Teresa Cherfas reviews ‘Living Pictures’ by Polina Barskova

8 December 2022

By Teresa Cherfas

Teresa Cherfas reviews Living Pictures by Polina Barskova, translated from the Russian by Catherine Ciepiela and with an introduction by Eugene Ostashevsky. Paperback 224pp ISBN-9781782277606 (Pushkin Press, London, 2022)

Polina Barskova is a celebrated poet and writer. Living Pictures, her first volume of prose, hovers in the margins between poetry and prose in a genre-bending exploration of the blokada – the Siege of Leningrad, which lasted for two years, four months, two weeks and five days from September 1941 until January 1944.  During that time the civilian population of Leningrad was subjected to freezing conditions and starvation rations, many resorting to cannibalism (sometimes of their own children). People went to die in frozen trams, stopped in their tracks in the eerie urban landscape, or collapsed on the snow-covered streets, left to die until picked like “flowers” by the brigades who heaped their corpses in piles in designated places in the city.  It makes for uncomfortable reading today. Thoughts involuntarily go to Ukraine in sub-zero temperatures and Russia’s targeting of vital Ukrainian infrastructure.

Barskova was born in Leningrad in 1976 and her stories speak to the lasting impact of the Siege on the lives of those born in the city. She recalls playing as a child with her sister in Leningrad’s Victory Park:

We had no way of knowing the park was haunted, the forest was haunted, a forest from a terrifying folktale. As far as I remember (that’s the big question, whether you forget something like that) no one ever mentioned how the park got its name, no one told us this was the place they unloaded and burned the weightless transparent glassy tender rigid bodies of the starving, the dystrophics: thousands and thousands and thousands of bodies.  Some victory. 

Sometimes the poet in Barskova eschews punctuation, other times tandem verbs and nouns spring up, as though single words are just not sufficient for the job: “reflecting-reporting”; “follow-find”; “standing-smoking”; “angel-orangutan”; “damage-people”; “people-cyclones”, and so on).

Barskova is also an anthropologist and archivist.  Her extensive knowledge and study of contemporary blockade literature – memoirs, diaries, letters, journals, inventories – is the foundation of her work as an academic at the University of California, Berkeley.  Although she left Russia at the age of 20, more than half her lifetime ago, to pursue a PhD at the same institution, her creative writing is haunted and shadowed by her Soviet childhood and the legacy of the Siege on her and her generation.  

As she grows up, the stories in Living Pictures turn to lovers and abusers, the locus moves from Russia to America.  In one very powerful story called ‘Persephone’s Grove,’ Barskova describes the ‘seedy, pitiful, filthy realm’ south of Los Angeles’ Market Street, with their shops selling the ‘ever-popular fake torturewear’:

I remember it was the bra with iron nails pointing inward that undid me (…)  My companion liked the price and didn’t bargain almost, he also found the fit satisfactory: suitably unbearable. Later there was a lot of blood from the nails. 

Is this some kind of atonement, self-harm, a hunger for experience?  Barskova soon brings it back to the real, lived experience that continues to haunt her, even at such a distance: 

Cosplay torture, how can it compare to real destruction, intangible, bodiless, relentless, knowing neither beginning nor end but going on forever, penetrating everything, tracking you down wherever you are – even, can you believe it, even here. 

America is no refuge.  In 2016, Barskova wrote a one-act play titled Living Pictures, which premiered at Moscow’s Theatre of the Nation to excellent reviews. The script of that play provides the last story in this collection. Barskova created the term ‘fairy-tale document’ to describe her play. Set in the Hermitage Museum, it is a searing rendition of Siege life, a touching love story between the real-life art historian and director of the Western European art section, Antonina Izergina (1906-1969) and her much younger lover, the painter and illustrator Moisei Vakser (1916-1941). The latter’s dates tell you all you need to know.  It is in this story, which gives the collection its name, that the crossover between Barskova’s academic research and her creative writing is most keenly displayed.  It is also the most cogent. 

The notes helpfully provided at the back of Living Pictures explain the context: ‘The Hermitage collections fared better than the staff – much of the art was evacuated to the Far East, leaving empty frames throughout the galleries. As curators testified in their memoirs, staff would give ‘tours’ of the empty frames to sailors who compensated them with food from their state rations.’

‘Living Pictures’ is, of course, a translation of ‘tableaux vivants’ where living people drape themselves in the costumes and poses of a painted scene, as a sort of re-enactment. In the most poignant moment from this last text, Barskova describes the two lovers as a tableau vivant of Rembrandt’s Prodigal Son, with Antonina bent over the dystrophic body of her younger lover in a tender embrace. One of the Hermitage’s superb collection of Rembrandts, The Prodigal Son was at that time an empty frame in the Hermitage’s galleries.  

Living Pictures is Barskova’s extremely personal response to her academic research.  It tells stories of real blokadniki – mostly writers and memoirists, translators and academics, painters and poets – interspersed with stories of an achingly personal kind, intense and intimate. The notes provided, whilst helpful in many instances, seem random and incomplete. When one is most at a loss for an explanation, an entry point, the notes are blank.     

Her writing is in parts so impenetrable and opaque that, rather than draw you in, it shuts you out. Too often it feels as though she is writing for a narrow circle of personal friends. I read and reread, and whilst there are beautiful passages that resonate, serious observations that strike home and tender and violent autobiographical sequences, it is not a book that you pick up with eager anticipation. It is hard work. 

I just wished she might have listened to her friend Tanya:  

Why does it have to be so complicated? Allusions anagrams nods winks confusion clichés? You could just tell the story straight. What happened, what made it happen. Tanya is telling me this, first lowering her gaze then directing it sharply at me, like a child’s ball bouncing on a rubber string: Don’t go there, you’ll be destroyed – you should just write about it.

And perhaps referring to her pain at the ghostly presence of that pivotal tragedy in the city of her birth, without memorial or discussion, Barskova answers:

What can I write, I tell her, there’s nothing to write, nothing happened, as we know; how can you write about something that never happened?

It’s interesting to note that Russia’s only independent TV channel, TV Dozhd’, was first taken off air in Russia in 2014, the 70th anniversary of the lifting of the Siege of Leningrad.  To mark the anniversary, Dozhd’ held an on-air studio discussion and conducted an online poll with the single question: ‘Should Leningrad have been surrendered in order to save hundreds of thousands of lives?’ It was the unspoken question of Barskova’s Soviet childhood and is certainly not up for discussion now, in Putin’s Russia. 

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