Estonia’s Russian Author

Matthew Hyde on Andrey Ivanov

I was looking for Andrey Ivanov before I knew who he was.

I first arrived in Estonia back in the summer of 2009, following three years working at the British Embassy in Moscow. That job was itself the culmination of many years of studying Russia, its language, politics, and culture, an interest that had begun with undergraduate studies in London in the mid-1990s, and that I sustained through the subsequent years by reading Russian in many forms.

By that stage, however, I had become a little disenchanted with Russia as a place to live and work—probably a result of three years in the highly-charged Moscow environment. Estonia was a compromise option. I planned to continue my diplomatic career, safely back within the European Union, but I would remain close to Russia, culturally as well as geographically.

When I arrived in Tallinn I was vaguely aware of such a category as Baltic Russians—and knew that the population of Estonia was around 25 percent Russian. I had once read a good novel by two Latvian Russians, and wanted to find some similar contemporary Russian literature from Estonia.

After a certain amount of searching I came across the name Andrey Ivanov—that most common of Russian names for a writer who, I was to learn, is hard to label with any one national identity (such taxonomies are like ‘gravestones,’ he has said). But the only novel of his I could find at the time was a translation into Estonian, so ironically—although perhaps appropriately—I first discovered him via what at the time were my fairly basic Estonian skills.

A Handful of Dust, which I was later to re-read in Russian, references T. S. Eliot’s poem 'The Waste Land' (one of Ivanov’s influences from the modernist canon) and employs similar themes and symbolism—fragmentation, rootlessness, alienation, barrenness, and cultural polyphony. The novel is based on autobiographical experiences, and the first person protagonist has much in common with the author—he is also an Estonian Russian called Andrey who has just returned to his home town of Tallinn after seven years travelling in Scandinavia.

Andrey is suffering from a bad case of ‘post-Scandinavian depression,’ manifested in an intense self-loathing, and a negative view of his home country and most of the people he encounters. He is oppressed by the rapid approach of middle age, feeling that he has achieved nothing, that his whole life has been ‘one terrible compromise’ (his own literary ambitions having so far come to nothing). He no longer feels part of the world he has returned to, and is disorientated and detached. But neither can he fully escape it, for it is part of him; Tallinn is his ‘handicap.’

The reader finds Andrey in a state of seething (but largely impotent) rebellion against the obligations of his identity, and indeed the obligations of living in a modern capitalist society—particularly the torture of office work, with its combination of stress and futility. Like the protagonist from Joseph Heller’s Something Happened (an influence for Ivanov), his rage gives him an ability to ‘see deeper,’ to expose the delusions, pettiness, follies, and cynicism of those he encounters, as well as the absurdity of everyday situations that others find tolerable. In this sense, his position is one of uncompromising honesty, a brave refusal to accept the conventional orthodoxies foisted upon him.

The main target for his critical gaze is the Russian community in Estonia, some of whose members are hopelessly unable to adapt to the new post-Soviet realities, cowed by the changes, like ‘old toys’; others who have effectively (perhaps cynically) integrated; others who are somewhere between these two extremes, confused and contradictory. There is no single ‘Russian type,’ but many of the Russian characters rehearse the standard repertoire of gripes and grievances of an oppressed minority.

On one level, therefore, the novel is about what it means to be Russian when the Russian community is a minority stranded outside Russia in the new, independent Estonia, and needs to create a defensive collective identity that seemingly compels one to be more Russian than Russians in Russia. The protagonist ironically lists all the behaviours, tastes, affiliations, and lifestyle choices that an Estonian Russian must subscribe to, but that he himself rejects as shallow trappings of cultural identity—‘tinsel’ he calls them.

One of the key features of Ivanov’s style is the wry humour he deploys in portraying his characters. He delights in depicting the bizarre and ridiculous aspects of human behaviour, and some of his characters almost become caricatures. Similarly, the frequently bleak atmosphere is illuminated by a colourful collection of cultural references, ranging from Benny Hill and Morrissey to Swedish arthouse cinema and of course Russian literature, from classics like Dostoevsky and Turgenev to contemporary writers like Viktor Pelevin and Alexander Ilyanen. These reinforce the point that the protagonist (and indeed the author) sees himself as not tied to one particular geographical location or culture, but to a ‘transnational’ identity, as the scholar Eneken Laanes has observed. Indeed, Ivanov has said that he wants to be seen as a European writer. This does not exclude categories such as Russian or even Estonian, but nor is it limited to these.


My knowledge of Estonian was to bring about my second encounter with Ivanov. By this time I had escaped the confines of my own office-bound existence, and was working as a literary translator, largely from Estonian. I was commissioned by the Estonian Literature Centre (, which promotes Estonian literature abroad, to translate a sample from Ivanov’s Harbin Moths. This novel is set in Estonia during its first period of independence between 1918 and 1940. Tallinn (Reval at the time) became a place of refuge for Russians fleeing the Bolshevik revolution, amongst them the protagonist Boris Rebrov, a young photographer and aspiring artist who lost his parents to typhoid during the journey from Russia.

