Telling the Story of People Who Didn’t Want to Be Noticed: An Interview with Maria Stepanova

By Svetlana Satchkova

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.

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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.

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/svetlana.satchkova

Izmailovich, the General’s Daughter: an Excerpt from the Memoir by Maximalist Klara Klebanova, translated by Caraid O’Brien

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.

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Lipa Katz — fellow Maximalist and later Klebanova’s husband — and Klara Klebanova. Likely taken in Italy, 1911. Courtesy of Paul Bassen.

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.

Novozybkov, circa 1918; source: Wikipedia and website Novozybkov.ru

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.

Ekaterina Izmailovich; source: Wikipedia

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.

Minsk in 1905; source: Wikipedia

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.

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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.

Materials, establishing the program of the Maximalist wing of the Socialist Revolutionary party; image from the archives of the Russian Historical 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.

“Only happy children are loved” — A Review of Daughter of the Shtetl: The Memoirs of Doba-Mera Medvedeva

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.

Khotimsk in 2013, photo by Dmitriy Ivchenko from Photo Encylopedia Belarus

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.

Brodsky’s free Jewish clinic in Kiev (image circa 2011 from the website Interesting Kyiv)

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.

Video from our book release celebration of LOOK AT HIM by Anna Starobinets, translated by Katherine E. Young

On September 27, 2020, Punctured Lines hosted our first ever Zoom event dedicated to the publication of LOOK AT HIM by Anna Starobinets, translated from Russian by Katherine E. Young. The author and the translator were joined on Zoom by scholar Dr. Muireann Maguire from the University of Exeter, UK to discuss this important book and the what it has to give to its English-language audiences.

The video of the event is now online:

Buy the book from the publisher Three String Books / Slavica.

To keep up with the conversation about Look at Him, including interviews, reviews, and other links, please visit translator Katherine E. Young’s website.

Anyone interested in the cover artist can find Ghislaine Howard’s work on her website.

“I felt that it was my social mission”: an Interview with Anna Starobinets

By Svetlana Satchkova

Anna Starobinets is a Russian journalist, novelist, screenwriter, and children’s book author. Her only book of non-fiction, Look at Him, is coming out in September from Slavica Publishers in Katherine E. Young’s translation. It was originally published in Russia in 2017 and caused an extraordinary public discussion. In Look at Him, Starobinets describes how, in 2012, she found out that the baby she was carrying had a congenital condition incompatible with life, and how, following a dehumanizing experience with the medical system in her own country, she had to travel to Germany to terminate her pregnancy and to receive grief counseling – a thing practically unheard of in Russia at the time.

The incredible outpouring of outrage and vicious criticism that followed the book’s publication is perhaps explained by the fact that it was the first of its kind: in Russia, it’s still the norm to keep silent about one’s grief. I spoke with Anna about her book in order to better understand why it had created such a scandal and what changes in medical practices it had helped bring about.

When did you come up with the idea of writing this book?

The thought first occurred to me when I spoke to a psychologist in Berlin and I saw all the books she had on her shelves about losing a child, in many different languages. I guessed that there were no books of this kind in Russian, which later proved to be true. After I terminated my pregnancy, I felt a need to absorb somebody else’s experience that was similar to mine, so I read a couple of books in English, but, even though my English is pretty good, there’s still an invisible wall between me and a text in this language. That’s when I started seriously thinking about writing about my own experience – I felt that it was my social mission. After the book came out, the most benign criticism I received was that I’d written it in order to sublimate my suffering and to dump it onto other people. I have no idea if there’s any truth to this accusation: you never know where the subconscious is concerned. But I can tell you that that was not my conscious goal. I felt that I had a duty to change the world using the only power I had – the power of the written word. My overarching goal was to break the silence, and I also had some smaller goals. For example, I wanted the doctors who had behaved unprofessionally towards me to stop working with women. That’s why I decided to use their real names.

Have these micro goals been accomplished?

Partially. One doctor I’d written about left his job. I don’t know if my book was the reason, but I know for certain that his reputation suffered. The clinic he’d worked in also organized a training session for their staff with the purpose of teaching them how to deliver bad news to pregnant women. I know that the director of one large private clinic in Moscow made all the obstetricians and gynecologists on his staff read my book. Also, some time later, a hospice was founded in Moscow for women who are pregnant with babies with congenital conditions. There, the women can receive medical help, no matter what decision they ultimately make.

I feel that we have to explain to American readers why everything that has to do with obstetrics and gynecology in Russia carries so much violence towards women. What are your thoughts on that?

There are historical reasons for that. In the USSR, a spartan outlook on life was widespread and almost official: only the strongest were supposed to survive. If you were weak, you couldn’t be a part of the great Soviet system. If you were in pain, you had to keep a low profile. This spartan ideology was curiously fused with even more ancient concepts. For instance, childbirth was considered to be a punishment for pleasure: if you’d been with a man, you had to bear the consequences. A woman in labor wasn’t supposed to cry out in pain and ask for special treatment, more so because this whole sphere was viewed as obscene and dirty, connected to blood and slime. All of that had come from the depths of a conservative peasant mentality. A lot of traditional cultures hold similar views, but in developed countries these have been replaced by modern-day values.

In Look at Him, you write about coming to a state women’s clinic in Moscow together with your husband for a consultation and him not being allowed inside. Why do you think men are barred from entering these clinics in Russia?

This, of course, is true only of state clinics [vs. privately funded – PL] that are still under the influence of old Soviet traditions. It was believed that no woman who had any sense would want her man to see her under those indecent circumstances where she gave birth or underwent a gynecological checkup. And if, for some reason, her man would actually want to be there with her, he’d embarrass all the other women, because he’d see them in this awkward indelicate situation: he’d know that, in a couple of minutes, they’d go in and spread their legs in front of a doctor. Presumably, men were and are barred from the clinics to protect the women.

