Irina Mashinski’s The Naked World, Three Excerpts

Irina Mashinski’s The Naked World, recently published by MadHat Press after many years in the making, is an impressive achievement in the hybrid genre. The collection combines pieces of original and translated poetry and prose that together illuminate not only the author’s past but also her way of seeing. Thematically, this book centers four generations of a Soviet family from the Stalin era to the 1990s and immigration to the United States. Writer, translator, and editor Irina Mashinski has penned ten books of poetry in Russian, and this is her English-language debut that also includes her Russian-language poems in translation by Maria Bloshteyn, Boris Dralyuk, Angela Livingstone, Tony Brinkley, Alexander Sumerkin, and Daniel Weissbort. Mashinski is co-editor, with Robert Chandler and Boris Dralyuk, of The Penguin Book of Russian Poetry and of the Cardinal Points Journal.

We are grateful to the author and the publisher for permission to reproduce an excerpt from this remarkable book. The two prose pieces and poem below are included in the fourth and final section, “Borders,” preceded by two epigraphs. The first is a musical one, “The Second Piano Concerto—Rachmaninov/Richter.” The second is a quote from Susan Sontag: “My library is a library of longings.” As Ilya Kaminsky says in his preface, “Irina Mashinski looks at time between this Wednesday and next Friday—and sees eternity.”

The End of an Era. November

All classes have been canceled: Brezhnev, the immortal Secretary General of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, had died. The university administration orders us to stand in one long endless line along a wide desolate avenue on the Lenin Hills, by the University’s main Building built in the 1950s by inmates and German POWs.

We shift from one foot to the other and jump up and down in the frigid air that has enveloped Moscow. They often make us stand like this, stupidly, for hours, in an endless line, so that we could greet the leaders of brotherly socialist states. And then it comes: the stopped cars begin to honk as a sign of obligatory mourning—endlessly, desperately, hopefully, victoriously. We don’t know yet what is coming—all we know is that it is something different.

The arbitrary Soviet realm that had arrogantly pretended to be the only one imaginable, a space both eternal and dead, a space frozen for as long as I have known myself, is now shaken awake, and the outline of the university spire pointing in the white sky becomes blurry.

During the four decades that follow, after each political shock—dispersed demonstrations in Lithuania and Tbilisi, and the power battles that spilled onto the streets, and this or that little victorious war—the system, even after it officially expired and reemerged under a new name, will behave like the mercury in those old Soviet thermometers cherished by expatriates—after being shattered and, you’d think, dispersed forever, it would converge into the same familiar dimly glowing spheres.

The Fold. Photograph by Irina Mashinski

On the Fall of the Tyrants

This night I got up and came out of the trailer.
A strange sound woke me:
as if statues
were falling again and again.

The forest stood solemn, alert. The light sky was an oak trunk away.
Those were leaves, leaves, leaves, falling loudly,
—dictators, chiefs of the secret police, field marshals
all of them falling at last one by one rumbling colossus,

peeling bronze skin,
toppled by crowds
after 74 years—
little dry mummies . . .

Oh how they used to watch, watch from above!
Only birds painted
them with their bold blue,
white, green strokes of shit

(as at dawn a careless camper drops toothpaste
on the perfect grass by the brook),
tried to enliven with their warm dung
dull flat shine—birds flew at the statues,

colliding with merciless bronze.
Leaves were falling, like in August 1991, when
we stood mesmerized by a moment no one had dared dream of,
falling, toppled, each a dry little earthquake.

“Oh, let them, let them go down,” I thought, “let them
roll down that slippery hill, over clay, over breccia, and never
return,
let them pass all the traps of soil and ores,
straight, straight to the core of the naught.

Farewells

On October 25th, the old calendar anniversary of the October Revolution, we left forever. Plodding on foot downstairs from our 9th floor for the last time, I habitually glanced at our mailbox between the last two landings of the stairwell, as if there could be letters, or news—something that would keep me back here. Our crudely painted blue box still bore traces of a red hairy swastika someone daubed on it recently, and the black tar from a burning match someone else threw inside.

We were crossing my childhood city, the one and only city I knew, that was now turning into a hyperactive stranger, booming with flashy neon signs in a new language—neither Russian, nor English or French—with flickering kiosks, storefronts, and traffic lights that somehow seemed different. I was trying to recognize the familiar places that were flashing by—and to say goodbye to each one. The first autumn frost made the crisp darkness that was punctured by blinding lights even brighter. I knew I would never return, but as I was parting with Moscow, I wasn’t sure that the feelings I had were the ones I had expected.

For decades, I hadn’t been able to imagine myself without this city and its inhabitants, my friends, my kindred spirits, the likes of whom, I was sure, I would never find again—after all, one can’t be this fortunate twice,—and without the country itself, its landscapes, the entirety of Russian Nature, although I knew very well that, contrary to the comforting belief instilled in Soviet citizens by the propagandistic songs, these landscapes, with their iconic birch trees, their anthemized fields and rivers, were not unique—one can find very similar ones in other places on Earth.

