Telling Tales: Genre and Narrative in Post-Soviet Poetry

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17 Νοε 2013 (πριν από 3 χρόνια και 4 μήνες)

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1


Telling T
ales:
G
enre

and
N
arrative

in
P
ost
-
Soviet
P
oetry



This article explores the post
-
Soviet revival of
a

group of related genres
of narrative poetry
variously termed the ‘new epic’, ‘ballad’, or ‘narrative
poema
’. It looks
at the ways in which
narrative poetry,

which had been

closely
associat
ed

with official Soviet culture
,

has
now
been revitalised by the adoption of elements drawn both from the traditional epic, such as
the
objective,
impersonal narrative voice, and from
popular culture, includ
ing horror stories
and urban myth.
The article

examines in particular the

work of two popular and widely read
poets, considering the

reworking of the ballad tradi
tion by Maria Stepanova in her
Proza
Ivana Sidorova

(Ivan Sidorov’s
p
rose)
, and the documentar
y approach of Boris Khersonskii
in his
Semeinyi arkhiv

(Family
a
rchive)
. It

shows how both poets engage indirectly with the
traumas of history, using poetic narrative
to

acknowledg
e

absence and fragmentation while
edging towards the creation of
a
memory

of

a past which leaves room for uncertainty rather
than imposing a single interpretation of that past
.
Analysis

of Stepanova’s and Khersonskii’s
work will be set in the broader context of post
-
Soviet developments in narrative poetry
, while

Iurii Tynianov’s

evolutionary view of literary genre as a dynamic and changing phenomenon
will provide a point of departure for the discussion as a whole.



While the poetry to be discussed in this article is concerned with ways of
remembering the past, which might sugges
t that an approach based on memory studies
would be appropriate, I have chosen to focus on genre as a specific manifestation of literary
memory

that intersects
, in the poems under discussion,

with acts of
remembering
.
1

Poetry,
itself a mnemonic device, can

be said to use the system of genres as one way of
remembering and reconfiguring its traditions.
Iurii Tynianov described the renewal of genres

as a process of evolution.
His explorations of genre in eighteenth and nineteenth
-
century
Russian poetry, in par
ticular the genre of the ode, show how

a genre
, once it

had exhausted
its potentia
l in its current form,
could renew itself either

by giving new prominence to features
that had played a minor role hitherto, or by
adopt
ing

new elements,
often
foregrounding
aspects that had been perceived as part of non
-
literary culture or ‘low’ cultural forms in order
2


to gain new vitality.
2

Tynianov recognised the potential influence of changes in the extra
-
literary environment in reshaping genres, rather than viewing genre
as a closed system in
which novelty is pursued for its own sake.
3


In the constantly evolving system of literature, as
understood by Tynianov, genres come to the fore, but become ‘worn out’, and are replaced
by others, which grow out of ‘speech phenomena o
f everyday life’, bringing everyday cultural
forms into a new position as part of literary culture. It is the contention of this article that just
such a process of evolutionary change can be seen in the post
-
Soviet re
-
emergence of
narrative, non
-
lyric poe
try.


The
political, social, and cultural changes

of the late 1980s and early 1990s
helped to
propel

the various genres of Russian narrative poetry

out of a state of stagnation
.

While
narrative poetry, including long works which combined the epic with lyri
c elements, had been
a dynamic part of early twentieth
-
century Russian literature, and was produced by prominent
poets including Aleksandr Blok, Vladimir Maiakovskii, and Sergei Esenin, in the latter
decades of the Soviet period, it was enfeebled by its cl
ose association with official culture
and the reproduction of formulaic plots, characters, and rhetoric.
As this article will show,
post
-
Soviet
poets
have
revived elements connected with the traditional epic to reframe the
authorial persona, shifting the f
ocus away from the person of the poet towards the events
and characters described.

Such an impersonal authorial persona helps to distinguish post
-
Soviet narrative poetry further from what has gone before.
Instead of presenting episodes
which follow the
tel
eological
socialist realist ‘master plot’ with its predictable outcome, the
significance of which is made explicit by the author’s interpretation of events, recent
narrative poems are characterised by uncertainty and fragmentation, and by the partial or
co
mplete withholding of authorial comment or interpretation.
While t
hese narratives are
usually rooted in recognisable everyday reality
, s
ome involve characters and events which
are plainly out of the ordinary
, and

introduce eclectic elements of urban myth,
horror stories,
and science fiction

in ways that suggest a debt

to the ballad tradition
,
where

the overall
significance of what is narrated is left for readers to decide. Other

narratives

tend more
towards a documentary approach, creating a record of a disappearing or already vanished
3


past, by making reference to material evidence such as photographs or letters.

