FROM THE TIME of the Cold War, nationwide efforts to promote understanding of foreign lands in the United States have rarely centered on literature and the arts. Russian speakers in particular tend to appear in mass media not as members or scholars of a culture but as representatives of a state or political analysts. Now a growing number of women in the early stages of their academic and literary careers are beginning to chip away at this Cold War tradition by writing about Russian culture from perspectives less determined by the shifting winds of US-Russian political relations.
This conversation brings together four of those women. Jennifer Wilson has established herself as a go-to critic focusing on Russian culture, whose writing appears regularly in The New Yorker, the Guardian, The New York Times, and other venues. As the English-language news editor of Meduza, one of the most widely read Russian-language news outlets that is not controlled by the state, Hilah Kohen has pulled day-to-day news coverage of Russia toward contemporary literature and the arts. Julia Phillips, whose debut novel, Disappearing Earth, was published last month to critical acclaim, has been portraying the far eastern Russian peninsula of Kamchatka in essays and fiction since 2011. Translator and playwright Fiona Bell won a highly competitive fellowship from the American Literary Translators Association in 2018 and has since prepared two manuscripts of contemporary Russian women’s writing for publication in English.
After recognizing the commonalities in their public work, Kohen brought Wilson, Phillips, and Bell together to ask what a public “Russosphere” that has fixated on Vladimir Putin and collusion has to learn from art and those who make it.
JENNIFER WILSON: Well, I know a question that was on your mind, Hilah — and I think it came up when you first approached us about doing this interview — is how do we handle it when we, as artists or literary critics, are asked to write about politics. I think at the time you were thinking through this situation as something like a dilemma, and I’m curious if people think it’s a dilemma or, in fact, an opportunity.
HILAH KOHEN: It is an opportunity, and how we use that opportunity is the dilemma. Often, I feel that what many of my readers are interested in isn’t contemporary Russia per se. They often seem to be interested in information that will shed light on how the Russian government operates and where that operation breaks down. So when I’m writing and translating for Meduza, I’m always trying to think about how to use that platform without falling into this form of talking about Russia that has its roots in the early 20th century, and even earlier, but really developed in the Cold War. Julia, since your novel is about Kamchatka, a place that some Americans might read as exotic in an Area Studies kind of light, I’m wondering what you think about this.
JULIA PHILLIPS: Yes, it’s an opportunity in some ways. As a reader, I’m certainly interested in hearing the thoughts of people other than political analysts. I like to hear what artists think. I like to hear what people on the street think. As a writer, I’m eager to share my perspective, but I don’t want to occupy a space in the discussion that I think is more appropriate for or better used by a politics specialist — space that calls for insider expertise. It makes me uneasy to think about folks taking my novel as a Russian history textbook or journalistic exposé.
JW: I do wonder, though, if maybe we’re setting this up as more of a binary than it has to be. I don’t think a cultural background is necessarily an impediment to writing about politics; in some cases, I think, it gives us an advantage, depending on the precise political moment that we’re responding to. For instance, we just saw a TV star win the Ukrainian presidential election; I think that’s a situation where understanding media, entertainment, and narrative is quite valuable.
I used to contribute to World Policy Journal. “Policy” publications tend to draw from political scientists, but the editor at the time, Jessica Loudis, did this interview when she took over in which she talked about having a literary background herself, and how she wanted people of a similar background to write about policy. She talked, for example, about how, in the United Kingdom, a lot of the public space laws were formed around music festivals. So, you know, I think there are many examples where a background in culture writing can deeply inform political analysis.
HK: I think that’s definitely the case, and what worries me is the sense that we have this opportunity to use effective ways of thinking about culture to shed light on, say, the political sphere, but we’re being asked to do that with the ultimate aim of understanding — definitely an Other, but also potentially understanding an enemy, right? In the case of Ukraine, that’s not so much what’s going on, but what often worries me when I’m writing is that there’s a picture of Russia in English that is really more like a photograph of a single individual (ahem, Putin) who is understood as hostile. And that equation is just false. It may sound obvious, but there is a huge range of people and phenomena in Russia who don’t get into that picture. That’s where the demand becomes a dilemma for me. When our ability to analyze texts or discourse or the intersections between the arts and politics becomes useful, who is it useful for? What kind of interaction between national entities does it end up serving?
