The Zakhar Prilepin Controversy and the Liberal Intellighentsia.

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Amidst all the furore over the Pussy Riot affair (and I’m hoping to turn my attention to that at some point- although I did write a piece for another blog back in March- see http://www.giuvivrussianfilm.blogspot.com/2012/03/some-thoughts-on-pussy-riot-polemical.html ) there has been another scandal that doesn’t seem to have received much attention outside Russia and yet in many ways it is not without it’s own significance. It is surely another sign of changing times here in Russia or, at the very least, another tremor from the major earthquake that has been shaking Russia for the past eight months. Because it has happened purely in the intellectual sphere the ripples have not moved far into society but they have definitely ruffled the feathers of a number of major figures among the liberal intelligentsia.

The ‘culprit’ in all this is the writer Zakhar Prilepin – billed by many as the new Gorky and, until recently, having generally good relations with the liberal literary establishment. A columnist for Novaya Gazeta, Prilepin never hid his radical affinities and links with Eduard Limonov’s National Bolsheviks but then never broke with many more established figures in the generally liberal literary establishment. Prilepin was also even invited to two meetings between writers and President Putin. He showed his metal in being the only writer to ask harsh political questions of Putin including making radical demands for an amnesty for political prisoners. He, like fellow writer Arkady Babchenko, was one of the few writers to have actually fought in Chechnya. Both of them returned as strong political opponents of the government which had sent them to Chechnya.

Zakhar Prilepin is not new to harsh – sometimes rhetorically even rather violent – reactions to his novels. The banker Peter Aven of Alfa Bank was to write a violently aggressive review slamming Prilepin’s Sanka about a group of young revolutionaries stating that these kind of people should be met with by force. So Prilepin has never really been the darling of the more open neo-liberals ( I remember seeing Prilepin listen to a speech in Turin to Russia’s prime neoliberal ideologist Yulia Latynina – fascinated to know whether the existence of these two ideological opponents in one space would turn into a lively spat but I think Prilepin was there to listen and to size up his opponent). Nonetheless, as I said, Prilepin and many of the  literary Liberals have been much more civil in their relations. What seems to have rocked the boat is Prilepin’s ‘Letter to Comrade Stalin’ – an article that, I believe, can be read in a number of ways. It is a rather emotional piece and can indeed be given a number of readings. My reading of the central message of this piece- and what seems to me at the heart of the article- is a wonderfully powerful accusation against the Liberal upper echelons of the Russian intelligentsia directly telling them ‘YOU are Stalin’s heirs for all your absolute disdain for him’. Yes, Prilepin in a future piece has argued- while parrying the blows of his furious opponents- that it is time to be honest about the Stalin period etc. Yet, as far as I can see it, the violence of reactions from Victor Shenderovich, Andrei Kolesnikov, Alfred Koch and Veronika Dolina can only be explained by the fact that Prilepin has acted in a scandalous, nay in an almost blasphemous manner. How could anyone accuse liberals of being the beneficiaries of Stalinism? Who does this Prilepin think he is? This seems to me the underlying tone of some of the more extreme reactions to Prilepin – including that of Shenderovich who has even gone so far to accuse Prilepin of anti-semitism.

To be fair there have been more adequate responses. Dmitry Bykov has understood Prilepin’s act of defiance purely in terms of the need for a writer to set out an autonomous territory of his own and Bykov gives a number of examples from recent literary history. Mikhail Berg has written a rather interesting article on anti-semitism in Russian literature that deserves attention. He tries to contextualise both Prilepin and Shenderovich’s positions and his article makes for an interesting read.

What to me seems interesting about the Prilepin article and what’s more about the mini-scandal surrounding it, is that it has broken taboos. I don’t see Prilepin as a writer from the more imperialist minded and rather reactionary Prokhanov camp. There is, it is true, a call from Prilepin for liberals to be more nuanced in their judgements on Stalin, that is to judge Stalinism as a system, to be more dispassionate in their views and not to exaggerate the horrific aspects of Stalinism- inflating the number of victims at will. But let’s make this clear what Prilepin’s article definitely is not: it isn’t a call to deny the crimes of Stalin (and Prilepin in fact had victims of Stalinism in his own family- a fact that not he but one of his opponents in this debate brought up).

