It’s never been simple for Americans to picture Russia. One second we’re thinking of it warmly as a key ally in the Second World War, and an instant later it’s the frosty enemy in the Cold War. The Soviets are the opposing team in our country’s sports contest, the bad guys in our favorite spy movies; and yet Russia has also given us writers like Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, and Chekhov, authors American book lovers can’t get enough of. We cringe at images of Russian citizens waiting in line for goods; we simultaneously demonize their leaders and police. An episode of Family Guy once famously depicted the entirety of Russia’s citizens as bears in hats on unicycles.
Such stereotypes suggest that we should pay attention to nuanced writing that tackles Russia as its subject—and so much contemporary Russian literature comes with an equally noteworthy publishing story. Take one of the writers who’s reviewed at a link below, Ludmila Petrushevskaya: she spent two decades blacklisted by the Soviet government before Penguin published the English translation of There Once Lived a Woman Who Tried to Kill Her Neighbor’s Baby (that, friends, is a book title).
Books like the ones featured below, and many others, serve to shatter and remix the images of Russia we have swirling in our heads. Russia is difficult to understand, yes. But for American readers, that complexity means we’ve got a trove of memorable literature to work through.
Some of Rain Taxi’s best reviews of contemporary Russian literature:
There Once Lived a Girl Who Seduced Her Sister’s Husband, and He Hanged Himself by Ludmila Petrushevskaya (Spring 2013, online), reviewed by Alta Ifland.
The Little Russian by Susan Sherman (Spring 2012, online), reviewed by Malcom Forbes.
Russian for Lovers by Marina Blitshteyn (Spring 2012, online), reviewed by Vladislav Davidzon.