Tatyana Tolstaya

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(b. 1951), Russian writer.

Tolstaya is an original, captivating fiction writer of the perestroika and post-Soviet period. Born in 1951 in Leningrad, she graduated from Leningrad State University with a degree in Philology and Classics, then worked as an editor at Nauka before publishing her first short stories in the early 1980s. Their imaginative brilliance and humane depth won success with both Soviet and international readers. Her activities expanded subsequently to include university teaching (at Skidmore College, among other institutions), journalistic writing, and completion of a dark futuristic novel, The Slynx.

Tolstaya's initial impact on Russian letters was made by a series of short stories centering on the conflict between imagination, spirit, and value, on the one hand, and a bleak social order of conformity and consumerism, cultural and spiritual degradation, and rapacious and cynical materialism on the other. Although she draws on the texture of late Soviet reality with witty, acerbic penetration, her critique of modern society travels well. The mythical dimensions of this conflict are highlighted in her stories by frequent use of fantastic elements and folkloric allusions, such as the transformation of the self-centered Serafim into Gorynych the Dragon (Serafim), or the bird of death, Sirin, symbolizing Petya's loss of innocence in "Date with a Bird."

Her most notable stories are works of virtuosic invention. Denisov of the Dantesque "Sleepwalker in the Mist" awakens in mid-life surrounded by dark woods and takes up the search for meaning; his various attempts at creation, leadership, and sacrifice ending in farce. Peters of "Peters" is a lumpish being without attraction or charm (one coworker calls him "some kind of endocrinal dodo") who spends his life in quixotic search of romantic love; in old age, beaten down by humiliation, he triumphs by his praise of life: "indifferent, ungrateful, lying, teasing, senseless, alienbeautiful, beautiful, beautiful." Sonia of "Sonia" is a half-witted, unattractive, but selfless creature, tormented by her sophisticated friends through the fiction of a married admirer, Nikolai, whom she can never meet. The fabrication is kept up through years of correspondence in which the chief tormentor, Ada, finds her womanhood irresistibly subverted. In the Leningrad blockade Sonia gives her life to save Ada/Nikolai, without realizing the fiction.

The fantastic elements in Tolstaya's works have led to comparisons with the magical realism of modern Latin American fiction, comparisons which are only roughly valid. The association of Tolstaya's work with the women's prose (zhenskaya proza ) of late Soviet literature also requires qualification: although women are frequently protagonists in her stories as impaired visionaries and saints, they are just as often the objects of bitter satire, implacable enforcers of social conventionality.

Tolstaya's remarkable novel The Slynx depicts a post-nuclear Moscow populated by mutants, combining the political traits of the Tatar Yoke and Muscovite Russia with characteristics of Stalinist and later Soviet regimes. The narrative, displaying to advantage Tolstaya's humor and ear for popular language, presents a negative Bildungsroman. The uncouth but decent and robust protagonist, Benedikt, given favorable circumstances including a library, leisure to read, and friends from the earlier times, fails to develop and cross the line from animal existence to spiritual, and as a consequence the culture itself fails to regain organic life. This pessimistic historical vision seems rooted in the disappointments of post-Soviet Russian political and social life.

See also: perestroika


Goscilo, Helena. (1996). The Explosive World of Tatyana N. Tolstaya's Fiction. Armonk, NY: M. E. Sharpe.

Tolstaya, Tatiana. (1989). On the Golden Porch, tr. Antonina W. Bouis. New York: Knopf.

Tolstaya, Tatiana. (1992). Sleepwalker in a Fog, tr. Jamey Gambrell. New York: Knopf.

Tolstaya, Tatiana. (2003). Pushkin's Children: Writings on Russia and Russians, tr. Jamey Gambrell. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.

Tolstaya, Tatiana. (2003). The Slynx, tr. Jamey Gambrell. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.

Harold D. Baker

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Tatyana Tolstaya (tōlstī´yä), 1951–, Russian short-story writer and essayist. Increasingly recognized as one of the major European writers of the postwar generation, Tolstaya is part of a Russian literary dynasty—Aleksey N. Tolstoy's granddaughter and Leo Tolstoy's great-grandniece. Reflecting the influences of Gogol, Tolstoy, and Dostoyevsky, her work focuses with wit, intensity, and ironic compassion on the gap between her characters' dreams and the shattering reality of contemporary Russia. Her translated collections include On the Golden Porch (1990) and Sleepwalker in a Fog (1992), stories, and Pushkin's Children: Writings on Russia and Russians (2003), essays. Her satirical first novel, The Slynx (2000, tr. 2003), is an historical allegory set in a dystopian, mutant-inhabited post-nuclear-holocaust Russia.

See H. Goscilo, The Explosive World of Tatyana N. Tolstaya (1995).