A Motherland of Books: An Essay by Maria Bloshteyn

Taking your beloved books with you into immigration is intimately familiar to those of us who left the Soviet Union. My parents’ двухсоттомник—”200-volume set”—of Russian and world literature, was quite literally my lifeline to the language and culture that I may have otherwise forgotten, and they are still the editions I turn to today. The covers of the volumes are different colors, and some key moments of my life are associated with them, such as the dark green of Gogol’s Мертвые души (Dead Souls) when I started college. Reading Maria Bloshteyn’s essay was genuinely heart-wrenching, because the experience she describes is that of an acute loss of books that mean so much to us, not just for their content, but perhaps even more so because they have made the immigrants’ journey with us and sustained us in our new homes. In the current moment, this poignant essay is framed by the war in Ukraine, where people like us are losing not just their books, but their lives. If you are able to help, please support translators who are struggling due to the war and this initiative to give Ukrainian-language books to refugee children in Poland. Ukraine’s cultural sphere has been badly damaged by Russian forces, and we will continue to look for ways in which those of us in the West can help. Maria recently participated in the Born in the USSR, Raised in Canada event hosted by Punctured Lines, and you can listen to her read from an essay about reacting to the war in Ukraine while in the diaspora.

Maria Bloshteyn, A Motherland of Books

Written just before the war in Ukraine began, this essay elegizes the home libraries lovingly gathered and treasured by their owners in the Soviet era, these very libraries, with these very editions, that are being bombed today in Ukraine, along with their owners.

Surely our yellowed labels all spell doom

in letters too few learn, too few remember.

Boris Dralyuk, “Émigré Library”

The books are a heartache. I have been dreading this moment for years. My mother, the adored and formidable matriarch of our small family, had moved into a nursing home after struggling with dementia for the past several years. She doesn’t care now what will happen to the family library, but I do. These are, after all, the books that we brought with us from the Soviet Union, when we left it forever in 1979. I grew up looking at their spines both in our Leningrad flat and in our Toronto apartment: light brown for the complete edition of Pushkin, mauve for Heine’s poems, beige for Tolstoy’s collected works. The classics, the translated classics, the poetry chapbooks, the art albums, the subscription editions, children’s literature—they are all here. Once, they provided the continuity between the two vastly different worlds: one that was forever lost to us and the other that we were slowly learning to inhabit. Reading and rereading them kept me sane as I, rarely at a loss for words, found myself suddenly language-poor and unable to either defend myself against nasty verbal attacks I faced in school as the Russian kid, or to express myself adequately to friendlier others. 

These are the books that I am now packing into large cardboard boxes, as I am deciding their fate. Lowering them in, one by one, I think of the books that we weren’t allowed to bring with us as we left: most prominently, unfairly, and painfully, the single volume of Pushkin’s poems that my grandfather, part of the 13th Air Army during World War II, sent to my mother, evacuated to a village in the Urals. We weren’t allowed to take it, because it was published before some arbitrarily assigned cut-off year, which made it, ridiculously, a possible antiquity of value to the State. The passage of years hadn’t dimmed my sense of outrage. 

Dom knigi. Image credit: Google Images

The books that we were allowed to bring were mostly purchased by my parents during the years of their marriage. My father, whose promising law career was tanked by a prison term received as a result of taking the Soviet Codex of Labor Laws at face value, worked as an auditor for Dom knigi, the largest and most famous bookstore in Leningrad, located in a landmark building on Nevsky prospekt. Once a month, he would bring home a list of books available for purchase.  It was a privilege extended to the associates of Dom knigi. And a real privilege it was. 

The Soviet Union proclaimed itself to be the best-read country in the world. This boast was largely true. If you got onto a bus or a streetcar in the seventies, most passengers would be reading. Entertainment at home—where television meant two or three channels of largely boring programming—was also reading. Yet, if you walked into a book store, the selection of books available to an average customer without special connections was pathetically limited. You could choose from Leonid Brezhnev’s speeches and, if you were lucky, Lenin’s collected works. There was, however, a thriving black market for books. Francis Scott Fitzgerald’s collected works, for example, fetched ninety roubles on the black market—the monthly salary of an engineer. Books were a hot commodity and having access to books at the official prices (helpfully stamped onto the back cover) was a coveted benefit. Not that anyone ever resold books in our family—we bought our books for keeps. 

And so my father and mother would sit at the kitchen table, endlessly going over the list, comparing and contrasting, underlining, and debating with each other, as they chose the books that the family would be acquiring. Whichever books they selected, they’d have to make the same decision: would the family money go toward books or toward some needed items, say, for example, new clothes or pantyhose? Every single time, the decision was made in favor of books.

Later, when we would least expect it, my father would arrive home carrying a cardboard box, around which we’d all gather in eager anticipation. The opened box would release the heady smell of printer’s ink and paper—the intoxicating scent of new books. We’d take out the books one by one, resplendent in their glossy dust jackets, and admire them all. Next, we’d find a proper place for them on the bookshelves, among other books already residing there. And then we’d read them. Once the books were settled in, they were all equally accessible. That’s how I got to read Alberto Moravia and Georges Bernanos, whose vicious critiques of Western bourgeois society made them a logical choice for publication in the Soviet Union, as well as the first Russian translation of Jin Ping Mei, a scandalous 16th-century Chinese novel, all at the ripe old age of seven.

