To Fairyland: An Excerpt from Yelena Lembersky and Galina Lembersky’s Memoir Like a Drop of Ink in a Downpour

Like a Drop of Ink in a Downpour (Academic Studies Press, 2022) is a rare dual memoir co-written by Yelena Lembersky and her mother Galina. Born and raised in the USSR, following the death of her prominent painter father in 1970, Galina decides to emigrate with her young daughter and aging mother. In anticipation of her departure, Galina quits her job and becomes a refusenik. Yet, once her immigration papers go through, instead of boarding an airplane, she finds herself behind bars of a Leningrad prison on a criminal charge. Her mother has already left for the United States. Her young daughter Yelena–nicknamed Alëna in the book–is left in the care of friends, in danger of finding herself in an orphanage.

The chapter below is narrated by Yelena, eleven years old at the time of these events. We are deeply grateful to the author and publisher for permission to excerpt a chapter from this revealing and touching memoir. To continue reading, please buy the book from Academic Studies Press.

To Fairyland, by Yelena Lembersky

Mama begins to sort our belongings. She needs to get special permission for the remainder of Grandfather’s sketches and a roll of dark Babi Yar paintings that Grandma didn’t want to take with her when she left. We have to give away much of what we own because it is banned from being taken abroad—old books, cut glass, amber, antique objects, rugs, and archival documents. Every day, friends come to say goodbye and they leave with a piece of my childhood. Aunt Kira takes away Grandma’s hand-cranked Singer that we used together, I cranking the wheel, Grandma guiding the seam. Someone takes our pot-bellied black-and-white TV. The pressure cooker is heading off to a neighbor, good riddance. Our cookbook, with food stains and Grandma’s handwritten notes, goes to Bélochka. All of my picture books and Grandfather’s art catalogues, which he collected by saving money on food and clothes, end up in the used bookstore. Mama’s favorite white-and-blue vase goes to Kiera Ivanovna, a ceramic artist, who had designed it for my grandparents back in the ’60s. It held every rose and carna­tion ever brought to our home, and Grandfather painted it in Mama’s portrait.

By and by, our home becomes empty. Suitcases huddle in the corner. Dust bunnies gather along the walls and when the draft prods at them, they slowly float from place to place. Every day, Mama goes downtown to shop for gifts for people she will meet in America—Russian wooden crafts, tins, trays, enamel brooches, and shawls with bright flowers and mottled fringes, which Russians wear on cold winter days and Amer­icans don’t, but might drape over cupboards holding some forsaken old country samovar they will have purchased at a yard sale in Brooklyn or, years later, on eBay from immigrants’ descendants. She brings souvenir playing cards with pictures of harlequins, theater binoculars that are mostly useless, but she can’t find, let alone afford, the military ones so valued in Rome. And a brown teddy bear, a mascot of the Moscow 1980 Olympic Games. “These are collectibles,” she says emphati­cally. “You may get top dollar for them one day.” Then she brings home a spear gun, an accident in the making.

“Going fishing, Mama? There is no sea in Ann Arbor.”

“There are five lakes nearby—learn your geography. And the Mediterranean Sea in Italy. Okay? Fine. A sales­woman set it aside for me at Gostinniy Dvor, I couldn’t say no. Maybe we’ll sell it at a flea market and have some money to travel. Do you want to see Venice? Can you believe we will soon see the world?”

I don’t know why Mama puts off our departure and why she goes to the center of Leningrad every day.

“Look what I found, Alëna,” she says as she puts down a painted rooster and a horse on the table. “See here, this is the year of the Rooster and it’s our sign in the Chinese horoscope! You take this happy guy with flowers, and I’ll take that sad little horse.”

“Why are you sad, Mama?”

“Who said I am sad? I am just joking, Alën’. Why do you take everything for a silver coin?”

May arrives. I want to go to the May Day parade. Mama says no. The day after, there is a trail of ripped balloons, flags, and candy wrappers trampled in the mud, where the parade had passed.

“I don’t like May,” Mama says. “May is unlucky. We won’t travel in May.”

A subpoena arrives in the mail, a request to make a witness statement for some ongoing and unspecified investigation. No signature required. Sent by the OBKhSS, the state law-enforcement agency for combating economic crimes.

“What should I do?” Mama asks Yuri.

“Get on the next flight out of the country.”

“What should I be afraid of? I have never broken the law. No, I’ll go and answer their questions. This might be about Kosmétika, and maybe I’ll help exonerate someone.”

I remember coming home from school on the day she went there, to find three men scouring our nearly empty apartment, flipping over what’s left of our things—our bedsheets, pillows, our clothes, bedding, books, crafts, and suitcases. Mama stood in our tiny hallway, leaning against a door jamb, looking as if she were not present in the moment. Movers? But these men were not picking up but scattering. Burglars?

“Who are these people, Mama?”

“Go for a walk, Alëna.”

One of the men overheard her and said to his crew, “We are almost done here. Let’s go.”

Another man walks out of the bedroom, carrying a dusty bottle of rubbing alcohol and a couple of small mani­cure sets that I used to trim my Olympic teddy bear’s toes.

“Mama, are these men from your work?”

The men leave. She sits down, lights a cigarette, and stays silent.

“Mama! Mam’ . . . Mam! Mama!”

“They took our visas.”

The Mediterranean. Rome. Ann Arbor. Grandma. A cold feeling of collapse sets in. An ugly double extracts herself from my chest, turns toward me, and points her finger, cack­ling, “You thought you could dream of all that? A loser! You deserve nothing.”

Our empty kitchen shimmers, the walls pixelate and dissolve into white. Mama stays as still as an ancient sphinx, swaddled in a quivering smoke. Her lungs contract and expand, contract and expand, taking in the poison. I keep my eyes wide open, unblinking, fixed on her. She is safe while she stays in the frame of my view. In my eyes, she grows large, the curve of her nape and shoulders become the ridge of a mountain. Then she contracts—a child, whom I failed to protect. My child-Mama. I don’t yet know what is happening, except that disaster is coming. This feeling will never leave me. It will grow with the years and take over my happiest moments—our family holidays, the birth of my children.

“When will they give back our visas, Mama? Let’s go right away.”

“They’ve brought criminal charges against me. We can’t leave, Alëna.”

Yelena Lembersky’s first book, Felix Lembersky: Paintings and Drawings, was devoted to the art of a prominent Leningrad artist with roots in Poland and Ukraine; her grandfather is now best known for his Execution: Babi Yar canvases and his non-figurative work created in the 1960s. Like a Drop of Ink in a Downpour, a memoir, co-written with her mother, Galina, is her first work of creative non-fiction. Her short pieces have appeared in World Literature TodayThe ForwardCardinal Points Literary Journal, and The New Yorker. She grew up in Leningrad and immigrated to the United States in 1987. She holds degrees in art and architecture from the University of Michigan and MIT.

No One Is Guilty, Everyone Is Guilty: An Interview with Elena Gorokhova, by Sasha Vasilyuk

Elena Gorokhova’s A Train to Moscow (Lake Union Publishing) came out earlier this year to praise by J.M. Coetzee, Lara Prescott, and Kate Quinn, among others. Gorokhova was born and raised in Leningrad, Soviet Union, now St. Petersburg, Russia. After graduating from Leningrad State University, she moved to the United States, carrying one suitcase with twenty kilograms of what used to be her life. Elena is the author of two memoirs published by Simon & Schuster: A Mountain of Crumbs (2011) and Russian Tattoo (2015). A Train to Moscow is her first novel. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, The Daily Beast, New Jersey Monthly, and The Daily Telegraph, on NPR and BBC Radio, and in a number of literary magazines. She lives and teaches English as a Second Language in New Jersey.

Sasha Vasilyuk: A Train to Moscow is the story of Sasha, who cannot wait to escape the small town of Ivanovo for a chance to become an actress in Moscow. The story, as I understand, is partly based on the life of your sister Marina and carries parallels to your memoir, A Mountain of Crumbs. What drew you to turn her story into a novel and how much of it is biographical?

