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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.”
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.
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, what’s 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 isn’t just a pig, he’s 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.
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.
Punctured Lines is grateful to Ivan Sokolov for the opportunity to publish his letter and a collection of links. Author’s idiom is preserved.
I am thankful to everyone who has reached out to me—I am safe and away from Russia at the moment. Let this post be an update for my anglophone contacts who have expressed concern about Russia’s ongoing war in Ukraine, possible sources of following the events and the lives, as well as means of giving aid.
I feel compelled to mention, however, just to be fair, that if I find myself displaced and unhinged in every sense of the word, it is far less so than the hundreds of thousands of other Russians evacuating these days to neighbouring countries—and doing so, unlike myself, without visas, academic affiliations, language skills or any experience of living abroad. I did not think I’d live to see (and run into!) my own acquaintances, mostly young, crowded in airports by random gates—the sheer extent of the exodus is mind-blowing. The fate of those who remain in Russia may look bleak—and even if a massive campaign of arrests and repressions does not ensue, the economic deterioration will hit everyone hard. But if we find our plans, ways of life and peace of mind disrupted and displaced, it is unthinkably more literal and cruel for the livelihoods of our friends within Ukraine and those that have managed to escape the war crimes being committed there.
These days, the hearts of many go out to our friends in Ukraine, such as Galina Rymbu, the recent UDP author and her partner Yanis Sinaiko (also an excellent Russian-language poet, in the Celanian tradition), who are sheltering from air strikes in Lviv, the gem of Western Ukraine and itself a site of gruesome WWII history. Meanwhile, the thoughts of some will also be with friends on the other side of the front lines, such as Igor Bobyrev, a notorious personage but a sublime poet working in Russian, who is sheltering from air raids and military duty in Donetsk. I could list dozens more friends or simply authors whose work I follow, many writing in Ukrainian, some from the still younger generation, some as endowed with stardom as the recent Kharkiv-based Nobel-nominee Serhiy Zhadan, who are all living this crisis ever more viscerally than any of us could imagine—not all of them sheltering in fear, some (including my peers) taking to the front lines or signing up for Territorial Defence units. Not all are writers either: the most important russophone composer living in Ukraine, Valentin Silvestrov, has, thank God, just evacuated from Kyiv to Berlin (here’s an interview, auf Deutsch; Facebook users can listen to a bagatelle he wrote literally the other day).
I am writing this letter on 16 March, on the 130-th birthday of the great César Vallejo, a one-time convict and years-long exile. I am thinking on the life of this native of Santiago de Chuco, who had to flee Peru only to end up broke and sick in Paris. 2022 also happens to be the centennial year of Vallejo’s great poem Trilce. I don’t speak Spanish but last year I had to translate bits from the original, via other languages, when I was working on a poem by Clayton Eshleman, the Vallejo translator in the US, for an essay of mine on Eshleman & Vallejo (available in English). The poem is a cento, a pastiche from Eshleman’s version of Vallejo’s Trilce. It is called «Planet Trilce», as Eshleman reports to have understood at some point that Vallejo «was assembling in a kind of jump-cut cubistic way a world that operated with much different laws than we think ours does. It seemed as if he was envisioning a new planet». As houses are being torn apart in Ukraine, as discourses shatter globally and literal «meridians» in motion overwrite the poetic ones, it is hard not to wonder what that globe of Vallejo’s mind would be like. Well, it is a rather sombre planet:
<…> On Trilce, there is more than enough sweetness for the whole shroud. <…> Dead exist who have never lived. No two days ever touch each other. <…> When that which cannot burn does burn, pain doubles up its peak in laughter. <…> All retreats are made across exploded bridges. <…> On Trilce, all are cadavers of a life that never was.
And yet, it is also a planet of hope, as claims the fortissimo finale:
On Trilce, there is still hope of finding, for the saltatory power, an eternal entrance.
Because I’ve been asked by some, I thought I’d dedicate this message not to the «saltatory power» of russophone culture in English per se, but, first, to spreading some word of the ongoing disaster (one where «that which cannot burn does burn») through less formal a channel than the media outlets you must each be following. This and other essays by the Odesa-born US poet Ilya Kaminsky might already be on your radar. In such a case, please check out this piece by the Russian-American poet & translator Tatiana Retivov recounting her flight from the strikes raining on Kyiv. There’s also a riveting series of daily dispatches from photographer and writer Yevgenia Belorusets—straight from Kyiv (available in different languages, scroll for other translations). A selection of diary entries by others is available here; it includes a bit from the striking diary by Kyivan poet and translator Olga Bragina (available elsewhere in Swedish, Italian & Slovak). Here’s another, large set of such accounts written by young people, including some by Lviv-based russo&ukrainophone poet Danyil Zadorozhnyi, 2019 winner of the Arkadii Dragomoshchenko Young Poetry Award (in Russia), and his Minsk-born partner Yulia Charnyshova, a noteworthy long-lister of the same award from last year—both in their early twenties, now working as volunteers in Lviv. There’s also a short essay on and translations from the native of Donetsk, bilingual poet Iya Kiva who’s just fled from Kyiv (read more at this link).
Feel free to follow the writers above on Facebook: you can access many of their day-to-day posts in automatic translation, whatever the original language.
For a more official English-language coverage of the events from the russophone (and antiwar) angle, please follow Meduza.
Second, I thought I’d use this opportunity for sharing ways of giving aid to those who need it most now—for the «retreats across exploded bridges». I am far from the illusion that my writer friends have much monetary capital they could spare but I’m hoping that if you were to share these links further, perhaps someone who has the ability to donate will do so and make a difference. All of the links come from trusted friends.
I’d like to close here with two more poems that some of you may have seen but they are worth revisiting. One is the recent translation by John High and Matvei Yankelevich of the great 1937 requiem by Osip Mandel’shtam, «Verses on the Unknown Soldier»—one of those gripping poems from Russian modernism that so many of my friends and I felt to be beautiful and true but never in our nightmares did we have any inkling they might be this urgently relevant to the present day.
Another will be a poem by Aleksandr Skidan that deals with some «exploded bridges» of our own. Published on 1 March and translated within hours by Kevin Platt, it is a work of art that both documents the poisoned desperation of inhabiting, powerlessly, the aggressor country, and essentially sums up the entire thirty-year period of post-Soviet St Petersburg culture—a Weimar that has come to an end:
too late to scroll through news on facebook too late to write about personal and collective guilt
too late to read hannah arendt and carl schmitt in love with the schwarzwald too late to be provost of the state of emergency
too late to stand on the troitsky bridge and gaze at the loveliest city in the world too late to gaze at the ice of the loveliest river in the world
too late to go out on the ice of the loveliest river in the world and write fuck war on it too late to raise to disengage bridges
too late to cry over bridges too late to build bridges too late to say too late to loved ones too late to hug them
too late to rename the troitsky bridge as the trotsky bridge too late to say neither peace nor war
too late to say my grandma was born in poltava in 1909 too late to say her name was trepke von trepke
too late to say we are pissing our pants
too late to remember valery podoroga in 2001 after getting the bely prize in that café on liteiny and him saying who have we elected not only elected but with these very hands helped gleb pavlovsky and his media outlet
too late to say blockade patriotic war lydia ginzburg
too late to say i warned you in 2003 caution religion caution
too late to say genocide wwi turn the bayonets against imperialism as bakunin kropotkin taught and bruno shulz dreaming of maggots when he walked vinnytsia’s streets to drink with arkadii
too late to say dehumanization
it remains to be said
reread antigone return our dead
i want to lament them
this precedes the polis precedes its violence and the law the law as violence this is sister this is brother becoming a bottomless grave and a promise of love
and maybe it’s still not too late to stop the mobile crematoria
to bury our children
Let it be not too late for at least some other shard of life in this new world—for a hope «of finding… an eternal entrance», as says Vallejo/Eshleman.
P.S.: Update (5 April)
I’m sure some of you will have read the essay by one of Russia’s leading poets, Maria Stepanova, that was recently featured in the Financial Times. She is one of the few still to be able to tap into an essayist’s reservoir of figurative language and to investigate the ruins of ethics, the ruins of sociality—the very same that are depicted in Skidan’s “Too Late.”
To complement that panorama of the planet in ruins (“the whole shroud,” per Vallejo/Eshleman), I would like to add a few links to the digest above—these have become available in the days since I wrote the letter. Russia’s atrocities in Bucha and other towns render many speechless, but I want to keep sharing testimonies and leads for giving aid.
Masha Gessen’s podcast on the Russian exodus to CIS countries that I referred to has been reworked (and enriched) into an essay in The New Yorker.
Ostap Slyvynsky, a truly exceptional lyric poet from Lviv, has begun writing a serial work of docupoetry, “War’s Vocabulary,” registering the minute though visceral shifts in word usage that the war is imposing on people and their personal stories. Its first section is now available auf Deutsch.
Ilya Kaminsky has put out an essay in The Paris Review with a panorama overview of Odesa writers sharing testimonies of war-haunted existence.
