Russia


On a panel about memoir at the annual Association of Writers & Writing Programs (AWP) Conference this past March, Stephen Elliott loosely quoted Michelangelo:

I carve to set the angel free.

And now, months later, the quote—which originally read “I saw the angel in the marble and carved until I set him free”—finally makes sense.

A few years ago, I kept trying to write (the one)(the only)(the one to negate a need for any future) essay about my complicated Russian-American identity, my dual nature, about growing up as the only American-born child in a Soviet émigré household. Around the same time, I was trying to write (the one)(the only)(the one to negate a need for any future) essay to explain my complicated relationship with Judaism.

In Boston (the host city for this year’s AWP), our conference hotel was off the Green Line ‘T.’ Like that line—sometimes more like a surface-running bus, sometimes more like a train—I can pass in two worlds. Yet I (often)(always) feel like an outsider. A writer watching on the sidelines. Eileen Myles once told me, “In all your travels, you feel like an alien, don’t you?”

It occurred to me that there (doesn’t have to be)(can’t be)(shouldn’t be) only one essay from me on either of those subjects. Those are stories that need to be told, like an angel clawing its way out of marble. I need to carve away at them little by little, from different angles, with different tools, to set some stories free. New anecdotes and pieces of evidence will surface and accumulate as I live longer and find new ways to write.

I feel freed and a bit unbound.

My latest article is up at The Jewish Daily Forward. It’s a profile of a prominent community leader in the predominantly Russian neighborhood of Brighton Beach in Brooklyn, NY. I’ve been working on this piece for ages, and I’m so happy to finally have it see the light of day.

An excerpt:

Located on the main stretch of Brooklyn’s Brighton Beach Avenue, among numerous Russian delis, Russian-language bookstores and a shuttered Russian travel agency, the Brighton Neighborhood Association stands out. Its window is one of the few on the block with signs predominantly in English, and it’s one of the few storefronts near the elevated tracks of the B and Q trains that doesn’t actually sell anything.

This doesn’t stop people — and definitely not elderly Russians — from strolling through the glass front door, unannounced, on a regular basis. Some mistake the office for a thrift store and start lifting up, one by one, the porcelain and enamel elephants, gifts from friends and other tchotchkes on the desk of Pat Singer, founder and executive director of BNA, a not-for-profit social service agency in Brighton Beach, a neighborhood that stretches for one mile along the Atlantic coast.

Singer has to break into her limited knowledge of Russian to shoo them away: “Not magazin, this office! Not for sale, nooo! Get your hands off my desk!”

The full article is online here. Also in print. Not sure where they are sold, to be honest. Try your local synagogue?

UPDATE: [1:46 pm]:  Samhita over at Feministing says it way better than I can: “I ask not ‘where is occupy?’ but what will it take for the mainstream political [conversation] to reflect [Occupy Wall Street] values?” Read her.

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It’s the beginning of year two of this movement. Almost one year ago, I filmed this video of the mass protest and march in Times Square NYC:

The crowds are now smaller, and I think it will take something major–like the election of Mitt Romney–to see crowds that big again.

But the urgency still exists, and I think most of the people who ever participated in any Occupy events would agree.

I have to admit, every time I’d walk by the remnants of the movement–stragglers still meeting, camping out, human mic-ing, arguing, squatting around the Financial and Flatiron District–I’d feel a mixture of regret for not getting more involved and a simultaneous tinge of judgment. Like, you’re still trying to revive this movement, to capitalize on that original energy? Of course most people only have the energy and interest for the occasional march and protest and aren’t going to be in it for the long haul, to build organization infrastructure (or organic structure, whatever the case may be). I am only somewhat surprised to remember that I–someone who a few years ago would have been in the front lines–is stepping back, observing, commenting.

There’s a place for everyone in this movement. The movement for transparency in our government, for getting corporate money out of our elections, for getting the financial priorities in this country realigned so that we don’t have teachers needing to strike in Chicago while other people are getting their pockets lined with bonuses and tax breaks.

I salute you Occupiers all over the country and the world. I salute the tens of thousands of anti-Putin protesters who gathered in Russia two days ago. I salute the Libyans who condemned the violence against the U.S. Ambassador.

Let’s get back to work, whatever that looks like for you.

