“Russia’s in Such a Complicated State, Even Now:” Excerpts from a Conversation with Rosemary Sullivan and Jeff Parker

by E Martin Nolan

E Martin Nolan writes poetry and non-fiction. He’s an Interviews Editor at The Puritan, where he also publishes interviews and reviews. His essays and poems have appeared in LemonhoundContemporary Verse 2, Arc, The Rusty Toque, and Eminem and Rap, Poetry, Race (McFarland Books), among others. He teaches at the University of Toronto. You might know him as Ted.

Rosemary Sullivan’s Stalin’s Daughter: The Extraordinary and Tumultuous Life of Svetlan Alliluyeva was published by HarperCollins in 2015, and has been widely praised. It won the RBC Taylor prize and the Hilary Weston Writers’ Trust Prize for Nonfiction, among many other accolades. The book tells the story of Svetlana Alliluyeva, the only daughter of Joseph Stalin. Svetlana, as Jeff Parker suggests below, was “a fantastic heroine.” Her life is fascinating for the historical insight it provides and for unique person that she was. In fact, it is difficult to pry the two apart, for while Svetlana was surely a unique individual, the course of her life is inseparable from the grand historical forces to which she was so close. And so, Stalin’s Daughter expertly twines the two, resulting in an illuminating page-turner of a biography.

Jeff Parker’s Where Bears Roam the Sreets was published by HarperCollins in 2014.

The book was originally intended as an insight into modern Russia’s re-emergence on the world stage under Vladimir Putin, as well as its new, growing middle class. Then the global recession of 2008 hit, and the Russia Parker had intended to cover changed. So did the book. It became a portrait of a country in crisis, and of Parker’s friend Igor, an outgoing and lovable character trying to make his way in a changing country. Mixing history, journalism, memoir and travelogue—all with a humour and sneaky intimacy that draws you in—Where Bears Roam the Streets gives us an extended peek into Russian life. Parker also co-edited, with Mikhail Iossel, Rasskazy: New Fiction from a New Russia, published in 2009 by Tin House Books.

The following interview was conducted in December of 2015, across two continents. Rosemary Sullivan and I sat in her living room in Toronto. Jeff Parker joined us over Skype from Russia, near the Ukraine border. It has been edited and added to for clarity.

 

I

E Martin Nolan: I want to start off with the things that the books have in common, and how, Parker, your book starts in the Putin era, and, Rosemary, your book ends with Putin, who Svetlana was not a big fan of. Before we get into that, I want to look at the main characters as—and as not—representative figures.

Parker, on the back cover of your book, Igor is called “a poet of the Russian condition.” Is that true? How much does Igor represent Russia for you, and how much is he just another guy?

Jeff Parker: I don’t really believe in that idea of an “everyman.” And if there is a Russian everyman, I doubt Igor qualifies. He’s more of the Jeffrey Lebowski of 21st Century Russia. And there is something of the poet about him. He’s both unique and representative, which is why I was drawn to him.

Now, putting my book in the same conversation as Rosemary’s is quite a stretch. Her book is a biographical masterpiece of an important person from history, and mine is a glorified buddy movie.

EMN: But—through the focus on individuals, both demystify Russia.

JP: The whole idea behind my book was to get away from the stories that Westerners like to tell about Russia as a crazy place, Russia as a scary place. The whole idea was to tell a story about contemporary Russia through the lens of a normalish dude.

EMN: So, if he’s not a representative figure, by considering him so closely, what did you discover about Russia?

JP: Igor was the person who showed me the country. I first went there in 1999, for a literary conference. I was meeting writers and academics—Western and Russian. But he was one of the first, non-Intelligentsia, just regular citizens that I met. He’s just a few years younger than me, so we were the last generation of Cold War kids. And from his side that distinction is much more interesting than it is from mine. He grew up with one foot in the Soviet Union and one foot in whatever it is you want to say that Russia’s become. One of the big things to take from his experience is the spectacle of growing up with the socioeconomic and political ground always shifting under your feet.

EMN: Rosemary, same question to you. Can Svetlana be said to be representative?

