Russian Mysteries

In Russia, crime fiction has been, and remains, the most popular form of literature. Despised by the literati and suppressed by the former Soviet Government, the mystery has survived and thrives again in a country once described as a mystery inside a riddle wrapped in an enigma. Certainly the most renowned author was Feodor Dostoyevsky whose 1865-66 novel, Crime and Punishment, is a masterpiece of an inverted, psychological mystery. His last work, The Brothers Karamazov, (1880) describes a patricide that is never truly solved by an inept, rural police inspector. The genre has rarely been launched more auspiciously in any country.

There were a number of other pre-Revolutionary writers of "detektivy" or crime fiction, most of whom are forgotten except perhaps for Anton Chekhov. His short story, "The Swedish Match", is a wonderfully funny parody of the genre set in rural Russia (in English it can be found in A. Chekhov, Collected Works, Raduga Pub., Moscow, 1987). Interest in mysteries increased greatly after the 1905 Revolution and serialized translations of Holmes, Nick Carter, and Nat Pinkerton stories were produced and consumed in large numbers.

The Bolshevik Revolution and Civil War led to a new Soviet State and, in the early 1920s,a spate of unusual crime fiction swept across the country. Characterized as the "Pinkerton Phenomenon", a plethora of fictional, swashbuckling , international detectives were depicted cutting down villains in the manner of the American Pinkertons. An amazing amount of this "pulp" literature emerged - the number reached the millions! The most famous of these was written by Marietta Shaginian using the psuedonym Dzhim (Jim) Dollar. Her Mess-Mend: Yankees in Petrograd featured Mike Thingmaster who led a secret organization of workers to "mend the mess" created by world capitalists and fascists. These rather schlocky stories were immensely popular until the Communist Party condemned them as anti-revolutionary and too Western. Mess-Mend was, however, made into a very popular Soviet movie serial and translated into English (Ardis press, Ann Arbor, Mich., 1991).

Stalin suppressed crime fiction believing that literature was to serve the state and the Party and not glorify Western values and create individual heroes. Interestingly, however, the Stalin prize for literature in 1948 was won by Anatoly Rybakov for a very patriotic children's mystery story entitled The Dagger (available in English as The Dirk, Foreign Language Publishers, Moscow, 1954). Rybakov became very widely known in the West during the Perestroika years for such novels as Heavy Sand (Viking, N.Y., 1981) and Children of the Arbat (Little Brown, Boston, 1988)

The death of Stalin was followed by the reemergence of mysteries by Soviet authors and by foreign imports. Between 1966 and 1970 more than fifteen of Agatha Christie's stories appeared and indigenous authors were published in large numbers. The domestic work, however, was characterized by stolid Soviet policemen or KGB agents solving crimes committed by evil Western capitalists and their stooges. The most famous and prolific of this group was Julian Semyonov who wrote more than fifty novels and once had thirty-five million books in print. He also edited the journal The Detective Story and Political Novel (Detektivi i Politika). Other important writers included Lev Ovalov and the Vainer brothers who created very popular series detectives. One of the more enduring writers, Nikolai Leonov, created an inspector who battled anti-Soviet bad guys before 1989 and continued his crusade against the Russian Mafia in the post-Soviet period. In this relatively authoritarian society most Soviet and Russian mysteries are police procedurals.

Unfortunately, not many Russian and Soviet mysteries are available in English. Semyonov's Tass Is Authorized to Announce (Avon, N.Y., 1988) is an interesting, if unexciting, late Soviet period piece. A remarkably authentic and very depressing Soviet novel by A. Tarasov-Rodionov is a must to understand early communist zeal for the ideology (Chocolate,Heinemann, London, 1933). Soviet mysteries with Siberian settings include M. Chernyonok's, Losing Bet, (Dial Press,N.Y., 1984) and V.V. Lipatov's set of short stories entitled, A Village Detective (Progress Publishers, Moscow, 1970). Nikolai Aleksandrov's Two Leaps Across a Chasm: A Russian Mystery (S & S Trade, 1992) is an interestingly plotted story with a journalist and a policeman joining forces to fight corruption in high places. A post-Soviet mystery by A. Malashenko, The Last Red August (Scribner's Sons, N.Y., 1993) is a dark, violent, sex laden work. The latter works reflect the remarkable changes that were transpiring in the transition to the "new" Russia.

In Russia today the mystery has assumed a towering position in terms of popularity. In a 1995 reader survey more than 32% of males and 24% of females voted for "detektivy" as their preferred reading. Russian publishing houses compete fiercely to sell detective series although the market is dominated by two publishers, Lokid and Eksmo. The most widely read and popular authors are Viktor Dotsenko and Aleksandra Marinina. Dotsenko's Rambo-like hero, an Afghan veteran, does violent battle against the Russian mafia. Marinina (aka Marina Alekseyeva) has written at least seventeen novels featuring Lt. Colonel Anastasia Kamenskaya of the Moscow Police. Her complex, intelligent and non-feminist heroine solves most of her crimes in the style of Nero Wolf, without leaving her office.

The mystery is very much alive in Russia and deserves our attention, especially by Western publishers who might profitably translate and publish the best of this fascinating literature for its insights into an exotic and important society.

(I am grateful to Professor Catherine Nepomnyashchy of Barnard College for her input on Marinina).


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