The suburbs of Minsk, the Kurapaty forest, the night of October 29-30. Here, in 1937, the Soviet NKVD executed over one hundred Belarusian intellectuals, among them prominent writers and poets, including Aleś Dudar, Michaś Zarecki, Jurka Lavonny, and others. The brutally murdered Belarusians received no proper burial, and the tragedy was shrouded in silence until the late 1980s, when Belarusians began holding an annual action in memory of the Night of Executed Poets. This “forest of the unburied dead,” which is referred to in the poem “To Antigone, a Dispatch,” is the starting point for Valzhyna Mort’s third English-language poetry collection that lifts the curtain on history and life in Mort’s native Belarus. Starting from its title, Music for the Dead and Resurrected points to the cultural context where individual and national memories are constantly concealed, repressed, and distorted. Mort’s poems claim the remains of the past and attempt to reintegrate the fragmented national memories and narratives into the present.
Music for the Dead and Resurrected is a story of identity and remembering. In the poem “An Attempt at Genealogy,” Mort asks several times: “But where am I from?” This need to find a personal point of origin and to reclaim history is at the core of her poems. “A bone is a key to my motherland,” says Mort, pointing to the suppressed memories and unknown fates of thousands of people. Mort makes us aware of the silence on the verge of screaming that permeates every cell of her nation’s body. Confronting the legacies of family and collective violence, this collection of poems gives voice to the silenced and murdered. “Antigone, […] pick me for a sister,” Mort appeals in “To Antigone, a Dispatch” demonstrating a sense of remembering and responsibility to her family history and to the history of the Belarusian nation. The engagement in self-reflection and demand for an honest national conversation also reverberate throughout Belarusian society today. In October 2020, Belarusians made a human chain, “Kurapaty-Akrestsina: Never Again!” from the Akrestsina detention center in Minsk, a symbol of the brutal suppression of the protests that erupted after the contested presidential election, to the Kurapaty forest, a Stalin-era execution site, thus pointing to the continuity of their torn national narrative.
Mort’s poetry masterfully shows how, incomplete and distorted, these memories allow the unconfronted past to maintain itself in the present. Her poem “Bus Stops: Ars Poetica” is set on the streets of Minsk, where instead of confronting the violent past, its perpetrators become cemented in everyday life and even glorified:
One by one, streets introduced themselves
with the names of national
Repressed and distorted, the individual and collective memory of Belarus claws its way through the forests and swamps, resisting oblivion. As if seeking their final resting place, the ghosts of the unresolved past haunt the land in the present. Here, “every ditch, every hill is a suspect” and a witness to the continuous human tragedy.
Reminders about the murderous historical past are given in the lines like a chain of radioactive emissions. “Radiation, an etymology of soil,” Mort says, recounting the 1986 Chernobyl tragedy. On April 26, 1986, a reactor at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant in northern Ukraine exploded and burned, sending a cloud of radiation to neighboring Belarus. The Soviet authorities at first attempted to deny the incident and their silence exacerbated the terrible human costs of this disaster. In today’s Belarus, the authorities continue to deny and neglect the effects of the radioactive fallout. “Mine is a city defaced with light’s acid,” says Mort. This acid is not visible, this soil is silent, but the spirit of the unconfronted disaster permeates the air and the body of the nation.
For this nation, as Mort shows, the stories of the dead keep resurrecting, the stories of the living keep being silenced. “Did I tell you about the day the Bolsheviks came to take the roof off my farmhouse?” asks the title character of Mort’s prose poem “Baba Bronya,” “Did I tell you about how Uncle Kazik died? […] Did I tell you…” A cascade of personal and collective memories pours out of her. Baba Bronya repeats the same stories as if trying to assert her truth and transmit the experience that will be neither documented nor officially recognized.
The witnesses’ testimonies might disappear, but, as Mort shows in “Bus Stops: Ars Poetica,” objects can talk when people cannot:
In the purse that held—
through seven wars—
the birth certificates
of the dead, my grandmother
chocolates. The purse opened like a screaming mouth.