The only poem here that I am going to share in my own English translation is one by Zakharkiv’s partner and an outstanding voice of Russian opposition—Dmitry Gerchikov. Addressing in many ways the same readers that were captured in Skidan’s “Too Late,” Gerchikov offers an explosive combination of self-irony and despair, where it is only rhyme and repetition that can make the new reality ever so bearable. The poem opens with an artistic reappraisal of Theodor W. Adorno’s famous question concerning poetry after Auschwitz; in the work’s grating gyres one can almost hear the philosopher’s own, less well known reply: “Perennial suffering has as much right to expression as a tortured man has to scream”:
It would be hard to overstate my love of both figure skating and detective fiction, which admittedly isn’t something one normally thinks of together. It is therefore beyond thrilling to feature this personal essay by Alina Adams, who has written a series of five figure skating murder mysteries (yes, really, and I plan to order every one of them). A prolific writer with several fiction and non-fiction titles, Alina’s most recent novel is The Nesting Dolls, which you can read about in the poignant and humor-filled conversation between her and Maria Kuznetsova that Olga recently organized on this blog. I loved reading the story Alina tells below about working as a Russian-speaking figure skating researcher (she must have had a hand in many of the broadcasts that I avidly watched), and I confess to losing, in the best possible way, some of my time to being nostalgically taken back to 1990s figure skating coverage through the two videos in the piece, one of which features Alina translating (for Irina Slutskaya! You all know who she is, right?! Right?!). Let yourself be transported to that marvelous skating era, get ready for all the figure skating at the Olympics next month . . . and watch out, there’s a murderer, or five, on the loose.
You Never Know When Speaking Russian Might Come in Handy…: An Essay by Alina Adams
I immigrated to the United States from Odessa, (then-) USSR in 1977. I was seven years old. I spoke no English, only Russian.
I was the sole Russian-speaker in my second grade class at Jewish Day School. When the other kids spoke to me in English, I responded in Russian. When the teacher gave us a writing assignment, I wrote it in Russian.
I was never, ever going to learn English!
And then I fell in love.
Television was where the happy children were. The ones who lived in a house with a big staircase to slide down, not an apartment where all the furniture looked exactly like the furniture of every other Russian-speaking family newly arrived in San Francisco (we assume Jewish Federation got a great deal on all the identical chairs, tables, and bedspreads). The ones who ate hamburgers instead of kotlety. The ones who drank bright red, cherry-flavored medicine with cartoon characters on the label when they had a cold instead of laying down to get banki applied to their backs, dry mustard applied to their front, and their feet dunked into boiling water.
I wanted to be like the happy children on television. So I learned English.
My parents still spoke to me in Russian. But what language I might deign to reply in was anybody’s guess.
My love for the happy children who lived inside the television extended to wanting to join them. Not as an actor. I knew I was too funny-looking for that. But I could be the person who wrote the words that the people inside the televisions said. That’s where the real power was.
And those words would be in English!
Who needed Russian?
Cut to: Me. Freshly out of college with a degree in Broadcast Communication Arts. And looking for a job.
Flashback: I have a younger brother. He was born in the United States. He was a competitive figure skater (1996 U.S. Open Novice Ice Dance Champion). My immigrant parents had better things to do — like, you know, earning a living — than drive him to daily practice or chaperone him at competitions. So that became my job.
I learned more about figure skating than I ever thought there was to know.
Which is why, when it came time to apply for a job as a researcher and writer with ABC Sports’ ice skating department, I knew quite a bit.
But, guess what — so did a lot of other people (many of them former skaters themselves).
Except those other people didn’t speak Russian.
And I did.
Suddenly, the language that once kept me from the happy people in the television was the one bringing me into it.
Thus began my years of traveling around the globe, from World Championships to international qualifiers to the 1998 Olympic Games in Nagano, Japan.
And back to the former USSR.
By the time I returned with an ABC crew to shoot profile features on the country’s top athletes, the Soviet Union had collapsed. It was Russia now. And Ukraine. And Belarus. And Armenia and three different Baltics and . . . (A fun game in the media truck was placing bets on which formerly Soviet skaters would declare themselves which ethnicity in order to ensure a place on the competitive team. For instance, the Ukrainian named Evgeni Plushenko and the Georgian-sounding Anton Sikharulidze competed for Russia, while the Russian-sounding Igor Pashkevitch represented Azerbaijan, as did Inga Rodionova. We’re not even counting Marina Anissina declaring herself French or Aljona Savchenko becoming German.)
My job as a skating researcher included interviewing the skaters and their coaches to get all those fun tidbits the announcers share on the air: “She began skating at the age of three because her grandmother called her a typhoon and needed to stop her from bouncing around their communal apartment!” or “He is the first athlete from Estonia to win a bronze medal at the European Championships since…” (What? You thought Dick Button and Peggy Fleming generated those fun factoids all on their own?)
It also included visiting the skaters in their homes, interviewing them in Russian on camera, translating their replies and, once in a while, even dubbing their answers into Russian-accented English for the television profile. (You can listen to me doing two versions of the same accent, here. I am playing both Irina Slutskaya and her mother. If you scroll through to the end, you can see me translating her championship interview live on the air, too. On a different note, about six minutes into this video is a profile of Misha Shmerkin, a former fellow Odessa resident now representing Israel. Though you can’t hear me in the piece, I’m the one who asked him all the questions that he is answering on camera.)
The experience was disquieting, to say the least. Not because I was forcing my brain to operate 24/7 in a language I had deliberately pushed to the back of my conscience for almost two decades (and had no one to check my stupidity if I screwed up; the English-speaking production staff assumed everything I told them was accurate). It was because, in returning to the former USSR and going from home to home, interviewing people my age and my parents’ age, I was being confronted with the life I might have lived.
Not as a competitive athlete. I didn’t have the talent or the drive for that. But as an ex-Soviet citizen, navigating a country that had collapsed around me, desperately trying to figure out what the new rules were while clinging to the old ones because they were the only ones I understood. I entered communal apartment after communal apartment. I ate the food they put out for us, understanding in a way my colleagues did not how hard it had been to get. I nodded as a skater’s mother whispered to me, “Don’t tell them my husband is Jewish,” and barely flinched when, while shooting inside a hospital for a piece on an injured skater, random cats wandered in and out of the wards.
I was getting a glimpse of the life I might have led if my parents hadn’t made the decision to emigrate in the 1970s, when no one had a clue that the empire had less than twenty years of life left in it, or that return visits would become commonplace. When my parents took the chance to leave, it was like jumping off the edge of the world into an abyss. Nobody knew what the West had to offer or how they might survive there. And everybody understood that there would be no going back. It might as well have been a one-way mission to Mars.
My trips to the former USSR were an ongoing exercise in, “There but for the grace of God, go I.”
But I remembered what I’d seen there, and when, in 2002, following the (latest) Olympic judging scandal an editor at Berkley Prime Crime asked me to write a series of figure skating murder mysteries, I jumped at the chance.
The chance to not only reveal all the behind-the-scenes gossip I couldn’t publish using skaters’ real names, but also to include the observations I’d made about life in the former USSR through the unique lens of elite athletes who’d survived the Soviet days and were now trying to make sense of the present. I could write about those who triumphed and those who slipped through the cracks. I could write about what was, and about who I might have been.
There are five books in the Figure Skating Mystery series. The third installment, Axel of Evil, takes place in Moscow and incorporates everything I saw, everything I heard, and everything I suspected when I worked there.
The first one, Murder on Ice, was based on the aformentioned 2002 Olympic judging scandal, where the Pairs judge was accused of favoring the Russian team over the Canadian one. In Murder on Ice, a judge is accused of giving the Ladies’ gold to Russia’s dour ice queen over America’s perky ice princess. And then the judge ends up dead (that didn’t happen in 2002). Who will investigate the crime? Why, none other than the trusty skating researcher! (Clearly, I subscribe to the policy of: Write What You Know.)
In Murder on Ice, I take all of the clichés that Americans have about Russians and (hopefully) turn them on their heads. In Axel of Evil, I continue that objective, but I do it by putting the American researcher, my heroine, Bex Levy, out of her element and onto Russian soil. Here, people are making as many assumptions about her as she is making about them. Clichés work both ways. In retrospect, I guess I was working out issues of being a Soviet-born American — whose life would have been very different had my family stayed in the USSR — by writing from the point of view of an American digging into the lives of those who left, as well as of those who stayed. I get to be both an insider and an outsider. I get to be the native and the other. I get to play the role of someone born in the US, and someone who grew up in the USSR. Because, in real life, I’ll always be somebody who is stuck in-between.
And I get to prove what my parents said all along. You never know when speaking Russian might come in handy . . . .
Alina Adams was born in Odessa, USSR and moved to the United States with her family in 1977. She has worked as a figure skating researcher, writer, and producer for ABC Sports, ESPN, NBC, and TNT. She is the author of Inside Figure Skating, Sarah Hughes: Skating To the Stars, and the figure skating mystery series consisting of Murder on Ice, On Thin Ice, Axel of Evil, Death Drop, and Skate Crime. Her historical fiction novel, The Nesting Dolls, traces three generations of a Soviet-Jewish family from Odessa to Brooklyn. Visit her website at: www.AlinaAdams.com
Julia Zarankin is the author of a memoir Field Notes from an Unintentional Birder(Douglas & McIntyre, 2020) that was warmly welcomed by both the birding and the literary communities. She was born in the Soviet Union and as a child immigrated to Canada with her family as part of the Jewish refugee movement. She received her Ph.D. in Comparative Literature and taught in the US before returning to Canada. She lives in Toronto and publishes essays and short fiction in English-language magazines both in Canada and in the United States.
Punctured Lines:Field Notes from an Unintentional Birder combines elements of an immigrant’s memoir with a love story with a self-help guide to finding a perfect hobby, and last but not least is filled with information about birds and stories of bird sightings—and the different genres brilliantly mesh together to create a page-turner. How did you come up with the structure for this book and did it change during the writing process?
