Leading Russian Writer Speaks about Literature and Politics at Boston College

Mikhail Pavlovich Shishkin Mikhail Pavlovich Shishkin

On 23 April Boston College Libraries and the Slavic and Eastern Languages Department co-sponsored a reading and discussion event with Mikhail Shishkin, a Russian author.

Mikhail Shishkin is widely considered to be one of the most important Russian-language novelists of the post-Soviet era. He is the only contemporary Russian writer who has won all three major Russian literary awards: The Russian Booker Prize, The National Bestseller Prize, and the Big Book Prize.

Born in 1961 in Moscow, Shishkin studied English and German at Moscow State Pedagogical Institute. After graduation he worked as a street sweeper, road worker, journalist, school teacher, and translator. His literary debut happened in 1993 in Russia. Since 1995 he has been living in Switzerland.

Shishkin's novels have been translated into 27 languages including Faroese - a West Scandinavian language spoken by only about 70,000 people, most of whom reside on the Faroe Islands, Denmark. A humorous detail here is that "Crime and Punishment" by Dostoevsky was the next in line to be translated into Faroese.

In addition to winning Le Prix du Meilleur Livre Étranger - a French literary prize that is awarded yearly for the best fiction translated into French -- Shishkin also received the Preis des Hauses der Kulturen der Welt in Berlin - a literary award for contemporary fiction in German translation.

While well known on the international literary scene, Shishkin's recognition in the English-speaking literary world has lagged behind due to the unavailability of his books in English. This situation is rapidly changing. In the fall of 2012, Open Letter Books published Shishkin's best-known award winning novel "Maidenhair". Later this year, his most recent, and also award winning, novel "The Light and the Dark" will be released in the U.S.

The reactions to these English translations have been very positive. According to The Guardian, Shishkin is "arguably Russia's greatest living novelist;" "his writing is richly textured and innovative and his themes are universal: love and death, pain and happiness, war and peace." A critic in the Buffalo News wrote: "American readers will find him to be a writer of panoramic scale and ambition, a novelist with a sweeping social vision and sense of history reminiscent of 19th century Russian realism, but one who employs the narrative techniques of postmodernism and 21st century modernism to stunning effect."

In February of this year Mikhail Shishkin outraged the Russian government when he refused to represent Russia in a major international literary event, the US Book EXPO in New York. In an open letter to the Russian Press Ministry, he declined their invitation, citing Russia as "a country where power has been seized by a corrupt, criminal regime, where the state is a pyramid of thieves."

During his visit to Boston College Mikhail Shishkin read from his essay "In a Boat Scratched on the Wall", sharing his thoughts on language, and living and writing in a foreign country. The reading was followed by an engaging and informative discussion on the state of literature and politics in contemporary Russia.

Nina Bogdanovsky
Subject Specialist, O'Neill Library