Alisa Ganieva, a 2012 and a 2018 alum of the IWP, is an award-winning author of fiction and essays from Russia. Her novels The Mountain and The Wall (Праздничная гора, 2012), Bride and Groom (Жених и невеста, 2015) and Offended Sensibilities (Оскорбленные чувства, 2018) have been translated into many languages. A runner-up for the Best Translated Book Award (USA, 2019), a jury member for the 2017 Neustadt International Prize for Literature and a participant in many international residencies (Literarisches Colloquium in Berlin, Hawthornden Castle retreat in Scotland, the Faber residency in Olot, Catalonia), she is also a board member of the Bergen Literary Festival (Norway) and a member of the Moscow PEN Center. For many years, she was an editor at Novaya Gazeta’s well-known literary supplement "NG-Ex libris" and a host-interviewer on the Moscow-based independent TV channel "Top Secret."
1. Can you paint a picture of the atmosphere in which you have lived this past month?
March 2022 has been a crazy, bizarre, and horrible month, which has stirred many dormant layers of Russians' mass consciousness. My weak, corrupt, self-centered country, deeply contaminated by the disease of imperial chauvinism, has launched a full-fledged war on an independent state aspiring to democracy and treated it as a non-country, as America's puppet, as an indigenously Russian land that had gone astray and must be reintegrated by the metropolis. According to the plan, the occupation and capture of Ukraine were to be a matter of three days, but it turned out to be a long and shameful disaster for the miserable Russian army, as well as for the whole population now facing the consequences of tolerating such a murderous and irrational government for so many years.
Were it not for the thousands of Ukrainians being killed and wounded by my country's bombs, I would have found an intense interest in observing the ways my countrymen are reacting to the shattering of their comfy consumerist world with all the benefits of imported technologies, global economy, and capitalism. Up until 5am on February 24th of this year, they were living in a nice pink quasi-liberal bubble, unreachable to any unwelcome news about political prisoners, torture, fabricated criminal cases, broken lives, or the recurrent suppressions of human rights and freedoms in their country. Some of them are now in total panic, feeling resentment towards the whole world that scrambled their illusion of reality, so luxuriantly clear of all politics.
Beyond these middle-class urbanites there is a numb, zombified, wretched majority, robbed materially and mentally by the authorities, deprived of any subjectivity, passive, subservient, inert, aggressive only towards enemies appointed by our propaganda. I see them as victims of constant psychological manipulation; many of them are uneducated, deeply dependent, and very poor. They are taught to live in squalor even while believing that their country is the best, while that country abuses them brutally, then sends them toward imminent extermination in immoral wars, not even caring to pick up their rotting bodies from battlefields.
I note all shades of rejection, shame, guilt, remorse, hostility, grievance, hatred, shock, and a myriad of other feelings which will inevitably crystallize into some new version of the national identity.
2. What reading is on your work desk, under your bed, on your phone, on your mind?
Honestly, all the books I had been reading a month ago (Jonathan Franzen's novel The Corrections, a popular science book bout the Sumerians and so on) are still open to the same page I was reading the day before the war. Since then, I've been living in the whirlwind of current news and social media, tragic war scenes, official Russian lies, collective pro- and con- letters, video footage of Ukrainian cities turned into ruins and of Russians storming shopping malls and shops for foreign brands about to be withdrawn from the Russian market. Fights for sugar, queues at ATMs, the Russian state blocking more and more independent media sites, banning Facebook and Instagram (now officially called "extremist organizations"), concocting more and more interventions against citizens who are against the war. During the last three weeks, 60 criminal cases were filed against people who dared to issue anti-war statements and are now facing up to 15 years in prison for "false claims about the actions of the Russian Army." But I hope that my country will soon acknowledge its failure and stops its missiles, and I can go back to reading books again.
3. As a journalist, you have written repeatedly and extensively about the current situation Russia for international audiences. What do these audiences most need to understand?
