Olga Mark’s “The Lighter”: An Excerpt from Amanat, a Collection-in-Progress of Recent Women’s Writing from Kazakhstan

Shelley Fairweather-Vega on Amanat: Women’s Writing from Kazakhstan

The idea to translate and publish a collection of recent women’s writing from Kazakhstan grew out of my collaboration with Zaure Batayeva, a Kazakh writer and translator living in Belgium. Zaure contacted me in October 2016 when she wanted to hire someone to edit her English translation of a novella by Aigul Kemelbayeva. We eventually submitted the final version to Words Without Borders, whose editor, Susan Harris, was looking for “post-Soviet” literature from different places. Excerpts from the Kemelbayeva novella and two other pieces appeared in a WWB feature in January 2018. By that time, Zaure and I were thinking seriously about collecting writing by more authors and publishing an anthology. Ever since, she and I have been trading stories, checking each other’s translations (she translated the Kazakh-language stories, and I translated the Russian-language pieces), and querying publishers. We won some much-needed funding and publicity from the generous RusTrans program, and our collection is now nearly complete.

“Amanat” means legacy, or sacred trust. The title of our anthology is also the title of one of the shorter stories in it, by the wonderful poet, translator, and prose writer Oral Arukenova, in which a dying woman’s grown children struggle to decide what to do about her last request of them. The cultural clashes and generational conflicts in the title story are evident in other pieces in our collection, as well. But those sorts of conflicts are surprisingly rare in the “official,” state-approved literature in Kazakhstan today, which prizes tradition, patriotism, and stability above all (as does the bureaucracy that supports it). Yet there are many other types of stories to tell in a country that has undergone such profound political, social, and economic upheaval through Russian colonialism, Soviet cataclysms, and sudden independence in the space of just a few generations.

This story, “The Lighter,” is by Olga Mark (1963-2008), who was one of the most influential figures in independent (non-state-sponsored) Kazakhstani literature of the 21st century. It addresses child prostitution and poverty in an unnamed modern city, though with a dash of pure optimism, and it’s one of my personal favorites from this future anthology.

Zaure Batayeva on Author Olga Mark

Olga Borisovna Markova (Olga Mark) should be remembered both for her writings, which explored issues none of her Kazakhstani peers would dare to mention, and for her role as literary mentor and organizer, her ability to galvanize so many young people in the chaos of post-Soviet Kazakhstan, while being bound to a wheelchair at home.

In 1993, Olga founded the first independent arts and literary journal in Kazakhstan: Appolinarii. She ran the journal, and the many events organized under its umbrella, with a group of volunteers from her 3-room apartment in Almaty. A few years later, she managed to obtain funding for the journal and its many related activities, not from the state but from private donors, including the Dutch humanitarian HIVOS organization.

Moreover, in the early 2000s she founded a writers’ workshop, which nurtured a new wave of independent Kazakhstani writers: poets such as Marat Issenov, Aigerim Tazhi, and Erbol Zhumagul and fiction writers such as Lilya Kalaus and Ilya Odegov. As Maks Velichko, another writer who benefitted from this workshop, put it: “Olga Borisovna created something that was beyond the power of the powerful Ministry of Culture of Kazakhstan—a new literary wave.”

What Olga was able to do as a mentor and organizer was to provide conditions in which independent artists could learn, work, and create, despite being deliberately and systematically ignored by the state—a Soviet method that has prevailed until today. Olga’s achievements in this regard thus stand as a rare feat in the history of Kazakhstani literature.

Olga Mark with her students (2002) and colleagues at a book exhibit (2003). Photo credits: Aigerim Tazhi and Alexei Shvabauer.

P.S. 1
Here is one of Olga’s last interviews in which she spoke about the difference between independent writers and state-promoted writers (in other words, Soviet writers). The situation has not changed since Olga gave the interview: https://time.kz/news/archive/2008/06/25/5381

P.S. 2
I knew Olga personally because she was my teacher at Almaty State University. As a graduate student, I was honored to publish some of my badly written essays in Appolinarii and to attend various literary events that she and other teachers organized in her 3-room apartment.

The Lighter

A Story by Olga Mark, translated by Shelley Fairweather-Vega

“Kind people, have compassion for a poor orphan!” The girlish voice rang out through the bus and beat against the windows, as if to flee the stuffy air and escape outside.

When this voice suddenly intruded into their pre-holiday routine, demanding enough as it was, the passengers gave a start. Some glared at her with annoyance, this petite figure wrapped in a warm coat that wasn’t terrible looking, but most had a favorable enough reaction to both the voice and its owner, and wrinkled bills dropped generously into the thin palm of her hand.

Verka was happy. She smiled at everyone who gave her money, knowing her pretty little face would move people to kindness, and increase the size of their donations.

“Where are your parents?” asked a middle-aged woman, concerned.

“We’re refugees,” Verka answered cheerfully. “From Chechnya.” Then she added, just in case, “There’s a war there.”

The woman shook her head regretfully while Verka headed for the exit. The tribute had been collected and it was time to move on.

Humming something and skipping as she went, filled with joy, Verka walked between the new, tall apartment buildings in the fanciest part of the city. It was dangerous to work for a living here, too many cops and alert citizens, but Verka liked to take risks. She stopped near one doorway, examined it closely, rejected it and moved to the next. She walked inside that door and waited. To make things more fun, Verka took a half-eaten hot dog from her pocket. She chewed off tiny bites, not in a hurry—her belly was full—and like an actress before her entrance, she went over her lines. After about ten minutes a man walked through the door. Clutching the rest of the hot dog in one hand, Verka hurried over to meet him.

“Want a Lolita, a nymphette, a juvenilette?” Verka sang the words, opened her coat, and quick as a bat blocked the way to the stairs. She wore nothing other than that coat. Her pointed little breasts poked out threateningly, the dark nipples contracted maybe with cold, maybe with arousal. A flat stomach and blond puffy triangle below, the strong thighs and angular knees of a creature half girl, half woman… Frightened, the man took a step back, away from the glow of the bare young body. Verka advanced. Her whisper rang out loud, now beseeching, now commanding, fast, rapid-fire, over and over.

“Have compassion for a poor orphan, uncle! I’m a pretty girl, a good girl, you’ve never seen anyone like me, you’ve never had anyone like me…”

The man was retreating to the exit, but then he stepped forward abruptly, grabbed Verka by the shoulder, and shoved her out the door.

“Little wretch!”

Verka flew outside and fell, almost knocking a woman who was walking in off her feet. The woman stopped, distraught, staring at the naked Verka spread-eagle on her coat.

“He raped me!” Verka said, speaking very clearly and staring right at the woman. “He took my clothes! Me, an orphan!” The picture of despair, she covered her face in her hands.

The man ran outside and Verka, catching a glimpse of the look on the distraught woman’s face, shouted “Help!” Then she jumped up and dashed off between the buildings.

She stopped to catch her breath a couple blocks away. Shaking with laughter, she spent a long time resting near one of the young trees they had planted two years ago. Verka took the souvenir bottle of vodka from her pocket, the one she had fallen in love with for its beauty and miniature size and bought that morning at the bus stop kiosk. She opened it and took a gulp. Then she walked off to another building, dancing along the way, in no hurry at all, pretending to be Laime Vaikule on the TV. The doors here had locks controlled by keypads. She waited until a kid was going inside, hopped in after him, and stood there waiting again.

A man appeared almost at once. Opening her coat, Verka went to meet him.

“Want a Lolita, a nymphette, a juvenilette?” The man stopped, and looked her slowly up and down.

“How old are you?”

“Eleven!” Verka said cheerfully.

“You’re lying,” the man said.

“Fourteen,” Verka corrected herself. “I don’t remember, Uncle. We’re refugees from Tajikistan. There’s a war there.”

“Where’d you learn to talk like that then, Lolita from Tajikistan?”

“I’m really smart,” said Verka, coming closer to the man. “I read books, watch movies, play the guitar. You’ve never even dreamed of someone like me.”

The man examined her closely again, reminding her of a doctor at a checkup.

“All right, let’s go to my place,” said the man.

“No, Uncle, I’m not stupid. Here, please. I won’t go to your place.”

The man hesitated for a second, then grabbed Verka and dragged her up the stairs to the first landing, where there was a small niche in the wall.

“Uncle!” Verka whimpered, “I’m just an orphan. What about a little money?”

“How much do you need?” asked the man. “Enough for ice cream?”

“A thousand.”

The man pulled out some money—Verka got a glimpse of the contents of his wallet—and thrust it at her. He fumbled around in his winter clothing and spent five minutes trying to find a comfortable position.

Verka waited patiently, and she earned the money she had gotten just as patiently and dispassionately, staring, aloof, out the foggy stairwell window. She felt in her pockets for the rest of the hot dog and started chewing.

“You could at least not eat,” said the man.

“I don’t waste food,” Verka snapped back.

“Now where will you go?” the man asked, when Verka was fastening her coat, in no hurry. She took two steps down and stopped to fix her hair.

“I’m not going anywhere until you pay me, Uncle.”

“What do you mean, until I pay you?” The man was angry. “I gave you a thousand!”

“A thousand of our stuff,” Verka said. “I meant a thousand dollars.”

The man swore. Verka froze for a second, then rolled her eyes theatrically, threw up her arms, and shouted so the whole building could hear her.

“Help, help! I’m a child being raped!”

The man rushed at her, but Verka was ready for that and she dodged, then dashed upstairs, banging on every apartment door as she went.

“Stop! Quiet down!” the man shouted at her from behind.

Verka turned and hissed at him.

“You give me my pay, you child rapist, or I’m going to the cops and that’s it!”

Somewhere a door slammed and they could hear voices. The man, his face pale, pulled out his wallet, took three hundred dollars from it, and threw the cash at Verka. One keen glance at the wallet told her there was nothing left inside it, so Verka picked up the money, pulled her coat closed, and ran downstairs, past all the worried “What happened?” and “Who screamed?”

Once she was far enough away, in the empty lot near the place they were building another tall building, Verka leaped high in the air, doing the victory dance of some unknown tribe. She finished her vodka and headed to the Ramstore to turn the useless green paper into good things she needed.

The city was muffled up in the early winter evening. The afternoon smog had settled in a poisonous cloud to fill the streets. Bent under the weight of several stuffed shopping bags, a green alien beast printed on each, Verka slowly made her way past the long concrete barricade walling off a construction site abandoned ten years back. Once they were planning to build a new department store here, the biggest one in the city, and they had even managed to put in a good solid foundation and build the first four floors.

Then times changed, there wasn’t enough money, the lot got overgrown first with weeds, then little trees. By now there were supermarkets all over the city housed in imported prefab structures. They grew before your eyes like houses made of cards. Nobody cared about an old Soviet behemoth of a project anymore. Verka walked, and to distract herself from her aching arms, which could barely lug the heavy load, she repeated the new words she had read for the first time today in the store, in ads and on products, on book covers and cassette cases. I-beam. Consulting services. Mortgages. She loved the mysterious combinations of sounds, which you could repeat and savor until, pretty soon, what you had heard or seen or read suddenly became clear and made sense… People laughed at her weird fixations, and the almost forbidden pleasure grew even more acute.

When she reached a break in the concrete wall Verka slipped the bags through first, then crawled through herself. She followed the well-beaten path to the unfinished building and knocked at the basement window. None of the upper stories had walls, just framework and barely a roof, but the basement and the storage cellars underground were finished. All they needed was to put some plywood in the holes for the windows and vents and the place was ready.

A cardboard shutter slid down fast and the shaggy head of a fifteen-year-old boy appeared in the window.

“Verka! Come on in. You cold?”

“Here!” Verka, proud, handed him the shopping bags one at a time. The guy oohed and aahed happily as he took each bag, trying to figure out what was inside, and Verka laughed.

When she had passed them all in Verka slipped through the window herself. The guy caught her and helped her down, then hurried to cover the window. They brought the bags into the next room, where it was hot from a burning cast-iron stove, and noisy. Five young teenagers had evidently been living there for a while. Blankets were spread in the corners, dishes sat on homemade tables cobbled together from boxes, and a dark boarded-up window was decorated with a curtain.

Verka was met with joyful shouts, and when she started laying out triumphantly the things she had bought, the joy turned to jubilation. They applauded the slightly bent sticks of sausage, rounds of Dutch cheese and pinwheels of smoked cheese, baklava and pastries, food in cans, bottles of vodka and Pepsi, candy, chocolate, mints and other treasures.

“How did you carry all that?” asked the strong, bony girl who was always sniffling. But Verka had caught her breath by then and waved her off. “No big deal.”

When everyone had eaten their fill and had plenty to drink, when they were waiting out the brief stupor of satiety, smoking with relish, and everyone was having a good time, Verka spun in circles in the middle of the room and told them about the events of her day. She acted out all the roles, mimicked the men’s voices and the women’s frightened faces, and told them how skillfully and smoothly she, Verka, had done it all.

Everyone was laughing, copying her words and gestures, and as she basked in their love and admiration, Verka felt happy.

“It was getting cold this afternoon,” the strong girl said suddenly. “Should we go spend the night at the orphanage?”

“Nah,” said the shaggy-haired boy, looking over the meager remains of their feast. “Let’s go tomorrow.”

“Tomorrow, tomorrow!” Verka cheered. They only showed up at the orphanage when things got really bad on the streets, or they needed to hide out and wait for some kind of trouble to pass. And the caretakers had long ago stopped paying attention to the older kids’ frequent disappearances. They were often gone for days on end in the summer, and sometimes in the winter too.

“I bought this, too,” said Verka, and she took a lighter from her pocket.

“So?” somebody asked her, giving her purchase an uninterested look. “It’s just a lighter.”

“It’s everlasting. It lasts forever.” Verka held the little red rectangle with rounded corners proudly above her head.

“Nothing lasts forever,” laughed the dark-skinned boy who looked like a Gypsy.

“This one does, this one does!” Verka chanted, and traced a finger lovingly over its smooth surface. “They told me it does!”

“You’re so lucky,” whispered the girl who always sat quietly in the corner, the youngest of them all. “You always have money and you know so many big fancy words.”

“That’s the way I am!” Verka crowed.

She spun across the room, one hand flicking the lighter, the other holding an open vodka bottle, and she was happy, the warm room felt good, the little flame flickered and went out, the kids around her were getting ready for bed but she wanted to go somewhere, do something, it didn’t matter where or what, as long as this drunken happiness could go on.

“Let’s go upstairs!” she called to them. “Let’s look at the city! It’s night, it’ll be great!”

“You’re wasted!” the shaggy-haired guy told her, getting under a blanket with one of the girls. “It’s cold out there. We’ll freeze.”

But Verka was already going up the rickety flight of stairs. She opened the door at the top and then up, up, up, to the last finished floor. The sharp, cold air seized her, she gasped in delight, and she pulled her coat closer around her.

Verka walked to the very edge. The city winked at her with dozens of bright windows, the holiday lights in the streets, the colored flashes of the ads. It was cold. At night nature forgot that this was a southern city. Verka took a hurried gulp of vodka. She flicked her lighter mechanically, as if adding one more small flame to the sparkling night, and she looked off into the distance. For her, the view from up above was always spellbinding. She looked for a long time over the city, sprawling in all directions, and then, frozen, she started to dance. Soon, laughing and yelping, spinning in circles, she had her head tossed back and her arms thrown out wide. When she stopped and went back to looking at the city, it seemed to her that the lights in the windows were being carried away, whirling unrestrained, into the measureless blackness of space. Everything was swimming, the headlights, the houses, the streets… The wayward planet was flying into the unknown, drawing after it the slim lobe of the moon, and the sun wherever it was hiding, and the fragile winter stars. Barely holding back, full speed ahead, Verka shouted at the lights smeared into thin, bright streaks.

“Kind people, have compassion for a poor orphan!”

Olga Mark (1963-2008) was a teacher, critic, and fiction writer. She published three works of fiction and a monograph on poetry. Olga wrote in Russian.

Shelley Fairweather-Vega is a professional translator from Russian and Uzbek and has translated fiction from all over the former Soviet Union. She holds degrees in international relations from Johns Hopkins University and in Russian, East European, and Central Asian Studies from the University of Washington. She is currently the president of the Northwest Translators and Interpreters Society and runs FairVega Russian Library Services. Co-editor, with Zaure Batayeva, of the work-in-progress Amanat: Recent Women’s Writing from Kazakhstan.

Zaure Batayeva is a journalist, translator, and fiction writer. Her articles and stories have been published in print and online. Zaure writes in Kazakh and Russian. Co-editor, with Shelley Fairweather-Vega, of the work-in-progress Amanat: Recent Women’s Writing from Kazakhstan.

