Post-Soviet Literature in and outside the Former Soviet Union
Author: Olga Zilberbourg
Olga Zilberbourg is the author of LIKE WATER & OTHER STORIES (WTAW Press) and three Russian-language collections of stories. Her fiction and essays have appeared in Lit Hub, Electric Literature, Scoundrel Time, World Literature Today, Tin House Online, Narrative Magazine, and elsewhere. She serves as a co-facilitator of the San Francisco Writers Workshop.
In April, as COVID19 was already changing our lives, a new literary magazine entered the world. “Literature pretends only to reflect the way things really are, and it is always there for you when everything else has failed,” writes Harry Leeds in his editor’s note to the first issue. “I hope that our magazine is a distraction while you are stuck the hell home.” Leeds is a writer, editor, a translator from Russian, “cat papa,” and is on his way to becoming a nurse. He has a sick sense of humor, he says, which I think gives him a leg up in the whole literary mag game.
We are so delighted to welcome MumberMag’s stellar Mumber One issue. (Gosh, some sense of humor really went into the making of this mag–and I LOVE IT!) Joining Harry in the editorial team is a much beloved poet D. A. Powell, who serves as a Founding Poetry Editor (here’s a profile of him in The New Yorker).
The first issue holds many wonderful gifts for the readers, and for us, interested in post-Soviet literature, there are Boris Dralyuk’s translations from Julia Nemirovskaya who lives in the U.S. and writes poetry and fiction in Russian, and teaches Russian literature and culture at the University of Oregon. Three poems appear in Mumber One, Lamp, Little Box, and Toilet Paper — “Kin to napkin and book.” (Poets really know what’s important in life, long before any crisis strikes.)
Last but not least our MumberMag editors are working on creating their list of Top Literary Magazines Ranked By Influence on Social Media. As a huge literary magazine fan, I deeply appreciate the dedication that it takes to create a list like this — and a sense of joy from the fun of it all. Thank you, people!
We are very grateful to Hilah Kohen for investigating and reporting on one of the most fascinating developments in contemporary Russian literature: a few weeks ago, she hosted an episode of Meduza’s The Naked Pravda, where she talked to a writer, an editor, and a scholar about the intriguing place that science fiction–and queer science fiction–play in the contemporary literary landscape in the Russophone world.
We have been following the story of Совсем другие, the anthology under discussion on this podcast, in previous Punctured Lines posts (here and here), and we love seeing this conversation develop further.
LGBTQ activists in the Russophone world face obstacles that many in the Anglophone world do not, but that means they also find ways to survive that defy the imagination. One way queer Russian speakers have found to work through those life-and-death decisions is writing science fiction. Through stories about augmented reality, lesbian seduction in space, sentient plants, and more, activists have offered political commentary on post-Soviet oppression that’s impossible to find in the mainstream opposition.
It is absolutely delightful to hear Syinat Sultanalieva’s voice as she reads from her story Element 174, translated to English by Lesya Myata and Samuel Goff. I loved learning from the podcast that the narrator’s name, Ambassador Jenry, is an homage to Ursula Le Guin’s Genly Ai, the beloved protagonist of The Left Hand of Darkness.
I was also fascinated by the thread of the conversation with Mikhail Suslov, a professor at the University of Copenhagen, that situates this anthology against the socially conservative mainstream of contemporary Russian-language science fiction, and points to the history of how contemporary science fiction diverged from its anti-authoritarian and relatively progressive (anti) Soviet roots.
All of this mind-blowing content–and more!– is packed into 30 minutes of airtime. If you haven’t heard it already, listen to it here, and subscribe to The Naked Pravda. Kevin Rothrock, Meduza’s English-language editor, has been producing lots of creative content here.
Audre Lorde’s name and work is familiar to many of us who have studied feminist movements in high school and college. Some of her seminal essays, including “Poetry Is Not a Luxury” and “Uses of the Erotic: The Erotic as Power” are commonly included in syllabuses of literature classes and used as entry points into the conversation about the politics of literature and how combinations of race, gender, and sexuality affect one’s construction of self and point of view on the world.
