Crowded Lives and Crowded Stories: Alina Adams and Maria Kuznetsova Discuss their Recent Novels

We are delighted to present a conversation between Alina Adams and Maria Kuznetsova, whose recent critically acclaimed novels make significant contributions to the body of Russian-American literature. Both Adams and Kuznetsova were born in the USSR and immigrated to the US with their families as children, though some years apart. In their novels, the authors turn to USSR’s history to tell their stories. Adams is a professional writer on topics from figure skating to parenthood and a New York Times bestselling author of soap-opera tie-ins. In The Nesting Dolls (Harper, 2020), she focuses on three generations of Soviet-Jewish women in a story that moves from Odessa to Siberian exile to the Brighton Beach immigrant community. Kuznetsova is a writer, an academic, and a literary editor. In her second novel, Something Unbelievable (Random House, 2021), she alternates between the perspectives of a grandmother and a granddaughter: between the story of a WWII-era escape from the Nazis taking over Kiev and the experiences of a contemporary New Yorker adjusting to new motherhood. 

Alina Adams: How much of Something Unbelievable is autobiographical, or based on the experiences of your parents, grandparents, or great-grandparents? How did you tackle writing historical fiction—was it based on anecdotal stories, research, or a mixture of both? What was the process of envisioning the past in your book like for you? 

Maria Kuznetsova: When my grandmother was five, her family did indeed evacuate to the Ural Mountains like Larissa’s did in Something Unbelievable—and some moments from the book, like her having to hide under a train to avoid being bombed by Nazis, or starving so badly that the meat started to sink off her arms, really did happen. So I used her story, as well as some research into the time period, as a way to establish the background and set pieces of Larissa’s arc, while knowing that I’d have to make up most of the drama—a love triangle, jealousy between sisters, and so on—to carry her story forward. As for the story of her granddaughter, the contemporary actress who put on a play based on her story while being a new mom, I made all of that up, though of course I drew on my own experience of being a new mom while trying—unsuccessfully—to still be an “artist” and not lose my mind. 

How about you with The Nesting Dolls? While my novel navigated two time periods, World War II and the present, yours actually had multiple time periods in Odessa and beyond (like nesting dolls themselves!), following Daria in the 1930s and Natasha in the 1970s, and finally, Zoe in 2019. Did you have a different relationship to each of these characters and periods in your writing? Did you feel closer to Natasha because her story was more recent? And how about Zoe?

May 1, 1954, the first May Day after Stalin’s death. Alina’s mother is the little girl in the checkered skirt; the man in the Navy uniform behind the girl is Alina’s grandfather

Alina Adams: My research for The Nesting Dolls consisted of equal parts reading first-hand historical accounts and eavesdropping. I was that kid who always tried to make myself as small as possible at the corner of the kitchen table so the adults wouldn’t notice I was listening. But I was listening, and many of the stories I heard ended up making it into the book. The 1930s section is my grandparents’ generation. My grandfather was from a tiny village outside of Odessa. At age 13, he moved to the city alone to live in a boarding house, work in a factory during the day, and go to school at night. His father, who spoke no Russian, wrote a letter to Comrade Stalin—in Yiddish!—thanking him for his generosity in allowing a Jewish boy to get an education. That incident is referenced in The Nesting Dolls.

The 1970s, on the other hand, are my parents’ generation. My parents are the ones who told me how difficult it was for a Jew to pass a university entrance exam (though I already knew about The Jewish Problems). My father was the one who was told that he couldn’t study to be a doctor because he wore glasses and doctors couldn’t have less than perfect vision… by a doctor who wore glasses. Both my parents told me about working in a kolkhoz, how public baths worked, and communal apartment living, where neighbors might pour your soup down the drain or throw your clean laundry out the window. My father is the one who, once upon a time, jerry-rigged a shower by rerouting a pipe from under the sink. But, I am proud to say, I was the one who remembered about public fountains which dispersed soda water for one kopeyka, and sugar-flavored for three—and everyone lined up to drink from the same glass!

For the third section, the one taking place in Brighton Beach, Brooklyn, it was extremely important to me to present Soviet-Jewish immigrants the way I knew them, and not the way they were usually portrayed in popular media. Growing up, if I saw Russian Jews in movies or on TV, they were the “Fiddler on the Roof” generation or “An American Tail,” basically huddled masses yearning to breathe free… while wearing kerchiefs and being precious. Modern day Jews, on the other hand, were either “The Nanny” or something by Phillip Roth. I couldn’t relate to either of them. (I kind of still can’t; the TV family we relate to most these days is actually the Asian one from “Fresh off the Boat.” For some reason, my kids find the immigrant mother on that show, strangely familiar!) What kind of images of Russian immigrants did you see growing up, Maria? How did you relate to them, and did they affect the characters you created in your books?

Maria Kuznetsova: Honestly, most of the depictions of people in the USSR or who emigrated from there that I saw were kind of what Natasha, the actress in my book, auditioned to be—either prostitutes or spies. In any Blockbuster-type movie, like the the Rocky movies or “Air Force One,” they were always the villains, whether as athletes or terrorists, and I vaguely remember Boris and Natasha in the cartoons when I was a kid. So this definitely did not speak to my experience, though it perhaps explained why the kids in my new American schools would call me a “Commie” and make fun of me! I came to America when I was five, so I was obviously not aware of how Americans viewed Soviet immigrants or the Cold War or the way Russians were depicted in the media, but as an adult, I can look back on moving to America in the early 90s and understand why I was so confused by my classmates’ ideas of who I was. 

Alina Adams: Yes, me too! I came in the late 1970s and heard, “You’re a Communist! Why don’t you go back to Russia?” For some reason, second graders had a difficult time grasping the nuance that, if you left Russia, you were likely not a Communist. (And let’s not get started on, “I’m not from Russia, I’m from Ukraine…”) No wonder you didn’t engage!

Maria Kuznetsova: Indeed! Five-year-old me didn’t quite have the sophistication to say, “We fled the country as Jewish refugees—so we could escape the Communists! And we can’t exactly go back because we gave up our passports into the country, duh!” 

Anyway, until probably late into college, I mostly read the classics, rarely anything written after Catcher in the Rye or Lolita (though there’s a nuanced, complicated, and flawed immigrant for a protagonist!), and it was only in my early twenties that I discovered Jhumpa Lahiri, Chang-Rae Lee, and even USSR immigrants like Gary Shteyngart and David Bezmozgis, and realized that I could write about immigrant characters, too! Until I read these books and a college professor asked why all my characters were American, I didn’t really realize that my fiction could draw a little more from my own childhood experiences—and the very colorful experiences of my parents and grandparents, too—even though that seems so obvious now.  

