In the novel “Harassment,” the protagonist navigates unwanted attention from her boss. The story’s author, Kira Yarmysh (the longtime press secretary of imprisoned opposition leader Alexey Navalny), wrote most of the book in Moscow while under house arrest as a “restraining measure” for violating Russia’s draconian pandemic lockdown restrictions. Last summer, Yarmysh left Russia; she now lives and works abroad. Meduza literary critic Galina Yuzefovich spoke with Yarmysh about her new book, Navalny’s role in her literary career, and what she believes opponents of the Kremlin’s policies should do now.
I started reading your novel on the first day of the war and realized sadly that I’d have come away with a completely different impression, if I’d picked it up literally one week earlier. Are you worried about the book’s fate?
On February 24, everything changed so much that of course the attributes of our former lives seem totally irrelevant. But life goes on, no matter how it sounds. You can’t just up and pretend that some aspects no longer exist. It’s true that the novel’s release didn’t come at the most fortunate moment, but the book itself was written in a completely different time. That alone, I think, doesn’t make it useless or uninteresting to everyone. Harassment hasn’t gone anywhere — and it’s not likely to go anywhere, so this book will still be important to some right now.
All violence is interconnected. Do you feel that when we’re talking about one type, we’re in fact talking about violence in general?
I have thought about this a lot, of course. It seems to me, in principle, that violence is a general concept for a certain type of evil, and that it’s not particularly important to divide it into specific types and subtypes. With violence, there is no clear gradation, degree, or level. Any violence or illegitimate use of your power is always immoral and criminal. So, yes, the violence that I write about in my novel is private and narrow, but also a very representative example of violence as a global category.
In your novel, you deliberately avoid ethical certainty: there is not one situation in which the heroine finds herself, where we can say with a clear conscience that she is completely blameless, that she’s just an unfortunate victim. Do you have any fear that some will think you’re taking the position that “not everything is so clear” or even “both sides are to blame”?
No, not at all. I consciously tried to avoid situations which would produce in the reader an unambiguous relationship with the main characters. From the very beginning, I wanted to create a situation that was as realistic as possible and also as contradictory as possible, so that readers’ sympathies would always rotate between different characters. In no way did I try to portray the heroine as a victim, some poor little lamb. So, I hope readers will understand me correctly.
It was much more interesting to me to show the contradiction, the complexity, and therefore also the danger of the entire process of harassment than to take one side firmly and dogmatically. Harassment is always a use of one’s position and one’s power against a weaker person who cannot answer in kind. That is unambiguously bad, but writing such obvious things openly seems trivial and useless to me. I’m really not writing agitprop or a feminist manifesto.
When and under what conditions was the idea for Harassment born?
I discussed the plot of the novel with Alexey [Navalny] on the way to Novosibirsk in August 2020. On that flight, we talked over the whole story and discussed details, but then after a few days the Novichok [poisoning] happened and everything, of course, changed completely. It wasn’t until a month after that fateful flight — when it became clear that Alexey was coming out of the coma, and everything would be relatively okay — that I started to write the novel itself. At least then, imminent disaster had been averted.
The book was necessary for me; it helped me somehow to reconcile with what was happening, but there wasn’t enough time for it. With my house arrest, I suddenly had all the time in the world. I was writing a lot then.
What was it like to write under house arrest? Did it feel like speaking into the void?
In that respect, the book was an excellent anchor. I wrote under house arrest precisely so it would be easier to survive what was happening. Obviously, I had a lot of free time. No Internet, no nothing — no one could visit, only a lawyer. So, you sit alone in your apartment for 24 hours a day. What do you do with yourself?
My colleagues offered to pass me a gaming console through my lawyer. Everyone was worried that I was bored and probably going nuts, climbing the walls. But I was writing, that whole time, so the first five months I didn’t even understand where I would find the time to get bored. And that cured me of any suffering, any depression, and any fretting about the future. Because I was immersed in a world that I’d created. In that moment, nothing more existed for me. Who needs a gaming console!
You mentioned that you discussed your books with Alexey Navalny, and I remember that he actively supported your first novel when he was still free. What, generally, is Navalny’s role in your writing career?
Huge, if I’m being honest. He’s the person who made me believe in myself and in the fact that I could write at all. For many years, I told everyone that I wanted to write, but I worried that I lacked the perseverance, mainly. So, credit for my first novel is due, undoubtedly, to Alexey. He believed in me so much that he simply overwhelmed me with that belief, until I wrote the book.
Of course, I couldn’t discuss the second novel with him because I was under house arrest, and he was in prison. So, except for that conversation on the plane, we discussed practically nothing more about the plot, its twists and turns, or its subtleties. I couldn’t consult with him about whether what I was writing was realistic or not. But he became my first reader anyway, because I sent him the whole book, literally page by page, in letters over the course of several months. He read it and liked it. This naturally lifted my spirits and gave me confidence. So, like before, Alexey is actively involved in my writing life, he inspires me, and he supports me.
Do you ever get the feeling that Navalny’s participation, his presence in your life in general, not only helps but also hinders your writing career? I remember very well the controversy around your first book, when many colleagues said it was of interest only because it was written by Alexey Navalny’s press secretary.
I’ve thought about this a fair amount, and it would be strange to deny it. I’m certainly indebted to Alexey for the fact that Varya Gornostaeva [a senior editor at CORPUS, Kira Yarmysh’s Russian publisher] even agreed to read my novel. But I was only hoping for an expert’s assessment and maybe some advice — Varya herself offered to publish it. I honestly was not counting on that. It came as a huge shock and a great joy.