Photo og "Nancy" by Harry Gamboa; Cover of SUmmer 2012 issue of The MAssachusetts REviewMy translation of a personal essay by Andrei Krasnyashykh just came out in the Summer 2012 issue of The Massachusetts Review. The essay “On the Dream Within a Dream,” is about dreaming about dreaming, about not being able to wake up, about trying to escape from a dream trapped inside another dream. The essay is funny, fantastical, and strange. Typical Krasnyashykh. The cover (left) is a gorgeous photograph by Harry Gamboa. Here’s an excerpt from the essay:

In Kafka’s fantastical nighttime world, the everyday logic of daytime suddenly invaded. Nightmares became a combination of delusion and logic, or more accurately, the delusion, without rhyme or reason, suddenly stopped playing by its own rules and discovered an internal everyday logic. Reality within the unreal (by the way, in magic realism, though it often feels dissonant, it’s the other way around: the surreal is within the confines of reality, and the experience of reading Kafka is noticeably different from reading García Márquez. The latter isn’t scary, and, after all,—I keep getting further and further away from the subject of my piece, but there’s nothing I can do about it since it’s already happening—the first story of García Márquez, “The Third Resignation” (written in 1947), is considered Kafkaesque because he writes about the feelings of a dead person, not as the subject matter but rather as the atmosphere of reality within the unreal).

Read the full first page below the fold, or buy the issue for $10.00 to read the full text. This issue also includes fiction by Tabish Khair and poetry by Lawrence Raab, among others.
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Cover of the Spring 2012 Issue of The Literary Review

My translations of Russian/Ukrainian prose writer Andrei Krasnyashykh’s work appear in the latest issue of The Literary Review (an international journal of contemporary writing). I couldn’t be more thrilled to be published alongside Mary Jo Bang, a poet who is translating Dante’s Inferno, and others.

The pieces I’ve translated are from a series called “Machinations of the Genre.” Krasnyashykh invented a form he calls the intrigue, short little breaths all wrapped up in pun, wordplay, and confusion. They are something like a prose poem or flash fiction or just ruminations on a word that only lasts a sentence or two.

I am happy these translations have found a home in TLR, especially since the theme of this issue is “Encyclopedia Britannica.” These pieces are almost like short entries in a reference book, new definitions for words and thoughts.

Krasnyashykh lives and works in Ukraine but writes in Russian, a member of the Russian-speaking literary community in Kharkov. His book of short stories, The Park of Culture and Relaxation, was published in 2008 and short-listed for the prestigious Andrei Bely Prize. I am working on translating stories from that collection, after initially discovering him while studying under Idra Novey and Matvei Yankelevich at Columbia University’s literary translation program.

I will be doing a reading with TLR contributors Cindy Cruz, Martha Witt, and Geoffrey Nutter on August 2nd at Unnameable Books in Brooklyn. NY. More details forthcoming.

The full text of “Machinations of the Genre” is below the fold. His original Russian text can be read online here.

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“A stone thrown into a silent lake
is—the sound of your name.
The light click of hooves at night
—your name.
Your name at my temple
—shrill click of a cocked gun.”

— Marina Tsvetaeva, from “Poems for Blok, 1,” translated by Ilya Kaminsky and Jean Valentine (via Russian Literature via proustitute)
For translators out there, consider entering the 2012 Marina Tsvetaeva Compass Translation Competition (winner gets $300 and publication).

 

From an op-ed by singer/songwriter/author Alina Simone in the Wall Street Journal:

But as recent headlines make clear, we still haven’t managed to outrun some of our Cold War-era habits. There is an I-told-you-so kind of glee in U.S. reporting of the Russian protests over mishandling of the elections, the same glee that’s reflected in coverage of the “Occupy” movement by Russian news outlets. “Mass arrests in the United States” a nightly news report on Channel 1 bleated. Thirty-one protestors had been taken into custody in Washington D.C. — hardly a revolution, but such is the distorted glimpse we tend to get of one another’s politics.

I witnessed the same thing when I first visited Moscow, Russia in 1994. From an essay I wrote about that trip:

That first time in Russia, I couldn’t figure people out. They had a strange air of contradiction in their essence. Architecture was torn between modernism and an attachment to classical forms, Greek-style columns painted over with awful pastel greens or yellows that were now flaking off. The youth were torn between making jokes at the expense of Americans and between a strong desire to imitate American culture. Life was torn between glamorous fashion magazines and crumbling Khrushchev-era apartments.

I first heard about Alina from this silly article in The New York Times Style Magazine about a new wave of Russian literati and media makers. Can I have in, please?

Russian Dolls Promo Image from Lifetime Network

If the guilty pleasure in watching reality TV shows is derived from the voyeuristic clips of outrageous, hair-pulling catfights and the chance to glimpse the homes and lifestyles of the rich and not-so-famous, then Russian Dolls won’t satisfy even the basest TV-watching desires.

From my review in the newest Bitch magazine. Read the rest below, or buy the print or digital edition here!