As if it were a keeper of history, the family purse seems to scream. The purse tells a story, and so do the trees and other objects. Objects also become relatives: “Hold me, brother-apple,” writes Mort. They unite and restore the notes of the familial melody and the music of the nation. They do not allow repressed memories to disappear. Although keeping silent, these objects provide an understanding of the continuity of life. As Mort writes in “Psalm 18”:
I pray to the trees and language migrates down my legs like
I pray to the wooden meat that never left its roots.
Generations one by one bring their repressed past back to light and purge it from the national unconscious. “The city of iron and irony” is how Mort describes her native Minsk. This is a place with parallel lives, where the stories like the ones Baba Bronya tells live side by side with repressed memories.
As Mort shows, finding the way after a century of silence, killings, and ruthless propaganda involves facing contradictions and distortions. One important vehicle for dissemination of propaganda was an official Communist Party newspaper called “Pravda [Truth],” the lie in its very name. Remembering her life on Pravda Avenue in Minsk, Mort describes it in “Self-Portrait with Madonna on Pravda Avenue” in the following way:
The mouthpiece of the street
named after the mouthpiece
These lines note the hollowness of the state-sanctioned version of history. In her poems Mort brilliantly satirizes the language of officialdom and propaganda emptied of meaning. She uses irony and humor to convey the helplessness of the people living under the perpetual shadow of a deficit of basic commodities. As Mort shows in her “Bus Stop: Ars Poetica,” in this kind of life, a “Supermarket” becomes “a temple” and “the knowledge of sausage prices, the virginity of milk cartons” become priesthood and a kind of religion for people. However, not only basic commodities, but also living space is scarce (“a tiny apartment”), so “a separate room” becomes a universe.
Mort skillfully layers meanings, packing each poem with multiple historic references. In the same poem the atomized individual universes live next to the still-breathing hidden history:
In the State Archives, covers
hardened like scabs
over the ledgers.
Collective history that’s scabbing over in the state archives doesn’t shed light on individual lives. Despite the gap in knowledge, the missing roots persist in the form of a family song that is disappearing from memory. Mort writes in “Music Practice”:
By the time
I heard this song, it had no music.
Yet however weak, the family song lives on, as does the music of the nation. Its songs often seem to have only “mmm and aaa” for words. Do the words even exist, inquires Mort. Sometimes, even the melody is gone, but “mmm and aaa” remain, she says. These bleating sounds become the sole memory about past generations. “But where am I from?” Mort continues asking. At the intersection of silence and screaming, in the mirrors of reality and state propaganda, among the speaking trees and silent people, Music for the Dead and Resurrected is a masterpiece sketch of a story that is yet to be told in Belarus. Mort’s poetry is a melody of human tragedy that continues to take place in her home country. As in her poetry, the people of Belarus today remain trapped inside a cynical and brutal regime that pushes them back into helplessness and liminal existence at the crossroads of the repressed past, the violent present, and the highly uncertain “future that runs on the schedule of public buses.”
Katsiaryna Lozka is a PhD fellow at the Ghent Institute of International and European Studies. Her research focuses on Eastern Europe and Russia’s policies in the post-Soviet space. She holds an MA in EU International Relations and Diplomacy Studies from the College of Europe in Bruges and an MA in European Studies from Comenius University in Bratislava. She previously studied international politics and peace research at the University of Oslo and the Belarusian State University in Minsk.
This is a translation of a Russian-language interview conducted by Svetlana Satchkova and published by Storytel on June 16, 2020. The translation is by Fiona Bell.
Tatsiana Zamirovskaya is a writer from Belarus who has lived in New York for the past five years. She writes in Russian and English. Her short story collection, TheLand of Random Numbers (Земля случайных чисел, AST, Russia, 2019) was nominated for the National Bestseller prize and compared by critics to works by premier authors of metaphysical science fiction, from Ursula K. Le Guin to the Strugatskii brothers. She recently completed a new novel about memory and digital immortality.
Svetlana Satchkova spoke with Tatsiana about how her interest in fantasy developed, how she came up with the idea to move to the United States, and what the Belarusian language means to her.
What was your childhood like?
