Last October I published a post on 10 books or authors shamefully ignored by publishing houses in the UK and elsewhere. Three of the titles/authors were Russian : Ilia Ehrenburg’s ‘Julio Jurenito‘ (to give it its short title), some hitherto unpublished books by the Polish author Bruno Jasienski (whose final novels were written in Russian) and Artem Vesyoly’s great civil war novel Russia cleansed with blood. But many other more contemporary names and titles could be added to these three authors (who wrote decades ago) . Here are ten that I have chosen and which include both fiction and non-fiction books.
1. Red Light by Maksim Kantor (as well as ‘The Drawing Textbook‘):
The fact that nothing yet has been published in English by Maksim Kantor is a complete mystery to me. I had read somewhere that a translation was in the pipeline but that article was published a number of years ago and nothing seems to have come to fruition. I know nothing of the plans of publishing houses for the near future but to ignore one of Russia’s most significant writers seems rather reckless and lacks foresight. Kantor often writes large discursive novels as well as being an accomplished artist whose works are exhibited in some of the most important galleries throughout the world. His earlier rather monumental novel “The Drawing Textbook” is Tolstoyan in scale as is his more recent novel “Red Light” (apparently, the first part of an intended trilogy). Apart from this he has written plays and the occasional detective novel but the ambition of his two major works tower beyond most other writers in Russia both in the writing and in the much larger historical canvas on which he draws his story.
I’ve written about Mikhail Trofimenkov’s book The Film Theatre of War for another blog. It is the kind of book that rarely gets written in other countries. It is a passionate account of a period in world cinema through another optic- that which recounts the lives and fates of people associated with engaged cinema in a political way. Beginning with a detailed account of cinema and the Algerian War of Independence (as well as other anti-colonial wars involving France and the US), it stretches out towards other parts of the world. Trofimenkov manages to write with an encyclopaedic passion in a much more convincing way than many other historians who straddle the popular/academic divide, in Britain for example. He is clear in interviews how this history is very much a counter-hegemonic project where the heroes and protagonists are mainly revolutionaries (the very title he had chosen for the book had already been chosen by Che Guevara and had to be abandoned). Trofimenkov is too accomplished a writer about film and film history for his partisan and passionate stance to be any kind of obstacle.
Since I’ve already devoted a post to reviewing this book I won’t repeat what I said in my previous post. Once again, though, I’d argue that it is the kind of book that would introduce new ideas to what seems to be a field of discourse that desperately needs more imagination, a quality present in abundance in this work (both in terms of form and content).
If there is one figure from Russia in the post decades who needs to be remembered and celebrated for authentic courage it is Stanislav Markelov. I have dedicated a few posts to both Markelov and Anastasia Baburova (murdered by Markelov’s side by neo-Nazis in January 2009) in this blog. Markelov’s voice is, still five years after his murder, remarkably and unjustifiably absent and forgotten: a conspiracy of silence seems to hang over his figure. A collection of his writings shows that his political thought is still fresh and presciently significant. His record in defending literally hundreds of people and groups caught up in repression from 1993 onwards was second to none. Markelov was never part of the intelligentsia misled and misleading people into supporting the anti-communist repression of the 1990s nor was he ever to express any false nostalgia for the Soviet past. He was one of the great leftist anti-fascists in recent history and merits the kind of global recognition where both his words and his deeds be etched in the memory of many. Whether a straight translation of the book published by Memorial (pictured above) is required or a related book more specifically directed at those unaware of the context in which Markelov lived, there can be no doubt that a volume on this remarkable figure (as well as remembering the young anti-fascist journalist, Anastasia Baburova, who died with him) is sorely needed.
The next is not so much a book but articles from a website (Open Left) which have brought about debate in the Russian Left to new levels. It is not the only ‘Left’ site in Russia but has produced a number of articles of high quality and interventions (especially cultural interventions) that are well worth following. Of course there are other sites, some of them with a ‘left orientation’, and it may well be worth choosing an anthology of writings from Leftists of various strands. Of course, some have called into question the independence of some other ‘left’ sites- even the once popular rabkor.ru has recently received a significant injection of government funding. Closely associated with Boris Kagarlitsky, there is some argument about whether Kagarlitsky has taken a ‘social imperialist’ position over the Ukraine question. All the same the amount of good-quality articles written in various forums of the Russian Left surely merits a volume of translations.
Returning to Russian cinema there’s a figure who needs to be celebrated even though his output is seemingly negligible. He was a scriptwriter rather than film director (though he did direct one film – Long and Happy Life). Shpalikov who I am have written about here was, surely, the Soviet Vigo (and, perhaps a kind of Soviet Rimbaud, too). Desperately unlucky in terms of the fate of many of his scripts, he became an alcoholic and ended in his own life on November 1974. It was only in later years that his output has been fully appreciated and forty years later, it would be good time to introduce him to people outside of Russia.
Aleksei Tsvetkov is the author of the article that I translated for this site on Evald Ilyenkov and one of the most interesting radical leftist thinkers in Russia. Having only taken a cursory look at Tsvetkov’s book I have been intrigued by some of the arguments. He ranges from Monty Python (noting their British imperialist message even while admitting that Monty Python’s Life of Brian is his favourite film. Tsvetkov denounces the Left’s sense of sacrifice and, as the blurb puts it, “reflects on why monkeys should be invited to join the Party and why pop music is necessary for the anti-capitalist revolution”. The bulk of the book is an A-Z that mentions everything from Cocaine and Freud to the Night Watch film, from Picasso to the Strugatsky Brothers and from the Red Army Faction to Aelita (Protazanov versus Tolstoy). Watch this space for a more in-depth review. Tsvetkov is surely a writer to watch, especially having outraged Liberals for his lack of awe when the former oligarch, Khodorkovsky, was released from prison.
Other books to translate will be announced in further blogs. I have not even mentioned poetry and there are a bunch of literary classics from Soviet times unjustifiably forgotten. For the moment these are my initial seven choices (along with the Ehrenburg’s, Vesyoly’s, Jasienky’s) that I mentioned before.