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

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

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

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

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

Secrets

by Nataliya Meshchaninova, translated by Fiona Bell

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

To continue reading, please buy the book.

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

New World, New Planet, an Open Letter by Ivan Sokolov

Punctured Lines is grateful to Ivan Sokolov for the opportunity to publish his letter and a collection of links. Author’s idiom is preserved.

I am thankful to everyone who has reached out to me—I am safe and away from Russia at the moment. Let this post be an update for my anglophone contacts who have expressed concern about Russia’s ongoing war in Ukraine, possible sources of following the events and the lives, as well as means of giving aid.

I feel compelled to mention, however, just to be fair, that if I find myself displaced and unhinged in every sense of the word, it is far less so than the hundreds of thousands of other Russians evacuating these days to neighbouring countries—and doing so, unlike myself, without visas, academic affiliations, language skills or any experience of living abroad. I did not think I’d live to see (and run into!) my own acquaintances, mostly young, crowded in airports by random gates—the sheer extent of the exodus is mind-blowing. The fate of those who remain in Russia may look bleak—and even if a massive campaign of arrests and repressions does not ensue, the economic deterioration will hit everyone hard. But if we find our plans, ways of life and peace of mind disrupted and displaced, it is unthinkably more literal and cruel for the livelihoods of our friends within Ukraine and those that have managed to escape the war crimes being committed there.

These days, the hearts of many go out to our friends in Ukraine, such as Galina Rymbu, the recent UDP author and her partner Yanis Sinaiko (also an excellent Russian-language poet, in the Celanian tradition), who are sheltering from air strikes in Lviv, the gem of Western Ukraine and itself a site of gruesome WWII history. Meanwhile, the thoughts of some will also be with friends on the other side of the front lines, such as Igor Bobyrev, a notorious personage but a sublime poet working in Russian, who is sheltering from air raids and military duty in Donetsk. I could list dozens more friends or simply authors whose work I follow, many writing in Ukrainian, some from the still younger generation, some as endowed with stardom as the recent Kharkiv-based Nobel-nominee Serhiy Zhadan, who are all living this crisis ever more viscerally than any of us could imagine—not all of them sheltering in fear, some (including my peers) taking to the front lines or signing up for Territorial Defence units. Not all are writers either: the most important russophone composer living in Ukraine, Valentin Silvestrov, has, thank God, just evacuated from Kyiv to Berlin (here’s an interview, auf Deutsch; Facebook users can listen to a bagatelle he wrote literally the other day).

*

I am writing this letter on 16 March, on the 130-th birthday of the great César Vallejo, a one-time convict and years-long exile. I am thinking on the life of this native of Santiago de Chuco, who had to flee Peru only to end up broke and sick in Paris. 2022 also happens to be the centennial year of Vallejo’s great poem Trilce. I don’t speak Spanish but last year I had to translate bits from the original, via other languages, when I was working on a poem by Clayton Eshleman, the Vallejo translator in the US, for an essay of mine on Eshleman & Vallejo (available in English). The poem is a cento, a pastiche from Eshleman’s version of Vallejo’s Trilce. It is called «Planet Trilce», as Eshleman reports to have understood at some point that Vallejo «was assembling in a kind of jump-cut cubistic way a world that operated with much different laws than we think ours does. It seemed as if he was envisioning a new planet». As houses are being torn apart in Ukraine, as discourses shatter globally and literal «meridians» in motion overwrite the poetic ones, it is hard not to wonder what that globe of Vallejo’s mind would be like. Well, it is a rather sombre planet:

<…>
On Trilce, there is more than enough sweetness for the whole shroud.
<…>
Dead exist who have never lived.
No two days ever touch each other.
<…>
When that which cannot burn does burn, pain doubles up its peak in laughter.
<…>
All retreats are made across exploded bridges.
<…>
On Trilce, all are cadavers of a life that never was.

And yet, it is also a planet of hope, as claims the fortissimo finale:

On Trilce, there is still hope of finding, for the saltatory power, an eternal entrance.

*

Because I’ve been asked by some, I thought I’d dedicate this message not to the «saltatory power» of russophone culture in English per se, but, first, to spreading some word of the ongoing disaster (one where «that which cannot burn does burn») through less formal a channel than the media outlets you must each be following. This and other essays by the Odesa-born US poet Ilya Kaminsky might already be on your radar. In such a case, please check out this piece by the Russian-American poet & translator Tatiana Retivov recounting her flight from the strikes raining on Kyiv. There’s also a riveting series of daily dispatches from photographer and writer Yevgenia Belorusets—straight from Kyiv (available in different languages, scroll for other translations). A selection of diary entries by others is available here; it includes a bit from the striking diary by Kyivan poet and translator Olga Bragina (available elsewhere in Swedish, Italian & Slovak). Here’s another, large set of such accounts written by young people, including some by Lviv-based russo&ukrainophone poet Danyil Zadorozhnyi, 2019 winner of the Arkadii Dragomoshchenko Young Poetry Award (in Russia), and his Minsk-born partner Yulia Charnyshova, a noteworthy long-lister of the same award from last year—both in their early twenties, now working as volunteers in Lviv. There’s also a short essay on and translations from the native of Donetsk, bilingual poet Iya Kiva who’s just fled from Kyiv (read more at this link).

Feel free to follow the writers above on Facebook: you can access many of their day-to-day posts in automatic translation, whatever the original language.

For a more official English-language coverage of the events from the russophone (and antiwar) angle, please follow Meduza.

*

Second, I thought I’d use this opportunity for sharing ways of giving aid to those who need it most now—for the «retreats across exploded bridges». I am far from the illusion that my writer friends have much monetary capital they could spare but I’m hoping that if you were to share these links further, perhaps someone who has the ability to donate will do so and make a difference. All of the links come from trusted friends.

  1. Razom for Ukraine https://razomforukraine.org/ (emergency relief for Ukrainians)
     
  2. Nova Ukraine https://www.give.novaukraine.org/ (humanitarian aid to Ukrainian residents and refugees)
     
  3. International Rescue Committee https://www.rescue.org/ (urgent help for Ukrainian refugees)
     
  4. World Odesites Club (help Odesan writers! wire $ via Western Union for Ms. Oksana Shalashna (Malinovskogo, 13, Odesa, Ukraine; osunny@ukr.net, +380504903053) 
     
  5. ABASTAN: Refuge for Ukrainian and Russian Artists and Writers in Armenia
    https://www.gofundme.com/f/abastan-emergency-residency-for-artists-writers (this might really help dozens of people I know who’ve relocated to Armenia at a moment’s notice; I hear the foundation is inundated with applications—perhaps more funding would allow them to support more people?..)
     
  6. For more links, follow this one: https://infohelpua.com/ru#help-from-abroad—you’ll find a much longer list there, please use Google Translate (it’s in Russian) or contact me, I’ll help you make sense of it.

Also, this page: https://how-to-help-ukraine-now.super.site/ lists a number of other concrete ways to help Ukrainians now, besides donating. 

*

I’d like to close here with two more poems that some of you may have seen but they are worth revisiting. One is the recent translation by John High and Matvei Yankelevich of the great 1937 requiem by Osip Mandel’shtam, «Verses on the Unknown Soldier»—one of those gripping poems from Russian modernism that so many of my friends and I felt to be beautiful and true but never in our nightmares did we have any inkling they might be this urgently relevant to the present day.

Another will be a poem by Aleksandr Skidan that deals with some «exploded bridges» of our own. Published on 1 March and translated within hours by Kevin Platt, it is a work of art that both documents the poisoned desperation of inhabiting, powerlessly, the aggressor country, and essentially sums up the entire thirty-year period of post-Soviet St Petersburg culture—a Weimar that has come to an end:

too late to scroll through news on facebook too late to write about personal and collective guilt

too late to read hannah arendt and carl schmitt in love with the schwarzwald too late to be provost of the state of emergency

too late to stand on the troitsky bridge and gaze at the loveliest city in the world too late to gaze at the ice of the loveliest river in the world

too late to go out on the ice of the loveliest river in the world and write fuck war on it too late to raise to disengage bridges

too late to cry over bridges too late to build bridges too late to say too late to loved ones too late to hug them

too late to rename the troitsky bridge as the trotsky bridge too late to say neither peace nor war

too late to say my grandma was born in poltava in 1909 too late to say her name was trepke von trepke

too late to say we are pissing our pants

too late to remember valery podoroga in 2001 after getting the bely prize in that café on liteiny and him saying who have we elected not only elected but with these very hands helped gleb pavlovsky and his media outlet

too late to say blockade patriotic war lydia ginzburg

too late to say i warned you in 2003 caution religion caution

too late to say genocide wwi turn the bayonets against imperialism as bakunin kropotkin taught and bruno shulz dreaming of maggots when he walked vinnytsia’s streets to drink with arkadii

too late to say dehumanization

mobile crematoria

special operation

it remains to be said

reread antigone return our dead

i want to lament them

this precedes the polis precedes its violence and the law the law as violence this is sister this is brother becoming a bottomless grave and a promise of love

and maybe it’s still not too late to stop the mobile crematoria

to bury our children

Let it be not too late for at least some other shard of life in this new world—for a hope «of finding… an eternal entrance», as says Vallejo/Eshleman.

__________________

P.S.: Update (5 April)

I’m sure some of you will have read the essay by one of Russia’s leading poets, Maria Stepanova, that was recently featured in the Financial Times. She is one of the few still to be able to tap into an essayist’s reservoir of figurative language and to investigate the ruins of ethics, the ruins of sociality—the very same that are depicted in Skidan’s “Too Late.”

To complement that panorama of the planet in ruins (“the whole shroud,” per Vallejo/Eshleman), I would like to add a few links to the digest above—these have become available in the days since I wrote the letter. Russia’s atrocities in Bucha and other towns render many speechless, but I want to keep sharing testimonies and leads for giving aid.

I.

Masha Gessen’s podcast on the Russian exodus to CIS countries that I referred to has been reworked (and enriched) into an essay in The New Yorker.

See also this piece in The NYT by Sophie Pinkham as well as another one elsewhere, all documenting the peregrinations of new Russian exiles.

Please read those alongside this vox clamantis of a Russian anarchist who remains in Russia and, hence, writes anonymously.

II.

More war diaries: February24.net.

Olga Bragina’s extraordinary diary is finally available in English in full.

As Yevgenia Belorusets continues to capture Kyiv’s unthinkable reality in words and photographs, The Atlantic has run a short interview with her.

A great many other first-hand accounts like those are available in a Facebook group “War. Stories from Ukraine” run by Kyivan poet and journalist Maria Banko. There’s also a specific collection of dispatches from the besieged Mariupol.

See also notes on war and displacement (auf Deutsch) by Berlin-based Russian philosopher Oxana Timofeeva.

III.

Danyil Zadorozhnyi’s and Yulia Charnyshova’s poetry from Lviv has appeared in English translations in LARB and on Words Without Borders and on Collateral.

Springhouse Journal has launched a new Russo-Ukrainian series of poetry translations that’s worth following.

