Skip to content
Congratulations to 2021 Ottaway Award winner Naveen Kishore! Learn more.
from the February 2021 issue

Young Russophonia: New Literature in Russian

Young, formally inventive, and digital by nature—these are only some of the characteristics of Russophone literature today. Here, we present Russophone writers born in 1985 or later who work in shorter genres, from minimalistic flash fiction and protest poetry to visual performance. This issue is not a collection of “Russian literature” because many of its contributors are not ethnically Russian, and many are not Russian nationals. What they have in common is their use of the Russian language (among others). Literary scholar Naomi Caffee first proposed the term “Russophonia” to describe the fact that authors writing in Russian come from a range of non-Russian backgrounds, including Indigenous communities in post-Soviet countries and émigré communities around the world. The predominance of women writers in this issue is indicative of a trend within these communities: much exciting Russophone literature today is not produced by men. The resulting cohort of writers contradicts a traditional image that associates Russian literature, especially in English translation, with long novels written by men who are racialized as white and ethnically Russian.

While the novel remains an important genre for Russophone literature, shorter works exemplify the most innovative aspects of this scene today. Poems and short stories allow artists to react, in real time, to current developments: in Russian, it’s not uncommon to see new work by major poets emerge online within hours after a news item breaks. These writings spark immediate conversations that change broader public discourse through rapid-fire literary texts rather than typical online commentary. Literary activism based on various forms of identity is central to the past and present of the post-Soviet sphere, and today’s multifaceted media environment has allowed a range of writers to gain a platform faster than ever before. Our own selection of writing pinpoints three of the many issues that preoccupy Russian society and Russophone communities around the world.

The first is the war in Eastern Ukraine, a story that has all but disappeared from Anglophone front-page news but remains a reality and a factor dividing not just countries, but also families and friends (see the acclaimed 2017 collection Words for War). The second concerns gender and the polemics surrounding feminism, which are fundamentally different from the debates going on in the United States and parts of Western Europe. The relation between art and activism has been particularly topical since the notorious case against Pussy Riot, members of which were imprisoned for a performance in Moscow’s Christ the Savior cathedral in 2012. So many young Russophone writers are involved in political activism that one recent movement––a push to free three sisters in Moscow’s Armenian diaspora when they were first charged with murder for killing their severely abusive father––was led by a number of feminist poets and supported by Armenian Russophone writers.   

Both the current war and questions of gender relate to a third, distinct issue that also weaves through these pieces: a particular kind of post-Soviet non-belonging. Born in a country that no longer exists, into systems of racial, ethnic, or sexual identity that were marginalized even when it did, many young writers narrate not a search for home but a confrontation with the fact that they will never have one. Those confrontations unite would-be homes as different from one another as Kazakhstan, Tatarstan, and Dagestan. They also stretch to adopted homes, from Boston to Berlin: successive waves of emigration from Russia and the Soviet Union have resulted in large Russian-speaking diasporas in the United States, Western Europe, and Israel. Movements like these have made multilingual communities a norm in post-Soviet literature, from the Cheburashka Collective (US) and the now-defunct queer Central Asian collective STAB (Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan) to journals like Cardinal Points/Storony Sveta (New York, US) or Dvoyetochiye/Nekudatayim (Jerusalem, Israel). Dinara Rasuleva, whose poetry appears in this issue, is a leading figure in the Russophone literary scene in Berlin; Olga Breininger has lived in five different countries, both by choice and otherwise.

To find new Russian literature in these highly disparate circumstances, it’s not enough just to scour books and print journals. Whereas most prominent journals in the US do not accept submissions that have previously been posted on social media, initial self-publication on Telegram, Facebook, VKontakte, and other platforms is often considered an advantage for Russophone writers. These forums allow readers, including other cutting-edge writers, to offer public feedback or translations that subsequently become part of the formal publication process. Self-publication online isn’t considered an impediment to being published in print, and copyright as a concept is much less venerated. This circumstance does more than allow previously unpublished poetry to appear directly on social media feeds: it enables high-profile competitions to upload all their finalists’ entries to the Cloud. It has long prompted literary organizations to give their events a mass audience via YouTube and other video channels on a scale that Anglophone organizations only reached during the COVID-19 pandemic. The speed of new developments is dizzying, often leaving the Russian literary establishment in the dust. Aesthetically mainstream corporate publishers have given way among leading young writers to a vibrant coalition of experimental, opposition-oriented online journals and to self-publishing forums that allow authors outside the opposition scene to work in formats they control. While book publishers in the US continue to enjoy their status as power brokers, even where prominent younger writers are concerned, similar Russophone publishers often find themselves establishing imprints dedicated to young or experimental writers in an effort to catch up to the dominant online circuit of emerging work.