Less well known is Lorde’s essay “Notes from a Trip to Russia” that opens her book Sister Outsider. A footnote to this essay explains that Lorde spent two weeks in the Soviet Union in 1976 as an American observer to the African-Asian Writers Conference sponsored by the Union of Soviet Writers. Having returned from that trip, she finds herself haunted by it in her dreams, including a particular image of “making love to a woman behind a stack of clothing in Gumm’s Department Store in Moscow.” In Lorde’s dream, the woman falls ill and Lorde needs to seek medical help for her, and is floored by the realization that in Soviet Russia, medical treatment is free and available to all.
I read this essay just a few years ago and at first struggled with how to react to it. To me, everything starting from that opening image seemed both familiar and bizarre. It took me a moment, for instance, to recognize that Lorde is talking about GUM–an acronym for Gosudarstvennuiy Universalniy Magazin, a State Department Store–which in her version acquires an almost poetic personal quality, related to somebody named Gumm. I was born in 1979, three years after Lorde took this trip, and I had a personal mythology of GUM. As a child growing up in Leningrad, I had read about it in books and newspapers–as far as State Department Stores went, this one was well written about. I imagined it as a toy palace–I had an idea that that’s where most of the world’s toys were hidden from us kids. The keepers of the toys were, in my mind, not unlike the angry guards at the museums of the world or the tired, worn-out women working behind the counters of Leningrad’s stores: their job was to keep desirable items away from unworthy hands. To imagine a Soviet prodavshchitsa take part in a sex dream seemed unthinkable.
But then, I thought, why not? This is what it’s like to see the world I grew up in from a stranger’s eyes–it’s an opportunity to examine my premises. There must’ve been lesbians in the Soviet Union, even if I didn’t know anything about that until I was seventeen and living in the United States. So, my first approach to Lorde’s book took me into a completely unexpected direction: it sent me rethinking my relationships to all the women I had known growing up, imagining them as heroines of sexually charged international lesbian love stories. (I even started plotting a novel along these lines, thank you very much, Audre.)
During her trip to the Soviet Union, Lorde visited Moscow and from there traveled to Uzbekistan, the location of the Conference–she went to two towns there, Tashkent and Samarkand. The essay is very much a travelogue, the best of the genre, in which the writer is keenly aware of being a stranger to the places she’s moving through and as she’s documenting her experiences, she’s writing about her own thoughts and feelings and provides a window into her assumptions and biases. Reading the piece all of these years later, it feels like a gift of a guide into the study of Russian and Soviet literature and the field’s lingering struggle to include people of color and women into the conversation.
This essay champions the kind of work that we hope to do with Punctured Lines: bringing together unexpected voices and stories from and about the (post) Soviet space. Unfortunately, for rights reasons, we are unable to reprint the essay online, so to encourage a cross-cultural dialogue, we asked our Twitter followers to submit personal responses to this essay. We also reached out to a few scholars and writers who we expected might have unique insights into the issues that Lorde addresses. Below are responses we received from Emily Couch, Shelley Fairweather-Vega, Elena Gapova, and Maggie Levantovskaya. If you want to join this conversation, please comment below or reach out to puncturedlines [at] gmail.com.
We have been planning this post for several months, and are finishing it under conditions of quarantine. As I’m writing this, the world is struggling with the mounting numbers of COVID-19 cases and many of us have had to severely curb our activities–so the very nature of a travelogue feels radical at the moment. Universal medical care that, in Lorde’s notes of her trip to the Soviet Union, appeared too good to be true, today remains our most urgent need. Yet, as Levantovskaya mentions in her piece, the Soviet Union is a poor guide for a functional medical system–the conditions of care there were often inhumane and bribes were exchanged as a matter of course. We also want to acknowledge and honor the invisible, unpaid and low-paid women’s labor that goes into allowing each family and each hospital and each business and each state to keep going. We urgently need to change this situation so that the burden of this invisible labor does not disproportionately fall to women.
We love seeing creative artists adjust to the current time. Being on the West Coast, I have often regretted not having access to the literary events that take place on the East Coast (to speak nothing of events in Russia proper.) Here comes the recording of the Cheburashka Collective reading recorded on April 1st, 2020 on Zoom, via Kelly Writers House at the University of Pennsylvania.
This week AWP, or Association of Writers and Writing Programs, is holding its annual conference in San Antonio, TX. Many of the attendees, however, have opted to stay home due to the increased risk of the corona virus outbreak. An important component of this conference is a massive book fair, at which hundreds of independent presses and literary journals sell their stock. To compensate for the losses of this already financially strained community, people are organizing several initiatives.