Rosemary Sullivan: As far as Svetlana being representative: what was interesting was that every time Svetlana either fell into a rage, or acted in an eccentric way, the public always said “just like her father.” But in fact, she was just like a Russian. I agree, I don’t like those generalizations, but there was an emotional flamboyance, and an absolute attachment to the Russian land that were characteristic of Svetlana. The Western idea, perhaps fed through the CIA and other propaganda, is of the bear, the virulent, aggressive Russian. But the sentimental Russian—who perhaps has a skin less, sometimes—I was fascinated that that was Svetlana. She was Russian, she wasn’t simply her father’s daughter.

That’s the volatility with the encounter with Russia: it’s very hard to take your Western mind, your North American mind, and figure out what is going on.

I went to the Soviet Union for the first time in 1979. I went alone as a tourist. I wanted to see it. At the airport passport control, suddenly the whole line beside us was leaping over the turnstiles onto the other side. I looked over, they had Cuban Passports, so I thought maybe it was something political. Turned out on our flight someone had gotten drunk, made a move on a Spanish girl, and all these guys were leaping to her defense. I made the commitment then that I would never say I knew what I was seeing. That’s the volatility with the encounter with Russia: it’s very hard to take your Western mind, your North American mind, and figure out what is going on. So I hesitate to say Svetlana is representative. My god, she starts at the top of the Kremlin elite, but at the same time her Russianness was apparent in her passion for poetry, for literature, for the Russian landscape.

EMN: She’s in a very unique position as Stalin’s daughter. Did she experience Stalin twice? As a father and as a leader? Especially given the effect he, as a leader, had on her family and friends.

RS: It would be fair to say that. That was the ongoing battle of Svetlana’s life. After her mother committed suicide when she was 6, luckily she had her Mary Poppins—or Pushkin—style nanny who loved her devotedly. But Poppa continued to play the role of Poppa. Svetlana’s father was mostly absent, and yet sending letters, and sending fruit, and asking about her homework. Any time he was in the Kremlin he had her to dinner with the rest of the Politburo. But he was father. So she had to exorcise a childhood before she could turn on her father, but she did experience him in two ways. One was revealed when he sent her famous lover, Alexei Kapler, the filmmaker, to the gulag and she had to admit that it was Stalin’s doing. When it was her relatives that were sent off, she wanted to say it was the system. It was impossible to believe it was Stalin.

He also prevented her from going into her passion for literature in university. One of the things you have to say about Svetlana: the scars of that childhood left her deeply self-involved. She said her father broke her life twice: the love affair and his destruction of her literary ambition. So she did experience Stalin … double barrelled.

JP: One of my favourite parts of the book is when you let us read the letters she would write to Stalin and to the Politburo, where they had to refer to her as “the hostess.” Those are brilliant. It’s amazing how Stalin’s letters to her can be playful and innocent jousting between an adult man and a little girl, yet macabre. There’s the time he says to her that she “better not tell the cook” on him.

EMN: After thinking about Russia as much as you both have, does it seem stranger? Less strange? Parker, you introduce it through the short story “The Nose.” You say you are still “flummoxed” by the country as much as you are by that story. What still flummoxes you?

JP: Everything. I’m still grappling with Russia after, what, fifteen years. I’m still reading and re-reading Dostyevsky’s Demons and Gogol’s Dead Souls and the great Soviet writers. I’m still wandering around Moscow. Right now, I’m wondering where all the stray dogs went. The last time I was here, there were a lot more stray dogs.

Not to be evasive but, even in our own language, when I say “loneliness” and Rosemary says “loneliness,” I don’t know exactly what she means by that. I have an idea, but you add layers of cultural conditioning and language on top of that basic human untranslatability and what do you ever know?

RS: But you obviously have a love affair with Russia. Not many people have gone as far as you have gone to understand it.

JP: I can’t deny that. And I guess the real answer to Ted’s question is that if I ever felt that I truly understood something about that place, then I would also be pretty certain that my conclusions were false. Maybe that’s what keeps me interested, that constant push toward not-knowing.

RS: I found your book a little sad, actually, by the end. Russia’s in such a complicated state, even now. Igor is optimistic, thinking “it’s going to work,” but as the fabric of the culture gets more and more complicated—once the Soviet Union falls apart—he becomes nostalgic for the stability he knew growing up. It’s poignant.