Julia Zarankin: Thank you so much for calling my book a page-turner, that is so kind of you to say and is the greatest compliment. Writing process: before the book, there was a humorous blog called Birds & Words, which I started writing immediately after seeing my first bird and realizing that I had plunged head-first into a bizarre and unlikely subculture. Starting my blog was the only way I could make sense of birds and birding. I wrote about all my adventures in misidentification, I pontificated about avian coiffures. But slowly, I noticed that my posts were growing beyond the length of a jocular blog post. I remember a specific turning point: after chasing (and finding) a spotted towhee that had flown way off course, I started wondering whether the bird felt lost or displaced in this unfamiliar landscape. And suddenly I found myself feeling a sense of kinship with the bird; thinking about the spotted towhee led me to contemplate all of my own peregrinations—some more successful than others—and the migratory journeys undertaken by my own family. This moment of seeing myself in birds—a wholly unscientific endeavor by the way; one isn’t supposed to anthropomorphize!—was a sign that I had to take my writing about birds more seriously and that I was probably writing something more meaningful than a series of blog posts. That’s when I started working on the book in earnest; I always envisioned it as a series of essays, and the more I wrote, the more I started seeing connections between my life and the lives/experiences of birds. I played with the order of the essays as I started to envision the book as a whole, with a solid narrative arc.
Punctured Lines: You place your personal story in the context of the migratory urge of certain birds, normalizing, to some extent, human desire to change our circumstances. Are you making a distinction here between immigration that stemmed from political tensions and the general human desire to be in motion?
Julia Zarankin: I think I’m fascinated by both of these desires. As a person, I’m wildly afflicted by wanderlust. Falling in love with birds gave me a sense of home that I hadn’t experienced before; now that I know where birds can be found in Toronto, I feel much more at home in the city and feel less of an urge to escape and run away at every opportunity. In a sense, birds have really taught me how to be present, stay put, and enjoy it! When I started volunteering at a migration monitoring station and began reading about bird migration, I came across this fantastic German word Zugunruhe, coined by natural historian Johann Andreas Naumann, to describe the migratory restlessness of caged songbirds. I realized that the word itself applied not just to birds, but also to my own life and the trajectory of my family’s history. Suddenly I felt that there might be an explanation for my own near-constant feeling of migratory restlessness. Migratory birds are hardwired to live a life in constant motion, and their journeys are perilous! Their lives are dictated largely by a quest for food and a desire (biological imperative) to reproduce. My personal migratory restlessness is of a different nature. Initially politically motivated (my family fled several political regimes), my desire to be in motion could also be summarized by a quest to find a home and to escape the familial curse (or gift?) of being forever displaced.
Punctured Lines: You have devoted much of your professional life to the study of Russian literature. In the book, you mention how after you became a birdwatcher, you started noticing references to birds everywhere, including the chickens in Uncle Vanya:
“I had always focused on the play’s larger message and hadn’t ever paid much attention to the chickens. Yet there they were. And rereading the play, I saw that the chickens [. . .] depicted continuity, the small, mundane actions that we cannot live without, the ones that give contour to our lives.”
Do you find that, as a birdwatcher, you approach books differently, bringing a different quality of attention to the pages in front of you?
Julia Zarankin: I’ve certainly started reading Chekhov and Tolstoy differently now that I’m a mad birder! I used to skip over nature scenes and snipe hunts (shh! don’t tell anybody) because I found them lacking in action, but now those scenes come alive for me in new ways. They are so often a locus of epiphany. I feel like birds have also helped me get to know Chekhov differently—as more of a prescient environmentalist. Birds have definitely taught me to slow down in almost everything I do, including how I read: to attend to words, scenes, details differently and more deliberately. The connections between birds and Russian literature are surprising (and plentiful). I’m fascinated by the fact that Velimir Khlebnikov is the son of a really famous Russian ornithologist, Vladimir Khlebnikov (not only that, but he accompanied his father on ornithological expeditions). All of this now makes sense to me, because it feels like in Khlebnikov’s futurist verse words are literally taking flight, often away from sense, toward a new way of experiencing language and poetry.
Punctured Lines: The narratives about human relationships with animals have a long history. One book that came to mind in relation to yours and that had enjoyed an enormous popularity in the USSR was Gerald Durrell’s My Life and Other Animals, a humorous account of a young boy transplanted with his family from Britain to the island of Corfu. What were the books that were influential for you during your writing process?
Julia Zarankin: Jonathan Franzen’s essay, “My Bird Problem,” was the piece that made me want to try my hand at birdwatching. Franzen writes about how falling in love with birds made him less cynical, and I think I read that essay at the right time—I was going through a career transition, auditioning hobbies, searching for something that would give me inner peace and improve my patience (without having to do yoga and spend time in the downward dog position). I’m very much indebted to Kenn Kaufman’s work (especially Kingbird Highway), and also Simon Barnes’ curious little book called How to be a Bad Birdwatcher. Barnes gave me permission to make (sometimes egregious) mistakes and taught me that there is no right way to be a birder; as long as one cultivates the habit of looking, one is doing it right. I reread Chekhov often, both for his attention to detail and narrative craft, and also for his reminder not to take oneself too seriously because at its core life is fundamentally absurd.
Punctured Lines: You write about growing up in a family of professional musicians and, being trained as a musician yourself in childhood, having to participate in music competitions. As a musician, a writer, and an academic, one must learn to bear the extremely competitive nature of these fields. Though birdwatching, too, as you say, can be a very competitive pursuit, it seems that for you it has been an opportunity to transform your relationship with competition itself. I was fascinated by your suggestion that birds teach you how to deal with disappointment in other areas of life. Do you find that birdwatching helps by teaching you how to reframe your ambitions, or that the sheer unpredictability of the birds’ behavior habituates you to waiting and helps you to avoid blaming yourself for everything that doesn’t go as planned? Or?
Julia Zarankin: I really believe that birding is the perfect antidote to smugness. Whether you like it or not, birds force you to take a Humility 101 masterclass (over and over again). Birding helped me undergo an apprenticeship in failure, because so much about birdwatching is learning to become comfortable with your (constant) mistakes. It only dawned on me much later that one cannot learn to identify birds without simultaneously learning to misidentify them (and recognizing what your mistakes are). Whereas I used to be ashamed of my mistakes and tried to hide them, birding showed me how mistakes are part of the learning process. Unsurprisingly, this also really helped me as a writer!
Punctured Lines: An important thread of this memoir has to do with the question of having children, with you trying to balance your desire to become a parent with factors that preclude you from doing so. This aspect of the book seems to resonate with a lot of contemporary writing by women on the difficult set of decisions that they face around motherhood. (I’m thinking, for instance, of Sheila Heti’s book Motherhood). Do you see your book in dialogue with the books that problematize the notion of traditional motherhood?
Julia Zarankin: Thanks so much for asking this question. I wrote this book as I was also coming to terms with the fact that I would never become a parent. In a sense, the book is also about learning to find meaning in midlife when one’s life doesn’t go as planned (or as one expected). I’m the first woman in five generations of my family (at least!) not to have a baby by age 21, and although my parents and grandmothers were kind and never mentioned that fact (at least not directly), I felt the weight of it on my shoulders and felt like I was failing or disappointing my entire family line. The book traces my journey of coming to terms with the fact that there are many ways to live a fulfilling and rewarding life. I really credit birds and birding for helping me see that.
Punctured Lines: Because I know that you hate this question yet ask it of everyone else: What is your favorite bird at the moment?
Julia Zarankin: I’m answering these questions from a farm in the Eastern Townships, in rural Quebec (this was as close as we could get to a trip to Vermont, since the land border is still closed to Canadians), and every morning this week I’ve been waking up to three American kestrels sitting in a bare tree outside my window. They’re gorgeous birds, with bright orange and blue and a wild, zebra-like face pattern. How nature came up with this bird, I do not know, but it’s magical. Too bad they terrorize (read: eat) the tiny songbirds, but hey—nobody ever said that nature was for the faint of heart. Yes, kestrels are definitely my favorite bird at the moment.
Shelley Fairweather-Vega on Amanat: Women’s Writing from Kazakhstan
The idea to translate and publish a collection of recent women’s writing from Kazakhstan grew out of my collaboration with Zaure Batayeva, a Kazakh writer and translator living in Belgium. Zaure contacted me in October 2016 when she wanted to hire someone to edit her English translation of a novella by Aigul Kemelbayeva. We eventually submitted the final version to Words Without Borders, whose editor, Susan Harris, was looking for “post-Soviet” literature from different places. Excerpts from the Kemelbayeva novella and two other pieces appeared in a WWB feature in January 2018. By that time, Zaure and I were thinking seriously about collecting writing by more authors and publishing an anthology. Ever since, she and I have been trading stories, checking each other’s translations (she translated the Kazakh-language stories, and I translated the Russian-language pieces), and querying publishers. We won some much-needed funding and publicity from the generous RusTrans program, and our collection is now nearly complete.
“Amanat” means legacy, or sacred trust. The title of our anthology is also the title of one of the shorter stories in it, by the wonderful poet, translator, and prose writer Oral Arukenova, in which a dying woman’s grown children struggle to decide what to do about her last request of them. The cultural clashes and generational conflicts in the title story are evident in other pieces in our collection, as well. But those sorts of conflicts are surprisingly rare in the “official,” state-approved literature in Kazakhstan today, which prizes tradition, patriotism, and stability above all (as does the bureaucracy that supports it). Yet there are many other types of stories to tell in a country that has undergone such profound political, social, and economic upheaval through Russian colonialism, Soviet cataclysms, and sudden independence in the space of just a few generations.
