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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Book Love: Julia Voznesenskaya’s The Women’s Decameron

(This blog post had to happen sometime.)

Sure, we’ve all fallen in love with people, but some of us have also fallen in love with books. I was in my early twenties, living in a newly post-Soviet Moscow, where I’d gone to work after college. Censorship had collapsed along with the Soviet Union, and many types of previously banned literature were flooding the Russian market. Tables with piles of books for sale were regular features outside many of the city’s metro stations. They were an incongruous mix of serious fiction by the likes of Bulgakov and Solzhenitsyn, self-help manuals, erotica of dubious provenance, and Russian translations of detective novels by James Hadley Chase. I don’t have an exact memory, but given that a good number of my books from that period were purchased off such tables, it is highly likely that this is where I found a novel titled Zhenskii DekameronThe Women’s Decameron (transl. W.B. Linton, publ. Atlantic Monthly Press; other editions in Russian and English exist). Without a doubt, the fact that the word zhenskii was in the title was a major selling point. It was by a writer named Julia Voznesenskaya (here and elsewhere, I am using the spelling of authors’ names as they appear on their English translations, but given my willingness to die on the hill of Library of Congress transliteration, I am absolutely cringing inside). I’d never heard of her. She changed my life.

Voznesenskaya wrote The Women’s Decameron in 1985 while in exile in what was then West Germany. Many writers were expelled from the Soviet Union, but what makes her case highly unusual was that it was due to feminist activity. She came to feminism via her involvement in the dissident movement in the 1970s, for which she was arrested and imprisoned. Although she wasn’t initially interested in women’s issues, time in all-women’s camps and prisons changed her mind. She and three other women founded the Soviet feminist movement (it was tiny, but still a thing); they formed a women’s club and put out journals of women’s writing, for which they were hounded by the KGB and made to leave. Three of the four founders, including Voznesenskaya, were religious, and their views resembled Russian Orthodox teachings more than feminist theory, but The Women’s Decameron bears little trace of this. In the West, they broke up over their religious-secular divide, but not before being interviewed by Ms. Magazine. In the process of editing this post, Olga found a Calvert Journal article about the exhibition Leningrad Feminism 1979, devoted to this Soviet feminist collective; it was shown in St. Petersburg earlier this year, and once COVID-19 conditions allow, will move to Moscow and then to locations in Western Europe. Thank you so much, Olga, for this amazing, and unexpected find — hopefully, this exhibition is a start to making these Soviet feminists better known in both Russia and the West. Voznesenskaya herself won’t know about it: she died in Berlin in 2015. There’s a good chance, though, that she wouldn’t want anything to do with it. After emigration, she wrote detective novels, but then spent some time in a French monastery, whereby she renounced her previous works and turned to writing Russian Orthodox fantasy (don’t ask; I don’t know).

The Women’s Decameron is Voznesenskaya’s first, and best-known work, although in this case, “best-known” is a relative term (I was surprised and overjoyed when several people on Twitter responded to my, um, numerous posts saying they’d read it, although given all the brilliant Russian literature people on Twitter, I shouldn’t have been surprised). Because Voznesenskaya was exiled, The Women’s Decameron was not published in the Soviet Union; when it became available in post-Soviet Russia, it went seemingly unnoticed. She may be most familiar in Slavic academia in the West, and even then, not so much.

My poor love deserves better. A reworking of Boccaccio’s Decameron from a female point of view, the novel features ten women of different backgrounds and life experiences quarantined together after giving birth in a late Soviet-era maternity ward because of a spreading infection (if nothing else, read it for the unintentional parallel with our current situation, although I promise you, there’s much more to it than that). They pass the time telling stories about their lives and those of their friends and families in ten chapters containing each of their ten stories, with an author-narrator who opens and closes the pieces. Each chapter is devoted to a different theme; when I teach this novel in my course Writing the Body in Contemporary Russian Women’s Fiction, we read “First Love,” “Sex in Farcical Situations,” “Rapists and their Victims,” and “Happiness.” Love and happiness (or, rather, a distinct lack thereof) are common themes in Russian literature; but the two other titles, and the all-female space of this novel, signal that The Women’s Decameron is a different type of book.

Russian literature has no shortage of women writers and female protagonists. But as Barbara Heldt notes in Terrible Perfection: Women and Russian Literature, which I could cite directly if it weren’t for the pandemic-induced closure of our university library, what is considered the Russian canon is overwhelmingly made up of male writers and male protagonists. Female protagonists, while crucial to the plot, are usually complements to their male counterparts, and their own development is rarely shown. Other scholars have pointed out Russian literature’s puritanical approach to the body and sexuality, which were not considered appropriate subjects for “high” literature. Once in a while, male characters got to be physical, but women rarely did, and one was thrown under a train for trying.

