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Mikhail Artsybashev: Санин (Sanine)

This novel, a sort of updating of Dostoevsky’s Notes from the Underground was a sensation when published and was banned worldwide for being pornographic. It is the story of a group of people who are engaging in what was quaintly called free love and with somewhat nihilistic views of life. We have seen them many times since – the existentialists of the 1950s and the brat pack of the 1980s are two obvious examples. They all centre around Sanine who is amoral, egotistical and a wastrel. The story starts with his return home to a rural part of Russia from St Petersburg, broke and without a job but happy enough to sponge off his widowed mother. He takes up with a group of people, some of whom he had known before – a doctor, some soldiers, a novelist manqué, a consumptive and various young women starting to express their independence but unsure of themselves, including his sister, Lida.

Most of the story concerns the activities of this group, including their sexual activities. Artsybashev gives us fairly graphical descriptions (by the standards of 1907 Russia) of the men’s lust, including Sanine’s lust for his sister and his rape of the woman he loves (but who does not love him). Sanine’s amorality is brought to the fore and this is clearly also the”stranger-from-outside-who disrupts-a-group” story because Sanine’s amorality ends up with three of the group committing suicide. As an interesting picture of the standards of pre-Revolutionary Russia, this novel is fascinating. While Artsybashev is no Dostoevsky – and who is? – his portrait of nihilism beats out Bret Easton Ellis.

Publishing history

First published 1907 by Stuhr’sche Buchhandlung Verlag, Berlin
First published 1915 in English by H. W. Huebsch, New York
Translated by Percy E Pinkerton (Huebsch); Michael R. Katz (Cornell University Press)