When living in Germany in the 1990s, Russian novelist Yevgeny Vodolazkin was surprised to discover it was illegal to read the last rites over open coffins. Locals told him this was for hygiene reasons, but he remained sceptical. “I don’t think it was really because of health and safety,” he says. “It’s one of way of squeezing out death, making it less terrible.”
Nobody could accuse Vodolazkin of ignoring death. The prize-winning author, whose novel Solovyov and Larionov about a White general in the Russian Civil War is published today in English, often explores death in his prose. One of the characters in his new novel, Brisbane, repeats over and over that life is a long preparation for death. And death is a constant presence in his first novel, Laurus, set in the 15th century, whether it is those suffering from plague, those dying in childbirth or those fatally wounded by bandits.
“Death is part of life and without death you can’t explain anything,” says Vodolazkin during a recent interview in Edinburgh. “This is not the defeated taking an interest in death: quite the opposite. When a person thinks about death it gives him new strength to realise himself in life.”
Vodolazkin, who only started writing in his early 40s, burst onto the Russian fiction scene in 2012 with the publication of bestseller Laurus, which has sold over 200,000 copies. Three of his books have now been translated into English (two of them this year) and his melding of the medieval world with a postmodern twist in Laurus prompted some reviewers to compare him to acclaimed Italian novelist Umberto Eco. A previously unknown academic, he now writes a regular newspaper column, has faced some of Russian most popular television interviewers and appears regularly at events. The public profile is a far cry from his day job as a scholar of Old Russian texts at St Petersburg’s Institute of Literature (known as Pushkin House), where he has worked for over 30 years.
An interest in death, like many other tropes of the 54-year-old writer’s fiction, is shaped by his knowledge of the medieval world — and his Orthodox faith. He says he initially avoided trying to write fiction based in the medieval period, but he eventually embraced it in Laurus, his break-out novel. “There are things about which you can only talk properly using material from Old Russia: about belief, about the absence of time and eternity,” he says. “Theoretically, it’s possible to talk about these things when writing about the contemporary world, but where do you prefer to pray to God? In a church or at a party?”
“Your relationship with God was outside time. So a person in the Middle Ages had one foot in modernity and the other foot on the path to eternity”
Not only is death ever-present in the 15th century, but God is a reality for everyone — not just some parts of a secular society. “In the Middle Ages, there were not only horizontal, but also vertical relationships,” says Vodolazkin. “Your relationship with God was more important than your relationship with people. And this relationship was outside time. So a person in the Middle Ages had one foot in modernity and the other foot on the path to eternity.”
In many of Vodolazkin’s works, the whole concept of linear time frays at the edges. The hero of Aviator is a man who has been literally frozen in time as part of a Soviet cryogenic experiment — before being thawed out in the 1990s. And in a scene from Laurus, Ambroglio, a 15th century Italian seer, observes that: “There is no time … I think time is given to us by the grace of God so we will not get mixed up, because a person’s consciousness cannot take in all events at once.” When his travelling companion objects that people need time to construct their personal histories, Ambroglio responds: “O, friend. I do not question the necessity of time. We simply need to remember that only the material world needs time.”
While admitting a “religious foundation” for his novels, Vodolazkin rejects the label of Orthodox writer, saying faith is an intimate matter. “It’s not right when a person announces himself as an ‘Orthodox writer’ or a ‘Russian writer’. A writer should just be a writer,” he says. “There are no Orthodox writers. Just as there are no Orthodox hairdressers.”
A key influence on Vodolazkin — both personally and professionally — was his academic mentor, Soviet-era dissident and scholar Dmitry Likhachyov, who died in 1999. It was Likhachyov who offered Vodolazkin and his wife, also an academic, their first jobs at Pushkin House in the late 1980s and he gave away the bride at their wedding. “When Likhachyov took me into the Department of Old Russian Literature it was like joining a family,” says Vodolazkin. He recalls how Likhachyov brought back children’s clothes as gifts from his foreign trips in the late 1980s and early 1990s.
Likhachyov, who was born before the Russian Revolution and narrowly avoided death during a stint in the Soviet Union’s first gulag on the Solovki Islands, always saw Russia as a European state and rejected illiberal nationalism. Vodolazkin follows much of his mentor’s thinking, although he says Russia is currently heading in the “right direction” and talks openly of some disillusionment with Europe. “I was a very pro-Western person because I was anti-Soviet, but when I lived in the West I realised the admiration I had was not appropriate,” Vodolazkin says, identifying the Nato bombing of Serbia as a turning point. “I used to use the West as an example for Russia but I don’t do that anymore. Everything is more complicated than you think.”
In public, the writer is cagey about his political views, saying they are unimportant: “If I am asked about my political views I say that I don’t have any. And that’s the whole truth,” he says. In his regular column for Izvestiya newspaper, he limits himself to discussing literature, language, education, history and religion.
But Vodolazkin has a fierce dislike of communism and says he chose his academic specialisation — Old Russian literature — as a way of getting as far from Soviet life as possible. And a rich appreciation for the pre-Soviet past, which sometimes resembles nostalgia, comes out in his writing. In one example, the main character of Aviator, born before the 1917 revolution, stands out against the other characters from 1990s Russia for his culture, erudition and poise. “Of course people who were brought up in the Silver Age at the start of the 20th century were flowers against the background of Soviet reality and Soviet culture,” Vodolazkin says.
“A writer should just be a writer,” he says. “There are no Orthodox writers. Just as there are no Orthodox hairdressers.”
Novels set in the past have enjoyed an unprecedented boom in Russia over the last decade, which many put down to the willingness of novelists to address the trauma left by the violence of the 20th century, which has largely been left unprocessed in other spheres. While Vodolazkin has tapped into this public demand, he denies his work should be categorised as historical fiction, a genre he says is viewed as second rate. “I’m not interested in history but in the history of the soul,” he says. “I don’t write about historical periods but about people. I just find the most appropriate context; the context that will reveal most about that person.”
Writing for Vodolazkin is, instead, a way to immortalise his own personal history, before death wipes away all memory. At a recent event at the Edinburgh Book Festival, Vodolazkin turned to the audience to urge them to do just that. “You should write. All of you should write,” he told them. “It’s the only chance for your own history. Nobody will know about your feelings if you don’t write. It will be lost for the world, for eternity.”