To readers and editors––and to those who translate or commission translations – this new Russophone literary world offers both opportunities and challenges. The logistics of the book trade, budget constraints, and clogged publishing schedules no longer prevent direct contact between writers and readers. A greater number of texts reach a greater number of readers almost as soon as they are written. Writers use digital media to curate their own audiences: rather than facing institutionalized editorial oversight backed by large organizations, they grapple with a more diffuse network of power hierarchies, including generational divides on questions of identity and representation. In doing so, they are able to actively promote their work and engage with readers directly, including those who might react negatively. Control over the general trajectory of a given text is lost on the internet even as writers choose the social circles to which they speak first.

The reader, in turn, needs commitment to keep abreast of new developments and to follow the trajectory of individual writers. As translators, we have known our respective authors and followed their day-by-day trajectories for some time. Translating digitally active Russophone writers is fundamentally a collaboration, and that collaborative process is different from working with traditional texts precisely because both writers and translators are accustomed to immediate communication and online publication. Some authors offer a constant flow of new ideas to their translators via online chats; others change their text while the translator is still mulling over an original version published on Facebook. Public online communication, both professional and personal, is such a strong norm in Russophone literature today that the conflicts behind literary texts can circulate even faster than the texts themselves, presenting further challenges for writers and translators alike. For example, during 2020, even some of this community’s most activist participants responded to questions of racism in Russia and the U.S. with such callousness or lack of awareness that their colleagues interceded, facing backlash from expletives to threats. Translating texts that have recently been written, performed, or shared on social media requires a relationship of trust that can survive the rocky political and interpersonal waters of a literary scene that is even more “extremely online” than its U.S.-based counterpart.

For this reason, our selection is a collaborative project from inception to editing. More than a dozen translators came together to support this effort, working from seven time zones, between California and Ulyanovsk, to collate contemporary texts that honor some of the diversity within Russophone literature today.

Thanks to translator Carol Apollonio, readers may already be familiar with Alisa Ganieva’s novels. Here, the prominent writer and activist takes on a different genre: short-form regional noir, though it is set in a region that genre does not typically include. As a man named Kebedov drives through rural Dagestan (a predominantly Muslim republic in Russia’s Northern Caucasus Mountains), he finds himself inside a kind of real-life trolley problem whose resolution rests on a single theological conversation with a stranger. It’s inside their dialogue, and not in a complex plot, that Ganieva hangs the suspense of the narrative: in her hands, every word changes what the future can be, or whether it can even exist. Through those modulations, the story plays with the meaning of suspense itself, making it nothing less than a device for exploring the assumptions people hold about one another. “Munkar and Nakir” was initially published in a general interest Dagestani magazine, reflecting the importance that publications outside Moscow and St. Petersburg hold for the leading voices in Russophone literature.

Ksenia Zheludova––a media producer from St. Petersburg––publishes her new poetry as part of her feed on the popular Russian social media platform VKontakte. This translation of "An Age-Old Female Pastime,” “You Bring Him Some Tenderness in Your Narrow Palms,” and “Sometimes I Simply Know” aims to reproduce the effect of scrolling through short poems on the website. Zheludova’s poems seek new ways of expressing complex emotions. Her bold, often surprising, and sometimes painfully tender assertions assume an irrefutable logic: poetry establishes connections in places the tools of everyday reason cannot reach. Zheludova’s seemingly conversational tone masks the fact that her poems are tightly wrought artworks. Poems inspired by the war in Eastern Ukraine, and the 2019 wave of repressions against demonstrators in Moscow, place her in a long tradition of lyric poets who shifted away from purely personal themes in reaction to current events.

Letter to Ukraine,” the title of Arkadii-Dragomoshchenko-Prize laureate Danyil Zadorozhnyi’s poem, could be just another text about the same war. As a bilingual Ukrainian who has spent time in Moscow, Zadorozhnyi illustrates the tragedy of the continuing hostilities between Russia and Ukraine with their tightly enmeshed history and peoples. But the poem is more than that. Zadorozhnyi has created a tapestry of different planes that flow from each other, driven by chains of linguistic associations that work effectively in translation and are prone to sudden changes of direction. In this context, the war is inextricably entwined with everything else, part of everything else––childhood memories, trauma, history, and politics. The subject of this poem is language itself as much as any of the topics it narrates––and this feature highlights its relation to the work of Dragomoshchenko, one of the most significant Russian poets of the late twentieth century, who is known to American readers through his long collaboration with Lyn Hejinian.

