Posts Tagged ‘Vladimir Putin’

She came, she saw, she conquered: Russian poet, journalist, publisher Maria Stepanova @Stanford

Sunday, April 10th, 2016
Maria Stepanova at Stanford.

La Dolce Vita at Stanford? Maria on the front steps of Stanford’s Green Library. (Photo: Cynthia Haven)

She came, she saw, she conquered. Maria Stepanova‘s visit to Stanford was short, but intense – and I took plenty of photos, so I’ll give her the star treatment. Her Stanford debut took place at the Stanford Humanities Center on Wednesday, April 6, where she spoke on “Time Backward: Putin’s Russia in Search of Identity.” Although it wasn’t exactly a full house, it came very close. The event was filmed, and I’ll post the link when it’s available. (And we’re pleased that Robert Pogue Harrison recorded an Entitled Opinions radio interview with her – we’ll post that, too.) Meanwhile, I introduced the event with these words:


Speaking on Putin’s Russia. (Photo: C. Haven)

“…I’m pleased tonight to introduce our guest from Moscow, the poet, publisher, journalist, essayist, and, I’m proud to say, my friend – Maria Stepanova.

“She was born in Moscow in 1972 and graduated from the Gorky Literary Institute in 1995. She was twice awarded the Znamya Prize, the first time in 1993, the prestigious Andrei Bely Prize and Pasternak Prize, both in 2005, and the Hubert Burda Fund Prize the following year.

“In fact, she was already an important and innovative poet by the time Vladimir Putin came to power, but the times called for her to take a tougher and more public stance. Today, she is one of the most visible figures in post-Soviet culture – not only as a poet, journalist, and publisher, but also as a powerful voice for press freedom.

“She is the founder of Colta, the only independent crowd-funded source of news that exists in Russia today, with 900,000 unique visitors per month. The online magazine has been called a Russian Huffington Post in format and style – and also compared to the New York Review of Books for the scope and depth of its essays.

“I’d like to take a minute to explain the Colta story, because it’s a good story in a country that doesn’t offer many of them at this historical moment. Colta began with the online ‘Openspace,’ which Maria founded in 2007.

Maria Stepanova reading

At her reading. (Photo: C. Haven)

What she envisioned was a cultural daily, something that would provide Russians with up-to-date and passionate p.o.v. But she soon learned that culture couldn’t stand apart from the political and social changes that were occurring. Private funders pressured Maria to cover more entertainment, less politics. She resisted.

“The differences came to a head in 2012, when nervous funders pulled their support altogether in a political climate that was growing increasingly hostile to independent journalism. She and her colleagues received compensation when the website was terminated – and together, they used their used their severance packages to launch a new website Colta, with volunteer help.

“Colta was born only a few months after the demise of Openspace – and it was funded by ordinary Russians.”Colta had a vital role to play: as the official media, whether print or broadcast or internet, became more propagandistic and xenophobic, Colta offered an alternative. It became the place where you still could find unfiltered information what is going on in the wider world – without even a paywall to close out young, impoverished, or far-flung readers.

Maria Stepanova at SHC

At the Stanford Humanities Center (Photo: C. Haven)

“Colta has been a success for four years. But let us not forget that some consider Maria to be Russia’s greatest living poet. She is the author of ten poetry collections and a continues to get international prizes and recognition in recent years, includnig a Joseph Brodsky Fellowship, and last year a fellowship with Vienna’s distinguished Institute for Human Sciences. I encourage you to attend her reading of her poems, in Russian, tomorrow night’s reading, at 6 p.m. in the German Library, Room 252, of Piggott Hall.

“Maria’s talk tonight will consider Russia’s current obsession with a patchwork of different visions of the past, where one can take shelter from an uncertain future. Yet, as she points out, the future is inevitable, whether we welcome it or not.

“Let’s welcome Maria Stepanova.”

The questions continued well after the 9 p.m. ending time, and I finally suggested that we congregate in the lobby for informal discussion. The surprise was the euphoria afterwards, with people thanking Maria, me, and anyone else who was connected with making this event possible.

Maria was given a bottle of Chardonnay as a thank you, and I’m happy to say it was rapidly consumed that night in the  verdant gardens of Stanford Terrace Inn – by Maria, the poet Helga Olshvang, and me, as we munched the snap peas that were left over from the crudités at the Stanford Humanities Center. It was a magical evening, from the Japanese dinner that began it to the quiet conversation that ended it under the stars.

Postscript on 4/11: We got some nice pick-up from AdWeek‘s “Fishbowl” column – here.