As a result, Russian men are often separated from women’s experiences. When a woman loses a baby, her own husband often tells her to forget about it as soon as possible. Why do you think most well-wishers in Russia are so bent on making you forget about your loss instead of live through it?

Because we still lack the language to talk about it, and most people, medical professionals included, don’t realize that to talk about your pain is much more therapeutic than to keep silent about it. Paradoxically, when they tell you to forget, they are being helpful. If you don’t talk about it, they believe, the thing will just disappear. For example, my relatives told my 8-year-old daughter not to talk to me about the baby I’d lost, and I was stunned by her silence. I kept wondering if she didn’t care about what happened, and then I found out that she was trying to protect me.

What are your views on psychotherapy? There’s still a lot of prejudice against it in Russia.

Speaking abstractly, I’m all for it, of course. But I’ve encountered a huge number of ignorant and unprofessional psychotherapists in Russia. Finally, I got lucky – I did meet a great psychologist after a long while. The thing is, there isn’t a system in place that certifies therapists and makes sure that if somebody shows you a psychotherapist’s diploma, they are adequately trained to treat you. Anyone in Russia can take a three-month course, call themselves a therapist, and start taking clients.

Let’s talk about the scandal your book caused. How did it develop?

First of all, no publisher wanted to publish my book: they were scared of the subject matter. When it did finally find a home, I was worried that people wouldn’t buy it and that my work would turn out to have been for nothing. When Look at Him was ready to come out, journalists became very interested in it, and fragments of it appeared in various media outlets. I began to read the comments, and my hair stood up! There was so much hate: people were insulting me, saying that I was a disgrace to my country and that I should go and live in Germany if I liked it so much. The commenters also said that our doctors were not overly emotional, but that they had hearts of gold, and that I was demonstrating my dirty bloody underwear. I was shocked. I’d been preparing for a backlash from the medical community, but I’d thought that regular people, especially women, would be on my side because we were all patients, we all had similar experiences with our medical system. It turned out that I’d been mistaken: regular women were my most violent haters, and those who’d lost their children were especially vicious. In the public space, at least: privately, I received hundreds of messages where other women shared their own stories and thanked me for writing about what nobody else wanted to address.

What happened after the book came out?

It sold out in a month, and additional copies had to be printed. Most journalists reacted positively to it, but I would say that fifty percent of regular readers reacted negatively. Then the book was nominated for the National Bestseller award. I knew the people who worked on the committee and was on friendly terms with them: I’d been on the jury several times over the years, and we’d met at various literary events. Those people were outraged by my book too. When it was shortlisted, the judges who were supposed to make the selection among the books on the shortlist violated ethical norms by lashing out against me publicly. Which is ironic, because the book is about ethics, among other things. For example, Aglaya Toporova who is a journalist and who’d lost a three-year-old daughter, wrote a review of my book (you can still see it on the National Bestseller website) where she called my baby a fragment of my body and my book socially dangerous. What most of these people held against me was that I was, in their opinion, trying to capitalize on my grief.

How exactly?

Here, I have to explain to the American audience that the money one makes in Russia as a writer is laughable, and these people knew it perfectly well because they were part of the book industry. At first, I didn’t understand what they meant, but soon it dawned on me: they meant that I was trying to become famous by demonstrating my dirty underwear. The bottom line was that I lost a lot of friends after the book had come out. Fun fact: I live in the same building with a family of writers, and we used to be very friendly. Now, they behave as though I don’t exist.

How did you feel while all of that was going on?

It hurt a great deal, of course – I’m a live human being. But I’d accomplished my goal, and that made me feel better. The public discussion I’d been hoping to start not only happened, but turned out to be huge. My book was everywhere. I remember, someone said during that time that if you turned on the tap at home, Anna Starobinets and her book would start pouring out.

Did the doctors you’d mentioned in the book try to reach out to you?

Their friends and acquaintances did. They tried to shame me: how dare I tarnish the image of those great people? A lady from the clinic called me about Dr. Demidov, who’d brought fifteen students into the examination room without my consent, while I was lying there naked with my legs spread out, and proceeded to talk to them about the “interesting pathology” as though I wasn’t there at all. The lady said that I’d lied in my book. I said, okay, what did I say that wasn’t true? That Demidov hadn’t brought the students into the room? She said that she didn’t doubt that he had, but that I’d written that I had to buy plastic overshoes while those were free of charge at their clinic! I just laughed. I asked her if she wanted an official retraction where I’d say that the clinic confirmed all the facts except for overshoes, and she said no.

Did you get any positive feedback?

There appeared a couple of publications by medical professionals who thanked me for my book and said that everything I’d described in it was true and needed to be changed. And, as I’ve mentioned, I received a lot of personal messages with words of support from women who’d experienced something similar to what I’d gone through. But the overall situation still seemed to me sort of crazy, because the medical community reacted mostly positively, and most of the regular readers were scandalized.

I know that Look at Him has been made into a theater production. Tell me about that.

Roman Kaganovich, a young theater director from Saint Petersburg, wrote to me and said that he’d read the book and that it had changed his outlook on life. He wanted to adapt it for the stage, and the idea seemed plain crazy to me, but I liked him so much that I agreed. In a few months, I came to see the production and was absolutely blown away by it. It was incredible: the actors sang and danced, and the show was not only poignant, but also very funny – I would say it had elements of burlesque. It turned out to be very entertaining and, at the same time, very true to the spirit of my book. It was about personal grief and the Kafkian absurdity of our medical system. Roman said that during the very first performances the audience had been silent the whole time, and he realized that people had been afraid to laugh because the theme was so serious. So, he started saying before every performance that it was okay to laugh – and people started laughing.

Do you think you’ll write any more non-fiction?

