My interview with Mikhail Shishkin, hailed by many as Russia’s greatest living writer, gets off to a bumpy start. I’m inundated with questions about The Calvert Journal, about how it’s funded and where its political affiliations lie. Although disconcerting, the grilling I receive comes as no surprise. Shishkin, who is in London to promote a book, is on the defensive following a tense few weeks, during which time he has been denounced as a traitor, held up as a hero, and everything in between. Once satisfied with my answers, he softens. His steely blue eyes take on a more gentle hue.
Until March, Shishkin was a much-vaunted jewel in Russia’s literary crown: a contemporary author who had scooped all three of the country’s main literature prizes, including the Russian Booker, and one who was worthy of comparison to such writers as Vladimir Nabokov and James Joyce. In the wake of a letter written to the Federal Agency for Press and Mass Communications in March, Shishkin has fallen from favour. In his letter, the 52-year-old wrote of his decision to withdraw from Book Expo America, a major international literary event. What made the letter particularly striking was his use of language, which expressed in no uncertain terms his disaffection with Russia’s “corrupt, criminal regime”.
“If someone has a pretty face like Pussy Riot they’re all over the news but the stories of everyday Russian citizens don’t get heard”
Despite the overtly political nature of his statement, Shishkin is quick to stress that his decision was founded on ethical grounds. He points to Russia’s deteriorating political situation, which he believes the western press has failed to fully capture. “There’s an information filter in the west,” he says. “If someone has a pretty face like Pussy Riot they’re all over the news but the stories of everyday Russian citizens don’t get heard.” Although a regular at previous book fairs, including last year’s Book Expo America, Shishkin describes his past attendance as a compromise. “I had a feeling that writers were misused by the federal agency to brush up the image of Russia,” he says. “They bribe writers, especially those from the regions with all-expenses paid trips to the US. For me it was always a compromise but everything that has happened in the last year, including all of the new laws, has brought the country into the medieval ages. I didn’t want to be the human face for this. I didn’t want to play this game.”
That Russia’s socio-political situation has degenerated in the past two years is indisputable. In December 2011, tens of thousands of protesters took to the streets of Moscow to challenge the Kremlin over the results of the parliamentary elections. A second wave of protests followed in July 2012. Against this backdrop, members of the State Duma hashed out a raft of new laws, all of them indicative of an imperilled government battening down the hatches. Among the most repressive pieces of legislation that have since been passed is one that allows the government to block websites, ostensibly for the protection of children, while another, in St Petersburg, bans “gay propaganda”.
“We are very surprised,” said Vladimir Grigoriev, deputy head of the federal agency, in response to Shishkin’s letter. “This sort of thing happens when a Russian writer spends many years away from the Motherland.” Grigoriev’s comment is telling of a tendency by the state to play on notions of national identity when displeased. Although a representative of Russia at book fairs and the recipient of lucrative state awards, falling afoul of the government has resulted in Shishkin being stripped of his Russian identity and labelled an outsider. “They want to take my country back to Stalin’s time when all people in contact with foreigners were considered enemy spies,” says Shishkin, who moved to Zurich in 1995 for love not politics. “It corresponds with their image of Russia they are trying to establish in people’s minds: the Holy Motherland is an island surrounded by the enemies and only the Father in the Kremlin can save the nation.” In a similar expression of disapproval last year, President Vladimir Putin remarked that while he was an admirer of the writer-turned-dissident Boris Akunin, best known for his detective fiction, Akunin’s Georgian descent made his lack of support for the Russian state an inevitability.
“I envy those who can invent. I can’t invent things so I write about my life”
While Shishkin received support from writers such as Akunin, others were rattled by his statement, which in effect forced them to decide which camp they belonged to. One writer, Olga Slavnikova, the author of the Russian Booker-winning 2017, responded with a lengthy and somewhat troubled comment on her Facebook page. While she supported Shishkin, she wrote that she would be participating the book fair. There was no point pulling out, she explained, because no matter what Russian writers did, they would not be able to change western perceptions. Shishkin's response to writers such as Slavnikova is succinct: “A person who’s not free will never forgive a person who’s free.”
But even some of Shishkin's fans wrestled with the question of timing. Given his acceptance of state munificence in the past, why had he decided to speak out now? The fact that his announcement coincided with the release of the English translation of his novel The Light and the Dark (Pismovnik, literally Letterhead, in Russian) sat uneasily with some. Was his letter an attempt to boost sales? No, says Shishkin resolutely. While he cannot be counted as among the main dissenting voices of the past year, he says he has not been entirely politically inactive. He disappears momentarily before reappearing with his laptop, which contains pictures of him at the December 2011 demonstrations. Any anti-government statement, he adds, would have coincided with the publication or translation of one book or another.
Shishkin, who was born in Moscow in 1961, penned his first “novel” when he was just nine years old. The initial delight expressed by his mother, a Russian literature teacher, soon turned to dismay when she read the page-long story about divorce. This proclivity to write about personal experiences has infused his work ever since. “I envy those who can invent,” he says. “I can’t invent things so I write about my life.” Despite being widely regarded as the greatest contemporary Russian author, The Light and the Dark is only his second book to be translated into English. The first, Maidenhair, was released in the US in late 2012, seven years after it first came out in Russia. Despite the delay in publishing his work in English, Shishkin must be doing something right: since 2001, his books have been translated into 26 languages.
"When I listen to the music of Rachmaninoff, I feel myself becoming immortal. This is the purpose of music, of art and of literature”
The initial reluctance within the publishing world to translate Shishkin’s novels is largely due to the fact that they are notoriously challenging in both their form and content. His books are, in short, not likely to be money-makers. His language, while lyrical, is allusive and dense; there is usually no narrative, plot or character development to speak of. Writing in the London Review of Books, James Meek describes Maidenhair, which is based on the author’s own experience as an interpreter for refugees in Switzerland, as a novel where "time and contingency have been disassembled", a structure that he returns to in The Light and the Dark.
This struggle for Russian writers to make it on the world stage may seem at odds with the country’s rich literary history, which boasts the likes of Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, Chekhov and Turgenev. “A hundred years ago, Russia was the capital of culture and people would pilgrimage there as they would to Jerusalem,” says Shishkin. “Today Russians write about their own reality and it’s exotic. It’s not like Tolstoy who wrote about universal themes. Like him, I write about human beings, which is why my books are different.” Like other Russian epics, Shishkin’s novels are indeed less concerned with perceived banalities such as plot and more interested in grand themes such as war, peace, time, memory, love and death.
The Light and the Dark is no different in the scope of its ambition. The epistolary novel switches between Volodya and his sweetheart Sasha who have become separated by war. Untethered to time and contingency as in Maidenhair, it soon becomes apparent that the lovers are also separated by history: Volodya is writing from the Boxer Rebellion in 1900 while Sasha is living in the latter half of the 20th century. Through their letters, the lovers are able to transcend these geographical and historical chasms to exist in a state of timelessness. For Shishkin, transporting the reader away from the “false time” of everyday life and into a timeless space is part of the writer’s duty. “I don’t think a writer should write about social and political themes,” he says. “This is the task of journalists and the mass media. An artist must give people what journalists can’t. When I listen to the immortal music of Rachmaninoff or Shostakovich, I feel myself becoming immortal. This is the purpose of music, of art and of literature.”