Russian Writers Talk Tolstoy and Lauren Conrad

Chekhov, Pushkin and, uh, Lauren Conrad were some of the names thrown around at the "Why Russian Literature Matters" talk, an hour-long debate between Mother Country-cum-New York writers Keith Gessen and Anya Ulinich held in the subterranean depths of Barnes & Nobles' 86th St. book bunker last night.

This wasn't exactly the cliff notes version of Tolstoy, but the panelists did their best to enlighten -- and even entertain! -- the bookish audience full of Russian transplants, silver haired professorial-types, whimsically-dressed lit chicks and dudes whose questions were long enough to make you wonder if they were dictating War and Peace itself.

"Russian writers have always written to prove they are human," Gessen said, explaining why everyone from Dostoevsky to recent members of the Kremlin have felt the need to put words on the page.

And while it's a bit of a head-scratcher to imagine corrupt Russian bureaucrats suddenly tapping into their sensitive-side and churning out their tomes, Gessen argued it's really no more puzzling than, say, celebrity novelist Lauren Conrad's decision to team up with ghost writers and cash in on her 15-minutes.

But where the emotionally-bereft Hills star's obvious motivation was the money, Gessen believes these Kremlinites are simply "trying to prove they have a soul."

Indeed, in a society as opaque as Russia's, emotional resonance and making sense of everything existing below life's day-to-day murk has long been the aspirations of its people, and the preferred currency of its writers.

"In Russia, people look up to a writer almost like they would a priest; in Russia, writers are thinkers not entertainers," Anya Ulinich "Petropolis" author and Moscow native said.

Gessen added, "One of these days, Lauren Conrad is going to feel so guilty that she didn't write [her novel], that she's going to say, 'I'm going to write my own book.' And I'll send it to N+1 [the biannual literary journal Gessen co-founded] and we'll gladly publish it" Gessen joked.

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