Writing and Reviewing Queer Russian Literature: A Conversation with Konstantin Kropotkin

We’re delighted to publish our conversation with Konstantin Kropotkin, an author and literary and film critic who reviews LGBT books and movies, as well as trends in Russian culture. Kropotkin’s novels and collections of short stories centering queer lives are available on Amazon, in Russian. His commentary on queer culture appears daily on his Telegram blog “Sodom i umora,” and he contributes full-form critical essays to top Russian-language publications. Kropotkin lives in Germany and this conversation was conducted in English and Russian over email, and subsequently translated by the interviewer.

Olga Zilberbourg: Much of your fiction has been focused on portraying the lives of gay men, and as a critic you pay particular attention to LGBT literature and film. Your popular Telegram blog “Sodom i umora” is dedicated to queer books and movies in Russian or in translation to Russian. Despite the retrograde homophobic laws that Russia has passed in recent years, and horrific persecution of gay people in Chechnya, you have shown that Russophone queer literature is a vibrant field. In your blog you seem to strive for balance: you write about various forms of homophobia and also about the many creators that are participating in Russophone queer culture. How would you describe your cultural project as a critic? Does this project change in any way when you turn to fiction?

Konstantin Kropotkin: To get through to the mind, you need to pave the way to the heart. I have arrived at this principle in the early 2000s, when I began to write queer prose, and today I continue to uphold this principle. In 2018, I launched my project #содомиумора where I illustrate the idea that queer literature and queer film, on the one hand, follow their own conventions, and on the other, speak to universal values and can be of interest to a very wide audience. I’m trying to squelch the prejudice that LGBTIQ themes are exotic, incomprehensible, far away, alien. Using examples from books and movies, I’m trying to make the case that these themes are socially significant, have artistic value, are entertaining, familiar, and accessible to anyone.

Konstantin Kropotkin

In other words, I’m working on the same problems as the LGBTIQ rights organizations, though unlike them I’m addressing not only queer people, but an audience of potential allies (“Here, mom, if you want to understand me better, read this!”). This is why I welcome opportunities to write for publications that don’t position themselves as queer. These publications allow my essays, book and film criticism to reach people who are not familiar with LGBTIQ issues. These publications are also a means of habituating queer content within the professional communities, in this case, of film and literary critics.

In the same vein, my Telegram channel #содомиумора is deeply valuable to me as it allows me to deliver a service to my subscribers: everyone, no matter whether they are affiliated with the LGBTIQ community or not, can come here to find a movie or a book to enjoy. Then, the fiction itself does the work of enlightenment, providing readers or viewers with role models, stock phrases useful in everyday life, typical situations, vocabulary for articulating experiences that previously had been taboo.

I also showcase foreign books that would be good to have in Russian translation. I know that publishers and editors read my columns, and my recommendations can be of use to them. I should note that, unlike books, foreign queer movies are translated to Russian almost instantly. This is a paradox of a country where it’s difficult to make money on LGBTIQ content. Queer movies are pirated and translated by the pirates, and nobody represents the interests of the copyright holders in Russia. Russian distributors often steer clear of queer movies, especially indie productions: these movies are rarely profitable even in the West, and the distributors prefer to avoid the risk, given the hostile legal environment.

The work of education that I provide in my reviews, as well as the information provided by the books and movies themselves, is particularly crucial in the country whose government backs homophobia. Adopted in 2013, the “gay propaganda” law endangers the lives of queer people and has had a damaging effect on the Russian cultural landscape. The law is vaguely written and has been used selectively—as an instrument of repressions. I set out to illustrate, with examples, why homophobia causes harm in every way: both in people’s lives, and in the sphere of cultural production.

Olga Zilberbourg: I first came across your work in Gorky, and the essay that grabbed my attention, “Waiting for Boring Men,” was dedicated to the vibrancy of LGBT literature from Georgia. Invited as a guest of honor to the 2018 Frankfurt Book Fair, Georgia made LGBT literature one of the central themes of its program. In this piece, you pointed out that Georgian literature has been able to address the traumas that Russian literature still dismisses as imaginary. I want to pause for a moment on the traumas you allude to: I assume you’re talking about the homophobic policies of the USSR and the near total silencing of the existence of LGBT people during the late Soviet era. What do you think have been some of the difficulties that Russophone writers experience in approaching these traumas? Conversely, do you believe it’s possible to sidestep the Soviet legacy altogether and to focus on contemporary issues without delving into the past?

Konstantin Kropotkin: The example of Georgia, a fellow post-Soviet state, shows the way contemporary Russian literature could develop if Russia’s homophobia wasn’t a government-level enterprise. (I use the word “homophobia” in an old-fashioned way that includes trans- and bi- and queer-phobia.) Both Russia and Georgia share history as republics of the Soviet Union, but today Georgia is pursuing a democratic route, while Russia is set on the reconstruction of the Soviet monstrous form of government. This difference shows up, among other things, in the literary production of the two countries. Notably, Georgia is a much smaller country than Russia, with less than 4 million citizens, and a relatively poor one. Its literary community is correspondingly smaller, and trends within it are more noticeable. It’s also more flexible in its response to the demands of the times, and to social change. What we observe as true for Georgian literature might well become true for Russian literature at a much later date. It’s important to consider how Georgia is addressing prejudices against queer people. There, LGBTIQ books are published with governmental support, which serves the advancement of their national literature overall and increases the visibility of queer experiences. This is crucial knowledge for Russian knowledge makers.

The Soviet Union’s LGBTIQ history demands a comprehensive, expert reflection, and I think, sooner or later, this will become obvious to people in Russia as well. Unfortunately, much of this history has already become inaccessible: most of the people who’d borne the Soviet queer experience have silently passed away, and so many important stories have been buried with them, unrecorded.

Olga Zilberbourg: You have thought deeply and argued for the importance of genre in the world of literary production. You have written about the slowly emerging genre of LGBT literature in Russia—and about the refusal of some writers who do center LGBT characters in their books to accept the label of “LGBT book” as though it were a diminishment of their accomplishment, wishing their books to be treated as literary fiction because it is a more desirable category. Something analogous happens, I think to women writers, who often refuse the label of “woman” writer believing that to be a diminishment. How do you explain the reluctance to use these terms? To what extent, do you think, is this a reflection on the state of literary criticism in Russia today?

Konstantin Kropotkin: Yes, in Russia, there’s still a strong prejudice against the marker “LGBT literature” (the term “queer fiction” is still in its nascent phase); people feel that it’s a marker of second-rate literature, that it signifies something overly sexualized, scandalous. The reason for this, likely, lies with the Soviet tradition of literary studies that treated sexuality as a taboo subject. Another explanation might be in the hierarchical structure of thought—at its heart, an imperial quality. An empire cannot accommodate the world’s multipolarity; the value of an individual, the significance of each unique “point of view,” is outside of its purview.

Sodom i umora, Kropotkin’s first novel.

This state of affairs is slowly changing, thanks, to a great extent, to the escalating prominence of women’s voices (including the voices of queer women). Both within literature written originally in Russian and within literature published in translation to Russian, women writers are gaining more attention and significance. Dismantling the outmoded status quo with the help of “the female gaze” is useful for queer literature—it clarifies the value of diversity in literary spheres. I believe the cumulative effect of incremental cultural change will play its part, too: for queer work to achieve visibility within the professional community, we need to see commercially successful publications of queer books, large print runs, and dynamic, publicly out queer authors. We’re bound to see all of these things in the next few years—provided that the government will not launch a new homophobic campaign.

Olga Zilberbourg: Your own novel Sodom i umora (2007) is a delightful romp about three gay men who share an apartment in the middle of Moscow in the early 2000s, getting into situations that make me think you set out to write a version of the American sitcom “Will and Grace” set in Moscow. Do you agree with this assessment? What I particularly enjoyed about this novel is that you’re both reproducing lovable stereotypes about gay men (i.e. fashion sense and gaydar) and complicating them, including with the specificities of everyday life in Moscow. The guys are for instance not out to their families and neighbors, which creates a number of situations that are funny in a way deep trauma can be sometimes processed as laughter. Did you have a sense of a particular audience you were writing this book for? How did your book resonate with readers in Russia?

Konstantin Kropotkin: My novel Sodom i umora was written spontaneously, without an outline; it didn’t go through a professional revision and editing process. It was a new form for me at the time and, as such, from where I stand now, has a number of shortcomings. (Artistically, my later queer books Dnevnik odnogo g and Zhivut takie parni are far more successful.) Overall, however, Sodom i umora is an original, for Russian literature, attempt to write about “gays with a human face” (in the words of one of my readers). I wanted to show gay men as approachable, likeable, and moving, and to achieve this I relied on certain devices that are rather cinematic in nature. This is a sitcom novel: I wrote it, imagining a TV series. I’ve never seen “Will and Grace,” but I was thinking about situational comedy as a genre, as an idea. (At the time I studied playwriting, and a few of my plays were later published.)

A volume of Kropotkin’s collected short prose, self-published as a result of the homophobic Russian law against “gay propaganda.”

One other source for this book, I should say, was Armistead Maupin’s Tales of the City series. It had a great effect on me. This American classic of gay literature is yet to be translated to Russian; I’d read Maupin’s novels in German translation. I was attracted to the idea of home as a safe space, particularly important for a queer person in a hostile environment. Truly, my novel is an embodiment of such a “safe space”—the very book is a place that a reader can inhabit without getting hurt. Later, I used the genre of autofiction in my book Zhivut takie parni to talk about the everyday happiness of a partnership between gay men (I chose selected chapters of that book for the definitive collection Takie parni): this is a story about a German-Russian gay family living in contemporary Germany.

The novel Sodom i umora has had a happy life. Right upon the publication of the first chapters online, the characters immediately found a warm reception from the online audience; later, the book was published in print by the now defunct Kvir Press. Soon afterwards, it was picked up by a German publisher. The German translation, Russen WG, showed good sales numbers. For a German-speaking audience there wasn’t anything particularly new in the plot and the everyday events described in the book, while within the body of Russian-language prose, Sodom i umora remains to this day a unique phenomenon: tragicomic fiction about queer people is yet to materialize as a Russian-language genre.

A German-language translation of Sodom i umora.

At the beginning of 2010s, I wrote a sequel. Sozhiteli, a mystery and a comedy of manners, took up the story of my characters ten years later. As a result of the “gay propaganda” law, the book’s only chance for publication was self-publishing. It’s available on Ridero. Perhaps, in another ten years, I will write the final chapter of this story.

Olga Zilberbourg: I’ve particularly enjoyed your end of the year columns where you summarize not only the important LGBT books that have come out but also devote some time to highlighting the trends in publishing, promotion, and reception of queer literature. You’ve concluded your 2020 post with a very hopeful outlook: LGBT books are coming out, the scandals they cause are few and far between, and the spectrum of LGBT literature in Russian is starting to resemble what’s been happening across Western Europe. It seems that translation is playing a large role in this process: many books on your list are translations of American and West European authors. What role do you think capitalism is playing in this process and in Russia’s ability to participate in this global marketplace—not only of ideas, but of books as physical objects that have certain sales numbers attached to them?

Konstantin Kropotkin: The strictness of Russian laws is matched only by the laxity of their enforcement. Today, the book industry treats the “gay propaganda” law mostly as a fiction. Government representatives pretend that they enforce the law; publishers that they obey it (in fact, both merely fulfill the required formalities). Publishers attach a sticker “18+” on the covers of queer books, and in most cases, that’s all there is to it. Queer books for teenagers do reach their target audience. However, the homophobic “norm” does increase self-censorship, both among the authors and the publishers. Telling the stories of queer people remains challenging, and the themes of homo- trans- and bisexuality are largely absent in print. The very existence of the homophobic law hangs over literary authors as the sword of Damocles, threatening the development of queer voices and movements.

That said, the number of LGBTIQ books is increasing. It’s becoming obvious that queer books can be money-makers. High-profile queer fiction is translated to Russian at an increasing rate (and the quality is improving). Simultaneously, publishers are looking to create their own queer stars. One example of such publishing success is Mikita Franko, who writes as a “trans-guy” (in his own words). He published two novels in 2020: one, a story about a family with two dads, Dni nashei zhizni, and another, about a family where one of the parents is a trans person. The first of these novels has been a great commercial success, and the second was warmly received by the critics. I was happy to have been asked by the publishers to contribute a blurb to Franko’s first book: my praise was displayed on the back cover of Dni nashei zhizni alongside contributions from the representatives of “conventional” literature. I expect that this novel will soon be translated into foreign languages, and I’ve heard that TV-series rights are in negotiations.

As long as the government doesn’t impose homophobic censorship, capitalism performs miracles. In Russia, there are at least two small presses that openly mention the significance of queer literature in their promotional materials—Popcorn Books and No Kidding Press. Large publishing houses are producing queer books ever more readily, though they try not to attract too much attention to the LGBT aspects of these books. I don’t think this is a partisan war against a homophobic government. More likely, they want to turn a profit with minimum risk. One recent example is the novel Moy beliy, a bildungsroman about a heterosexual young woman, a Muscovite, who is growing up with two mothers. This semi-autobiographical novel by Kseniya Burzhskaya was published by Inspiria, an imprint of the giant publishing house Eksmo.

Some books that are emerging today are of exceptional artistic quality. Katya Chistyakova’s novel Tam, na perimetre tells the story of a relationship between a homeless gay man and a volunteer of a nonprofit organization that helps the homeless; it can be compared, in part, with Hanya Yanagihara’s A Little Life. Chistyakova’s novel received a small print run from a large publishing house, and though it’s a superb portrait of a queer person, the book was not marketed as a queer novel. (I see my job as a queer critic to point out the inequity of this approach.)

Notably, most authors don’t like to have the term “queer” attached to their work. Some go quite far in their desire to distance themselves from the LGBTIQ community. To a Westerner, Mikita Franko’s first interviews might appear as straight homophobia (I believe the young author had been insufficiently informed about queer history and theory). Kseniya Burzhskaya, who penned the novel about a lesbian family and had lived in France for a few years, protested in an interview against the usage of the word “queer” to define her book. According to her, queer desire is not differentiated from other forms of desire, it doesn’t have its own specificity. These words, I believe, were dictated by the wish to be perceived as an author conforming to the conventions of Russian-language literature. In both of these cases, the books speak more progressively than their authors. A writer doesn’t need to be a literary scholar, but my task as a queer critic is to point out convincingly the areas where the writer has made a bad call; this method of trial and error is the only way to formulate a new social consensus, appropriate for the contemporary moment.  

Olga Zilberbourg: What role do you think diaspora authors, authors who live outside of Russia, are playing in the Russophone LGBT literary space?

Konstantin Kropotkin: Personally, I have the opportunity to dedicate myself to queer literature as an author and a critic only because I reside outside of Russia. Nobody censures me; I lead an active social life as a gay man, and I can publicize this experience in Russian without fear. I think my experience is an emblematic one. There are other queer authors who write in Russian and live outside of Russia, and they bridge two world views, the Western and the Russian, and among other things, this reveals new opportunities for Russian literature. Lida Yusupova, who lived in Canada and Belize, published lesbian prose and now has become a prominent representative of the new Russian poetry. Evgeny Shtorn, in Ireland, wrote a good autofiction, Khroniki bezhenstva, where he voiced his experiences as a gay refugee. Anatoly Vishevsky, a writer from Ukraine, who has taught at a U.S. university and now lives in Prague, wrote an excellent Russian-language novel, Khrupkie fantazii oberbossierera Loisa, which can be read in the vein of and developing the ideas of English-language canonical queer fiction from Edmund White to Alan Hollinghurst to Michael Cunningham. This novel was published in Russia last year, and I was glad that my support had contributed to making this publication possible.

Olga Zilberbourg: Contemporary Russophone LGBT authors emerge from across Russia — though homophobia is, reportedly, stronger outside of Moscow’s city center, there is plenty of talent outside of Moscow and St. Petersburg and young people are finding creative ways to share their writing. Do you see a trend in LGBT literature coming from Russian regions, or are the books that are becoming visible still important outliers (I’m thinking, for instance, about Mikita Franko)?

Konstantin Kropotkin: I’m confident that there are noteworthy writers in Russia outside of the metropolises. So many unique queer experiences have been left in the darkness, so many stories could become wonderful books. Considering current global literary trends, there might be a lot of interest in the voices of queer people from minority ethnic backgrounds—Chukchi, Evenki, Tatar. Indeed, Russia is a multiethnic state. 