In both case
s

t
he post
-
Soviet revival of narrative poetry demonstrates a renew
ed, but not always explicit or
direct engagement with recent history
.

Since the start of the new century

narrative poems
have
represented

traces of events from the Soviet past in ways that are quite different from
those found in the teleological narrative
of the socialist realist epic. Instead of creating
monuments, many of these poems are concerned with memory, memory that is collective,
fragmented, not necessarily even part of conscious awareness, but that shows the
persistence of the past.

The genres of
narrative poetry, thought to be at risk of vanishing
from post
-
Soviet literary culture
, have not

in fact

been
consigned to some distant recess of

literary memory, but shaken up

and

reconfigured
, to emerge as a prominent feature of recent
Russian poetry
.
4


Looking for g
enre in post
-
Soviet poetry

Between the 1920s and early 1950s,

within the sphere of published

Soviet

literature,
t
he epic
was privileged over the lyric

because of its affinity with grand narratives and capacity
f
o
r

plac
ing

emphasis on the colle
ctive rather than the individual
. When
the
post
-
Stalin
cultural
Thaws of the mid 1950s

onwards began to challenge what had gone before
,
l
yric poetry

succeeded in

assert
ing

itself
, with readers if not necessarily with critics,

as the dominant
mode of writin
g. The Stalin era
had seen

two genres

reach their peak
: the panegyric ode and
the long narrative poem. While the former was more or less abandoned with the death of its
principal subject in 1953, the latter continued as a staple of Soviet literature, and m
aintained
a strong association with ‘official’ culture and themes.
Judges of state literary prizes tended
to favour th
e longer narrative form of the
poema
. Out of 78 Stalin prizes for literature
that
were awarded, 32 were for
poemy
, and around one third of

Lenin/State prizes for literature
were awarded for poetic works in the same genre.
5

The proliferation of narrative poems

as a
prestigious and officially favoured

genre
tended to
encouraged the
rehears
al of

approved
formulae

but did little to develop the
p
oema

as a genre.
The

revival of lyric poetry
was

associated
, by contrast, with

cultural de
-
Stalinization,
values of ‘sincerity’

and

‘self
-
4


expression’

that aroused official indignation in the mid
-
1950s, and gave the lyric additional
kudos because of its pot
ential for the communication of nonconformist attitudes.
6

The

number of poetic works designated as belonging to the genre of
poema

declined significantly
in the post
-
Soviet period
.



While Soviet
-
era notions of poetic genre were far from being as prescript
ive as was
once the case in Russian poetry, for instance, at the start of the nineteenth century when
there were rules about the appropriate subject
-
matter, meter, and language to be used for a
given genre, there was nevertheless a sense that genres in Sov
iet poetry
had been

arranged
in a broadly hierarchical system
, with the
poema

at the top
.
The final collapse of the
censorship and of state
-
controlled publishing meant that established hierarchies
could no
longer hold sway
. While there was some discussion
of the questionable nature of cultural
hierarchy

as such, the immediate response to the end of the Soviet era was to reverse
existing hierarchies, placing lyric poetry and the unrestricted, immediate expression of self at
the pinnacle
.
The genre system of
official Soviet poetry
had
restricted the

possibility of
creative engagement with genre
,
and particularly with narrative or epic genres.

If, like
Leonid
Kostiukov
, we accept that, in the normal course of events a writer of lyric poetry, on reaching
a
certain level of maturity
, moves towards the epic, it might be said that, in terms of genre at
least, much of the published poetry of the Soviet era
had been rushed towards a maturity
that turned out to retain many features
of adolescence.
7



Soviet cultur
al norms did not, of course, apply equally to all the cultur
al activity in the
Soviet Union
.
The avoidance of genres linked with official literary culture meant that poets

who identified with ‘non
-
censored’
, underground

culture

looked to
assert their

separ
ate
identity through their approach to genre

as well as in other aspects of their creativity
.

T
wo
principal

approach
es

to genre
in the ‘non
-
censored’ literary sphere
would be taken up more
broadly in post
-
Soviet poetry: the revival of classical genres, and

the reduction of genre
markers
, alongside other conventional poetic attributes,

to the point of their virtual erasure.

Both tendencies
adopted

some kind of formal constraint as a means of
going beyond

the
repertoire of expression
offered by

official Sovie
t culture.