Alina Adams: I grew up watching soap operas and reading the glitz and glamour books of the 1980s, so when I first started trying to get a book published, I also wrote about white, Christian Americans. Ironically enough, the first book I sold, to Avon in 1994, The Fictitious Marquis, was a Regency romance novel set in England between 1795 to 1837 à la Jane Austen—can you get more white and Anglican than that? But I managed to sneak a whole Jewish family into it. Twenty years later, the Romance Writers of America named it the first Our Own Voices Jewish historical. So I was apparently being a trailblazer without even knowing it! Because, like you, I assumed the way to go mainstream was to write about the mainstream. It didn’t occur to me to, like you said, draw from my family experiences, until my agent said, about four years ago, “Russia is so hot right now!” (I wonder why?) When I started thinking about the story I wanted to tell, I decided to set it in Odessa, where my family is from, and to populate it with the types of people I knew, many of whom I wanted to see in popular culture, but rarely did. 

1971, Alina and her father in Odessa

On that note of identification, both of our books touch upon the topics of being (grand)daughters of Soviet (grand)mothers, and the mothers of American children. What has that dual experience been like for you? How does it come out in your latest novel? 

Maria Kuznetsova: As my American husband once told his friends, “You won’t realize how Russian Maria really is until you meet her parents.” I’ve always had this split identity—the “Russian” (which is what we considered ourselves when we emigrated from the USSR, though we came from Ukraine) part of me that comes out around my family, but where I also actually feel the most American, since my pronunciation of most things is inaccurate, I miss a lot of Soviet references, and get teased for my “American” accent, and so on. And then there’s the American part where I’m around Americans and seem American, but often find myself feeling like this outsider because I missed out on many cultural references, grew up eating different foods, had many superstitions people teased me for, and so on (heaven forbid someone tried to step over me at a sleepover—I would be terrified I wouldn’t grow!). Having a three-year-old with an American husband, and having lost all of my grandparents at this point, and therefore having no close relative in my life with whom I’m “forced” to only speak Russian regularly, has definitely made me feel like the Russian part of myself is getting more and more diluted.

I beg my parents to speak Russian to my daughter, and I do think she understands them still, but they switch to English because they say she doesn’t understand them. My novel felt a lot more Russian than I am—not only because of the historical parts, but because Natasha, who is married to a Russian and auditioning for mostly Russian parts and living in New York, is a lot more Russian than I feel right now. I live in Alabama, and the only time I heard a woman speaking to her kids in Russian, I ran over to her immediately like I had witnessed some kind of miracle. So I guess my writing is this space where I can return to sometimes connect with my Russian heritage, even if sadly I feel like I could be better about doing it in real life! 

In The Nesting Dolls, you’ve got Zoe, contemplating what her life would be like if she married either a Russian man her family loves, or his African-American friend and co-worker, whom she seems to like a lot more. What was it like to explore those ideas about finding a man who shares your background vs. following your heart in your novel, and perhaps in your real life too? 

Alina Adams: A reviewer on Goodreads called The Nesting Dolls ending, where Zoe’s Soviet-born family accepts her African-American boyfriend without threatening to throw themselves out of a window “unrealistic.” My husband of almost 23 years is African-American. (Though, as our oldest son said, “Gideon grew up in Harlem, went to private school, and then CalTech. Dad grew up in Harlem, went to private school, and then MIT. So they are totally different people!” My 14-year old daughter, on the other hand, said that the Gideon and Zoe section was her favorite: “I just imagined you and Daddy. Both so adorably nerdy.”) No one in my family threatened to throw themselves out of a window. (As my husband said, “I live in New York, and I’m an engineer. I’m basically Jewish.”) 

To me, the relevant thing is that we are raising our children in two non-majority American cultures. They identify as Jewish and African-American. How I see the world is heavily influenced by my being a Soviet-Jewish immigrant. But it’s also influenced by my husband’s perspective as an African-American, and our children’s navigation of both. In a nutshell, I think marrying a man from a culture different from my own, and raising children in multiple different cultures added more depth to how I portrayed America in The Nesting Dolls

Maria Kuznetsova: I love how your children are old enough to read your books and to respond to your fictionalized version of you and your husband—it makes me excited and terrified for the time when my daughter might read my books! Though even in Oksana, Behave!, the husband is portrayed as a Russian guy, not as the Californian my husband really is. Though he’s white and not an immigrant, I think the way we also unite as feeling a bit like outsiders is by being nomadic academics—first living in Iowa and now Alabama can definitely make us feel like we don’t quite fit in anywhere, which is a healthy perspective for writing complicated fiction. 

2006, Maria and her grandmother Lana in Kyiv

Anyway, both The Nesting Dolls and Something Unbelievable feature parents, grandparents, children, and love interests, but the same character might be a child in one section, a lover in another, and a parent in the third. How did you keep track of all the characters and make it so readers could keep track, too? In my writing workshops, I always heard the critique that I had too much going on, and one of the reasons was that I had so many characters I was always managing, which reflected my upbringing: though I had a pretty small family, there were millions of family friends and “ghosts” of past family in the room, always reflected in stories, so my life felt very crowded. Did you have a similar experience, and how did you transform this into fiction? Your book has a framing device, so readers know they’ll be coming back to the opening. How did you keep the timelines from getting confusing? 

Alina Adams: “Ghosts”—that’s such an interesting way to put it! In addition to family stories, I also added stories I’d heard from other people (all that surreptitious listening at the kitchen table). I even asked my mother if people recognized themselves after they read it. As for “too much going on,” as you said, I worked in soap operas for decades (as my father said, “We didn’t realize all those years you spent watching soaps was actually professional training!”), and I am used to and pretty much require “too much going on.” Also, as a historical family saga reader myself, I love seeing the same character at different stages of their lives. Just like one of my characters says, there is no such thing as the right man, only the right man at the right time; there is no such thing as one personality. We all change in response to our situations.

The funniest part is, in the original draft that went to the editor, the story was told in alternating chapters. After the prologue set in present day, Chapter One was Daria, Chapter Two was Natasha, Chapter Three was Zoe, then back to Daria and so on until the end. I liked seeing the echoes among the generations closer together, but my editor convinced me it worked better read straight. Did anything similar happen to you? Did you ever have to change major plot/structural things to accommodate everything “going on?”