Then, in 1979, we left the USSR. We could have, theoretically, sold off the books, though it would have been emotionally wrenching, but the State helped us decide against that. At the time we left, we were only allowed to bring a small, almost symbolic amount of money with us, given that we were forced to sell whatever property we had, including our flat and our dacha. The money we received from the sales could just as well be spent on crates and packing material as on anything else. That settled it: the family library was accompanying us into the unknown. Our journey took us by airplane from Leningrad to Vienna, where we stayed for a few weeks in a seedy hotel previously used by the city’s sex workers, and then by train from Austria to Italy, where we spent both fall and winter in Ladispoli, a sleepy little seaside town not far from Rome, as we applied for entrance to Canada as refugees. We came to Canada in April of 1980 and then, what seemed like an eternity later, crates full of our books and other belongings finally arrived to our first Toronto apartment on Roselawn Avenue. I greeted the books with the joy and relief usually reserved for long-lost family members: here was the cure for loneliness, frustration, and boredom; here was the portal into other worlds that I could inhabit instead of the coldly unintelligible one in which I found myself.  

The books came, however, with an unexpected financial blow. It turned out that the money we had paid in the Soviet Union for shipping the books was not nearly enough. The crates sat in storage for months upon months and we had to pay the shipping company two thousand dollars in order to redeem them. The amount, substantial in any situation, was staggering to new arrivals with no financial reserves. But walking away from our books was not an option. My parents took out an interest-free loan from the Jewish Immigrant Aid Service. The family paid off that loan by sewing shoes—leather loafers. We’d pick up the large bags full of slips to be sewn together from the factory and then returned them there, completed, for $30 per bag. Although, to my shame, I never did get the hang of it, everyone else sewed, including my 80-year-old grandmother. It took about three years of loafer-sewing drudgery to repay the loan, but the books were worth it.

The books were there for us as no friends could ever be—a 24/7 resource to be reached for as support, entertainment, escape, and a source of wisdom. They were there as I grew up, went to university and to graduate school. They were there as I amassed my own library of books, in Russian as well as in English, got married, and had kids. My husband is Canadian-born and has no connections with Russia except through me. My kids read in English. The books that I am taking from the family library now will therefore be for my own use.  I can’t possibly keep all or even most of them—our many bookshelves at home are already overflowing with books and I have given up many of my other books to make space as it is. So now I’m deciding which books to keep and which books to donate to our multicultural resource library. They won’t be put on the library shelves—they’ll go to the book sale section, where anyone can purchase them for a symbolic sum that goes to fund the library. I know the book-sale section well. I picked up all kinds of treasures there over the years, all in fierce competition with other book hunters.

The author holding Anatole France’s collected works. Image credit: Maria Bloshteyn

The books I’m leaving at the book sale will be someone’s windfall to be treasured. Yet, I still feel like I am betraying the books. Their aged, weathered covers exude reproach. I might as well, like Shakespeare’s Prospero, be drowning them deeper than did ever plummet sound. I go again through the books that I’m giving away, pull several out of the boxes and set them aside, take a deep breath, and drive the boxes to the library. One of the librarians is Russian—she knows what I’m going through. If it wasn’t for Covid, I’d get a hug. “Don’t worry,” she says, “they’ll find good homes.” Maybe, but still… I go through the boxes again, just in case. I take the lid off one box and eight volumes of the collected works of Anatole France stare up at me. I never liked Anatole France. I can’t imagine dipping into one of his books for pleasure. But my mother loved his ironic detachment and reread his books more than once. Maybe that’s what I need now, I think to myself—ironic detachment… I pull out all eight volumes from the box, holding them close as I struggle to balance them in my arms. “I’m taking these home,” I say to the librarian. “I’m not letting go of them just yet.”

January 2022

Maria Bloshteyn was born in Leningrad and emigrated to Toronto when she was nine.  She received her PhD from Toronto’s York University and was a postdoctoral fellow at Columbia University. Her main scholarly interests lie in the field of literary and cultural exchange between Russia and the United States, with a special focus on Dostoevsky’s impact on American literature and culture. She is the author of The Making of a Counter-Culture Icon: Henry Miller’s Dostoevsky (University of Toronto Press, 2007), the translator of Alexander Galich’s Dress Rehearsal: A Story in Four Acts and Five Chapters (Slavica, 2009) and Anton Chekhov’s The Prank (NYRB Classics, 2015), and the editor of Russia is Burning: Poems of the Great Patriotic War (Smokestack Books, 2020).  Her articles appeared in a number of scholarly and not-so-scholarly journals and her translations have appeared in a number of journals and anthologies, including The Penguin Book of Russian Poetry (Penguin Classics, 2015). 

Born in the USSR, Raised in Canada

We’re happy to share the recording from the event we hosted on May 15, 2022, gathering writers who were born in the former Soviet Union and immigrated to Canada as children. Currently located all across Canada, from Montreal (Luba Markovskaia) to Vancouver (Maria Reva) with a definite hub around Toronto (Julia Zarankin, Lea Zeltserman, Maria Lioutaia, Maria Bloshteyn), these generous writers shared excerpts from their work and answered questions about living with hyphenated identities and building writing communities. Russia’s war in Ukraine was at the forefront of this conversation, as most of the writers and the participants have family and friends affected by the bombs. This event was a fundraiser, and we encourage everyone to continue donating to the organizations listed below.

Please enjoy this recording and reach out to us with ideas for future projects!

