I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee
“I’m interested in subterranean culture that says ‘I will trick you’ to official culture, ‘I will play you.’”
Polina Barskova was born in 1976 in Leningrad (present-day St. Petersburg), a city that hosted one of the most destructive arenas of the Second World War. The Nazi Siege of Leningrad claimed more than one million lives, trapping its citizens for over three years in a landscape of darkness, starvation, and disease. Barskova left Russia at the age of twenty to pursue a PhD in Russian Studies at UC Berkeley, having already earned a graduate degree and become an accomplished poet in her homeland. I first found her work in The Ecco Anthology of International Poetry, co-edited by fellow émigré Ilya Kaminsky, who translated a short volume of her poems for Tupelo Press, This Lamentable City (2010). Barskova is also the author of several books in Russian, the earliest of which was published during her adolescence. Some of this work is represented in The Zoo in Winter: Selected Poems (Melville House, 2011). As a professor of Russian literature at Hampshire College, Barskova began an archival project that resulted in Written in the Dark: Five Poets in the Siege of Leningrad (Ugly Duckling Presse, 2016), an anthology of work written during the siege that remained unknown for decades. Barskova’s book gives form to the fluidities of poetic lineage, cultural context, and literary translation, a meld of aberrations optimized by what Barskova calls “the siege surreal.” In service of these five poets, who found themselves caught in an often misrepresented moment in Russian history, Barskova and the several translators of this book have rendered these pieces from the catacombs of the twentieth century.
Michael Juliani In the introduction of Written in the Dark: Five Poets in the Siege of Leningrad, you mention how being in America for many years enabled you to study the blockade in a new way. What was that process like and how long did it take?
Polina Barskova Forever. At least five years in making. It’s been one of the most important and humbling discoveries in life—that everything takes long, and good things take forever. The book came out of my larger project about the siege culture and literature. The siege is not a big mystery or a hidden secret, but for decades we knew only the official version—that it was absolutely heroic and courageous. Which, of course, has nothing to do with reality. One million people were not starving to death courageously, but for political and ideological reasons Soviets couldn’t say this. What’s curious is that it’s still the case—or rather again the case, because Putin is making a very useful thing out of the Second World War and the so-called Great Victory. So, it wasn’t a good idea, and it still isn’t a good idea to talk about the actual price of the Siege of Leningrad.
I was always interested in the incredibly rich twentieth-century culture of my city, all its hidden layers, the avant-garde. While working on this topic [in America], I found names and texts I had never heard of before, which was kind of offensive to me. I thought I knew the culture of my city. How was it possible that I, such a nerd, a totally bookish person—this is all I do, basically, unfortunately—didn’t know that such unbelievable texts remained hidden and invisible? And then this whole process of thought began: What happened to that culture? Why are there hidden nooks of culture? The hidden culture of the siege became my obsession. So I thought, okay, we don’t have a book where strange siege poets are together. [They were] a phenomenon, a world of which people are not so aware.
Hampshire College generously gave me a prize for this work, and I took it to Matvei Yankelevich [at Ugly Duckling Presse] and then there was this huge adventure of translating these poets. There were discussions, quarrels, exaltations, but it happened. I think these are good translations, as far as I can understand. English, for me, is very much a second language. These were difficult translations. This poetry is ugly. This is not beautiful poetry, and one of the problems was to overcome the desire to make it beautiful in English.
MJ Because it’s an anthology of five poets, I could experience each of them individually, but they also seemed to weave a collective fabric. I’m curious about the thought process behind choosing these particular poets and poems?
PB The world of siege poetry is rather big. I like to think about this in crazy architectural terms. There are many stories, many floors. The obvious one is “official” poetry. There are some poets, for example, like the most famous, Olga Bergholz, who wrote for Leningrad radio. In the official siege cemetery, Piskariovskoye, her words are engraved in gold, and it says, “Nobody is forgotten, nothing is forgotten,” which is absolutely the opposite of the situation as I see it. So, there is this well-known official poetry, some of which is actually very strong.