This changed in the liberalized atmosphere of glasnost’ and the early post-Soviet period, which witnessed an explosion of women’s voices. In defiance of Russian and Soviet patriarchy and puritanism, writers such as Svetlana Vasilenko, Ludmilla Petrushevskaya, Valeria Narbikova, and Marina Palei, among many others, created a female-centered space in Russian literature, with women protagonists who were both intellectual and physical beings. Their works, often explicitly concerned with the act of writing, were characterized by a palpable presence of female bodies in various manifestations: sex, violence, pregnancy, abortion, disease, etc. While none of them had read French feminist theory, and several openly eschewed any association with feminism, they were, in Hélène Cixous’s formulation, writing the body. In Slavic Studies in the West, these writers, who do not form a coherent whole but have enough in common to be talked about together, became known as New Women’s Prose, first and foremost due to the pioneering efforts of Helena Goscilo, in such publications as Dehexing Sex: Russian Womanhood During and After Glasnost (having relied on it extensively in my dissertation, this one I have on my shelves).

The few scholars who have written on Voznesenskaya place her in the general category of Soviet women’s literature, while those who write on New Women’s Prose don’t include her. This is understandable, since living in West Germany, she had no connections with the other Russian women writers. But the striking similarity is that Voznesenskaya also writes the body: The Women’s Decameron centers women’s narratives of sexuality, violation, etc. It’s a pretty convincing argument, if I do say so myself (I did say so myself, in my dissertation and in the article I wrote about The Women’s Decameron).

An account of sex on the roof due to a lack of privacy in an acute Soviet housing shortage – that’s in there. The story about appearing in front of a theater audience in bed with your lover due to the mechanism of an inopportunely revolving stage — that’s in there too, as is a romp with an American “spy” on top of the heads of three KGB agents hiding under the bed during a room search gone awry. Also in there are the more somber stories of child sexual abuse and the many instances of rape, some of which the women verbalize for the first time to each other. Powerless to stop being raped in life, they support each other and try to heal themselves through telling their stories. And in one instance, they, and we, are overcome by unadulterated hilarity and gratitude because a character was able to get highly painful revenge on her would-be attacker with a pair of imported mittens. Female bodies, both their pleasures and pains, are very much written here.

Admittedly, in a novel that consciously tries to represent a spectrum of women’s experiences, making them all mothers is a regressive move. That said, Voznesenskaya goes against convention in allowing motherhood to coexist with sexuality (take that, Tolstoy), and notably, the characters bond over a range of topics, not motherhood itself. Indeed, she espouses several ideas that make her ahead of her time. She openly terms one protagonist a feminist, which, let’s just say isn’t something one expects from late Soviet-era works (or, really, many other eras). There is also a recognition that other types of oppression intersect with gender: several protagonists’ lives are shaped by their economic standing, whereas another’s is by being Jewish, the latter also indicative of Voznesenskaya’s rejection of Soviet anti-Semitism. A storyline about one of the protagonists’ love interests mentions racism toward those from the Caucasus. There’s more to say about what else The Women’s Decameron does, including revealing aspects of Soviet life that the regime tried to silence, but that would require another post.

When I say Voznesenskaya changed my life, partially I mean that she largely determined my academic path, handing me my dissertation topic and leading me to discover the other contemporary women writers, whom I teach and have written on. More fundamentally, I mean that The Women’s Decameron was my first time reading a Russian work that gave voice to viscerally honest, specifically female experiences. Over the years, I’d had lots of amazing conversations with Russian books, but this was the first one that spoke back in a shared language. In the women writers course, my students really respond to this novel. Some of them say about all the writers that they didn’t know there was Russian literature like this. I didn’t either, until Voznesenskaya, and through her several others, showed me that there could be.

Below is the opening of The Women’s Decameron. The right-hand image underneath that shows the never-to-be-detached Post-it notes from graduate school. Although this novel is, sadly, out of print, the English translation is still available here and, as much as I don’t want to recommend a particular mail-order giant, here. In Russian, it seems to be available here and online here (although I have no personal knowledge of either of those sites). Try it. Who knows; you might fall in love, too.

The Women’s Decameron by Julia Voznesenskaya

“How is it possible to read in this bedlam!” thought Emma. She turned over on to her stomach, propped the Decameron between her elbows, pulled the pillow over her ears and tried to concentrate.

