(This special edition blog post, was first published on 49Writers, to Alaska’s literary community statewide, March 10, 2022.)
By Kathleen Tarr
Taras Shevchenko (1814-1861), Ukraine’s beloved poet, playwright, and painter is honored in this bronze statue installed in 1960 in Washington, D.C. and dedicated by President Dwight D. Eisenhower. Its inscription says it is “Dedicated to the Liberation, Freedom, and Independence of All Captive Nations.” Shevchenko spent many years imprisoned for his pro-Ukrainian sovereignty activities in czarist Russia. The statue is maintained by the U.S National Park Service. (Photo courtesy of U.S. Library of Congress.)
Ukrainians are being praised for their bravery, courage and resistance against Russian aggression. It has been unbelievable to see the news about Ukraine’s fight for freedom, how they have managed to combine military force with extraordinary inner strength to defend and hold on to their democratic and sovereign homeland.
The immediate response from Ukrainian writers and poets, and to those who stand in fierce solidarity with them against Putin’s brutal assault, has also been remarkable.
Less than one week after Vladimir Putin’s “special military operation” began, I received word in the comfort, warmth, and security of my Anchorage home that my friend and former Alaskan colleague, Olga Livshin was helping organize a Facebook live stream poetry event called Voices for Ukraine.
Olga Livshin, poet, writer, translator and teacher now resides in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania. She was born in Odesa, the daughter of a Russian-Jewish journalist. Olga emigrated to the U.S. with her family when she was fourteen. We first met at University Alaska Anchorage where we both worked and shared adjacent offices, she as the Russian language professor, and me, as the program coordinator of UAA’s low-residency MFA program, and adjunct instructor.
Poet Julia Kolchinksy Dasbach who earned her Ph.D. at the University of Pennsylvania, co-organized and co-hosted Voices for Ukraine. Julia emigrated from Ukraine to the U.S. as a Jewish refugee at age six.
The 2.5-hour onlineprogram on March 1st which sprang together with hardly any advance notice, instantly drew an audience of 860 or more from around the world—writers, translators, Ukrainians, plus regular readers, and people from as far away as Bangladesh who have nothing to do with literary circles.
Olga and Julia described it as a “transatlantic, trilingual (Ukrainian, Russian, English) virtual event in the middle of war and displacement.”
Voices for Ukraine was unlike any live Facebook event I have attended. While listening to this spontaneous combustion of creativity, the firepower of international camaraderie being publicly expressed for Ukraine, I kept asking myself, “Is this real? Are Russia and Ukraine really in a war?”
As a writer, this part of the world—Ukraine, Russia, Poland, and the Baltics—has been a personal area of focus for several decades. I lived solo in Krakow, Poland for most of 2014, and from my rented flat in the Kazimierz district, continued working on the manuscript for my book. I first went to Russia in 1990, and have visited the country over ten times, most recently, on four trips since 2003.
In January 2020 I flew nonstop from Los Angeles to Moscow on Aeroflot, right before the killer virus disrupted everything. I remained for two weeks. Returning to Russia anytime soon will be impossible.
On Voices for Ukraine, an array of powerful voices, most of them unfamiliar to me, united to recite their poems, including Boris Khersonsky and his wife Lyudmila Khersonska who joined in live from Odesa. (Khersonsky has 36,000 Facebook followers, but I did not know his work until I listened in.)
“This was such a space of support and solidarity, so many tears and such positive energy, such hope in the face of atrocity and catastrophe,” co-organizer Julia said in an email.
One of the featured poets, Iya Kiva, had just been fighting for the last two days, and posted on FB that this was the first night she had slept in her apartment. Another poet, Lyuba Yakimchuk, had been gathering medical supplies and her husband was driving them to hospitals in Kyiv and Kharkiv, across dangerous roads being bombed and patrolled by Russian troops.
“And these poets, they took time away from much more urgent work,” Julia said, “to be with us, to read poems, because poetry is its own urgency.”
President Volodomyr Zelensky, as of this writing, remains protected within the ancient and beautiful fortress of Kyiv. There is something special about Zelensky’s voice which obviously relates to his former life as a professional actor. Zelensky is someone who carefully considers words he utters, and words he hears. I pay close attention to his verbal mannerisms, his tone, how he sounds in translation. I do not yet hear any double-speak pouring from his lips.
