Finding the Words: New Writing from Maxim Osipov and Mikhail Shishkin.
In conversation at London’s Pushkin House recently Maxim Osipov spoke of the urgent need for writers and other émigrés to respond in print to actions perpetrated by the Russian state that are utterly against their own beliefs and values. As dissent within the country is subjected to increasingly harsh repression an old question has reappeared with new urgency. What options are available to the Russian writer, either at home or abroad, who finds themself at odds with the state’s direction?
Included in Osipov’s recently published story and essay collection Kilometer 101 is a story ‘The Whilst’ that deals with the fallout when Seryozha (a university professor) publicly voices his opposition to the government and a senior colleague is reluctant to offer support. The former has to relocate to Estonia, while the latter remains in Moscow, outwardly in the same position but inwardly disturbed by doubts, anxieties, and ‘bad dreams’ about what he has done. The story dates from 2021, but a postscript carries it into the Spring of the following year and into reality, with the narrator (Osipov) and ‘the real Seryozha’ sitting in a café not in Estonia but in Yerevan awaiting safe passage to the West. “We exchange a few words,” the narrator adds, “but are for the most part silent” only raising their glasses in solidarity when someone at a nearby table proposes a toast on the anniversary of Stalin’s death with a reminder of past and present hardships, “that one croaked, and so will this one.”
“In a single decade Russia changes a lot,” Osipov muses in ‘My Native Land’ (written in 2007 and published here) “but in two centuries – not at all.” The writings in Kilometer 101 predate the war but their themes and concerns come into sharper focus for a reader who knows what the past year has brought to light about Russia’s national direction under Putin’s rule. Osipov’s accounts of regional corruption and intolerance sit alongside wistful narratives of displacement and exile. His characters seek an idea of ‘home’ in a country and society that seems intent on alienating them. Characters know what they want Russia to be for them, but so rarely find that it can sustain the weight of their needs or expectations. Drawing on his own experience as a doctor in “the principal town of one of the regions next to Moscow” for the content of his essays, Osipov assigns the letter ‘N’ to stand in for its name, in the same way that Yuriatin and Goryukhino served Pasternak and Pushkin as Russian locales widely recognisable even if they could not be found on any map of the country.
That Russian writers and thinkers abroad should be engaged in such work now certainly feels like a reprise of the past. From those fleeing Tsarist persecution to those looking to evade the reach of the Soviet state the list of Russian voices raised in exile is long and distinguished. From Herzen and Turgenev to Bunin and Zamyatin, Russian émigrés remind us of the country’s capacity to enrich the world even through the hardships it often visits on its creative and dissident figures.
At the present time, though, with the strident nationalism of Putin’s regime deployed as justification for aggression abroad and repression at home the Russian language itself can feel like something tainted by association. While writers in the present try to establish distance from the state’s actions, those from the past are often used to buttress claims of cultural superiority and are, as such, attacked elsewhere as symbols of imperialism. Statues of Pushkin are hastily erected in occupied Ukrainian towns by Russian forces while Ukrainian language books are pulled from library shelves and dumped in the streets. Elsewhere, statues of Pushkin that have stood for years in Ukrainian towns and cities are pulled down by those unwilling to have such an apologist for Russian greatness in their midst, while the Kyiv home of Mikhail Bulgakov has found itself at the centre of controversy as to whether its former occupant (himself no stranger to persecution from the Russian state) was sufficiently pro-Ukrainian to warrant continued recognition. In the charged wartime situation language and literature are weaponised, either as forms of resistance or tools of occupation, woven into a false uniformity of Russian culture and ethnicity that is then used to justify the annexation of Ukrainian territory and the subjugation of its people.
But what of the Russian language itself? “They stole the language from us,” Mikhail Shishkin wrote in his ‘Letter to an Unknown Ukrainian’ published in The Guardian newspaper on 2nd April. From now on, he feels that Russian will be “the language of murderers,” impossible to redeem or to detach from the deeds of those who have used it. “All my life I felt very solid ground under my feet,” he told The Guardian in an interview published the same day as the ‘Letter’ “It was Russian culture. And now it’s blown away. […] My mission now is to do everything to return dignity to the Russian language.”
As one of the most celebrated figures in contemporary Russian literature, Shishkin is trying to mitigate as much as possible the compromised language in which he works. His newly translated non-fiction book My Russia, War or Peace is a careful attempt to diagnose the process by which the country fell into its present state. His perspective goes far back into Russia’s past, but also analyses more recent upheavals, events with which he sees his own life (born in 1961) as inextricably interwoven. Thus, the reader follows Shishkin from the closing years of the exhausted Communist regime to the celebrations at the failure of the 1991 coup and on to the crises of the decade that followed. “It didn’t take long for the democratic revolution to be sold down the river,” he sadly notes, as financial instability and a lack of national cohesion lead Russia into the disorder from whence Putin arose with his pledge to restore national identity and purpose, the consequences of which are now so terribly clear. Indeed, while Shishkin has added new material to the chapters to reflect recent events the majority of the text was first published in German in 2019. This reminds us that the debate over Russia’s direction is not new, even if much of the wider world has heard more of it in the months since 24th February 2022.
As a writer, Shishkin is all too aware of the lure of narrative, and faced with the Kremlin’s near total control of the country’s political landscape he calls on writers and other creative figures to offer an alternative vision of what Russia can be. This will not be an easy path to follow, however, as he well knows. Having lived in Switzerland since the mid-1990s, Shishkin has not visited Russia since 2014, having received threats on account of his criticism of the regime even as his books have systematically been withdrawn from circulation inside the country, leaving him in conversation with a readership forged outside of geographical borders and (thanks to the work of his translators) able to access his ideas in their own languages.
Faced with the appropriation and manipulation of Russia’s sense of itself, Shishkin warns that only defeat in the war can provide the necessary impetus for domestic change and the work of cultural reconstruction and reorientation. At such a time he argues Russia’s literary heritage will need to be reclaimed from the debris of the old regime, and repurposed to help forge a new and fairer idea of the Russian state before the positions marked out by Putin are occupied by another would-be tsar appealing to the same prejudices and fears.
With neither utopian thinking nor nostalgia for the past proving sufficient to forge a better Russian future, Shishkin wants the Russian people to recognise not only where they have been led astray by the propaganda of the current regime but why such a process was not only enacted but even, amongst some groups, actively endorsed. Endorsed, as difficult as such thoughts are to entertain, by those whose sense of Russia’s cultural riches leaves them dangerously short-sighted when it comes to the crimes committed in the name of those same things. The scale of the change required leads one to question whether it is even conceivable in the current circumstances, were it not for the terrible costs for Russia and the wider world of not believing it to be so. Referencing the famous image in Nikolai Gogol’s novel Dead Souls where Russia is likened to a troika (horse-drawn sleigh) rushing into an unspecified future, Shishkin sees the present-day country as a metro train “travelling from one end of the tunnel to the other, from orderly dictatorship to anarchic democracy and back.” With Putin’s aggression, he feels that “the next stops along the route have already been announced,” asking “Do we really want to go there?”
That one of the country’s leading writers should feel moved to produce such a book at this time is a reminder of Russian literature’s historical function as a critique of the state’s excesses. If the Russian language itself has been coerced into justifying Russia’s actions in Ukraine it remains simultaneously a powerful and necessary tool for calling out those same deeds. If the prognosis at present is not particularly hopeful then with writers like Shishkin and Osipov reminding the wider world that Russian culture is not solely what the Kremlin forces upon subjugated peoples it is not necessarily hopeless. The words of the Russian language are still being used, carefully and with great dignity.
- Kilometer 101 by Maxim Osipov (translated by Boris Dralyuk, Alex Fleming, and Nicholas Pasternak Slater) is published by NYRB Books.
- My Russia: War or Peace by Mikhail Shishkin (translated by Gesche Ipsen) is published by Riverrun Books.