Elena Gorokhova: After writing two memoirs, A Mountain of Crumbs and Russian Tattoo, I felt I’d exposed every detail of my Russian and, subsequently, American life and there was nothing left for me to examine on the page. At that point, two feelings converged: I wanted to write a novel, and I wanted to write about acting.

My older sister was a prominent actress in Russia in the 1960s and 1970s, and the background of the narrator of A Train to Moscow is based on her story. My sister grew up in Ivanovo and was trained in the best drama school in Moscow, just like Sasha. Upon graduation, she also acted at a repertory theater in Leningrad. The plot of the novel, however, is all fiction.

Sasha Vasilyuk: Like every Soviet family of the post-war years, Sasha’s family is plagued by the ghosts of the Great Patriotic War, which is presented through the stunningly written war journal of a missing uncle. Why was it important to you to have the shadow of war woven into the fabric of Sasha’s story?

Elena Gorokhova: In World War II (known in Russia as the Great Patriotic War), one in every seven Russians was killed by the enemy. Because of such immense loss of life, the war was the glue that has held the country together. There is no family in Russia that didn’t lose someone in the maw of battle, and mine was no exception. My two uncles never came back from the war: one was mortally wounded and died at his home in Ivanovo; the other was stationed on the border between the Soviet Union and Poland and is still listed as missing in action. The first uncle was an artist, educated at the Leningrad Academy of Arts, just like Sasha’s uncle in the book. In the novel, the two switched places. The artist became the soldier missing in action, and all those What if questions sprang to my mind, laying the groundwork for his story. What if he hadn’t been killed and made it all the way to Berlin? What if he, unlike his communist father, had questioned the infallibility of his righteous motherland and the façade of lies erected and safeguarded by its leaders?

Sasha Vasilyuk: Sasha grows up to believe that Soviet society is built on lies that are propagated not just by the government, but by individuals. As I read that, I viscerally felt not just Sasha’s anger, but the author’s as well. Why is that theme important to you?

Elena Gorokhova: I first explored the theme of lies in my memoir A Mountain of Crumbs. In Soviet Russia, there existed two entirely parallel realities. In one reality, there were best ever harvests, happy citizens marched in civil parades and thanked the Party for their welfare, and life was a paradise that every capitalist country envied. In the other reality, there were empty store shelves and communal apartments where several families shared a kitchen and a toilet; there were closed borders, banned books, and censored plays. The first, a made-up reality, was a huge state-sponsored lie. This split defined my life in the 1960s and 1970s, the same way it defines the lives of every character in A Train to Moscow.

Sasha Vasilyuk: Everyone in the book has a secret. What do you think about the price of secrets? And do you think there is something especially Soviet about secrecy and silence?

Elena Gorokhova: I think all people have secrets, no matter where they live. But there is something especially Soviet about secrecy because it was elevated to the state level in that society, and there was something especially Soviet about silence because it was the silence and complicity of Russians that oiled the Stalin slaughter machine and later, after Stalin’s death, allowed the Soviet state to creak on as long as it did.

Sasha Vasilyuk: Toward the end of the book, Andrei, Sasha’s love interest who works for the Party, has this brilliant line: “Our system is pure genius: executioners and victims are the same people. The engine of death has been in motion for decades, and no one is guilty, because everyone is guilty.” As the war in Ukraine began, I’ve been watching Russian society face issues of complicity and I’ve been thinking that the Soviet system never taught us how to feel guilty, how it absolved us just like Andrei said. What do you think, are we Russians capable of feeling our responsibility for past and present traumas?

Elena Gorokhova: Unlike other societies, Russia has never looked into the face of its grim history and never examined the causes and effects of its Soviet atrocities. (Khrushchev tried, after Stalin’s death, but was quickly removed from power. Gorbachev also tried, but those efforts, regrettably, didn’t lead to a democratic society or a better understanding by Russians of their own history). I think those Russians who are capable of feeling their responsibility for past and present traumas have either left the country or have been taken hostage by Putin’s war and imperial ambitions.

Sasha Vasilyuk: What has it been like to have A Train to Moscow come out right at the onset of the war in Ukraine?

Elena Gorokhova: A Train to Moscow came out on March 1, five days after the war began. In retrospect, I should have thought of a better title because the word “Moscow” has been poisoned since February 24, 2022. One thing never occurred to me as I was writing this novel: I had no idea how closely the country depicted in the book would resemble Putin’s Russia today. Putin has sent history in reverse, and my former motherland is back to where it used to be when the country was called the USSR: a totalitarian society based on lies where life moves along the tracks of two entirely different realities.

Sasha Vasilyuk is a Russian-Ukrainian-American writer and journalist who grew up between Moscow and San Francisco with annual visits to Donbas, Ukraine. She is the author of the forthcoming novel Your Presence is Mandatory about a Soviet Ukrainian prisoner of war and his family (Bloomsbury, 2024). Sasha has an MA in Journalism from New York University and has written about Eastern Europe for The New York Times, Harper’s Bazaar, BBC, The Telegraph, NBC, Narrative, USA Today, Los Angeles Times, and elsewhere. Sasha can be found on social @sashavasilyuk and at www.sashavasilyuk.com.

The Everyday and Invisible Histories of Women: A Review of Oksana Zabuzhko’s Your Ad Could Go Here by Emma Pratt

We at Punctured Lines are grateful to Emma Pratt for her review of Oksana Zabuzhko’s Your Ad Could Go Here (trans. Nina Murray and others). This review was planned before the war broke out and was delayed, among other things, by my inability to focus on much when it did. I am thankful to Emma for her patience with this process and for bringing Zabuzhko’s work to the attention of our readers. Please donate here to support Ukrainian translators and here to support evacuation and relief efforts.

Oksana Zabuzhko’s Your Ad Could Go Here by Emma Pratt

Ukrainian writer Oksana Zabuzhko’s third book in English, Your Ad Could Go Here (trans. Nina Murray et al., Amazon Crossing, 2020), is a collection of short stories, some of which were previously published in various English-language journals and anthologies. The collection is edited by Nina Murray, the translator of Zabuzhko’s novel The Museum of Abandoned Secrets, and features translations by Murray, Halyna Hryn (the translator of Zabuzhko’s first novel, Fieldwork in Ukrainian Sex), Askold Melnyczuk, Marco Carynnyk, and Marta Horban. The book includes eight stories and is divided into three parts.

The first two stories in Part I, “Oh Sister, My Sister” and “Girls,” feature Darka and recount her Soviet Ukrainian childhood. “Oh Sister, My Sister,” told in the second person, narrates an incident from Darka’s childhood when the KGB raided her apartment, and the aftermath for her and her family, in particular her mother, Natalia, and her sister, who was never born as a result. The story delves into the effects of this trauma on interfamilial relationships, particularly that between Darka and Natalia. Natalia has an abortion because she chooses to protect Darka at the expense of her unborn sister:

It was perhaps at that very moment, when she rushed to take you into her arms, to embrace and shield you with her whole body, that a realization flashed through your mother’s mind, an obscure, alarming truth: she would not be able to shield the both of you. She had no room for two. Thus you, by virtue of your fully realized, irrevocable presence in this world, edged your sister out of it.

Darka and Natalia are only freed from their memories of the unborn baby when Anton, Darka’s father and Natalia’s husband, passes away and is reunited with the little girl in the afterlife.

In “Girls,” an adult Darka attends her school reunion and reflects on her complicated childhood relationship with her friend, Effie. The sophisticated Effie filled the void of Darka’s “sisterlessness.” The two experimented sexually together, but following Effie’s scandalous sexual encounter with an older boy and accusations that she traded in smuggled goods, Darka denounced her at the Pioneer Council, which she remains ashamed of as an adult.  Her nervousness about the reunion comes to naught, as no one else remembers Darka’s denunciation and Effie herself doesn’t attend. The class gossip says she is now overweight and suffering from mental health issues. Darka goes home with another classmate, regrets the fling, and concludes that she needs to be more supportive of the people she loves.  

