‘With each year, I become less afraid’ Meduza speaks to internationally acclaimed Russian novelist Lyudmila Ulitskaya
Photo: Grigory Sysoev / TASS / Scanpix
Pro-Kremlin activists consider Lyudmila Ulitskaya to be part of a “fifth column”: she speaks out against the regime, advocates for former-oligarch, turned-dissident Mikhail Khodorkovsky, and condemns many of the trends in Russia today. But none of this stops Ulitskaya from remaining a successful writer, whose books are sold in great numbers. In a conversation with Meduza's special correspondent Andrey Kozenko, Ulitskaya shares her thoughts about Russia's government, recalls her close friend, the recently deceased Ekaterina Genieva (the longtime director of the library of foreign literature), and talks about her new novel.
— This month in Russia, they’ve started to destroy sanctioned food and produce. You are someone who was born during the [World War II] evacuation, who lived in post-war Moscow, often returning to those days with the heroes of your books. What do you think of all this?
— It’s an utter disgrace, madness. But [it's] also evidence of the complete worthlessness of the people who came up with this initiative to fight against cheese and our own people.
— You have spoken up for the Dynasty Foundation [shut down after being listed as a "foreign agent"]; you defended the center for child rehabilitation (part of the organization Civic Assistance Committee) when it became recognized as a “foreign agent”; and last year you participated in the Kiev congress of the intelligentsia which Khodorkovsky organized. What do these appearances, declarations, and open letters mean to you? And are you fatigued, due to the fact that people talk and talk, but everything is only getting worse?
— I am not afraid of the feeling of fatigue. In fact, with each year, I become less afraid. But to write a letter—this is an enlivening affair, and it’s the smallest gesture you can make. I’m not all that interested in politics; I’m far more interested in most other things. I know as well as you not to bring a knife to a gunfight. I completely understand the people who are leaving the country, not wishing to take part in the shame of what’s going on. But I’m here, and I say what I think, when I’m asked. If they don’t ask me, I don’t talk.
— How do you feel in the role of “fifth column”?
— So far, in terms of my everyday life, this hasn't meant a thing. Do people talk about me? Once, around 15 years ago, when I wasn’t yet labelled part of the “fifth column,” I gathered together quotes about myself in the press. They’d hardly written anything! Rather, the stuff they wrote was sufficiently inoffensive: that I have two daughters, one works for [Russian politician, Viktor] Chernomyrdin, the other lives in Canada… I have two sons, both living in Russia. And the rest was to that effect.
“Fifth column”—call it what you want, but just because you call something by a name doesn't make it so. Not long ago, someone with a writer-lackey disposition called me a “mistress.” I am a comfortably old woman now—married, by the way—and I hardly think anyone is dreaming of making me their kept woman. So what am I supposed to do? Challenge these imbeciles to a duel? Let them amuse themselves, if they want…
— The country's whole atmosphere isn't great right now. Will this further creativity, or will it lead to the opposite? Will it kill the desire to create?
— I can’t call the atmosphere “not very good”; to me, it’s unequivocally very bad. But it doesn’t affect my work. Sometimes I go abroad to work, though this is solely due to the fact that abroad there are less telephone calls and less of all the everyday things that distract from work.
— Do your impressions of today echo the times in which you or the heroes of your books have lived?
— The most interesting of things happen not outside but inside a person. The historical backdrop changes, but there are things that are constant: decency, a sense of your own dignity. Time offers no new temptations. Those remain the same: power and money. All this has been written about a long time ago. And on top of that, there’s fear—fear for your own life, for the lives of those close to you. So it’s not the temptations that change, but rather their size. Nowadays, this is called a “price tag.” How much do you have to cough up so that a person can perpetrate something nasty. 30 silversmiths, or 30 million? It’s not very interesting. Are there many people who would firmly answer “no”? A few, but none that I know.
— Do you envisage the heroes in your books in present-day life? Could they seamlessly exist in 2015 or not? Figuratively speaking, would the same Kukotsky go out on a bender, if he was insistently offered the chance to join [ruling political party] United Russia? Indeed, by virtue of his position, this would have almost been an inevitable step for him.
— Today, no kind of Doctor Kukotsky could exist. This rare breed of person has become extinct. To me, in any case, you don’t come across such doctors anymore. Every period has its heroes. This doesn’t mean there aren’t good doctors today, but this kind of humanistic character has gone. And indeed, medicine itself has changed. Today, a doctor’s talent and intuition isn’t so important—such skill is fantastic! Treatment has become perfunctory. Soon, we’ll be treated by machines, we’re already very close to this happening.
— Looking at a list of your accolades, I can see literary prizes in Russia and other countries, but in parallel I’m also reading: “the Investigative Committee of the Orlov region has inspected books by Ulitskaya on the topic of propaganda for non-traditional sexual relations among minors.” I’m very interested to know how you felt at the moment when you became aware of this news?
— When you're having a moment of kindness, you want to go over there softly to talk to and take pity on these idiots, to explain that in actual fact it’s a necessity to know about biology and so on … But in a different moment - you want to fly off the handle, to rail against it.
— Ekaterina Genieva, who was a close friend of yours, said in an interview with Meduza not long before her death, that even during the Cuban missile crisis, culture was a platform on which agreement and compromise could always be made. Why is it that this formula isn’t working now—and why is it that culture is the very thing that has become the subject of political contention?
— Across the whole world, cultural standards have fallen, which relates to presidents and their protectors. Elites—not in the sense of today’s officials, who are fans of the very best and most expensive wine, hotels, women, and cars, but in the stricter sense of the word (the best, the pick of the litter, those who in agricultural terms would be called the “cream of the crop”)—do exist … Ekaterina Genieva was this elite. The government should care for the elite, but instead it destroys it.
Today it destroys the Academy of Sciences, and any remnants of the scientific elite that still exist in Russia are now leaving the country. Culture is science—it’s art—and today it even offers certain new technologies. There’s a process going on, whereby Josef Kobzon and Zakhar Prilepin [pro-Kremlin public figures] will remain in Russia. And this will be called culture.
— May I ask you about Ekaterina Genieva, separately? You were with her in her last days in an Israeli hospital. Who was she for you and for everyone?
— We had known each other for decades, but we became closer in recent years. Indeed, when it was really bad, I flew to Israel where she was being treated to say goodbye to her. I spent the last four days of her life there.
She was my friend, I can say that. She was made from different stuff. She was a figure, a person who had the quality of a statesman. I always thought that she should have been the Minister of Culture for Russia. And now, as she’s died, I can say that she would have been a better prime minister and a better president than what we have now. The sort of person who could have driven state policy, she also saw the individuality of people.
When things had already gotten very bad, just before she passed, she was on heavy medication, but, opening her eyes, she thanked everyone who was close by: the Arab cleaning lady, the ward doctor, her husband, her son-in-law, employees who had come to say goodbye. It was amazing. Her intonation was one and the same: there was no special voice for those who were superior, no special voice for the subordinate. It was then that I realized that she really was leaving as a Christian.
— I’ve read various old news stories and found this: “Lyudmila Ulitskaya has written her last novel.” This was in 2003, after “Shurik,” as I understand it. Since then, there’s been “Daniel Stein. Translator” and “The Green Tent.” Is it true that you wanted to stop back then, but kept putting it off?
— This work is agonisingly difficult for me. And it so happens that it doesn’t end. Every time a big piece of work starts coming to an end, I am afraid to die, not having managed to finish it. I think that now I’ve said everything I can to the world and it’s time to settle down to reading big books and spending time with my grandchildren.
— Do any of your colleagues continue to inspire you? Is there anyone that you gladly read? Or do your new works originate autonomously?
— I have few friends among writers. The writer community doesn’t bring me any joy. Artists do more, as do professionals in other areas. For a long time now I’ve not read voraciously, but of late I get pleasure almost exclusively from good science-fiction literature. Apparently, like my grandfather, I am a lover of all kinds of sciences.
— Your book “The Green Tent” has an epigraph from Pasternak about the injustice of time and the art of being a person against this backdrop. In my opinion, this epigraph could belong to a number of your works. Your work often features dark times, dictatorship, or war, which are the backdrops against which your main heroes live. Why is this theme so important for you?
— This theme is important for everyone. If you search for a distant origin and to some extent an answer, then you come to the apostle Paul: “And be not conformed to this world: but be ye transformed by the renewing of the mind.” Translate these words into modern language… Many thoughts arise, but one of them is: think with your head and do not listen to what the majority say, even if they make up 86 percent of the people. Unfortunately, the majority are very often mistaken, and in this lies the great danger to democracy.
