The year is 1950 in Kiev. A twenty-year-old college student, Maya Klotsvog, falls in love with her professor, Viktor Pavlovich. He’s eight years older and married. One day, the professor’s wife, Darina Dmitrievna, catches up with Maya at the tram stop and reveals that her husband loves Maya and has asked for a divorce. He wants to marry Maya and have children with her. But Darina Dmitrievna adds something else: “You’re Jewish and your children would be half Jewish. And you yourself know what the situation is now. You read the papers, listen to the radio. And then that shadow would fall on Viktor Pavlovich himself, too. Anything can happen. Don’t you agree? Babi Yar over there is full of half-bloods.”
When I was nineteen and trying my hand at novel-writing for the first time, I found myself struggling with a story that alternated between two protagonists, a mother and a daughter. After reading my newest batch of pages, a beloved mentor observed that only the daughter was coming to life on the page. “There has to be more to this other woman than her role as a mother,” she said. I realize now that she was speaking from her own recent, still-raw experiences. “Try going back in time with the mother character,” she said. “Write a scene where she’s twenty, before she has a child, and see what she does. When you become a mother, your old self doesn’t disappear. All the parts of you that were there before are still there.”
In Ivan’s bedroom are forty-seven photographs of beaches, rectangles of sand and sun. I count them every time I visit my friend, and he kisses them like beautiful women each night. He passes me a bottle of vodka and opens his own, and I follow him out into the hallway, and we ride the elevator to his roof with a view of Siberia. We step out into the night so full of sun.
Nikolai Sheremetev, the protagonist of British novelist’s Michael Honig’s second book, is a Moscow nurse. For six years, he’s been looking after a private patient suffering from dementia. The patient’s condition is deteriorating. Prior to his illness, Vladimir P. had been a president of Russia. After his confusion grew and he could no longer hold his own in public, he was quietly replaced by a member of his team and sent into retirement to a private estate near Moscow. As Vladimir’s mental acuity deteriorated, Sheremetev became the single point of contact between him and the outside world. Sheremetev manages his daily schedule, his medications, his rare outings.
Right now in heaven, Tolstoy is playing with his dumbbells, even those little rounded weights he kept in his study at Yasnaya Polyana have come up with him into the cloud-city of the afterlife. In the spring of 2016, I toured his old house and the estate on which he lived, walked out through the green trees and the precision mosquitoes to his burial mound, a grass covered box-shaped hill on the ground where the great man went in. But why was he great, when so much of his life was spent—that little account of time we all bank on—in little rooms sitting in a chair made for children, propped up on a pillow, his waning eyesight pulling his face in ever closer to the page?
Book by TEFFI (Translated from Russian by ROBERT and ELIZABETH CHANDLER, ANNE MARIE JACKSON, and IRINA STEINBERG) Reviewed by OLGA ZILBERBOURG
Teffi, nom de plume of Nadezhda Lokhvitskaya, was born in 1872 into a prominent Russian family. Following in the footsteps of her older sister Maria—poet Mirra Lokhvitskaya—Teffi published poetry and prose from the age of 29. She soon rose to fame by practicing a unique brand of self-deprecating humor and topical social satire. In her 1907 hit one-act play The Woman Question, subtitled A Fantasy, Teffi imagined a world in which a women’s revolution against men achieves a full role reversal. Women come to occupy the prominent political, military, academic, professional, and bureaucratic roles, while men are subjugated to the childcare and household management tasks. Though the play’s ending largely dismisses this scenario and trivializes the feminist cause, through humor, the piece makes the point that bad behavior—infidelity, sexual harassment, excessive drinking, pettiness—is a function of social status rather than of biological sex.
with hunger and fear. I’d rip the crust
of my lips—and lick my lips; I recall
the fresh and salty taste.
And I’m walking, I’m walking, walking,
I sit on the steps by the door, I bask,
I walk delirious, as if a rat catcher led me
by my nose into the river, I sit and bask
on the steps; I shiver this way and that.
Polina Barskova, Anna Glazova, and Maria Stepanova belong to the last generation of Russian poets formed by the Soviet experience. Born in the 1970s, they are old enough to have visceral memories of Soviet life but young enough to move adeptly with the new influences, new media, and new choices introduced in the post-Soviet era. Educated in Soviet, European, and U.S. universities, they share a cerebral firepower they exercise in their chosen professions—Barskova and Glazova as scholars, teachers, and translators, Stepanova as an influential online journalist. Together they represent a contemporary Russian culture that extends beyond national borders: Barskova has immigrated to the U.S., Glazova is based in Germany, and Stepanova is a lifelong Muscovite.
My friend K. and I traveled to St. Petersburg on the overnight train from Moscow, where I lived then. She had come from New York to visit me. It was December, 1997, and the cold was brutal, but you have to see the Hermitage, I said. So we took the train north and then, at dawn, made our way to the international youth hostel. It was the first one in Russia—opened in 1992—and like every hostel I’d visited, it was full of backpackers eager to tell us how much of the world they had seen. No one’s hostile in a hostel, I said to K. She and I had been out of college for just a couple of years; our fellow travelers were about our age. Many of them were from Australia and New Zealand. At breakfast that first morning— a room with tentative light and forlorn bowls of muesli—we met a young Japanese-Finnish woman. (Her parents were Japanese, but she’d been raised in Finland.) She had traveled from Helsinki, she told us, to photograph corpses.