Oligarchs and Graphomaniacs

Oligarchs and Graphomaniacs

No one dies for poetry anymore, not even in Russia. Enter the oligarchs, who steer clear of Putin’s ire by sponsoring literary prizes.


In the Soviet Union, literary prizes were awarded in the Kremlin, the proceedings broadcast on the national television channel. Writers could be honored with the Lenin Prize, the State Prize of the USSR or the Award of the Komsomol. The editor of a major literary journal could be a member of the Supreme Soviet, with a rank equivalent to that of a field marshal. Literature, like the other arts, was either official or unofficial. Official literature was written by unionized writers, approved by the government and published by state presses. Unofficial literature could not be published and could not receive awards; it could, however, carry a lengthy prison sentence. Writers were important people.

When the Soviet Union dissolved, the government lost its monopoly on literary prizes, among other commodities. Russia’s first independent arts award, the Triumph Prize, was sponsored by the newly minted oligarch Boris Berezovsky (who, after a decade-long exile in London, died in an apparent suicide in March). The first prize ceremony was held in 1992, at Moscow’s Bolshoi Theater. At a time when it was hard to get food, let alone books or magazines, the ceremony was a lavish event, with a bountiful buffet and a hefty prize purse. The artists invited were glad for a good meal.

During the corrupt, chaotic process of privatization, a handful of businessmen acquired lucrative state enterprises at cut-rate prices, becoming multimillionaires overnight. To the people, they were thieves, and the oligarchs found it necessary to rebrand themselves. They did so, in part, by drawing on pre-revolutionary models of art patronage. In the later nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth, industrialists like Savva Mamontov (who opened his own private opera and was said to possess “a sort of electric current that ignited other people’s energies”) and Pavel Tretyakov (whose art collection became one of Russia’s best museums) had supported artists who left a lasting mark on world culture. These patrons were called “Maecenases”: wealthy, powerful men motivated by a passion for art and the desire to bring glory to their country. They were filthy rich, but they were also the good guys.

And so, starting in the 1990s, Russia’s oligarchs made like Maecenases, collecting art, supporting the theater and sponsoring literary prizes. Many also donated large sums to charity—usually to crowd-pleasing causes like orphans, pensioners, veterans and medical aid. They came to be called “philanthropists,” although, like philanthropists elsewhere, they were motivated largely by self-interest. Businessmen often concentrated their charity work in their hometowns or in the places where their businesses were located; for those running for office, this had the convenient side effect of winning votes. Others scored political points for providing social benefits that were no longer the government’s responsibility, taking some of the sting out of the demise of the Soviet welfare state. Putin’s government has made it clear that it supports this practice; some observers say that government-approved philanthropy constitutes an unofficial tax.

Most Russian philanthropists steered 
clear of explicitly political causes. One exception was Mikhail Khodorkovsky, who became the richest man in Russia thanks to his acquisition, during privatization, of the oil company Yukos. His 2003 arrest for fraud and tax evasion was widely attributed to his economic and political challenges to the government—especially his attempt to sell Yukos—but he also supported opposition parties and human rights groups. Khodorkovsky is now Putin’s official nemesis. The proceedings against him have been the defining show trials of the Putin administration; only the Pussy Riot affair, in which three young women were prosecuted for a protest performance in a Moscow church (two are currently incarcerated), has received as much attention.

Philanthropists have heeded the cautionary tale of Khodorkovsky, supporting cultural and charitable activities while avoiding issues like human rights, the environment, Chechnya and freedom of the press. Meanwhile, the Russian government has imposed increasingly oppressive regulations on NGOs and foreign donations. In September 2012, Russia expelled the US Agency for International Development, which supported election oversight and human rights organizations. As Russia repositions itself as a donor country and makes it increasingly hard for outsiders to support Russian NGOs, foreign aid is drying up. This has caused difficulties for politically contentious Russian NGOs, many of which have relied on foreign support to survive. But a lack of funding isn’t the worst of it: in March, prosecutors raided the offices of hundreds of NGOs, searching for violations of a recent law intended to prevent foreign meddling in Russian politics, and to provide an easy way to close down troublesome NGOs.

Andrei Skoch, who sponsors the Debut Prize, is a fairly typical example of the new Russian philanthropist. He made his fortune in metals and holds a seat in the Russian Parliament, where he is a member of Putin’s party, United Russia. His philanthropic impulses began, he says, when his wife gave birth to quadruplets in 1994. He claims that without the proper medical services in Russia, he was forced to take his wife abroad to give birth; the experience inspired him to help the less fortunate. His charitable activities have been focused largely in his hometown and voting district, Belgorod. They include the provision of free cars and medical care for veterans, the elderly, and families with more than five children, as well as support for the local Orthodox Church.