Fiona, what do you think about this? Especially since you’ve been working on translating concepts that are super political — gender politics, child abuse …
FIONA BELL: That’s a good question. I think the first thing I would mention is the platforms that we’re on right now. If I were working for a large news agency in the United States, then I would certainly be constrained by the prevailing tendency to talk about Russia in only political terms. As a literary translator, I’ve got a lot more leeway.
Right now, I’m translating a memoir — Stories — that came out in 2017 by Natalia Meshchaninova, the Russian film director. It’s a series of Facebook posts that she did over a couple of years that were then released by the Petersburg publisher Séance as a really small book, which is very artsy. I often describe it as something that you would buy for a train ride or a flight. And so the tone of it is very “Facebook.” There’s lots of crazy punctuation. It’s very informal. And I guess my main priority in the translation process has been keeping her voice — very strong, fierce, and funny — oh my God, fierce, that’s so 2009 — but it is fierce, it’s cutting, because she describes the domestic sexual abuse she experienced at the hands of her stepfather. That’s what the book became famous for in Russia.
So I guess I’ve had to get to know the vocabulary that we use in the United States to talk about childhood sexual abuse. But also recognize that the movement associated with talking about these experiences and voicing trauma is different in Russia from what it is in the US.
HK: This reminds me of one question that Julia brought up when we were organizing this conversation about misconceptions, about perceptions that English speakers may have of Russians that we push against. I think part of what you’re putting out here is that just by writing on certain topics and how they play out in Russia, there’s an act of pushing against certain misconceptions. Most English-language narratives about Russia are very distant from film directors writing about their endurance of sexual abuse as children.
FB: Yes. In Russia, there’s a reticence to jump on board with the term “feminist.” And I think that’s definitely true of Meshchaninova, who is quite openly apolitical. Of course, in the United States, we would respond to that position by saying that anyone who doesn’t take a stance against power supports that power, passively. But she is very, very open about, like, “No, I don’t go to protests because how would that help? I don’t have any power, so I’m not gonna pretend like I do just for the show of it.” She’s very frank and very unapologetic. Even if her viewpoints wouldn’t be considered politically correct in the United States. So that’s a challenge I’ve run up against. For instance, I doubt she would want me to promote the translation by saying, “Oh, Meshchaninova is a voice for the #MeToo era.” Because she’s more anti-establishment than that.
Besides, even though she hasn’t associated herself with it, I think she falls more directly into the Russian #ЯНеБоюсьСказать (“I’m not afraid to say”) group. People think of #MeToo as having this nexus in Hollywood. I think it’s become about calling out public figures, whereas this #ЯНеБоюсьСказать is about sharing personal experiences from the domestic realm. And that’s exactly what Meshchaninova describes in her memoir.
When promoting the book, it’s going to be a challenge to make it seem relevant to an American audience that’s interested in feminism, the #MeToo movement, and survivor narratives while also preserving her voice. After all, that’s my main intent: to keep her voice true to itself.
HK: Let’s talk about that idea of conceptual translation — translating ideas across linguistic lines. Jenn, I wonder how you encounter this, because you seem to translate concepts all the time. Like, what does “true crime” mean if it started with Dostoyevsky? In that story on the Ukraine election, what does “media personality as president” mean when it’s coming out of Ukrainian and Russian and not out of English?
JW: I’m a little wary of getting too caught up on things like this. I really tend to try to think of culture as something that is fluid, that is internationally constituted. I try to remember that every writer I write about is to some extent a composite of what they’ve read and what they’ve been inspired by, and that is never exclusively Russian. A lot of the things I wrote about as an academic and more recently in my cultural criticism is actually just how incredibly international Russia has been, historically, even during the Soviet period. So, I tend to get a little nervous about overdetermining the borders of culture. I don’t think culture has these lines.
JP: Thinking about presenting these authors or concepts to readers … it’s fascinating to consider how American audiences will receive the Russia-focused work that we do. I think it’s really important for us as writers and as thinkers to speak honestly and compassionately and thoughtfully, with knowledge and real reflection behind what we’re saying, and I think it’s important for us to amplify as many other people as possible to do that, to encourage a range of voices writing about many different subjects. Yet it feels impossible in many ways to correct for how people will receive that work, because anything can be weaponized. A person might take any Russia-related thing, even the most specific, contemporary, thoughtfully constructed thing, and use it as part of an argument that reinforces Cold War–era tropes or current stereotypes. It seems really hard to control how others may receive the work you produce.
HK: That’s one reason that I really like certain writings from or about Russia that anticipate this issue and go on this meta level of, “How will people read this? How might people read this as a reflection of what this entire country is?”
