Tatyana Tolstaya was born in Leningrad in 1951 to an aristocratic family that includes the writers Leo and Alexei Tolstoy. After completing a degree in classics at Leningrad State University, Tolstaya worked for several years at a Moscow publishing house. In the mid-1980s, she began publishing short stories in literary magazines and her first story collection established her as one of the foremost writers of the Gorbachev era. She spent much of the late Eighties and Nineties living in the United States and teaching at several universities. Known for her acerbic essays on contemporary Russian life, Tolstaya has also been the co-host of the Russian cultural interview television program School for Scandal. Both her novel, The Slynx and her collection of stories, White Walls, are published by NYRB Classics.

The Making of Mr. Putin

At this year’s forum in Davos the question “Who is Putin?” was put to the members of the Russian delegation. They became confused, looked at one another, and mumbled something incomprehensible. There was laughter in the hall. But indeed, who is he? For a certain group of Russians—let’s call them …

Out of This World

Andrei Platonov is an extraordinary writer, perhaps the most brilliant Russian writer of the twentieth century. Very different from any other writer I know of (in a sense he has no literary predecessors), he is still little known to the Western reader, in part be-cause of the extraordinary difficulty of …

Russian Roulette

When I opened the newspaper on the morning of August 17, I saw the headline “Market Crashes.” I’m not an economist and understand nothing of the enigmatic world of money. For me, the word “market” means open-air stands where old ladies from villages near Moscow sell cheap freshly picked mushrooms, …

Missing Persons

At one time or another every kid draws a mustache or eyeglasses on a portrait in a history textbook. Men are usually decorated with beads, earrings, fluffy curls, bow-tie lips, a deep, ample décolletage, and, space permitting, a crinoline. Women are provided with a five-day beard, scars, a pirate eyepatch, …

Love Story

Russian literature may take pride in a strange success: Andreï Makine, a Russian of indeterminate French origin, was awarded two of the most prestigious literary prizes for a book written in French, in France, and about France—a book which is nonetheless quintessentially Russian. In our time, it seems, you have …

The Way They Live Now

St. Petersburg, 1997. My mother (eighty-one years old) travels all the way across town to pick up her orphaned grandson’s social security payment: you can only receive the payment in person and only on a certain day of the month. She is greeted by a sign: “No money.” “And when …

On Joseph Brodsky (1940–1996)

When the last things are taken out of a house, a strange, resonant echo settles in, your voice bounces off the walls and returns to you. There’s the din of loneliness, a draft of emptiness, a loss of orientation and a nauseating sense of freedom: everything’s allowed and nothing matters, …

Russian Lessons

What a strange spectacle it is: Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s biweekly broadcasts on Russian television. In the late evening, when the long Moscow day-light begins to fade and the construction dust settles, the writer pours out a stream of banalities, platitudes, and exclamations (“It’s a nightmare!,” “This is terrible!,” “Disgraceful!”) in his …

Boris the First

“When I was chairman of the Russian Supreme Soviet I got into a very stupid accident in the center of town….That particular morning traffic was very heavy—eight lanes—so there wasn’t even a lane or a slot for us. A GAI [state traffic police] officer halted traffic but since we were …

The Age of Innocence

All Russians are familiar with Lenin’s famous saying: “Every cook should know how to run the government.” One wonders what Lenin, who never boiled an egg for himself, could possibly have known about cooks? There was, however, one cook in Russia whose ability to govern her own diminutive empire Lenin …

The Golden Age

At a dinner after an art exhibition opening in the mid-1970s, I was seated next to an elderly woman, and told in a whisper that she was ninety but had all her wits about her. We started talking and the conversation turned to Nicholas II. The old woman, as it …

In Cannibalistic Times

Last year Robert Conquest’s The Great Terror was translated into Russian and published in the USSR in the journal Neva. (Unfortunately, only the first edition was published. I hope that the second, revised and enlarged edition will be published as well, if it is not suppressed by the censorship so …

Notes from Underground

During the two weeks I spent in the United States at least forty people asked me: “And what do you think about this book?” The person asking the question would simply point at it, without mentioning the author or title—the assumption seemed to be that it was obviously the book …