“Russia” has become a very internally a-symmetric concept, where the giant reputation of its sport and culture (plus a distant echo of some scientific achievements) is unmatched by anything else the country produces. There is Tolstoy, Tchaikovsky, Malevich, Ulanova, Gagarin, etc., all of whom have long served as a presentation shield, as a bright wrapper around the hollowness and failures within. This is a country of famous writers, artists, and ballet dancers, of vast size, beautiful landscapes, loud history, colossal geopolitical ambitions and claims, yet absolutely unable to function as a normal, lawful, national state with a productive economy and a decent living standard for its citizens. Its huge territories are neglected zones of depression; its population there, comprised of many colonized, assimilated, peoples of Eurasia is largely treated as serfs by that legion of the high-level criminals now known as oligarchs and statesmen, Putin’s buddies all.
The Russian culture is appropriated by the state to serve not just as an index of our world supremacy but also as a banner of imperialist expansion. The defense of the Russian culture and language is the State’s usual pretext to lay an aggressive grip over post-Soviet countries, and it has been used again in the current bloody assault on Ukraine. Gradually, it has turned Russian culture and language into global toxic poison--something I feel very intensely as a writer, for I have in this way been deprived of my mother tongue, Avar. I can speak Avar on a casual level but have never had a chance to acquire it formally, since the Russian State jealously resists all alternatives to the dominant language and culture.
Many of my liberal-minded colleagues are now clinging to the Russian culture as a symbol of the real, untainted, beautiful, authentic Russia that will survive the ongoing catastrophe and restore our fallen repute. I see two main problems here. First off, this constant mantra of calling our culture "great" or even "the greatest" is baked from the same dough as our imperial claims. These claims of belonging to something superior are a crucial part of my countrymen's national narcissism -- the same narcissism that prevents most Russians living in other post-Soviet countries from learning the local language. Besides, the impulse of the Russian anti-war liberals to protect Russian culture as the core intact piece of their identity seems to override their condemnation of Russia's murderous exertions on foreign land. And this preoccupation with the world's alleged "Russophobia" pulls them close to those who support Putin, and to Putin himself. The latter has recently said that the Western “cancel culture” has turned into a “cancel of culture” – i.e., the canceling of the Russian culture and so of the Russian nation as such. This fixation on preserving one's greatness even while committing shameful crimes may be the main mental obstacle to the total national transformation that Russia must undergo in some near future.
And secondly: "Dostoevsky and Pushkin would have supported our army's ‘special war operation’" – or so our propaganda keeps saying. There is something odious in thus manipulation of the dead classics' names --yet in fact this isn't so terribly far from the truth. Many of our famous authors (writers and most philosophers) contributed significantly to the imperial mode of the State rhetoric, as well as to the common thinking of the masses. No wonder that one Ukrainian artist painted a portrait gallery of Russian writers dressed in khaki and soiled with blood. As for the contemporary representatives of Russian culture, dozens of them are now supporting the killing of Ukrainian civilians even while referring to their illustrious ancestors. As one popular Russian publicist and editor puts it, current events in Ukraine are all about the identity of millions of people, they are all about the language these millions will be speaking, the books they will be reading, about the culture they will inherit. He concludes that the fact that this language and culture (the Russian, of course) will prevail overweighs everything else. In other words, he is saying that the dominant position of the Russian language and culture, its larger spread and influence, is more important than the deaths of thousands of innocent people.
Unfortunately, this imperial virus lives inside millions of my countrymen, spiraling up each time the Russian national pride is damaged. The current blood spill in Ukraine sprang from the never-healed wound of losing the expansive empire of the USSR and from the grievance towards the collective West: "we had believed that we defeated communism together but it turns out that you treat us as losers, so we'll brandish our nuclear rockets again and show you that we still are strong and dangerous." And this is not only Putin's resentment: he has matched his populace’s sentiment perfectly in this core sense of national humiliation and revanchism. It isn’t a coincidence that my novel about Russia of the recent past (coming out in the fall of 2022 from Deep Vellum) is called Offended Sensibilities.