Ostap Slyvynsky, a truly exceptional lyric poet from Lviv, has begun writing a serial work of docupoetry, “War’s Vocabulary,” registering the minute though visceral shifts in word usage that the war is imposing on people and their personal stories. Its first section is now available auf Deutsch.

IV.

Ilya Kaminsky has put out an essay in The Paris Review with a panorama overview of Odesa writers sharing testimonies of war-haunted existence.

To support Odesan writers, please go to this GoFundMe campaign.

To support strikes among Russian military draft evaders, please send USD to U12753559 on Capitalist.

To fund emergency evacuations from Ukraine, see this Helping to Leave page.

If you are looking to donate, a further list of vetted organisations aiding the victims of Russia’s war in Ukraine can be found here.

*

Finally, I’m going to conclude this brief addendum by two more Russian poems in translation. One is a powerful echo of Paul Celan, Europe’s most crucial war poet himself born in Chernivtsi—a city that is yet again being under attack, this time from Russian troops: it is a poem by Ekaterina Zakharkiv, endowed with such resounding cadences that it already has been translated into English twice: by Eugene Ostashevsky and by Joseph Simas.

The only poem here that I am going to share in my own English translation is one by Zakharkiv’s partner and an outstanding voice of Russian opposition—Dmitry Gerchikov. Addressing in many ways the same readers that were captured in Skidan’s “Too Late,” Gerchikov offers an explosive combination of self-irony and despair, where it is only rhyme and repetition that can make the new reality ever so bearable. The poem opens with an artistic reappraisal of Theodor W. Adorno’s famous question concerning poetry after Auschwitz; in the work’s grating gyres one can almost hear the philosopher’s own, less well known reply: “Perennial suffering has as much right to expression as a tortured man has to scream”:

can there be auschwitz
after poetry

can there be gulags
after prose

can there be aleppo
after criticism

can there be moscow
after the end of the line

can there be police trucks
after autofiction

can there be ovd-info
after ovid

can there be lefties
after lviv

can there be music
after mariupol

can there be a 25 feb
after 24 feb

can there be war
after voina art group

can there be abramovich
after abramović

can there be void
after the fuckoids

can there be medals
after the muddle

can there be putin
after slava mogutin

can there be victims
after girard

can there be virno
after the guilt

can there be air defence
after thesis defence

can there be a before
after the after

can there be a #jesuis
after solovki

can there be cherubim
after hiroshima

can there be u.s. bucks
after roland barthes

can there be you
after we

can there be i
after this

can there be this
after me

Ivan Sokolov is a poet, translator and critic from St Petersburg, and a PhD Candidate at UC Berkeley. Author of four books of poetry. Russian translations of selections from G. M. Hopkins’s Journal, of Frank O’Hara’s Oranges (short-listed for the Nora Gal’ Award), poems by L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E writers, Clayton Eshleman, Barbara Guest, Norma Cole; currently at work on translating Gertrude Stein’s Tender Buttons and John Ashbery’s The Tennis Court Oath. Contributing editor for an upcoming Russian anthology of Language writing. English translations of the poetry of Nataliia Azarova (Trafika Europe, 2018). His poetry has been translated into English, German, Greek, Spanish, Italian and other languages. Finalist of the Arkadii Dragomoshchenko Award for Poetry (2016) and other prizes. Participant of the Russo-German poetry project VERSschmuggel (2015) and of PEN AMERICA’s Writers in Dialog translation seminar (2020). Member of the editorial board at GRIOZA, where in 2020 he curated an international festschrift for the centenary of Paul Celan.

Voices for Ukraine: Video from the Words Together Worlds Apart Reading

Here’s a video from yesterday’s poetry reading featuring poets from Ukraine and their English-language translators. Thanks to poets Olga Livshin and Julia Kolchinsky Dasbach who organized this event 800 people from across the globe came together for Ukraine. This event, put together as a part of an ongoing poetry series Words Together Worlds Apart was a fundraiser, and it’s not too late to DONATE to UNICEF.

Here’s a more comprehensive list of organizations that accept donations for Ukraine.

*Words Together Worlds Apart spearheaded by poet Julia Kolchinsky Dasbach is a virtual reading series. Its mission is: “To maintain & build literary community across distance through our shared love of words. Featured readers will share their work around a weekly theme, followed by interactive discussion.”

Voices for Ukraine: A Words Together Worlds Apart Reading

Many of us have been wondering how to help Ukrainians who are under a renewed attack from Russia. Poets Olga Livshin and Julia Kolchinsky Dasbach have put together a reading by poets from Ukraine writing in Ukrainian and Russian, and translated to English. Read the event description below and register for the event happening March 1 at 12:30pm ET. This message includes links to organizations where you can make donations to support Ukraine in this time of war.

*Words Together Worlds Apart spearheaded by poet Julia Kolchinsky Dasbach is a virtual reading series. Its mission is: “To maintain & build literary community across distance through our shared love of words. Featured readers will share their work around a weekly theme, followed by interactive discussion.”

From Olga and Julia:

Amid the current catastrophe in Ukraine, a brutal invasion of a sovereign nation, it is more urgent than ever to listen to the voices of its people. While media provides overwhelming coverage, literature, poetry, and art are just as important for processing, coping, and surviving trauma.

Hosts Julia Kolchinsky Dasbach and Olga Livshin unite Ukrainian poets and their translators alongside US poet-allies in Voices for Ukraine–a transatlantic reading spanning from Kyiv, Odesa, and Lviv, to LA, Atlanta, Philly, and Little Rock, as well as recordings Ukrainian poets have sent in the event they are unable to join us live due to internet outages and air raids. 

***Please note that you need to register on Zoom. Another way to register is through event page on Facebook.

Readers include:

Ilya Kaminsky
Katie Farris
Carolyn Forché
Boris Khersonsky *
Lyudmyla Khersonska *
Lyuba Yakimchuk *
Iya Kiva *
Oksana Lutsyshyna

Oksana Maksymchuk *
Dzvinia Orlowsky
Vitaly Chernetsky
Yuliya Chernyshova *
Danyil Zadorozhnyi *
Ostap Slyvynsky *
Katherine E Young

Boris Dralyuk
Olena Jennings
Amelia Mukamel Glaser
Yuliya Ilchuk
Hilah Kohen
Joy David
Victoria Juharyan

We need their voices and they need our support and collective action. Our solidarity! (*indicates poets speaking from Ukraine).  

There is a suggested $5 donation to support the reading series, which can be paid via Venmo @ Julia-Dasbach or PayPal: jkolch@gmail.com. Contributions are always welcome but never required, anything you give, big or small, helps. 90% of all the funds collected today go towards https://www.unicefusa.org/stories/unicef-children-are-bearing-brunt-intensifying-crisis-ukraine/39481 getting humanitarian aid to the children in Ukraine. For more reputable organizations you can donate to, see the following list: https://helpukrainewin.org/?ref=producthunt&fbclid=IwAR0z0tCZO_rqfVKHThRbwptC3VaSwVC9aHrXxFvTwsn550f7jjxk-UYtOMU

Even through this unbearable ache, let’s try to find solace in each other’s words together, as we stay worlds apart.

Revealing Poetry from Within: An Interview with Alla Gorbunova, by Alexandra Tkacheva

Alla Gorbunova is a Russian poet, prose writer, translator, and critic. She has published six books of poetry and four books of prose, and her work regularly appears in major literary journals, including Znamia, Novoe literaturnoe obozrenie, Vozdukh, TextOnly, and others. Gorbunova’s poems and prose have been translated into many languages. She has taken part in Russian and international festivals of poetry and prose, and in 2012 participated in poetry readings in New York and Chicago. English-language translations of her poems and prose have appeared in Poetry, Words Without Borders, Columbia Journal, Modern Poetry in Translation, New England Review, and Nashville Review.

The English translation of her book of prose It’s the End of the World, My Love by Elina Alter is forthcoming from Deep Vellum Press in 2022. Gorbunova is a laureate of Russia’s most prestigious literary awards, including the Andrei Bely Prize, the NOS Literary Prize, and the Debut Prize. She is a graduate of the Faculty of Philosophy at St. Petersburg State University.

This interview was conducted in Russian and translated to English by the interviewer. The Russian-language edition of Gorbunova’s collection It’s the End of the World, My Love is available for purchase from the publisher, NLO Books.

Alla Gorbunova

Alexandra Tkacheva: When did you start writing? How did you come to think of yourself as a poet? Some of your lines, such as “Дом сверчка в золе и саже / За окном его горит / Чёрной башни карандашик / С чёрной тучей говорит” [The cricket’s house in the soot and ash / Outside his window / A pencil of the black tower is lit / It is talking to a black cloud] can be read as ars poetica. Is this a common and/or deliberate effect in your work?

Alla Gorbunova: In her “Young Mother’s Diary,” kept by my mom, she notes that I started composing poems when I was a year and nine months old. But these poems did not have words yet. My mom describes them as combinations of sounds with a strong rhythm. Since then, I’ve been composing verse, which gradually acquired words.

In childhood, I had a favorite game. I took books (preferably but not necessarily with pictures), sat down and ran my finger over the pages until the paper became threadbare. I muttered to myself, made up a story, sometimes relying on the pictures, and imagined that it was printed on those pages. Reading other people’s texts also encouraged me to play this game. When I liked what I’d read, I took the book and began declaiming my own words in the same spirit and style. I kept up this practice for many years, having felt a deep need for such creative expression. It seemed vitally necessary, a true inspiration. 

As for ars poetica, yes, in my poetry you can often encounter a reflection on the poetic experience itself. A form of autoreferentiality. In that moment of unfolding, poetry poses a question about itself, about the foundations and possibilities of poetic speech. I feel that we lack the language capable of revealing what poetry is from within. When I’m writing a poem, regardless of its subject, there is always a revelation of poetry itself, poetry turned not only outward but also towards itself.

Alexandra Tkacheva: Tell us about your creative process. How are your poems written? What about prose? Where does the work on yourself end and the work on the text begin for you? Is the material world (the nighttime, a table, a cup of tea) important for creativity? Do you edit yourself? Does your “mental controller” (a character in Gorbunova’s short story “На правах рекламы [Advertisement]”) intervene? What is the most difficult part of writing?

Alla Gorbunova: Usually, a target appears (sometimes I catch it, like a hunter), a point-like and precise note, a condensed whole, a pure creative possibility, a certain intensity, a call for me. It can be said that I “see” this intensity, this target. However, a more accurate metaphor here is perhaps recognizing the smell. Indeed, not only a word or an image can carry meaning, but also a smell – in a more primordial way. There is something from hunting prey by its smell in the creative process for me.

The distinction between poetry and prose is not critical to my process. Both are about seeing for me. Sometimes I see something, and it’s clear that this is poetry. Or that this is prose. I mean, it’s clear that this particular intensity is meant to unfold as poetry, while that one – as prose. And sometimes, I see that it can be unfolded both ways and I can put it down as either poetry or prose.

Working on a text, when it’s taken out of the context of working on one’s own self, is a purely technical handicraft. In my case, it would be more correct to say “work within the text” instead of working on it. Someone working on the text creates an object, cultivates it.  I don’t work on the text but within it. I have to work so that the text can work. Creativity, writing, poetry, and prose are all a work of consciousness. Here, the quality of visual and mental attention plays a more important role than craft. 

