The Soviet Period and After
The period immediately following the Bolshevik Revolution was one of literary experimentation and the emergence of numerous literary groups. Much of the fiction of the 1920s described the Civil War or the struggle between the old and new Russia. The be
st prose writers of the 1920s were Isaak Babel', Mikhail Bulgakov, Veniamin Kaverin, Leonid Leonov, Yuriy Olesha, Boris Pil'nyak, Yevgeniy Zamyatin, and Mikhail Zoshchenko. The dominant poets were Akhmatova, Osip Mandel'shtam, Mayakovskiy, Pasternak, Mari
na Tsvetayeva, and Sergey Yesenin. But under Stalin, literature felt the same restrictions as the rest of Russia's society. After a group of "proletarian writers" had gained ascendancy in the early 1930s, the communist party Central Committee forced all f
iction writers into the Union of Soviet Writers in 1934. The union then established the standard of "socialist realism" for Soviet literature, and many of the writers in Russia fell silent or emigrated (see Mobilization of Society, ch. 2). A few prose wri
ters adapted by describing moral problems in the new Soviet state, but the stage was dominated by formulaic works of minimal literary value such as Nikolay Ostrovskiy's How the Steel Was Tempered
and Yuriy Krymov's Tanker Derbent
. A unique work of the 1930s was the Civil War novel The Quiet Don
, which won its author, Mikhail Sholokhov, the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1965, although Sholokhov's authorship is disputed by some experts. The strict controls of the 1930s continued until the "thaw" following Stalin's death in 1953, although some inn
ovation was allowed in prose works of the World War II period.
Between 1953 and 1991, Russian literature produced a number of first-rate artists, all still working under the pressure of state censorship and often distributing their work through a sophisticated underground system called samizdat (literally, self-pu
blishing). The poet Pasternak's Civil War novel, Doctor Zhivago
, created a sensation when published in the West in 1957. The book won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1958, but the Soviet government forced Pasternak to decline the award. Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, whose One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich
(1962) also was a watershed work, was the greatest Russian philosophical novelist of the era; he was exiled from the Soviet Union in 1974 and eventually settled in the United States. In the 1960s and 1970s, a new generation of satirical and prose writers
, such as Fazil' Iskander, Vladimir Voinovich, Yuriy Kazakov, and Vladimir Aksyonov, battled against state restrictions on artistic expression, as did the noted poets Yevgeniy Yevtushenko, Andrey Voznesenskiy, and Joseph Brodsky. Aksyonov and Brodsky emig
rated to the United States, where they remained productive. Brodsky won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1987. The most celebrated case of literary repression in the 1960s was that of Andrey Sinyavskiy and Yuliy Daniel, iconoclastic writers of the Soviet
"underground" whose 1966 sentence to hard labor for having written anti-Soviet propaganda brought international protest.
Another generation of writers responded to the liberalized atmosphere of Gorbachev's glasnost
in the second half of the 1980s, openly discussing previously taboo themes: the excesses of the Stalin era, a wide range of previously unrecognized social ills such as corruption, random violence, anti-Semitism, and prostitution, and even the unassailabl
y positive image of Vladimir I. Lenin himself. Among the best of this generation were Andrey Bykov, Mikhail Kurayev, Valeriy Popov, Tat'yana Tolstaya, and Viktor Yerofeyev--writers not necessarily as talented as their predecessors but expressing a new kin
d of "alternative fiction." The glasnost
period also saw the publication of formerly prohibited works by writers such as Bulgakov, Solzhenitsyn, and Zamyatin.
Beginning in 1992, Russian writers experienced complete creative freedom for the first time in many decades. The change was not entirely for the better, however. The urgent mission of the Russian writers, to provide the public with a kind of truth they
could not find elsewhere in a censored society, had already begun to disappear in the 1980s, when glasnost
opened Russia to a deluge of information and entertainment flowing from the West and elsewhere. Samizdat was tacitly accepted by the Gorbachev regime, then it disappeared entirely as private publishers appeared in the early 1990s. Writers' traditional sp
ecial place in society no longer is recognized by most Russians, who now read literature much less avidly than they did in Soviet times. For the first time since their appearance in the early 1800s, the "thick journals" are disregarded by large portions o
f the intelligentsia, and in the mid-1990s several major journals went bankrupt. Under these circumstances, many Russian writers have expressed a sense of deep loss and frustration.
Data as of July 1996