We atPunctured Lines are delighted to host our first public event via Zoom. We recently ran Svetlana Satchkova’s interview with Anna Starobinets about her memoir, and welcome an opportunity to continue this conversation. On September 26, we’ll be moderating a book release celebration for LOOK AT HIM by Anna Starobinets in Katherine E. Young’s translation. This event will begin at 3 pm EST.
About the Event:
In 2012, Russia-based writer and journalist Anna Starobinets was told in her sixteenth week of pregnancy that the baby she was carrying had developed a kidney defect incompatible with life. Following a dehumanizing experience in Moscow clinics, Starobinets traveled to Berlin, Germany, to undergo an abortion. In Berlin, Starobinets also discovered a level of medical support, including emotional support and counseling, that was practically unheard of in Russia at the time.
Starobinets wrote LOOK AT HIM on the heels of those events. Its 2017 publication in Russia was met with critical praise, including a nomination for the National Bestseller Prize, but the book also ignited a firestorm of condemnation. The author was blamed for breaking social taboos by discussing women’s agency over their own bodies and examining the lingering aftereffects of abortion and miscarriage on women and families—taboos that we, as feminists, believe needed to be broken. Beautiful, darkly humorous, and deeply moving, LOOK AT HIM explores moral, ethical—and quintessentially human—issues that resonate for families in the world beyond Russia.
Now Three String Books / Slavica Publishers has brought out Katherine E. Young’s English translation of LOOK AT HIM. Today we’re celebrating the publication of this book that expands the English-language literary canon with a powerful story, masterfully told. Young has captured not only the factual specificity of Starobinets’s experiences but has also emphatically conveyed their emotional intensity.
Join us for a reading from the book and a Q&A with author Anna Starobinets and translator Katherine E. Young. Dr. Muireann Maguire from the University of Exeter, UK, will comment. Hosting are Yelena Furman and Olga Zilberbourg from Punctured Lines, a feminist blog about post-Soviet literature.
*** A special publisher discount for purchase and free shipping (US) of the book will be available during the event. ***
I’ve been pitifully slow to note the launch of Punctured Lines, an absorbing new blog that focuses on post-Soviet literature. It’s edited by two of my fellow émigrés, the scholar Yelena Furman — an old friend and frequent contributor to LARB — and Olga Zilberbourg, author of the poignant collection Like Water and Other Stories. The occasion for my noting the launch now is the appearance of a movingly candid, searching, subtly suspenseful essay by Herb Randall, titled a “A Question in Tchaikovsky Lane.” In it, Randall follows a trail of breadcrumbs left by an Englishwoman named Eddie, who — as the title of a 1946 collection of her letters puts it — married a Russian. The trail leads to a street in Kharkiv, where the couple made their home in the 1930s and ‘40s. Randall is keenly aware of the rough historical winds that…
Anna Starobinets is a Russian journalist, novelist, screenwriter, and children’s book author. Her only book of non-fiction, Look at Him, is coming out in September from Slavica Publishers in Katherine E. Young’s translation. It was originally published in Russia in 2017 and caused an extraordinary public discussion. In Look at Him, Starobinets describes how, in 2012, she found out that the baby she was carrying had a congenital condition incompatible with life, and how, following a dehumanizing experience with the medical system in her own country, she had to travel to Germany to terminate her pregnancy and to receive grief counseling – a thing practically unheard of in Russia at the time.
The incredible outpouring of outrage and vicious criticism that followed the book’s publication is perhaps explained by the fact that it was the first of its kind: in Russia, it’s still the norm to keep silent about one’s grief. I spoke with Anna about her book in order to better understand why it had created such a scandal and what changes in medical practices it had helped bring about.
When did you come up with the idea of writing this book?
The thought first occurred to me when I spoke to a psychologist in Berlin and I saw all the books she had on her shelves about losing a child, in many different languages. I guessed that there were no books of this kind in Russian, which later proved to be true. After I terminated my pregnancy, I felt a need to absorb somebody else’s experience that was similar to mine, so I read a couple of books in English, but, even though my English is pretty good, there’s still an invisible wall between me and a text in this language. That’s when I started seriously thinking about writing about my own experience – I felt that it was my social mission. After the book came out, the most benign criticism I received was that I’d written it in order to sublimate my suffering and to dump it onto other people. I have no idea if there’s any truth to this accusation: you never know where the subconscious is concerned. But I can tell you that that was not my conscious goal. I felt that I had a duty to change the world using the only power I had – the power of the written word. My overarching goal was to break the silence, and I also had some smaller goals. For example, I wanted the doctors who had behaved unprofessionally towards me to stop working with women. That’s why I decided to use their real names.
Have these micro goals been accomplished?
Partially. One doctor I’d written about left his job. I don’t know if my book was the reason, but I know for certain that his reputation suffered. The clinic he’d worked in also organized a training session for their staff with the purpose of teaching them how to deliver bad news to pregnant women. I know that the director of one large private clinic in Moscow made all the obstetricians and gynecologists on his staff read my book. Also, some time later, a hospice was founded in Moscow for women who are pregnant with babies with congenital conditions. There, the women can receive medical help, no matter what decision they ultimately make.
I feel that we have to explain to American readers why everything that has to do with obstetrics and gynecology in Russia carries so much violence towards women. What are your thoughts on that?
There are historical reasons for that. In the USSR, a spartan outlook on life was widespread and almost official: only the strongest were supposed to survive. If you were weak, you couldn’t be a part of the great Soviet system. If you were in pain, you had to keep a low profile. This spartan ideology was curiously fused with even more ancient concepts. For instance, childbirth was considered to be a punishment for pleasure: if you’d been with a man, you had to bear the consequences. A woman in labor wasn’t supposed to cry out in pain and ask for special treatment, more so because this whole sphere was viewed as obscene and dirty, connected to blood and slime. All of that had come from the depths of a conservative peasant mentality. A lot of traditional cultures hold similar views, but in developed countries these have been replaced by modern-day values.
In Look at Him, you write about coming to a state women’s clinic in Moscow together with your husband for a consultation and him not being allowed inside. Why do you think men are barred from entering these clinics in Russia?
This, of course, is true only of state clinics [vs. privately funded – PL] that are still under the influence of old Soviet traditions. It was believed that no woman who had any sense would want her man to see her under those indecent circumstances where she gave birth or underwent a gynecological checkup. And if, for some reason, her man would actually want to be there with her, he’d embarrass all the other women, because he’d see them in this awkward indelicate situation: he’d know that, in a couple of minutes, they’d go in and spread their legs in front of a doctor. Presumably, men were and are barred from the clinics to protect the women.
As a result, Russian men are often separated from women’s experiences. When a woman loses a baby, her own husband often tells her to forget about it as soon as possible. Why do you think most well-wishers in Russia are so bent on making you forget about your loss instead of live through it?
Because we still lack the language to talk about it, and most people, medical professionals included, don’t realize that to talk about your pain is much more therapeutic than to keep silent about it. Paradoxically, when they tell you to forget, they are being helpful. If you don’t talk about it, they believe, the thing will just disappear. For example, my relatives told my 8-year-old daughter not to talk to me about the baby I’d lost, and I was stunned by her silence. I kept wondering if she didn’t care about what happened, and then I found out that she was trying to protect me.
What are your views on psychotherapy? There’s still a lot of prejudice against it in Russia.
Speaking abstractly, I’m all for it, of course. But I’ve encountered a huge number of ignorant and unprofessional psychotherapists in Russia. Finally, I got lucky – I did meet a great psychologist after a long while. The thing is, there isn’t a system in place that certifies therapists and makes sure that if somebody shows you a psychotherapist’s diploma, they are adequately trained to treat you. Anyone in Russia can take a three-month course, call themselves a therapist, and start taking clients.
Let’s talk about the scandal your book caused. How did it develop?
First of all, no publisher wanted to publish my book: they were scared of the subject matter. When it did finally find a home, I was worried that people wouldn’t buy it and that my work would turn out to have been for nothing. When Look at Him was ready to come out, journalists became very interested in it, and fragments of it appeared in various media outlets. I began to read the comments, and my hair stood up! There was so much hate: people were insulting me, saying that I was a disgrace to my country and that I should go and live in Germany if I liked it so much. The commenters also said that our doctors were not overly emotional, but that they had hearts of gold, and that I was demonstrating my dirty bloody underwear. I was shocked. I’d been preparing for a backlash from the medical community, but I’d thought that regular people, especially women, would be on my side because we were all patients, we all had similar experiences with our medical system. It turned out that I’d been mistaken: regular women were my most violent haters, and those who’d lost their children were especially vicious. In the public space, at least: privately, I received hundreds of messages where other women shared their own stories and thanked me for writing about what nobody else wanted to address.