For this particular project, I decided to concentrate on the strangest, least publishable, and least published—only surrealist poetry about the siege. We do know of surrealist art and poetry coming from the Holocaust. I think such poetry, on some level, makes lots of sense. Human minds cannot process these events. It stops and says, “I do not want to process you, Siege of Leningrad. I do not know what to do with you.” Another reason why I became interested, [is that] they were connected to my favorite Leningrad poets—this generation who Matvei Yankelevich and Eugene Ostashevsky, for example, translated beautifully. This group was called OBERIU, which included Kharms and Vvedensky and Oleynikov, who were all murdered in the purges of the 1930s. These absurd, funny, beautiful men in their thirties, writing strange poetry about god and music and numbers, they were killed. Which is one of the most surreal things, because one understands why one kills Mandelstam, on some level. Mandelstam writes a poem where he calls Stalin a cockroach.
MJ Going right to the source.
PB Right. But Kharms and Vvedensky didn’t call Stalin a cockroach. They wrote a lot about insects, but in very metaphysical ways. While they were playing their games in the 1930s, younger artists and poets were observing these strange masters. And when the masters died, these young gentlemen remained. This was the next generation. Which is also kind of touching and poignant, because when you study literature and its history—maybe this is a human thing to believe there is some connection—after you, your students will follow. This is why we teach. To create this texture. So on some level of reading, observation, whatnot, these poets are the disciples of the murdered OBERIU, and these are disciples who happened to live in the siege with this amazing language to describe one of the least believable events of the twentieth century.
MJ With a number of writers I love from the Siege of Sarajevo in the Bosnian War, the situation set up time for them to write, because the social fabric was so destroyed they couldn’t work. They just had to find food and survive, and write. These Leningrad poets also experienced total collapse. I guess for some writers it could destroy their ability to write, but with these poets it enabled them to write in a way they wouldn’t have been able to before, as well as process their relationships with their heroes.
PB I really like what you say about a hole in the social fabric. A lot has been written about this. We don’t have women [in this book], but one of the most important people who wrote about the Siege of Leningrad is Lidiya Ginzburg. More of her work is being translated into English, to my delirious happiness, because she is great. She was working with the word relief. The siege was a time of hell, but it was relief. For one thing, it was relief from silence, because they were so tired from the 1930s, when things were unspeakable. Nobody could even remotely write about the arrest of their best friends, husbands, wives, or children. You couldn’t talk about it, basically. So your best friend, husband, child disappear at night and you go on, if you’re lucky. You continue being in the society, in silence, which is like the worst thing ever. The siege allowed people to scream about it. One could say that the pressure of unspeakability was relieved. And this is what happened, great poetry, just like water, it went under this pressure.
MJ I was also very interested in how the OBERIU poets released themselves from historical references, and how the siege made these poets attach to their historical moment in the process of playing with language.
PB Yeah, this is one of my main observations. If you study history of literature, this is your weird disease. When we say that these people, like Gor and Zaltsman, learn from OBERIU, they learn to break language. They learn that smooth, ornate, orderly language doesn’t work for the twentieth century as they saw it. But what was absolutely crucial for OBERIU, I think, was to create a capsule of some sort where Soviet reality was like a gas you breathe. OBERIU played many games, social games, but they were these brilliant young people who, on some level, pretended that the Soviet thing didn’t exist. It was their experiment, it was an artistic endeavor. They were womanizers, gamblers. They had very peculiar obsessions for the 1930s. They loved mathematics. They were interested in theology, a strange interest to have in the Soviet Union. They were obsessed with Bach, for example, with very high music, which is almost as strange as theology and mathematics. When we read their diaries it’s like reality, history, is almost nowhere to be found. It’s not like, “Today is the First of May parade, everything is colored red—disgusting,” or something. It’s just not there. And it’s more or less not there in their poetry, at least not directly. What makes the siege generation different is that, using the toolbox of OBERIU, they do write history. Now their camera is very much on. This is history written through a surrealist lens.
MJ As an American, I never learned anything in school about Russia except that they were our enemy in the ’60s or something. So, I learn a lot from studying literary figures. One of the things I’ve heard, especially with Mandelstam, is that before Russian modernism there was an emptiness of tradition, as if there was Pushkin and then modernism. I’m wondering if that’s at all fair. It’s extremely complicated, I’m sure.
PB It is extremely complicated. There were people between Pushkin and modernists, indeed. Since I teach literature in this country, I think about it all the time, as do friends and colleagues. When American students study Russian things, it’s Pushkin then Tolstoy and Dostoevsky—where did Lermontov and others go? What happened to Leskov and Goncharov?
