Award-winning Russian author Mikhail Shishkin treated the audience to his interpretation of Russian society, literature, language, and politics in his recent talk on campus titled “In a Boat Scratched on the Wall: Language and Politics in Russia.” Shishkin demonstrated how all of these elements are interconnected. He also read an excerpt from his novel “Maidenhair” and led a discussion.
Visiting Assistant Professor of Russian Marina Aptekman introduced Shishkin, explaining that after she wrote a paper about his work, she met him at a conference in Oxford. Shishkin is one of the most prominent Russian authors of contemporary Russia.
When asked how he got his start writing novels, Shishkin recalled writing his first- one page in length – at the age of 9. He showed it to his mother, who told him to write about what he understood. “Ever since then,” joked Shishkin, “I’ve written about things I don’t understand.”
Despite his jest, he is deeply aware and analytical about his experiences with all things Russian. As he said, “It is not the edges of phrases that wrangle, but the edges of worldviews,” and he certainly has his own worldview.
When Shishkin moved to Switzerland in 1995, he was “trying to understand who I was.” In order to figure this out, he wrote the book he wanted to read: “Russian Switzerland.” When he came to translate this book into German, however, he realized, “You can translate the words, but not the reader,” because he wrote it for Russians who have certain cultural associations, connotations and experiences.
“Words create identities and decide destinies,” he said.
Shishkin described the language of Russian literature poetically as “both creator and creature of social reality” as well as “an arc, a rescue attempt, a hedgehog defense.”
Russian is a language of violence that he tries both to flee and to repossess. He described Russia as one giant prison and writing as his way of fighting the regime. “The territory of my freedom is inside my skull,” he said. Because of this mindset, writing has never been about sales for him, but rather about “answering a question.”
Shishkin described “Maidenhair” as “full of violence and cruelty because life is full of cruelty. It’s not just somewhere in Africa; it’s everywhere.”
The excerpt he read was a series of different answers to the question, “Describe briefly your reasons for seeking asylum.” The answers gave vivid, if brief, examples of the brutality possible at the hands of the state.
“Russia is a fantastic country for scoundrels and honest people who fight against scoundrels,” said Shishkin. “It’s not a good country for normal people who don’t want to fight, who just want to make a living for their families.”
As a ray of hope, on the other hand, he also said that the novel resurrects his mother, specifically her life through World War I, the Russian civil war, and World War II. In the midst of suffering, his mother was longing and looking for love; that’s why she thought she was here. “This was not naiveté but wisdom,” he said, because looking for love lightened her darkness so that she could bear it.
He described Russian history as a train that runs back and forth between totalitarianism and glasnost. Currently, the state controls what is televised. Now that a middle class is emerging between the very rich and the very poor, Shishkin is optimistic that when Putin is gone, the state will not be so strong and there will be a movement back toward informational openness.
As of today, Shishkin is considered among the most prominent and famous Russian writers of contemporary Russia. In addition to winning Le prix du meilleur livre étranger (2005), he has won the Russian Booker Prize (2000); following its publication in Russia in 2005, “Maidenhair” was awarded both the National Bestseller Prize and the Big Book prize, and in 2011 it was awarded the Preis des Hauses der Kulturen der Welt, in Berlin. His latest novel, “Letter-Book,” won the Russian Big Book prize in 2011. His novels have been translated into 25 languages.
Shiskin has worked as a school teacher and a journalist. In 1995, he moved to Switzerland, where he worked as a Russian and German translator for asylum seekers. He now splits his time between Moscow and Zurich.
The talk was sponsored by the Russian area studies, writing and rhetoric, and English departments, and the Office of the Provost.