The third story in Part I, “The Tale of the Guelder Rose Flute,” is a full version of the fairytale Darka reads in “Oh Sister, My Sister.” This story occurs at an unspecified point in the mythical past in a rural village, where sisters Hannusia and Olenka come of age and look for love. After Olenka gets engaged to Dmytro, the most eligible bachelor in the village whom Hannusia herself rejected, Hannusia becomes the bride of the devil. Her entanglement with evil ends in tragedy for Olenka, whose spirit helps catch her sister when visiting traders come to their home and play the flute. “Oh Sister, My Sister” and “The Tale of the Guelder Rose Flute” are connected by the themes of sisterhood, sibling rivalry, and betrayal. Reading the fairytale, Darka takes its message personally, feeling that the flute song accuses her of being the cause of her sister being aborted: “Gently, gently, my sister, play, do not stab my heart today; it was you, sister, who drove us apart, plunged a knife into my heart.” In “The Tale of the Guelder Rose Flute,”  Olenka’s voice comes from the flute and sings a slightly different version describing how Hannusia murdered her: “Gently, gently, young carter, play, do not startle my heart today; it is my sister who made me depart, plunged a knife into my heart.” While Hannusia was directly responsible for her sister’s death, Darka was not, though she feels guilt for it.

Part II takes place in independent Ukraine in the early 21st century. The title character in “I, Milena” is a TV journalist who hosts a talk show featuring betrayed women, in whose own marriage the television set functions as the third member. When Milena’s mother calls her saying she looks pregnant on her latest show, Milena rewatches the broadcast and rushes to the studio, where she stumbles upon a surreal version of her life and encounters the other Milena, who she fears is trying to kill her. Milena and the reader become increasingly confused as Zabuzhko plays with the narrative point of view, and Milena becomes more and more frightened as she tries to understand what is happening to her.

The 2004 Orange Revolution features in “An Album for Gustav” and the title story, “Your Ad Could Go Here.” “An Album for Gustav” refutes West European stereotypes of Ukraine as cold and autocratic and scrutinizes foreign journalists’ work in the country. The unnamed first-person storytellers, a couple consisting of “She,” a historian, and “He,” a photographer, the only male narrator in the book, describe their experiences in the Orange Revolution while showing “his” photographs to the Dutchman Gustav, who is putting together a book about the protests. In addition to the explanations of Ukrainian politics, history, and culture, the story offers a glimpse into the couple’s relationship, tender though punctuated with frustrations and omissions, and Zabuzhko’s view of male-female relations. The “She” narrator says, “All men of the world are our children. Except during wars, of course. Or popular uprisings. Also, revolutions. Then they are different. All visible history belongs to them, to men—they know how to band together.” The stories in Zabuzhko’s collection, on the other hand, shed light on the everyday and invisible histories of women.

“Your Ad Could Go Here” describes the magical fairytale-like experience of buying bespoke, possibly enchanted, gloves, which see the narrator through the Orange Revolution. The gloves seem to choose other garments and

[i]n the fall of 2004 they suddenly fell in love with a flamboyant fiery scarf, which I then wore throughout the entire Orange Revolution—never mind that the scarf did not come from a fashion designer and cost a third of what the gloves had. They were perfect together, and press photographers all to the man wanted my picture in that orange scarf and my sunshine gloves.

Upon losing one of the gloves, she tries to replace it on a trip to Vienna only to find that the glove maker has passed away and the shop replaced by a chain. This incident leads to musings on consumer culture, the death of craft and tradition, and the impermanence of even the written word, which should be more reliable than an easily lost glove.

Part III moves to present-day Ukraine. “The Tennis Instructor” depicts a budding affair between Mrs. Martha, a writer, and the titular sports coach. Mrs. Martha’s husband, Oleh, enrolls her in the tennis lessons after she gives him a tennis racket “because I [Mrs. Martha] was feeling guilty about something I no longer remember, which has been happening more and more recently.” Her idea that when she learns to play she can partner with him to strengthen their marriage turns out to be ironic. While practicing serves, Mrs. Martha ruminates on her relationship with Oleh and her discomfort with learning new physical activities, stemming from a traumatic childhood bicycle lesson: “I will never be able to [play tennis], you can point a gun at me and I still won’t be able to move like that. Any situation that requires me to go through the process of acquiring a physical skill in public instantly throws me thirty years back, to that same little bike—I go deaf, blind, enter a stupor, and wait for it all to end so that I can be set free again.” Despite her struggles, Mrs. Martha ultimately serves correctly and has the epiphany that she will one day surpass Oleh’s skill. Her emotions all come to the surface and the instructor hugs her to comfort her, starting their romance and putting into question her future with Oleh.

The ongoing war in eastern Ukraine plays a role in the final story of the collection, “No Entry to the Performance Hall after the Third Bell.” It features Olha, a singer going through menopause and navigating the trials of explaining the loss she is feeling as well as the death of her abusive ex-boyfriend, who “was working for the Russians,” to her 17-year-old daughter, Ulyanka, whom she is beginning to see as a rival in femininity. Ultimately she realizes that because of the war, Ulyanka already understands loss. Olha muses, “She’ll go through everything I went through, but in her own way. My experience is of no help to her. I can’t help her. She simply won’t recognize it, she won’t see when she is walking in my steps—at least not until she reaches my age. Until she catches up to me at precisely this point—but I’ll no longer be there.” With this realization, Olha extends an olive branch to Ulyanka and treats her as a grown woman.

One commonality among the stories is Zabuzhko’s bringing to life interesting and realistic characters, overwhelmingly female, who are simultaneously successful and flawed. The book is unabashedly women-centered and probes themes such as relationships, love, marriage, sex, sisterhood, pregnancy, motherhood, and menopause. Her themes and characters have a lot in common with the much-maligned “chick lit,” but the collection is written in a more literary way for those who, like Mrs. Martha of “The Tennis Instructor,” would rather read a book than ride a bike. Part of what distinguishes the stories in this collection is the variety of narrative points of view: Zabuzhko employs first-, second-, and third-person narration. Although the stories have been translated by a number of translators, Nina Murray’s editing unifies them. Unlike Zabuzhko’s novel, The Museum of Abandoned Secrets, which has stream-of-consciousness narration, the short stories in Your Ad Could Go Here are written in more traditional prose and are therefore easier to read, while being full of interesting digressions and parenthetical remarks. This book is an excellent introduction to Zabuzhko’s writing and contemporary Ukraine. The buzz around her is well-deserved, and her work merits a wider audience in English, particularly as Ukraine tragically fills the headlines.

Emma Pratt is an Invited Lecturer in English at the International School of Economics at Tbilisi State University. She holds a BA in Political Science and Russian Area Studies from Wellesley College and an MA in Slavic and East European Studies from the Ohio State University. Though most of her coursework and research focused on politics, she enjoyed the fact that her degrees also allowed her to study literature.

Irina Mashinski’s The Naked World, Three Excerpts

Irina Mashinski’s The Naked World, recently published by MadHat Press after many years in the making, is an impressive achievement in the hybrid genre. The collection combines pieces of original and translated poetry and prose that together illuminate not only the author’s past but also her way of seeing. Thematically, this book centers four generations of a Soviet family from the Stalin era to the 1990s and immigration to the United States. Writer, translator, and editor Irina Mashinski has penned ten books of poetry in Russian, and this is her English-language debut that also includes her Russian-language poems in translation by Maria Bloshteyn, Boris Dralyuk, Angela Livingstone, Tony Brinkley, Alexander Sumerkin, and Daniel Weissbort. Mashinski is co-editor, with Robert Chandler and Boris Dralyuk, of The Penguin Book of Russian Poetry and of the Cardinal Points Journal.

We are grateful to the author and the publisher for permission to reproduce an excerpt from this remarkable book. The two prose pieces and poem below are included in the fourth and final section, “Borders,” preceded by two epigraphs. The first is a musical one, “The Second Piano Concerto—Rachmaninov/Richter.” The second is a quote from Susan Sontag: “My library is a library of longings.” As Ilya Kaminsky says in his preface, “Irina Mashinski looks at time between this Wednesday and next Friday—and sees eternity.”