I won’t. When I started writing Look at Him, I did it knowing that it would be my only non-fiction book.

Why?

First of all, I’m an active Facebook user, and I post on my page whenever I feel like sharing something of my life. Secondly, I love to make up my own stories and to create my own reality – I do it not just for the money, but because it brings me joy. For me, a book of non-fiction isn’t a creative act, but rather community service. I write speculative fiction and horror fiction for adults, and I’ve been writing a lot for children. I have a very popular children’s book series that’s called Beastly Crime Chronicles and that’s been translated into several languages. These are crime mysteries that take place in a forest, and all the characters are animals. There are two detectives: a middle-aged Chief Badger and his assistant Badgercat, who’s undergoing a personal identity crisis. This is my most successful project to date: it’s being made into a cartoon and a show for the stage.

You also write for film and TV. How do you manage to do so many things at once?

I have catastrophically little time: I work a lot. I have two kids; my daughter is a teenager, so she doesn’t care about spending time with me, but my son is five, and he really misses me. But I love writing – it’s the only thing I know how to do. Screenwriting is basically the same thing – you’re creating a story. It differs from fiction writing only in some technical aspects.

I read your Facebook on a regular basis, and I remember reading about a trip you made to China because you needed some material for a novel. What was that about?

I’m writing a novel for adults, and it takes place in 1945 in Manchuria. I’d tried to research online, of course: I didn’t want to go to China at first because I had to spend my own money, and the trip took a lot of time and effort. But I finally realized that I had to go there because I couldn’t feel what I was writing about. I had a feeling that I was writing while wearing thick rubber gloves, and that nothing would change if I didn’t go there.

Why didn’t you just change the place?

I couldn’t because there’s a story behind this novel. In 2008, my husband Alexander Garros [Alexander Garros died in 2017 – PL] and I wrote a script for Russian Channel Two. It was a 20-episode fantastic series that took place in Manchuria in 1945, with demons and werefoxes – a mix of historical truth and mythology. For two years, we lived off the money they’d paid us, but they never actually produced it because the 2008 crisis happened, and the story was really expensive to make. They thought of it as the Russian Game of Thrones. To this day, it hasn’t been produced, and possibly never will be. This gnawed at me for years because I really liked the story and I wanted it to be realized in some way, so I started to talk the producers into giving me the right to write it in the form of a novel. It took a long time, but finally they gave in. This is really ironic because when you’re a writer, the most money you can hope to make is when you sell the screen rights to your novel, and in this case it’s already happened. So, I’m only doing it because I want to tell the story. When you’re writing for the screen, however, you don’t really need a lot of details, but with a novel, you need to dive into the atmosphere. I couldn’t travel back in time to 1945, obviously, but I needed at least something – to see the landscapes, the faces that populated the land, to smell the smells, things like that. Sometimes I teach creative writing to teenagers, and I always tell them the same thing: write what you know, otherwise it won’t sound true. This is especially important in science fiction or fantasy. To make the reader believe you, you need to be true to life in every possible detail, then they’ll believe in werefoxes and demons, too.

This interview was conducted in Russian and translated by the interviewer Svetlana Satchkova.

Anna Starobinets is a writer and scriptwriter. She writes horror and supernatural fiction for adults, and also fairy tales and detective stories for children. Awarded with several Russian and European literature prizes, her books have been translated into many world languages.

Her website is: https://starobinets.ru/eng/

Svetlana Satchkova is a writer and journalist from Moscow, Russia, who currently lives in New York City and is working on her MFA at Brooklyn College. Her new novel People and Birds is coming out from Eksmo in September.

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/svetlana.satchkova

The Black Russian by Vladimir Alexandrov

Several years ago, when one still did such things, I went to a guest lecture in my department by Vladimir Alexandrov, a Slavic professor at Yale (now retired). Prof. Alexandrov was giving lots of talks at that time on the new book he had written: The Black Russian (Grove Press, 2013). The book, which has since won awards and been translated into several languages including Russian, was a biography of one Frederick Bruce Thomas – Alexandrov refers to him as Frederick throughout – whose life followed an absolutely astounding trajectory: born the son of freed slaves in Coahoma County, Mississippi, he made his fortune in the entertainment business in turn-of-the-century Moscow (and again in Constantinople, after the 1917 Revolution forced him to leave). Although hugely famous in Moscow, he was forgotten after he died. As Prof. Alexandrov explained, he discovered Frederick through a passing reference in the memoir by Alexander Vertinsky, who knew him in Moscow and Constantinople, which so fascinated Alexandrov that he set out to learn everything he could about who this Black American Moscow resident was (Alexandrov spent years researching the book, including going through archival documents and court and government records, as well as tracking down and interviewing Frederick’s grandson in France). The lecture was riveting in a way that sticks with you long after it’s over; you can get a taste by listening to Alexandrov’s recent interview on Sean Guillory’s SRB Podcast. Even though I don’t often read biographies, I immediately ordered the book, and then couldn’t put it down and raved about it to anyone who would listen.

It’s an incredible story from start to finish, told in highly engaging, fast-moving prose. Frederick’s parents were former slaves who became prosperous farm owners in post-Civil War Mississippi. His mother died when he was young, and his father remarried; when a white landowner attempted to cheat the couple out of the farm, they took him to court, where they proceeded to win. The case did get dragged out after that, and a horrific death befell the family. By that point, the Thomases had left Mississippi, which Alexandrov notes “was becoming the ‘lynchingest’ state,” and eighteen-year-old Frederick soon set out on his own on a journey that literally lasted a lifetime.

