Sergei Lebedev was born in Moscow in 1981 and worked for seven years on geological expeditions in northern Russia and Central Asia. His first novel, Oblivion, has been translated into many languages.
OBLIVION is named one of the Top 10 Novels of 2016 by The Wall Street Journal, which says: “Sergei Lebedev’s debut is a phantasmagoric travelogue of the former gulags of the Arctic Circle and an unforgettable descent into Russia’s bloody history. Solzhenitsyn haunts the pages, but the crystalline lyricism is the author’s own. The sparkling rendering into English makes it plain that Antonina W. Bouis is one of the best translators at work today.”
This interview is taken through mail.
Alephi : The Wall Street Journal has selected your book Oblivion as one of the Best Books of 2016: how you feel about this?
Sergei Lebedev : I am proud to be read in English. But I hope that every kind of recognition will help my books to be read in Russian. They are written for Russia about the Russia`s past. This past is now dangerously shadowing Russia`s future. This is my main concern.
Alephi : What is your message through this novel? Have you any hidden agenda?
Sergei Lebedev : First of all, I am trying to continue the line drawn by Shalamov, Solzhenitsyn and others. They wrote about the camps experience. However, very few wrote about what happened with former prisoners after the camps. Moreover, barely nobody wrote about transmission of such experience in the generational chain.
People who suffered in the camps were not allowed to speak publicly about their suffering. Former victims kept silence about their torments and torturers, therefore saving up a huge amount of non-reflected memories. We can say that gaps, vacancies, scarcities were the only heritage delivered to the offspring. With the means of prose I am trying to deal with the phenomenon of this elusive, non-shaped, neglected memory.
In addition, I want to do a very special cultural work through this novel. Stalin’s henchmen, those who committed mass murders, those who signed the shooting lists, not only escaped vengeance. They also escaped remembrance itself. After retirement, they became just harmless idyllic pensioners. They were never put under trial, were never socially visible, they never had a recognizable «face» in culture. Therefore, we have victims on one side – and emptiness on the other. I want to bring them back from hideaway, make them visible. It is a great challenge in terms of language and style to describe somebody who didn’t want to be described, who are the social ghosts, the genius of disguise.
The second husband of my grandmother was the officer of the state security, the chief of the GULAG camp. So this is the country`s story reflected in the personal one.
Alephi : Were you to differ from Solzhenitsyn on GULAG?
Sergei Lebedev : Solzhenitsyn wrote his books when the GULAG was still in place and active. I am working with the GULAG post-existence, with its proceeding effects. Solzhenitsyn stuck to realism. Me not – classical realism is not convenient if you are writing about the things excluded, expelled from reality.
Alephi : How do you see contemporary Russian modern literature and modern society?
Sergei Lebedev : I think that we are now experiencing the comeback of the USSR in Russia. And it is also partially a failure of the Russian literature.
The history of modern Russia was shaped by two interrelated events. First was the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 when Russia lost territories occupied by tsars and Bolsheviks, when nations’ call for independence had shaken its imperial status and ambitions. The second was the Chechen war started in 1994, when president Yeltsin ordered a military operation against the republic of Chechnya, which proclaimed its independence three years earlier and wanted to leave the Russian Federation. In 1994 Russia completely abandoned the way of democracy and started to recollect the empire with tanks, ordnance and fighter jets used against civilians. Military operation in Chechnya, lasting for years, drastically changed the morality of the society, ignited hatred and finally made possible the former KGB officer Vladimir Putin, the pure representative of the Soviet totalitarian machine, to be elected as the president of Russia.
These major events affected millions of lives. Dozens of thousands of people were killed, hundreds of thousands lost their homes, were displaced. An absolutely new country was born just in ten years. All the democratic achievements of the early nineties were eliminated, the society were morally destroyed and prepared to accept again the tightening repressive rule.
However, for some reasons the literature and the culture itself were in general avoiding these highly important topics – something very strange according to the tradition of the giants of Russian literature who had always been sensitive to the human rights issues and willing to withstand repressions of any kind, support the cause of freedom.
Only a few names can be mentioned honorably in this context. This is Vladimir Sorokin with his phantasmagoric novels Oprichnik and Sugar Kremlin describing Russia’s dive into the shadows of the past. But even phantasmagoric style of writing is somehow the way not to meet face to face with awful reality.
Nobel-prize winner Svetlana Alexievich and prominent Russian journalist Anna Politkovskaya wrote non-fiction. Alexievich wrote the «Second-Hand Time» about trauma of the Soviet Union collapse. Anna Politkovskaya wrote «A Small Corner of Hell» about brutal reality of war in Chechnya and its prolonged consequences for the Russian politics and society. Few years after her book about the Chechen war was published worldwide Politkovskaya was assassinated at the staircase of her own house in Moscow.The investigation is still underway.
These two books give hope that the rioting spirit of Russian literature and its willingness to defend truth and human rights will resurrect again.
Alephi : I am gratefully thanks for giving me your interview. and, congratulate you on winning the prize for your book.