What happens, during tragic and dangerous times such as these when poets rush in?
Do missiles suddenly stop flying? Do Russian soldiers abandon their convoy, park the tanks, and peacefully walk away? Do politicians (from everywhere) who blindly tow party lines quit promulgating lies and supporting the drone of propaganda? Do authoritarian rulers squirm, break out in a sweat, reverse course, and back off in order to dismantle their global reputations as a possible war criminals?
Of course not. I ask only for rhetorical effect.
CNN recently interviewed a Moscow journalist who worked at the last independent television, TV Rain, now shut down. The anchor and news director explained that Russian people don’t want to be isolated from traveling and communicating with the rest of the world. The cultural interconnectivity between Russia and other countries has been very strong among the younger generations.”
Her words made me shudder: This is the end of the Russia we had known.
“Putin has destroyed everything free and independent in the federation. We haven’t seen anything like this.”
What kind of 21st Century Russia does Putin want? What is the world in for?
On my winter trip to Moscow in 2020 to see my long-time Russian friends, the city looked vibrant, resplendent and more prosperous than I had ever seen it. We took pleasant but cold evening walks along the Moskva River lined with shops playing Western music. Strands of colored and sparkling lights adorned the spotless riverfront for several miles. Every day, my nine-year old surrogate niece and I worked together on her homework practicing English. She studies at a private language school in addition to attending her regular public school full-time. At the end of her lessons, she took me to task over my basic Russian.
Whenever I speak a few words in Russian, the sounds and rhythms strike some pleasure center in my heart. And then I come back to Alaska, put my notebook on the shelf, and quickly forget all the latest Russian words and phrases added to my vocabulary.
Putin continues to squeeze freedoms making it illegal for Russians to publicly criticize the government’s invasion or to talk about the war. Not only that, he throws people into jails and prisons for it. Over 4,300 more protestors on the streets of Russia were detained today, as I write this—an estimated 1,700 of them were automatically incarcerated or hit with large financial penalties.
On state-controlled media, Putin angrily calls America and the West the “empire of lies” which in many respects, doesn’t seem that far-fetched when applied to the Trump era.
Putin alleges that the Russian military is not killing Ukrainian civilians.
One of my Russian acquaintances, a professional filmmaker and cinematographer, has left his home in Moscow this week and is on his way with his wife and children, driving to Georgia to escape the chaos.
This pattern of migration sounds historically familiar.
After the Bolsheviks seized control during the Revolution, many educated Russians from the cultural elite, the intelligentsia, departed in the 1920s and early 1930s, choosing instead to live as emigres in Paris, where many continued to write and publish poetry, prose, and theological and philosophical works.
Several years ago, Olga Livshin and I collaborated to design and co-teach a 49Writers seminar on Anna Akhmatova, one of the greatest poets of the Soviet era who briefly traveled to Paris as a young woman, but who remained inside the Soviet Union. Akhmatova lived through the bloodshed, the assassination of her former husband, the imprisonment of her son in the labor camps of Siberia, the calamities of World War II, including the horrendous Nazi siege of Leningrad, as recalled in her famous verse, “Poem without a Hero.”
Until her death in 1966, she “grew steadily as an artist, never ceasing to write, even in difficult times.”
“My poetry is the link with our times,” Akhamatova said. “When I write, I live with the very pulse of Russian life.”
A vast land of extreme contrasts, paradoxes, and contradictions, Russia’s long history is an anguished and glorified one.
A continuous cycle and battle between repression and liberalism on an unfathomable scale. Russia is at once a cold cellar and a warm hearth.
And now Russia has invaded Ukraine…
My first, most vivid impressions of Russia date back to age 14 in my birth city of Pittsburgh when I happened by chance to see the much-acclaimed film Doctor Zhivago in matinee re-runs.
I grew up mainly viewing Russia and the USSR as the monstrous enemy of freedom-loving America. The country was full of conformists and automatons who, out of fear, had to be obedient and march lock step under their communist leadership.
As a kid, I could absorb very little about Doctor Zhivago’s political realities, the reasons for the chaos and violence, i.e., the shootings between Reds and Whites, whoever they were, and why so many nice people were freezing to death, going hungry, and abandoning all their belongings, fleeing to any place where small personal freedoms could be found.