Organizations to support:

Donate directly to Ukraine’s military: https://bank.gov.ua/en/news/all/natsionalniy-bank-vidkriv-spetsrahunok-dlya-zboru-koshtiv-na-potrebi-armiyi

UNHCR Ukraine Emergency Relief Fund: https://give.unhcr.ca/page/100190/donate/1

JIAS Ukraine Refugee Response: https://jiastoronto.org/ukraine-crisis-update/

ROLDA, helping stranded animals/pets: https://rolda.org/breaking-news-ukraine/

Ukraine Trust Chain, helping evacuate civilians out of war zones: https://www.ukrainetrustchain.org/

Questions?

Email: puncturedlines [at] gmail.com

Bios:

Maria Bloshteyn was born in Leningrad and emigrated to Toronto when she was nine. She received her PhD from Toronto’s York University and was a postdoctoral fellow at Columbia University. Her main scholarly interests lie in the field of literary and cultural exchange between Russia and the United States, with a special focus on Dostoevsky’s impact on American literature and culture. She is the author of The Making of a Counter-Culture Icon: Henry Miller’s Dostoevsky (University of Toronto Press, 2007), the translator of Alexander Galich’s Dress Rehearsal: A Story in Four Acts and Five Chapters (Slavica, 2009) and Anton Chekhov’s The Prank (NYRB Classics, 2015), and the editor of Russia is Burning: Poems of the Great Patriotic War (Smokestack Books, 2020). Her articles appeared in a number of scholarly and not-so-scholarly journals and her translations have appeared in a number of journals and anthologies, including The Penguin Book of Russian Poetry (Penguin Classics, 2015).

Maria Lioutaia was born in Moscow and now lives and writes in Toronto. Her fiction has recently appeared in Ploughshares, One Story, Gulf Coast, Tin House, Electric Literature’s Recommended Reading, and Conjunctions. She was a Tin House scholar, a finalist for The Iowa Review Awards, and was on the longlist for the CBC Short Story Prize four times. She holds an MFA from NYU, where she was a Goldwater Fellow. Her last name means “fierce” in Russian. She’s currently at work on a novel.

Luba Markovskaia was born in Leningrad and lives in Montreal. She holds a PhD in French literature from McGill University and works as an independent literary and cultural translator. Her writing on language, identity, and immigration has appeared in publications such as Moebius, Spirale, and Nuit blanche, as well as in translation in Maisonneuve Magazine and Quebec Reads, and was shortlisted for the French CBC Nonfiction Prize. In 2021, she received the John Glassco Translation Prize for her translation of Elena Johnson’s Field Notes for the Alpine Tundra. She sits on the editorial board of Spirale magazine. You can visit her LTAC profile and connect with her on Twitter at @luba_mark.

Maria Reva writes fiction and opera libretti. She is the author of the linked story collection Good Citizens Need Not Fear (Doubleday, Virago, and Knopf Canada New Face of Fiction, 2020), which was inspired by her own family’s experiences in Ukraine. Maria’s stories have appeared in The Atlantic, McSweeney’s, Granta, The Journey Prize Stories, The Best American Short Stories, and elsewhere. She won a National Magazine Award in 2019 and was a finalist for the Writers’ Trust of Canada 2020 Fiction Prize. Maria was born in Ukraine and grew up in New Westminster, British Columbia. She received her MFA from the Michener Center for Writers at the University of Texas.

Julia Zarankin is the author of FIELD NOTES FROM AN UNINTENTIONAL BIRDER. Her writing has appeared in Audubon, Canadian Geographic, ON Nature, The Walrus, The Globe and Mail, Birding Magazine, Hazlitt, Threepenny Review, and Orion Magazine. She was recently a finalist for the CBC Short Story prize (2020). When not hanging out with a spotting scope at sewage lagoons or working furiously at her desk, Julia lectures to lifelong learners in and around Toronto. Zarankin is currently at work on a novel that features, among other things, a Babushka Beauty Pageant.

Born in St. Petersburg back when it was Leningrad, Lea Zeltserman was raised in Edmonton and now calls Toronto home. She writes about Soviet-Jewish food, history, immigration, and culture. Her work has appeared in the Globe and Mail, Tablet, the Forward, Chatelaine, Today’s Parent, Walrus, and others. An essay on Soviet-Jewish food was included in the 100 Jewish Foods anthology from Tablet Magazine. She also publishes the Soviet-Samovar, a monthly round-up of FSU writing. Find her online at https://leazeltserman.com or on Twitter at https://twitter.com/zeltserman and Instagram: @leazelt.

Yevgenia Nayberg’s I Hate Borsch! (Eerdmans, 2022): A Way to Benefit Ukraine

Yevgenia Nayberg is the author and illustrator of several imaginative and visually stunning children’s books. In Anya’s Secret Society, a Russian immigrant girl who loves to draw discovers that, unlike where she came from, being left-handed is perfectly acceptable in America (left-handedness was considered in need of pointed correction in the Soviet Union, as my maternal grandfather could have attested to). Typewriter is the story of, well, a Russian typewriter brought to America and then abandoned by its owner, that finds a new home in the end. I particularly appreciate these children’s books because as far as I know, they’re the only ones that feature immigrant protagonists from the former Soviet Union. Nayberg’s latest book is I Hate Borsch! (what?! Who can possibly hate borsch?!), about a girl who, indeed, can’t stand the stuff but has a change of heart after emigrating from Ukraine to the U.S. The book includes Nayberg’s recipe for the (absolutely delicious) dish. And given several recent Twitter threads in which native Russian speakers expressed dismay at being told that they don’t spell its name correctly in English, I Hate Borsch! spells it exactly as it should be (for fans of Library of Congress transliteration, “borshch” is also acceptable, and no other spellings are).

