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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Russia's Anti-Prize

The fifth annual Anti-Booker prizes for literary excellence were awarded last Friday at the round room that used to serve as a swimming pool for the former Moscow central bathhouse, now home to the posh Serebryany Vek restaurant.

Under lavish turn-of-the-century frescoes and bronze statues of Neptune and nymphs, where rich men used to splash in cold water after the hot steam room, three of the competition's winners - touted as the country's best anti-establishment writers - were showered with praise.

Among those bathing in glory and recognition should have been the Anti-Booker's fourth winner, Alexander Ivanchenko, whose "Bathing of the Red Horse," a biting comment on the venality of modern-day intelligentsia, took the best essay award. Ivanchenko, however, proved the most anti-establishment of the lot, passing on the event and asking that his prize money - about $12,000 - be transferred to a hospital treating Russian soldiers wounded in the Chechen campaign.

Not willing to entirely forgo the festivities, Ivanchenko, whose essay was first printed in its entirety on the Internet, sent a letter from to the jury via e-mail from his Siberian hometown. The letter, which riffed on the idea that "Russia is a hopelessly literary country," was read aloud to a rapt and generally receptive audience.

"Steelworkers and peasants compose poems, madmen put together crazy futuristic projects, wages are paid in verses, tyrants are interested in literature and write themselves. It's no wonder that the characters of Gogol, Chekhov and Dostoevsky are ruling the country," Ivanchenko wrote. "Confining them back to the bookshelves and thus freeing the country from ghosts is the primary aesthetic goal of the contemporary artist."

Vitaly Tretyakov, editor of Nezavisimaya Gazeta and the Anti-Booker's chief juror, sounded slightly injured afterwards, remarking that the members of the intelligentsia gathered for the awards were in fact "different" from Ivanchenko's depiction. He agreed, however, that the "positive hero in Russian literature has always been weak."

Ivanchenko's prize - the newest of the five Anti-Booker categories, set up only last year to recognize the best essay, memoir or other work of non-fiction - was proclaimed by the jury the category most relevant to present-day realities.

The announcement sounded like a challenge to the other Booker competition, the Smirnoff-Booker Prize - the better-known literary award from which the Anti-Booker borrowed its name. The original Booker Prize, brought to Russia eight years ago, only grants awards to novelists.

"The novel is not the only genre of modern literature, and not even the most important one," critic Alla Latynina wrote in Nezavisimaya Gazeta, which created the anti-competition in order to, as she explained it, "fill an empty niche with a democratic prize that includes elements of literary provocation, games and shock value and is open to little-known authors, thus giving a literary Cinderella the chance to go to the ball."

As if to prove the point, Anti-Booker, financed by the Russian tycoon Boris Berezovsky, did not give the best prose award this year when the jury failed to reach a consensus about what it admitted was a worthy pool of nominees. Instead, it selected another runner-up in the non-fiction category - the sister of director Andrei Tarkovsky, Maria, who received a special prize for a memoir about her famous brother.

A third literary award, the Apollon Grigoriev Prize given this Tuesday by the Academy of Literary Critics, reflected the same anti-prose trend - its three prizes, ranging between $5,000 and $25,000, all went to poets.

"The explanation is the shortsightedness of our critics," said Natasha Perova, who publishes the Glas magazine featuring English-language versions of contemporary Russian literature and is herself a former Booker juror. The Anti-Booker and Apollon Grigoriev decisions, she argued, were not actually a reflection of any decline in the quality of Russian prose, but of a decline in how the prose is appraised.

"Literature is more difficult to grasp than music or visual arts, and prose is harder than poetry," Perova said. "It's the essence of all art, expressed in words, and it takes time for the public to realize it."

Perova said writers such as Viktor Pelevin, Vladimir Makanin and Lyudmila Ulitskaya, who are already popular in the West but have yet to receive major recognition in Russia, are all worthy of an award.

Despite the challenging name, the Anti-Booker is not meant as a Booker rival. According to Perova, the Booker Prize - the first to fill the empty space left by the Soviet literary awards that died out at the beginning of perestroika - aims to promote the survival of the great Russian novel. And despite the often controversial choice of nominees, who are mainly older, traditionalist authors, it has done a good job, she said.

The Anti-Booker is more daring and varied, she added. It invariably seems linked to one scandal or another: Poet Sergei Gandlevsky refused to accept his prize money in 1997 in protest over the high tax he would have to pay on it, and Alexander Solzhenitsyn and poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko, although they have never been nominated, have stated flatly that they would under no circumstances ever accept the award. But at the same time, the prize has already managed to promote several little-known but deserving names.

This year the prize remained faithful to its stated spirit of providing equal opportunity to beginners and masters alike, handing the playwriting award to Kaliningrad's Yevgeny Grishkovets, whose first play, "Winter," was just written last March.

Despite the lack of standout novelists, the jury acknowledged a number of brilliant literary critics. The winner in the category was Pavel Basinsky, who writes for Literaturnaya Gazeta and Oktyabr literary magazine. According to Latynina, his award was granted for the "courage of speaking his own voice."

In his acceptance speech, Basinsky complained that this prize-winning quality "brings more enemies than friends" to a critic, but added that he often manages to avoid conflicts by following the principle of attacking ideas rather than people.

While the best poetry prize also went unawarded, Boris Ryzhy, a 24-year-old poet from Yekaterinburg, received a special prize and was pronounced the future of Russian poetry. Yevgeny Rein, one of the country's best contemporary poets and friend of the late Josef Brodsky, said Ryzhy was selected because the issues raised in his poetry belong to the future rather than the past.

Ryzhy, who smoked nervously throughout the ceremony, gave Rein a big hug of relief and made the longest speech of the evening.

"The poet must listen to the music of the times as this is the singing of actual angels, but in different times angels have different voices," he said, quoting turn-of-the-century poet Vladislav Khodasevich. He went on to add, "Sometimes the essence of the time is best expressed by a swear word."

Ryzhy's poetry is filled with criminal romanticism regarding his native industrial city in the Urals. In one of his poems, "From Sverdlovsk With Love," he talks about his "buddies," local bandits killed in a violent shootout between rival gangs several years ago. The cemetery where they are buried - in a row under a prominent marble crucifix, their graves decorated with realistically rendered busts - is considered one of Yekaterinburg's major points of interest.

"From Sverdlovsk With Love," the overall title of his Anti-Booker-winning collection, is a paraphrase of Brodsky's famous line "From Nowhere With Love." His pen name - "redhead" - is yet another reference to Brodsky, Russia's most famous emigre poet. All the same, Ryzhy insists his work is a challenge to his predecessors.

"I'm the only real poet of my generation," he said with a large grin after the ceremony. "My poetic language is so new it is often misunderstood. Besides, I don't resemble Josef Brodsky at all."