Maria Kuznetsova: My book was first told only from Larissa’s perspective, and once I finished her story, I realized it was missing something because there was no contemporary character really receiving the story—Natasha was just kind of a listener then, without a rich inner life. So then I added her perspective, but of course with that came complications, because now she had parents, exes, friends, two lovers, acting frenemies, etc. to keep track of, and so I expanded both her and Larissa’s stories to include all the possible characters they could, and gave those characters depth, and then cut, cut, cut ruthlessly until I had what the story needed to move forward. The list of characters at the front wasn’t just there for my readers, it was honestly there for me, too! One of my professors, Lynn Freed, talked about getting everyone on stage and letting the audience clearly see who belonged at the front of the stage and who was more in the background, so part of my writing and revising process was about making it clear that the women in the book were at the front, while the men who hovered around them were more in the background. 

Alina Adams: That’s such an interesting way to look at it. I just assume readers will figure out that the character talking the most is the most important one (it’s also kind of how I live my life). But since we’re discussing imagery and what readers “see,” let’s talk about book covers. My book, The Nesting Dolls, was obviously asking for a nesting doll on its cover. But with your first one, Oksana, Behave! it wasn’t as obvious, yet that’s what the editor went with anyway. How did you feel about that representation, since it’s such an overused short-hand which screams “Russian!” and pigeonholes both the novel and the writer?

Maria Kuznetsova: At first, I felt kind of torn about it, because I felt like it was this Russian kitsch image of our culture, kind of like the Boris and Natasha cartoons instead of reality, except we all really do have these around the house. So it took me a minute to see that it was cool and funny to have it on my first book cover (since it’s on a middle finger), because it presents this mix of “serious culture” and a more American flipping off of it—Russians don’t give the middle finger using this gesture, of course. How about you? How do you feel about having this image on your book cover, and as the title for your book? 

Alina Adams: While I was writing the manuscript, it’s working title was Love Is Not a Potato, an expression I heard all my life. (Why is love not a potato? Because, when it goes bad, you can’t throw it out the window. Trust me, it rhymes in Russian.) But my agent thought it sounded like a children’s book. So the title under which we submitted it was Mother Tongue. A major theme of the book is communication between generations. Children growing up in America just can’t fathom why their parents and grandparents don’t see the importance of being “authentic,” of “being yourself.” They don’t understand what it meant to live in a country where what you said was always being monitored so closely that the idea that what you uttered in public and what you thought in private should be the same thing just made no sense. “Mother tongue” refers to your first language, and I thought it was evocative of the communication differences all the parents and children had in the story. My editor, on the other hand, thought it sounded like a non-fiction title. She wanted something that was evocative of Russia, the Old Country, family, etc…. None of us could think of anything. Eventually, I turned to Facebook, and it was a friend who came up with The Nesting Dolls, which seemed to hit all the right beats. In fact, the cover turned out so well, they ended up using it on the Italian edition, and on the paperback. How about you, Maria, how did your title and cover for Something Unbelievable come about?

Maria Kuznetsova: The two main choices I had for this new cover was of a frying pan killing a rabbit to echo Larissa’s opening monologue about killing Natasha’s injured animals out of mercy, or the one I chose, which was the slightly more subtle image of a train in the mountains. Honestly, I was torn—I thought the pan and rabbit was funny, weird, and bold, like the cover of Oksana, Behave!—but I decided I wanted to try something more open-ended to appeal to people who might be interested in historical fiction more generally who could be put off by the dead rabbit—even if that’s the cover I might have been more inclined to pick up myself!

As for the title, the phrase came to me fairly late in the editing process. The original title was The Station, because so many things happened around a train station in the book, but I realized that was kind of plain and forgettable. Then it struck me that the phrase “something unbelievable,” which Larissa—and my grandmother—says when something is truly astounding, was the perfect phrase to show my wonder at the trajectory my life has taken, and it also reflects how Larissa was this World War II evacuee who lived long enough to see her granddaughter be an actress in New York, playing stereotypically Russian parts to make ends meet. How did I get here, a Soviet refugee from Kiev, teaching in Alabama with a three-year-old with a Southern accent? I wonder at it still! 

Alina Adams: I periodically wonder what my life would have been like if my parents hadn’t made the decision to emigrate when they did. Like I say in The Nesting Dolls, different life situations create different people, so I know I’d have been different if they’d left a decade later, like your family, and certainly if they’d never left at all. In that sense, I think both of our books aren’t just products of who we are, but of who our parents and grandparents were and the choices they made.

Maria Kuznetsova was born in Kiev, Ukraine and came to the United States as a child. She is the author of the novels Oksana, Behave! and Something UnbelievableShe is an Assistant Professor at Auburn University and is the fiction editor of the Southern Humanities Review and The Bare Life Review, a journal of immigrant and refugee literature. You can follow her @mashawrites or learn more about her at www.mariakuznetsova.com
Alina Adams is the NYT best-selling author of soap-opera tie-ins, romance novels, and figure skating mysteries. She’s worked as a writer and producer for ABC, NBC, TNT, CBS, E! and ESPN. She immigrated to the US with her family from Odessa, USSR in 1977, and currently lives in New York City with her husband and three children. Her first historical fiction novel, The Nesting Dolls, follows three generations of a Russian-Jewish family from Odessa in the 1930s, Odessa in the 1970, and present day Brighton Beach, Brooklyn. Her website is: www.AlinaAdams.com.

Avdot’ia Panaeva’s Feminist Metafiction: An Excerpt from Margarita Vaysman’s Self-Conscious Realism

We’re proud to present an excerpt from Margarita Vaysman’s book-length study Self-Conscious Realism: Metafiction and the Nineteenth-Century Russian Novel. Published by Legenda, an imprint of the Modern Humanities Research Association (where it is available to order), this book focuses on the role of metafiction in the Russian novelistic tradition. The excerpt below is but a small taste of the depth and breadth of this project and highlights the work of one important practitioner of this technique, Avdot’ia Panaeva.

