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The Case Of The Missing Russian Crime Novel

  • Igor Pomeranzev

Plenty of villians, but where are the heroes?

Plenty of villians, but where are the heroes?

Many historians of literature tell us that the heart of the Western novel is property conflict -- conflict over an inheritance or some other sacred bourgeois value. The essence of the Russian novel, on the other hand, is the drama of love, the drama of a soul in torment, the tragedy of a hero misunderstood by his contemporaries.

This explains why Russians have not produced great crime novels in which a shrewd detective doggedly hunts down a wily criminal and brings him to justice. It explains why the names of Russian fictional detectives don't trip off the tongue with the same ease as those of tormented souls from Anna Karenina to the brothers Karamazov.

You may object that Fyodor Dostoyevsky's "Crime And Punishment" is a detective novel, and a great one at that. After all, a young Dostoyevsky (poorly) translated Honore de Balzac's "Eugenie Grandet" and so understood something of the Western traditions of property dramas and financial relations. But "Crime And Punishment" is not about property or financial relations.

Dostoyevsky's impoverished hero, Rodion Raskolnikov, does not split the old pawnbroker's head open with an axe (and murder her sister, who happens to catch him at the scene of the crime) for the sake of the few watches and bits of jewelry that he steals. He does it to satisfy his ego, to assert himself as a "great man," a Napoleon.

Consequently, Dostoyevsky's investigator, Porfiry Petrovich, spends more time psychoanalyzing Raskolnikov, wrestling with him intellectually, and plumbing the depths of his spirit than he does investigating the details of the crime. Agatha Christie's Miss Marple would have hated that.

No Heroes, Only Villains

And then came communism. The classic detective genre had no chance in the Soviet Union. After all, it is all about property and attitudes toward property. But Soviet founder Vladimir Lenin's call to "loot the looters" legitimized criminality and crime -- from the highest levels of state (nationalization) to the most mundane corners of everyday life.

During this period, the great Russian detective novel would have had to solve the crime of the Soviet Leviathan, but what detective (and what writer?) would have risked his neck taking on a job like that?

Soviet crime fiction was as pathetic and impoverished as the living standards of the Soviet people. Soviet citizens were prohibited from owning virtually any property. They considered themselves lucky to have a car or a dacha in the country (even then, the state still owned the land and could easily forbid the planting of potatoes or fruit trees on it).

Soviet children and grandchildren didn't poison their relatives or push people off cliffs for the sake of an inheritance or to gain control of the family business. There was no inheritance; it was simply impossible to accumulate one.

It was forbidden to save foreign currency (even the relatively liberal Nikita Khrushchev had black-market currency traders shot). It was risky and politically suspect to collect art (and impossible to sell it for its worth). It was forbidden to trade jewelry.

Who was there for the villain to rob? The impoverished? The penniless? The terrified? And what Soviet reader was going to be enthralled by a detective story in which the hero is a Soviet cop chasing after a "criminal" who was brave enough to thumb his nose at the system?

There were some exceptions. After World War II, millions of young men returned from Europe with considerable experience killing and looting under their belts. Some of them carried on this activity at home, and a number of books were written on this theme -- of course, without ever acknowledging the scope of the problem. But this subgenre is not really classic detective fiction.

Defending Real Values

Which brings us to the spy novel. Because the entire Soviet ideology was a sham, Soviet spies -- in real life and in literature -- always seemed, at best, to be mere shadows and, at worst, caricatures. A Graham Green or a John le Carre simply could not exist in Soviet literature.

It seems naive, but good spy fiction requires heroes who either defend or betray real values -- freedom, democracy, human rights. A communist spy could not be a hero any more than a Nazi spy could -- unless he was betraying the antihuman ideology he purported to serve. And that, of course, was impossible.

One notable exception was the series of novels "Seventeen Moments Of Spring" by Yulian Semyonov, which was made into a massively popular television serial. The hero of the series was a Soviet spy named Maksim Isayev who was a deep-cover agent working inside the Gestapo under the name Max Otto von Stirlitz. Stirlitz became a genuine cult figure in the Soviet Union and even starred in a whole genre of jokes, the supreme accolade in Soviet culture.

