Book Review: Sense by Arslan Khasavov

Sense by Arslan Khasavov
translated from the Russian by Arch Tait
Moscow: GLAS Publishers, 2012

reviewed by Mike Walker

The reputation of Russian literature in the West has long centered around the greats of the distant past—Pushkin, Dostoevsky, Turgenev, Tolstoy—with little thought given, it seems, to the writers of the Soviet and post-Soviet eras. Certainly, the dissident poets of Stalin’s time have gained the attention they well deserve, but post-Soviet—what might be perhaps considered “new Russian” literature—is hardly known in the West. Beyond that, the fall of the Soviet Union has allowed minority groups and their identities in Russia and the other former Soviet states to become better-known worldwide, though their own specific literatures still suffer from a level of neglect that emerging literatures in other regions simply have not witnessed. While African, Latin American, Arab, and Asian literatures have only grown in their international readerships and number of works translated, it seems that post-Soviet literatures have not benefited from the same zest for widespread interest in foreign writing. Another area of post-Soviet writing not well-represented in translation is that of younger writers—the first generation of citizens to grow up without having ever been part of the Soviet Union.

GLAS Publishers is trying to remedy this situation with its “New Russian Writing” series of emerging Russian literature in English translation. One of the most acclaimed and interesting volumes to come out of this project is the translation of Arslan Khasavov’s debut novel Sense. Khasavov is a Kumyk who grew up in Turkmenistan and came to Moscow for university at the Asia and African Studies Institute of Lomonosov Moscow State University. Following his degree and further studies in Russian literature, Khasavov became a freelance journalist in Moscow and was able to garner a number of impressive assignments including work with the BBC. The Kumyks, it should be understood, are an ethnic group that historically have lived mainly in Dagestan and are thus an Islamic, non-Russian, minority with their own language and very removed from the traditions of the Kievan Rus’ that formulate the basis even today of mainstream Russian society. The Dagestanis are related to their neighbors the Chechens and long-standing tensions exist between Russians and both groups due to the treatment of these Caucasian minorities following the Second World War by Stalin and also the recent conflict and struggle for Chechen independence. Caucasians, whether Chechen, Kumyk, Dagestani, or otherwise in Moscow and elsewhere in Russia are often the targets of hate speech and sometimes acts of violence. Young male Caucasians are especially prone to being targets of discrimination and suspicion. Much of Khasavov’s journalism centers around both the continuing strife in the Caucasus and the treatment of ethnic Caucasians in Moscow, as he has experienced this situation of discrimination first-hand. Far from being simply a mouth-piece for his side of the story when it comes to the plight of Caucasians, however, Khasavov has provided in his journalism a nuanced view of how young people from the Caucasus who have settled in Moscow for their education or other reasons are developing an ex-pat’s savvy sense of identity and community. In Sense, he applies this same approach but beyond a journalist’s discernment or a native’s inside experience, he is able to provide a deft, often very funny, take on how ethnicity and youthfulness both conspire to present an absurd sense of reality in post-Soviet Russia.

The central character in Sense is Artur, an idealistic, if rather delusional, young man of twenty who forms a political front known as SENSE that has the stated goal of creating a new, utopian, society in Turkmenistan. Why Turkmenistan? Because it is, according to our hero, the supposed center of the world. This gives the reader some foresight into the rather unbalanced views of Artur and the absurd nature of the novel; however, Sense is not simply a post-modern work in the comic style of Nikolai Gogol out to sell a sociopolitical point alone but instead the novel is overall a fairly insightful examination of Russian youth today, albeit one where much artistic license has been taken to allow for the most entertaining story possible. Khasavov has social and even political issues to bring to our attention, to be sure, but he seems more keenly interested in the general state of his generation in Russia after Communism. To that end, he has Artur meet a variety of other young people who represent the various subcultures and social groups found in contemporary Moscow. Those who long for a return of Communism, those who support greater social freedom than what United Russia (President Putin’s party) promotes, those who believe Islam is the key to peace—all these very different approaches and philosophies are represented.

Any writer who embarks on such a journey will run the risk of creating characters that are stand-ins for greater issues or simply stereotypes, but overall Khasavov rises above this and provides characters who are truly interesting if often in a way that begs the reader to suspend any disbelief and just enjoy the crazy motion of the story. Still, in all, Sense provides a tale that is not just a post-modern fable and in fact invites the reader into a very powerful internal view of today’s Russia. The youth of the Russia of right now—those in their teens, those attending university—have the agency for experiences that was mostly out of the range of possibility for their parents or anyone who grew up under the Soviet system. Not only because of changes in Russian society, but due to the ability via the Internet and other technologies to communicate with people all over the world. The newfound emphasis on ethnic and localized culture following the fall of the Soviet Union also has allowed greater agency in young people from non-majority origins to be themselves instead of conforming to a majority view of social norms. That said, with new freedoms have also come new oppressions: fueled by the Orthodox church and United Russia, new laws have challenged gay rights—especially in St Petersburg—and the aforementioned discrimination and violence directed towards Caucasians has remained a serious and disturbing problem. The position of youth in this dynamic mix is essential as they are the ones who will guide society out of this transitional period. Will they elect a more liberal sense of equality or dwell in the fear of Russia becoming a less-homogenous and more diverse nation? These are the core questions addressed in Sense.

