Most of us who grew up in the Soviet Union will remember Samuil Marshak’s rhyming dramatic tale Koshkin dom — The Cat’s House. A wealthy angora cat builds herself a new residence. Two destitute kittens show up at her doorstep, begging her to share her house with them: We’re your nephews, they say. We’re poor orphans. Won’t you let us in and feed us? The wealthy angora cat has her servant shoo them away, setting off the action of the drama in which the angora cat eventually gets her punishment for refusing help to the kittens in need, and the orphan kittens prove to be in the position to give her shelter.
Marshak’s rhymes were at the tip of my tongue while I was reading Daughter of the Shtetl: The Memoirs of Doba-Mera Medvedeva (Academic Studies Press, 2019), as though Doba-Mera and her brothers were the original orphans, the prototypes behind Marshak’s dramatic tale — except their life’s story didn’t make room for happy endings.
Doba-Mera Gurevich was born in 1892 in the shtetl of Khotimsk on the eastern edge of Belarus and the Pale of Settlement — that part of the Russian empire where Jews were allowed to live. Her mother died in 1903, when Doba-Mera was eleven, and as she was dying, she left Doba-Mera this parting message: “From the moment I close my eyes, the whole world will reject you. Because only happy children are loved.”
This is, indeed, what happened: Doba-Mera had to leave school to take care of her brothers; Doba-Mera’s father, a teacher, remarried, and because his new wife didn’t have the resources to raise the children from his previous marriage, Doba-Mera and her two younger brothers went from relative’s house to relative’s house, working and suffering their way through their childhood. Several years later, her baby brother, of poor health from birth, succumbed to an illness and died.
Doba-Mera describes one occasion on which, after spending time with their grandfather for High Holidays, she and her brothers were sent by a hired wagon to their uncle’s house:
Uncle himself came out and asked in a saccharine way, “Who are these children you have brought me?” “They are the orphans of your younger sister Rokhl”… “So why did you bring them to me? asked Uncle. “You, Veniaminovich,” said the driver, “take them off the wagon, warm them up and feed them — they are hungry and wet — then ask your questions. Look, the poor little ones are frozen stiff.”…. And Uncle stood by the door and stroked his beard and said, addressing the driver by name: “I have nowhere to put them, but they have an aunt here, their father’s sister. They don’t live very far; take them there.”
Eventually, Doba-Mera’s family put together the money to apprentice her to a tailor, and after learning how to fend for herself in a male-dominated environment, she acquired a trade. She witnessed a pogrom and was lucky to come out unscathed physically. She married a distant relative whose parents hated her and made her married life very difficult. She describes years of fear, poverty, and anguish during WWI. After October 1917, she and her husband were eventually able to leave their shtetl and settle in Leningrad, improving their fortunes somewhat, but then came WWII and its attendant horrors.
I won’t overstate the matter if I say that this was a relentlessly sad book down to the very last page. In fact, the most horrific incident comes in a footnote on that page: in this footnote, Michael Beizer, Doba-Mera’s grandson and the force behind the publication of this book, recounts a story told by a resident of the town of Klintsy (not far from Khotimsk), who had been forced to bury the dead after the Nazi shooting of the Jewish residents. I won’t tell this story here — it’s painful. I have to admit, at first, I was deeply angry at Beizer for leaving me with this story on the last page of Doba-Mera’s book, and it’s only with time that I came to realize how appropriate it was to end the book with this Holocaust story. Though Doba-Mera and her children had been able to escape it, it is the Holocaust and the loss of so many lives and so much knowledge that necessitated if not the writing than the publishing of her book. It still hurts to recall that story though.
Doba-Mera began writing her memoirs in the 1930s, living in Leningrad and wanting to tell her children something about her past. Having left school at the age of eleven, she clearly took a lot of pride at her abilities as a learner and deeply regretted that life hadn’t allowed her to use those skills more. She wrote in Russian and addressed herself to her Russian-speaking children and grandchildren, explaining Jewish customs and a way of life. The memoir comes to us in English in a deeply nuanced translation by Alice Nakhimovsky, who in her accompanying note marvels at Doba-Mera, ascribing to her membership in “a vanishingly small group of memoirists who are neither elite nor highly literate but whose observations from the ground cast a vivid light on a lost world.” Nakhimovsky helps to illuminate that world by bringing into English Doba-Mera’s particular idiom, a Russian infused with concepts and a particular cadence taken from Yiddish — the memoirist’s first language.
To me, this memoir feels valuable also because of the way Doba-Mera not only captures her personal experience but constantly connects it to the larger social structures that governed her life. For instance, this is how she recounts life at the edge of the Pale of Settlement (her town was apparently right on the border of what is now Belarus and Russia):
One summer day after work I went with my girlfriends to walk along Barabanovka Street. The street was on the other side of the river, where everybody used to go walking. Jews were allowed to walk but not to live there. A landowner lived there by the name of Robert. He couldn’t stand Jews, but as our stetl was in Mogilev Province, and Jews were permitted to live there, he got the government to make his street part of Orel Province, where Jews were forbidden to live. And he got all the Jews sent away from there. The empty houses where the Jews had lived were boarded up, and nobody would buy them because the Russians were confident that they would get everything anyway.
So on the Sabbath and holidays everybody would stroll there. The street was beautiful, with a lot of greenery, and so everybody liked to stroll along it.
This moment from the year 1907 is probably one of the happiest in Doba-Mera’s life. She goes on to describe her encounters with various socialist revolutionary groups during this period of her life. She wasn’t a revolutionary herself — she had her brothers to provide for — but she recalls going to underground gatherings and gives us the outline of the underground activity in her area.
The other distinct pleasure of reading this memoir is the candid way Doba-Mera writes about her own emotions, including the times when they turned ugly. She doesn’t shy away from describing her feelings of regret, sadness, jealousy. In one particularly devastating moment, she drops her work for several months to travel with her ailing father to Kiev, in the vague hope that he might be saved by the doctors there. She gets recommendation letters to distant family members and with trepidation approaches them upon arrival, encountering in their way of life such luxury and wealth that she hadn’t seen in the Pale.
I was seized with anger and at the same time envy, because [a relative’s son] was a student and could get nothing but Cs and was given everything he could possibly need, while I studied so well but had to become a tailor and live a life of piteous need and, to make matters worse, turn up in a big, unknown city where Jews weren’t allowed to live with a sick father, without money, wondering every minute whether I would get him home alive. At every step I cursed the day of my birth and came to the conclusion that only rich people should have children, because poor people get only suffering from them and the children also suffer.
The bitterness of Doba-Mera’s voice felt deeply familiar to me and eventually I realized that it was bringing back the intonations of my grandmother’s speech. My grandmother Raissa (Reesya) was born in Tikhinichi, another Belarusian stetl, about 130 miles from Khotimsk in 1912 or 13, about the same time as Doba-Mera’s first child. Like Doba-Mera, Raissa received her first education in a male cheder (elementary school where boys learned to read Hebrew and studied the Torah), though being a generation younger and having her mother to help her, she was able to continue her education in Leningrad. Nevertheless, life, to Raissa was a series of trials and punishments for sins she didn’t commit, and though she believed that she improved her lot by hard work and sacrifice, she refused to talk about things like “love” and “happiness.” When I tried to ask her about these things, the most she would tell me was pozhivesh–uvidish, which loosely translates as “just wait and see what life is really like.”
As a child in the 1980s, I resented this attitude and was only too happy to have a chance to escape “my lot” by moving to the United States. I have escaped, and so completely that I needed Doba-Mera’s book as a reminder of this way of thinking. Today, I find myself deeply grateful to Michael Beizer and Alice Nakhimovsky and to Academic Studies Press for this brave book. Its nonconformity to the expectations we place on the genre of the memoir (tell us what your struggles have taught you; or in any case, please land on an uplifting note) is liberating and feels deeply true to my ancestors’ ways of conceptualizing their own lives.
Today, we’re thrilled to present a Q&A with Boris Dralyuk — renowned translator, writer, LARB‘s Executive Editor (thank you for fine-tuning my reviews), former colleague, and old and dear friend. Based in Los Angeles, Boris has been instrumental in promoting Russian and Russophone literature in translation both in the United States and abroad. His recent poetry cycle can be found here. Boris answered our questions by email.
Punctured Lines: Your family emigrated from Odessa to Los Angeles when you were eight. In an interview with Melissa Beck on The Book Binder’s Daughter, you’ve told the story about turning to translation at the age of 14 in the hope of sharing a Pasternak poem with an English-speaking friend. You felt that translation was something of a calling for you. And yet there’s often a long path between that first desire to translate and professional translation. What were some of the challenges you’ve encountered at the beginning? What resources (mental, emotional, literary, etc.) did you draw on to keep going?
Boris Dralyuk: First, let me thank you both for inviting to review the path I’ve traveled. It seems, from here, to be longer and more winding than I usually imagine it to be. I tend to focus not on the path itself but on the small number of items I’ve picked up along the way. It’s these items – discrete memories, some pleasant and inspiring, others disappointing and embarrassing – that offer comfort and refine my perspective when I run into new challenges. A large part of professionalization is learning about yourself, about what you need – mentally, emotionally, physically – in order to do your best work. Is your mind clearest in the morning, the afternoon, or the evening? How quickly can you translate? How many words of prose can you render each day before losing steam? How much coffee do you need, and how much is too much?
One discovers these things over time, often the hard way. And they change – so it’s important to keep watching yourself, adjusting. When I was starting out, I translated omnivorously, at breakneck speed. The practice was useful, but the results were, as you can imagine, mixed… I learned soon enough that I can seldom translate, at a high level, more than 500 words of prose a day. It’s still the case that I move quickly when I translate poems, but two things have changed: I now translate only those poems that speak to me, that won’t let me go; and after I complete a draft, I share it with my most trusted readers, read it after the first blush of inspiration fades, let it sit as I wait for the second and third blushes to arrive, revisit it again – I put the poem through its paces. To sum up, I now have more faith in my personal taste in literature and less faith in my initial satisfaction with my own work.
I can’t imagine coming to any of these realizations earlier than I did – it all takes as long as it takes. What has helped me through every stumble, setback, and paralyzing fit of regret was the sympathy and encouragement of my mentors, who had cleared these hurdles before. The smartest thing I did in my early years as a translator was to seek out such mentors, and they all became dear friends – Mike Heim, Robert Chandler, Irina Mashinski, Maria Bloshteyn, and others.
PL: Some of us were lucky enough to study with Michael Heim at UCLA, but you also worked with him in terms of translation. You touched on this experience in your very poignant tribute when he passed away. Can you talk a bit more about what it was like to work with him?
BD: As I wrote in my little piece, it was the time Mike devoted to my infantile efforts – the interest he showed, when he could well have shown me the door – that proved decisive. I wish I could say that I didn’t need encouragement, or that I don’t need it now, but I very much did and do. Yet I want to stress that Mike didn’t give me encouragement because he felt I needed it, he did it because he believed in translation itself, believed that it was an important art, that it was possible to improve one’s skills, and that I was dedicated to the work. His purity of intention was unmistakable. It was precisely what I was looking for in a teacher and reader, what I look for still, and what I try to manifest whenever I’m asked for feedback or advice. When Mike sat down with a student to go over a text, it isn’t that the world outside the text would disappear, it’s that the text would become the world’s center. And you’d leave his office with the sense that your work had, in its own small way, restored order to the world – had shaken it out as if it were a bedspread, revealing its true design. I feel that way every time I discuss a translation with Robert, Irina, Maria, and my wife, Jenny. Their tastes and sensibilities are even closer to my own than Mike’s were, but they all share the same world-shaking, order-restoring purity of intention.
