Polina Barskova has long been stuck on the past. A scholar and poet of the Leningrad Siege, she has been chipping away at this moment in time, central to the Russian historical consciousness, in many genres and through numerous techniques. She has written about the Siege’s writers and artists who struggled to survive and yet continued to create within a city ravaged by war, starvation, even cannibalism. She has likewise incorporated these experiences into her dazzling poetry. She has unexpectedly turned to theater, despite her reservations about doing so. In these multifarious ways, she persists in trying to excavate the greater meanings of the tragedy that befell Leningrad between September 1941 and January 1944.
Alongside all these backward-facing efforts, though, Barskova remains eager to emphasize how the Siege—and its place in Russian society and culture—is not a dead piece of history. No, it remains a source of inspiration, from Barskova’s own work to the acclaimed, if controversial film by Kantemir Balagov, Beanpole (2019), as well as a prime weapon in the debate over how the Soviet past is to be remembered, how to discuss power, policing, and memory, among other topics.
Last fall I invited Barskova to speak to my class on contemporary Russian culture and society about her multifaceted project. Students generated questions for this discussion held on Zoom after reading several of her Siege poems.
Additional editing and transcription was done by Grace Sewell. Student Participants were Sarthak Harjai, Elizabeth Hohn, Jimin Lee, Benjamin Rosenzweig, Grace Sewell, Nick Urick, Jinny Yoon, Annie Zhang, Chris Haochen Zhao, Liam Rodgers, and others.
Sarthak Harjai: What practices, techniques, or methods inform your writing, both as a scholar and as an author?
Polina Barskova: Since my method is to combine scholarship with writing, in a way, I need to know how to do this — to speak about myself as if I were speaking about somebody else. I am from Petersburg, and this is the city that you see behind José at the moment [in his virtual background]. You see this city at its worst possible moment of existence. This painting belongs to a person much younger than you. It is by Elena Marttila, who was a teenager when the Siege began. Her way to—it is difficult to choose a verb here—deal with that reality, her way to have a relationship with that reality was to make art of it, to craft images about it, and to write about it. She is one of many amazing people whom I write for and write from.
I’ve been writing poetry forever, since some absurd age. At some point, you are so in your practice, and then you understand that you need nourishment, an important word today. You endlessly need to understand, to feed your writing, in a way, and at some point, when I understand that my reading practice is growing and growing and growing, this necessity to connect reader and writing has been activated.
Since I teach creative writing in this country and in Russia, people ask me all the time: What is centrally important from your point of view? I know that there are different ideas about this. This is why we need different people to come into our classrooms. I think that one rule exists. The better you read, the better you write. People ask all the time, can you teach us to write creatively? This is a big problem. Nobody can breathe a gift into another human being. Nobody can give us the desire and courage to fail all the time, because this thing [the act of writing] is about constant failing. So, how much do you need to feel this humility all the time, or how much can you want to do so? That, I cannot teach you and cannot teach myself. But what I can teach you and what one can teach in general is the art of avid creative reading.
Chris Haochen Zhao: In what ways, if any, does your personal background frame your work?
What parts of my story are curious? I guess the story of an immigrant. We have very exciting stories of emigration in the twentieth century and the twenty-first century in the realm of culture, right? There was the immigration of artists and actors and musicians. There is a huge problem for writers. Because of our tool—our instrument—we work with something that is hugely problematic when we want to transplant it.
“Translate” literally means to transfer, from the Latin verb. What happens with our instrument? I think about translation a lot. I think that this is a very cool, interesting thing to do, to practice, to teach, to think about. But also, you know, there is a cliché, even the name of the wonderful movie by Sofia Coppola, Lost in Translation. What can you do when you understand that so much is lost? You can turn it into a device. You cannot conceal it, but basically, say, things are lost, but what can we regain? This is one of the most important questions when you read people like [Vladimir] Nabokov and [Joseph] Brodsky, who moved to the United States and decided to reinvent their writing practice here.
Grace Sewell: The city of Leningrad-St. Petersburg—and all that it implies—figures centrally in your creative work and scholarship. How do you conceive of your relationship to this city and to the voices that have witnessed its historical transformations?