The material world is important. The transcendental can permeate things. Things can accumulate memory and time. They can speak and think. Sometimes I get to hear their thoughts. Strictly speaking, these are not thoughts in our habitual understanding, but a certain murmur, noise, movement, tension – something happening inside the matter, though nothing semantically meaningful. Things are restless on the inside.

Actually, all things are foam—quantum foam, which has been theorized to be the basis for all matter. Things accumulate memory, they are not stable inside, they consist of this foam and can hunt people and steal our consciousness. Things constantly invite a body: eat me, take me, touch me, play with me. Inside our consciousness there is a selective mechanism determining which invitations to accept and which to reject. This selective mechanism can function poorly or even be broken, and then things do whatever they want to a person.

I edit myself very little. The evaluative function that judges the text as though from an external critical perspective works automatically and usually at the moment of writing. I constantly want to be writing something new. I simply don’t have time to write down everything I want, so I’m unable to focus on things already written, because, otherwise, that new thing that I urgently need to put down will slip away. By the way, it wasn’t always like this for me in terms of editing. When I was younger, in high school, I worked on form a lot. Back then, I felt that I needed this, constantly gave myself assignments, polished my craft, forced myself to write poetry in all the complex ancient meters, and so on. I wanted to know many words and forced myself to read the dictionary. This is how it was before, and now I usually write the final version right away and rarely revisit it. I don’t have multiple drafts.

The hardest part of writing is also the easiest. To be alive, not just physically, but in the actual sense, to keep your heart alive. Is it difficult or easy? On the one hand, it is extremely easy, and on the other hand – impossible. I feel I need to balance on that single point at which a person is alive. That point at which there is no yesterday or tomorrow, where you part from yourself and reach that something you were created for – life. The creative act happens at that single point – where there’s no past or future, where you yourself cease to exist. When you create within that point and not here, in this world – it becomes clear in the text written here. There’s life in the work.

Alexandra Tkacheva: What role does the reader play for you? What life do you imagine for your words once they become available to the reader?

Alla Gorbunova: I think the poet writes not for the reader but for the perfect addressee – a certain absolute instance that cannot be embodied in any concrete reader. And the reader can come and live in this text if they can and want to. The work is, like Nietzsche puts it, for everyone and no one.

Alexandra Tkacheva: Which of your predecessors or contemporaries have influenced your work? Is there a point in tracing Platonov, Gogol, or Kafka, who you once said were your favorite writers? After reading your essay on Elena Shvarts, I’ve started noticing the overlaps in imagery and tone between your and Shvarts’s poetry. How do you feel about such attempts to establish a literary genealogy? 

Alla Gorbunova: In my view, the search for influences and overlaps is often an attempt to understand the unfamiliar through the familiar. Or worse than that: to reduce the unfamiliar to the familiar. As a result of this attempt (regardless of the validity of these influences and overlaps), the seeker is left with the familiar piece of art and fails to recognize the unfamiliar.

In any case, I leave the search for contexts, connections, and overlaps to the critics.

Alexandra Tkacheva: What is your take on criticism? How do you combine creative and critical practices? What are your guiding principles for analyzing texts written by others?

Alla Gorbunova: In Russia, we have some absolutely wonderful, subtle, and insightful critics and I’m grateful for their reviews of my books. I cannot complain really, I have seen a lot of interesting texts from critics and bloggers about my work and these have brought me great joy. But generally, it seems that many people who undertake the task of writing about books and even have authority in certain circles, do it superficially. They briefly describe the work and provide their assessment. They don’t want to analyze and work with the text, fail to see its context or perceive what lies outside the scope of their expectations and ideas. Most importantly, their hearts are not open or ready to try to understand and hear the other. Even the way they write carries a surprisingly revolting, brash intonation, as if they have seen all things in the world and know everything about everyone. This intonation is full of fatigue, smugness, depreciation, and contempt. These critics do not presume the author innocent: the fact of publication means for them that the latter wants to sell them something, foist it on them, while they consider it as consumers and say: “alright, this will do” or “ugh, I don’t wanna buy this.” There is no understanding that the author writes their book not because they expect something from the critics or society but for no reason, because they cannot behave otherwise. These people often have a consumerist attitude to books, it’s like a food cycle for them: consuming and then producing an evaluative review. And they think everything exists just for this purpose. I’m reminded of the time when I taught philosophy to first-year physics majors. We were supposed to discuss the philosophical texts and try to understand them, but often the students simply expressed their value judgements and opinions. I found this practice strange. “Opinion” is actually a cunning thing, a lot has been written on it in the philosophical tradition. Opinion and thought are widely distinct.

Criticism, for me, is definitely not about opinions or judgments. It’s rather a possibility of thought. A possibility of understanding or misunderstanding, where the latter can also be valuable. When I engage in criticism, I combine the analytical and the hermeneutic approaches, trying to understand and shed light on how the text is organized on different levels and what stands behind it. In a way, I explore the author’s artistic mind. Tracing the links and contexts, I primarily draw on my own encounter with this text, analyze the interaction that happened between us. Hence, my criticism is not only about the author I’m writing about, but also about me, I also open up in it. I can be biased but I try to see and acknowledge my bias. Fundamentally, I try to withhold my own taste and ideas about literature from my analysis of the work under review, but instead look for its inner law, read it according to the rules that are most applicable. And my own plasticity is important here. Not judging the text based on the primitive procedure of correlating it to my idea of good and bad but seeing it on the atomic level. For example, when you write about different poets, you can see very clearly that they understand poetry and poetic utterance differently on the atomic level. You have to change your optics accordingly. You have to be extremely flexible but cannot lose yourself. And here’s how I combine poetic and critical practices: I try not to write criticism at all. And if I write it, I try to do it in a way that enriches me as a poet. So that I get something out of exploring another poet’s thinking and their poetic world, or clarify my relationship with this author, or understand something I was trying to understand. That is to say, for me, criticism is a work of the conscious mind just like poetry and prose.

Alexandra Tkacheva: Your poems and short stories have been translated into many languages, including English. Is it important for you to participate in the translation process, and maybe affect how a prospective readers’ community that doesn’t speak Russian receives your work?

Alla Gorbunova: I prefer to meet a good translator – a professional and a fellow thinker – and entrust my work to them. In the case of English, I try to check translations for obvious semantic misunderstandings, which can happen with the best translators. In the case of other languages that I don’t speak, I cannot do this for the obvious reason. But I’m always open to participating in the translation process and ready to answer in detail any questions from the translator.

Russian cover of It’s the End of the World, My Love (NLO Press, 2020)

Alexandra Tkacheva: It’s the End of the World, My Love was categorized as autofiction. How did you come to this genre? What kind of relationships exist between the author and the heroines in your texts?

Alla Gorbunova: No one knows what genre this is. You may categorize it as autofiction or not. Honestly, I have discovered this word “autofiction” only recently after the release of It’s the End of the World, My Love. I saw it in the reviews and then googled the definition. Current interest in autofiction was news to me: I didn’t aim for any trends and just wrote the book that felt organic to me at that moment. However, I think that the fact that different writers in various countries choose this genre or, to maybe put it better, create it, is not because of a fad but rather because they independently exhibit the desire for this kind of writing. Most likely, this desire is caused by certain underlying changes in our perception of literature and the demands we make on it, by the cultural shifts and the changing forms of our sensibility. Probably, there is an ongoing search for new ways of building a narrative and assembling a text, and autofiction is a possible direction of this search.

But when you talk about autofiction in contemporary Russian literature – here everything instantly turns into a trend, a movement that seeks to capture, expand, and mark the symbolic field. I can’t stand all this hustle. I like it better when my books are described as “fuck knows what this is.”

Alexandra Tkacheva: What is your literary-artistic world built upon? Your childhood memories, the books you have devoured, dreams, the collective unconscious? Is it a single Wonderland with multiple entry points, the three worlds you mention in “Пред вратами [Before the Gates],” a folding shelf at your mom’s bed-foot? Who are your guides here?   

Alla Gorbunova: I cannot answer this question, you see. Because if I do, we will end up with another blueprint or outline. My books speak for themselves; everything is visible there. I generally think the world has no foundation. Not only the world created by a work of art, but also our common world is founded on the lack of foundation. And artistic possibility emerges from this lack of foundation as well. However huge and total the world created by a work of art is, there must be an empty space, a blind spot. That empty space is a pledge of openness that enables the world, including the world of a work of art, and prevents it from turning into an enclosed structure. The world cannot be captured by a net.

Alexandra Tkacheva: You write about your experience of growing up, female friendship, sexuality, and motherhood. Are you embracing a woman’s perspective? Does your work have a feminist agenda?

Alla Gorbunova: I never had a female identity as such, I don’t identify myself through the traditional gender binaries. I just write about human experience and it doesn’t matter whether it’s a female experience or not. Some regions of this experience are considered female, while others are not. There’s nothing deliberately feminist in my writing but there’s something else that might also work to benefit women. My internally free heroine can also liberate, and annoy certain kinds of men, those who believe that a woman should know her place and that thinking, art, self-knowledge, extreme freedom, and radical experiments are not for women. My heroine, in my view, dramatically illustrates that this is not the case.

Alexandra Tkacheva: In your poems we often observe metamorphoses, the borders between opposites are erased, and the human lyrical subject dissolves, while animals, plants, and objects acquire agency. How do you feel about a posthumanist reading of your poetry?

Alla Gorbunova: It’s true, in my poems, everyone and everything is alive, animals speak, and there is no clear distinction between the living and the dead. The borders between opposites are being erased and everything turns into everything else. Some people can interpret this as posthumanism, others, in contrast, as a return to archaic mythical consciousness (maybe these approaches are not mutually exclusive). But the connections in this world are poetic, amorous, and existential and not based on technical rationality. I still understand posthumanism as a technological utopia (using technologies to transform bodies, seeking physical immortality, merging human consciousness and the computer). And I don’t really trust technological utopias.

In my view, the main poles of attraction that determine the direction in which we reflect on technicity today are Heidegger and Gilbert Simondon. Heidegger’s philosophy treats technology with caution and focuses on revealing its threatening side. And Simondon analyzed technical objects from another side, offering a strange inhuman optics. The possibility of intersection of digital and human lives, the possibility of a not quite human perspective on our everyday life, unusual, bold ideas and futuristic forecasts ushering in anthropotechnic hybrids and affecting our existence as humans scare and fascinate me at the same time. They always make me question whether, in our mixing of human and technical, we are starting to schematize the unschematizeable, universalize the unique, count the uncountable – apply our calculating thinking to the things that cannot be calculated.

Alexandra Tkacheva: Do you identify as a Russian poet? Is your writing grounded in time and space of contemporary Russia? Do you feel the need or responsibility to make sense of the ongoing events for your readers?

Alla Gorbunova: I perceive my poems as a part of the Russian poetic tradition as well as a part of world poetry. For me, these two things are not contradictory, and I think that contemporary Russophone poetry can, on one hand, be deeply rooted in the Russian poetic tradition and, on the other hand, be completely open, future-oriented, and welcoming to the experience of other cultures and languages.