What happened after the book came out?
It sold out in a month, and additional copies had to be printed. Most journalists reacted positively to it, but I would say that fifty percent of regular readers reacted negatively. Then the book was nominated for the National Bestseller award. I knew the people who worked on the committee and was on friendly terms with them: I’d been on the jury several times over the years, and we’d met at various literary events. Those people were outraged by my book too. When it was shortlisted, the judges who were supposed to make the selection among the books on the shortlist violated ethical norms by lashing out against me publicly. Which is ironic, because the book is about ethics, among other things. For example, Aglaya Toporova who is a journalist and who’d lost a three-year-old daughter, wrote a review of my book (you can still see it on the National Bestseller website) where she called my baby a fragment of my body and my book socially dangerous. What most of these people held against me was that I was, in their opinion, trying to capitalize on my grief.
Here, I have to explain to the American audience that the money one makes in Russia as a writer is laughable, and these people knew it perfectly well because they were part of the book industry. At first, I didn’t understand what they meant, but soon it dawned on me: they meant that I was trying to become famous by demonstrating my dirty underwear. The bottom line was that I lost a lot of friends after the book had come out. Fun fact: I live in the same building with a family of writers, and we used to be very friendly. Now, they behave as though I don’t exist.
How did you feel while all of that was going on?
It hurt a great deal, of course – I’m a live human being. But I’d accomplished my goal, and that made me feel better. The public discussion I’d been hoping to start not only happened, but turned out to be huge. My book was everywhere. I remember, someone said during that time that if you turned on the tap at home, Anna Starobinets and her book would start pouring out.
Did the doctors you’d mentioned in the book try to reach out to you?
Their friends and acquaintances did. They tried to shame me: how dare I tarnish the image of those great people? A lady from the clinic called me about Dr. Demidov, who’d brought fifteen students into the examination room without my consent, while I was lying there naked with my legs spread out, and proceeded to talk to them about the “interesting pathology” as though I wasn’t there at all. The lady said that I’d lied in my book. I said, okay, what did I say that wasn’t true? That Demidov hadn’t brought the students into the room? She said that she didn’t doubt that he had, but that I’d written that I had to buy plastic overshoes while those were free of charge at their clinic! I just laughed. I asked her if she wanted an official retraction where I’d say that the clinic confirmed all the facts except for overshoes, and she said no.
Did you get any positive feedback?
There appeared a couple of publications by medical professionals who thanked me for my book and said that everything I’d described in it was true and needed to be changed. And, as I’ve mentioned, I received a lot of personal messages with words of support from women who’d experienced something similar to what I’d gone through. But the overall situation still seemed to me sort of crazy, because the medical community reacted mostly positively, and most of the regular readers were scandalized.
I know that Look at Him has been made into a theater production. Tell me about that.
Roman Kaganovich, a young theater director from Saint Petersburg, wrote to me and said that he’d read the book and that it had changed his outlook on life. He wanted to adapt it for the stage, and the idea seemed plain crazy to me, but I liked him so much that I agreed. In a few months, I came to see the production and was absolutely blown away by it. It was incredible: the actors sang and danced, and the show was not only poignant, but also very funny – I would say it had elements of burlesque. It turned out to be very entertaining and, at the same time, very true to the spirit of my book. It was about personal grief and the Kafkian absurdity of our medical system. Roman said that during the very first performances the audience had been silent the whole time, and he realized that people had been afraid to laugh because the theme was so serious. So, he started saying before every performance that it was okay to laugh – and people started laughing.
Do you think you’ll write any more non-fiction?
I won’t. When I started writing Look at Him, I did it knowing that it would be my only non-fiction book.
First of all, I’m an active Facebook user, and I post on my page whenever I feel like sharing something of my life. Secondly, I love to make up my own stories and to create my own reality – I do it not just for the money, but because it brings me joy. For me, a book of non-fiction isn’t a creative act, but rather community service. I write speculative fiction and horror fiction for adults, and I’ve been writing a lot for children. I have a very popular children’s book series that’s called Beastly Crime Chronicles and that’s been translated into several languages. These are crime mysteries that take place in a forest, and all the characters are animals. There are two detectives: a middle-aged Chief Badger and his assistant Badgercat, who’s undergoing a personal identity crisis. This is my most successful project to date: it’s being made into a cartoon and a show for the stage.
You also write for film and TV. How do you manage to do so many things at once?
I have catastrophically little time: I work a lot. I have two kids; my daughter is a teenager, so she doesn’t care about spending time with me, but my son is five, and he really misses me. But I love writing – it’s the only thing I know how to do. Screenwriting is basically the same thing – you’re creating a story. It differs from fiction writing only in some technical aspects.
I read your Facebook on a regular basis, and I remember reading about a trip you made to China because you needed some material for a novel. What was that about?
I’m writing a novel for adults, and it takes place in 1945 in Manchuria. I’d tried to research online, of course: I didn’t want to go to China at first because I had to spend my own money, and the trip took a lot of time and effort. But I finally realized that I had to go there because I couldn’t feel what I was writing about. I had a feeling that I was writing while wearing thick rubber gloves, and that nothing would change if I didn’t go there.
Why didn’t you just change the place?
I couldn’t because there’s a story behind this novel. In 2008, my husband Alexander Garros [Alexander Garros died in 2017 – PL] and I wrote a script for Russian Channel Two. It was a 20-episode fantastic series that took place in Manchuria in 1945, with demons and werefoxes – a mix of historical truth and mythology. For two years, we lived off the money they’d paid us, but they never actually produced it because the 2008 crisis happened, and the story was really expensive to make. They thought of it as the Russian Game of Thrones. To this day, it hasn’t been produced, and possibly never will be. This gnawed at me for years because I really liked the story and I wanted it to be realized in some way, so I started to talk the producers into giving me the right to write it in the form of a novel. It took a long time, but finally they gave in. This is really ironic because when you’re a writer, the most money you can hope to make is when you sell the screen rights to your novel, and in this case it’s already happened. So, I’m only doing it because I want to tell the story. When you’re writing for the screen, however, you don’t really need a lot of details, but with a novel, you need to dive into the atmosphere. I couldn’t travel back in time to 1945, obviously, but I needed at least something – to see the landscapes, the faces that populated the land, to smell the smells, things like that. Sometimes I teach creative writing to teenagers, and I always tell them the same thing: write what you know, otherwise it won’t sound true. This is especially important in science fiction or fantasy. To make the reader believe you, you need to be true to life in every possible detail, then they’ll believe in werefoxes and demons, too.
This interview was conducted in Russian and translated by the interviewer Svetlana Satchkova.
Anna Starobinets is a writer and scriptwriter. She writes horror and supernatural fiction for adults, and also fairy tales and detective stories for children. Awarded with several Russian and European literature prizes, her books have been translated into many world languages.
Svetlana Satchkova is a writer and journalist from Moscow, Russia, who currently lives in New York City and is working on her MFA at Brooklyn College. Her new novel People and Birds is coming out from Eksmo in September.
Several years ago, when one still did such things, I went to a guest lecture in my department by Vladimir Alexandrov, a Slavic professor at Yale (now retired). Prof. Alexandrov was giving lots of talks at that time on the new book he had written: The Black Russian(Grove Press, 2013). The book, which has since won awards and been translated into several languages including Russian, was a biography of one Frederick Bruce Thomas – Alexandrov refers to him as Frederick throughout – whose life followed an absolutely astounding trajectory: born the son of freed slaves in Coahoma County, Mississippi, he made his fortune in the entertainment business in turn-of-the-century Moscow (and again in Constantinople, after the 1917 Revolution forced him to leave). Although hugely famous in Moscow, he was forgotten after he died. As Prof. Alexandrov explained, he discovered Frederick through a passing reference in the memoir by Alexander Vertinsky, who knew him in Moscow and Constantinople, which so fascinated Alexandrov that he set out to learn everything he could about who this Black American Moscow resident was (Alexandrov spent years researching the book, including going through archival documents and court and government records, as well as tracking down and interviewing Frederick’s grandson in France). The lecture was riveting in a way that sticks with you long after it’s over; you can get a taste by listening to Alexandrov’s recent interview on Sean Guillory’s SRB Podcast. Even though I don’t often read biographies, I immediately ordered the book, and then couldn’t put it down and raved about it to anyone who would listen.
