A Conversation with Maria Stepanova
Maria Stepanova is a prizewinning poet and the author of In Memory of Memory, a volume of creative nonfiction that has been recognized with many Russian and European awards and was shortlisted for the Booker Prize (see WLT, Spring 2021, 95). As founder and editor in chief of Colta.ru, one of the most influential culture portals in Russia, she has voiced consistent and outspoken opposition to the Putin regime for years. Stepanova was among the first Russian authors to protest the 2022 Russian invasion of Ukraine with her essay “The War of Putin’s Imagination” in the Financial Times. When we spoke with her by Zoom in October 2022, Stepanova was in residency as a fellow at the Wissenschaftskolleg in Berlin. This issue of WLT also includes poems from Stepanova’s still-unpublished book of recent poetry.
Kevin M. F. Platt: Let’s begin at the beginning—actually, long before the beginning. I think we could draw a contrast between the current situation of Russian writers, such as yourself, who have found themselves outside of Russia and that of emigration in the 1920s. Perhaps at the start of the revolutionary upheavals of a century ago, people hoped that everything could suddenly be resolved and it would be possible to return home. Yet what we are witnessing today is an unsettled temporality of a more significant sort, leading to a kind of fermentation. So how does this peculiar situation affect authors? Does one write differently?
Maria Stepanova: That’s exactly right: this has nothing or little in common with that emigration. The first-wave emigrants had a sense that they were victims of a catastrophe. A huge explosion that, regardless of how one related to it, had thrown people to all sides in the blast wave. You hope it’s not the end of the story. You try to find your way in the new circumstances. You build new institutions. Or learn to drive a taxi. Somehow, you attempt to place yourself in relation to the catastrophe.
Now, the situation is fundamentally different, because, to be blunt, it’s not us who are the refugees. It’s not clear who we are—unless we begin to address the things we really ought to be thinking about, in my opinion. I am talking about the degrees of responsibility we all bear for what happened on February 24 and for the war that began in 2014. Responsibility, guilt, participation, complicity, involvement—you can call it by various names. Yet one way or another, at present, we Russians are not those who are fleeing as refugees, but those from whom others are fleeing. Only after that, secondarily, can we be counted among those who have fled, right?
Today, to be a Russian writer—to be a Russian, even—is a kind of stigma. It’s an externally imposed stigma, rather than one that comes from within. And it’s not clear how it is defined, according to what characteristics or parameters. What identifies me, with my 75 percent Jewish ancestry, as a Russian writer? Is it my Russian passport or the language I write in? Is it the forty-odd years I’ve lived in Russia? If we are talking about others, not just me, maybe it’s just Russian heritage. A person might not even have been born in Russia but can still feel complicit. And what about a completely American or French person, yet one who has been a part of things Russian—does a certain measure of . . . involvement . . . extend to such a person as well?
One thing I’m certain of is that the least apt response to this condition is to say: This has nothing to do with me.
We don’t have the right word for this: imbrication, presence, partiality? Yet one thing I’m certain of is that the least apt response to this condition is to say: This has nothing to do with me. Overall, I was a good person. I never voted for Putin. I wrote articles, tried to analyze what was happening around me. . . . That doesn’t work. The truth is: you didn’t write enough, or maybe you should have done everything differently, to prevent it all from happening in the first place.
From this moment on, and for the foreseeable future, we have all lost the utopia of private existence Brodsky described in his Nobel Prize lecture, which was so valued by the older generation of Russian writers. For us, there can be no more private existence. This has very clear biographical implications. Those who write in Russian can no longer represent themselves and their work (whether within Russia or abroad) solely in terms of a private life and selfhood. They will instead be received as the product of a certain collective identity, in which the microlevel of being always corresponds to the macrolevel. One is always in the presence of the “we.” I will always be a Russian writer, whether or not I’m in exile.
It’s a quandary. When you publish a book, for instance, things have to be defined this way or that. In an interview, they always ask, “How should we present you?” You think: am I a Russian writer or a Jewish Russian writer? I usually just say, “Whatever! Introduce me however you want.” In fact, since childhood, the Jewish side has always been more definitive for me than the Russian—because it’s what could get you into trouble. It was a matter of pain. But when people ask me now, I say I’m a Russian writer. I can’t say I’m happy with this self-definition. For my entire life I’ve wanted to be just a writer. But that won’t work anymore.