Today, queer authors from the provinces produce exclusively self-published writing, using fanfic websites, often anonymously. The example of Mikita Franko coming from the provinces, however, demonstrates that a queer person is able to become a successful author in Russia. Publishers claim that they are ready to publish homegrown, Russian LGBT literature. The demand for queer voices is growing.     

A display at Eisenherz, the oldest German bookstore specializing in queer literature.

Olga Zilberbourg: I’ve been using the moniker “LGBT” literature in this Q&A, and I want to pause on the fact that terminology remains a hotly debated topic. In your blog and elsewhere you’ve used terms “gay literature” (гей-литература) and “queer literature” (квир-литература). My question at the moment is about the comparative visibility of the books and authors representing the entire spectrum of LGBTQIA+ identities in Russia. What identities do you see represented in Russophone literature most vibrantly and what identities do you think still remain underrepresented?

Konstantin Kropotkin: I persistently use the term “queer literature” (квир-литература) because it describes the entire spectrum of identities. This general term sounds better in Russian than “LGBTIQ+” (ЛГБТИК+). I also allow myself to use the shortened term “LGBT prose” (ЛГБТ-проза). The euphonic, pleasing sounds of the terminology are important to me, because I want my work to be received by a wide audience. I need to use language that’s not overly complex and isn’t marked as fundamentally, radically new. This is why I allow myself to use the somewhat old-fashioned synonyms—for instance, “gay prose” (гей-проза), a term that doesn’t describe the rainbow spectrum. I introduce new terms with caution—readers of my blog, my articles, my books must feel that I want to be understood. The measured, unintrusive introduction of the new vocabulary naturalizes these words in everyday parlance.

It’s clear that the Russian language lacks words to describe queer people. The case of agender, nonbinary people is particularly revealing. We are yet to arrive at a consensus about how to mark nonbinary identity in Russian, how to appropriately describe it. The arguments among linguists have been gaining notice. Some translators, including Tatiana Zborovskaya, attempt to translate Western agender books, books free from gender categories. The results of these attempts are quite interesting. It turns out that Russian grammar is capable of representing a gender-neutral character. Zborovskaya is translating the novel by a Swiss author Anna Stern, das alles hier, jetzt, in which the protagonists are not marked as “men” or “women.” According to the first published fragments from this work, Russian language is able to match the capabilities of German in this regard. (The translator has written a scholarly article about this.)

Olga Zilberbourg: Is it even productive to ask a question that centers the Western notion of “identity” in the Russian context? After all, coming out as anything still feels dangerous in Russia, and authors often prefer to obscure their personal identity.

Konstantin Kropotkin: It’s particularly important to manifest one’s queerness in the country where the laws against “gay propaganda” are in force. Though, of course, one ought to do this only when not in danger for one’s life. In the large Russian cities, there are opportunities for this. Things are different in smaller cities and in the regions where patriarchal traditions dominate—in Chechnya, for instance, where people die if their affiliation with the LGBTIQ community is discovered. An author is free to provide as much information about themselves as they consider necessary. I don’t think a single, universal strategy of queer self-representation could exist in such a large country as Russia. My rule is: if you are able to speak out, do so, but take care of yourself first; you only have one life—don’t take unnecessary risks. 

Sozhiteli, a sequel to Sodom i umora, published ten years later. Orange meerkat is Kropotkin’s talisman, Motja.

Olga Zilberbourg: Last but not least, “Sodom i umora” is the title of your current Telegram blog, and your novel from 2007. I’ve also come across a text from 2003, where you used it as a title for a fictional medicine. I’ve been thinking of how to translate it to English, and the best I can come up with is “Sodom and raw humor” — to preserve the similarity with Gomorrah, though Russian “umora” is one of those untranslatable words that I think most closely describe this notion of laughter from deep trauma. Where did the phrase “Sodom i umora” come from and what does it mean to you?

Konstantin Kropotkin: “Sodom i umora” is word play and a callback to that tale about the sad fate of Sodom and Gomorrah that religious moralists love to use as a threat. The protagonists of my debut novel call their house “Sodom i umora.” To explain my method in this novel, I came up with the “safety instructions,” as they do for drugs. I don’t want to “cure” people from homophobia. Using entertainment literature as a placebo, I am asking people to cure themselves. I want them to use their own reason to arrive at the conclusion that homophobia is a hindrance for all of us.

In 2009, as I was arranging my novel for the German publisher, I proposed the title Sodom and Humorrha for it. (The publisher decided that it was too unwieldy and the book was published under the title Russen WG.) The version “Sodom and raw humor” sounds, perhaps, even better, it’s more precise and rhythmically closer to the original. Yes, laughter, even when it’s bitter, tragic laughter, is curative. That first book was a kind of therapy for me. It helped me to heal (or accept) my own psychic traumas—in Russia, I had been a victim of homophobia more than once. My funniest stories come out during the moments of the greatest emotional upheaval, when I feel exceptionally awful. Laughter is a step on the way back up, toward recovery. It’s only the very first step.

Noncommercial project #содомиумора with informational content about queer culture can be accessed on a variety of platforms:

Telegram (new content daily; is particularly important in Russia as a space protected from government censorship): https://t.me/gaybooksfilms

Instagram (a repository of the most vibrant quotes from queer books and movies): https://www.instagram.com/sodom_i_umora/

Medium (long-form content: book and film reviews, short stories): https://medium.com/@konstantinkropotkin

Vkontakte: https://vk.com/public174164424

To support the project financially:

ЯндексДеньги: 4100111508567736

PayPal: kropotkind@googlemail.com

“Our Favorite Things”: Natalya Sukhonos and Katherine E. Young Discuss Their New Poetry Collections

To mark National Poetry Month in the United States, Punctured Lines asked two poets with recently published collections to interview one another.  Both poets have strong personal and professional connections to the larger Russophone world. Natalya Sukhonos’s A Stranger Home (Moon Pie Press) explores themes of the mother-daughter connection, grief and loss, and finding someone and something to love in locales ranging from Odessa to San Francisco. Katherine E. Young’s Woman Drinking Absinthe (Alan Squire Publishing) concerns itself with transgressions, examined through a series of masks, including Greek drama, folk tales, Japonisme, post-Impressionism, opera, geometry, and planetary geology. In addition to their written comments, Sukhonos and Young have also produced a short video conversation highlighting several poems from each collection.

Please support the poets by buying their books.

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[Katherine E. Young interviews Natalya Sukhonos about A Stranger Home.]

Katherine E. Young: Your book is set in so many places: San Francisco, Odessa, Rome, New York City. And yet the theme of leaving old places and finding new ones, finding “home,” seemingly plays only a minor role in the book. This book doesn’t dwell on typical themes of emigration / immigration; instead, there are the constants of familial love, amorous love, and putting down roots wherever the earth will accept them. Even the ghosts in your book travel with the speaker and seem at home in multiple cultures. In that context, please talk a little about the line “Home. A dreamscape we flee until it consumes all others” from “The Red Farmhouse.”

Natalya Sukhonos: Thanks for this interesting question, Kate. I think that home is a very fraught concept for me. I’ve moved around a lot—from Odessa to New York, then to Boston and San Francisco, with Turkey and Rio de Janeiro as short sweet sojourns in between, and then back to New York. Each of these places romanced me, intrigued me, made me want to stay there forever—until it didn’t. San Francisco, for instance, was enchanting but forbidding in terms of living expenses, though I still find it very beautiful and have good friends there. And Naomi was born there, which makes it forever special. Why is home a “dreamscape we flee”? I guess I’ve always had that desire to flee, to carve my own path. I’m grateful to my family, but like many families, it imposed its own vision of me which I often longed to tweak or even contradict. But I ended up returning to New York—returning home with my own family, creating my own home, a kind of mise-en-abyme, if you will. Though “The Red Farmhouse” was written before the pandemic, you can see how home and family have become all-consuming entities especially now, for better or for worse.

Katherine E. Young: Mothers and daughters inhabit almost all of these poems, and sometimes the connection is fraught, as in “My Personal Vampire.” Other poems such as “Nadia” celebrate “the wild grasses of love.” The second section of the book contains poems that grieve the loss of a mother. Talk a little about the importance of the mother-daughter connection in these poems. 

Natalya Sukhonos: We moved to New York City from San Francisco after my mother was diagnosed with stage 4 ovarian cancer. This collection came out of the process of grieving for her and remembering her. My mother read Gogol’s Dead Souls to me and recited Russian poetry, which she knew inside out—Pasternak, Akhmatova, Tsvetaeva, you name it. She was dramatic, a smart dresser, and had an easy laugh. My mother and I were really close, and four years later, I’m still grieving. The poems in this collection try to ask “why,” but they also try to remember. Simone Weil once said that attention is the purest form of prayer, and this resonates with me even though I’m agnostic. I wanted to pay attention to the little details about her life—her love of gardening, for instance—and also record the process of losing her. When she was gone, I felt really unmoored, as if I didn’t know who I was. But as I was writing the collection, I also had to mother my two-and-a-half year-old daughter Naomi, who is now six. In “Theater of Bones” and “The Lioness and the Wolf, or Words as Prehistoric Shells” I tried to record how she was processing death and grief through questions and magical thinking. And I wanted to be honest about how damn difficult it is to be a mother. Motherhood is often romanticized, but not enough attention is paid (especially by men) to the loneliness, the self-doubt, the very physical burdens that motherhood places on you (hence the comparison of a baby to a vampire). Almost two years ago, I had another baby, Nadia, who bears my mother’s name (Tamara) as a middle name. It’s been delightful to watch the beginning of another life, to do it all over again. And I felt like having this new baby and also reflecting on mothering Naomi has made me reclaim motherhood in a way that wasn’t painful or grieving. At the same time, motherhood made my connection to my mother stronger.

Katherine E. Young: Several of your poems speak of the body as a map, and the poems often feel as if bones, stones, shells, forests, and especially stars are of much more importance and permanence than human constructs of geography and cartography. Talk about the stars and other natural phenomena that inhabit so many of your poems.

Natalya Sukhonos: When I lived in the Bay Area, I was really awakened to the beauty and power of nature because it was everywhere: step seconds away from your house and be surrounded by a giant mountain and giant eucalyptus trees! And the cold sublime of the Pacific! I think that as someone who has lived in cities all her life, I’m puzzled by the natural world, and that gives me comfort—the fact that the ocean just IS, that it doesn’t have to fit into a human story. It has its own story, which we may or may not understand. Maybe this sounds too mystical or vague, but for me what can’t be put into language can provide a source of relief. There’s something important about the fact that my mother loved to garden, and I don’t practice this at all. Or that we witnessed the Pacific Ocean roaring on a remote beach together. Why is this significant? Well, only poems can tell. 

Also, the poem where I am a lioness and my husband is a wolf speaks to the way children construct mini-narratives around everything they see, and those stories are often filled with magical, dangerous forests and nature that’s comprised of signs only they could decipher, a sort of Baudelairean forêt des symboles. I think Naomi has taught me a lot about seeing nature this way.

Katherine E. Young: Your poems often reference classical myths, as well as modern literature. In one of my favorite poems, the ekphrastic “Night Sky #16 by Vija Celmins,” the speaker remembers her mother reading from The Little Prince, interleaving references to Saint-Exupéry’s book with lines from Rainer Maria Rilke’s “Elegy 1.” You have a PhD in comparative literature. What is the importance of literature, both classical and modern, to your poems? 

Natalya Sukhonos: Believe it or not, literature has always had a sensory or sensual appeal for me. When I was eight years old, I had a sudden epiphany that every book, every author has their own flavor. Since then, literature has always been a huge part of my life: the first time I met my husband, I recited Rilke’s first elegy on the street, for instance. Given that the book revolves around my mother’s life and her legacy, literature plays a vital role in this, too. My mother loved The Little Prince with a passion, and staged it at Camp “Idea” where she was the director and where I worked. The love of literature is something that she and I shared in a way that was rhapsodic and visceral. When I started to write seriously, I couldn’t help but interweave little strands of whichever author I was reading—Borges, Elena Ferrante, Baudelaire—into my poetry. I do this in ordinary conversation, and poetry is another such conversation. For me, literature poses essential questions about identity, existence, good and evil in a way that is liberating because it inspires you to look further. The Master and Margarita, which I’m teaching in the Fall for Stanford Continuing Studies, is one such book, so key to me that I reread it every five years or so. One of my favorite lines by Emily Dickinson is “Tell all the truth but tell it slant.” In The Master and Margarita, Woland does this by asking what the Earth would look like if it were stripped of its shadows. In a “slant,” indirect way, Bulgakov is talking to us about the interconnectedness of good and evil, and for me, this idea is interesting precisely because of the way in which it is conveyed—through slant, poetic meaning. 

Katherine E. Young: While free verse is a part of contemporary Russian poetry, it’s a relatively recent formal development, and plenty of Russian poets still write in rhyme and meter—many more than do so in contemporary American poetry. Can you tell me about the formal choices you made in writing these poems and how you came to make them?

Natalya Sukhonos: Even though I grew up reading Pushkin, Pasternak, Akhmatova, Brodsky, and Khlebnikov, when I came of age as a poet writing in English, I was more captivated by the free verse of Mark Strand and Wallace Stevens. That said, T. S. Eliot’s Four Quartets and their mosaic of mythologies and truth-seeking has always fascinated me, and Eliot plays around with rhyme and meter quite a bit. 

In my own writing I try to be cognizant of the length of my lines and stanzas, the end words on each line, and the “volume” of words on a page. This all contributes to the way I see sound as vital to any poem’s meaning. So in “Parachute” I play around with the length of the lines to imitate the falling parachute of the poem’s title. I let the form carry the tension of my grandfather jumping off a parachute exactly 94 times during World War II. But “Aphrodite,” for instance, is composed of tercets because it’s a love poem, and I’m harkening back to tercets in Romantic poetry.

I do have some poems in here that experiment with form. “Pantoum of Grief and Birth” is a pantoum because I wanted to get at the repetitive, obsessive nature of grieving my mother while giving birth to my youngest daughter. “Protect Me, Lord” came out of an assignment in a poetry class where I had to put a Shakespearean sonnet into Google Translate twice, choose the best lines from what resulted, and also incorporate several colors, animals, and trees of our own choosing into the poem. And “Lost Souls—After Rilke” is actually a golden shovel, spelling out the first stanza of Rilke’s First Duino Elegy in the ending words of its stanzas. I like to be playful with form, so “In Failing Light” has alternating couplets that are formatted differently and interweave the event of remembering my mother while cooking potatoes and ramps with the actual memory of visiting the Pacific Ocean with her in San Francisco.

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[Natalya Sukhonos interviews Katherine E. Young about Woman Drinking Absinthe.]

Natalya Sukhonos: Especially in “Birdsong,” “The Bear,” and “Nakhla,” I noticed your interest in animals and animal imagery. Can you comment on the way that animals are linked to the theme of freedom vs. unfreedom in your poetry? On the one hand, they’re images of otherness, an alternate perspective, but on the other hand, they’re confined to particular places and spaces by their human subjects…

Katherine E. Young: Hm. I hadn’t thought about this at all before your question, but there are two main groups of animals in these poems. The first group includes birds, cats, the prehistoric sea creatures of “Nakhla,” snakes, a dissected frog, lizards, cicadas, monkeys, bats, the fig wasp, and an actual, historical dog who had an unfortunate encounter with an achondrite (a kind of meteorite). But with the possible exception of the fig wasp, these animals are mostly part of the background flora and fauna of the poems. The other group of animals is quite different: they’re talking animals, and they may not be animals at all. There’s the wish-granting fish of “The Golden Fish,” a tale I first read in Andrew Lang’s The Green Fairy Book (where the fish is an enchanted prince); I read Alexander Pushkin’s version of the tale much later. The enigmatic talking bear of “The Bear” is, of course, the performing bear of countless European folk tales, alternately menacing and pathetic, also possibly enchanted. For me, these creatures aren’t all that different from Bluebeard, the ogre who murders his wives, or the succuba who haunts a man’s waking hours, both of whom also appear in these poems. It’s these talking animals and monsters (or are they humans who have lost their essential human-ness?) who are truly unfree, trapped in enchantments, forced to perform for their supper, or condemned to fulfill various gruesome fates over and over again—they and the humans who become trapped in their tragic, endlessly repeating dramatic arcs.

Natalya Sukhonos: In “Nakhla” and “Euclidean Geometry” I was fascinated with your link between the macroscopic and the microscopic: cataclysmic events like the fall of a gigantic rock and human, intimate events such as a singular act of love. Please comment on this link in your poetry.