Maybe in my young mind, as I watched those haunting images and as I listened to the unforgettable balalaika soundtrack in Doctor Zhivago, I started to subconsciously absorb some understanding of what Russianness was, besides the standard communist stereotypes I was exposed to.
Over and over again, as an American, as someone with Polish and Lithuanian ancestry, and as a writer, I have been determined to scratch below the surface, to make attempts to understand something more meaningful and experiential about Eastern Europe and Russia, in discovering what truths exist beyond objective, economic statistics.
By the time I got to Alaska in 1978 and lived for a time in Sitka (New Archangelesk) and on the Kenai Peninsula where there are several Russian communities of Old Believers, and onion-domed churches, my interest in Russian history and culture expanded in a deep way. The geographic place names of Alaska connect us directly to some history with Russian explorers and fur traders: Baranof Island; Shelikoff Strait; Kalifornsky Beach Road, Mt. Veniaminoff volcano, Nikolaevsk.
I have watched and re-watched Doctor Zhivago many more times over the years. Then and now, I believed there was such a thing as Russianness, and that it must have something to do with the symbolically powerful images British film director, David Lean, masterfully created in his interpretation. What lodged in my imagination were the panoramic shots of the snow-covered Urals; whistling trains; women in furs; and the clanking trollies similar to the streetcars I always rode in my Pittsburgh childhood.
From the film, I also vividly remembered the ominous looking steppe, the fields of sunflowers, how the remaining leaves from golden birch trees scattered and fluttered across the wintry ground. And that chilling line from the movie spoken by a revolutionary: “The personal is dead in Russia” has never left me.
The leading man, physician-poet, Yurii Andreievich, played by Omar Shariff, was not any kind of an American action hero, wielding weapons, and leaping over tall buildings.
In one of the scenes I could never forget, Yurii stayed up all night in a freezing room in rural Russia, hovered over a small table, writing poems while his mistress slept. He wore threadbare gloves, had dark circles under his eyes, and wrote with the light of only a single candle. The wolves literally howled outside, a metaphor for the ravages yet to befall the land.
The candle was a direct reference to Pasternak’s poem, “Winter Night,” part of a cycle of poems he included as a kind of appendix to his novel. It referred to his line from “Winter Night”: “A candle burned on the table / A candle burned.” Say that line to any educated Russian and they will immediately know whence it came.
Yurii, this weak, passive, and distracted man, as some believed, did not define himself according to external political structures, dogma, or party labels. He maintained his “secret” interiority and personhood. Manuscripts don’t burn, as Mikhail Bulgakov, said.
Through my all my travels and readings, I have learned something about the values and temperaments of everyday Russians, their stories, folklores, myths and symbols which speak more directly to whatever this idea of Russianness was. I had to look outside the assessments of the Kremlin, European economic councils, and American think tanks. A more idealized, less morally and politically corrupt Russia, in other words, existed in the shadows.
In my mind, it had something to do with a whole whirl of images that raised a different kind of historical consciousness: spending time breaking bread with strangers around a hand-hewn table; walking through forests; journeying as a pilgrim to visit a staretz for spiritual wisdom; steaming in the banya; riding horses and sleighs; foraging for mushrooms; ballet and Tchaikovsky; growing vegetable gardens at dachas; making cabbage soup, blini, and pelmeni; sewing and embroidery; selling sacks of potatoes on roadside stands far away from Moscow; village folk dancing and singing in the villages of Chuvashia or Novgorod.
Voices for Ukraine reminded me that I should be reading more contemporary Ukrainian poets. I do own one book by Sirhiy Zhadan, poet and novelist from Kharkiv, but honestly haven’t read a complete poetry collection by any other poets currently living in Ukraine. My only experience in Ukraine itself was spending an entire night trying to sleep in the Kyiv airport when my flight from Vilnius to Krakow was cancelled.
I finally got around to reading Doctor Zhivago in 2003 when, once more I was in Russia, only this time to take my first trip to St. Petersburg for the 300th anniversary of its founding by Peter the Great.
Pasternak’s novel was banned in Russia until 1988.
Most writers know the story of Pasternak’s last few years, but as we witness what’s happening today under Putinism—his vehement intolerance for even a shred of dissent or free expression—the Pasternak affair bears repeating.