Actually, I have my own take on tradition. For me, tradition isn’t an “inheritance.” I cannot say I need any inheritance. It feels like creation always happens from the ashes, in conditions of an original catastrophe. There is no default “cultural heritage” or “tradition” at all, it’s a fiction we’re taught in school. The continuity of a poetic tradition is established by every poet anew. Every poet assembles this tradition themselves: it’s a shadow cast into the past, and a searchlight directed towards the future. A poetic tradition needs to be obtained, assembled from the initial ruin. Every creator started from the ashes: in the 19th and in the 18th centuries, as well as today. For me, as a poet, this beam through the past illuminates names that are very different from each other. My favorite poets from the first part of the 20th century are Velimir Khlebnikov and Osip Mandelstam, and from the second – the poets of the Leningrad Underground: Leonid Aronzon, Elena Shvarts, Aleksandr Mironov, Sergei Stratanovskii. 

I think it’s hard to avoid reflecting on the local and global events without being a hypocrite today. There are two kinds of danger: the first comes from following the headlines too closely and turning art into a front page, and the second – from building an ivory tower and treating your art as detached from reality, so it becomes a decorative embroidery. I think we need to seek some living, non-trivial ways of letting social reality into the text.

There are things around us that you can hardly ignore because if you pretend you don’t relate to them or don’t see them or they don’t exist, this is also a certain position, a way of relating. There are things you simply cannot stay away from because it equals betrayal. And there are more and more things like that every day.

But we should not forget that art has an autonomous capacity to produce its own differences: it creates its own space and time so it cannot live simply as a socially mediated phenomenon or be reduced to certain conventions. (Which does not contradict the critical potential of art: the creation of space and time itself is an act of radical social critique as it creates an opportunity to change our point of view and highlight things and ideas that had previously gone unnoticed.)

After all, contemporaneity does not contain things but is created by them. Time doesn’t act as a container for things, but things themselves create, produce time. An object of art does not merely satisfy the requirements of some conventionally established contemporaneity, but creates its moment in time. The so-called contemporary moment is always being created by writers, artists, among others. A work of art defines and forms time.

Alexandra Tkacheva is a PhD student in the Slavic Department at the University of Michigan. Her research interests include modern and contemporary periods in Russian literature and culture. As a graduate student, Alexandra applies feminist and posthumanist critique to the works of canonical and lesser-known Russian-speaking authors. She graduated from Nazarbayev University (Astana, Kazakhstan) with a BA in World Languages, Literatures, and Cultures in 2019. When not deconstructing patriarchy, she rides her bike, learns about the human mind, or wanders through the local coffee shops.

Yelena Furman reviews the new translation of Ludmilla Petrushevkaya

In the fall of 2021, Deep Vellum Press brought out a new translation of Ludmilla Petrushevskaya’s stories, her collection The New Adventures of Helen, in translation by Jane Bugaeva. Our own Yelena Furman reviewed this translation for the Los Angeles Review of Books:

This collection gathers Petrushevskaya’s fairy tales for adults, published under one cover in Russian in 1997; some other selections from that Russian volume have previously appeared in There Once Lived a Woman Who Tried to Kill Her Neighbor’s Baby: Scary Fairy Tales. To be sure, there are still plenty of human vices in these pages. But instead of a world in which degradation reigns supreme, here goodness prevails, aided by a large dose of magic.

https://lareviewofbooks.org/article/the-realm-of-forgotten-things-on-ludmilla-petrushevskayas-the-new-adventures-of-helen/

Read the full review at LARB, and buy the book–the best way to support an innovative publisher!

We love and admire Petrushevskaya’s writing and would love to have more responses to her work on our blog. Feel free to pitch us your reviews, and formal or creative essay ideas at puncturedlines [at] gmail.com.

The Scent of Empires: Channel No. 5 and Red Moscow by Karl Schlögel (trans. Jessica Spengler; Polity, 2021), reviewed by Emily Couch

Punctured Lines is grateful to Emily Couch for her review of Karl Schlögel’s The Scent of Empires: Channel No. 5 and Red Moscow, translated by Jessica Spengler. This book held a particular interest for me because I firmly associate the perfume Red Moscow (Krasnaya Moskva) with my grandmother, who, like many in the Soviet Union, wore this scent. At the same time, I have a memory of standing in a Paris perfumery at the end of my study-abroad program buying a small bottle of Chanel No. 5 to bring back to her as a gift. In one sense, this seems very odd to me, since I can’t remember her wearing perfume in the U.S. and I can’t totally say that I’ve remembered this accurately. But this book and review makes me think I’m right: perhaps my grandmother did like the French perfume because it reminded her of the Soviet one since, as it turns out, there was a connection between them.

Karl Schlögel’s The Scent of Empires: Channel No. 5 and Red Moscow (translated by Jessica Spengler), Review by Emily Couch

I wanted to love The Scent of Empires.  When I happened upon it in the flagship Waterstones store in London, I felt a burst of excitement.  Here was a book that united many of my personal passions: Russian and French history, fashion, design. The blurb announced that the reader should expect “the interconnected histories of two of the world’s most celebrated perfumes” and “a surprising story of power, intrigue and betrayal.” Yet, unlike the two headline perfumes whose boldly designed bottles represented the revolutionary nature of the scent within, Schlögel’s book does not live up to the promise of its packaging. Despite its diminutive length, The Scent of Empires is not an easy book to distil because it lacks a single essence.

In Chapter 1, Schlögel describes the genesis of the two related scents, charting the trajectories of Ernest Beaux and Auguste Ippolitovich Michel – French perfumers who made their careers in Imperial Russia working for Rallet & Co., purveyor of perfume to the imperial court. Beaux remained with Rallet & Co. until the Russian Revolution in 1917, when he returned to his native France, whereas Michel moved to Brocard, a rival Russian perfumery (which, upon its nationalization became Novaya Zarya). In 1912, to mark the 100th anniversary of the Battle of Borodino, Rallet & Co. released the scent “Bouquet de Napoleon,” and both Beaux and Michel took the formula of the “Bouquet” into their post-revolutionary lives. In Beaux’s hands in France, it became Chanel No. 5; in Michel’s in the Soviet Union, it became Red Moscow.

In Chapter 2 the author takes a theoretical turn, examining the place of scent in Western philosophical thought. The Western attitude towards the olfactory, writes Schlögel, was shaped by the Enlightenment, whose thinkers posited smell as “all that is non-conscious, unconscious, non-rational, irrational, uncontrollable, archaic, dangerous.” Despite this antipathy, however, “we cannot simply catapult ourselves out of the realm of scent. We perceive the world not only with our eyes, but also with our nose.” In Chapter 3, he characterizes the Russian Revolution as an event that not only shattered the social pedestal of the elite, but also their sensory world. The smell of cabbage soup, factories, and overcrowded train carriages “breached the walls of the hermetically sealed and orderly olfactory world of the ancien régime.”  In the tumultuous years of World War I, the Russian Civil War, and the mass social upheaval that these phenomena entailed, the “odour of the front lines and the bivouac, the sweat of factory work, the stench of overcrowded train carriages – it all forces its way into the perfumed and deodorized realm of high culture.”

Chapter 4 examines how Russia and France – the former through revolution and the latter through World War I – experienced radical breaks with their pasts and dramatic leaps into their own forms of modernity, which manifested itself in fashion and material culture. Schlögel demonstrates how this post-war, post-revolutionary tendency was seen in women’s fashion, drawing parallels between Gabrielle (Coco) Chanel and the leading Soviet couturier, Nadezhda Lamanova, whose designs rejected flounces and adornment in favor of bold, clean lines that allowed freedom of movement to the body. Both “stood for a type of fashion that combined taste and quality and was intended to be accessible even to ordinary people.”

Chapters 5, 6, and 7 outline the cultural and political connections between Russia and France both pre-and post-1918. Chapters 5 and 6 examine the movement of people and ideas between France and Russia. The first highlights how pre-war France was a popular destination for Russia’s elite and dissidents alike: “Paris stood alongside Italy as the most important destination for Russian travellers prior to World War I […] Russian colonies sprang up on the Côte d’Azur in Cannes, San Remo, Antibes, and Nice, and on the Atlantic in Biarritz and Deauville.” Meanwhile, “Paris became a place of exile for Russian revolutionaries […] Revolutionary democrats and oppositionists of all stripes turned Paris […] into a locus of anti-tsarist resistance.” In the second, Schlögel shows how, after the revolution, leading French cultural figures such as Christian Dior, Elsa Schiaparelli, and Le Corbusier, visited the Soviet Union, viewing it as “an ally against capitalism and the impending war.” Chapter 7 pays particular attention to Frenchman Auguste Michel’s rehabilitation by the Soviet authorities, one of the “valuable examples of the Soviet state’s successful deployment of the old intelligentsia,” and his attempts to create perfumes – with names like “1 May” and “Palace of Soviets” to embody the new order.

Schlögel dedicates Chapter 8 to the biographies of Coco Chanel (1883-1971) and Polina Zhemchuzhina (1897-1970), elucidating the unexpected parallels in their life trajectories despite their wildly differing social circumstances. While the general contours of Chanel’s career are likely well-known to the Western reader, those of Zhemchuzhina’s are probably less so. “[F]rom the impoverished environs of the Jewish shtetl” in what is now eastern Ukraine, she rose through the Communist Party ranks until she became the People’s Commissar for the Food Industry in 1939. More well-known to history is the man who became her husband – Vyacheslav Molotov, Stalin’s Minister of Foreign Affairs. The chapter is born of good intentions, presenting both Chanel and Zhemchuzhina as “iron women” who made their way in a male-dominated world. The vaguely feminist approach to their biographies is, unfortunately, lost in the somewhat contrived points of comparison between two individuals who, as the author himself admits, “were disparate to the point of antagonism.”

Chanel’s biography contains a somewhat disturbing attempt by the author to excuse her well-documented collaboration with the Nazis: “What the documents do not tell us is whether her activities ever caused anyone great personal harm”.  While the book should certainly not attempt to put Chanel on trial for her actions during the occupation, this one-line attempt to brush any criticism of the designer aside is unsettling and detracts from the overall narrative. Schlögel’s account of how the designer used her connections with the Nazi high command to further her business interests – while a well-intentioned attempt to portray her as a strong woman making the best of dire circumstances – is off-putting.  In the same vein, Chapter 9’s jarringly brief reflection on the sensory facet of Soviet and Nazi camps brings an unintentional glibness to these horrifying forms of repression and death. “We have the smell of scorched earth and mass graves,” Schlögel luridly writes, “bodies crammed together in deportation trains, pyres of burning books, the smell of the gas piped into the gas chambers and the smoke rising from the crematoria.”