Katherine E. Young: Well, that’s the whole point, isn’t it? We go running around the world, eating, reproducing, defecating, dying, and from the biological perspective we’re doing just the same thing as ants. I don’t know what distinguishes one ant from another (although I’m told they sing to one another), and from a bird’s-eye perspective you can’t distinguish one human being from another, either. But when we write, when we make any kind of art, we’re saying “Stop! Look at me! I’m here!” Same for when we fall in love, which is also a kind of art. “Nakhla” started during a visit to the Smithsonian Air & Space Museum, where they have a fragment of this amazing achondrite from Mars that fell rather spectacularly in Egypt in 1911 (and apparently did kill a farmer’s dog). A run-of-the-mill igneous rock on Mars, 1.3 billion years old—the only thing unusual about it is that it got blasted off the Martian surface and ended up here on Earth. You can touch it! I was just charmed by the notion of this anonymous and yet singular rock—as anonymous and as singular as other such interplanetary travelers that brought things, including perhaps some of the elements of life, to Earth. Same for “Euclidean Geometry”: an act of love is both anonymous and singular, seemingly governed by laws and rules as ancient as the universe. Sometimes we mistakenly interpret those laws and rules, though—hence, logical fallacies such as circular logic.

Natalya Sukhonos: In “Today I’m Writing Love Songs” as well as “Place of Peace,” where you describe love as “bursting riotously into bloom,” you write beautifully about love as fruit. There is so much sensuality in your fruit metaphors! The poem “Fig” is a whole extended metaphor of love as a bloom as well, and it is stunning! And in “Succuba,” as well as “Today I’m Writing Love Songs” and “A Receipt to Cure Mad Dogs,” you connect love to herbs and their various flavors. Please say something about the ways in which the “tastes of love” resonate in your poetry through imagery of herbs and fruit.

Katherine E. Young: As I was writing these poems, just about everyone in my close circle, including me, was undergoing really big and often traumatic life changes. So, I was very much coming to the poems asking the hard questions: Who am I? Where am I in life? Am I the person I wanted to be, and if not, what can and should I do about that? The basic idea that one can more or less cultivate oneself as one cultivates a garden speaks to a certain kind of urgency one gets in midlife to take stock and make adjustments, sometimes radical ones. During that period, I was lucky enough to have some choices—not always easy ones, not always good ones, but real ones. To some degree, then, the notion of flowering in these poems is aspirational—what I hoped would happen if I took better, more conscious care of my garden, both for myself and for those I love. Also, I just really, really love figs!

Natalya Sukhonos: What’s the link between the mathematical and the erotic in your poetry? I’ve noticed many poems touching on math, and this was fascinating, maybe not least because I just finished Lara Vapnyar’s Divide Me by Zero.

Katherine E. Young: Excellent question! I don’t really have an answer, except to say that as a young person I wanted to be an astronaut—that’s also the reason I started studying Russian, by the way—and I felt very comfortable with math and science, at least until I ran afoul of a college calculus class. Much later, when I was getting my MFA, I took a wonderful course on the rhetoric of science, and I spent more time than I care to admit reading the Transactions of the Royal Society of London. I was fascinated by the mental steps that natural philosophers in the early nineteenth century had to take to be able to conceptualize dinosaurs out of a bunch of bone fragments stuck in rock. And you already know that I find odd bits of space debris decidedly erotic… Maybe I was seeking a system of beliefs and practices in math and science that might inspire me with more confidence than the beliefs and practices in human relationships that I had found simultaneously confining and unreliable—although true mathematicians and scientists would probably say that their laws and beliefs can be just as confining and unreliable… 

Natalya Sukhonos: You are a professional literary translator who has received a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship for translation. How does the work of translation inform your poetry (and I’m using “translation” here both in the literal sense of the word as well as the metaphorical process of translation)? Comment on the process of cultural translation, as your poetry includes intertextual references to Mrs. Pinkerton, the Golden Fish, Manet, Euclid, and so many other rich and unexpected sources.

Katherine E. Young: Honestly, I don’t really see much difference between writing “original” poetry and translating it. In both cases, making a poem starts with “translating” the impulse for that poem into words. Translating someone else’s impulse—as opposed to your own—is essentially the same process, although there are a few more steps involved. But I’m always trying to make music with words, whether the poem started in my own head or in someone else’s. There are particular benefits to being a translator, though: recently I was asked to translate a selection of poems by Boris Pasternak, and I found that every single one of Pasternak’s lines taught me something important about writing my own poetry in English. 

As far as cultural translation, all the cultural flotsam and jetsam in this book comes from things I’ve squirreled away, from the mating habits of ancient sea creatures to Manet’s Bar at the Folies-Bergère, which I first saw in London as a teenager. A lot of my references come from the former Soviet Union, where I first traveled as a student. I didn’t really get serious about writing poetry until I lived in Russia in the 1990s, though—while there, I was lucky enough to read the entire canon of Russian poetry with a scholar who spoke no English. It was that immersion in Russian that helped me to hear my own language, English, with fresh ears—and it certainly helped make me a better poet. I like to joke that I’m the only American-born poet I know who owes more to Pushkin than to Walt Whitman—if that’s not cultural translation, what is?

Natalya Sukhonos is bilingual in Russian and English and also speaks Spanish, French, and Portuguese. She has taught at the Stanford Continuing Studies program for four years. She has a PhD in Comparative Literature from Harvard University. Her poems are published by The American Journal of Poetry, The Saint Ann’s Review, Driftwood Press, Literary Mama, Middle Gray Magazine, Really System, and other journals. Sukhonos was nominated for the Pushcart Prize in 2020 and 2015, and for the Best New Poets Anthology of 2015. Her first book Parachute was published in 2016 by Kelsay Books of Aldrich Press, and her second book A Stranger Home was published by Moon Pie Press. natalyasukhonos.com.

Katherine E. Young is the author of Woman Drinking Absinthe, Day of the Border Guards (2014 Miller Williams Arkansas Poetry Prize finalist), two chapbooks, and the editor of Written in Arlington. Her poems have appeared in Prairie Schooner, The Iowa Review, Subtropics, and many others. She has translated prose by Anna Starobinets and Akram Aylisli and two poetry collections by Inna Kabysh. Her translations of contemporary Russophone poetry and prose have won international awards. Young was named a 2020 Arlington, VA, individual artist grantee; a 2017 NEA translation fellow; and the inaugural poet laureate for Arlington, VA (2016-2018). https://katherine-young-poet.com

Publishing Poetry on Social Media: Interview with Ksenia Zheludova by Josephine von Zitzewitz

To find new Russian poetry, it is no longer enough to read literary journals (including online journals) and keep an eye on the catalogs of established publishing houses. Nowadays, many Russian poets first publish their new texts on their social media feeds (VKontakte, Facebook, Telegram, YouTube et al). The initial audience is curated by the poets themselves, and their connectedness – how many people subscribe to their feed, and who these people are – has a direct influence on the number of readers the text will find in the short term.

Popular writers do not only use social media to publish new texts and for other literary activities, such as promoting events and books – one’s own and those of others – and sharing critical articles and discussing aspects of literary form. Some also offer materials, ranging from commentary on current affairs to pictures of their pets or extended contemplations on matters close to their heart, to a broad public beyond their own network of “friends.” The poet Olga Sedakova has amassed over 15,000 Facebook followers who receive her public posts in their newsfeed. Dmitrii Vodennikov, one of the first generation of writers to use social media as a vehicle for literature, is followed by more than 26,000 people.

In the Russophone literary world, self-publication is no impediment to publishing the same text again in online journals or in print. On the contrary, publication on social media can heighten a writer’s visibility and fast-track both print publication and translation. The recent flurry of new international editions by feminist poets who publish prolifically on social media, like Oksana Vasyakina, Lida Yusupova, and Galina Rymbu, corroborates this thesis. While print publication remains an important goal, the tastes and power of a small number of editors no longer determine the opportunities for interaction between a poet and their audience. 

Ksenia Zheludova is a poet from St. Petersburg who publishes her new poetry on her feed on the Russian social network VKontakte. She is the author of two collections of poetry. A selection of her poems in English translation appeared in the February issue of Words Without Borders.  Here she is talking to her translator Josephine von Zitzewitz about social media and different strategies for interacting with her audience. The interview was conducted in Russian and translated by Josephine von Zitzewitz.

Josephine von Zitzewitz: What does it mean to you to publish your work on social media, as opposed to in books and journals?

Ksenia Zheludova: It’s important to me that, on social media, I can interact with my audience directly. To some degree I assume the role of editor and producer, and I create a space around myself through which I transmit my texts. In contrast, when I publish in a journal or other literary publication, I will be transmitted via an intermediary. There’s no universal gatekeeper for all authors, and it’s easier, in this case, to remain an individualist than to join a collective that you don’t know.

Josephine von Zitzewitz: Are you consciously aiming for print publications, or are those a coincidence? After all, you have published two collections of poetry.

Ksenia Zheludova: Yes indeed. My first collection, Slovno (2013), was a slim volume I published with the help of some friends at a new publishing house (Moscow: Yang Buk, Nulevaia Seriia). They were doing a series of poetry collections in a very small print run, around 100 copies. The whole thing was the kind of friendly collaboration that brings joy to everyone involved. We didn’t aim to sell the book or to use it for promoting my existence or my work. It was simply a fun thing to do, and it worked! 

Josephine von Zitzewitz: It did indeed work – several titles of this series were on display at the well-known independent bookshop and event hub Poriadok slov in St Petersburg, and that’s how I first read your poetry! And your second collection, how did that come about?

Ksenia Zheludova: The second collection, Navernost’(2017), I self-published with the help of special software. I did the typesetting myself, using a template. The book is simply a collection of texts that were topical at that moment in time. It was uploaded to several online shops selling e-books, and one of them also offered print-on-demand copies.  After that, I stopped doing collections. But now I dream of a real book, a high-quality, beautiful book with illustrations and a cover. A sort of “Best of the Best,” to bring together all those texts I’m definitely not ashamed of. That’s still at the planning stage. I’m slowly collecting the poems I want to include. And recently I had an idea for yet another book because, a while ago, I started publishing poems that naturally come together as a cycle: a cycle of terrifying tales for bedtime. These are more narrative and quite dark, like horror stories. And they fit together really well – they would make a great collection. And perhaps this collection will come into being if I pull myself together and step out into the field of print publishing, which still feels alien and not very inviting.

Josephine von Zitzewitz: What is the role of literary journals in Russia today?

Ksenia Zheludova: I can’t offer an expert opinion, because I don’t feel very at home in the world of print. Literary journals were very important and popular in the Soviet Union. They offered access to the world of publication and were a stepping stone towards publishing a single-author collection. In those circumstances, literary journals were the only way of promoting your texts, and the only way an author could reach their audience. Public readings are a different matter, as they reach only those who are present in the room where you’re reading. Now, with the Internet available, I have the impression that literary journals remain in the hands of a very narrow group of professionals – literary critics and publishers. So we’re talking about a very self-contained environment that doesn’t really touch upon the outside world, the world where the readers are. But the readers are the audience that I, as an author, want to address.

Josephine von Zitzewitz: Who is your target audience? Do you actively curate your audience?

Ksenia Zheludova: At first – about 15 years ago – my audience consisted of my close friends, who’d repost my poems. The texts would then spread through their respective networks to reach their friends. But over the last seven years, ever since VKontakte started doing “publics” (“public pages” where users can share content with followers – Punctured Lines), I collected around 3,700 followers. I must admit I didn’t always like communicating with my readers. I am a fairly serious introvert. I’d come, put up a new poem, and leave again. That was all I was capable of doing. Only lately have I started to get an energetic charge from communicating with my audience. I have understood that, paradoxically, interaction with the audience supports my creative process – I want to tell these people something. My readership is fairly random but, when I checked the statistics tool that shows the age and gender of the group members, I noticed an interesting thing: my audience and I are growing up together. Five years ago, the majority of my readers were women around 25, the same age as me. Today I can see that the majority are about 30 years old and female. This means I’m writing not just for my peers, but for my female coevals. It turns out I’m working within a circle of people who are close to me in age and worldview! I have pages on VKontakte, and I also have Facebook and Instagram pages. But the public on VKontakte was my first direct platform, and all my main readers follow that page.

Josephine von Zitzewitz: What is the role of sites such as stikhi.ru (a popular self-publishing poetry platform that allows a limited interaction between the author and the audience – Punctured Lines)? I’m asking because I found some of your earlier texts on it.

Ksenia Zheludova: Stikhi.ru was very popular 15 years ago – I mean, it’s still popular today, but back then many serious literary authors used it. And I used it myself as a kind of archive. It was convenient to put poems up on the site and divide them into sections or little collections, and for me it was a very useful digital archive. But I stopped publishing there a long time ago, because I realized that the audience is chaotic. I don’t understand who is reading my texts there and why; I don’t know how to work with this resource. And so I simply settled for my own social media feed, and stopped distinguishing between my personal life and my life as a poet.

Josephine von Zitzewitz: How do you organize your feed on VKontakte? I notice that it doesn’t just feature poems. How do you combine the public and the semi-private?

Ksenia Zheludova: I would put it like this: for a long time, I thought of my own poetry as my parallel, secret life. My life, my job, and my friends – that’s one thing. And then there are the nights when I sit and write poems that I then publish in places where people are likely to appreciate them. Previously that would have been on platforms like stikhi.ru, and various thematic forums that used to exist. And then, at some point, I came to the realization that I didn’t want to perpetuate this division; that I didn’t want to play Jekyll and Hyde. All of it is part of me, including my poetry. And, just as I can post a selfie or a pretty picture of the sky on Instagram, I can post a poem I’ve written. That poem also expresses my worldview. It represents my perspective. I can post a picture, or I can post a text. I don’t see a big difference there.

Josephine von Zitzewitz: I notice that your texts are often accompanied by photographs. Do you choose them specifically? Is it because posts that contain visuals are more likely to draw the eye?

Ksenia Zheludova: I arrived at this format by accident. At some point, I realized that people are divided into visual, aural, and other types. In any case, every text includes something bigger than itself. A poem is a little tale that invites you to imagine whatever you like, but the imagination needs something to anchor it. I choose images that complement whatever it is I’m expressing in the poem, and I also attach a musical track to each piece. I find this approach creates a unified picture … it’s a bit like going to the cinema. There’s a text beyond the screen which you read to yourself, perhaps even out loud, then there’s the photo, and then the soundtrack. It’s a piece that’s complete in itself.

Josephine von Zitzewitz: When a poet submits to journals, a lot of time passes between writing and publication. In contrast, the Internet allows you to publish instantly, even to react to current events in real time. Do you find that publishing on social media has an impact on your style? To put it another way, are your poems fairly spontaneous or do you spend a long time editing them? 

Ksenia Zheludova: It’s different every time. Some poems are composed of fragments written years apart. Sometimes I return to my drafts and notebooks and find that, five years ago, I wrote three lines that didn’t grow into anything. But now I’m writing another text, and these old lines just fit there, like the missing piece of a puzzle.  There are other poems I write in an evening from start to finish. The next day I look at them with fresh eyes to check whether I’ve hit the right tone, and edit a bit – and the text is ready for publication. With regard to current events – recently I wrote a poem that refers to the events in Belarus (i.e., the protests following the contested election in August 2020 –Josephine von Zitzewitz). Of course, I knew that I had to publish it on the spot, because a few days later it would no longer be necessary. So I put it up, and it did indeed trigger reactions from people who were also thinking about that situation. If the poem had come out a week or a month later, it would have been something else – a statement of fact, a response, a different kind of text. In this sense, social media is an amazing instrument that allows you to react quickly and be something akin to a reporter. I rarely write texts that touch on social and political topics, but sometimes topical texts come to me. Usually I write in a different genre that doesn’t require quick reactions. This means a poem can mature for a long time, and it can be a long time before it gets published. In addition, I now work to a different schedule: I decided to develop my VKontakte group and offer a paid subscription for exclusive content. Some readers pay a monthly donation, and I stay in closer contact with those readers. I suggest topics for debate, I share music and videos, and I show my new poems to this group first and then to all my other followers a week later. Working in this pattern has taught me something. My text is first of all seen by five people who might leave a “Like,” but not comment. That’s OK. All the rest only get to see it the following week, and then there might be more reactions or debate. But for me that’s no longer so important, because there’s already a new text in the wings. That’s more like a standard publication schedule, where texts reach the reader after some time has elapsed.  

Josephine von Zitzewitz: Once you’ve published a text online, do you ever return to it and edit? Or is that the final version?