At first, his travels took him out of the South to major American cities, including Chicago and New York, where he worked as a waiter and a hotel bellboy, and then, because he wanted to become a singer, to Europe. The singing career never materialized, but he did well by working in hotels and restaurants in several West European cities, with Paris being a particular favorite. Moving to Western Europe to escape the Jim Crow-dominated U.S. was not unheard of among Black Americans. But then Frederick did something very few Americans of any background did at the time: in 1899, he moved to Russia. While it sounds unbelievable given the levels of racism there today, early twentieth-century Moscow was where Frederick Bruce Thomas – or rather, “Fyodor Fyodorovich Tomas,” as he renamed himself – came into his own.

As Alexandrov writes, Moscow was a very multicultural city, with many inhabitants from the Caucasus and Central Asia. This made it a comfortable place for Frederick despite his being in a tiny minority: “During Frederick’s years in the city, there were probably no more than a dozen other permanent black residents amid a population of well over a million. But because the parade of humanity on the city’s streets was so varied, Frederick did not stand out nearly as much as his actual rarity might have led one to expect.” It was in Moscow that Frederick achieved what would seem unimaginable for a child of former slaves from Mississippi: gradually working his way up, he became the owner of one and then another “entertainment garden,” amassing a fortune and becoming one of the city’s leading entrepreneurs. His establishments, Aquarium and Maxim, catered to an upper-crust native and foreign clientele, who watched often risque performances while enjoying expensive food and drink in lavish surroundings. Given the nature of many of the acts, the atmosphere in these places was rather non-family-friendly, with female performers being expected to offer themselves as tableside companions to the male patrons whenever the latter requested it. To be sure, there is no suggestion that there was any rape or sexual assault in these venues; moreover, Alexandrov points out that, unlike other bosses, Frederick went out of his way to protect his female employees. Yet my one criticism of the book is that Alexandrov stops short of admitting that Frederick, like the other male entertainment entrepreneurs, was complicit in that he made his fortune by literally instrumentalizing women’s bodies for male pleasure.

Part of what makes this book so rich is Alexandrov’s deft weaving in the broader historical background with Frederick’s biography, understandable given that the outcome of Frederick’s life was directly affected by the turbulence of the times. After the Bolshevik takeover, as a wealthy business owner, he was forced to flee Moscow with his wife and some of his children (his third wife, previously his mistress; he had an eventful personal life). They first went to their villa in Odessa, which was under Allied control, but as Alexandrov describes in what has to be one of the most gripping prologues ever, they then had to escape to Constantinople along with thousands of others as the Bolsheviks closed in. Amid the wrenching misery and poverty of displaced Russians in Constantinople, Frederick once again showed his singularity and ability to persevere in dire circumstances. He opened up Western-style entertainment venues in a Muslim city, often employing Russian formerly upper-class women as waitresses (despite not being particularly invested in the Russian upper classes, I found the discussion of their very genuine plight extremely affecting).

In the end, external forces shattered Frederick. In 1923, Turkish nationalists overthrew the old regime and made it extremely difficult for foreigners to do business; he also faced stiff competition from another entertainment venue. Frederick attempted to reapply for his American passport so he could potentially get himself and his family out of Constantinople. As a Black man from the South, he knew first-hand to what conditions he would be subjecting himself and his children were he to go back to the U.S., where his marriage to a white woman would moreover be considered illegal, which shows how desperate his situation was. His attempts, however, came to nothing; while some American diplomats tried to help him, the racism of other embassy personnel sabotaged the application (as bad as this was, it would have been even worse had anyone discovered – which Alexandrov says no one had until he himself did in the course of his research – that Frederick renounced his American citizenship in Moscow in favor of a Russian one, which is unique indeed). Ultimately, he went bankrupt, was arrested for nonpayment of debts, and died in prison in 1928.

But he lives – extravagantly, sometimes not totally decently, always resiliently against extreme adversity – in the pages of The Black Russian. He has been rescued from oblivion by a writer who said during his lecture that he was given a native son’s welcome by the community in Frederick’s birthplace, whom this book put on the map. In the Epilogue, Alexandrov brings the story up to the present by describing the fates, at least to the extent that this information is available, of Frederick’s children; while most of their stories are tragic, in some sense, the book resurrects them, too. With many in the United States currently engaged in a long-overdue conversation about systemic racism, one of the things happening is the various attempts to center Black voices and experiences and to bring to the fore histories that should be much more widely known. Perhaps this book contributes to that by telling the story of Frederick Bruce Thomas’s, aka Fyodor Fyodorovich Tomas’s, remarkable and unexpected life.

Buy this book in English and in Russian.

A Question in Tchaikovsky Lane: An Essay by Herb Randall

Today we’re excited to feature Herb Randall’s essay about his visit, inspired by a volume of collected letters, to #16 Tchaikovsky Lane in Kharkiv, Ukraine, a building with a fascinating history in the field of science. Yet as Olga discovered as we were working on this, it has a much more sinister history, as well. After the revolution of 1917, this building was used by the city’s branch of the Cheka, Lenin’s secret police, to imprison, torture, and execute those termed enemies of the Bolsheviks. The dead bodies were thrown into a ditch behind the building; unofficial estimates suggest that between 1,500 and 3,000 people were killed here. After the Cheka was dissolved in 1922 (only to be reconstituted under different names, including Stalin’s NKVD), over 200 bodies were discovered on the grounds behind #16. There is no verifiable evidence that the letter writer knew this; in any event, there’s no mention of it in the letters.

Images accompanying this piece are courtesy of Herb Randall.

A QUESTION IN TCHAIKOVSKY LANE

No sugar plum fairies greet us as we turn the corner onto Tchaikovsky Lane. Yet almost immediately, the rush and roar of Pushkin Street dissipates and we escape into this sleepy neighborhood, stepping into another time and another’s story.