Until June 30th, part of the proceeds from the book’s sales go to benefit Ukraine. Support Ukraine, support immigrant writers, support borsch. You can also donate here and here to help bring food to those who need it in Ukraine.

Yevgenia Nayberg is an award-winning illustrator, painter, and set and costume designer. Her illustrations have appeared in magazines and picture books, and on theatre posters, music albums, and book covers; her paintings, drawings, and illustrations are held in private collections worldwide. As a set and costume designer, she has been the recipient of numerous awards, including the National Endowment for the Arts/TCG Fellowship for Theatre Designers, the Independent Theatre Award, and the Arlin Meyer Award. She has received multiple awards for her picture book illustrations, including three Sydney Taylor Medals. Her debut author/illustrator picture book, Anya’s Secret Society, came out in 2019 and received a Junior Library Guild Gold Selection Award. She’s an author/illustrator of Typewriter and Mona Lisa In New York.  Her latest book, I Hate Borsch! was published this year. Born and raised in Kyiv, Ukraine, she now lives in New York City.

Born in the USSR, Raised in Canada: A Reading in Support of Ukraine

Punctured Lines is delighted to bring you our next event–a reading and a Q&A with six established authors who were born in the former Soviet Union and immigrated to Canada as children. In their fiction and nonfiction they explore topics of multicultural identity, life under communism, Jewish culture, food, history, and making a home in a strange land.

Please register on Eventbrite: https://www.eventbrite.com/e/born-in-the-ussr-raised-in-canada-a-reading-in-support-of-ukraine-tickets-315030252967

We began planning this event before Russia’s renewed, full-scale attack on Ukraine, and we want to acknowledge that this war is resonating deeply throughout the diasporic community. We feel that it’s particularly important for us to come together at this time, to listen to each other’s stories and to amplify each other’s voices and resources in support of the people of Ukraine in their fight against the Russian totalitarian regime. We also want to extend our support to those citizens of the Russian Federation resisting and fleeing from this regime.

*** This event will be recorded. ***

*** This event is a fundraiser and we encourage everyone to donate money directly to organizations supporting Ukraine and Russian protesters. Suggested donation starts at $5.

Organizations to support:

Donate directly to Ukraine’s military: https://bank.gov.ua/en/news/all/natsionalniy-bank-vidkriv-spetsrahunok-dlya-zboru-koshtiv-na-potrebi-armiyi

UNHCR Ukraine Emergency Relief Fund: https://give.unhcr.ca/page/100190/donate/1

JIAS Ukraine Refugee Response: https://jiastoronto.org/ukraine-crisis-update/

ROLDA, helping stranded animals/pets: https://rolda.org/breaking-news-ukraine/

Ukraine Trust Chain, helping evacuate civilians out of war zones: https://www.ukrainetrustchain.org/

Questions?

Email: puncturedlines [at] gmail.com

Bios:

Maria Bloshteyn was born in Leningrad and emigrated to Toronto when she was nine. She received her PhD from Toronto’s York University and was a postdoctoral fellow at Columbia University. Her main scholarly interests lie in the field of literary and cultural exchange between Russia and the United States, with a special focus on Dostoevsky’s impact on American literature and culture. She is the author of The Making of a Counter-Culture Icon: Henry Miller’s Dostoevsky (University of Toronto Press, 2007), the translator of Alexander Galich’s Dress Rehearsal: A Story in Four Acts and Five Chapters (Slavica, 2009) and Anton Chekhov’s The Prank (NYRB Classics, 2015), and the editor of Russia is Burning: Poems of the Great Patriotic War (Smokestack Books, 2020). Her articles appeared in a number of scholarly and not-so-scholarly journals and her translations have appeared in a number of journals and anthologies, including The Penguin Book of Russian Poetry (Penguin Classics, 2015).

Maria Lioutaia was born in Moscow and now lives and writes in Toronto. Her fiction has recently appeared in Ploughshares, One Story, Gulf Coast, Tin House, Electric Literature’s Recommended Reading, and Conjunctions. She was a Tin House scholar, a finalist for The Iowa Review Awards, and was on the longlist for the CBC Short Story Prize four times. She holds an MFA from NYU, where she was a Goldwater Fellow. Her last name means “fierce” in Russian. She’s currently at work on a novel.

Luba Markovskaia was born in Leningrad and lives in Montreal. She holds a PhD in French literature from McGill University and works as an independent literary and cultural translator. Her writing on language, identity, and immigration has appeared in publications such as Moebius, Spirale, and Nuit blanche, as well as in translation in Maisonneuve Magazine and Quebec Reads, and was shortlisted for the French CBC Nonfiction Prize. In 2021, she received the John Glassco Translation Prize for her translation of Elena Johnson’s Field Notes for the Alpine Tundra. She sits on the editorial board of Spirale magazine. You can visit her LTAC profile and connect with her on Twitter at @luba_mark.