This story, “The Lighter,” is by Olga Mark (1963-2008), who was one of the most influential figures in independent (non-state-sponsored) Kazakhstani literature of the 21st century. It addresses child prostitution and poverty in an unnamed modern city, though with a dash of pure optimism, and it’s one of my personal favorites from this future anthology.
Zaure Batayeva on Author Olga Mark
Olga Borisovna Markova (Olga Mark) should be remembered both for her writings, which explored issues none of her Kazakhstani peers would dare to mention, and for her role as literary mentor and organizer, her ability to galvanize so many young people in the chaos of post-Soviet Kazakhstan, while being bound to a wheelchair at home.
In 1993, Olga founded the first independent arts and literary journal in Kazakhstan: Appolinarii. She ran the journal, and the many events organized under its umbrella, with a group of volunteers from her 3-room apartment in Almaty. A few years later, she managed to obtain funding for the journal and its many related activities, not from the state but from private donors, including the Dutch humanitarian HIVOS organization.
Moreover, in the early 2000s she founded a writers’ workshop, which nurtured a new wave of independent Kazakhstani writers: poets such as Marat Issenov, Aigerim Tazhi, and Erbol Zhumagul and fiction writers such as Lilya Kalaus and Ilya Odegov. As Maks Velichko, another writer who benefitted from this workshop, put it: “Olga Borisovna created something that was beyond the power of the powerful Ministry of Culture of Kazakhstan—a new literary wave.”
What Olga was able to do as a mentor and organizer was to provide conditions in which independent artists could learn, work, and create, despite being deliberately and systematically ignored by the state—a Soviet method that has prevailed until today. Olga’s achievements in this regard thus stand as a rare feat in the history of Kazakhstani literature.
Olga Mark with her students (2002) and colleagues at a book exhibit (2003). Photo credits: Aigerim Tazhi and Alexei Shvabauer.
P.S. 1 Here is one of Olga’s last interviews in which she spoke about the difference between independent writers and state-promoted writers (in other words, Soviet writers). The situation has not changed since Olga gave the interview: https://time.kz/news/archive/2008/06/25/5381
P.S. 2 I knew Olga personally because she was my teacher at Almaty State University. As a graduate student, I was honored to publish some of my badly written essays in Appolinarii and to attend various literary events that she and other teachers organized in her 3-room apartment.
A Story by Olga Mark, translated by Shelley Fairweather-Vega
“Kind people, have compassion for a poor orphan!” The girlish voice rang out through the bus and beat against the windows, as if to flee the stuffy air and escape outside.
When this voice suddenly intruded into their pre-holiday routine, demanding enough as it was, the passengers gave a start. Some glared at her with annoyance, this petite figure wrapped in a warm coat that wasn’t terrible looking, but most had a favorable enough reaction to both the voice and its owner, and wrinkled bills dropped generously into the thin palm of her hand.
Verka was happy. She smiled at everyone who gave her money, knowing her pretty little face would move people to kindness, and increase the size of their donations.
“Where are your parents?” asked a middle-aged woman, concerned.
“We’re refugees,” Verka answered cheerfully. “From Chechnya.” Then she added, just in case, “There’s a war there.”
The woman shook her head regretfully while Verka headed for the exit. The tribute had been collected and it was time to move on.
Humming something and skipping as she went, filled with joy, Verka walked between the new, tall apartment buildings in the fanciest part of the city. It was dangerous to work for a living here, too many cops and alert citizens, but Verka liked to take risks. She stopped near one doorway, examined it closely, rejected it and moved to the next. She walked inside that door and waited. To make things more fun, Verka took a half-eaten hot dog from her pocket. She chewed off tiny bites, not in a hurry—her belly was full—and like an actress before her entrance, she went over her lines. After about ten minutes a man walked through the door. Clutching the rest of the hot dog in one hand, Verka hurried over to meet him.
“Want a Lolita, a nymphette, a juvenilette?” Verka sang the words, opened her coat, and quick as a bat blocked the way to the stairs. She wore nothing other than that coat. Her pointed little breasts poked out threateningly, the dark nipples contracted maybe with cold, maybe with arousal. A flat stomach and blond puffy triangle below, the strong thighs and angular knees of a creature half girl, half woman… Frightened, the man took a step back, away from the glow of the bare young body. Verka advanced. Her whisper rang out loud, now beseeching, now commanding, fast, rapid-fire, over and over.
“Have compassion for a poor orphan, uncle! I’m a pretty girl, a good girl, you’ve never seen anyone like me, you’ve never had anyone like me…”
The man was retreating to the exit, but then he stepped forward abruptly, grabbed Verka by the shoulder, and shoved her out the door.
Verka flew outside and fell, almost knocking a woman who was walking in off her feet. The woman stopped, distraught, staring at the naked Verka spread-eagle on her coat.
“He raped me!” Verka said, speaking very clearly and staring right at the woman. “He took my clothes! Me, an orphan!” The picture of despair, she covered her face in her hands.
The man ran outside and Verka, catching a glimpse of the look on the distraught woman’s face, shouted “Help!” Then she jumped up and dashed off between the buildings.
She stopped to catch her breath a couple blocks away. Shaking with laughter, she spent a long time resting near one of the young trees they had planted two years ago. Verka took the souvenir bottle of vodka from her pocket, the one she had fallen in love with for its beauty and miniature size and bought that morning at the bus stop kiosk. She opened it and took a gulp. Then she walked off to another building, dancing along the way, in no hurry at all, pretending to be Laime Vaikule on the TV. The doors here had locks controlled by keypads. She waited until a kid was going inside, hopped in after him, and stood there waiting again.
A man appeared almost at once. Opening her coat, Verka went to meet him.
“Want a Lolita, a nymphette, a juvenilette?” The man stopped, and looked her slowly up and down.
“How old are you?”
“Eleven!” Verka said cheerfully.
“You’re lying,” the man said.
“Fourteen,” Verka corrected herself. “I don’t remember, Uncle. We’re refugees from Tajikistan. There’s a war there.”
“Where’d you learn to talk like that then, Lolita from Tajikistan?”
“I’m really smart,” said Verka, coming closer to the man. “I read books, watch movies, play the guitar. You’ve never even dreamed of someone like me.”
The man examined her closely again, reminding her of a doctor at a checkup.
“All right, let’s go to my place,” said the man.
“No, Uncle, I’m not stupid. Here, please. I won’t go to your place.”
The man hesitated for a second, then grabbed Verka and dragged her up the stairs to the first landing, where there was a small niche in the wall.
“Uncle!” Verka whimpered, “I’m just an orphan. What about a little money?”
“How much do you need?” asked the man. “Enough for ice cream?”
The man pulled out some money—Verka got a glimpse of the contents of his wallet—and thrust it at her. He fumbled around in his winter clothing and spent five minutes trying to find a comfortable position.
Verka waited patiently, and she earned the money she had gotten just as patiently and dispassionately, staring, aloof, out the foggy stairwell window. She felt in her pockets for the rest of the hot dog and started chewing.
“You could at least not eat,” said the man.
“I don’t waste food,” Verka snapped back.
“Now where will you go?” the man asked, when Verka was fastening her coat, in no hurry. She took two steps down and stopped to fix her hair.
“I’m not going anywhere until you pay me, Uncle.”
“What do you mean, until I pay you?” The man was angry. “I gave you a thousand!”
“A thousand of our stuff,” Verka said. “I meant a thousand dollars.”
The man swore. Verka froze for a second, then rolled her eyes theatrically, threw up her arms, and shouted so the whole building could hear her.
“Help, help! I’m a child being raped!”
The man rushed at her, but Verka was ready for that and she dodged, then dashed upstairs, banging on every apartment door as she went.
“Stop! Quiet down!” the man shouted at her from behind.
Verka turned and hissed at him.
“You give me my pay, you child rapist, or I’m going to the cops and that’s it!”
Somewhere a door slammed and they could hear voices. The man, his face pale, pulled out his wallet, took three hundred dollars from it, and threw the cash at Verka. One keen glance at the wallet told her there was nothing left inside it, so Verka picked up the money, pulled her coat closed, and ran downstairs, past all the worried “What happened?” and “Who screamed?”
Once she was far enough away, in the empty lot near the place they were building another tall building, Verka leaped high in the air, doing the victory dance of some unknown tribe. She finished her vodka and headed to the Ramstore to turn the useless green paper into good things she needed.
The city was muffled up in the early winter evening. The afternoon smog had settled in a poisonous cloud to fill the streets. Bent under the weight of several stuffed shopping bags, a green alien beast printed on each, Verka slowly made her way past the long concrete barricade walling off a construction site abandoned ten years back. Once they were planning to build a new department store here, the biggest one in the city, and they had even managed to put in a good solid foundation and build the first four floors.
Then times changed, there wasn’t enough money, the lot got overgrown first with weeds, then little trees. By now there were supermarkets all over the city housed in imported prefab structures. They grew before your eyes like houses made of cards. Nobody cared about an old Soviet behemoth of a project anymore. Verka walked, and to distract herself from her aching arms, which could barely lug the heavy load, she repeated the new words she had read for the first time today in the store, in ads and on products, on book covers and cassette cases. I-beam. Consulting services. Mortgages. She loved the mysterious combinations of sounds, which you could repeat and savor until, pretty soon, what you had heard or seen or read suddenly became clear and made sense… People laughed at her weird fixations, and the almost forbidden pleasure grew even more acute.
