The Voice of Feminism: On “F Letter: New Russian Feminist Poetry”

December 6, 2020   •   By Francesca Ebel

F Letter

Galina Rymbu

IT WAS VIOLENCE — cruel, sustained, perpetual violence — that initially forged Russian poet Galina Rymbu’s understanding of womanhood. It began during her teenage years, growing up in the Siberian, factory city of Omsk amid the ruins of the Soviet Union and the early, more optimistic days of Vladimir Putin’s first presidency. At night, the thin walls of her nine-story apartment block would reverberate with the shrieks of women and children being beaten by their men returning from work. By the time she was 13, Rymbu recalls that all the girls she knew, all her school friends, had experienced some degree of sexual violence. One neighbor had been raped. It was just something that happened to girls.


The violence was cyclical. Rymbu’s grandfather would beat her grandmother with an iron chain, her father would beat her mother with his fists, and then her mother would beat her. “I felt injustice very strongly,” Rymbu tells me. “I started to ask myself, why is it like this? How is this normal? Why is it normal to beat children and rape women?”


At the age of 18, at Omsk Pedagogical University, she began to read feminist texts and discovered that none of her questions were new — they had been asked by countless other women authors throughout the ages. And so she too began to write about the violence, the injustice, her own experiences, hoping that others would read it, see it, feel it, empathize.


“Maybe poetry isn’t so helpful out on the square, during protests or in the technical political sense, but it’s needed so that revolution is born within us,” says Rymbu, who has since gone on to write four books of poetry, with a fifth coming out later this year. “I think that feminist writing is a space for the internal revolution, which can give us hope and a way of resistance. Writing is a way to think about how to create a new society, how we can live and be together without violence.”


To write, and be published, as an outspoken, consciously political feminist in today’s Russia is no mean feat. Over the last decade, many feminist artists, writers, and activists have been ridiculed, harassed, and threatened, with several even being put on trial or pressured into exile. That is why the anthology F Letter: New Russian Feminist Poetry, showcasing the works of Rymbu (its curator) and 11 other prominent feminist and queer post-Soviet poetesses, [1] is so important. Though it is far from the first collection of contemporary Russian women writers, it is the only expressly feminist anthology of its kind. Moreover, it has been assembled in both Russian and English, making these works accessible to an English-speaking audience for the first time. “Feminist poetry?” Rymbu challenges the reader in her introduction. “Just a few years ago, it would have been hard to imagine anyone talking about feminist poetry as an independent phenomenon in Russian literature, or even pronouncing this phrase without a pejorative or ironic inflection.”


The blueprint for the anthology was initially drawn up in 2017 with the founding of the F-Pismo (F-Letter) feminist collective and online journal in St. Petersburg. Rymbu and her contemporaries wanted to create a discursive, safe space in which to explore the many pressing questions facing female and LGBTQ writers in Russia. This space would serve not only as a refuge, but also as a vehicle for changing the face of contemporary Russian writing and language. The aim was to break away from the history of “classical” patriarchal literature and a male-dominated literary sphere.


After the fall of the USSR, women’s writing in Russia developed intensively throughout the 1990s and 2000s. Much of this writing spoke about gender and the female condition. Vera Pavlova’s first book of poems, Heavenly Animal (1997), in which she explored female sexuality, became a sensation. Linor Goralik and Polina Andrukovich published several poems about menstruation, causing scandals. And there is, of course, no need to list Russia’s many great, distinctly female authors, from Anna Akhmatova and Marina Tsvetaeva to Lyudmila Petrushevskaya and Maria Stepanova — the list is endless. But women’s writing does not presuppose feminist writing. “Feminist poetry is a segment of poetry in which [alongside the fight for women’s rights] issues of gender identity are raised, and strategies for women and queer writing are being sought,” explains the literary critic and poet Yulia Podlubnova. It was only much more recently, in the course of the 2010s, that Russia witnessed the arrival of a louder, more visible feminist and LGBTQ culture, with many younger members turning to literature — and new social media platforms — to raise topics previously regarded as taboo.


The poetesses in this anthology tackle such topics head-on. Here we find the pleasure of lesbian sex, for example, as well as period blood, miscarriage, domestic violence, erectile dysfunction, AIDS … As I made my way through the collection, it felt as if I were opening a door into a hidden world — a world that is vibrant, witty, honest, loving, both long suffering and immensely resilient. Although, perhaps surprisingly, in light of Putinist policies, one doesn’t actually have trouble finding the physical spaces of this other world in Russia — feminist reading groups or queer parties — seldom are they as self-aware, inclusive, and politicized as this anthology.


