In the aftermath of perestroika, when all the forbidden Soviet-era novels had been published, the Russian book market began to be flooded by translations of foreign fiction and self-possessed, experimental Russian fiction. The trend left many Russian intelligents wondering where good Russian literature had gone. Even today, pulp fiction and cheap historical or detective novels abound, but good novels and good writers are hard to find.
Mikhail Butov, 37, is just such a find. His novel Svoboda (Liberty) won the 1999 Smirnoff-Booker prize, arguably Russia’s most prestigious literary award (and one of its most lucrative too, as it comes with a $12,500 purse). The novel is something of a generational novel—telling the story of Russia’s first “liberated” generation: those who were born in the early to mid-1960s, grew up in the final years of the “era of stagnation” and came into adulthood during the heady reform years of the late 1980s.
It was a time, Butov writes, when liberty was in the air and “the concern over daily bread” was considered to be shameful. This generation, cast into the vortex of a wild market by the decrees of Russian democrat-free marketers, is still often unable to answer the straightforward and cruel questions posed by this new reality, and thus often clings uncertainly to the romantic, stable past of its childhood. In the novel, Butov’s protagonist blindly follows his friend Andryukha on crazy adventures around the former Soviet Union, both inebriated by new liberties, yet sobered by what looms on the horizon: the approaching storm of bandit-capitalism.
The strength of Butov’s style is the lightness of his plume—he touches on the dark spots and painful moments of this new Russian life, but does not linger to pour salt in the newly-opened wounds, preferring instead to seek solace and cure through compassion.
The feelings of total liberty of which he writes, Butov said, were “not necessarily beneficial … yet they were addictive. The only reasonable thing to do with this feeling of liberty is to relinquish it at some point. But it is like smoking … or drugs … You might quit, but you will always crave a smoke. It is the same with liberty. In a way it is a painful memory, but a very attractive one.”
Butov graduated from the Moscow Institute of Telecommunications in 1987, but, like the protagonist in his novel, took advantage of that “very informal” time to dabble in various professions and pursuits. For a while, he was even a street performer on Moscow’s Arbat, earning in three or four days what his “day job” earned him in a month.
But it was his job as TV antenna repairman that pushed Butov to take up writing. His coworkers were mainly a lazy, drunken lot, and he said, “I felt lest I sink into all this stuff, I had better start writing something.” This surely oversimplifies the equation—in fact, Butov came from a family which “had some connection with literature.” His stepfather is a literary scholar and his mother comes from an traditional intelligentsia family. He grew up surrounded by books.
“The goal of literature,” Butov said, “is not to render reality, but to create on paper some living substance. The main question is: with what means do you do this, and how well you do it. It is much easier to imitate extremes—either the crude realistic truth or, some crazy post-modernist constructions ... Imitations of both are widely represented now ... It is getting harder and harder to find some gems among all of this, especially with the expansion of the internet.”
Butov knows of what he speaks. Since 1994 he has worked at the prestigious literary journal Novy Mir, and today is its managing editor. While this provides some financial stability, it is not a road to riches. It is, in fact, hard to get rich as a writer in Russia today, Butov said, even “if you are a borzopisets (pejorative for “speed writer”), and I am not.” So he supplements his income by doing some journalistic work, plus hosts a jazz show on the radio.
“Unfortunately,” Butov said, “unlike winners of the British Booker, winners of the Russian Booker don’t automatically see their books printed in huge print runs ...” Svoboda was first printed in 2,500 copies and even the second print run won’t be much larger. Yet, as Butov notes, “only in the Soviet past did they print books by the millions. In pre-revolutionary times they published by the hundred—so none of this scares me.”
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