When she reached a break in the concrete wall Verka slipped the bags through first, then crawled through herself. She followed the well-beaten path to the unfinished building and knocked at the basement window. None of the upper stories had walls, just framework and barely a roof, but the basement and the storage cellars underground were finished. All they needed was to put some plywood in the holes for the windows and vents and the place was ready.
A cardboard shutter slid down fast and the shaggy head of a fifteen-year-old boy appeared in the window.
“Verka! Come on in. You cold?”
“Here!” Verka, proud, handed him the shopping bags one at a time. The guy oohed and aahed happily as he took each bag, trying to figure out what was inside, and Verka laughed.
When she had passed them all in Verka slipped through the window herself. The guy caught her and helped her down, then hurried to cover the window. They brought the bags into the next room, where it was hot from a burning cast-iron stove, and noisy. Five young teenagers had evidently been living there for a while. Blankets were spread in the corners, dishes sat on homemade tables cobbled together from boxes, and a dark boarded-up window was decorated with a curtain.
Verka was met with joyful shouts, and when she started laying out triumphantly the things she had bought, the joy turned to jubilation. They applauded the slightly bent sticks of sausage, rounds of Dutch cheese and pinwheels of smoked cheese, baklava and pastries, food in cans, bottles of vodka and Pepsi, candy, chocolate, mints and other treasures.
“How did you carry all that?” asked the strong, bony girl who was always sniffling. But Verka had caught her breath by then and waved her off. “No big deal.”
When everyone had eaten their fill and had plenty to drink, when they were waiting out the brief stupor of satiety, smoking with relish, and everyone was having a good time, Verka spun in circles in the middle of the room and told them about the events of her day. She acted out all the roles, mimicked the men’s voices and the women’s frightened faces, and told them how skillfully and smoothly she, Verka, had done it all.
Everyone was laughing, copying her words and gestures, and as she basked in their love and admiration, Verka felt happy.
“It was getting cold this afternoon,” the strong girl said suddenly. “Should we go spend the night at the orphanage?”
“Nah,” said the shaggy-haired boy, looking over the meager remains of their feast. “Let’s go tomorrow.”
“Tomorrow, tomorrow!” Verka cheered. They only showed up at the orphanage when things got really bad on the streets, or they needed to hide out and wait for some kind of trouble to pass. And the caretakers had long ago stopped paying attention to the older kids’ frequent disappearances. They were often gone for days on end in the summer, and sometimes in the winter too.
“I bought this, too,” said Verka, and she took a lighter from her pocket.
“So?” somebody asked her, giving her purchase an uninterested look. “It’s just a lighter.”
“It’s everlasting. It lasts forever.” Verka held the little red rectangle with rounded corners proudly above her head.
“Nothing lasts forever,” laughed the dark-skinned boy who looked like a Gypsy.
“This one does, this one does!” Verka chanted, and traced a finger lovingly over its smooth surface. “They told me it does!”
“You’re so lucky,” whispered the girl who always sat quietly in the corner, the youngest of them all. “You always have money and you know so many big fancy words.”
“That’s the way I am!” Verka crowed.
She spun across the room, one hand flicking the lighter, the other holding an open vodka bottle, and she was happy, the warm room felt good, the little flame flickered and went out, the kids around her were getting ready for bed but she wanted to go somewhere, do something, it didn’t matter where or what, as long as this drunken happiness could go on.
“Let’s go upstairs!” she called to them. “Let’s look at the city! It’s night, it’ll be great!”
“You’re wasted!” the shaggy-haired guy told her, getting under a blanket with one of the girls. “It’s cold out there. We’ll freeze.”
But Verka was already going up the rickety flight of stairs. She opened the door at the top and then up, up, up, to the last finished floor. The sharp, cold air seized her, she gasped in delight, and she pulled her coat closer around her.
Verka walked to the very edge. The city winked at her with dozens of bright windows, the holiday lights in the streets, the colored flashes of the ads. It was cold. At night nature forgot that this was a southern city. Verka took a hurried gulp of vodka. She flicked her lighter mechanically, as if adding one more small flame to the sparkling night, and she looked off into the distance. For her, the view from up above was always spellbinding. She looked for a long time over the city, sprawling in all directions, and then, frozen, she started to dance. Soon, laughing and yelping, spinning in circles, she had her head tossed back and her arms thrown out wide. When she stopped and went back to looking at the city, it seemed to her that the lights in the windows were being carried away, whirling unrestrained, into the measureless blackness of space. Everything was swimming, the headlights, the houses, the streets… The wayward planet was flying into the unknown, drawing after it the slim lobe of the moon, and the sun wherever it was hiding, and the fragile winter stars. Barely holding back, full speed ahead, Verka shouted at the lights smeared into thin, bright streaks.
“Kind people, have compassion for a poor orphan!”
Olga Mark (1963-2008) was a teacher, critic, and fiction writer. She published three works of fiction and a monograph on poetry. Olga wrote in Russian.
Shelley Fairweather-Vega is a professional translator from Russian and Uzbek and has translated fiction from all over the former Soviet Union. She holds degrees in international relations from Johns Hopkins University and in Russian, East European, and Central Asian Studies from the University of Washington. She is currently the president of the Northwest Translators and Interpreters Society and runs FairVega Russian Library Services. Co-editor, with Zaure Batayeva, of the work-in-progress Amanat: Recent Women’s Writing from Kazakhstan.
Zaure Batayeva is a journalist, translator, and fiction writer. Her articles and stories have been published in print and online. Zaure writes in Kazakh and Russian. Co-editor, with Shelley Fairweather-Vega, of the work-in-progress Amanat: Recent Women’s Writing from Kazakhstan.
Maria Stepanova is a Moscow-based poet, essayist, and journalist. She’s also the editor-in-chief of Colta, a crowdfunded online publication that she created eight years ago and that has become a major outlet for long-form think pieces on contemporary Russian culture. Stepanova published ten books of poetry and three essay collections and has received numerous literary awards. In 2017, she wrote her first book of prose, In Memory of Memory. It’s a documentary novel that tells the story of the narrator who, after the death of her aunt, goes through the archive the aunt left behind, discovering her family’s history. In parts of this book, there’s no narration – just excerpts from diaries and letters written by Stepanova’s relatives; its other parts engage directly with other authors who wrote about memory – Osip Mandelstam, W. G. Sebald, and Susan Sontag. Despite or, maybe, because of the book’s non-traditional form, it gained a wide readership and won two major Russian literary prizes. On February 9, In Memory of Memory comes out in English from New Directions, translated by Sasha Dugdale, a British poet and playwright. This interview was conducted in Russian and subsequently translated to English by the interviewer.
In your novel, you quote someone saying that quite a lot of books have been written in English by people investigating their family histories. In Russian, though, your book is the only one of its kind.
Actually, it’s not the only one, which makes me very happy. To me, this is a discovery of sorts – that things we usually consider private and insignificant are turning out to be the most interesting not only for me, but also for a large number of people. And the stories they tend to tell sometimes are quite unexpected in their scope and variety. In some of them the twentieth century shows up in all its terrible glory, with all of its tragedies and disasters, but in a number of cases these are just regular domestic stories of how somebody’s grandmother arrived, or how someone left to work in the north, or how three sisters lived in a distant Hungarian village, but then decided to leave for the big city. And yet one can’t get enough of these stories. I think that this is a very important shift, this interest in familial memory. There’s an increasingly palpable hunger for contact with the past which grows stronger as the present becomes less acceptable to us. A couple of years ago, I worked in Berlin for a year, teaching memory writing in Humboldt University. I had large groups made up of different kinds of people, all of them hooked on this search for the past despite it sometimes being painful – because traveling to the past isn’t always pleasant. Moreover, this interest in memory is a global, international phenomenon, which is now shaping the outlines of a new community and works as a link between generations because it attracts people regardless of their age.
Do you have any idea why you became the first person to write about these things in Russian?
I wasn’t really the first one – writing one’s family history is something fairly normal in Russia, as elsewhere, and there is a good number books devoted to the legacy of the twentieth century and the traces it left in private lives…. Maybe the genre is something that makes a difference in my case: I was most interested in trying to shape a new territory between fiction and nonfiction: in my book, a novel, an essay, and a research project meet one another. I guess no one else wrote books like that at the time.
Do you think there isn’t a lot of experimentation happening in the Russian literary space?
This is how it works: since the beginning of the nineties, when literary awards appeared in Russia, the way contemporary fiction works has been largely determined by their existence. Winning one of them is the only opportunity for a prose writer in Russia to receive a substantial amount of money that can greatly improve their life. These awards, in one way or another, are geared towards finding the great Russian novel that is very similar to the great American novel. It’s a long, philosophical narrative without any stylistic nonsense – because it should be easy to read and digest – shaped within the mold of a nineteenth century novel. That is, the writer is forced to reinvent the wheel for the umpteenth time.
In other words, you didn’t expect that your book would become successful and would win two of these very same awards – NOS and Big Book?