The End of an Era. November

All classes have been canceled: Brezhnev, the immortal Secretary General of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, had died. The university administration orders us to stand in one long endless line along a wide desolate avenue on the Lenin Hills, by the University’s main Building built in the 1950s by inmates and German POWs.

We shift from one foot to the other and jump up and down in the frigid air that has enveloped Moscow. They often make us stand like this, stupidly, for hours, in an endless line, so that we could greet the leaders of brotherly socialist states. And then it comes: the stopped cars begin to honk as a sign of obligatory mourning—endlessly, desperately, hopefully, victoriously. We don’t know yet what is coming—all we know is that it is something different.

The arbitrary Soviet realm that had arrogantly pretended to be the only one imaginable, a space both eternal and dead, a space frozen for as long as I have known myself, is now shaken awake, and the outline of the university spire pointing in the white sky becomes blurry.

During the four decades that follow, after each political shock—dispersed demonstrations in Lithuania and Tbilisi, and the power battles that spilled onto the streets, and this or that little victorious war—the system, even after it officially expired and reemerged under a new name, will behave like the mercury in those old Soviet thermometers cherished by expatriates—after being shattered and, you’d think, dispersed forever, it would converge into the same familiar dimly glowing spheres.

The Fold. Photograph by Irina Mashinski

On the Fall of the Tyrants

This night I got up and came out of the trailer.
A strange sound woke me:
as if statues
were falling again and again.

The forest stood solemn, alert. The light sky was an oak trunk away.
Those were leaves, leaves, leaves, falling loudly,
—dictators, chiefs of the secret police, field marshals
all of them falling at last one by one rumbling colossus,

peeling bronze skin,
toppled by crowds
after 74 years—
little dry mummies . . .

Oh how they used to watch, watch from above!
Only birds painted
them with their bold blue,
white, green strokes of shit

(as at dawn a careless camper drops toothpaste
on the perfect grass by the brook),
tried to enliven with their warm dung
dull flat shine—birds flew at the statues,

colliding with merciless bronze.
Leaves were falling, like in August 1991, when
we stood mesmerized by a moment no one had dared dream of,
falling, toppled, each a dry little earthquake.

“Oh, let them, let them go down,” I thought, “let them
roll down that slippery hill, over clay, over breccia, and never
return,
let them pass all the traps of soil and ores,
straight, straight to the core of the naught.

Farewells

On October 25th, the old calendar anniversary of the October Revolution, we left forever. Plodding on foot downstairs from our 9th floor for the last time, I habitually glanced at our mailbox between the last two landings of the stairwell, as if there could be letters, or news—something that would keep me back here. Our crudely painted blue box still bore traces of a red hairy swastika someone daubed on it recently, and the black tar from a burning match someone else threw inside.

We were crossing my childhood city, the one and only city I knew, that was now turning into a hyperactive stranger, booming with flashy neon signs in a new language—neither Russian, nor English or French—with flickering kiosks, storefronts, and traffic lights that somehow seemed different. I was trying to recognize the familiar places that were flashing by—and to say goodbye to each one. The first autumn frost made the crisp darkness that was punctured by blinding lights even brighter. I knew I would never return, but as I was parting with Moscow, I wasn’t sure that the feelings I had were the ones I had expected.

For decades, I hadn’t been able to imagine myself without this city and its inhabitants, my friends, my kindred spirits, the likes of whom, I was sure, I would never find again—after all, one can’t be this fortunate twice,—and without the country itself, its landscapes, the entirety of Russian Nature, although I knew very well that, contrary to the comforting belief instilled in Soviet citizens by the propagandistic songs, these landscapes, with their iconic birch trees, their anthemized fields and rivers, were not unique—one can find very similar ones in other places on Earth.

A Motherland of Books: An Essay by Maria Bloshteyn

Taking your beloved books with you into immigration is intimately familiar to those of us who left the Soviet Union. My parents’ двухсоттомник—”200-volume set”—of Russian and world literature, was quite literally my lifeline to the language and culture that I may have otherwise forgotten, and they are still the editions I turn to today. The covers of the volumes are different colors, and some key moments of my life are associated with them, such as the dark green of Gogol’s Мертвые души (Dead Souls) when I started college. Reading Maria Bloshteyn’s essay was genuinely heart-wrenching, because the experience she describes is that of an acute loss of books that mean so much to us, not just for their content, but perhaps even more so because they have made the immigrants’ journey with us and sustained us in our new homes. In the current moment, this poignant essay is framed by the war in Ukraine, where people like us are losing not just their books, but their lives. If you are able to help, please support translators who are struggling due to the war and this initiative to give Ukrainian-language books to refugee children in Poland. Ukraine’s cultural sphere has been badly damaged by Russian forces, and we will continue to look for ways in which those of us in the West can help. Maria recently participated in the Born in the USSR, Raised in Canada event hosted by Punctured Lines, and you can listen to her read from an essay about reacting to the war in Ukraine while in the diaspora.

Maria Bloshteyn, A Motherland of Books

Written just before the war in Ukraine began, this essay elegizes the home libraries lovingly gathered and treasured by their owners in the Soviet era, these very libraries, with these very editions, that are being bombed today in Ukraine, along with their owners.

Surely our yellowed labels all spell doom

in letters too few learn, too few remember.

Boris Dralyuk, “Émigré Library”

The books are a heartache. I have been dreading this moment for years. My mother, the adored and formidable matriarch of our small family, had moved into a nursing home after struggling with dementia for the past several years. She doesn’t care now what will happen to the family library, but I do. These are, after all, the books that we brought with us from the Soviet Union, when we left it forever in 1979. I grew up looking at their spines both in our Leningrad flat and in our Toronto apartment: light brown for the complete edition of Pushkin, mauve for Heine’s poems, beige for Tolstoy’s collected works. The classics, the translated classics, the poetry chapbooks, the art albums, the subscription editions, children’s literature—they are all here. Once, they provided the continuity between the two vastly different worlds: one that was forever lost to us and the other that we were slowly learning to inhabit. Reading and rereading them kept me sane as I, rarely at a loss for words, found myself suddenly language-poor and unable to either defend myself against nasty verbal attacks I faced in school as the Russian kid, or to express myself adequately to friendlier others. 

These are the books that I am now packing into large cardboard boxes, as I am deciding their fate. Lowering them in, one by one, I think of the books that we weren’t allowed to bring with us as we left: most prominently, unfairly, and painfully, the single volume of Pushkin’s poems that my grandfather, part of the 13th Air Army during World War II, sent to my mother, evacuated to a village in the Urals. We weren’t allowed to take it, because it was published before some arbitrarily assigned cut-off year, which made it, ridiculously, a possible antiquity of value to the State. The passage of years hadn’t dimmed my sense of outrage. 

Dom knigi. Image credit: Google Images

The books that we were allowed to bring were mostly purchased by my parents during the years of their marriage. My father, whose promising law career was tanked by a prison term received as a result of taking the Soviet Codex of Labor Laws at face value, worked as an auditor for Dom knigi, the largest and most famous bookstore in Leningrad, located in a landmark building on Nevsky prospekt. Once a month, he would bring home a list of books available for purchase.  It was a privilege extended to the associates of Dom knigi. And a real privilege it was. 

The Soviet Union proclaimed itself to be the best-read country in the world. This boast was largely true. If you got onto a bus or a streetcar in the seventies, most passengers would be reading. Entertainment at home—where television meant two or three channels of largely boring programming—was also reading. Yet, if you walked into a book store, the selection of books available to an average customer without special connections was pathetically limited. You could choose from Leonid Brezhnev’s speeches and, if you were lucky, Lenin’s collected works. There was, however, a thriving black market for books. Francis Scott Fitzgerald’s collected works, for example, fetched ninety roubles on the black market—the monthly salary of an engineer. Books were a hot commodity and having access to books at the official prices (helpfully stamped onto the back cover) was a coveted benefit. Not that anyone ever resold books in our family—we bought our books for keeps. 

And so my father and mother would sit at the kitchen table, endlessly going over the list, comparing and contrasting, underlining, and debating with each other, as they chose the books that the family would be acquiring. Whichever books they selected, they’d have to make the same decision: would the family money go toward books or toward some needed items, say, for example, new clothes or pantyhose? Every single time, the decision was made in favor of books.