A curious old collection of letters written here brings us to this forgotten residential street in Kharkiv. I Married a Russian is the work of an Englishwoman identified only as “Eddie.” She fell in love with a visiting Soviet scientist while both studied at Cambridge and set off on a grand adventure into the wild East of this rapidly modernizing new nation. Eddie’s first letter to her sister in England was in May 1930 while the newlyweds sailed to their new home. She posted the final letter in 1945, after surviving wartime evacuation to Kazakhstan and returning to the ruins of Kharkov (Eddie uses this Russian-based spelling of the city’s name, which is used here when referring to the book). The letters were quickly published by George Allen and Unwin in London, and though the book is barely remembered today, it was discovered and recommended by a friend who shares my affection for Ukraine. I carry my weathered copy with me as we walk.

The couple met through their love of music. “Kira” played piano beautifully, and Eddie could have made a career with her violin. Joyful hours spent around the piano quickly led to romance and marriage. Two marriages, in fact: first at the Soviet consulate and shortly thereafter a proper English wedding. Her parents feared the marriage could be dissolved too easily if only bound by Soviet law.

We are here to find Eddie and Kira’s flat and the physics institute that brought them to the new capital of Soviet Ukraine (Kharkiv was used as the capital from 1919 until 1934). It was a backwater in a building frenzy. Eddie wrote of sledding in winter from a hill in the city center to nearby villages, places that today are incorporated into Ukraine’s second largest city. The Soviet Union granted special privileges to scientists, citizen and foreign, to attract them to the institute. It was a welcome haven for some escaping antisemitism at home, while others were drawn to the Soviet experiment, or the chance to work with some of the most famous scientists in the world. The institute flourished and critical work in cryogenics and nuclear physics was done here by such renowned scientists as Lev Landau, Piotr Kapitsa, Lev Shubnikov, and George Gamow.

Eddie was a sensation among Kira’s family and colleagues. She was charming, witty, intelligent, determined. Flirtatious and pretty, but unwaveringly devoted to Kira. She threw herself into her new life, soon editing a physics journal published in English and German by the institute, establishing the gardens on the grounds, even joining a women’s cavalry regiment for an October Revolution parade. After much difficulty, some dubious medical treatments, but seemingly by her sheer force of will, Eddie gave birth to a daughter. After a few years, a son followed.

Questions abound when reading Eddie’s letters today, in turn fascinating, frustrating, charming, harrowing, maddening. They swirl around us as we walk further into the lane, and we see a small wooded park and playground. Could this have been part of the gardens she tended?

Her dear, endlessly patient sister is unnamed in the letters, and her replies can only be inferred. In the opening pages, the list of characters we will meet is full of pseudonyms and presents today’s reader with the first mystery. Who were these people really? The Soviet Union was a riddle to contemporary readers, and the subjects of Eddie’s missives could be reasonably sure of obscurity.

Not today. With some quick research their real names surface. Rather than clarifying, the mysteries deepen and darken. Eddie’s breezy letters often omit important details. There are gaps in the letters, sometimes for years. These lapses often coincide with particularly turbulent events. One of the starkest gaps is between January 1931 until February 1934, so that nowhere does Eddie mention Stalin’s forced famine that brought starving villagers swarming into the city and that she could not have avoided seeing. People described in her letters disappear with no explanation, as if airbrushed from a photograph. Eddie obliquely references “scandals and intrigues” at Kira’s institute that were actually part of Stalin’s brutal wave of purges and executions in 1937-38. Was this Eddie’s way of getting her letters through the censors, or something else?

“Is this it?” my companion asks, squeezing my hand in front of a small red and sand brick building: 16 Tchaikovsky Lane. It appears to be older than it should be based on Eddie’s letters, predating the revolution. We look up at the second-floor balconies and try to guess which belonged to them.

#14 Tchaikovsky Lane

This building isn’t quite as we had imagined. It is unexpectedly tidy, too purposefully built. Eddie wrote that the flats in her building were still under construction when they arrived in 1930, rapidly renovated to house the physicists working at the institute next door. We walk back to the previous building, number 14. It is certainly more imposing, but as we walk around the side, slightly ramshackle. Here in the courtyard, we discover a plaque near an entrance commemorating one of Kira’s fellow scientists, Lev Shubnikov, who lived in this building. Until 1937, when his career and life were ended. Astoundingly, neither Kira nor his foreigner wife were touched by these repressions.

Plaques for Lev Shubnikov (1901-1937) and Abram Slutskin (1891-1950)

We stand for a moment, reflecting. A gentle piano and sinuous violin intertwine, tendrils of Scriabin and Prokofiev. Laughter, gossip, chatter. Clattering of dishes and clinking glasses. A baby fussing, unsoothed. Sounds we once would have heard here but today there is only silence.

Other sounds we do not hear, and that go untold in Eddie’s letters: boots echoing in these stairwells, sharp knocks on doors, whispers and cries. Fearful reassurances and promises made in vain. Car doors slamming, silence descending.

Kira and Eddie were fervent believers in the socialist future they suffered so long to build. Her accounts of the circle of famous scientists who lived and worked here are among the only contemporary sources available. Today we must read Eddie’s letters with some questions about their accuracy and the motivation for publishing them.  Her letters, while filled with personal stories and valuable historical details of the period, often parrot the Soviet propaganda of the day uncritically and enthusiastically. Even when speaking of shortages, unpaid salaries, or other difficulties, she minimizes and explains them away when possible. Her sister likely found Eddie’s frequent criticisms of English life and government policies tiresome.

How could this young woman from a comfortable English upbringing come to almost revel in the hardships she endured? Especially at the beginning, most of her efforts were devoted to scrounging furnishings for the apartment, ensuring adequate food, and with regular shipments of Keating’s powder from England, warding off the persistent bugs. Despite the hardships, Eddie never wavered in her belief in the Communist project.