PL: You’ve translated a range of writers from Russian, from Tolstoy to Babel and Zoshchenko to contemporary prose and poetry by Maxim Osipov and Julia Nemirovskaya (here, your translations of poetry are to be commended for often keeping the original meter and rhyme scheme, which is extraordinarily difficult in English but is precisely what lets these poems come through, as opposed to being rendered unrecognizable, in translation). What draws you to a particular author or project? What are the differences, and/or similarities, in the way you approach translating the various genres and sensibilities of the writers?
BD: The greatest training ground and door-opener of my career was the invitation, extended by Robert Chandler and Irina Mashinski, to coedit The Penguin Book of Russian Poetry. The correspondence we conducted over the nearly four years of work on that project led me to discover the range of voices inside me, voices capable of resonating with those of Vasily Zhukovsky, Afanasy Fet, Nikolai Gumilyov, Marina Petrovykh, Georgy Ivanov, Anna Prismanova, and other poets. I learned what I could and couldn’t do, my strengths and my weaknesses. Most importantly, I learned to listen closely in a hundred different ways, from every angle. Of course, when translating Isaac Babel, I don’t need to strain my ears – his Odessan language is the language of my family, of my childhood; and Zoshchenko’s tragic gags are also like mother’s milk. What I need to do, in both cases, is to find Anglophone equivalents for their voices, and, luckily, American literature is full of them. In the case of Babel, I was aided by Daniel Fuchs, Samuel Ornitz, Saul Bellow, Bernard Malamud, Cynthia Ozick, and, for good measure, Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler. When Zoshchenko came knocking, Ring Lardner and Robert Benchley opened the door, with Damon Runyon peeking over their shoulders. In the case of Maxim Osipov and Julia Nemirovskaya, something rather different happened. The voices I use in my translations of their work are often versions of my everyday voice. Better versions, because they always have more important things to say than I myself do. I loved what Anna Aslanyan said in her TLS review of Maxim’s Rock, Paper, Scissors and Other Stories, which I co-translated with the brilliant Alex Fleming and Anne Marie Jackson: “Dralyuk’s idiom packs a punch, Anne Marie Jackson lends Osipov’s prose a gentle English timbre, and Alex Fleming meticulously recreates its cadences and wordplay.” We all make use of what we have inside us, of what we acquire from our reading and from our colleagues – the key is to make the very best use of it.
PL: In addition to translating, you also work with books in another way: as a frequent reviewer, including for the Times Literary Supplement, and of course as the Executive Editor of the Los Angeles Review of Books. It is thanks to you that this publication has come to amplify coverage of translations from the former Soviet countries, as well as diaspora literatures and scholarly works about the region. What do you look for in terms of the books/writers you feature in LARB?
BD: My editorial goal is, first and foremost, to empower and encourage the editors of our sections – which represent over a dozen genres – to cast as wide a net as possible, and to ensure that we’re covering a diverse array of books and uplifting the voices of critics and reviewers who may not have access to other major venues. We love giving authors their first break. I’m not interested in boilerplate reviews of the latest bestsellers or political exposés. I want our pieces to dig deeper, to be deeply informed but also deeply felt, and to come at books from unexpected angles. A good number of our reviewers are associated with colleges and universities, and their first drafts often bear the telltale signs of academic discourse: lots of jargon, sentences that are far more convoluted than they need to be, etc. The jargon may have its place, but one must remember that many readers are encountering these specialized terms for the first time. We always remind our contributors that they’re writing for a general audience of curious non-specialists; the goal is to welcome people into the discussion, not to stupefy them with a display of one’s erudition. The good news is that academics usually learn quickly – that’s why they’re academics.
PL: We talk a lot on Punctured Lines, and elsewhere, both about how to promote translations from Russian in general and of women writers in particular. In your essay “The Silver Age of Russian-to-English Translation” for Translation Review you name the stellar translators and publishers that have made translation from Russian an incredibly vibrant field. What are your thoughts on how we as a community – of translators, scholars, publishers, editors, reviewers, book bloggers, etc. – can work toward greater visibility of female authors within Russian-to-English translation overall?
PL: Soviet and post-Soviet lives don’t always fit neatly into the contemporary American classification of identities. For instance, in conversation with Katya Michaels at Odessa Review, you described Babel as a Jewish-Ukrainian-Russian-Soviet writer. This sounds about right and yet in American parlance this often gets shortened to “Russian writer” or “Soviet writer.” How do you approach this work of identity constructions that critics and translators are often asked to do?
BD: Yes, this is always a challenge. I suppose the first and most important step is to determine how these authors see – or saw – themselves in their own time and within a given tradition or set of traditions. But once you establish that, what do you do with it? If your press allows you to supply the text with an introduction, or even a brief translator’s note, that’s an opportunity to enrich a reader’s understanding of an author’s identity. And there are, of course, decisions to be made within the text itself. Is it appropriate for Yiddishisms, both syntactic and lexical, to color a Russian text in English translation? If you ask me, Babel wouldn’t be Babel without them. And would Lev Ozerov, a Soviet Jewish poet who, although he wrote in Russian, was raised in Ukraine, counted Ukrainian intellectuals among his closest friends, and translated scores of Ukrainian poems object to our using the spelling “Kyiv” in our rendering of his work? I think he’d heartily approve. Needless to say, there’s no one-size-fits-all approach – and that’s the beauty of it.
PL: What are you working on now? What project(s) is/are on your wish list?
BD: Right now I’m awaiting the publication of my translation of Andrey Kurkov’s latest novel, Grey Bees – a moving, gently surreal picaresque set in Donbas and Crimea two years into the current war. (Talk about Ukrainian place names!) Alex Fleming, Nicolas Pasternak Slater, and I are also making great progress on a second volume of Maxim Osipov’s beguilingly nuanced stories and essays, and are relishing every minute of it. Julia Nemirovskaya’s humbly revelatory and incomparably humane verse continues to work its way through me, and I’m always on the lookout for little treasures to share on my blog – like this delightful poem by Sofiya Pregel.
This year, English-speaking readers will be introduced to three books in translation from Russian, each of which is groundbreaking on its own terms; taken together, these books showcase the aesthetic potential of feminism in contemporary Russian-language poetry. The feminist and queer voices in these books are amplified by the group of poet-translators, whose own politics and identities allow them to negotiate the cultural gap between russophone and anglophone contexts, enriching both. Punctured Lines is proud to introduce the three books and our conversation with Ainsley Morse, Eugene Ostashevsky, and Joan Brooks, who as editors and translators served to bring these books to English-language readers.
Lida Yusupova’s collection, The Scar We Know, edited by Ainsley Morse, with translations by Madeline Kinkel, Hilah Kohen, Ainsley Morse, Bela Shayevich, Sibelan Forrester, Martha Kelly, Brendan Kiernan, Joseph Schlegel and Stephanie Sandler (Cicada Press, Winter 2020/21)
F Letter: New Russian Feminist Poetry, an anthology edited by Galina Rymbu, Eugene Ostashevsky and Ainsley Morse, with original poems by Lolita Agamalova, Oksana Vasyakina, Elena Georgievskaya, Egana Dzhabbarova, Nastya Denisova, Elena Kostyleva, Stanislava Mogileva, Yulia Podlubnova, Galina Rymbu, Daria Serenko, Ekaterina Simonova and Lida Yusupova; translated by Eugene Ostashevsky, Ainsley Morse, Helena Kernan, Kit Eginton, Alex Karsavin, Kevin M. F. Platt, and Valzhyna Mort (isolarii, October 2020)
Galina Rymbu’s collection, Life in Space, translated by Joan Brooks with an introduction by Eugene Ostashevsky and contributions by other translators (Ugly Duckling Presse, 2020)
NB: Dear readers, please pre-order and buy these books and request that your local libraries purchase them for their collections. This directly supports the work of everyone involved in their making.
PL: These are Rymbu’s and Yusupova’s first poetry collections in English, and many authors in the anthology are being published in English for the first time. How did these books come to be? What’s the story–or stories–behind their near simultaneous publication in the US?
Ainsley Morse: I met Yusupova in 2017, when we invited her as the “poetic guest” to AATSEEL (the annual conference of the Association of American Teachers of Slavic and East European Languages)–when funds allow, we like to invite a poet to have translators workshop some of their poems and to give a reading. The idea of making a book started then but really took shape as, over the ensuing couple of years, I kept encountering other translators who were interested in Lida’s work and wanted to take on various texts. (I am the editor of the book and did some of the translations, but really couldn’t have done this project on my own.) Most of the other books I’ve done have been labors of love–me wanting to bring something strange that I love into English, but not always with a huge resonance–but my sense of Yusupova’s book is that it almost made itself; it sensed its English-language audience ready and waiting.
Eugene Ostashevsky: It’s both a coincidence and not a coincidence. Historically, it’s not a coincidence. It has to do with the emergence of feminist and queer poetry in Russia in this decade, mostly written by the young poetry generation, i.e. by people who did not live in the USSR. Yusupova, who is older and did live in the USSR, was the inspiration for some of this poetry. Rymbu is currently its most visible representative. I first came across a poem of hers by chance, online: it was during Maidan, in February 2014. It was the Lesbia poem, about the coming of fascism to Russia. It was obviously the work of somebody who had a vast poetic erudition but was doing something new with it, and something wildly compelling. So I did a feature on her in Music and Literature with Joan’s translations. Sebastian and India, the publishers ofisolarii, read the feature and contacted me. We decided to do an anthology that she would edit and that would represent some of the people from her circle. It just so happened that all three books–the anthology and Rymbu’s and Yusupova’s English-language books–are coming out simultaneously. I think we have COVID to thank for it, because they all got held up by the lockdown in different ways.
Joan Brooks: The first Rymbu translations I did were subtitles for a reading she gave in 2014 at the 4-day series of academic talks, poetry readings, and art performances that I curated for Manifesta 10 in St. Petersburg: “No Radical Art Actions Will Help Here…: Political Violence and Militant Aesthetics.” Rymbu was 24 years old, still living in Moscow, and she had just chopped off her long hair and dyed it orange. She was a sensation. Then Alexander Skidan and Eugene set us up with our first publications. After that I started receiving a steady stream of requests from all manner of editors for more and more and more Rymbu. And I always obliged, translating quickly (and often drunk or stoned) from a place of manic exuberance squeezed in between my academic and family commitments. It was tremendous work, but I managed to keep translating all the way until 2019, when we finally collected everything, added a few more super important texts (“Time of the Earth” and the Cosmic Prospect cycle) and submitted the manuscript to UDP. Probably the most important project of my life.
PL: There have been a number of writers in the russophone space who wrote to queer and feminist themes in the past, including Yusupova herself, who published her first collection in 1995. In 2017, a collective of poet-activists launched “Ф-Письмо [F-Writing],” an online platform, specifically dedicated to feminist poetry. F Letter: New Russian Feminist Poetry gathers the work of poets associated with the F-Writing collective who intentionally blur the lines between poetry and activism. They do this both by breaching taboo topics–for instance, the physiology of the female body (as in Galina Rymbu’s recently published poem “My Vagina”)–as well as by breaking with tradition in Russian-language poetry by moving away from rhyme and meter. What do you see as some of the most exciting and innovative aspects of the poems you worked with?
Ainsley Morse: A noticeable shift away from rhyme and meter has been underway in Russian poetry for at least twenty years now, probably more like thirty (depending on how you understand “noticeable”). But this shift has had a political charge, since it certainly coincided with other, more noticeable rapprochements with the West, and to this day the majority of Russians would certainly tell you that poetry is something that rhymes. Some of the poets in the anthology, particularly the ones with personal experience of life in the USSR–Ekaterina Simonova, or Elena Georgievskaya, for instance–started out writing much more traditional-sounding verse. Lida Yusupova (b. 1963) certainly grew up in a poetic environment dominated by rhyme and meter, but her years of living (and reading) abroad have also surely affected her general sense of poetry. In any case, when she gives specific instructions to translators / editors to “let the lines run on as long as the page will let them”–you know this is someone who has a sense of the constrictions imposed by a neat stanza, such that these unhinged rambling lines are a really meaningful part of her poetics. I’d say, though, that most of the poets represented in the anthology came of age as poets in an (admittedly rarefied) environment that saw free-verse as the new normal; as Eugene describes, their innovations are happening more in the realm of selfhood, subjectivity, identity.