First of all, there’s #AWPVirtualBookfair Twitter hashtag, under which you will find links to lots of publishers who are offering significant discounts of their stock. Trevor Ketner started the #AWPVirtualBookfair Google Doc, where you can find a comprehensive list of participating publishers, and Natalie Eilbert creating the AWP Virtual Bookfair for Authors Doc. Justin Greene created a handy list of publishers on Entropy, that includes the discount codes. Point being: the best way to support literary arts and independent publishing is to buy our books.
One of my plans for this conference was to co-host a happy hour for writers and translators working on material related to the former Soviet Union. Unfortunately, both my co-host Olga Livshin and I decided to cancel, as did most of the people we hoped would take part. I envisioned that this happy hour would help us, in part, to build a sense of community and help us brainstorm ways in which we can support each other’s work. So, in that spirit, here is an image gallery followed by a list of these titles with links, where you can buy the books.
Katja Petrowskaja grew up in Kiev, studied in Estonia and Moscow, and lives in Berlin. Maybe Esther was written in German and first published in Germany, in 2014. It was translated to English by Shelley Frisch and published in 2018. She came to the Bay Area Book Festival about a year ago, and I went to her talk and picked up this book. When I started reading it, frankly, I wasn’t sure I was going to finish it. As far as family stories go, this one felt too similar to my own–and why read about something I already know so well, from living it?
I stuck with it because Petrowskaja’s a good storyteller, and a tenacious one, because she has followed her family story several more steps than I have ever done with mine, and because on the page she’s able to capture the complex emotions of following these heartbreaking stories. Of course, in actuality, her family’s story isn’t anything like mine. The similarities begin and end with this: We both grew up in Jewish families in the Soviet Union and emigrated after the Soviet Union fell apart. I write in English, she in German. If it felt like a familiar story at first, it’s precisely because I haven’t read enough books like this. I’ve only read just a few that focus on the Soviet Jewish family saga with any degree of depth (Margarita Khemlin’s Klotsvog in Lisa C. Hayden’s translation being the most recent, and wildly different from Maybe Esther), and they feel the same only because the gap between Kiev and Leningrad Jews in the 1980s is a lot narrower than, say, between Petersburg Jews and New York Jews. That is, it feels close enough to home.
There are a few main characters in Petrowskaja’s family saga. The story of Grandmother Rosa provides the main through-line. She grew up in a Jewish family, and her father, Ozjel Krzewin was born in Vienna, lived in Poland, and then died in Kiev, and ran a private school for deaf-mute children throughout his life–Rosa, too, inherited the profession of educating deaf-mute children. Rosa’s husband and Katja’s grandfather, Ukrainian Vasily Ovdiyenko during WWII was captured and became a prisoner of war in German labor camps. When he returned from the war, he met his wife briefly, but then went to live with another woman and stayed with her for more than forty years. Shortly before his death, he came home to Rosa–who was still waiting for him.
In writing the book, Petrowskaja follows the story of the Jewish side of the family, and then she also traces Vasily’s journey through the German labor camp system throughout Austria–it was a brutal three-year journey that few survived. She visits several labor camps that also served as death camps for Hungarian Jews, to arrive at an epiphany: it must’ve been something that Vasily witnessed in the camps that made his return to his loving family, a wife and two children, impossible after the war.
I don’t know where this conviction stemmed from, but it was right here in this small camp that something happened after everything that had happened already that made my grandfather’s return home impossible, so that he, back in Kiev, could not stay with his family, not with his daughter and not with his wife, Rosa, whose mother and sister lie in Babi Yar, which makes a person Jewish forever, I know that his failure to return had something to do with the death march of the Hungarian Jews
That sentence doesn’t have a period and it doesn’t need one. I should add, that actually this relative’s experience Katja and I, too, have in common: my grandfather, Jewish, was a POW in a German labor camp, and survived. He did return to the family, and one of the things I’m forever trying to write about is what his survival looked to the rest of us, his family, living with him. I finished the book grateful to Katja Petrowskaja for finding the words to unpack some of her experiences.
There have been fewer children’s and teen books translated into English from Russian than you might imagine. Here’s what we’ve been able to find so far, published since 1991: fiction and non-fiction in translation from Russian authors and illustrators.We’ll list Soviet translations in a separate post, coming soon.Many thanks to the charity Outside in World for their help with this research.