Russia’s youth have also in this new era discovered a voice of their own, informed by their past and by Euro-American youth culture but also a voice unique, distinct, and original. The fashion designer and photographer Gosha Rubchinskiy is representative of this trend and in his menswear and photos of Russian skaters and punk kids who at once look forlorn and quite couture, he expresses a lot of the latent themes found running through Sense. Rubchinskiy himself in an interview to the American press has stated he finds St Petersburg more interesting now—more vital, more happening—than Moscow, and Russian youth I know have spoken of Kazan and Sochi as places to visit just as much as the two eternal leading cities of St Petersburg and Moscow. The world-view is changing: there are young business students fluent in English in Novosibirsk who work off of Macintosh laptops and watch Japanese animé; there are teens online via ВКонтакте (or, as it is now better known, VK) which is more or less the Russian Facebook. BMX is becoming huge in Russia’s urban centers and teens ride American-built bikes, posting photos of those they have or those they pine for on their VK accounts. Football (soccer) though remains king, and everyone has his own team to follow with a sense of loyal devotion unmatched even by Western Europe or American college football rivalries.

ВКонтакте is a joy: in some ways I must say I like it better than Facebook and besides, it enabled me to “meet” a number of young Russians from all over their vast expanse of a nation—people I might never have known to even exist otherwise. The Russians in their twenty-somethings who have the free time to establish extensive ВКонтакте profiles are, in general, not surprisingly of the wealthier and more educated set. If anything, they often outshine their American counterparts in their apparent wealth and wanderlust: photos abound of beach holidays in Sochi or Turkey or weekends in Paris; nights watching a football match between FC Zenit and one of the rival Moscow clubs in Saint-Petersburg; winter vacations spent snowboarding near Murmansk. Not all Russians live like this, of course, but then again neither do all Americans. What their profiles and conversations with these young Russians portend, however, is an exacting, powerful, and dynamic desire to live life and really enjoy it. My friend Anton, from Krasnoyarsk, perhaps put the situation best, in an almost Joycean sentence he typed to me one night as an instant message: “We want to see what we can, ours is a huge country but we’re in Europe too so we can hop a plane or a train and you’re there with your friends and just drink, just go where there’s something to do, snowboard, beach, whatever. We’d be all over America if it wasn’t so far away. You know, we just drink on the train—it doesn’t seem so long then—just drink and play cards, chess, stare out the window as trees go zip zip zip by.”

This same basic view on life appears in spades in Sense, though tempered by the divergent political leanings of the various characters. Part of the author’s message, it seems, is to say that we are aware of so many outwardly political young Russians in this novel because the hero of the tale has gone out of his way to move in such circles, to court the lunatic political fringe. If, we may well say to ourselves, if only Artur had not gone off the deep end—poor, poor, Artur! A tragic hero, however one who is moving by his own private logic, and some of the most sudden and powerful moments in the novel occur when his logic is in fact proved to be correct and utterly valid. At a mere twenty years of age, couldn’t Artur just attend university and get on with life, we wonder nearly aloud, but then we encounter some event where his actions—or at least the philosophical and political catalysts to them—seem somewhat appropriate. Artur, for all his complaints with Russian polity and society, becomes a hero in a way that is especial to Russian literature and tradition. Emotional, manly, finding a desire to prove his courage and acumen, at once intellectual and base, grand yet impoverished, he takes us centuries back into the tropes of the grand old Russian novels.

Artur is, for better or worse, a character who invites sympathy—not only because of his youth and lack of clear understanding of the world, but due to the showmanship in his voice as he implores the reader to believe in and side with his narrative. Khasavov does a sterling job of selling us on Artur and making Artur’s voice true even given Artur’s obviously uneven bearings. As a reader, it’s easy to bounce back and forth between seeing the absurd nature of Artur’s desires and plans and at the same time viewing them as simply youthful political devices writ very large, very rough. Given the current political situation in Russia, it’s easy to see most of the groups vying for a voice also in the actions that take place in this novel. That may be the greatest benefit of all in what Khasavov has given us.

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