F Letter opens with one of the most noteworthy poets in the group, Lida Yusupova. Her “One Minute” — in which, one white night in 1980s Leningrad, the narrator is asked to have sex with a young recruit before he leaves for Afghanistan — sets the tone. It is graphic, gritty, and deliberately anti-romantic, firmly rooted in the political atmosphere of the time. Yusupova’s “Mateyuk,” which follows, is said to be the first contemporary Russian poem to depict sexual violence in so direct a manner. It is powerful and uncomfortable to read, the broken rhythm and repetition recalling a victim’s traumatized, panicked retelling of her assault.


In a similar vein, Oksana Vasyakina’s winding epic “These people didn’t know my father” puts the existence of poor, working-class Russians under the microscope. She writes unflinchingly about her father’s death from AIDS (“I looked at him / thought how strange he looks like papier-mâché / only not small / but / empty”). Perhaps to comfort herself, she fantasizes that the prostitute he likely contracted HIV from was a sister-in-arms, a woman “carrying out a mission to destroy men.” “A nice romantic image is coming together here,” she writes, dryly. The verses flow between her daily musings while working as a bookseller at Moscow’s Electrotheater, the solidarity she feels with the store’s male delivery men (her father too is a cross-country trucker) who cheerily unpack and repack boxes of books for St. Petersburg, and her contemplation of the life and death of her parents. The poem ends with a moment of introspection on what it takes “to write texts about your dead parents”: “a poem / is a place you lick raw that’s what a / poem is.”


Licking wounds raw is an important motif in this anthology. In short, halted verses, Nastya Denisova painfully recalls the moment she forgets the name she had given to her unborn baby, lost in a miscarriage (“how can you lose something from nothing”). Elena Kostyleva, meanwhile, constructs a sharp, fractured poem in all caps, recreating the urgent discourse of a secret WhatsApp group used by LGBTQ people in Chechnya. The words arrest the reader — CHECHNYA, SHOOT, TORTURE OF GAYS, again and again.


There are flickers of hope in these pages, too. In an untitled work, Ekaterina Simonova tenderly imagines what it would be like to grow old with her secret lesbian lover into a strange future we are all likely to experience in which half of the people she follows on Instagram are dead: “complaining / About the pain in her back and neck [she] Takes the phone from the other woman / Lays her head on her right shoulder, / slips her hand / Underneath her pajamas, the main / thing is not to tell anyone about this. / For thirty years now it’s been something no one must know.” Like the precious, endangered species she lists at the beginning of the preceding poem, the couple live an intimate but vulnerable existence, in hiding. The poem itself can be read as an act of reclaiming the “unnatural” lesbian body, a body that will sag, wrinkle, and grow old without giving birth. Similarly, in the preceding poem, fatalism becomes a source of optimism: “Every time with the death of another of my unfertilized eggs / When one less additional human life is made / Another Siberian tiger gets to live.” Simonova dreams of better world, one with no more secrets, no more sprawling nuclear plants or toxic human waste, “no more us.”


Not every poem, however, leaves a mark. I found the radical lesbian activist Lolita Agamalova’s style (described as a combination “of post-structuralist terminological networks […] and determinedly transgressive, symbolic images”) somewhat bewildering and opaque. Her “Dilige, et quod vis fac” left me profoundly unmoved, with some of its verses reading in both Russian and English like a nonsensical jumble of sexual and theoretical jargon: “I love your navel blooming with dry roots facing off, intertwined in the likeness of organic pre-discursive and single-sex fucking / […] / I love your pubes suggesting / prospective fucking in the semantic rye.” Other poems may prove difficult to appreciate for other reasons. For instance, an English-speaking readership unfamiliar with Russia will miss out on the wordplay and cultural references that make Yulia Podlubnova’s “The Empty Store” stand out.


