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November 21, 2007
Rebels with some Prose
By Dmitry Babich

Russia Profile

Exploring the New Categories of Modern Russian Fiction


For two centuries, Russian fiction writers were responsible for providing a healthy supply of rebels to world literature. Sometimes this supply was made in the form of characters—Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s Stavrogin and Raskolnikov, Ivan Turgenev’s Bazarov and Mikhail Lermontov’s Demon are all good examples. But even more often, the writers took upon themselves that thankless job, becoming rebels against the tsarist regime (Nikolai Chernyshevsky and Boris Savinkov), against a hypocritical society with its “comfortable” morals and shallow religiosity (Leo Tolstoy) or, last but not least, against bad taste (Vladimir Nabokov).

But now, when the international media is complaining about all of these evils taking root in Russia with almost Dostoyevskyan intonations, where have all the rebels gone? They are still here, but their works are no longer among the ranks of the bestsellers. And this is no wonder: the modern publishing world prefers revolutions in lipstick colors, perfumes and cuisine to revolutions in fiction.

“A modern writer writes for himself and a small secret service of connoisseurs. It is indeed art for art’s sake. Let the others have their cooking guides,” Vasily Aksyonov, 72, a prominent Russian literary rebel of the 1960s and 1970s, wrote in Moskovskiye Novosti weekly when his novel was turned down by his U.S. publisher in favor of a cooking guide. However, Aksyonov added in the same article that the spirit of Byronism will never die in Russia.

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Russia’s rebellious young writers never disappeared; they just left the “commanding heights” of the bestseller lists, which is natural. In the modern world, the place of a rebel is underground. 

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