Avdot’ia Panaeva (1819-1893) was a successful novelist and short story writer, who made significant contributions to the development of ideas on education equality, marriage, women’s financial and property rights, and the problem of domestic violence. She was also a common-law wife of poet Nikolai Nekrasov, who was valorized in Soviet literary criticism and the popular canon. We are deeply grateful to Vaysman that, as a part of her research, she illuminates the process through which Panaeva’s legacy as a novelist and short story author has been excised from the canon of nineteenth-century Russian literature and begins the work of restoring it to its rightful place.   

This edited excerpt is from Chapter Three, “A Woman’s Answer.”

Avdot’ia Panaeva’s literary fate—a successful and popular female writer demoted to the status of the “muse” of her more successful male partner—is hardly unique. It could even be considered perversely fortunate: many key female players of the mid-nineteenth-century Russian literary scene such as Evgeniia Tur, the Khvoschchinskaia sisters, or Maria Zhukova, are only now being re-introduced to Russian literary history and contemporary readers. However, Panaeva’s fall from literary grace also offers an insight into the history of the reception of Russian nineteenth-century metafiction in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. The heightened self-reflexivity of her texts, notably Zhenskaia dolia [A Woman’s Lot], did not conform to the generally held perceptions of how a realist novel should function discursively and had therefore sped up her disappearance from the canon.

Zhenskaia dolia was written, much like Panaeva’s earlier prose pieces, to be published in Sovremennik [The Contemporary, a “thick” journal run by Nekrasov — PL] both as a gap-filler and a crowd-pleaser. Addressing the burning question of female emancipation, the novel would have already attracted the readers’ attention on account of its topic, but Panaeva’s style was a distinct advantage. Although ridiculed by contemporary critics as “heart-rending” [razdiratel’nyi], it was very popular with the readers. Most of Panaeva’s texts were favored enough to be re-issued as stand-alone editions soon after they appeared in Sovremennik in serialized form.

Vissarion Belinskii, Nikolai Nekrasov, Ivan Panaev, Avdot’ia Panaeva, a painting by Anatolii Lepilin, 1950

Avdot’ia Panaeva’s career at Sovremennik officially began in 1848 with the publication of a short story “Neostorozhnoe slovo” [Careless Word] already under her chosen pen name “N. Stanitskii.” Unofficially, she had been contributing to the journal ever since its new editorial team had taken over: the January 1847 volume featured a fashion column that Panaeva wrote together with her husband, Ivan Panaev. Mody [Fashions] remained a standing co-authored column in Sovremennik until 1857, except for the summer months when Panaev took sole responsibility for it while his wife was away in the country. As recent research shows, Panaeva also assisted the editors with the daily business of running the journal by reviewing and proofreading submitted manuscripts, as well as dealing with financial matters. From 1847 to 1864, Panaeva became an in-house writer and in practice an editorial assistant at Sovremennik. In the course of her career she published short stories, novellas and novels (two of which, Tri strany sveta [Three Countries of the World] (1848) and Mertvoe ozero [Dead Lake] (1851), were co-authored with Nekrasov), and a few anonymous literary reviews in Sovremennik.

Panaeva’s texts were first examined as facts of Russian literary history in the 1920s. In 1927-28, two of her most popular works, Vospominaniia [Memoirs] (1889) and Semeistvo Tal’nikovykh [The Talnikov Family] (1848), were reissued by Academia, an early Soviet publishing house famous for its historical fiction series. Kornei Chukovskii, the literary critic and a popular children’s writer, produced a scholarly edition of Vospominaniia for Academia, and it was so popular with the readers that Academia re-issued it four times in the period 1927-33. Even though Chukovskii later claimed he had only spent an hour editing Panaeva’s manuscript, he must have undertaken a considerable amount of archival research to make these edits. Not only did he identify the real historical personalities behind the initials Panaeva used (made more confusing by the fact that she attached same initials to different people), he also verified and corrected her multiple chronological errors. Chukovskii first wrote a short essay accompanying the reissued text and then revised it into a larger piece on Panaeva’s relationship with Nekrasov for his book on the poet that came out the same year. In 1922, Chukovskii wrote an essay specifically on Panaeva as Nekrasov’s common-law wife, titled “Zhena poeta” [The Poet’s Wife], and published it as part of his series Nekrasovskaia biblioteka [Nekrasov’s library].

Panaeva’s Memoirs, 1972 edition

Chukovskii’s treatment of Panaeva is suggestive in many ways. Employing the early Soviet strategy of rehabilitating ideologically unsound texts by ascribing “progressive” tendencies to their authors, Chukovskii did an admirable job of whitewashing Panaeva’s questionable class credentials (coming from a family of successful actors, she was hardly a member of the proletariat). The critic praised “her democratic way of thinking” and argued that her texts, accessible even for the most unprepared reader, could function as an introduction to the mid-nineteenth-century Russian literary scene. Chukovskii’s article, despite its scholarly expertise and lively style, was a typical response to nineteenth-century women’s writing in early twentieth-century literary criticism: he saw Panaeva as a secondary historical and literary figure, only as interesting as the men she knew and too concerned with the trivialities of life to have produced anything of value. Even though Panaeva was a published and popular writer, according to the critic, Panaeva’s major claim to fame rested on her status as Nekrasov’s lover and muse: Chukovskii calls the poems Nekrasov had dedicated to Panaeva “the best monument to her life” and notes that “her place on the pages of Nekrasov’s works earns her the memory of posterity.” Finally, in the critic’s opinion, Panaeva was first a woman and only then—coincidentally—a writer: “Charming, universally admired, she was also a novelist, a writer!” Chukovskii suggested, erroneously, that Nekrasov did most of the writing of their co-authored texts and argued that Panaeva became an established writer almost by chance and would have preferred a more traditional womanly occupation.

Chukovskii’s patronizing assessment of Panaeva’s career had a great influence on how Soviet literary studies approached her work. From the 1920s onwards, scholars have mostly treated Panaeva as a writer whose main contribution to Russian literature consisted of providing invaluable information about her male contemporaries. Chukovskii’s dismissive attitude and his scathing remarks (he called Panaeva “simple-minded” [prostodushnaia] as well as “trivial and shallow” [obyvatel’ski-poverkhnostna], among other things) stuck, and the image of her primarily as a hostess of Sovremennik’s salon and Nekrasov’s “angry muse” rather than a novelist in her own right were perpetuated by generations of scholars.