JW: You know, I think I’m much more interested in work that doesn’t do that. One of the things that happened when Russia started trending in the news is that I saw on Twitter a lot of people really angling to be seen as a Russia expert. I don’t know how quite to describe it, but it was a lot of people aggressively asserting their own expertise and calling into question the expertise of others. It just became really tiresome.
Something I’ve been enjoying this year is a podcast called She’s in Russia, and it’s by these two best friends, and one lives in St. Petersburg, and the other lives in Brooklyn. Each episode is about something completely different. One was about an American horse trainer living in a Russian forest. Another was just about Russian cafeteria food. One was about the concept of race in Russia. One of the things that I really like about the podcast is that it’s so motivated by curiosity and you can hear them learning and thinking out loud. They’re so open to guessing, trying to figure out why things are the way they are. I find work like that very refreshing. Work that is not so concerned about how it’s going to be metabolized in the mediasphere as it relates to Russia.
JP: I love this. I want to listen to this podcast! I really couldn’t agree more, Jenn. To position ourselves as the authorities, keep as our central focus the Russian-American political relationship, and shape our narratives around what we anticipate readers’ expectations to be … that seems exhausting. Limiting. It’s thrilling to see what meta-level writing is coming out of Russia, but the thought of us, as American artists and cultural critics, taking that same approach in our work about Russia is hard for me to wrap my mind around. The value of our perspectives likely lies elsewhere, in our genuine curiosity, just as you said, Jenn, and in our willingness to learn. What a loss it would be to produce our work from a defensive crouch, reacting always to the 24-hour news cycle.
JW: It’s funny — you know how at the end of the year on Twitter everyone does the round-up of things they’ve written? I did that, and I said something like, “I spent most of this year writing about Russia without writing about Putin.” I agree with, in terms of just media coverage, we’ve kind of been told that knowledge about Russia is exclusively useful if it can help shed a light on whether or not there was collusion, and I think for those of us who just really love War and Peace, it’s a bit of an adjustment! You kind of have to defend your right to not write about Putin. Because I do think it’s important — we’ve talked about the Cold War, and I think the field of Russian Studies, that’s when it really grew and rose to prominence, and there was this idea that all of the information that we were studying and producing wasn’t just knowledge, it was “intelligence,” right? And in many ways, if we’re to push back against that Cold War approach to Russia we have to push back against the idea that our writing about Russia has to look in some way like intelligence gathering.
HK: I like the thought of it not even necessarily being useful. The writing that we do doesn’t always have immediately visible utility, but it is good in other ways, it does other things. I’m thinking, for example — there’s a post on the SEEJ blog by Cecil Leigh Wilson about how one can be nonbinary in the Russian language, which has a ton of grammatical gender. This post is written in English, and some of the people reading it do speak Russian and do need to know whether it’s possible to be nonbinary in the Russian language, but I think that kind of writing is also wonderful to see in a broader public sphere even for people who don’t speak Russian, just to know that the idea of how you talk about nonbinary gender identities is very present in the Russian language, in Russophone communities, and isn’t exclusive to the English language.
FB: And for me, it’s important to keep in mind that, though my translation might give an interesting perspective on contemporary Russian life to American readers, my primary role isn’t pedagogical. This is a Facebook-original memoir — it’s fast-paced and engaging. People don’t pick up this book for a lesson in politics. When Meshchaninova uses the word “gypsy,” for instance, it’s not my place to footnote the text and offer comments on Russian racial politics. I sometimes feel a large weight on my shoulders to explain or justify aspects of Russian culture to my American peers, but that’s not always the task, actually. I’m just hoping to give voice to Russian experiences.
JP: We don’t have to carry the weight of being the single US expert in all matters cultural, political, and historical who will make readers see what life in Russia is really like. Such an expert won’t ever exist. So let’s keep putting out essays, books, poems, plays, and translations, all of which provide some insight and have some use, but none of which will answer every question about Russia that Americans might have. I hope — I believe — that sharing Russian stories, engaging critically with the country’s arts and artists, and shifting our American focus toward an understanding of culture that is international and fluid, just as Jenn said, are crucial endeavors. Luckily, we’re doing those things together. This work is worthwhile. It’s wonderful to pursue it alongside all of you.
Julia Phillips is the author of the novel Disappearing Earth. Her writing has appeared in The Atlantic, Slate, and The Moscow Times, and been supported by a Fulbright fellowship. She lives in Brooklyn.
Feature image by Pasquale Paolo Cardo.
Banner image by Adam Baker.