Contemporary Russian authors on evil as the new good
January 21, 2023
  • Yuri Saprykin
    Literary critic, Kommersant Weekend columnist
Yuri Saprykin explores how post-Soviet Russian literature has borrowed from popular works of modern Western literature to create its own vision of the good and evil divide.
The original text in Russian appeared in Kommersant Weekend. A shortened version is republished here with their permission.

Recent Russian literature, despite all its genre and stylistic diversity, always returns to big themes – good and evil, human destiny, the meaning and justification of history – and often revises traditional ideas. Moreover, in the methods and aims of the revisions, several сommon ideas, repeating trains of thought, can be observed. These convergences beg the question whether the authors who formulate them – who are otherwise not alike – are sensing shifts in the collective unconscious that will shape the future social consensus, or they are implicitly influencing it. Even the most roughly sketched map of these convergences may help us to understand where we are today.

Hearing the call of the orcs

It all started with Tolkien. At the very beginning of the 1990s, the Lord of the Rings trilogy was fully published in Russian (almost simultaneously by three publishing houses and in three different translations) and had a crushing effect on minds: whoever in those years did not mentally put on a hobbit tote bag or elvish armor did not have a heart. Imaginary trips to Middle-earth ended differently for everyone: some limited themselves to repeated re-reading of the books, others ran with wooden swords through Neskuchny Garden or began to supplement and correct Tolkien’s universe – as it should be, according to Dostoevsky, Russian schoolchildren, whoever had a star chart.

Building on the geography and mythology of Tolkien’s world, Russian sequels also changed the metaphysical coordinate system: whereas Tolkien plays out the confrontation between Light and Darkness (where the battlefield is the heart of every hobbit), Russian successors immediately tried to present alternative points of view, hear the voice of Mordor, reach the conclusion that things are not so clear-cut.

In the 1990s, the world of Arda and Middle-earth became the ideal testing ground for new ethical and political constructions. The victory of the forces of Light over those of Darkness, followed by the advent of “eternal peace,” can be easily projected onto the “end of history” proclaimed by Fukuyama, in which you can also easily spot the winning and losing sides. Each in his own way, Tolkien and Fukuyama wrote history from the point of view of the victors, with the resulting order presented as “good” and “natural.” Orcs and Nazgûl, like the Soviet-Imperial project, are deliberately demonized to sweep them off the map as a historical mistake. The new generation of Tolkienists, however, is trying to restore their agency and right to their own truth.

Konstantin Krylov, a theorist of Russian nationalism, provides a geopolitical basis for this revisionism:
"[we must] develop an industry to produce an anti-Western myth, consistently glorifying and celebrating mythological characters who play the role of ‘bad guys’ in the West."
In other words, to consciously take the side of Darkness, proceeding from the idea that “their Darkness is our Light.” The “bad guys” are picked as a role model based on the principle of “the worse, the better;” the orcs in the Lord of the Ring trilogy – extremely evil and aggressive creatures – fit the role perfectly. They have the most capable army, as well as a simple and understandable worldview: there are “us” and there are “them,” while all the ideas about their innate cruelty are nothing more than elvish propaganda.

Pretending that the empire is alive

The desire to replay not the fictional wars of Middle-earth, but actual Russian history has given rise to hundreds of books constructing unrealized alternatives – from the fantasy stories of Holm van Zaichik [a pseudonym], popular in the 1990s, about the country of Ordus to countless novels about popadantsy (time travelers). The recurring setting of the most notable alternative-history novels – for example, Pavel Krusanov’s The Bite of an Angel (1999) – is a Russian Empire that successfully survived to our day: there was no revolution in 1917, St Petersburg remains the capital, the country happily avoided the wars of the 20th century, its borders (according to Krusanov) extend to the Black Sea straits, with Constantinople, of course, ours.