I’d like to believe that the book wouldn’t have sustained three reprints in Russia if it were bad, if the only reason it appeared on the market was that I’m Navalny’s press secretary. I’d like to believe it wouldn’t have been translated into 10 languages.
On the whole, writing is very important to me. I view it as at least half of my work and self-actualization. I have politics and the work that’s connected to it, and then I have my creativity. I really want to bear the proud name of a writer, to have the right to speak of myself that way. So, I plan to continue writing, and I hope that simply by releasing novels time and again that are interesting (or necessary) to people, I can win over even those who think my only secret to success (if I can put it that way) is that I’m someone’s press secretary.
What was it like watching Navalny’s new sentencing?
It was hard. It’s difficult to answer this question because, on the one hand, no one had any illusions. It was pretty clear in advance that they’d sentence Alexey to some unthinkable term, probably at a maximum-security facility. That everything would be very long and very painful. You get used to this thought, you don’t expect surprises. From the very beginning, it was clear to everybody that Alexey would not be released from the [prison] colony in [his original sentence of] two and a half years. This will happen only after sweeping changes in the country. When Putin dies.
You think you’re ready for anything. But the moment when I heard “nine years, maximum security” (and I was live on the air then), everything suddenly turned out to be inadequate. All of my self-control skills went down the drain because I was filled with rage that had nowhere to go. Because, of course, Alexey shouldn’t be in prison for one minute. Though the nine years in his sentence are just an abstract figure (he could be released later, or possibly much sooner), the injustice itself is such an outrage that it’s like having a nuclear reactor inside me. And that reactor actually helps fuel my work, in fact.
For the foreseeable months or possibly years, it’s clear that you’ll not likely be able to return to Russia, meaning that you’re now an émigré writer. Given this, do you worry that you’ll become foreign to Russian readers, to the very people to whom your books are addressed?
I’d say no, and this “no” has both subjective and objective sides. The objective side is that the Internet exists, which makes an enormous difference for people today who’ve left Russia (compared to what first-wave emigrants experienced). So, of course, I’m much more in touch with Russian reality than my predecessors in emigration were.
And the subjective reason is that I just love Russia so much that I can’t imagine that I would suddenly break away from it. Where I live is irrelevant — all my life goals and all my thoughts are concentrated there. I just don’t feel any distance between myself and Russia. So, I think I’ll continue to write about Russia, all the same, and I’ll find themes and words that are important to people living there.
There is a lot of talk now about the “cancellation” of Russian culture. I wanted to ask, first, what you think about this, and how great is the danger of a ban on Russian authors? And second, do you have any sense that something similar could happen to you? Or does your status as an opponent of the Putin regime who is persecuted in your native land protect you?
I myself have felt nothing like this in any capacity. Neither as a regular person on the street, nor as a writer. I hope that will continue. I don’t know whether the fact of my persecution plays a significant role here, but my activism is probably important. I don’t hide my convictions, and I think everyone knows that they were formed long before it became necessary for me to leave Russia. And that I’m against Putin and that it’s been this way with me for many years.
Concerning cancel culture generally, it’s a really complex issue. With anything connected to the war, there are no longer simple questions. I believe that Russian culture is a great culture. Undoubtedly, one specific person and several of his closest accomplices bear responsibility for the war. It would be strange to cancel Pushkin because Putin started a war against Ukraine. So, I hope that global ties will remain intact. Many creative people do not support anything that is currently going on in Russia, they don’t support Putin, they don’t support the war. So, I hope this will outweigh [the bad], and Russian culture won’t be cancelled on some large-scale, ultimatum scale without regard for who actually spoke out about what, who defends which interests, and so on.
When Alexey had the chance to speak out, he called on all Russians to protest the Putin regime openly. How does the Anti-Corruption Foundation view this now? And how do you personally see it?
Rallies were never the main point or some kind of magic button that you can push to collapse the Putin regime. None of us, including Alexey, ever thought that rallying was the silver bullet that would kill Putin. Rallies are undoubtedly an important form of protest, but protests can take any form, and any kind of protest is important.
I understand that far from everyone can join a picket line. It is really, really scary. Everyone decides only for themselves what to do here, and I can’t force anyone (or condemn anyone, for that matter). If you’re prepared to risk everything, go to a rally. If not, then at least try to talk to your neighbors. Share someone’s post online. There’s always something that you personally can do. If you grasp that what is happening is monstrous and criminal, you just have to use any means to find the chance to express your feelings, whether that’s a rally, a picket, a leaflet, a conversation, or some other form of struggle.
And what do you think about emigration? Everyone is ashamed of each other, whether it’s someone who stayed in Russia and now Ukrainians are being killed with his tax money, or it’s someone who left and isn’t fighting Putin.
I really don’t get this. I absolutely do not believe that people who remain in Russia are more wrong than people who left. In all my life, that thought has never crossed my mind. Anyway, everyone pays taxes. It’s very easy here to blame 146 million people for supporting the war in Ukraine. But in fact, again, it’s important to understand clearly who has to answer for the fact — and that’s Vladimir Putin. Some old woman in Siberia or a journalist in St. Petersburg is not at fault at all for what’s happening — unless, of course, they actively support it.
So, of course, people who remain in Russia and continue to work there are uncommonly brave. And those who leave because they couldn’t do otherwise are also brave. The decision to leave or to stay shouldn’t be the criterion for evaluating people’s political positions, much less for condemning or vindicating anyone.
Translation by Emily Laskin