The motley assortment of Russians exiles, some of them former aristocracy and members of the defeated White forces, others bohemian types, lead a precarious existence as they hatch hopeless, deluded plans to try and fight the new Communist regime, failing meanwhile to develop any real links with their new place of abode, Estonia. Many of them suffer economic hardships, uncertainty about their status in Estonia, thwarted literary ambitions, and some of them degenerate, succumbing to a life of brothels and cocaine. The excerpt which I translated portrays a political salon at the home of local Russian fascist party leader, Ternikovsky, which Rebrov attends. Ivanov’s characters are again vividly and comically portrayed, many of them bizarre and grotesque—in particular Syrtsov, who rants deranged racist theories. When I first read this excerpt I was transported back to the world of Dostoevsky, whom I had read during my undergraduate studies.

Ivanov undertakes extensive historical research to create a convincing backdrop for the characters and themes he develops. There is a sense of impending doom pervading the novel—a premonition of the coming war and foreign occupations that will put an end to the young Estonian state. But the real strength of the novel lies in the portrayal of Boris Rebrov as he struggles with loneliness and alienation, and searches for purpose in his life. Ivanov employs devices such as stream of consciousness and shifting perspective to portray ‘the artist’s’ disorientated, melancholy state. One of the key questions raised by the novel is whether a person who is cut-off from their homeland can truly be happy. Indeed, this question of the individual’s identity in relationship to a given state and national culture is a key theme across Ivanov’s work, and he is himself a ‘grey’ passport holder, lacking Estonian citizenship (the newly independent Estonian state did not automatically grant citizenship to all Soviet citizens).


When Words Without Borders produced an issue devoted to Estonian literature in October 2015, I was fortunate enough to be able to translate another work by Ivanov—his first and so far only piece to be published in English. ‘Jackdaw on a Snowdrift’ is a dark and brooding short story about the emotional power of memories, told through fleeting, fragmentary glimpses of past romantic and family relationships—the narrator’s vexed relationship with his father is a major theme. The story is partly set in the Soviet childhood of the author—a past which now has a strange otherness in the context of modern-day Estonia (but for me a familiarity also, given that part of my 1970s childhood was spent in Communist Poland, and I later lived in Russia).

‘Jackdaw on a Snowdrift’ is provocative and experimental in form, with Ivanov flexing his literary muscles to shift repeatedly between registers and genres. These include snippets of conversation and song, momentary flashes of cityscape, a Joycean use of (Cyrillic) characters to represent visual images (tricky to translate), the crack of an ice pick repeatedly punctuating the text, a mocking parody of a former girlfriend’s diary that flits into verse form, and an excerpt from a medical handbook on how to kill rabbits for forensic research. The reader is left disorientated and disturbed by this sudden immersion into the narrator’s inner world, which is fragmented and full of emotional and physical pain.

Ivanov is one of the most literary of authors, steeped in classic texts and literary criticism, and there is a strong metafictional thread running through his work, addressing the question of what it means to be a writer. In A Handful of Dust, the protagonist refers contemptuously to another character’s vain and insubstantial literary activities, defiantly asserting his own more valid claim to literary profundity (which does not, however, seem to come to anything). In ‘Jackdaw on a Snowdrift,’ the protagonist refers to words as a refuge, ‘solidly crafted sentences’ giving him some certainty in a painful, unstable world (Ivanov himself has said that he writes to ‘soothe his soul’). Many of the characters in Harbin Moths do hack work for political pamphlets, at least one of them is a failed writer, and Boris Rebrov’s story of becoming an artist is linked to his search for identity in his new home country—he describes himself with the Estonian word kunstnik, rather than the Russian equivalent.


For me, discovering Andrey Ivanov has meant a reconnection with quality Russian literature, many years after I first immersed myself in the Russian classics as part of my undergraduate studies, and with this the chance to experience afresh the power of literary Russian wielded so skilfully. It has given me a literature that is directly linked with the place where I now live—Tallinn, Estonia—in its many manifestations, some of which are otherwise hidden from view. And as an Englishman living a long way from home, Ivanov’s writing also speaks to themes that have become salient for me—in particular that of the individual’s relationship with a given national culture, whether as an outsider in his new home country, or an émigré from his former home.

Ivanov has enjoyed considerable recognition in his native Estonia and neighbouring Russia, winning numerous awards, including being shortlisted for the Russian Booker. With his elegant style and deft use of metaphor he has been compared to writers such as Nabokov and Gaito Gazdanov. He writes prolifically, and the works I have outlined are only a small part of his oeuvre—probably the best known outside Estonia is his Hanuman series, a trilogy of picaresque novels based on the author’s travels in refugee camps in Scandinavia. Andrey Ivanov is gradually being translated into more languages, including French and German. But he is still largely unknown to the English-speaking reader. I look forward to helping to remedy that situation by translating more of his work.