Pasternak was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature, but in a hail of criticisms by Soviet authorities, capitulated, and was basically forced to decline acceptance of humanity’s most prestigious literary award.
The beleaguered poet, under severe pressure, issued a lukewarm public apology for having written the unacceptable Doctor Zhivago
Background: In 1957, after the preeminent Russia literary journal, Novyi mir, refused to serialize any part of Doctor Zhivago. The manuscript for Doctor Zhivago had to be smuggled out of the Soviet Union and published first in Italy. An English translation appeared in late summer 1958, and on October 23, 1958, the Nobel Prize was announced in honor of his lifetime achievement as a scholar, translator, poet, and prose writer.
Four days later, Boris Leonidovich was expelled from the Union of Soviet Writers, the organization established in 1934 by the government and to which all professional writers were obliged to belong if they hoped to earn any kind of frugal living as translators, writers, or editors.
Internally, the Soviet press viciously condemned the writer. During the scandal, the Authorities labeled his one-and-only novel as “squalid.” An international furor quickly erupted over his harsh treatment.
Pasternak’s novel, which he considered his best work, never mentions Lenin nor Stalin, nor does it celebrate the Russian Revolution. It does not reaffirm or comment on any communist doctrines or theories. What it does do is illuminate the human condition.
From 1958 until 1960, the poet, spiritual writer and Trappist monk, Thomas Merton, exchanged several letters and books with Pasternak from his Cistercian monastery near Bardstown, Kentucky. After the writers’ union expelled Pasternak, Merton got wind of all the controversy and strongly defended him. (All of Merton’s mail was censored by his religious superiors, but somehow, he was granted special permission to send letters to a fellow poet in the nefarious Soviet Union!) The renowned Catholic monk typed and mailed a letter to the Soviet Writers’ Union. After Pasternak’s death in 1960, Merton wrote and published a brilliant essay of over 30 pages on Pasternak’s genius. It remains one of my favorite essays of Merton’s.
On the pages of his journal, Merton asked: “How else shall I study Boris Pasternak, whose central idea is the sacredness of life?”
“…It would seem that Pasternak’s ability to rise above political dichotomies may very well be his greatest strength. This transcendence is the power and the essence of Doctor Zhivago. One of the more important judgements made by this book is a condemnation of the chaotic meaninglessness of all 20th Century political life, and the assertion that all politics has practically ceased to be a really vital and significant force in man’s society…” —Thomas Merton in Disputed Questions
Concealing truths about dark realities is something the Soviet government did exceedingly well throughout the twentieth century, especially during the Great Terror.
The biggest lies Stalin and his associates told about Ukraine was that there was no forced famine, no Holodomor in 1932-33 when, in fact, an estimated 10 million peasants died in Ukraine, Russia, Belarus and Kazakhstan, including three million children who died of hunger, in his campaign to crush and liquidate the peasantry and kulaks in the name of farm collectivization and de-nationalization.
The truth about the loss of life was not fully disclosed until secret files were opened during the Gorbachev era. (The historian Robert Conquest in his bone-chilling book, Harvest of Sorrow, estimates that a total of 11 million innocents died in the Soviet terrors between 1930-1937.)
As a young but internationally known and important Soviet poet in the early 1960s, Yevgeny Yevushenko (1932-2017), born in Winter Station near Lake Baikal in Siberia, he spoke assertively for the need to substitute falsehoods for truth, and for poets to have more artistic autonomy.
I once heard Yevtushenko give a poetry reading at Eckerd College in Florida, and couldn’t believe my eyes and ears. Here was the poet who wrote the famous, “Babi Yar” and “Heirs of Stalin” poems, plus volumes and volumes of poetry for the past forty years.
At that time Yevtushenko was in his early 80s and was living in–of all places–Oklahoma!!! Yevtushenko stated that it was the early generation of poets post-Stalin, in his generation who created the “cradle of glasnost.” The zestful, charismatic Yevtushenko had paid several visits to Alaska over the years, referring to Alaska and Russia as “un-justly divided twins.”
During glasnost and perestroika, a grassroots euphoria broke out in Alaska over its relations and attitude toward Russia. I was privileged to be a part of the post-Soviet wave of positivity and hope. A spiritual paradigm shift of sorts. Russia led me inward.