Russia has its own problems with the history of Russian literature. This is a little bit more of an immediate, urgent concern for me. Sometimes we look at the medieval maps of the world, like for example, an old Spanish map—there is Spain, there is France, and a little bit further [out] you see dragons and mermaids and monsters. Certain topics are covered too well on the map of twentieth-century Soviet literature. And then we see monsters and white spots. How can it be that [we don’t know about] a poet of the scale of Gennady Gor? It’s like waking up and realizing you’ve spent your whole life next to a whale. Like, “Ah, mama!”
MJ Moby Dick.
PB Right, Moby Dick! Precisely. How can it be that we didn’t know that such was Soviet history, such were social pressures. We are still very much in the process of active discovery. Gor never published one poem in his lifetime—by which I mean he didn’t read one poem to anybody. When I say this to my American friends, there is a difficult pause. I claim that Gennady Gor is one of the ten greatest poets of the Russian century, if this would be the right way to view this discipline, which it is not. There are no strongest poets; it’s not sports. Somehow it works in a different way. But how can you spend your whole life without reading one of your poems to your lover, to your child, to your best friend?
We are still trying to understand what it means for Russian literature that suddenly we have this island, it’s like Atlantis coming up from being hidden. It’s a big event. When our friends learn about this anthology, their first reaction is, “Great!” and the second is, “What do we do now? Where do we find a place in the sequence of things?” Twentieth-century Russian literature is like an earthquake since we’re not sure what will end up where, what the mountain will be.
MJ Most of these poets were prominently involved as artists or philologists. Was that a symptom of their need to hide their poetry, or were they truly more involved in other pursuits? Would that make their siege poetry an aberration?
PB Gor’s poetry is an aberration. Everybody who knew him after the war speaks of him as nice, agreeable, and curious. According to his poetry, he is a total monster—a genius. Nothing is nice or agreeable. He produced huge numbers of well-disciplined, pro-Soviet sci-fi about good Soviet citizens traveling to other planets. He hid himself rather well. Zaltsman was much more difficult, but he was a brilliant artist. He went to Kazakhstan and decided never to go back to Leningrad. Many people did that on some level. For example, the greatest philosopher of the Russian century, Bakhtin. Everyone around him was eliminated, but [sarcastically] Bakhtin was a teacher of literature in Saransk, with his cat, and somehow nobody found him until it was not a murderous adventure to be found, not a death sentence. Rudakov died at the front, but everybody else was rather good at assimilation, which makes each of these cases more interesting than just a book of siege heroes. I’m a huge enemy of the notion of hero. I’m interested in humans. Survival and writing are acts of outlandish strength.
MJ It would seem, at least from a civilian perspective, a non-poetic perspective, that maybe sitting and writing poetry during the Siege of Leningrad would be an absurd thing to do.
PB I think some of them didn’t even imagine going to the front. They were not of that material. Again, it was a different form of strength, a different form of courage and humanity. There was nothing military about them. They were, I would say, like children. This understanding that children can be crazy, weak, and strong. I am a mother, I know weak and strong. But they could not play war, and this poetry is what they did.
MJ Because you’ve been involved in this archival and editorial work for a number of years now, can you trace any effect it has had on your own writing, your own practice, or the way you think about being a poet?
PB It completely changed me. I’ve become an archival poet. It changed my language. I stopped writing beautiful poetry. I stopped being interested in beautiful poetry. I became interested in the hidden. I’m like a mole hunter. I’m interested in subterranean culture that says ‘I will trick you’ to official culture, ‘I will play you.’ Bergholz, who we just mentioned, now has huge diaries being published. She understood everything about the Soviet era, and she wanted to play different games. She wanted to be a Soviet-accepted, huge canonical poet, but also to write real stuff, and she desperately tried to figure out how one can do both. It’s a question of whether it’s possible at all—that’s why we’re talking now about Bergholz now. All this is possible because we have documents. This is the whole thing about archive fever. None of this would exist otherwise. It’s like a ghost. Who are they? What are the notepads that were never found? I think this book, and all books of this kind, are memorials to things that disappeared.
Michael Juliani is a poet, editor, and journalist from Pasadena, California. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in outlets such as The Adirondack Review, the Los Angeles Times, The Conversant, Truthdig, and The Huffington Post. The editor of three books by the filmmaker and photographer Harun Mehmedinovic, he earned a BA in Print & Digital Journalism from the University of Southern California and an MFA in poetry from Columbia University. He lives in New York City.
I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee