The woman who brought contemporary Russian literature to the masses Celebrated literary critic Elena Makeenko dies at 32
On August 11, the celebrated literary critic Elena Makeenko passed away in Israel after fighting cancer for two years. Makeenko, 32, was central to two major literary projects: the online journal Gorky and the educational resource Polka. She also curated the Krasnoyarsk Book Culture Fair. Meduza literary critic Galina Yuzefovich remembers Makeenko’s exceptional life and work.
There is only one national prize for literary critics in Russia, and in June 2019, its jury named 32-year-old Elena Makeenko the most promising individual currently working in the field. Makeenko, an editor for Polka and columnist for Gorky, was also the longtime curator of the Krasnoyarsk Book Culture Fair, and naming her the most promising critic in Russian letters was simply stating the obvious. Anyone who had so much as scratched the surface of the literary world in recent years understood that it was Lena who was destined to lead a new generation of critics and pave the way for a new kind of “public reader.” To a significant degree, she had already done both of those things: At only 32 years old, Lena was a known entity well beyond the inner circles of Russian literature. Readers around the country looked to her and listened to her.
They had good reason, too. In the nearly two years that Makeenko wrote regular columns for Gorky, she single-handedly, manually sifted through the entire field of Russian contemporary prose on a truly granular level. Her line of sight reached books that would normally be kept hidden from the eyes of most readers: novellas published in esoteric journals, memoirs posted samizdat-style on the Internet, publications by small presses outside Moscow and St. Petersburg, and little-read anthologies. Makeenko herself called that heroic effort to “read every long list of every literary prize every year” a “useless experiment nobody asked for.” Nonetheless, from the outside, that experiment seemed to be a thrilling and often risky adventure.
Plunging courageously into the (alas) rather turbid waters of Russian letters, she would sometimes rise to the surface carrying rare and therefore particularly precious gems. It was Elena Makeenko, after all, who discovered Natalia Meshchaninova’s Stories (who among Russia’s bigwig critics would notice a skinny memoir in a flimsy cover that was published by a niche journal and sold in all but two bookstores?). It was also Lena who first wrote about Alexey Salnikov’s novel The Petrovs in Various States of the Flu, thus bringing the book to the attention of other major critics and, more importantly, publishers. All the while, Lena responded to books she found to be less than outstanding by finding just the right words — precise and ironic but also considerate — to inform readers without offending writers.
There is much else to be found beyond those most prominent aspects of Elena’s career. For one, there were her literary analyses for the Polka project (including an explainer on Vladimir Sorokin’s The Norm that can rightfully be called the gold standard in contemporary non-academic literary studies). The program for the Krasnoyarsk Book Culture Fair became an annual administrative miracle under her watch, attracting thousands to the city’s Sibir exhibition complex. There were also publications in practically every major Russian cultural media outlet from Afisha to Esquire, classes at Novosibirsk Pedagogical University, a Ph.D. dissertation, a popular Telegram channel — the list goes on and on.
All that makes for a very impressive picture of the professional recognition, standing, and success Elena Makeenko achieved (particularly, I repeat, given her 32 short years). However, if there is anything missing from that picture, it’s a sense of Makeenko’s truly monumental, exceptional personality, her incredible strength and brilliance of mind and character. Such things are difficult to measure, but they are palpable in each of her writings and every one of her public appearances. A slight, proud, caustic young woman from Novosibirsk, she was nobody’s student, nobody’s darling, nobody’s protégé. From the first, in the blink of an eye, she entered our literary community as an adult peer and often as a more mature and more intelligent comrade.
“We should ask Makeenko”; “I’ll have to get Makeenko’s advice on this”; “Well, what does Lena think about the book?” — these are all phrases I have heard many times in recent years from people who could have been Elena’s parents or, if anything, her much older siblings. Lena Makeenko’s authority, which only grew more and more weighty with time, was based solely on her own actions, on an unwritten and undisputed recognition of her exceptional talent. The sense that she was among those one might call favored by the gods was so widespread that it even sparked a measure of anxiety. Unfortunately, that anxiety ultimately proved to be well-founded.
When Lena was diagnosed with a rare form of cancer and it became clear that she would not survive without a major crowdfunding effort, she initially refused to ask for help. She did not believe anyone would come to the aid of a grown (if young) woman like herself. Nonetheless, the avalanche of love, support, and especially funding that followed demonstrated that Lena’s incredible charm had spread well beyond the bounds of her profession. It also allowed her to undergo an operation in Germany that extended her life by a year and a half.
The more towering a figure is in life, the larger the abyss they leave behind. Elena Makeenko’s death leaves two parents without a daughter, many friends (both virtual and otherwise) without a close confidante, and the Russian media without an excellent writer. It also leaves the world of Russian literary criticism without one of its most promising paths into the future. It is now clear that the awards and nominations Makeenko received for her literary promise were a record of potential energy, not kinetic energy: The space she expanded will forever remain a vacuum , and all of us will have to work for a very long time to grow enough to fill that void.
Elena Makeenko’s articles for Gorky can be found in Russian here. For her author page on the Polka project, click here.
Translation by Hilah Kohen