I am very excited to present this special guest post by Irene W. Galaktionova, a Russian freelance writer and journalist specializing in the subjects of Russian literature, history and culture.
Officially, Russian post-apocalyptic fiction starts in 1828. At that time, all Russians, educated and illiterate alike, expected Halley’s Comet to collide with the Earth in 1835. A few Russian writers started fantasizing what the planet would be like once the comet had destroyed our civilization.
In 1828, Vladimir Odoevsky – a leading Russian wordsmith of the time – wrote Two Days in the Life of the Globe, a futuristic novella that depicted the comet’s apocalypse and its consequences. It was followed by Ivan Gurianov’s The 1832 Comet (1832), Mikhail Pogodin’s Halley’s Comet (1833) and by Odoevsky’s novel, 4338 (1834). The novel, which remained unfinished due to Odoevsky’s death, depicted a futuristic humanity in 4338 which had survived the comet apocalypse in 1835 and was now facing another: the arrival of Biela’s Comet in 4339.
But the first Russian PA novel translated into English was We by Eugene Zamyatin (1921). It is probably best known for the fact that it was the major inspiration behind George Orwell’s 1984 who regarded Zamyatin’s book as an artistic challenge and decided to write his answer to it. But the two are dramatically different: 1984 is a very realistic piece of fiction whilst We is written from a futuristic and almost inhuman point of view. There’s no nuclear threat in it yet, but there is some major world war/catastrophe implied that had divided the world into two camps: a responsible and well-organized One State behind a crystal wall and the rest of the planet.
The book was published in Europe in 1924, but at first it didn’t create problems in Russia for Zamyatin as the first years after the revolution were very tolerant to all philosophies, even anti-communist. It was only when Stalin started gaining the upper hand in the late 1920s that he initiated massive attacks on creative artists, so in 1929 the novel was heavily criticized and Zamyatin had to leave Russia in 1931. He was in fact the first writer who suffered from Stalin’s literary purges, and it was the criticism of We that triggered the whole book-banning hysteria in the Soviet Union.
We exists in at least six English translations, all available at Amazon, but I’m at a loss to recommend any in particular. They all have their strengths and weaknesses. The novel itself is quite graphic in places, depicting torture and public executions: definitely not a comfort read. I suggest you have a look at Amazon samples of the book and decide which one you like best.
After the show trial over We, the Russian science fiction – like all literature in the Soviet Union – was obliged to depict only positive scenarios. Socialist doctrine dictated that humanity would progress from one achievement to the next and viewed any negative scenarios as unnatural and defeatist. The Soviet people were told that they were all heading to a bright and happy future, and that people in the West were wise enough to prevent any PA-like scenarios from happening.
Don’t forget that common Russian people had no idea of the inner workings of the Soviet government and sincerely believed that the world would one day unite in peace and harmony. And the Russian authorities were only too happy to support this belief by making sure no PA tendencies made it into print.
The only novel that could marginally qualify as Soviet PA is the Roadside Picnic by the Strugatsky brothers (1972). It’s not really PA as the book deals with the consequences of an alien landing site in a poor and deteriorating Europe. But when the Chernobyl catastrophe struck in 1986, readers noticed its striking resemblance to the Roadside Picnic plot, and in 2007, the story served as a base for a PA game series S.T.A.L.K.E.R. set in the Chernobyl zone. After that, the novel itself started to qualify as PA.
The Chernobyl catastrophe inspired another leading Russian writer and journalist, Tatiana Tolstaya, to start her post-apocalyptic novel The Slynx. It took her fourteen years to finish this tongue-in-cheek satire where the post-nuclear Russians survive in medieval villages whose names are suspiciously reminiscent of today’s Moscow suburbs and whose settlers are threatened by new rulers as well as all sorts of mutated (and quite hilarious) wildlife, of which the deadliest is the Slynx.