I didn’t think about those things at all. I’ve been writing poetry all my life, and it always seemed to me that prose was the medium that wasn’t required of me, that if I wanted to write prose, I could easily write it in verse. And I did: I’ve written long narrative poems and all manner of ballads. At the same time, I always knew that someday I would write a book about my family, even though I didn’t know how I would go about it. I’d been meaning to write it from the age of ten, but I was taking a long time, endlessly getting distracted, looking for a chance to procrastinate a little while more. There came a point, however, when I realized that I had to do it. I set out to write a text that would be convincing to me, and there was one more goal that was even more important. You know, Brodsky has this essay called “To Please a Shadow.” This was what I wanted – to please my dead. I constructed my book in such a way that they would feel good in it. Maybe I could’ve written it in a completely different way, without all those historical and cultural references that work as a large structure into which my own stories then fit. I could’ve written a story about my family and nothing else, but I had in mind something that would belong to the realm of contemporary art. I wanted to create a space in which I could arrange the few remaining photographs, letters, and testimonies, and to make it so that they would feel good in this space, so that they would be seen and understood in the right way. This is how you work when curating an exhibition – you start with the space. I really didn’t think about anything else, and the fact that my book wound up being widely read was a shock both for me and for my publisher, who didn’t hope to sell more than three thousand copies, I think.
How did you arrive at this particular form for your book?
The book is about inconspicuous people, people whose lives resembled those of everyone else: they loved, they fell out of love, someone died, someone was born. As a family, they managed to survive many times, perhaps because they deliberately stayed on the sidelines. At the beginning of the twentieth century, they tried to be actors of history, but later they moved to its margins and spent almost a hundred years there. So, what worried me was the question of how to tell the story of people who didn’t really want to be noticed – and how to talk about people whose fates had nothing extraordinary about them.
I found the story of Lyodik who went to the front and died at the age of nineteen absolutely heartbreaking.
Lyodik’s letters have been in our family for as long as I can remember. When I was little, my mother told me about him sometimes and read his letters out loud. But it’s impossible to surmise from his letters what was actually happening to him and around him – he kept silent about that. In order to look beyond and understand what he kept silent about, I had to read a lot of historical literature on the blockade of Leningrad and the Leningrad front. A documentary novel is a genre in which there are a lot of gradations, that is, there’s a toggle switch that can be moved to the left, towards the documentary, or to the right, towards fiction. I’m probably keeping to the left of this spectrum. I have serious problems with the type of novel writing that uses people who are no longer alive as glove puppets to convey the writer’s own thoughts and emotions. I think and write a lot about the ethics and the etiquette of writing about the dead, about what is allowed and what isn’t, and at what point it turns into the exploitation of people who can no longer object to this treatment.
Have you come across books that dealt with the dead in a way that you liked?
There are a number of books that are great examples of how one can write about the dead without trying to make the story “interesting,” without trying to deceive, and at the same time doing this miraculous work of resurrection. First of all, I should mention W. G. Sebald because he balances on the border of fiction and essay writing in such a way that there’s a constant flicker. We want to, but we cannot ask: was this all real or not? Is this narrator Sebald or someone else with his mustache and his last name? It seems to me that a new type of literature is emerging which still doesn’t have a name, but it no longer fully belongs to either fiction or essay writing. The books I love most belong exactly to this type of writing that is gradually becoming more and more important.
You’ve mentioned in various interviews that fiction is becoming less and less interesting than documentary writing. Why, do you think?
Remember Mandelstam’s article “The End of the Novel”? It was written in 1923, almost a hundred years ago. He says in it that everything has changed, that the man of the nineteenth century had an individual fate and was therefore interested in the individual fate and its trajectories – hence the success and the significance of the novel as a genre in the nineteenth century and beyond, due to some kind of inertia. But we all know how the twentieth century dealt with these trajectories: it took these individual fates, collected them in a bundle, and broke them over its knee. Later, when the smoke cleared, it turned out that the individual survived, though not in the place where we kept looking. It’s no longer where the typical hero appears in the proposed circumstances and carries on their shoulders the novel construction. In the century in which people die in millions, one person isn’t quite the measure. An error, a detail, a very small thing – oddly enough, that’s the measure.
What kind of thing?
For example, a button that I saw at the Museum of the International Memorial in Moscow where they keep the belongings of the prisoners of Soviet camps. They have many remarkable things there, including an archive of drawings made by the prisoners. It amazed me – and I want to write about it sometime – because there are no scenes we remember so well from the Russian camp prose: no barbed wire, or German shepherds, or security officers on the watchtowers. But there’s a huge number of still lives with flowers as well as landscapes and portraits. For some reason, it was important to those people to create beauty rather than to give a realistic depiction of their circumstances. In this museum, I saw a button in which one of the prisoners had sent a note to his wife. This is a striking detail: they were horribly tortured, but they could give their overcoats to their wives for cleaning. This officer handed his overcoat to his wife, and from one of its buttons a corner of this note was sticking out slightly. On tissue paper, he wrote in microscopic letters about how he was arrested and beaten, and he added that he probably wouldn’t come back. The twentieth century is the time when life turns out to be so inhuman that people become speechless and can speak only for all of humanity, while objects do the speaking for them.
You’re fluent in English, and I assume that you’ve read Sasha Dugdale’s translation of your book. How did you like it?
I think it’s brilliant. Sasha is a wonderful poet and a close friend; she translated and still translates my poems – but my book is maybe the largest piece of prose she had ever translated. And what she did with this huge volume is, in my opinion, absolutely incredible. The Russian type of writing involves endless subordinate clauses that circle around the principal meaning until they finally find their way to it. The Russian syntax imitates the confusing, complex work of human thought, while English, it seems to me, entails a completely different logic and a completely different language etiquette. If you translate a Russian text aiming to convey mainly its syntactic features, it won’t deliver the intended message. What Sasha did was amazing: she found a balance between these two things. She delivered the message that is still the main objective of my work, and at the same time she created this English Russian that isn’t a literal reflection of the original, but somehow gives the reader an idea of how it works.
Your book has a subtitle – romance. In addition to its other meanings, this word designates a certain kind of song in Russian.
In the book, there are several definitions of the subtitle, and the reader can choose the explanation that they like best. To me, the English meaning of this word is the most important. I feel that this book is a love story, only it’s facing backward rather than forward, as is usually the case with love stories because love is always looking for some kind of completion in the future. Here, love is addressed to people who are no longer alive, so, on the one hand, my love is happy because I love them and I feel that they love me, but on the other hand, I can’t talk to them anymore, and this love is doomed in a sense.
Your book makes clear that your ancestors had to stifle their literary ambitions. Why was that?
When I began to sort through my archive, it struck me: they were all in one way or another people of the written word, even those of them who never intended to study literature. Therefore, there are parts in my book in which I don’t speak at all: I publish excerpts from letters or diaries to give my ancestors the opportunity to speak in their own voices. It seemed wrong and inappropriate to me to invent a voice for my great-grandmother where she had her own. On the contrary, I wanted them to say once again what they already said once, to get a final chance to be heard. My grandfather wrote poetry all his life, mostly comical, but when his daughter – my mother – began to write poetry too, he strictly forbade it, saying, “You’re Jewish, so you must have a profession.” My mother worked as an engineer all her life and never wrote poetry after that.
Was it the same way with you? Were you told not to write poetry?
In a sense, I’m the result of this half-century of their non-writing, because the first thing my mother taught me was to read and write. She was too shy to sing, so at night, instead of singing lullabies, she recited poetry to me. I turned out to be the completion of my family’s hope that someone could write and speak for everyone. It’s a lot of responsibility, because it’s like dragging around a suitcase full of family stories that haven’t been told, and I’m the knot in which they converge. I have to decide whether to talk about them or not, and what exactly to tell. On the other hand, I was infinitely happy, writing this book and doing almost nothing else for several years. I traveled to all the places where my ancestors once lived, and it was very strange and exciting. For example, I went to this microscopic village in the middle of nowhere, somewhere between Arzamas and Nizhny Novgorod, and there was no train there, only a bus that went there once a week, there was no hotel, no cafes, no nothing. And I looked at all of that and realized that there was some thread that connected me to that place.
Since nonfiction is more interesting to you than fiction, does this mean that you don’t read mainstream novels?
I have a very special reading routine: I read a book a day. This means that I constantly have to throw new texts into the furnace. I really love genre literature: for example, detective stories that have clear rules upon which the author agreed with me. It’s a game the author and I are playing. I also read complicated, experimental texts, and academic stuff. I do sometimes read mainstream psychological novels, but they don’t make up the bulk of my diet. If someone I love comes running and says, “Grab this new novel immediately and read it,” then, of course, I’ll grab it and read it. But when I’m in a bookstore, the shelf with freshly published novels isn’t the first one I’ll be looking at.
You don’t hide your political views: you oppose Putin’s regime. You must’ve had opportunities to leave Russia. Why have you stayed?
This is one of those questions that I have to ask myself every five years or so. When my parents left for Germany in the early nineties, I didn’t go with them. I stayed because I was fascinated by what was happening in Russia. It seemed odd to me to leave when the most interesting things began to happen. And now, I feel that someone has to love this place – with its monstrous situation into which we have driven ourselves, with Putin, with these comic-opera poisoners, with this “insane printer” [in colloquial Russian, this is what the Duma, or the state legislative body, is called – Punctured Lines] that passes these insane laws. Someone has to live here and to treat this space as their home, to make it meaningful. Which isn’t to say that I’ll grip this earth with my teeth and stay here under any circumstance. But as long as it’s possible to live here somehow, I would try to stay here. Because the worse it gets here, the more this place needs our love.
Svetlana Satchkova is a writer and journalist from Moscow, Russia, who currently lives in New York City and is working on her MFA at Brooklyn College. Her most recent novel People and Birds came out from Moscow-based Eksmo Press to popular and critical acclaim.
