The Word from Russia by Masha Zavialova
In Russia we have a number of prizes for writers and poets. There’s the Booker Prize and the Anti–Booker Prize, the Pushkin Prize and some others. But today I picked up my pen (computer, actually) – today I picked up my computer to tell you about the Andrei Belyi Prize which stands unique in the contemporary Russian literary scene. Andrei Belyi was the author of a very famous novel, St. Petersburg – a weird piece about Russian terrorists at the turn of the century, when St. Petersburg was the capital of Russia and the numerous state figures living there attracted the attention of radical revolutionaries. What’s so unique about the prize? It was the first non–state prize set up through private initiative in the Soviet Union and the award itself is one rouble and a bottle of vodka that the prize-winner is supposed to drink together with the committee as part of the ceremony. The prize was started in 1978 in St. Petersburg during the time of strict ideological control, when private initiative in the sphere of literature was not only discouraged, it was punished. Literature was believed to be a strong ideological weapon – remember Lenin’s words? Oh you don’t. But I do. So Lenin said: “You can’t live in a society and be free from that society.” All our literature should be the Party literature. He meant, of course, the only party there was.
The people who originated the Prize were the major samizdat (self-publishing) figures Boris Ostanin and Boris Ivanov, who were at that time publishing the Chasy journal – the main samizdat periodical, 300 pages hand-typed in several copies. It included those writers who wouldn’t support the official Soviet regime – mostly innovative and thought provoking authors whom no state-supported journal would ever print. A lot of well known writers of the present published their first works in Chasy back in 70s and 80s. Ostanin and Ivanov gave the first awards to Viktor Krivulin, Arkadii Dragomoschenko and Boris Groiss.
Back in 1978 when the idea of an unofficial award was being discussed among the samizdat people, Boris Ostanin first proposed a name of Albert Camus for the prize because he was a versatile author who did prose, poetry, and drama and also because at that time in our shops (quite poor and offering little choice for the buyers) French cognac of the “Camus” brand was just beginning to be sold in beautiful bottles. According to Boris’ idea, this cognac was to be drunk at the ceremony of the award. But Boris Ivanov said: “Why French cognac? We’re gonna give awards to original Russian writers, not to translators. Let it be something Russian, something white” (that’s what Russians call vodka – white drink; and white in Russian is beloe or belyi – that’s how Andrei Belyi came up). So the name of the prize is a pun, very fitting for a literary award. Besides, Andrei Belyi also wrote everything: poetry, prose, memoirs, essays. What is more he’s a very innovative writer, his diction is so specific that once you get to know his books and love them and read them it’s hard to get rid of it: you write your own piece and everybody says, “Oh, it’s Belyi.” In Vladimir Nabokov’s opinion, St. Petersburg is one of the four greatest prose works of the 20th century (guess what the other three are. Or wait until you reach the footnote).
The Belyi Prize is what we call “professional.” It doesn’t consider the measure of commercial success or popularity. And the symbol of this anti–mass–culture orientation is the single rouble. In 1978 you could buy a loaf of bread and a couple of herring with it – to go with the bottle of vodka. (Herring is a favorite Russian zakus – hard to translate: it’s a small piece of something that you put into your mouth immediately after you have a shot of vodka). And you could buy exactly the same amount of zakus for the next 12 years – until the economic reforms came. Then for some time you could buy nothing with it for the simple reason that there was nothing sold in the food stores. Then starting around 1992 to the present you could buy a loaf of bread and one herring, then a loaf of bread, then half a loaf, quarter of a loaf, a crumb – that is if you were a literary genius and could talk a shop assistant into selling you a crumb. In the street folks wouldn’t bother to pick up a rouble lying in dirt. Now, after the rouble was revalued last summer, you can buy half a loaf (if you invest 90 more kopecks).
There is a battle now among the members of the committee: should the money value of the prize stay the same or should we find sponsors who are willing to spend a couple thousand dollars to award the writers? (I say “we,” although I am not on the committee. My husband is – there no women in this affair, literature is not for the feeble–minded, it’s serious stuff. We have a popular riddle in Russia: hair is long, brains are short. Guess who that refers to. No answer in the footnote, either). There are purists like the founding fathers Ostanin and Ivanov who say that we should stick to old practices and not give way to materialists and consumerists, and I support them. Others (like my husband Sergei) say that since writers and poets in Russia are now extremely poor, and the state doesn’t care if they live or die, we should help them out. All this is true, but still... There should be some domain where money doesn’t reign (Is it a poem I’ve written? Where’s my Belyi Prize?).
The other three works are Joyce’s Ulysses, Kafka’s Metamorphosis, and Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past. No surprises there, eh?