Putin mirrors the dream of millions of Russians: the restoration of national pride and power. That is why the process of Russia's transfiguration won't be connected exclusively to Putin's personality and will very much depend on the whole population being cured from the aforementioned collective disease.
4. What marks—ideas, friendships, ideas, networks—has your time in and with the IWP left?
I can say that of all my literary connections, the IWP network is the most alive. I keep in touch with many alumni of 2012 and 2018. In some cases, it is just following each other on social media, in other cases we maintain personal contact, creative collaborations, or simply friendships. These multinational channels of exchange, support, and awareness are an invaluable benefit of my IWP experience, for which I will be forever grateful.
1. We tend to think about Russian literature as very Russia-centric—Moscow, Petersburg etc. Beyond “gulag literature,” how does Central Asian and far-eastern writing in Russian show up on this map?
As for the Russian-language literature in post-Soviet Asian countries, it does exist--sometimes in a marginal and a bit neurotic mode (given the sense of abandonment and the desire to belong to the main Russian literary project--which is indeed very Moscow-centric) and sometimes very vociferously. So for example, in the past decade the so-called Tashkent poetry school, which included a number of poets and critics, emerged as a phenomenon in Russophone literature. There is something going on in these countries’ native languages but whatever it is stays largely unknown to Russian readers. This is the consequence of the destruction of the old Soviet translation system, a system based more on the loyalty of the ethnic authors rather than on their talent, but which was so successful because it provided a living for many stars of Russian literature, writers who couldn't publish their own work because of censorship but who, relying on native translators, could serve as well-paid editors of authors writing in “minor” languages.
A few years ago, I participated in the initiative of several Kazakh institutions aiming to create a platform for all post-Soviet authors—who at this point know nothing about each other—so as to encourage cross-translations and develop joint projects and festivals among Georgians, Uzbeks, Ukrainians, etc., while bypassing the Russian language--long the only connecting node among all these literatures yet toxic for many post-Soviet authors; their aversion will have only increased after 2/24/22. Such a project requires money, however, and came to nothing but those several days of discussion were very interesting
2. Much if not most of your novelistic world deals with, precisely, Russia’s borderlands (‘okraina’). Is the Russian language, too, an empire that’s being defended?
When I first started writing fiction that introduced colloquial youth slang from the multi-national region of Northern Caucasus, I was often asked if the language in my dialogues was Russian at all. Russian, the main lingua franca in my native Dagestan, pushes out and so endangers local languages but co-opts local expressions, loan translations, regional and criminal jargon, dialectisms, words borrowed from Turkic, Arabic, Persian, etc. Such dialogues are prevalent in my fiction, and they inevitably turn into a conundrum for my foreign translators. Some of them (for instance the one in Italy) simply erase any linguistic peculiarities of my characters' speech, translating them in the same neutral style as the main narrative. Others bravely attempt to find adequate correspondences in other languages. In any case, it’s always a creative adventure, and I am immensely grateful to all my translators, including Carol Apollonio who translated two of my novels (The Mountain and the Wall, Deep Vellum, 2015; Bride and Groom, Deep Vellum, 2018) for the English-speaking world and is now working on the third one. Offended Sensibility is set outside Dagestan, but again in a Russian province. The style of this book differs considerably from my earlier way of writing , but it's also based on an impressionist overflow of regional expressions from different parts of the country.
