Welcome to the Columbia University Press Thursday Fiction Corner! Last night, Russian Library editor Christine Dunbar attended “The Closing of the Russian Mind? Freedom of Expression in Putin’s Russia,” sponsored by PEN America (watch the video here). She wrote up a brief reaction to the event for today’s post.
The Closing of the Russian Mind?
By Christine Dunbar
Last night I attended a PEN America-sponsored event at the Manhattan JCC titled “The Closing of the Russian Mind? Freedom of Expression in Putin’s Russia.” These events are always a little surreal. All six people on stage—headliner Ludmila Ulitskaya, novelist Anna Nemzer, poet Maria Stepanova, publisher Ilya Danishevsky, moderator Masha Gessen, and the interpreter—were native speakers of Russian, and only Gessen is bilingual. The audience was comprised of at least 80% native or heritage speakers, and I revised that estimate down during the closing Q and A. In my immediate vicinity in the top row of the sold out event, I saw only two other non-native speakers. The desire to reach a wide public, however, necessitates an English-language event. So you have either very smart, very eloquent people attempting to express complex ideas, on the fly, in a second (or third, for all I know) language in which they are highly, impressively competent but far from fluent (Nemzer, Stepanova) or you use an interpreter (Ulitskaya, Danishevsky), and most of the audience hears the same thing twice. If you are lucky, they are polite about it, keeping quiet while they mentally quibble with the interpreter’s word choices, which is easy to do when you don’t have to consider syntax, grammatical agreement, or cultural references. (How, for instance, is the poor interpreter to render Ulitskaya’s seemingly simply statement, “We have the kitchen again,” where the kitchen is a cultural shorthand for, well, literally sitting in the kitchen, which becomes the central location of cultural life, a place where poems are read, songs are sung, and issues are debated, in the absence of a functional public square?) If you are unlucky, the audience loses patience, and the whispering starts. It’s a bind, and one I saw no way out of, until today.
Of the six people on the stage, other than the aforementioned beleaguered interpreter, Ilya Danishevsky is probably the least well known. And he seemed the least comfortable. But he was a masterful performer. He spoke with animation and conviction, but softly, forcing the auditorium to quiet in order to hear him. But to me, most impressive was his orchestration of the interpretation, which tended toward short statements with frequent pauses, allowing him to retain control of the momentum throughout his statement, rather than losing it after each three or four sentence block. The high point, however, was his use of the interpretation to create an enjambment, when he says something along the lines of “we are speaking about the Russian landscape, and for me, this landscape is connected to two concepts” and then he signals for the interpreter to take over, forcing the audience to wait to find out what those two concepts are. (Fear and solipsism, in case you are curious.) I had noticed before that a practiced public speaker, used to working with an interpreter, could make the process seem less onerous for everyone involved, but I had never before witnessed a speaker using the very fact of interpretation as a rhetorical device. I’m looking forward to checking out more of Danishevsky’s work.