Many of the best Russian novels of recent years are set in the past: from Zakhar Prilepin’s The Cell, released in 2014, which unfolds in the Soviet Union’s first gulag, to Dmitry Bykov’s 2017 novel June, where the action is all in the first two years before the Nazi invasion. More often than not these books focus on the most traumatic events of Russia’s 20th-century history, but some reach further back in time — like Yevgeny Vodolazkin’s 2012 bestseller Laurus, a meditation on life and death in the 15th century.
A hunger for exploring the past is all too familiar to publisher Yelena Shubina, who has been at the forefront of contemporary Russian fiction for three decades. “We have almost buried ourselves under historical novels,” she says during an interview in the offices of publishing giant AST in one of the skyscrapers of Moscow’s financial district.
Shubina’s publishing division within AST is this year marking its 10th birthday, celebrating its position as one of the most respected arbiters of taste in the modern fiction market. From established names like Lyudmila Ulitskaya, Aleksei Ivanov and Mikhail Shishkin to more recent bestselling authors like Guzel Yakhina and Vodolazkin, the writers published by Shubina are a who’s who of the contemporary literature world.
Since the early 2000s, Shubina has helped shape a literary landscape that is dominated by the historical novel. But while much brilliant writing has emerged from this trend, she says there is growing “fatigue” with the format and its popularity with the reading public may, finally, be waning.
“Today they call books written about the 1980s, or even the 1990s, historical novels. It’s funny, but true. Slowly, slowly, writers are sneaking up on modernity,” she says. “All publishers, including me, are racing to find prose about modern life. The here and now. It’s not essential that it’s modern prose, but it must be self-reflection on the modern person.” For the first greenshoots of this movement, Shubina points to Andrei Rubanov’s 2017 Patriot, set in a contemporary Moscow obsessed with deteriorating Russia-Ukraine relations, Yekaterinburg-based Ivanov’s 2014 Inclement Weather and some of the recent works by Anna Nemzer, whose day job is reporting for liberal television station Dozhd.
In a society where political acknowledgement of these tragedies is fraught by taboo, culture has been forced to do much of the heavy lifting
Despite these shifts, Shubina’s major publishing triumphs have mostly been with authors who set their novels in the past. With print runs of 20,000 for contemporary writing considered a big success, sales of 200,000 for Vodolazkin’s Laurus (set in medieval Russia) and 300,000 for Yakhina’s Zuleikha Opens Her Eyes (about the consequences of Stalin’s dekulakisation drive in the 1930s) have made them Shubina’s runaway bestsellers.
Much ink has been spilled on the reasons for contemporary Russian literature’s obsession with history, and many blame the trauma generated by revolution, terror and war — and the limitations placed on processing this trauma in the later Soviet period. The writer Bykov has suggested that 50 years, or two cultural generations, is needed to estrange a violent past. But in a society where political acknowledgement of these tragedies is fraught by taboo, culture has been forced to do much of the heavy lifting. “Because we haven’t lived through a time of self-reflection about the post-1917 and Stalinist periods — at the level of history and documentary-making — the topic simply persecutes our novelists,” says Shubina.
In particular, she says Yakhina, Prilepin, Bykov and Aleksei Varlamov, suffer from this obsession and “return endlessly to these [historical] themes.” But she says novelist Vladimir Sharov, who died in August, “wrote only about this”. Sharov’s translator, Oliver Ready, writes that the author was “transfixed by the violent fate of ideals and moral certainty in his country’s recent past.”
While historical novels are popular among readers, this does not mean contemporary Russian literature has a mass market. Shubina’s publishing outfit, a leader in the field, employs only five editors and releases about 35 new novels a year. “You just have to build your strategy in the right way: so that there are commercially successful books. This is a guarantee against other books with small print runs,” says Shubina.
Before joining publishing giant AST, Shubina worked for Vagrius, a small, independent publishing house that provided consistent support for contemporary writing in the 1990s when print runs collapsed and literature lost the privileged position it had enjoyed in Soviet times. Most famously, Vagrius published Viktor Pelevin’s novels, including his 1999 bestseller Generation P. When Shubina left in 2008, taking many of the company’s authors with her, Vagrius was already experiencing financial problems. It collapsed a few years later.
Being part of a large publishing house has given Shubina the financial leeway to take more risks. Today, the highly centralised Russian publishing industry is dominated by publishing giant Eksmo, which acquired its rival AST in 2012. Shubina bemoans a lack of independent publishing houses and the small size of the contemporary literature market, but stresses the underlying economic causes. “There are a lot of towns where there are simply no bookshops and half the libraries have closed down,“ she says. “It’s an economic question, not just a question of publishing. Why are bookshops closing? Why are libraries not funded so well?”
“All publishers, including me, are racing to find prose about modern life. The here and now. It’s not essential that it’s modern prose, but it must be self-reflection on the modern person”
In an attempt to address these issue, Shubina’s team strive to popularise contemporary writing: they organise regular events and find funding to take writers on speaking tours. “Maybe [publishing] is not quite like show business, but it’s not enough just to publish books and leave them to lie on the shelves of bookshops. The books have to live,” says Shubina.
When asked about which contemporary novelists she thinks will join the canon of Russian greats, Shubina is coy, citing the example of Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, which did not become a bestseller until after the author’s death, almost 20 years after it was first published.
“Are there great Russian writers working today? Only time will tell,” she says. “Who were the writers [from the 1970s] that survived the test of time? Maybe you can’t call them great, but they are a very important literary layer: Yuri Trifonov, Andrei Bitov, Vladimir Makanin. If we talk about today, I can name writers who I think will be like Trifonov, Bitov and Makanin in 20 years. They are Aleksei Ivanov, Zakhar Prilepin, Evgeny Vodolazkin, Vladimir Sorokin and Lyudmilla Ulitskaya… They will be called the true representatives of the literature of our time. But great writers?”