Before World War II dispersed emigre Russian life to the four winds, its cultural center was Paris, and by far its most important “thick journal” (mixing, in the Russian tradition, political and literary content) was Современные записки [Sovremennye zapiski, ‘Contemporary Notes’), published (by a group of Socialist Revolutionaries far more interested in politics than literature) from 1920 to 1940. It started out publishing only writers who had made their name in Russia (Andrei Bely, Mark Aldanov, and the like), but in 1929-30 it took the plunge and serialized a new novel by one of the generation who had started writing in emigration, Zashchita Luzhina by one V. Sirin. As it happened, Sirin was the pen name of one of the greatest writers of the past century, Vladimir Nabokov, and the novel (known in English as The Defense) bowled over the entire Russian community abroad. Nina Berberova, who had been unimpressed by Sirin earlier, wrote in her memoirs “A tremendous, mature, sophisticated modern writer was before me; a great Russian writer, like a phoenix, was born from the fire and ashes of revolution and exile. Our existence from now on acquired a meaning. All my generation were justified. We were saved.” Ivan Bunin, who had ruled the literary roost, said “This kid has snatched a gun and done away with the whole older generation, myself included.” Sovremennye zapiski went on to publish everything Sirin/Nabokov wrote for the next decade (except, in an appalling instance of censorship, the fourth chapter of his greatest Russian novel, Dar [The Gift]), and a few years ago, when I was feverishly reading his Russian novels, I spent a lot of time at the Slavic and Baltic Division of the New York Public Library, gingerly turning the pages of those beautiful heavy cream-colored issues of the journal, wishing I could own at least a few copies myself.

Well, it’s not the same thing, and as yet it’s not very much at all, but I’ve just discovered that a Russian site has a plan to put online the entire run of Sovremennye zapiski. Right now only the first issue is available, but it’s enough to whet my appetite; I wish they’d at least list the contents of all the issues even if it will take a while to scan them and get them online.

Meanwhile, I’m mollified by the discovery that the entire run of Синтаксис (Sintaksis, 1978-2001), my favorite of the so-called “third-wave” emigre journals, is online already! If you read Russian (and don’t already know about it), you have a treat in store. It was produced and edited by Andrei Sinyavsky (Abram Tertz) and published many of the most important writers of the ’70s and ’80s: Sergei Dovlatov, Sasha Sokolov, Venedikt Erofeev… I bought as many copies as I could when the Donnell Branch deaccessioned much of its foreign-language material, but it’s wonderful to have it all accessible online.

Update (December 2009): The litcatalog.al.ru links no longer work. I guess the plan fell through.

Further update (July 2018): As I wrote here, the site Литературные журналы русского Парижа (1920–1940) has, along with a bunch of other journals, the entire run of Современные записки as pdf files.http://emigrantika.imli.ru/news/7-sovremen


  1. So what’s the story with the fourth chapter, and why was it censored?

  2. It was a sarcastic account of the life and writings of Nikolai Chernyshevsky, author of the terrible but influential novel Chto delat’? (What Is to Be Done?, 1862), who was practically a saint to the entire left-wing Russian community and in particular to the SRs who ran the journal. Nabokov knew it would cause controversy, but he was shocked that the journal (which prided itself on its broad-minded attitudes and lack of censorship) would refuse to publish it. He was going to refuse to let them publish the rest of the novel, but he needed the money.

  3. David Marjanović says

    Ah, so Lenin was making a literary allusion when he proclaimed “grab power first, think about what to do with it later”.

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