The Dagestani Writer Who Isn't Afraid to Tackle Russia's Social Ills

Hannah Wagner
Alisa Ganieva's ability to unflinchingly examine the problems of Russian society in her novels has found a large audience. Whether it's a politician's unexplained death or stereotypes about Dagestanis, there are few topics the 35-year-old won't touch.
Writer Alisa Ganieva is seen in this handout image. Her novels looking at the problems affecting Russian society have won the 35-year-old Dagestani writer a large audience.

Moscow (dpa) - Whether it's corruption, nepotism or political represion, Russia has no shortage of social problems. And at just 35 years old, writer Alisa Ganieva has established herself as an expert in probing these and many other grievances about Russian society. 


For the last decade, Ganieva's sensitive and pointed novels and short stories examining these issues have gained popularity in Russia. 


She started out writing exclusively about her homeland, the Russian republic of Dagestan in the North Caucasus, but her novel "Offended Sensibilities," or "Hurt Feelings," marks the first time she zooms out to describe situations familiar to people throughout Russia. 


It's a social critique in the form of a crime novel: A regional economy minister is found dead. Was it a heart attack - or murder? 


Before his death, the minister was being blackmailed for providing his mistress, a wealthy building contractor, lucrative contracts under the table. But soon readers learn that the minister was not the only person with a dark secret in the small provincial town. 


As the investigation progresses, anonymous accusations and denunciations spread like wildfire. 


With her novel, Ganieva paints a bleak picture of a Russia in which people die under unexplained circumstances, and in which everyone from school principals to church officials can be bought off. 


She describes government pressure on historians, a journalist branded as a "foreign agent," election rigging and food sanctions. 


But while it contains references to Russian classics, "Offended Sensibilities" is a highly topical portrait of society - and a reckoning with those in power. 


Works critical of Russia's government and society that are set in the present are not very popular at the moment, Ganieva tells dpa. 


"Some say that reality is not yet complete, that it would be better to write about it in 50 years," she says. "Others say that political themes are harmful for literature." 


Yet literature in particular sometimes makes it possible to draw "more complete and profound conclusions" than journalism, says Ganieva, who studied at Moscow's Maxim Gorky Literature Institute. 


Ganieva, who grew up in the Dagestani capital, Makhachkala, focused on her Muslim-majority homeland in her first three works. She describes a region caught between a Soviet past and traditional Islamic values. 


She published her debut work, "Salam tebe, Dalgat," under a male pseudonym in 2010 in order to be taken more seriously. 


The book hit Dagestan "like a bomb," says Ganieva, who is not religious. She was threatened and accused of being unpatriotic and of insulting her homeland. 


It has not stopped her from continuing to write, criticizing social problems, conservative family relationships and arranged marriages. 


She also describes the brutal way Russian counter-terrorism units deal with the Dagestani population, the police officers who harrass and torture civilians, and the general prejudices and stereotypes faced by Dagestanis in Russia. In her novel "Bride and Groom," for example, protagonist Patya has long grown tired of correcting her Moscow friends, who think of her as a patronized Muslim woman. 


Ganieva says she wanted to show a realistic picture of her homeland. 


Writing novels enables her to express her criticism much more freely, says Ganieva, noting that critical journalists and activists in Russia are repeatedly subject to repression and hostility. 


Ganieva also writes journalistic articles and has her own programme on Ekho Moskvy, a widely respected radio station. 


Although it may not be subject to conventional censorship, a book like "Offended Sensibilities" has few chances of winning a major Russian prizes or being recommended by libraries - and it definitely won't be put on a required reading list for schools. 


But even aside from literature, Ganieva can still clearly describe the repressive mechanisms in Russia: The 35-year-old carefully but firmly condemns "strange laws" that "have no relation to a legal system or even to human rights." Authorities can just "concoct any criminal offence for whomever you need it for," Ganieva says. 


She herself was tried and fined last year after protesting against the imprisonment of a journalist who criticized the government.