In the alternative-history utopia of the previous generation, The Island of Crimea (1979) by Vasily Aksenov, the Whites manage to gain a foothold on the Black Sea peninsula and build a liberal-democratic Russia there; in the new versions of alternative history created in the post-Soviet era, it is the Reds who go into exile. In Vyacheslav Rybakov’s 1993 novel Gravilet Tsesarevich, Communism becomes one of the confessions of the empire (their sixth patriarch is called Mikhail Sergeevich).
In the novel Griffins Guard the Lyre (2020) by philologist Alexander Sobolev, the Bolsheviks manage to build their own “workers’ and peasants’ state” on the territory of modern Latvia, fenced off from Russia (ruled by an heir-tsarevich) by an iron curtain, though communist ideas are popular among the opposition intelligentsia.

In Aksenov, the separation of the two Russias was viewed as a tragedy, while the desire to overcome it – the “idea of a common fate” – led the strong and cruel Soviet part to devour the impotent, liberal part. There is nothing tragic in the new versions: “the empire that must not die” is a stable, prosperous state, whose prosperity is ensured by a whole arsenal of means, including nationally oriented intelligence services and timely intervention by magical powers. In this paradigm, the greatest geopolitical catastrophe was not the collapse of the Soviet Union, but that of the former, pre-Soviet empire: the reversal of history at that point would bring back the “Russia that we lost” and put world history on a peaceful, conflict-free track. The new ideal of restoration is not even a return to the immediate Soviet past, but a jump into the lost imperial day before that.

Although in the endless archipelago of popadantsy literature – a truly folk genre, with thousands and thousands of books about our contemporaries traveling into the past to alter the course of history – the range of possible historical turning points is much wider, they can be reduced to some prevailing plots. The economist Nikolai Kulbaka (see Kulbaka’s article republished in RP) looked at where popadantsy authors most often send their characters, with the Great Patriotic War out in front by a wide margin, followed by the Russo-Japanese War and World War I. “The authors hardly touched peaceful periods,” Kulbaka says. “Practically no one wants to correct economic reforms, found some big business. Such works exist, but they are rare. Meanwhile, victory in war, according to the authors, instantly makes the country great and prosperous.” All these divergent fantasies – aside from reflecting an unwillingness to live in modernity, which is viewed as obviously corrupted and in need of rectification – converge on a single, common point:
"the empire must not die (should not have died), it would be better to avoid wars (have avoided wars), but if they start, Russia must win them. All historical events that do not obey this principle can and should be replayed"
In Zakhar Prilepin’s novel Abode (2014), the Solovetsky prison camp becomes a model of Russia as a place where suffering opens the way to salvation. Source: Wiki Commons
– at least in the imagination, which with a certain amount of mental effort can be difficult to distinguish from reality.

Justifying the unjustifiable

Playing out an alternative history, making the past not the past (and vice versa), is a task that requires almost divine intervention. Man often tries to explain what has already happened, to give it some meaning, to find a justification for it. Even (and especially) if what happened was catastrophic. The 1990s was a period when revelations about Soviet-era crimes coincided with a growing nostalgia for that time. The decade ended with the emergence of the concept of “Stalin as an effective manager” (attributed to publicist Alexander Khramchikhin) and the increasingly common conviction that repression was justified by economic expediency. Literature, meanwhile, sought a higher-order justification: the first novel of Dmitry Bykov, Justification (2001), is devoted to this search and a hidden polemic with it. The idea that is developed and then refuted in the novel is simple and looks like what began to appear in the air in the 2000s and even be openly uttered: the arrests, torture and executions of the 1930s artificially selected for the most stalwart and resilient human beings; the suffering tempered and created a caste of the select. These superhumans – the arrested who withstood torture and did not confess to anything and were sentenced to death but in fact sent to special military settlements – formed a “golden legion” and were the decisive factor in the Great Patriotic War. The reader of Justification can see, though not immediately, that this concept does not coincide with the author’s point of view, as the death of the hero in the finale definitively destroys the coherence of the arguments. Still, the idea of repression as “purification through suffering” comes through stronger.

In Zakhar Prilepin’s novel Abode (2014), published a decade later, the Solovetsky prison camp becomes a model of Russia as such – not only as an abode of suffering, but as a place where suffering opens the way to salvation. Moreover, it is precisely this model of “life on the edge” that is organically inherent in Russia. As critic Lev Danilkin writes, the description of the camp in Abode is “proof that here, on this territory, the same biblical scenario is occurring time and time again... For better or worse, it is; such is fate.” The GULAG is presented not as a historical trauma that acts as an immovable object on the historical path, but rather something like a “cultural code,” a program written into the nation’s destiny leading to good through cruelty and violence. Not a bug, but a feature.

