Santiago Velázquez: “Russian literature should not pay for Putin’s follies”

Declaring oneself enthusiastic about the great names of Russian literature is a sign of good taste, but at the same time a gesture that some find inappropriate today. Santiago Velázquez (Madrid, 1977), author of the recently published write in the snow (Calligrama), twenty synthetic biographies of giants such as Tolstói, Dostoievski, Pasternak, Ajmátova or Solzhenitsyn. The author attends this newspaper at the Madrid headquarters of his literary agency, during the Madrid Book Fair.

Where does your love of Russian literature come from?

As a teenager, I read Crime and Punishment Dostoevsky, and I was dazzled. I still remember the moment when Raskolnikov raised the ax against the loan shark, what intensity and what emotion. There was no book that compiled the lives of all these writers. Some publisher even told me that they didn’t publish it because of the war, as if one thing had to do with the other… I think that literature shouldn’t pay for the madness of Putin or the politicians. Certain cancellations of Russian cultural events that are taking place do not make sense, when many of these authors, in addition, demonstrated against the war.

They write in Russian but are they all Russian?

There are Russians, Ukrainians, Poles, Georgians… It is Russian literature because it is written in the Russian language. The important thing is that none of the twenty led a normal life, I look at their lives and not at their works. It is a bouquet of light portraits that invite the reader to attack the work.

One constant is repression.

The tsars persecuted them, imprisoned… Then also in the Bolshevik era, there are several even assassinated. They are very random lives.


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Other common elements are war and disease.

Indeed. More than half did not live past the age of 50, they died very young, for one thing or another. Dostoevsky was an epileptic; Chekhov, tuberculosis…

Have you discovered the secrets of the Russian soul?

There are authors, like Baroja, who compared it with the Spanish soul. They are passionate people, who live everything with great intensity, and for whom philosophical ideas are important. I don’t know if that similarity holds up today. They are part of Western culture, although many of them consider themselves more Eastern, such as Slavs.

Pushkin was a womanizer and frequenter of brothels, like several of the biographies.

They are two parallel worlds, what he lived and what he wrote, because his work does not reveal what his existence was. There is a diary of his, I think apocryphal, where he gives an account of his Casanova-style dalliances with the nuns. He made a list of all the women he was with and he got more than 120.

Gogol’s problems were mental health…

He spent many years living in Europe, isolated, without contact with his country. A priest was eating his intellectual ground to the point that he tried to burn all his manuscripts, which were saved from the fire by a providential servant.

Turgenev followed a French singer around half the world… but he didn’t consume anything”

Goncharov is not so well known.

Anyone who hasn’t should read his novel. Oblomov, the great work on laziness and rest, along the lines of quietism advocated by Miguel de Molinos. It is a beautiful song to indolence.

He defines Lermontov as a romantic.

Who, as punishment, is sent to suppress the Chechen rebels. It is curious how certain war fronts are maintained throughout history. Ukraine, for example, is one of the most punished territories, by the Russians, the Poles, the Ottoman Empire…

In Turgenev, we see another trait common to several: the contrast between the greatness of his work and being totally lost in their lives.

Of course, in his case it was that he was a bit infantilized in his personal or romantic relationships, like the one he had (probably never consummated) with the sophisticated French singer Pauline Viardot, whom he followed halfway around the world. He is very curious.

What do we highlight about Dostoevsky?

The founding moment of his life is the execution that was not finally consummated, he was already pardoned before the platoon. That woke him up to a second life.

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Portrait of Fyodor Dostoyevsky (1872) by Vasili Perov.

Tolstoy spoke 14 languages…

He was an aristocrat, he enjoyed a privileged youth with an exquisite education. Even when he was older he began to study Chinese. He decided, at 82 years old, to leave his wife, who was obsessed with the fact that she was going to lose her inheritance because of her executor. Tolstoy walked away, despising the nobility’s way of life and, in a letter, explaining that in other cultures old people leave home to die alone. He was unlucky enough to catch cold on the train and died of pneumonia at a station in Astápovo.

He was very religious…

But he had been expelled from the orthodox faith and tended towards a certain Zen Asian mysticism, a mixture of many things.

It is curious to see Chekhov, who has written so much about romantic relationships, be so afraid of marriage.

It has several stories about weddings, couples and marriage proposals. It was difficult for him to marry Olga Knipper, she did it at the end of his life and with a low profile, she didn’t even invite anyone to the wedding.

Gorky goes from being Stalin’s man to an outcast…

He was born into a very poor family. His parents died soon, and he was left with his grandfather, who kicked him out of the house. He ended up being almost a vagabond but literature turned him into a provost. With Lenin they expelled him from the country because of his Trosquist leanings. Stalin cleverly integrated him into his circle and he became a literary boss, he decided who published and who did not, the authors wrote him long letters begging him for an opportunity. In the end, Stalin and his gang finished off his son and then him.

Yevgeny Zamyatin

Yevgeny Zamyatin



Orwelll, towards the end of his life, reads dystopia Us and fascinates him. Following that influence, she wrote 1984, very similar theme. Orwell will recommend that novel until his death.

Boris Pasternak returned the Nobel Prize.

They forced him to resign, people gathered around his house calling him a ‘Jew’ and a ‘traitor’, he did not want to leave Russia, he was in love with his country and it became untenable for him. We remember him but not the first Russian to win the Nobel, in 1933, Iván Bunin, who no one reads anymore.

Mikhail Bulgakov…

…got addicted to morphine, was performing an operation on a child, caught diphtheria and, to alleviate his pain, became addicted. As a writer, he begged to get his works published, even though he was successful as a playwright.

Poverty is very present.

It is true. Most were poor as rats. They ate mostly potatoes. Even several who came from wealthy families went bankrupt.

Tsvietaeva was very infatuated, she writes to Rilke that she wants to go on vacation with him, visit his castle…”

He talks about the epistolary romance between Marina Tsvietáeva and Rilke.

His three-way correspondence with Rilke and Pasternak, published by Minúscula, is fascinating. She was a very infatuated woman, she fell in love with almost the first one who passed by. To Rilke, she proposes to spend the summer together, to go to her castle…

Nabokov, as we see, had his little affairs with female students…

He has passed into the collective imagination as a very faithful man who hunts butterflies but had several adventures with the students of the women’s universities where he taught. He was about to burn ‘Lolita’, he knew it was a great work but he was living in the heyday of McCarthyism and there was no way to publish it anywhere, until he found an almost pornographic publishing house in France. Nabokov was from a rich family, before the Russian revolution he lived like a prince, he went to the US with almost no money, but then the ‘Lolita’ rights changed his life.

War is Grossman’s great theme.

Its narrator does what nobody did: he gets into the gas chamber and tells from there how the Jews are being exterminated.

Solzhenitsyn has a heroic part and another in which he became the idol of Russian nationalism.

He was the fourth Nobel Prize winner for Russian literature. He was harshly criticized for Putin’s use of his figure and his return to Russia, he even gave him a medal. He was a Catholic in a country torn between atheism and strict orthodoxy. He had a very bad time. He wrote gulag archipelago dividing chapters, burying them miles away, distributing them among friends, hiding them in cabins…

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Santiago Velázquez: “Russian literature should not pay for Putin’s follies”