JP: I’m glad that you found that. Igor is, in a way, an optimist. He gets beat down from time to time, but in general I think that he thinks that no matter what instability the rulers of the land throw at them, they’ll survive. And now, with Western sanctions and oil prices what they are, that stability is being challenged yet again. It’s complicated being here right now. You understand that it’s not the people who made the decision to invade Ukraine that suffer. Meanwhile, I get a five-dollar cappuccino rather than a ten-dollar cappuccino.

RS: It’s probably just as difficult to figure out the United States today. If we get another terrorist attack in the United States, Donald Trump might be president.

JP: True. I think one of the things that’s hardest for Americans to grasp about Russia is the corruption. I’m thinking more the day-to-day kind of corruption than that involving larger financial and judicial structures. Take mandatory conscription. When a man reaches military age, he has a choice to make. He either goes into the army—universally acknowledged as a pretty unpleasant place to be—or one engages, like Igor did, in one of the corrupt practices to keep himself out. That’s a really powerful example of how no matter how you live your life here, at a certain point you have to choose between sacrificing your personal well being and practices of corruption. We don’t face that choice in the West. If we want to be cynical about it, we can talk about what choices capitalism forces us into, but I think it’s very different.

EMN: That speaks to another thing that’s ever-present in both books: a sense of crisis. Rosemary, can you even imagine what a non-crisis situation, or mindset, would look like for Svetlana? Even when she’s in the States, and had the potential, at least on paper, for stability, she was not stable. She moved constantly, she violently attached herself to others. Was it ever possible for her to achieve a state of non-crisis?

RS: In the United States the general impression of Svetlana was that she was mentally unstable. When I interviewed people in England they said “my god, she was solid as a rock.” It was not possible for Svetlana to live without being politicized in the States. You can imagine her having a nice little domestic life, but the CIA were keeping tabs on her, the FBI were keeping tabs on her. There is a huge CIA file on her that is not available. To anyone she met, indeed if I had met her, she would have been Stalin’s daughter.

In England there were times of quiet, but she was living like a pauper, in Council digs. For someone used to the level of public engagement that Svetlana had—she met dignitaries, presidents, diplomats, and people of her own intellectual caliber—it must have been lonely. She was in a way split—I wonder if women of her generation were inevitably split. Her fantasy was that she could have a nice little domestic life, with a happy husband and a kid. And she achieved it—as she said, it lasted about an hour. Part of it was the volatility of her own temperament that made it difficult for the marriage to Wesley Peters to continue (that’s apart form the fact that she as seen as a bank account to draw money from). She also wanted to be deeply, intellectually engaged with the world. She delivered some very good lectures at universities, like the University of Wisconsin, but that was not in the end satisfying because the questions at the end would be about her father. So, no, a time without crisis I don’t think is imaginable for her.

But it’s interesting what Jeff was saying about corruption. We have corruption all around us. The corruption of the electoral system in the United States, by money, is shocking. Here, you have Mike Duffy—a silly little bit of corruption. But here, the citizen expects the system to work. But if you’re in the Soviet Union, you’re in a constant balancing act between what you want as a citizen and what the system is going to deliver. So it is a different mentality. Maybe now it’s a post-communist mentality. What struck me when I went to the Soviet Union in ’79, was that it was a system set up for betrayal. The only way to get ahead was to betray somebody else. There’s cynicism, and also the question of who’s going to watch over you. You see this from Svetlana’s expectations of Sir Isaac Berlin, who promised to help her but in Svetlana’s view did not follow through. One of the things that Russians kept saying to me was that Russians expect a patron, need a patron. We assume, mostly, that that won’t work, that you need to do it on your own.

EMN: There’s another sense in which Svetlana was dependent: on what journalists could make of her. You say she was used as a “shuttlecock” in the Cold War. That brings us back to that sense of constant crisis, and how it’s framed. Parker, you’re in Russia right now. With the recent incursions into Crimea and eastern Ukraine, is that sense geo-political crisis more tangible now?

RS: And what do you think Russians think of Putin?

JP: Again, it’s hard to generalize. People of the older generation have a certain view of things. The vast majority of the non-intelligentsia, the people who primarily watch the state-controlled television, have a certain view of things. And then there’s  a lot of young people who have never spent any time in a country known as the Soviet Union. Obviously, the situation in Ukraine stoked and was stoked by a lot of nationalistic fervour, almost all of which dates back to WWII and the stories, and myths, that have grown up around it. That’s almost a founding myth of contemporary society.