At some point, I left the city with which I think I am kind of obsessed — Petersburg, Leningrad. I understood then that I really, really miss it. I lack it. I need it. I began to research texts about it, and it so happened that one of my main points of interest became these three years in the twentieth century known internationally as the Siege of Leningrad. The most unique experience, when the city was locked in on itself. It could use only itself, basically, for food, and, to return to the word I used already, for every kind of nourishment: emotional, intellectual, spiritual, if you wish. This locked city produced an unbelievable kind of culture and an unbelievable kind of art. Among them, people of different degrees of education, ages, and sexualities began writing about their experience.
For a number of reasons, maybe one of the most important being that we’re also talking about the Soviet totalitarian regime with everything that it implies, many of these accounts were concealed, and only now are we publishing them. I wrote several books as an artist, trying to teach myself to work with this material creatively and deliver this material to the reader of the twenty-first century. To the reader who is still in Putin’s Russia today, who might have various problems with dealing with the Soviet century and Soviet history.
Elizabeth Hohn: In your experience, how do contemporary Russian and non-Russian audiences respond to the Siege of Leningrad? What do these responses tell us?
What I am constantly trying to bring to my students is that this is also an example of how to bring your own experience of, for example, American history closer to your thinking and closer to your practice, because there is so much in American history, or history for bicultural students in the class. All kinds of histories of the twentieth century that still wait to be reread, reopened, rediscovered. People often ask me during interviews, “So, how do you feel about being a scholar and writer of this material?” I feel funny. I feel strange. I’m still surprised that I’m doing this in various capacities.
To make it even more complicated, at this point I have to write for both Americans and for Russians, which creates completely different sets of questions and expectations. For example, when I speak about these events to my American audience, not many people have heard about the Siege, but in my experience, when I begin this conversation, people are really open-minded. Also, people have cognitive connections, for example, of how this experience can be connected to the experience of the Holocaust and other traumatic historical events of the twentieth century.
When I turn this conversation to a Russian audience, things are drastically different. Many people have heard or read about the Siege. Very often, they are very satisfied with their version and with the mythology that was created for them. For example, the Soviet version of events, showing the city as this perfect monument of courage, of everybody’s heroism, where the government was doing everything possible. Then, you come to disappoint them, telling them that the government was—for most of the first winter, which was the worst period—a total failure. There are various reasons to interrogate this history. Why did the Siege happen in this awful way? What did it mean for people inside the city? What kind of disappointments and tragedies were there? Very often, people just don’t want to hear this, because it’s much nicer to live with a beautiful mythology of the events, with a beautiful glorious picture of war where everybody is a hero, than to listen to stories about eating cats, cannibalism, and whatnot. But if you live with an idea of endlessly glorious war, then what happens is a part of the Putin regime’s cultural script. There is this huge obscene celebration of Victory Day, in May, when many cars have stickers on them, saying “We can repeat.” Then you come to these people, and you ask them, really, would you like to repeat that?
Jinny Yoon: How might the Siege of Leningrad further complicate or clarify our approach to contemporary issues?
I think about this topic a lot. Do you really think you can repeat this image of a man being frozen into the dirty snow of Leningrad? Is this what you want to repeat? This is a difficult conversation to have. But another strange thing, as the conversation goes this year, this unending year, about monuments in the American South, Confederate monuments. Suddenly, it is not a conversation about the nineteenth century. It is very much a conversation about today. This is the strangeness of our situation.
I do some historical research. Who cares, right? Egyptians, ancient Romans, the Siege of Leningrad. In the rooms of Petersburg today, where we have these conversations, we basically begin screaming at each other, which shows us that this is very much about us — not only about those people who froze into the ice, but about our relationship with our history. It is something that I think I really want to share with my students: history is not about yesterday. It’s about today. This is why I think it is so important, so exciting, and so difficult to study history.
At the same time, it is high time to become a student of the “now” moment of Russian culture. My never-ending respect for the guys with the wonderful beards, but new players are here with new problems and new confusions. We absolutely need you as readers.
Liam Rodgers: Do you think that words alone are capable of conveying the reality and tragedy of traumatic events, such as the Siege? Might other forms of artistic expression be necessary to accomplish this task? How could alternative forms of expression work with or in opposition to language?