5



A return to classical genre
, seen, for example, in Joseph Brodsky’s
1963

‘Bol

shaia
elegiia Dzhonu Donnu’,

introduced layers of complexity
through a

creative engagement with
and transformation of poetic
tradition
.

Ol

ga Sedak
ova too looked to
the elegy; as a genre
that was marginalised, if not completely excluded from published poetry of the 1960s and
1970s, it offered a link to Russian poetic traditions and expressed a detachment from the
norms of contemporary official culture.
8

In post
-
Soviet poetry
there were
clear
signs
that
traditional genres
including the elegy and the ode,
derived from classical antiquity and
associated with Russian culture of the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries
,

were being
re
-
interpreted by

signif
icant numbers of

poets with a distinctly neoclassical approach.

In
some cases this tendency
was

a way for poets to inscribe themselves within a tradition, as
for example, was noted by
Vladimir

Kozlov
,

who
identified a ‘wave of elegies’ in the 1990s
.
Kozlov

saw the approach of the new century

as

a

prompt for

poets
to
sum up the
relationship between their own lives and history,
and discerned the influence of
mid
-
twentieth
-
century examples of the elegy,
such as the ‘Severnye elegii’

of Anna Akhmatova.
9

The ode
, too, found new champions, for example Il

ia Kutik and Maksim Amelin.
10

Eighteenth
-
century models informed the work of ‘new archaists’
, who
dr
e
w on

the

traditions
of Sumarokov, Lomonosov, and Derzhavin
to

create their
own
odes
, setting aside

the
constraint
s of lyric poetry

so as to allow for much longer works which offered

the

space for a

minute
ly detailed

exploration

of the experiences and feelings of the lyrical ‘I’.
11

Andrew
Wachtel suggests that the turn towards the neoclassical may at least in part be e
xplained by
a new generation of poets’ need to assert a distinct identity

for themselves
: ‘The previous
poetic generation, heterogeneous as it may have been, was at its best in lyric forms, and the
younger poets may well be expressing themselves in archaiz
ing forms as a way of asserting
their independence both from their immediate predecessors and from the Russian modernist
poetic tradition’.
12

Taking a quite different approach, other poets preferred to construct an
identity for themselves which relied on st
ripping away formal attributes associated with
classical
literary tradition, including the framework

provided by
established
genres
.
Minimalism emerged in
underground
poetry which reacted against ritualised
and formulaic
6


verbiage, removing the accretions
of the conventionally poetic to expose language
undistorted by state ideology
. Examples of this approach can be seen in the work of poets
such as
Igor


Kholin, Vsevolod Nekrasov,

and

Ian Satunovskii.
This trend continued in post
-
Soviet poetry when,
a
s if t
o counter the verbosity
that had been widespread in official Soviet
verse
, forms which depended on brevity and restriction
, such as the haiku and the
palindrome,

became
popular
.
Vladimir Gubailovskii relates the
post
-
Soviet

popularity of very
short poetic
forms to times of crisis, when hierarchies have been destroyed, speech that is
felt to be
controlled by rules is perceived as flawed, and there is a thirst for the instant
expression of experience, without regard for tradition. He notes
in 2003
that miniat
ure forms
ha
d

become
the most common genre in amateur poetry.
13



If Gubailovskii
’s

claims
about the indifference to literary tradition
can be taken as an
indication of a wider state of affairs in
Russian
poetry

of the late twentieth and early twenty
-
first
centuries
, it might well be concluded that

genre ha
d

been dismissed, leaving poetry
stripped
of a major

frame of reference, its ‘memory’.

Gubailovskii was
joined by others

voicing anxieties
over the future of genre as an active element in post
-
Soviet liter
ary
creativity, as the very concept of genre seemed to be contaminated by association with a
prescriptive official culture.
In 2008

Igor


Shaitanov doubted that contemporary poets
were
greatly concerned about genre, but concluded that genre would

nevertheless

persist, even
though its role had become ‘associative, fragmentary, reduced, but real and active’
.
14

In the
same year
Kozlov

insisted

that genre was as important an element in a poem for both poets
and readers as was rhythm
, but
, while it was
an aspect currently neglected

by most
contemporary poets, this neglect could not destroy something that was deeply ingrained in
poetic culture:
‘Whether poets like it or not, they speak in genres’.
15

Kozlov identifies
perceptions of genre dating from the Si
lver Age as part of the problem. It was at this time, he
argues, that a poet’s individuality, the context of an individual poet’s work, became the
accepted point of reference as far as genre was concerned.
16