After more than one hundred years, the history of the Russian revolution remains contentious. Heated, politicized debate has focused on the issue of violence, namely the origin and impact of violent terror tactics used by some revolutionary groups against the tsarist government. Another area of ongoing debate has to do with the role of Jewish revolutionaries within the larger movement. In his volume Two Hundred Years Together Alexander Solzhenitsyn construes a narrative in which assimilated Jewish revolutionaries took over the “Russian soul” and turned it toward terror. Solzhenitsyn — and in his footsteps some contemporary Russian commentators — lays the blame for the origins of the Leninist and Stalinist mass terror on the Jewish revolutionary contingent.
In the United States such arguments, thankfully, have not had much currency. Given the historical remove of the revolution, the views of the likes of Solzhenitsyn have been received with complacency; there’s been no urge to examine Solzhenitsyn’s biases. It is thus particularly exciting when a new account of the era emerges, shedding fresh light on the past.
Klara Klebanova was a member of the Maximalist wing of the Socialist Revolutionary party, active in the revolution of 1905. In 1914 she immigrated to the US and in 1922 published her memoirs in the Yiddish-language daily Forverts. Klebanova grew up in Novozybkov, a town in the Chernigov province, which was then Ukraine but is now part of Russia’s Bryansk oblast. Klebanova came from a relatively assimilated and well-off Jewish family; she mentions graduating from a secondary school that was known to have strict quotas for Jewish students. The work of popular Russian writers — Turgenev, Tolstoy, Uspensky, and Nekrasov — moved Klebanova to participate in the revolution. The plight of the Russian peasants and the desire to ease their poverty and suffering brought her into the fold of the Socialist Revolutionary party.
The historical value of an authentic voice may be reason enough to read this memoir. What makes this tale outstanding, however, is Klebanova’s gift as a writer. She deftly weaves together the personal and the political, breathing life into her sketches of fellow activists. Her memoir is both a history of ideas and a love story. It contains an account of a revolutionary movement, a glimpse into the St. Petersburg prison system in the 1900s, and affectionate portraits of some notable revolutionaries.
For the excerpt below, I have chosen from the sections of Klebanova’s story that focus on Katya Izmailovich, a young woman who had a special place in Klara’s heart and who was one of her earliest guides in revolutionary work.
WILD STRAWBERRY, as Klara Klebanova’s memoir is tentatively titled, is as yet unpublished in full. It came to my attention through Peter Kleban, Klara’s relative and a champion of her writing. Kleban worked with translator Caraid O’Brien to render Klebanova’s memoir into English. O’Brien has also made a radiocast of the memoir, available in twelve 30-minute episodes from the Yiddish Book Center. An excerpt “Petticoats and Bombs” also appeared in the Yiddish Book Center’s magazine Pakn Treger and is available online.
This excerpt has been made possible by Peter Kleban, who owns the copyright to the work.
Izmailovich, the General’s Daughter
A Memoir by Klara Klebanova, translated from Yiddish by Caraid O’Brien
Speakers from the Social Democrats and the Socialist Revolutionaries often came to our city to address the students. On one occasion an active and well-known Socialist Revolutionary who went by the name “Grandfather” (Zeyde) came to visit. He was the husband of the famous Socialist Revolutionary Anastasia Bitsenko, who was given a life sentence of hard labor for an attempt on the life of a prominent government official. Grandfather organized a clandestine student group to prepare for propaganda work. I was among its members.
By the time I finished high school in 1904, I was already a committed Socialist Revolutionary. My small home town could not satisfy me. I was drawn to where I believed revolutionary activity was in full swing. I wanted to leave home and be independent of my parents.
Given that my older sister had already served time in prison for protest activity, my father under no circumstances wanted to let me go. After long and difficult arguments, he agreed to send me to Borisov, his hometown, where many friends and relatives could keep an eye on me. He even arranged a part-time job for me as a teacher in a Jewish school. I had absolutely no interest in teaching. In my mind Borisov was just the first phase of my plan to liberate myself completely.
It was not difficult to leave home for the first time and be apart from my parents. Because I was leaving against her wishes, my mother was too angry with me to say goodbye. This did not move me. It was as nothing compared to the happiness I imagined I would feel when I was entirely devoted to revolutionary action. I had no idea what the effort entailed, but I was thrilled to be on the brink of freedom and able to live alone, independently, as I wished.
I stayed only a few months in Borisov. Bitsenko’s husband, the tireless Grandfather, sent Rosa Shabat, a young member of the Socialist Revolutionary party, to collect me. I left with her for Minsk, a city which I knew had a very active Socialist Revolutionary organization. It was where I needed to be to take my first revolutionary steps.
Rosa took me to the house of the famous revolutionary Katya Izmailovich. Katya’s father, a lieutenant general, was in the Far East at the time; her mother was dead and her sister, Sonya, was in prison in St. Petersburg awaiting a life sentence of hard labor for an attempt on the life of Kurlov, the governor of Minsk, who was one of the hated so-called “bloodhounds.” Katya occupied the entire family home along with a soldier assigned as her orderly. I stayed with her for about three weeks.
From the outset Katya’s orderly was very unfriendly toward me and suspicious. Apparently it was inconceivable to him that his noble lady would bring a Jew into the general’s house. He had a dull soldier’s face that appeared to notice nothing, but in fact he was very sly and kept track of everything Katya did. He noted, for example, that she was hosting workers’ meetings. Katya suspected he was spying and informing on her. She was terrified of him, but nonetheless teased him and made fun of him. She named the dog that was always at his side “Compatriot,” meaning countryman, the word soldiers used to greet one another. This offended him tremendously. I often noticed his face was red when Katya stood laughing at him. To taunt him further she invited some of us revolutionaries to dance on the general’s furniture. We jumped all over the white armchairs and divans. Katya even jumped onto the piano and banged the keys with her shoes. The orderly boiled as he watched this group of hooligans desecrating the holy shrine of his general’s furniture. Katya winked at him from across the room with a roguish smile as if scoffing at the luxurious surroundings.
What a wonderful person Katya was, so dignified and distinguished that a young provincial like me could not but idolize her! Still, it annoyed me that she behaved with such contempt toward the orderly. It seemed to me that a revolutionary should not behave in such a way toward a young, poor, unimportant soldier. Once I spoke up about it.
“He spies on me, you know,” Katya said. “He’s here to inform on me, the dog, and he acts as if he doesn’t notice anything.”
Katya was twenty-five or twenty-six years old, tall, bony, and not pretty. From her looks one would have taken her for a small-town seamstress rather than a general’s daughter. She always wore the same blue calico dress, with her hair combed straight and almost nothing feminine about her movements. She gave the impression of being a wily person, aware of everything she did. She was close to everyone and all the comrades, even the old revolutionaries, treated her with great respect. She was very determined and a wellspring of energy; her eyes sparkled with humor. She found things to deride and mock that we would never have noticed. Often she made fun of the sound of Russian spoken with a Yiddish accent. She imitated it perfectly. She told of running with her sister from their secondary school over to the Jewish schools to tease the children and shout “zhidovki, zhidovki!” Anyone could see that she did not intend this in anger or out of anti-semitism, but as pure mischief making.
Katya got fifty rubles a month from her father the general. At the time, this was a huge sum for one person. (It was not meant as maintenance for the orderly, who ate at the barracks.) Katya gave most of the money to the Minsk revolutionary organization and lived on what few groschen remained. Her needs were minimal and she denied herself many things. While I was living with her she sometimes ordered lunch for two from the club, ate a little and saved the rest for later. Sometimes we just bought sour milk and black bread from the corner store and nothing more. I can’t speak for my friend, but I myself was hungry after those meals and my stomach growled a lot.
At this time, Katya’s revolutionary activity consisted of propagandizing the workers, in particular the railway workers [and Klara joined her in this activity].
[…Soon], Katya told me that there had been a split among the Socialist Revolutionaries. An opposition group had emerged under the banner “Young Ones.” It differentiated itself from the Socialist Revolutionaries and Democratic Socialists by not recognizing the Minimum Program, part of the program of the latter two groups. The Minimum Program was a set of immediate demands for political rights, a parliament or the creation of a representative body, a free press, a right of free speech and assembly, the right to strike, and an eight hour work day. The Socialist Revolutionaries also included the socialization of the land. The Maximum Program was a more ambitious, longer-term goal, demanding the establishment of a Socialist society.
The Young Ones, by contrast, demanded that the Maximum Program be the immediate goal. They did not recognize the struggle for a parliament as a necessary first step, judging that a parliament would not bring them any closer to their goal of socialism and that indeed it would hinder their aims while dulling the consciousness of the workers. In this sense the Young Ones were like the Syndicalists in France.
The Young Ones declared that the upcoming Russian revolution should be a social revolution rather than a revolution for political freedom. Accordingly the peasants should seize the land and the workers take over the factories and industries. In other words the Young Ones—or Maximalists as they were later called—preached and fought for what Lenin was to bring to life ten to twelve years later. They had to endure a difficult internal struggle, with the Democratic Socialists on one side and the Socialist Revolutionaries on the other! In addition, they—or rather we, because I soon joined them—were called Utopian fantasists, irresponsible people with petit bourgeois aspirations. (At the time it was fashionable to insult people with the label petit bourgeois.)
[…] I could not stay in Katya’s house any longer—spies appeared with increasing frequency—so I rented my own little room. I had no servants and the only way I could earn anything was by giving lessons. I had very few acquaintances in Minsk and in addition I lived under a false passport. I did not think it was fair to take money from the organization at a time when I had brought so little to it, and I didn’t want to take money from Katya. I lived truly half starving. I could have asked my parents for money, but I didn’t want to write to them: it might have exposed where I lived. At times the organization in Minsk sent me to surrounding cities and towns to speak at gatherings. Addressing a crowd no longer made me confused or anxious; everything came out smoothly and clearly. I came back happy, knowing that I had accomplished something.