Skoch told me in an interview that he worries about the world in which his eight children will grow up, and that he wants them to be able to speak in “real Russian.” This, it seems, accounts for his sponsorship of the Debut Prize, which supports the publication, translation and promotion of the work of Russian-language writers under 35. (The contest is open to anyone who writes in Russian, including émigrés and writers from former Soviet states.) Skoch does not have much passion for literature himself—though he had a brief poetic blossoming in his youth, after he was betrayed by his fiancée. When asked to name his favorite writer, he had to think for a while before citing Pushkin, Russia’s literary god. Asked to name his favorite foreign writer, he thought even longer before deciding on Jack London, who, as a socialist, was one of the few Soviet-approved Western writers. Pressed further on his reasons for supporting a literary prize, he laughed and said, referring to the many oligarchs who have bought sports teams, “I wasn’t interested in soccer, so why not support literature instead?”

Skoch and others involved with the Debut Prize see it as a project addressing social as well as cultural needs. The head of the prize jury told me that it was hard work to sort through the thousands of submissions, some of them handwritten. But, he said, better to be a graphomaniac than a narcomaniac. The graphomaniac, or compulsive writer, is a familiar figure in Russian culture. So is the narcomaniac: drug addiction is rampant in Russia. Neither the state nor any Russian philanthropists support drug treatment according to international standards, or HIV prevention for people who inject drugs. Russia’s HIV epidemic continues to grow, and it seems unlikely that graphomania will displace drug addiction anytime soon.

Victor Ivaniv, a poet who did not win, spoke at the Debut Prize ceremony in December about a period when he wrote eighty-five “poetic messages” to the friends who rescued him. (He didn’t specify from what.) Hollow-eyed, spitting out his words, he said, “I would like the cup of sorrow that we drank together to become a golden… sunny… tambourine.”

The auditorium burst into laughter.

“I have always believed that the truth we read in books should become the truth of reality,” he concluded, rather balefully.

As with the other young nominees, Ivaniv’s statement was prerecorded and projected onto a giant screen. The videos featured many extreme close-ups, with no effort to conceal writerly pallor, blemishes or facial tics. Even Chekhov would have looked strange in such lighting. Nervous tongues darted between crooked, stained teeth. Tiny, computer-generated comets whizzed behind enormous writerly heads. The real writers standing onstage looked very small in comparison. Some shifted from side to side, eyes downcast; others trembled. After each prize was announced, models emerged to give trophies to the winners and iPads to the less fortunate. No one looked very happy about the iPad.

Evgeny Babushkin won the prize for short prose. “We need a new proletarian literature,” he proclaimed with a winning, slightly goofy grin that made it hard to tell whether he was serious. “I want to write for those whose lives have been lost on the assembly line.” There was more laughter.

In an interview published the next day, Babushkin told the Russian newspaper Arguments and Facts:

People are afraid of the word “proletariat”…. But the proletariat is us, all of us…. People who work for hire. People who spend all their time and strength on survival…. In Russia today, writers write either about relatively affluent people who have the time and strength for subtler forms of suffering, or about “simple people” in a vacuum, as if there’s no oppression or alienation or larger society…. If you’ve been fortunate, congratulations, but don’t you dare to say that others are failures. Remember that most people have never had any luck at all. But there’s hope…the world we live in is far from the best of all worlds, but a better world is possible.

For all his modern veneer—he is a journalist who writes for the glossy new magazine Snob—Babushkin evokes old ideas of the writer’s responsibility to help emancipate the oppressed by presenting a true picture of their suffering. His favorite writers are those of the 1920s and ’30s: Babel, Platonov.

Russian society has a history of placing exceptionally high importance on literature and the word. Imperial Russia and the Soviet Union were both characterized by harsh censorship; one mark of Pushkin’s eminence was that the czar censored him personally. Many of Russia’s greatest writers endured exile and imprisonment. And the czars weren’t paranoid: literature played an important role in the events leading up to the revolution.

Well aware of the power of literature, the Soviets were even stricter censors than the imperial authorities had been. Many writers were killed or exiled, and many more were blacklisted. Soviet censors strove to eliminate not only political dissent but any hint of ambiguity. Irony was prohibited because it relied on potentially subversive double meanings—but also, as the writer Viktor Erofeev suggested in 1990, because it undermined the “serious view of literature as a social enlightener.” The desperate Soviet attempts to control literature only affirmed its power. Meanwhile, writers and readers developed increasingly sophisticated methods of writing and reading between the lines. Some Soviet-era literature is so densely encoded as to be nearly incomprehensible to an outsider.