Again, let’s go back to Marttila’s artwork. About the Siege, many people ask me, did it produce any new forms of expression? Can a historical disaster produce any new forms of expression? You might be aware of the famous dictum by the great German philosopher Adorno, who said that it’s barbaric to write poetry after Auschwitz. We carry this dictum, those of us who study history, but it’s a paradox. It is barbaric, but it’s also impossible not to. This is what makes the situation so interesting. Interesting being a euphemism for so bloody difficult, right?
One form that I see that actually became really activated during the Siege was what Marttila and many others did. They invented the form of the hybrid diary. People (not necessarily in connection to their professions, which is important) who never even thought about making art before the Siege began to do so, and people who never thought about writing before the disaster began doing so, trying to use everything they could to tell this story. Everything at their disposal. There are many diaries that we see that use visual techniques. Most of them were writing in dark or semi-dark rooms, with their ink frozen, so they had pencils or needles. Martilla used a needle and a pencil — a needle to scratch on paper.
By the way, there are all kinds of exciting and interesting peculiar effects. Almost nobody was allowed to work in the streets. People would be arrested for this, so they had to work from memory, carrying their impressions into the dark apartments. Memory is a very important factor and term in this conversation. Thinking about this, your question is to me and us—whoever “us” is—the community of people who feel that this is one of the stories that needs to be told. I think that we need to use every method, every instrument, every skill that we can.
This is one of the reasons, I think, why I’m trying to write about it in every verbal form available to me, including the play that I wrote, which was a completely wild experiment. I never wrote theater before. What helped me very much was my American students, whom I endlessly admire for their daring. At some point, I saw that people decide to write theater: “At age 19, I will write theater.” Why not? In this conversation, since one of my questions is how to recreate a situation where voices are heard, to break silence, to bring them back to the situation when they can talk about the experience, I decided that theater is an interesting medium for that. I wrote this little play, which has three actors in it. It’s about the Hermitage in the winter of 1941. It’s about the relationship between art and war, political disaster, and ruin. I think it was one of the most merciless and beautiful experiences in my writing life when I saw this happening on stage. I saw how these voices—the text was mainly taken from their letters and diaries—happened again on the stage, featuring two lovers and an old museum guide.
In the Hermitage, during the Siege, the famous works of art were evacuated to Siberia. They were empty frames. In order to thank the sailors who would bring some bread and pasta to the Hermitage, because the military had more food than the civilians, people who worked in the Hermitage would give them guided tours of the empty frames, explaining to them what was supposed to be there, talking to them about the Rembrandts, Van Dycks, and so on. It happened so that this particular role of the old museum guide was performed by an unbelievably strong actress in her seventies. A beautiful creature of art and theater. After seeing what she did, I thought, well, this whole thing was worth it. The crazy experiment of writing theater when you don’t know how to write theater. She basically managed to find a way to reconstruct something and to make us re-enter that history.
This is one possible answer to your question. Use everything you know how to use, and use everything you don’t know how to use. There’s also something to be said about trying various artistic forms. Some of us feel rather sad that “I am a poet,” “I am an artist,” “I only paint flowers.” I, by the way, secretly paint flowers, and everybody makes fun of it, but it’s fine. Try something else and see what happens.
Jinny Yoon: You mentioned earlier that Russian society often has preconceived notions about the Siege. I was wondering how your own experience in Leningrad shaped your opinions regarding the Siege and its aftereffects. How should it be remembered?
Again, to some extent, this kind of work makes you do something very difficult: to reconsider your own ideas and views, to criticize them, which is endlessly uncomfortable. For example, I thought that I would never, never, never write about the Siege of Leningrad. I grew up next to the official Soviet monument to this event, which is this huge, massive thing made of granite, with the words “hero city,” “gorod-geroi,” written in gold, everywhere. I thought to myself, no, I am not working with anything that’s made of granite. Then, I understood that the whole point is to unmake this monumental quality. Actually, to ask yourself, for example, what kind of monument this event needs. Deserves.