Ksenia Zheludova: That’s always the final version, because I never publish a text if there’s still something in it that makes me stumble. I always take a text to the stage where I know that it’s finished. That means that, as soon as a text appears to the outside world, I can no longer access it. It’s no longer my text; it’s now living its own life and I’ll never go back and edit it.

Image: Facebook group “Pis’ma k stene”, July 2015

Josephine von Zitzewitz: Do you think that a writer, a poet, is necessarily involved in current affairs? Do you consider yourself involved? I’m asking because when I read your poem “an age-old female pastime” I feel that it’s a response to the war in Ukraine. But at the same time it’s simply a text about war, any war, and it could have been written at any point in time. This means it will never lose its topicality.

Ksenia Zheludova: That’s a good question. When you live within the current historical context – that is, when you don’t live in a bunker – you naturally react to what’s going on in the world. I don’t like poetry that’s too “concrete,” poetry that mentions individual names, toponyms, or furnishes descriptions of specific events. Texts like that make me uncomfortable. I always try to set my poems in a more universal context and to cleanse them of any ties to a specific time and place. But sometimes it’s the text itself that becomes attached to some event or other, as if drawn by a magnet. The poem you mention actually became part of the events in Ukraine because, at some point, somebody wrote it on the asphalt in Kyiv.

It seemed to fall into step with the events, and many people from Ukraine wrote to express their gratitude or simply make contact. The poem was in the right place at the right time, and it became important to those people. But did I write it specifically in response to the events? No, I didn’t. It’s not a reaction to the war in Ukraine. But perhaps the war had such an impact on my emotional state that the poem was born? In contrast, the poem on Belarus that I mentioned was written in reaction to a concrete situation, even a specific day. I kept reading the news, and it left a strong impression; it really shocked me. And so I sat down to write a poem. I really wanted to write it in one go and publish it in the morning, and that’s exactly what I did. And yet it doesn’t contain any references to a specific country, event, or date.

Josephine von Zitzewitz: Was there ever a moment where readers perceived your work in a way that was completely unexpected?

Ksenia Zheludova: Sometimes. It mostly happens with texts that aren’t my favorites, or not even very successful in my eyes. Those poems start circulating very widely. Conversely, some texts I like very much and that are quite good – if I do say so myself – provoke hardly any reaction at all. To give an example, one poem that circulates very widely on the web is “Memo” (“Pamiatka,” 2011) and it’s mostly this poem that I see under my hashtag. Even when I google myself, I’m likely to find “Memo” (589 hits – Josephine von Zitzewitz). It really isn’t a very relevant text for me; I wouldn’t read it at a poetry reading now. At this point, I don’t find “Memo” all that interesting or important.

Josephine von Zitzewitz: I didn’t know that about “Memo,” but I translated it (Modern Poetry in Translation no. 6, 2017). That’s the first poem of yours that got me hooked! Have your poems ever caused controversy?

Ksenia Zheludova: Here is one recent example of a negative reaction. At some point, I wrote a text in a form I hadn’t used for some time – not quite free verse, but close to it, a very relaxed form. So, quite a free text, and I like it very much. It resonated with my emotional state at the time I wrote it. I published it with a sense of real accomplishment and used it to promote my group. Most comments were positive, but one young woman wrote: “Aren’t you ashamed of putting up such a low-quality text?” I was sitting there and really wanted to write: “No, I’m not ashamed.” But then I decided it would be a bit weird to enter into dialogue with a commenter like that, because it would seem like I was justifying my right to publish certain texts and defending their right to exist. The fact that I published that poem means I’m no longer ashamed of it.

Ksenia Zheludova is a St. Petersburg-based poet and producer who has been publishing poetry on the Internet since 2007. She maintains a dedicated feed on VKontakte to promote her work, and also uses Facebook and Instagram for this purpose. Her poetry collections, Slovno and Navernost’, have appeared in print and online.

Josephine von Zitzewitz is a scholar of Russian literature and translator specializing in Russian poetry. She is currently Marie Skłodowska Curie Fellow at UIT The Arctic University of Norway with a research project on the phenomenon of contemporary Russian poetry on the Internet.

Pocket Samovar: Interview with Konstantin Kulakov, Founding Editor, by Alex Karsavin

Today Punctured Lines is delighted to feature Alex Karsavin‘s interview with Konstantin Kulakov, Founding Editor of Pocket Samovar, “an international literary magazine dedicated to underrepresented post-Soviet writing, art & diaspora.” A huge thank you to Alex for the initiative to do this interview for the blog and to both Alex and Konstantin for their work on this piece. An equally huge thank you to the editors of Pocket Samovar for creating a space for post-/ex-Soviet writers. Submission guidelines can be found here.

Alex Karsavin:  Can you briefly give me the origin story of Pocket Samovar? How did a project that began as a localized conversation between two students at Naropa University’s Jack Kerouac School end up involving so many international actors? How did you go about establishing these lines of communication? And finally: how has Pocket Samovar been able to, in a remarkably short spate of time, reach such a dispersed and disparate audience?

Yevgeny Yevtushenko (1932-2017)

Konstantin Kulakov: It started in fall 2019, in Boulder, Colorado at the Jack Kerouac School. It was Kate Shylo, who’s from Yalta, Crimea, me from Russia, and Ryan Onders, who’s from Ohio. Late in the summer, Ryan and I struck a relationship over poetry performance, especially our obsession with Yevtushenko and the orality of Soviet poetry. Shortly, the three of us got together over borscht and spoke about a magazine dedicated specifically to diasporic communities.  At first, the word we used was “Eurasia.” Later we realized that “post-Soviet” would be a more accurate term, and we brought it up to Jeffrey Pethybridge, who connected us with Matvei Yankelevich. Matvei was brilliant; he put us in contact with Boris Dralyuk and Eugene Ostashevsky, which ultimately led to the establishment of an advisory board. We didn’t just want this to be a trendy journal that’s translating East European writing. We wanted to highlight underrepresented writers of the post-Soviet space: queer, LGBTQ, Muslim, writers of color, including writers from Transcaucasia, Central Asia, and so on. The hardest part, of course, was to establish these links across time zones, languages, and cultures. Our advisory board proved extremely useful in finding people like Paata Shamugia and Hamid Ismailov. I myself found people like Evgeniy Abdullaev, whose pen-name is Suhbat Aflatuni; he’s based out of Tashkent. It is important to emphasize, for us, the diasporic part of our mission does not center writers in the west; instead, the magazine aspires to be rhizomatic, bridging the gap between North American and Eurasian literary communities. 

Alex Karsavin:  I was struck by the claim on your site that Pocket Samovar was influenced but not necessarily determined by its editors’ relationship to “Soviet cultural memory.” This is a very rich and arguably fraught territory. Before we go into the particulars, would you mind delving into your (or your colleagues’) relationship to the region at large (be it personal, literary, or academic)?

Konstantin Kulakov:  I can only confidently speak for myself. I left Russia when I was 10 years old: a kind of identity rupture or separation at a formative time. And that longing for homeland is really what it’s about for me. The only way I could connect to Russian contemporary literature was online or books. And there was something missing in that, like: Oh, here’s a poem. Here’s an anthology of contemporary Russian poetry by Dalkey Archive Press. And that’s it. I opened the book, and I never felt that it offered me an opportunity to improve my Russian, or to meet Russian people. (Before the pandemic hit we had hopes of actually having events and things of that nature.) So for Kate and me, it really was founded around diasporic longing for a connection to the post-Soviet space, and specifically the kind of literary culture where people can stand up and recite a poem by heart. Living and going to school in Russia as a kid, I hated recitation, because it was required and I wasn’t good at it. In my early childhood, I was moved between Russia, England, and America. I was bilingual and confused, often wonderstruck by language, and maybe that’s why I’m a poet. In many ways, for me, editing this magazine is a return to the language at a time when I feel ready to appreciate it. In Kate’s case, she was born in Yalta and also traveled; she has this nomadic sensibility. I think what interested her was the emphasis on publishing underrepresented voices (particularly feminist and queer). Ryan, of course, came to us via Yevtushenko and translation. 

Alex Karsavin:  Could you say a bit more about your personal relationship to Soviet cultural memory specifically (given the prominent role it plays in the site’s call for submissions)?

Konstantin Kulakov:  Soviet cultural memory. Hmm. I mean, I was born in 1989 in Zaoksky, a town outside of Moscow. 

Alex Karsavin:  Right at the tipping point …

Bella Akhmadulina (1937-2010)

Konstantin Kulakov:  Yeah. I entered a world of collapse, in a state of flux. My memory of that time is mostly of things falling apart and being built up. I actually grew up during the construction of the first Protestant seminary co-founded by my father. So there’s this idea of: “Look! Democracy, religious liberty, international dialogue, etc. are finally coming to Russia!” But at the same time, having been in the United States for 20 years (I’m 31), having experienced individualistic consumerism, there’s now this longing for the samovar, for the communal aspect of poetic memorization and recitation, a longing for something as immense as the stadium poetry of Yevtushenko and Bella Akhmadulina. The longing was also in part a reaction to this feeling among some exiles that Russia is authoritarian, that the arts are neglected or backwards, etc. And something in me always knew the latter was false. I thought: “I know there are poets in Russia and all over the post-Soviet space.” 

Alex Karsavin:  Why Pocket Samovar for the title? To my mind, the samovar draws obvious connotations to the Tsarist Empire, and nationalism more broadly. Yet, and correct me if I’m off mark, there seems to be a dislocation happening here (even in the simple reimagining of this bulky static object as something miniature and mobile). Am I wrong to interpret this as a sort of queering?

Konstantin Kulakov:  There are some things to unpack here. In fact, the mission statement used to be a history of the samovar. It actually emerged in Azerbaijan. The samovar finds archeological origin in the tea drinking devices of Azerbaijan, not Russia. So we were not trying to center the Russian space but rather the region as a whole, its complex, boundary-crossing geography and culture. The communal aspect is also very important. The samovar is circular and presents a spatial situation that is meant to be enjoyed among friends, conversing as equals in a non-hierarchical, free, and spontaneous manner. In the end, we’re trying to be more like a tea room than just a competitive journal that publishes the best of post-Soviet writing. So, if the samovar, something bulky, fits in the pocket, you can definitely say this is a queering; in many ways, the situation of the diasporic writer demands an understanding of fluidity. For us, national identity can change overnight, and language, when queered, affords that fluidity. 

Alex Karsavin:  Pocket Samovar appears to be the newest in a series of recent publications which take this particular region as their focus (Mumber Mag, Alephi, to some degree Homintern). The magazine is unique, however, in its attempt to put the stateside literary diaspora in communication with its FSU (former Soviet Union — PL) roots. Why is this emphasis on dialogue so important for Pocket Samovar? How does it relate to the magazine’s stated desire (to paraphrase Madina Tlostanova) to reimagine the post-Soviet condition not as a lamentation of lost paradise, but as a way to re-existence?

Konstantin Kulakov:  We emerged in Boulder, Colorado, although we are expanding now. One of our editors is in Brooklyn; I might be moving to Brooklyn soon, actually. And then two of our editors are based in Europe, specifically in Luxembourg and in Basel, Switzerland. Daily operation and editorial decisions present new limits and opportunities. So the idea behind Tlostanova’s quote is that we’ve already opened Pandora’s box, so to speak. We can’t go back. Globalization is everywhere. And I think the name “pocket samovar” speaks to that question very concretely.  Being in this globalized, fast-paced world, everything is now pocket-sized, everything is mobile, it’s almost like you have to be that way to survive. Ryan Onders, our managing editor, asked me one day: How would the magazine exist physically as a print edition? And I said: It’s a diasporic thing. It’s nomadic. So it has to fit in the pocket, right? That’s when I realized it had to be Pocket Samovar

The thing is, we can’t go back in time, nor can we escape the Soviet legacy. The “re-existence” Tlostanova speaks of is the ability to create something new and necessary, something that’s based around community in an individualistic and competitive globalized world. For this reason, our new issue emphasized the virtual tea room recordings (of which Stanislava Mogileva‘s was my favorite). We strategically decided to put the video at the top of the page to make it central, and the text secondary. So when you click the link and open the video, there’s this feeling that we’re still honoring that tradition of orality and community, a re-existence of sorts. 

Alex Karsavin:  Perhaps it’s too early to tell, but what kind of international reception has Pocket Samovar had so far? Also, I want to dive a little deeper into the question of inter-scene dialogue. Given that your contributors represent such disparate literary (and feminist) movements, what kind of exchange (intellectual or affective) have you noticed cropping up in your virtual tea room? Do you think the formal arsenal and thematic concerns of the writers featured in the first issue coalesce into some sort of recognizable whole? Particularly I’m interested in the way writers deal with the theme of dislocation (for example, Stanislava Mogileva appears to recoup the folk song and oral epic genre in the service of Russian feminism, while Elena Georgievskaya queers the biblical language of Revelation).

Bulat Okudzhava (1924-1997)

Konstantin Kulakov:  It’s interesting. International communication is definitely happening, even as we speak, on social media.  That’s where I’m seeing it and I can’t really talk about the nature of the dialogue yet because we first need to have more events. But it’s generally a sense of excitement that I’m seeing. To borrow a term from Durkheim, it was something of a collective effervescence, albeit virtual. At first, there was this fear among the editors that in calling ourselves post-Soviet, people would freak out and not want to be affiliated with that authoritarian, violent legacy to which we all have our own complicated relationship. However, I think the nature of the post-Soviet space is integrated in such weird ways that there is always literal and discursive travel occurring between the various republics and Russia. For example, Evgeniy Abdullaev is based in Tashkent and has a manifesto called “Tashkent Poets,” but he writes in Russian (not dissimilar to the Soviet-era poet, Bulat Okudzhava, who was of Georgian and Armenian descent). So there’s always this traversing of borders going on. In terms of the response to Pocket Samovar (going off the website traffic), it’s clear that it went completely international. It hit every continent. Because some of the contributors shared it in Azerbaijan, it ended up going all over Central Asia, Transcaucasia, and even to parts of the Middle East, like Afghanistan and Iraq. That, to me, was really encouraging.

It is important to emphasize how literature of the post-Soviet space and literature of the post-Soviet diaspora define the issue. In regards to writing from the region, I would like to highlight Stanislava Mogileva, Elena Georgievskya, Vitaliy Yukhimenko. They are all queer/non-binary poets. Although they have differences, they are united by the similar role sociality, orality, and free verse plays in their work. Learning from these writers and movements–through their work, talks, essays, interviews– is exactly what future issues of Pocket Samovar will be devoted to. 

The post-Soviet diasporic writer, on the other hand, finds themselves in a contrasting position to homeland. The post-Soviet diasporic writer may reject their homeland, share an ambivalent attitude to it, adopt a hyphenated identity, or alternate between all of these. Alina Stefanescu’s poetry definitely does not shy away from the brutality of the Soviet experience, but nor does she reject it. “Pickled Plums” celebrates familial traditions illustrating how a planted sapling or thimble of tuica can impart her diasporic life with a sense of safety or vitality of speech. Anatoly Molotkov’s “Poison in the DNA” is aware of the powerful role of the past, but the speaker firmly resists identification with his Russian roots because the roots are “rotten.” However, after reading his poem, “Letting the Past In,” we see Molotkov’s more positive kinship to another Soviet artist: Andrei Tarkovsky. Nonetheless, given the complexities of nationality, our magazine conceives of diaspora very broadly. For example, Steve Nickman’s poetry concerns itself not with land, but with the lives of post-Soviets in the United States. It is too soon to tell, but I can only expect that such literary encounters will continue to demonstrate the need for further exchange and connection, especially given the global challenges we face. 

Alex Karsavin:  What’s the long-term vision for the magazine?

Konstantin Kulakov:  We eventually want to turn the magazine into a nonprofit similar in format to that of Brooklyn Poets. We of course want to grow in funding. We imagine ourselves as a platform for the diasporic community that features poetry and translation workshops, reading events, and conferences. We want to serve as our own social platform, where poets can comment on each other’s published poems. We want to optimize interaction and user experience. The fact is that everything nowadays is becoming more mobile; for example, 60% of the people visiting the website are using phones. At the same time, we don’t want to lose the physicality of a print magazine, of literary evenings (to use a Russian term), which is why our current emphasis is on raising funds for the print issue. 