She could already visualize how the play would begin. As they entered the auditorium and spectators would not be met by the usual theatre attendants, but by monks with their cowls drawn down over their eyes; they would check the tickets and show the spectators to their seats in the dark auditorium, lighting the way and pointing out the seat numbers, with old-fashioned lanterns. She would have to call in at the Hermitage, look out a suitable lantern, and draw a sketch of it … The stage would be open from the very beginning, but lit only by a bluish moon. It would depict a square in Florence with the dark outlines of a fountain and a church door, over which would be the inscription “Memento Mori” – remember you must die. Every now and then some monks would cross the stage with a cart – the corpse collectors. And a bell, there must definitely be a bell ringing the whole time – “For whom the bell tolls.” It was essential that from the very beginning, even before the play started, there should be a feeling of death in the theatre. Against this background ten merry mortals would tell their stories.

Yet it was difficult to believe that it happened like that: plague, death and misery were all around and in the midst of this a company of cavaliers and ladies were amusing each other with romantic and bawdy stories. These women; on the other hand, did not have the plague but a simple skin infection such as frequently occurs in maternity hospitals, and yet look at all the tears and hysterics! Perhaps people were much shallower nowadays. Stupid women, why were they so impatient? Were they in such a hurry to

start the nappy-changing routine? God, the very thought was enough to make you want to give up: thirty liners, thirty nappies and as many swaddling sheets, rain or shine. And each one had to be washed, boiled and ironed on both sides. It could drive you crazy. In the West they had invented disposable nappies and plastic pants long ago. Our people were supposed to be involved in industrial espionage, so why couldn’t they steal some useful secret instead of always going for electronics?

“Hey, girls! You could at least take it in turns to whine! The noise is really bugging me. If my milk goes off I’ll really freak out!” This outburst came from Zina, a “woman of no fixed abode” as the doctors described her on their rounds; in other words, a tramp. Nobody came to visit her, and she was in no hurry to leave the hospital.

“If only we had something nice to think about!” sighed Irina, or Irishka as everyone called her, a plump girl who was popular in the ward because of her kind, homely disposition.

And then it suddenly dawned on Emma. She lifted the Decameron high above her head so that everyone could see the fat book in its colourful cover. “Dear mothers! How many of you have read this book? “Naturally about half of them had. “Well,” continued Emma, “for those who haven’t I’ll explain it simply. During a plague ten young men and women leave the city and place themselves in quarantine for ten days, just as they’ve done to us here. Each day they take it in turns to tell each other different stories about life and love, the tricks that clever lovers play and the tragedies that come from love. How about all of us doing the same?”

That was all they needed. They immediately decided that this was much more interesting than telling endless stories about family problems.

Mary Poppins in Russia: an excerpt from Elena Goodwin’s book Translating England into Russian, available from Bloomsbury

As a part of our investment into cultural, linguistic, and geographical hybridity of stories told about the Soviet Union, we at Punctured Lines are delighted to present an excerpt from a recent book by Elena Goodwin, Translating England into Russian: The Politics of Children’s Literature in the Soviet Union and Modern Russia, published by Bloomsbury.

In eight chapters covering both the Soviet period and post-Soviet Russia, Elena Goodwin explores translations of English children’s literature. She looks closely at the work of leading translators working from English to Russian, including Samuil Marshak, Korney Chukovsky, Boris Zakhoder, Irina Tokmakova, and Nina Demurova, among others, and considers how representations of Englishness depended on USSR’s ideology and reflected the shifts in post-Soviet Russia’s political and cultural climate.

Though this book is aimed primarily at academic historians and translation scholars, we believe it has much to offer to translators, bilingual readers, creative writers, and all others interested in the way one culture might be translated–or not–into another. Its focus on popular children’s and young adult literature makes the reading particularly enjoyable because so many of us are familiar with at least one version of the primary texts.

Below is an excerpt from Chapter 7: Framing P.L. Travers’s Mary Poppins in Ideological and Cultural Contexts: Translating Features of English National Character. This is only a brief section of what is a fascinating story about how Mary Poppins became Russified, and how the portrait of England itself has been transformed in translation.

Our deep gratitude to the author, Elena Goodwin, and to Bloomsbury for giving us their permission and assistance with publishing this excerpt. Please enjoy–and buy the book, and ask your library to purchase it.

[Exerpt begins]

Soviet readers were first introduced to the Mary Poppins books in 1968. The Soviet version was called Meri Poppins [Mary Poppins] and consisted of two parts (House № 17 and Mary Poppins Comes Back) with a mention on the title page that the translation was abridged. Boris Zakhoder, the first translator of the Mary Poppins books, did not have the originals and had to borrow them from the library. He mentioned in his letter to Pamela Travers in 1969 that, strange as it may seem, he did not own any of her books and that he had used library copies in order to produce his translation. P. L. Travers sent all her Mary Poppins books to Boris Zakhoder by the end of 1969 (the first four books of the series), as he mentioned in his reply to her. This correspondence points to my supposition that the original books were not freely accessible to the general public and might have been on a censor’s list as titles not allowed for circulation.