Maria Reva writes fiction and opera libretti. She is the author of the linked story collection Good Citizens Need Not Fear (Doubleday, Virago, and Knopf Canada New Face of Fiction, 2020), which was inspired by her own family’s experiences in Ukraine. Maria’s stories have appeared in The Atlantic, McSweeney’s, Granta, The Journey Prize Stories, The Best American Short Stories, and elsewhere. She won a National Magazine Award in 2019 and was a finalist for the Writers’ Trust of Canada 2020 Fiction Prize. Maria was born in Ukraine and grew up in New Westminster, British Columbia. She received her MFA from the Michener Center for Writers at the University of Texas.

Julia Zarankin is the author of FIELD NOTES FROM AN UNINTENTIONAL BIRDER. Her writing has appeared in Audubon, Canadian Geographic, ON Nature, The Walrus, The Globe and Mail, Birding Magazine, Hazlitt, Threepenny Review, and Orion Magazine. She was recently a finalist for the CBC Short Story prize (2020). When not hanging out with a spotting scope at sewage lagoons or working furiously at her desk, Julia lectures to lifelong learners in and around Toronto. Zarankin is currently at work on a novel that features, among other things, a Babushka Beauty Pageant.

Born in St. Petersburg back when it was Leningrad, Lea Zeltserman was raised in Edmonton and now calls Toronto home. She writes about Soviet-Jewish food, history, immigration, and culture. Her work has appeared in the Globe and Mail, Tablet, the Forward, Chatelaine, Today’s Parent, Walrus, and others. An essay on Soviet-Jewish food was included in the 100 Jewish Foods anthology from Tablet Magazine. She also publishes the Soviet-Samovar, a monthly round-up of FSU writing. Find her online at https://leazeltserman.com or on Twitter at https://twitter.com/zeltserman and Instagram: @leazelt.

Valzhyna Mort’s Music for the Dead and Resurrected: Review by Katsiaryna Lozka

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

murderers.

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.

Valzhyna Mort, “Baba Bronya” from Music for the Dead and Resurrected

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

hid—from me—

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

mute cattle.

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

of propaganda.

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.

Ukraine Fundraiser and Reading in Philadelphia by the Cheburashka Collective on March 24

Our friends The Cheburashki, “a growing collective of women & nonbinary writers who are emigres/refugees/first-generation from countries that were once a part of the Eastern bloc,” are hosting a reading in Philadelphia next week. Here’s a great place to find some camaraderie in this time of war and donate money for Ukrainian refugees.

This event is happening in conjunction with AWP, a poets and writers conference that will include several important events with USSR diaspora writers. We made a list.

Here’s their flyer and details of the event:

Details:

Poems and Stories by the Cheburashka Collective

March 24, 6-8 pm

Slought
4017 Walnut St
Philadelphia, PA 19104

Triple Axel by Yelena Furman, The Willesden Herald’s Story of the Month

Whether or not you watched figure skating at the Olympics this year, or are closely related to somebody suffering from arrhythmia, if you have read Aleksander Pushkin’s The Belkin Tales, this recently published story by our co-founder Yelena Furman is for you. And if you haven’t read Pushkin’s stories yet, you might want to read them, too!

Congratulations Yelena with your new fiction publication!

You Never Know When Speaking Russian Might Come in Handy …: An Essay by Alina Adams

It would be hard to overstate my love of both figure skating and detective fiction, which admittedly isn’t something one normally thinks of together. It is therefore beyond thrilling to feature this personal essay by Alina Adams, who has written a series of five figure skating murder mysteries (yes, really, and I plan to order every one of them). A prolific writer with several fiction and non-fiction titles, Alina’s most recent novel is The Nesting Dolls, which you can read about in the poignant and humor-filled conversation between her and Maria Kuznetsova that Olga recently organized on this blog. I loved reading the story Alina tells below about working as a Russian-speaking figure skating researcher (she must have had a hand in many of the broadcasts that I avidly watched), and I confess to losing, in the best possible way, some of my time to being nostalgically taken back to 1990s figure skating coverage through the two videos in the piece, one of which features Alina translating (for Irina Slutskaya! You all know who she is, right?! Right?!). Let yourself be transported to that marvelous skating era, get ready for all the figure skating at the Olympics next month . . . and watch out, there’s a murderer, or five, on the loose.

You Never Know When Speaking Russian Might Come in Handy…:
An Essay by Alina Adams

I immigrated to the United States from Odessa, (then-) USSR in 1977. I was seven years old. I spoke no English, only Russian. 

I was the sole Russian-speaker in my second grade class at Jewish Day School. When the other kids spoke to me in English, I responded in Russian. When the teacher gave us a writing assignment, I wrote it in Russian.

I was never, ever going to learn English!

And then I fell in love.

With television.

Television was where the happy children were. The ones who lived in a house with a big staircase to slide down, not an apartment where all the furniture looked exactly like the furniture of every other Russian-speaking family newly arrived in San Francisco (we assume Jewish Federation got a great deal on all the identical chairs, tables, and bedspreads). The ones who ate hamburgers instead of kotlety. The ones who drank bright red, cherry-flavored medicine with cartoon characters on the label when they had a cold instead of laying down to get banki applied to their backs, dry mustard applied to their front, and their feet dunked into boiling water.

I wanted to be like the happy children on television. So I learned English.