The vast numbers of
contemporary poets would make

it impossible for today’s readers, Kozlov argues, to be
familiar with the context of each poet’s work. Instead there needed to be a new relationship
7


with genre. Rather than attempt to reimpose strict rules about genre, poets should be
encouraged to take q
uestions of genre into consideration: ‘In such a situation of historical
short
-
term thinking the problem of genre as a whole looks quite different. The question of
genre is resolved anew when each individual poem is written. How does the question that
face
s a poet look now? A century or two ago it would have been possible to express it
unambiguously: “What genre shall I write this poem in?” Today the question looks different:
“is there something related to genre in what I am saying?”’.
17



By saying ‘whether

poets like it or not, they speak in genres’,
Kozlov offers an
important reminder that change in
a
genre
may be brought about when poets subvert or
negate generic convention.
What appears to be an absence of genre or an infringement of
expectations relate
d to genre

has the potential
,

in
Tynianov
’s view, to contribute to

the
evolution of
a genre
: ‘Strictly speaking, every blemish, every “mistake”, every
“misdemeanour” in normative poetics is, potentially, a new constructive principle’.
18


Contemporary c
ritic
s’ anxieties about genre may be partly explained by the fact that
they
may not yet have the appropriate terminology to describe current developments in poetic
genre
. As
Il

ia Kukulin notes,
it is not easy for critics to engage with
works that cannot be
acc
ommodated in existing schemes

for classifying genre
; such works

risk being overlooked
because critics and scholars have no way of describing them adequately, and so the canon

of

familiar genres
is reinforced, in part simply because
o
the
r

works
c
an be
described

more
easily

with reference to what is already familiar
.
19

Some degree of familiarity is, however,
essential to enable
genre
to be perceived at all, even when it has been extensively
reconfigured.
Kozlov
places

genre
at the centre of both tradition

and a poet’s response to the
present
: ‘It is above all genre that represents tradition


genre is the means by which the
poet, consciously or otherwise, responds to the demands of the time. And so
genre is either
contemporary, or dead

.
20

This recognition
of the capacity of genre for change owes much to
Tynianov
’s thinking
, wh
ich

challenged the view
of
poetic genre
as something ready made: ‘A
poet gets up, opens a cupboard and brings out the genre he needs. And there are plenty
of
genres, starting from th
e
ode and ending with the poema
’.
21

Tynianov suggests that in fact
8


the poetic word has the potential to offer an inexhaustible source of new genres
: ‘Genre is
the realisation, the concentration of all the word’s fermenting, glimmering powers’.
22




P
ost
-
Sovie
t narrative poetry

and the ‘new epic’


Having explored the broader context of critical discussions of genre in post
-
Soviet poetry,
this article will now consider the post
-
Soviet revival of narrative poetry, starting with an
investigation of the ways it has

foregrounded features derived from traditional genres of epic
and ballad. The poets under discussion have been selected because they have been widely
recognised as both representative and popular creators of narrative poetry, sometimes
termed ‘new epic’,
and because their work demonstrates the

main

directions in which verse
narrative genres
have been

developing.


Elena Fanailova, in a
2001
review of a collection of ballads by Stepanova, noted a
growing interest in longer, non
-
lyrical writing by younger
poets: ‘It is curious that this
represents the onset of these poets’ creative maturity: first
-
person lyric poetry is usually
something produced from the time of poetic childhood, that is, the age at which poets begin
to write. It is incomparably easier to
write lyric poetry than to create works with characters, a
theatre of shadows, which is required in order to produce longer forms of poetry’.
23

While
longer poetic forms seemed to have been discarded by older poets, a younger generation
was returning to a t
raditional genre, the epic narrative, retaining some elements,
and
replacing others.
It is a feature of the tradition of epic poetry
introduced
to

Russian literature
in the first half of the eighteenth century
that the narrative is presented as an objectiv
e and

impersonal account of events
, and that
it

is
both lengthy and

broad in scope
.
M
ikhail

Kheraskov
, considered in the late eighteenth century to be the Russian Homer in recognition
of his epic
Rossiiada
,

described the verse epic
poema

as follows: ‘The e
pic
poema

contains
some important, memorable, famous event, which has occurred in this world and caused
some important change affecting the entire human race ... or it sings of an event which has
occurred in a certain state and serves the whole nation’s gl
ory, peace, or finally, its transition
to a different condition’.
24