The reason why Mary Poppins was not translated into Russian for so long was perhaps revealed by Travers herself when she suggested in an interview given to The New Yorker in 1962 that the Soviet authorities might consider Mary Poppins ‘a bourgeois institution’:

My great hope is to have her translated into Russian …. I know we don’t have any copyright agreement with Russia, but I say to my agent, ‘Never mind. Leave her around where the Russians can steal her.’ We haven’t left her around enough yet. I suppose the authorities would take her au pied de la lettre – they’d say a nursemaid was a bourgeois institution – but the children would understand her.

A narrow circle of people might have known about the existence of Mary Poppins as a literary character after the Disney film Mary Poppins was shown at the Fourth Moscow International Film Festival in July 1965. The title of the book and the name of the author appeared in the opening credits and an attentive viewer could have spotted that the movie was based on the books about Mary Poppins. Although the Disney film was screened as an out-of-competition film, it was a hit with the festival audience. However, it was not shown in Soviet cinemas afterwards. In the 1980s people could find it only on pirated videotapes and only after the demise of the Soviet Union did the Disney Mary Poppins become available to the general public.

Another reason for failing to introduce books about Mary Poppins to Soviet readers might be explained by Travers’s negative views about the Soviet Union. In 1932 Travers went to the Soviet Union to see Leningrad and Moscow and published a book about her journey in 1934 (before she wrote Mary Poppins), which was called Moscow Excursion. This book was immediately reviewed in the New York Times and called ‘impertinent and gay’; it was mentioned that Travers found the way the Soviet Union presented itself appalling and that the Soviets would probably denounce her as a ‘class enemy’. Travers depicted the Soviet Union as a depressing society and noted ‘the drabness, the universal grey, the complete sameness of the people’. According to Sheila Fitzpatrick, Travers toured the Soviet Union to understand its politics but had little sympathy beforehand or on her return to England. Travers’s lack of sympathy towards Soviet society is explicitly demonstrated in the book’s introduction: ‘In a world rocking madly between Fascism and Communism the writer prefers the latter form of tyranny if the choice must be made.’ As discussed in Chapter 3 of this book, the 1930s saw severe restrictions on the circulation of foreign literature in the Soviet Union. Censorship control was strengthened amid fears of intervention by international capitalism in the USSR; and foreign mass media, as well as literature were considered a great force for the promotion of ill feeling towards the Soviet Union. This is the most logical explanation why the foreign publication of Travers’s Moscow Excursion might have affected the possibility of her Mary Poppins books being translated in the Soviet Union.

According to the correspondence between Travers and Zakhoder, it was the famous Soviet children’s poet Sergey Mikhalkov who met Travers in Switzerland at the end of the 1960s and told her that her books had been translated into Russian. The Soviet Mary Poppins immediately became very popular among Soviet adult and child readers, as Zakhoder’s letters to Travers show. Zakhoder wrote in his letter to Travers in 1969 that the print-run of ten thousand copies was instantly sold out in Moscow and that there were favourable reviews, including one in the literary journal Novyi mir. In the 1970s the translation was adapted for a radio show and for the stage, the script of which was also written by Zakhoder. Moreover, updated versions of the play have been performed in theatres around the country since 1991. In 1983 Mary Poppins appeared on Soviet TV screens in the film Meri Poppins, do svidania. It immediately became a hit and has been very popular since its first broadcast. At the same time, Mary Poppins was turned into a household name in modern Russia – babysitter agencies, cafés, family fun centres and even a fashion label are all called after the famous nanny.

Zakhoder regretted in his letter to Travers that his translation was abridged – fifteen chapters only from the first, the second and the third books – and mentioned that he was not able to obtain the fourth book. In the preface to the first edition Zakhoder promised Soviet children that they would meet with Mary Poppins again and that the story would be continued. Unfortunately, he did not keep his promise and the omitted chapters have never been recovered in the subsequent reprints of Zakhoder’s translation. Although two retranslations appeared in the 1990s (by Marina Litvinova and Igor Rodin), Zakhoder’s translation is considered a canonical text in Russian culture and is well positioned in the Russian children’s literature market.