Eugene Ostashevsky: Feminist and queer work–and left-wing political work in general–is what’s exciting in Russian poetry now, at least as far as movements are concerned. Russian poetry has for many generations generally tended to avoid politics. There were a number of deep reasons for it, from the cultural policy of the state to ideologies about poetry held even by people who were deeply anti-establishment. Of course, the aim of the state was to knock out the political instinct altogether, or rather the critical political instinct, to make people believe that politics is corrupt, so that conformism may rule. (This is still the current strategy because it works.) At the same time, stylistic experimentation sufficed to demonstrate your anti-establishment colors, because stylistically interesting work generally could not be published under the Soviets. In the aughts, during Putin’s first decade, some poetry started to break away from the general aversion to political engagement. And it was also a poetry that started breaking other taboos–including talking about the body, and about sexuality in ways that ultimately turned out to be socially impermissible and politically volatile. This poetry moved towards reflecting upon the self in new ways, towards constructing the self differently, and that self would very obviously no longer be a Soviet self, and not even a post-Soviet self. So it was anthropologically innovative, which made it politically innovative also.
However, it was the state that took the crucial step of making such poetry necessarily and obviously political. The state politicized sexuality by associating LGBTQ+ issues with the decadent West, pretending that LGBTQ+ posed a danger to Russian society, as if they were some sort of rainbow-colored NATO special forces, largely criminalizing them and positioning itself as the defender of family values. Once that happened–once Putin, as dictators everywhere, consciously threw in his lot with defense of patriarchy–feminist and queer poetry automatically got shoved onto the political frontline, and automatically became–it’s perhaps unsuitable to use military metaphors here but in Russia we/they like military metaphors–the vanguard of resistance to Putin or the putative Putin or the state.
Joan Brooks: Actually, I think it’s important not to confuse art and activism. I go to protests, support activists (with translations and money, when I have it), and follow the work of activists closely–but, until very recently, I have always considered myself a teacher and translator, not an activist. I worked on the faculty union campaign at the University of Pittsburgh, and now I am doing some ghost writing for a local BLM justice movement. Rymbu had a genuine activist practice for several years–as part of the student-revolutionary tumult at the Gorky Literary Institute in Moscow during the 2011-12 “honest elections” protests and as a member of the Russian Socialist Movement during her first years in St. Petersburg. But I’m not sure she would consider any of her early poems “activist.” They carry all the rhetorical, oratorical pathos of Mayakovsky, but they did not become anthems or slogans. I remember when Rymbu read her most revolutionary early text “Fire” (“I change at Trubnaya…”) at the Poryadok Slov bookstore in St. Petersburg to an audience of ten or so people. The poem was written for stadiums, but that’s not how things go with political poetry in Russia these days. Even though Rymbu’s poems that night were literally printed on the opposite side of a printout of the Communist Manifesto (!), she had to measure her voice awkwardly down from the actual register of “Fire” to fit the room. This wasn’t activism. It was art. And the politics of aesthetics (as we know from Rancière, Raunig, etc.) is different from politics as such.
PL: Most of the poets included in the three books are closely connected to each other by personal and artistic ties. F Letter: New Russian Feminist Poetry was edited and includes work by Galina Rymbu as well as Lida Yusupova’s poetry. What connections between the three books strike you as the most meaningful?
Ainsley Morse: As someone who teaches / tries to teach Russian poetry to American undergraduates, I love that these books are coming out in hot succession–it’s a rare moment when the slow and painstaking world of translation publishing comes a little closer to the pace of the “real life” of this subset of Russian poetry, where these poets are all constantly releasing work that is in conversation with, responding to, each other. Single-author books always give a broader and deeper sense of a writer than a couple of poems in an anthology, but here we also have this anthology providing a whole additional level of context to both Rymbu’s and Yusupova’s work; I would hope, too, that readers intrigued by some of the anthology authors might feel empowered to suggest further translations of some of them. Another rare treat (pedagogical and otherwise) is the possibility, at least with the anthology and Yusupova’s solo book, to compare the voices of different translators grappling with the same poet’s work. I’m also excited and curious about the way English-language readers will react to all three of them being available at once: it seems like an unusual opportunity for a more in-depth and nuanced cross-cultural poetic dialogue, more or less in real time.
Eugene Ostashevsky: Well, it’s the same corpus. Poems don’t really get written individually. They are always collaborations. When you’re a loner, you collaborate with dead people. But here you have work by contemporaries responding to each other–you have a conversation of the living, who are trying to make sense of themselves and of their surroundings. The F Letter: New Russian Feminist Poetry anthology has an incredible poem by Oksana Vasyakina, “These People Didn’t Know My Father,”which starts by talking about the importance of Yusupova as a catalyst. For me, I love Galya Rymbu’s slightly earlier, more anthemic poems in White Bread, that Joan translated, and it’s really interesting to see her return to the same area in “My Vagina” but years later, as a different person. But she works in a number of different directions, and another direction picks up, for example, on the poetics of Arkadii Dragomoshchenko, a Petersburg poet of an older generation, who died a decade ago, and a lot of whose images are apophatic, nonvisualizable.
Joan Brooks: The F Letter anthology is an extremely important book for me. I can’t even say how excited I am to see it. Strangely enough, I was the speaker at the first (still only preliminary and unnamed) meeting of F-Writing, presenting my work on Zoya Kosmodemianskaya. In my view, Rymbu’s F-Writing project is equal in historical significance to her poems. I attended numerous meetings and events organized by the group, and everything that happened in that tiny room at Poryadok Slov was luminous with the emergence of new thought and language. Then, when Elena Kostyleva joined in 2018 and founded the “practical” seminar with Olga Lipovskaya, the project achieved an energy I have rarely seen before. A host of young women and a few queer AMAB (assigned male at birth–PL) writers suddenly made leaps in their poetic practice and published the astonishing results in the F-Writing online journal. The fact that my first three publications under my countername appeared in F-Writing reflects the importance of this project in my own life. Without F-Writing, I would never have had the courage to begin my gender transition.
PL: Despite their similarities, these are three very distinct books, published by three separate presses and presumably aimed at different, albeit partially overlapping audiences. What are some of the unique aspects of each of these books?
Ainsley Morse: As I said earlier, I really have this sense that the Yusupova book “made itself”–I don’t ever remember having a serious conversation about the contents, it just came together in what now feels like a strikingly harmonious and well-balanced structure. All the texts were proposed by the individual translators, with the exception of one poem (“Patchwork Quilt”) that Lida asked us to add (otherwise she did not comment on the contents, except to say how delighted she was). I suspect that the excellent quality of the translations and the overall pleasing shape of the book comes out of this shared creative satisfaction, the fact that everyone was following individual inspiration. Perhaps I should also add that we took our time and agreed on deadlines collectively–no one was rushed.
Eugene Ostashevsky: One aspect that F Letter: New Russian Feminist Poetry shares with Rymbu’s Life in Space, as well as with Yusupova’s collection, is that all three are bilingual. The bilingualism of the books means they are addressed to several audiences at once–to poetry audiences in the US and UK (not at all the same audience), as well as to English-speakers globally, because we, or at least I, aren’t writing for just American readers now. Being bilingual, the books are also addressed to Russians–to global Russians also, meaning to Russians outside of Russia, to people fluent in Russian, and to people just beginning to learn Russian. I ended the introduction to Life in Space with a request that readers who don’t read Russian at least learn the letters so that they can pick up some of the materiality of the language on the facing page. It’s not because I have a Russian fetish, it’s because I think poems are material things, and especially material in the original. Just reading the translation is not enough for me. But I digressed and said nothing about the differences between the books, only the similarities. Sorry.
Joan Brooks: In many ways, I’m not really from the USA, not anymore. Most of my personal development occurred in the bohemian-avantgarde underground in St. Petersburg. So I don’t really have much of an understanding of anglophone poetry audiences. But I’m so happy that UDP decided to do our book–the proofs are exquisitely beautiful. I hope a lot of people will read it! In homes and classrooms and streets! Shout these poems from the rooftops! As for uniqueness, all three of these books are unique, singular, epochal moments in the history of russophone queer-feminism. I sincerely believe the inclusion of this revolutionary idiom into English, precisely now, in these desperate times, has the potential to save the world.
PL: Though Russian is the common language from which these poems originated, most of the poets have lived experiences in a number of cultural and linguistic contexts. Having grown up in Petrozavodsk, Karelia, Lida Yusupova lived in St. Petersburg and Jerusalem, and currently divides her time between Canada and Belize. Galina Rymbu was born in Omsk, Siberia, and Oksana Vasyakina further East, in Ust-Ilimsk, Irkutsk oblast. Lolita Agamalova was born in Chechnya and Egana Dzhabbarova spent her childhood in Georgia and currently lives in Yekaterinburg. What do you think these complex mobilities contribute to their poetics?
Ainsley Morse: In Yusupova’s case, I would say complex mobility makes her poetics. A lot of the poems in her 2013 book Ritual C-4 (excerpts from which open The Scar We Know) are outright multilingual and/or strongly gesturing toward other cultures, histories, languages, etc. This is a really interesting problem for translation, since part of what makes these poems powerful and strange is the simple fact that they tell these stories in Russian, and Yusupova–as someone who spent several decades living in Russia–is fully aware of how dramatically different these (Belizean, Canadian, American, etc.) scenarios and names sound and mean when they are transplanted into Russian. To some extent she is playing around with exoticism in a way that can seem not entirely politically correct. But both in Ritual and in more recent work, she also uses the distance gained from her own personal displacement to look back to Russia (to her own past and the present day alike) from an estranged position. I think this crucial shift in viewpoint is one of the moves that made Lida’s work so inspiring for some of the younger poets in the anthology.
Eugene Ostashevsky: It makes them modern. Modernity is displacement. But, on the less slogany level, it also shows that Russia is not just Moscow and Petersburg anymore, because Russia, with its history of absolutism, used to be like France–just Paris.
Joan Brooks: Such mobility is the essence of Soviet and post-Soviet civilization. It’s what marks out the (post-)Soviet people as radically transgeographic, transethnic, and transcultural. So this complexity is everywhere for me in the former Soviet Union, not just in these books. As for Rymbu’s origins and travels–this story deserves an entire interview of its own. One thing I will say is that, like Rymbu, a remarkable number of contemporary russophone artists, poets, and philosophers come from Siberia (Oxana Timofeeva, Elena Kostyleva, Oksana Vasyakina, Stanislava Mogileva, Daria Serenko, Anna Tereshkina, etc., etc.). I have always had the weird feeling that Siberia is not actually Russian and never has been, most significantly because of the absence of chattel slavery, which defined the so-called “European” part of the empire so tragically. Maybe one day Siberia will split off and form its own republic. #thefutureissiberian
PL: Translators have played a very active role in bringing these books to English-language audiences. Some of the translators are themselves poets and activists, and many were born in the Soviet Union or to USSR-born parents. Considering that poetry translation is the act of co-creation in the new language, what do you think these complex identities of the translators contribute to the shape of these books?
Ainsley Morse: I have to say that I still don’t know very much about the personal background of the translators who did the bulk of the work on the Yusupova book–Madeline Kinkel and Hilah Kohen. I know that they’re both younger than me (by how much, I don’t know), hard-working, bright, responsive, creative and generous, and driven by a vested interest in the work.