In Chapters 10, 11, and 12, the author ambitiously attempts to cover the nearly seventy years between Stalin’s death and the present day.  In Chapter 10 he describes the boom in Soviet consumer culture post-1953, which gave rise to the “Golden Age of Soviet perfumery.” Then, he takes a rather unexpected detour – titled “Excursus,” which appears to be sandwiched between the two chapters –into the life of Olga Chekhova, an actress-cum-cosmetics entrepreneur who founded a perfumery in Munich (not to be confused with her aunt, Olga Knipper, Anton Chekhov’s wife). Schlögel devotes Chapter 11, a mere five pages, to the life of Soviet perfumes in the post-Soviet era. The explosive emergence of Western designer brands after the collapse of the Soviet Union triggered a “reaction against what some viewed as a foreign invasion [that] was not long in coming. Many set off on a search for the lost time that had taken the scents of the Soviet epoch with it.” The revival of Red Moscow, and the proliferation of old Soviet perfume bottles for sale in makeshift markets, symbolized this nostalgia for the recent past. The final chapter, rather oddly, goes back to the early 20th century and the long-unknown foray of avant-garde artist Kazimir Malevich into perfume bottle design. In the early 1910s, the artist who would later go on to create the Black Square designed a bottle for the Brocard fragrance – “Severny (North)” – shaped like a polar bear standing atop an iceberg. The design, writes Schlögel, reflected “the spirit of the times” in which nations scrambled to explore and claim the North Pole, “the last remaining terra incognita.” Despite being the premise of the book, Chanel No. 5 and Red Moscow appear as a mere afterthought in the final chapter.

As the above discussion shows, one of the book’s principle flaws is its disjointedness. Instead of a sweeping historical narrative, with the stories of each perfume blended as sublimely as the eponymous scents, Schlögel offers a tale in fits and starts. Just as readers begin to lose themselves in the fascinating, if somewhat hard to follow, origin of the smell that defined two very different societies, they find themselves blown suddenly of course. Chapters 5, 6, 7, and 11, while presenting material of undoubted interest, bear little relation to the story that Schlögel sets out to tell. Chanel No. 5 and Red Moscow scarcely feature in these chapters, which make up a substantial portion of the book. His imagined “museum of fragrances,” in which “Krasnaya Moskva, and even Kazimir Malevich’s polar bear on an iceberg, could take their place alongside Chanel No. 5,” is an intriguing flight of fancy, but there is a distinct sense that the two perfumes on which the work is premised are something of an afterthought, thrown haphazardly into the book’s final sentence to close the narrative circle.

The Scent of Empires is a mere 163 pages, not including the reference and index sections. The readers’ senses have been stimulated, but not satisfied. There is a distinct feeling that much of the story remains untold. It is a shame, for example, that Schlögel does not provide greater insight into his research process. In the prologue, he piques the reader’s curiosity by noting that “[w]hen you rove the bazaars of Russian cities and start collecting bottles […] you encounter amateurs everywhere who have turned themselves into experts,” but this tantalizing sentence remains without follow-up. What kind of Soviet citizen wore Red Moscow? What lives did this state-generated commodity lead after it left the laboratory and reached the apartments of the populace? Now that the scent has been “re-booted” for the post-Soviet era, how has its use and meaning changed? These are just some of the questions which Schlögel leads the reader to ponder but which he leaves unanswered.

The book’s fault lies not in the decision to tell these intertwined stories – even if the connections are, at times, a little contrived – but rather in the superficial treatment that Schlögel gives to them. All this being said, this book is worth reading, containing as it does elements to draw in Russianists, Francophiles, and design aficionados alike and encouraging readers to understand an époque that many believe they know so well through an unexpected medium.  The Scent of Empires contains a myriad fascinating notes – the aesthetic embodiment of post-war modernity, Polina Zhemchuzhina’s leading role in the Soviet cosmetics industry, the philosophy of scent – but the author does not quite manage to connect them into a single narrative.

Emily Couch is a Program Consultant for Eurasia at PEN America. Prior to this position, she worked as Program Assistant for Europe at the National Endowment for Democracy (NED), where she worked on Eastern Europe and the Western Balkans. She also previously worked at the Kennan Institute, where she regularly organized events featuring high-profile academics, practitioners, and political figures from the region, and frequently wrote blogs and reports on political developments in the region. She holds a double M.A. in Russian and Eastern European studies from University College London and the Higher School of Economics. She is a passionate advocate for fostering greater diversity and inclusion in the Eurasia field, and has spoken on and written about this topic for multiple conferences and platforms, including the Association for Slavic, Eurasian, and East European Studies (ASEEES).

You can purchase the book here and in your favorite independent bookstore. If you are interested in reviewing one of the titles on our Books for Review list, please get in touch at PuncturedLines@gmail.com

Avdot’ia Panaeva’s Feminist Metafiction: An Excerpt from Margarita Vaysman’s Self-Conscious Realism

We’re proud to present an excerpt from Margarita Vaysman’s book-length study Self-Conscious Realism: Metafiction and the Nineteenth-Century Russian Novel. Published by Legenda, an imprint of the Modern Humanities Research Association (where it is available to order), this book focuses on the role of metafiction in the Russian novelistic tradition. The excerpt below is but a small taste of the depth and breadth of this project and highlights the work of one important practitioner of this technique, Avdot’ia Panaeva.

Avdot’ia Panaeva (1819-1893) was a successful novelist and short story writer, who made significant contributions to the development of ideas on education equality, marriage, women’s financial and property rights, and the problem of domestic violence. She was also a common-law wife of poet Nikolai Nekrasov, who was valorized in Soviet literary criticism and the popular canon. We are deeply grateful to Vaysman that, as a part of her research, she illuminates the process through which Panaeva’s legacy as a novelist and short story author has been excised from the canon of nineteenth-century Russian literature and begins the work of restoring it to its rightful place.   

This edited excerpt is from Chapter Three, “A Woman’s Answer.”

Avdot’ia Panaeva’s literary fate—a successful and popular female writer demoted to the status of the “muse” of her more successful male partner—is hardly unique. It could even be considered perversely fortunate: many key female players of the mid-nineteenth-century Russian literary scene such as Evgeniia Tur, the Khvoschchinskaia sisters, or Maria Zhukova, are only now being re-introduced to Russian literary history and contemporary readers. However, Panaeva’s fall from literary grace also offers an insight into the history of the reception of Russian nineteenth-century metafiction in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. The heightened self-reflexivity of her texts, notably Zhenskaia dolia [A Woman’s Lot], did not conform to the generally held perceptions of how a realist novel should function discursively and had therefore sped up her disappearance from the canon.

Zhenskaia dolia was written, much like Panaeva’s earlier prose pieces, to be published in Sovremennik [The Contemporary, a “thick” journal run by Nekrasov — PL] both as a gap-filler and a crowd-pleaser. Addressing the burning question of female emancipation, the novel would have already attracted the readers’ attention on account of its topic, but Panaeva’s style was a distinct advantage. Although ridiculed by contemporary critics as “heart-rending” [razdiratel’nyi], it was very popular with the readers. Most of Panaeva’s texts were favored enough to be re-issued as stand-alone editions soon after they appeared in Sovremennik in serialized form.

Vissarion Belinskii, Nikolai Nekrasov, Ivan Panaev, Avdot’ia Panaeva, a painting by Anatolii Lepilin, 1950

Avdot’ia Panaeva’s career at Sovremennik officially began in 1848 with the publication of a short story “Neostorozhnoe slovo” [Careless Word] already under her chosen pen name “N. Stanitskii.” Unofficially, she had been contributing to the journal ever since its new editorial team had taken over: the January 1847 volume featured a fashion column that Panaeva wrote together with her husband, Ivan Panaev. Mody [Fashions] remained a standing co-authored column in Sovremennik until 1857, except for the summer months when Panaev took sole responsibility for it while his wife was away in the country. As recent research shows, Panaeva also assisted the editors with the daily business of running the journal by reviewing and proofreading submitted manuscripts, as well as dealing with financial matters. From 1847 to 1864, Panaeva became an in-house writer and in practice an editorial assistant at Sovremennik. In the course of her career she published short stories, novellas and novels (two of which, Tri strany sveta [Three Countries of the World] (1848) and Mertvoe ozero [Dead Lake] (1851), were co-authored with Nekrasov), and a few anonymous literary reviews in Sovremennik.

Panaeva’s texts were first examined as facts of Russian literary history in the 1920s. In 1927-28, two of her most popular works, Vospominaniia [Memoirs] (1889) and Semeistvo Tal’nikovykh [The Talnikov Family] (1848), were reissued by Academia, an early Soviet publishing house famous for its historical fiction series. Kornei Chukovskii, the literary critic and a popular children’s writer, produced a scholarly edition of Vospominaniia for Academia, and it was so popular with the readers that Academia re-issued it four times in the period 1927-33. Even though Chukovskii later claimed he had only spent an hour editing Panaeva’s manuscript, he must have undertaken a considerable amount of archival research to make these edits. Not only did he identify the real historical personalities behind the initials Panaeva used (made more confusing by the fact that she attached same initials to different people), he also verified and corrected her multiple chronological errors. Chukovskii first wrote a short essay accompanying the reissued text and then revised it into a larger piece on Panaeva’s relationship with Nekrasov for his book on the poet that came out the same year. In 1922, Chukovskii wrote an essay specifically on Panaeva as Nekrasov’s common-law wife, titled “Zhena poeta” [The Poet’s Wife], and published it as part of his series Nekrasovskaia biblioteka [Nekrasov’s library].

Panaeva’s Memoirs, 1972 edition

Chukovskii’s treatment of Panaeva is suggestive in many ways. Employing the early Soviet strategy of rehabilitating ideologically unsound texts by ascribing “progressive” tendencies to their authors, Chukovskii did an admirable job of whitewashing Panaeva’s questionable class credentials (coming from a family of successful actors, she was hardly a member of the proletariat). The critic praised “her democratic way of thinking” and argued that her texts, accessible even for the most unprepared reader, could function as an introduction to the mid-nineteenth-century Russian literary scene. Chukovskii’s article, despite its scholarly expertise and lively style, was a typical response to nineteenth-century women’s writing in early twentieth-century literary criticism: he saw Panaeva as a secondary historical and literary figure, only as interesting as the men she knew and too concerned with the trivialities of life to have produced anything of value. Even though Panaeva was a published and popular writer, according to the critic, Panaeva’s major claim to fame rested on her status as Nekrasov’s lover and muse: Chukovskii calls the poems Nekrasov had dedicated to Panaeva “the best monument to her life” and notes that “her place on the pages of Nekrasov’s works earns her the memory of posterity.” Finally, in the critic’s opinion, Panaeva was first a woman and only then—coincidentally—a writer: “Charming, universally admired, she was also a novelist, a writer!” Chukovskii suggested, erroneously, that Nekrasov did most of the writing of their co-authored texts and argued that Panaeva became an established writer almost by chance and would have preferred a more traditional womanly occupation.

Chukovskii’s patronizing assessment of Panaeva’s career had a great influence on how Soviet literary studies approached her work. From the 1920s onwards, scholars have mostly treated Panaeva as a writer whose main contribution to Russian literature consisted of providing invaluable information about her male contemporaries. Chukovskii’s dismissive attitude and his scathing remarks (he called Panaeva “simple-minded” [prostodushnaia] as well as “trivial and shallow” [obyvatel’ski-poverkhnostna], among other things) stuck, and the image of her primarily as a hostess of Sovremennik’s salon and Nekrasov’s “angry muse” rather than a novelist in her own right were perpetuated by generations of scholars.