In a letter to Travers in July 1969 the director of the Detskaia Literatura publishing house K. Piskunov explained why the Russian translation was abridged (quoted from the Russian original and its English translation, which was enclosed with the official letter sent to P. L. Travers):

Сокращение отдельных глав было обусловлено не только трудностями их перевода, но и большим желанием издать одновременно обе части, а детям младшего возраста, на кого рассчитана эта книга, мы избегаем давать книги большого объема.
[Abridgement of separate chapters was necessary partly owing to difficulties of translating and the desire to publish both parts at the same time and because for the younger children for whom this book is intended we do not like and avoid giving bulky books.]

He also said that it was uncertain whether B. Zakhoder would continue the translation of the next books about Mary Poppins and whether Detskaia Literatura would be able to revise the current translation. This letter points to the prevailing ideological conventions in Soviet literature written for children. At the same time, it signals the presence of censorship, although this matter is not clearly expressed in the correspondence. It is possible that self-censorship and editorial decisions could have somehow influenced Zakhoder’s opinion, to a certain extent, on how to construct the image of the English nanny in a way that Soviet child and adult readers of the late 1960s would accept, understand and like; and why certain chapters should not be included into his version, thus modifying the original structure of Travers’s books and the hidden message contained in them.

The first three books, Mary Poppins (1934), Mary Poppins Comes Back (1935) and Mary Poppins Opens the Door (1943), have elements of myth and are structured as myth – the interconnected chapters are repeated and everything returns, but in a modified manner. In Zakhoder’s translation the books’ original structure is modified, thereby distorting Travers’s intention to create the books in the form of myth. Travers was not happy about the new structure of the stories in Zakhoder’s translation and pointed out in a letter to Zakhoder that ‘the books are written in a definite rhythm and the stories should be read in their proper sequence’. She also added that she had ‘always thought that Russian readers would like it as they have a great sense of humour and poetry’, as she discovered when she went to Russia in the 1930s. Unfortunately, the Soviet readers who could not obtain the original texts (as well as the Russian readers nowadays who prefer Zakhoder’s translation) were not aware of the original narrative and Travers’s intention to create the original in the mythic form.

Zakhoder omitted one of every pair of repetitive chapters. It is difficult to know whether there was too much of the untranslatable in these chapters from the point of view of Zakhoder and the editor of Detskaia literatura publishing house, or whether there were ideological reasons for the omissions. In the first book, Mary Poppins, Zakhoder excluded the chapters ‘The Day Out’, ‘Bad Tuesday’, ‘The Bird Woman’ and ‘Christmas Shopping’. It is possible that the chapters ‘The Day Out’ and ‘Christmas Shopping’ were omitted because they contain lengthy descriptions of Mary Poppins’s clothes and of what the characters bought as their Christmas presents in, as Travers says, ‘the Largest Shop in the World’. Also the chapter ‘Christmas Shopping’ refers to Christmas as a religious celebration. From the point of view of Soviet ideology, both chapters might have looked like propaganda for religion and consumerism in the West, which might have been thought unsuitable for Soviet children.

The chapter ‘Day Out’ might have been left out because it echoed the chapter ‘Bad Wednesday’ from the second book that was translated. Both chapters show a slipping from reality into an imaginary world through a portal to the unreal: in the first book Mary Poppins goes into the coloured-chalk picture drawn on the pavement by her friend Bert the Match-man and goes on an outing with him; in the second book Jane finds herself in the past inside the antique Royal Doulton bowl after she accidentally cracks it. It is difficult to guess why the chapter ‘The Bird Woman’ was excluded because it does not contain any lexical difficulties for translation, nor does it have any ideologically sensitive allusions to religion, mysticism or the bourgeois style of life. The chapter ‘Bad Tuesday’ corresponds to the chapter ‘Bad Wednesday’ from the second book. Also the chapter ‘Bad Tuesday’ contained stereotyped representations of Africans, Chinese, Eskimos and American Indians, which was considered inoffensive when the book was first published (but accusations of racism appeared later, in the 1970s, and Travers was forced to replace the stereotyped ethnic characters, which caused offence in the United States, with exotic animals in the revised 1981 edition). It is highly likely that the Soviet censor would never allow a book with racial content for publication. Most probably these were the reasons for omitting the chapter ‘Bad Tuesday’.