9



C
ertain features of the classical epic

tradition
, particularly the extent and breadth of
the narrative, do not
feature directly

in the poems to be discussed in this
article
,

although the
narratives may make implicit reference to

‘an event which has occurred in a certain state’
, or
the nation’s ‘transition to a different condition’
. T
he impersonal nature of the narrative voice
does
, however,

connect these works with
much earlier
epic
verse
narratives
, and represents
a clear departure from the narrative voice of the official Soviet
poema
, busily commenting on
and reacting to events
. The

narrat
iv
e voice

in the recent poems

is concerned principally with
telling a story, not with

drawing attention to itself or

revealing authorial reactions to what is
recounted. In some instances, the author
ial voice

is supplanted by a different voice
belonging to
a character who cannot easily be identified with the person of the poet. Andrei
Rodio
nov
, for example,

offers the thoughts of a half
-
machine, half
-
man, who finds himself
stranded on an unknown planet as the result of a catastrophic space war
, while Mariia
Galina presents readers with a report by a mysterious secret agent, wh
o

has reached t
he
conclusion

that human civilisation is under threat of alien takeover
.
25

This impersonal
approach can be extended to accounts of people known to the narrator: at the centre of
attention in Khersonskii’s cycle ‘Telefonnaia knizhka’

(Telephone book)

is the
narrator’s
remembering of other people’s lives
, each poem headed by
its subject’s

crossed
-
out
telephone number and name. While
Khersonskii’s

narrator may recall meetings with these
characters, he rarely volunteers his
own
opinions,
and
refrains from judgem
ent.
26


The epic
poema

is not, of course, the only genre in Russian poetry to
feature

an
impersonal narrative voice. The ballad, which arrived in Russian literature
through translation
and adaptation
in the early nineteenth century, often has a first
-
person

narrator who may
offer some lyrical response to the tale being told
,
but
who

is, to a considerable extent,
depersonalised. Kukulin sees a relationship between far
-
reaching social upheaval and the
prominence of the ballad, and suggests that the ballad come
s to the fore
in Russia
at times
when established ideas about individual subjectivity have been disrupted, and new ones
have not yet been created. While th
e ballad genre

may indeed offer something that, as
Kukulin suggests, allows for a non
-
committal appro
ach to portraying individual subjectivity,
10


the avoidance of a conventional lyrical ‘I’ may also be explained as a reaction to the
modernist tradition
of

poetry
understood as

direct
lyrical

expression. Fedor Svarovskii,
introducing a

2004

anthology of poems

that he designates examples of the ‘new epic’, sees
a crisis in the existing methods of artistic self
-
expression, rather than in more deep
-
seated
concepts of subjectivity: ‘It is simply that after secularisation, the crisis of humanism, the
establishment
of a postmodernist approach to culture that took place during the twentieth
century, personal
, linear

expression (by which I mean the expression by an author of
individual feelings, thoughts and experiences in response to some specific thing or things) is
no longer able to achieve any significant aesthetic effect.’
27



The sense of a crisis in first
-
person expression seems to be signalled in l
yric poetry

of the 1990s, in which,
Kukulin

notes,

the poetic ‘I’

often appeared

infantile and vulnerable,
and had lost any vestiges of the heroic.
28

If lyric poetry responded by rejecting the possibility
of an authoritative voice, non
-
lyric poetry offered an alternative solution in impersonality and
a source of authority beyond the pe
rson of the poet. Svarovskii argues that w
hile an
authorial voice that is perceived as the direct self
-
expression of a specific individual is
subject to doubt, supplementation, and mockery, an impersonal authorial voice allows the
poet to escape the inevit
able imperfections of the individual: ‘the thoughts, experiences and
reflections of a specific person can never be finalised and perfected. The individual is
n
ot the
absolute.’ He proposes instead
creating a narrative in which the focus ‘is located outside

the
person of the author. The focus is on whatever it is that is “organising” existence. The focus
can even be on something that is located outside the text’.
29

As examples of
what

might be
‘organising’ existence, Svarovskii suggests ‘Fate, Destiny, Provid
ence, powers, either
unknown or very well known, that govern lives’.
30

This evocation of destiny as the prime
mover of events
provides a further point of contact between the
epic
tradition and recent
Russian narrative poetry
, particularly

in examples which
draw on the ballad with its elements
of the supernatural
.


