They used to be afraid, but now they don't notice

In recent times it's become common to compare the present day with the Soviet period - sometimes regretting its passing, sometimes condemning its return. I've always been interested in the relationship between the two periods, because I was born and raised in the USSR by Soviet Communist parents. I don't have a bad word to say about them, not just because I naturally respect them but because now that I'm a father myself, I understand how hard it is to bring up children. It's certainly harder than writing novels. But there were many reasons why I couldn't follow in my father's footsteps. To find my own sense of Russianness I only had to jostle through the collapse of a great country, which happened before my eyes and created all sorts of feelings in me. I'm less inclined than ever to make light of this issue and give simple answers.

I've never felt "nostalgia for the USSR." People quickly forget everything: that's the way we are. The harder things are for us today, the more it seems things were better back then. Moreover, for literature maybe the Soviet period was actually better - a writer's word carried more weight and struck a deeper chord, and that's why writers came in for harsher punishment. In those days they used to be afraid, but now they don't notice - and that's not just sad, it's almost a mistake. Still, we can't judge a period by one criterion, even if it's that very important one, the impact of our words. Regretting the past, just like damning it, is pointless.

People today need to conform - voting for the right party, buying whatever brand is being advertised, watching the films and reading the books that are being promoted. Any writer who wants success has to fit in with this process. Even the concept of success has become key in our society. When I was young, twenty to twenty-five years ago, values were different - friendship, unselfishness, integrity. But now everything's changed, and not necessarily for the better. I was born and raised in a country and environment where it was shameful to be rich, but now I find myself in a world where it's shameful to be poor. Yes, shameful, in the eyes of my wife, my children, my friends. I felt this very keenly back in the 1990s, when although I was a writer and university lecturer I had to dodge the tram fare when I was taking my son to kindergarten - I was afraid every time a passenger got on, because he might be an inspector. Maybe that's why today I don't condemn anyone who only writes for the money. It's worse when today some rich, successful commercial operator who writes novels for "spiritual" reasons, not financial, as he sees it, suddenly decides he's a writer, sets up his own publishing house, makes a big splash in the world of literature and then begins to buy up all the advertising and human space around him so that his voice will be heard all the more loudly. That's when pure scoundrels really start to set the tone.

We live in a mercenary age, in every sense of the word. Sad or not, that's the reality. However, we can all still make our own choices. I think that despite everything we should take our own stance, speak with our own voice, steer our own course and fear nothing.

I've written a lot about our "troubled past", about the Nineties, but almost nothing about the "Noughties". Perhaps it's to do with my age, and I simply find it more interesting now to write historical works and do documentary research. But maybe it's because I have less feeling for the present day, I understand it less. All the same, even when I go back in history to the first half of the twentieth century - a period that I can't bring myself to call the past, because it's so close - and research the biographies of people who lived then, I want to understand something through them for myself. And I see how people lived in much tougher times than today: writers like Mikhail Bulgakov and Andrey Platonov, Aleksey Tolstoy and Mikhail Prishvin. Some of them were successful in their own lifetime, some were happy, some unhappy, but each had their own sense of meaning, their own unique content, that helped them express their gift. Sometimes fate is very harsh on a writer, sometimes it's generous, but a writer's life is always one of resistance. We have to try to love this life and be thankful for it.

Aleksey Varlamov, winner of the Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn Prize (2006) and the Big Book Prize (2007).

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