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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

The Ultimate Test For Russia's Writers

Writers in Russia have long been exalted. Literature in Russia was always a substitute for parliament, the courts and the church, according to Alexander Herzen, the 19th-century writer, publisher and liberal.


The Communists classed writers as friends or foes of the regime, and paid close attention to them either way. "Nowhere do they value verse as they do in Russia: here they kill you because of it", said the poet (and future Gulag victim), Osip Mandelshtam.


Today the Russian government doesn't kill writers. It simply doesn't care about them.


Under the Soviet regime, many loyal subjects and talentless writers wrote for money. But in Russia, as opposed to the West, even talented writers could support themselves on their writing alone, and never had to teach college students or pump gas.


Today, however, they're poor, subsisting on bread and tea. Russia's writers now struggle to survive in a commercial world that has little money for the arts. Russian publishing companies have little money and grants for the arts are practically unheard of.


Writers today are coping in different ways. Some have given up writing altogether. Others have sold valuable possessions or traveled to the West where grants and fellowships are available.


Andrei Voznesensky, a poet whose readings drew tens of thousands in the 1960s, says that writers today have gotten what they were fighting for -- independence. Now they have nobody but themselves to blame for their problems.


On the other hand, says Voznesensky, it's a test: If a person is still writing poetry despite everything, then he (or she) is truly a poet.


Voznesensky himself has been forced to sell prized books in order to live. Yet there were times when he felt like a millionaire -- most notably after writing the popular song "A Million Crimson Roses".


Until recently Voznesensky's poetry was published in hundreds of thousands of copies and bought by the intelligentsia But Voznesensky's latest book "Videoms" (a word of his own invention), appeared in a purposely limited edition of 1, 000 copies and sells for between 10, 000 and 15, 000 rubles. The videoms are mostly photomontages of words, found objects, paintings and other materials combined to show Russian poetry and history in a new light.


"I don't live as well as I did before", says Voznesensky. "But I probably live better than many writers, better than most people. I've been to the States 10 times on lecture tours. I live in a country house which I rent from Litfond for what for me is a good deal of money. My (videom) installations also cost me a lot -- if I don't do the work myself I have to pay someone else for labor and materials, which is very expensive".


Vladimir Novikov, 45, a literary critic and the author of five books on Vladimir Vysotsky, Veniamin Kaverin, and Yury Tynyanov, refers to himself as a "free man of letters". He is currently at work on his first novel.


A year ago he left his job as rector at the Literary Institute. He no longer receives a regular income at home but lectures abroad, at universities in the U. S. , Austria, Germany and Switzerland.


As he puts it, he has "left the ruble economic zone". Earning hard currency abroad allows him to live rather well in Russia, although he expects this to change when food prices here reach world levels.


Novikov wonders why there are no Russian grants for writers. Although currency from abroad can enable a Russian writer to buy himself some freedom to work at home, Russian publications pay almost nothing. A year ago Novikov announced a unilateral boycott of Literaturnaya Gazeta. But no one supported him.


Such problems do not worry Viktor Korkiya, 44, an avantgarde poet and playwright who recently abandoned literature for business so he could buy himself an apartment. Korkiya has yet to buy the apartment.


Korkiya was on the literary board of Yunost until 1987 when his hit play about Stalin, "The Black Man, or I, Soso Dzhugashvili", was produced in over 70 theaters around the former Soviet Union.


"The play made me 22, 000 rubles, but my very first business venture made me 10 times that", says Korkiya.


Until 1985, Korkiya was happy to publish his verse in Literatumaya Gazeta. In 1991, he offered to buy the paper.


But money isn't the only reason why Korkiya left the literary scene.


He considers that his status as a writer is also a thing of the past. In the old days society had a common system of values and everyone knew who was who. Now everyone has his own system. Which is why today anyone can pass himself off as a poet and no one knows who the real poets are. Though Korkiya still writes verse, he doesn't publish it -- which he could afford to if he wanted to.


"I don't feel anyone today needs my poetry", he explains. "But then, weren't Pushkin's best things published posthumously? "


Korkiya seems almost more interested in business than literature. He immediately asks how much he can get for giving an interview and the book he is currently engrossed in is a two-volume American textbook called "Economics".


Yury Davydov, 68, and a writer of historical novels, does not expect writers to be able to make money.


"When colleagues complain about their sudden impoverishment", he says, "I half jokingly say to them that the obituary of a real writer should end like those of 19th-century Russian writers who didn't belong to the gentry:


'Died destitute and unknown'".


After World War II, Davydov was sentenced to six years in camp for "foreign connections". At the time he was enrolled in naval school and on duty with the Northern Fleet where he met English and American sailors conducting convoys of vessels to Russia.


Davydov never thought of himself as a dissident and, not long ago, was surprised to find his name in the Directory of the Russian Dissident Movement in London.


Davydov used to live on the fees from his books. Today that's impossible.


"I'm not marketable", he says. "But that's normal since my books aren't meant for a mass audience. I'm not bothered by this, though I was shocked when Gaidar's price reforms destroyed my savings "


A year ago Davydov began writing short historical sketches about Russians in England and English people in Russia for the BBC's Russian service The money for one sketch is enough to live on for six months


Davydov's latest work "Zerubbabel" appeared in the Moscow journal Znamya; it is about Russian history and the poet Vilgelm Kyukhelbeker


"The worse things are, the better I feel", says Davydov. "I have nothing to eat now just like I had nothing to eat 40 years ago in camp. Which means I'm young again! "