“death of the book à la russe”

August 10, 2013 § Leave a comment

We live without feeling the land beneath us,
Our speeches can’t be heard ten steps away.

But whenever there’s enough for half a chat–
Talk turns to the Kremlin mountaineer.

His fat fingers are plump as worms,
And his words are as sure as iron weights.

His mighty cockroach moustache laughs,
And his vast boot-tops gleam.

A mob of thin-necked chieftains surrounds him,
He toys with the favors of half-humans.

One whistles, another mews, a third whimpers,
He alone bangs and pokes.

He forges one decree after another, like horseshoes–
One gets it in the groin, another in the head, the brow, the eye.

Every execution is a treat
And the broad breast of the Ossetian.

–Mandelstam’s “Stalin Epigram,” translated by Clare Cavanagh

I wrote in an earlier post (poem as threat to national security/as terrorist act I: Guantánamo Bay) that in particular historical situations the writing of a poem has been perceived as a terrorist act or as a threat to national security — recent examples of this include poetry written by some of the prisoners of Guantánamo Bay, anthologized in Poems from Guantánamo: The Detainees Speak Ed. Marc Falkoff (2007), and Pussy Riot’s musical expression which led to the imprisonment of  Maria Alyokhina and Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, Tolokonnikova being currently held in IK-14, in the same penal colony — the Dubrovlag —  that once housed the poet Irina Ratushinskaya, who was herself sentenced to a lengthy term in the 1980s for writing poetry deemed anti-Soviet.

The paradigmatic historical example of the poem as terrorist act is Osip Mandelstam, whose “Stalin Epigram” was described by his wife as “uncharacteristically coarse.” (Most of his verse is known for its intimate character and its musical play, poems which proceed by a kind of aural logic almost impossible to translate into a new language.) But as Clare Cavanagh points out in her important book, Lyric Poetry and Modern Politics, Russian and Polish poets of the 20th century have often found the need to insist upon the private nature of the lyric, the stanza or private room as stay against the monolithic culture of the state. The private realm of the lyric in itself becomes by situational necessity a political space. Seamus Heaney once described Mandelstam as “a reminder that humanity is served by the purely poetic fidelity of the poet to all words in their pristine being, in ‘the steadfastness of their speech articulation.’ Mandelstam died because he could not suppress his urge to sing in his own way” (XX The Government of the Tongue). Heaney also describes this effect as “poet as potent sound-wave” (xx).

Mandelstam’s wife Nadezhda however also noted in Hope Against Hope that she thought her husband deliberately wrote and performed his “Stalin Epigram” for people they could not entirely trust; she saw this uncharacteristic, “coarse” (‘political’?) poem, as deliberate provocation: he was baiting Stalin. Here is Cavanagh, on this “terrorist act”:

On hearing the ‘Stalin Epigram,’ Boris Pasternak reportedly exclaimed: ‘This is not a literary fact, but an act of suicide.’ Mandelstam’s interrogator likewise saw his unauthorized lines as exceeding the reach of literature proper: they were a ‘provocation,’ a ‘terrorist act,’ he charged. And Mandelstam apparently ceded the point: the poem was, he confessed, ‘a widely applicable weapon of counter-revolutionary struggle.’ All three agreed that these were not words, but deeds.
— Lyric Poetry and Modern Politics p.114

Cavanagh offers an interesting challenge to poststructuralist conceptions of écriture, the death of the author, and the death of the book by insisting on the cultural specificity required for such readings (that a metaphorical, not actual, death of the/an author is required). She notes that such phrases as the “death of the author” or the “death of the book” “are bound to give the Slavist pause, not least because such metaphors have had, in recent Russian history, an uncomfortable habit of realizing themselves as they pass from theory into practice” (p.110). She goes on to describe the many poets and writers in Soviet Russia who have had to literally burn or destroy or hide or never write down in the first place, their books, in addition to the many poets and writers who died at the hands of the state — hence the title of Chapter 3 on acmeism, a chapter I highly recommend: “The Death of the Book à la russe“.

poem as risk to national security pt. 2: the Small Zone

July 18, 2013 § Leave a comment

I know it won’t be received
And won’t be sent. The page is in tiny shreds
No sooner than I’ve finished scribbling it.
Later. Some day. After all, you’re used to it,
Reading between the lines that haven’t reached you,
Understanding everything. And on the tiny sheet
I find room for the night, taking my time….

