ZOiS Spotlight 27/2017

Kazakhstan on the map of Russian literature

by Nina Frieß 18/10/2017
"Reading on the big stage": Scenic reading of the Open School of Literature in Almaty (OLShA). Nina Frieß

In 2007, Vitaly Puchanov, a Russian poet and literary activist, set up the website A new literary map of Russia. The project aims to offer a comprehensive overview of the modern-day Russian literary landscape. Alongside writers living in Russia, the site also features authors who write from outside the country. In total, the site lists literary figures from 33 nations, including not only former Soviet republics but also countries such as Australia and Japan. The only (relatively undefined) criterion for inclusion in the database is that the author must compose his or her texts in the Russian language.

Thanks to the spread of the Russian language with the expansion of the Russian Empire and later the Soviet Union, as well as large waves of migration from Russian-speaking areas during the twentieth century, Russian or Russian-language literature no longer originates only on the territory of the Russian Federation. The literary mapmakers Puchanov works with reflected this fact when they decided in early 2017 to change the site’s name from A new literary map of Russia to A new map of Russian literature. The rationale for the move was outlined in an announcement on 30 January 2017, which read: ‘In the current geopolitical circumstances, it is important to understand more clearly that Russia does not have a monopoly on Russian literature. That is why we deemed it essential to remove the name of the one country [Russia] from the title of the project.’[1] With this change, the creators of the site seemed to want to distance themselves from the ideologically charged debate around the concept of the ‘Russian world’ (Russian: Russkiy Mir). This concept, which was originally understood as a vague but potentially unifying cultural concept for the post-Soviet space, was soon used by the Kremlin to justify its interventionist policies in such places as Georgia or Ukraine.

Kazakhstan as part of the Russian world?

While most authors who write in Russian can embrace the idea of a Russian culture that transcends Russia’s borders, many reject the Russian chauvinism that often comes with it. Pavel Bannikov, a Kazakhstani poet and literary activist, addressed the question of whether Kazakhstan is part of the Russian world as follows: ‘If you mean the Russian world in [Russian president] Vladimir Putin’s sense, no. But if we’re talking about the Russian world in the sense of Russian culture, literature, music, and ballet, then partly, yes. This country [Kazakhstan] is home to many artists, literary figures, and musicians who carry on the tradition of Russian art and lend it a Kazakhstani dimension. In this sense, yes. But never in the way that Mr Putin understands it.’ Bannikov is responsible for the Kazakhstan section of A new map of Russian literature.

Other Kazakhstani literary figures I spoke to during a research trip in early summer 2017 shared this view. They belong in particular to the younger generation who experienced the fall of the Soviet Union as children or adolescents. On the whole, their literary socialisation differed little from that of their predecessors. Unlike them, however, they did not benefit from the state subsidies of the Soviet literary establishment. Yet they still see themselves as connected to the Russian cultural tradition. Poet Kanat Omar expressed this pointedly when, paraphrasing Joseph Brodsky, he said, ‘I am a Russian poet of Kazakh extraction and with a Kazakhstani passport.’[2]

The state-regulated market for literature collapsed with the Soviet Union, but unlike in Russia, in Kazakhstan it has not recovered to this day. And so, when Kazakhstan’s Russian-speaking authors want to disseminate their texts beyond self-publication and the Internet, they turn to Russia. Besides offering an array of publishing houses and literary journals, which admittedly have only low circulation, Russia is also home to a range of literary prizes, which allow Russian-speaking authors from other countries to raise their profiles. Significant among these is the Russian Prize, which the Yeltsin Centre has awarded annually since 2005 for the best Russian-language text written outside Russia.[3] Past prize winners include a notable number of writers from Kazakhstan, including Yuri Serebryanski and Ilya Odegov.

Literature, the freest medium

According to one expert I interviewed, this focus on the Russian market has led Kazakhstani authors to shy away from tackling specifically Kazakhstani issues in their texts, because these are of little interest to readers outside Kazakhstan. In fact, many contemporary texts are not rooted in Kazakhstan as a place, even though many of them deal with Kazakhstani life. Whether the lack of reader interest is responsible for this is questionable, as many texts take place beyond the boundaries of the cultural space described in those texts. Rather, the themes dealt with by Serebryanski, Odegov, and others do not presuppose any particular cultural backdrop.

Furthermore, the dependence on the Russian literary market is less pronounced than it first appears. On the one hand, being published in Russia gives authors the chance to make a name for themselves in Russia and beyond, as many books printed in Russia are exported to other countries with Russian-speaking readers, including Kazakhstan. On the other hand, most authors cannot live on this source of income alone, so they generally take up additional jobs. Only very few of these authors see themselves affected by official censorship. This is due in part to the falling importance that the authorities attach to literature. While the press and increasingly the Internet are subject to censorship, traditional writers remain largely unchallenged, so that nowadays – with the exception of certain taboo topics like corruption among the ruling elites – they can essentially write what they want. In this sense, literature is potentially the freest medium in the post-Soviet space.

Most authors are far from wanting to use their literature to sign up to the Soviet tradition of criticising (or legitimating) those in power, be it the Russian or the Kazakhstani regime. Yet their texts are political: so, for example, Yuri Serebryanski sends his cosmopolitan protagonists on journeys to discover their own identities – in a region where, after the collapse of the Soviet Union and its ideology, none of the competing identities on offer has been able to assert itself – a potentially volatile issue. With such texts, Kazakhstan’s writers are putting themselves on the map of Russian-language literature. What exactly that map will look like, and where and how sharply its borders will be drawn, is still an open question.

[1] This announcement is no longer available on the current version of the site.

[2] The adjective 'Kazakh' refers to ethnicity, while 'Kazakhstani' Is independent of ethnos.

[3] Recently it has been unclear whether this foundation, which is not close to the government, will continue its engagement in this area.

Nina Frieß is a research associate at ZOiS. Her current project focuses on literature and power in the post-Soviet space.