Panaeva’s text serves as a third case study in my exploration of metafictional narrative strategies in a contained but representative sample of Russian novels of 1862-1863. Offering a reading of Zhenskaia dolia as feminist metafiction that aimed to “undermine established discourse within the novel’s narrative text” (in the words of the scholar Joan Douglas Peter),  I explore the similarities in the universal strategies of metanarrative that featured in the works of writers of varying ideological persuasion and literary skill. This chapter offers a brief discussion of Panaeva’s position in the Russian literary canon and some notes on the contemporary reception of her work in Russia and abroad. Following that, it reconstructs the historical and political context of the novel’s publication in 1862 and provides a close reading of Zhenskaia dolia as feminist metafiction with a narrative voice that transgresses the boundaries of gender.

Abstract:

Does metafiction—the literary technique that forces readers to acknowledge they are reading a work of fiction—have a hidden past? Margarita Vaysman’s insightful study establishes metafiction as an inherent part of the entire Russian novelistic tradition, not merely existing but thriving in the nineteenth century. Practiced by writers of often disparate ideological persuasions, metafiction was a creative answer to the period’s twin preoccupations with politics and aesthetics.

In Self-Conscious Realism, Vaysman examines metafiction’s complex correlation with Russian realism in three novels from across the ideological spectrum of the 1860s: What Is To Be Done? (1863) by the famous political radical Nikolai Chernyshevskii, Troubled Seas (1863) by the forgotten reactionary conservative Alexei Pisemskii, and Woman’s Lot (1862) by Avdot’ia  Panaeva, a female writer struggling for professional recognition. These case studies are richly contextualized by the writers’ diaries, letters, and memoirs, as well as official legal and financial sources.

Please order the book from Legenda, Modern Humanities Research Association.

NB: As most academic publications, this book is priced for university library purchases, but a much more accessibly priced paperback will be published in late 2022.

Margarita Vaysman is Lecturer (Assistant Professor) and Head of Department at the University of St Andrews, Scotland, where she teaches Russian and comparative literature.  She is the author of Self-Conscious Realism: Metafiction and the Nineteenth-Century Russian Novel (2021) and co-editor of Nineteenth-Century Russian Realism: Society, Knowledge, Narrative (2020).  She specializes in Russian and Ukrainian literature, culture, and history of ideas, and is currently working on a cultural history of cross-dressing in Eastern Europe, exploring historical intersections between literature, culture, sexuality, fame, and fashion and their conflicted legacy in contemporary culture.

Olga Mark’s “The Lighter”: An Excerpt from Amanat, a Collection-in-Progress of Recent Women’s Writing from Kazakhstan

Shelley Fairweather-Vega on Amanat: Women’s Writing from Kazakhstan

The idea to translate and publish a collection of recent women’s writing from Kazakhstan grew out of my collaboration with Zaure Batayeva, a Kazakh writer and translator living in Belgium. Zaure contacted me in October 2016 when she wanted to hire someone to edit her English translation of a novella by Aigul Kemelbayeva. We eventually submitted the final version to Words Without Borders, whose editor, Susan Harris, was looking for “post-Soviet” literature from different places. Excerpts from the Kemelbayeva novella and two other pieces appeared in a WWB feature in January 2018. By that time, Zaure and I were thinking seriously about collecting writing by more authors and publishing an anthology. Ever since, she and I have been trading stories, checking each other’s translations (she translated the Kazakh-language stories, and I translated the Russian-language pieces), and querying publishers. We won some much-needed funding and publicity from the generous RusTrans program, and our collection is now nearly complete.

“Amanat” means legacy, or sacred trust. The title of our anthology is also the title of one of the shorter stories in it, by the wonderful poet, translator, and prose writer Oral Arukenova, in which a dying woman’s grown children struggle to decide what to do about her last request of them. The cultural clashes and generational conflicts in the title story are evident in other pieces in our collection, as well. But those sorts of conflicts are surprisingly rare in the “official,” state-approved literature in Kazakhstan today, which prizes tradition, patriotism, and stability above all (as does the bureaucracy that supports it). Yet there are many other types of stories to tell in a country that has undergone such profound political, social, and economic upheaval through Russian colonialism, Soviet cataclysms, and sudden independence in the space of just a few generations.

This story, “The Lighter,” is by Olga Mark (1963-2008), who was one of the most influential figures in independent (non-state-sponsored) Kazakhstani literature of the 21st century. It addresses child prostitution and poverty in an unnamed modern city, though with a dash of pure optimism, and it’s one of my personal favorites from this future anthology.

Zaure Batayeva on Author Olga Mark

Olga Borisovna Markova (Olga Mark) should be remembered both for her writings, which explored issues none of her Kazakhstani peers would dare to mention, and for her role as literary mentor and organizer, her ability to galvanize so many young people in the chaos of post-Soviet Kazakhstan, while being bound to a wheelchair at home.

In 1993, Olga founded the first independent arts and literary journal in Kazakhstan: Appolinarii. She ran the journal, and the many events organized under its umbrella, with a group of volunteers from her 3-room apartment in Almaty. A few years later, she managed to obtain funding for the journal and its many related activities, not from the state but from private donors, including the Dutch humanitarian HIVOS organization.

Moreover, in the early 2000s she founded a writers’ workshop, which nurtured a new wave of independent Kazakhstani writers: poets such as Marat Issenov, Aigerim Tazhi, and Erbol Zhumagul and fiction writers such as Lilya Kalaus and Ilya Odegov. As Maks Velichko, another writer who benefitted from this workshop, put it: “Olga Borisovna created something that was beyond the power of the powerful Ministry of Culture of Kazakhstan—a new literary wave.”

What Olga was able to do as a mentor and organizer was to provide conditions in which independent artists could learn, work, and create, despite being deliberately and systematically ignored by the state—a Soviet method that has prevailed until today. Olga’s achievements in this regard thus stand as a rare feat in the history of Kazakhstani literature.

Olga Mark with her students (2002) and colleagues at a book exhibit (2003). Photo credits: Aigerim Tazhi and Alexei Shvabauer.

P.S. 1
Here is one of Olga’s last interviews in which she spoke about the difference between independent writers and state-promoted writers (in other words, Soviet writers). The situation has not changed since Olga gave the interview: https://time.kz/news/archive/2008/06/25/5381

P.S. 2
I knew Olga personally because she was my teacher at Almaty State University. As a graduate student, I was honored to publish some of my badly written essays in Appolinarii and to attend various literary events that she and other teachers organized in her 3-room apartment.

The Lighter

A Story by Olga Mark, translated by Shelley Fairweather-Vega

“Kind people, have compassion for a poor orphan!” The girlish voice rang out through the bus and beat against the windows, as if to flee the stuffy air and escape outside.

When this voice suddenly intruded into their pre-holiday routine, demanding enough as it was, the passengers gave a start. Some glared at her with annoyance, this petite figure wrapped in a warm coat that wasn’t terrible looking, but most had a favorable enough reaction to both the voice and its owner, and wrinkled bills dropped generously into the thin palm of her hand.

Verka was happy. She smiled at everyone who gave her money, knowing her pretty little face would move people to kindness, and increase the size of their donations.

“Where are your parents?” asked a middle-aged woman, concerned.

“We’re refugees,” Verka answered cheerfully. “From Chechnya.” Then she added, just in case, “There’s a war there.”

The woman shook her head regretfully while Verka headed for the exit. The tribute had been collected and it was time to move on.

Humming something and skipping as she went, filled with joy, Verka walked between the new, tall apartment buildings in the fanciest part of the city. It was dangerous to work for a living here, too many cops and alert citizens, but Verka liked to take risks. She stopped near one doorway, examined it closely, rejected it and moved to the next. She walked inside that door and waited. To make things more fun, Verka took a half-eaten hot dog from her pocket. She chewed off tiny bites, not in a hurry—her belly was full—and like an actress before her entrance, she went over her lines. After about ten minutes a man walked through the door. Clutching the rest of the hot dog in one hand, Verka hurried over to meet him.

“Want a Lolita, a nymphette, a juvenilette?” Verka sang the words, opened her coat, and quick as a bat blocked the way to the stairs. She wore nothing other than that coat. Her pointed little breasts poked out threateningly, the dark nipples contracted maybe with cold, maybe with arousal. A flat stomach and blond puffy triangle below, the strong thighs and angular knees of a creature half girl, half woman… Frightened, the man took a step back, away from the glow of the bare young body. Verka advanced. Her whisper rang out loud, now beseeching, now commanding, fast, rapid-fire, over and over.

“Have compassion for a poor orphan, uncle! I’m a pretty girl, a good girl, you’ve never seen anyone like me, you’ve never had anyone like me…”

The man was retreating to the exit, but then he stepped forward abruptly, grabbed Verka by the shoulder, and shoved her out the door.

“Little wretch!”

Verka flew outside and fell, almost knocking a woman who was walking in off her feet. The woman stopped, distraught, staring at the naked Verka spread-eagle on her coat.

“He raped me!” Verka said, speaking very clearly and staring right at the woman. “He took my clothes! Me, an orphan!” The picture of despair, she covered her face in her hands.

The man ran outside and Verka, catching a glimpse of the look on the distraught woman’s face, shouted “Help!” Then she jumped up and dashed off between the buildings.

She stopped to catch her breath a couple blocks away. Shaking with laughter, she spent a long time resting near one of the young trees they had planted two years ago. Verka took the souvenir bottle of vodka from her pocket, the one she had fallen in love with for its beauty and miniature size and bought that morning at the bus stop kiosk. She opened it and took a gulp. Then she walked off to another building, dancing along the way, in no hurry at all, pretending to be Laime Vaikule on the TV. The doors here had locks controlled by keypads. She waited until a kid was going inside, hopped in after him, and stood there waiting again.

A man appeared almost at once. Opening her coat, Verka went to meet him.

“Want a Lolita, a nymphette, a juvenilette?” The man stopped, and looked her slowly up and down.

“How old are you?”

“Eleven!” Verka said cheerfully.

“You’re lying,” the man said.

“Fourteen,” Verka corrected herself. “I don’t remember, Uncle. We’re refugees from Tajikistan. There’s a war there.”

“Where’d you learn to talk like that then, Lolita from Tajikistan?”

“I’m really smart,” said Verka, coming closer to the man. “I read books, watch movies, play the guitar. You’ve never even dreamed of someone like me.”

The man examined her closely again, reminding her of a doctor at a checkup.

“All right, let’s go to my place,” said the man.

“No, Uncle, I’m not stupid. Here, please. I won’t go to your place.”

The man hesitated for a second, then grabbed Verka and dragged her up the stairs to the first landing, where there was a small niche in the wall.

“Uncle!” Verka whimpered, “I’m just an orphan. What about a little money?”

“How much do you need?” asked the man. “Enough for ice cream?”

“A thousand.”

The man pulled out some money—Verka got a glimpse of the contents of his wallet—and thrust it at her. He fumbled around in his winter clothing and spent five minutes trying to find a comfortable position.

Verka waited patiently, and she earned the money she had gotten just as patiently and dispassionately, staring, aloof, out the foggy stairwell window. She felt in her pockets for the rest of the hot dog and started chewing.

“You could at least not eat,” said the man.

