Mikhail Gorbachev’s assumption of office in 1985 and the following epoch of glasnost (i.e. publicity) in Soviet mass media, including press, brought about sweeping changes into Russian literature.
The first of the earlier banned works that saw the light were the officially “acceptable” Soviet authors’ books, which had been shelved before. The most remarkable of them was Anatoly Naumovich Rybakov’s (1911-1998) novel Children of the Arbat (1987), tackling upon the painful issue of connection between the murder of S.M. Kirov in 1934 and the beginning of Stalinist reprisals. The publication of Doctor Zhivago by Pasternak in 1988 gave the green light to coming out of other, earlier “unacceptable” works; for example, the striking anti-utopian novel We (1921) by Yevgeny Ivanovich Zamyatin (1884-1937) was also published in 1988. Not until 1989 the last barriers collapsed opening the gates for works by living immigrants and dissidents to be printed, among them extracts from Archipelag GULAGO by Solzhenitsyn.
In the late 1980 ideological confrontation was growing in literature; it was openly manifested in critical articles and essays issued in literary periodicals. Widely discussed were social essays by Nikolay Petrovich Shmelev (1936), Igor Moiseevich Klyamkin (1941), Vasily Illarionovich Selunin (1927-1994), Yuri Grigorevich Burtin (1932-2000), and Vadim Valerianovich Kozhinov (1930-2001), literary and critical articles by Yuri Fyodorovich Karyakin (1930), Natalya Borisovna Ivanova (1945), Vladimir Yakovlevich Lakshin (1933-1993), Alla Nickolaevna Latynina (1940), Stanislav Borisovich Rassadin (1935), Benedict Mikhailovich Sarnov (1927), Stanislav Yurevich Kunyaev (1932), and others. Periodicals lined up into two directions: the liberal-democratic (Znamya, Noviy Mir, Oktyabr, Druzhba Narodov, Zvezda, Neva, Literaturnaya Gazeta, Volga, Ural, Moskovskie Novosti, Ogonyok) and the national-patriotic (Nash Sovremennik, Moskva, Literaturnaya Rossiya, and Moskovskiy Literator). The polemics was growing fierce. In the end Pravda newspaper stated its position with the conciliatory article On Culture of Discussions (1987), but the literary-ideological situation went out off the communist party’s control. At the meeting with science and art workers Mikhail Gorbachev denounced hostility of discussions and tried to stop the split.
Literature remained a significant social and political power. Writers Viktor Petrovich Astafiyev (1924-2001), Vasily Vladimirovich Bykov (1924-2003), Yuri Petrovcich Voronov (1929-1993), Aleksander Terentevich Gonchar (1918-1995), Sergei Pavlovich Zalygin (1913-2000) and others were adopted as People’s Deputies. The committee “Writers in Support of Perestroika” was established.
Publications of the earlier banned texts were continued: The Iron Woman (1981) by Nina Nikolaevna Berberova (1901-1993), Red Wood (1929) by Boris Pilnyak, diaries by Isaac Babel and Georgii Vladimirovich Ivanov (1894–1958), stories by Vladimir Fyororovich Tendryakov (1923-1984), Vladimir Voinovich, and Semyon Israelevich Lipkin (1911-2003), letters by Bulgakov, short stories by Varlam Tikhonovich Shalamov (1907-1982), prose pieces by Sergei Donatovich Dovlatov (1941-1990) and quite a number of other works.
New confrontation was brewing: it was between traditional and post-modern poetry. New literature was discussed by critics on pages of Literaturnaya Gazeta. In the centre of discussion on “different” literature there was Leonid Gabyshev (Odlyan or the Air of Freedom), Zufar Gareev (When Other Birds Call), Sergei Kaledin (Construction Batallion), Luydmila Petrushevskaya (New Robinsons), Aleksandr Kabakov (The Defector), Yevgeny Popov (short stories), and Vyacheslav Pyetsukh (New Moscow Philosophy).
Underground literature started encroaching on the official literary context; in this situation critics finally came to notice and comprehend it. Things went so far that the Vest’ almanac issued the full author’s version of Venedict Yerofeev’s groundbreaking and innervating story Moscow-Petushki.
Literature situation as represented in leading literature journals looked quite eclectic. Zink Boys by Svetlana Aleksievich were printed in Druzhba Narodov next to Floating Eurasia by Timur Pulatov, Blue Tulips by Yuri Davydov - along with Fear by Anatoli Rybakov, Viktor Krivulin – with Yuli Kim and Vadim Delone; Vladimir Kornilov’s story Girls and Ladies appeared next to Yuri karabchievsky’s The Life of Alexander Zilber. Novyi Mir introduced the ‘late prose’ of Ruslan Kireev and Songs of Eastern Slavs by Ludmila Petrushevskaya, Daughters of Light by Irina Emelyanova and verses by Vladimir Sokolov – all these against the background of Nomenclature by Mikhail Voslensky, articles by Marietta Chudakova, Aleksander Tsypko, and Ksenia Myalo and publications of unknown prose by Boris Pasternak; Voprosy Literaturyin its turn issued the complete text of Walks with Pushkin by Abram Tertz.
Growing number of copies of certain editions was stimulated by the announcement of prose and essays by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn. Apart from publications of The First Circle and Cancer Ward (in Novyi Mir journal), August 1914 (in Zvezda), various journals included articles, essays, and comments directly associated with the name and activities of the now-acclaimed dissident writer.
In 1990 Solzhenitsyn published his famous article Rebuilding Russia in Literaturnaya Gazeta and Komsomolskaya Pravda at once.