My parents still spoke to me in Russian. But what language I might deign to reply in was anybody’s guess.

My love for the happy children who lived inside the television extended to wanting to join them. Not as an actor. I knew I was too funny-looking for that. But I could be the person who wrote the words that the people inside the televisions said. That’s where the real power was.

Brian Boitano and Alina Adams (Photo courtesy of Alina Adams)

And those words would be in English!

Who needed Russian?

Cut to: Me. Freshly out of college with a degree in Broadcast Communication Arts. And looking for a job.

Flashback: I have a younger brother. He was born in the United States. He was a competitive figure skater (1996 U.S. Open Novice Ice Dance Champion). My immigrant parents had better things to do — like, you know, earning a living — than drive him to daily practice or chaperone him at competitions. So that became my job. 

I learned more about figure skating than I ever thought there was to know. 

Which is why, when it came time to apply for a job as a researcher and writer with ABC Sports’ ice skating department, I knew quite a bit.

Robin Cousins, Dick Button, and Alina Adams (Photo courtesy of Alina Adams)

But, guess what — so did a lot of other people (many of them former skaters themselves).

Except those other people didn’t speak Russian. 

And I did.

Suddenly, the language that once kept me from the happy people in the television was the one bringing me into it.

Thus began my years of traveling around the globe, from World Championships to international qualifiers to the 1998 Olympic Games in Nagano, Japan.

And back to the former USSR.

By the time I returned with an ABC crew to shoot profile features on the country’s top athletes, the Soviet Union had collapsed. It was Russia now. And Ukraine. And Belarus. And Armenia and three different Baltics and . . . (A fun game in the media truck was placing bets on which formerly Soviet skaters would declare themselves which ethnicity in order to ensure a place on the competitive team. For instance, the Ukrainian named Evgeni Plushenko and the Georgian-sounding Anton Sikharulidze competed for Russia, while the Russian-sounding Igor Pashkevitch represented Azerbaijan, as did Inga Rodionova. We’re not even counting Marina Anissina declaring herself French or Aljona Savchenko becoming German.)

Alina Adams with Terry Gannon, Peggy Fleming, and Dick Button (Photo courtesy of Alina Adams)

My job as a skating researcher included interviewing the skaters and their coaches to get all those fun tidbits the announcers share on the air: “She began skating at the age of three because her grandmother called her a typhoon and needed to stop her from bouncing around their communal apartment!” or “He is the first athlete from Estonia to win a bronze medal at the European Championships since…” (What? You thought Dick Button and Peggy Fleming generated those fun factoids all on their own?)

It also included visiting the skaters in their homes, interviewing them in Russian on camera, translating their replies and, once in a while, even dubbing their answers into Russian-accented English for the television profile. (You can listen to me doing two versions of the same accent, here. I am playing both Irina Slutskaya and her mother. If you scroll through to the end, you can see me translating her championship interview live on the air, too. On a different note, about six minutes into this video is a profile of Misha Shmerkin, a former fellow Odessa resident now representing Israel. Though you can’t hear me in the piece, I’m the one who asked him all the questions that he is answering on camera.)

The experience was disquieting, to say the least. Not because I was forcing my brain to operate 24/7 in a language I had deliberately pushed to the back of my conscience for almost two decades (and had no one to check my stupidity if I screwed up; the English-speaking production staff assumed everything I told them was accurate). It was because, in returning to the former USSR and going from home to home, interviewing people my age and my parents’ age, I was being confronted with the life I might have lived. 

Not as a competitive athlete. I didn’t have the talent or the drive for that. But as an ex-Soviet citizen, navigating a country that had collapsed around me, desperately trying to figure out what the new rules were while clinging to the old ones because they were the only ones I understood. I entered communal apartment after communal apartment. I ate the food they put out for us, understanding in a way my colleagues did not how hard it had been to get. I nodded as a skater’s mother whispered to me, “Don’t tell them my husband is Jewish,” and barely flinched when, while shooting inside a hospital for a piece on an injured skater, random cats wandered in and out of the wards. 

I was getting a glimpse of the life I might have led if my parents hadn’t made the decision to emigrate in the 1970s, when no one had a clue that the empire had less than twenty years of life left in it, or that return visits would become commonplace. When my parents took the chance to leave, it was like jumping off the edge of the world into an abyss. Nobody knew what the West had to offer or how they might survive there. And everybody understood that there would be no going back. It might as well have been a one-way mission to Mars.

My trips to the former USSR were an ongoing exercise in, “There but for the grace of God, go I.”

But I remembered what I’d seen there, and when, in 2002, following the (latest) Olympic judging scandal an editor at Berkley Prime Crime asked me to write a series of figure skating murder mysteries, I jumped at the chance. 

The chance to not only reveal all the behind-the-scenes gossip I couldn’t publish using skaters’ real names, but also to include the observations I’d made about life in the former USSR through the unique lens of elite athletes who’d survived the Soviet days and were now trying to make sense of the present. I could write about those who triumphed and those who slipped through the cracks. I could write about what was, and about who I might have been.

There are five books in the Figure Skating Mystery series. The third installment, Axel of Evil, takes place in Moscow and incorporates everything I saw, everything I heard, and everything I suspected when I worked there.