In the early 2000s, the post-apocalyptic genre has blossomed in Russia, mainly due to the success of numerous game tie-ins. Today, new books are written after recent PA games, and new PA games are created after recent PA novels. Metro 2033 by Dmitry Glukhovsky, published in 2007, was the first of the new wave of Russian PA novels, although not the first one to be turned into a video game. Set in the deadly world of Moscow’s vast underground system inhabited by mutants and the dregs of post-nuclear society, it was later turned into a video game of the same name and followed by the sequel, Metro 2034.
But the most popular Russian post-apocalyptic setting is, of course, the S.T.A.L.K.E.R. game series started in 2007.The game (and the following tie-in novels), based loosely on the Strugatskys’ novella Roadside Picnic and their short story The Forgotten Experiment, is set in an alternative Earth where the Chernobyl catastrophe took place in 2006. The heroes’ militaristic adventures in the Zone rife with mutated enemies were immediately developed into S.T.A.L.K.E.R.-based books.
In total, eighty-three S.T.A.L.K.E.R. novels and short story anthologies have been published in Russia since 2007, but none of them have been translated into English as yet. Russian readers’ demand for the new genre exceeded publishers’ wildest dreams. S.T.A.L.K.E.R. was followed by a succession of post-apocalyptic novels and series like Death Zone, Apocalyptic, Kremlin 2222, Z.O.N.A and The Nuclear City. But arguably the most original on the list was TechnoTma (“tma” meaning “darkness” in Russian).
Ex-S.T.A.L.K.E.R. writers Andrei Levitsky and Alex Bobl, together with their fellow authors Victor Nochkin, Victor Glumov and Roman Kulikov have dreamed up a post-war world where the Black Sea has dried out and the South of Russia has turned into a nuclear wasteland inhabited by feuding clans of oil traders and mutated farmers. The eight novels tell the stories of several protagonists who have to fight together in order to oppose a new and immediate danger: the Dominators, an alien force which attempts to take over the devastated Earth.
Alex Bobl says:
“TechnoTma follows the stories of its four protagonists: soldier of furtune Yegor Razin (he figures in The Password Eternity, Sand Blues and the following books), a farmer-turned-soldier Turan Jai (The Wastelands Clans, The Wastelands Warrior, etc), Albino, an ex Crimean Mountain dweller who had left his home to become a humble messenger (Barbarians of the Crimea and Sand Blues – where, incidentally, he meets Yegor Razin) and finally, young Vic Casper from a Moscow mercenary clan (Jagger and The Last Battle).”
There are talks now about having some of the TechnoTma books published in English. With any luck, they might come out on Amazon some time in winter 2012-2013. You can see brief extracts from the novels describing some of the TechnoTma world here: http://boblak.blogspot.com/2012/03/dark-times-vehicles.html
In the meantime, Andrei Levitsky and Alex Bobl have initiated more PA projects. Alex Bobl’s latest standalone novel, Memoria. The Corporation of Lies, describes New York City struggling to come back to normal after a devastating civil war. This is a different post-apocalyptic scenario: rightless and penniless New Yorkers enthusiastically support each other helping to build a better future ruled by justice and hope. Memoria. A Corporation of Lies is coming out in English early this summer.
The latest project to date is also the most original. Andrei Levitsky has started the Invasion (Nashestvie) post-apocalyptic series which he co-writes with his readers. On Levitsky’s website, anyone can suggest their own ideas and discuss those by other PA fans. The readers then decide how the next installment should develop and Andrei Levitsky writes it based on their suggestions. He says about writing the first novel:
“You’d think that writing the book itself would be easier, wouldn’t you? Quite the opposite. It was exhausting. I had to work to a strict deadline: a week to discuss all the possible plot alternatives with the readers, and another week to actually write it up. Good job I had a lot of co-authoring experience when there’s no way you can let the other writer down or take a sabbatical waiting for inspiration to come.”
He seems to be right: Russian post-apocalyptic writers don’t need to wait for inspiration! I just hope we’ll be able to read their best work in English soon.
To view more of Irene’s writings, visit her blog Read Russian Books in English, where she reviews “fun and interesting” Russian books in English translation, primarily science fiction, fantasy, mystery and romance.