Panaeva’s text serves as a third case study in my exploration of metafictional narrative strategies in a contained but representative sample of Russian novels of 1862-1863. Offering a reading of Zhenskaia dolia as feminist metafiction that aimed to “undermine established discourse within the novel’s narrative text” (in the words of the scholar Joan Douglas Peter),  I explore the similarities in the universal strategies of metanarrative that featured in the works of writers of varying ideological persuasion and literary skill. This chapter offers a brief discussion of Panaeva’s position in the Russian literary canon and some notes on the contemporary reception of her work in Russia and abroad. Following that, it reconstructs the historical and political context of the novel’s publication in 1862 and provides a close reading of Zhenskaia dolia as feminist metafiction with a narrative voice that transgresses the boundaries of gender.

Abstract:

Does metafiction—the literary technique that forces readers to acknowledge they are reading a work of fiction—have a hidden past? Margarita Vaysman’s insightful study establishes metafiction as an inherent part of the entire Russian novelistic tradition, not merely existing but thriving in the nineteenth century. Practiced by writers of often disparate ideological persuasions, metafiction was a creative answer to the period’s twin preoccupations with politics and aesthetics.

In Self-Conscious Realism, Vaysman examines metafiction’s complex correlation with Russian realism in three novels from across the ideological spectrum of the 1860s: What Is To Be Done? (1863) by the famous political radical Nikolai Chernyshevskii, Troubled Seas (1863) by the forgotten reactionary conservative Alexei Pisemskii, and Woman’s Lot (1862) by Avdot’ia  Panaeva, a female writer struggling for professional recognition. These case studies are richly contextualized by the writers’ diaries, letters, and memoirs, as well as official legal and financial sources.

Please order the book from Legenda, Modern Humanities Research Association.

NB: As most academic publications, this book is priced for university library purchases, but a much more accessibly priced paperback will be published in late 2022.

Margarita Vaysman is Lecturer (Assistant Professor) and Head of Department at the University of St Andrews, Scotland, where she teaches Russian and comparative literature.  She is the author of Self-Conscious Realism: Metafiction and the Nineteenth-Century Russian Novel (2021) and co-editor of Nineteenth-Century Russian Realism: Society, Knowledge, Narrative (2020).  She specializes in Russian and Ukrainian literature, culture, and history of ideas, and is currently working on a cultural history of cross-dressing in Eastern Europe, exploring historical intersections between literature, culture, sexuality, fame, and fashion and their conflicted legacy in contemporary culture.

Sana Krasikov’s The Patriots: Review by Herb Randall

Herb Randall, whose essay, “A Question in Tchaikovsky Lane,” Punctured Lines was delighted to publish last year, is back with a review of Sana Krasikov‘s monumental novel, The Patriots (Spiegel & Grau, 2017). Krasikov was born in Ukraine, lived in Georgia, and immigrated to the United States; like other contemporary ex-Soviet Jewish writers, she writes in English on Russian/Soviet-related themes. Her first book, the short-story collection One More Year (Spiegel & Grau, 2009), with settings and characters alternating between the U.S. and the former Soviet space, was highly critically acclaimed, and she has won, or been nominated for, several prestigious awards. The Patriots is her second work and first novel, which has also been lauded by critics and readers.

If you are interested in reviewing a title for Punctured Lines, please see our Books for Review and get in touch.

Sana Krasikov, The Patriots, by Herb Randall

…політика — це далі жити в своїй країні.
любити її такою, якою вона є насправді.
політика — це знаходити слова: важкі, єдині
і лагодити все життя небеса несправні.

…politics is to continue living in one’s own country.
to love it as it really is.
politics is to find words: difficult, unique
and to repair one’s whole life this broken heaven.

— Serhiy Zhadan, “Hospitallers” (trans. Maria Kinash for this review)

One question that has troubled humans for generations is how much of a person’s life is determined by the choices they make, and how much by the environment that surrounds them. This tension between free will and external forces like family, society, and history, has been explored in various literary, religious, political, and philosophical works. Sana Krasikov’s The Patriots is notable for its focus on the consequences of an individual’s choices in the face of near-impossible circumstances, and how the consequences affect subsequent generations.

The Patriots is a gripping, often suspenseful read, despite the reader learning key plot elements early as its parallel narratives wind between generations and continents. The novel focuses on Florence Fein, the granddaughter of Jewish emigrants from the Russian Empire to Brooklyn, and her decision to jettison family and country to live in Stalin’s Soviet Union as the ultimate commitment to her socialist ideals. The second plot line concerns Florence’s son Julian and his own son, Lenny, who, as an American, follows a similar journey to Florence to live in post-Soviet Russia. Much of this plot line focuses on Julian’s reflections on his mother’s choices that left him confined to an orphanage and alienated from her even after they are reunited.

Krasikov weaves real historical events throughout her narrative, so readers familiar with the era will appreciate how skillfully she renders the paranoid, conspiratorial milieu at the personal level of her characters, while unobtrusively explaining context for those less familiar with the Soviet Union’s tumultuous history. Florence’s journey from middle-class Flatbush to Soviet life and the Gulag, her clever subversion of the system that imprisons her to save her own life, and her uneasy return with her Soviet-born family to the United States are all so engagingly told that the reader may occasionally yearn for the return to that plot line during the interlacing chapters about Julian and Lenny. These chapters, though, are crucial for a better understanding of Florence’s character and how her decisions impact not only her own life but the subsequent strained relationship with Julian, which in turn affects his connection with Lenny.

Coming of age during the Great Depression, Florence finds a job at the Soviet trade mission in New York thanks to her Russian-language skills. A temporary assignment lands her in the path of Sergey, a handsome young Soviet engineer who is part of a delegation visiting the U.S., on whose account she loses her virginity, and later her job. Left without work, nursing a deep sense of injustice in terms of American society, and feeling trapped in her parents’ home, she looks to the Soviet Union to find “a life of meaning and consequence.” Florence rejects the incremental politics of reform in the U.S. for her own great leap forward. As the narrator says:

Yes, she could have stayed and waited for all the changes to happen— the decades-long march toward progress. She could have stayed and become part of that march. But she’d had no patience for all that. She had wanted to skip past all those prohibitions and obstructions, all the prejudice and correctness, and leap straight into the future. That’s what the Soviet Union had meant to her back then—a place where the future was already being lived. And so she had fled the Land of the Free to feel free.

However, the third-person objective narrator of the Florence chapters makes it evident that she is a master of self-justification. For although her ideals and hopes for the future are her rationale for the decision to live in the Soviet Union, there is another, much more personal motive:  

But she was too proud to admit to herself […] a fact that might recast her entire noble journey not by the lantern of courage but by the murkier bed lamp of longing.