It’s an incredible story from start to finish, told in highly engaging, fast-moving prose. Frederick’s parents were former slaves who became prosperous farm owners in post-Civil War Mississippi. His mother died when he was young, and his father remarried; when a white landowner attempted to cheat the couple out of the farm, they took him to court, where they proceeded to win. The case did get dragged out after that, and a horrific death befell the family. By that point, the Thomases had left Mississippi, which Alexandrov notes “was becoming the ‘lynchingest’ state,” and eighteen-year-old Frederick soon set out on his own on a journey that literally lasted a lifetime.
At first, his travels took him out of the South to major American cities, including Chicago and New York, where he worked as a waiter and a hotel bellboy, and then, because he wanted to become a singer, to Europe. The singing career never materialized, but he did well by working in hotels and restaurants in several West European cities, with Paris being a particular favorite. Moving to Western Europe to escape the Jim Crow-dominated U.S. was not unheard of among Black Americans. But then Frederick did something very few Americans of any background did at the time: in 1899, he moved to Russia. While it sounds unbelievable given the levels of racism there today, early twentieth-century Moscow was where Frederick Bruce Thomas – or rather, “Fyodor Fyodorovich Tomas,” as he renamed himself – came into his own.
As Alexandrov writes, Moscow was a very multicultural city, with many inhabitants from the Caucasus and Central Asia. This made it a comfortable place for Frederick despite his being in a tiny minority: “During Frederick’s years in the city, there were probably no more than a dozen other permanent black residents amid a population of well over a million. But because the parade of humanity on the city’s streets was so varied, Frederick did not stand out nearly as much as his actual rarity might have led one to expect.” It was in Moscow that Frederick achieved what would seem unimaginable for a child of former slaves from Mississippi: gradually working his way up, he became the owner of one and then another “entertainment garden,” amassing a fortune and becoming one of the city’s leading entrepreneurs. His establishments, Aquarium and Maxim, catered to an upper-crust native and foreign clientele, who watched often risque performances while enjoying expensive food and drink in lavish surroundings. Given the nature of many of the acts, the atmosphere in these places was rather non-family-friendly, with female performers being expected to offer themselves as tableside companions to the male patrons whenever the latter requested it. To be sure, there is no suggestion that there was any rape or sexual assault in these venues; moreover, Alexandrov points out that, unlike other bosses, Frederick went out of his way to protect his female employees. Yet my one criticism of the book is that Alexandrov stops short of admitting that Frederick, like the other male entertainment entrepreneurs, was complicit in that he made his fortune by literally instrumentalizing women’s bodies for male pleasure.
Part of what makes this book so rich is Alexandrov’s deft weaving in the broader historical background with Frederick’s biography, understandable given that the outcome of Frederick’s life was directly affected by the turbulence of the times. After the Bolshevik takeover, as a wealthy business owner, he was forced to flee Moscow with his wife and some of his children (his third wife, previously his mistress; he had an eventful personal life). They first went to their villa in Odessa, which was under Allied control, but as Alexandrov describes in what has to be one of the most gripping prologues ever, they then had to escape to Constantinople along with thousands of others as the Bolsheviks closed in. Amid the wrenching misery and poverty of displaced Russians in Constantinople, Frederick once again showed his singularity and ability to persevere in dire circumstances. He opened up Western-style entertainment venues in a Muslim city, often employing Russian formerly upper-class women as waitresses (despite not being particularly invested in the Russian upper classes, I found the discussion of their very genuine plight extremely affecting).
In the end, external forces shattered Frederick. In 1923, Turkish nationalists overthrew the old regime and made it extremely difficult for foreigners to do business; he also faced stiff competition from another entertainment venue. Frederick attempted to reapply for his American passport so he could potentially get himself and his family out of Constantinople. As a Black man from the South, he knew first-hand to what conditions he would be subjecting himself and his children were he to go back to the U.S., where his marriage to a white woman would moreover be considered illegal, which shows how desperate his situation was. His attempts, however, came to nothing; while some American diplomats tried to help him, the racism of other embassy personnel sabotaged the application (as bad as this was, it would have been even worse had anyone discovered – which Alexandrov says no one had until he himself did in the course of his research – that Frederick renounced his American citizenship in Moscow in favor of a Russian one, which is unique indeed). Ultimately, he went bankrupt, was arrested for nonpayment of debts, and died in prison in 1928.
But he lives – extravagantly, sometimes not totally decently, always resiliently against extreme adversity – in the pages of The Black Russian. He has been rescued from oblivion by a writer who said during his lecture that he was given a native son’s welcome by the community in Frederick’s birthplace, whom this book put on the map. In the Epilogue, Alexandrov brings the story up to the present by describing the fates, at least to the extent that this information is available, of Frederick’s children; while most of their stories are tragic, in some sense, the book resurrects them, too. With many in the United States currently engaged in a long-overdue conversation about systemic racism, one of the things happening is the various attempts to center Black voices and experiences and to bring to the fore histories that should be much more widely known. Perhaps this book contributes to that by telling the story of Frederick Bruce Thomas’s, aka Fyodor Fyodorovich Tomas’s, remarkable and unexpected life.
This is a translation of a Russian-language interview conducted by Svetlana Satchkova and published by Storytel on June 16, 2020. The translation is by Fiona Bell.
Tatsiana Zamirovskaya is a writer from Belarus who has lived in New York for the past five years. She writes in Russian and English. Her short story collection, TheLand of Random Numbers (Земля случайных чисел, AST, Russia, 2019) was nominated for the National Bestseller prize and compared by critics to works by premier authors of metaphysical science fiction, from Ursula K. Le Guin to the Strugatskii brothers. She recently completed a new novel about memory and digital immortality.
Svetlana Satchkova spoke with Tatsiana about how her interest in fantasy developed, how she came up with the idea to move to the United States, and what the Belarusian language means to her.
What was your childhood like?
I was born in Borisov, a small city where Napoleon’s army was defeated in 1812. Nothing else has happened there, which is why all local culture revolves around Napoleon: there are regular battle reenactments on the floodplain of the Berezina river, where the army drowned, and guys walk around with metal detectors looking for Napoleon’s golden carriage, and drunk high school graduates go to Brilevskoe field to watch the sunrise. Borisov is also famous because Hitler came there during his only visit to the Nazi-occupied parts of the Soviet Union, in 1943. When I was a kid, the neighbors once told me that he probably stayed in our house, since it was one of the only brick houses in the city at that time…
My parents were pretty ordinary: in Soviet times, my mother was a music teacher at a music school and my dad was an engineer at a factory, where he designed tanks. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, he tried to survive in any way he could. Belarus is a transit territory, which is why Belarusians survived thanks to these huge overnight bags, which they used to carry all sorts of junk to sell across the border in Poland. So I grew up among mountains of junk: for example, thousands of crystal swans from the Borisov Crystal Factory, or boxes of dichlorvos.
I went to a great school that specialized in English. We periodically went on exchange trips to London. The British kids also visited us, bringing all the new music on cassette tapes, which we then copied from each other. I listened to all the Brit Pop albums of the nineties right when they came out, and back then, that was a huge accomplishment – living in contemporary music culture. Borisov was also a hub for violent youth groups, kids who actually lived by the laws of the street. So, my childhood was a mix of prison aesthetics, elite education, and difficult, post-perestroika life.
What did you want to be when you grew up?
I always wanted to become a writer or a musician. My parents hung out with a great crowd of rock-intellectuals. One of them, the famous musician Oleg Minakov, who sang in the German group Inspector back then, told me I should study journalism because, with my interest in music and desire to write, I could become a music critic. I thought that sounded like a really cool life, so I decided to study journalism at Belarusian State University in Minsk.
Then, at the end of the 90s, Lukashenko changed the constitution so that he could be president without interruption or term limits — in fact, Russia recently took a page from his book. But the journalism department at my university was very liberal: I was accepted, writing in my entrance exam essay about how I dreamed of working for the opposition newspaper Name (Имя). When my mom found out, she cried for two days. Then we heard that I’d gotten the highest score of all the applicants. The journalism department was a cool crowd, everything was suffused with the spirit of freedom and hope for a different future. I went to protest rallies, rock concerts – basically, it was a great time.
When did you become a working journalist?
The same time I started doing everything else – university. When I was 19, my friends and I published a completely out-there newspaper for an opposition party that got a grant for it. One time we were paid in NATO pilot jumpsuits, since humanitarian aid had been sent that consisted of canned food and these jumpsuits. I only published one article in Name (Имя)– I handed it over to the legendary journalist Irina Khalip, she published it, and two weeks later the newspaper closed down. The article was about a Rolling Stones concert in Moscow, and Khalip even remembered me later. In one of her interviews she said: “I remember this first-year student Zamirovskaya coming to me with her article on a sheet of paper.” It made me so happy to read that.