I was born in Borisov, a small city where Napoleon’s army was defeated in 1812. Nothing else has happened there, which is why all local culture revolves around Napoleon: there are regular battle reenactments on the floodplain of the Berezina river, where the army drowned, and guys walk around with metal detectors looking for Napoleon’s golden carriage, and drunk high school graduates go to Brilevskoe field to watch the sunrise. Borisov is also famous because Hitler came there during his only visit to the Nazi-occupied parts of the Soviet Union, in 1943. When I was a kid, the neighbors once told me that he probably stayed in our house, since it was one of the only brick houses in the city at that time…
My parents were pretty ordinary: in Soviet times, my mother was a music teacher at a music school and my dad was an engineer at a factory, where he designed tanks. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, he tried to survive in any way he could. Belarus is a transit territory, which is why Belarusians survived thanks to these huge overnight bags, which they used to carry all sorts of junk to sell across the border in Poland. So I grew up among mountains of junk: for example, thousands of crystal swans from the Borisov Crystal Factory, or boxes of dichlorvos.
I went to a great school that specialized in English. We periodically went on exchange trips to London. The British kids also visited us, bringing all the new music on cassette tapes, which we then copied from each other. I listened to all the Brit Pop albums of the nineties right when they came out, and back then, that was a huge accomplishment – living in contemporary music culture. Borisov was also a hub for violent youth groups, kids who actually lived by the laws of the street. So, my childhood was a mix of prison aesthetics, elite education, and difficult, post-perestroika life.
What did you want to be when you grew up?
I always wanted to become a writer or a musician. My parents hung out with a great crowd of rock-intellectuals. One of them, the famous musician Oleg Minakov, who sang in the German group Inspector back then, told me I should study journalism because, with my interest in music and desire to write, I could become a music critic. I thought that sounded like a really cool life, so I decided to study journalism at Belarusian State University in Minsk.
Then, at the end of the 90s, Lukashenko changed the constitution so that he could be president without interruption or term limits — in fact, Russia recently took a page from his book. But the journalism department at my university was very liberal: I was accepted, writing in my entrance exam essay about how I dreamed of working for the opposition newspaper Name (Имя). When my mom found out, she cried for two days. Then we heard that I’d gotten the highest score of all the applicants. The journalism department was a cool crowd, everything was suffused with the spirit of freedom and hope for a different future. I went to protest rallies, rock concerts – basically, it was a great time.
When did you become a working journalist?
The same time I started doing everything else – university. When I was 19, my friends and I published a completely out-there newspaper for an opposition party that got a grant for it. One time we were paid in NATO pilot jumpsuits, since humanitarian aid had been sent that consisted of canned food and these jumpsuits. I only published one article in Name (Имя)– I handed it over to the legendary journalist Irina Khalip, she published it, and two weeks later the newspaper closed down. The article was about a Rolling Stones concert in Moscow, and Khalip even remembered me later. In one of her interviews she said: “I remember this first-year student Zamirovskaya coming to me with her article on a sheet of paper.” It made me so happy to read that.
Even at that time, professional music media in Belarus was well-established, in the spirit of publications like Q and NME: Music News Weekly (Музыкальная газета), the magazine Legion (Легион), and the magazine Jazz Quad (Джаз-квадрат). I wrote for all three and was the editor at Jazz Quad. That was my first job after university. We worked directly with labels, who had a lot of respect for us and sent us new albums to review. You have to remember that in 1997 Minsk, getting a review copy of OK Computer, when no one else had heard it, was very cool. I spent hours on the phone and did interviews with all sorts of famous musicians, which allowed me to make up for the English I hadn’t been taught in school.
When did you start writing prose?
While I was studying journalism, I wrote short surrealist stories and, without telling my friends, sent them to the Dnipropetrovsk cult contemporary art magazine, Ours (Hаш). People like Linor Goralik and Mikhail Elizarov started publishing there. I didn’t get a response, but one day the magazine sent all its contacts a letter saying that their work mail had gotten messed up and everything had been lost, but that some girl from Minsk’s journalism department had sent them a story about a guy who fucked a pyramid. They wanted to publish that story but didn’t know how to find the girl.