— excerpt from “Pencil Letter” in No, I’m Not Afraid, Irina Ratushinskaya (Bloodaxe Books 1986)

In her memoir, Grey is the Colour of Hope, Irina Ratushinskaya describes how she would write her poems on cigarette papers to smuggle them out of the penal colony where she had been imprisoned:

In minute letters, I write out my latest poems on four-centimetre-wide strips of cigarette paper. This is one of the our ways of getting information out of the Zone. These strips of cigarette paper are then tightly rolled into a small tube (less than the thickness of your little finger), sealed and made moisture-proof by a method of our own devising and handed on when a suitable opportunity presents itself. p.75

Here’s a reproduction of some of the manuscripts which were preserved: the longer strip on top measures 2 1/4 inches wide, and just over 6 inches long:

pencil letter

–Image reproduced from Pencil Letter, Bloodaxe Books 1988, p.92

The irony is that she had been sent to prison for writing anti-Soviet poems in the first place. On 5 March 1983, a day after she turned 29, Irina Ratushinskaya was sentenced to seven years’ hard labour, in a “strict regime” concentration camp; she was also given five further years of internal exile to follow the seven years. This sentence was decided after a three-day-long trial. She was sent to Barashevo, 300 miles SE of Moscow; her crime was “‘agitation carried on for the purpose of subverting or weakening the Soviet regime’ (under Article 62 of the Ukranian SSR Criminal Code). Cited in evidence was the fact that she had written and circulated poems critical of the Soviet Union” p.11.

She was placed with other political prisoners in a prison within the prison, called the Small Zone, also known as Zone 4 (ZhKh 385/3-4) within the ‘Dubrovlag’ (‘The Oak Leaf Camps’) — built during the Stalinist era as part of the Gulag prison system, in the Mordovian Autonomous Republic. The Dubrovlag consisted of 14 labour colonies in total, administered by the town of Yavas; it was known as a “strict regime” colony, the harshest one that existed at the time for women. In early 1985 a 23-page diary was smuggled out which had been compiled by its inhabitants. It has also been reproduced in No, I’m Not Afraid.[1]

plan of the small zone

— Plan of the Small Zone. Image reproduced from p.30, No, I’m Not Afraid. Bloodaxe Books 1986; original image from Amnesty International’s “Russian Women Prisoners of Conscience: A Report by Amnesty International on the Small Zone of Mordovian corrective labour colony No.3” June 1985

While in the camp, Ratushinskaya participated in many protest strikes with other political prisoners, protests very much like the current protests being carried out by prisoners in Guantánamo Bay (see my earlier post, “poem as risk to national security pt.1: Guantánamo Bay“.) In August 1983, for example, she participated in a 3-day hunger strike after she was refused a visit with her husband; she was also forcefed, and suffered concussion at the hands of the guards.

Punishments in the Small Zone included being placed in SHIZO (solitary confinement, which included an unheated cell, with warm clothes removed, fewer rations, and so on); she spent 39 days here from Dec 1983 through February 1984.

Despite adverse conditions (or rather, because of them), her poems were smuggled out of the prison (written on strips of cigarette paper, or other papers) and circulated by samizdat, by magnitizdat (cassette tape), and by memory; they were then published in northern European Russian journals like Grani and Possev and Russkaya mysl’. Again, there are echoes of Guantánamo Bay, where prisoners in the earliest days of the prison wrote poems on styrofoam cups before having access to paper.

Of the women incarcerated with Irina Ratushinskaya in the Small Zone, several had also been convicted of circulating poetry, including:

— Natalya Lazareva: a former theatre director in Leningrad, sentenced for 4 years and 2 internal exile for “allegedly compiling an unofficial collection of feminist poetry and prose entitled Maria, and sending it abroad.” p.41

— Raisa Rudenko, a technician from the Ukraine sentenced to 5 years in the camp and 5 years of internal exile, “convicted of smuggling poems from her husband’s corrective labour colony and sending them abroad.” p.42 (as described in Amnesty International’s report, June 1985)

The attempts by various oppressive states to suppress poetry and song never seem to work; yet they nevertheless continue to try. As Ratushinskaya’s husband, Igor Gerashchenko, observed:

Poems are created in the soul, not on paper. I would find it difficult to say which is the best environment for poetic creation — the West, where people have enough to eat, or the concentration camp, where everyone goes hungry. As regards publication, the experience of recent years shows that prison walls in the USSR can be penetrated both by poetry and by prose. p.21


[1] The Dubrovlag is the same penal colony where Pussy Riot member Nadezhda Tolokonnikova is currently imprisoned (in IK-14). Fellow member Maria Alyokhina was sent to IK-32 in Perm (Wikipedia). A collection of poems in support of these women was edited and published in October 2012 by English PEN:  Catechism: Poems for Pussy Riot

 

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