Another puzzle is how these letters came to be published, first in London in 1944 and 1946, followed by an American edition in 1947. Edited by Lucie Street, one of Eddie’s friends, possibly another pseudonym. Her introduction and connecting texts are uncomfortable reading today as we now know more of the facts from that era. Lucie certainly echoed the message the Soviet regime hoped to advance among wavering and then erstwhile allies in the chaotic end of the war.

Eddie’s delightful hand-drawn map in the endpapers of I Married a Russian shows the two main buildings of the Ukrainian Physico-Technical Institute (UPTI) on either side of her flat. We don’t see those buildings today. Her map is not to scale, though, and as we walk behind the apartment building, we see a dilapidated brick and concrete wall nearly hidden by trees. A sign on the guard building indicates that we have found the physics institute. Whether abandoned, still in use, or contaminated, it is clear that we are not meant to enter.

It’s getting late and shadows begin to crowd around the narrow lane. A question half-formed, taking shape along with other unseemly notions, now seems urgent and necessary to ask.

Edna Cooper’s and her husband Kirill Sinelnikov’s intriguing, nearly-forgotten lives deserve their chronicler, but it cannot be me. My fragmentary Russian would be no help researching the now-available archives and secret police files. I also sympathize strongly with Eddie, while recoiling from what I’m beginning to understand about her and Kira’s possible accommodations with the regime. Someone more objective should ask the question.

The answer I don’t want to learn is both obvious and eighty years later may be unprovable. And yet, glancing at my companion, I don’t know if this question should be voiced. She looks at me lovingly, having indulged another of my quests to dig into a long-forgotten history. Am I really so different from Eddie, here for a romance that stretches across a continent and a culture that perhaps can never fully be bridged?

We begin walking back, elated with our success. But the truth is, we aren’t sure if we have seen Eddie and Kira’s flat or the institute as they knew them. What remains was heavily reconstructed after the war, and this part of the world is not overly-fond of preserving the past. Perhaps the many flowerbeds and trees clustered around these buildings are Eddie’s true legacy. We are simply pleased to know that we’ve visited the place they once called home, and to have honored the memory of their friends and colleagues unfortunate enough to have sought refuge in their life’s work here, only to be unjustly accused, jailed, or executed.

It’s already dark and we want to enjoy an evening in the city. Suddenly, my question slithers out, darting formless and hideous between us. I am ashamed and I curse myself for what I could not suppress. 

A few steps together in silence. Then another squeeze of the hand and a sad smile. “Of course,” she answers. “Of course they did.” She points to another building. And another. “Just like someone who lived there, and over there.”

“They survived,” she whispers, looking away. Finally reaching the end of the lane, we leave Tchaikovsky’s shades behind us and are whisked along with the bustle of Pushkin’s street.

March 2019

Kharkiv

#16 Tchaikovsky Lane
Sign for the institute

Herb Randall lives among the idyllic mountains, forests, and waters of northern New Hampshire. He has travelled extensively in Ukraine, Poland, Sweden, and Estonia. He enjoys exploring lesser-known places, reading with a special focus on fiction in translation, and writing about forgotten people and places. This is his first published piece. Twitter: @herbrandall 

Readings on Blackness, Racism, and Russian and Eurasian Studies

This post reproduces and documents a Twitter thread that began on June 3, 2020, with articles by Aisha Powell, Sarah Valentine, B. Amarilis Lugo de Fabritz, and Jennifer Wilson. Various members of the Eurasian Studies community gradually added to the thread, creating an informal list of resources that, while useful, would also be ephemeral and difficult to find if left on social media. Here, in Punctured Lines’s more easily searchable archive, these resources are available for you to use and remix through a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License. This license applies only to the tweets by Hilah Kohen below and not to any of the content linked to them. You can use the license to create your own version of this resource list for a specific community or publication.

Both the Jordan Center for the Advanced Study of Russia at NYU and the American Association of Teachers of Slavic and East European Languages (AATSEEL) have also published organized lists of texts, lectures, and podcasts relating to race and racism. While these databases intersect with the Twitter thread reproduced here, they focus on offering additional materials that are relevant to scholars and teachers of Eurasian languages and cultures.

To keep things maximally readable, we chose to preserve Twitter’s format for some posts and to transpose others to a text-based layout. We welcome all feedback and links to additional resources. To access the thread below directly on Twitter, click here.

Especially for fellow Eurasianists just starting out, tho, this is work to read as we wade into the bs going forward. Not comprehensive– just what comes to mind re: student experiences, teaching, and what our field does on a systemic level. Less material here on research. /2

Black Bread: A look inside the world of black Slavic studies scholars” by @AishaPowell_ for @trumplandiamag /3

Russian Studies’ Alt-Right Problem” by Sarah Valentine for the Chronicle (paywalled but important– if anyone has a non-paywalled link or is willing to share access, please say so) /4

“Race, Diversity, and Our Students in Russia” by @boricuaslavist for @NYUJordanCenter /5

.@JenLouiseWilson‘s 2014-2015 series “Teaching Race in Russia” plus “Is Slavic ready for Minorities?” for @NYUJordanCenter (more links below) /6

“Teaching Race in Russia: Dispatches from ‘The Harlem Renaissance: From New York to Tashkent'” by @JenLouiseWilson /7

“Teaching Race in Russia Part II: From Harlem to the ‘Soviet South'” by Jennifer Wilson /8

“Teaching Race in Russia Part III: Sartre, Jazz, and the Cossack Dance” by Jennifer Wilson /9

“Teaching Race in Russia: Some Conclusions” by Jennifer Wilson /10

Material for listening & then further research: “The Global Alt-Right: Race and U.S.-Russia Relations” @NYUJordanCenter: http://youtube.com/watch?v=4DeKIKG-HX0… /11

Loads of posts and articles on @raceineurasia /12

Please add more if you have time/energy somehow (I’ve only read narrowly & also haven’t included any books here) and add your essential readings related to research on race in Eurasian and Russian studies /13

One last “goes without saying” is that this thread is an addendum to concrete monetary/physical/logistical action right now and in the coming weeks. Thanks for reading /15

Adding “#BlackOctober Reading List: The Russian Revolution and the African Diaspora” by @JenLouiseWilson and @mightykale. Super thorough starting point for reading on the Black diaspora and the USSR plus some temporally broader pieces

Am learning that I don’t know how to keep up with Twitter replies very well, so I’m sorry if I miss something! I really appreciate the words of thanks, but they should be directed elsewhere. I respect all of you beyond words, but there’s a misunderstanding of scale here.

