Original dreamers

Jonathan Derbyshire reports from Moscow on Russia's literary scene.

I meet Andrei Skoch in the café of a smart Moscow hotel, ten minutes' walk from the Kremlin and Red Square. A fit-looking man of 45 with startlingly blue eyes, Skoch is a member of the Duma, the lower house of the Russian parliament, where he sits with Vladimir Putin's United Russia bloc. He is also one of the 30 richest men in Russia, worth $3.9bn at the last count, according to Forbes. But unlike his business partner Alisher Usmanov, whose empire sponsors Dynamo Moscow and who is a major shareholder in Arsenal FC, Skoch has chosen to sink some of his fortune, made in metals in the early, chaotic days of the post-Soviet free market, not into football but into literature.

In 2000, he founded the Debut Prize for writers aged 25 or under. His aim, he tells me, was to help the country to "have its own intelligentsia again". Whether or not Skoch is succeeding in that task - the harassment and mistreatment of journalists since Putin won his first presidential election that year suggest it will take more than the odd literary prize to bring a thriving civil society into existence in Russia - the Debut has certainly been remarkably popular. The prize has attracted more than half a million submissions over the decade it has been running. Debut Week, when the shortlisted authors are brought to Moscow, is now a fixture in the city's cultural calendar.

I ask the director of the prize, the novelist Olga Slavnikova, if she is able to discern any trends among the thousands of manuscripts entered each year. She says there is a growing number of science fiction and fantasy submissions, as well as fiction that "plays games with the near future". Playing games with the near future is something that Slavnikova does in her own 2006 novel, 2017, an English translation of which was published last year. It is set on the centenary of the October Revolution, and imagines a re-enactment of a civil war battle between the Red and the White Armies that takes a malevolent turn.

Slavnikova says 2017 contains "social prognostications for the near future", something she thinks the Russian novel has always done. She mentions Gogol and Bulgakov, who "started the trend of introducing artistic elements into realistic writing", and whom she regards as "just as great as Tolstoy and Dostoevsky".

Gogol's influence can be felt everywhere, especially in the work of those writers who came of age immediately before and after the collapse of the Soviet Union. You can see it in the title and the counterfactual conceit of Dmitry Bykov's novel Living Souls, also published in English last year: Russia is being torn apart by civil war between the Varangians, who claim to be descended from the country's original Aryan settlers, and the Turkic Khazars and Jews expelled from Moscow.

“The next great Russian novel," declares Lev Danilkin, one of Moscow's most influential young critics, "will be found in science fiction. There's a great tradition of science fiction in Russia. Russians have always been original dreamers." Danilkin tells me about one of the most extravagant of those dreamers, Nikolai Fedorov (1828-1903), a "transhumanist" philo­sopher who believed that mankind should conquer space in order to accommodate the souls of our resurrected ancestors. Fedorov, he says, should be regarded as the "godfather" of the Soviet space programme, and Danilkin believes it is "no accident" that it was the Russians who were first to put a man into orbit.

That man, Yuri Gagarin, is the subject of Danilkin's latest book, a biography of the original cosmonaut that will appear next month. On 12 April, the 50th anniversary of Gagarin's flight, Danilkin will take part in a panel discussion with Bykov in London. The event is part of the Russia Market Focus programme at the London Book Fair, three days of talks and readings by more than 40 Russian writers that should enable English readers to assess Danil­kin's claim that Russia "always generates something very strange".

Dostoevsky, Tolstoy and, yes, Gogol, all wrote about the "oddness of Russia", the critic says. Whether any of them could have imagined a character like Andrei Skoch, however, is another question altogether.

The London Book Fair's Market Focus programme for Russia 2011 (11-13 April) is organised with the British Council, their strategic partner, and The Russian Federal Agency for Press and Mass Communication and Academia Rossica as their official partner