But the first thing I think about when someone poses that question is the younger generation, who has a very different view of things, and sees the effect these things have on the economy as a whole.

EMN: And what are they thinking?

JP: All sorts of things, but they don’t have a Soviet mentality ingrained in them. They may end up with a Soviet mentality. There’s a lot of rhetoric, a lot of propaganda circulating in the mass media. Those stories are very powerful. They’re about their grandparents or great-grandparents if we’re talking about the very youngest generation, who died in the Great Patriotic War.

RS: I was only there for five weeks [in 2013, researching for Stalin’s Daughter], but I was surprised by young people, who I thought were very liberal, but who would say “Russia needs a strong man.” There is a foundational myth of the Second World War, but also a nostalgia for First-World power, which in some ways they still have but which Putin is making sure to build up. At the same time, it’s a mistake to assume, for instance, that the American reading of Syria is correct, or that the Russian reading is wrong.

EMN: And Jeff make a similar point about the news coverage of the Georgian invasion, that Russian State TV was more accurate, that Saakashvili had been naïve in that confrontation.

JP: Yeah, Saakashvili naively thought the West would back him. That was a big mistake, and that’s not to say that Russia hadn’t been baiting him, giving citizens in South Ossetia Russian passports. But the Human Rights’ Watch report I think bears this out: that Saakashvili made a strategic mistake.

And of course the situation in Ukraine is more complicated than simply Putin decided to seize Crimea.

RS: If you look at the Olympics, which were spectacular, they celebrated Solzhenitsyn, but very shortly after that was the invasion of the Crimea.

EMN: The Olympics before that was Vancouver, and I wonder if you wanted a contrast between the countries, if that’s a good place to look, at how those two events were run. Beyond that, I wonder if North America, and the West, and Russia still define themselves against each other, the way they did during the Cold War. What are the attitudes toward the West in Russia, today?

JP: I think those attitudes are dualistic and contradictory. Obviously, no one’s a fan of economic sanctions that hurt them personally. Those who get the majority of their global news though television are very quick to point out that behind the vast majority of world events is some nefarious Western hand. In all the reporting of the protests in Moscow in 2011 and 2012, “Hillary Clinton is organizing all these protests.” All the reporting on the Ukraine was either “Ukrainian fascists are tearing up the Maidan” or “Western agents are inciting riots.” Those kinds of storylines are easy for most Russian people to believe. And sometimes there’s a grain of truth, or more than a grain of truth, to them. A lot of the reports from Russian television would make claims like “the US is supplying Ukraine with arms.”  Well, wasn’t exactly true—the West was supplying a particular kind of anti-aircraft missiles which were technically characterized as being defensive.

There’s a love/hate thing, great interest and great scepticism undercut with a good dose of well-earned xenophobia.

Nonetheless, there’s always this fine line there. For the person on the street, there’s a general sense of mistrust toward the West, politically speaking. But on a personal level, many people are genuinely interested in the West, in the US particularly. (Obviously, Hollywood is our worldwide ideological propaganda.) As Igor likes to say, whenever we go to the Russian bathhouse—filled with regular guys, soccer fans who watch Russian TV and probably admire Putin—they’re always interested in talking to me. There’s a love/hate thing, great interest and great scepticism undercut with a good dose of well-earned xenophobia.

RS: Do you think that the FSB has an increasing role, or that people are more willing to self-censor themselves? With Pussy Riot, and other dissidents, do you still get that sense? In the United States, the equivalent might be Black protesters against police violence, but you don’t feel censored about that. There’s some protection of freedom of speech, such as it is. Is there a feeling that people are cynical of the manipulation of power, and so decide to just lead their private lives? Is there a fear of public politics.

JP: It’s hard for me to say. Most of the people I know from working on the book, and from working for a literary program [Summer Literary Seminars] in St. Petersburg, are writers, or culturologists, or activists. They’re all pretty vocal in their opinions.

RS: So they don’t feel threatened.

JP: Well, they do. When they protest, they’re not surprised when they’re taken to jail. But I frankly don’t know, on a micro level, how the man-on-the-street feels about that. One of the revelations of the protests in 2011 and 2012 seems to have been that private political conversations once confined to the kitchen table were brought into the streets. But those conversations only went so far.