Part of my job at the Alaska State Chamber of Commerce was to organize several important trade missions to the Russian Far East to promote business cooperation. I studied Russian at UAA, hired a private Russian language tutor, hosted an exchange student from Magadan in our home, and traveled to Irkutsk, Vladivostok, Khabarovsk, Chukotka, Moscow, and to Magadan. (The port city of Magadan shares a sub-arctic climate with Anchorage and was officially designated as our “Sister City.”)
In the years before Putin came to power, optimistic Alaskans—and not the Washington, D.C. policymakers—seemed more ready and psychologically equipped to help build the New Russia. Various indigenous peoples such as Yu’piks and Inupiaks, could prove they shared common ancestors and bloodlines with Russians across the Bering Sea, in Yakutia, and Chukotka. The week-long “Soviet-American Reunion” we organized in Anchorage in 1989 was uniquely Alaskan.
Given the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the incredibly hard truth we are all confronting right now is that those goodwill efforts built in the 1990s are probably buried until the next political and cultural Thaw.
PART FIVE (and the final curtain on this blog post)
Putin’s imperial gamble, his unconscionable invasion of Ukraine. is tragic and hard to stomach.
It’s as if the linear historical clock has been smashed to bits, and we are plunged backward into a warped recidivism, to a divisive and frightening world order full of threats and fears about nuclear weapons resembling Cold War2. We not only have malicious propaganda to contend with, but cybersecurity warfare, too.
I think back to one bright September day in 1991. Russia was at the very beginning stages of reforming from political deception and economic disaster to flashes of more political truth and historical reconciliation. It certainly felt like a New Russia was being born. And that America, too, was genuinely interested in the new and dramatic reforms taking place. A democracy couldn’t and didn’t automatically develop because we had set up NGOs and supported energy companies partnering with Russians.
I was in the Russian Far East that September 1991 working as staff to a delegation of high-level Alaska mining officials. My second such trip over. Our business group was hosted in Magadan by the state-owned Russian energy company. Magadan, on the Sea of Okhotsk, was an administrative center for mining operations but it had retained its gruesome reputation over its involvement in the forced labor camp system during Stalin’s time.
Magadan looked dilapidated, run down, and economically forgotten by Moscow. I remember seeing bathroom plumbing held together with duct tape, and visiting apartments where families lived completely crammed into tiny spaces in ugly concrete buildings. The central government controlled the dates and times when families could turn on their hot water.
Our meetings took place at a retreat complex reserved for high-ranking managers and engineers and their families out in the country, about 30 kilometres distant from Magadan proper.
I walked around the drab, 1950s buildings and performed my patriotic duties—I passed out candies and trinkets of Alaska flag pins to any boys or girls I might see.
A girl of about age nine confidently stepped towards me and said hello in polite Russian. Nadia was dressed in a red skirt, baggy tights, and wore a yellow satin bow in her hair almost as big as her head. Before the children darted for the candy, they had been occupied playing with glass bottles and cans. Nearby, I spotted a long wooden panel painted with a portrait of Lenin.
In this public art piece, Lenin was surrounded with members of the young communist league, each of them smiling and saluting to the hammer and sickle of the Soviet flag.
After Nadia put the bubble gum in her pocket, she turned to me, assumed more of an erect posture, folded her hands, and began reciting a Pushkin poem in Russian that I could only half-guess had to do with autumn and falling leaves.
I often remember this little innocent with her wide smile, the one who freely recited some verses to a stranger and foreigner from the decadent West. In that frozen moment of time in the former gulag city of Magadan, it was joyful to no longer be “of the enemy.”
No child since Nadia has ever said thank you to me with such an unusual and unpredictable gesture.
I still picture Nadia in her proud and formal stance reciting Pushkin without hesitation or stumbling. I will not forget that tender moment and how very Russian everything seemed to be.
(Kathleen Tarr, Anchorage, is the author of the memoir, We Are All Poets Here. As a Merton scholar she is a frequent speaker and teacher about Thomas Merton’s life and legacy and serves on the national board of the International Thomas Merton Society. A founding member of 49Writers, she is also a member of the Alaska Historical Society and former board member of the Alaska Humanities Forum. She earned her MFA in creative writing at the University of Pittsburgh. Reach her at: firstname.lastname@example.org)