[Klara then decided to move from Minsk to Bialystok, which had a strong Young Ones group.]
[…] Katya was also about to go away. The night before she left, she had a small good-bye party. A few comrades gathered at her house for wine and drinks. Handing me a glass she said, “Tonight, you and I will sing our swan song.”
I had no inkling that she was about to attempt the assassination of Admiral Chukhnin of the Sevastopol Black Sea Fleet, or that this would be the last time I would see her.
She went to Chukhnin dressed in mourning and naturally under a different name. She posed as a sailor’s widow whose husband had been killed in battle. She had a request, she said, and was allowed to see the admiral. She shot him, but only succeeded in wounding him in the foot.
In a rage, Chukhnin ordered his servant to cut Katya to pieces with his sword. This was in 1906.
Thus this noble revolutionary died. She had rejected all the pleasures that her station in life could have given her and chose instead the greater happiness of fighting for the freedom of all people. Because she believed in the necessity of violence, she thought it wonderful good luck to be chosen to participate.
By then I had decided to become one of the chosen, but I did not yet feel worthy of a deed as important as Katya’s. A feeling smoldered deep in my soul: wait, your time will come.
At Katya’s death, though, I was quite overcome.
Katya had of course guessed that I wanted to take part in violent action. That was what she had meant when she said that I too would soon sing my swan song.
It turned out that my destiny was to survive, forever on the threshold between life and death. My song remained unsung until the end. I traveled to Bialystok.
Most of us who grew up in the Soviet Union will remember Samuil Marshak’s rhyming dramatic tale Koshkin dom — The Cat’s House. A wealthy angora cat builds herself a new residence. Two destitute kittens show up at her doorstep, begging her to share her house with them: We’re your nephews, they say. We’re poor orphans. Won’t you let us in and feed us? The wealthy angora cat has her servant shoo them away, setting off the action of the drama in which the angora cat eventually gets her punishment for refusing help to the kittens in need, and the orphan kittens prove to be in the position to give her shelter.
Marshak’s rhymes were at the tip of my tongue while I was reading Daughter of the Shtetl: The Memoirs of Doba-Mera Medvedeva (Academic Studies Press, 2019), as though Doba-Mera and her brothers were the original orphans, the prototypes behind Marshak’s dramatic tale — except their life’s story didn’t make room for happy endings.
Doba-Mera Gurevich was born in 1892 in the shtetl of Khotimsk on the eastern edge of Belarus and the Pale of Settlement — that part of the Russian empire where Jews were allowed to live. Her mother died in 1903, when Doba-Mera was eleven, and as she was dying, she left Doba-Mera this parting message: “From the moment I close my eyes, the whole world will reject you. Because only happy children are loved.”
This is, indeed, what happened: Doba-Mera had to leave school to take care of her brothers; Doba-Mera’s father, a teacher, remarried, and because his new wife didn’t have the resources to raise the children from his previous marriage, Doba-Mera and her two younger brothers went from relative’s house to relative’s house, working and suffering their way through their childhood. Several years later, her baby brother, of poor health from birth, succumbed to an illness and died.
Doba-Mera describes one occasion on which, after spending time with their grandfather for High Holidays, she and her brothers were sent by a hired wagon to their uncle’s house:
Uncle himself came out and asked in a saccharine way, “Who are these children you have brought me?” “They are the orphans of your younger sister Rokhl”… “So why did you bring them to me? asked Uncle. “You, Veniaminovich,” said the driver, “take them off the wagon, warm them up and feed them — they are hungry and wet — then ask your questions. Look, the poor little ones are frozen stiff.”…. And Uncle stood by the door and stroked his beard and said, addressing the driver by name: “I have nowhere to put them, but they have an aunt here, their father’s sister. They don’t live very far; take them there.”
Eventually, Doba-Mera’s family put together the money to apprentice her to a tailor, and after learning how to fend for herself in a male-dominated environment, she acquired a trade. She witnessed a pogrom and was lucky to come out unscathed physically. She married a distant relative whose parents hated her and made her married life very difficult. She describes years of fear, poverty, and anguish during WWI. After October 1917, she and her husband were eventually able to leave their shtetl and settle in Leningrad, improving their fortunes somewhat, but then came WWII and its attendant horrors.
I won’t overstate the matter if I say that this was a relentlessly sad book down to the very last page. In fact, the most horrific incident comes in a footnote on that page: in this footnote, Michael Beizer, Doba-Mera’s grandson and the force behind the publication of this book, recounts a story told by a resident of the town of Klintsy (not far from Khotimsk), who had been forced to bury the dead after the Nazi shooting of the Jewish residents. I won’t tell this story here — it’s painful. I have to admit, at first, I was deeply angry at Beizer for leaving me with this story on the last page of Doba-Mera’s book, and it’s only with time that I came to realize how appropriate it was to end the book with this Holocaust story. Though Doba-Mera and her children had been able to escape it, it is the Holocaust and the loss of so many lives and so much knowledge that necessitated if not the writing than the publishing of her book. It still hurts to recall that story though.
Doba-Mera began writing her memoirs in the 1930s, living in Leningrad and wanting to tell her children something about her past. Having left school at the age of eleven, she clearly took a lot of pride at her abilities as a learner and deeply regretted that life hadn’t allowed her to use those skills more. She wrote in Russian and addressed herself to her Russian-speaking children and grandchildren, explaining Jewish customs and a way of life. The memoir comes to us in English in a deeply nuanced translation by Alice Nakhimovsky, who in her accompanying note marvels at Doba-Mera, ascribing to her membership in “a vanishingly small group of memoirists who are neither elite nor highly literate but whose observations from the ground cast a vivid light on a lost world.” Nakhimovsky helps to illuminate that world by bringing into English Doba-Mera’s particular idiom, a Russian infused with concepts and a particular cadence taken from Yiddish — the memoirist’s first language.
To me, this memoir feels valuable also because of the way Doba-Mera not only captures her personal experience but constantly connects it to the larger social structures that governed her life. For instance, this is how she recounts life at the edge of the Pale of Settlement (her town was apparently right on the border of what is now Belarus and Russia):
One summer day after work I went with my girlfriends to walk along Barabanovka Street. The street was on the other side of the river, where everybody used to go walking. Jews were allowed to walk but not to live there. A landowner lived there by the name of Robert. He couldn’t stand Jews, but as our stetl was in Mogilev Province, and Jews were permitted to live there, he got the government to make his street part of Orel Province, where Jews were forbidden to live. And he got all the Jews sent away from there. The empty houses where the Jews had lived were boarded up, and nobody would buy them because the Russians were confident that they would get everything anyway.
So on the Sabbath and holidays everybody would stroll there. The street was beautiful, with a lot of greenery, and so everybody liked to stroll along it.
This moment from the year 1907 is probably one of the happiest in Doba-Mera’s life. She goes on to describe her encounters with various socialist revolutionary groups during this period of her life. She wasn’t a revolutionary herself — she had her brothers to provide for — but she recalls going to underground gatherings and gives us the outline of the underground activity in her area.
The other distinct pleasure of reading this memoir is the candid way Doba-Mera writes about her own emotions, including the times when they turned ugly. She doesn’t shy away from describing her feelings of regret, sadness, jealousy. In one particularly devastating moment, she drops her work for several months to travel with her ailing father to Kiev, in the vague hope that he might be saved by the doctors there. She gets recommendation letters to distant family members and with trepidation approaches them upon arrival, encountering in their way of life such luxury and wealth that she hadn’t seen in the Pale.
I was seized with anger and at the same time envy, because [a relative’s son] was a student and could get nothing but Cs and was given everything he could possibly need, while I studied so well but had to become a tailor and live a life of piteous need and, to make matters worse, turn up in a big, unknown city where Jews weren’t allowed to live with a sick father, without money, wondering every minute whether I would get him home alive. At every step I cursed the day of my birth and came to the conclusion that only rich people should have children, because poor people get only suffering from them and the children also suffer.
The bitterness of Doba-Mera’s voice felt deeply familiar to me and eventually I realized that it was bringing back the intonations of my grandmother’s speech. My grandmother Raissa (Reesya) was born in Tikhinichi, another Belarusian stetl, about 130 miles from Khotimsk in 1912 or 13, about the same time as Doba-Mera’s first child. Like Doba-Mera, Raissa received her first education in a male cheder (elementary school where boys learned to read Hebrew and studied the Torah), though being a generation younger and having her mother to help her, she was able to continue her education in Leningrad. Nevertheless, life, to Raissa was a series of trials and punishments for sins she didn’t commit, and though she believed that she improved her lot by hard work and sacrifice, she refused to talk about things like “love” and “happiness.” When I tried to ask her about these things, the most she would tell me was pozhivesh–uvidish, which loosely translates as “just wait and see what life is really like.”
As a child in the 1980s, I resented this attitude and was only too happy to have a chance to escape “my lot” by moving to the United States. I have escaped, and so completely that I needed Doba-Mera’s book as a reminder of this way of thinking. Today, I find myself deeply grateful to Michael Beizer and Alice Nakhimovsky and to Academic Studies Press for this brave book. Its nonconformity to the expectations we place on the genre of the memoir (tell us what your struggles have taught you; or in any case, please land on an uplifting note) is liberating and feels deeply true to my ancestors’ ways of conceptualizing their own lives.