EMN: Parker, I want to return to something you said earlier: the “ground is always shifting under your feet.” In addition to writing Where Bears Roam the Streets, you co-edited Rasskazy: New Fiction form a New Russia. There’s a lot of that “shifting under your feet” factor there. The first story, “They Talk” is made of snippets of disconnected speech. In “History,” a man gets unwittingly caught in a protest and detained. “One Year in Paradise” ends with its hero holding up, with his back, a map of Russia that has come partially detached from the wall. He’s calmly smoking a cigarette.

That was published in 2009, so the stories predate the recession, just like your partially-foiled plans to write about the new rising Russian middle class. When Rasskazy was published, did you feel at all like the “New Russia” it was meant to capture was now in the past? Or is Russia just still smoking a cigarette, so to speak, while it refuses to fall all the way off the wall? I guess my metaphor is making Russia the man and the map.

JP: That story is by Natalya Klyuchareva, and I think you read her metaphor pretty spot on. And the question you ask is incredibly astute. We (Mikhail Iossel and I) edited that anthology with the intent of showing all the range of aesthetics in which contemporary writers of the Post-Soviet generation were working. So it’s really varied, but one of the things you see going on there is a turn away from the fabulism, if you will, of the nineties (I’m thinking writers like Victor Pelevin and Vladimir Sorokin) toward a more realistic examination of the problems of society. But I definitely felt like we only captured a snapshot and the transformation accelerated. At this rate you could probably put together a new anthology of writings on a New Russia every five years.

II

EMN: I want to look at an idea often associated with the West, and with the United States. Individualism. This is something Svetlana ran up against. She had a strong independent streak.

RS: There was the concept that the collective was more important than the individual. It starts idealistically, then gets shot to hell by Stalin. But I think the myth of the Soviet Collective Man is a myth long dead, no?

EMN: And looking from the US perspective, the self-made person is still celebrated. Did that ever really take hold after communism?

JP: There’s a lot less of that personal seclusion that you see, for instance, in the American suburbs. A lot of Russian apartment buildings are built in this kind of well style. It’s not a neighbourhood, per se, but if you go down to the courtyard, in the centre of your building—especially if you’ve lived there your whole life like Igor: he knows a lot people in that courtyard, and he can just go down there and it’s kind of like his extended family. They’ve lived there their whole lives. They go down there and drink beers, and their kids play. It can be very tight-knit.

EMN: Svetlana had that individual streak, but she also felt extremely isolated when she lived in an American suburban environment. She seemed more comfortable to live in the shared state housing in England, [even though she was dirt poor then].

RS: The other example of shared housing is Taliesin [the community and school founded by Frank Lloyd Wright. Svetlana joined after marrying one of its members, Wesley Peters. At that time, it was run with a tight grip by Wright’s widow, Olgivanna.] She was shocked to find that she had discovered the one place in American that would replicate the court of her father.

Two things that were fascinating about Svetlana when she got the west: she did not understand money, at all. Perhaps money is associated with individualism.

The other thing she didn’t understand was a public. We like to say—an perhaps it’s self-congratulatory and dangerous—that Canada has always tried to find the middle ground between the extreme individualism in the United States and a more socialist system, with the assumption that health and education are public responsibilities.

EMN: One thing that struck me about Stalin’s Daughter was how Svetlana missed the long conversations, the Russian art of conversation. I’ve always felt, about North America, that I wish people were more willing to sit down and get really heavy into stuff. But there’s often a sarcasm, a guard that goes up against that. That might go back to the willingness to be emotionally vulnerable.

RS: There’s an irony that when you have authoritarian systems, the role the writer plays is more a role of crisis, where the writer has to put himself on the line.  It does make great literature, and therefore great conversations. Svetlana said she developed the elbow to have a cocktail, she could have cocktail party chat, but there were only two people she could have a real conversation with. One was [American diplomat and Svetlana’s long-time ally] George Kennan, and the other was Donald Jameson [her CIA handler]. I do think the kind of philosophical, reflective culture that you find among Russians is the kind of thing you’d be nostalgic for if you lost it.

EMN: Parker, in your experience would you say people there have a unique style of conversation? Could you say there are identifiable differences between how people talk to each other over here and in Russia? There seems to be a high number of long, involved conversations in Where Bears Roam the Streets. Not just the interviews, but on the train, in the Banya, in Igor’s uncle’s yard, courtyards. Igor, the “normal guy,” is quite thoughtful in his conversation.