The next day, everyone in the department kept looking at me. It turns out we had all been secretly sending things to Ours (Hаш). My piece was an homage to Ray Bradbury, who had a story about a man and a woman who give birth to a pyramid and then decide to move to the land of pyramids to live on the same wavelength as their child. Now I have three published short story collections, the most recent of which, The Land of Random Numbers, came out in 2019 with AST, Moscow.
What made you decide to move to the U.S.?
At 35, I felt like I had already lived a full life. I didn’t know where to go next. I’d worked as a journalist for a long time, applying an apocalyptic perspective to everything: first to music, then politics, culture, and contemporary art. I’d hosted a jazz program on Polish radio and edited a glossy men’s magazine with friends. We’d even had Sergey Mostovshchikov, who we all idolized at the time, as a guest editor in a joint issue with Crocodile (Крокодил).
My time in Belarusian journalism had run its course and I thought it would be cool to get an education in the arts – I worried that I wasn’t writing deeply enough about contemporary art – and simultaneously improve as a writer. I set out to do an MFA in New York because it was my favorite city, where I’d been as a tourist but wanted to live.
Was it difficult to adapt to a new place?
My friends couldn’t understand my decision to move, since in Minsk I lived in my own apartment and worked as a content editor at an ad agency – my life was great. And now I’d decided to spend all the money I had saved to go to some art school and live in a tiny, screened-off corner of a puppeteer’s apartment in Bushwick. While I was earning my MFA, I had all kinds of weird side hustles: writing texts and sometimes even being a pet sitter. It was really cool because I got to spend time in the fancy apartments of some artist or another, lying on their couch with their dog and looking at their art books. But I always saw this as forward movement: I immediately realized that in the U.S., education is a huge investment in yourself, even if it’s not the sort of education that gives you the opportunity to find the perfect job right now.
What types of opportunities does it offer?
A Master of Fine Arts degree legitimizes you as a practitioner in an artistic field. This degree is so expensive because it gives you access to circles that you wouldn’t otherwise be able to get into. After I graduated from Bard College, I went to several prestigious writers’ residencies, where people would ask me who I was and where I was from. “Belarus,” I’d say. “Oh, they kill journalists there, don’t they? Or is that Bulgaria?” they’d say. “Alexievich, Chernobyl,” I’d say. They would nod, still unsure. Then I started saying that I’d graduated from Bard, and they would immediately reply, “Oh, Bard!” Their attitude towards me changed instantly: they no longer needed to know what I wrote or whether I was any good.
The fact that I’d received an MFA meant that I had already been verified by someone somewhere and that I was, roughly speaking, part of their circle. This program also helped me understand what I do more generally. At Bard MFA, they teach you to be aware of all the stages of creative work: so, it’s not that I sit down, and the universe hands me a text because thus is its divine will. They teach you to understand your own practices, how they relate to your life story and your identity, what is borrowed and what is your own. I learned how to write grant applications, to put myself in context, and basically to understand what I want. If I hadn’t gone there, I’m not sure I would still be writing.
What’s special about Bard College?
Bard is one of the oldest liberal arts colleges in New York and it has a Graduate School of the Arts with a focus on interdisciplinarity. Its founders decided to bring together professors from various disciplines – sculpture, painting, photography, film and video, music, and literature – and educate students so that they interact as much as possible. There aren’t many students, so people from various faculties can visit each other’s caucuses. It really opens up your perspective, especially as a writer. For instance, I’ve never done normal readings of my texts – they’ve always been performances.
Could you describe one of them?
I did a performance on the impossibility of translation. I handed audience members pages of a surrealist short story that I – someone with very synthetic English – had self-translated into English and told them to follow along with the text. Then I took the microphone and read the story in Russian with periodic pauses. My classmate Anastasia Kolas, who was hiding in a closet, translated each phrase live. She emigrated from Belarus as a teenager and knows English like a native speaker, but she has kind of torn herself away from Russian. This was the first time she had heard my story. Naturally, my translation was very different from what Anastasia came up with. In this way, the audience simultaneously heard three different versions of this text through three different channels of perception. I was later told that this was a totally psychedelic experience.
Do MFA graduates manage to make a living as artists?