In the second book, Mary Poppins Comes Back, Zakhoder left out the chapters ‘Topsy- Turvy’, ‘The New One’, ‘Robertson Ay’s Story’, ‘The Evening Out’ and ‘Nellie-Rubina’. The chapters ‘Topsy-Turvy’ and ‘Laughing Gas’ (included in the first book) have the same pattern – the children and Mary Poppins go to see her relatives; therefore, the appearance of another surreal adventure might have been the reason for omitting the chapter ‘Topsy-Turvy’ from the translation. However, by neglecting this chapter the translator denied his readers the opportunity to find out that the Royal Doulton bowl (which got broken in the translated chapter ‘Bad Wednesday’) was mended by Mary Poppins’s cousin Mr Turvy. The other chapters from the second book not included in Zakhoder’s translation might not have been thought suitable for Soviet children because of their allusions to religion, existential and spiritual ideas widely incorporated by Travers throughout the whole series of books. (Travers was interested in fairy tales, mythological literature, mysticism and spiritualism.) The chapter ‘Nellie-Rubina’ might have been left out because it alludes to Noah’s Ark as a Biblical topos or because it echoes the chapter ‘Mrs Cory’ included in the translation. The chapter ‘The New One’ repeats the translated chapter ‘The Twins’ from the first book, but it also has the newborn Annabel saying that she came from ‘the Dark where all things have their beginning’: ‘I am earth and air and fire and water … I come from the sea and its tides … It was a long journey’. The chapter ‘The Evening Out’ has a similar pattern to the translated chapter ‘Full Moon’ from the first book but at the same time it questions the nature of existence and contemplates the universe in a spiritual way. Finally, in the chapter ‘Robertson Ay’s Story’ the silly king is mocked by all his subjects but his jester, the Dirty Rascal, teaches him to be true to himself and do what he wants. This chapter might have been deemed unsuitable because of its individualistic approach to life but it is also safe to say that Zakhoder might have decided to substitute this chapter with the translated chapter ‘The Cat That Looked at the King’ from the third book Mary Poppins Opens the Door.

It appears that ideological norms (in the form of self-censorship) played a partial role in the process of choosing which chapters to translate. At the same time, it is important to take into account the counterargument of Alexandra Borisenko, who proposes that in order to avoid repetitions and to make the Russian translation a more interesting read, Zakhoder chose his favourite chapter from two repetitive ones. A similar opinion is expressed by Galina Zakhoder (Zakhoder’s widow):

Pamela Travers often exploits the same [literary] devices. In one chapter [characters] are flying under the ceiling, in another chapter – they are flying in some other way. And the narration in these parts loses its pace. Boris omitted passages of such a kind. I think Travers got angry when she found out the truth. It appeared to me that she felt that Zakhoder was right, that is why she was angry.

This view is feasible and can be explained by Zakhoder’s possible misunderstanding of the peculiarities of the narrative structure of the Mary Poppins books. It also points to the presence of the translator’s co-authorial voice based on his own literary preferences.

[End of exerpt]

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Rus­sophone Science Fic­tion and Uto­pias in the Mar­gins, an essay by Sanna Tuorma in Aleksanteri Insight

This article published in December just before the holidays, seems worth highlighting. The topic is dear to me: I’ve been an avid reader of science fiction and fantasy literature, and I am particularly fond of contemporary feminist science fiction. But first, I want to highlight the books that Tuorma mentions in her essay.

Tuorma begins with a review of a scholarly volume, The Post-Soviet Politics of Utopia (I.B. Tauris, Sept. 19, 2019), edited by Mikhail Suslov and Per-Arne Bodin. As always with scholarly publications, this book is insanely expensive. Amazon, however, does have a decent preview of it that includes the introduction and gives us a good sense of the various threads of inquiry in this book.

Summarizing the volume’s findings, Tuorma writes, “Current Russian scientific and fantasy literature, both utopian and dystopic, seems to lack the radical and transformative power seminal to science fiction.” She suggests, following the advice of a Finnish-language publication Voima “to abandon dystopias, the predominant mode of global cultural production, and to envision ecological and economic utopias instead.”

She offers one recent anthology of Russian-language feminist and LGBT science fiction that comes from outside of the imperial center. This book, Совсем другие, is available in full from Academia.edu–in the Russian language. An English translation of its opening story, “Element 174,” penned by Kyrgyz activist and academic Syinat Sultanalieva, recently appeared in The Calvert Journal, translated by Lesya Myata and Samuel Goff.

I was born this way: a shameless lesbian. Ever since it became clear that I would have to be physically present on the planet of Omay, it had been my personal goal to sleep with as many of their famously gorgeous women as possible. There were rumours that they were all lesbians. I think my brothers would have understood, had they known about my plans — after all, it wasn’t exactly easy to get hold of women on Earth. There weren’t many left, and those that remained had mostly already been distributed amongst the domains. Those who grew up in ours were either too young or already related to me. I might be a lesbian, but I’m not so craven as to seduce them. I had to get by as best I could, making rare visits to the worse-for-wear residents of the Wild Zone or engaging in self-care. Luckily my father had some antique pictures and videos of sordid delights from before the Exodus, so I could indulge my fantasies at will.

https://www.calvertjournal.com/features/show/9831/being-lgbtq-element-174-syinat-sultanalieva-shtab

I’m incredibly grateful to Tuorma for pointing out what looks to be a very exciting read.

