Why a Russian woman would go to a burning izba?

Why a Russian woman would go to a burning izba?

Viktoria Tokareva is a Russian writer, dramatist and simply an unusual woman. She is seen as a shining star amongst ‘women writers’ today in Russia. She considers Chekhov to be her guide and teacher, and his maxim, ‘ conciseness is the sister of talent’, to be the motto of creativity: Tokareva has no novels, just stories and tales – but what stories they are! A writer once said, ‘if Tokareva’s stories were watered down then you’d get a whole novel.’ Conciseness and depth of word also rules in her real life. In answer to my request to interview her, Tokareva replied: ‘Fine, tomorrow. – But don’t you want to see what kind of publication I represent? - Is it pornographic? – No – Is it anti-Semitic? –Oh no! – Well then, I’m not bothered by anything else’. She really is not afraid of anything. She’s not for lovers of over-embellished facts. She guards her authority from slander or slips of the tongue with an openness and intellectuality. She’s interesting because she knows everything about Russian women, as she is indeed one.

- Viktoria Samoilovna could you single out any characteristics inherent to women’s literature in Russia?
- A longing for the ideal. But this is a characteristic of all women’s writing. It’s not worth singling Russia out – Françoise Sagan, Tatyana Tolstaya and Lyudmilla Petrushevskaya and I all write about this.

- A longing for the ideal - what do you mean by that?
-There’s a rhyme which goes: ‘sadness – longing is taking me over, for it is not he who loves me’.

- And isn’t it possible to fight against this?
- Everyone fights.

-With what?
-With life.

-And do they succeed?

-Do women in Russia have a greater or lesser chance of winning?
-All women in the whole world have the same chance of winning. It all depends on luck. There is a saying: ‘don’t give birth to a beautiful daughter, give birth to a lucky daughter.’ Whatever will be, will be.

- Doesn’t the level of emancipation play a role here?
Indeed it does.

- How do you explain the wave of ‘women’s prose’ during the last decade in Russia?
I don’t think there has been a wave. There are very few women who write well. And we won’t talk about those who write badly. There are no more then five good writers at present in Russia.

- Can you name them?
Petrushevskaya, Ulitskaya, Marinina, Tolstaya and myself.

- Can a writer now live solely off his or her work in Russia?
Maybe. It’s another thing that they earn much less then their counterparts in the West. Aleksandra Marinina (the author of a series of detective and police novels) has broken all earning records, as she writes detective stories and she really writes them well. She has mastered a special kind of literature, because she knows about it from the inside.

- And so in that case, what to do know about?
About reciprocal relations between people. The psychology of relations between the sexes – that’s my thing.

- Does it seem to you that there is a counterpart abroad to what you do?
Françoise Sagan has written about that. Just in a longer form and more monotonous. She has little humour.

- Anything else?
I know few western writers, just as few of them know me. We are rarely translated because we are not acquainted with each other’s creativity.

- Do you think there will be a kind of ‘integration’ of literature from different countries in the long run?
I don’t think so. A kind of computerisation of minds is taking place right now. Young people are going off into the Internet, so literature, will probably stay where it is now, and not develop.

- Did it use to develop?
In the 60’s, 70’s and 80’s, literature occupied a very important place in our nation’s mind. It even replaced sciences such as sociology, because objective sociology did not exist. People were looking for truth in literature, and the most dazzling example was that of Solzhenitsin…But now people go on the internet: they work on it, spend their free time there, make friends, marry…Literature is ceasing to occupy the leading place in minds, even in our – traditionally well-read – country. And there’s nothing you can do about it.

- They say that Russia is presently experiencing a decline in culture. Do you agree?
No. When we all were living under Soviet control, we had no money, but there was a certainty in the future (as they said: ‘poverty was guaranteed’) – we lived differently, as we used to hide money away. Now, however, you see: ‘new Russians’ dashing to acquire property, cars, valuables…Now that this new current has appeared in the flow of things, Russians have begun counting money like Germans. And the enchantment with the Russian character, which is recklessly made public, ‘wearing your soul on your sleeve’, means it is slowly fading away. But this is not a decline in culture. I would call it a crisis of mentality.

- And what will this crisis lead to?
Everything will turn out like in the West – in the western scheme of things: the rich start counting their money because it can buy things now, and the poor do too, because there’s too little money.

- What is the Russian intelligentsia like now?
Only the Russian one? I don’t know. I have been to the West and I realised that the more forward Germans are very like Russians, because cultured people are the same everywhere. In fact a prepossessing quality of the intelligentsia is benevolence. I also value kindness. When a person is kind, even if he is simple, he is all the same charming.

- Could you characterise different nations and compare them with Russians?
I know very little about Americans. I really like Germans. If you make an agreement with a German, for him the verbal contract holds a lot of importance. They are responsible people. The French are extremely egoistic. They never say ‘no, because to say no, to refuse is stressful for them. The French don’t like stress, so they say, ‘why not?’ and they only do things that don’t give them stress. Because of this they are extremely unreliable, hard to pin down…Out of all the nations, I have a weakness for the Germans. I like being with them. It’s comfortable.

- But Germans are completely different…
If they are forward-thinking Germans then they are not different. For example, my publisher is a German and also his wife. They have done so much for me on a personal level, things my own mother has never done. It’s true that my mother has never had such opportunities. I’ve received so much kindness and love from them.

- Could you try to compare Germans with Russians?
Germans have a habit of working, and the need to work. They are very similar to Russians in this. Germans can be straightforward, but Russians are more elastic, they can be pulled in different directions. It’s not surprising that there are often fights during Russian weddings. Russians are always swaying from aggression to joy and then back again. Germans aren’t so elastic.

- Do they have fights at weddings?
Don’t even imagine it! I have seen how they celebrate: they get together, play the harmonium and dance – everything is very nice and pleasant. This is normal for them, but for me it’s almost exotica.

- Which Russian characteristic do you think foreigners could never understand?
The need to drink until they drop.

- What are Russian men like compared to those abroad?
If a man in the West leaves his wife, he is supposed to provide for her. As a rule, he gives her a large part of his belongings. Because of this he thinks – ‘can I really afford a divorce?’ But our men throw away their wives without a care. We don’t have laws about this and for some reason society doesn’t really judge them.

- Apart from economic nuances of marriage, are there any distinguishing characteristics in Russian men, any ways of behaving?
I tend to think that men don’t vary according to nationality. I have seen some wonderful men here and abroad, and I’ve seen some awful men here and abroad. It depends on their up-bringing – what they’re like inside. The only exception is the Japanese. They demand too much housework from their wives. The Japanese wife just scrubs and cleans. Russian wives, of course, traditionally keep the order in the house, but with nothing like the fanaticism of the Japanese. It’s true though that Russian love is different from other kinds of love.

- What is Russian love?
It’s when a woman sacrifices herself. Remember how the poet said: ‘she can stop a galloping horse, enter a burning izba (hut).’ Although it would seem that she would stop a horse and crawl into a burning house with joy…

- Why do Russian women do all this?
It’s very simple: because the men don’t. Women are stronger genetically. She is more attractive in form and she lives longer and they have an acute understanding of this. Western men would never let their wives into a burning house. But ours allow it and even send them there.

- Russian men also differ from those in the West in this then?
It’s not the men, it’s the women: a woman in the West would never go into a burning house. If her house burns down, she writes to the insurance company, and after a while, she gets money for a new one. But here if a house burns, then it’s all over. And no one, except for a woman, can do anything to try to save something.

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Interviewed by Oksana Sebinova