I have always loved Russian literature, from Dostoevsky, Chekhov and Anna Karenina to the short-story writer Ludmilla Petrushevskaya. The Russian greats have a quality of seriousness and urgency somehow; a richness it can be hard to find elsewhere. Their literature is about how to live: the world and the soul. And I think that those poets I love most – Pushkin, Anna Akhmatova, Marina Tsvetayeva – have a special quality partly because I discovered them through the lucid, haunting biographies of Elaine Feinstein.
This year is the 100th anniversary of Anna Akhmatova’s first collection Evening, which for me will always conjure scenes from Feinstein’s Anna of All The Russias – Akhmatova young and glittering (so beautiful Modigliani sketched her nude) stepping out into one of St Petersburg’s white nights, or reading at the ‘Stray Dog’ cellar with Mayakovsky or Mandelstam. And then I think too, of course, of what came later: of her Requiem, composed secretly in her head and shared only with friends – the staggering bravery of it.
This week I have been rereading A Captive Lion, Feinstein’s biography of Tsvetayeva. I first came across it in Manchester Library when I was 16, and ordered it from Hackney library this time: it is a shame that such a brilliant book is out of print. Feinstein’s translations of Tsvetayeva seem to me wonderfully alive – so much better than those in the Selected I have on my shelf that I must buy her Bride of Ice: New Selected Poems. It is in many ways a painful read: to see a poet of such gifts and integrity ground down by poverty and politics. Soon before her suicide Tsvetayeva writes: ‘In the madhouse of the inhuman / I refuse to live. / With the wolves of the market place // I refuse to howl.’
It seemed appropriate to be reading of Tsvetayeva this week, during the Pussy Riot trial. This morning I went to the Royal Court Theatre, and crowded into their café with hundreds of others to hear a rehearsed reading of the testimonies made on the 8th of August at the Khamovnichesky Court by Nadya Tolokonnikova, Maria Alyokhina and Ekaterina Samutsevich. It was one of the most powerful and important pieces of theatre I have seen. You can read the testimonies here, translated by Sasha Dugdale. I choked up as I heard Nadya’s defiant words:
‘The first men of the state stand in the cathedral with righteousness upon their faces, but their sins are far greater than ours. We did our punk performances because what reigns supreme in the Russian state is a caste system, a closed system, a system set in stone. And the politics are led by narrow corporate interests. So much so that even the air in Russia causes pain to us.’
Maria’s speech was also profoundly moving, drawing parallels between their own situation and that of Soviet dissidents:
‘I am extremely angered by the phrase ‘so-called’ which the State Prosecutor uses to refer to contemporary art. I would like to draw attention to the fact that during the trial of Brodsky exactly the same phrase was used. His poems were referred to as ‘so-called poetry’, and the witnesses hadn’t even read them […] And if that’s how it is, then for me at least this trial is just a ‘so-called’ trial. I am not afraid of you. I am not afraid of you and I am not afraid of the thinly veneered deceit of your verdict at this ‘so-called’ trial. My truth lives with me. I believe that honesty, free-speaking and the thirst for truth will make us all a little freer. We will see this come to pass.’
As Katya concluded: ‘On the one hand we are waiting for the verdict of guilty to be passed. On the other, we have won.’
As I write this, the verdict is being read out. I am looking at Twitter and The Guardian’s live coverage, refreshing the screen over and over. I wonder how many others are doing this around the world, reading the judge’s cold words: ‘…motivated by hatred and religious enmity…’ There: judgement has been passed. Two years each. A sick feeling. It is for all of us to make sure that they have still won.
Some verses of Marina Tsvetayeva’s then – again Elaine Feinstein’s translation, and a statement of defiance against the abuse of power and wealth:
And so, making clear in advance
I know there are miles between us;
and I reckon myself with the tramps, which
is a place of honour in this world:
Under the wheels of luxury, at
table with cripples and hunchbacks…
from the top of the bell-tower roof,
I proclaim it: I love the rich.
For their rotten, unsteady root
for the damage done in their cradle
for the absent-minded way their hands
go in and out of their pockets;
for the way their softest word is
obeyed like a shouted order; because
they will not be let into heaven; and
because they don’t look in your eyes:
and because they send secrets by courier!
and their passions by errand boy.
in the nights that are thrust upon them they
kiss and drink under compulsion.
and because in all their accountings
in boredom, in gilding, in wadding,
they can’t buy me, I’m too brazen:
I confirm it, I love the rich!