Mark Lipovetsky: Masha, I agree completely about the end of the utopia of private existence. On the other hand, you, more than anyone else, never held back in your critical perspective, long before 2014 and continuing afterward. You’ve never compromised your political views. I feel bound to disagree when a writer like you ties themselves to a collective “we” that also includes Putin and his cronies and all those who support the war. What about the possibility of a divorce from the big Russian “we”? Can you envision some kind of alternative collectivity—“over the barriers,” in Pasternak’s terms?
Stepanova: Yes, creation of such an alternative “we” is possible and necessary. In some sense, we are already doing so. Look, there are three of us here talking to each other, and that leads to shared meaning—to some kind of commonality. And, of course, we also need to create all kinds of new institutions because, as Bulgakov put it, “no matter what you reach for, it’s not there.”
For example, there are no Russian publishing houses or even Russian-language publishing programs abroad. With the new Russian law criminalizing all mention of LGBT lives and the steady intensification of censorship, there will simply be nowhere to print many texts written in Russian. And this censorship affects not only those inside Russia but also those who are abroad, who fear placing readers within the country at risk. It’s a hostage situation that involves everyone. There are, of course, a number of initiatives in this regard already, but I’m interested most of all in experimental writing, complex prose, and poetry. This, of course, doesn’t sell so easily. Yet perhaps we will try to do something in this arena as well?
When you witness a disaster, you need to find out how and why it happened.
We also need educational institutions, because we need to understand ourselves and others. This is more important than ever, because when you witness a disaster, you need to find out how and why it happened. For the duration of the Putin decades, people have been saying that we need to create a serious Russian university abroad. Yet these projects continuously stall. Maybe now they will come to fruition. In sum, this is a story about a desert island where nothing as yet exists, but one can hope that a couple of kegs of gunpowder and alcohol will be thrown on the beach by the waves, and it will be possible to begin building something.
Yet we should also remember how during the twentieth century interactions between Russians in emigration and in the USSR were shaped by relations of mutual interest, fear, attraction—but ultimately by the abyss that lay between the two. In general, what little contact there was took place in a strained and garbled manner. It seems to me that we now face the danger of falling into the same old rut—a rut from which we might never get out again. Instead, we need to create institutions that address everyone who speaks Russian, regardless of place of residence, passport, and so on. In the course of such a project, a new “we” will undoubtedly take shape.
Finally, let’s take a sober view of things. On one hand, the members of our “we” will feel others out with fine-tuned antennae, recognizing our own, our kin, sharing an embrace and common undertakings. But there are also observers, the external authority, a wider world that is trying to understand us. When a work produced by someone from Russia—a film, a poem, a book, an article—winds up in the hands of that broader public, it will be received not as an excellent novel about childhood–adolescence–youth, written by some excellent writer or other. Instead, it will be seen as a novel written by a person from Russia and will be read primarily in relation to what has happened in Russia and why. You may want to write about butterflies, but ultimately you will have to explain the war.
You may want to write about butterflies, but ultimately you will have to explain the war.
Lipovetsky: That is, any text written by a Russian writer becomes an allegory of war?
Stepanova: And it works retroactively, too. You can’t read texts written ten or twenty years ago now, except as premonition or prediction of war, or as blindness to its approach. Everything points forward in one way or another to the current moment. And so, when I talk about this “we,” it includes all of us—all the way from Putin himself to a baby now being born in Vyatka. Sadly, you are in this “we.” You can build any number of internal spaces in order to fight against Putin from within. But for the outside world, everything is now determined by what has happened and the need to understand it. I just don’t see any way out for anyone. It seems to me that we need to recognize this with open eyes and try to live with it.
Platt: There have been many empires in the history of the world, and there are many imperial languages. The speakers of imperial languages are not only the agents of empire but also the victims of empire and their descendants. This means that among the varieties of imperial language and literature, there are imperial works, but there are also anti-imperial texts and movements. There are whole countries and postcolonial territories where people write, work, and speak in these languages and transform them into something new. In russophone space we could consider the example of the Fergana school of russophone poetry in Central Asia, or the Orbita group in Riga. Berlin, where you are now located, is also home to a number of russophone writers. My question is, What about anti-imperial Russian culture? Where can we find it in the past and present?