A special case in post-Soviet literary historiography is the novels of Vladimir Sharov: they all refer in one way or another to the revolution of 1917 and to a greater or lesser extent follow the tradition begun by Berdyaev – the revolution is viewed as somehow inscribed in the providential plan for Russia; the deprivations and sufferings brought by the revolution happen “for a reason.” Sharov’s heroes try in different ways to uncover this higher plan.
Kyivan writers Maryna and Serhiy Dyachenko co-authored Vita Nostra, one of the most famous Russian-language fantasy works of the 21st century. Source: Wiki Commons
In the 1990s, Sharov was often considered a postmodernist (generally, everyone was in 1990s), though his works are far from ironic postmodernist games. His version of historiosophy is rather tragic: History is explained and driven by the stories that people tell each other; they are always variable and not based on anything; they might be a deception or a fake or an insight into the very essence of things; but in any case, living people often must pay for these stories with their own blood. Sharov’s seriousness is frightening: if the suffering of an entire people can be explained and justified by a narrative that is passed down over centuries and presented as the only possible path to righteousness, then history can always repeat itself. Irina Rodnyanskaya, one of the most important critics of the 1990s, saw behind Sharov’s texts the failure of the perestroika historical project. Clearly, neither reflection on the catastrophes of the 20th century, nor nationwide repentance took place: “I sense the not unfounded confidence on the part of authors that they live and write in a country where nothing matters to anyone. The cultural norm of respect for what took place has died out.”

Imbuing the superhuman by overcoming the human

Empathy for the little man is a traditional theme of Russian literature, but in the 2000s another motif has become increasingly common: the man who must overcome himself, go beyond his limits, rise above everything human. While the heroes of Zakhar Prilepin or Andrei Rubanov harden themselves through war, prison and the protest movement, plots arise nearby that take such work on themselves to another level. The heroine of the novel Vita Nostra by Kyivan writers Maryna and Serhiy Dyachenko – perhaps the most famous Russian-language fantasy work of the 21st century – is an ordinary high school student who lands in the mysterious Institute of Special Technologies, where the students are given incredibly hard tasks; meanwhile, underperformance risks serious illness, loss of one’s human appearance, and complete disappearance, and teachers are known for unmotivated cruelty. Only in the finale does it turn out that all this hell must be passed to become a part of the Harmony of Speech that creates the Universe.
"The world is cruel, and man must be beaten mercilessly to bring him into the realm of pure existence, where freedom and creativity are truly possible. To make him something more than just a person."
Participation in a cruel and seemingly pointless ritual that ultimately makes a person part of an infinitely powerful Whole – this resembles Vladimir Sorokin’s short story The Swim (1979-88), whose hero participates in a swimming race with torches in hand. The swimmers must make a phrase from the party catechism with their bodies, and the hero is supposed to be the comma. Sorokin is referring to Stalinist physical culture parades, to mass processions that dissolved the individual in geometrically organized columns and broadly to the early-Soviet rhetoric of reforging human material – that man must be pushed to his limits to get rid of everything obsolete and degraded and to forge a new, strong and integral human essence (this thesis appeared everywhere in the 1930s, from the novel How the Steel Was Tempered to a collective monograph on the construction of the White Sea-Baltic Canal).

This theme – no longer in a parodic, but almost in a nostalgic way – also surfaces in Dmitry Bykov’s latest novel Fighter. Its heroes, Stalinist pilots and polar explorers in the 1930s, complete record nonstop flights and survive in the bitter cold on drift ice, because they are driven by a Great goal – to conquer all the peaks and poles (again by going beyond human limits) – and a pure thirst to overcome: “They jumped over the edge, and their country, which had never known how to simply live, was now catching up with its own destiny.”