Even at that time, professional music media in Belarus was well-established, in the spirit of publications like Q and NME: Music News Weekly (Музыкальная газета), the magazine Legion (Легион), and the magazine Jazz Quad (Джаз-квадрат). I wrote for all three and was the editor at Jazz Quad. That was my first job after university. We worked directly with labels, who had a lot of respect for us and sent us new albums to review. You have to remember that in 1997 Minsk, getting a review copy of OK Computer, when no one else had heard it, was very cool. I spent hours on the phone and did interviews with all sorts of famous musicians, which allowed me to make up for the English I hadn’t been taught in school.
When did you start writing prose?
While I was studying journalism, I wrote short surrealist stories and, without telling my friends, sent them to the Dnipropetrovsk cult contemporary art magazine, Ours (Hаш). People like Linor Goralik and Mikhail Elizarov started publishing there. I didn’t get a response, but one day the magazine sent all its contacts a letter saying that their work mail had gotten messed up and everything had been lost, but that some girl from Minsk’s journalism department had sent them a story about a guy who fucked a pyramid. They wanted to publish that story but didn’t know how to find the girl.
The next day, everyone in the department kept looking at me. It turns out we had all been secretly sending things to Ours (Hаш). My piece was an homage to Ray Bradbury, who had a story about a man and a woman who give birth to a pyramid and then decide to move to the land of pyramids to live on the same wavelength as their child. Now I have three published short story collections, the most recent of which, The Land of Random Numbers, came out in 2019 with AST, Moscow.
What made you decide to move to the U.S.?
At 35, I felt like I had already lived a full life. I didn’t know where to go next. I’d worked as a journalist for a long time, applying an apocalyptic perspective to everything: first to music, then politics, culture, and contemporary art. I’d hosted a jazz program on Polish radio and edited a glossy men’s magazine with friends. We’d even had Sergey Mostovshchikov, who we all idolized at the time, as a guest editor in a joint issue with Crocodile (Крокодил).
My time in Belarusian journalism had run its course and I thought it would be cool to get an education in the arts – I worried that I wasn’t writing deeply enough about contemporary art – and simultaneously improve as a writer. I set out to do an MFA in New York because it was my favorite city, where I’d been as a tourist but wanted to live.
Was it difficult to adapt to a new place?
My friends couldn’t understand my decision to move, since in Minsk I lived in my own apartment and worked as a content editor at an ad agency – my life was great. And now I’d decided to spend all the money I had saved to go to some art school and live in a tiny, screened-off corner of a puppeteer’s apartment in Bushwick. While I was earning my MFA, I had all kinds of weird side hustles: writing texts and sometimes even being a pet sitter. It was really cool because I got to spend time in the fancy apartments of some artist or another, lying on their couch with their dog and looking at their art books. But I always saw this as forward movement: I immediately realized that in the U.S., education is a huge investment in yourself, even if it’s not the sort of education that gives you the opportunity to find the perfect job right now.
What types of opportunities does it offer?
A Master of Fine Arts degree legitimizes you as a practitioner in an artistic field. This degree is so expensive because it gives you access to circles that you wouldn’t otherwise be able to get into. After I graduated from Bard College, I went to several prestigious writers’ residencies, where people would ask me who I was and where I was from. “Belarus,” I’d say. “Oh, they kill journalists there, don’t they? Or is that Bulgaria?” they’d say. “Alexievich, Chernobyl,” I’d say. They would nod, still unsure. Then I started saying that I’d graduated from Bard, and they would immediately reply, “Oh, Bard!” Their attitude towards me changed instantly: they no longer needed to know what I wrote or whether I was any good.
The fact that I’d received an MFA meant that I had already been verified by someone somewhere and that I was, roughly speaking, part of their circle. This program also helped me understand what I do more generally. At Bard MFA, they teach you to be aware of all the stages of creative work: so, it’s not that I sit down, and the universe hands me a text because thus is its divine will. They teach you to understand your own practices, how they relate to your life story and your identity, what is borrowed and what is your own. I learned how to write grant applications, to put myself in context, and basically to understand what I want. If I hadn’t gone there, I’m not sure I would still be writing.
What’s special about Bard College?
Bard is one of the oldest liberal arts colleges in New York and it has a Graduate School of the Arts with a focus on interdisciplinarity. Its founders decided to bring together professors from various disciplines – sculpture, painting, photography, film and video, music, and literature – and educate students so that they interact as much as possible. There aren’t many students, so people from various faculties can visit each other’s caucuses. It really opens up your perspective, especially as a writer. For instance, I’ve never done normal readings of my texts – they’ve always been performances.
Could you describe one of them?
I did a performance on the impossibility of translation. I handed audience members pages of a surrealist short story that I – someone with very synthetic English – had self-translated into English and told them to follow along with the text. Then I took the microphone and read the story in Russian with periodic pauses. My classmate Anastasia Kolas, who was hiding in a closet, translated each phrase live. She emigrated from Belarus as a teenager and knows English like a native speaker, but she has kind of torn herself away from Russian. This was the first time she had heard my story. Naturally, my translation was very different from what Anastasia came up with. In this way, the audience simultaneously heard three different versions of this text through three different channels of perception. I was later told that this was a totally psychedelic experience.
Do MFA graduates manage to make a living as artists?
I don’t have the naïve belief that if I make good art, that means I can make a living off of it. But at the same time, I don’t think that if you can’t make money off of it, that means you should be ashamed of it. For artists, generally speaking, it’s normal to be poor and unsettled – maybe it was actually Bard that taught me to feel this way. Basically, I see it like a sort of gambling: you can win the jackpot or not win anything at all, but that’s where the nice sense of excitement comes from.
There are people who have achieved conventional success: Salley Rooney, for example. She clearly didn’t set out to write a bestseller, her prose just coincided with something and set off a reaction. It’s all about chance and synchronicity, themes that are very close to me. But, as far as I know, some of my former classmates work as assistants to more successful artists or writers, teach at colleges, or work as copywriters, journalists, or PR professionals. But some are lucky: they get a book contract or are exhibited in MoMA, like Martine Syms – a classmate of mine who is a superstar in the contemporary art world.
What are you writing now, in Russian and in English?
I’m finishing a novella in English that was originally my thesis project. It’s about false testimonies: people who talk about persecutions and abuse that they never actually experienced. It’s experimental prose – something at the intersection of prose and poetry. Since I’ve been writing it for a long time, my English has evolved in the process. The reader can trace the improvement of the author’s language. The first chapters are really shaky, and now I can’t even edit those because my English has noticeably improved. Maybe by the end it will be quite natural.
Anna Moschovakis, my professor, came up with the idea. She said that I would never have another chance to write a text in a language that was poor at the beginning, but then improved. To waste that transitional moment would be stupid. In Russian, I wrote a novel about how a person’s consciousness continues to exist after their death, or rather, not the consciousness itself, but its digital copy. This is a very important difference because it’s impossible to maintain consciousness after death – you completely disappear. But if you have a digital copy, it considers itself to be you. It’s a kind of post-apocalyptic utopia about people who copy their consciousness, and the copies go to some sort of afterlife, thinking that they themselves are people.
You are from Belarus and identify as a Belarusian writer, but you write in Russian and English. Why?
I can’t write literary prose in Belarusian because I only learned it at school as a second language, although I consider it my native language and that’s something I always emphasize. Like many Belarusians, I grew up in a Russian-speaking environment and I think in Russian, and I respect Belarusian too much for it to just be a target language for mental translations from Russian. I’m planning to write something in Belarusian that won’t require this sort of code conversion – maybe a memoir about working as a journalist in Minsk.
I think it’s important to note that the identity of a Russian-speaking Belarusian is that of a person who, though they grew up in a Russian-speaking culture, very clearly separates themselves from Russia because Russophone culture doesn’t only include Russia. When I studied journalism in the nineties, if you spoke Belarusian, it meant that you were against Lukashenko, that you went to protests and, more often than not, wrote poetry. This was the language of the artistic intelligentsia. I worked at Belarusian radio stations for many years, I speak Belarusian as well as I would a first language, and I always switch to it when I’m with Belarusians. But I haven’t used it in literature. I’ve always thought it would be an opportunistic act on my part, since authors who write in Belarusian are rightly given more support. Svetlana Alexievich, for example, also writes in Russian and, in so doing, emphasizes the fact that she is not Russian.
