A Writer in Search of a Milieu
Straddling Some Traditional Literary Stereotypes
Testing the waters of modern fiction writing, Maya Kucherskaya definitely managed to get a reaction – something she says is tougher today than it was for the Russian greats.
At the age of 34, Maya Kucherskaya has already put together many of the trappings of the classic Russian fiction writer. Her first book was printed by two publishers, as were Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s early writings. Like twentieth century writers Ivan Bunin and Yuri Olesha, she works as a journalist. But most importantly, her first book stirred controversy within the Russian Orthodox community. It didn’t raise as many hackles as some of the writings of Leo Tolstoy – he, after all, was excommunicated – but she definitely got peoples’ attention.
Unlike most writers, Kucherskaya comes to her job in the editorial offices of the daily newspaper Rossiyskaya Gazeta every day. Unlike many journalists, she writes almost exclusively on the subject that is of greatest interest to her: literature. One of the reasons that her editors are so indulgent may be the fact that her book, “The Modern Day Facetiae” (Sovremennyi Paterik), is favorite reading for a large number of them. Her honest and humorous account of life within the modern Russian Orthodox community, including short biographies of numerous batyushkas (low ranking priests), sometimes fictitious, but presenting easily recognizable prototypes all the same, have made her popular beyond the bounds of church circles.
“One of the department heads at the newspaper always talked about his dislike for the church,” Kucherskaya said. “I didn’t want him to read my book, so I never told him about it. But, somehow, he got his hands on it. He now tells me that it is his favorite book.”
This almost sounds like the beginning of one of Kucherskaya’s own stories: always controversial and, at the same time, cunning and revealing. Kucherskaya’s own life could be the perfect basis for a story of this type. A graduate of the philology department at Moscow State University and a postgraduate student at UCLA in the United States, she also has some experience of church life.
“I got interested in religion in high school,” she said. “In the mid-1980s, like most Soviet schoolchildren, I could only learn about Christianity from Tolstoy’s books. My family was neutral toward religion, never taking any interest in it.”
In order to understand the musings of a character she had come across while reading Tolstoy, Kucherskaya borrowed a copy of the Gospels from a classmate. “The language was difficult to understand, the meaning dark,” Kucherskaya recalls. “But that only increased my interest.”
As a result, in the early years of Perestroika under the Soviet Union’s last leader, Mikhail Gorbachev, Kucherskaya joined the Christian underground, frequenting the few places in Moscow where you could get hold of Christian writings. They were published as samizdat, copied from originals smuggled in from abroad and passed from hand to hand – sometimes a risky proposition.
“It was a romantic time,” Kucherskaya said. “I remember that we could only call some samizdat activists from street phones. Everyone knew that their phones were bugged, so calling from someone else’s home phone meant compromising that person.”
In the 1990s, religion became a part of daily life in Russia. Monasteries were opened, churches multiplied, but new difficulties sprang up. Kucherskaya is a master at describing them. The images of priests and parishioners that she creates are sometimes far from sainthood. Among her characters, you can find “manager” priests, “superman” priests and even one “cannibal” priest. They teach their parishioners in a way that has a Zen Buddhist element to it. One calls his followers “an academy of idiots” for hanging on his every word. Another induces a parishioner, whose wife has been coming home late, to feign drunkenness to show her how distraught he is with her absence. Surprisingly, the wife takes a renewed interest in her “drinking” husband and begins to come home earlier. She never discovered that, on the priest’s advice, her husband had collected empty vodka bottles and cigarette butts from the street and then strewn them all over the apartment before she came home. “Father Konstantin never laughed as much in his whole life,” Kucherskaya writes at the end of the story.
Kucherskaya’s book is also full of overzealous female parishioners, whom the author does not treat with much sympathy. “If only one of them had killed someone!” a batyushka says in one of her stories, after listening to a long line of empty confessions from women reporting that they had eaten sardines on a Friday, or some other trifle. “What conclusion can we draw from this story? The girl was insane,” is how she wraps up a story of a Literary Institute graduate who idolized her priest so much that she made him the censor of all her writings, before drowning herself in the Moscow River after becoming disillusioned with writing.
“This is one of my criticisms of church subculture,” Kucherskaya said. “Sometimes, people there confine themselves to a small space and write the word “vanity” on the window to the outside world. The young church girls often call this penance. It has nothing in common with real penance, however.”
When the book was first released by the secular Vremya publisher, readers’ reactions were enthusiastic. But, when the second edition was published by Biblio-Polis, whose books are sold in Orthodox churches, the tone of the reactions shifted with the audience. A church newspaper in St.Petersburg even suggested that Kucherskaya was under the spell of “hostile demons.” “Kucherskaya is an alien, who came to our circle accidentally or, more likely, with an evil purpose,” an article in the religious newspaper Pravoslavnyi St.Peterburg said. “Our joys appear stupid to her, while our troubles are a laughing matter for her. This is just unbearable!”
Fortunately, Kucherskaya wasn’t turned into an Orthodox Russian version of Salman Rushdie. Many monks, nuns and regular churchgoers rushed to her defense. “An honest reader will quickly remember many examples similar to those described in the book,” one of her defenders, who identified herself as a nun by the name of Yekaterina, wrote in a letter to the media. “For this reader, Kucherskaya’s book is just one more reason to think about the illnesses which still plague our church.”
Kucherskaya’s observations about church life must have struck a chord with her audience because she had some personal experience, not of the easy variety, of church life. But bleak material conditions didn’t hold her back.. “When I started to travel to monasteries with my friends in 1989, we sometimes had to sleep on the floor, because some of the monasteries had only just been reopened,” she remembers. “But we all felt so happy and enthusiastic that we never complained.” Teaching at an Orthodox Christian primary school in the mid-1990s was a tougher experience. “I had many more problems with the administration than with children there,” Kucherskaya remembers. “Once when we produced a newspaper with the children to put up on the wall for them to read, the schoolmaster had us take it down, calling it ‘sinful’. I was very sad about this incident.”
Some of these experiences were reflected in the book, where the author herself surfaces as a character a number of times. This generated particular anger among Kucherskaya’s critics. She said that she was conscious as she was writing that there could be a negative response, but didn’t imagine that it would be as critical as it ultimately was.
“I realized that I was writing about a subculture,” Kucherskaya said. “This is one of the reasons why so many people are attracted to church now. You live in a small, alternative world. The problem, though, is how to live in the big world and remain a believer.”
Right now Kucherskaya’s thoughts are all about her new book, a biography of Grand Duke Konstantin, the grandson of Catherine the Great, whom she wanted to make emperor, with his throne in Constantinople. So far, Kucherskaya does not intend to quit journalism, or the position she holds as an assistant professor of literary studies at the Higher School of Economics, an elite university based in Moscow, where she plans to lecture on medieval literature. For her, working in the media and academic research are ways to keep in touch with the “bigger world.”
“In order to develop, a writer needs a milieu,” Kucherskaya said. “Pushkin became possible because there was a literary milieu in Russia in the 19th century. He got responses from readers with each new poem. There is no literary milieu in Russia now, only the media milieu. We still have to create a literary version.”