Tomáš Glanc, The Russian Archipelago: Icons of Post-Soviet Culture, Prague: Revolver Revue, 2011, 353 PP.

Published in Prague some twenty years after the dissolution of the Soviet Union, Tomáš Glanc’s The Russian Archipelago: Icons of Post-Soviet Culture is an idiosyncratic but highly readable and far-reaching survey of Russian cultural space from 1990 to 2010. The book proceeds from a 45-page contextualizing introduction and a brief explanation of (and apologia for) its unconventional format to a series of seventeen portraits of individual artists who have “distinctively influenced” Russian culture of the past two decades. Remarkably, the author’s collection of seventeen post-Soviet cultural icons includes: one musical composer (Leonid Desiatnikov), two poets (Elena Fanailova and Fedor Svarovskii), five prose writers (Vladimir Sorokin, Liudmila Ulitskaia, Viktor Pelevin, Mikhail Shishkin and Zakhar Prilepin), one stage designer/theatrical director (Dmitrii Krymov), two filmmakers (Aleksei Fedorchenko and Aleksei Popogrebskii), one photographer (Sergei Bratkov), one architect/visual artist (Aleksandr Brodskii), and four other visual artists (Oleg Kulik, Pavel Peppershtein, Vladislav Mamyshev-Monroe and Irina Korina) working in various media. Each artist’s portrait consists of three sections: a career-tracing biographical sketch; a short essay on the essential features of the artist’s poetics; and a composite interview made up of selected and edited excerpts from previously published interviews with the artist.

One might suspect that the striking eclecticism of the book’s method—both in its selection of featured artists and in the tripartite structure of its individual portraits—would make the resulting work disturbingly chaotic, impressionistic and subjective, but Glanc’s gambit pays off. His book functions like a well-researched and well-written Lonely Planet guide to post-Soviet culture, providing the lay reader and serious scholar alike with a solid, historically framed introduction to the territory and a selection of must-see highlights around which to base an initial survey and any number of deeper, iterative explorations. As the leading Czech authority on Russian culture of his generation and a scholar of vast erudition, interdisciplinary breadth and cosmopolitan perspective, Glanc is well positioned to produce a work of such sweeping ambition and unconventional format.

The work’s success derives partly from the fact that it does not rely only on analysis of works by its seventeen featured artists to chart the landscape of post-Soviet Russian culture. Glanc’s introduction establishes the contexts of Russian culture’s transformation since the advent of Perestroika with admirable clarity and efficiency in a series of sub-sections on: the impact of the Internet on Russian literature; the emergence of new institutions in the worlds of Russian literature and visual arts; attempts by some writers and artists to meet and anticipate the demands of the market; the meteoric rise of new cultural heroes, most of them writers and artists who had been active abroad or in the spheres of Russian alternative culture during the final decade(s) of communism; the prominent role of socially and/or politically radical provocation in Russian art (especially performance art) of the 1990s and 2000s; and the increasingly global perspective of a Russian culture represented by dozens of major artists living and creating outside Russia’s borders. This narrative includes incidental mini-portraits of many additional cultural figures of major stature, including prominent critics, publishers and gallery owners, as well as of some of the writers and artists (e.g., Dmitrii Aleksandrovich Prigov and other protagonists of Moscow Conceptualism), whose careers beginning in the late Soviet era put them outside of the main purview of Russian Archipelago. Glanc also smuggles sketches of several important artists who did not make his “top seventeen” into the portraits of featured subjects whose work in some way intersects with theirs. Thus the portrait of Oleg Kulik expands on the introductory chapter’s references to Aleksandr Brener, Anatolii Osmolovskii and Avdej Ter-Oganian to situate Kulik in the context of 1990s Russian “Actionism.” The essay on Fedor Svarovskii mentions a whole pleiad of young talents in a consideration of the respective “groupability” of poets and visual artists before settling into a four-paragraph study of the poetry of Leonid Shvab, considered as a contrasting case of the “new epos” movement with which Svarovskii has identified himself. The study of Aleksei Popogrebskii pointedly contrasts his subtle and laconic psychological films with the work of Aleksei Balabanov, director of violent, action-driven thrillers. The portrait of Mikhail Shishkin twice raises points of comparison and contrast with the work of Aleksandr Goldshtein, while nearly a quarter of the essay nominally on Irina Korina is actually devoted to the related work of Olga Chernysheva. It is precisely in these connections drawn between different points on the map of “the Russian archipelago” (or, for example, in the discussion of composer Leonid Desiatnikov’s opera Deti Rozentalia based on a libretto by Vladimir Sorokin) that the reader begins to feel something like the interconnected fabric of contemporary Russian culture materializing from Glanc’s segmented text. This fabric becomes even more integral and palpable when, in their responses to interview questions, the artists comment specifically on the work of their contemporaries in various media or cite similar factors in the external and internal motivations guiding their art.

Objections could be raised to the strong bias of Russian Archipelago toward high-brow and non-conformist high culture, and especially toward work coming directly or indirectly out of the traditions of Moscow Conceptualism and late-Soviet alternative culture. This is, perhaps, not surprising, given that the book is published by the Revolver Revue press, an enterprise which has its origins in Czech underground culture of the 1980s and with which Glanc has frequently collaborated. Still, it should be pointed out that Russian Archipelago is primarily a guidebook to the alpine peaks of contemporary Russian culture, and that it documents very little of the plebian (or even middle-brow) lowlands. There are also moments when the super-economical “introduction and highlights” format seems inadequate to the complexity of the cultural phenomena under consideration. This reader had that impression most strongly while reading parts of the portrait of Vladimir Sorokin, in which certain generalizations about the author’s poetics, while not inaccurate, seemed too faintly substantiated by the essay’s scant references to the plots and narrative techniques of Sorokin’s exquisitely rich, humorous and often perverse novels. Such is the hazard of the form the author chose, and while it makes some stretches of the book seem a little breathless, the book as a whole provides excellent motivation—and points of orientation—for the reader to explore further the original works that Russian Archipelago only seeks, after all, to map out.