Belarusian has been in a difficult position for a long time, since Stalin destroyed practically the entire Belarusian cultural elite in 1937. Perhaps our culture would be different if those hundreds of writers and poets hadn’t been taken to the forest and shot. Nowadays it’s very important to understand the terminology at play. The way I see it, I work in the field of international culture and Russian is a convenient tool I use. Just because Belarusians write in Russian doesn’t mean they’re a part of Russian culture. I want to be treated in Russia – and for other Belarusian authors to be treated – like any other foreign author, one who happens to write in Russian simply due to historical circumstance. In any case, native speakers of Russian are lucky – they can read our work in the original.
Svetlana Satchkova is a writer and journalist from Moscow, Russia, who currently lives in New York City and is working on her MFA at Brooklyn College. Her new novel People and Birds is coming out from Eksmo in September.
Fiona Bell is a literary translator and scholar of Russophone literature. Her translation of Stories by Nataliya Meshchaninova received a 2020 PEN/Heim Translation Fund grant. She is from St. Petersburg, Florida and currently lives in New Haven, Connecticut.
Today we’re excited to feature Herb Randall’s essay about his visit, inspired by a volume of collected letters, to #16 Tchaikovsky Lane in Kharkiv, Ukraine, a building with a fascinating history in the field of science. Yet as Olga discovered as we were working on this, it has a much more sinister history, as well. After the revolution of 1917, this building was used by the city’s branch of the Cheka, Lenin’s secret police, to imprison, torture, and execute those termed enemies of the Bolsheviks. The dead bodies were thrown into a ditch behind the building; unofficial estimates suggest that between 1,500 and 3,000 people were killed here.After the Cheka was dissolved in 1922 (only to be reconstituted under different names, including Stalin’s NKVD), over 200 bodies were discovered on the grounds behind #16. There is no verifiable evidence that the letter writer knew this; in any event, there’s no mention of it in the letters.
Images accompanying this piece are courtesy of Herb Randall.
A QUESTION IN TCHAIKOVSKY LANE
No sugar plum fairies greet us as we turn the corner onto Tchaikovsky Lane. Yet almost immediately, the rush and roar of Pushkin Street dissipates and we escape into this sleepy neighborhood, stepping into another time and another’s story.
A curious old collection of letters written here brings us to this forgotten residential street in Kharkiv. I Married a Russian is the work of an Englishwoman identified only as “Eddie.” She fell in love with a visiting Soviet scientist while both studied at Cambridge and set off on a grand adventure into the wild East of this rapidly modernizing new nation. Eddie’s first letter to her sister in England was in May 1930 while the newlyweds sailed to their new home. She posted the final letter in 1945, after surviving wartime evacuation to Kazakhstan and returning to the ruins of Kharkov (Eddie uses this Russian-based spelling of the city’s name, which is used here when referring to the book). The letters were quickly published by George Allen and Unwin in London, and though the book is barely remembered today, it was discovered and recommended by a friend who shares my affection for Ukraine. I carry my weathered copy with me as we walk.
The couple met through their love of music. “Kira” played piano beautifully, and Eddie could have made a career with her violin. Joyful hours spent around the piano quickly led to romance and marriage. Two marriages, in fact: first at the Soviet consulate and shortly thereafter a proper English wedding. Her parents feared the marriage could be dissolved too easily if only bound by Soviet law.
We are here to find Eddie and Kira’s flat and the physics institute that brought them to the new capital of Soviet Ukraine (Kharkiv was used as the capital from 1919 until 1934). It was a backwater in a building frenzy. Eddie wrote of sledding in winter from a hill in the city center to nearby villages, places that today are incorporated into Ukraine’s second largest city. The Soviet Union granted special privileges to scientists, citizen and foreign, to attract them to the institute. It was a welcome haven for some escaping antisemitism at home, while others were drawn to the Soviet experiment, or the chance to work with some of the most famous scientists in the world. The institute flourished and critical work in cryogenics and nuclear physics was done here by such renowned scientists as Lev Landau, Piotr Kapitsa, Lev Shubnikov, and George Gamow.
Eddie was a sensation among Kira’s family and colleagues. She was charming, witty, intelligent, determined. Flirtatious and pretty, but unwaveringly devoted to Kira. She threw herself into her new life, soon editing a physics journal published in English and German by the institute, establishing the gardens on the grounds, even joining a women’s cavalry regiment for an October Revolution parade. After much difficulty, some dubious medical treatments, but seemingly by her sheer force of will, Eddie gave birth to a daughter. After a few years, a son followed.
Questions abound when reading Eddie’s letters today, in turn fascinating, frustrating, charming, harrowing, maddening. They swirl around us as we walk further into the lane, and we see a small wooded park and playground. Could this have been part of the gardens she tended?
Her dear, endlessly patient sister is unnamed in the letters, and her replies can only be inferred. In the opening pages, the list of characters we will meet is full of pseudonyms and presents today’s reader with the first mystery. Who were these people really? The Soviet Union was a riddle to contemporary readers, and the subjects of Eddie’s missives could be reasonably sure of obscurity.
Not today. With some quick research their real names surface. Rather than clarifying, the mysteries deepen and darken. Eddie’s breezy letters often omit important details. There are gaps in the letters, sometimes for years. These lapses often coincide with particularly turbulent events. One of the starkest gaps is between January 1931 until February 1934, so that nowhere does Eddie mention Stalin’s forced famine that brought starving villagers swarming into the city and that she could not have avoided seeing. People described in her letters disappear with no explanation, as if airbrushed from a photograph. Eddie obliquely references “scandals and intrigues” at Kira’s institute that were actually part of Stalin’s brutal wave of purges and executions in 1937-38. Was this Eddie’s way of getting her letters through the censors, or something else?
“Is this it?” my companion asks, squeezing my hand in front of a small red and sand brick building: 16 Tchaikovsky Lane. It appears to be older than it should be based on Eddie’s letters, predating the revolution. We look up at the second-floor balconies and try to guess which belonged to them.
This building isn’t quite as we had imagined. It is unexpectedly tidy, too purposefully built. Eddie wrote that the flats in her building were still under construction when they arrived in 1930, rapidly renovated to house the physicists working at the institute next door. We walk back to the previous building, number 14. It is certainly more imposing, but as we walk around the side, slightly ramshackle. Here in the courtyard, we discover a plaque near an entrance commemorating one of Kira’s fellow scientists, Lev Shubnikov, who lived in this building. Until 1937, when his career and life were ended. Astoundingly, neither Kira nor his foreigner wife were touched by these repressions.
We stand for a moment, reflecting. A gentle piano and sinuous violin intertwine, tendrils of Scriabin and Prokofiev. Laughter, gossip, chatter. Clattering of dishes and clinking glasses. A baby fussing, unsoothed. Sounds we once would have heard here but today there is only silence.
Other sounds we do not hear, and that go untold in Eddie’s letters: boots echoing in these stairwells, sharp knocks on doors, whispers and cries. Fearful reassurances and promises made in vain. Car doors slamming, silence descending.
Kira and Eddie were fervent believers in the socialist future they suffered so long to build. Her accounts of the circle of famous scientists who lived and worked here are among the only contemporary sources available. Today we must read Eddie’s letters with some questions about their accuracy and the motivation for publishing them. Her letters, while filled with personal stories and valuable historical details of the period, often parrot the Soviet propaganda of the day uncritically and enthusiastically. Even when speaking of shortages, unpaid salaries, or other difficulties, she minimizes and explains them away when possible. Her sister likely found Eddie’s frequent criticisms of English life and government policies tiresome.
How could this young woman from a comfortable English upbringing come to almost revel in the hardships she endured? Especially at the beginning, most of her efforts were devoted to scrounging furnishings for the apartment, ensuring adequate food, and with regular shipments of Keating’s powder from England, warding off the persistent bugs. Despite the hardships, Eddie never wavered in her belief in the Communist project.
Another puzzle is how these letters came to be published, first in London in 1944 and 1946, followed by an American edition in 1947. Edited by Lucie Street, one of Eddie’s friends, possibly another pseudonym. Her introduction and connecting texts are uncomfortable reading today as we now know more of the facts from that era. Lucie certainly echoed the message the Soviet regime hoped to advance among wavering and then erstwhile allies in the chaotic end of the war.
Eddie’s delightful hand-drawn map in the endpapers of I Married a Russian shows the two main buildings of the Ukrainian Physico-Technical Institute (UPTI) on either side of her flat. We don’t see those buildings today. Her map is not to scale, though, and as we walk behind the apartment building, we see a dilapidated brick and concrete wall nearly hidden by trees. A sign on the guard building indicates that we have found the physics institute. Whether abandoned, still in use, or contaminated, it is clear that we are not meant to enter.
