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Culture, Words 03/05/2017

The war poetry of Maria Stepanova

Maria Stepanova is a poet, essayist and more recently, as times have demanded, a cultural activist., the online magazine she founded in 2007, gives a platform to the liberal voice, the non-official and marginal arts, to the Ukrainian and Crimean experience and to voices in culture that have been eradicated from the monolith of state-controlled media. It isn’t a large operation, and it’s run on a shoestring, through crowdfunding and donations, but its significance is clear: it remains a constant channel of high quality literary and arts journalism and the content is surprisingly various.

More interestingly, it hasn’t been pushed into the defining position of constant political opposition. This independence of spirit is hard won. does not eschew politics – in Russia today that is impossible – but it insists on a level of cultural interaction which by its very nature asserts a critical dissent.

Maria and a group around recently designed touring festivals of 90s culture. The 90s are now perceived as a ‘low dishonest decade’ in Russia, the moral and emotional justification for Putin’s sweeping reforms, a period in which interaction with the West and an ailing, feeble government weakened Russia, compromised its legal and political system and corrupted its youth. The 90s festivals involve poets, musicians and artists and present a view of the nineties as a time of hope, freedom and artistic uplift in Russia, as well as illustrating the cultural continuities and the influences on post-2000 culture. They counter an official and popular myth by creating an alternative perception, and in a country where myth creation has enormous political currency it was an astute and thoughtful response to the political climate without being overtly political.

Myth and memory play an important part in Maria’s own writing. She shares with her beloved W. G. Sebald a sense of the haunting of history, the marks it leaves on the fabric of landscape. Her earlier poetry, although often formal in metre, wanders down paths of word association, memories, digressions, scraps of cultural matter, carried by the tides of history, as language itself is. Her recent collection Kireevsky (the title is the name of a contemporary of Pushkin, a folklorist who gathered folksongs in the 1830s) uses the melodies and songs from the Second World War as frameworks or shapes for meditations on war and on the memory of that war. It’s worth noting here that World War 2 in Russia has the cultural significance of the World War 1 in Britain. It was the war in which a generation of young men died (and much of European Russia was destroyed). The ballads, sung by soldiers to guitars and accordions have unbearable poignancy and potency as myth-carriers. Here’s an excerpt from The Last Songs are assembling, a poem in which the songs themselves appear like the ghosts of soldiers:

The last songs are assembling,
Soldiers of a ghostly front:
Escaping from surrounded places
A refrain or two make a break for it
Appearing at the rendez-vous
Looking about them, like the hunted.

Maria’s most recent collection marks a departure from this work. Spolia (a Latin term for reusing stones from older buildings in new building work) is a collection of two longer poems Spolia and The War of the Beasts and the Animals and it is this second long poem which we are translating together at present. In contrast to the early formality of her work, here Maria has counterpointed lyrical sections with sections in which language breaks down, words themselves are smashed into their constituent parts and the scraps and echoes of culture are torn flags. ‘The War of the Beasts and the Animals’ opens with the stock clichés of the Russian Civil War in the early twentieth century: young White Army officers, Hussars and songs, but its main underlying theme is the war currently raging in the Donbass region of Ukraine. This civil war (as Maria says, ‘all wars are civil war’) pits Ukrainians and Russians against one another, men and women who speak the same languages and have the same culture, and it has poisoned the ancient cultural links between the two countries. When we spoke about the poem Maria made it clear that the political situation had made it impossible to write in the old way, that she, and many of her compatriots, felt an inner ‘fragmenting’.

Whilst the war has caused great loss of life and terrible suffering in Ukraine, it is important to remember that jingoism, authoritarian rule and nationalism in Russia is a source of enormous pain to the Russian minorities who oppose it as well. Maria notes that a ‘deformation of language has taken place’ over the last few years, and the only way it can be tackled is from inside.

From my point of view as the translator of this complex and beautiful poem, The War of the Beasts and the Animals has more relevance in a post-Brexit Britain than ever before. There is something about the resulting schism in British society, the rise in xenophobia and the release of our nationalist demons which makes Maria’s work more urgent – although hardly easier to translate.

Sasha Dugdale spoke to Maria Stepanova as part of the Writers of the World Unite! Festival 2017

Sasha Dugdale is a poet and translator, editor of Modern Poetry in Translation magazine & co-director of Winchester Poetry Festival

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  1. Peter Pomerantsev is an award-winning TV producer and a contributor to the London Review of Books. His writing has been published in the Financial Times,New Yorker,Wall Street Journal,Foreign Policy,Daily Beast, Newsweek,Le Monde Diplomatique, among others. He has also worked as a consultant for the EU and World Bank. He is the author of Nothing is True and Everything is Possible: Adventures in Modern Russia.