Works by the new generation authors, such as Victor Erofeyev, Zufar Gareev, Valeria Narbikova, Timur Kibirov, Lev Rubinshtein, and others, indicated drastic changing of repertoire and genres, rejecting the pathos of “sincerity” and “truth”, endeavour to abrogate the “Soviet literature” in its officious, village and liberal hypostases – the tendency crowned with Viktor Erofeyev’s article A Funeral Feast for Soviet Literature).
The year 1991 was felt as the final of another literary period. More and more active was the “new”, “different”, “alternative” literature, represented by names of Vladimir Sorokin, Dmitri Prigov, Lev Rubinstein, Genrikh Sapgir, and others. “Different” literature conquering strategic positions had to withstand the attempts of the Sixtiers (the Thaw writers) to repudiate its success; the “new” authors in return opposed their works to the Establishment literature.
The first in Russia Booker Prize founded in 1992 was conferred on Mark Kharitonov with his novel Lines of Fate or Milashevich's Box).
Redivision of the literary space was taking place. New publication of modern “classics”, such as (Iskander, Bitov, and Makanin met no enthusiastic feedback, whereas long articles in thick journal were dedicated to post-modern prose. In the “new” and “different” prose two alternative tendencies were also taking shape: on the one hand there was post-modern literature containing Sots-Art and conceptualism (Dmitry Galkovsky, Aleksander Borodunya, and Zufar Gareev), and on the other hand the aesthetics of traditionalism (Aleksei Varlamov, Aleksey Slapovsky, Oleg Ermakov, Pyotr Aleshkovsky, and others) was strengthening inside the same generation.
After the collapse of the single and seemingly monolithic system, after the five years of political confrontation of “national-patriots” and “democrats”, the following division of the literary field into two unequal parts and playing separately on different fields, and finally after the shocking showdown inside the inner circle the things came to the point when it turned impossible to speak about Russian literature as a whole. Though, upon the merging of immigrant literature and literature of the metropolitan country certain sought-for unity was still acquired.
In 1995 the leading position was taken by all sorts of notes, diaries, and memoirs. Opening the Skull by Sergey Gandlevsky provoked an excited literary discussion. Destiny of the whole generation became the collective character of Gandlevsky’s work. Frankness and openness, confessional and sincere expression became a specific feature of the new literary stage.
Mikhail Bezrodny came out in 1995 (in Novoe Literaturnoe Obozrenie journal) in the philological mega-genre combining cited texts with comments and his own prose. The faction prose is sided by essays. The new Russian essay was charactery: the plot as is customary for essays presents the development of thought, whereas the actions of characters are sort of an experiment, the Calvary of ideas. (Return from Nowhere by Mark Kharitonov). The characters are nothing but personifications of author’s ideas – sometimes less and sometimes more successful. This voluminous essayist prose is boring as a rule, such is its feature.
Fiction as opposite to faction turned very active in the mid 1990s; these were novels, stories and short stories imbued with fancy grotesque – from the eschatological novel Onliria by Anatoly Kim to The Last Hero by Aleksander Kabakov.
The overall crisis experienced by national literature in the post-Soviet space can be defined as the identity crisis. Soviet literature came to an end, the anti-Soviet one exhausted its pathos, and the a-Soviet one found itself in the most complicated situation. This was especially typical of the writers who were ethnically, let’s say, Abkhazian, like Fazil Iskander, or Korean like Anatoly Kim, or Kyrgyz like Chinghiz Aitmatov, but without identifying themselves with the “Soviet” realm became authors inside Russian culture. Hence is the certain difficulty of their position in the literary present against the increasing influence of writers of other schools and groups: from neotraditionalists like Andrei Dmitriev with his A Turn in the River and Closed Book and Pyotr Aleshkovsky with his adventure historical novel Vladimir Chigrintsev to postmodernists Vladimir Sharov and Nina Sadur. This crisis manifested itself most evidently in the novel The Mark of Cassandra Chinghiz Aitmatov, Pshade Fazil Iskander, Oglashennie (The Catechumens) Andrey Bitov, The Centaur Settlement by Anatoly Kim.
When relieved from the role of mastermind literature became free from a variety of its side duties – by the late 1990s it became clear how willingly it indulged into self-reflection.
As the Booker and Antibooker prizewinner essayist Aleksander Goldstein put it, “literature of existence” reigned in genre repertoire. The Endless Dead-End by Dmitry Galkovsky, Opening the Skull by Sergey Gandlevsky, Notes by Man of Letters – Zametki literaturnogo cheloveka by Vyacheslav Kuritsin, B.B. and others and The Glorious End of Inglorious Generations by Anatoly Naiman, and It’s boring without Dovlatov Yevgeny Rein make up the major interest of the late 1990s’ literature.
Total inclination towards memoirs, to the genre of a sort of “phone book, a reference book, a dictionary or encyclopedia (BGA by Mikhail Prorokov, A Questionnaire by Alexey Slapovsky) was a sign of the end of cultural history, which allowed the writer speaking from two positions: that of a participating witness and an interpreter at the same time.
At the same time reconsideration of Russian history through metaphor took place in fiction literature (An Old Girlby Vladimir Sharov, Boris and Gleb by Yury Buida). Modern society was subjected to impartial social and psychological analysis in Vladimir Makanin’s novel Underground, or The Hero of Our Time (1998); whereas Viktor Pelevin put a grotesque mirror in front of the grimaces of time in his novel Generation P (1999).
Writers attempt to resume the passing decade in fantasy (Andrei Stolyarov Skylark) and eschatological (Andrei Varlamov The Cupola) novels.
Publishing houses with rare exceptions come to publish mainly mass pulp fiction (Dotsenko, Marinina, Pushkov, etc.). Prize structures get established: the Booker, Pushkin’s Prize, Antibooker, the Northern Palmira, and Apollon Grigoryev’s Prize – the latter was called so by critics who founded their own Academy of Modern Russian Literature.