It’s getting late and shadows begin to crowd around the narrow lane. A question half-formed, taking shape along with other unseemly notions, now seems urgent and necessary to ask.
Edna Cooper’s and her husband Kirill Sinelnikov’s intriguing, nearly-forgotten lives deserve their chronicler, but it cannot be me. My fragmentary Russian would be no help researching the now-available archives and secret police files. I also sympathize strongly with Eddie, while recoiling from what I’m beginning to understand about her and Kira’s possible accommodations with the regime. Someone more objective should ask the question.
The answer I don’t want to learn is both obvious and eighty years later may be unprovable. And yet, glancing at my companion, I don’t know if this question should be voiced. She looks at me lovingly, having indulged another of my quests to dig into a long-forgotten history. Am I really so different from Eddie, here for a romance that stretches across a continent and a culture that perhaps can never fully be bridged?
We begin walking back, elated with our success. But the truth is, we aren’t sure if we have seen Eddie and Kira’s flat or the institute as they knew them. What remains was heavily reconstructed after the war, and this part of the world is not overly-fond of preserving the past. Perhaps the many flowerbeds and trees clustered around these buildings are Eddie’s true legacy. We are simply pleased to know that we’ve visited the place they once called home, and to have honored the memory of their friends and colleagues unfortunate enough to have sought refuge in their life’s work here, only to be unjustly accused, jailed, or executed.
It’s already dark and we want to enjoy an evening in the city. Suddenly, my question slithers out, darting formless and hideous between us. I am ashamed and I curse myself for what I could not suppress.
A few steps together in silence. Then another squeeze of the hand and a sad smile. “Of course,” she answers. “Of course they did.” She points to another building. And another. “Just like someone who lived there, and over there.”
“They survived,” she whispers, looking away. Finally reaching the end of the lane, we leave Tchaikovsky’s shades behind us and are whisked along with the bustle of Pushkin’s street.
Herb Randall lives among the idyllic mountains, forests, and waters of northern New Hampshire. He has travelled extensively in Ukraine, Poland, Sweden, and Estonia. He enjoys exploring lesser-known places, reading with a special focus on fiction in translation, and writing about forgotten people and places. This is his first published piece. Twitter: @herbrandall
This post reproduces and documents a Twitter thread that began on June 3, 2020, with articles by Aisha Powell, Sarah Valentine, B. Amarilis Lugo de Fabritz, and Jennifer Wilson. Various members of the Eurasian Studies community gradually added to the thread, creating an informal list of resources that, while useful, would also be ephemeral and difficult to find if left on social media. Here, in Punctured Lines’s more easily searchable archive, these resources are available for you to use and remix through a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License. This license applies only to the tweets by Hilah Kohen below and not to any of the content linked to them. You can use the license to create your own version of this resource list for a specific community or publication.
Both the Jordan Center for the Advanced Study of Russia at NYU and the American Association of Teachers of Slavic and East European Languages (AATSEEL) have also published organized lists of texts, lectures, and podcasts relating to race and racism. While these databases intersect with the Twitter thread reproduced here, they focus on offering additional materials that are relevant to scholars and teachers of Eurasian languages and cultures.
To keep things maximally readable, we chose to preserve Twitter’s format for some posts and to transpose others to a text-based layout. We welcome all feedback and links to additional resources. To access the thread below directly on Twitter, click here.
Especially for fellow Eurasianists just starting out, tho, this is work to read as we wade into the bs going forward. Not comprehensive– just what comes to mind re: student experiences, teaching, and what our field does on a systemic level. Less material here on research. /2
Please add more if you have time/energy somehow (I’ve only read narrowly & also haven’t included any books here) and add your essential readings related to research on race in Eurasian and Russian studies /13
One last “goes without saying” is that this thread is an addendum to concrete monetary/physical/logistical action right now and in the coming weeks. Thanks for reading /15
Am learning that I don’t know how to keep up with Twitter replies very well, so I’m sorry if I miss something! I really appreciate the words of thanks, but they should be directed elsewhere. I respect all of you beyond words, but there’s a misunderstanding of scale here.
For white scholars who want the field to change, these conversations about race in the field have so far meant working on ourselves, supporting students, and responding to individual incidents. Necessary steps. This category of responses to the thread is passing by another:
Black scholars and scholars of color have worked constantly for years against the racism of a thousands-strong field and gotten crap in return. Our field’s record is one of forcing all Black scholars out. That there are still meaningful experiences to be had doesn’t change this.
That’s the scale we’ve got to be on. I don’t know how to frame this rhetorically– I fit into the first tweet above, not the second. This is just a total split in the responses to this thread, and it’s also (quite sickeningly) evident in the thread itself.
Our colleagues have pushed the field’s leadership & their mentors out of personal necessity and at daily personal cost; built successful, growing programs at their institutions from precarious positions; written numerous papers about the concept of them having room in the field.
Sometimes, we don’t know we even can do things on that scale because we don’t have to be on that scale to stay in the field, plus the field doesn’t ask it of us. Meanwhile, there’s prolific work being done under extreme pressure. We have to be on that scale.
I feel ill writing these things in this bizarre tone and as if from outside. Obviously, nobody has denied all this; you know this; everybody here is being so supportive. The question is what’s next & can it possibly be enough.
I should add– useful assuming a considerate and broadly informed approach.
Sure, we’ve all fallen in love with people, but some of us have also fallen in love with books. I was in my early twenties, living in a newly post-Soviet Moscow, where I’d gone to work after college. Censorship had collapsed along with the Soviet Union, and many types of previously banned literature were flooding the Russian market. Tables with piles of books for sale were regular features outside many of the city’s metro stations. They were an incongruous mix of serious fiction by the likes of Bulgakov and Solzhenitsyn, self-help manuals, erotica of dubious provenance, and Russian translations of detective novels by James Hadley Chase. I don’t have an exact memory, but given that a good number of my books from that period were purchased off such tables, it is highly likely that this is where I found a novel titled Zhenskii Dekameron — The Women’s Decameron (transl. W.B. Linton, publ. Atlantic Monthly Press; other editions in Russian and English exist). Without a doubt, the fact that the word zhenskii was in the title was a major selling point. It was by a writer named Julia Voznesenskaya (here and elsewhere, I am using the spelling of authors’ names as they appear on their English translations, but given my willingness to die on the hill of Library of Congress transliteration, I am absolutely cringing inside). I’d never heard of her. She changed my life.
Voznesenskaya wrote The Women’s Decameron in 1985 while in exile in what was then West Germany. Many writers were expelled from the Soviet Union, but what makes her case highly unusual was that it was due to feminist activity. She came to feminism via her involvement in the dissident movement in the 1970s, for which she was arrested and imprisoned. Although she wasn’t initially interested in women’s issues, time in all-women’s camps and prisons changed her mind. She and three other women founded the Soviet feminist movement (it was tiny, but still a thing); they formed a women’s club and put out journals of women’s writing, for which they were hounded by the KGB and made to leave. Three of the four founders, including Voznesenskaya, were religious, and their views resembled Russian Orthodox teachings more than feminist theory, but The Women’sDecameron bears little trace of this. In the West, they broke up over their religious-secular divide, but not before being interviewed by Ms. Magazine. In the process of editing this post, Olga found a Calvert Journal article about the exhibition Leningrad Feminism 1979, devoted to this Soviet feminist collective; it was shown in St. Petersburg earlier this year, and once COVID-19 conditions allow, will move to Moscow and then to locations in Western Europe. Thank you so much, Olga, for this amazing, and unexpected find — hopefully, this exhibition is a start to making these Soviet feminists better known in both Russia and the West. Voznesenskaya herself won’t know about it: she died in Berlin in 2015. There’s a good chance, though, that she wouldn’t want anything to do with it. After emigration, she wrote detective novels, but then spent some time in a French monastery, whereby she renounced her previous works and turned to writing Russian Orthodox fantasy (don’t ask; I don’t know).
The Women’s Decameron is Voznesenskaya’s first, and best-known work, although in this case, “best-known” is a relative term (I was surprised and overjoyed when several people on Twitter responded to my, um, numerous posts saying they’d read it, although given all the brilliant Russian literature people on Twitter, I shouldn’t have been surprised). Because Voznesenskaya was exiled, The Women’s Decameron was not published in the Soviet Union; when it became available in post-Soviet Russia, it went seemingly unnoticed. She may be most familiar in Slavic academia in the West, and even then, not so much.