In 1965–66, Andrei Sinyavsky and Yuli Daniel were the defendants in a show trial that marked the end of Khrushchev’s somewhat more liberal policy toward the arts. The two writers were convicted on charges of anti-Soviet agitation and propaganda, based on ideas expressed by their fictional characters. Daniel was sentenced to five years in a labor camp, Sinyavsky to seven. The cruelty and injustice of such repressions are obvious—but censorship can also have a perversely encouraging effect. In Sinyavsky’s satirical 1960 story “Graphomaniacs,” one failed writer tells another:

All you hear everywhere is “graphomania, graphomania.” A mediocrity, in other words. But I tell them (not aloud of course, but privately, in the secret parts of my soul): “To hell with the lot of you! After all, there are such people as drunkards, for example, there are profligates, sadists, drug addicts…. And I—I’m a graphomaniac! Like Pushkin, like Leo Tolstoy!…” We live in a remarkable country. 
Everybody writes, including schoolgirls and old-age pensioners…. But do you know what we owe it to? To censorship. Yes, censorship is the dear old mother who’s cherished us all. Abroad, things are simpler and 
harsher. Some lord brings out a wretched book of vers libre, and immediately it’s spotted as crap. No one reads it and no one buys it, so the lord takes up useful work…. But we live our whole lives in pleasant ignorance, flattering ourselves with hopes…. And this is marvelous! Why, damn it, the state itself gives you the right—the invaluable right—to regard yourself as an unacknowledged genius.

American writers are familiar with the manifest injustices of the literary marketplace. They are also accustomed to feeling outrage on behalf of censored writers abroad, signing petitions from Amnesty International or PEN. But Sinyavsky’s story addresses some of the aspects of state control of literature that we consider less often. Censorship could spare writers the humiliation of failure in the open market, notorious for its fickleness and questionable taste. And the coded language of censored literature, combined with the extraordinarily high stakes, encouraged a kind of patient, attentive reading that becomes rare when books are just another entertainment, long-winded narratives in a world of memes.

Repressed Soviet writers had the chance to become political heroes, even when (as in the case of Joseph Brodsky, for instance) their writing was not explicitly political. Every “unofficial” story or poem became an act of bravery, of protest. Illicit literature was circulated among friends and smuggled abroad; the sheer effort devoted to reading and sharing samizdat texts was a testament to their significance. America has its share of homegrown graphomaniacs, hellbent on becoming the next John Grisham or Jonathan Franzen, but it’s just not the same.

Though Soviet-era writers often suffered terribly, they could take comfort in the central position of literature in society. Remarking 
on what his wife called the “boundless, almost superstitious respect for poetry” among his country’s leaders, the poet Osip Mandelstam remarked, “Why do you complain?… Poetry is respected only in this country—people are killed for it. There’s no place where more people are killed for it.” Nearly half a century later, after emigrating to New York City, 
Eduard Limonov (who was a dissident poet, then a novelist and then, back in Russia, leader of the banned National Bolshevik Party) wrote: “Here a poet is shit, which is why even Joseph Brodsky is miserable in your country…. The best place for a poet is Russia. There, even the authorities fear our kind.”

Soviet authorities didn’t just fear and censor writers; they also subsidized their careers. State financial support saved many writers from having to find other work to support themselves. Though this support was contingent on political conformity, the Soviet Union offered writers generous subsidies as well as jobs that allowed plenty of time and energy for creative efforts. Writing also paid better: a Soviet novelist who published a novel in 1985 with a state publisher could expect an average of four years’ salary for it. By 2000, a novel commanded an average payment of just $1,000. And in a society in which time was not money, readers had more time to read, and writers had more time to write.

No one dies for poetry anymore, not even in Russia, and no one is afraid of poets—unless, like Limonov, they have a personal army of uniformed thugs. Olga Slavnikova, a successful novelist and the director of the Debut Prize, told me that in the early 1990s, she became convinced that no one needed literature anymore. She mourned the days when a book was the best present you could give, when a book could be used to pay a bribe. Few people long for a return to censorship, but many miss the sanctified position of literature in Soviet society.

