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University of Toronto · Academic Electronic Journal in Slavic Studies

Toronto Slavic Quarterly

Sergei Chuprinin

Literary Criticism in Post-Soviet Russia: The "Decade of Zeros"


In 1988 I published a book, Criticism Means Critics, prompted by the confidence that the period known as the "Era of Stagnation" had given us critics and criticism remarkable enough that they could well bear comparison with the finest examples of classical Russian literary-critical works.

And in 1992 I published an article, "Elegy," in Znamia, in which I noted that the heroic period in the development of Russian literary thought was clearly over and this criticism was now finding a place for itself solely as a form of journalism, concerned not so much with investigating and stimulating the literary process as with serving and thereby stimulating the publishing market. Both of these statements seem to me, after some years, to be historically (and polemically) just, although somewhat affected.

Despite the many changes we have experienced over the past decade, the traditional Russian argument over whether criticism is a part of literature, philology or journalism continues, and no winner has been declared.

Writers of criticism are still with us, although perhaps they have lost their leadership role; and they continue to take their bearings from the classical Russian canon-ranging from Belinsky to Apollon Grigoriev and Pisarev, - i.e., they presumptuously fancy themselves not simply full participants in the literary process but its creators, leaders and architects. Accordingly, they provide the public not so much with precise knowledge or distinct opinions about other writers and other books as their own competing versions of contemporary letters.

Every one of these regal lunatics 1 -Critics with a capital "C", poets, ideologists and aristocrats-is resisting in his own way both the erosion of the traditional literocentrism of our country and the increasing power of the marketplace. The preferred form of expression in this tradition is the analytical article or extended review of the "portrait" type, i.e., also an article in essence. The natural habitat of such writers is most often the poorly paid yet still prestigious pages of the thick journals. The overwhelming majority of them (of us) have organized themselves as the Academy of contemporary Russian letters, invented for the purpose of distinguishing ourselves and those like us from all those who also write about books but who have nothing to do with Criticism as Literature.

People who also write about books but lack the consciousness of their priestly vocation and caste-like exclusiveness existed earlier, of course. Almost everyone who later became an "academic" began with little book reviews, with provocative rejoinders and incidental observations-in short, with literary journalism as a primary school. But they only began that way, never imagining that in the nineties and the "zero decade" it would be precisely this primary school that would not only control the ball in the glossy magazines and often in the newspapers but would even proclaim its advantages over the big leagues.

Just what are these advantages? Incomparably greater efficiency, in the first place, since journalism is truly fleet of foot: while the Critic is still only pondering what to say urbi et orbi, the journalist manages not only to respond to the topic of the day but also collect the fee for his article. Incomparably greater freedom, in the second place, because the Critic writes with his eye firmly fixed on his own aesthetic program and his own reputation, and so his opinions have to be responsible and thereby farseeing; the journalist, by contrast, has generally has nothing to fix his eye on and has absolutely no one to answer to and nothing to answer for in what he says. And finally, let's not forget about the advantage of incomparably greater accessibility, inasmuch as the Critic is addressing the dying caste of serious readers, while the journalist's audience is comprised of those Tsvetaeva called newspaper readers who devour trivialities; and so the journalist is obliged to write in an interesting fashion (but not profoundly) and while informing, to entertain (but by no means enlighten) the public.

We'll explore these differences again later, but for the moment these are the main distinctions. Traditional (for Russia) criticism is by definition "non-market," since it speaks-whether with writers or with readers-in the name of Literature as a historically, conventionally formed system that operates almost exclusively by Literature's higher (and longterm) interests; by contrast, today's literary journalism (Boris Kuzminsky sarcastically called it glamour criticism) entirely represents the market with its quickly changing demands and defends almost exclusively the rights of consumers. Therefore, if you read the newspaper Vremia novostei or the journal Novy mir, you are introduced to literature according to Andrei Nemzer or according to Irina Rodnianskaia; on the other hand, when you look through Afisha or Ezhenedelnyi zhurnal your thoughts run past the display shelves of the book supermarket along with Lev Danilkin or along with Galina Iuzefovich. Criticism of the "academic" type influences (or thinks it influences) literature; criticism of the "journalistic" type influences (or wants to influence) sales figures. Do you have a sense of the difference? Those who manage the media market certainly sense it, preferring in the overwhelming majority of cases writers who are as adaptable as quicksilver; who, as a rule, are not worn out by an excess of reflection; and who, on signing a contract with one or another publisher prom_ ise under oath: I can't guarantee quality, but it will be fresh and lively. Or, when the market manager is moved not by commercial interests but by some sudden philanthropic whim, he again turns to support not the Critics who represent some Old Testament, yawn_inducing, slowly disappearing thickjournal culture, but to some particular literary specialists who, from time to time, also undertake setting contemporary literature in order.