Later, when we would least expect it, my father would arrive home carrying a cardboard box, around which we’d all gather in eager anticipation. The opened box would release the heady smell of printer’s ink and paper—the intoxicating scent of new books. We’d take out the books one by one, resplendent in their glossy dust jackets, and admire them all. Next, we’d find a proper place for them on the bookshelves, among other books already residing there. And then we’d read them. Once the books were settled in, they were all equally accessible. That’s how I got to read Alberto Moravia and Georges Bernanos, whose vicious critiques of Western bourgeois society made them a logical choice for publication in the Soviet Union, as well as the first Russian translation of Jin Ping Mei, a scandalous 16th-century Chinese novel, all at the ripe old age of seven.

Then, in 1979, we left the USSR. We could have, theoretically, sold off the books, though it would have been emotionally wrenching, but the State helped us decide against that. At the time we left, we were only allowed to bring a small, almost symbolic amount of money with us, given that we were forced to sell whatever property we had, including our flat and our dacha. The money we received from the sales could just as well be spent on crates and packing material as on anything else. That settled it: the family library was accompanying us into the unknown. Our journey took us by airplane from Leningrad to Vienna, where we stayed for a few weeks in a seedy hotel previously used by the city’s sex workers, and then by train from Austria to Italy, where we spent both fall and winter in Ladispoli, a sleepy little seaside town not far from Rome, as we applied for entrance to Canada as refugees. We came to Canada in April of 1980 and then, what seemed like an eternity later, crates full of our books and other belongings finally arrived to our first Toronto apartment on Roselawn Avenue. I greeted the books with the joy and relief usually reserved for long-lost family members: here was the cure for loneliness, frustration, and boredom; here was the portal into other worlds that I could inhabit instead of the coldly unintelligible one in which I found myself.  

The books came, however, with an unexpected financial blow. It turned out that the money we had paid in the Soviet Union for shipping the books was not nearly enough. The crates sat in storage for months upon months and we had to pay the shipping company two thousand dollars in order to redeem them. The amount, substantial in any situation, was staggering to new arrivals with no financial reserves. But walking away from our books was not an option. My parents took out an interest-free loan from the Jewish Immigrant Aid Service. The family paid off that loan by sewing shoes—leather loafers. We’d pick up the large bags full of slips to be sewn together from the factory and then returned them there, completed, for $30 per bag. Although, to my shame, I never did get the hang of it, everyone else sewed, including my 80-year-old grandmother. It took about three years of loafer-sewing drudgery to repay the loan, but the books were worth it.

The books were there for us as no friends could ever be—a 24/7 resource to be reached for as support, entertainment, escape, and a source of wisdom. They were there as I grew up, went to university and to graduate school. They were there as I amassed my own library of books, in Russian as well as in English, got married, and had kids. My husband is Canadian-born and has no connections with Russia except through me. My kids read in English. The books that I am taking from the family library now will therefore be for my own use.  I can’t possibly keep all or even most of them—our many bookshelves at home are already overflowing with books and I have given up many of my other books to make space as it is. So now I’m deciding which books to keep and which books to donate to our multicultural resource library. They won’t be put on the library shelves—they’ll go to the book sale section, where anyone can purchase them for a symbolic sum that goes to fund the library. I know the book-sale section well. I picked up all kinds of treasures there over the years, all in fierce competition with other book hunters.

The author holding Anatole France’s collected works. Image credit: Maria Bloshteyn

The books I’m leaving at the book sale will be someone’s windfall to be treasured. Yet, I still feel like I am betraying the books. Their aged, weathered covers exude reproach. I might as well, like Shakespeare’s Prospero, be drowning them deeper than did ever plummet sound. I go again through the books that I’m giving away, pull several out of the boxes and set them aside, take a deep breath, and drive the boxes to the library. One of the librarians is Russian—she knows what I’m going through. If it wasn’t for Covid, I’d get a hug. “Don’t worry,” she says, “they’ll find good homes.” Maybe, but still… I go through the boxes again, just in case. I take the lid off one box and eight volumes of the collected works of Anatole France stare up at me. I never liked Anatole France. I can’t imagine dipping into one of his books for pleasure. But my mother loved his ironic detachment and reread his books more than once. Maybe that’s what I need now, I think to myself—ironic detachment… I pull out all eight volumes from the box, holding them close as I struggle to balance them in my arms. “I’m taking these home,” I say to the librarian. “I’m not letting go of them just yet.”

January 2022

Maria Bloshteyn was born in Leningrad and emigrated to Toronto when she was nine.  She received her PhD from Toronto’s York University and was a postdoctoral fellow at Columbia University. Her main scholarly interests lie in the field of literary and cultural exchange between Russia and the United States, with a special focus on Dostoevsky’s impact on American literature and culture. She is the author of The Making of a Counter-Culture Icon: Henry Miller’s Dostoevsky (University of Toronto Press, 2007), the translator of Alexander Galich’s Dress Rehearsal: A Story in Four Acts and Five Chapters (Slavica, 2009) and Anton Chekhov’s The Prank (NYRB Classics, 2015), and the editor of Russia is Burning: Poems of the Great Patriotic War (Smokestack Books, 2020).  Her articles appeared in a number of scholarly and not-so-scholarly journals and her translations have appeared in a number of journals and anthologies, including The Penguin Book of Russian Poetry (Penguin Classics, 2015). 

Born in the USSR, Raised in Canada

We’re happy to share the recording from the event we hosted on May 15, 2022, gathering writers who were born in the former Soviet Union and immigrated to Canada as children. Currently located all across Canada, from Montreal (Luba Markovskaia) to Vancouver (Maria Reva) with a definite hub around Toronto (Julia Zarankin, Lea Zeltserman, Maria Lioutaia, Maria Bloshteyn), these generous writers shared excerpts from their work and answered questions about living with hyphenated identities and building writing communities. Russia’s war in Ukraine was at the forefront of this conversation, as most of the writers and the participants have family and friends affected by the bombs. This event was a fundraiser, and we encourage everyone to continue donating to the organizations listed below.

Please enjoy this recording and reach out to us with ideas for future projects!

Organizations to support:

Donate directly to Ukraine’s military: https://bank.gov.ua/en/news/all/natsionalniy-bank-vidkriv-spetsrahunok-dlya-zboru-koshtiv-na-potrebi-armiyi

UNHCR Ukraine Emergency Relief Fund: https://give.unhcr.ca/page/100190/donate/1

JIAS Ukraine Refugee Response: https://jiastoronto.org/ukraine-crisis-update/

ROLDA, helping stranded animals/pets: https://rolda.org/breaking-news-ukraine/

Ukraine Trust Chain, helping evacuate civilians out of war zones: https://www.ukrainetrustchain.org/

Questions?

Email: puncturedlines [at] gmail.com

Bios:

Maria Bloshteyn was born in Leningrad and emigrated to Toronto when she was nine. She received her PhD from Toronto’s York University and was a postdoctoral fellow at Columbia University. Her main scholarly interests lie in the field of literary and cultural exchange between Russia and the United States, with a special focus on Dostoevsky’s impact on American literature and culture. She is the author of The Making of a Counter-Culture Icon: Henry Miller’s Dostoevsky (University of Toronto Press, 2007), the translator of Alexander Galich’s Dress Rehearsal: A Story in Four Acts and Five Chapters (Slavica, 2009) and Anton Chekhov’s The Prank (NYRB Classics, 2015), and the editor of Russia is Burning: Poems of the Great Patriotic War (Smokestack Books, 2020). Her articles appeared in a number of scholarly and not-so-scholarly journals and her translations have appeared in a number of journals and anthologies, including The Penguin Book of Russian Poetry (Penguin Classics, 2015).

Maria Lioutaia was born in Moscow and now lives and writes in Toronto. Her fiction has recently appeared in Ploughshares, One Story, Gulf Coast, Tin House, Electric Literature’s Recommended Reading, and Conjunctions. She was a Tin House scholar, a finalist for The Iowa Review Awards, and was on the longlist for the CBC Short Story Prize four times. She holds an MFA from NYU, where she was a Goldwater Fellow. Her last name means “fierce” in Russian. She’s currently at work on a novel.

