:: Article

Forward Russia

By Anna Aslanyan.


Russia Market Focus, boldly announced the facade of Earls Court Exhibition Centre. Seeing it surrounded by swarms of business-like people heading for the entrance, passers-by would be forgiven to think it was the opening of a big energy conference, something to do with new oil fields off Kamchatka or in the Barents Sea. In fact, it was only the London Book Fair whose guest of honour this year happened to be Russia. Inside, the atmosphere got more literary until you hit a shiny stand with a Beyond Siberia banner, bringing to mind more oil rigs, while a portrait of a white-bearded man with a thick volume in his hands did little to clarify the situation. The look in the man’s eye was worthy of a classic; on closer inspection he turned out to be a lesser-known (presumably Siberian) writer, one of the fifty-strong army that invaded London last week.

Russian writers were everywhere, doing their bit for the prestige of the country still perceived as “a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma”. Rumour has it that those who came to Britain as part of the official delegation were given leaflets urging them to carry the national flag high, generally behave and remember to talk about the weather during social gatherings. The programme was chock-a-block with panel discussions and interviews, presenting one with a difficult choice. Should I go and listen to people talking about Russian literature in exile, or opt for a conversation between Zinovy Zinik, Stewart Home and Lev Rubinstein? A Modern Artist as a True Novelist sounded more promising and proved entertaining. Home told all present of how his books were banned in Russia after a strong reaction from a certain Christian group, and of the fan mail he used to get from twenty-year-old girls sending him their knickers in sealed bags. Rubinstein recalled the invention of his famous index cards on which he has been writing for several decades: “Back in the day, when decent books were unavailable in the USSR, I wanted my own work to look like anything but a book. That was my anti-Gutenberg counter-revolution.” Home didn’t have a shredder to hand to transform his books into another anti-Gutenberg project, but the encounter of the two samizdats, the old and the new, was nonetheless illuminating.

Another clash, on the same day, was even more striking. New Literary Observer, an independent Moscow publisher that brought to the fair their own programme, Unknown Russia, invited people to talk about Dmitry A. Prigov, a conceptual artist, experimental poet and writer considered a “non-canonical classic” of the 21st century. A short film of Prigov teaching a cat to pronounce the word “Russia” was a furore, making everyone fall about with laughter (the cat remained immune to his attempts to instill some patriotism). Meanwhile, only a few yards away the atmosphere was much more serious: unsmiling men in black, who came to the launch of a memoir by the head of the Russian Orthodox Church, were preaching a very different sermon, it seemed. The irony wasn’t lost on the audience, some of whom arrived at the film screening via the clerical stand, flabbergasted.

The busy schedule didn’t allow me to attend all the events marked in my diary, for instance, Harry Potter and… the Russian Orthodox Church – a double miss-out on the spiritual front. But the alternative was rewarding: the panel on the future of literary prizes, English Booker and Russian NOSE: Open to the Floor. Publisher Irina Prokhorova, the founder of NOSE, a prize whose winner is decided in a public debate, chaired the lively discussion on whether or not literary awards benefit from transparency. (Novelist Mikhail Shishkin popped in and was nearly late for his own show – he was supposed to be interviewed by Colin Thubron somewhere at the back of Beyond Siberia.) The panel was all the more engaging for the presence of Lee Rourke, the winner of the 2010 Not the Booker prize. ‘The Chairman of the Bored’ looked far from bored on that occasion – in fact, Rourke had a chance to meet his Russian fans, including Kirill Kobrin, a writer who, influenced by The Canal, is now ready to join the ranks of Hackney psychogeographers. Have we witnessed the birth of a new Situationist International? Watch this space.

Shunning official events in favour of underground, non-conformist activities is not necessarily a good habit. Who knows what other brilliant performances I have missed? What if Solving the Case: Crime and Detective Writing from Russia was an eye-opener? Or, indeed, Hot off the Shelf: Science Fiction and Fantasy? Instead of wandering over to find out, I spent half an hour talking to a publisher from Moscow about Bruce Chatwin and Geoff Dyer, then directing him to Housmans since he was looking for a truly radical bookshop. I am now resolved to get better organised for the next year’s fair, when China will be a special guest. I wonder if they are going to brand it Market Focus again, or go for a proper pun?


Anna Aslanyan is a translator and journalist living in London. She regularly contributes to Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and writes for the TLS and a number of online publications. Anna’s translations into Russian include works of fiction by Tom McCarthy, Martin Amis, Peter Ackroyd, Mavis Gallant and Zadie Smith.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Tuesday, April 19th, 2011.