The express goal of F Letter is to demonstrate the phenomenon of new Russian feminist poetry as a whole, showcasing the range and differing styles of its poets. And each poet in the collection is indeed distinct from the other, so that the total effect is a kaleidoscope of different perspectives and feminist positions. Egana Djabbarova’s work, for example, focuses explicitly on gendered violence in Muslim cultures of the former Soviet Union, while the non-binary writer Elena Georgievskaya, who fuses queer feminism with imagery of the riot police’s black uniforms, hearkens back to the Soviet dissident tradition of Mandelstam or Akhmatova.


Why, then, has this collection consciously separated itself from other recent women’s writing? The authors present themselves as among the first intentionally feminist Russian poetesses, but could it make their claim stronger if the collection included some earlier female voices, to make clearer what is new and what is inherited? While he is keen to highlight the significance of the anthology, Russian critic and publisher Dmitry Kuzmin feels that it does not do justice to the generations of female writers that preceded the F-Pismo group. “There were and are brilliant authors, and they did a lot to make women’s voices resound strongly in Russian poetry,” he says.


It is wrong to devalue their work on the grounds that they did not call themselves feminists and were not embedded in a global trend. This book is structured as if the participants started doing their job from scratch — when in reality they just took one more step. This step is important and necessary, but they would not have been able to take it if they had not learned from those [before].


Rymbu does in fact stress the importance of acknowledging differing currents of feminism. “In 2020 we cannot speak about just one kind of feminism,” she says. While self-identifying female or queer readers will find moments of shared experience in this poetry, the collection is manifestly post-Soviet, a product of the socioeconomic and cultural forces unleashed by the fall of the USSR, the chaos of the Yeltsin years, and the subsequent Putin era. Wild oligarchic capitalism, rampant militarism, state violence, widespread social decay and poverty (“what feminism looks like below the poverty line”) are themes that separate these poets from most of their Western counterparts.


So, what, exactly do the poets hope Western readers will take away from their work? Rymbu is clear: “The central message of this anthology is that in Russia, feminist writing has become political — it is a political practice, it isn’t just a part of the sphere of literature. We believe that feminist literature can fulfill an activist function.” Unquestionably, against the backdrop of Russia’s current politics under Putin — from the decriminalization of domestic violence in 2017, to the killings of gay people in Chechnya — such an anthology has never been more needed.


Most recently this was manifested in the case of 27-year-old Yulia Tsvetkova, a Russian artist and activist from the Far Eastern city of Komsomolsk-on-Amur, who is facing up to six years in prison for “distributing pornography” — that is, for posting her drawings of vaginas on her social media accounts. It’s a case Rymbu refers to in the anthology’s final poem, “My Vagina,” which went viral and has now been translated into 12 languages, bringing global attention to Tsvetkova. The relationship between feminist poetry and activism in today’s Russia has become symbiotic, with contemporary writing reflecting all aspects of the current feminist agenda. In Moscow, St. Petersburg, and Yekaterinburg, poetry readings were held in support of the three teenage Khachaturian sisters, who have been charged with the premeditated murder of their father following years of physical and sexual abuse. Rymbu also credits the #IAmNotAfraidToSpeak movement, which saw thousands of women in 2016 post on Facebook about their experience of domestic and sexual violence, with changing the shape and focus of poetry in Russia.


“Politics is not just political technology or protests, but it’s about what we feel,” says Rymbu, “What is it that forces us to go out and protest? What is the effect of injustice and violence?” In the poems of F Letter, these questions are explored deeply, vividly, and from every angle. As Lida Yusupova notes, “In Russia it was poetry that became the voice of feminism.”


¤


Readers can purchase F Letter: New Russian Feminist Poetry directly from the publisher’s website.


¤


Francesca Ebel is a writer and multimedia journalist currently based in Tunis, Tunisia. She previously worked as a journalist in Moscow and Kyiv.


¤


[1] The anthology states explicitly that the authors wish to be identified as poetesses (in most cases, using the neologism “poetki”), reclaiming a gendering of the word “poet” that they say in Russian has been used in the past to marginalize and reduce female authors. The poetesses are Galina Rymbu, Lida Yusupova, Daria Serenko, Lolita Agamalova, Elena Kostyleva, Egana Djabbarova, Oksana Vasyakina, Elena Georgievskaya, Stanislava Mogileva, Ekaterina Simonova, Nastya Denisova, and Yulia Podlubnova, and their translators are Ainsley Morse, Alex Karsavin, Eugene Ostashevsky, Helena Kernan, Kevin M. F. Platt, Kit Eginton, and Valzhyna Mort.