Luba Markovskaia was born in Leningrad and lives in Montreal. She holds a PhD in French literature from McGill University and works as an independent literary and cultural translator. Her writing on language, identity, and immigration has appeared in publications such as Moebius, Spirale, and Nuit blanche, as well as in translation in Maisonneuve Magazine and Quebec Reads, and was shortlisted for the French CBC Nonfiction Prize. In 2021, she received the John Glassco Translation Prize for her translation of Elena Johnson’s Field Notes for the Alpine Tundra. She sits on the editorial board of Spirale magazine. You can visit her LTAC profile and connect with her on Twitter at @luba_mark.

Maria Reva writes fiction and opera libretti. She is the author of the linked story collection Good Citizens Need Not Fear (Doubleday, Virago, and Knopf Canada New Face of Fiction, 2020), which was inspired by her own family’s experiences in Ukraine. Maria’s stories have appeared in The Atlantic, McSweeney’s, Granta, The Journey Prize Stories, The Best American Short Stories, and elsewhere. She won a National Magazine Award in 2019 and was a finalist for the Writers’ Trust of Canada 2020 Fiction Prize. Maria was born in Ukraine and grew up in New Westminster, British Columbia. She received her MFA from the Michener Center for Writers at the University of Texas.

Julia Zarankin is the author of FIELD NOTES FROM AN UNINTENTIONAL BIRDER. Her writing has appeared in Audubon, Canadian Geographic, ON Nature, The Walrus, The Globe and Mail, Birding Magazine, Hazlitt, Threepenny Review, and Orion Magazine. She was recently a finalist for the CBC Short Story prize (2020). When not hanging out with a spotting scope at sewage lagoons or working furiously at her desk, Julia lectures to lifelong learners in and around Toronto. Zarankin is currently at work on a novel that features, among other things, a Babushka Beauty Pageant.

Born in St. Petersburg back when it was Leningrad, Lea Zeltserman was raised in Edmonton and now calls Toronto home. She writes about Soviet-Jewish food, history, immigration, and culture. Her work has appeared in the Globe and Mail, Tablet, the Forward, Chatelaine, Today’s Parent, Walrus, and others. An essay on Soviet-Jewish food was included in the 100 Jewish Foods anthology from Tablet Magazine. She also publishes the Soviet-Samovar, a monthly round-up of FSU writing. Find her online at https://leazeltserman.com or on Twitter at https://twitter.com/zeltserman and Instagram: @leazelt.

Yevgenia Nayberg’s I Hate Borsch! (Eerdmans, 2022): A Way to Benefit Ukraine

Yevgenia Nayberg is the author and illustrator of several imaginative and visually stunning children’s books. In Anya’s Secret Society, a Russian immigrant girl who loves to draw discovers that, unlike where she came from, being left-handed is perfectly acceptable in America (left-handedness was considered in need of pointed correction in the Soviet Union, as my maternal grandfather could have attested to). Typewriter is the story of, well, a Russian typewriter brought to America and then abandoned by its owner, that finds a new home in the end. I particularly appreciate these children’s books because as far as I know, they’re the only ones that feature immigrant protagonists from the former Soviet Union. Nayberg’s latest book is I Hate Borsch! (what?! Who can possibly hate borsch?!), about a girl who, indeed, can’t stand the stuff but has a change of heart after emigrating from Ukraine to the U.S. The book includes Nayberg’s recipe for the (absolutely delicious) dish. And given several recent Twitter threads in which native Russian speakers expressed dismay at being told that they don’t spell its name correctly in English, I Hate Borsch! spells it exactly as it should be (for fans of Library of Congress transliteration, “borshch” is also acceptable, and no other spellings are).

Until June 30th, part of the proceeds from the book’s sales go to benefit Ukraine. Support Ukraine, support immigrant writers, support borsch. You can also donate here and here to help bring food to those who need it in Ukraine.

Yevgenia Nayberg is an award-winning illustrator, painter, and set and costume designer. Her illustrations have appeared in magazines and picture books, and on theatre posters, music albums, and book covers; her paintings, drawings, and illustrations are held in private collections worldwide. As a set and costume designer, she has been the recipient of numerous awards, including the National Endowment for the Arts/TCG Fellowship for Theatre Designers, the Independent Theatre Award, and the Arlin Meyer Award. She has received multiple awards for her picture book illustrations, including three Sydney Taylor Medals. Her debut author/illustrator picture book, Anya’s Secret Society, came out in 2019 and received a Junior Library Guild Gold Selection Award. She’s an author/illustrator of Typewriter and Mona Lisa In New York.  Her latest book, I Hate Borsch! was published this year. Born and raised in Kyiv, Ukraine, she now lives in New York City.

Born in the USSR, Raised in Canada: A Reading in Support of Ukraine

Punctured Lines is delighted to bring you our next event–a reading and a Q&A with six established authors who were born in the former Soviet Union and immigrated to Canada as children. In their fiction and nonfiction they explore topics of multicultural identity, life under communism, Jewish culture, food, history, and making a home in a strange land.

Please register on Eventbrite: https://www.eventbrite.com/e/born-in-the-ussr-raised-in-canada-a-reading-in-support-of-ukraine-tickets-315030252967

We began planning this event before Russia’s renewed, full-scale attack on Ukraine, and we want to acknowledge that this war is resonating deeply throughout the diasporic community. We feel that it’s particularly important for us to come together at this time, to listen to each other’s stories and to amplify each other’s voices and resources in support of the people of Ukraine in their fight against the Russian totalitarian regime. We also want to extend our support to those citizens of the Russian Federation resisting and fleeing from this regime.

*** This event will be recorded. ***

*** This event is a fundraiser and we encourage everyone to donate money directly to organizations supporting Ukraine and Russian protesters. Suggested donation starts at $5.

Organizations to support:

Donate directly to Ukraine’s military: https://bank.gov.ua/en/news/all/natsionalniy-bank-vidkriv-spetsrahunok-dlya-zboru-koshtiv-na-potrebi-armiyi

UNHCR Ukraine Emergency Relief Fund: https://give.unhcr.ca/page/100190/donate/1

JIAS Ukraine Refugee Response: https://jiastoronto.org/ukraine-crisis-update/

ROLDA, helping stranded animals/pets: https://rolda.org/breaking-news-ukraine/

Ukraine Trust Chain, helping evacuate civilians out of war zones: https://www.ukrainetrustchain.org/

Questions?

Email: puncturedlines [at] gmail.com

Bios:

Maria Bloshteyn was born in Leningrad and emigrated to Toronto when she was nine. She received her PhD from Toronto’s York University and was a postdoctoral fellow at Columbia University. Her main scholarly interests lie in the field of literary and cultural exchange between Russia and the United States, with a special focus on Dostoevsky’s impact on American literature and culture. She is the author of The Making of a Counter-Culture Icon: Henry Miller’s Dostoevsky (University of Toronto Press, 2007), the translator of Alexander Galich’s Dress Rehearsal: A Story in Four Acts and Five Chapters (Slavica, 2009) and Anton Chekhov’s The Prank (NYRB Classics, 2015), and the editor of Russia is Burning: Poems of the Great Patriotic War (Smokestack Books, 2020). Her articles appeared in a number of scholarly and not-so-scholarly journals and her translations have appeared in a number of journals and anthologies, including The Penguin Book of Russian Poetry (Penguin Classics, 2015).

Maria Lioutaia was born in Moscow and now lives and writes in Toronto. Her fiction has recently appeared in Ploughshares, One Story, Gulf Coast, Tin House, Electric Literature’s Recommended Reading, and Conjunctions. She was a Tin House scholar, a finalist for The Iowa Review Awards, and was on the longlist for the CBC Short Story Prize four times. She holds an MFA from NYU, where she was a Goldwater Fellow. Her last name means “fierce” in Russian. She’s currently at work on a novel.