One of my poems, called “The Voice,” is about Olga Bergholz, the poetess who became known as the most important voice of the Siege, for the reason that her voice sounded on the radio in all these dark, cold apartments. Recently, her diary, composed of many, many, many notebooks, was published. Bergholz wanted to be published. She wanted to be on the radio. She wanted to be in conversation with her Soviet century. Simultaneously, she had all kinds of opinions about the Soviet state that, among other things, arrested her and tortured her in 1939. So, she had this secret diary. Several times during the Siege and after, she had strong suspicions that she might be arrested again, so she asked her husband to bury the diary. Yet, she wanted to write in it again, so she asked her husband to dig it up, which is a rather exciting story for a diary.
Recently, when asked what would be the best monument, I thought, you know, if there could be a way to work with an artist, to collaborate, to create a monument that would be a diary that is now buried and then again exhumed. That, for me, would be a monument to the Siege word, to the Siege story, to the Siege diary. What I would suggest would be something tiny and fragile. The size of one human life. This is how my opinion, as somebody born in 1976 (I was a young pioneer, all that shit), shifted. I wrote prose, nonfiction, creative nonfiction about somebody’s relationship to this event shifting, from what I heard when I was ten years old in my Soviet school to what I see now and what I continue seeing.
Elizabeth Hohn: One of the forms of media that you haven’t touched upon yet is film. I’m curious to hear your thoughts about the movie Beanpole and whether it represents history accurately or inaccurately. Should accuracy be the goal of the film?
This is such a difficult question. I think an interesting way to work with it is to judge from one case to another, or to look at particular works of film, for example, and to try to understand what they each do. Beanpole became a huge problem for a number of people. We’re still arguing, and we’re still in discussion, which is good, I guess. The best thing is to have a discussion. Opinions are born; ideas are born. Real discussion also shifts your opinion. When I have my brutal discussions about Beanpole, maybe my opinion is also changing, which is a great thing.
Overall, my opinion about Beanpole is that I’m not entirely sure why its authors decided to localize it as a movie connected to the Siege. I think that they actually could have used much more research into this event, since it’s not just an abstract event about war. It’s not just a symbolic text, but it says that we are connected to this city. So, people like me want to see more of this city, and we don’t recognize it there, so we ask why it was the director’s choice. But then the artist has all kinds of powers and liberties to work with history any way he, she, they want. You can go very, very far. Recently, for example, there were interesting things that happened, movies that represented the Holocaust. Not only Life is Beautiful, which is a comedy by Roberto Benigni, but also Jojo Rabbit, where a funny fantasy of Adolf Hitler comes to a young boy. Again, it totally polarized opinions. Funny Hitler — can that really be? What happens if we include laughter? Laughter is such a crucial instrument of cognition and creation.
I think that Beanpole does some important things, for example with the representation of gender and sexuality. My problem is that, again, this particular movie could have more layers. It’s the work of a very young author. He’s basically your age, and the camerawoman is younger than you. It’s a new generation making movies. So, to some extent, I feel that the movie is about very young people’s understanding of gender and sexuality at war, putting the background on the besieged city. It could be cooler and stranger, more layered, more nuanced if this person worked more with what the Siege voices would be able to say about themselves. There was “queer” in the Siege; some of the famous texts are written by queer authors.
You have to appreciate that it’s me speaking. Somebody else would be saying something different, but I’m all for doing historical research and then turning it into a creative voice. First, go to the archive and see what happens there. This is a very brief version of my answer. In general, film is such a powerful, interesting, problematic medium. It has so much power. Another text that I would offer is a problematic documentary made in 2006 by Sergei Loznitsa, who works with archival materials and questions how we work with archives. Again, it’s all very controversial.
Chris Haochen Zhao: You mentioned comparisons between the Siege of Leningrad and other historical events such as the Holocaust. What are the limitations and possibilities of a comparative approach?
One of the main stories of the Siege is about the relationship between the individual and power. I think it’s everywhere, but with the Siege, you see it kind of in prismatic form. It’s not that we’re not seeing it today, in your lives and our lives. Recently, people have been asking me about COVID-19. How are we supposed to live in this situation of isolation, in this situation of danger, in this situation of uncertainty? Who are we? How can we use previous experiences? There are all kinds of answers, of course, but one of them is to be extremely aware of the relationship between the individual and power, and not to be totally trusting, but to question it. I would say that this is the motif that I suggest for everyone when you think about various historical situations. Just yesterday, I read a Siege diary. I read that it’s December. The city has been besieged for four months. There are huge losses already. By December, the government of the city decides to go on record and say that the city has been besieged, four months later. For four months, they live without reliable information. They have to create information themselves, which means that gossip becomes a hugely important way to know and to make decisions. This is a huge part of what we discuss. I think understanding to some extent that when things begin happening, it is about individual responsibility, and not somebody protecting you, or telling you what to do. This is a very difficult thing to figure out, but it’s necessary.