Konstantin Kulakov is a Russian-American poet, educator, and translator born in Zaoksky, former Soviet Union. His debut chapbook, Excavating the Sky, was published by Dialogue Foundation Books (2015). Kulakov is the recipient of the Greg Grummer Poetry Award judged by Brian Teare and holds a Master of Divinity degree from Union Theological Seminary in the City of New York. His poems and translations have appeared in Spillway, Phoebe, Harvard Journal of African American Policy, and Loch Raven Review, among others. He is currently an MFA candidate at Naropa University’s Jack Kerouac School in Boulder, Colorado and co-founding editor of Pocket Samovar magazine. 

Alex Karsavin is a Russian-American literary translator, with translations and writing published in the F Letter: New Russian Feminist Poetry anthology, PEN America, Columbia Journal, New Inquiry, Sreda, and HOMINTERN magazine. Ilya Danishevsky’s hybrid prose-poetry novel Mannelig v tsepyakh (Mannelig in Chains) forms Alex’s main translation project, a collaboration with veteran Russian-English translator Anne Fisher, funded by the University of Exeter’s RusTrans project. They are currently pursuing a Ph.D. in Slavic Languages and Literatures at UIUC. They are a 2020 ALTA travel fellow.

A Virtual Event with Lida Yusupova

Tomorrow, March 12, 2021, Columbia University’s Harriman Institute is hosting a virtual “Zoomposium” and a reading, featuring the poet Lida Yusupova. The event is hosted by Anastasiya Osipova and Mark Lipovetsky as a part of the Institute’s Contemporary Culture Series.

Organizers write: Lida Yusupova is a uniquely important voice in contemporary Russophone poetry and, in particular, a groundbreaking figure for contemporary feminist poetry. Often experimenting with documentary poetics, as in Verdicts, her poetic cycle based on transcripts of Russian court hearings, she unflinchingly investigates cruelty and violence, while, paradoxically, extending intimacy and sympathy to the most alienating situations. We are proud to welcome an international lineup of poets and poetry scholars to discuss Yusupova’s poetics and her new bilingual edition, The Scar We Know (edited by Ainsley Morse, Cicada Press, 2021). The event will conclude with a poetry reading by Yusupova.

I have previously written about this book in a post, dedicated to Lida Yusupova’s poem “The Center for Gender Problems” (Russian text) that appears in the book in Hilah Kohen’s translation. We have also published an interview with Ainsley Morse, the editor of this collection. The significance of Yusupova’s work for contemporary Russian literature is alluded to in this Time Magazine article by Suyin Haynes. Oksana Vasyakina and Galina Rymbu, featured in this article, will be participating in the Zoomposium, wonderful in its ability to unite translators, writers, and scholars from Russia and the diaspora.

I’m honored at the opportunity to deliver and expand my remarks on the poem “The Center for Gender Problems” as a part of the panel on Feminism in Yusupova’s work.

Please preregister for each individual panel as well as for the poet’s reading.

Buying books is the best way to support authors. Lida Yusupova’s book is now available for purchase from Cicada Press.

Telling the Story of People Who Didn’t Want to Be Noticed: An Interview with Maria Stepanova

By Svetlana Satchkova

Maria Stepanova is a Moscow-based poet, essayist, and journalist. She’s also the editor-in-chief of Colta, a crowdfunded online publication that she created eight years ago and that has become a major outlet for long-form think pieces on contemporary Russian culture. Stepanova published ten books of poetry and three essay collections and has received numerous literary awards. In 2017, she wrote her first book of prose, In Memory of Memory. It’s a documentary novel that tells the story of the narrator who, after the death of her aunt, goes through the archive the aunt left behind, discovering her family’s history. In parts of this book, there’s no narration – just excerpts from diaries and letters written by Stepanova’s relatives; its other parts engage directly with other authors who wrote about memory – Osip Mandelstam, W. G. Sebald, and Susan Sontag. Despite or, maybe, because of the book’s non-traditional form, it gained a wide readership and won two major Russian literary prizes. On February 9, In Memory of Memory comes out in English from New Directions, translated by Sasha Dugdale, a British poet and playwright. This interview was conducted in Russian and subsequently translated to English by the interviewer.

In your novel, you quote someone saying that quite a lot of books have been written in English by people investigating their family histories. In Russian, though, your book is the only one of its kind.

Actually, it’s not the only one, which makes me very happy. To me, this is a discovery of sorts – that things we usually consider private and insignificant are turning out to be the most interesting not only for me, but also for a large number of people. And the stories they tend to tell sometimes are quite unexpected in their scope and variety. In some of them the twentieth century shows up in all its terrible glory, with all of its tragedies and disasters, but in a number of cases these are just regular domestic stories of how somebody’s grandmother arrived, or how someone left to work in the north, or how three sisters lived in a distant Hungarian village, but then decided to leave for the big city. And yet one can’t get enough of these stories. I think that this is a very important shift, this interest in familial memory. There’s an increasingly palpable hunger for contact with the past which grows stronger as the present becomes less acceptable to us. A couple of years ago, I worked in Berlin for a year, teaching memory writing in Humboldt University. I had large groups made up of different kinds of people, all of them hooked on this search for the past despite it sometimes being painful – because traveling to the past isn’t always pleasant. Moreover, this interest in memory is a global, international phenomenon, which is now shaping the outlines of a new community and works as a link between generations because it attracts people regardless of their age.

Do you have any idea why you became the first person to write about these things in Russian?

I wasn’t really the first one – writing one’s family history is something fairly normal in Russia, as elsewhere, and there is a good number books devoted to the legacy of the twentieth century and the traces it left in private lives…. Maybe the genre is something that makes a difference in my case: I was most interested in trying to shape a new territory between fiction and nonfiction: in my book, a novel, an essay, and a research project meet one another. I guess no one else wrote books like that at the time.

Do you think there isn’t a lot of experimentation happening in the Russian literary space?

This is how it works: since the beginning of the nineties, when literary awards appeared in Russia, the way contemporary fiction works has been largely determined by their existence. Winning one of them is the only opportunity for a prose writer in Russia to receive a substantial amount of money that can greatly improve their life. These awards, in one way or another, are geared towards finding the great Russian novel that is very similar to the great American novel. It’s a long, philosophical narrative without any stylistic nonsense – because it should be easy to read and digest – shaped within the mold of a nineteenth century novel. That is, the writer is forced to reinvent the wheel for the umpteenth time.

In other words, you didn’t expect that your book would become successful and would win two of these very same awards – NOS and Big Book?

I didn’t think about those things at all. I’ve been writing poetry all my life, and it always seemed to me that prose was the medium that wasn’t required of me, that if I wanted to write prose, I could easily write it in verse. And I did: I’ve written long narrative poems and all manner of ballads. At the same time, I always knew that someday I would write a book about my family, even though I didn’t know how I would go about it. I’d been meaning to write it from the age of ten, but I was taking a long time, endlessly getting distracted, looking for a chance to procrastinate a little while more. There came a point, however, when I realized that I had to do it. I set out to write a text that would be convincing to me, and there was one more goal that was even more important. You know, Brodsky has this essay called “To Please a Shadow.” This was what I wanted – to please my dead. I constructed my book in such a way that they would feel good in it. Maybe I could’ve written it in a completely different way, without all those historical and cultural references that work as a large structure into which my own stories then fit. I could’ve written a story about my family and nothing else, but I had in mind something that would belong to the realm of contemporary art. I wanted to create a space in which I could arrange the few remaining photographs, letters, and testimonies, and to make it so that they would feel good in this space, so that they would be seen and understood in the right way. This is how you work when curating an exhibition – you start with the space. I really didn’t think about anything else, and the fact that my book wound up being widely read was a shock both for me and for my publisher, who didn’t hope to sell more than three thousand copies, I think.

How did you arrive at this particular form for your book?

The book is about inconspicuous people, people whose lives resembled those of everyone else: they loved, they fell out of love, someone died, someone was born. As a family, they managed to survive many times, perhaps because they deliberately stayed on the sidelines. At the beginning of the twentieth century, they tried to be actors of history, but later they moved to its margins and spent almost a hundred years there. So, what worried me was the question of how to tell the story of people who didn’t really want to be noticed – and how to talk about people whose fates had nothing extraordinary about them.

I found the story of Lyodik who went to the front and died at the age of nineteen absolutely heartbreaking.

Lyodik’s letters have been in our family for as long as I can remember. When I was little, my mother told me about him sometimes and read his letters out loud. But it’s impossible to surmise from his letters what was actually happening to him and around him – he kept silent about that. In order to look beyond and understand what he kept silent about, I had to read a lot of historical literature on the blockade of Leningrad and the Leningrad front. A documentary novel is a genre in which there are a lot of gradations, that is, there’s a toggle switch that can be moved to the left, towards the documentary, or to the right, towards fiction. I’m probably keeping to the left of this spectrum. I have serious problems with the type of novel writing that uses people who are no longer alive as glove puppets to convey the writer’s own thoughts and emotions. I think and write a lot about the ethics and the etiquette of writing about the dead, about what is allowed and what isn’t, and at what point it turns into the exploitation of people who can no longer object to this treatment.

Have you come across books that dealt with the dead in a way that you liked?

There are a number of books that are great examples of how one can write about the dead without trying to make the story “interesting,” without trying to deceive, and at the same time doing this miraculous work of resurrection. First of all, I should mention W. G. Sebald because he balances on the border of fiction and essay writing in such a way that there’s a constant flicker. We want to, but we cannot ask: was this all real or not? Is this narrator Sebald or someone else with his mustache and his last name? It seems to me that a new type of literature is emerging which still doesn’t have a name, but it no longer fully belongs to either fiction or essay writing. The books I love most belong exactly to this type of writing that is gradually becoming more and more important.

You’ve mentioned in various interviews that fiction is becoming less and less interesting than documentary writing. Why, do you think?

Remember Mandelstam’s article “The End of the Novel”? It was written in 1923, almost a hundred years ago. He says in it that everything has changed, that the man of the nineteenth century had an individual fate and was therefore interested in the individual fate and its trajectories – hence the success and the significance of the novel as a genre in the nineteenth century and beyond, due to some kind of inertia. But we all know how the twentieth century dealt with these trajectories: it took these individual fates, collected them in a bundle, and broke them over its knee. Later, when the smoke cleared, it turned out that the individual survived, though not in the place where we kept looking. It’s no longer where the typical hero appears in the proposed circumstances and carries on their shoulders the novel construction. In the century in which people die in millions, one person isn’t quite the measure. An error, a detail, a very small thing – oddly enough, that’s the measure.

What kind of thing?

For example, a button that I saw at the Museum of the International Memorial in Moscow where they keep the belongings of the prisoners of Soviet camps. They have many remarkable things there, including an archive of drawings made by the prisoners. It amazed me – and I want to write about it sometime – because there are no scenes we remember so well from the Russian camp prose: no barbed wire, or German shepherds, or security officers on the watchtowers. But there’s a huge number of still lives with flowers as well as landscapes and portraits. For some reason, it was important to those people to create beauty rather than to give a realistic depiction of their circumstances. In this museum, I saw a button in which one of the prisoners had sent a note to his wife. This is a striking detail: they were horribly tortured, but they could give their overcoats to their wives for cleaning. This officer handed his overcoat to his wife, and from one of its buttons a corner of this note was sticking out slightly. On tissue paper, he wrote in microscopic letters about how he was arrested and beaten, and he added that he probably wouldn’t come back. The twentieth century is the time when life turns out to be so inhuman that people become speechless and can speak only for all of humanity, while objects do the speaking for them.

You’re fluent in English, and I assume that you’ve read Sasha Dugdale’s translation of your book. How did you like it?

I think it’s brilliant. Sasha is a wonderful poet and a close friend; she translated and still translates my poems – but my book is maybe the largest piece of prose she had ever translated. And what she did with this huge volume is, in my opinion, absolutely incredible. The Russian type of writing involves endless subordinate clauses that circle around the principal meaning until they finally find their way to it. The Russian syntax imitates the confusing, complex work of human thought, while English, it seems to me, entails a completely different logic and a completely different language etiquette. If you translate a Russian text aiming to convey mainly its syntactic features, it won’t deliver the intended message. What Sasha did was amazing: she found a balance between these two things. She delivered the message that is still the main objective of my work, and at the same time she created this English Russian that isn’t a literal reflection of the original, but somehow gives the reader an idea of how it works.

Your book has a subtitle – romance.  In addition to its other meanings, this word designates a certain kind of song in Russian.

In the book, there are several definitions of the subtitle, and the reader can choose the explanation that they like best. To me, the English meaning of this word is the most important. I feel that this book is a love story, only it’s facing backward rather than forward, as is usually the case with love stories because love is always looking for some kind of completion in the future. Here, love is addressed to people who are no longer alive, so, on the one hand, my love is happy because I love them and I feel that they love me, but on the other hand, I can’t talk to them anymore, and this love is doomed in a sense.

Your book makes clear that your ancestors had to stifle their literary ambitions. Why was that?

When I began to sort through my archive, it struck me: they were all in one way or another people of the written word, even those of them who never intended to study literature. Therefore, there are parts in my book in which I don’t speak at all: I publish excerpts from letters or diaries to give my ancestors the opportunity to speak in their own voices. It seemed wrong and inappropriate to me to invent a voice for my great-grandmother where she had her own. On the contrary, I wanted them to say once again what they already said once, to get a final chance to be heard. My grandfather wrote poetry all his life, mostly comical, but when his daughter – my mother – began to write poetry too, he strictly forbade it, saying, “You’re Jewish, so you must have a profession.” My mother worked as an engineer all her life and never wrote poetry after that.

Was it the same way with you? Were you told not to write poetry?

In a sense, I’m the result of this half-century of their non-writing, because the first thing my mother taught me was to read and write. She was too shy to sing, so at night, instead of singing lullabies, she recited poetry to me. I turned out to be the completion of my family’s hope that someone could write and speak for everyone. It’s a lot of responsibility, because it’s like dragging around a suitcase full of family stories that haven’t been told, and I’m the knot in which they converge. I have to decide whether to talk about them or not, and what exactly to tell. On the other hand, I was infinitely happy, writing this book and doing almost nothing else for several years. I traveled to all the places where my ancestors once lived, and it was very strange and exciting. For example, I went to this microscopic village in the middle of nowhere, somewhere between Arzamas and Nizhny Novgorod, and there was no train there, only a bus that went there once a week, there was no hotel, no cafes, no nothing. And I looked at all of that and realized that there was some thread that connected me to that place.

Since nonfiction is more interesting to you than fiction, does this mean that you don’t read mainstream novels?

I have a very special reading routine: I read a book a day. This means that I constantly have to throw new texts into the furnace. I really love genre literature: for example, detective stories that have clear rules upon which the author agreed with me. It’s a game the author and I are playing. I also read complicated, experimental texts, and academic stuff. I do sometimes read mainstream psychological novels, but they don’t make up the bulk of my diet. If someone I love comes running and says, “Grab this new novel immediately and read it,” then, of course, I’ll grab it and read it. But when I’m in a bookstore, the shelf with freshly published novels isn’t the first one I’ll be looking at.

You don’t hide your political views: you oppose Putin’s regime. You must’ve had opportunities to leave Russia. Why have you stayed?

This is one of those questions that I have to ask myself every five years or so. When my parents left for Germany in the early nineties, I didn’t go with them. I stayed because I was fascinated by what was happening in Russia. It seemed odd to me to leave when the most interesting things began to happen. And now, I feel that someone has to love this place – with its monstrous situation into which we have driven ourselves, with Putin, with these comic-opera poisoners, with this “insane printer” [in colloquial Russian, this is what the Duma, or the state legislative body, is called – Punctured Lines] that passes these insane laws. Someone has to live here and to treat this space as their home, to make it meaningful. Which isn’t to say that I’ll grip this earth with my teeth and stay here under any circumstance. But as long as it’s possible to live here somehow, I would try to stay here. Because the worse it gets here, the more this place needs our love.

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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 most recent novel People and Birds came out from Moscow-based Eksmo Press to popular and critical acclaim.

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/svetlana.satchkova

Svetlana Satchkova: “I almost never say no,” an Interview with a Russian-American Novelist

This fall, Svetlana Satchkova, a writer, journalist, editor, and a contributor to Punctured Lines, has published her third novel. Released in Russian by Moscow-based Eksmo Press, People and Birds has been welcomed by critics and received popular acclaim. According to critic Alexander Chantsev, “The main thing is that this book is very much about Moscow. Not about the Moscow that God sent us, but about the one we deserve.” Curiously, Satchkova currently resides in New York and is attending an MFA program at Brooklyn College, aiming to publish her future work in English.

