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Stones & Glasshouses? A Writer Challenges the Kremlin

Kittens aside, there is nothing your average Russian blogger loves better than a juicy spat about politics or literature, except for a combination of the two. This is precisely what happened last week, when Mikhail Shishkin (no relation to the painter [en]), award-winning Russian writer living in Switzerland, brought back the honored Russian literary tradition of scathing criticism of the government from abroad. Shishkin publicly refused [ru] to participate in the government funded Russian delegation to the New York Book Expo, motivating his refusal by the fact that he does not want to represent a “corrupt and criminal” regime. While many applauded the move, some Russian bloggers and writers were keen to find ulterior motives.

Mikhail Shishkin. © EFrolkina. Wikimedia Commons. CC 3.0

Mikhail Shishkin. © EFrolkina. Wikimedia Commons. CC 3.0

From Tolstoy to Solzhenitsin, Russian writers have always played a role in the public sphere, and by extension, politics. Usually such involvement has been philosophical, ideological, along the lines of commentary and critique. More recently, writers like Dmitry Bykov, Boris Akunin, and Lyudmila Ulitskaya have taken on a more direct role by actively participating [GV] in the opposition movement and running for the Coordinating Council of the Opposition. (Not to speak of someone like Eduard Limonov, whose literary career has taken a back seat in his pursuit of radical politics, or his former nazbol protege Zakhar Prilepin, who was first an activist, and only then a writer.)

Shishkin, on the other hand, moved to Switzerland more than a decade ago, and has not criticized Russia or Putin until last week. In fact, in addition to collecting numerous literary awards (some also funded by the government), he appears to have attended [ru] last year's Book Expo with no particular qualms. Some [ru] say that Shishkin's country of residence and the fact that he has no “skin in the game” make his criticism of Russia hypocritical [ru]:

Я не вижу особой разницы между депутатом Желязняком, проповедующим лапотный патриотизм сразу после отправки детей в Швейцарию, и Шишкиным, пишущим обличительные письма из той же Швейцарии, где он живет уже больше 15-ти лет.

I don't see any particular difference between the parliamentarian Zhelezniak, who professes theatrical patriotism right after sending his kids to Switzerland, and Shishkin, who writes denunciatory letters from the self-same Switzerland, where he's been living for more than 15 years.

Where some bloggers see hypocrisy, others suspect a shrewd public relations move (a reading supported by the fact that Shishkin will apparently attend a conference in Edinburgh this March [ru] funded by the Ministry of the Press, which Shishkin called the “ministry of propaganda” in his statement). In a Facebook post the poet Igor Karaulov imagined [ru] Shishkin's conversation with his publisher:

Я представляю себе, как Михаил Павлович входит в кабинет [...]: «Вот, Реджинальд, хотел с вами посоветоваться: как, с точки зрения динамики продаж, было бы лучше назвать режим: воровским, преступным или кровавым?» А издатель пробегает глазами строчки, пыхтит губами, поправляет очки на своей оксфордской переносице и изрекает: «Для начала мы обойдемся «воровским».»

I imagine how Mikhail Pavlovich enters the office [...]: “Here, Reginald, I wanted your advice: what's better in terms of sales, to call the regime larcenous, criminal, or bloody?” The publisher looks through the document, puckers his lips, shifts his glasses on his Oxford nose and says: “For the time being we'll stick with “larcenous”.”

Another writer, Evgeny Popov, went further, directly attributing [ru] Shishkin's statements to the fact that he has recently managed to find British and US publishers.

Boris Akunin, the prolific writer of detective novels and an outspoken government critic, defended [ru] Shishkin from such accusations:

Зная Мишу Шишкина и его нелюбовь ко всякой публичности, очень хорошо понимаю, как тяжело ему было совершить этот поступок.

Knowing Misha Shishkin and his dislike of any kind of publicity, I understand very well how difficult it was for him to take this action.

Regardless of Shishkin's perceived motivations, his writing style has left him open to yet another attack. While critically acclaimed, Shishkin is no stranger to controversy: he has been previously accused of plagiarism, a history that was quick to surface. The first accusation came in 2006, when a fellow writer noticed similarities [ru] between portions of Shishkin's award-winning Maidenhair and the memoirs of writer Vera Panova. After some literary sleuthing it became clear that Shishkin rewrote parts of Panova's book to stand in for the journal of one of his characters.

 Shishkin in a Pine Forest: A Postmodern Interpretation. Fragment. Based on Morning in a Pine Forest, by painter Ivan Shishkin (no relation to Mikhail). Wikimedia Commons. Public domain. and Mikhail Shishkin. © EFrolkina. Wikimedia Commons. CC 3.0. Remix by author. [Note: although most know Morning as a classic Shishkin painting, ironically he did not actually paint the bears himself.]


Shishkin in a Pine Forest: A Postmodern Interpretation. Fragment. Based on Morning in a Pine Forest, by painter Ivan Shishkin (no relation to Mikhail), Wikimedia Commons, Public domain, and Mikhail Shishkin, © EFrolkina, Wikimedia Commons, CC 3.0. Remix by author. [Note: although most know Morning as a classic Shishkin painting, ironically he did not actually paint the bears himself.]

Although Shishkin does not cite other writers in his books, he does admit [ru] to the wide use of so-called “unquoted quotes” in Maidenhair and his other texts — a post-modern technique that he claims allows him to build something new out of previous works. In an explanatory letter he wrote [ru]:

из старых слов получится принципиально новая книга, совсем о другом, потому что это мой выбор, моя картина моего мира

from old words you will get a completely new book, talking about something else, because it's my choice, my view of my world

Shishkin later continued:

Я делаю литературу следующего измерения.

I create literature from the next dimension.

Whether one agrees with Shishkin's artistic choices or thinks that he takes post-modernism too far (it occurs that a less than perfectly erudite reader might miss Shishkin's “quotes” and assume that he himself wrote the books in their entirety), his technique exposes him to criticisms like this one [ru], from radical nationalist blogger Yury Belyaev:

литературный ВОР отказывается представлять Россию, называя ее “воровским государством”.

a literary THIEF is refusing to represent Russia, calling it a “larcenous state”.

A similar point [ru] was made by journalist Oleg Lurie. While a bit specious, there is a certain logic to the argument. After all, surely Putin & Co. can explain away at least some of their own controversial decisions, although they are less likely to cite James Joyce while doing it.

Was Shishkin's statement heartfelt or a successful publicity stunt? Is he a plagiarist, or just a very sophisticated writer? There is no definitive answer, but it seems as if these contradictions reflect modern Russian discourse in general, and its political component in particular. Perhaps we can only muse about the what-ifs, like the literary critic Lev Pirogov [ru]:

А меня звали. Я, дурак, отказался и никому не сказал. [...] И даже, блин, не выступил с заявлением.

I was also invited [to BookExpo]. And, ever the fool, I refused and didn't tell anyone. [...] And I didn't even freaking come out with a public statement.

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