Posts Tagged ‘Vladimir Putin’

It’s the “Year of Stepanova” – and the poet has a few things to say about Putin and Russia’s perilous present

Friday, April 16th, 2021
Feeling alive: Maria Stepanova on the steps of Stanford’s Green Library (Photo: C.L. Haven)

“It is something very intimate, the way we communicate with the dead.”

The Guardian called 2021 “the year of Stepanova” for good reason. Russian poet Maria Stepanova’s new book, In Memory of Memory (New Directions), has been long-listed for the Booker Prize. Given the incandescent reviews, it is likely to be her break-out book in the West, giving her overdue recognition for works that have made her one of Russia’s most recognized writers. The Russian poet and essayist has two more books out this spring: The Voice Over: Poems and Essays (Columbia University Press) and War of the Beasts and the Animals (Bloodaxe).

Entitled Opinions’ host Robert Pogue Harrison interviewed her during her Stanford visit in 2016, and her words are as timely today as they were then. You can listen to the discussion HERE. The conversation began with a discussion of one of her other high-profile roles: she’s the publisher of the online Colta, Russia’s first crowd-sourced journal, which has been compared to a Russian Huffington Post and The New York Review of Books combined.

The conversation focused on the Russia’s “schizoid” treatment of the past and present.

She noted that whether he realizes it or not, Putin is performing a parody of Soviet empire. “The main difference is there is no meaning under Putin’s reign – no inner meaning, no hidden meaning, and no explicit meaning … no brand of an idea,” she said. “And so people are disoriented.”

“We’re living in a country where we have a corpse that has been lying in the Red Square  for almost a hundred years,” she said. “People still think the dead are the best governors.”

“In Russia, nothing is solid. You’re always expecting some ugly turn of reality, in your own biography or in the country’s story. Anything can happen,” she continued. “We are prepared to consider our present state acceptable as long as things don’t get worse.” Media has been replaced by propaganda, and unreliable sources have replaced informed knowledge. “The experts sitting at the roundtable are different kinds of freaks – futurologists, conspiralogists, astrologists, whatever. … Nothing is real.”

What role for poetry? Stepanova sees some positive aspects to the current turmoil: “Now the poetry audience is getting much, much wider – maybe it’s what happens in times of big historical shifts, when people are expecting poetry to give them some kind of an answer – or maybe a question.”

Stay tuned also for Stepanova’s impressive, intensely musical reading of her poem, “The Women’s Changing Room at ‘Planet Fitness.’” (Robert Harrison reads the poem in English.)

I also interviewed Stepanova for the Los Angeles Review of Books here.

About Maria Stepanova

Maria Stepanova was already an important and innovative poet by the time of Vladimir Putin’s accession, but the times called for a tougher, more public role. Today, she is one of the most visible figures in post-Soviet culture – not only as a poet, but as a journalist, a publisher, and a powerful voice for press freedom.

She is the founder of the Colta, the first independent crowd-funded source of information that exists in Russia today. The online publication 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 long essays.

She is the author of eleven poetry collections and the recipient of several Russian and international awards (including the prestigious Andrey Bely Prize, the Berlin Brücke Prize for the novel, and Joseph Brodsky Fellowship).

You can listen to the conversation HERE. An article about Maria Stepanova’s recent Stanford talk is here

“Even our inner reality is ruled by the dead. They are the inner deities.”


“In Russia, the dead are never dead enough.”

“The past never dies. It never goes away. It is still active.”

“We are prepared to consider our imperfect present state acceptable as long as things don’t get worse.”

“The real problem of contemporary Russia is not in our obsession with the past, but in the fear of the future.”

“If you don’t feel like you can belong to a future, then it’s very hard to feel that you can belong to a past.”

Alexei Navalny: “I am of sound mind. So if something happens to me, don’t believe it was suicide.” A smuggled message, a P.E.N. petition, as thousands take to the streets.

Saturday, January 23rd, 2021

Demonstrations today in support of Alexei Navalny

Thousands took to the streets of Russia in anti-Putin demonstrations, and several thousand of them were arrested. The flashpoint is the recent arrest of opposition leader Alexei Navalny, who was poisoned with a nerve agent while traveling last August and barely survived. On his return to Russia a week ago, he was immediately detained by the government. A message was smuggled out of his detention center: “I am of sound mind. So if something happens to me, don’t believe it was suicide.” The petition below from P.E.N. in Moscow has been making the rounds, most recently in The Los Angeles Review of Books:

Navalny arrested in 2017 (Photo: Evgeny Feldman)

We, the members of PEN-Club Moscow and the Free Word Association, in according with the principles formulated in the Charter of PEN-International — an obligation to champion the ideal of one humanity living in peace and to oppose any form of suppression of freedom of expression — call for the Russian government to stop the persecution of Alexei Navalny under trumped-up and inadequate charges. The proclamations of the biggest Russian functionaries and politicians who called Navalny “a traitor, a turn-coat, and an agent of the US State Department,” testify to the fact that Navalny is being persecuted because of his civil actions and not because of any transgressions against the law. Firstly, these proclamations are in themselves an offense against the rule of law, being an extrajudicial accusation and, what’s worse, a call to lynching. Secondly, these texts make obvious the government’s real motivations and goals: an unprecedented pressure is being applied on civil society for the purpose of political manipulation.

War is being declared: not just on Navalny, but on the whole of Russian civil society. The actions of the power structures clearly express their barefaced desire to intimidate anyone who dares to criticize the existing regime. The moral atmosphere of the worst era in the history of our motherland is coming back.

We demand protection of the falsely accused and of the dignity of the country, which is humiliated and disgraced by the regime’s actions.

We demand freedom for Alexei Navalny!