This is not to say that there is no longer any censorship in Russia. At the Debut Prize ceremony, one of the young writers said, “My chief censor is myself.” This showed a very un-Soviet sense of freedom in literary writing; you don’t have to clear your novel with the censors anymore. But it also testified to the unceasing presence of censorship, even when it is selective and largely self-
imposed. As Maria Lipman wrote several years ago in the Journal of International Affairs, “Today’s Kremlin doesn’t mind free and critical voices as long as they remain politically irrelevant and have no impact on 
decision-making. In other words, Russia has freedom of expression, but no press freedom.” The Internet is largely uncensored, though politically sensitive websites are sometimes shut down. Small newspapers, radio stations and minor TV stations are more or less free to criticize the government, though opposition journalists are being fired with increasing frequency and, in 2012, Parliament recriminalized libel. On the other hand, large TV stations—the favored news source of the majority of the population—are under Kremlin control. Other major outlets, including newspapers, are owned by businessmen with powerful incentives not to offend the authorities. Advertisers, who are usually interested in pleasing the government, help exert a kind of economic censorship, and government subsidies are denied to media outlets that say the wrong thing. Many literary writers support themselves as journalists, living double lives: salaries and censorship by day, unsubsidized freedom at night.

Irina Prokhorova is one of Russia’s leading intellectual figures. She founded one of Russia’s first independent academic journals, the New Literary Observer, which covers cultural history and literary criticism. She runs a publishing house of the same name, which releases a wide variety of high-quality 
Russian and foreign scholarship and literature. Her second journal, NZ: Debates on Politics and Culture, includes articles on political science, philosophy, cultural anthropology and sociology. Prokhorova is also the older sister of Mikhail Prokhorov, who is most familiar to Americans as the owner of the Brooklyn Nets, on which he seems to have spent upward of $530 million. With a net worth of $13 billion, he is one of Russia’s richest men. The siblings collaborate on the Prokhorov Foundation, which supports a range of cultural initiatives, including museums, theaters, art festivals, translations of old and new Russian literature, and cultural journalism. (Prokhorov also funds Snob.) Mikhail Prokhorov’s vast wealth has greatly increased the resources at his sister’s disposal, and the foundation has spent $35 million since it was established in 2004. Prokhorov’s decision to run for president in 2012—and to involve his sister closely in his campaign—brought her widespread media attention.

During the election, Irina Prokhorova took part in a debate on cultural policy with the nationalist film director and actor Nikita Mikhalkov, who stood in for Putin while she stood in for her brother. (Putin does not deign to debate, and Prokhorov followed his lead.) Prokhorova made an eloquent case for the importance of culture in rebuilding Russia, saying, “People talk about the economic crisis…the real crisis is the destruction of educational and cultural structures.” But no matter how hard she tried, Prokhorova could not keep Mikhalkov on topic; he was more interested in holding forth about religion, family values and currency exchange than discussing cultural policy. Agreeing to disagree, Prokhorova closed with praise for the process of open debate, while Mikhalkov issued vague threats about the destruction of Russia should Putin lose. Prokhorova’s performance went viral on the Internet, and she became hugely popular. Many people, including Mikhalkov, said they would rather vote for her than for her brother.

Prokhorova is a compelling voice of intellectual liberalism, in favor of well-funded educational and cultural institutions and a strong, vocal civil society. She argues that 
support for culture not only “reproduces values of individual dignity,” but also helps 
create new economic growth in places like Norilsk, the world’s northernmost city, founded in the 1920s and ’30s as a settlement for a mining and metallurgic complex worked by prisoners. Mikhail Prokhorov and his business partner gained control of 
Norilsk Nickel in a “loans for shares” auction in 1995 (Prokhorov has since sold his share of the enterprise). Norilsk was the first place in which the Prokhorov Foundation operated. According to its annual report, the fund’s goals in the city include “raising the quality [of] standards of living (education, leisure, self-actualization)” and the “pursuit of new reasons to live in the North (new identity and mythology).” Its activities have included grants to investigate and publicize local history and ecological issues. The Prokhorov Foundation helps build civil society, but also, more simply, it aims to make life tolerable in a region that has always been inhospitable but is now actually toxic: Norilsk is one of the most polluted cities in the world. The smelting plants—the largest is called Nadezhda (Hope)—pump out an estimated 100,000 tons of sulfur dioxide each year. Some residents report trouble breathing, and acid rain has killed much of the area’s vegetation.