JP: Russian intellectuals are renowned for epic conversations. Russian literary readings can go on for hours and hours. Westerners are rightly, I think, criticized for over-reliance on small talk. Our political discussions are best reduced to sound bytes. I don’t think it’s over-romanticizing it to say that there’s something valued in conversation and creative expression there that we’ve either lost or never had.

III

JP: Rosemary, what were people’s reaction to you in Russia when you were going around asking about Svetlana?

RS: I first met the daughter of one of Svetlana’s cousins, in Canada. I told her about the book, she said, “we’re not interested, we don’t talk about that.” Then I gave her Villa Air Bel, and I guess she liked it, and phoned and said, “my father will talk to you.” Eventually, that led me to St. Petersburg. I asked was there any interest in Svetlana. I was told, “no.” I hit that moment when Svetlana was fading as a public figure, but the family was still interested in sorting out the legacy. Because of the long history of intrusion into Svetlana’s life the family had a complicated attitude toward it. But they were happy to talk to me.

JP: Was the general impression one of skepticism as to why you were interested in her? Were people interested in having the story set straight?

RS: They were interested in setting the story straight. So I don’t think they were skeptical of my interests. They took me very seriously. The risk was that I didn’t speak Russian. But I had really done my research, so they were convinced by my questions. Because I had two translators, it went very smoothly, and the translators were both very personable young women. They liked us well enough that they gave me a ceramic teapot that had belonged to Svetlana, and also a little redwood heart that belonged to her necklace. It was very warm, I think because they wanted to learn about Svetlana’s fate, as much as wanting to tell me their story.

What an unimaginable way for the daughter of Stalin to describe her upbringing.

The KGB had done a good job of promoting Svetlana as promiscuous, or unreliable, and so on. When she was in the Soviet Union, she was part of the family. They wanted to know what had become of her. I asked them if they had any repercussions about being Stalin’s relatives, and they seemed to suggest that no, they had gone on with their lives. They still lived in one of those huge, monstrous towers—

JP: I’m in one right now.

RS: A rather dilapidated apartment, but a nice size. They had had careers as doctors, and scientists—but there were obviously scars from the pain, the costs that were difficult to get over.

JP: Telling the story of Stalin’s era through Svetlana’s point of view is just one of the most fascinating things I’ve ever seen unfold on the page. It was in high contrast for me. I had just read another friend’s book, Symphony for the City of the Dead—a very good book, about Shostakovich and the “Symphony of the Siege.” And, even though he tells the story of the war, and the Stalin era, through Shostakovich, he hardly ever mentions Stalin’s children. So I was all of a sudden getting this completely other slice of the story. One of things that struck me was that Svetlana calls her childhood “easygoing.” That was the word, right?

RS: That was the word.

JP: What an unimaginable way for the daughter of Stalin to describe her upbringing.

EMN: Stalin’s Daughter is also binge-worthy. A lot of that can be seen by how you end the chapters. Here’s an example that picks up on what Jeff is talking about: “Looked at from the child’s point of view, the world may have been undiluted sun, though with a child’s intuition, she must already have sensed the cracks in her paradise. From an adult perspective, it was a labyrinthine tangle of pain and anxiety.” That’s the end of a chapter.

RS: Writing is artifice, and I wanted that, once you get to the end of a chapter, you want to read the next one. My favourite is the one that ends: “and then Stalin died.”

EMN: I was reading that, late at night, and there was no way I wasn’t reading the next chapter.

RS: But it was hard. I had a draft of this book, the first hundred pages, and I had a friend read it, and she said, “it’s a very good biography of Stalin.” To try to get Svetlana in the forefront of the cataclysmic history of the twentieth century was tricky. What you were supposed to feel is that you’re looking at history through a very peripheral keyhole. We tend to think of these momentous events, such as the Cold War itself, as if it were some kind of abstract, theoretical thing. You’ll talk about the Russian position, the American position, but you won’t talk about the individuals making those decisions. These things we think of as momentous and at a distance are actually the product of leadership, individual choices, the products of personality. That was one of the things I was deliberately playing with. I believe that if you can personalize these stories, they have much more impact.

You call her story a kind of peripheral keyhole, but I was thinking of it as a prism.

