Crime fiction in Soviet Russia.

 

Leonid Leonov (1899-1994) Вор, 1927, an influential example of Russian Crime Fiction

Leonid Leonov (1899-1994) Вор, 1927

There is a tendency in Western histories of crime fiction to present the evolution of the genre throughout the 20th century as a purely Western phenomenon.  Crime fiction from Eastern bloc countries is little known about and conspicuously absent from contemporary assessments of the genre. Crime fiction from these areas seems truly to have been consigned to the dustbins of history. This process of oblivion is not really surprising; after all, it is the fate of the immense majority of works of crime fiction to sink without leaving much bibliographical traces. Most crime novels, including best sellers, are forgotten about within years. In addition, there has been a widespread suspicion that,  until the 1960’s, much crime fiction from outside the main innovators of the genre (France, England,  and the USA) was derivative rather than original, seeking to reproduce the Western models rather than reinventing the genre in their own terms. Also, the new social, economic, and ideological agenda set by new regimes following the collapse of the Eastern European peoples’ Republics have encouraged cultural industries in these countries to emphasise a sense of a caesura separating current production from that from the previous era. There is some complicity on the part of contemporary authors from these areas to liquidate a literary past they consider burdensome and with which they do not want to be associated.  Thus, one of Russia’s most successful modern crime fiction writers today, Boris Akunin is predictably keen to dismiss such past, stressing that crime fiction in the USSR existed only in “embryonic form”[1]. “In Soviet times having a crime take place in literature was simply unthinkable, for how,” he asks, “could there be a crime in the land of triumphant socialism?”[2] Writing crime fiction dissecting society’s ills, as did many examples of American noir, in Soviet Russia may not have seem expedient.

(A 1989 Issue Detective and Politics, a collection of short stories edited by Julian Semenov with Novosti (РИА Новости )

(A 1989 Issue Detective and Politics, a collection of short stories edited by Julian Semenov with Novosti (РИА Новости )

Much in the same way as readers are happy today to read the historical novels by Akunin ( a contemporary author) set in the three last decades of the Tsar Regime (or Elena Arseneva’s Artem series set in 11th Century Kiev), rather than reading novels actually written during the Soviet era, such as Leonov’s, Julian Semenov’s (1931 – 1993, the creator of the МАДПР, the International Association for the Detective and Political Novel) or Albert Likhanov’s (who was translated in the French Series “Special Police” ), it is unsurprising perhaps that Western readers would long be content to consider English authors writing in English about Russia as representative of Russian Crime Fiction. If  “ Russian “ Crime Fiction means fiction set in Russia,  one of the few early examples known in the West was written by an Englishwoman, Ivy Litvinov (née Ivy Low, whose father was a friend of H. G. Wells’). ‘His Master’s Voice’ was first published by Heinemann in London in 1930, but set some years prior during the early 1920s in Moscow. Litvinov spent much of her adult life in the USSR, having married prominent Russian diplomat Maxim Litvinov in 1916 (Litvinov’s diplomatic efforts caused the USA to officially recognise the USSR in 1933, as well as facilitate the latter’s acceptance into the League of Nations. He is also notable for surviving the many purges which took place in Russia under Stalin. He had also spent some time (1908-1910) teaching foreign languages in North Belfast).

His Master’s Voice’, although evocative of the changing Russia during the 20s, remains more of an example of classic English detective fiction, than any sort of domestic Russian text (the novel is subtitled: a Detective Story). It is nevertheless influenced by the realities of life in early Soviet Russia. What begins as a seemingly simple murder investigation, quickly leads its protagonist, District Procurator Nikulin, into intrigue backstage at the Moscow ballet, machinations of black market traders, the world of Moscow street urchins, as well as the offices of the OGPU (the precursor organisation of the infamous KGB). The novel appears to offer little by way of social critique and so would have likely avoided the attention of Russian censors (the novel does not appear to have been published in Russian either). It is perhaps notable for its portrayal of the black market and the evident unease of its protagonist for the secret police.

Cover of the 1973 re-edition by Gollancz of His Master’s Voice by Ivy Litvinov.

Cover of the 1973 re-edition by Gollancz of His Master’s Voice by Ivy Litvinov.

‘Socialist realism’, officially instituted in 1932 after the old world of Tsars was swept away by the Revolution in Russia in 1917, promoted a particular sort of literary modernity in Russia. This apparently did not produce outstanding crime fiction. Although the movement initially represented a coming together of the realist movements of the nineteenth-century and the “revolutionary romanticism of the Bolshevik tradition”[3], it was quickly fashioned into a vehicle of ideological coercion. In a meeting with a group of authors in 1932 Stalin himself stated “the production of souls is more important than the production of tanks… and so I raise my glass to you, writers, engineers of the human soul”[4]. As a result, writers who were expected to be both productive and portray Soviet life in the light of the heroic promises of the Revolution, tended to stick to a careful conformism.

The nature of the state itself questions further the possibility of crime fiction in the Soviet setting. The “looting of the looters” which Lenin encouraged saw a confiscation of wealth and property of the bourgeoisie as a form of social justice. Crime fiction plots dealing with seizures of private property – traditionally the act of the criminal – here decreed by the state, presented an unusual, risky and ultimately infertile terrain for crime fiction.

Since the 1991 – the end of the Communist regime in Russia – a new brand of Russian crime fiction has tried to establish itself, while at times hoping to capitalise on the fascination, dread and nostalgia evoked by the Soviet period.  In the same period numerous translations of foreign novels appeared (See for example: “L’Homme de l’Avenue”: a Russian edition, A Russian Translation, Curiosa in Russia, The Executioner’s Tears in Russia), spurred along by the fact that, “for the first time in the history of Russian literature books were considered to be merchandise”[5]. Russian crime fiction books were initially of poor quality, but the genre has quickly evolved.  An author such as Boris Akunin (penname of academic and translator Grigory Shalvovich Chkhartishvili), is a good example of the increasing sophistication and success of the modern Russian crime fiction. His novels have been translated into over 30 languages. The first translated into English, The Winter Queen (1998), was shortlisted for the Gold Dagger award for fiction by the UK’s Crime Writers’ Association. Akunin has also recently announced a planned production by an unnamed British television network of three novels from the 13-book Erast Fandorin series.[6]

Cover of the English edition of The Winter Queen, published in 2003 by Orion Publishing Co. Originally published as Азазель (Azazel) in Russia in 1998, the novel was translated into English by Andrew Bromfield.

Cover of the English edition of The Winter Queen, published in 2003 by Orion Publishing Co. Originally published as Азазель (Azazel) in Russia in 1998, the novel was translated into English by Andrew Bromfield.

[1] ‘Interview with Boris Akunin’ Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, July 31 2009 <http://www.rferl.org/content/Interview_With_Boris_Akunin/1789872.html>

[2] Alena Tveritina, ‘Russian literature: Interview with Boris Akunin’ Telegraph.co.uk, 6 April 2011 <http://www.telegraph.co.uk/sponsored/rbth/culture/8432287/Russian-literature-Interview-with-Boris-Akunin.html>

[3] Orlando Figes, Revolutionary Russia: 1891-1991, (London: Pelican, 2014) p. 259

[4] Figes, p. 258

[5] Olga Komarova, ‘Crime Does Pay: The Popularity of Contemporary Russian Detective Stories’, Modi operandi: Perspektiver på kriminalliteratur (Norway: Østfold University College, 2004). Available at: <http://www.ia.hiof.no/~borres/krim/pdffiler/Komarova.pdf>

[6] https://www.facebook.com/borisakunin/posts/471999436283408

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