Mention Russian literature and most people think of two things. One is the pre-revolution authors whose names are familiar in the West, such as Pushkin, Tolstoy and Dostoevsky. The other is the Soviet era, where the government controlled what was published and writers like Boris Pasternak, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn and Vasily Grossman struggled to have their work published or just to stay free.
Both periods are over. In fact, Solzhenitsyn's Gulag Archipelago is now required reading for Russian students. And while post-Soviet Russia is far from free of censorship, the literature created there today is coming from writers whose work was never subjected to the Soviet literary model. With Rasskazy: New Fiction from a New Russia, Tin House Books seeks to introduce Americans to some of that writing, presenting 22 stories which, with few exceptions, are translated into English for the first time. All are penned by writers whose adult life has been in post-Soviet Russia.
Often post-Soviet Russian literature is called postmodernist when what is really meant is that it is post-Soviet. There are a few pieces that use devices and approaches some might call postmodern (a concept I not only cannot define but I can feel leaching brain cells whenever I try to figure it out). Rasskazy, though, has such variety of style and approach that something will likely appeal to — or annoy — a wide range of tastes. Thus, for example, the opening piece, "They Talk" by Linor Goralik, consists only of snippets of overheard or imagined conversations. Similarly, Ekaterina Taratuta's "The Seventh Toast to Snails" is a numbered mélange of largely conversational excerpts dealing with seafaring and relationships. And if you're a fan of resolution in a short story, there are a few here that will frustrate you.
One fairly common thread in Rasskazy (which translates as "stories") firmly links it to the lengthy history of Russian literature. The classic Russian literature of writers like Tolstoy often was referred to as critical realism because it looked at the faults in society and human struggle. Under Stalin, the officially sanctioned style was "Socialist realism," which portrayed a glorified "reality" of a proletarian struggle creating a shining Soviet future. In their introduction, Rasskazy editors Mikhail Iossel and Jeff Parker aptly refer to these stories as "New Russian Realism." Much more akin to critical realism, the stories often describe modern life in Russia, including not only a sense of independence but also alcoholism, economic struggles and Moscow streets with "casinos with Mercedes-Benz parked outside them." Even "They Talk" fits this category to some extent, because many of the bits of conversation comment on aspects of modern life.