JP: Svetlana’s a fantastic heroine. The way her story gives insights into Stalin—there’s that moment where he essentially gives her permission to divorce Yuri Zhdanov [her second husband, and the son of Stalin’s close associate], but he says something like, “I’ll have you know I don’t like your attitude to family life.” And this is a guy—

RS: Who wiped out many of his relatives.

JP: The guy whose wife shot herself in the heart. You call her story a kind of peripheral keyhole, but I was thinking of it as a prism. The colors and light that it throws back to the character and idea of Stalin are fascinating.

EMN: There’s so much tension in the book—and in Svetlana. It’s like when you’re watching a movie, and you hate the way someone’s acting, but you know that’s how they are. It’s intriguing to watch Svetlana, but it’s also hard to watch. So living with her as you wrote the book, is it similar: like you can’t look away, but it’s difficult?

RS: One of the things that was a problem for me was that very early on I met Svetlana’s daughter Chris, and I liked her enormously. So candid, so direct, so American in her style. I had to be really careful not to buy her version of her mother because her version is very positive. Her mother could drive her crazy—and sometimes she was the mother and Svetlana the child—but she had an enormous attachment to her, to the point that even now when she gets into a corner she reads the Tarots, listening for her mother’s voice. I needed to find other people who had the same kind of sense of Svetlana’s intensity and, indeed, power. Even those who felt betrayed by Svetlana acknowledged the largeness of her personality. And when I met all those Brits, they were admiring of Svetlana as well.

So my experience with Svetlana as I was writing the book was one of sympathy, and at times she made me very annoyed with her. Especially her romanticism. As a writer it was lucky for me that she had such a nice love affair with David Samoylov, because he has it pretty accurately: that any man who was involved with Svetlana would take on her unimaginable tragedy, history—and continued interest by the KGB.

JP: There was another thing I wanted to ask: where did you find out that one of her fondest memories was that one time she took Stalin for a drive? That’s such a great detail.

RS: It’s the movie Svetlana About Svetlana. In 2010, a young filmmaker came to interview Svetlana. She was very angry at the whole experience. There’s a lovely anecdote in there about driving with her father, with a guard in the back. I thought it was a lovely little film, but Svetlana turned against it, as did her daughter Chris, feeling she’d been exploited somehow. It was supposed to be a student’s study, she didn’t realize it would be a commercial film.

JP: It’s such a powerful detail because you paint the picture of the guard in the back, with a gun on his lap, and it seems like Stalin is really pleased that his daughter can drive. Such a bizarre moment.

RS: There’s two moments I think of: Svetlana sitting on that plane going to India, and instead of the live man—Brajesh Singh, a man she loved deeply but was denied the right to marry—sitting beside her, it’s the urn of his ashes. That encapsulates, for me, Svetlana’s life. The other is that she’s having dinner with a family in Princeton, and the son had just learned guitar. The father says “play son, play” and the little boy doesn’t want to. Svetlana says, “leave him alone—that’s what my father used to do.” Then she gets her hat and cane and dances on the table like her father taught her. She could be amazing, that woman.

IV

EMN: I want to circle back to this combination of stoicism and openness. It seems a bit of a paradox. Jeff, in your book the claim is made that “Russians thrive in crisis.” And I think it’s Igor that says that’s bullshit. That it actually kills people. At the same time, we’ve said that Svetlana was very emotionally open, and able to endure. To me, it seems like you would either shut it down, repress it, or let it go. How do you manage to do both?

JP: The passage that comes to me is from the Zoshchenko story: “what to do—nothing to do. We go on living like before.” That’s what I would suggest is the Russian approach. It’s one series of crises after another. Revolution, WWI, the Purges, WWII, Stalin’s death, right? The Khrushchev thaw, Brezhnev. The Cuban Missile Crisis, etc., etc., the fall the of Soviet Union. You have to be resilient, but you also have to regard a certain level of crisis as inevitable.

EMN: Is there also a level of straight-faced acceptance of truth?

JP: In what sense?

EMN: I think of a poem we published in The Puritan. The first line is “don’t look back, just go, the past is done.” It’s about accepting what is there, and dealing with it. Is that something that crisis trains you to do? There’s not a lot of wallowing in either of your books, for instance.