Chris Haochen Zhao: In your opinion, what are the fundamental differences between writing about traumatic events as a witness versus writing about them from a distance?
I do think that since losses today are going to some astronomical numbers, and none of us knows what will happen to our life forms tomorrow, it’s really strange to talk to people via computer, and never be able to share a cup of coffee with a student. What I endlessly recommend to myself, to my students, to my friends and colleagues is to keep a diary. It’s a very interesting thing, actually. “Diary,” which means in Latin, you remember, “the book of days” or the “book of a date,” is a form of total focus on your today-ness. For the Siege, for the real tragedy, for the real disaster, when the city lost one-third of its population during the first winter due to starvation — for many of them, diary writing became absolutely necessary and urgent, because none of them knew whether they would make it to the next day. So, they knew that they should describe one day, that this is their whole horizon. I think, again, that it is a paradox. Should we compare various historical situations? Yes and no. We should absolutely remember that each particular history is absolutely unique, but nevertheless, there is a tendency to compare. This kind of dedication to your present moment and your attempt to describe your now and your day has a special value.
Another related thing is thinking about what happens to us as human beings, as a species in terms of our emotional connectedness. Another topic that is present in much of what I write about is what happens to relationships and connections. They suffer. We understand that we become less connected. So, the question is, what can we do being aware of this and trying to push this, maybe to connect in some other ways, understanding that as the tribe we are, as anthropologists would say, we need to be connected to stay human. Now is yet another moment to reinvent this. As cheesy as it might sound, staying creatively active—writing, imaging, whatever you do, whatever is your practice—is a very important part of helping ourselves in these kinds of situations.
Benjamin Rosenzweig: I’m curious about the portrayal of the NKVD in your poetry and the secret police in Russian history in general. Throughout your work you present the NKVD as a scourge to the Russian people, almost, in some ways, similar to the Nazis encircling Leningrad. You also mention, in your book Besieged Leningrad, their role in destroying the museum that would have held the collective memory of the Siege of Leningrad. How do you view the legacy of the secret police in terms of their involvement in and responsibility for the Siege? Do you see any parallels between their actions and the actions of police today?
I have a rather radical view on this, about which I’ve had endless and rather brutal conversations with a remarkable historian of the Siege, Nikita Lomagin. As always, this is a very delicate question. Supposedly, the task of the police in every state is to discipline and to make sure that there’s order. The question is one of terminology. What do we understand by “order”? What do we understand by “order” in the situation of a political crisis?
I would say, for me, what the secret police were doing in Leningrad was often, to put it mildly, brutal. Connected to the fact that many things were concealed and silenced due to the work of the police, one of the things that we knew almost nothing about until recently is what happened to ethnic Germans in Leningrad. They were arrested, put in a special camp, and basically starved to death, as a form of punishment for what was happening between Soviet power and German Nazi power. Most of these people lived in Petersburg for many generations. They had nothing to do with the decisions of Hitler or Goebbels. This was a symbolic act of vengeance, carried out by a government that consists of many institutions, of which the police are only one. When you found out about these things, or, for example, when you found out about the most difficult example, when in the city they would find out about cannibalism, everyone connected to it would be shot.
Another question follows. Who was responsible for bringing this kind of starvation to the city? In general, it all comes down to the question of responsibility. The police were not the only ones responsible. It was the larger idea or construction of the regime in power at the moment. The regime was suppressing information from France that led to the fact that many people chose not to leave Leningrad when they still could. You should read Lomagin’s The Leningrad Blockade [1941—1944: A New Documentary History from the Soviet Archives], by the way. This is a very interesting part of the conversation about silence and information. When you find materials in the archives of the FSB, the KGB, or whatever they call themselves, what do you do with this information? How do you trust it? I’m sure that you have thought about it, thinking about American history. Lots of this information is “created,” “revealed,” as a result of torture and procedure. Do you trust this information? Is it a part of the historical narrative? We see this for centuries, for example, during the Inquisition. How do we work with this information?