Luba Markovskaia was born in Leningrad and lives in Montreal. She holds a PhD in French literature from McGill University and works as an independent literary and cultural translator. Her writing on language, identity, and immigration has appeared in publications such as Moebius, Spirale, and Nuit blanche, as well as in translation in Maisonneuve Magazine and Quebec Reads, and was shortlisted for the French CBC Nonfiction Prize. In 2021, she received the John Glassco Translation Prize for her translation of Elena Johnson’s Field Notes for the Alpine Tundra. She sits on the editorial board of Spirale magazine. You can visit her LTAC profile and connect with her on Twitter at @luba_mark.

Maria Reva writes fiction and opera libretti. She is the author of the linked story collection Good Citizens Need Not Fear (Doubleday, Virago, and Knopf Canada New Face of Fiction, 2020), which was inspired by her own family’s experiences in Ukraine. Maria’s stories have appeared in The Atlantic, McSweeney’s, Granta, The Journey Prize Stories, The Best American Short Stories, and elsewhere. She won a National Magazine Award in 2019 and was a finalist for the Writers’ Trust of Canada 2020 Fiction Prize. Maria was born in Ukraine and grew up in New Westminster, British Columbia. She received her MFA from the Michener Center for Writers at the University of Texas.

Julia Zarankin is the author of FIELD NOTES FROM AN UNINTENTIONAL BIRDER. Her writing has appeared in Audubon, Canadian Geographic, ON Nature, The Walrus, The Globe and Mail, Birding Magazine, Hazlitt, Threepenny Review, and Orion Magazine. She was recently a finalist for the CBC Short Story prize (2020). When not hanging out with a spotting scope at sewage lagoons or working furiously at her desk, Julia lectures to lifelong learners in and around Toronto. Zarankin is currently at work on a novel that features, among other things, a Babushka Beauty Pageant.

Born in St. Petersburg back when it was Leningrad, Lea Zeltserman was raised in Edmonton and now calls Toronto home. She writes about Soviet-Jewish food, history, immigration, and culture. Her work has appeared in the Globe and Mail, Tablet, the Forward, Chatelaine, Today’s Parent, Walrus, and others. An essay on Soviet-Jewish food was included in the 100 Jewish Foods anthology from Tablet Magazine. She also publishes the Soviet-Samovar, a monthly round-up of FSU writing. Find her online at https://leazeltserman.com or on Twitter at https://twitter.com/zeltserman and Instagram: @leazelt.

Secrets: An Excerpt from Nataliya Meshchaninova’s Stories of a Life, translated by Fiona Bell

Nataliya Meshchaninova is Russian filmmaker. In 2017, she published a book of autobiographical short stories that resonated with her audience, in part, because they supported the Russian #metoo movement. In February 2022, Deep Vellum brought out Fiona Bell’s translation of Meshchaninova’s book under the title Stories of a Life. We are honored to share with you an excerpt from this book, a section from the fourth chapter, “Secrets.”

The book centers on Meshchaninova’s complex relationship with her mother and her mother’s lovers and includes troubling depictions of abuse. Punctured Lines asked Fiona Bell to tell us about her experiences translating this book, and she generously responded:

The breezy, tongue-in-cheek style that Meshchaninova uses to narrate the horrifying events of her childhood [was the most challenging and the most rewarding aspect of this translation project]. To translate someone else’s trauma is hard enough—adopting the survivor’s “I” when none of this had happened to me—but to do it in a joking tone was even more complicated. But this is the incredible appeal of Stories of a Life. Although we don’t associate trauma narratives and humor, Meshchaninova gives us both. She is somehow swaggering in her vulnerability.

Please enjoy the excerpt and buy this book to read the full, gripping story of one remarkable woman’s childhood.

Secrets

by Nataliya Meshchaninova, translated by Fiona Bell

My parents got divorced when I was five. That’s why I remember my father as a father only very hazily. I have a few memories. The first: I’m standing in the mudroom dressed in my winter clothes, ready to go outside, and I see my mom screaming hysterically, her arms raised, my two older sisters clinging to her like branches to a tree. My father’s standing in the doorway, saying something like, “Oh, come on, Katya!” That was a weird moment. The second: my father is sitting on the couch, munching on sunflower seeds, and I’m on the floor by his legs, waiting for him to split some open and stick a handful of shelled kernels into my mouth. The third: my father asks me to bring him his slippers, and I say, “No, no, a nightingale never sings for a pig, ask a crow instead!” The fourth: I watch in horror as my father covers the kitchen floor with plucked chicken carcasses. The whole kitchen—the entire floor: carcasses. Nowhere to stand. As soon as he turns his back, I start frantically throwing the carcasses out the window, hoping I could still save them.

There you have it, all my memories. I’m not even sure they’re real, they might just be imaginings based on my mom’s stories.

Anyway, when I turned five, they got divorced, and I wasn’t too upset because my mom, in celebration of her freedom, planned a nice trip to Taman and took me along. Sometimes I’d ask, “Mom, where’s Dad?”

“What do we need Dad for?” she’d say cheerfully, bobbing in the sea, “We’re having fun all by ourselves!”

I agreed—it wasn’t bad without him around—and I stopped asking.

My father started living with another family pretty quickly, and soon there was a new girl calling him “Dad” without a twinge of conscience. None of it made sense anymore, and I stopped thinking of him as my father. I suddenly realized that being a dad was a bullshit temp job, that you could quit or pick a new daughter whenever you wanted.

My father loved my older sisters, but me, not so much. Probably because they were already wise and grown-up. They visited him a lot, but whenever I went, I just got fed and then sent home. They always had the best chicken at his place.

After the divorce, we never had chicken at my house. Clearly, my father considered it his sacred duty to feed me once a week. Soon, his new wife got sick of these feedings, and I could tell, so I stopped coming over for chicken. That’s pretty much the whole story of our relationship, me and my father’s. I didn’t know him, never really had the chance.

My mom loved to sit me on her lap and ask, “Natashenka, what’s your relationship like with Vitka?” That’s what she called my father, short for Viktor. I’d say, “Well, what kind of relationship could I have with Vitka, since he got stingy with the chicken and gave me second-hand underwear for my birthday?”

“There,” my mom finally said, satisfied, “you see! He’s a pig! He’s always been a pig! Now, I’m going to tell you something, but you can’t tell anyone . . .”

Then she’d tell me some secret from their married life. My father had always been a horrible pig, he’d done some really awful things.

“Once,” my mother said tragically, “Vitka lost some money to Polikarpych in a game of dominoes. To pay the debt, he said, ‘Go to my place, Katerina will give you . . . well, she’ll sleep with you.’ So, Polikarpych came over, and I’m thinking, Whoa whoa whoa, whats he doing here? And he starts coming on to me! Right in front of you guys. But you weren’t born yet. So, in front of Lena and Oksana. He started grabbing my breasts! I said, ‘Have you lost your mind? Vitka will kill you!’ But he said, ‘Vitka’s the one who sent me!’ Well, I grabbed you kids and locked us all in the bathroom. He tried to force his way in but gave up after a while and, out of spite, locked us in from the outside. So we spent an entire day locked in the bathroom, hungry, with only tap water to drink. Then Vitka got home, unlocked the door, and told me to laugh it off!”

Wide-eyed with horror, I looked at my mom and thought to myself, My father isnt just a pig, hes the ringleader of all the pigs in the world.

God, Mom, no one asked for your fucking secrets!

But I understand how important it was for you to tell these stories. You needed an ally in that war. My older sisters were a lost cause—they loved their father. But I hadn’t had the chance. That’s how I became the Louise to my mom’s Thelma. Even to this day. That’s how intense and enduring these secrets have been.

Although now I realize how hard that senseless marriage was on both of them.

Here’s the story: My father had a girlfriend he was head over heels in love with. She cheated on him, or planned to, so he lost his mind and decided to teach her a lesson by marrying another woman. That other woman was my mother. That’s it. When I asked my mom why she married him, she said, “Vitka was tall and handsome and, besides, I wasn’t getting any younger.”

