“Russian novelist” is a weighty phrase.
When I hear it, I brace for war, love, history, the high church, and earth-shaking politics; for an epic story that feels intimate. The names of the great Russian writers are like monuments: Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Chekhov, Nabokov.
But literature is not a dead man’s game; it’s a living conversation. And I prefer today’s Russian writers to the old masters. Have you heard of Victor Pelevin, who writes trippy satirical novels about werewolves in Siberia and little old ladies in Moscow? I have read every English translation of Victor Pelevin that I have gotten my hands on. And Ludmilla Petrushevskaya, who writes “scary fairy tales” with titles like There Once Lived a Woman who Tried to Kill Her Neighbor’s Baby? She’s an international treasure. Not to mention Masha Gessen, whose fiercely independent journalism about civil rights in Russia has made her one of the most admirable public figures in the world.
All I’m saying is, today’s Russian writers are crushing it.
That’s why I was excited to get an email, a few months ago, from Andrea Gregovich. She’s a translator in Alaska, and she had recently completed an English translation of USSR: Diary of a Perestroika Kid by Vladimir Kozlov. Andrea was looking for a small press like Fiction Advocate to help her publish USSR as an e-book. I didn’t know Andrea, and I had never heard of Vladimir. But I printed the manuscript and started to read it on a plane. Before the flight attendants came down the aisle with beverages, I already knew that we were going to publish USSR as more than just an e-book.
Who is Vladimir Kozlov? If you Google his name, you’ll find a 300-pound Ukrainian professional wrestler who won a Tag Team Championship in the WWE. That is not our Vladimir Kozlov. Ours is a writer from the former Soviet republic of Belarus who has a reputation for chronicling Russia’s gritty street life and its punk music scene. His books have sold thousands of copies in Russia and France. In America, Andrea’s translations of Vladimir’s work have been published in Best European Fiction 2014 and in magazines like AGNI and Hayden’s Ferry Review. The novelist Jeff Parker calls Vladimir Kozlov “the Chuck Klosterman of Russia.” Personally I think USSR is like a fucked-up Soviet version of The Wonder Years.
But you won’t find anything like USSR: Diary of a Perestroika Kid in America. It’s the story of Igor Rasov, a boy who comes of age in a crumbling industrial town in what was known as the Belarussian Soviet Socialist Republic. For Igor, being Soviet has nothing to do with missile shields or cosmonaut dogs. It’s about trying not to get beat up at school, and getting your first erection while listening to Siberian punk rock. Kozlov’s writing is brutally unsentimental—just quick snippets of dialogue and tough children’s slang. This is the USSR of the 1980s that you would never understand unless you grew up there. And isn’t that what literature—especially literature in translation—is for? To show us what’s behind the iron curtains of the human experience?
Of course we wanted to publish Andrea’s translation of Vladimir’s book. But we had a problem. Vladimir was scheduled to visit the US in just a few months, where he would be speaking at a university and promoting a documentary film about Siberian punk music. If we wanted the author to have copies of his English translation for his American tour, we would have to publish the book, like, instantly. Like, do the whole thing on a two-month schedule. Which is nearly impossible.
So that’s what we did. We scrambled to get the manuscript edited, copyedited, laid out, and proofed in a matter of weeks. Our award-winning designer, Matt Tanner, put aside a number of (better-paying) freelance gigs to create a knockout cover design. And I yelled (nicely) at our printer in Michigan to ship me a box of books twice as fast as usual. And now we have this.
I think it’s beautiful. Matt’s cover design speaks to the ebullient commercialism and propaganda that defined the Cold War ear in both the USSR and the USA. (The colors remind me of the Coca-Cola logo.) And the crushed cigarette tells the rest of the story—how no one was ever as happy, or as secure, as the billboards made it seem.
We were very fortunate to get Mikhail Iossel, a Soviet-born professor who founded the Summer Literary Seminars, to write a glowing foreword to USSR. And before we could even announce the book, a new literary magazine called Cosmonauts Avenue asked if they could publish an excerpt. (They did. It’s here.) Now, after his whirlwind tour of the East Coast and Midwest, Vladimir is coming back to the US to promote USSR with a launch party at the McSweeney’s building in San Francisco on January 4.
So it’s turning out well. We made friends with a new writer and translator, we created a new book in record time, and now you can share in part of the infamous and terrible Soviet experience that would not have been available to us in American otherwise.
Most of all, we’re happy that we can give Vladimir Kozlov and Andrea Gregovich a chance to redefine a phrase that looms large in every passionate reader’s imagination: “Russian novelist.”
– Brian Hurley is Books Editor at The Rumpus and Founder of Fiction Advocate.
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