Everything New is Old Again
As of March 2014, the Russian government has banned access to a number of news websites and blogs that express oppositional views. This is the latest in a series of moves designed to place all media under state control so that communication can be filtered according to the state’s agenda. The existence of a free Russian press, however brief, appears to have ended. As with any exercise in speculation, though, a look into Russia’s future necessitates revisiting its past.
There are certain principles that authoritarian regimes tend to favor: organized marches, political repressions, full control of the press, leaders with facial hair, and, ironically, realism in art and literature. They believe that life should be depicted as close as possible to reality. Within such regimes, however, the caveat is that the state gets to define what that reality is and directs the press to validate it. Open opposition typically doesn’t end well for the individual, so citizens who are not on board with this style of narration have to reconcile the dissonance between what they see and what they are being told. Such regimes have taken hold of Russia before and appear to be doing so once again. During these times, writers are placed in a tricky and dangerous position: do they attempt to speak out through their art—whether blatantly or in some masked form—or work within the constraints forced upon them?
Writer Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky was born in Ukraine to a Polish-speaking family in 1887. In 1922, at the age of 35, Krzhizhanovsky moved to Moscow. In those years, he rented a tiny room at the center of the capital and struggled to pay his bills. He worked as a theater consultant and wrote critical essays. He also penned short stories, novellas, and plays—none of which were published or produced during his lifetime. Indeed, hardly anyone knew that Krzhizhanovsky was writing fiction while he was alive.
Was censorship the main reason why Krzhizhanovsky’s stories weren’t published? These works never directly criticize the regime or its ideology. Then again, in 1920s-30s Russia, it didn’t take much for writers to be censored—a best-case scenario outcome. At worst, they faced a pretty good chance of being imprisoned, exiled, or executed. During Krzhizhanovsky’s lifetime, the authoritarian regime was tightening its screws: Stalin consolidated power in the mid-1920s, and millions died due to famine, collectivization, and repression before World War II even commenced. In the meantime, from his cramped room in Moscow, Krzhizhanovsky wrote about people who were also living in cramped rooms, alienated and unable to reconcile what they read in the newspaper with that they saw out of their window.
After Krzhizhanovsky’s death in 1950, his lifelong companion stored his works at the bottom of her dresser. It wasn’t until the late 1980s that Krzhizhanovsky’s stories were rediscovered and began to be published in Russian. In 2006, a collection of seven stories, titled Seven Stories, was published in English. A second collection, Autobiography of a Corpse, followed in November of 2013.
Most of the 11 stories in Autobiography of a Corpse were written in the 1920s, a few years after the Russian Revolution. Krzhizhanovsky writes about a man who tries to bite his elbow and becomes famous, giving rise to a philosophical movement of elbow-biters all over the world. He writes about a man who leans in to kiss his lover and falls down a tunnel leading to the pit of her pupils, where he meets tiny replicas of all her past lovers. He writes about the Land of the Nots, a country inhabited by non-beings futilely trying to prove their own existence to themselves. And, in the title story, Krzhizhanovsky writes about a man who rents a tiny room in Moscow and finds a manuscript addressed to the new tenant, soon after discovering that the author of the manuscript, the former tenant, hung himself in that very room.
Krzhizhanovsky’s stories have been analyzed as social commentary, metafiction, philosophical ruminations, and experimentations with language. They have been called fantastical and compared to the works of Kafka and Borges. As an author, Krzhizhanovsky plays with reality—not so much reinventing it as looking for gaps in-between it, areas that are just outside of one’s peripheral vision. In the story titled “Seams,” he writes, “I’m neither ‘here’ nor ‘there’ but in between—in a seam.” In this world, things are cast by shadows, not the other way around, and language allows for metaphors to come alive and walk off the page. Above all else, however, Krzhizhanovsky’s stories are about lonely people in tiny rooms trying to assure themselves of their own existence. What they struggle with is isolation—with, as Krzhizhanovsky’s deceased tenant writes, “that ultimate loneliness, known to only a few of the living . . . when you are left not only without others but without yourself.”
Almost a hundred years have passed since Krzhizhanovsky wrote the stories included in Autobiography of a Corpse. It’s tempting to attribute the definition of the “ultimate loneliness” to the author himself—a man who was not quite here or there, but somewhere in between the seams. It’s even more tempting, unfortunately, to note that by silencing opposing media outlets, the Russian government appears to once again be gaining full control of the country’s narrative: Russians are under an attack in Ukraine, the West is morally corrupt and malevolent, and the Russian Empire is only reclaiming what rightfully belonged to it in the first place. It’s a nationalist narrative and a dangerous one. Yet, it is the story that the state has concocted and that the state-sponsored media is serving to the entire country.
What happens to those citizens, literary and otherwise, who can’t quite swallow it? Will Russian writers find themselves ridiculed, alienated, or even prosecuted? Undoubtedly they will feel the discord from within their own tiny rooms and hopefully seek out alternative media sources; with any luck, the Internet will make it nearly impossible for the government to keep all information under its control. Finding the state-scripted reality contradictory to what they are experiencing, will these citizens then attempt to speak out, or will they remain silent, believing—as an authoritarian regime would have them believe—that any attempt at critique would be as useful as trying to bite your own elbow?
Marina Petrova lives and writes in New York City. Her work has appeared in the Los Angeles Review of Books, underwaternewyork.com, The Destroyer, and Calliope 19th Anthology. She is an MFA candidate at The New School.