After I wrote the review, the Lifetime network ran a marathon of all the remaining episodes in season one. It is still unclear whether the show has been cancelled or if it will return for a second season. My review should make it pretty clear which option I prefer.

Police detain an activist during a protest rally by opposition group "Another Russia" in central Moscow Sunday. (Reuters)

For the last two days, Muscovites have been taking to the streets to protest the recent (and rigged) Russian parliamentary election results. They have been joined by many people from other Russian cities who have dropped everything to join these unprecedented protests.

For a summary of the activities that took place on Monday and Tuesday, click here and here. The WaPo also has some good photos. You can also see my Twitter feed, where I’ve been re-tweeting the live tweets directly from the streets.

Here are a few important takeaways:

  1. Many of the participants are first-time protestors. Before this, they considered themselves too cynical to participate in oppositional activism, let alone vote in elections they knew to be rigged. Thousands upon thousands are meeting in the streets despite the heavy (and predictably violent) presence of police and special forces.
  2. People are very active online, on Facebook for events, and on Twitter (the hashtag for Monday was #5dec or #5дек, but I’m not sure what they are using now). Some are drawing comparisons to Tahrir Square.
  3. There are widespread (and deeply-held) rumors that Americans and other foreigners are paying Russians $$ to participate in such protests in order to tarnish Russia’s image. Putin has said things to spread this type of belief in the past. Even activists are wary of American support (as evidence by the tone when I wrote an English-language message of support on Facebook).
  4. Putin’s response has been to organize massive rallies of supporters for the “United Russia” party. People are being bused to Moscow, and one woman, when asked why she was joining, replied: “I don’t know–they just put us on a bus.”

This LiveJournal user (reminder: LiveJournal or Живо́й Журна́л is a serious blogging platform in Russia) posted some great photos. I’ve translated some of the signs in the images:

  • Photo #3: Police attempted to keep #s low by using metal detectors. So many people showed up that they spilled onto neighboring boulevards.
  • Photo #5: “These elections are a farce” and “UnitedRussia in the trash” (except the Russian has great word play that I can’t translate).
  • Photo #4: “Russia Will Be Free” and “We’ll Return Power to the People.”
  • Photo #6: “Gays and Lesbians Against Crooks and Thieves.”
  • Last photo reads “United Russia is the party of crooks and thieves.”

Let’s see what comes of all this. And don’t forget that the presidential elections are coming up in March, when Putin is expected to take back his old job (how convenient).

Moscow Pride 2011 Logo: Features a cupola like the one on Moscow's famous St. Basil's Cathedral, except in rainbow colorsThe Russian Government has marked the International Day Against Homophobia and Transphobia (IDAHO) by once again banning Moscow Gay Pride. Moscow’s Deputy Mayor Ludmila Shvetsova cites the city’s inability to provide adequate protection and security from the anti-gay forces who will inevitably attend the event.

This is bullshit. One of the main threats of violence for the Pride organizers and marchers comes from Moscow’s Police and Riot guard themselves, who have interrupted the marches and violently arrested participants year after year.

While organizers of 6th annual Moscow Pride on May 28th of this year plan to hold their event regardless of the City Hall decision, this certainly comes as a blow to their organizing and once again reflects the stubborn bigotry of Moscow’s leadership. Their next step is to move their plea directly to the federal government and apply for a permit to march in front of the Kremlin, the federal seat of power, an area which is under the direct jurisdiction of President Dmitri Medvedev.

Organizers are quite used to this kind of treatment by their own government and have always circumvented it by planning events in secret and being prepared for arrests, intimidation and interruption. After all, they managed to hold Pride events even under former Moscow Mayor Yuri Luzhkov, who famously called the “faggots” “satanic.”

I met Moscow Pride’s main organizer, Nikolai Alekseev, at an event earlier this year. Alekseev’s persona moves easily from high-profile professional as he travels the world speaking about human rights to on-the-ground rabble-rouser. He told those of us in attendance at a Columbia University-sponsored event that his organization’s tactic keep getting more and more James Bond-esque because they have to do so much of the planning in secret to avoid getting shut down before they even hit the streets. Alekseev says that organizers are followed and have their phones tapped in the weeks leading up to Pride every year.

Alekseev is not all gloom and doom, though. In that talk (watch a complete video here), he confidently insisted that within a few years, the debate in Russia will change from whether or not to ban marches to the more serious considerations of marriage equality, sex ed and homophobia. Not only that, but Russian LGBTQ activists had a victory late last year with the city government of St. Petersburg authorized its first ever gay rally.

I encourage you to check out the complete video of Alekseev’s talk to learn about the history of the Moscow Pride movement, their victories at the European Court of Human Rights and their dreams for the future.

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