Au revoir, Maria! (Photo: C. Haven)

Nadia Savchenko continues her hunger strike: “They will sentence me posthumously.”

Wednesday, March 9th, 2016

Nadia in better days. (Creative Commons)

The 34-year-old Ukrainian politician and military pilot Nadia Savchenko was abducted and illegally taken across the Russian border in 2014, during the Russian invasion of southeastern Ukraine. She has been held in Russian jail ever since. While in prison, she was elected to the Ukrainian parliament in November 2014. She serves in absentia. The Ukrainian people consider her a hero; it remains to be seen whether she will be a martyr as well.

She is charged with killing two Russian journalists: Igor Kornelyuk and Anton Voloshin, two employees of Russia’s state-owned television, who died while covering the war in Ukraine last year. Her lawyers note that she was captured a full hour before the mortar strike that killed them, and that she was transported across the border against her will by Russian intelligence officers.

She began a hunger strike on March 4, refusing food and water, after Russian prosecutors asked for a 23 year prison sentence. According to a March 10 article by Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, the court postponed a verdict till later this month, on March 21 or 22. Her response? “Here’s my final word!” she shouted in Ukrainian. Then she flipped them the bird.

A defiant Savchenko declared that she would recognize neither the court nor its verdict, before she stood on a bench inside the cage for defendants and raised her middle finger in the direction of the judge.

Savchenko emphasized that she is willing to continue the no-food, no-water hunger strike no matter what happens, saying, “You must understand that we are playing with my life; the stakes are high and I have nothing to lose.”

She also said a popular uprising similar to Ukraine’s Euromaidan movement is inevitable in Russia, adding that Russian President Vladimir Putin “cannot hold on to power by means of people’s blood.”

Savchenko, 34, wore her trademark T-shirt with the Ukrainian trident symbol at the March 9 hearing in the court in the southern Russian city of Donetsk [actually, it’s a Ukrainian city, recently swallowed by Russia – ED], near the border with the home country she has vowed to return to “dead or alive.”

In a recent statement, she spoke defiantly of her “fabricated ‘case’ – 23 volumes of gibberish”:

I’ll speak in Russian to save on a translator, a translator which, as I quite well understand, would be at my own expense. That said, according to human rights law, an interpreter ought to be provided free of charge.

Well, firstly, I want to apologize to the audience for my emotional behavior. The fact is, it’s very difficult to listen to the same lies over and over again for six months and then hear them repeated all day long. Therefore, I couldn’t help reacting to the prosecutor’s speech like I did. …

I am the only person the court failed to find guilty. I am an officer of the Ukrainian Armed Forces. I had every right to defend my land, I was fulfilling my duty. You do not judge veterans of World War II, and for the same reason you do not judge your own troops – but they also killed many people while defending their country. …

I do not know how long this ‘performance’ will take, but I want to say: if, again, the verdict debate take three weeks (as prosecutors requested once), I will immediately resort to defense tools. If the court takes more than two weeks to issue a verdict (which has already been dictated from above and recorded), I will go on a ‘dry’ hunger strike from tomorrow, and they will sentence me posthumously, ‘in absentia’.

I think it is pointless waiting for a POW exchange. … I’m not a bargaining chip, I am an innocent person, and my guilt has not been and cannot be proven. Therefore, I will stand no POW exchange, no bargaining deal, and no procrastination.

And here is the most crucial thing. Let prosecutors sentence me to as many years in prison, as they wish. Not a day longer, not a day shorter. All 23 years. Do not issue a longer or shorter jail sentence for me – so they won’t make any further appeals or delay the procedure. You have proved that you are utterly impotent. You have already proved that Russia can disgrace itself, as exemplified in my case.

You have never defeated me and will never do it! Well, let’s finish it all as soon as possible, I will not wait any longer. It was not you who have given me life, so you can’t own it – and you can’t decide upon my fate. If the verdict takes more than two weeks, I will not wait for it. That’s all I want to say.

Read the whole speech here. Video below.

“Caligula at the Gates”: Guess who is the star of Venclova’s new poem?