Stepanova: Kevin, what you’ve just said is the equivalent of an article. And I don’t mean a scholarly essay, but rather the article in the Russian legal code that criminalizes all “appeals for the dismemberment of Russia.” This is a topic for a long and interesting discussion. But to be brief, the most challenging aspect of this problem relates to the one zone where it seems practically irresolvable. It helps to have some kind of separate topos—a territorial or linguistic zone that you can unlink, split off, separate from the imperial monolith. And then you can stand on this separate entity, like it’s an island. See, this is my language—my own special universe that has broken away from the empire. Yes: Fergana, Riga, Berlin.
But is that possible when you are in the midst of this empire, its territory and language? Do you have the ability to change something in that language? I don’t want to suggest that the logic of the separate territory comes easily, but it has, how should I put it, more drive. Namely, with some caution, I would propose that in Ukraine and Belarus (where, unfortunately, they could not match the achievements of Ukraine), the simple desire not to be like us served as fuel for a powerful revolutionary movement. They took us as a negative model, and their indignation, disgust, and unwillingness to have anything to do with that model provided them with impetus, helping them to lift away and never return. But it’s not so clear how to achieve something similar inside your own head—or in Moscow and St. Petersburg.
How can we manage the situation when literally every second expression or metaphor, if we trace it to its roots, is littered with allusions to war and violence? Language itself turns into a minefield in which you can’t put your foot down anywhere without risk of an explosion.
Language itself turns into a minefield in which you can’t put your foot down anywhere without risk of an explosion.
Let’s take the main text of ancient Rus’ian literature, The Tale of Igor’s Campaign. What kind of epic poem is this, apart from its brilliance? It’s the story of a crazy military scheme, reminiscent of Russia’s current war in Ukraine. A provincial prince from a small city gathers a retinue of warriors and embarks on a small, victorious war. He is utterly crushed. All his men are killed, and he barely manages to escape and return home. In general, it’s a completely unambiguous story of failure, defeat, and shame. But in the last section of the epic, he rides along the Borichev incline to the Church of the Mother of God, and all the bells are ringing. It’s a victory parade, with a triumphal arch, imperial eagles, and assembled troops, and everything is wonderful. Somehow, unambiguous shame and defeat is recoded into triumph and victory. If we analyze The Tale of Igor’s Campaign carefully, we can see how double-think operates—a hybrid or patchwork thought—that makes it possible to recognize defeat as defeat, and at the same time to pretend that it doesn’t mean a thing, because we won all the same. This is what our culture has been doing for many, many years. It’s what Russian propaganda is trying to do now.
I don’t know how to struggle against this. I think about Celan and wonder how it was for him, writing in a language that, on one hand, was his mother tongue, while on the other hand, this same language arrived in his multilingual home and killed his actual mother and father, sparing him only by a miracle. He continued to write in this language, yet he also took each word, its etymological armature, and destroyed it from within, remaking it, turning it inside out. The result was a completely new language: a unique, individualized German—a non-German.
Yet I want to add two footnotes here. Footnote 1: When Celan first came to Germany to read his poems—at a gathering of Group 47, I think—he produced a negative impression, deeply disturbing his audience. The problem was that he read with too much pathos, in the view of these German writers who had been working to rebuild German literature on new foundations, just as we would like to rebuild Russian literature now. For them, pathos in poetry had been compromised by Nazism. It’s a striking story about the clash of two different modes of opposition. Footnote 2: It is also important to recognize that Celan, and what he does with language, illustrates a form of resistance originating with the victim. We do not have the same.
Lipovetsky: The same license?
Stepanova: Not license, but opportunity. We ourselves have no idea who we are. When they tell me we are also victims, of course that’s in some sense true, but it irritates me terribly. Of course, things are hard for us, but just compare our situation with that of the Ukrainians. So who are we, then? Neither victim nor aggressor. Then who? This is a major problem for writing. We all remember “Go I know not where and bring I know not what” from the Russian fairy tale. But now we also have: “Be I know not whom.” It’s not clear where to begin. Yet still I would say that one might have to begin with movement. You may not know who you are or what you are after, but at least you have to get moving and start doing something.
Translation from the Russian