Professor Polina Barskova's "Living Pictures"

Living Pictures, written by author and scholar Polina Barskova, combines memoir, history, and fiction in a poignant collection of short pieces about her hometown, St. Petersburg, Russia.

Polina Barskova, assistant professor in the Department of Slavic Languages and Literatures, began publishing at the age of nine, with her first book appearing while she was still a teenager. Her most recent publication, Living Pictures, is a highly poetic book depicting memories of a Soviet childhood and a reinvention in the USA. Her collection of short stories depicts not only the game of survival, but what it means to be a survivor. 

Below, Barskova reflects on the process of her book's creation, how she continues to source inspiration, and what work she has planned for the future. 

March 8, 2023

How did Living Pictures come to be?

This is a rather unusual story -- I got a letter from a person I didn't know, who suggested that I write a play. When I responded that I was a poet, not a playwright, the future stage director of this play said: but poetry has so much to do with theatre! At that time I worked with the diaries and letters of two amazing real-life characters, a curator and an artist who worked and lived in the Hermitage museum during the Siege of Leningrad.

Besides the play, this book includes four texts about the Nazi Siege of Leningrad (1941-44): "The Forgiver," "The Reaper of Leaves," "Brothers and the Druskin Brothers," and "Living Pictures.” As a historian of Soviet culture, I’ve been studying the Siege archives for a decade. For the longest time, I promised myself that I’d never write about the Siege, for what right do I have for that, as an outsider, the after-comer, who might claim only bleak and comfortable (comparatively speaking) shadows of post-memory? This was my question.

And then the dam between the scholarly and the creative, the archive and inspiration went down. I began writing about the characters, events, and situations that I encountered during my archival inquiry. But rather than attempting to depict the Siege directly, claiming the position of a witness, I decided to enter the conversation via the shaky bridge of my disturbing questions: how can a writer today imagine a conversation with the writers and artists of that horrific moment? 

The defining text of the volume, "The Forgiver," looks at the problem of the Siege representation through the lens of poetry. Specifically, through the poetry of Dmitry Maksimov, one of its many amazing yet forgotten poets. He is only one of several poets whose works were published only recently, for whom the Siege and writing about it became taboo, a shameful zone of memory.

What was the most challenging part of working on this book?

Questions of remembering, forgetting and forgiving, and of historical shame, are of primary interest to me. Forgotten writers and artists of the Siege became my interlocutors in the conversation that I find most urgent for Putin’s Russia today, about the Soviet century’s desire to erase its complicated past. One after another, I strived to deliver my characters from the realm of historical amnesia, undoing the gloomy work of the Soviet Charon, speaking mythologically. 
I put Leningrad's artistic intelligentsia, poets, writers, artists, and critics at the center of my quest for language that emerged as an aesthetic result of political pressures.

In addition to the historical disaster, the Siege, another common thread is that all the stories explore art (most centrally, the art of language) in resistance to power, or powers, of the Nazis and of the Soviets.

As a published author since the age of nine, how do you find new forms of inspiration?

Curiously, much of my inspiration comes from teaching, being translated, and translating myself. These are all very different yet equally powerful ways to be textually active--to feel that you are a vessel filled with words. Many of my ideas were born from conversations in the classroom or that moment when walking after the class thinking: Ah! That's what I should have said! Teaching, writing, translating, and reading are all connected in the creative process--all these words move in you constantly.

Are you currently working on any projects?

I am working on a novella about immigration and observation. It's dedicated to the life and work of the great Dutch entomologist Sybil Merian and her daughter Dorotea, who moved to Saint Petersburg from Amsterdam, where she became one of the important actors in Peter the First's scientific revolution.

What’s currently on your bookshelf or nightstand? 

Thank you for this question: I always tell my students to read something they want to read at the end of the day, not just what they have to read. For me, very often, it's some Russian diary from our horrific and amazing 20th century, XIXth century novel. I reread Dickens and Tougenev a lot, and recently I read a lot about the metamorphoses of insects for my novella--and because I believe so firmly in our ability to change.