For white scholars who want the field to change, these conversations about race in the field have so far meant working on ourselves, supporting students, and responding to individual incidents. Necessary steps. This category of responses to the thread is passing by another:

Black scholars and scholars of color have worked constantly for years against the racism of a thousands-strong field and gotten crap in return. Our field’s record is one of forcing all Black scholars out. That there are still meaningful experiences to be had doesn’t change this.

That’s the scale we’ve got to be on. I don’t know how to frame this rhetorically– I fit into the first tweet above, not the second. This is just a total split in the responses to this thread, and it’s also (quite sickeningly) evident in the thread itself.

Our colleagues have pushed the field’s leadership & their mentors out of personal necessity and at daily personal cost; built successful, growing programs at their institutions from precarious positions; written numerous papers about the concept of them having room in the field.

Sometimes, we don’t know we even can do things on that scale because we don’t have to be on that scale to stay in the field, plus the field doesn’t ask it of us. Meanwhile, there’s prolific work being done under extreme pressure. We have to be on that scale.

I feel ill writing these things in this bizarre tone and as if from outside. Obviously, nobody has denied all this; you know this; everybody here is being so supportive. The question is what’s next & can it possibly be enough.

I should add– useful assuming a considerate and broadly informed approach.

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Carolyn Gold Heilbrun on Constance Garnett

Most readers of Punctured Lines are likely familiar with the name of Constance Garnett –English-language translator from Russian par excellence — and so I’ll begin this post with a bit of a tangent.

I forget who of my friends had recommended to me, years ago, mystery novels by Amanda Cross, whose fictional detective Kate Fansler solved crimes while quoting W.H. Auden. These were highly literary mysteries, and, intrigued, I looked up the author’s biography to discover a fascinating story. Amanda Cross was a pseudonym of an academic, Carolyn Gold Heilbrun, the first woman to be tenured in Columbia’s English department. In the course of her life, she became an outspoken feminist, and in 1992 accused her department of discriminating against women. Her oeuvre includes a book about Gloria Steinem and a collection of essays How to Write a Woman’s Life.

I’ve been slowly making my way through Heilbrun’s work, both fiction and nonfiction, and recently I finished her first published book The Garnett Family (The Macmillan Co, 1961). Heilbrun was trained in Modern British Lit, and, in particular, studied the Bloomsbury group. This book, as she announced in the introduction, “is the history of a literary family,” — the “literary intelligentsia,” as we might call it in Russian. By the by, Heilbrun makes a very good case that studying literary dynasties makes very good sense for historians of literature, and that the work of Constance Garnett needs to be examined next to the work of her husband Edward, who in his position as a Publisher’s Reader presided over so much of what we consider today Modern — and Modernist British Lit, from John Galsworthy to Joseph Conrad and D.H. Lawrence, among others. (And by suggesting that her work needs to be examined next to his, I mean exactly that — stressing the lack of a hierarchical relationship between the wife’s and husband’s work, and their ongoing conversation.)

Heilbrun is a very engaging and opinionated writer, and I only wish her treatment of Constance had been fuller. Brief as it is, it gave me a portrait of Constance in a vastly different light than I’ve been accustomed to seeing. For instance,

An obituary in the New Republic said of Constance Garnett that “she was a product of the Victorian Age and shared the prejudices and pruderies of her time.” Apart from the fact that she was born in the Victorian Age, the statement is the direct opposite of the truth; it would be nearer the mark to say that the post-Victorian Age, with its lost prejudices and pruderies, was the product of her generation, and, to a significant extent, of her own work. Born in 1862, she belonged to the first generation of women that received an education comparable to a man’s, and, shaping its life according to its own, rather than society’s, or parental, decision, remained in a very real sense in control of its own destiny.

Heilbrun’s monograph contains four chapters: 1) Background of the Garnett Family, including the Elder Richard Garnett (1789-1850), 2) The Younger Richard Garnett (1835-1906), 3) Edward Garnett (1868-1937), 4) Constance Garnett (1862-1946), and concludes with the Epilogue about Edward and Constance’s son David (1892-[1981]). The book was written, apparently, in a close collaboration with David, who as a prolific writer himself, I imagine, had some stakes in the shape of Heilbrun’s monograph. (One could probably study his writing and that of his descendants for further insights on the family.)

In her chapter on Edward Garnett, Heilbrun tells a “meet cute” story: Edward and Constance Black were introduced by Constance’s sister Clementina Black (a writer herself), who was a regular at the British Library’s reading room, where Edward’s father Richard assisted her. The sisters came to tea at the Garnett house, and 18-year old Edward immediately fell in love with 24-year old Constance. Constance was lukewarm.

In the evenings Constance took him to various Fabian and Socialist meetings, which he refused to take seriously. They quarrelled because Edward said that Land Nationalization would not come in England for the next ten or even twenty years. This was to Constance a terrible lack of faith, and a real grief. George Bernard Shaw, with whom she had often gone to political meetings before, asked her who was the pretty young man he had seen her with. She replied that he was a boy whose education she was undertaking.

Heilbrun’s chapter on Constance provides one other fascinating facet of the fabled translator’s biography. From the stories I’d read about her (for instance, in this David Remnick piece in the New Yorker), I’d gotten a sense that she fell to translating from Russian almost randomly, without any particular reason. This was, apparently, not quite so.

