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[Reviews]

Ghosts of Borodino

A poet’s battle against Russian nationalism

Collage by Lizzie Gill. Source photograph of Maria Stepanova by Andrey Natotsinsky. Other source material © Alamy; ITAR-TASS; Ivan Vdovin; Alexander Mitrofanov; Alan Gignoux; John Frost Newspapers; Russian State Library; Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division; Petr Pavlov; and KGIOP

[Reviews]

Ghosts of Borodino

A poet’s battle against Russian nationalism
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Discussed in this essay:

In Memory of Memory, by Maria Stepanova. Translated by Sasha Dugdale. New Directions. 432 pages. $19.95.

War of the Beasts and the Animals, by Maria Stepanova. Translated and with a foreword by Sasha Dugdale. Bloodaxe Books. 128 pages. $18.95.

The Voice Over: Poems and Essays, by Maria Stepanova. Edited by Irina Shevelenko. Columbia University Press. 360 pages. $40.

During the 2014 crisis in Ukraine, one of the more flamboyant separatist factions was led by a Russian named Igor Girkin, better known by his nom de guerre, Strelkov (“Shooter”). An obsessive reenactor of historical battles, Strelkov particularly enjoyed the Russian Civil War, often playing an anticommunist White Guard officer. In eastern Ukraine, he wore a White Guard haircut and mustache, and his troops sang civil war ballads. He was not alone in this sensibility. Elsewhere in separatist-held territories, lurid billboards urged a replay of the Soviet defeat of the Ukrainian nationalists led by Stepan Bandera during World War II. There were banners celebrating Stalin and public floggings by costumed Cossacks. The conflict unspooled as a frightening, absurdist historical pastiche. People who found no place for themselves in the present resorted to a lethal form of dressing up: cosplay with real bullets.

The Russian poet and essayist Maria Stepanova has aptly called this phenomenon “history as laughing gas,” a process by which those who feel deprived of power find vicarious dignity in the feats of their predecessors. It bears a startling resemblance to recent trends in the United States and Western Europe, where Trump supporters fly Confederate flags and Brexiteers recite Kipling, but its roots in Russia reach back to the fall of the Soviet Union. From the mid-Nineties onward, Russia, having lost its status as an imperial superpower, searched for a new national idea, a self-image that would impart a sense of dignity and purpose. The government commemorated varied figures from the imperial and Soviet periods, erecting ugly new monuments to Vladimir the Great (who converted Kievan Rus to Christianity in the tenth century), Peter the Great, Marshal Zhukov, and Mikhail Kalashnikov. As relations with the United States and Western Europe soured under Putin, the government inflated the cult of victory surrounding its role in World War II, holding huge military parades every May 9 and sponsoring an endless series of nationalist blockbusters that celebrated Russian war heroics. This bombastic, whitewashed image of the past became the principal interpretative lens through which the state media portrayed the present. The annexation of Crimea was treated as a kind of nostalgic imperial victory—the slogan “Crimea is ours” filled the Russian airwaves—and language from previous wars was used to justify new ones.

To Stepanova, this form of collective memory is akin to lotus-eating, a denial of the present and a foreclosure of the future. “When any conversation about the here and now is made impossible,” she writes in her 2014 essay “Today Before Yesterday,”

the conversation about the past becomes but a euphemism, a means of clarifying our relationship to the ousted present, a way to take a stand, to feel out and mark yourself and what’s yours: the surrender and death of the Russian intelligentsia, the victory stolen by some unnamed entity, the global conspiracy . . . whatever.

One of Russia’s most admired living poets, Stepanova is also the founding editor of Colta.ru, an independent publication that has been compared to The New York Review of Books. She has been an essential critical voice during the Putin years, a star of Moscow’s globetrotting liberal intelligentsia: where the works of Svetlana Alexievich exist in a kind of Soviet bell jar, depicting a tragic world of confined lives and horizons, Stepanova is a true cosmopolitan, as indebted to Sontag and Barthes as she is to Pushkin, Mandelstam, and Tsvetaeva. Her essays have often scrutinized the workings of collective memory in Russia, the way snatches of history are laundered into propaganda and cant; in her poetry, she reinvigorates a language deadened by clichés of Soviet jargon and Russian patriotism.