Looking over the articles that comprise the scholarly volume, I do find it unfortunate that the names of whom I think first in the list of post-Soviet science fiction and fantasy authors had not been taken up for consideration. My personal anthology of writers in this genre begins with the names of Max Frei, Lena Eltang, Linor Goralik, Elena Pervushina–that’s off the top of my head…

Central Asian feminists are carving out their space in gender studies, by Aizada Arystanbek

Part of Open Democracy’s “new series on activism, academia and equality in Central Asia,” this piece is by Aizada Arystanbek, “a Central Asian graduate student of gender studies in Europe” (links to the other pieces in the series are included). As she writes, “along with the thrill of being able to study what I am passionate about comes a certain violence of erasure, as I am left constantly searching for my identity in feminist academia.

As I think about Russia’s colonisation of Central Asia and the process of Russification my mother had to undergo in her school in Tselinograd (the former name of the current capital of Kazakhstan), I feel deeply for Latina, black and indigenous women who write about their ancestors being colonised, their land being stolen, and them being perceived as backward simply because they lacked culture in the western conception of the word.

But I am always caught in between these various identities and almost never am I seen for my own very distinguishable one, a Central Asian woman. I have to stitch together my identity in academia by myself, learning little-by-little from other feminist scholars of colour, hoping that I understand their experiences correctly and that their words will represent my struggle accurately when I use them in my essays.”

Central Asia, once part of the Soviet Union and now comprising independent nations, is not particularly well known in the West. In the U.S., academic study of the region has traditionally come out of Slavic departments, where it has only recently begun to garner more attention, although not necessarily about issues of gender and feminism. This series looks to be an important and much-needed step in this direction.

https://www.opendemocracy.net/en/odr/central-asian-feminists-are-carving-out-their-space-gender-studies/

Looking Back on Our First Event: Participatory Reading in Post-Soviet Literatures, in Pictures

On November 25th, Punctured Lines hosted our first literary event in San Francisco. Thanks to a conference that brought to San Francisco scholars, translators, and writers in Slavic, East European, and Eurasian Studies, we were able to gather a star list of participants. A few of the readers have appeared in Punctured Lines, and we certainly hope to feature more of their work. Following the scheduled portion of the event, we hosted an open mic that turned out to be a great crowd-pleaser. Below are the pictures we captured that night and brief descriptions of everyone’s contributions.

Shelley Fairthweather-Vega opened with an excerpt from her recently published translation of Talasbek Asemkulov’s novel A Life at Noonavailable for purchase here. A story about a musician growing up in Soviet Kazakhastan and learning his art form from his father.

Yelena Furman read the opening from her short story “Naming,” recently published in Narrative Magazine, and available in full online (free, with free registration required).

Wayne Goodman read a few brief excerpts from his historical novel Borimir: Serving the Tsars that re-imagines gay romance in Imperial Russia. There’s lots of awkward flirting! This book is available for purchase on Amazon.

Maggie Levantovskaya read from her essay about a trip to Auschwitz concentration camp “To Conjure Up the Dead,” published in Michigan Quarterly Review. The bizarreness of Holocaust tourism with the post-Soviet twist. An excerpt from this essay appears online.

Dmitri Manin wore the T-shirt with Genrikh Sapgir’s poem on the back, and read to us his translations from Sapgir’s “Poems on Shirts” book. We have published three of these translations in an earlier post.

Masha Rumer shared an essay about exposing an unsuspecting date to the delights of pickled herring-and-boiled beet salad, aka “Seledka pod shuboj.” He lived long enough to propose. We’re hoping to read the follow up on this story in her upcoming book, Parenting with an Accent: An Immigrant’s Guide to Multicultural Parenting. More about Masha and her book in the Q&A she gave Punctured Lines.

Sasha Vasilyuk followed with an excerpt from her novel-in-progress about a Soviet prisoner of war. We will be following the development of this project closely.

Mary Jane White delighted us with her translations from Marina Tsvetaeva — her delivery of the “Ode to the Rich” landed particularly well with our audience. Mary Jane’s book of her own poetry and translations from Tsvetaeva Starry Sky to Starry Sky is available online. We will be following up with news of her upcoming book of translations from Tsvetaeva’s Berlin and Prague years, Poems of an Emigrant: After Russia, Poem of the Hill, Poem of the End, and New Year’s.