With the anthology, I do remember feeling that we needed to involve younger translators–many of the poets there were born in the 1990s, and it seemed important to me that the English come from people reasonably coeval with them. But that was an easy task because there are so many fantastic young(er) Ru-En translators out there right now! I suppose that does bring the conversation back around to the question of family background, since for some of the translators growing up with Russian in the family probably means they achieved a greater degree of bilingual fluency at a younger age (without years of study). But we also worked with several marvelous translators who have just learned Russian from scratch.
The question of translators-cum-activists is interesting. In some ways the history of twentieth-century Ru-En translation is one of activism, since the Cold War narrative of oppressed writers drove much Russian literature publishing for a long time. To some extent this anthology will draw attention precisely because of the persistence of the Cold War model: Russia’s government is still/again villainous, and some of these poems call direct attention to this fact. In the internet age, though, translators have an easier time finding writers they find compelling for whatever reason–they don’t just automatically translate prominent dissidents and Nobel Prize winners. Also, although many of the translators whose work is featured in these books identify as queer, the problems that are relevant for queer poets in the US right now are not necessarily the same ones being grappled with in Russia. So it’s probably more important that the translator has a connection with the poems than necessarily with the poet / the poet’s self-identification.
Eugene Ostashevsky: Since translation is, at bottom, work with language, before you get to gender, ethnic or other identities, the translator needs to know how to write in the target language and how to read in the source language. The translator also needs self-control–you need to check even things you think you understand and you need to make sure you are not smothering the text with your own ideas. Having said that, it is also important–in fact, it’s crucial–for the translator to have an internal connection with the author. This can happen on any level. It can happen on the more existential level of shared, say, gender or sexual preference, although this kind of internal connection strikes me as impossibly broad if unsupported by others.
I personally need a connection through poetics. I really wanted to translate Lolita Agamalova’s Dilige, et quod vis fac, although it’s a lesbian sex poem, and I’m neither young nor a lesbian. But I also know what it’s like to use philosophy, even Neoplatonic philosophy, to talk about sex, I am at home in the kind of metaphysical poetry that she writes. And my job is not to imitate what she, as a character, is doing with another character, but to imitate in English what she, as a poet, is doing with the Russian language. We did aim for a range of “complex identities” of translators in our anthology but I don’t know to what extent that shows up on the page. Like, my “complex identity” is probably differently complex from the “complex identity” of Alex Karsavin, who is a terrific translator I first met working on this book–inventive, thoughtful, precise–but can you read the difference in our word choice? Translation is not the same as original poetry. It’s not about the translator, or rather it’s about the translator very, very obliquely. So identities don’t work in the same way.
Joan Brooks: I’m so happy that you see translation as co-creation. Still far too many people think that the translator should be an invisible servant to the poet, completely effacing their own so-called “identity.” I would never have translated a single poem in this book, if that were true. The work of translating Rymbu’s poems literally changed my life, and the work really was a collaboration. We always went over the difficult spots in the poems together–the best “Russian lessons” I’ve ever had. And it was always reciprocal, too. Rymbu was one of the first people in St. Petersburg to actively invite me to participate in non-academic projects. My language and my thinking evolved with hers, and language and thought are inextricably linked to ethnic, gender, and class “identities” (I prefer “practices of the self”). How can you separate them? At some mystical level of Chomskian deep structure? Hogwash.
During the course of my work with Rymbu, I went through enormous changes. I completed my spiritual migration to the former Soviet Union (I am only in the USA now for health and family reasons); I began my gender transition; and I reoriented (became aware of) my class consciousness, fully embracing my working-class mother’s values and throwing off the burden of my bourgeois father’s expectations. If not for Life in Space, none of this would have been possible. Maybe that’s part of the reason why the translations have been so popular. The reader can sense an entwined process of two emerging selves, where the translator, the imitator, is always studying, learning, and trying to keep up with the poet. In fact, another thing this project did for me was free up my own poetic discourse. I learned to write anglophone poetry with Rymbu and russophone poetry in the F-Writing practical seminar. My first collection of bilingual poems has just been published in the F-Writing journal. It’s nothing world-shaking, but it makes me so happy, so proud, considering where I came from in my life, and what my life has been about.
PL: In the anglophone world, we have seen a growing interest on the part of translators and editors to give space to Russian queer and female writers. In 2019, for instance, Brooklyn Rail’s InTranslation folio “Life Stories, Death Sentences,”was co-edited by Anne O. Fisher and Margarita Meklina. This increased interest came on the wings of the reportage about the socially regressive laws passed in Russia that decriminalize domestic violence and criminalize “gay propaganda” (conveniently loosely defined), and most notoriously the persecution of gay men in Chechnya. On the geopolitical scale, we’re seeing Russian leadership align itself with the socially conservative values maintained in the US by the political far-right, upholding patriarchy and heteronormativity. In the Russian context, many if not most of these authors have engaged in acts of dissent. What do you think of the potential for these books to also act as works of activism in the anglophone context by, for instance, helping to build socially progressive alliances?
Ainsley Morse: I don’t know how much activism these books are capable of bringing about in the anglophone context. I am very glad they are all bilingual, because I think they are definitely capable of sending small shock-waves out into the Russian-reading community–because many of these texts really are earth-shaking and unprecedented in Russian. But my sense is that many of the poems come across as much less shocking in English, where women in particular have been writing the body and sex, etc. for a while now. I’d make an exception for Yusupova’s cycle “Verdicts,” composed of found poems made using court documents she accessed on various Russian legal websites. Several of these are extremely graphic and brutal, in English just as much as in Russian. But I worry too that the English-language poetry reading public has this special category for “brutal Eastern European art” and there’s a kind of automatic distancing that neatly sections off the visceral violence and pain there as the sort of thing that happens elsewhere. Ironically, I think the more programmatic work, which highlights the legal and social differences between the US and Russia, can be less effective at bridging that gap. That said, I recently taught Vasyakina’s “These People Didn’t Know my Father” to a class of non-Russian-speaking students and several people really responded–not as much to the narrator’s fantasies of an underground feminist-terrorist organization, but to her nuanced portrait of economic disparities and social-medical stigma. The “feminist poets” in the anthology are really addressing so much in their work–their “feminism” is often so far-reaching in its calls for human rights and general decency, it almost seems limiting to use that designation (even as we can see the crucial importance of specific demands for women’s rights).
Eugene Ostashevsky: Especially now, given Russian interference in elections in the US, the EU, and elsewhere, and given international cooperation among extreme-right-wing parties and the Russians, the enemy seems to be the same in many locations all over the world, and the systems seem increasingly similar. But that may be an optical illusion. Let me think about it. Well, Russia is just more patriarchal than the US, because the Russian state depends on the traumatization of men–of all of its male citizens–during army service, as well as by the casual violence of the family, of the street. Being a Russian man–a “common,” “normal” Russian man–has to do with the internalization of violence directed at you, with directing violence at others, with accepting it as the natural economy of manhood. I think in the US, which does not have the draft, but does have gun ownership, there exists systematic abuse of men in order to rule them, but it’s directed at a smaller subset of men and it’s organized differently. Just think of American prisons and of the likelihood that an African-American man will go to prison, as opposed to a representative of another group. But it’s less obvious how it works in the US, because oppression in the US tends to be by the indirect, alienated violence of money, rather than by simple beatings or shootings. I understand about police brutality, but there is also money brutality, and I hope I am not downplaying real physical violence if I say that money brutality is more in charge. Anyway, I don’t live in Russia and I don’t even live in the US now, and I’m not a sociologist, so my pontificating is not to be taken too seriously. What I was trying to get at is the obvious point–well, obvious to you and me but clearly not for everybody–that feminism and queerness are extremely good for “straight” men also, because these ideologies aim at constructing a different body politic, one where the men also would not be brutalized, where the state would not depend on the brutalization of men, and of others by means of men, to survive. As it does in Russia. As it does in part in the US, although the violence of money is so much more complicated and less clear cut, and maybe to some extent compatible with nonpatriarchal thinking. Maybe. I don’t know.
But I didn’t answer your question. Do I think these books can act as a work of resistance in an anglophone context? No doubt. I never say “no doubt,” but this is really no doubt. Much of the material in all three books translates pragmatically as well as semantically.
Joan Brooks: See my comments on art and activism above. Forging alliances is something in between the two categories, I think–since it involves pedagogy (and translation as a form of pedagogy). The concept of “activist pedagogy” is very problematic, though, as the famous disagreement between Freire and Rancière attests. In my view, it’s crucial for people like us to initiate pedagogical projects outside the (utterly corrupt and degraded) academy, bringing people in the anglo- and russophone worlds together. The USAmerican and former Soviet queer-feminist anarcho-communist movements really need to be on the same side in the coming post-imperial wars. I’m hoping to set something up in Pittsburgh soon, building a bridge to Minsk or, maybe, Vitebsk. Still, I wouldn’t call that activism. Activists are hardcore heroes. Real revolutionaries. Artists and teachers come second, following a totally different, longer, and more slackened “duration” (in the Bergsonian sense). It’s extremely important to be sensitive to these different durations. For example, I would be a fool to go to a BLM protest and hand out fliers, inviting people to study Belarusian history and culture. These things have to develop slowly, organically, and one needs to look for moments of respite in the revolutionary sequence. Maybe after we get the vaccine.
PL: In the process of translating and editing these books, what images, concepts, and/or words have emerged as some of the trickiest to carry over into English?
Ainsley Morse: Encroaching multilingualism! I talked about this some in relation to Yusupova above; her poems have words from English, Spanish, Kriol (in one poem, Inuktitut), as well as a persistent orientation toward a kind of “other” or foreign space (even when they’re written in plain Russian). Likewise some of the anthology poets use foreign words or phrases, and it’s always so hard to get–and then convey–a sense of how that feels and means in Russian (especially since the “other” language is so often English).
The legal language in Yusupova’s “Verdicts” cycle also offered a technically tricky problem. We, non-lawyers, were not familiar with this kind of language in English, and the Russian legal code is just different. In one case we had to redo a significant chunk because Lida pointed out that there isn’t a manslaughter charge (this had been our approximation of what was, crucially, “causing death by negligence”). Even “Verdicts” should technically be “Rulings,” but we went for the etymological rhyme (the root of the Russian word, Prigovory, is speaking or saying, di(c)t-).
For me, the “Verdicts” cycle also entailed a different kind of difficulty because of the extremely brutal and graphic violence toward women and LGBT+ people depicted in most of the poems. I should acknowledge right away that Madeline Kinkel is the translator of the cycle, for which I’m very grateful–I always knew they would need to be a big part of the book, but was reticent to translate them myself because simply reading them was such a viscerally wrenching experience. Since translating entails getting deep inside of texts and reading them over and over again, translating the “Verdicts” was sure to be hard going (of course, as editor of the book, I ended up working closely with them anyway). I remember Bela Shayevich told me that while she was translating Svetlana Alexievich’s Secondhand Time, which abounds in tales of relentless and horrific suffering, she would cry pretty much every day.
Eugene Ostashevsky: Relatively speaking, this is not hard material to translate. Older poetry is much harder, both because of greater linguistic materiality, especially in the case of classical forms, and because of greater conceptual dissimilarity. With contemporary Russian feminist poetry, though, we all live more or less in the same world, or at least we live in a world whose parts are kind of legible from the vantage point of other parts. Maybe the hardest part of the anthology was the title. F-pis’mo really translates as F-Writing, referring to écriture feminine, but to translate it as F-Writing into English would be like living in the 70s all over again, because the idea of poetry as écriture, which appeared in Russia only recently, becomes a key idea in experimental poetry in the US with Language poetry. So I translated F-pis’mo materially, because pis’mo originally means letter, the kind you send, but if you combine it with F, its meaning alters once again, to letter like ABC. So the title became F Letter: New Russian Feminist Poetry. The F is actually a Russian F, Ф, because it’s a what’s-the-f-you-lookin-at letter, and there’s even an obsolete expression, стоять фертом, to stand like an Ф, which is to have your elbows out and your hands by your waist, but figuratively it means to stand in a what’s-the-f-you-lookin-at pose. It’ll be a tiny book with an Ф on the cover. This kind of translation may be called a double sdvig.
