Russia Gets a New Review
On a June Wednesday at St. Petersburg’s Anna Akhmatova Museum, celebrated Russian poets Sergei Gandelevsky and Leonid Kostuykov read their work in front of an eager international audience of writers and literati. The setting, Akhmatova’s home for thirty years, is hallowed ground for fans of Russian literature. The poets read their work in Russian with translations in English following. During the Q and A, someone asked Gandelevsky the obvious considering the venue: How has the work of Akhmatova influenced your craft? Gandelevsky replied bluntly—or perhaps just honestly—that he didn’t much care for Akhmatova. Chuckles, some relaxed, some uneasy, ran through the room. Although such bluntness might verge on the heretical in some circles—a bit like standing up at the Globe and calling Billy Shakespeare half-rate—it is one of the many delights—along with the obtuse, the satiric, and the absurd—of Russian writing.
For the past two summers, just as Barcelona heats up, I have traveled to St. Petersburg to participate in Summer Literary Seminars (SLS), a series of writing workshops and lectures in English given by big names like Johnathan Lethem and Francine Prose. St. Petersburg is an ideal city in which to write for a month; its overgrown gardens and inky canals fertilize the imagination. Despite various revolutions, sieges, and other upheavals, the city has given us Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy, Pushkin, and, let’s be inclusive, Akhmatova. But until this summer, St. Petersburg—actually the whole of Russia—has lacked an English-language review to showcase the country’s talents.
Stepping boldly into the void is the debut of the St. Petersburg Review, a quarterly publishing poetry, fiction, and creative nonfiction. It is the brainchild of Elizabeth Hodges, an American attorney-writer who first came to Russia in 1998 as a rule-of-law advocate. She holds an MA in writing from Hollins College (USA) and has lectured at SLS for the past three years.
The inaugural issue offers 213 pages comprising 47 pieces, 27 of which are translated from Russian. A series of eight poems and stories by women formerly imprisoned in the gulag is printed side-by-side with the original Cyrillic. The series has been adapted for performance as “The Roads We Did Not Choose” and was performed in June as part of SPR’s launch. In addition to the native writers, TBR favorites George Saunders and Josip Novakovich write their pith and trenchant humor in fiction and essay.
SPR will maintain a web presence at www.stpetersburgreview.com where visitors can find selected content, submission guidelines, subscription information, and details on annual contests awarding $1000 to first place winners. The genre for the 2008 contest is poetry and submissions will be accepted from September to January.
Though I do not claim to have my finger on Russia’s cultural pulse, I have certainly noted the national bleakness in the Russian writers I have met over two summers at SLS. No doubt a soviet century does not meld neatly into a neo-liberal society of free and easy expression, and Putin’s clench on anything contrarian seems to have brought out an excess of the genetic woe. This summer I had dinner with one local poet so pessimistic on his prospects of accessing a readership outside of Russia, he appeared physically ill with his cruel fate.
With an international cadre of professional writers and editors behind it, SPR stands to bring Russian writers, whether grievously bleak, show-stoppingly blunt, or neither, to the world audience they deserve. The job will not be easy as SPR’s staff has already learned. Welcoming it into its namesake city, customs officials at Pulkovo airport confiscated the maiden shipment of the review until the obligatory bribe was paid. We wish SPR only the softest landings in the future.