Stories of a Life, originally published in Russia in 2017 and available now in an English translation by Fiona Bell, is a thinly veiled family memoir disguised as a fictional bildungsroman. Set in late-’90s, post-Soviet Russia, the novel explores the experience of growing up alongside everyday abuse — almost always gender-based, primarily sexual, just as often psychological as physical. As an adult, Natasha begins to recount the story of her coming of age, unraveling the effects of gendered violence that she had previously written off as the normal growing pains of girlhood.
These episodes of violence and abuse, which target her and other women in her family, are rendered such that they seem inconsequential and mundane, even though Natasha’s meticulous detailing of them is chilling. When she was a young girl, a stranger, who claimed to be her father’s friend, lured her into a field intending to rape her. The potential attack was interrupted by a local teacher, who brought Natasha back to her mother:
She walked me home, yelling the whole way, and when she found my mom at the store, she started yelling at her even more loudly, telling her in the gravest tone about how I’d been fooling around with Dad’s friend. […] My mom took me home and, out of helplessness, beat the shit out of me with a jump rope. At that point, I understood very clearly that having grown-up friends wasn’t an option.
Reading this scene, I balked at the phrase “grown-up friends,” but here, as so often in the novel, we’re meant to read between the lines. The underlying suggestion is that relationships with adult men that are not predatory are a mere fantasy, totally unrealistic. Written by the grown-up Natasha as she recalls her childhood, this episode emerges as a chance to understand how she was conditioned to see gendered violence as normal through the failure of adults to respond to it appropriately, because it was likewise ordinary to them.
Stories of a Life centers on Natasha’s mother, a woman who is victimized by her multiple partners even as she turns a blind eye to her daughter’s abuse. Natasha writes about her deep fear of being separated from her mother and her willingness to lie to offer her mother an easier life. “My fear of upsetting my mother was stronger than the truth,” she writes, “stronger than my own self-interest. My fear of losing her was paralyzing.” Her desire to keep her mother close by and happy leads Natasha to become “an expert at lying before I was even out of diapers.” Natasha is also deeply affected by the mystery of her absent father. The product of a casual affair, she is furious at her mother when she finds out that the man whose patronym she bears isn’t her biological father. The questions surrounding her paternity and her fear of losing her mother set up her expectations about gender ideals. She finds men untrustworthy and violent, but when her mother does the same, Natasha feels a fierce sense of loyalty and clings to her. “I suddenly realized that being a dad was a bullshit temp job,” she writes, “that you could quit or pick a new daughter whenever you wanted.” Regarding her mother, however, she says, “I was scared of finding out the truth. My mom loved me, I knew it. Besides, finding another mom would be inconvenient.” This all comes to a head when Uncle Sasha enters the picture, a stepfather who sets his sights on the young girl. Their complicated relationship suddenly becomes his hunting ground, as he plays mother and daughter against each other.
Natasha narrowly averts serious damage inflicted by men throughout most of her childhood, until Uncle Sasha enters her life. Natasha writes that when she fights back against her stepfather, he is horrified and amazed: “At first he was taken aback. Flustered, even. But after a minute he slipped away to the kitchen and grabbed a knife. His eyes were watering, he couldn’t help it. It was awesome.” Like all of the other adults in her novel, Uncle Sasha perceives sexual abuse as a normal part of a young girl’s experience, and he is outraged that his behavior has been questioned.
Near the end of the novel, Natasha is finally ready to reckon with her mother’s complicity. She is astonished at how her love for her mother has been transformed: “This blind, inconceivable, bleeding love, for which I would have killed without batting an eye, turned into hate. As if I’ve crossed over to the dark side of the moon.” Again, though, this is a kind of projection: her anger at her mother suggests a larger revulsion against an entire society, where gender-based violence has become acceptable, even banal. Natasha has not only turned against her mother, she has also turned against the social mores she was told were perfectly normal throughout her childhood and adolescence.
Stories of a Life has been presented as a preeminent text in the #MeToo movement in Russia. It first went viral as a series of Facebook posts before being published in book form, and it still retains the casualness of a story told over social media. Meshchaninova’s background as a screenwriter comes through, and the novel reads almost like a furtive eavesdropping on the gossip and confessions of a teenage girl. The language in the novel’s most horrific scenes is deeply conversational, calling attention to the way sexual violence is casually tolerated by Russian society.