Joan Brooks: Oh. Just read the poem “Life in Space” (the foundational poem of my gender transition). That, my friends, is mad mad language (images, concepts, etc.).
Ainsley Morse translates from Russian and Bosnian/Croatian/Serbian and teaches at Dartmouth College. In addition to F Letter and The Scar We Know, she has worked mostly on Soviet-era poetry, prose and theory, including Vsevolod Nekrasov’s I Live I See and Igor Kholin’s Kholin 66: Diaries and Poems (both with Bela Shayevich, published by Ugly Duckling Presse), Andrei Egunov-Nikolev’s Beyond Tula: A Soviet Pastoral and Yuri Tynianov’s Permanent Evolution: Selected Essays on Literature, Theory and Film (with Philip Redko, published by Academic Studies Press).
Eugene Ostashevsky‘s books of poetry include The Pirate Who Does Not Know the Value of Pi (NYRB 2017), wonderfully translated into the language of German by Uljana Wolf and Monika Rinck, and into the language of music by Lucia Ronchetti, and The Life and Opinions of DJ Spinoza (UDP 2008), now available in digital copy here. As translator from Russian, he works primarily with OBERIU, the 1920s-1930s underground circle led by Daniil Kharms and Alexander Vvedensky. He has edited the first English-language collection of their writings, called OBERIU: An Anthology of Russian Absurdism (Northwestern UP, 2006). His collection of Alexander Vvedensky’s poetry, An Invitation for Me to Think (NYRB Poets, 2013), with contributions by Matvei Yankelevich, won the 2014 National Translation Award from the American Literary Translators Association. He is “against translation.”
Joan Brooks is a writer and translator based in Pittsburgh, PA. Their interests include autoethnography, queer-communism, and the russophone world. They have translated a broad range of contemporary russophone authors, particularly leftist and queer-feminist poets. They also maintain a translation blog. Under their deadname, Brooks is the author of Greetings, Pushkin!: Stalinist Cultural Politics and the Russian National Bard (Pittsburgh UP, 2016) and numerous scholarly articles.
We atPunctured Lines are delighted to host our first public event via Zoom. We recently ran Svetlana Satchkova’s interview with Anna Starobinets about her memoir, and welcome an opportunity to continue this conversation. On September 26, we’ll be moderating a book release celebration for LOOK AT HIM by Anna Starobinets in Katherine E. Young’s translation. This event will begin at 3 pm EST.
About the Event:
In 2012, Russia-based writer and journalist Anna Starobinets was told in her sixteenth week of pregnancy that the baby she was carrying had developed a kidney defect incompatible with life. Following a dehumanizing experience in Moscow clinics, Starobinets traveled to Berlin, Germany, to undergo an abortion. In Berlin, Starobinets also discovered a level of medical support, including emotional support and counseling, that was practically unheard of in Russia at the time.
Starobinets wrote LOOK AT HIM on the heels of those events. Its 2017 publication in Russia was met with critical praise, including a nomination for the National Bestseller Prize, but the book also ignited a firestorm of condemnation. The author was blamed for breaking social taboos by discussing women’s agency over their own bodies and examining the lingering aftereffects of abortion and miscarriage on women and families—taboos that we, as feminists, believe needed to be broken. Beautiful, darkly humorous, and deeply moving, LOOK AT HIM explores moral, ethical—and quintessentially human—issues that resonate for families in the world beyond Russia.
Now Three String Books / Slavica Publishers has brought out Katherine E. Young’s English translation of LOOK AT HIM. Today we’re celebrating the publication of this book that expands the English-language literary canon with a powerful story, masterfully told. Young has captured not only the factual specificity of Starobinets’s experiences but has also emphatically conveyed their emotional intensity.
Join us for a reading from the book and a Q&A with author Anna Starobinets and translator Katherine E. Young. Dr. Muireann Maguire from the University of Exeter, UK, will comment. Hosting are Yelena Furman and Olga Zilberbourg from Punctured Lines, a feminist blog about post-Soviet literature.
*** A special publisher discount for purchase and free shipping (US) of the book will be available during the event. ***
I’ve been pitifully slow to note the launch of Punctured Lines, an absorbing new blog that focuses on post-Soviet literature. It’s edited by two of my fellow émigrés, the scholar Yelena Furman — an old friend and frequent contributor to LARB — and Olga Zilberbourg, author of the poignant collection Like Water and Other Stories. The occasion for my noting the launch now is the appearance of a movingly candid, searching, subtly suspenseful essay by Herb Randall, titled a “A Question in Tchaikovsky Lane.” In it, Randall follows a trail of breadcrumbs left by an Englishwoman named Eddie, who — as the title of a 1946 collection of her letters puts it — married a Russian. The trail leads to a street in Kharkiv, where the couple made their home in the 1930s and ‘40s. Randall is keenly aware of the rough historical winds that…
Anna Starobinets is a Russian journalist, novelist, screenwriter, and children’s book author. Her only book of non-fiction, Look at Him, is coming out in September from Slavica Publishers in Katherine E. Young’s translation. It was originally published in Russia in 2017 and caused an extraordinary public discussion. In Look at Him, Starobinets describes how, in 2012, she found out that the baby she was carrying had a congenital condition incompatible with life, and how, following a dehumanizing experience with the medical system in her own country, she had to travel to Germany to terminate her pregnancy and to receive grief counseling – a thing practically unheard of in Russia at the time.
The incredible outpouring of outrage and vicious criticism that followed the book’s publication is perhaps explained by the fact that it was the first of its kind: in Russia, it’s still the norm to keep silent about one’s grief. I spoke with Anna about her book in order to better understand why it had created such a scandal and what changes in medical practices it had helped bring about.
When did you come up with the idea of writing this book?
The thought first occurred to me when I spoke to a psychologist in Berlin and I saw all the books she had on her shelves about losing a child, in many different languages. I guessed that there were no books of this kind in Russian, which later proved to be true. After I terminated my pregnancy, I felt a need to absorb somebody else’s experience that was similar to mine, so I read a couple of books in English, but, even though my English is pretty good, there’s still an invisible wall between me and a text in this language. That’s when I started seriously thinking about writing about my own experience – I felt that it was my social mission. After the book came out, the most benign criticism I received was that I’d written it in order to sublimate my suffering and to dump it onto other people. I have no idea if there’s any truth to this accusation: you never know where the subconscious is concerned. But I can tell you that that was not my conscious goal. I felt that I had a duty to change the world using the only power I had – the power of the written word. My overarching goal was to break the silence, and I also had some smaller goals. For example, I wanted the doctors who had behaved unprofessionally towards me to stop working with women. That’s why I decided to use their real names.
Have these micro goals been accomplished?
Partially. One doctor I’d written about left his job. I don’t know if my book was the reason, but I know for certain that his reputation suffered. The clinic he’d worked in also organized a training session for their staff with the purpose of teaching them how to deliver bad news to pregnant women. I know that the director of one large private clinic in Moscow made all the obstetricians and gynecologists on his staff read my book. Also, some time later, a hospice was founded in Moscow for women who are pregnant with babies with congenital conditions. There, the women can receive medical help, no matter what decision they ultimately make.
I feel that we have to explain to American readers why everything that has to do with obstetrics and gynecology in Russia carries so much violence towards women. What are your thoughts on that?
There are historical reasons for that. In the USSR, a spartan outlook on life was widespread and almost official: only the strongest were supposed to survive. If you were weak, you couldn’t be a part of the great Soviet system. If you were in pain, you had to keep a low profile. This spartan ideology was curiously fused with even more ancient concepts. For instance, childbirth was considered to be a punishment for pleasure: if you’d been with a man, you had to bear the consequences. A woman in labor wasn’t supposed to cry out in pain and ask for special treatment, more so because this whole sphere was viewed as obscene and dirty, connected to blood and slime. All of that had come from the depths of a conservative peasant mentality. A lot of traditional cultures hold similar views, but in developed countries these have been replaced by modern-day values.
In Look at Him, you write about coming to a state women’s clinic in Moscow together with your husband for a consultation and him not being allowed inside. Why do you think men are barred from entering these clinics in Russia?
This, of course, is true only of state clinics [vs. privately funded – PL] that are still under the influence of old Soviet traditions. It was believed that no woman who had any sense would want her man to see her under those indecent circumstances where she gave birth or underwent a gynecological checkup. And if, for some reason, her man would actually want to be there with her, he’d embarrass all the other women, because he’d see them in this awkward indelicate situation: he’d know that, in a couple of minutes, they’d go in and spread their legs in front of a doctor. Presumably, men were and are barred from the clinics to protect the women.
As a result, Russian men are often separated from women’s experiences. When a woman loses a baby, her own husband often tells her to forget about it as soon as possible. Why do you think most well-wishers in Russia are so bent on making you forget about your loss instead of live through it?
Because we still lack the language to talk about it, and most people, medical professionals included, don’t realize that to talk about your pain is much more therapeutic than to keep silent about it. Paradoxically, when they tell you to forget, they are being helpful. If you don’t talk about it, they believe, the thing will just disappear. For example, my relatives told my 8-year-old daughter not to talk to me about the baby I’d lost, and I was stunned by her silence. I kept wondering if she didn’t care about what happened, and then I found out that she was trying to protect me.
What are your views on psychotherapy? There’s still a lot of prejudice against it in Russia.
Speaking abstractly, I’m all for it, of course. But I’ve encountered a huge number of ignorant and unprofessional psychotherapists in Russia. Finally, I got lucky – I did meet a great psychologist after a long while. The thing is, there isn’t a system in place that certifies therapists and makes sure that if somebody shows you a psychotherapist’s diploma, they are adequately trained to treat you. Anyone in Russia can take a three-month course, call themselves a therapist, and start taking clients.
Let’s talk about the scandal your book caused. How did it develop?
First of all, no publisher wanted to publish my book: they were scared of the subject matter. When it did finally find a home, I was worried that people wouldn’t buy it and that my work would turn out to have been for nothing. When Look at Him was ready to come out, journalists became very interested in it, and fragments of it appeared in various media outlets. I began to read the comments, and my hair stood up! There was so much hate: people were insulting me, saying that I was a disgrace to my country and that I should go and live in Germany if I liked it so much. The commenters also said that our doctors were not overly emotional, but that they had hearts of gold, and that I was demonstrating my dirty bloody underwear. I was shocked. I’d been preparing for a backlash from the medical community, but I’d thought that regular people, especially women, would be on my side because we were all patients, we all had similar experiences with our medical system. It turned out that I’d been mistaken: regular women were my most violent haters, and those who’d lost their children were especially vicious. In the public space, at least: privately, I received hundreds of messages where other women shared their own stories and thanked me for writing about what nobody else wanted to address.
What happened after the book came out?
It sold out in a month, and additional copies had to be printed. Most journalists reacted positively to it, but I would say that fifty percent of regular readers reacted negatively. Then the book was nominated for the National Bestseller award. I knew the people who worked on the committee and was on friendly terms with them: I’d been on the jury several times over the years, and we’d met at various literary events. Those people were outraged by my book too. When it was shortlisted, the judges who were supposed to make the selection among the books on the shortlist violated ethical norms by lashing out against me publicly. Which is ironic, because the book is about ethics, among other things. For example, Aglaya Toporova who is a journalist and who’d lost a three-year-old daughter, wrote a review of my book (you can still see it on the National Bestseller website) where she called my baby a fragment of my body and my book socially dangerous. What most of these people held against me was that I was, in their opinion, trying to capitalize on my grief.