My poor love deserves better. A reworking of Boccaccio’s Decameron from a female point of view, the novel features ten women of different backgrounds and life experiences quarantined together after giving birth in a late Soviet-era maternity ward because of a spreading infection (if nothing else, read it for the unintentional parallel with our current situation, although I promise you, there’s much more to it than that). They pass the time telling stories about their lives and those of their friends and families in ten chapters containing each of their ten stories, with an author-narrator who opens and closes the pieces. Each chapter is devoted to a different theme; when I teach this novel in my course Writing the Body in Contemporary Russian Women’s Fiction, we read “First Love,” “Sex in Farcical Situations,” “Rapists and their Victims,” and “Happiness.” Love and happiness (or, rather, a distinct lack thereof) are common themes in Russian literature; but the two other titles, and the all-female space of this novel, signal that The Women’s Decameron is a different type of book.
Russian literature has no shortage of women writers and female protagonists. But as Barbara Heldt notes in Terrible Perfection: Women and Russian Literature, which I could cite directly if it weren’t for the pandemic-induced closure of our university library, what is considered the Russian canon is overwhelmingly made up of male writers and male protagonists. Female protagonists, while crucial to the plot, are usually complements to their male counterparts, and their own development is rarely shown. Other scholars have pointed out Russian literature’s puritanical approach to the body and sexuality, which were not considered appropriate subjects for “high” literature. Once in a while, male characters got to be physical, but women rarely did, and one was thrown under a train for trying.
This changed in the liberalized atmosphere of glasnost’ and the early post-Soviet period, which witnessed an explosion of women’s voices. In defiance of Russian and Soviet patriarchy and puritanism, writers such as Svetlana Vasilenko, Ludmilla Petrushevskaya, Valeria Narbikova, and Marina Palei, among many others, created a female-centered space in Russian literature, with women protagonists who were both intellectual and physical beings. Their works, often explicitly concerned with the act of writing, were characterized by a palpable presence of female bodies in various manifestations: sex, violence, pregnancy, abortion, disease, etc. While none of them had read French feminist theory, and several openly eschewed any association with feminism, they were, in Hélène Cixous’s formulation, writing the body. In Slavic Studies in the West, these writers, who do not form a coherent whole but have enough in common to be talked about together, became known as New Women’s Prose, first and foremost due to the pioneering efforts of Helena Goscilo, in such publications as Dehexing Sex: Russian Womanhood During and After Glasnost (having relied on it extensively in my dissertation, this one I have on my shelves).
The few scholars who have written on Voznesenskaya place her in the general category of Soviet women’s literature, while those who write on New Women’s Prose don’t include her. This is understandable, since living in West Germany, she had no connections with the other Russian women writers. But the striking similarity is that Voznesenskaya also writes the body: The Women’s Decameron centers women’s narratives of sexuality, violation, etc. It’s a pretty convincing argument, if I do say so myself (I did say so myself, in my dissertation and in the article I wrote about The Women’s Decameron).
An account of sex on the roof due to a lack of privacy in an acute Soviet housing shortage – that’s in there. The story about appearing in front of a theater audience in bed with your lover due to the mechanism of an inopportunely revolving stage — that’s in there too, as is a romp with an American “spy” on top of the heads of three KGB agents hiding under the bed during a room search gone awry. Also in there are the more somber stories of child sexual abuse and the many instances of rape, some of which the women verbalize for the first time to each other. Powerless to stop being raped in life, they support each other and try to heal themselves through telling their stories. And in one instance, they, and we, are overcome by unadulterated hilarity and gratitude because a character was able to get highly painful revenge on her would-be attacker with a pair of imported mittens. Female bodies, both their pleasures and pains, are very much written here.
Admittedly, in a novel that consciously tries to represent a spectrum of women’s experiences, making them all mothers is a regressive move. That said, Voznesenskaya goes against convention in allowing motherhood to coexist with sexuality (take that, Tolstoy), and notably, the characters bond over a range of topics, not motherhood itself. Indeed, she espouses several ideas that make her ahead of her time. She openly terms one protagonist a feminist, which, let’s just say isn’t something one expects from late Soviet-era works (or, really, many other eras). There is also a recognition that other types of oppression intersect with gender: several protagonists’ lives are shaped by their economic standing, whereas another’s is by being Jewish, the latter also indicative of Voznesenskaya’s rejection of Soviet anti-Semitism. A storyline about one of the protagonists’ love interests mentions racism toward those from the Caucasus. There’s more to say about what else The Women’s Decameron does, including revealing aspects of Soviet life that the regime tried to silence, but that would require another post.
When I say Voznesenskaya changed my life, partially I mean that she largely determined my academic path, handing me my dissertation topic and leading me to discover the other contemporary women writers, whom I teach and have written on. More fundamentally, I mean that The Women’s Decameron was my first time reading a Russian work that gave voice to viscerally honest, specifically female experiences. Over the years, I’d had lots of amazing conversations with Russian books, but this was the first one that spoke back in a shared language. In the women writers course, my students really respond to this novel. Some of them say about all the writers that they didn’t know there was Russian literature like this. I didn’t either, until Voznesenskaya, and through her several others, showed me that there could be.
Below is the opening of The Women’s Decameron. The right-hand image underneath that shows the never-to-be-detached Post-it notes from graduate school. Although this novel is, sadly, out of print, the English translation is still available here and, as much as I don’t want to recommend a particular mail-order giant, here. In Russian, it seems to be available here and online here (although I have no personal knowledge of either of those sites). Try it. Who knows; you might fall in love, too.
The Women’s Decameron by Julia Voznesenskaya
“How is it possible to read in this bedlam!” thought Emma. She turned over on to her stomach, propped the Decameron between her elbows, pulled the pillow over her ears and tried to concentrate.
She could already visualize how the play would begin. As they entered the auditorium and spectators would not be met by the usual theatre attendants, but by monks with their cowls drawn down over their eyes; they would check the tickets and show the spectators to their seats in the dark auditorium, lighting the way and pointing out the seat numbers, with old-fashioned lanterns. She would have to call in at the Hermitage, look out a suitable lantern, and draw a sketch of it … The stage would be open from the very beginning, but lit only by a bluish moon. It would depict a square in Florence with the dark outlines of a fountain and a church door, over which would be the inscription “Memento Mori” – remember you must die. Every now and then some monks would cross the stage with a cart – the corpse collectors. And a bell, there must definitely be a bell ringing the whole time – “For whom the bell tolls.” It was essential that from the very beginning, even before the play started, there should be a feeling of death in the theatre. Against this background ten merry mortals would tell their stories.
Yet it was difficult to believe that it happened like that: plague, death and misery were all around and in the midst of this a company of cavaliers and ladies were amusing each other with romantic and bawdy stories. These women; on the other hand, did not have the plague but a simple skin infection such as frequently occurs in maternity hospitals, and yet look at all the tears and hysterics! Perhaps people were much shallower nowadays. Stupid women, why were they so impatient? Were they in such a hurry to
start the nappy-changing routine? God, the very thought was enough to make you want to give up: thirty liners, thirty nappies and as many swaddling sheets, rain or shine. And each one had to be washed, boiled and ironed on both sides. It could drive you crazy. In the West they had invented disposable nappies and plastic pants long ago. Our people were supposed to be involved in industrial espionage, so why couldn’t they steal some useful secret instead of always going for electronics?
“Hey, girls! You could at least take it in turns to whine! The noise is really bugging me. If my milk goes off I’ll really freak out!” This outburst came from Zina, a “woman of no fixed abode” as the doctors described her on their rounds; in other words, a tramp. Nobody came to visit her, and she was in no hurry to leave the hospital.
“If only we had something nice to think about!” sighed Irina, or Irishka as everyone called her, a plump girl who was popular in the ward because of her kind, homely disposition.
And then it suddenly dawned on Emma. She lifted the Decameron high above her head so that everyone could see the fat book in its colourful cover. “Dear mothers! How many of you have read this book? “Naturally about half of them had. “Well,” continued Emma, “for those who haven’t I’ll explain it simply. During a plague ten young men and women leave the city and place themselves in quarantine for ten days, just as they’ve done to us here. Each day they take it in turns to tell each other different stories about life and love, the tricks that clever lovers play and the tragedies that come from love. How about all of us doing the same?”
That was all they needed. They immediately decided that this was much more interesting than telling endless stories about family problems.
Most readers of Punctured Lines are likely familiar with the name of Constance Garnett –English-language translator from Russian par excellence — and so I’ll begin this post with a bit of a tangent.