I don’t have the naïve belief that if I make good art, that means I can make a living off of it. But at the same time, I don’t think that if you can’t make money off of it, that means you should be ashamed of it. For artists, generally speaking, it’s normal to be poor and unsettled – maybe it was actually Bard that taught me to feel this way. Basically, I see it like a sort of gambling: you can win the jackpot or not win anything at all, but that’s where the nice sense of excitement comes from.
There are people who have achieved conventional success: Salley Rooney, for example. She clearly didn’t set out to write a bestseller, her prose just coincided with something and set off a reaction. It’s all about chance and synchronicity, themes that are very close to me. But, as far as I know, some of my former classmates work as assistants to more successful artists or writers, teach at colleges, or work as copywriters, journalists, or PR professionals. But some are lucky: they get a book contract or are exhibited in MoMA, like Martine Syms – a classmate of mine who is a superstar in the contemporary art world.
What are you writing now, in Russian and in English?
I’m finishing a novella in English that was originally my thesis project. It’s about false testimonies: people who talk about persecutions and abuse that they never actually experienced. It’s experimental prose – something at the intersection of prose and poetry. Since I’ve been writing it for a long time, my English has evolved in the process. The reader can trace the improvement of the author’s language. The first chapters are really shaky, and now I can’t even edit those because my English has noticeably improved. Maybe by the end it will be quite natural.
Anna Moschovakis, my professor, came up with the idea. She said that I would never have another chance to write a text in a language that was poor at the beginning, but then improved. To waste that transitional moment would be stupid. In Russian, I wrote a novel about how a person’s consciousness continues to exist after their death, or rather, not the consciousness itself, but its digital copy. This is a very important difference because it’s impossible to maintain consciousness after death – you completely disappear. But if you have a digital copy, it considers itself to be you. It’s a kind of post-apocalyptic utopia about people who copy their consciousness, and the copies go to some sort of afterlife, thinking that they themselves are people.
You are from Belarus and identify as a Belarusian writer, but you write in Russian and English. Why?
I can’t write literary prose in Belarusian because I only learned it at school as a second language, although I consider it my native language and that’s something I always emphasize. Like many Belarusians, I grew up in a Russian-speaking environment and I think in Russian, and I respect Belarusian too much for it to just be a target language for mental translations from Russian. I’m planning to write something in Belarusian that won’t require this sort of code conversion – maybe a memoir about working as a journalist in Minsk.
I think it’s important to note that the identity of a Russian-speaking Belarusian is that of a person who, though they grew up in a Russian-speaking culture, very clearly separates themselves from Russia because Russophone culture doesn’t only include Russia. When I studied journalism in the nineties, if you spoke Belarusian, it meant that you were against Lukashenko, that you went to protests and, more often than not, wrote poetry. This was the language of the artistic intelligentsia. I worked at Belarusian radio stations for many years, I speak Belarusian as well as I would a first language, and I always switch to it when I’m with Belarusians. But I haven’t used it in literature. I’ve always thought it would be an opportunistic act on my part, since authors who write in Belarusian are rightly given more support. Svetlana Alexievich, for example, also writes in Russian and, in so doing, emphasizes the fact that she is not Russian.
Belarusian has been in a difficult position for a long time, since Stalin destroyed practically the entire Belarusian cultural elite in 1937. Perhaps our culture would be different if those hundreds of writers and poets hadn’t been taken to the forest and shot. Nowadays it’s very important to understand the terminology at play. The way I see it, I work in the field of international culture and Russian is a convenient tool I use. Just because Belarusians write in Russian doesn’t mean they’re a part of Russian culture. I want to be treated in Russia – and for other Belarusian authors to be treated – like any other foreign author, one who happens to write in Russian simply due to historical circumstance. In any case, native speakers of Russian are lucky – they can read our work in the original.
Svetlana Satchkova is a writer and journalist from Moscow, Russia, who currently lives in New York City and is working on her MFA at Brooklyn College. Her new novel People and Birds is coming out from Eksmo in September.
Fiona Bell is a literary translator and scholar of Russophone literature. Her translation of Stories by Nataliya Meshchaninova received a 2020 PEN/Heim Translation Fund grant. She is from St. Petersburg, Florida and currently lives in New Haven, Connecticut.