Russia has a long-standing ideal of the poet as the conscience of the people, a legacy of the imperial decades, when censorship pushed political discourse into the arts. Anna Akhmatova’s poem cycle “Requiem,” about Stalin’s purges, opens with a description of waiting in a Leningrad prison line while seeking news of her arrested son. A woman whispers in Akhmatova’s ear, “Can you describe this?” The moment enshrines a vision of the poet as a virtuous, suffering witness to the injustice of the state. Stepanova has sometimes seemed to take on this mantle, both within Russia and internationally, and the sense that she is guarding the flame of Russian literature’s moral authority is a key component of her appeal. Soviet literary propaganda left many skeptical of political poetry, but Stepanova achieves just the right balance, ethically upright without sounding strident.

Her ideal differs from Akhmatova’s, however. Rather than positioning herself safely on the moral high ground, Stepanova asks how her consciousness and use of language have been corrupted by Russia’s authoritarianism, militarism, and wanton disregard for facts. She sees herself not as a martyr but as someone irrevocably implicated in her country’s misdeeds. Instead of escaping into history, she tries on the voices and perspectives of all kinds of Russians. In this, she models how citizens of other countries might navigate their own polarized societies.

With the publication of three of her books in English this year, Stepanova is finally receiving the attention she deserves in the Anglophone world. Subtle and erudite in its treatment of politics and history, her work is a much-needed antidote to the crude depictions of Russia that have filled the English-language media in recent years. In addition to The Voice Over, a selection of Stepanova’s poetry and essays, we now have her first English-language collection, War of the Beasts and the Animals, whose eponymous long poem is among the best literary works written in response to the war in Ukraine; and her capacious 2018 prose work In Memory of Memory, which won Russia’s prestigious NOS and Big Book prizes and has been longlisted for the International Booker Prize.* This last is a departure for her. Part memoir and part essay, the book is ostensibly an attempt to construct a family history from documents left behind after the death of an aunt. Yet at the same time, Stepanova writes, “this book about my family is not about my family at all, but something quite different: the way memory works, and what memory wants from me.” As it delves into the story of Stepanova’s Russian-Jewish family, branching out into broader questions about the nature of memory, the book exhibits many of the qualities that have made her a beloved writer in her native country: exquisite imagery and metaphor, an affectionate sense of Russian literary tradition, and a gentle, melancholy approach to the region’s violent history. Above all it asks, What merits remembrance, and what is better forgotten?

Born in 1972, Stepanova published her first poems while still in high school in Moscow. Her mother, Natasha, preferred poetry to lullabies, and Stepanova could recite verse before she learned to read. Natasha dreamed of studying at Moscow’s Gorky Literary Institute, but her father refused her wish, telling her, “We are Jews. You need a profession.” During the 1953 Doctors’ Plot, Natasha’s mother and grandmother, both Jewish physicians, waited every night to be arrested. The police never came for them, but the USSR remained a place where Jewishness demanded overcompensation. An obedient daughter, Natasha wrote secret poems in pencil and became an engineer, working in an underground research institute, “like Persephone.” Her daughter took up the destiny she had set aside. Mindful of the compromised fate of state-approved poets, Stepanova instead started her working life as a copywriter at a French advertising agency, and then took a job in television. Writing poetry in her spare time, she soon began to win major Russian literary prizes and accumulate loyal readers; today she is among the most popular poets in a country where poetry has a far wider audience than it does in the United States.

Before the conflict in Ukraine began, Stepanova was already mashing up literary classics, folklore, and Soviet popular culture in her poetry, studding her verses with snatches of song, using old language to create an eerie, brutal, looking-glass world. But her poetic bricolage took on a new urgency as the memory of war was reactivated. “I had a feeling that events were doing something significant to the language I’m writing in,” she said in a recent Guardian interview,

that its outlines were changing, getting distorted, fragmented, broken, the sentences running mad, losing themselves. I started writing in an attempt to find a place for all the dispersed fragments of used language units, poetry lines, military terms and Soviet war songs, to understand better what has happened to us all.