“I don’t waste food,” Verka snapped back.

“Now where will you go?” the man asked, when Verka was fastening her coat, in no hurry. She took two steps down and stopped to fix her hair.

“I’m not going anywhere until you pay me, Uncle.”

“What do you mean, until I pay you?” The man was angry. “I gave you a thousand!”

“A thousand of our stuff,” Verka said. “I meant a thousand dollars.”

The man swore. Verka froze for a second, then rolled her eyes theatrically, threw up her arms, and shouted so the whole building could hear her.

“Help, help! I’m a child being raped!”

The man rushed at her, but Verka was ready for that and she dodged, then dashed upstairs, banging on every apartment door as she went.

“Stop! Quiet down!” the man shouted at her from behind.

Verka turned and hissed at him.

“You give me my pay, you child rapist, or I’m going to the cops and that’s it!”

Somewhere a door slammed and they could hear voices. The man, his face pale, pulled out his wallet, took three hundred dollars from it, and threw the cash at Verka. One keen glance at the wallet told her there was nothing left inside it, so Verka picked up the money, pulled her coat closed, and ran downstairs, past all the worried “What happened?” and “Who screamed?”

Once she was far enough away, in the empty lot near the place they were building another tall building, Verka leaped high in the air, doing the victory dance of some unknown tribe. She finished her vodka and headed to the Ramstore to turn the useless green paper into good things she needed.

The city was muffled up in the early winter evening. The afternoon smog had settled in a poisonous cloud to fill the streets. Bent under the weight of several stuffed shopping bags, a green alien beast printed on each, Verka slowly made her way past the long concrete barricade walling off a construction site abandoned ten years back. Once they were planning to build a new department store here, the biggest one in the city, and they had even managed to put in a good solid foundation and build the first four floors.

Then times changed, there wasn’t enough money, the lot got overgrown first with weeds, then little trees. By now there were supermarkets all over the city housed in imported prefab structures. They grew before your eyes like houses made of cards. Nobody cared about an old Soviet behemoth of a project anymore. Verka walked, and to distract herself from her aching arms, which could barely lug the heavy load, she repeated the new words she had read for the first time today in the store, in ads and on products, on book covers and cassette cases. I-beam. Consulting services. Mortgages. She loved the mysterious combinations of sounds, which you could repeat and savor until, pretty soon, what you had heard or seen or read suddenly became clear and made sense… People laughed at her weird fixations, and the almost forbidden pleasure grew even more acute.

When she reached a break in the concrete wall Verka slipped the bags through first, then crawled through herself. She followed the well-beaten path to the unfinished building and knocked at the basement window. None of the upper stories had walls, just framework and barely a roof, but the basement and the storage cellars underground were finished. All they needed was to put some plywood in the holes for the windows and vents and the place was ready.

A cardboard shutter slid down fast and the shaggy head of a fifteen-year-old boy appeared in the window.

“Verka! Come on in. You cold?”

“Here!” Verka, proud, handed him the shopping bags one at a time. The guy oohed and aahed happily as he took each bag, trying to figure out what was inside, and Verka laughed.

When she had passed them all in Verka slipped through the window herself. The guy caught her and helped her down, then hurried to cover the window. They brought the bags into the next room, where it was hot from a burning cast-iron stove, and noisy. Five young teenagers had evidently been living there for a while. Blankets were spread in the corners, dishes sat on homemade tables cobbled together from boxes, and a dark boarded-up window was decorated with a curtain.

Verka was met with joyful shouts, and when she started laying out triumphantly the things she had bought, the joy turned to jubilation. They applauded the slightly bent sticks of sausage, rounds of Dutch cheese and pinwheels of smoked cheese, baklava and pastries, food in cans, bottles of vodka and Pepsi, candy, chocolate, mints and other treasures.

“How did you carry all that?” asked the strong, bony girl who was always sniffling. But Verka had caught her breath by then and waved her off. “No big deal.”

When everyone had eaten their fill and had plenty to drink, when they were waiting out the brief stupor of satiety, smoking with relish, and everyone was having a good time, Verka spun in circles in the middle of the room and told them about the events of her day. She acted out all the roles, mimicked the men’s voices and the women’s frightened faces, and told them how skillfully and smoothly she, Verka, had done it all.

Everyone was laughing, copying her words and gestures, and as she basked in their love and admiration, Verka felt happy.

“It was getting cold this afternoon,” the strong girl said suddenly. “Should we go spend the night at the orphanage?”

“Nah,” said the shaggy-haired boy, looking over the meager remains of their feast. “Let’s go tomorrow.”

“Tomorrow, tomorrow!” Verka cheered. They only showed up at the orphanage when things got really bad on the streets, or they needed to hide out and wait for some kind of trouble to pass. And the caretakers had long ago stopped paying attention to the older kids’ frequent disappearances. They were often gone for days on end in the summer, and sometimes in the winter too.

“I bought this, too,” said Verka, and she took a lighter from her pocket.

“So?” somebody asked her, giving her purchase an uninterested look. “It’s just a lighter.”

“It’s everlasting. It lasts forever.” Verka held the little red rectangle with rounded corners proudly above her head.

“Nothing lasts forever,” laughed the dark-skinned boy who looked like a Gypsy.

“This one does, this one does!” Verka chanted, and traced a finger lovingly over its smooth surface. “They told me it does!”

“You’re so lucky,” whispered the girl who always sat quietly in the corner, the youngest of them all. “You always have money and you know so many big fancy words.”

“That’s the way I am!” Verka crowed.

She spun across the room, one hand flicking the lighter, the other holding an open vodka bottle, and she was happy, the warm room felt good, the little flame flickered and went out, the kids around her were getting ready for bed but she wanted to go somewhere, do something, it didn’t matter where or what, as long as this drunken happiness could go on.

“Let’s go upstairs!” she called to them. “Let’s look at the city! It’s night, it’ll be great!”

“You’re wasted!” the shaggy-haired guy told her, getting under a blanket with one of the girls. “It’s cold out there. We’ll freeze.”

But Verka was already going up the rickety flight of stairs. She opened the door at the top and then up, up, up, to the last finished floor. The sharp, cold air seized her, she gasped in delight, and she pulled her coat closer around her.

Verka walked to the very edge. The city winked at her with dozens of bright windows, the holiday lights in the streets, the colored flashes of the ads. It was cold. At night nature forgot that this was a southern city. Verka took a hurried gulp of vodka. She flicked her lighter mechanically, as if adding one more small flame to the sparkling night, and she looked off into the distance. For her, the view from up above was always spellbinding. She looked for a long time over the city, sprawling in all directions, and then, frozen, she started to dance. Soon, laughing and yelping, spinning in circles, she had her head tossed back and her arms thrown out wide. When she stopped and went back to looking at the city, it seemed to her that the lights in the windows were being carried away, whirling unrestrained, into the measureless blackness of space. Everything was swimming, the headlights, the houses, the streets… The wayward planet was flying into the unknown, drawing after it the slim lobe of the moon, and the sun wherever it was hiding, and the fragile winter stars. Barely holding back, full speed ahead, Verka shouted at the lights smeared into thin, bright streaks.

“Kind people, have compassion for a poor orphan!”

Olga Mark (1963-2008) was a teacher, critic, and fiction writer. She published three works of fiction and a monograph on poetry. Olga wrote in Russian.

Shelley Fairweather-Vega is a professional translator from Russian and Uzbek and has translated fiction from all over the former Soviet Union. She holds degrees in international relations from Johns Hopkins University and in Russian, East European, and Central Asian Studies from the University of Washington. She is currently the president of the Northwest Translators and Interpreters Society and runs FairVega Russian Library Services. Co-editor, with Zaure Batayeva, of the work-in-progress Amanat: Recent Women’s Writing from Kazakhstan.

Zaure Batayeva is a journalist, translator, and fiction writer. Her articles and stories have been published in print and online. Zaure writes in Kazakh and Russian. Co-editor, with Shelley Fairweather-Vega, of the work-in-progress Amanat: Recent Women’s Writing from Kazakhstan.

Publishing Poetry on Social Media: Interview with Ksenia Zheludova by Josephine von Zitzewitz

To find new Russian poetry, it is no longer enough to read literary journals (including online journals) and keep an eye on the catalogs of established publishing houses. Nowadays, many Russian poets first publish their new texts on their social media feeds (VKontakte, Facebook, Telegram, YouTube et al). The initial audience is curated by the poets themselves, and their connectedness – how many people subscribe to their feed, and who these people are – has a direct influence on the number of readers the text will find in the short term.

Popular writers do not only use social media to publish new texts and for other literary activities, such as promoting events and books – one’s own and those of others – and sharing critical articles and discussing aspects of literary form. Some also offer materials, ranging from commentary on current affairs to pictures of their pets or extended contemplations on matters close to their heart, to a broad public beyond their own network of “friends.” The poet Olga Sedakova has amassed over 15,000 Facebook followers who receive her public posts in their newsfeed. Dmitrii Vodennikov, one of the first generation of writers to use social media as a vehicle for literature, is followed by more than 26,000 people.

In the Russophone literary world, self-publication is no impediment to publishing the same text again in online journals or in print. On the contrary, publication on social media can heighten a writer’s visibility and fast-track both print publication and translation. The recent flurry of new international editions by feminist poets who publish prolifically on social media, like Oksana Vasyakina, Lida Yusupova, and Galina Rymbu, corroborates this thesis. While print publication remains an important goal, the tastes and power of a small number of editors no longer determine the opportunities for interaction between a poet and their audience. 

Ksenia Zheludova is a poet from St. Petersburg who publishes her new poetry on her feed on the Russian social network VKontakte. She is the author of two collections of poetry. A selection of her poems in English translation appeared in the February issue of Words Without Borders.  Here she is talking to her translator Josephine von Zitzewitz about social media and different strategies for interacting with her audience. The interview was conducted in Russian and translated by Josephine von Zitzewitz.

Josephine von Zitzewitz: What does it mean to you to publish your work on social media, as opposed to in books and journals?

Ksenia Zheludova: It’s important to me that, on social media, I can interact with my audience directly. To some degree I assume the role of editor and producer, and I create a space around myself through which I transmit my texts. In contrast, when I publish in a journal or other literary publication, I will be transmitted via an intermediary. There’s no universal gatekeeper for all authors, and it’s easier, in this case, to remain an individualist than to join a collective that you don’t know.

Josephine von Zitzewitz: Are you consciously aiming for print publications, or are those a coincidence? After all, you have published two collections of poetry.

Ksenia Zheludova: Yes indeed. My first collection, Slovno (2013), was a slim volume I published with the help of some friends at a new publishing house (Moscow: Yang Buk, Nulevaia Seriia). They were doing a series of poetry collections in a very small print run, around 100 copies. The whole thing was the kind of friendly collaboration that brings joy to everyone involved. We didn’t aim to sell the book or to use it for promoting my existence or my work. It was simply a fun thing to do, and it worked! 

Josephine von Zitzewitz: It did indeed work – several titles of this series were on display at the well-known independent bookshop and event hub Poriadok slov in St Petersburg, and that’s how I first read your poetry! And your second collection, how did that come about?

