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.
- Razom for Ukraine https://razomforukraine.org/ (emergency relief for Ukrainians)
- Nova Ukraine https://www.give.novaukraine.org/ (humanitarian aid to Ukrainian residents and refugees)
- International Rescue Committee https://www.rescue.org/ (urgent help for Ukrainian refugees)
- World Odesites Club (help Odesan writers! wire $ via Western Union for Ms. Oksana Shalashna (Malinovskogo, 13, Odesa, Ukraine; firstname.lastname@example.org, +380504903053)
- 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?..)
- 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
it remains to be said
reread antigone return our dead
i want to lament them
this precedes the polis precedes its violence and the law the law as violence this is sister this is brother becoming a bottomless grave and a promise of love
and maybe it’s still not too late to stop the mobile crematoria
to bury our children
Let it be not too late for at least some other shard of life in this new world—for a hope «of finding… an eternal entrance», as says Vallejo/Eshleman.
P.S.: Update (5 April)
I’m sure some of you will have read the essay by one of Russia’s leading poets, Maria Stepanova, that was recently featured in the Financial Times. She is one of the few still to be able to tap into an essayist’s reservoir of figurative language and to investigate the ruins of ethics, the ruins of sociality—the very same that are depicted in Skidan’s “Too Late.”
To complement that panorama of the planet in ruins (“the whole shroud,” per Vallejo/Eshleman), I would like to add a few links to the digest above—these have become available in the days since I wrote the letter. Russia’s atrocities in Bucha and other towns render many speechless, but I want to keep sharing testimonies and leads for giving aid.
Masha Gessen’s podcast on the Russian exodus to CIS countries that I referred to has been reworked (and enriched) into an essay in The New Yorker.
Please read those alongside this vox clamantis of a Russian anarchist who remains in Russia and, hence, writes anonymously.
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.
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.
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
can there be gulags
can there be aleppo
can there be moscow
after the end of the line
can there be police trucks
can there be ovd-info
can there be lefties
can there be music
can there be a 25 feb
after 24 feb
can there be war
after voina art group
can there be abramovich
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
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
can there be cherubim
can there be u.s. bucks
after roland barthes
can there be you
can there be i
can there be this