Again, the conversation about police, policing, and its relationship with power is so complicated. Again and again, this is why there is a certain amazing quality to the study of the Siege. All those elements of the Soviet regime, in its huge complexity, become more visible. This prism helps us to see contradictions, controversies, and problems.
Annie Zhang: I’m interested in the concept of defamiliarization in the Siege of Leningrad, and how that enables the representation of Siege space, where Leningrad becomes a vessel where new disorienting things are superimposed on the habitual and familiar. In one of the poems, the “Leningrad Directory,” we notice an abundance of literary and historical references. How do these references relate to the defamiliarization effect? Can the space of the poem be seen as a vessel where the new and disorienting effects of the Siege are superimposed on these literary and historical allusions?
Since my whole book is about that, let me give you some guidance as to how one can start thinking about this in helpful, interesting, and creative ways. Viktor Shklovsky, from whom I borrow this term, suggested that defamiliarization, or in another translation, estrangement, is the purpose of poetry and the reason why we write, to create some distance between us and the event or object of writing that would allow us to write about it. Very often, we are talking about traumatic things. Again, in general, this is something that undergirds many of your questions: How were they able to write about something so painful, so difficult? The answer is by creating various distances.
This is also important for us today and might be important for you in your writing and your work. For example, there’s an interesting shift that I recognize between Polina-the-poet and Polina-the-scholar. This is the difference between two positions. I learned this distance from reading materials created in 1941. Many poets, writers, diarists, and artists notice some kind of shift of position that allows them to begin talking. For example, when I speak about diaries that have images and poetry, I’m basically speaking about graphic novels, a powerful art form today. They create a defamiliarized, estranged new form. I’ll write about this, and I’ll make images of this. This is strange for me; this is new territory. This will help me to speak about my experience in a somewhat different way. Actually, this is one of the most important reasons for this work to exist and for our interest in what they are doing.
Again, at the end of the day, this particular moment — why should you be interested in it? It is far away. It is almost exotic in its strangeness, but I do believe that we all have our pains that we want to speak about, that we want to learn to turn into some kind of text. What we have to learn is to create distance between us and this event. This distance will help us to begin our work. By reading the writers from Leningrad, it will tell us something about our ways. The thing is to jump. As always, to say, “I can. I can read this.” Maybe it’s good that these are some of my final remarks, because people often ask me why I would do this difficult job. Life is not that comforting at the moment, people ask me, why do you want me to read this? I tell people, you’ll find amazing things about yourselves. You’ll find amazing things about us, about people. When you read about them during situations of this total limit, as we call it, you can find how much can be done in any trying situation. How much, for example, can be created. One of the most amazing things I found out during my research about the Siege of Leningrad was that they created a whole world of art in various forms and genres. When we study it, and when we find our own forms of studying this, we learn something endlessly curious about what humanity means and what is human.
Polina Barskova is the author of twelve collections of poems and two books of prose in Russian. Her collection of creative nonfiction, Living Pictures, received the Andrey Bely Prize in 2015 and is forthcoming in German with Suhrkamp Verlag and in English with NYRB. She edited the Leningrad Siege poetry anthology Written in the Dark (Ugly Duckling Presse) and has three collections of poetry published in English translation: This Lamentable City (Tupelo Press), The Zoo in Winter (Melville House) and Relocations (Zephyr Press). Her latest translated collection, Air Raid, is recently published through Ugly Duckling. She has taught at Hampshire College, Amherst College, and Smith College. In 2021, she will begin teaching Russian literature at the University of California at Berkeley.
José Vergara is Assistant Professor of Russian at Bryn Mawr College, where he teaches courses on Russian language and culture of all eras. He specializes in prose of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, with an emphasis on experimental works. His first book, All Future Plunges to the Past: James Joyce in Russian Literature (Cornell University Press, 2021), examines Russian literary responses to James Joyce. He has also published articles on authors including Vladimir Nabokov, Mikhail Shishkin, and Sasha Sokolov in a variety of journals. His writing has appeared in the Los Angeles Review of Books, Asymptote, Words without Borders, and Music & Literature. More information can be found on his website.