The members of PEN-Club Moscow and the Free Word AssociationSt Petersburg PEN-Club, and other individuals have signed the petition, which has been translated by author and PEN-Club Moscow member Maria Rybakova.

From Twitter below. НЕ МОГУ ПЕРЕСТАТЬ СМОТРЕТЬ – “Can’t stop looking.”

Marci Shore on Ukraine: fighting continues, and so does trust, loyalty, and love.

Sunday, December 4th, 2016

Reading from “Lives of Maria” in Wrocław, Poland (Photo: Rafał Komorowski)

Over a 24-hour period this weekend, combined Russian-separatist forces attacked Ukrainian army positions in eastern Ukraine 42 times, according to the press service of the Anti-Terrorist Operation (ATO) Headquarters. (Link here; map below.) These weren’t random incidents, but intense fighting, particularly in the Donbas region. “In the Mariupol sector, the enemy used banned 120mm and 82mm mortars to shell the town of Krasnohorivka, and the villages of Shyrokyne and Talakivka,” according to the report.

While that’s not as exciting as the latest gaffe from our president-elect, it should arouse a little more press interest than it does. 

Here’s the news in more literary form. We’ve written about writer Serhiy Zhadan, the unofficial bard of eastern Ukraine, before. (See “They told him to kneel and kiss the Russian flag. Then he told them to…” here, and then a year later here.) In the current New Yorker, Marci Shore writes about Ukraine, and the author whose most recent novel Voroshilovgrad won the Jan Michalski Prize for Literature in Switzerland.  

Marci reprises the conflict:

On November 21, 2013, Yanukovych, under pressure from Russian President Vladimir Putin, unexpectedly declined to sign an association agreement with the European Union. For many Ukrainians this felt like the end of their future. Hundreds of people, students in particular, gathered on the Maidan, the large square in the center of Kiev, to protest. Around 4 a.m. on November 30th, Yanukovych sent his riot police to beat up the students. He was counting, it seems, on the parents’ pulling their children off the streets. Instead the parents joined their children there. The next day more than half a million people came to the Maidan, insisting, “They cannot be permitted to beat our children.”

“The government has blood on its conscience and has to answer for it,” Zhadan said a few days later, in an interview with the young Polish journalist Paweł Pieniążek. All that winter the stakes, and the violence, increased. …

After the Maidan’s victory in the Ukrainian capital, the population in eastern Ukraine remained divided. Russian “tourists” began arriving from across the border to take part in “anti-Maidan” demonstrations. On February 26th, Zhadan posted on YouTube, in both Russian and Ukrainian, a six-minute appeal to the residents of Kharkiv. “Don’t listen to the propaganda,” he said. “There are no fascists, no extremists. None of that is true. Come over to our side.” Three days later, on March 1st, Zhadan was led away from a demonstration in Kharkiv bloodied, his head bashed in. The poet was cavalier. “I’m a grownup—it’s hard to stun me with a blow to the head,” he said in an interview later that month.

Please read her article here, if for no other reason, it dispels the fiction that Ukrainians somehow really in their heart of hearts want to be Russians – a convenient notion that allowed us to turn our backs on Crimea and, increasingly, on eastern Ukraine.

Marci on Zhadan’s novel and its protagonist Herman:

In Voroshilovgrad, Zhadan describes a kind of war zone at the Ukrainian-Russian border near Rostov: men wearing camouflage and balaclavas and carrying Kalashnikovs, occasionally taking a hostage or two. He describes omnipresent violence at a time when there is no war—a backdrop of brutality, accepted as a given. “You know, before the war, all of these things naturally appeared entirely different: the border with Russia, the army fatigues, the daily readiness for fighting,” Zhadan told me in a letter. “There was no catastrophism in all of that.” (I wrote to Zhadan in Polish about a novel he had written in Ukrainian and I had read in English. He answered me in Russian. The whole situation was very Ukrainian.)

voroshilovgradThe balaclavas and Kalashnikovs and the culture of gangsters are connected to bottomless corruption. The word, or rather one of the words, for corruption in Russian is prodazhnost’ (in Ukrainian, prodazhnist’); it means “saleability” and refers to the understanding that everything and everyone can be bought. A peculiar relationship between prodazhnost’, “saleability,” and chestnost’, “honesty,” belongs to the essence of the Donbas. Where there is no trust in the system, trust in one’s friends is essential. Where there is no law, personal solidarity is paramount. And so what is important is not for whom one votes but how one treats one’s friends. Chestnost’ is related both etymologically and conceptually to chest’, “honor.” What is so striking about Herman’s experiences amid the savagery of the Donbas is the absence of duplicity. Voroshilovgrad is an unsentimental novel about human relationships in conditions of brutality in which there is not a single act of betrayal.

Herman is willing to risk everything for his missing brother, for [characters in the novel] Injured and Kocha, for Olga, for spectres of times past, even when this appears to make no sense. While attempting to escape from the biplane guys, Herman finds himself on a private train, where the train’s “authority” gives him some advice: “You’ve got this crazy idea in your head that the most important thing is to stay here, not give an inch—you’re clinging to your emptiness. There’s not a fuckin’ thing here! Not a single fuckin’ thing.” Yet Zhadan wants us to understand that there is something to stay for. In his prose there is no nostalgia, but there is genuine affection, rough and profound. Even in this brutish habitus, there is trust, loyalty, and love. The graduate student I spoke with, Monastyrskyi, prefers the Donbas to Lviv, where he lives now, precisely for the chest’ and chestnost’ that supercede a more conventional bourgeois morality. For all its violence, Monastyrskyi insists, “the Donbas is full of joy and mercy—and empathy.” And he loves Zhadan for portraying these people who don’t have a lot of words more authentically than anyone else, for showing us that “these people are beautiful, beautiful in their ugliness.”

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.