Satchkova’s path as a writer is both unique and representative of a generation born in the USSR and coming of age in its wake. It includes complicated geographies (she spent several years in Syria as a child, studied in New York, and lived in Moscow before returning to New York), a secret marriage, and quirky jobs. Her biography itself reads like a novel. To give our English-language readers a glimpse, we asked Svetlana to translate an interview she had given to Egor Mikhaylov of Afisha Daily. Please enjoy!

For Russian-language readers: you can purchase Svetlana Satchkova’s Люди и птицы on Eksmo’s website, among others.

When you meet someone at a party, do you introduce yourself as a journalist or as a writer?
© Alena Adamson

As a writer and a journalist. I had to work on myself a lot to be able to say that. My dad dreamed of me becoming a successful lawyer or a businesswoman (though we didn’t know this word at the time, I think). The humanities, even though no one said so directly, weren’t appreciated in my family. Despite all that, I started writing quite early: at the age of eleven I already produced my first novel. I would’ve never voluntarily shown it to my parents, but I had to. The thing was, we lived in Syria at the time: my father worked as a representative of the Soviet merchant fleet in the port city of Latakia. Terrible things were happening at the Soviet customs then: the officers believed that people who worked abroad were all trying to smuggle illegal goods into the USSR, and they went so far as to squeeze toothpaste out of tubes, looking for diamonds. Once, when we came to Moscow on our vacation, they confiscated my collection of chewing gum inserts with Japanese cartoon robots, claiming that those pictures promoted a cult of violence.

My point is, my dad couldn’t take a work of fiction across the border, even if it had been produced by a child, not knowing what was actually written in it. What if there was something anti-Soviet in it? We were all very careful then. I remember asking him, “Can I use the word отель?” (“hotel” in Russian; this word sounded foreign because it had an English origin). It seemed to me that it was an ideologically questionable word. Dad thought about it and said, “I have no idea. Write гостиница (a Russian-sounding synonym) just in case.” Anyway, my dad read the novel and was impressed. He still remembers it sometimes and comments, “I wouldn’t have been able to write a novel like that even when I was forty!” But I was more critical of myself and burned the manuscript because I wasn’t satisfied with my level of writing. It’s a pity, of course: it would be so interesting to read it now.

At first, it didn’t even occur to me that writing could be a profession. My parents didn’t socialize with people who could be identified as intellectuals even if you stretched your imagination: everyone they knew did something very practical for a living. If I’d had role models, I would’ve probably looked in that direction, but it seemed to me that writing could only be a hobby, and not very much encouraged at that. Apparently, I got used to thinking along those lines. Only now, when my third book came out, I started calling myself a writer. Who was holding me back before, I have no idea.

Tell me about your first two books.

Both of them came out in such a way that they seemed to not have come out at all. My first novel was published in 2000, when the Russian book market was in its infancy, and only one person reviewed it – Slava Kuritsyn. It was a short review, literally one paragraph long, but a very nice one. And something else happened, quite unexpectedly. Turning on the TV one evening, I saw that Cultural Revolution was on; I didn’t even have time to grasp what was being discussed when Lyudmila Ulitskaya got hold of the microphone and said, “You know, there’s this young writer named Svetlana Satchkova, and in her novel she reinterpreted Dostoevsky’s theme, the murder of an old woman, in a very interesting way.” I almost collapsed with happiness at that moment. But everything was over before it even began: the readers never found out about this young writer.

If we go back to the imaginary party from your first question, in America, when you introduce yourself as a writer, you could be asked, “What do you write? Anything I might have read?” The same goes for film directors and musicians. I’ve read interviews with very accomplished people, some of them award-winning professionals, and they said they wanted to fall through the floor and disappear upon hearing this question because it usually implies: if a regular person hasn’t heard about you, you’re not worthy of their attention. That’s how I used to think of myself, too, but now I believe that we have to be more generous both to others and to ourselves. I know people who don’t even need to publish in order to think of themselves as writers, and I can only applaud them.

And what about your second book?

I wrote a novel called Vadim, showed it to different publishers, but all of them rejected it, saying the same thing, “This is neformat” (in Russian, this means “not fitting any of the existing categories”). Then I found out that the very same Slava Kuritsyn, whom I didn’t know personally, was curating a book series called Neformat at AST publishing house with the purpose of printing misfits – in other words, people like me. I found his email address and wrote to him, “Hello, Vyacheslav. Five years ago, I had a book out, and you seemed to like it. I’ve written another novel.” And he said, “I’ll take a look at it.” He published my novel, but after a month or two, the project was canceled, and books were removed from stores: readers didn’t show any interest in the series. This time, two people wrote about my book: Maya Kucherskaya, who didn’t like it, and Galina Yuzefovich, who half-liked it.

How’s that?

I tracked her down myself, and she told me to come to where she lived and to slip the book into her mailbox. Then we spoke on the phone, and she said, “You know, your novel made a strange impression on me. I even discussed it with my dad.” I thought, oh God, with Leonid Yuzefovich himself! And then she added, “You know, you have to rewrite it.” – “What do you mean, rewrite it? It’s been published already! I’m holding it in my hands.” In short, I didn’t understand what she meant. Many years later, I saw this book of mine on the shelf, leafed through it, and everything suddenly became clear. I realized that, at the time, I simply needed a good editor, someone who would have said, “Sveta, this part isn’t working, you have to revise it.” Some parts of my novel were very well written – I was even surprised that I was the one who had actually written them! – while others were monstrously bad.

And now, when you were working on your third book, did you have the editor you needed so badly then?

I didn’t. As far as I understand, having an actual editor is an extremely rare occurrence in the Russian publishing business. I’m familiar with a few American writers, and I know from them how things work in the American book industry. First, the publishing cycle is very long here. I’ll tell you how my book was published at Eksmo. In the spring, they informed me that they were taking my novel, and we began to work on the contract; in September, the book was already in stores.

In the United States, the cycle usually takes one and a half to two years. Here, your literary agent is your first editor. A writer can’t send their manuscript directly to a publisher – no one will read it – so you have to find yourself an agent first. This is very difficult; various writers’ manuals advise you to make a list of the best four hundred agents who work with the kind of prose you write, and then to send them your manuscript. An acquaintance of mine told me that five agents agreed to work with him, and that he chose the one who was the most critical of his novel. Consequently, he had to rewrite it three times before it was even sent out to publishers. He rewrote it from beginning to end, can you imagine? Then, when a publisher signs a contract with you, you start working on your manuscript with an editor, and they, too, can make you revise everything. It takes a colossal amount of time, but the end result is usually a high-quality product.

Do you think the American approach is better?

I can’t say that I’m all for it – who wants to revise a novel a hundred times? On the other hand, this approach rules out what happened with my second book – I open it and feel terribly ashamed because some parts are so weak. I think that now I don’t need an editor as much, since I’ve worked as an editor for many years, albeit in magazines, and I can look at my own text with a professional eye.

So, at some point after the release of Vadim, you thought that you needed something else and decided to venture into journalism?

I didn’t have to choose between literature and journalism because you couldn’t make a living writing fiction – I had to work somewhere where I’d be paid. I actually became a journalist thanks to my first book, One Giraffe’s Life, or A Woman of Childbearing Age.

How do you feel about this title now?

Now, of course, it seems funny and cringeworthy, as a friend of mine says. But this just goes to show that an author must have an editor. Anyway, when my first book came out, one of my acquaintances read it and said, “I’m friends with the editor of Marie Claire magazine. Do you want me to introduce you to her so that you could write for them?” I have this trait that has served me well in life: I almost never say no – I’m up for anything because I want to find out what will come of it. So, I met the editor-in-chief of Marie Claire and began writing for them. The assignments they gave me were unusual – perhaps those no one else wanted to take.

For example, they sent me to a clinic where women went to have their virginity restored, and I had to pretend to be one of the patients: in all seriousness, I discussed the restoration of my hymen after the doctor had examined me in the gynecological chair. Then I confessed that I was a journalist, and she told me about her patients who came to get the procedure done and gave me the statistics.

At Marie Claire, they called this type of article a “social”: I had to write about modern life and social mores. After a while, I stopped working for this magazine because of another article. At that time, I was a young divorcee with a small child, and, for my next assignment, I had to meet single men on the Internet and write a report that was also meant to be a “social.” I began to meet men through dating sites, through newspaper advertisements, through a marriage agency, and even through a matchmaker who later turned out to be a scam artist. In the end, I wrote a very entertaining article – or so it seemed to me. At the time, I worshipped Sergei Mostovshchikov who was editor-in-chief of the famous Bolshoy Gorod newspaper, and I wanted to write in the style his journalists wrote in. I brought this text to Marie Claire, and they said, “This isn’t what we want. All of the men you describe have to represent common types.” But everyone I’d met was a freak; I tried to artificially fit them into some categories, but the result wasn’t very good.

I really liked the text, though, and besides, I’d spent a huge amount of time working on it. I asked them to pay me a penalty. At Marie Claire, they had this system: if they asked you to write a text, but didn’t publish it, they had to pay you half of your regular fee. But they didn’t pay me anything, so I took the article to Bolshoy Gorod. I came to see Mostovshchikov’s deputy, the legendary journalist Valery Drannikov. He read the article, looked at me carefully, and said, “At first, we let young journalists write one sentence, then two. Then, after a year, maybe half a page. But you’re very lucky: we just had to pull out an article that was six pages long.” So, they printed this text of mine on six pages, and I, as they say, woke up famous. Marie Claire editors wrote to me immediately and said, “Sveta, please give us back the hundred dollars that we’d given you for the matchmaker.”

The one who ran away with the money?

Yes, that one. I replied, “I’ll gladly return the one hundred dollars if you pay me my half of my fee.” They said, “Fine, we’ll call it even.” After that, I began to write for Bolshoy Gorod a lot, then started to spill out into other publications. And in 2004, I got my first full-time job as a magazine editor.

You said that you wrote your first novel in Syria, and now you live and write in America. And this is actually the second time you came to the United States to live. How did that happen?

After finishing high school in 1992, I enrolled at New York University and, in four years, graduated with a bachelor’s in philosophy. I could stay in America by getting a job or a master’s degree, but, to everybody’s astonishment, I returned to Moscow. It seemed to me that all the exciting things were happening in Moscow, that life was in full swing there. In addition, while I was still a student at NYU, I came to Moscow and fell in love with a guy there and secretly married him. Secretly – because he was a punk rocker, worked in a shop that made metal doors, and drank quite a lot, so my parents would never have approved of him. When I returned to America after my secret wedding, it turned out that I was pregnant. So you see, it’s a young girl’s romantic story. I gave birth to a son and came to live with my husband in Moscow, but our marriage fell apart quickly. I didn’t even think of returning to America and began to build my new adult life where I was. But four years ago, I came to New York, and now I live here.

So you wrote this third novel, People and Birds, after having moved to the USA?

I completed it here, but I started it much earlier. Did you notice that it’s not entirely clear when the novel’s action takes place – is it the early 2000s or is it present time? The thing is, I wrote it in chunks, taking long breaks between them, and it sort of stretched out in time. When I was finishing it, I asked myself whether I wanted to bring all of this to any one specific time period. But I realized that I didn’t, because, in my opinion, nothing changes in Russia except for external things like the appearance of various apps for getting a cab. In general, the feeling of being in Russia remains the same – at least for me. Deciding that I would make this into a literary device, I was very happy with myself, but then I discovered that I wasn’t the only one to use it. I know several people now who are working on novels set in Moscow, and they deliberately mix different eras in them.

Between novels, did you write any fiction?

I had this grandiose failure that traumatized me so much that I stopped writing fiction for several years. Now, I tell this story as a very amusing one, but back then it didn’t make me laugh. In 2009, I wrote a collection of short stories about teenagers which turned out to be very lively and dramatic: there were betrayals, intrigues, love, sex, fights with parents, and violence in it, and also a lot of teenage slang that I learned by spending hours on internet forums where high school kids hung out. When I completed it, I found the literary agent Julia Goumen on Facebook – I work with her to this day. She really liked the collection and said, “Sveta, this is very cool, and I’ll sell it very quickly. I just need you to add a couple of more stories – about a gay boy and a migrant boy.” She thought that these two stories were necessary to round out the collection, and she was absolutely right. Believe it or not, on the day that I sent her the finished manuscript, I turned on the TV and saw the first episode of Valeria Guy Germanica’s series School. My collection was also called School. I immediately realized that no one would publish my collection because it was the same thing, essentially, even though the names and the characters were different. I was right: Julia went around all the publishing houses with my manuscript, but everyone said, “Well, Guy Germanica has already covered this topic.” I must add that I didn’t know anything about the series while I was writing the collection, and Guy Germanica didn’t know anything about me either – it just happened that the same idea came to two different people at the same time.

Now, you live in America and write in Russian. Do you have any ambitions for writing in English?

Actually, I do. I must say that Russian-American writers of approximately my generation – Shteyngart, Litman, Vapnyar – have a gigantic head start in the sense that they all came to the United States at a young age and stayed here, that is, all this time they’ve been living in an English-speaking environment. I returned to Moscow after university and didn’t speak or write in English for twenty years – and, of course, I lost this language to some extent. Now I have to catch up, and in order for this to happen faster, I enrolled in a master’s program in fiction.

Is it easy to get accepted into one of these programs?
© Vladimir Badikov

If it’s prestigious, one of the top 25, it’s very difficult. Among other things, you need professional recommendations, and that’s why I spent the whole of last summer workshopping with established writers. They liked my fiction and wrote letters of recommendation for me. It makes no sense to apply to only one program – you may not get accepted, and I applied to twelve or thirteen universities across the country, all of them from the top 25 list. To be honest, I absolutely didn’t want to move to another state, and it so happened that I was accepted into three master’s programs in New York. I was very happy. When you get admitted to several places, you then have to choose where to go, and the programs begin to court you, as it were: they introduce you to students, invite you to parties and to classes as an observer. Unfortunately, due to the pandemic these parties didn’t happen, but I met a lot of people through Zoom. And I really liked the program at Brooklyn College: I got the feeling that those were not just wonderful people and professionals, but my family.

And when I had made my decision to choose that particular program, I suddenly got an email informing me that I would receive a scholarship from the Truman Capote Foundation, which would cover the cost of my education. At that moment, I had no idea what this scholarship was – I thought it was simply named after one of my favorite writers. Then I googled it and found out that Truman Capote bequeathed his wealth to aspiring writers like me. Realizing that I would study with the help of Truman Capote’s own money, I lay down on my bed and lay there for a long time, trying to absorb this information.

Did they give you this scholarship based on the stories you wrote in English?

In my application, I provided a writing sample that included one of the stories I wrote last summer and a chapter of my new novel.

Wait a second, what novel?

I have an interesting story to tell about it. When I completed People and Birds, I started writing a novel about a dentist who was a narcissist and a highly toxic person – in Russian. It’s just that I had no idea at all about what would interest an English-speaking audience. At one of the writing workshops I attended, in the beautiful city of Provincetown, I was randomly assigned to a group of people who worked on novels. I thought, fine, I’ll just translate a couple of chapters about the dentist, and the workshop might still be useful. Unexpectedly, it turned out that the American readers were interested in both the novel and the main character. They told me that the novel should be published in America and that they couldn’t wait until I finished it.

Are you finishing it in English?

I finished it in Russian and started translating it into English. The people who read the first two chapters said that they felt a trace of Russian in the text, and that that was one of the reasons they liked it so much. They were quite familiar with the Russian classics which they read in translation, and my text reminded them of Dostoevsky and someone else. When I write in English, I have a different mentality: I choose different words and a different intonation, and the result is a different text. So the work is progressing, but I don’t know when I’ll finish it. After all, I’m translating from my native language into a non-native one, and this, of course, isn’t easy.

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The best way to support authors is by purchasing their books. Readers in the US can buy Svetlana Satchkova’s novel here.

The Russian-language original of this interview appeared in Afisha Daily. Thanks to Afisha Daily and to Egor Mikhaylov for allowing us to publish a translation of this material.

Take a look at Svetlana Satchkova’s gorgeous and informative website.

Lida Yusupova’s Poetry Collection The Scar We Know

In the spring of 2007, in St. Petersburg to visit my parents and to promote my first collection of stories, I decided to attend a graduation party of the Gender Studies program at the European University. I’d been a semi-active participant in the Russian-language feminist blogs, where I learned about this program. I contemplated applying; or, at least, since by then I lived in San Francisco, I dreamed about befriending the students and the faculty and making myself useful to them. I had just graduated from a Master’s program in Comparative Literature in San Francisco, where I learned a few things about feminism. I thought my experience could be useful and interesting to my Russian peers. My ideas were somewhat far-fetched.