The support in such cases comes, of course, not from the regular security of advertising revenues but from philanthropic grants that have the quality of being quickly used up. Therefore, setting aside the Novoe literaturnoe obozrenie empire, we see a series of quickly appearing and just as quickly disappearing publications for specialists in literary commentary - Opyty (1994), Pushkin (1997-98), Na postu (1998), Novaia russkaia kniga (2000-2002), and now Kriticheskaia massa, put out by Valery Anashvili and Gleb Morev.

The young people (and women, too) who collect around these publications are exceptionally severe-to the point of being aggressive. They are of very different talents, however, so that, resisting the temptation to provide a summary evaluation of the whole of our young philologist criticism (for convenience sake we'll call it that), one can only note the impulses that move them. The first of these is an emphatic repulsion from everything marked by these critics as Soviet or specifically Russian. The second impulse is a fundamental rejection something organic in Russian thought: providing ideological and moral components to aesthetic evaluations. In the practice of our young philologists this usually takes the form of ideological and moral sloppiness and of recognizing as current art only and exclusively those phenomena that aggressively announce their own extravagance and radicalism. And finally, the third basic aim is assuming the position of "strangers in their own country," a rigid orientation toward the language and methodology of the latest in Western cultural and literary studies, a striving to treat whatever existed before the theory (the "premodelled") as a disappearing (and offensively small) part of the global multicultural space.

They are, of course-if we look at the issue of self-identification-members of our intelligentsia, whereas the "academics" regard themselves as writers, while the glamour-journalists, by analogy with political advisors, sell their services as literary advisors.


All these, of course, are only my own propositions, rough by definition, and nothing more than a bare outline that leaves in the shadows the very things that need illuminating, specifically the turbulent flourishing of individualities that make up our criticism during the "decade of zeros."


The very tripolarity of the world of contemporary criticism, in which there is a competition not only among personalities but also among schools or, if you like, discourses, a competition taking place in an invigorating atmosphere of literary argument, leads one to regard with some suspicion the little phrases that regularly pop up in our periodicals, such as the one that Dmitry Bak let fall not long ago: "…It's scarcely worth mentioning yet again that literary criticism as a single verbal and notional space no longer exists" (Novy mir, No. 12, 2002).

Enough of that: it exists, and it's scarcely worth mentioning yet again that it exists!

Although I must confess that I feel sorry for the reader who suddenly gets the notion to make his way through all this verbal and notional wealth. Was this how it was formerly, when you could just keep up with the thick monthlies, take a quick look through Literaturnaia gazeta, and see the whole of criticism, lined up and ready for inspection? Now, however, apart from the essential "thick journals" you have to buy as well the insipid journal Politbiuro for the sake of the vivid articles of Boris Kuzminsky, subscribe to Vremia novostei for the sake of Andrei Nemzer, to Moskovskie novosti for Mikhail Zolotonosov, to Vremia MN and Profil' for Aleksandr Ageev, not miss Afisha (and formerly Vedomosti as well) with Lev Danilkin, Gazeta, with Nikolai Aleksandrov or Ezenedel'nyi zhurnal, have a look at Izvestia, just in case Aleksandr Arkhangelsky may have written something, and at Den' literatury so as to find out about the latest escapade of Vladimir Bondarenko in his own words and not someone else's… And then there are the St. Petersburg periodicals as well. And the provincial ones…

You have to be careful since you can wear yourself out running around so as not to lag behind the shifting lines of the literary-critical front even before plunging head first into the sweet abyss of the Internet.

With all its allure, however, the Internet for our criticism is still a habitat, a means rather than a form of life. Nevertheless, it is a special habitat, having an elevated metabolism, serving as a kind of laboratory, an experimental station both for speculative manipulations of words, meaning and professional reputations, and also for the formation of yet another fashion or, to put it more bombastically, for the reigning style of the era.

And so it's this - the style of the "zero decade," to which one by no means is compelled to submit but with which all critics of intelligence and talent are forced to bring their pursuits into line-that we'll now address.


And we shall begin not with aesthetics but with the question that is the pri_ mary one in criticism: supply or demand, the creator's conception or the edi_ tor's order.

In distinction from the critics of the preperestroika era, scarcely any of whom scarcely ever possessed their own tribune 2 and wrote guided exclusively by their own lengthy ideas, the critics who followed my generation have agreed, it seems, to write about literature only if there is a publication prepared to take them on staff or on contract with the requisite granting of carte blanche in a predetermined format.

The example of Boris Kuzminsky is particularly significant, of course. His career is plainly marked by periods of activity in which he is swept away by his feverish drive, times when the critic received carte blanche from Nezavisimaia gazeta (1991-1992), from Segodnia (1993-1996), from Russkii zhurnal (2000- 2001), and now from Politbiuro, as well as pauses, when he was busy with all sorts of things other than composing articles and reviews.

