Friday, November 24, 2006

CRAPITALIST CRIMINALS VIE FOR CULTURAL RESPECTABILITY

Russia Inaugurates Book Prize. It’s Big.

By SOPHIA KISHKOVSKY

MOSCOW, Nov. 22 — A new Russian national book prize that claims to offer the second largest cash award, after the Nobel, was presented for the first time on Wednesday night to Dmitry Bykov, a prolific journalist, novelist and essayist, for his biography, “Boris Pasternak.”

The prize — sponsored by the Russian government and backed by Russian oligarchs who made their fortunes in oil, commodities and banking — is known as Bolshaya Kniga, or Big Book, and came with 3 million rubles, or just over $113,000. The Nobel carries an award of about $1.4 million.

The winning biography of the author of “Doctor Zhivago” matched the prize’s title, weighing in at nearly 900 pages.

Aleksandr Kabakov, famous here for his anti-utopian writings during the final years of Soviet rule, took second prize and 1.5 million rubles, for his novel “Everything Can Be Put Right,” while third place and 1 million rubles went to Mikhail Shishkin, a Russian novelist who lives in Switzerland, for “Maidenhair.”

The winners were announced at a ceremony at the Central House of Writers, the setting for decades of literary intrigue during the Soviet era. Hundreds of people drank Russian sparkling wine and clustered about in the stark hall, which dates to Stalinist times. Most of the audience was dressed quite casually, including T-shirts and sweaters. Fekla Tolstaya, a well-known television personality and great-great-granddaughter of Leo Tolstoy, was the night’s mistress of ceremonies. The plan is to make the Big Book competition an annual event.

“I think this is colossal if this happens next year and the year after that,” Mr. Kabakov said in an interview following the ceremony. “Soviet literature lived from Lenin Prize to Lenin Prize. In essence this can replace that function.”

By Western standards it was an odd literary event. The billionaire oligarchs not only financed the prize, they were members of the new literary academy, or jury, that picked among the 14 finalists. The jury included writers like Eduard Radzinsky, the co-chair of the jury; Alyona Doletskaya, the editor of Russian Vogue; and business leaders like Viktor Vekselberg, the oil and metals tycoon who bought Malcolm Forbes’s Fabergé egg collection.

Aleksandr Mamut, a financier who was a co-presenter of the third prize, to Mr. Shishkin, is an owner of a chain of Russian bookstores and recently bought three publishing houses. “Literature and music are what made Russia great in the eyes of the world, more than the atom bomb,” said Pyotr Aven, a banker who presented the prize with Mr. Mamut.

Critics of the prize have described it as an attempt by the oligarchs to get some public relations mileage out of literature.

“They want to show a cultural image, they want to show their significance,” said Aleksandr Shatalov, a literary critic who attended the ceremony, but was not a jury member.

Though the most lucrative, the Big Book prize is not the only literary award in Russia. Mikhail Khodorkovsky, a former oil magnate now in a Siberian jail, had financed a Russian Booker Prize in recent years. He is writing tracts from his cell.

Each year the awarding of the Booker had spurred furious debate about the state of post-Soviet Russian literature. Big Book promises to provide another rich forum for squabbles and hand-wringing.

The state of modern Russian literature was Topic A at a roundtable discussion of Big Book finalists held on the eve of the ceremony at Russian State University for the Humanities. Only a dozen students showed up, but the four finalists who participated grew quite spirited in their comments, fretting about the impact of the Internet and other issues.

Mr. Kabakov, for instance, was troubled by the striking success of Oksana Robski, a popular new novelist who specializes in recreating the lives of Russia’s richest women, including scenes of mind-boggling materialism, bodice-ripping passion and mountains of cocaine.

He pointed, also, to “Dukhless” (or, “Soulless”), the latest best seller to plumb the depths of the moneyed class, depicting the moral disintegration of a young business executive into an orgy of cocaine and casual sex. It reads like “Bright Lights, Big City” Russian style, yet the book has drawn praise from many, something that distressed Mr. Kabakov.

“You can say ‘The Forsyte Saga’ is a book about the middle class, and so is ‘Dukhless,’ ” he said, scoffing. Yet he denied feeling any jealousy for the success of such books. Such writers, he said, are working in “a different profession.”

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