Ksenia Zheludova: The second collection, Navernost’(2017), I self-published with the help of special software. I did the typesetting myself, using a template. The book is simply a collection of texts that were topical at that moment in time. It was uploaded to several online shops selling e-books, and one of them also offered print-on-demand copies.  After that, I stopped doing collections. But now I dream of a real book, a high-quality, beautiful book with illustrations and a cover. A sort of “Best of the Best,” to bring together all those texts I’m definitely not ashamed of. That’s still at the planning stage. I’m slowly collecting the poems I want to include. And recently I had an idea for yet another book because, a while ago, I started publishing poems that naturally come together as a cycle: a cycle of terrifying tales for bedtime. These are more narrative and quite dark, like horror stories. And they fit together really well – they would make a great collection. And perhaps this collection will come into being if I pull myself together and step out into the field of print publishing, which still feels alien and not very inviting.

Josephine von Zitzewitz: What is the role of literary journals in Russia today?

Ksenia Zheludova: I can’t offer an expert opinion, because I don’t feel very at home in the world of print. Literary journals were very important and popular in the Soviet Union. They offered access to the world of publication and were a stepping stone towards publishing a single-author collection. In those circumstances, literary journals were the only way of promoting your texts, and the only way an author could reach their audience. Public readings are a different matter, as they reach only those who are present in the room where you’re reading. Now, with the Internet available, I have the impression that literary journals remain in the hands of a very narrow group of professionals – literary critics and publishers. So we’re talking about a very self-contained environment that doesn’t really touch upon the outside world, the world where the readers are. But the readers are the audience that I, as an author, want to address.

Josephine von Zitzewitz: Who is your target audience? Do you actively curate your audience?

Ksenia Zheludova: At first – about 15 years ago – my audience consisted of my close friends, who’d repost my poems. The texts would then spread through their respective networks to reach their friends. But over the last seven years, ever since VKontakte started doing “publics” (“public pages” where users can share content with followers – Punctured Lines), I collected around 3,700 followers. I must admit I didn’t always like communicating with my readers. I am a fairly serious introvert. I’d come, put up a new poem, and leave again. That was all I was capable of doing. Only lately have I started to get an energetic charge from communicating with my audience. I have understood that, paradoxically, interaction with the audience supports my creative process – I want to tell these people something. My readership is fairly random but, when I checked the statistics tool that shows the age and gender of the group members, I noticed an interesting thing: my audience and I are growing up together. Five years ago, the majority of my readers were women around 25, the same age as me. Today I can see that the majority are about 30 years old and female. This means I’m writing not just for my peers, but for my female coevals. It turns out I’m working within a circle of people who are close to me in age and worldview! I have pages on VKontakte, and I also have Facebook and Instagram pages. But the public on VKontakte was my first direct platform, and all my main readers follow that page.

Josephine von Zitzewitz: What is the role of sites such as stikhi.ru (a popular self-publishing poetry platform that allows a limited interaction between the author and the audience – Punctured Lines)? I’m asking because I found some of your earlier texts on it.

Ksenia Zheludova: Stikhi.ru was very popular 15 years ago – I mean, it’s still popular today, but back then many serious literary authors used it. And I used it myself as a kind of archive. It was convenient to put poems up on the site and divide them into sections or little collections, and for me it was a very useful digital archive. But I stopped publishing there a long time ago, because I realized that the audience is chaotic. I don’t understand who is reading my texts there and why; I don’t know how to work with this resource. And so I simply settled for my own social media feed, and stopped distinguishing between my personal life and my life as a poet.

Josephine von Zitzewitz: How do you organize your feed on VKontakte? I notice that it doesn’t just feature poems. How do you combine the public and the semi-private?

Ksenia Zheludova: I would put it like this: for a long time, I thought of my own poetry as my parallel, secret life. My life, my job, and my friends – that’s one thing. And then there are the nights when I sit and write poems that I then publish in places where people are likely to appreciate them. Previously that would have been on platforms like stikhi.ru, and various thematic forums that used to exist. And then, at some point, I came to the realization that I didn’t want to perpetuate this division; that I didn’t want to play Jekyll and Hyde. All of it is part of me, including my poetry. And, just as I can post a selfie or a pretty picture of the sky on Instagram, I can post a poem I’ve written. That poem also expresses my worldview. It represents my perspective. I can post a picture, or I can post a text. I don’t see a big difference there.

Josephine von Zitzewitz: I notice that your texts are often accompanied by photographs. Do you choose them specifically? Is it because posts that contain visuals are more likely to draw the eye?

Ksenia Zheludova: I arrived at this format by accident. At some point, I realized that people are divided into visual, aural, and other types. In any case, every text includes something bigger than itself. A poem is a little tale that invites you to imagine whatever you like, but the imagination needs something to anchor it. I choose images that complement whatever it is I’m expressing in the poem, and I also attach a musical track to each piece. I find this approach creates a unified picture … it’s a bit like going to the cinema. There’s a text beyond the screen which you read to yourself, perhaps even out loud, then there’s the photo, and then the soundtrack. It’s a piece that’s complete in itself.

Josephine von Zitzewitz: When a poet submits to journals, a lot of time passes between writing and publication. In contrast, the Internet allows you to publish instantly, even to react to current events in real time. Do you find that publishing on social media has an impact on your style? To put it another way, are your poems fairly spontaneous or do you spend a long time editing them? 

Ksenia Zheludova: It’s different every time. Some poems are composed of fragments written years apart. Sometimes I return to my drafts and notebooks and find that, five years ago, I wrote three lines that didn’t grow into anything. But now I’m writing another text, and these old lines just fit there, like the missing piece of a puzzle.  There are other poems I write in an evening from start to finish. The next day I look at them with fresh eyes to check whether I’ve hit the right tone, and edit a bit – and the text is ready for publication. With regard to current events – recently I wrote a poem that refers to the events in Belarus (i.e., the protests following the contested election in August 2020 –Josephine von Zitzewitz). Of course, I knew that I had to publish it on the spot, because a few days later it would no longer be necessary. So I put it up, and it did indeed trigger reactions from people who were also thinking about that situation. If the poem had come out a week or a month later, it would have been something else – a statement of fact, a response, a different kind of text. In this sense, social media is an amazing instrument that allows you to react quickly and be something akin to a reporter. I rarely write texts that touch on social and political topics, but sometimes topical texts come to me. Usually I write in a different genre that doesn’t require quick reactions. This means a poem can mature for a long time, and it can be a long time before it gets published. In addition, I now work to a different schedule: I decided to develop my VKontakte group and offer a paid subscription for exclusive content. Some readers pay a monthly donation, and I stay in closer contact with those readers. I suggest topics for debate, I share music and videos, and I show my new poems to this group first and then to all my other followers a week later. Working in this pattern has taught me something. My text is first of all seen by five people who might leave a “Like,” but not comment. That’s OK. All the rest only get to see it the following week, and then there might be more reactions or debate. But for me that’s no longer so important, because there’s already a new text in the wings. That’s more like a standard publication schedule, where texts reach the reader after some time has elapsed.  

Josephine von Zitzewitz: Once you’ve published a text online, do you ever return to it and edit? Or is that the final version?

Ksenia Zheludova: That’s always the final version, because I never publish a text if there’s still something in it that makes me stumble. I always take a text to the stage where I know that it’s finished. That means that, as soon as a text appears to the outside world, I can no longer access it. It’s no longer my text; it’s now living its own life and I’ll never go back and edit it.

Image: Facebook group “Pis’ma k stene”, July 2015

Josephine von Zitzewitz: Do you think that a writer, a poet, is necessarily involved in current affairs? Do you consider yourself involved? I’m asking because when I read your poem “an age-old female pastime” I feel that it’s a response to the war in Ukraine. But at the same time it’s simply a text about war, any war, and it could have been written at any point in time. This means it will never lose its topicality.

Ksenia Zheludova: That’s a good question. When you live within the current historical context – that is, when you don’t live in a bunker – you naturally react to what’s going on in the world. I don’t like poetry that’s too “concrete,” poetry that mentions individual names, toponyms, or furnishes descriptions of specific events. Texts like that make me uncomfortable. I always try to set my poems in a more universal context and to cleanse them of any ties to a specific time and place. But sometimes it’s the text itself that becomes attached to some event or other, as if drawn by a magnet. The poem you mention actually became part of the events in Ukraine because, at some point, somebody wrote it on the asphalt in Kyiv.

It seemed to fall into step with the events, and many people from Ukraine wrote to express their gratitude or simply make contact. The poem was in the right place at the right time, and it became important to those people. But did I write it specifically in response to the events? No, I didn’t. It’s not a reaction to the war in Ukraine. But perhaps the war had such an impact on my emotional state that the poem was born? In contrast, the poem on Belarus that I mentioned was written in reaction to a concrete situation, even a specific day. I kept reading the news, and it left a strong impression; it really shocked me. And so I sat down to write a poem. I really wanted to write it in one go and publish it in the morning, and that’s exactly what I did. And yet it doesn’t contain any references to a specific country, event, or date.

Josephine von Zitzewitz: Was there ever a moment where readers perceived your work in a way that was completely unexpected?

Ksenia Zheludova: Sometimes. It mostly happens with texts that aren’t my favorites, or not even very successful in my eyes. Those poems start circulating very widely. Conversely, some texts I like very much and that are quite good – if I do say so myself – provoke hardly any reaction at all. To give an example, one poem that circulates very widely on the web is “Memo” (“Pamiatka,” 2011) and it’s mostly this poem that I see under my hashtag. Even when I google myself, I’m likely to find “Memo” (589 hits – Josephine von Zitzewitz). It really isn’t a very relevant text for me; I wouldn’t read it at a poetry reading now. At this point, I don’t find “Memo” all that interesting or important.

Josephine von Zitzewitz: I didn’t know that about “Memo,” but I translated it (Modern Poetry in Translation no. 6, 2017). That’s the first poem of yours that got me hooked! Have your poems ever caused controversy?

Ksenia Zheludova: Here is one recent example of a negative reaction. At some point, I wrote a text in a form I hadn’t used for some time – not quite free verse, but close to it, a very relaxed form. So, quite a free text, and I like it very much. It resonated with my emotional state at the time I wrote it. I published it with a sense of real accomplishment and used it to promote my group. Most comments were positive, but one young woman wrote: “Aren’t you ashamed of putting up such a low-quality text?” I was sitting there and really wanted to write: “No, I’m not ashamed.” But then I decided it would be a bit weird to enter into dialogue with a commenter like that, because it would seem like I was justifying my right to publish certain texts and defending their right to exist. The fact that I published that poem means I’m no longer ashamed of it.

Ksenia Zheludova is a St. Petersburg-based poet and producer who has been publishing poetry on the Internet since 2007. She maintains a dedicated feed on VKontakte to promote her work, and also uses Facebook and Instagram for this purpose. Her poetry collections, Slovno and Navernost’, have appeared in print and online.

Josephine von Zitzewitz is a scholar of Russian literature and translator specializing in Russian poetry. She is currently Marie Skłodowska Curie Fellow at UIT The Arctic University of Norway with a research project on the phenomenon of contemporary Russian poetry on the Internet.