The debate about Stalinism in Russia can not be as clear cut as many commentators in the west want it to be and the moralizing that often comes in the guise of articles in the western press shouting too loudly, and rather hysterically, about the return of Stalin’s ghost is not particular helpful. Russian society will find other ways of understanding history than those  advocated by many western journalists and commentators. No not by denial. It’s just that there are deeper truths, that the struggle for truth against myth, is a much more complex struggle than others allow. Many Russian writers and thinkers have made sense about their society in ways that western intellectuals can’t even imagine (but then there are westerners and westerners- it just seems sometimes that many of the least intelligent of them seem only to be readily to be employed penning articles for the broadsheet press). In many ways it would be incumbent on western opinion makers to listen as well as to preach. There really is a fascinating debate going on about Russian history in Russia itself. Take Dmitry Bykov himself for example – earlier this year he wrote a couple of articles for Russia’s Novaya Gazeta – enough to earn him a strongly-worded polemical response from Mikhail Epstein. Or one of the outstanding talks at the Occupy Abai camp where Sergei Kuznetsov spoke about the nostalgia for the Soviet Union and what this nostalgia really meant and why aspects of western mythology (the totalitarian thesis of Nazi Germany as being equivalent to the Soviet Union and the subsequent call for de-sovietisation, the myth that there was one monolithic Soviet Union for seven decades and that it wasn’t subject to any evolution, even the myth that all dissidents were actually anti-Soviet) were rather useless in any attempt to understand recent Russian history in any adequate way. These were not apologists speaking – these were thinkers making their own intelligent sense about their own extremely complex and tragic history and not pandering to ideological stereotypes whether of a liberal or of a Stalinist bent .

So the Prilepin article – maybe rather insignificant as a piece of historical argument (and I certainly get more of an intellectual thrill from reading some of Maxim Kantor’s excellent long comments on his Facebook page) but rather perfect as a catalyst to set the cats among the pigeons- has already had its scandalous effect for his blasphemous suggestions. The article has stated two things clearly: that if the neoliberals think they are going to try to impose their own intellectual controls on the history debate in too authoritarian a way they are going to have a struggle and resistance from the pens of Prilepin and Kantor at the very least and that the time of liberal hegemony amongst the Russian chatterati  is over. Prilepin seems to be saying that there is still a need for intelligent Slavophiles – or Pochvenniki- in Russian society. That if Russian society can renew itself it can only do so with an intelligentsia that no longer despises society as a whole. That the alternative to liberal snobs are not fanatics and mrakobesy a’ la Vsevolod Chaplin but intelligent, socially-minded thinkers and writers like Prilepin or Kantor who seem in some minor way to walk in the footsteps of a great Soviet dissident who never gets the attention he deserves- Andrei Sinyavsky. Sinyavsky whose brilliant lectures on the Russian intellighentsia should be read and re-read. Sinyavsky, who in the dark days of October 1993 when the whole intellectual elite seemed to be losing its head, kept his. Kept both his head and his humanity in the most tragic of circumstances.   Sinyavsky, the dissident whose voice was quite unlike the conservative nationalist voice of Solzhenitsyn, but never an uncritical westerniser either. It seems to me that the Prilepin affair gives some hope that other voices will be heard that both resonate with and speak to Russian society as a whole and will find a way out of the morass that two decades of authoritarian neoliberalism has led it to.

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About afoniya

I am a translator, language teacher, independent film scholar who is interested in many aspects of culture. I have my own blog on Russian and Soviet cinema at http://giuvivrussianfilm.blogspot.com and I have also written for journals such as Film Philosophy and Bright Lights as well as Ribbed magazine. Outside of film my interest runs to language, politics, literature and my world is centred around the Meditteranean, Russia, Southern Ukraine as well as the UK.

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