About halfway through the Putin presidency, a funny thing started happening to Russian novelists: They all started writing dystopias. In 2006, Vladimir Sorokin, the legendary deconstructionist novelist, published a traditional dystopian satire about the secret services, A Day in the Life of an Oprichnik; that same year, the literary novelist Olga Slavnikova won the Russian Booker with 2017, and the prodigiously prolific and overweight man of letters Dmitry Bykov published ZhD, set in a future where Russia is at war with a Western force called the ZhDs, who are winning because of their discovery of “phlogiston,” a remarkable substance that has replaced oil as the West’s fuel of choice and rendered Russia nearly obsolete. This strange literary outburst was related, I think, to the political stagnation of the Putin years. That he was bringing back authoritarianism in some form no one doubted; but in just what form, and how brutally, how totally, it was hard to tell. The present seemed to make no impression. A novelist who described this present would at some level simply be wrong. As far as the eye could see, nothing was happening. In order to create a meaning, in order to make sense of this present, you had to project current tendencies some years into the future. Looking at American fiction of the same time, you see something like the exact opposite phenomenon.

more from Keith Gessen at Bookforum here.