The Russian literature fought to change Russia
Alireza Gholami (Teheran) in conversation with Viktor Erofeyev
Victor Erofeyev has explained in this interview that has been printed in Iranian literary magazine NAFEH in May 2010, about contemporary Russian literature and his best novel “The good Stalin”. Alireza Gholami
Europeans describe Viktor Erofeyev as important as Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy. What do you think of that? What’s your feeling about this description? The Europeans are my faithful readers. Especially Germans, who believe that I am a new James Joyce. So they just know me better than other new Russian writers. I represent for them the new Russian literature; Tolstoy and Dostoevsky – the eternal one. It gives me stimulation to work harder, to come closer… to the eternity.
You characterized yourself in this way “I was born rebellion. A writer must be rebellion.” This characteristic is felt in “The good Stalin” when you criticize Russia in a dauntless way. But is there a limitation for this rebellion? What is it?
To be rebellion means to start to see the world with your own personal view. It could happen in the childhood or later. It happens most of the time when you absorb two cultures in yourself as it happens to me as I, a Russian, spent my childhood in Paris. The orthodox conservative people hate those who have more than one culture. The Soviet authorities had the reason not to allow their people to travel. Every traveller is a potential betrayer! Russia is between two worlds: East and West, it also helps me to see the limits of only one culture, one confession. With two cultures like two mirrors on both side of yourself you immediately see the stupid, absurd, archaic side of the human life – it shocks you, you start to laugh, irony starts to be your second nature. The problem with the one culture people – they pretend to know the truth. I hate it, I want to vomit when I listen to them.
You have used so many historical events in your novel. In contrast, there are many elements that show you’ve been rebelling against history by humorous language. But Great Russian authors were accepted from humorous language. What was the reason? Respect?
The Russian literature used to fight to change Russia with its terrible tsarist regime. They used the humor as an arm too. They were right and wrong. The bad regime is the mirror of the dark side of ours own soul. You should change some things especially when they are terrible but you cannot change the human nature; that’s why my humor has two sides. I laugh at the bad regime and I laugh at myself as a rebellion.
Does Russian avant-garde literature want to get out of the influence of Russian classical literature? Do you seek this modernism in west?
The Russian avant-garde literature uses to laugh at the hyper-moral position of the old one. I take a lot of the positive things from the western literature from Flaubert to Joyce, especially the way how they analyse the world. I also love the freedom of individual there. But I’m a Russian writer: I’m looking for the senses of the life, as (I’m sorry) Dostoevsky.
It seems Stalin’s era still impresses the Russian contemporary literature and intellectuals and the events of that period are still in their memories. How Russian Contemporary authors come to terms with these memories?
Stalin as every dictator represents for me the archaically side of the human nature (we have a fight in ourselves between the modern and archaic human being, sometimes the terrible dark side wins in us), the will for the power, and to understand how many of us adore the domination is very important for the literature.
Russian intellectuals have always hated Andrei Zhdanov and his repressive manners, as you’ve said in your novel. But nowadays we still feel this control over authors in Russia. What’s the reason? What’s your opinion?
Well, the literature is free now in Russia. There is no censorship. It is a great achievement of the perestroika and the government of Putin still respects it. Still a lot of people in my country hate what I write, especially the nationalist people and they try their best to ban me, because they know or feel that the all-human values are more important for me than the nationalist ones.
The irony in “The good Stalin” more than anything else has aimed at Kremlin’s inhabitants and the people close to Stalin. Governor’s corruption often leads the society to banality. You’ve talked little about the banality in such a society. Is there any special reason for it?
No, I believe that Stalin and its regime as any kind of terrible regime is a result of the weakness of the nation’s mentality. Banality of evil is only a slogan. Evil is strong and pitoresque because it touches our hidden wishes.
In the countries that caused misfortunes of 20th century, a kind of literature came into existence that satirized governors and people with bitter and heavy irony. This language aims less at people who supported communism in “The good Stalin”. Is there any special reason?
My Russian people as every people who used to live under dictatorship are a victim, and I feel bad about the tortures my people had to come through, millions have been murdered. I’m sure that firstly we have to liberate ourselves and then to think why we were the victims of the terrible regime. My Russian people never had a big political culture and it was easy to manipulate them. Secondly, Russia had never had a strong conception of the personal life, the people were declared less important than the saint state. They accepted it – it was the main reason for the collective suicide. I believe that anyone who speaks in the name of the truth like Lenin and Stalin did, we had even the newspaper called PRAVDA, means truth, at the end starts to be the enemy of the nation and his end is terrible.
Even though, it seems the author hasn’t been accepted from these ironies and humor. It seems this irony is one of your style’s qualities. What’s your opinion? Why do you insist on so many ironies?
Irony is a good weapon against the dictatorship which is afraid to be radicalized, sometimes it is better that a street manifestation, and from the other side irony is the author’s confession that it is very difficult to change the world for the better. In my books you can see the two sides of the irony. Still what I hate I hate without any excuses.
It seems the contact between authors and Stalinism is your anxiety. It has been talked many times about fear of death in this novel. The scene of a wooden beam with the picture of bone and skull on it repeats many times. What’s the reason?
The literature is mostly a talk about the death. Everything else follow it.
Some where you likened memories to a corpse that a domestic dog licks it. This scene is very dramatic. But the corpse comes back to life miraculously and continues living. It seems the coming back to life of the corpses has led to creation of “The good Stalin”. Isn’t it so?
It is true. To write a memoire you should have to kill firstly your memory and then to refined it in the world of the words. In my book I kill my parents as living people just to find in them the personages of the novel. It was tough. Still both of them are alive being 89 years old.
Are you afraid of memories coming back to life, the memories that according to your saying are like corpse? What’s the reason?
Well, it depends on memories. Some of they are so beautiful. Some of them you prefer not to meet again.
Do you agree with the description that the novel “The good Stalin” is the narration of Russian history with a journalistic pen? What’s your reason if you disagree?
Not a lot. To some extend I’m an ant journalist. A journalist of any kind use the words for his/her needs. I try to be used by the words. I want the words to be totally free and I try to follow them. It is very difficult, but in The Good Stalin I hope it has happened.
The narrator’s father hates history because all the things that he fought against, won. What about the narrator? Is he happy about their defeat?
Yes, it’s a tragedy of everybody who works for the repressing regime. By the end it falls and you feel in shit. But my Father is a special guy. He used to be a Stalinist, but his human nature was positive and that’s why when we in our family had a terrible political drama he stood on the side of the family, not on the state. To say the truth I consider him as a real hero. Recently he said in a TV interview that I was ahead of the time with my literary dissidence, and he doesn’t feel unhappy that I ruined his Soviet carrier. Thank you, Father!
Your irony of socialistic realism’s art is interesting. This art was supposed to be at the service of communism’s aims. Does the art still have any supporters in today’s Russia? What’s your opinion about it?
I treat the socialistic realism as a betrayal to the nature of literature. The literature must be free. The literature should not support any ideology; it is not its aim.
Are you against the art and literature which is aimed at producing works for governor’s development? Do you think it’s enduring?
Writers sometime are weak. They want glory and power and they try to link to the government. Doing such a thing they kill themselves as writers.
Nearly 57 years has passed since Stalin’s death and his name is still fearful. You’ve written in your novel “Russian soul has Stalinist nature and manner.” What do you mean?
I have already said that we all have that repressing dark side in our souls which support the serial killers like Stalin. In the Russian soul we can see these archaic sides.
Supreme effort was made in the Vladimir Putin’s period as a president to rehabilitate Stalin. At that time Stalin was reminded as a leader who changed Soviet Union into a super power. What’s your opinion?
Putin personally probably likes Stalin as a winner of the Second World War but for sure he doesn’t like Stalin as a master of the Great Terror of 1937-1938. So there is no ground for the global rehabilitation of Stalin. Still the idea of Russia as a superpower is a great nostalgia for many people in Russia, Russians still have some imperialistic element in their blood, even if they don’t feel it that is why our neighbors sometimes are afraid of Russia.
Stalin’s mottos are displayed in public places just unlike Germany that all Hitler’s mottos are destroyed. What’s Russian authors and intellectuals’ opinion about it? Do they not disagree with it?
Well, the presence of Stalin in mottos or in monuments in my country is still very little. But the nationalist movement in Russia pushes the power to accept Stalin as a positive hero of the Russian history. A half of the Russian population sees Stalin in such way. It is not good at all for the future of my country.
Some of your works were banned for years in Russia. Why? What was the reason? How is the situation now?
I can publish now all my books now. I have my own TV programmers on the Cultural channel, it is a talk-show about the human values and I can talk free. Still under the communism I was totally banned and kicked out from the Writer’s Union, because of my dissident activity and of course because my texts had nothing to do with the Communism. Now some people in the ultra-nationalist movement and some intellectuals nationalistically orientated want to ban my novel The Encyclopedia of the Russian Soul as a Russophobe book. Well, I love Russia and I love this book of mine as well. I’m not a Russophobe, and if I criticize the things I don’t like in Kremlin or in the historical mentality of the people I do it because I want Russia to be free and much better.
©Alireza Gholami: "I was born in 1979 in Iran; the year that Islamic Revolution took place in and changed everything from top to bottom. From 1998 to 2003 I studied Persian literature in Tehran University. As a journalist I’ve started my activity since 2006 in newspapers and magazines that constantly have been banned." Thank you Alireza Gholami that you have sent me your conversation for to publish it on Zeitzug. I remember a conversation with Viktor Erofeyev at the Prague Writers' Festival 2005. Milena Findeis
Viktor Erofeyev was born in Moscow in 1947.The son of a high-ranking Soviet diplomat, Erofeyev spent much of his childhood in Paris. He graduated from Moscow State University in 1970 with a degree in Literature and Languages. He continued on to Gorkij´s Institute for World Literature in Moscow, receiving a kandidat degree in 1975 after a thesis on Dostoyevsky, whose works influenced his own.
He began his career as a writer with the novel Good Stalin; his Russian Beauty became a bestseller and was translated into many languages, as well as his collection of short stories Anna´s Body: The End of Russian Avant-Garde. He also organized Metropol, his own literary magazine, which was published in Samizdat to avoid Soviet censorship.
His anthology Russian Flowers of Evil (1997) provoked many reactions, and Erofeyev, encouraged by its success, published second volume of the works by Russian youngest generation of writers in 2001, along with his manifesto, where he presented himself as a theorist of a new trend.