The night before the wedding, my father’s girlfriend called him in tears and begged him not to get married, to forgive her. But, like I said, my father had lost his mind. That’s where stupidity gets you: married.

To continue reading, please buy the book.

Fiona Bell is a literary translator and scholar of Russian literature who is committed to sharing the voices of contemporary female and nonbinary Russian writers with anglophone audiences. Bell’s essays have appeared in Full Stop, The Los Angeles Review of Books, and elsewhere. She is from St. Petersburg, Florida, but currently lives in New Haven, Connecticut while earning a Ph.D. in Slavic Languages and Literature at Yale University.

Valzhyna Mort’s Music for the Dead and Resurrected: Review by Katsiaryna Lozka

The suburbs of Minsk, the Kurapaty forest, the night of October 29-30. Here, in 1937, the Soviet NKVD executed over one hundred Belarusian intellectuals, among them prominent writers and poets, including Aleś Dudar, Michaś Zarecki, Jurka Lavonny, and others. The brutally murdered Belarusians received no proper burial, and the tragedy was shrouded in silence until the late 1980s, when Belarusians began holding an annual action in memory of the Night of Executed Poets. This “forest of the unburied dead,” which is referred to in the poem “To Antigone, a Dispatch,” is the starting point for Valzhyna Mort’s third English-language poetry collection that lifts the curtain on history and life in Mort’s native Belarus. Starting from its title, Music for the Dead and Resurrected points to the cultural context where individual and national memories are constantly concealed, repressed, and distorted. Mort’s poems claim the remains of the past and attempt to reintegrate the fragmented national memories and narratives into the present.

Music for the Dead and Resurrected is a story of identity and remembering.  In the poem “An Attempt at Genealogy,” Mort asks several times: “But where am I from?” This need to find a personal point of origin and to reclaim history is at the core of her poems. “A bone is a key to my motherland,” says Mort, pointing to the suppressed memories and unknown fates of thousands of people. Mort makes us aware of the silence on the verge of screaming that permeates every cell of her nation’s body. Confronting the legacies of family and collective violence, this collection of poems gives voice to the silenced and murdered. “Antigone, […] pick me for a sister,” Mort appeals in “To Antigone, a Dispatch” demonstrating a sense of remembering and responsibility to her family history and to the history of the Belarusian nation. The engagement in self-reflection and demand for an honest national conversation also reverberate throughout Belarusian society today. In October 2020, Belarusians made a human chain, “Kurapaty-Akrestsina: Never Again!” from the Akrestsina detention center in Minsk, a symbol of the brutal suppression of the protests that erupted after the contested presidential election, to the Kurapaty forest, a Stalin-era execution site, thus pointing to the continuity of their torn national narrative.

Mort’s poetry masterfully shows how, incomplete and distorted, these memories allow the unconfronted past to maintain itself in the present. Her poem “Bus Stops: Ars Poetica” is set on the streets of Minsk, where instead of confronting the violent past, its perpetrators become cemented in everyday life and even glorified:

One by one, streets introduced themselves

with the names of national

murderers.

Repressed and distorted, the individual and collective memory of Belarus claws its way through the forests and swamps, resisting oblivion. As if seeking their final resting place, the ghosts of the unresolved past haunt the land in the present. Here, “every ditch, every hill is a suspect” and a witness to the continuous human tragedy.

Reminders about the murderous historical past are given in the lines like a chain of radioactive emissions. “Radiation, an etymology of soil,” Mort says, recounting the 1986 Chernobyl tragedy. On April 26, 1986, a reactor at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant in northern Ukraine exploded and burned, sending a cloud of radiation to neighboring Belarus. The Soviet authorities at first attempted to deny the incident and their silence exacerbated the terrible human costs of this disaster. In today’s Belarus, the authorities continue to deny and neglect the effects of the radioactive fallout. “Mine is a city defaced with light’s acid,” says Mort. This acid is not visible, this soil is silent, but the spirit of the unconfronted disaster permeates the air and the body of the nation.

For this nation, as Mort shows, the stories of the dead keep resurrecting, the stories of the living keep being silenced. “Did I tell you about the day the Bolsheviks came to take the roof off my farmhouse?” asks the title character of Mort’s prose poem “Baba Bronya,” “Did I tell you about how Uncle Kazik died? […] Did I tell you…” A cascade of personal and collective memories pours out of her. Baba Bronya repeats the same stories as if trying to assert her truth and transmit the experience that will be neither documented nor officially recognized.

Valzhyna Mort, “Baba Bronya” from Music for the Dead and Resurrected

The witnesses’ testimonies might disappear, but, as Mort shows in “Bus Stops: Ars Poetica,” objects can talk when people cannot:

In the purse that held—

through seven wars—

the birth certificates

of the dead, my grandmother

hid—from me—

chocolates. The purse opened like a screaming mouth.

As if it were a keeper of history, the family purse seems to scream. The purse tells a story, and so do the trees and other objects. Objects also become relatives: “Hold me, brother-apple,” writes Mort. They unite and restore the notes of the familial melody and the music of the nation. They do not allow repressed memories to disappear. Although keeping silent, these objects provide an understanding of the continuity of life. As Mort writes in “Psalm 18”:

I pray to the trees and language migrates down my legs like

mute cattle.

I pray to the wooden meat that never left its roots.

Generations one by one bring their repressed past back to light and purge it from the national unconscious. “The city of iron and irony” is how Mort describes her native Minsk. This is a place with parallel lives, where the stories like the ones Baba Bronya tells live side by side with repressed memories.

As Mort shows, finding the way after a century of silence, killings, and ruthless propaganda involves facing contradictions and distortions. One important vehicle for dissemination of propaganda was an official Communist Party newspaper called “Pravda [Truth],” the lie in its very name. Remembering her life on Pravda Avenue in Minsk, Mort describes it in “Self-Portrait with Madonna on Pravda Avenue” in the following way:

The mouthpiece of the street

named after the mouthpiece

of propaganda.

These lines note the hollowness of the state-sanctioned version of history. In her poems Mort brilliantly satirizes the language of officialdom and propaganda emptied of meaning. She uses irony and humor to convey the helplessness of the people living under the perpetual shadow of a deficit of basic commodities. As Mort shows in her “Bus Stop: Ars Poetica,” in this kind of life, a “Supermarket” becomes “a temple” and “the knowledge of sausage prices, the virginity of milk cartons” become priesthood and a kind of religion for people. However, not only basic commodities, but also living space is scarce (“a tiny apartment”), so “a separate room” becomes a universe.

Mort skillfully layers meanings, packing each poem with multiple historic references. In the same poem the atomized individual universes live next to the still-breathing hidden history:

In the State Archives, covers

hardened like scabs

over the ledgers.

Collective history that’s scabbing over in the state archives doesn’t shed light on individual lives. Despite the gap in knowledge, the missing roots persist in the form of a family song that is disappearing from memory. Mort writes in “Music Practice”:

By the time

I heard this song, it had no music.

Yet however weak, the family song lives on, as does the music of the nation. Its songs often seem to have only “mmm and aaa” for words. Do the words even exist, inquires Mort. Sometimes, even the melody is gone, but “mmm and aaa” remain, she says. These bleating sounds become the sole memory about past generations. “But where am I from?” Mort continues asking. At the intersection of silence and screaming, in the mirrors of reality and state propaganda, among the speaking trees and silent people, Music for the Dead and Resurrected is a masterpiece sketch of a story that is yet to be told in Belarus. Mort’s poetry is a melody of human tragedy that continues to take place in her home country. As in her poetry, the people of Belarus today remain trapped inside a cynical and brutal regime that pushes them back into helplessness and liminal existence at the crossroads of the repressed past, the violent present, and the highly uncertain “future that runs on the schedule of public buses.”

Katsiaryna Lozka is a PhD fellow at the Ghent Institute of International and European Studies. Her research focuses on Eastern Europe and Russia’s policies in the post-Soviet space. She holds an MA in EU International Relations and Diplomacy Studies from the College of Europe in Bruges and an MA in European Studies from Comenius University in Bratislava. She previously studied international politics and peace research at the University of Oslo and the Belarusian State University in Minsk.