Mikhail Shishkin is considered to be one of the most outstanding Russian writers today. A winner of all major literary awards in Russia, he nonetheless remains surprisingly unknown to many readers both in Russia and abroad. With five novels and two short-stories produced in the past twenty years, his books have now been translated into almost thirty languages, some staged as theatre plays in Moscow and Zurich.
Born in Moscow in 1961, Shishkin has long been living in Switzerland. It was here that as a Russian writer abroad Shishkin inevitably faced something of an identity crisis, which made him the figure we now know. Prompted to question and rethink the very Russian language his work so depended on, he claims in his articles and interviews to have found the clue to the heart of Russianness. Apart from his prose he is probably best known for his political views, condemning the current regime in Russia as medieval and corrupt. This May, Shishkin made a special visit to London’s Pushkin House as part of the club’s 60th anniversary events, to share his thoughts on contemporary Russian literary language and politics. I attended that night to find out what a great Russian writer is like today, and to see whether someone has at last cracked the mysterious Russian soul.
To introduce the audience to his work Shishkin began by reading his essay, covering the topics of love, language and Russianness – a compilation of fragments from a variety of his works. Of these the 2013 article for the Independent – ‘A Revolution for Russia’s Words’ – is the most memorable. As he steadily and confidently shares the way he rediscovered the Russian language, it’s clear that Shishkin is not a writer of compromise. His prose is sharp, opinionated and flowing. He evokes his memories of having moved to Zurich, of being unable to write outside of Russia, explaining how every word of the novel he’d planned back in his homeland became an obstruction once he was in Switzerland: how the very meaning of words changed with the change of scenery. A writer’s crisis, however, seems to have borne fruit at this critical juncture, both with his rediscovery of silence and the essence of Russian literary language, which he came to talk about. Liberated from the language he was so reliant on and no longer able to keep up with everyday changes in Russian life, Shishkin decided to chase the train of literature no longer. Instead in his prose he seeks to submerge himself in thefundamental constants of life. Indeed, even though less was said this night about his actual novels, they show a clear tendency to step outside the confines of time and space, organised around trans-historical narratives and evoking a wide range of familiar influences and cultural memories. Such is the general influence of the iconic Soviet film director Andrei Tarkovsky, the hints of writers Anton Chekhov and Leo Tolstoy, and the tribute to the persecuted thinker Gustav Shpet in The Taking of Izmail. Yet, Shishkin no longer wants to be the messenger of the exotic Otherness on behalf of Russian culture. His agreement to speak English this night, the language of the host country, here at the Pushkin House, is evidence too of that. Indeed it is only too often that the visits of Russian cultural figures are translated, deterring non-Russian audiences from the word go. With Shishkin’s great mastery of English we are certain to know exactly what he means as he explains his vision of the modern Russian reality.
Shishkin’s view of modern Russia inevitably strikes one as bleak and dismal. His vision of its language is as an instrument of unbridled power and abuse, the Russian life of the 20th century as that of edicts and cursing: prison camp laws and continuous debasement: an abusive relationship between the masters and the weak, while the reality of the 21st century has offered little consolation as a corrupt pyramid of thieves, under dictator Putin. It is here that the Russian 18th century literature comes in as a salvation against the all-controlling government. Russian literature, which Shishkin sees as rescued from the totalitarian control by European influences, forms a Russian ark, which is out of state control. Language, the Cyrillic script, the richly obscene language of the Russian streets – so difficult to control – is a precious escape under a totalitarian regime. In his words “Russia has gathered all its belongings and taken up residence in a font” – the cryptic cyrillic font that offers shelter to writers like himself.
Covering the most fundamental questions of identity and Russian life, Shishkin’s views cannot fail to touch those concerned with Russian culture and politics. Renowned for his oppositionist political views, Shishkin recently refused to represent the ‘criminal Russian regime’ at a prestigious Book Expo literary showcase in America. As the night came to an end, Shishkin made his position clear. He wants to convey to the West what is really happening in Russia – the corruption, the reign of Putin – a Hitler-like dictator – the totalitarian oppression and, all in all, a distinct lack of freedom – a culture of fear, which is not Shishkin’s Russia. Shishkin is clearly a writer whose prose on such fundamental questions of existence as death, love and immortality contrasts with his strong political views – caught up in the temporal but destructive flux of the present. So it seems that Shishkin the writer and Shishkin the citizen of Russia remain quite distinct. The latter’s disillusionment with the Russian reality and its corruption, which he is only to ashamed to represent, does seem to bear a final note of optimism – which he sees first of all in raising political awareness in an open public discourse in Russia. Perhaps Shishkin’s portrayal of Russian life and politics will bring little new to western readers, as it very much echoes the familiar views of the western media. But his example shows a willingness to communicate with the audiences abroad and to illustrate yet again that one can remain a Russian writer anywhere.
Some key works by Mikhail Shishkin:
“Calligraphy Lesson”, short story (1993)
One Night Befalls Us All (Vseh ozhidaet odna noch), novel (1993)
Blind Musician (Slepoi muzykant), novella (1994)
The Taking of Izmail (Vzyatie Izmaila), novel (1999)
“Saved language”, short story (2001)
Maidenhair (Venerin volos), novel (2005)
Pismovnik (“Letter Book”), novel (2010)