Wednesday, December 31st, 2014

Yes…I see the resemblance…

Those who don’t live in Eastern Europe, where memories of life under Communism during much of the last century linger, don’t fully comprehend the chilling effect across that region of what’s been happening under Vladimir Putin’s rule:

Our respite was short-lived in the end.
But after long hardships it had seemed
It would never draw to a close. Friends
Invoked poetry and feasted in gardens …

When I saw Tomas Venclovas new poem “Caligula at the Gates,”  in The Irish Times (the translator, Ellen Hinsey, had kindly dropped a note to let me know), I associated it with the Lithuanian poet’s autumn sojourn in Rome. Not so, he told me – it was, in fact, written in August, in Montenegro, one of his favorite haunts. And the subject is “Mr. Putin, of course.” Well, of course. The Roman touch is a common metonymy, he reminded me, though I shouldn’t have needed reminding. My head has been far away from current events – a luxury not afforded everyone in the world. I’ve always maintained that Tomas Venclova, who is one of the leading figures in literary Europe, and whose poetry has been published in more than twenty languages, and he should be better known in the United States, where he has been resident at Yale for years and years now (resident, that is, when he’s not on the road, as he is much of the time)…


They have the same scowl.

We ridiculed the words of the prophets
But, agelessly, they proved to be true …

This poem, in particular, has been already published in Poland, Germany, also in Russia. But you don’t have to be located in any particular part of the world to sense the following:

Blow out the candles and close the gates.

Beyond them – Caligula and the plague.

Read the whole thing here.


Terror’s human face: Women of the Gulag – the book and the movie. Help make it happen.

Saturday, October 27th, 2012

Marianna Yarovskaya on location

I met Paul Gregory a couple years back, when his Politics, Murder, and Love in Stalin’s Kremlin: The Story of Nikolai Bukharin and Anna Larina (Hoover Institution Press, 2010) was just out.  I wrote about it, with a video of Paul, here) … well, “writing” might be too strong a word.  His noontime presentation at Stanford was so tight and so compelling that I pretty much presented what he said, as he said it.  I didn’t have to do much more.  (I’ve written about his Lenin’s Brain and Other Tales from the Secret Soviet Archives here).  Since meeting him, he’s become a high-powered economics blogger at Forbes 

Filmmaker Marianna

The Bukharin book was such a great story, I kept seeing it as a film.  Instead, he’s saved the film for his newest book, Women of the Gulag.  He’s teamed with Muscovite documentary filmmaker Marianna Yarovskaya.  Paul told me some time ago about his newest effort: I was against several deadlines and didn’t have the extra brain cells to process it then, but given his previous book, I had little doubt that he would knock it out of the ball park.

He has.  From his introduction:

A remark often attributed to Stalin is, “A single death is a tragedy, a million deaths is a statistic.”

This is the story of five such tragedies. They are stories about women because, as in so many cases, it was the wives and daughters who survived to tell what happened.

These five women put a human face on the terror of Stalin’s purges and the Gulag in the Soviet Union of the 1930s.  They show how the impersonal orders emanating from the Kremlin office of “the Master” brought tragedy to their lives. They cover the gamut of victims. Two are wives and daughters in ordinary families unable to comprehend why such misfortune has overtaken them. A third is a young bride living in the household of a high party official. The last two are wives of the Master’s executioners. These stories are based on their memoirs—some written by themselves, others by close friends or by their children.

Writer Gregory

Here’s the deal.  The book will be out early next year with Hoover Institution Press.  But the movie is in limbo until you pitch in over at kickstarter here.  The filmmaker is trying to raise $30,000 to finish the film, and she has 57 more days to raise the money on the kickstarter deal, which ends December 23.  Think of it as a Christmas present to Russia … or better yet, to mankind, because this history is important to record.

Applebaum at Stanford

“Why film a bunch of old babushkas?” Marianna is asked.  According to Washington Post‘s Pulitzer-prizewinning Anne Applebaum, who appears in the film, “Aside from its historic value, a project like this one has special significance in the light of contemporary Russian politics. In recent years, under President Putin, Soviet and Russian history have been re-politicized, and the Stalin period has come to be viewed with ambiguity by politicians, writers, film makers, and regrettably the public. The stories of the victims of the gulag, told by simple people who had little or no understanding of why this was happening to them, make an excellent antidote to creeping historical amnesia. This project is also urgent, of course, because most of their subjects are in their advanced years, and their stories have to be recorded now.”

Filmmaker Marianna explains why she’s passing the hat:  “We are now continuing the campaign and the project and are in post-production. We are also interviewing more women in other parts of Russia. We already have almost 40 hours of footage. These funds will go towards recording more testimonies on HD video and towards editing the footage we have gathered. Clearly the timing is urgent as the survivors and the heroines of the original Stalin gulag are getting very old. This is “the last chance.” (Marcel Krüger has an interview with her here.)

The film below gives a preview of their work.  I hope you find it as riveting as I do – and please do pony up whatever you can over at Kickstarter here.  Time is of the essence.  As always.