One wonders whether theater festivals can make up for all that smog. Kirill Medvedev, a poet and socialist activist in Moscow, told me that he takes issue not with Prokhorov’s cultural activities, but with the anti-worker initiatives that he supports, such as a sixty-hour workweek and the legalization of part-time work without benefits. Medvedev, who is devoutly anti-establishment, has renounced copyright and all participation in traditional forms of literary publication. His work has something like the energy of the Russian revolutionary poets: destructive, but with hope for the future. (His poems and essays were recently released in English by n+1/Ugly Duckling Presse under the title It’s No Good.) Medvedev told me that Prokhorov has been an important figure in Russia because he represents “capitalism with a human face” for the liberal intelligentsia, who are more concerned with culture than with economic issues or the fair treatment of workers. In this interpretation, cultural philanthropy is the opiate of the masses—or, at least, of the intellectual elite. Just as charity work masks the failure of the state to provide for the welfare of its citizens, cultural philanthropy masks industrial exploitation.

The Prokhorov Foundation has its own literary prize, NOS. The name refers to Gogol’s famous story about a civil servant whose nose vanishes, only to reappear with a rank higher than that of its owner. It is also an acronym for “new literature” and “new society.” In addition to rewarding good writing, the prize promotes transparency through its public deliberations. Judges sit in front of an audience of journalists and debate until they agree on a winner; the audience and online viewers become more likely to buy the books nominated, wanting to judge for themselves. This is important in part, Prokhorova told me, because the Soviet division of literature into official and illicit no longer applies. Reading is no longer a political choice, and people still aren’t sure about how to present literature, how to talk about it. Like Andrei Skoch, Mikhail Prokhorov is not a literary guy; he told The New Yorker, “I’ve come to the conclusion that if someone has real-life experience, then he can’t, by definition, like literature.” But the NOS prize has goals beyond the purely literary. Its open format seems to be an attempt to help build an open society based on reasoned, well-informed discussion; the same is true of other cultural work supported by the Prokhorovs. Literary debate becomes something like a participatory democratic process.

Many wish that Russian philanthropists would take a more direct approach to building an open society, by devoting some of their considerable resources to protecting journalists. When I met Nadezhda Azhgikhina, the executive secretary of the Russian Union of Journalists, she was preparing for an event to honor murdered Russian journalists. She lamented that for all their patronage of writing and culture, Russia’s philanthropists have not provided meaningful support for freedom of the press. Russian journalists face not only censorship but violence and death, and those who order attacks on journalists are almost never brought to justice.

While the NOS prize is a model of transparency, Russia’s court system remains closed, secretive and profoundly corrupt. In December, Dmitry Pavlyuchenkov, a former police officer, was prosecuted for tracking the journalist Anna Politkovskaya before her 2006 murder. The prosecutors made a deal, and no witnesses testified at the trial, no evidence was examined, and journalists were barred from most of the proceedings. After a mere two days of hearings, Pavlyuchenkov was sentenced to eleven years in prison and ordered to pay Politkovskaya’s family 3 million rubles (slightly less than $100,000). The identity of the person who ordered the hit and the possible role of other Moscow police officers in tailing Politkovskaya before her murder were not revealed. Pavlyuchenkov has reportedly blamed Boris Berezovsky and Chechen separatist leader Ahmed Zakayev, both favorite enemies of the Kremlin.

The nature of Russia’s criminal justice system helps explain why would-be philanthropists are reluctant to support journalism and other activities that could be interpreted as direct challenges to the authorities. But there are some exceptions. Prokhorova published a book called Angry Observers, about election monitoring and fraud, just after the disputed parliamentary elections in December 2011. Through this experience, she said, “I got an even better glimpse of the incredible rift between Russia’s dynamic, modern society and its archaic government.” During the campaign, Prokhorov said that if he were to become president, his first act would be to pardon Khodorkovsky. But he wasn’t elected.

Kirill Medvedev told me that after a long period of political apathy, Russian poets are starting to understand that they can no longer abstain from politics. Medvedev, Babushkin and other young writers are struggling to reaffirm the link between literature and social change that was effaced by disillusionment and literary postmodernism. Meanwhile, some of Russia’s most famous novelists played prominent roles in the Moscow demonstrations of 2011 and 2012. After Putin’s most recent inauguration, Boris Akunin, who is famous for his detective novels, invited the public to walk with him through the city, from one literary monument to another. Thousands of people met him at the statue of Pushkin. Moscow’s “Occupy Abai” camp sprung up at the feet of a statue of the nineteenth-century Kazakh poet Abai Kunanbayev. This was not the first time protesters had rallied around Moscow’s literary monuments: during Khrushchev’s Thaw, dissident poets recited in front of the famous statue of Vladimir Mayakovsky, one of the fiercest and most tragic utopian poets. Medvedev and other writers have revived the tradition, though they haven’t received much attention. Fixtures at Moscow’s political protests, they share with Mayakovsky the conviction that literature is necessarily political, and that writers play an essential part in making 
a better world.

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