Here, I have to explain to the American audience that the money one makes in Russia as a writer is laughable, and these people knew it perfectly well because they were part of the book industry. At first, I didn’t understand what they meant, but soon it dawned on me: they meant that I was trying to become famous by demonstrating my dirty underwear. The bottom line was that I lost a lot of friends after the book had come out. Fun fact: I live in the same building with a family of writers, and we used to be very friendly. Now, they behave as though I don’t exist.
How did you feel while all of that was going on?
It hurt a great deal, of course – I’m a live human being. But I’d accomplished my goal, and that made me feel better. The public discussion I’d been hoping to start not only happened, but turned out to be huge. My book was everywhere. I remember, someone said during that time that if you turned on the tap at home, Anna Starobinets and her book would start pouring out.
Did the doctors you’d mentioned in the book try to reach out to you?
Their friends and acquaintances did. They tried to shame me: how dare I tarnish the image of those great people? A lady from the clinic called me about Dr. Demidov, who’d brought fifteen students into the examination room without my consent, while I was lying there naked with my legs spread out, and proceeded to talk to them about the “interesting pathology” as though I wasn’t there at all. The lady said that I’d lied in my book. I said, okay, what did I say that wasn’t true? That Demidov hadn’t brought the students into the room? She said that she didn’t doubt that he had, but that I’d written that I had to buy plastic overshoes while those were free of charge at their clinic! I just laughed. I asked her if she wanted an official retraction where I’d say that the clinic confirmed all the facts except for overshoes, and she said no.
Did you get any positive feedback?
There appeared a couple of publications by medical professionals who thanked me for my book and said that everything I’d described in it was true and needed to be changed. And, as I’ve mentioned, I received a lot of personal messages with words of support from women who’d experienced something similar to what I’d gone through. But the overall situation still seemed to me sort of crazy, because the medical community reacted mostly positively, and most of the regular readers were scandalized.
I know that Look at Him has been made into a theater production. Tell me about that.
Roman Kaganovich, a young theater director from Saint Petersburg, wrote to me and said that he’d read the book and that it had changed his outlook on life. He wanted to adapt it for the stage, and the idea seemed plain crazy to me, but I liked him so much that I agreed. In a few months, I came to see the production and was absolutely blown away by it. It was incredible: the actors sang and danced, and the show was not only poignant, but also very funny – I would say it had elements of burlesque. It turned out to be very entertaining and, at the same time, very true to the spirit of my book. It was about personal grief and the Kafkian absurdity of our medical system. Roman said that during the very first performances the audience had been silent the whole time, and he realized that people had been afraid to laugh because the theme was so serious. So, he started saying before every performance that it was okay to laugh – and people started laughing.
Do you think you’ll write any more non-fiction?
I won’t. When I started writing Look at Him, I did it knowing that it would be my only non-fiction book.
First of all, I’m an active Facebook user, and I post on my page whenever I feel like sharing something of my life. Secondly, I love to make up my own stories and to create my own reality – I do it not just for the money, but because it brings me joy. For me, a book of non-fiction isn’t a creative act, but rather community service. I write speculative fiction and horror fiction for adults, and I’ve been writing a lot for children. I have a very popular children’s book series that’s called Beastly Crime Chronicles and that’s been translated into several languages. These are crime mysteries that take place in a forest, and all the characters are animals. There are two detectives: a middle-aged Chief Badger and his assistant Badgercat, who’s undergoing a personal identity crisis. This is my most successful project to date: it’s being made into a cartoon and a show for the stage.
You also write for film and TV. How do you manage to do so many things at once?
I have catastrophically little time: I work a lot. I have two kids; my daughter is a teenager, so she doesn’t care about spending time with me, but my son is five, and he really misses me. But I love writing – it’s the only thing I know how to do. Screenwriting is basically the same thing – you’re creating a story. It differs from fiction writing only in some technical aspects.
I read your Facebook on a regular basis, and I remember reading about a trip you made to China because you needed some material for a novel. What was that about?
I’m writing a novel for adults, and it takes place in 1945 in Manchuria. I’d tried to research online, of course: I didn’t want to go to China at first because I had to spend my own money, and the trip took a lot of time and effort. But I finally realized that I had to go there because I couldn’t feel what I was writing about. I had a feeling that I was writing while wearing thick rubber gloves, and that nothing would change if I didn’t go there.
Why didn’t you just change the place?
I couldn’t because there’s a story behind this novel. In 2008, my husband Alexander Garros [Alexander Garros died in 2017 – PL] and I wrote a script for Russian Channel Two. It was a 20-episode fantastic series that took place in Manchuria in 1945, with demons and werefoxes – a mix of historical truth and mythology. For two years, we lived off the money they’d paid us, but they never actually produced it because the 2008 crisis happened, and the story was really expensive to make. They thought of it as the Russian Game of Thrones. To this day, it hasn’t been produced, and possibly never will be. This gnawed at me for years because I really liked the story and I wanted it to be realized in some way, so I started to talk the producers into giving me the right to write it in the form of a novel. It took a long time, but finally they gave in. This is really ironic because when you’re a writer, the most money you can hope to make is when you sell the screen rights to your novel, and in this case it’s already happened. So, I’m only doing it because I want to tell the story. When you’re writing for the screen, however, you don’t really need a lot of details, but with a novel, you need to dive into the atmosphere. I couldn’t travel back in time to 1945, obviously, but I needed at least something – to see the landscapes, the faces that populated the land, to smell the smells, things like that. Sometimes I teach creative writing to teenagers, and I always tell them the same thing: write what you know, otherwise it won’t sound true. This is especially important in science fiction or fantasy. To make the reader believe you, you need to be true to life in every possible detail, then they’ll believe in werefoxes and demons, too.
This interview was conducted in Russian and translated by the interviewer Svetlana Satchkova.
Anna Starobinets is a writer and scriptwriter. She writes horror and supernatural fiction for adults, and also fairy tales and detective stories for children. Awarded with several Russian and European literature prizes, her books have been translated into many world languages.
Svetlana Satchkova is a writer and journalist from Moscow, Russia, who currently lives in New York City and is working on her MFA at Brooklyn College. Her new novel People and Birds is coming out from Eksmo in September.
Several years ago, when one still did such things, I went to a guest lecture in my department by Vladimir Alexandrov, a Slavic professor at Yale (now retired). Prof. Alexandrov was giving lots of talks at that time on the new book he had written: The Black Russian(Grove Press, 2013). The book, which has since won awards and been translated into several languages including Russian, was a biography of one Frederick Bruce Thomas – Alexandrov refers to him as Frederick throughout – whose life followed an absolutely astounding trajectory: born the son of freed slaves in Coahoma County, Mississippi, he made his fortune in the entertainment business in turn-of-the-century Moscow (and again in Constantinople, after the 1917 Revolution forced him to leave). Although hugely famous in Moscow, he was forgotten after he died. As Prof. Alexandrov explained, he discovered Frederick through a passing reference in the memoir by Alexander Vertinsky, who knew him in Moscow and Constantinople, which so fascinated Alexandrov that he set out to learn everything he could about who this Black American Moscow resident was (Alexandrov spent years researching the book, including going through archival documents and court and government records, as well as tracking down and interviewing Frederick’s grandson in France). The lecture was riveting in a way that sticks with you long after it’s over; you can get a taste by listening to Alexandrov’s recent interview on Sean Guillory’s SRB Podcast. Even though I don’t often read biographies, I immediately ordered the book, and then couldn’t put it down and raved about it to anyone who would listen.
It’s an incredible story from start to finish, told in highly engaging, fast-moving prose. Frederick’s parents were former slaves who became prosperous farm owners in post-Civil War Mississippi. His mother died when he was young, and his father remarried; when a white landowner attempted to cheat the couple out of the farm, they took him to court, where they proceeded to win. The case did get dragged out after that, and a horrific death befell the family. By that point, the Thomases had left Mississippi, which Alexandrov notes “was becoming the ‘lynchingest’ state,” and eighteen-year-old Frederick soon set out on his own on a journey that literally lasted a lifetime.
At first, his travels took him out of the South to major American cities, including Chicago and New York, where he worked as a waiter and a hotel bellboy, and then, because he wanted to become a singer, to Europe. The singing career never materialized, but he did well by working in hotels and restaurants in several West European cities, with Paris being a particular favorite. Moving to Western Europe to escape the Jim Crow-dominated U.S. was not unheard of among Black Americans. But then Frederick did something very few Americans of any background did at the time: in 1899, he moved to Russia. While it sounds unbelievable given the levels of racism there today, early twentieth-century Moscow was where Frederick Bruce Thomas – or rather, “Fyodor Fyodorovich Tomas,” as he renamed himself – came into his own.
As Alexandrov writes, Moscow was a very multicultural city, with many inhabitants from the Caucasus and Central Asia. This made it a comfortable place for Frederick despite his being in a tiny minority: “During Frederick’s years in the city, there were probably no more than a dozen other permanent black residents amid a population of well over a million. But because the parade of humanity on the city’s streets was so varied, Frederick did not stand out nearly as much as his actual rarity might have led one to expect.” It was in Moscow that Frederick achieved what would seem unimaginable for a child of former slaves from Mississippi: gradually working his way up, he became the owner of one and then another “entertainment garden,” amassing a fortune and becoming one of the city’s leading entrepreneurs. His establishments, Aquarium and Maxim, catered to an upper-crust native and foreign clientele, who watched often risque performances while enjoying expensive food and drink in lavish surroundings. Given the nature of many of the acts, the atmosphere in these places was rather non-family-friendly, with female performers being expected to offer themselves as tableside companions to the male patrons whenever the latter requested it. To be sure, there is no suggestion that there was any rape or sexual assault in these venues; moreover, Alexandrov points out that, unlike other bosses, Frederick went out of his way to protect his female employees. Yet my one criticism of the book is that Alexandrov stops short of admitting that Frederick, like the other male entertainment entrepreneurs, was complicit in that he made his fortune by literally instrumentalizing women’s bodies for male pleasure.
Part of what makes this book so rich is Alexandrov’s deft weaving in the broader historical background with Frederick’s biography, understandable given that the outcome of Frederick’s life was directly affected by the turbulence of the times. After the Bolshevik takeover, as a wealthy business owner, he was forced to flee Moscow with his wife and some of his children (his third wife, previously his mistress; he had an eventful personal life). They first went to their villa in Odessa, which was under Allied control, but as Alexandrov describes in what has to be one of the most gripping prologues ever, they then had to escape to Constantinople along with thousands of others as the Bolsheviks closed in. Amid the wrenching misery and poverty of displaced Russians in Constantinople, Frederick once again showed his singularity and ability to persevere in dire circumstances. He opened up Western-style entertainment venues in a Muslim city, often employing Russian formerly upper-class women as waitresses (despite not being particularly invested in the Russian upper classes, I found the discussion of their very genuine plight extremely affecting).
In the end, external forces shattered Frederick. In 1923, Turkish nationalists overthrew the old regime and made it extremely difficult for foreigners to do business; he also faced stiff competition from another entertainment venue. Frederick attempted to reapply for his American passport so he could potentially get himself and his family out of Constantinople. As a Black man from the South, he knew first-hand to what conditions he would be subjecting himself and his children were he to go back to the U.S., where his marriage to a white woman would moreover be considered illegal, which shows how desperate his situation was. His attempts, however, came to nothing; while some American diplomats tried to help him, the racism of other embassy personnel sabotaged the application (as bad as this was, it would have been even worse had anyone discovered – which Alexandrov says no one had until he himself did in the course of his research – that Frederick renounced his American citizenship in Moscow in favor of a Russian one, which is unique indeed). Ultimately, he went bankrupt, was arrested for nonpayment of debts, and died in prison in 1928.