RS: I was fascinated by something Sasha Burdonsky—who had been abandoned by his father Vasili [Stalin’s son]—said. I said “your father had been a kind of parody of the dictator,” which often happens to the sons of dictators. He said, “no, no,” and that Vasili was just a sycophant, a flatterer who could move into circles. The person who resembled Stalin was Svetlana. She had his intelligence, she had his will, she just didn’t have his evil. That she had his will is something that her daughter comes back to: he mother’s will to pull herself back together after each of these crises, to keep standing. Her friend, the Mexican diplomat Raoul Ortiz said “you have to remember, Svetlana wasn’t running from, she was running toward.” It’s not a stoicism or cynicism, it’s looking for a new beginning.  She always believed it was going to happen. So crisis does become normal, and the only way to get through crisis is on the basis of your own will.

JP: That applies to as different a figure from Svetlana as can be: my friend Igor. He was kicked out of school in ninth grade by a corrupt school rector. He went to a vocational college, and in the wild-west nineties he tried to do all the things you were now supposed to do: worked as a bartender at a foreigners’ restaurant, as a nineteen-year-old made tons of dough, or tons for his station and the time. He tried to open his own business, a little restaurant on the St. Petersburg docks, before it was effectively closed by the corrupt practices of various business licensees, and what not. He bought his way out of the army. He weathered everything up to that point in 2008, when the global recession hit and that knocked him back a bit. But then he came forward with the idea to become an actor. He made his way forward, or at least he wasn’t broken by it all.

RS: What fascinates me about Where Bears Roam the Streets is the relationships—so changing—between men and women in Russia. Very volatile, maybe more volatile than here.

JP: You take a moment in Stalin’s Daughter to say the fact that Svetlana has had, say, 45 love affairs, and married and divorced three guys … but, the nature of love—if we’re going to go there, we need another hour.

EMN: Can we go from how people deal with their own past, to how they deal with history. To go back to the poems I mentioned earlier, I notice right off the bat that the tone is far different than most of the poems I would get from North Americans. That’s a generalization, of course, but it’s something I felt at the time. A lot of our poems are about the past, about childhood perhaps, as something they want to get back to. But this poem says,

We lived through so much, that not a drop remains.
Refugees and soldiers, we march over the ploughed up
rounded earth, our eyes
knowing one thing only—go.

Is that reflective of something larger, this idea of not dwelling on the past? I’m also curious to know how the past exists in Russia, like what kind of presence does Stalin have there today?

JP: For me, almost every time I was invited into a household of Russian people, let’s say, over 50—that is to say, when I got to the point of intimacy with someone, where they felt they could put a substantive, honest question to me, the question that I’ve been asked the most, with advance shock on the interlocutor’s face, is something like “Jeff, is it true that Americans think they won World War II?” The first time that question was put to me, I was rather taken aback by it. The fact is that the Soviet Union bore the brunt of the casualties of that war, and beat back the entire eastern front. That’s a really powerful narrative in the lives of people who weren’t even alive then. That narrative radiates in every political act that the Russia Federation has pursued in the past twenty years.

RS: I don’t think Russians throw away the past. I think Russians have a rich sense of history.

V

EMN: Parker, a question I haven’t gotten the chance to ask. Did Where Bears Roam the Street get any attention in Russia?

JP: No.

EMN: Did Igor like it?

JP: He did.

EMN: Did he deem it to have, as he had reported on other books in Where Bears Roam the Streets, “fucking good emotional transmission”?

JP: He didn’t give it that high a compliment. He did like it though.

EMN: How is he doing now?

JP: He’s doing well. He’s backed off on the acting, because the economy is faltering here, and you need a good job. He’s installing fibre-optic cables in apartment buildings.

EMN: We talked before about Russian conversation. You write a bit about Russian jokes. I don’t get Russian jokes.

JP: Neither do I.

EMN: Do you get what you’re supposed to get about it?

JP: Yeah, I do. The one about the corpse that sits up and says “guten morgen.” It’s playing off the root of “morgue.” So some of them I understand, in retrospect, but some of them I still don’t understand.

 

E Martin Nolan


E Martin Nolan writes poetry and non-fiction. He’s an Interviews Editor at The Puritan, where he also publishes interviews and reviews. His essays and poems have appeared in LemonhoundContemporary Verse 2, Arc, The Rusty Toque, and Eminem and Rap, Poetry, Race (McFarland Books), among others. He teaches at the University of Toronto. You might know him as Ted.

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