Russia's cosmonauts of dystopia | Claire Armitstead

The spirit of Yuri Gagarin will launch a new breed of Russian writers in London next week

One of the more surreal moments in the literary history of planet Earth will occur on Tuesday when Russian cosmonauts in orbit in the International Space Station will answer questions from visitors to the London Book Fair in Earls Court. The live link-up marks the 50th anniversary of that supreme Soviet moment when Yuri Gagarin became the first human to travel into outer space, circling the earth for 108 minutes in his Vostok 1 spacecraft.

The reason the event is being celebrated in London is because of a newer expansionary vision: as this year's guest of honour at the book fair, Russia will be introducing 50 writers, critics and academics, many untranslated into English. Among them is Lev Danilkin, one of Moscow's most admired and feared literary critics. He has spent the last few months racing to complete a book about the man many regard as Russia's one great untarnished hero, in time for the anniversary. In keeping with the spirit of the post-Soviet times his account of Gagarin's life is collaged from a huge range of sources, both contemporary and more recent, from Russia and abroad.

One hilarious section recounts Gagarin's visit to London three months after the flight, as part of triumphal Soviet diplomacy. "Thousands lined the 14-mile route into London for a look at the world's first cosmonaut ... Standing in an open silver Rolls-Royce with a specially issued licence plate 'YG-1', Yuri waved and grinned," reported Time Magazine. The huffy Miami Times was more concerned with the "curvaceous blonde singer" Yana Guard, who claimed Gagarin had appropriated her car licence number for his visit. The London Times, meanwhile, was delighted to find a touch of human fallibility in the hero of space, who appeared to have cut himself shaving.

Whether the latest visit will turn out to be triumphal remains to be seen. Sadly for the nation of Tolstoy, Gorky and Gogol, Russian literature has been in a long eclipse, with many of its most familiar writers living in exile. In Moscow a few weeks ago, a delegation of British journalists was harangued by a leading radical publisher about the need for state subsidy of translation.

One sign that at least some in power are taking literature seriously comes in the form of the Debut prize, financed by a foundation set up by one of the richest members of the Duma, Andrei Skoch. A father of eight, who puts his literary philanthropy down to an interest in how his children think and a lack of interest in football, Skoch will be in London for the book fair to promote the latest Debut prize anthology, Squaring the Circle.

It is the culmination of a project of awe-inspiring ambition. Each year since it was founded in 2000, up to 50,000 writers have entered the competition, open to anyone 25 or under living in the former Soviet Union. The prize director is Olga Slavnikova, whose novel 2017 – a Russian Booker winner – is published in the UK this spring. In her introduction she spells out the challenges facing the new generation. "These authors never lived in the Soviet Union – or were very young when it collapsed. They have no nostalgia and do not resonate to the sort of art that attempts to turn everything Soviet into vintage chic. And unlike ... older writers, they are not fighting the Soviet past."

Whether this has left them better or worse off is a matter of debate. Slavnikova admits that the Debut generation "lives in a system of multiple uncertainties". The Soviet system of book distribution has fallen apart, and people are reading fewer books. It's a climate ripe for dystopian fantasy – and so it's perhaps not surprising that many of the most interesting young writers are turning to the tropes of science fiction, while regarding Gagarin as the spirit of the modern age.

The importance to Russia of helping this new generation to take the international stage was made clear at a recent dinner in Moscow's equivalent of the Groucho club jointly hosted by the newly arrived head of the British Council and the deputy head of Russia's Federal Agency for Press and Mass Communications. There was much polite sparring about which nation had behaved worse in the long history of animosity between the two nations. "But it is to Europe that we must look," said Vladimir Grigoriev. The argument will doubtless continue next week.


Claire Armitstead

The GuardianTramp

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