Such is now the norm sanctioned, in the first place, by work (creative work?) under the non-traditional-for Russia-system of "switch it on, switch it off," and in the second place, insofar as the each employer finds it quite sufficient to have just one specialist in the field of contemporary literature for each publication, sharply dividing critics into those who are hired (i.e., who are worthy of hire), literary reviewers, and free-lancers.

This allows, on the one hand, the unambiguous identification of the reviewer with the publication to which he sells his inspiration. On the other hand, it places the free-lancers in a position where they, alas, are compelled either to retrain themselves as prose writers or poets (3) or, having lost the right to express themselves effectively in non-literary publications, to cast their articles-increasingly rare and, volens nolens, increasingly detached from the topics of the day-among the thick, i.e., specialized literary monthlies.


It would not be worth mentioning these problems of the trade, of course, were it not for the fact that the staffing problem (by analogy with Bulgakov's apartment problem) is vigorously transforming our criticism, affecting both the kind of literary-critical expression that is becoming the norm and its poetics as well.

Formerly, every publication that brought in authors from the outside was something in the nature of a Hyde Park, and every pronouncement that added its voice to the dissonance of the critical choir was accordingly accepted simply one of many possible others; today, however, the accepted model of "one publication, one critic" inevitably removes from the agenda both the idea of a pluralistic competition of opinions as well as well as the possibility of dialog within the publication.

Every reviewer - only on the territory of his own publication, naturally - is tsar and god these days, and a general of the army as well. His writing is monologic and directive, something that fully suits today's reader, who is not overburdened by a surplus of free time nor by excessive intellectual curiosity: he can choose his own critic (in the same way that he chooses his own barber, mechanic or psychotherapist) and, without wasting any time, put together his own reader's diet based on authoritative recommendations.

That's the first thing. And the second thing: no matter how much you compare the positions of today's newspaper-journal-Internet reviewers you still find neither the readiness to listen to another opinion and respond to it nor comments that invite discussion or general debate among the whole literary community. Critics, when stung to the quick, might exchange a few punches, but under no circumstances will they enter into a meaningful argument with one other. They have no wish and no time to carry on a dialog with their colleagues.

Yes, indeed, there's not enough time; and the principal (in many instances, the only) virtue of hired critics who, in accordance with their contracts are compelled to combine the authority of experts with the duties of reporters, has in the last few years become efficiency. To say something, not more intelligent or more precise, but to say it sooner, ahead of the others-that's what matters now.

"The journalist of today works, thinks and writes not just quickly but criminally quickly," the art reviewer of Izvestia, Olga Kabanova, remarked not long ago (17.02.2003). And, indeed, I'm prepared to sympathize with the permanent staff members of daily and weekly publications, since the need to take part in the race for the disappearing day objectively deprives them of freedom of choice and freedom of manoeuvre, just as it deprives them of the right to pause, to use passing over in silence as a form of literary-critical assessment. And this makes them hostages at once to two unrelenting marathons-those of book publishing and prize-giving.

Despite all my professional solidarity, I am much more alarmed by the fact that the movement of literature for some time now no longer presents criticism as a living process of the longterm interaction of writers, books and tendencies of various sorts but as a kind of conveyor in which the regular flow of new material casts aside the previous; and any author, even one of an outstanding book, has to give up his place as the hero of the day to the next candidate for that role.

To return anew to that author, to attract once more the unfocused attention of the readership to a book regarded as an event, there has to be an occasion for publicity. By today's norms that can only be (aside, of course, from the need to write an obituary) the nomination to one or another prestigious literary prize. And I, watching with amazement and sorrow how so many-even our most unselfish writers-furiously compete for the opportunity to shine in one of the regular lists of nominees, can now understand why this is so. The issue isn't only one of money, although it is that as well, and it isn't only one of honours; it is the fact that even a superlative book that doesn't make the long list-and even better, the short one-is nowadays consigned to oblivion just as quickly as even the most successful television premiere. To get onto the list means to remind people of yourself; it means to hear some response, and it is precisely a response that any writer who regards his talent responsibly, perhaps even without being aware of it, needs.


After the excitement generated in the media and dating back some ten or fifteen years, when critical opinion was in demand by both Gudok and Ogonek; after the wearisome long years without easy mass communication that ensued thereafter, our literary specialists once again want to be heard; and it is not their fault that the demand for analysis and discussion is at an all time low, while the demand for news-preferably scandalous, and for practical recommendations of the kind "browser, take note, buyer, write it down"-is at an all time high.

Such recommendations we designate as expert. And I'm not inclined to object to such a professional attitude from critics during our "zero decade." Still… In calling ourselves experts have we not thereby declared that we bear responsibility only for concrete evaluations of concrete texts and for nothing else? I'm afraid that we have made such a declaration.

In Russia now, if we speak generally, everything is in relative order in the practice of reviewing, in commenting on books, events, literary acts.

Things are worse, although still more or less in order, with regard to general, so-called panoramic overviews of things. As if they were flying over the nineties in a space ship, some critics mutter in disgust about "the twilight of literature" (A. Latynina), "the accursed nineties" (D. Olshansky), while others, to the contrary, swear by their honour that it was a "remarkable decade" (A. Nemzer).

In Russia, apart from the odd thick journal publication, that which in our tradition comprises precisely the core, the basic content of literary-critical activity has disappeared. What I mean by "the core" is the understanding of literature as a process, the attention to its living dynamics, to what particular things distinguish this from some other year, the state of one or another genre, the flourishing or the fading of this or that ideological or stylistic tendency.

Ultimately, any person is capable of saying: we have a literarture or we have no more literature, even a person who never picks up a book. Assessing a work bought by chance, received as a gift or borrowed from a library can also be done by almost anyone, and it's not without reason that excellent reviews or "literary portraits" are turned out not only by professionals but also by prose writers and poets who indulge themselves in such business.

But only critics, and critics specifically, can offer an integrated "view of Russian literature" for such_and_such a year, can trace the subtle intra- and extrageneric interplay of this or that creative undertaking, outline the context essential for a true interpretation of this or that work, see the stylistic, semantic, ideological or any other oppositions of contemporary literature in their vital kinship and vital differences.

And that is precisely what we are not doing now. Or almost not doing. Yearly summaries - the highest, if anyone recalls, genre in the literary-critical hierarchy since the time of (forgive me) Belinsky-have come down to numerical ratings and surveys, to questionnaires or to collages of literary events. And the usual analytical articles are in demand by no one aside from the thick journals, and so almost all of us-whether among the "academics" or the "glamour journalists" or the "young philologists" - have either forgotten how to write them or still haven't learned-and will they ever learn?


And that's sad. Because the single kind of knowledge we possess, knowledge not inherent in anyone else, is knowledge of context. The single sphere in which we are the irreplaceable specialists is the special sphere (those who can't quite remember the dialectics of the private, special and general I send back to their university textbooks and dictionaries). And the material on which we base our argumentation, whether pragmatic or grandly elevated, whether from a short- or longterm perspective, has been and remains the books we are now reading or hope to read.

One can, of course, take comfort in the fact that the legacy of the old (and young, too) masters is till held in high regard and so, as they say, we need only change our socio_cultural situation and there will be a demand for profound, elevated, broad, etc. discussion of literature..

I believe that.

But for the moment I can see what the late Igor Dedkov (his diaries continue to be published in Novy mir) meant when he described quite another situation as thought at an idle.

And I wonder if we really ask to speak - "Citizens, listen to me" - only in order to announce urbi et orbi the award of this or that prize or, using the classic formula, to say: this book has been published; is there a reader somewhere waiting for it?

Is that really all we want to do?

  1. The caustic Belinsky (not without an eye to however, his own private aims) compared such critics with the unfortunate man "in a madhouse who, with a paper crown on his head, majestically and virtuously rules over his imagined kingdom, metes out punishment and mercy, declares a war and concludes a peace, since no one prevents him from carrying on his honourable occupation."
  2. Exceptions might be found in the practice of the journals Novy mir and Oktiabr' in the 1960s, when V. Lakshin, Iu. Burgin, and I. Vinogradov, on the one hand, and P. Strokov, D. Starikov, Iu. Idashkin, on the other, saw themselves (and were seen by others) not only as regular authors but also as strategists and architects of their journals' policies. The same is true, perhaps, even of the year-long "engagement" of V. Turbin in Molodaia gvardiia, which was then as colourful as a spring bouquet…
  3. And in fact: Dmitry Bak has seriously taken up writing poems, and almost every second "academic" is more and more solidly linking his creative interests to prose and essays: Sergei Borovikov does so, along with Dmitry Vavilsky, Vladimir Novikov, Natalia Ivanova, Petr Vail, Aleksandr Genis, Viacheslav Kuritsyn, Evgeny Shklovsky, Maria Remizova, Mikhail Epshtein, Nikita Eliseev… And that, one has to think, is what compels the same Vladimir Novikov to advocate energetically "the promising model of the universal writer, the critic with his own creative experience. I think that our criticism will now not follow the Soviet route of Belinsky and Pisarev but rather that of the Silver Age, the path of Innokenty Annensky, Andrei Bely, Yury Tynianov. 'Pure' critics will still exist, of course, but as the exception rather than the rule" (Russkii zhurnal, 15.02.2002).
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