Theses Doctoral

Authors of Success: Cultural Capitalism and Literary Evolution in Contemporary Russia

Gorski, Bradley Agnew

This dissertation examines the development of Russian literature in the decades after the fall of the Soviet Union as a focused study in how literature adjusts to institutional failure. It investigates how cultural forms reproduce themselves and how literature continues to forge meaningful symbolic connections with its audiences, traditions, and the broader culture.
I begin when Soviet state prizes, publishers, and organizations like the Writers Union could no longer provide paths to literary prominence in the early 1990s and a booming book market and a privatized prestige economy stepped into the vacuum. At this time, post-Soviet Russian authors faced a mixed blessing: freedom from censorship alongside a disorienting array of new publishers, prizes, and critical outlets, joined later by online and social media. In this new environment, personal success became an important structural value for authors and for literary works. The literary process was driven, in large part, by authors who found innovative solutions to immediate problems along their pathways to success. In search of readers, recognition, and aesthetic innovation, the authors in this dissertation transformed and even created the institutional and economic frameworks for post-Soviet Russian literature’s development, while at the same time developing new cultural forms capable of connecting with audiences in intimate and meaningful ways. The sum effect of their individual solutions to discrete problems along their own paths to success was a profound shift in the literary field, the creation and entrenchment of a new system of cultural production, distribution and consumption based on capitalist principles—the system I call “cultural capitalism.” This dissertation shows how cultural capitalism developed out of the institutional collapse of the Soviet cultural system.
While many studies have analyzed the cultural field’s genesis, its social role, and internal mechanisms, few have considered the fate of literature or culture at times of institutional failure, and fewer still have focused on possible mechanisms of recovery. Studies of contemporary Russian literature, on the other hand, have often relied on master tropes, frequently borrowed from Western literary theory. While this research constitutes an important contribution, it fails to address the central question of how literature has been affected by social upheaval and institutional failure. My project addresses this gap by modeling cultural capitalism as a literary system in which the drive for success is pervasive, but the very meaning of “success” can be defined differently by different authors. The term cultural capitalism builds on Pierre Bourdieu’s notion of symbolic capital, but imagines that resource as part of a dynamic system of cultural exchange, while my understanding of success expands on Boris Dubin’s work on the topic. Finally, building on Formalist investigations of “literary evolution” and the “literary everyday,” as well as contemporary Russian sociological studies, I provide a theoretical model that connects the structures of the post-Soviet literary environment to new forms of verbal art.
Through interviews, close readings, and secondary research, I show how four prominent authors—Boris Akunin, Olga Slavnikova, Aleksei Ivanov, and Vera Polozkova—have developed idiosyncratic visions of success. I then demonstrate how each author’s particular patterns of ambitions correlate with the literary, economic, and institutional innovations that define their artistic works, careers, and positions in the literary field. By triangulating authors’ visions of success, their navigations of the literary field, and their innovative verbal art, I map out the trajectories of literature as both an institution and as an art form across the transition from the Soviet to the post-Soviet era.

Geographic Areas


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More About This Work

Academic Units
Slavic Languages
Thesis Advisors
Izmirlieva, Valentina B.
Ph.D., Columbia University
Published Here
December 1, 2017