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Treasure in the mountains

The harsh climate and hostile living conditions in the Urals are proving to be fertile territory for literary minds. By Sonja Margolina

After the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991, Boris Yeltsin promised Russia's various regions "as much independence as you can carry." Soon the Tatars were clamoring for extensive autonomy, the governor of Yekaterinburg, Eduard Rossel, declared a "Urals Republic," and ferment erupted in the Caucasus. Under Putin, the regions have been forced to hand the autonomy they had "carried off" back to the Moscow power centre. But during that chaotic decade, which was characterized by social upheaval and an elemental struggle for survival, local identities began to crystallize.

The distancing of the Russian provinces from Moscow has thus far brought little change to the intellectual provincialism of the regions. Only the rocky Urals have turned out to provide fertile soil for a cultural blossoming. There are in particular three literary figures from the Urals who need fear no comparison with modern writers from other areas: Alexei Ivanov, 38, from Perm; Igor Sakhnovsky, 50, from Yekaterinburg, and Olga Slavnikova. These authors are noteworthy for the variety of genres in which they work – short stories, historical novels, intellectual thrillers, fantasy, social-issue novels – and for their stylistic mastery, richness of language and use of local colour. Even eroticism, which tends to be denigrated in literary circles today as almost an outdated, compulsively repetitious theme, makes an unexpected comeback in Sakhnovsky's short story collection, "The Happy and the Mad" (2003). The intensity and refinement of treatment, the striking freshness and casualness of the erotic experience, prompt the reader to virtually swallow the book down at a gulp.

Alexei Ivanov's "Bluda v MUDO"

Alexei Ivanov's eroticism, however, is of a very different kind. In his recently published novel "Bluda v MUDO" (which translates roughly into "Obscenity and Balls" and has a particularly obscene ring in Russian) this many-sided and productive author creates a social portrait of a provincial milieu seen from the perspective of the artist Morshov, a divorced, sex-obsessed, former alcoholic. The title of this novel anticipates the easy-going character of a loosely structured, baroque work in which obscene language functions as a natural element of communication and thought. Morshov expends his intellectual and artistic energy either on prostitutes or else on a group of young female teachers at an unofficial Education Centre (MUDO) who project their erotic longings onto their local male clients.

In the story, the MUDO is threatened with closure. And so to demonstrate their irreplaceability, the teachers organize a summer camp to which they pretend to invite a group of American children. They fear discovery by the Department of Education. Morshov masterminds the scam and spurs the sleepy provincial town's inhabitants, its petty criminals and unsatisfied womenfolk, to push to keep the MUDO open.

With virtuosity the author picks his way through the language of the gutter, its routine ordinariness sounding especially grotesque in the mouths of children. Integrated into intellectual reflections and enriched by Internet jargon, Ivanov's linguistic gymnastics are reminiscent of the ingenious, inexhaustible outpourings of Venedikt Erofeev. The baroque language aestheticises the inscrutable, self-destructive life of the provincial town, lifting it off the ground. In Ivanov's novel, insatiable drives and the high art of education, deprivation and the sense of duty, a flourishing imagination and the stupidity of its protagonists, combine to provide a portrait of Russian life which reveals more about the real conditions in that country than would hundreds of sociological analyses.

Olga Slavnikova's "2017"

The latest novel by Olga Slavnikova, "2017" (published 2006) ends with the hero's flight on the one-hundredth anniversary of the October Revolution. At the end of the 1980s Krylov, the son of Russian refugees from Central Asia, arrives in an industrial city in the "Riphaeia" – the name which Slavnikova uses to designate the Urals, deriving it from the ancient name Riphaei monte. It is in the city's gutters, where violence is "the only form of the love of life," that the protagonist learns his life lessons. Krylov fights, steals, acts as a pusher, and manages to get into university. At an early age he discovers his feeling for stones. During his university studies he meets a boring character, one Professor Anfilogov, who leads a second life as a chetnik, an illegal collector of precious stones. The professor recognizes Krylov's talent and brings him into his workshop.

In the novel, two themes – the homeless love of Krylov and Tanya, and Anfilogov's greed for gemstones (which eventually costs him his life) – are embedded in the chaotic, borderline-criminal everyday life of Yekaterinburg and linked to Ural myths and expeditions to the taiga to form a gripping thriller. Krylov's ex-wife Tamara, the wealthy owner of an undertaker's business, has Krylov shadowed and discovers the name of his lover, who turns out to be the wife of the gem-obsessed Prof. Anfilogov. The latter's death, in turn, is caused by a field of rubies in the taiga which has been polluted by one of Tamara's companies. Tanya inherits the professor's Swiss bank account and other assets, and her sudden wealth causes her to lose interest in Krylov. She also loses the protection of powerful patrons and is earmarked as an assassination target.

In the meantime, something is brewing in the country. The carnivalesque celebrations for the 100th anniversary of the Revolution develop into a sort of deja-vu uprising. Demonstrators dressed as Red and White Guards fight real battles, acts of terrorism occur, and in Moscow the aging Russian president is whisked off to hospital. Krylov, unwilling to wait until the rebellion catches up with him, flees with a laden rucksack, presumably containing the treasures of the Urals.

It is no accident that, after a decade of chaos, the rocky Urals should emerge as the birthplace of great contemporary prose. The Soviet weapons makers hired the best brains in science and technology from across the USSR. Their talented and risk-embracing offspring went their own ways, profiting from the post-Soviet chaos and from the distinctive genius loci: the lure and magic of the treasures buried deep in the mountains. In the 1990s, when governmental controls had ceased to function, the obsession with gemstones reached fever pitch and the ancient mythology of the Urals region experienced a renaissance. With its harsh climate, social and ecological problems, its impoverished underclass and criminal upper class, the Urals are near unparalleled in this vast land as a treasure trove for the literary imagination.


This article originally appeareared in German in the Süddeutsche Zeitung on 21 November, 2007.
Sonja Margolina is an author and journalist living in Berlin. "Das Ende der Lügen" (the end of lies, 1992) is published by Siedler Verlag. "Wodka" (vodka, 2004), is published by Wolf Jobst Siedler jr. Verlag.

Translation: Myron Gubitz - let's talk european