To repeat my earlier point: at the present moment Russian language has been turned into a toxic weapon of the dictatorship and its imperial pretensions. Its usage by the state propaganda will eventually be an intriguing subject for a thorough analysis of the various ways the Russian language is now warped, corrupted, stripped of logic, sense, and beauty. Discrepancies and incongruities are everywhere-- in official speeches, in the media, in people's minds. For example, Russians and Ukrainians are supposedly one nation. But at the same time, Ukrainians and Americans have allegedly prepared pathogens in secret bio-laboratories in the Ukraine and dispatched them to Russia by means of migrating birds (sic!) in order to attack ethnic Russians and their reproductive systems. One statement contradicts another: if they are really one nation, why would these pathogens damage the Russians and spare the Ukrainians? Or here is another example: Latin letters are officially disallowed in Russia so that no Russian ethnic minority may switch to the Latin alphabet even though it may be linguistically more sitable than Cyrillic. Such an attempt would be interpreted as verging on separatism. Now there is talk among our so-called parliamentarians to ban all foreign inscriptions. At the same time, the official sacred symbols of the Russian attack on Ukraine are two Latin letters - V and Z. They have become the new swastikas appearing everywhere - on road signs, banners, websites, substituting Cyrillic letters in official names of Russian towns and regions, even in official documents. This too seems schizophrenic.
I'm not surprised that the forceful imposition of the Russian language on Ukrainians is leading to its abandonment among those who previously considered it to be their native language. Half of Ukraine used to speak Russian, but now it's the language of the enemy. And for those Russians who have kept their conscience and a clear vision of things, it's the language of their murderous state and a shameful stigma. So instead of defending and propagating the Russian language, what Putin has achieved was the reverse, diminishing its global role. And that will inevitably have some impact on current Russian literature.
1. What is the difference between your and your parents’ generation’s understanding of the current situation in Russia?
More than half of the Russian population is comprised of people over 45. Their life goals have disintegrated along with the USSR but most of them have forgotten the misery of their Soviet-time existence, leaving only the warm feeling of nostalgia. Most older Russians are long-term prey of state propaganda; they are naturally more conservative than their children and grandchildren and they don't have easy access to independent sources of information, which, if you live in an authoritarian state, requires some technical skills and digital competence .
Fortunately, my mother, living as she does in Dagestan avoided, despite the overall malignant environment and deficient technological knowledge, the general zombification that would have blocked her from reading relevant news. She and my late father have always been big skeptics of the regime. At the same time, she has always thoroughly disapproved of my civic activism, claiming that it can bring nothing but personal misfortune. She's among those who had a real opportunity to change something in the several years of real freedom after the collapse of the USSR, but her generation failed to use this transient historic moment to sustain the nascent Russian democracy. She is among those deeply traumatized by her family's suffering from state repressions (several of my ancestors were sent to Siberia before the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917 for revolting against the tsar, both my great grand-granddads were sent to Stalin's GULAG, my grandfather spent several years in a Brezhnev-era prison, my parents were under KGB surveillance in the 1980s and only the perestroika saved them from something worse yet). My mother keeps saying that meddling in politics always leads to jail or death, I can't help but get irritated and it all ends with me concealing my civic involvement and life from her. We have different strategies: she thinks empires inevitably collapse by themselves and in order to survive them one has to keep quiet, while I think that nothing will happen by itself and we must raise our voices, for the sake of morals at least. Anyway, our in-house difference is better than what's going on in many other Russian families where parents are cursing and rejecting their children for being their nation’s traitors by not rallying around their country, the eternal liberator who has been freeing ungrateful Europe from the Nazis ever since WWII.
2. What—if anything—has given you a cause for optimism in the last decade?
I think this would be the growing voice of minorities, including women, even in un-democratic countries such as Russia. And also, the fact that more pressure provokes more solidarity among those choosing to resist. I see this in the proliferation of informal help and communication networks among Russia’s civil activists.
Moreover, calamities, errors, and tragedies often speed up much needed changes that may prevent such disasters from happening in the future: we see this in the rise of various global movements such as Black Lives Matter, #MeToo, etc. And this also sparks some hope, for a disastrous experience can give a society a second chance to be re-born and take a completely different path of development. The next decade should be very interesting.
At the moment, I'm just hoping for the safety of the free world and the soonest-possible defeat of the geopolitical and metaphysical entity now threatening the whole of Europe. And I'm staying optimistic.
Iowa City/Tallinn, early April 2022