Thursday, March 11, 2010

Three Borises

Yesterday my parents introduced me to three legendary figures of St. Petersburg counter-culture -- three Borises, Boris Ivanov, Boris Ostanin and Boris Roginsky -- writers, essayists, publishers, editors, who work together and separately in various magazines and presses. The two older men (Boris Ivanov is 82 years old) and Boris Ostanin are famous as the founders of the first independent literary prize in Soviet Union -- in 1978, they established "Andrei Bely Prize," named after a very famous avant-garde Russian writer of the 1910s and 20s. The prize existed outside of the Soviet literary establishment (outside the official Writers' Union) and the award amounted to a bottle of vodka, an apple, and a single ruble.

In addition to the prize, Boris Ivanov and Boris Ostanin published the samizdat magazine "Chasi" or "Hours"; and yesterday Boris Ivanov told us: "In 1990 the Supreme Soviet of the Soviet Union accepted the order about the freedom of press, the very next day, I decided to close the magazine." In a way, they saw their mission completed and did not need to participate in the later proliferation of small presses and publishing houses. They resurrected the Andrei Bely Prize a few years later, when in 1996 and 1997 it became apparent that Eltsin and Perestroika-era government was not succeeding in creating a civic society, a society that is based on the citizens' participation in the public institutions. This inability of the public to control the follow-through of the government actions they see as the main problem of the contemporary Russian society. I can see their viewpoint (although I see some problems with it), and their dedication to the independent literary process is inspiring.

What is also very interesting about all three of them, but especially Boris Ostanin and the younger Boris, Roginsky, is their degree of familiarity with Western culture, contemporary literature, philosophy, and theory. Boris Ostanin (whose university degree is in mathematics) has translated to Russian the works of Jean Genet, Albert Camus, Eugene Ionesco, Carlos Castaneda, and in our conversation he quoted Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir. Boris Roginsky has written his dissertation on the tragic in the work of Alfred Hitchcock; he also is an author of many essays of literary and political criticism.

It was truly a privilege to meet these men in person, to drink tea with them, and to hope that maybe I can somehow work with them in the future. We'll see about that.


  1. It sounds like a city of geniuses...

  2. What an amazing opportunity--to meet the creators of such a legacy. I wonder if I can aspire to ever receive a bottle of vodka, an apple and a single ruble in a writing competition. Seems sadly unlikely.

  3. Unlikely -- unless we establish our own! Seeing how we are in California though, I would substitute the apple for an avocado and the ruble for a dollar of Monopoly money. Or smth like that :))