Her grandfather, Peter Black, was Naval Architect to the Tsar, Nicholas I; Peter Black’s daughter is supposed to have danced with the Tsar at a Court Ball. When this daughter married, in Petersburg, the Tsar presented her with a glass salad bowl as a wedding present. Peter Black was buried in the Russian naval fortress of Kronstadt; his son, David Black, Constance’s father, having spent much of his youth in Russia, came to live in London as a law student . . . went on to Canada . . . was recalled to England by a telegram from his brother Peter, who was French Consul in Brighton.

Aha! This background, from family ties to Russia to strong interest in socialism, makes it so much easier to understand why Constance would choose to dedicate her life to translating from Russian. And to return to the question of how far Constance had been removed from “the pruderies of her time,” Heilbrun paraphrases this story from a manuscript by Constance’s son David:

She was never particularly outspoken on the subject [of sex], nor militant about it, having strong views about the privacy of sexual matters, which she thought no business of society or the State. However, when, on vacation from Newnham, she had been entertained in London and had seen the prostitutes in Haymarket and Trafalgar Square, that ‘hideous spectacle of coarse cynical brutality and degradation accepted by everybody as a matter of course’ threw her into despair. Believing prostitution to be chiefly the fault of women putting a high premium on their own chastity for economic reasons, she thought that if women were brought up to expect to earn their own living and have love affairs, it would disappear.

From the advantage of time, we may judge her naive, but her thought is far from prudish. We may also perhaps glean how she might be a much more sympathetic translator for, say, Chekhov and Turgenev than for Dostoevsky. Here would be an interesting project: to re-read her Dostoevsky with her politics in mind… because, of course (and as we learn from our friends at the RusTrans project), translation has politics.

Help Independent Bookstores Survive Quarantine

In the approximately month and a half that California has been on lockdown, I have barely read anything. This seems counter-intuitive, since I basically read for a living. It also feels like a particularly vulnerable admission, given how much of my personal identity is tied to being a serious reader of “high” literature; not reading feels like failing somehow. But all I’ve managed in the last few weeks is Pushkin’s very short “Пир во время чумы” (“A Feast in Time of Plague”) because it was mentioned on Twitter, a few pages of Proust’s Swann’s Way (thanks to a Twitter reading challenge), and skimming the Chekhov stories I’m teaching this quarter (which I’ve read many times before because I would never skim for teaching. Just to be clear.). My concentration, which was bad even before the pandemic, is abysmal. Zoom has taken over my life. I spend too much time on Twitter, where I envy all the people capable of reading right now.

But I’ve been writing. And every Tuesday and Thursday, my students and I bridge the divide of our Zoom screens by discussing Chekhov’s works. And my Twitter conversations are about literature, which means they’re about a lot of different things. I may not be actively reading at the moment, but books are, like always, very much a part of my life. They’re like that close friend who you might not be in touch with for a long time, but who, unfailingly and warmly, will be there when you finally reach out.

Independent bookstores are having a really hard time. They were having a really hard time before the pandemic, but now they are only able to exist online in a climate of drastically reduced general spending, as so many people have lost their jobs (while we’re at it: if you can, please support your local foodbanks, restaurants, healthcare workers, the post office, etc., etc.). Due to a surge in support, Powell’s hired back some of their employees, while City Lights’ GoFundMe campaign saved them from closing permanently. We’re thrilled for them and want all independent bookstores to have this kind of success.

Below are some of the bookstores we love and would love to help. If you are in the fortunate position to be able to, please order from them and/or support their fundraising efforts. Chekhov – both the writer and the humanitarian, who provided free medical treatment, built schools, donated to libraries, helped with famine relief and a cholera epidemic, and went all the way to Sakhalin Island to write about conditions in a penal colony that led to some reforms – would, I’m sure, appreciate it very much.

Alley Cat Books, San Francisco, CA: This bookstore holds a special place in Punctured Lines’ heart. Olga co-hosts the weekly San Francisco’s Writing Workshop there. The workshop is free and open to the public and is the longest continually running workshop in San Francisco–and, having started in 1946, maybe anywhere. (They are meeting on Zoom at the moment.) Last year, Alley Cat graciously hosted our first Punctured Lines reading. They have a GoFundMe campaign and a Patreon page.

Book Soup, West Hollywood, CA: Many of my family members and friends, and occasionally myself, have received gifts from this local-to-me institution.

City Lights, San Francisco, CA: An iconic beat-era bookstore and a related indie press that published Allen Ginsberg’s “Howl.” This bookstore is a tourist destination, and it’s also a destination for locals. They boast a dedicated poetry room and an amazing collection of books in translation. Their GoFundMe campaign is still running.

McNally Jackson, NYC. The fact that they’re in New York, one of the worst-hit areas of the pandemic, is reason enough. We can fight over whether New York is still the center of U.S. publishing or whether CA is making them very nervous later. We love you, New York. Please get well soon.

Powell’s Books, Portland, OR: If I’m ever in Portland again, I’m going here because I want to see this giant of a bookstore for myself. Until then, I will do what I’ve been doing for years: redeeming gift certificates from family members who know me well.

Skylight Books: Los Angeles, CA: My first-ever reading was here, organized for our class by my amazing creative writing instructor.

The Last Bookstore, Los Angeles, CA: I’ve only browsed here, but it’s pretty amazing.

Vroman’s, Pasadena, CA: I honestly can’t remember if I’ve ever been here, an oversight that needs to be rectified when it’s safe.

If you can’t decide, here’s a way to support Bay Area bookstores collectively.

If you want to help laid-off employees directly, you can give here.

Do you have a favorite indie bookstore not on this list? Let us know and we’ll help spread the word.