Literature of crisis – crisis of literature. Russian Literature since the 1990’s

The goal of the proposed project is to establish a network of cooperation between the Slavic Institute of the University of Basel and its Russian partners (especially the LUNN, Linguistic University of Nizhny Novgorod, see below); preliminary discussions about shared research interests have already taken place.

The project focuses on literary and discursive imaginations of crisis in Russian-language literature of the post-Soviet space. The complex and contradictory transformations of the 1990s have scarcely been examined from the viewpoint of the concept of crisis, even though this enables a much more differentiated picture of the period and its literature, than the often politically motivated conceptualization of the ‘chaotic’ 1990s. Crisis discourses always form a multi-coded field of reference ranging from diagnosis to discourse strategy[1]. This is particularly true for the post-Soviet space, where their function ranges from conceptualizing the 90s as the climax of a history of decay to a space of opportunity. As a working hypothesis, we see the specificity of the post-Soviet literary field in the following areas:

  1. The dissolution of the literary norms of socialist realism caused formal disorientation and liberation simultaneously and overlapped with the atmosphere of dissolving social structures. Much like in the conception of Lotmans vzryv, representing itself an element of time analysis of the 90’, a radical openness evolved. This was further accompanied by an intensified reception of western trends as well as the restitution of discourses formally attributed to the ‘underground’; resulting in a radical pluralization of the literary field.
  2. While the understanding of literature as a leading discourse (literaturotsentrichnost’) comes to an end, the perception of the postmodern crisis of ‘grand narratives’ (Lyotards) has its impact on the literary scene, much as the commercialization of the book market. In such an interplay of socio-economic and cultural factors, new and different scopes for literature as a medium of reflection freed up.
  3. By the 2000s, the crisis became a global “intermittent, symbolically generalized code of communication”[2]. As a part of that (western) narratives of progress were reinterpreted into narratives of decay. In this, scenarios of crisis functioned as a basis for solving also ‘national’ narratives.

The project approaches the overlapping and mutual contamination of these discourse constellations, focusing on a) the theoretical foundations of narratives of crisis of the literary 90’ and the role of the relationship between a ‘literature of crisis’ and a ‘crisis of literature’; b) the relations of imaginaries of crisis to other transitional times in Russian history (smuta, revolution, etc.), similarly used as mirrors for the present; c) the meaning of the generational change at the beginning of the 2000s, with literary voices emerging that themselves grew up in the 1990s and d) on the difference between the capitals’ (Moscow and Petersburg) and the peripheries’ view of the crisis.

[1] Cf. Henning Grunwald and Manfred Pfister (eds.): Krisis! Krisenszenarien, Diagnosen und Diskursstrategien. München 2007, pp. 8-10.

[2] Uta Fenske, Walburga Hülk, Gregor Schuhen (eds.): Die Krise als Erzählung. Transdisziplinäre Perspektiven auf ein Narrativ der Moderne. Bielefeld 2013. p. 7.


University of Basel:

Linguistic University of Nizhny Novgorod: