George Will once said that all worthwhile contemporary Russian literature has been written in one of three places: underground, in prison or abroad. It's taken the enlightened regime of Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev to add a fourth category to that list: in mainstream publications in the Soviet Union itself.
"Glasnost" is a collection of 11 short and not-so-short stories that either have been written or appeared since Gorbachev's accession to power in 1985. A note at the end of each story tells when it was written and which Soviet publication it appeared in. Some of the authors here, such as Fazil Iskander and Tatyana Tolstaya, are relatively well known; others are new kids on the block.
The book's first story is also one of its best. "Our Crowd," by Lyudmila Petrushevskaya, is a fond, bittersweet look at a disaffected group of Leningrad intellectuals who get together over a period spanning several years. It's written with a sharp, satirical touch that gives way to poignant melancholy as the group and the narrator's life unravel.
Iskander is not an ethnic Russian but a native of Abkhazia, an autonomous region in the Caucasus Mountains, near Georgia. "Old Hasan's Pipe," included here, is really two stories in one. There is a humorous framing story about the narrator, a city dweller, on a hunting trip with some Abkhazian peasants. The more serious central story, told by a shepherd whom the narrator meets, is a gripping adventure tale and moral fable about a noble outlaw in the Robin Hood mold. The outlaw, Hajarat, eventually kills himself because his people, whom he has tried to defend from a bullying prince, continually try to turn him into the prince to collect a reward on his head. The story makes a point about complicity with oppressive regimes that will not be lost on Soviet readers.
Another of the collection's most enjoyable stories is Nikolai Shmelyov's "The Visit." Perhaps the book's most elegantly crafted tale, it's the story of a well respected man-about-Moscow, an official at one of the city's theaters, whose life begins to fall apart after he is cheated at a game of cards. The official, Gleb Borisovich Sukhanov, while not a black marketeer, clearly plays "the gray market," making underground deals and investments and fancying himself quite the sharpie. As the story makes clear, however, Borisovich has not been a sharpie but rather a man unable to see that things are going increasingly wrong with his life. The visit of the title, which he makes to Leningrad in order to borrow money for his gambling debt and to visit his daughter, provides a striking surprise ending in the spirit of O. Henry.
My personal favorite, though, is "Dreams From the Top Berth" by Valery Popov, a humorously surreal story about a train ride that clearly is meant as a wry commentary about the difficulties currently experienced in the Soviet Union under perestroika and glasnost. In the ride to nowhere, there is no food, no heat against the freezing weather and no real answers about when either will be provided.
The unnamed narrator, tiring of the cold and hunger, makes his way to the dining car and orders some goulash. Two waiters take his order and disappear. When the narrator asks what's happened, the headwaiter triumphantly answers that both waiters have been arrested. The headwaiter then disappears and also is arrested. Although dining-car officials expect the narrator to be thrilled with this turn of events, he has only one question: "Where's my goulash?"
The question is nothing less than the one on which the Gorbachev regime will rise or fall. While much of the Soviet public is happy that the apparatus of Stalinist repression is being dismantled, continuing food shortages are making them increasingly restive; they want to know where their goulash is.
A less successful narrative is Mikhail Kuraev's "Captain Dikshtein." More than 120 pages long, it drags on interminably. It's the story of a naval officer who was involved in a rebellion against Communist rule by the personnel of the Kronstadt Naval Base, who had strongly supported the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917. Putatively a politically daring theme in the current Soviet context, the story is flat and uninflected, the characterization unremarkable and the author too cute by half, making supposedly clever asides to the reader instead of simply getting on with it. Early on, Kuraev says, "If you are in a hurry, take a look at the end and we can say goodbye." Good advice.
Anatoly Genatulin's "Rough Weather" is about a 5-year-old girl who gets lost in the woods near the state farm where her father works as a shepherd. Will her chronically drunken father summon up the will to find her? Will the clock-punching bureaucrats? Will the morally hollow teen-agers? This is a suspense drama with no real suspense, its young heroine sacrificed to make the author's point about the demeaning nature of life on Soviet state farms.