friends.

[6] For more details see Ilya Kukulin, “A Photo of the Inside of a Coffee Cup”, Novoye Literaturnoye Obozrenie [New Literary Review] 54, 2002, pp. 262–282. The name of the article cites the beginning of a poem by Sergei Timofeyev, a Russian-Latvian poet, who wrote: “All I know about Paris is a photo of the inside of a coffee cup.”

[7] Andrey Biely is the pseudonym of Boris Bugayev, Russian poet and novelist of the first half of the 20th century, the so-called Silver Age of Russian Literature.

[8] The “Nose” award alludes to the well-known novel by Nikolai Gogol, a famous Russian-Ukrainian writer of the first half of the 19th century. The award and a bronze statuette in the shape of a human nose are displayed in St. Petersburg. The name of the award is also an acronym derived from the first three letters of the words “NOvaya Slovesnost’” [New Literature] or “NOvaya Sotsial’nost’”[ New Social Order].

[9] Tatyana Grigorieva. 2011. “Andrey Ivanov. Hanuman’s Travel to Lolland.” See OpenSpace.ru,  2011-01-20, accessed  2011-11-15 at: http:www.openspace.ru/literature/events/details/19940/

[10] Andrey Uritsky, “Decals or Battle with Non-Existence.” Novoye Literaturnoye Obozrenie [New Literary Review] 104, 2010, p. 281.

[11] The monument to Russian soldiers who fought in Estonia during the Second World War was erected in the Central Park of Tallinn. Not long ago, Estonian authorities decided to move it to another location. Ethnically Russian residents of Estonia opposed the decision. It created considerable unrest in Tallinn, including confrontations between Russians and Estonians.