Out of this feeling Stepanova produced two long poems—“War of the Beasts and the Animals” and “Spolia”—that explore war and peace, public and private memory, and the violent fragmentation of language and attempts to salvage it. Figures, scenes, and places from Russian and Soviet history lurch in and out of long panning shots: the murdered Tsar Nicholas II, the legendary drowned city of Kitezh, the triumphant frescoes of the Moscow Metro. Together, the poems offer an unparalleled depiction of the flattening of time and violent instrumentalization of history and language in contemporary Russia. Romantic ballads mix with Soviet jingles and Silver Age poetry knocks against Putinist propaganda. Words break into pieces on the page. We see a longing to be reunited with the imagined nation of the past: “Who wouldn’t want to be drinking the quiet don from / grandfather’s wooden cup, going back in time”? We see the sacrifices made in the name of remembered glory:

culture leads fear
down the gauntlet of human nature,
stinking of laurel wreaths
steeped in a boiling pan,
to where there’s a lively trade
in the living unit of man

At a different moment in history, Stepanova’s reliance on distinctively Russian allusions might have made her poetry inaccessible to an English-speaking audience. But Russian and American politics have been converging: a sense of disinheritance from collective privilege provokes a flight into the past and an attack on those perceived as historical enemies as well as contemporary rivals. Indeed, in her foreword to War of the Beasts and the Animals, the British poet and playwright Sasha Dugdale explains that she agreed to translate the title poem because she saw a similar dynamic playing out in her own country during Brexit.

Russia’s temporal disorientation, Stepanova argues, is rooted in the country’s approach to language. Soviet official discourse was notoriously formulaic. At first its slogans were fierce and, for many, inspiring. But after a few decades of constant use, Soviet formal language had been reduced to a collage of stock phrases. Much Soviet humor—in particular the famous story-jokes known as anekdoty—played on this linguistic exhaustion. The fall of the Soviet Union brought an infusion of new language into Russian life. But for Stepanova, the old approach lives on: “The public space—from official statements to social media—is full of exclusively borrowed speech, with gaps and scuff marks, its expiration date long-discolored on the packaging.” This used-up language, in her view, cannot reckon with the problems of the present or the difficulties that lie ahead. Unlike many liberal critics of Putin or of Trump, Stepanova is evenhanded in her criticism, finding problems on both sides. “Comparing Putin to Stalin or Hitler,” she writes,

calling Kyiv’s Maidan fascist or Banderite, is not an attempt to get the formula right; it is just meant to inspire fear: as if, having summoned the ghostof past catastrophe, we can halt or repel its pale resemblance.

The same could be said of the long-running debate about whether Trump is a fascist. Politically speaking, we are choking on public memory and historical cliché.

Stepanova’s poems attempt to redeem damaged language. This process involves unmarked quotation and complex, allusive use of rhyme, meter, and linguistic register, all of which make her poetry extremely hard to translate. In translating War of the Beasts and the Animals, Dugdale collaborated with Stepanova to rewrite the poems for Anglophone ears. The result is a reincarnation of Stepanova’s wordplay and careening tangle of voices, some Russian echoes replaced with English ones. In “Spolia,” the furnishings of Russian history and domestic life swirl past as if in a fever dream:

transparent pine legs flicker past
like a shadowy borodino battle
moscow like a played draught
slips out of       reach its draw is lateral

there: inseparable, clustered like grapes,
foaming goblets of lilac in the dark
caught in the thin smoke from war medals
mid-bloom, outwinging firework
not holy mother of god! not a dungeon!
but darkling glass in the entrance halls
v-sign smeared on the walls.

Lines such as these show how the secondhand nature of language can be a source of strength. In her brilliant foreword, Dugdale observes that an individual’s language relies on “a family’s history, a nation’s history, its abuses, culture, crimes, proverbs, eccentricities.” Language is “bent and tainted,” as Dugdale writes, “but also illuminated and made miraculous.” At times it may seem weighed down, worn thin, used up by history and cheapened by politics; but a word’s experience is the source of its poetic valence.

