I’m dedicating this post and an image that I’ve named The Absurdity of Totalitarian Repression of Art and Thought at the Elephant Dentist to Irina and Anna, who are both dead. Frank Monaghan’s article on statues and symbolism, When pulling down statues isn’t pulling down history, is worth reading for a serious take. I’d also recommend Anne Applebaum’s on political statues and upheavals in relation to Trump, Lenin, Charlotteville and the Ukraine. It’s headed Ukraine has finally removed all 1,320 Lenin statues. Our turn.
Poetry has its own memorial politics.
Irina Ratushinskaya died last month. Until recently I’d never read her work. One of her anthologies was named No, I’m not afraid, and it doesn’t deal with the cancer that killed her at 63 but with her experience in a prison camp where she was frozen, starved, beaten and subjected to solitary confinement. The Soviet regime gave her a seven year sentence for ‘agitation’ – basically for the crime of writing poetry. Applebaum named the final chapter in Gulag, her history of the prison camps, The 1980s: Smashing Statues, and quotes Ratushinskaya’s memoirs among her examples. Repression inside the Soviet Union actually became worse in the 1980s under Andropov, but prisoners continued to resist. Ratushinskaya was freed once Gorbachev took over and after an international campaign. Her health had been badly affected but she continued to write, and had twin sons in 1992. Here she is, at a younger age.
The poems she wrote and smuggled out from the KGB prison in Kiev and from a labour camp are memorials to prisoners’ suffering and defiance generally, not only to her own experience. I can only read them in translation so I’m missing the music of the words, but I get her mockery of the torturers, the way she holds out some kind of comfort to all the prisoners alongside her, and turns the smallest glimpses of nature into moments of freedom. In one poem from the KGB prison in Kiev, in freezing conditions she compares snow to angels absurdly sprinkling white breadcrumbs, ‘enough for all the prisoners in the world’, a fluffy layer like ‘sweet cotton-wool’ or down ‘for all the murdered ones’. Yet the snow also signifies spring. It’s chilling and hopeful all at once.
Anne Applebaum describes how Ukrainians saw the statues of Lenin as symbols of Russian domination (previous posts on this blog explain why Applebaum is such a useful expert) and it seems ironic that Ratushinskaya is now considered a Russian poet. She was born in Odessa, and in her autobiographical writing she refers to her first language as a local version of Ukrainian that was officially unrecognised, and to how impossible it was to accept an identity as a citizen of the Soviet empire. I went to an event recently at the British Library that accompanied the Revolution exhibition (just ended – I didn’t blog about it as there’s far too much to say). It was on ‘modern Russian writers’ but the first point to be made was that writers in Russian are often not Russian. Because of decades of Soviet domination and censorship it’s been hard or impossible for them to write or get published in other Eastern European and Asian languages.
Like an earlier poet Anna Akhmatova (died 1966), Irina Ratushinskaya wrote a commemoration of Osip Mandelstam who died in prison in 1941. The younger poet didn’t have access to Akhmatova’s poetry of resistance for years but both writers situated their experience within the wider persecution of artists and the whole country’s tragedy.
Akhmatova’s first husband Nikolai Gumilev was one of the first poets to be murdered by the regime, shot without trial on Lenin’s orders in 1921. Her son was imprisoned for eighteen years and many of her poems describe the ordeal of prisoners’ relatives, waiting for hours, day after day and year after year, to hear who was still alive and try to deliver parcels. Akhmtova’s work could not be published for decades, but eventually her requiems and memorials were recognised as great testimonies to the endurance and resistance of so many victims. She wrote that once, during the time when she was spending seventeen months standing in line in front of various prisons in Leningrad, she was asked by another woman ‘with blue lips’ , ‘Can you describe this?’ She said she could.
And then something like a fleeting smile passed over what had once been her face.
In Requiem Akhmatova wrote that if there was ever a monument to her, she didn’t want one in her birthplace or the Tsar’s park, but only
here where for three hundred hours I had to wait
And any statue, she insists here, should commemorate the tears of others too as she visualises snow melting into tears flowing from unseeing bronze eyes.
The most ridiculous statue I’ve ever seen is this one, in Cordoba, of Moses Maimonides, the medieval Jewish philosopher and physician. Nobody knows what he looked like (although we do have his autograph) and it is pretty certain he would not have approved. But then Spanish tourism was never his business.
Personally if I could get any statue torn down it would be the gigantic kitsch one in St Pancras station of two people meeting. I’m not going to show it but for a wonderful, relevant, silly but not ridiculous monument to a poet, this can’t be beat. It’s Betjeman, looking up at the building he helped to preserve, and probably about to miss his train.