Leaving behind her parents, whom she would never see again, Florence severs her connection to America, save for corresponding with her beloved younger brother, Sidney. Florence’s journey across the Atlantic finds her in sympathetic company when she meets another young Jewish woman, Essie, from a decidedly less comfortable upbringing in the Bronx, on her way to Moscow to follow similar ideals. Their friendship lasts for years, until Florence becomes bound to Essie by a moral crisis that engulfs them both.

However, unlike Essie, Florence first lives not in Moscow, but Magnitogorsk. She goes there to search for Sergey, but also as a self-imposed trial by fire to remake herself into a true member of the proletariat, worthy of her new home and hoped-for match. It’s a cleverly chosen detail by Krasikov because it encapsulates Florence’s personality: novelty-seeking, serious, brave, clever, but not as clever as she sometimes thinks. The bustling industrial city being forged there is not the proletariat playground of Katayev’s Time, Forward! Instead, Florence finds chaos, squalid living conditions, indifference from her new compatriots, foreshadowing of political problems, and to her horror, bedbugs. What she doesn’t find is Sergey, who has been forced to relocate to Moscow after complaining about corruption at his workplace.

Florence decides to flee Magnitogorsk for Moscow, where she does finally, very briefly encounter Sergey. It is not the reunion she longs for, and in fact he scolds her for her ill-advised decision to come to the Soviet Union. After his rebuke and rejection, Florence reconnects with Essie and is drawn into her circle of friends, including Leon, another idealistic New York Jewish émigré. Florence is initially repulsed by his brash manner, but gradually falls in love with him and they marry. Florence and Leon adopt the Soviet Union as their home by choice, and the Soviet Union in return abducts them by force.

The realization that she and Leon are trapped in the Soviet Union hits Florence suddenly during the late 1930s at a time of increased prewar tension with America and Europe. She hands over her U.S. passport to a Soviet office clerk while applying for continued residency, and it is never returned despite several attempts to regain it. Leon’s passport is also confiscated. It is only after having lost her passport and reading a letter from her brother that Florence feels an urgent desire to return to the U.S. to visit. Issued a receipt with her passport number and told by the residency office she must renew it at the American embassy, she attempts to do that, but the Soviet police blocking the embassy entrance will not allow her through without the original document. She desperately shouts through the gate but in vain.

Even for those lucky few who manage to pass through the Soviet guards outside, the American embassy is unable and unwilling to help, as Julian subsequently relates: 

My parents were hardly the only Americans to be stranded in Moscow after 1936. Hundreds like them were cut adrift in the Soviet Union, comprehending too late that they’d fallen from the grace of the American government. The U.S. Embassy seems to have found every excuse to deny or delay reissuing these citizens their American passports—passports they had lost through no fault other than their naïveté.

Krasikov’s highlighting of this lesser-known aspect of relations between the Soviet Union and America during these years adds further nuance to understanding how little control these expatriates would have over their future after placing themselves in such a precarious position.

Not only is Florence abandoned by the American government in Stalin’s Soviet Union, but, as she later realizes, the Soviet authorities place her under surveillance when she attempts to enter the embassy. She had taken a series of jobs utilizing her native English skills that make her more conspicuous and vulnerable to co-option by the NKVD, Stalin’s secret police. Her handler, Subotin, holds out the possibility that her collaboration will earn her an exit visa. She gradually reveals more information about her colleagues and acquaintances, mistakenly thinking she is manipulating him and keeping her family safe from the terror raging around them. However, like the real-life foreigners who were suddenly trapped in Stalin’s Soviet Union, Florence and Leon, although forcibly turned into Soviet citizens, are still seen as outsiders and therefore suspect by Stalin’s regime.

***

The characters’ outsidedness, in various ways, is a crucial theme in The Patriots. Florence, Leon, Julian, and their friends keenly feel the disconnectedness of multiple identities, of “otherness,” most notably in being Jewish. A child of immigrants in America, an American among Soviets, yet seen everywhere as a Jew, Florence never belongs anywhere entirely, even in the country to which she voluntarily devotes her life:

Amerikantsi,” Subotin said as he wrote it down. He was smiling to himself, a smile that suggested he knew just as well as Florence did that—American or not— they had the double blessing of being Jews.

During the Second World War, Florence, Leon, Essie, and their friend, Seldon, work for the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee, organized by the Soviet government to create propaganda to galvanize political and financial support in the West for the war effort. As victory nears and their usefulness to the regime diminishes, there comes a fresh wave of anti-Jewish sentiment. Florence and Essie recount the sudden rise in antisemitic attitudes even from their close colleagues:

“After all these years, I thought I was finally…”
“One of them,” said Florence.
Essie nodded, her eyes dry now. “But we never will be, will we?”

A generation later, Julian also experiences discrimination, less virulent but still institutionalized in the Soviet Union, when his doctoral thesis is rejected, the quota of Jewish doctorates having already been filled. When necessary to further their aims, the Soviets overlook Florence’s dual identities as “disloyal” Jew and “dangerous” foreigner, while using them as tools to control her, but as Stalin’s regime grows ever more paranoid, she becomes expendable. Florence’s enthusiastic decision to settle in the Soviet Union and devote her life to building communism is not enough to shield her and her family from the midnight knock on the door that all along the reader suspects is coming.

***

Unlike Florence, Julian is a first-person narrator who movingly recounts the story of his abandonment after his parents’ arrests. Spending seven years in a state orphanage, as an adult Julian struggles not so much with that desertion as with Florence’s inability to denounce the system that held them both captive and to admit her mistakes. His yearning to comprehend how Florence could choose to live in Soviet Russia, marry and have a child, while not doing everything possible to protect him is the primary source of momentum in The Patriots, keeping the reader engaged even as the outline of this story is revealed at the outset of the novel. Reflecting on his mother’s actions, he says, “The defining tragedy of my mother’s life was that she’d never had an instinct for family preservation.” When Florence reveals that an old friend had offered them help to flee Moscow and “stay with her relatives for a while, keep low after Papa was arrested,” he is shocked by his mother’s lack of concern for their well being:

“So why didn’t we go?” I said.
But she’d laughed at my dismay. “What was I going to do in a village? Pick turnips? Grow potatoes?”

