Martin Dewhirst reviews ‘The Incredible Events in Women’s Cell Number 3’ by Kira Yarmysh

4 May 2023

by Martin Dewhirst

Martin Dewhirst reviews The Incredible Events in Women’s Cell Number 3 by Kira Yarmysh, translated by Arch Tait, Serpent’s Tail, Profile Books Ltd., London, 1 June 2023, pp 384 £16.99.

During the last few years have you, Dear Reader, noticed that more and more people, young and old, well-educated or not very, have been misusing the word ‘incredibly’ to mean ‘extremely’ or ‘extraordinarily’?  Some of us may believe in something and/or someone precisely because (quia) it’s absurd, beyond belief, to do so, precisely because, not in spite of, its apparent absurdity. Take Mr. Putin, for instance. Quite a lot of people – and not only Russians – really do regard him as someone who has genuinely saved his country and its people from an even worse fate than could have been expected when Mr. Yeltsin, in effect, appointed this not very ‘former’ secret police officer as his successor. But is not Putin, behind his public facade, more likely to be an evil entity, a petty but very dangerous imp, an imposter, a fake? How credible or incredible are he and ‘his’ regime?

And how credible or incredible are the characters and events in women’s cell number 3 in Moscow just a few years ago?  In 2014 Ms. Yarmysh, born in 1989, very well educated and very perceptive, became the press secretary of someone you may have heard of, Alexei Navalny, the leading Russian fighter against corruption whom Putin tried to have murdered in Siberia at around the time when this novel was being written. Yarmysh slipped out of Russia in August 2021 and has been keeping a rather low profile ever since. She knows from personal experience what conditions in the neo-Soviet short-term temporary detention system are like, but I think it would be risky to assume that Anya (Anna), the central character in this work, is a complete self-portrait. Anyway, living conditions in the penal institution described in the novel are pretty good, the food is adequate and the guards and other members of the staff are strict but not inhumane.  All the inmates we read about in detail will be released on the expiry of their very short sentences. Will any of them be changed by their experience of prison?

In Anya’s large cell there are at first five other women, all detained, as she was, for fairly minor offences. Anya herself, the only ‘political’ prisoner among them, was sentenced to nine or ten days for attending an anti-corruption demonstration. All these women have typical Russian first names and all but one have typical Russian surnames as well, the exception being Maya Andersen. A Danish connection? The unmarried Anna Grigoryevna herself is a Romanov!  (You’ve heard of the Romanov dynasty?) The account of how they spend their few days together, talking frankly about their personal experiences and views on things in general, is interspersed with Anya’s reminiscences of her own background and earlier life.  Parts of Chapter/Day 3, about how carefully she slit her wrists, are particularly distressing and disturbing.

However, even more intriguing (Chapter/Day 7) is the appearance, after all her cell-mates have been released, of a new detainee named Alisa (no surname provided; in English she would be Alice). Might this be an allusion to Wonderland and life beyond the mirror? She claims that she was sentenced to a more massive 75 days behind bars for being what is translated as a ‘conditional’.  The word used in the original text is nadzornitsa, a good Slavonic noun but very rarely used in Russian. Perhaps it means nadziratel’nitsa, denoting a supervisor, overseer, guard (or even guardian?) in any sort of concentration or labour camp in any particular political system which has such institutions.

But could Alisa be a contemporary version of one of ‘the Fates’? Anya has already been having nightmarish visions, hallucinations, seeing mysterious and frightening scissors, wheels, spectral people, people knitting, a fine silvery chain. Has she been reading too much about the Ancient Greeks, whose view of the world is still so relevant today? Anya feels that ‘without Alisa she could not break through all the layers behind which the truth [pravda – MD] was hidden, and now all she could do was sit here, wakeful, aware that there was still something ineffable and unreachable in the cell’. ‘Could there be any way to test your divinity,’ Anya wondered.

As a result of her short imprisonment, perhaps a sort of purgatory, she has changed, probably for ever. Yarmysh has recently completed a second novel, which I hope her excellent British translator will find no less worthy of his attention.

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