The first one, Murder on Ice, was based on the aformentioned 2002 Olympic judging scandal, where the Pairs judge was accused of favoring the Russian team over the Canadian one. In Murder on Ice, a judge is accused of giving the Ladies’ gold to Russia’s dour ice queen over America’s perky ice princess. And then the judge ends up dead (that didn’t happen in 2002). Who will investigate the crime? Why, none other than the trusty skating researcher! (Clearly, I subscribe to the policy of: Write What You Know.)

In Murder on Ice, I take all of the clichés that Americans have about Russians and (hopefully) turn them on their heads. In Axel of Evil, I continue that objective, but I do it by putting the American researcher, my heroine, Bex Levy, out of her element and onto Russian soil. Here, people are making as many assumptions about her as she is making about them. Clichés work both ways. In retrospect, I guess I was working out issues of being a Soviet-born American — whose life would have been very different had my family stayed in the USSR — by writing from the point of view of an American digging into the lives of those who left, as well as of those who stayed. I get to be both an insider and an outsider. I get to be the native and the other. I get to play the role of someone born in the US, and someone who grew up in the USSR. Because, in real life, I’ll always be somebody who is stuck in-between.

And I get to prove what my parents said all along. You never know when speaking Russian might come in handy . . . .

Alina Adams was born in Odessa, USSR and moved to the United States with her family in 1977. She has worked as a figure skating researcher, writer, and producer for ABC Sports, ESPN, NBC, and TNT. She is the author of Inside Figure Skating, Sarah Hughes: Skating To the Stars, and the figure skating mystery series consisting of Murder on Ice, On Thin Ice, Axel of Evil, Death Drop, and Skate Crime. Her historical fiction novel, The Nesting Dolls, traces three generations of a Soviet-Jewish family from Odessa to Brooklyn. Visit her website at: www.AlinaAdams.com

Born in the USSR, Raised in California: Video Recording

Thanks to everyone who could attend our event on Saturday, December 4th, and thank you all for your engagement and for your wonderful questions. For those of you who couldn’t make it, here’s the video recording from the event and links to our work.

Seven immigrant writers read their fiction and nonfiction related to immigration, identity, family history and the mother tongue(s). Let’s talk about buckwheat and pickled herring with beets. What do you do if your children refuse to eat traditional foods? Or when your dying grandmother forgets English and Russian and begins speaking to you in Yiddish? Does a Soviet-era secret still matter when the country no longer exists? We explore love, life, loss and the nuances of living with a hybrid identity.

Masha Rumer’s nonfiction book, Parenting with an Accent: How Immigrants Honor Their Heritage, Navigate Setbacks, and Chart New Paths for Their Children, is forthcoming from Beacon Press in November 2021. Her writing has appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Moscow Times, Scary Mommy, and Parents, winning awards from the New York Press Association. She was born in St. Petersburg, Russia. You can connect with her on Twitter @mashaDC and on her website and order her book here.

Sasha Vasilyuk is a Russian-American writer who grew up between Moscow and San Francisco. With a MA in Journalism from New York University, she has written for Harper’s Bazaar, The Telegraph, Narrative, USA Today, Los Angeles Times, San Francisco Chronicle, Newsweek, and Reed. She has won the Solas Award for Best Travel Writing and a NATJA award. Sasha lives in San Francisco where she is working on a novel. You can connect with her on social @sashavasilyuk and find her work highlights here.

Tatyana Sundeyeva is a Russian-Jewish writer and novelist originally from Kishinev, Moldova. She writes short fiction, travel writing, and Young Adult novels and has been published in Cleaver and Hadassah Magazine. She is also on the Executive Committee of San Francisco’s Litquake Festival. You can find her at Tatyanawrites.com or @TeaOnSundey

Yelena Furman was born in Kiev and lives in Los Angeles, where she teaches Russian literature at UCLA. Her fiction has appeared in Narrative, book reviews in the Los Angeles Review of Books and The Baffler, and articles on Russian-American fiction, contemporary Russian women writers, and Virginia Woolf’s translation of Dostoevsky in various academic venues. With Olga Zilberbourg she co-runs Punctured Lines, a feminist blog on post-Soviet and diaspora literatures. You can connect with her on Twitter at @YelenaFurman.

Maggie Levantovskaya emigrated from Kiev, Ukraine, to San Francisco at the age of ten. She’s a nonfiction writer whose work has appeared in The Rumpus, Michigan Quarterly Review, Catapult, and Lithub. She teaches in the English department at Santa Clara University. You can find her work on her website and connect on Twitter @MLevantovskaya.

Vlada Teper’s essays have been featured in “Perspectives” on KQED. Her poetry has appeared in the Oberon Poetry Magazine and TulipTree Review, among others. A writer, teacher, and entrepreneur, Vlada is the recipient of the 826 Valencia Teacher of the Month Award, and the founder of I M U. She is currently completing her debut novel about
being a substitute teacher in a Sex Ed high school class. You can find her on Twitter at @VladaTeper.

Olga Zilberbourg is the author of LIKE WATER AND OTHER STORIES (WTAW Press) and three Russian-language story collections. She has published fiction and essays in Electric Literature, Lit Hub, Alaska Quarterly Review, Confrontation, Scoundrel Time, and elsewhere. She writes book reviews for The Common, co-edits Punctured Lines, and co-hosts the San Francisco Writers Workshop. You can find her work on her website, connect on Twitter @bowlga, and order her book here.