From Russia With Literature

For twenty years, Natasha Perova has been the editor of the publishing house Glas. Praised by such luminaries as George Steiner and Sir Isaiah Berlin, Glas is responsible for translating overlooked Russian classics and up-and-coming Russian writers into English. Through her efforts, writers such as Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky, Victor Pelevin, and Vladimir Sorokin are now known in the English-speaking world. TNI’s Literary Editor Ryan Ruby met up with her at her apartment in Moscow to discuss the art of translation, the challenges of publishing, and trends in Russian writing since perestroika.

TNI: How did you come to start Glas?

Perova: I just fell in love with Russian literature. I’d been working since graduation in publishing houses specializing in books in foreign languages. And at some point—it was already the beginning of perestroika—I was made editor-in-chief of the Soviet Literature magazine, in English. Because it was the early years of perestroika and lots of formerly banned books started coming back, I suddenly discovered the huge wealth of Russian literature. I was not one of those people who had had access to all the banned literature before. I’d heard about Grossman and Dombrowsky and Platonov but had no chance to read their books. And I was absolutely stunned, overwhelmed. After perestroika Soviet Literature started publishing very good work, but the Writers Union closed it down. I was so impressed, so, well, in love with this huge intellectual and artistic wealth of Russian literature, that I decided I would continue on my own. Soviet Literature closed in 1990, and on January 1, 1991, we started Glas.

TNI: What was Glas's early history? Who was working with you?

Perova: All my life, I was meeting Americans and English people who came to work here as translators, and later they supported me in my new venture. The Russian intelligentsia is not just intellectuals—the intelligentsia is the kind of people who want to serve their country, who want to be doing something nonmaterial too. I’m part of that Russian intelligentsia. In fact, I keep meeting people like this in all countries, they can’t just be reconciled with material life; they want something more than that.

Like many people who started some kind of company, business, project, or organization at that time of great opportunities, I thought that was the time of great opportunities. This lasted for a few years in the 1990s. None of those companies or organizations survived, and Glas survived thanks to my sheer stubbornness.

We sold as many copies as we could sell and saved all the money to produce the next book. We were joking that sometimes the writers would hate one another, but they would have to support one another, because with the sales from a previous book a new one was published. Even though the writers may not have been on speaking terms, they had to support one another in this way.

TNI: When you were first starting out what was the book market like?

Perova: Right after perestroika, Russia was in vogue in the world. Lots of Americans, business people, journalists, and many adventurists too were coming to Russia to investigate, looking for opportunities. Our first issues were reviewed quite well—there were many reviews—and I thought it would last. It didn’t. However, there are always lovers of various specific cultures, and there have always been lovers of Russian literature. In the course of all these years we managed to persuade publishers to pick up some of the writers we discovered, some of the writers we translated for the first time into English.

TNI: I was looking around the bookstores in Moscow, and lots of American and British writers are dominating bookshelves. Do you think that that has a negative impact on the Russian literary ecosystem?

Perova: Not now. It looked like that in the beginning of perestroika, when people were hungry for all the things that had been denied them before, including detective stories, trash literature. Now there is a good balance, I think, between translations and Russian books.

TNI: Who are the most promising young voices in Russia today?

Perova: My favorite is Alisa Ganieva from Dagestan, a breeding nest of terrorism in Russia. She describes her native city of Makhachkala, the capital of Dagestan, so vividly that it’s as if you’ve been there in person and mixed with the street crowd.

Igor Savelyev from Ufa writes about the Urals and Central Russia where he has travelled extensively, a wonderful writer. Aleksei Lukyanov works as a blacksmith and writes satirical stories about the working class today, which I find revealing. Denis Osokin is very impressionistic; a film based on his novel just won a prize at Venice.

They are all still young writers, so they haven’t written their best work yet. But some of what they have written will remain in the history of Russian literature.

TNI: These are all writers from outside Moscow and St. Petersburg.

Perova: Mostly they come from the provinces, and they write about what they know best. Many young people go hitchhiking, and they describe “the back of beyond,” the various unknown corners of Russia. Previously, they would all come to Moscow or St. Petersburg, but today they can stay where they are, and, thanks to the internet, they can still be a presence in the capitals.