And why was Stirlitz so popular? It wasn't just because of the tremendous talents of the author, the director of the serial (Tatyana Lioznova), or its star actor (Vyacheslav Tikhonov).

The war against Nazism was the only time in Soviet history when the interests of the people coincided with the interests of the state. As a result, the Soviet agent was carrying out a mission that was both dangerous and noble. The Nazis were a real enemy, and fighting them was a duty that every decent person could identify with.

Good vs. Evil


And what about Russia today? Hundreds of detective stories have been written and published in the post-Soviet years. But the absence of a literary tradition is reflected in their quality, which as a rule is extremely low.

Russian crime fiction has acquired a new hero -- the private detective -- and the undisputed champion of the genre is Boris Akunin, who has written more than a dozen crime novels and has been widely appreciated by discerning readers. He has been translated into many languages.

Akunin prefers to work with historical material. I asked him recently if he draws on the situation in Russia today in crafting his historical fiction. "I put everything that occupies my mind into my novels," he told me.

"Unfortunately, thoughts about politics in modern Russia are there all the time. So allusions and parallels are inevitable, even when you are writing about the distant past."

Akunin's tsarist-era detectives are positive heroes, while political terrorists are the real evildoers. This is what crime-fiction readers have always wanted -- for heroes to be heroes and for the bad guys to be truly bad. In the classic detective novel, even the most sophisticated, good must be good and evil must be evil. Dialecticism is for other genres.

Igor Pomerantsev is a correspondent for RFE/RL's Russian Service. Translated from the Russian by Frank Williams. The views expressed in this commentary are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL
Interview: Boris Akunin
Boris Akunin is the pen name of Grigory Chkhartishvili, a literary scholar, translator, and novelist. He has written more than a dozen best-selling detective novels, mostly set in the tsarist era.

Akunin's novels have been widely translated and in 2003, the British Crime Writers Association placed Akunin's "The White Queen" on the short list for its Dagger Award for Fiction. Akunin's latest thriller is called "The Falcon And The Swallow."

RFE/RL Russian Service correspondent Igor Pomerantsev recently chatted with the author. (A video interview with Akunin in English is available here.

RFE/RL: Does crime fiction have a nationality, or does the genre itself mean more than the language it's written in?

Boris Akunin: That depends on the subgenre. There are "classic" detective novels in which everything depends on the unpredictability of the ending. For this category, the nationality of the narrator isn't so important.

There are "atmospheric" stories, where the texture is often more important than the plot. Though the top "ethno-detective" authors are usually foreigners -- [Robert Hans] van Gulik, Donna Leon, [Alexander] McCall Smith....

RFE/RL: Does being successful in Russia for a crime writer mean anything different from success in Britain or America?

Akunin:
Like for any non-English-language writer, this success doesn't transfer well. Otherwise, I don't suppose there's much difference.

RFE/RL: Are you interested in the way English or American writers handle the detective genre?

Akunin:
I used to be. Since I started writing myself, I've stopped reading detective or any other kind of fiction. Reading other authors' work is harmful for an active writer. At least, it is for me.

RFE/RL: Is there any fundamental difference between contemporary Russian crime fiction from the Anglo-Saxon equivalent?

Akunin:
I don't know. As I say, I don't read contemporary Russian detective novels. Or non-Russian, either.

RFE/RL: Do you take the new Russian political reality into account in your writing? I mean, the failure of fledgling democracy.

Akunin:
I put everything that occupies my mind into my novels. Unfortunately, thoughts about politics in modern Russia are there all the time. So allusions and parallels are inevitable, even if you're writing about the distant past.

RFE/RL: Which would be your top five Russian and Soviet detective novels?

Akunin:
In the USSR the detective genre existed in embryonic form. In Russian literature as a whole, only [Fyodor Dostoyevsky's] "The Brothers Karamazov" come to mind. There, in contrast to "Crime And Punishment," who the criminal is becomes obvious only right at the end.

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