The longing for a lost higher meaning during the 2000s has been applied to the present day as well: radical political movements, the “orange series” of the Ultra.Kultura publishing house, actions of the Voina art group, criticism of “glamour” and the hated “consumerism” – all this interprets in various ways the barely established stability and consumer society as something false, inferior. At the epicenter of the “new bourgeoisie,” with all its apparent comfort, there is a gaping hole that needs to be filled with meaning (Meaning), which is supposed to be attained through ascetic practices, the rejection of everything material and broadly exiting one’s comfort zone – or some kind of mystical action.

Thus, the heroes of Mikhail Elizarov’s novel The Librarian fight for original editions of the novels of the socialist realist writer Gromov, a careful and systematic reading of which grants the reader superpowers lost in modern times – Joy, Fury, Strength and Meaning. Taken to the limit, criticism of bourgeoisness leads to an almost gnostic picture of the world, on the one hand, and applied Nietzscheanism, on the other. As in the novel Vita Nostra: the world is mired in evil and sin, and you must overcome the human in yourself to escape from their fetters and enter the realm of pure spirit. As in Sorokin’s Ice Trilogy, where adherents of the mysterious Brotherhood of Light look for people who are not mired in “meat” materiality and are capable of awakening – to form a Great Circle with them, chant the magic words with their hearts, part with everything earthly and again become rays of the Primordial Light.
Sergei Lukyanenko, the author of the World of Watches novels. Source: Wiki Commons
Carrying the burden of the Darkness

Twenty-first-century literature again and again confronts us with characters who rise above “ordinary” conceptions of good and evil, thanks to mystical insights, as in Viktor Pelevin’s novels, or heightened vitality, as in Prilepin’s stories (“He killed, he killed – the guy likes to shoot, what’s wrong with that”), or concern for the common good. Thus, in Oleg Divov’s novel The Culling (1999), the reader is faced with a difficult ethical choice: are you ready to “cull” millions of your fellow citizens (including sick children) to live in a healthy, harmonious society?

Again and again, we are brought to the conclusion that the concepts of good and evil are conventional, imposed by the cultural hegemon, the so-called masters of discourse. Evil very well might be just an alternative version of good; in a different coordinate system, it might be justified as an impulse of creative freedom, an attempt to overcome the “degraded man” or force applied to avoid an even greater evil. In the end, good and evil are inextricably woven into the fabric of the “fallen” world; in some higher sense, they are complementary and interchangeable, like yin and yang. As Scriabin argues in Sharov’s novel Before and During: “Morality is much broader than what we understand by it, or rather it simply does not exist. What in one state is a sin, in another is an act of higher morality.”

Perhaps the most successful embodiment of such a relativistic system in popular literature is the World of Watches novels by Sergei Lukyanenko. Everyday reality there is paralleled by the realm of the Others, people with supernatural abilities. They can be Dark or Light, though it is an innate quality, not a conscious choice. The division between the two does not run along the line of good/evil but is determined by one’s tendency toward egoism or altruism: Light Others live for others, while Dark Others pursue their own interests. Light and Dark must be balanced by specially empowered police called Watches.

It can be assumed (as Konstantin Krylov does in his article about the film adaptation of Day Watch) that the Light Others symbolize the idealism characteristic of the late Soviet intelligentsia and the Dark Others represent the forces of the victorious market economy, though such an interpretation seems too tied to the social and political specifics of the time. The bottom line is the division that Konstantin Ernst, who produced the films Night Watch and Day Watch, formulated in an interview with Afisha magazine: “The Dark Others are much freer people, they allow themselves to be who they want. Meanwhile, the Light Others are more frustrated, they have too many obligations, they feel responsible for a huge number of people. The Dark Others allowed themselves not to have these restrictions, they live for themselves, while the Light Others look like twitchy neurotics who are trying to make everyone feel good.” Being dark is easy and pleasant (and even somehow romantic); in a world subject to rules imposed from above, it provides drive and freedom, and that sovereignty is presented as above concern for ordinary morality. Such an ethical shift is obviously just one of the possible narratives that can be applied to post-Soviet history. However, as in Sharov’s novels, such narratives sometimes must be paid for with blood.
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