But he lives – extravagantly, sometimes not totally decently, always resiliently against extreme adversity – in the pages of The Black Russian. He has been rescued from oblivion by a writer who said during his lecture that he was given a native son’s welcome by the community in Frederick’s birthplace, whom this book put on the map. In the Epilogue, Alexandrov brings the story up to the present by describing the fates, at least to the extent that this information is available, of Frederick’s children; while most of their stories are tragic, in some sense, the book resurrects them, too. With many in the United States currently engaged in a long-overdue conversation about systemic racism, one of the things happening is the various attempts to center Black voices and experiences and to bring to the fore histories that should be much more widely known. Perhaps this book contributes to that by telling the story of Frederick Bruce Thomas’s, aka Fyodor Fyodorovich Tomas’s, remarkable and unexpected life.
This is a translation of a Russian-language interview conducted by Svetlana Satchkova and published by Storytel on June 16, 2020. The translation is by Fiona Bell.
Tatsiana Zamirovskaya is a writer from Belarus who has lived in New York for the past five years. She writes in Russian and English. Her short story collection, TheLand of Random Numbers (Земля случайных чисел, AST, Russia, 2019) was nominated for the National Bestseller prize and compared by critics to works by premier authors of metaphysical science fiction, from Ursula K. Le Guin to the Strugatskii brothers. She recently completed a new novel about memory and digital immortality.
Svetlana Satchkova spoke with Tatsiana about how her interest in fantasy developed, how she came up with the idea to move to the United States, and what the Belarusian language means to her.
What was your childhood like?
I was born in Borisov, a small city where Napoleon’s army was defeated in 1812. Nothing else has happened there, which is why all local culture revolves around Napoleon: there are regular battle reenactments on the floodplain of the Berezina river, where the army drowned, and guys walk around with metal detectors looking for Napoleon’s golden carriage, and drunk high school graduates go to Brilevskoe field to watch the sunrise. Borisov is also famous because Hitler came there during his only visit to the Nazi-occupied parts of the Soviet Union, in 1943. When I was a kid, the neighbors once told me that he probably stayed in our house, since it was one of the only brick houses in the city at that time…
My parents were pretty ordinary: in Soviet times, my mother was a music teacher at a music school and my dad was an engineer at a factory, where he designed tanks. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, he tried to survive in any way he could. Belarus is a transit territory, which is why Belarusians survived thanks to these huge overnight bags, which they used to carry all sorts of junk to sell across the border in Poland. So I grew up among mountains of junk: for example, thousands of crystal swans from the Borisov Crystal Factory, or boxes of dichlorvos.
I went to a great school that specialized in English. We periodically went on exchange trips to London. The British kids also visited us, bringing all the new music on cassette tapes, which we then copied from each other. I listened to all the Brit Pop albums of the nineties right when they came out, and back then, that was a huge accomplishment – living in contemporary music culture. Borisov was also a hub for violent youth groups, kids who actually lived by the laws of the street. So, my childhood was a mix of prison aesthetics, elite education, and difficult, post-perestroika life.
What did you want to be when you grew up?
I always wanted to become a writer or a musician. My parents hung out with a great crowd of rock-intellectuals. One of them, the famous musician Oleg Minakov, who sang in the German group Inspector back then, told me I should study journalism because, with my interest in music and desire to write, I could become a music critic. I thought that sounded like a really cool life, so I decided to study journalism at Belarusian State University in Minsk.
Then, at the end of the 90s, Lukashenko changed the constitution so that he could be president without interruption or term limits — in fact, Russia recently took a page from his book. But the journalism department at my university was very liberal: I was accepted, writing in my entrance exam essay about how I dreamed of working for the opposition newspaper Name (Имя). When my mom found out, she cried for two days. Then we heard that I’d gotten the highest score of all the applicants. The journalism department was a cool crowd, everything was suffused with the spirit of freedom and hope for a different future. I went to protest rallies, rock concerts – basically, it was a great time.
When did you become a working journalist?
The same time I started doing everything else – university. When I was 19, my friends and I published a completely out-there newspaper for an opposition party that got a grant for it. One time we were paid in NATO pilot jumpsuits, since humanitarian aid had been sent that consisted of canned food and these jumpsuits. I only published one article in Name (Имя)– I handed it over to the legendary journalist Irina Khalip, she published it, and two weeks later the newspaper closed down. The article was about a Rolling Stones concert in Moscow, and Khalip even remembered me later. In one of her interviews she said: “I remember this first-year student Zamirovskaya coming to me with her article on a sheet of paper.” It made me so happy to read that.
Even at that time, professional music media in Belarus was well-established, in the spirit of publications like Q and NME: Music News Weekly (Музыкальная газета), the magazine Legion (Легион), and the magazine Jazz Quad (Джаз-квадрат). I wrote for all three and was the editor at Jazz Quad. That was my first job after university. We worked directly with labels, who had a lot of respect for us and sent us new albums to review. You have to remember that in 1997 Minsk, getting a review copy of OK Computer, when no one else had heard it, was very cool. I spent hours on the phone and did interviews with all sorts of famous musicians, which allowed me to make up for the English I hadn’t been taught in school.
When did you start writing prose?
While I was studying journalism, I wrote short surrealist stories and, without telling my friends, sent them to the Dnipropetrovsk cult contemporary art magazine, Ours (Hаш). People like Linor Goralik and Mikhail Elizarov started publishing there. I didn’t get a response, but one day the magazine sent all its contacts a letter saying that their work mail had gotten messed up and everything had been lost, but that some girl from Minsk’s journalism department had sent them a story about a guy who fucked a pyramid. They wanted to publish that story but didn’t know how to find the girl.
The next day, everyone in the department kept looking at me. It turns out we had all been secretly sending things to Ours (Hаш). My piece was an homage to Ray Bradbury, who had a story about a man and a woman who give birth to a pyramid and then decide to move to the land of pyramids to live on the same wavelength as their child. Now I have three published short story collections, the most recent of which, The Land of Random Numbers, came out in 2019 with AST, Moscow.
What made you decide to move to the U.S.?
At 35, I felt like I had already lived a full life. I didn’t know where to go next. I’d worked as a journalist for a long time, applying an apocalyptic perspective to everything: first to music, then politics, culture, and contemporary art. I’d hosted a jazz program on Polish radio and edited a glossy men’s magazine with friends. We’d even had Sergey Mostovshchikov, who we all idolized at the time, as a guest editor in a joint issue with Crocodile (Крокодил).
My time in Belarusian journalism had run its course and I thought it would be cool to get an education in the arts – I worried that I wasn’t writing deeply enough about contemporary art – and simultaneously improve as a writer. I set out to do an MFA in New York because it was my favorite city, where I’d been as a tourist but wanted to live.
Was it difficult to adapt to a new place?
My friends couldn’t understand my decision to move, since in Minsk I lived in my own apartment and worked as a content editor at an ad agency – my life was great. And now I’d decided to spend all the money I had saved to go to some art school and live in a tiny, screened-off corner of a puppeteer’s apartment in Bushwick. While I was earning my MFA, I had all kinds of weird side hustles: writing texts and sometimes even being a pet sitter. It was really cool because I got to spend time in the fancy apartments of some artist or another, lying on their couch with their dog and looking at their art books. But I always saw this as forward movement: I immediately realized that in the U.S., education is a huge investment in yourself, even if it’s not the sort of education that gives you the opportunity to find the perfect job right now.
What types of opportunities does it offer?
A Master of Fine Arts degree legitimizes you as a practitioner in an artistic field. This degree is so expensive because it gives you access to circles that you wouldn’t otherwise be able to get into. After I graduated from Bard College, I went to several prestigious writers’ residencies, where people would ask me who I was and where I was from. “Belarus,” I’d say. “Oh, they kill journalists there, don’t they? Or is that Bulgaria?” they’d say. “Alexievich, Chernobyl,” I’d say. They would nod, still unsure. Then I started saying that I’d graduated from Bard, and they would immediately reply, “Oh, Bard!” Their attitude towards me changed instantly: they no longer needed to know what I wrote or whether I was any good.
The fact that I’d received an MFA meant that I had already been verified by someone somewhere and that I was, roughly speaking, part of their circle. This program also helped me understand what I do more generally. At Bard MFA, they teach you to be aware of all the stages of creative work: so, it’s not that I sit down, and the universe hands me a text because thus is its divine will. They teach you to understand your own practices, how they relate to your life story and your identity, what is borrowed and what is your own. I learned how to write grant applications, to put myself in context, and basically to understand what I want. If I hadn’t gone there, I’m not sure I would still be writing.
What’s special about Bard College?
Bard is one of the oldest liberal arts colleges in New York and it has a Graduate School of the Arts with a focus on interdisciplinarity. Its founders decided to bring together professors from various disciplines – sculpture, painting, photography, film and video, music, and literature – and educate students so that they interact as much as possible. There aren’t many students, so people from various faculties can visit each other’s caucuses. It really opens up your perspective, especially as a writer. For instance, I’ve never done normal readings of my texts – they’ve always been performances.
Could you describe one of them?
I did a performance on the impossibility of translation. I handed audience members pages of a surrealist short story that I – someone with very synthetic English – had self-translated into English and told them to follow along with the text. Then I took the microphone and read the story in Russian with periodic pauses. My classmate Anastasia Kolas, who was hiding in a closet, translated each phrase live. She emigrated from Belarus as a teenager and knows English like a native speaker, but she has kind of torn herself away from Russian. This was the first time she had heard my story. Naturally, my translation was very different from what Anastasia came up with. In this way, the audience simultaneously heard three different versions of this text through three different channels of perception. I was later told that this was a totally psychedelic experience.
Do MFA graduates manage to make a living as artists?
I don’t have the naïve belief that if I make good art, that means I can make a living off of it. But at the same time, I don’t think that if you can’t make money off of it, that means you should be ashamed of it. For artists, generally speaking, it’s normal to be poor and unsettled – maybe it was actually Bard that taught me to feel this way. Basically, I see it like a sort of gambling: you can win the jackpot or not win anything at all, but that’s where the nice sense of excitement comes from.
There are people who have achieved conventional success: Salley Rooney, for example. She clearly didn’t set out to write a bestseller, her prose just coincided with something and set off a reaction. It’s all about chance and synchronicity, themes that are very close to me. But, as far as I know, some of my former classmates work as assistants to more successful artists or writers, teach at colleges, or work as copywriters, journalists, or PR professionals. But some are lucky: they get a book contract or are exhibited in MoMA, like Martine Syms – a classmate of mine who is a superstar in the contemporary art world.
What are you writing now, in Russian and in English?
I’m finishing a novella in English that was originally my thesis project. It’s about false testimonies: people who talk about persecutions and abuse that they never actually experienced. It’s experimental prose – something at the intersection of prose and poetry. Since I’ve been writing it for a long time, my English has evolved in the process. The reader can trace the improvement of the author’s language. The first chapters are really shaky, and now I can’t even edit those because my English has noticeably improved. Maybe by the end it will be quite natural.
Anna Moschovakis, my professor, came up with the idea. She said that I would never have another chance to write a text in a language that was poor at the beginning, but then improved. To waste that transitional moment would be stupid. In Russian, I wrote a novel about how a person’s consciousness continues to exist after their death, or rather, not the consciousness itself, but its digital copy. This is a very important difference because it’s impossible to maintain consciousness after death – you completely disappear. But if you have a digital copy, it considers itself to be you. It’s a kind of post-apocalyptic utopia about people who copy their consciousness, and the copies go to some sort of afterlife, thinking that they themselves are people.
You are from Belarus and identify as a Belarusian writer, but you write in Russian and English. Why?