European University building until 2017

Established in 1994, European University had the reputation of a progressive institution, focusing on social studies, including history, anthropology, economics, politics. I had never been there before, and I was imagining something akin the American universities that I knew: welcoming signage, flyers everywhere, friendly faces ready to help. I forgot to account for one small thing: my native city’s culture.

The address of European University took me to a grand old palace in the old part of town. The entrance should’ve been obvious, but there were a few young men smoking right outside. Intimidated by the smokers (there was very little smoking on campus in the San Francisco by then) and confused by where one palace ended and another began, I’d walked past the door, before eventually turning around. The smokers–students, presumably there for their exams–stared at me in a way that was evaluative and none too friendly. Once finally inside, I had instructions about where to go, but the instructions simply said “auditorium,” or some such thing; not very descriptive. I remember walking up and down the halls and stairs of this labyrinthine building, feeling very sorry for myself. Did I ask somebody for directions? I can’t remember, but I remember my fear that if I did, the response would be dismissive. “If you don’t know where you’re going, you’ll never get there”–something along these lines. I never made it to the auditorium. I was doomed to being an outsider.

Ok, this was a low moment, but I wasn’t really doomed. The next day, I turned to my aunt Maya for help. She, a librarian, helped me find a bookstore where I could buy the books written by the program’s faculty, and later still I was able to meet some of my LiveJournal friends at cafes and conferences in Russia, Ukraine, in the US. These relationships shaped much of my writing.

Many years later, continuing to lurk on the Russian-language feminist sites, I came across Lida Yusupova’s poem “the center for gender problems” (link to the Russian-language version):

i called an organization by the name of the center for gender problems
could i come to your library
it was January of 1999
i had come back to Russia
from Canada
where i had read a whole lot of books
about feminism
in English
i thought i had a lot of useful knowledge i could share

Though it’s not set in European University, the space that the poet describes is socially and geographically very much adjacent to it (the poem includes a physical address!). I felt absolutely seen by this poem; moreover, the poet had managed to capture and deliver lines I’d been too scared to even fully form in my head: Yusupova’s poem is also about the speaker’s realization that she’s a lesbian and the desire to meet other lesbians. Her words gave me courage and opened a few doors in my mind for me. I became a devotee and sought out Yusupova’s Russian-language book Dead Dad and read everything I could find online.

Given the above, you can imagine what an honor it was to be asked to contribute a blurb to Yusupova’s first English-language collection, The Scar We Know, forthcoming from Cicada Press on March 1, 2021. I had to hold myself back from gushing, and nevertheless wrote the three paragraphs below. The editors, advisedly, picked one sentence for the book cover. One benefit of co-editing a feminist blog is that Punctured Lines gives me lots of space to gush…

The “blurb”:

Arriving to the literary scene as the USSR disintegrated into the new Russia, Yusupova gathered her poetic influences both from within and from far outside the mainstream Russian literary tradition. Writing in free verse and relying on line breaks and the blank space of the page for emotional effect, Yusupova anchors her poems in the physical human body. Edited by Ainsley Morse, The Scar We Know is a celebration of Lida Yusupova’s groundbreaking poetry by a community of translators. Madeline Kinkel, Hilah Kohen, Ainsley Morse, Bela Shayevich, Sibelan Forrester, Martha Kelly, Brendan Kiernan, Joseph Schlegel, Stephanie Sandler all contributed to this collection.

The bodies in this book have vaginas and penises, they suffer from dog bites and rape and mental illness and brutal murder, they deliver dead children and alive children that they don’t know what to do with; and they experience occasional bursts of joy, those, too, provoked by the physical bodily sensations: a touch, a look, a good fuck. The poet brings the dead close to us and allows us to grieve for the ways they died, no matter how far away and long ago. Yusupova frequently draws on the language of news reports and court summaries, transforming our relationship with the bureaucratese. In English, her translators juxtapose vocabulary from different registers and patterns of speech and incorporate Russian to insist that the reader looks closely at the subjects of these poems in both their familiarity and uniqueness.

Yusupova has become a leading voice for the new generation of feminist and queer poets in Russia and in the global Russian diaspora, and this translation is a radical gift for the English-language readers, offering us an opportunity to draw deeper connections with the transnational humans who have been marginalized and othered, and to do so while dismantling the accepted patriarchal narratives and systems of value.

Finally, three more links:

In October, Punctured Lines ran a piece about contemporary feminist and queer Russophone poetry, and it included an in-depth interview with Ainsley Morse, the editor and one of the translators of The Scar We Know. Lots more there about Yusupova and the way this book came together.

On January 25, 2021, Globus Books will be holding an online event to celebrate the publication of this book. This event will be held on Zoom at 9.00 am PDT, 12.00 pm EDT and will be streaming on the Globus Books YouTube channel. To register for the Zoom conference, please send a private message to Globus Books Facebook page.

Please preorder and buy the book from Cicada Press or your local bookstore!

Izmailovich, the General’s Daughter: an Excerpt from the Memoir by Maximalist Klara Klebanova, translated by Caraid O’Brien

After more than one hundred years, the history of the Russian revolution remains contentious. Heated, politicized debate has focused on the issue of violence, namely the origin and impact of violent terror tactics used by some revolutionary groups against the tsarist government. Another area of ongoing debate has to do with the role of Jewish revolutionaries within the larger movement. In his volume Two Hundred Years Together Alexander Solzhenitsyn construes a narrative in which assimilated Jewish revolutionaries took over the “Russian soul” and turned it toward terror. Solzhenitsyn — and in his footsteps some contemporary Russian commentators — lays the blame for the origins of the Leninist and Stalinist mass terror on the Jewish revolutionary contingent.

In the United States such arguments, thankfully, have not had much currency. Given the historical remove of the revolution, the views of the likes of Solzhenitsyn have been received with complacency; there’s been no urge to examine Solzhenitsyn’s biases. It is thus particularly exciting when a new account of the era emerges, shedding fresh light on the past.

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Lipa Katz — fellow Maximalist and later Klebanova’s husband — and Klara Klebanova. Likely taken in Italy, 1911. Courtesy of Paul Bassen.

Klara Klebanova was a member of the Maximalist wing of the Socialist Revolutionary party, active in the revolution of 1905. In 1914 she immigrated to the US and in 1922 published her memoirs in the Yiddish-language daily Forverts. Klebanova grew up in Novozybkov, a town in the Chernigov province, which was then Ukraine but is now part of Russia’s Bryansk oblast. Klebanova came from a relatively assimilated and well-off Jewish family; she mentions graduating from a secondary school that was known to have strict quotas for Jewish students. The work of popular Russian writers — Turgenev, Tolstoy, Uspensky, and Nekrasov — moved Klebanova to participate in the revolution. The plight of the Russian peasants and the desire to ease their poverty and suffering brought her into the fold of the Socialist Revolutionary party.

The historical value of an authentic voice may be reason enough to read this memoir. What makes this tale outstanding, however, is Klebanova’s gift as a writer. She deftly weaves together the personal and the political, breathing life into her sketches of fellow activists. Her memoir is both a history of ideas and a love story. It contains an account of a revolutionary movement, a glimpse into the St. Petersburg prison system in the 1900s, and affectionate portraits of some notable revolutionaries.

For the excerpt below, I have chosen from the sections of Klebanova’s story that focus on Katya Izmailovich, a young woman who had a special place in Klara’s heart and who was one of her earliest guides in revolutionary work.

WILD STRAWBERRY, as Klara Klebanova’s memoir is tentatively titled, is as yet unpublished in full. It came to my attention through Peter Kleban, Klara’s relative and a champion of her writing. Kleban worked with translator Caraid O’Brien to render Klebanova’s memoir into English. O’Brien has also made a radiocast of the memoir, available in twelve 30-minute episodes from the Yiddish Book Center. An excerpt “Petticoats and Bombs” also appeared in the Yiddish Book Center’s magazine Pakn Treger and is available online.

This excerpt has been made possible by Peter Kleban, who owns the copyright to the work.

Izmailovich, the General’s Daughter

A Memoir by Klara Klebanova, translated from Yiddish by Caraid O’Brien

Speakers from the Social Democrats and the Socialist Revolutionaries often came to our city to address the students. On one occasion an active and well-known Socialist Revolutionary who went by the name “Grandfather” (Zeyde) came to visit. He was the husband of the famous Socialist Revolutionary Anastasia Bitsenko, who was given a life sentence of hard labor for an attempt on the life of a prominent government official. Grandfather organized a clandestine student group to prepare for propaganda work. I was among its members.

Novozybkov, circa 1918; source: Wikipedia and website Novozybkov.ru

By the time I finished high school in 1904, I was already a committed Socialist Revolutionary. My small home town could not satisfy me. I was drawn to where I believed revolutionary activity was in full swing. I wanted to leave home and be independent of my parents.

Given that my older sister had already served time in prison for protest activity, my father under no circumstances wanted to let me go. After long and difficult arguments, he agreed to send me to Borisov, his hometown, where many friends and relatives could keep an eye on me. He even arranged a part-time job for me as a teacher in a Jewish school. I had absolutely no interest in teaching. In my mind Borisov was just the first phase of my plan to liberate myself completely.

It was not difficult to leave home for the first time and be apart from my parents. Because I was leaving against her wishes, my mother was too angry with me to say goodbye. This did not move me. It was as nothing compared to the happiness I imagined I would feel when I was entirely devoted to revolutionary action. I had no idea what the effort entailed, but I was thrilled to be on the brink of freedom and able to live alone, independently, as I wished.

I stayed only a few months in Borisov. Bitsenko’s husband, the tireless Grandfather, sent Rosa Shabat, a young member of the Socialist Revolutionary party, to collect me. I left with her for Minsk, a city which I knew had a very active Socialist Revolutionary organization. It was where I needed to be to take my first revolutionary steps.

Rosa took me to the house of the famous revolutionary Katya Izmailovich. Katya’s father, a lieutenant general, was in the Far East at the time; her mother was dead and her sister, Sonya, was in prison in St. Petersburg awaiting a life sentence of hard labor for an attempt on the life of Kurlov, the governor of Minsk, who was one of the hated so-called “bloodhounds.” Katya occupied the entire family home along with a soldier assigned as her orderly. I stayed with her for about three weeks.

Ekaterina Izmailovich; source: Wikipedia

From the outset Katya’s orderly was very unfriendly toward me and suspicious. Apparently it was inconceivable to him that his noble lady would bring a Jew into the general’s house. He had a dull soldier’s face that appeared to notice nothing, but in fact he was very sly and kept track of everything Katya did. He noted, for example, that she was hosting workers’ meetings. Katya suspected he was spying and informing on her. She was terrified of him, but nonetheless teased him and made fun of him. She named the dog that was always at his side “Compatriot,” meaning countryman, the word soldiers used to greet one another. This offended him tremendously. I often noticed his face was red when Katya stood laughing at him. To taunt him further she invited some of us revolutionaries to dance on the general’s furniture. We jumped all over the white armchairs and divans. Katya even jumped onto the piano and banged the keys with her shoes. The orderly boiled as he watched this group of hooligans desecrating the holy shrine of his general’s furniture. Katya winked at him from across the room with a roguish smile as if scoffing at the luxurious surroundings.

What a wonderful person Katya was, so dignified and distinguished that a young provincial like me could not but idolize her! Still, it annoyed me that she behaved with such contempt toward the orderly. It seemed to me that a revolutionary should not behave in such a way toward a young, poor, unimportant soldier. Once I spoke up about it.

“He spies on me, you know,” Katya said. “He’s here to inform on me, the dog, and he acts as if he doesn’t notice anything.”

Katya was twenty-five or twenty-six years old, tall, bony, and not pretty. From her looks one would have taken her for a small-town seamstress rather than a general’s daughter. She always wore the same blue calico dress, with her hair combed straight and almost nothing feminine about her movements. She gave the impression of being a wily person, aware of everything she did. She was close to everyone and all the comrades, even the old revolutionaries, treated her with great respect. She was very determined and a wellspring of energy; her eyes sparkled with humor. She found things to deride and mock that we would never have noticed. Often she made fun of the sound of Russian spoken with a Yiddish accent. She imitated it perfectly. She told of running with her sister from their secondary school over to the Jewish schools to tease the children and shout “zhidovki, zhidovki!” Anyone could see that she did not intend this in anger or out of anti-semitism, but as pure mischief making.

Minsk in 1905; source: Wikipedia

Katya got fifty rubles a month from her father the general. At the time, this was a huge sum for one person. (It was not meant as maintenance for the orderly, who ate at the barracks.) Katya gave most of the money to the Minsk revolutionary organization and lived on what few groschen remained. Her needs were minimal and she denied herself many things. While I was living with her she sometimes ordered lunch for two from the club, ate a little and saved the rest for later. Sometimes we just bought sour milk and black bread from the corner store and nothing more. I can’t speak for my friend, but I myself was hungry after those meals and my stomach growled a lot.

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At this time, Katya’s revolutionary activity consisted of propagandizing the workers, in particular the railway workers [and Klara joined her in this activity].

[…Soon], Katya told me that there had been a split among the Socialist Revolutionaries. An opposition group had emerged under the banner “Young Ones.” It differentiated itself from the Socialist Revolutionaries and Democratic Socialists by not recognizing the Minimum Program, part of the program of the latter two groups. The Minimum Program was a set of immediate demands for political rights, a parliament or the creation of a representative body, a free press, a right of free speech and assembly, the right to strike, and an eight hour work day. The Socialist Revolutionaries also included the socialization of the land. The Maximum Program was a more ambitious, longer-term goal, demanding the establishment of a Socialist society.

Materials, establishing the program of the Maximalist wing of the Socialist Revolutionary party; image from the archives of the Russian Historical Society

The Young Ones, by contrast, demanded that the Maximum Program be the immediate goal. They did not recognize the struggle for a parliament as a necessary first step, judging that a parliament would not bring them any closer to their goal of socialism and that indeed it would hinder their aims while dulling the consciousness of the workers. In this sense the Young Ones were like the Syndicalists in France.

The Young Ones declared that the upcoming Russian revolution should be a social revolution rather than a revolution for political freedom. Accordingly the peasants should seize the land and the workers take over the factories and industries. In other words the Young Ones—or Maximalists as they were later called—preached and fought for what Lenin was to bring to life ten to twelve years later. They had to endure a difficult internal struggle, with the Democratic Socialists on one side and the Socialist Revolutionaries on the other! In addition, they—or rather we, because I soon joined them—were called Utopian fantasists, irresponsible people with petit bourgeois aspirations. (At the time it was fashionable to insult people with the label petit bourgeois.)

[…] I could not stay in Katya’s house any longer—spies appeared with increasing frequency—so I rented my own little room. I had no servants and the only way I could earn anything was by giving lessons. I had very few acquaintances in Minsk and in addition I lived under a false passport. I did not think it was fair to take money from the organization at a time when I had brought so little to it, and I didn’t want to take money from Katya. I lived truly half starving. I could have asked my parents for money, but I didn’t want to write to them: it might have exposed where I lived. At times the organization in Minsk sent me to surrounding cities and towns to speak at gatherings. Addressing a crowd no longer made me confused or anxious; everything came out smoothly and clearly. I came back happy, knowing that I had accomplished something.

[Klara then decided to move from Minsk to Bialystok, which had a strong Young Ones group.]

[…] Katya was also about to go away. The night before she left, she had a small good-bye party. A few comrades gathered at her house for wine and drinks. Handing me a glass she said, “Tonight, you and I will sing our swan song.”

I had no inkling that she was about to attempt the assassination of Admiral Chukhnin of the Sevastopol Black Sea Fleet, or that this would be the last time I would see her.

She went to Chukhnin dressed in mourning and naturally under a different name. She posed as a sailor’s widow whose husband had been killed in battle. She had a request, she said, and was allowed to see the admiral. She shot him, but only succeeded in wounding him in the foot.

In a rage, Chukhnin ordered his servant to cut Katya to pieces with his sword. This was in 1906.

Thus this noble revolutionary died. She had rejected all the pleasures that her station in life could have given her and chose instead the greater happiness of fighting for the freedom of all people. Because she believed in the necessity of violence, she thought it wonderful good luck to be chosen to participate.

By then I had decided to become one of the chosen, but I did not yet feel worthy of a deed as important as Katya’s. A feeling smoldered deep in my soul: wait, your time will come.

At Katya’s death, though, I was quite overcome.

Katya had of course guessed that I wanted to take part in violent action. That was what she had meant when she said that I too would soon sing my swan song.

It turned out that my destiny was to survive, forever on the threshold between life and death. My song remained unsung until the end. I traveled to Bialystok.