In “Spolia,” remembrance of a military victory becomes a parlor game even as thoughts of war are punctuated by images of natural beauty. In Dugdale’s translation, these juxtapositions occur at the level of etymology and historical usage as well as imagery. The word “outwing” encompasses both military maneuvers and flight, while “darkling glass” evokes Shakespeare, Milton, and the English Romantic poets, notably Keats: “Darkling I listen; and, for many a time / I have been half in love with easeful Death.” There’s an echo of Corinthians, too: “For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known.” Through the history of these words, we see that the fetishization of war is a worship of death, a renunciation of responsibility to the living. But we are also reminded of the possibility of a more complete recognition of self and other—the kind of recognition that might lead to lasting peace.

“Spolia,” whose title refers to the ancient and early modern practice of embedding old marble and stone ornaments into newer buildings, mentions family photos and cinematic moments from a lost everyday life. These private memories are a comforting refuge from the dizzying outside world, where all of history seems to be happening simultaneously. Many of the pictured family members reappear in In Memory of Memory, where the polluted, exposed space of public commemoration yields to the tenderness of family mementos. This is a part of Russian memory, Stepanova suggests, that can serve as a source of inspiration rather than an impediment to progress: it’s nourishing, not narcotic. While Stepanova’s freestanding essays are often closely tied to current events, in four-hundred-odd pages In Memory of Memory never mentions Putin.

The book begins with Stepanova’s Aunt Galya, who has died and left behind an apartment stuffed with memorabilia. In old age, Galya had become consumed by the idea of order, spending days sorting and classifying, shifting the ephemera and the treasures of her life from one room to another. She never made any progress, because upon consideration she found that every item was important in its own way: diaries, letters, photos, TV guides, newspaper clippings. She ended her life in an apartment so crowded that the only place left to sit was a sagging couch, an island in a sea of time gone by.

As Stepanova examined what remained of Galya’s life, she felt that

all these objects were inextricably bound together, everything had its meaning only in the whole, in the accumulation, within the frame of a continuing life, and now it was all turning to dust before me.

One aim of In Memory of Memory is to “tease out a melody” that begins with the mountains of material in Galya’s apartment, to arrest the process of disintegration by crafting a literary monument that will endure long after the original documents have crumbled. While Stepanova’s poetry is crafted from the intangible relics and rubbish of language, In Memory of Memory curates physical remnants of the past, using them as the raw material for a family history. Here family is not only a matter of biology; it also encompasses writers and artists from the past, as well as relatively unknown historical characters such as Lyubov Shaporina, an artist who kept a Leningrad siege diary in which surprising lyrical moments appear, Stepanova observes, like “bubbles forming under ice.”

Stepanova sees her family as an ordinary one, but everyone in the Soviet Union had a close encounter with history. Stepanova’s great-grandmother, Sarra Ginzburg, the daughter of a successful Jewish merchant and one of fourteen siblings, was part of a circle of young revolutionaries in Nizhny Novgorod. A beloved photo nicknamed “Babushka on the Barricades” shows Sarra during the 1905 revolution, her right eye “covered with a black bandage, like a pirate’s patch,” her cheeks flushed and her hair disheveled. Stepanova describes a childhood trip to Leningrad when her mother pointed out the Peter and Paul Fortress where Sarra had done time for distributing illegal political literature; the family even had a few letters that had been written to Sarra in prison. After her release, Sarra went to France to study medicine, along with scores of other radical Russian women. (The story of this influx of Russian women, many of them Jewish, into French medical schools, which began accepting women in the 1860s, is one of the book’s numerous fascinating asides.) Her foray into history was over: now she would stay out of the textbooks and survive. Stepanova’s mother, Natasha, was born just after her family evacuated east, away from the German invaders. The baby’s late arrival, on September 12, 1941, was seen as a form of prenatal tact. A month later, another great-grandfather was likely murdered during the occupation of Odessa, along with the rest of the city’s Jewish population. In family memory, as in public life, violence is never far away.

In the course of Stepanova’s quest to tell her family’s story, there are moments of resistance and moments of shame. Stepanova compares her project to Ham’s deed, “exposing the vulnerable and naked body of the family, its dark armpits, its pale belly.” She considers the idea that family history is imprisonment, captivity, invasion. Only the living have the luxury of refusal. Stepanova was enchanted by letters her father wrote in 1965 from Baikonur, on the Kazakh steppe, where the Soviets had a space program. While stationed there as a civilian instructor, her father sent stories home about capturing a vixen and trying to train it, about camping on the steppe, about a night spent drinking with visiting geologists. But when Stepanova asked to reproduce these letters in her book, her father refused: “I can’t bear to think that someone will read those letters and think that’s what I am.” He must have written with the security services in mind, and to reassure his family. What he wrote was not the truth. He didn’t want to see himself reduced to a packet of letters, the way an ancestor is reduced to a single studio photo, or a canonical writer to a single portrait.