I can’t write literary prose in Belarusian because I only learned it at school as a second language, although I consider it my native language and that’s something I always emphasize. Like many Belarusians, I grew up in a Russian-speaking environment and I think in Russian, and I respect Belarusian too much for it to just be a target language for mental translations from Russian. I’m planning to write something in Belarusian that won’t require this sort of code conversion – maybe a memoir about working as a journalist in Minsk.
I think it’s important to note that the identity of a Russian-speaking Belarusian is that of a person who, though they grew up in a Russian-speaking culture, very clearly separates themselves from Russia because Russophone culture doesn’t only include Russia. When I studied journalism in the nineties, if you spoke Belarusian, it meant that you were against Lukashenko, that you went to protests and, more often than not, wrote poetry. This was the language of the artistic intelligentsia. I worked at Belarusian radio stations for many years, I speak Belarusian as well as I would a first language, and I always switch to it when I’m with Belarusians. But I haven’t used it in literature. I’ve always thought it would be an opportunistic act on my part, since authors who write in Belarusian are rightly given more support. Svetlana Alexievich, for example, also writes in Russian and, in so doing, emphasizes the fact that she is not Russian.
Belarusian has been in a difficult position for a long time, since Stalin destroyed practically the entire Belarusian cultural elite in 1937. Perhaps our culture would be different if those hundreds of writers and poets hadn’t been taken to the forest and shot. Nowadays it’s very important to understand the terminology at play. The way I see it, I work in the field of international culture and Russian is a convenient tool I use. Just because Belarusians write in Russian doesn’t mean they’re a part of Russian culture. I want to be treated in Russia – and for other Belarusian authors to be treated – like any other foreign author, one who happens to write in Russian simply due to historical circumstance. In any case, native speakers of Russian are lucky – they can read our work in the original.
Svetlana Satchkova is a writer and journalist from Moscow, Russia, who currently lives in New York City and is working on her MFA at Brooklyn College. Her new novel People and Birds is coming out from Eksmo in September.
Fiona Bell is a literary translator and scholar of Russophone literature. Her translation of Stories by Nataliya Meshchaninova received a 2020 PEN/Heim Translation Fund grant. She is from St. Petersburg, Florida and currently lives in New Haven, Connecticut.
Today we’re excited to feature Herb Randall’s essay about his visit, inspired by a volume of collected letters, to #16 Tchaikovsky Lane in Kharkiv, Ukraine, a building with a fascinating history in the field of science. Yet as Olga discovered as we were working on this, it has a much more sinister history, as well. After the revolution of 1917, this building was used by the city’s branch of the Cheka, Lenin’s secret police, to imprison, torture, and execute those termed enemies of the Bolsheviks. The dead bodies were thrown into a ditch behind the building; unofficial estimates suggest that between 1,500 and 3,000 people were killed here.After the Cheka was dissolved in 1922 (only to be reconstituted under different names, including Stalin’s NKVD), over 200 bodies were discovered on the grounds behind #16. There is no verifiable evidence that the letter writer knew this; in any event, there’s no mention of it in the letters.
Images accompanying this piece are courtesy of Herb Randall.
A QUESTION IN TCHAIKOVSKY LANE
No sugar plum fairies greet us as we turn the corner onto Tchaikovsky Lane. Yet almost immediately, the rush and roar of Pushkin Street dissipates and we escape into this sleepy neighborhood, stepping into another time and another’s story.
A curious old collection of letters written here brings us to this forgotten residential street in Kharkiv. I Married a Russian is the work of an Englishwoman identified only as “Eddie.” She fell in love with a visiting Soviet scientist while both studied at Cambridge and set off on a grand adventure into the wild East of this rapidly modernizing new nation. Eddie’s first letter to her sister in England was in May 1930 while the newlyweds sailed to their new home. She posted the final letter in 1945, after surviving wartime evacuation to Kazakhstan and returning to the ruins of Kharkov (Eddie uses this Russian-based spelling of the city’s name, which is used here when referring to the book). The letters were quickly published by George Allen and Unwin in London, and though the book is barely remembered today, it was discovered and recommended by a friend who shares my affection for Ukraine. I carry my weathered copy with me as we walk.
The couple met through their love of music. “Kira” played piano beautifully, and Eddie could have made a career with her violin. Joyful hours spent around the piano quickly led to romance and marriage. Two marriages, in fact: first at the Soviet consulate and shortly thereafter a proper English wedding. Her parents feared the marriage could be dissolved too easily if only bound by Soviet law.
We are here to find Eddie and Kira’s flat and the physics institute that brought them to the new capital of Soviet Ukraine (Kharkiv was used as the capital from 1919 until 1934). It was a backwater in a building frenzy. Eddie wrote of sledding in winter from a hill in the city center to nearby villages, places that today are incorporated into Ukraine’s second largest city. The Soviet Union granted special privileges to scientists, citizen and foreign, to attract them to the institute. It was a welcome haven for some escaping antisemitism at home, while others were drawn to the Soviet experiment, or the chance to work with some of the most famous scientists in the world. The institute flourished and critical work in cryogenics and nuclear physics was done here by such renowned scientists as Lev Landau, Piotr Kapitsa, Lev Shubnikov, and George Gamow.
Eddie was a sensation among Kira’s family and colleagues. She was charming, witty, intelligent, determined. Flirtatious and pretty, but unwaveringly devoted to Kira. She threw herself into her new life, soon editing a physics journal published in English and German by the institute, establishing the gardens on the grounds, even joining a women’s cavalry regiment for an October Revolution parade. After much difficulty, some dubious medical treatments, but seemingly by her sheer force of will, Eddie gave birth to a daughter. After a few years, a son followed.
Questions abound when reading Eddie’s letters today, in turn fascinating, frustrating, charming, harrowing, maddening. They swirl around us as we walk further into the lane, and we see a small wooded park and playground. Could this have been part of the gardens she tended?
Her dear, endlessly patient sister is unnamed in the letters, and her replies can only be inferred. In the opening pages, the list of characters we will meet is full of pseudonyms and presents today’s reader with the first mystery. Who were these people really? The Soviet Union was a riddle to contemporary readers, and the subjects of Eddie’s missives could be reasonably sure of obscurity.
Not today. With some quick research their real names surface. Rather than clarifying, the mysteries deepen and darken. Eddie’s breezy letters often omit important details. There are gaps in the letters, sometimes for years. These lapses often coincide with particularly turbulent events. One of the starkest gaps is between January 1931 until February 1934, so that nowhere does Eddie mention Stalin’s forced famine that brought starving villagers swarming into the city and that she could not have avoided seeing. People described in her letters disappear with no explanation, as if airbrushed from a photograph. Eddie obliquely references “scandals and intrigues” at Kira’s institute that were actually part of Stalin’s brutal wave of purges and executions in 1937-38. Was this Eddie’s way of getting her letters through the censors, or something else?
“Is this it?” my companion asks, squeezing my hand in front of a small red and sand brick building: 16 Tchaikovsky Lane. It appears to be older than it should be based on Eddie’s letters, predating the revolution. We look up at the second-floor balconies and try to guess which belonged to them.
This building isn’t quite as we had imagined. It is unexpectedly tidy, too purposefully built. Eddie wrote that the flats in her building were still under construction when they arrived in 1930, rapidly renovated to house the physicists working at the institute next door. We walk back to the previous building, number 14. It is certainly more imposing, but as we walk around the side, slightly ramshackle. Here in the courtyard, we discover a plaque near an entrance commemorating one of Kira’s fellow scientists, Lev Shubnikov, who lived in this building. Until 1937, when his career and life were ended. Astoundingly, neither Kira nor his foreigner wife were touched by these repressions.
We stand for a moment, reflecting. A gentle piano and sinuous violin intertwine, tendrils of Scriabin and Prokofiev. Laughter, gossip, chatter. Clattering of dishes and clinking glasses. A baby fussing, unsoothed. Sounds we once would have heard here but today there is only silence.
Other sounds we do not hear, and that go untold in Eddie’s letters: boots echoing in these stairwells, sharp knocks on doors, whispers and cries. Fearful reassurances and promises made in vain. Car doors slamming, silence descending.
Kira and Eddie were fervent believers in the socialist future they suffered so long to build. Her accounts of the circle of famous scientists who lived and worked here are among the only contemporary sources available. Today we must read Eddie’s letters with some questions about their accuracy and the motivation for publishing them. Her letters, while filled with personal stories and valuable historical details of the period, often parrot the Soviet propaganda of the day uncritically and enthusiastically. Even when speaking of shortages, unpaid salaries, or other difficulties, she minimizes and explains them away when possible. Her sister likely found Eddie’s frequent criticisms of English life and government policies tiresome.
How could this young woman from a comfortable English upbringing come to almost revel in the hardships she endured? Especially at the beginning, most of her efforts were devoted to scrounging furnishings for the apartment, ensuring adequate food, and with regular shipments of Keating’s powder from England, warding off the persistent bugs. Despite the hardships, Eddie never wavered in her belief in the Communist project.
Another puzzle is how these letters came to be published, first in London in 1944 and 1946, followed by an American edition in 1947. Edited by Lucie Street, one of Eddie’s friends, possibly another pseudonym. Her introduction and connecting texts are uncomfortable reading today as we now know more of the facts from that era. Lucie certainly echoed the message the Soviet regime hoped to advance among wavering and then erstwhile allies in the chaotic end of the war.
Eddie’s delightful hand-drawn map in the endpapers of I Married a Russian shows the two main buildings of the Ukrainian Physico-Technical Institute (UPTI) on either side of her flat. We don’t see those buildings today. Her map is not to scale, though, and as we walk behind the apartment building, we see a dilapidated brick and concrete wall nearly hidden by trees. A sign on the guard building indicates that we have found the physics institute. Whether abandoned, still in use, or contaminated, it is clear that we are not meant to enter.
It’s getting late and shadows begin to crowd around the narrow lane. A question half-formed, taking shape along with other unseemly notions, now seems urgent and necessary to ask.
Edna Cooper’s and her husband Kirill Sinelnikov’s intriguing, nearly-forgotten lives deserve their chronicler, but it cannot be me. My fragmentary Russian would be no help researching the now-available archives and secret police files. I also sympathize strongly with Eddie, while recoiling from what I’m beginning to understand about her and Kira’s possible accommodations with the regime. Someone more objective should ask the question.
The answer I don’t want to learn is both obvious and eighty years later may be unprovable. And yet, glancing at my companion, I don’t know if this question should be voiced. She looks at me lovingly, having indulged another of my quests to dig into a long-forgotten history. Am I really so different from Eddie, here for a romance that stretches across a continent and a culture that perhaps can never fully be bridged?
We begin walking back, elated with our success. But the truth is, we aren’t sure if we have seen Eddie and Kira’s flat or the institute as they knew them. What remains was heavily reconstructed after the war, and this part of the world is not overly-fond of preserving the past. Perhaps the many flowerbeds and trees clustered around these buildings are Eddie’s true legacy. We are simply pleased to know that we’ve visited the place they once called home, and to have honored the memory of their friends and colleagues unfortunate enough to have sought refuge in their life’s work here, only to be unjustly accused, jailed, or executed.
It’s already dark and we want to enjoy an evening in the city. Suddenly, my question slithers out, darting formless and hideous between us. I am ashamed and I curse myself for what I could not suppress.
A few steps together in silence. Then another squeeze of the hand and a sad smile. “Of course,” she answers. “Of course they did.” She points to another building. And another. “Just like someone who lived there, and over there.”
“They survived,” she whispers, looking away. Finally reaching the end of the lane, we leave Tchaikovsky’s shades behind us and are whisked along with the bustle of Pushkin’s street.
Herb Randall lives among the idyllic mountains, forests, and waters of northern New Hampshire. He has travelled extensively in Ukraine, Poland, Sweden, and Estonia. He enjoys exploring lesser-known places, reading with a special focus on fiction in translation, and writing about forgotten people and places. This is his first published piece. Twitter: @herbrandall