Compounding Julian’s internal conflict is his adult son, Lenny, who is in Moscow not for any supposed high ideals like Florence, but merely to chase his fortune, precariously and only partially successfully. Julian routinely travels to Russia for business, but he also uses his visits to clumsily try to convince Lenny to return home to America. However, Lenny, who had a special bond with his grandmother, shares her stubbornness:

“Baba Flora didn’t regret her life. And neither do I. She had a front seat on history.”
I thought my jaw might drop. “Is that what she called it?”
“She always said, ‘The only way to learn who you are is to leave home.’”

Like his grandmother, Lenny will not admit defeat regardless of the difficulties. He feels his life in Russia has been an adventure, just as Florence did. Julian, on the other hand, sees only the resulting catastrophe:

“Adventure?” I said. “That’s what they call it when everyone comes back alive. Otherwise it’s called a tragedy. That’s what my father’s life was—a tragedy. And my mother’s, too, for that matter.”
“Yeah? She didn’t seem to think so.”
“That’s because she was a narcissist, Lenny,” I said. “She didn’t think about anybody but herself. She was a grade-A delusional narcissist. Like you.”

The selfishness may have skipped a generation, but Julian must bear the consequences from both mother and son. Just as Florence minimized the many privations and persecutions of her life in the Soviet Union in order to maintain her own fantasy of living with greater meaning there, Lenny is unconcerned about the rough treatment he endures in contemporary Russia and the justified worries of his parents. He is oblivious to both Julian’s childhood traumas and to the fact that, like a child, he still needs his father’s help to escape troubles of his own devising.

***

The catastrophe, when it comes, finds Florence trapped in an impossible moral dilemma, which is largely a product of trying to live in her own idealized image of the Soviet Union. She throws her best friend Essie to the NKVD in a desperate last bid to save herself and her family. However, the net of Stalin’s repressions and paranoia inexorably draws tighter around Florence, her husband, and remaining friends. It is a testament to Krasikov’s skill in creating a truly complex character like Florence that readers will find themselves sometimes sympathizing with her even if she is not entirely sympathetic. They might empathize with her decision to settle in a country with a recent revolution, violence, and state terror in the context of naïve political idealism and the lure of a first romance. However, Florence is unable even decades after her imprisonment in the Gulag to fully admit to herself or her son the extent of the damage she caused by her decision to live in the Soviet Union. Worse still, as Julian points out, the consequences could have been avoided entirely:

“And what about me, Mama? Did you ever think about what would happen to me when they came for you?”
[…]
“Yes, I did think about it. Your father and I talked about it […] [W]e knew that, no matter what happened to either of us, they would never let anything bad happen to the children here. The children were always going to be taken care of.”
[…]
“No matter what happened to you, Mama? […] [B]ut, Mama,” I said, “it didn’t have to happen to you at all! Don’t you get it? None of it had to happen to you, or to anybody.”

Eventually, while in Moscow for work, Julian gains access to his mother’s criminal file that confirms what he already suspected: his mother had been an informer, albeit with the goal of staving off disaster for herself and her family:

[A] victim of her times, of her political beliefs, a victim of her stubbornness and of her illusions. And, certainly, she had been a victim, but until this night I had not considered how she might also have been something else. An accomplice to that very same system that preyed on her. Only now did I allow myself to consider the alternate explanation: that her muteness was not the submissiveness of a slave but the silence of an accessory.

Julian finally realizes that his mother’s inability to renounce her choice to live in the Soviet Union despite the tragic outcome for everyone she cared about was not a rejection of him in favor of her political beliefs. Rather, it was a way for her to deal with the guilt of having been a part of that system of collaboration, denunciations, and betrayals. Tragically, this understanding of her motivations comes too late to repair their strained relationship. Yet Florence unknowingly bequeaths Julian a legacy that brings not only peace to a grieving son, but a way for him to break the generational cycle that he and Lenny are repeating, where now, like Florence’s parents, he is the disapproving father of a child seeking a new life in a foreign country. In her police file, Julian discovers that Florence’s interrogation had ended abruptly, and what could have resulted in a death sentence instead became time in the Gulag with a chance to survive and see her son again. The reason is unclear as Julian reads her file, but Sidney explains how Florence was able to game the system and escape with her life by pitting one of her tormentors against the other. Inspired and impressed by her audacity, Julian uses the same method to extricate Lenny from his legal troubles in Putin’s corrupt Russia. More importantly, Julian comes to understand that, like Florence, full of “[w]anderlust and stubbornness,” Lenny must be left free to follow his own path, even if he feels it is misguided.

***

The final section of The Patriots opens with an abrupt shift to the story of Henry, an American F-86 Sabre pilot in the Korean War, who is downed and ends up in the same camp as Florence, subject to intense interrogation to reveal the secrets of the advanced technology of the fighter jet. Fluent in English, Florence becomes his interpreter, an act that saves her life once again as she uses the circumstances to receive extra rations, rest from physical exertion, and receive necessary medical attention by drawing out the interrogation, with Henry’s cooperation. The pact Henry and Florence make to keep her alive, though, is not entirely sincere on her part. Florence’s symbiosis with the unfortunate pilot highlights the extent to which the life she chose in the Soviet Union results not only in her traumatization by, but her assimilation into, that brutal system. The conclusion of Henry’s story offers a heartrending reflection on the meaning of the novel’s title, as well as a stark personification of the theme of personal responsibility in conflict with the grand sweep of history.

Julian’s uncle advocates the view that the individual is no match for those forces of history that constantly push and pull and sometimes smash:

“The point, my friend,” Sidney said sharply, “is we’re all leashed pretty tightly to the era we’re living through. To the tyranny of our time. Even me. Even you. We’re none of us as free as we’d like to think. I’m not saying it as an excuse. But very few of us can push up against the weight of all that probability. And those that do—who’s to say their lives are any better for it?”
I knew he meant Florence—unpinning herself from one set of circumstances, only to be pinned down by another.

The struggle between fate and free will finds no simple answer in The Patriots. Julian develops a more nuanced understanding of Florence’s tragic life, informed by Sidney’s argument for the inescapability of the system that nearly obliterated their young family. This is not to discount Florence’s responsibility in making her decisions, however: while youthful and naive, they were still hers alone to make. The novel begins with Florence’s creed, “[b]reaking your family’s heart was the price you paid for rescuing your own,” and the enormous, generation-spanning price paid for this outlook lingers in readers’ minds long after reaching the closing pages of Krasikov’s captivating, sensitive work.