TNI: Which book are you proudest to have brought to the attention of your readers?

Perova: They’re all handpicked. They’re all good for one reason or other. But to discover a writer of genius is something every publisher dreams about, and in our case I think it is Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky. Bulgakov and Mandelstam had very devoted wives who made them famous after their deaths. We don’t know what would have happened to Bulgakov if not for his third wife, Elena Sergeevna, who saved The Master and Margarita and devoted 30 years of her life to getting it published. In the case of Krzhizhanovsky, he didn’t have a wife like this, but his manuscripts went to the literary archives, where they sat on the shelves unpublished until after perestroika. A scholar researching the period saw a line in a diary he was studying: “Today a writer of genius died.” And the name—Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky. The scholar started looking for traces of this writer, and he found the manuscripts in the literary archives, sitting on the shelf very neatly bound, and he felt like he had discovered a goldmine. When I started reading it, I felt the same, that this is something so good, so imaginative and clever; it was just simply amazing. Krzhizhanovsky’s lack of success was precisely based on the fact that he was just too good, too clever, too educated for his time. I think that Krzhizhanovsky is probably a more sophisticated version of Bulgakov. We published the stories, and then two more books were published by the New York Review of Books Classics.

TNI: What are some current trends in Russian literature?

Perova: We have two major trends in Russian literature today. Either near-documentary realism, or what we might call the Bulgakov trend, a Russian version of magic realism, in which you write about contemporary times, but you see it all through the eyes of some fantastic person, some fantastic creature.

There were complaints from our readers that Russian writers are too focused on their Soviet past, they don’t try to write about modern times, they’re still digesting their Soviet experience. People wanted to hear what’s happening now.

Authors have to look at their world from some distance. This is why when Bulgakov was looking at his own times, he introduced this fantastic element, so there was something or someone who could look at the situation from the outside. So if you are inside the situation you can’t really be objective, you can’t really write about it: either it has to be a historical distance, or some other vantage point from which you look at the world.

Writers like Bulgakov can’t be called just fantasy. Maybe you could call it social fantasy. Today the more prominent authors in this trend are Victor Pelevin, Vladimir Sorokin, Dmitry Bykov and Maria Galina, to name just a few.

TNI: It’s very hard to get away with that fantastic element in American writing, but Americans love it when Salman Rushdie, an Indian, or Gabriel García Márquez, from Colombia, or Bulgakov does it.

Perova: I noticed that. They’re probably more pragmatic readers there. They want to know the truth, the details. Russians, they want a piece of art. But we published this wonderful writer Roman Senchin, who I really value very highly. He writes about here and now and writes the truth. He experienced certain horrible things as a result of perestroika, when whole huge factories were closed down, and whole cities were unemployed, and whole families went hungry, and they had to grow their own food even though they were basically engineers and teachers. Senchin’s latest novel is almost a Shakespearean tragedy—everybody dies in the end. On every page someone dies, or some awful discovery is made. And he says in reality it was even worse.

TNI: And you think people want to read about that?

Perova: When it becomes history and people read it as history, then they will appreciate what a wonderful writer Roman Senchin really was. He’s not as popular as he deserves to be because what he writes is too painful to read. He comes from Siberia. The novel we publish is called Minus, which is short for Minusinsk, a town in Siberia. The interesting thing is, his parents turned out to be real survivors whereas the younger generation turned out to be completely unprepared for these changes. They just lost heart completely.

TNI: What do Senchin's or Alisa Ganieva’s parents think of their books?

Perova: Each time a writer describes the place where he comes from, in very realistic unsparing detail, every time it’s the same reaction. They say, "You disgraced us. How could you show us in such dark colors?"

We have all sorts of realisms now: dirty realism, magic realism, surrealism, critical realism, you name it. But this documentary realism goes very strong. It’s almost like narrative nonfiction. I know that it’s more popular in the West even than proper fiction. So, here too. Except that the whole concept of nonfiction is new here. Nonfiction was practically unknown in Soviet times. For instance, people were discouraged from writing memoirs because if you start remembering it’s inevitably connected with some atrocities like Stalinism.

TNI: Thank you, Natasha. We look forward to seeing what Glas publishes next.