I forget who of my friends had recommended to me, years ago, mystery novels by Amanda Cross, whose fictional detective Kate Fansler solved crimes while quoting W.H. Auden. These were highly literary mysteries, and, intrigued, I looked up the author’s biography to discover a fascinating story. Amanda Cross was a pseudonym of an academic, Carolyn Gold Heilbrun, the first woman to be tenured in Columbia’s English department. In the course of her life, she became an outspoken feminist, and in 1992 accused her department of discriminating against women. Her oeuvre includes a book about Gloria Steinem and a collection of essays How to Write a Woman’sLife.
I’ve been slowly making my way through Heilbrun’s work, both fiction and nonfiction, and recently I finished her first published book The Garnett Family (The Macmillan Co, 1961). Heilbrun was trained in Modern British Lit, and, in particular, studied the Bloomsbury group. This book, as she announced in the introduction, “is the history of a literary family,” — the “literary intelligentsia,” as we might call it in Russian. By the by, Heilbrun makes a very good case that studying literary dynasties makes very good sense for historians of literature, and that the work of Constance Garnett needs to be examined next to the work of her husband Edward, who in his position as a Publisher’s Reader presided over so much of what we consider today Modern — and Modernist — British Lit, from John Galsworthy to Joseph Conrad and D.H. Lawrence, among others. (And by suggesting that her work needs to be examined next to his, I mean exactly that — stressing the lack of a hierarchical relationship between the wife’s and husband’s work, and their ongoing conversation.)
Heilbrun is a very engaging and opinionated writer, and I only wish her treatment of Constance had been fuller. Brief as it is, it gave me a portrait of Constance in a vastly different light than I’ve been accustomed to seeing. For instance,
An obituary in the New Republic said of Constance Garnett that “she was a product of the Victorian Age and shared the prejudices and pruderies of her time.” Apart from the fact that she was born in the Victorian Age, the statement is the direct opposite of the truth; it would be nearer the mark to say that the post-Victorian Age, with its lost prejudices and pruderies, was the product of her generation, and, to a significant extent, of her own work. Born in 1862, she belonged to the first generation of women that received an education comparable to a man’s, and, shaping its life according to its own, rather than society’s, or parental, decision, remained in a very real sense in control of its own destiny.
Heilbrun’s monograph contains four chapters: 1) Background of the Garnett Family, including the Elder Richard Garnett (1789-1850), 2) The Younger Richard Garnett (1835-1906), 3) Edward Garnett (1868-1937), 4) Constance Garnett (1862-1946), and concludes with the Epilogue about Edward and Constance’s son David (1892-). The book was written, apparently, in a close collaboration with David, who as a prolific writer himself, I imagine, had some stakes in the shape of Heilbrun’s monograph. (One could probably study his writing and that of his descendants for further insights on the family.)
In her chapter on Edward Garnett, Heilbrun tells a “meet cute” story: Edward and Constance Black were introduced by Constance’s sister Clementina Black (a writer herself), who was a regular at the British Library’s reading room, where Edward’s father Richard assisted her. The sisters came to tea at the Garnett house, and 18-year old Edward immediately fell in love with 24-year old Constance. Constance was lukewarm.
In the evenings Constance took him to various Fabian and Socialist meetings, which he refused to take seriously. They quarrelled because Edward said that Land Nationalization would not come in England for the next ten or even twenty years. This was to Constance a terrible lack of faith, and a real grief. George Bernard Shaw, with whom she had often gone to political meetings before, asked her who was the pretty young man he had seen her with. She replied that he was a boy whose education she was undertaking.
Heilbrun’s chapter on Constance provides one other fascinating facet of the fabled translator’s biography. From the stories I’d read about her (for instance, in this David Remnick piece in the New Yorker), I’d gotten a sense that she fell to translating from Russian almost randomly, without any particular reason. This was, apparently, not quite so.
Her grandfather, Peter Black, was Naval Architect to the Tsar, Nicholas I; Peter Black’s daughter is supposed to have danced with the Tsar at a Court Ball. When this daughter married, in Petersburg, the Tsar presented her with a glass salad bowl as a wedding present. Peter Black was buried in the Russian naval fortress of Kronstadt; his son, David Black, Constance’s father, having spent much of his youth in Russia, came to live in London as a law student . . . went on to Canada . . . was recalled to England by a telegram from his brother Peter, who was French Consul in Brighton.
Aha! This background, from family ties to Russia to strong interest in socialism, makes it so much easier to understand why Constance would choose to dedicate her life to translating from Russian. And to return to the question of how far Constance had been removed from “the pruderies of her time,” Heilbrun paraphrases this story from a manuscript by Constance’s son David:
She was never particularly outspoken on the subject [of sex], nor militant about it, having strong views about the privacy of sexual matters, which she thought no business of society or the State. However, when, on vacation from Newnham, she had been entertained in London and had seen the prostitutes in Haymarket and Trafalgar Square, that ‘hideous spectacle of coarse cynical brutality and degradation accepted by everybody as a matter of course’ threw her into despair. Believing prostitution to be chiefly the fault of women putting a high premium on their own chastity for economic reasons, she thought that if women were brought up to expect to earn their own living and have love affairs, it would disappear.
From the advantage of time, we may judge her naive, but her thought is far from prudish. We may also perhaps glean how she might be a much more sympathetic translator for, say, Chekhov and Turgenev than for Dostoevsky. Here would be an interesting project: to re-read her Dostoevsky with her politics in mind… because, of course (and as we learn from our friends at the RusTrans project), translation has politics.
Exciting news from the exciting RusTrans project. As its website explains, “’The Dark Side of Translation: 20th and 21st Century Translation from Russian as a Political Phenomenon in the UK, Ireland, and the USA’ (RusTrans for short) is a project funded by the European Research Council (ERC) under the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme (grant agreement no. 802437), and located at the University of Exeter. The project is led by Dr Muireann Maguire (Principal Investigator) and Dr Cathy McAteer (Post-doctoral Fellow).
What is the dark side of translation? Most of us think of translation as a universal good. Translation is valued, taught, and often funded as a deterrent to monolingual nationalism and cultural parochialism. Yet the praxis of translation – the actual processes of selecting and translating literary texts, and of publishing and publicizing translations – is highly politicized, often subverted by ideological prejudice or state interference. Translators necessarily have a personal agenda, as do editors, publishers, and other agents. Every translation is an act of cultural appropriation, reinventing the thoughts of one language in the words of another.
[…] RusTrans investigates how individuals, and governments, exploit this ‘dark side’ of translation to reap cultural capital by translating lesser-known literature into global languages (and the reverse).
[…] The project’s main aim is to research why translators, publishers, and funding bodies support the translation of certain texts, and not others.”
Ealier this year, RusTrans held a competition for funding English translations of contemporary literary fiction written in Russian and have just announced the twelve winning projects by fourteen translators (two are co-translations). The conditions for these awards, which will fund excerpts of larger works, are rather unique. RusTrans is asking the translators to keep them posted over the next two years about the process to secure publication for the works in their entirety: as they explain, “we plan to follow selected translators through the process of pitching and/or submitting a new translation to publishers in real time” to gain a fuller understanding of the “dark side” of translation, driven by politics, economics, and personal biases.
One of RusTrans’ stated criteria for picking the projects was diversity, and the final list has a number of women writers, a queer writer, writers from non-Russian parts of the former Soviet Union, as well as those who now live outside of the post-Soviet space. Punctured Lines joins RusTrans in congratulating the winners below (as listed on the RusTrans website) and looks forward to following this fantastic endeavor:
William Barclay, with Bulat Khanov’s novel about an angry academic, Gnev.
Michele Berdy, with various stories and a novella by Tasha Karlyuka.
Huw Davies, with Dmitry Bykov’s historical novel June.
Shelley Fairweather-Vega, with short fiction “Aslan’s Bride” by Nadezhda Chernova and “Black Snow of December” by Asel Omar.
Annie Fisher and Alex Karsavin, co-translating Ilya Danishevsky’s queer modernist experimental novel Mannelig inChains.
Polly Gannon, with Sana Valiulina’s Soviet-Estonian historical novel, I’m Not Afraid of Bluebeard.
Lisa Hayden, with Alexei Salnikov’s debut novel The Department.
Alex Shvartsman, with K.A. Teryna’s science fiction novella The Factory.
Isaac Sligh and Viktoria Malik, co-translating Viktor Pelevin’s novel iPhuck10.
Sian Valvis, with Narine Abgaryan’s semi-autobiographical novel of an Armenian childhood, Manunia.
Sarah Vitali, with Figgle-Miggle (Ekaterina Chebotaryova)’s novel You Love These Films So Much.
Lucy Webster, with Andrei Astvatsaturov’s satirical novel on Russian academia, People in Nude.