Herb Randall lives among the idyllic mountains, forests, and waters of rural New Hampshire and 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. His writing can be found in Punctured Lines and Apofenie. Twitter: @herbrandall

You can buy The Patriots here and One More Year here, and of course from your favorite independent bookstore.

Books for Review

Punctured Lines is looking for reviews of the following recent titles. Reviewers should have some expertise in terms of their chosen work, engaging substantively with its themes and techniques and bringing in direct citation to back up claims. If you are interested in reviewing a work not on the list but that fits our overall themes of feminism, LGBT, diaspora, etc., please let us know. Thank you, and we look forward to working with you.

Fiction:

Alina Adams, The Nesting Dolls (Harper, 2020)***

Nina Berberova, The Last and the First, translated by Marian Schwarz (Pushkin Press, 2021)

Mark Budman, editor, Short, Vigorous Roots: A Contemporary Flash Fiction Collection of Migrant Voices (Ooligan Press, 2021)

Dewaine Farria, Revolutions of All Colors (Syracuse UP, 2021)

Alla Gorbunova, It’s the End of the World, My Love, translated by Elina Alter (Deep Vellum, 2021)

Kristina Gorcheva-Newberry, What Isn’t Remembered (The University of Nebraska Press, 2021) and The Orchard (Ballantine Books, 2022)

Olga Grushin, The Charmed Wife (Putnam Sons, 2021)

Lana Kortchik, Daughters of Resistance (HQ Digital, 2021)

Maria Kuznetsova, Something Unbelievable (Random House, 2021)

Muireann Maguire, trans., White Magic: Russian Emigre Tales of Mystery and Terror (Russian Life Books, 2021; includes three women writers)

Judith McCormack, The Singing Forest (Biblioasis, 2021)

Yelena Moskovich, A Door Behind a Door (Two Dollar Radio, 2020)

Irène Némirovsky, The Prodigal Child, translated by Sandra Smith (Kales Press, 2021)

Sofi Oksanen, Dog Park, translated by Owen Frederick Witesman (Knopf, 2021)

Ludmilla Petrushevskaya, The New Adventures of Helen, translated by Jane Bugaeva (Deep Vellum, 2021)

Maria Reva, Good Citizens Need Not Fear (Doubleday, 2020)

Teffi, Other Worlds: Peasants, Pilgrims, Spirits, Saints, ed. Robert Chandler, various trans. (NYRB Classics, 2021)

Sofia Tolstaya, Sofia Tolstaya, the Author: Her Literary Works in English Translation, compiled by Andrew Donskov, translated by John Woodsworth (University of Ottawa Press, 2021)

Oksana Zabuzhko, Your Ad Could Go Here, translated by Halyna Hryn (Amazon Crossing, 2020)***

Nonfiction:

Polina Barskova, Living Pictures, translated by Catherine Ciepiela (NYRB Classics, 2022)***

Caroline Eden and Eleanor Ford, Samarkand: Recipes and Stories From Central Asia and the Caucasus (Kyle Books, 2021)

Yevgeniy Fiks, The Wayland Rudd Collection (Ugly Duckling Presse, 2021)

Margarita Gokun Silver, I Named My Dog Pushkin and Other Immigrant Tales (Storyfire, 2021)

Yelena Lembersky, Like a Drop of Ink in a Downpour (Cherry Orchard Books, 2021)

Ludmila Miklashevskaya, Gender and Survival in Soviet Russia, translated by Elaine MacKinnon (Bloomsbury, 2020)

Masha Rumer, Parenting with an Accent: How Immigrants Honor Their Heritage, Navigate Setbacks, and Chart New Paths for Their Children (Beacon Press, 2021)

Karl Schlögel, The Scent of Empires: Chanel No. 5 and Red Moscow, translated by Jessica Spengler (Polity, 2021)***

Anna Starobinets, Look at Him, translated by Katherine E. Young (Three String Books / Slavica, 2020)

Julia Zarankin, Field Notes from an Unintentional Birder (Douglas & McIntyre, 2020)

Poetry and Drama:

Polina Barskova, Air Raid, translated by Valzhyna Mort (Ugly Duckling Presse, 2021)***

Taisia Kitaiskaia, The Nightgown and Other Poems (Deep Vellum, 2020)

Tatiana Klepikova, editor, Contemporary Queer Plays by Russian Playwrights (Methuen Drama, 2021)***

Valzhyna Mort, Music for the Dead and Resurrected (FSG, 2020)***

Maria Stepanova, The Voice Over: Poems and Essays, ed. Irina Shevelenko, various trans. (Russian Library, 2021)

Natalya Sukhonos, A Stranger Home (Moon Pie Press, 2020)

Verses on the Vanguard: Russian Poetry Today, various trans. (Deep Vellum, 2021; several women writers, including Vasyakina)

Scholarship:

Andy Byford, Connor Doak, and Stephen Hutchings, editors, Transnational Russian Studies (Liverpool University Press, 2020)

Katalin Fábián, Janet Elise Johnson, and Mara Lazda, eds. The Routledge Handbook of Gender in Central-Eastern Europe and Eurasia (Routledge, 2021)

Michele Leigh and Lora Mjolsness, eds. She Animates: Soviet Female Subjectivity in Russian Animation (Academic Studies Press, 2020)

Henrietta Mondry, Embodied Differences: The Jew’s Body and Materiality in Russian Literature and Culture (Academic Studies Press, 2021)

*** Indicates a reviewer has expressed interest in the book.

“…he cast no shadow in the shimmering silver gloom.” @Muireann @russianlife #WhiteMagic

Kaggsy's Bookish Ramblings

Back in 2015, when I was on the hunt for every bit of Bulgakov writing in translation that I could find, I stumbled across (and was presented with as Christmas gift!) the marvellous collection of short stories, “Red Spectres”. Translated from the Russian by Muireann Maguire, it’s a wonderful anthology which I loved to bits; so when I found out that she had a new collection out, entitled “White Magic”, I was, needless to say, very interested. Muireann very kindly arranged for a review copy for me, which was absolutely lovely of her, and I’m pleased to report that the new book is just as great as her first anthology!

“Red Spectres” focused on ‘Russian Gothic Tales from the Twentieth Century’, as the subtitle stated; however, “White Magic” takes as its basis writing by émigré authors, and the consistent thread running through the stories is that of…

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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.