I read the opening of “Rubicon,” a short story from my collection Like Water and Other Stories.

Josie von Zitzewitz followed up on the thread of discussion about the lack of visibility of contemporary Russian literature in the United States, and introduced a project that she’s developing with Marian Schwartz and Hilah Cohen, soliciting work from young Russophone writers to create a feature publication in an American magazine (possibly more than one).

Joining us for the open mic portion of the show, we had Maxim Matusevich, a writer and a historian of USSR intersections with African countries. He delivered an excerpt from his hilarious short story about cultural encounters between American students going to study abroad in St. Petersburg.

Christopher Fort closed the evening with a poem that he read in both Uzbek and English, bringing our attention to a particular rhyming pattern of Turkic languages. We have previously linked to Christopher’s interview about translating Abdulhamid Sulaymon o’g’li Cho’lpon novel Night and Day. This novel is now available for purchase online.



USSR’s Impact on the lives of Muslim Women in Central Asia

Here’s a fascinating study about the role that the Soviet Union played in the lives of Muslim women from Central Asia. This was filed by Özge Öz Döm, a scholar at Yildirim Beyazit University in Anakara, Turkey. Her thesis is that “even though the Soviet officials had a genuine intention for the emancipation of Central Asian women from the patriarchal structure both in the public and private spheres of life, the policies and their implementation were shaped in accordance with the basic motive of regime survival. In the first years of the Soviet regime, mostly ideological intentions shaped the women’s emancipation project. However, in time, the Soviet officials needed to make more reforms in the political, economic and socio-cultural areas not just for the ideological aims such as emancipation of the women, but also for the survival of the Soviet Union.”

Muslim Women in Central Asia

In fiction, I have seen this conflict reflected most directly in Guzel Yakhina’s novel, Zuleikha, recently translated to English by Lisa Hayden. This history also provides useful context for Akram Aylisli‘s work, in particular his trilogy from the 1960s, People and Trees (I read this book in Russian under the title Люди и деревья).

The researcher makes a point in this paper that seems relevant for Punctured Lines: “The studies about women in the Soviet and post-Soviet eras are mostly concerned with the European parts of the Soviet Union, and neglect the Muslim women under Soviet rule. Therefore, the first problem related to the literature regarding Central Asian women is that there are insufficient numbers of studies regarding this area; and the second problem is that the Western scholars studying this subject sometimes fail to understand the meaning of Islamic based customs and traditions to Central Asian women as well as men. So, this study also attempts to make a contribution to gender studies literature regarding Central Asian women “

Yuri Tynianov’s Permanent Evolution

Translators and scholars Ainsley Morse and Phillip Redko are bringing out a new volume of Yuri Tynianov’s work. Permanent Evolution contains his essays on literature, theory and film, many of which are translated here for the first time. Daria Khitrova of Harvard University penned the intro.

Publisher’s intro: “Yuri Tynianov was a key figure of Russian Formalism, an intellectual movement in early 20th century Russia that also included Viktor Shklovsky and Roman Jakobson. Tynianov developed a groundbreaking conceptualization of literature as a system within—and in constant interaction with—other cultural and social systems. His essays on Russian literary classics, like Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin and works by Dostoevsky and Gogol, as well as on the emerging art form of filmmaking, provide insight into the ways art and literature evolve and adapt new forms of expression. Although Tynianov was first a scholar of Russian literature, his ideas transcend the boundaries of any one genre or national tradition. Permanent Evolution gathers together for the first time Tynianov’s seminal articles on literary theory and film, including several articles never before translated into English.”

Jewish Underground Culture in the late Soviet Union

Klavdia Smola (whose new book we introduced earlier) guest-edited an issue of a scholarly journal, East European Jewish Affairs (Volume 48, Issue 1). Several essays in this issue touch on Soviet Jewish literature and its authors. From the introduction: “Klavdia Smola examines Jewish art and literature that originates in the context of the late Soviet unofficial public sphere. Her premise is that the Jewish cultural underground, like the late Soviet unofficial culture as a whole, emerged within a specific communicative niche, which was the result of intensive private exchange, limited knowledge, and collectively discovered sources. <…> She examines the ways in which the semi-private public life and political pressure influenced Jewish cultural production. Her main thesis is that precisely this context determined the aesthetic nature of the artifacts: their intertextuality, numerous cross-medial links, and the incorporation of the alternative lifeworld into art. The predominantly non-Jewish socialization of the “new” late Soviet Jews and their close contact with other unofficial artists produced a highly mediated and highly synthetic culture.”

The table of contents is here. As often with academic publications, you’ll need access to an academic library to read these pieces. They go for $43 a piece!