Pussy Riot – voices of protest in the new revolution

Lacking nothing of courage and determination to fight for human rights,  comes this book  Riot Days by Maria Alyokhina a member of the collective Pussy Riot, a new generation of Russian dissidents who made world headlines when in 2012 they performed, a punk rock song in Moscow’s Cathedral of Christ the Saviour in support of feminist and LGBT issues and in  protest against Putin whom Alyokhina describes as “the little grey KGB agent”.

Riot Days

After the Church episode, Alyokhina and another band member were arrested, granted no bail and held in prison for months until their trial whereupon they received two year sentences for ‘hooliganism and religious hatred’.  Whilst in prison Alokyina kept a record of various trials and tribulations suffered by herself and fellow prisoners and worked to protect the prisoners rights.

‘Riot is always a thing of beauty.  That is how I got interested,’ writes Alyokhina.  Certainly she must have needed every ounce of that vision to survive what was to come.   Following on in the footsteps of Varlam Shalamov, Alexandr Solzhenitsyn and Osip Mandelstam (not in literary achievement but definitely in courage)  this energetic and thought provoking diary deals briefly with the events themselves which led to her arrest, and more fully with her time in prison.  Described variously by critics as the ‘literary equivalent of guerrilla street art’ and ‘a punk call to arms’, what came across most for me was the writer’s refusal to lie down and accept the lethal logic of an oppressive system even when it would have been easier for her to do so.  At the end of the day how many people have the courage to go to prison for their beliefs – especially a prison in Russia! Only a handful of human beings.

Activism is always the hardest choice.  Who wouldn’t rather be at home – Aloykhina is the mother of a child –  than freezing on a pavement somewhere or in prison?  But the point of activism is that those who undertake it, feel they have no choice.    And Russia has a long history of people who felt they had no choice.

***

Anna Akhmatova was able to document the suffering of her country in sublime poetry.  Although she herself was not imprisoned – they took away her son Lev and banned her from the Writers Union and from selling her poems so that she almost starved to death.  She wrote:

Our separation is imaginary:

We are inseparable,

My shadow is on your walls,

My reflection in your canals,

The sound of my footsteps in the Hermitage halls

Where my friend walked with me

And in the ancient  Volkov Field

Where I can freely weep

Over the silence of common graves.

 ‘Poem without a Hero’. The Collected Poems of Anna Akhmatova.

Trans. Judith Hemschemeyer

 

Osip Mandelstam I have read although of course only in translation and the two volumes Hope against Hope and Hope Abandoned written by Mandelstam’s widow Nadezhda about their life together under Stalin’s murderous regime, trailing from place to place,  exile to exile, trying to keep body, soul and papers together.  Mandelstam died in a transit camp, awaiting deportation to the gulag.  He had signed his own death warrant writing a 13 line poem calling Stalin a murderer and peasant slayer.

What a tormented relationship Russia has with its literati.    The poet Irina Ratushinskaya wrote two books Grey is the Colour of Hope in which she describes the punishing conditions of women prisoners in a labour camp where she was sent in 1983, aged only 28, for writing poems about freedom and in which she endured four years of  brutality and extreme deprivation.

After the success of this book, Ratushinskaya wrote a prequel In the Beginning in which she wrote of her formative years and childhood in Odessa, meeting her future husband Igor Geraschenko,  her growing awareness of human rights abuses and the desire to do something about it and how the two of them worked together to circulate samizdat literature (illegal books like the works of Solzhenitsyn).  Although Ratushinskaya survived her time in the camp – eventually leaving Russia and going to live in the US, there is no doubt that the privations, hunger and illness she suffered during her time in prison shortened her life.

 

Birds, Behaviourism and a Broken Promise

Review  Eva Meijer. Bird Cottage Pushkin Press.  Translated from the Dutch by Antoinette Fawcett

I always enjoy books about women who break the mould which was what attracted me to this one. I particular enjoy books which dwell on the study of nature since those are increasingly invaluable records of what we are losing .

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The title  is taken from the name of a house in Ditchling, Sussex in which the naturalist Len (Gwendolen) Howard lived and wrote from 1938  books on birds, based on years of living with them  and closely observing their behaviours. Meijer’s book is partly fictional, partly biographical based on Howard’s letters and archive.

Born in the early years of the 20th century to a poet father and depressed mother Howard gave up an early career as a violinist and the possibility of marriage in order to live alone and write about her birds.  At least  this is how the book presents her.

This reimagining of her life brings to light her struggles to be taken seriously as a naturalist – well it was the early part of the twentieth century and she was (a) a woman and (b) not a formally trained scientist.

Howard notes in her letters:

Konrad Lorenz’s book in which he describes how he lives with all kinds of animals, is treated far more seriously that mine, probably because he has proper qualifications, writes scientific articles, is a man.  Yet his observations are less original than mine.  Moreover the birds have freely chosen to live with me whereas Lorenz rears his and so influences their behaviour.

The factual elements of the book are interesting for observations on animal behaviour such as:

Darwin’s work on animal intelligence, for example, is regarded as unscientific because it is primarily based on anecdotal evidence.  Behaviourism, however, does not properly take account of the fact that many animals behave differently in captivity than when they are free.

Yet I found some of the dialogue slow moving and unconvincing which may be a result of translation, the evocation of period a bit clunky.

“Cook rings the bell. Tea is ready.  I go upstairs to put away my violin.  Mike is singing in the garden.  Ta-da-da, tada.”

There’s not much sense of the history against which the story is set  – a brief mention of some suffragettes  and force feeding “it must be dreadful”.  Gwen recognises a soldier as “one of the chaps Kingsley used to play tennis with”.   The second world war gets barely a mention.

Gwen’s character comes across as completely self-absorbed, out of touch with her family -she fails to attend her own father’s funeral – and certainly out of touch with the momentous events that shook the world through the first half of the twentieth century.  She’s not the most empathetic of characters but obviously the birds like her.    The author writes in a note that Howard’s books Birds as Individuals and Living with Birds were once best sellers, but now only available second hand.

I understand that the intention may have been to show that this is what it took to live life on your own terms for a woman.  If so I’m not entirely sure it worked for me. I felt I did not know the character any better by the end of the book than at the beginning.

Sadly the author tells us that Howard left Bird Cottage in her will to the Sussex Naturalist Trust who promised to turn it into a bird sanctuary.  This never materialised and the land was sold to someone who felled all the trees in the back garden, apart from a single oak.

 

Thank you to #PushkinPress and #NetGalley for this review copy.