Lucky Breaks, a story collection by Yevgenia Belorusets, is also concerned with how violence affects the lives of women, but unlike Stories of a Life, which focuses on personal violence, it shows the effects of state-based violence in women’s everyday lives. Once again, violence against women is depicted as so common and normalized that its horror is no longer a shock, even while it remains all-encompassing in its destructiveness. Set against the backdrop of the Russian occupation of southeastern Ukraine, which has been ongoing since 2014, the threat of state violence is seen as a regular part of life: “Beauty salons are, in their own way, war trenches and dugouts.” The potential for violence is constant; as one of the characters explains, “[a]ll this took place in the two-thousands, at the end of a long historical epoch. […] You can’t really live in this country — you’re threatened from every side at every moment.” State violence is likewise gender-based violence, since its harm is intensified when its target is society’s most vulnerable. Like Stories of a Life, Lucky Breaks shows, through a series of compelling vignettes, how commonplace, how unsurprising, violence against women is, how it affects every aspect of life.
Belorusets’s vignettes, as she writes in her preface, “focus on the deep penetration of traumatic historical events into the fantasies and experiences of everyday life.” Streets, cities, and territories are often directly named, along with a scattering of precise dates, giving Lucky Breaks a geographic and historical specificity — well defined guideposts through which characters wander listlessly, aimlessly. One of the women complains that “[p]ractically all of my plans, desires, intentions, and goals run aground and go under,” while students in another vignette remark, “Us younger folk suffered with the lights out. Sometimes we’d walk around the streets for hours. You couldn’t read, you couldn’t do your homework, and there really wasn’t anything worth studying, either. We walked around and talked with each other for hours, fantasized, made plans for the future.” The story powerfully captures the feeling of displacement caused by the constant threat of violence, by invasion, occupation, and annexation. But this is not a gathering of tales about refugees; instead, Lucky Breaks depicts people struggling to live their lives amid forces that are actively working to displace them.
The stories in Lucky Breaks are brief and poignant. In “My Sister,” the narrator explains how her sibling fantasized about the soldiers who occupied their home: “On the other hand, her life — her desires, dreams, and hopes — made sense only so long as our city was occupied by armed men, soldiers, unknowns.” These girlish desires are blindsided by the violent reality of the occupation, when the sister is abruptly abducted by some soldiers, only to return months later, withdrawn and traumatized. The narrator explains that “[t]here’s nothing more to tell. She doesn’t complain; she lives with us; she goes to work as before. At work they didn’t count her absence against her. […] She doesn’t tell us anything, but we don’t ask her anything either.” The reality of violence has become so constant and banal that its shock and horror have been lost.
Another narrator tells us about a local florist, “a woman who loves flowers. As for me, I confess I had been in love with the florist for several months in a row.” After several paragraphs about this woman, what a unique person she is, what her flower shop means to the community, the narrator tells us that “the story doesn’t exist, the narrative doesn’t continue, it breaks off. The florist disappeared. The house where she lived was destroyed. Her store was refitted into a warehouse of propaganda materials. Her regular customers left Donetsk long ago.” As in many of these stories, the documentation of lives disrupted by violence slides uneasily between fiction and nonfiction.
This ambiguous space becomes the ideal position for Belorusets to write from, since alongside the prose vignettes of women’s lives runs a secondary photographic narrative. The images function as visual reminders of how the people of Ukraine are simply trying to live their lives — going to a park on a beautiful day, for example — while at the same time depicting how the threat of state violence has been accepted as simply a part of everyday life. The photographs bring the fictional vignettes into a balanced yet fragile place, showing the strength of Belorusets’s stories as snapshots of a life under occupation.
Lucky Breaks, like Stories of a Life, has been translated from Russian, but the politics of translation here is more complicated. As the translator, Eugene Ostashevsky, notes, Belorusets’s “language is subtly different from the kinds of Russian spoken in the Russian Federation; it is based on the rhythms and intonations of the Russian of Kyiv and Kharkiv, and continues the Russian-language line of Ukrainian literature.” The translator’s note clarifies that Ukraine is a country of bilingual speakers, and that Lucky Breaks has only been published in Ukraine, not in Russia, as a political choice by the author. “A lot of language mixing take place,” Ostashevsky explains, “both within the bounds of a single conversation, and within the village dialects spoken by millions, called surzhik, that have no written form.” In a way, even the language in which Lucky Breaks was written and published reflects what it captures as a fictional work: as Ostashevsky says, “ultimately the presence of so much Russian language is the result of colonization.”
Lucky Breaks and Stories of a Life both powerfully explore the effects of violence on women’s lives. Belorusets’s stories show the difficulty involved in documenting gender-based violence; as the author writes in one vignette: “But you will kindly spare a few minutes of your time to answer my questions. Believe me, it’s not so difficult to answer, especially when the questions are already there in your hands. To formulate the questions — my responsibility completely — is the far more demanding task.” These questions address far-reaching issues of war and state violence, whereas Stories of a Life probes the more intimate betrayals of family and friendship. For Meshchaninova, turning a blind eye to everyday brutality is an act of violence in itself.
Sarah McEachern is a reader and writer in Brooklyn, New York. Some of her recent writing has been published by The Ploughshares Blog, BOMB, The Believer, The Rumpus, Split Lip Mag, and Full Stop.