— You are currently writing a new novel, could you talk a little bit about it? Is it true that it’s about one of your grandfathers, who was a political prisoner in the 1930s?
— Yes, if it wasn’t for my grandfather and his hard life, I wouldn’t have taken up this task.
— I know that you read the letters from those times, and that your new novel is based on them. What impressions did you get from those letters?
— They are shocking. They forced me to write this novel. Indeed, I made the decision not to write any more novels. I don’t like big books, I haven’t read them for a long time. That is, I read big books in my youth, and I don't want to anymore. But the letters forced me to take up this incredibly difficult, simply crippling work. But now it’s certainly the last time.
— The protagonist of the novel is Jacob Samoylovich Ulitsky, right? I read that he wrote a music textbook, and even in the 1940s, a memorandum about the possibilities of the rise of the State of Israel, for the Politburo. And he was also an expert on industrial cities. Offhand, I cannot remember a single famous person, let alone with access to the Politburo, who was so well-rounded. Do you think this is happening to our contemporaries? Are we diminishing or not?
— No, the main hero of the novel is Jacob Ossetski. Although I used the letters of my grandfather and some biographical parallels, it’s impossible to equate the two people. My grandfather, like the hero of the novel, was exiled from 1931 until 1837, and in 1948 he was given 10 years in a camp, after which he ended up in exile again. He died in exile in 1956. My grandfather never had any association with the Politburo. He wrote his reports for the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee, and, apparently, Solomon Mikhoels [the Soviet Jewish actor] gave them to the deputy minister of foreign affairs, just before the UN vote on the creation of the state of Israel. I’m not sure that these documents were important; everything depended on the opinion of one person, and at that time that person believed that Israel would be yet another republic of the USSR. But this didn’t happen, and Israel fell into disgrace.
My father wasn’t a party member, although in the first years of the revolution he did a short stint in some council, and then he served in the army. Then they remembered about his “Menshivism.” My grandfather was a man of culture, he considered himself a Kulturträger. He was one of the many talents ruined by power.
As a former geneticist, I can only say that, apart from the gene which we all carry with us from our ancestors, there are necessary conditions in which the gene can develop. There are historical conditions that facilitate the unfolding of various gifts, as with what happened in the Austro-Hungarian empire towards the end of its existence. And then there are times when these gifts are utterly not desired. The Soviet authorities relied on people to perform their wishes. But the performer simply didn’t have the right to understand anything more than his boss. Sharpness of mind, talent and independent thinking proved to be dangerous qualities. Those who carry any kind of talent with them turned out to be in the sphere of greatest danger. The strategy of a “low profile” was a condition for survival.
I run the risk of being called a Russophobe, but it seems to me that they’ve already stuck me with this label. Besides, I’m not going to be saying anything new: for decades, from a generation they ripped out the most talented farmers, called them “kulaks,” and classified the the most educated people as “hostile specialists.” That is, they beat the professionals who couldn’t obey the leaders, who nobody understood in their profession, but who carried a party membership card in their pocket. They wiped out the army, the sciences, and culture.
At the Olympics last year they showed the world our achievements: a whole string of remarkable artists and writers. But that being said, they didn’t mention that the entire Russian avant-garde was destroyed, that the eminent biologist Nikolai Vavilov starved to death in prison, that Mandelstam died in a camp, that they hunted down Pasternak. Now Brodsky's been proclaimed a national treasure, but this is just another hustle. None of this is how it was. The Soviet authorities from the first days until this hour were an enemy to culture. The culture that was talked about in the 19th and 20th century, the one which we have today, is the same culture—fallen, stunted, and subordinate to the directives of the authorities. In 100 years, scientists will study it with great interest, as an interesting phenomenon of “cultural atrophy.” Yes, even today they are studying it.
We are changing. Humanity continues along its evolution of development, and, judging by a number of signs, this process is accelerating. We have become different, and our grandchildren will be even more different, which will be interesting to observe. Development is uneven, irregular. I very much love H G Wells’ idea that humanity is divided into two races: the Eloi and Morlocks. I won’t describe these races. Pick up the book and read about it. It’s a wonderful idea, which was later taken up by the Strugatsky brothers.
Actually, my novel is about this, about life as a reading of a great text, not written by us. The Text of the Divine, as one of the heroes of the novel thinks. I’m not sure what came of it. But this was the intention.