Moscow-based Xenia Emelyanova’s poetry is run through with the theme of motherhood. Her experience as a mother grants the lyric persona insight into the sanctity of every moment in life, including seemingly insignificant ones. And “sanctity” is the correct term here, as Emelyanova’s world includes the spiritual dimension as a matter of fact. The lyric heroine’s wisdom, born out of this first-hand knowledge of life’s fragility and the inalienable value of every human being, lends her voice a quiet authority in “Destined from Birth.” Visceral and rap-like in English as well as in the original, the crescendo that leads to the final “stop the war” is underscored in Russian by a play on the shared etymology between the words for “birth,” “humankind,” “kin,” and “nation.”

Alla Gorbunova’s Stories from Ings and Oughts are ultra-short works of flash fiction. The author, who is rooted in a long tradition of St. Petersburg tales, seems to describe a recognizable stereotype of twenty-first century Russia: befuddled cops and pedantic functionaries, the selfish rich and idle poor, everybody spouting off or creeping on the internet. Yet part of the joy of these stories is how in the space of a sentence “Russia” becomes a stranger, almost plausible yet ingeniously invented place. Each piece hinges on one idea, often linguistic in nature, and develops it like a story line: we find a logical puzzle, an absurd tale in the manner of fantastic realism, and a sublime prose poem about the sky on fire. Some stories appear to build up to a surprising final resolution, but their endings reliably refer us back to the precise words of the text itself as the thing that deserves our attention. This is a feature more common to poetry than prose, and indeed Gorbunova is mostly a poet. The pieces translated here, ranging in style from dry mock-journalism to lyric poetry-in-prose, are testimony to this training. 

On multiple fronts, Olga Breininger’s There Was No Adderall in the Soviet Union is a middle finger to the conventions of literary genre. The novella itself is semi-autobiographical but borders on science fiction, a chimera of past and future. The excerpt translated here is part of that narrative, but it has no narration: it’s a fictional manifesto spoken aloud in the first and second person. The speaker––like Breininger, an Oxford-educated Harvard Ph.D. student from Kazakhstan with Volga German roots—has broken into a G20 summit to tell world leaders not why they are destroying the world but why she is doing so (though this speech does read like a distant relative of one written by Greta Thunberg five years later). Her words stagger dangerously from hyper-academic declarations of asymmetric warfare to notes of personal pain, demanding with tongue in cheek that readers reexamine what globalization really means.

When the Berlin-based Russian TV channel OstWest filmed Dinara Rasuleva performing “About Time to Smile at Homeless People,” they ran the subtitles along the bottom in one continuous line, forcing viewers to catch their breath alongside the leading slam poet of today’s Russophone emigration. This translation attempts to refashion the rapid beat of Rasuleva’s ode to national non-identity (she herself is from Kazan, a city that plays a potentially unmatched symbolic role in the Russian colonization of predominantly Muslim areas). As she tries on various stereotypes from Russia to the US, her tone is casual, even flippant, as though she’s just a bitterly apt observer of her generation’s everyday condition. Before long, though, Rasuleva’s words crack to reveal chronic pain of all kinds. She reaches for the masks of nationality like she’s reaching for a home or a cure with the knowledge that the very idea is a farce.

While these translations convey the thematic range of Russophone literature today as well as some of its multimedia forms, it is much harder to translate the enormous network of granular connections and conversations by which all of these texts have come to be. The interview between writer-editors Galina Rymbu and Ilya Danishevsky offers a glimpse into those aesthetic, political, and logistical nuts and bolts. Their discussion manages to describe at least six of Danishevsky’s high-profile literary projects. It also asks what independent presses mean to a culture built on samizdat, what the aestheticization of violence really accomplishes, and what happens when poetry, journalism, and social interactions all take the form of a “feed.”

This is an editorially curated selection, and yet it reflects a breadth of individual decisions: each translator proposed an author they were already working with. The result is a vibrant cross-section of texts that represents the way contemporary Russophone writing bridges numerous kinds of borders. However, this issue also reflects the constraints of translating a scene that is rapidly growing. It takes longer for Anglophone journals to reach publication than for new writers to become widely established in Russian, and so this issue does not include the very youngest cohort of Russophone writers (for example, a prominent group of decolonial feminist poets in their teens and early twenties). We hope the dynamic selection presented here will inspire you to keep an eye out for new writing in translation from Russian during the years to come.

We express our deepest thanks to Fiona Bell and Marian Schwartz for their assistance in preparing this issue.

© 2021 by Hilah Kohen and Josephine von Zitzewitz. All rights reserved.

Read more from the February 2021 issue
Like what you read? Help WWB bring you the best new writing from around the world.