We would love to hear of any we’ve missed: please email us about any Russian-language kid lit you know of in English translation, whether still in print or not, and especially forthcoming publications!russian.kid.lit @gmail.com
PICTURE BOOKS BY RUSSIAN WRITERS OR ILLUSTRATORS
THE RETURN, written and illustrated by Natalia Chernysheva (Groundwood, 2019) Ages 4-7
Two years ago, a prominent journalist and editor Yury Saprykin asked a number of Russian authors, editors, critics, educators, and so on, to nominate the works that they considered key in the Russian literary canon. On April 2, 2018, Saprykin’s launched the website, polka.academy with the resulting list of 108 books. It’s a gorgeous website, unfortunately available only in Russian. Another unfortunate part is that this list included only three books by women-authors: Akhmatova, Tsvetaeva, and Petrushevksaya.
Two years later, the editors addressed this problem. A team of writers created a new list that they call “Women’s Canon” of over 70 authors who deserve to be remembered. (This list, too, is unfortunately only available in Russian.) The authors include a thoughtful note that this list isn’t complete and promise to return to this work in the future. We’re delighted to welcome this list and look forward to seeing this work continued.
On a personal note from the creators of Punctured Lines, we’re particularly pleased to see a listing of Aleksandra Brushtein’s delightful young adult novel with a title that’s difficult to translate and that means something like “The road that will lead you to an unknown future.” This book was deeply influential to both of us, and on Twitter we’ve been actively advocating for its re-translation to English. Of the unfortunate omissions, we can point to Julia Voznesenskaya’s novel Women’s Decameron from 1985.
The Great Patriotic War is now nearly eighty years old, and yet it still resonates in the lives of the grandchildren of the surviving generation. This essay by Mariya Deykute attests to its power over our imaginations. Some of us continue to make decisions with that war in mind. I particularly admire how Deykute both personalizes the war and portrays her family’s lived experience of the war, touching on her grandmother’s and her mother’s stories. This war is both the environment in which people have lived and a character of our nightmares.
With gratitude to Olga Livshin for sharing this piece. Please click through to read the essay in full.
The Great Patriotic War came to visit me again today. I was throwing out wild raspberries. A week ago I had scrambled up the treacherous rocks of Narbona Pass to fetch a cupful. “Eat them,” my husband said. “Later,” I replied. The cup sat in the car on the trip back, full of small red not-spheres. They sat in the fridge for a week. “Should I toss them?” my husband asked. “No, I’ll make something with them,” I said. But today I found that white mold had claimed them, fuzzy rotting snowflakes…..
In a post from a few weeks ago, I mentioned Completely Different — a Russian-language collection of queer science fiction published in Bishkek, and Calvert Journal’s publication of a translation of one of the pieces. In a series of Twitter posts, Hilah Kohen responded and partially reviewed this collection. Given how rare conversations about queer Russian-language science fiction are in the English-language russophone zone, and my delight in them, I asked for Hilah’s permission to put her response on Punctured Lines. Enjoy! (I’m preserving most of the Twitter grammar.)
Completely Different, the collection of queer Russophone sci-fi and fantasy that this story in @calvertjournal comes from, is available [on Academia.edu as a PDF]. I was late to the party and haven’t read all of it, but what’s really struck me so far is how many pieces center the aftermath of all queer feminists splitting off from society completely and (literally, cuz sci-fi) building their own world. (Sounds dead obvious, I know, but imo it’s not & says something really interesting about post-Soviet opposition politics).
In this piece, the queer separatist utopia is a planet where residents rebuild their own bodies rather than terraforming. In another, it’s a “dimension” that only special augmented reality glasses can see (the patriarchy has its own, mutually exclusive AR system).
(Worth nothing that “kvir-feminizm” works differently in Russian than in English. Even waaay outside scholarship/theory, people use it to label a worldview aligned with intersectional feminism and opposed to TERFism/”radical feminism” but in the same semantic category as both.)
Anyway, with earthly utopias so lacking, these stories could just indulge endlessly in their fictional utopias (since they did take the unexpected imaginative step of separating them out), but no, they have to struggle with the prospect that no matter what beautiful, willfully self-contradictory society Russophone queer feminism might build on its own, it’ll never be content without going back to the old world ~forever~ because the very fact of reproduction means some citizens of the utopia will always be abroad.