The story of Lyodik, an earlier relative who can no longer protest, illustrates the way a series of evasive letters can become the entirety of a remembered life. Lyodik was killed outside Leningrad in August 1942, aged twenty. His self-censorship is flagrant and touching, motivated by his concern for his mother and the rest of his family. The day before he died, he wrote to her,

I am very worried about your health because Father wrote that you were complaining of exhaustion. Please write and send details, tell me how you are. . . . Please don’t worry about me, it’s quite unnecessary.

His delicacy makes his last years a negative space of memory, documented only by his refusal to describe what was happening.

This chapter is one of the most moving in the book, as Stepanova uses other sources to piece together what Lyodik must have been experiencing on the front, and the horrors taking place in the besieged Leningrad for which he died. We learn about “moon blink,” the folk name for a color-blind tunnel vision caused by vitamin deficiency and exhaustion; the condition forced troops to march in a single line, each with a hand on the man in front of him. But soldiers were better nourished than civilians. In Leningrad, both people and objects were transformed by hunger. The people turned gray, their teeth crumbling, conversation moving irresistibly to the memory of food. Leather boots started to look like dinner, while children were warned to view friendly strangers as potential cannibals. “The boundary between the everyday and the unthinkable disappeared,” Stepanova writes. “In the Leningrad Public Library the cold corpses of librarians lay on the floor, but you could still borrow a book.” Lyodik’s regiment fought on peat bogs outside the city; he died on the first day of an ill-conceived military offensive across marshes and forests. The letter announcing his death is followed immediately by one reporting the death of his father, who was called up in a late, desperate round of conscription and killed by a bomb before he even made it to the battlefield.

Lydia Ginzburg, the literary critic whose Notes from the Blockade is one of Stepanova’s key sources, believed that the abuse and deprivation endured by Soviet citizens helped generate the almost insane capacity for self-sacrifice that allowed them to defeat the Nazis. A narrative of national martyrdom and triumph in World War II is central to contemporary Russia’s self-image. It has been warped into bitter jingoism, the rough parts redacted, a textbook example of the way in which memory can be perverted in the name of politics. Russian patriots adorn themselves with black-and-gold St. George ribbons, a legacy of the tsarist period, a commemoration of those who died in World War II, and a gesture of aggression against Ukraine. On May 9, they decorate their cars to look like tanks, with signs that cry to berlin!

One of the wordplays in “Spolia” relies on the feminine noun for Russia, Rossiya, which also contains the Russian word for I (ya). In the poem, Stepanova becomes briefly interchangeable with her country, as she echoes criticism of her literary work—in particular, her use of unmarked citations—that comes to double as a plea for a way out of the past and into a future without retro-authoritarianism:

she simply isn’t able to speak for herself
so she is always ruled by others

because her history repeats and repeats itself
takes on ersatz and out of date forms

and there is no knowing where her quotes are from
nineteen thirty or nineteen seventy

they’re all in there       pell-mell      all at once

not to remind us, you understand, just to plug the holes

In her poetry and in her prose, one might say that Stepanova seeks to put the “I” back in Russia. How might public life look, she asks, if memory became more than something to “plug the holes,” a smooth façade covering up violence and repression? What if memory were instead a means of understanding, a tool to help parse the present and move forward? By insisting on the value of idiosyncratic family remembrance, Stepanova refuses the dissolution of self that characterizes militarism and nationalism. For her, private commemoration, along with the contemplation of art, is a way of developing the kind of self-reflective, generous-minded citizenship necessary for a functional democracy. For American readers, Stepanova’s work is not a glimpse into an alien culture but a reminder that we have more in common with Russia than we’d like to admit.

 is the author of Black Square: Adventures in Post-Soviet Ukraine.


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