National history, whether Providence plays a role in it or not, is, as Kheraskov’s
description
of the epic
poema
cited
above states, a prominent concern in
traditional
epic
11


narrative, and here, one

might say, the ballad, with its cast of other
-
worldly creatures,
might
appear to be
completely out of place. It will be argued below, however, that history does
indeed haunt the ballads of poets such as Stepanova and Galina. It is present in a more
immedi
ate fashion in the poetry of

Khersonskii, not in the form of an overarching narrative of
gran
d events, but through episodic accounts

of the past lives of individuals
, relative, friends,
acquaintances
, each providing testimony to
the

history of communities

which have endured
loss and fragmentation
, such as the Jewish community of southern Russia, shattered by
revolution, war, and terror, or the poet’s own generation, people whose lives and sense of
self were changed by emigration and the collapse of the Sov
iet Union
.


While t
hese new narratives
maintain some features of traditional epic, such as the
impersonal narrator and a concern with history, it is immediately obvious that they are
different in length. Few of the poems to be discussed here come close to

the

stately
progress of traditional epic narrative

or its overarching account of a lengthy
chain

of events
,
both features to be found in many

examples of

the official Soviet
poema
.
Instead, the
se
recent works

are characterised by a rapid narrative pace, a
nd, in some cases, by selecting
isolated episodes which
are
recounted but not explicitly linked together in a sequence.
The
compres
sed form

of narrative that is typical of recent narrative poetry

is
also

found in the
traditional
ballad.
Tynianov contrasts
the ballad, characterised by brevity and a rapid pace,
with the static qualities of the epic
poema
.
31

T
he ballad
commonly

deals with a single
episode which moves rapidly towards a denouement
;

the pace of the narrative leaves little
room for exploration of c
haracters. The emphasis is on immediacy. These characteristics
can be found
,
for example,

in Khersonskii’s ‘Malen

kaia ballada’

(Little ballad)
, which tells the
story of a unnamed young man who was thrown out of the institute where he was studying,
spent h
is time drinking and smoking,
was called up
, dreaming of his future military success,

and
was then
sent to Afghanistan. The

fourteen
-
line

poem

ends
:


Зимой начались события. И он оказался в Афгане.

И, как вы уже догадались, никогда не вернулся домой.

32

12


Such compression presupposes, as can be seen from the final line, readers who are already
familiar with the history of the late Soviet period, can date events to 1979
-
80, and know
about the casualties suffered in Afghanistan. The events hardly need to be r
etold. What
Khersonskii is concerned with is focusing on one small part of the story, the fate of an
unremarkable young man who is caught up in events which he is in no position to
understand or influence.


The acceleration of narrative, Kostiukov suggest
s, has developed over the last half
century or so, as means such as cinematic montage have been found to tell a story quickly.
As a result: ‘the epic has become something that does not need to be told in a
poema
, it can
fit into a relatively short poem. It

has found its format’.
33

The ballad, therefore, offers an
appropriate generic framework for the poet wishing to construct a narrative without
reproducing the interminable
poema

of Soviet literary tradition.
By adopting the ballad’s
distinctive compressed n
arrative style, poets can emphasise the difference between their
work and the tendency of the Soviet
poema
’s narrator to explain and interpret.
The new
poetic narratives have effectively broken down the monolith of the official
poema

genre
by
injecting pac
e and reducing length
.
Dynamism is among the most prominent qualities noted
by
Fanailova
in

Stepanova’s ballads: ‘A firmly constructed plot, rapid development of events,
everywhere the action of evil spirits or the powers of fate, sudden events which overt
urn the
order of everyday life’.
34

The ballad narrative
, with its unexpected turns and lack of
explanation,

breaks
down the monol
ithic

teleological

narrative of the Soviet ‘bol

shoi stil



(grand style)
.
History is no longer represented as the inevitable pr
ocession of humanity
towards socialism, but is fragmented into individual stories,

or expressed in distorted form

through the intrusion of the supernatural.


Fanailova, reviewing Stepanova’s collection of ballads,
Pesni severnykh iuzhan

(Songs of the Northern Southerners)
,
sees Stepanova’s work as a product of a process of
dismantling and reassembling the heritage of Soviet poetry: ‘the author has dismantled
Russian Soviet poetic speech, breaking it down into separate stone blocks, and p
ut them
back together again as a new puzzle. It has not been melted down in order to destroy its
13


very foundations, its patterns can
still
be recognised, the grand style of Stalinist classicism
can be discerned, but the relationships of meaning are out of j
oint, like a circus
contortionist’.
35

A comparable act of narrative
fragmentation can be seen in
Khersonskii’s
work. Within a single cycle, or collection of poems, he presents episodes which span
decades of history, but removes them from a chronological seq
uence to show moments of
domestic life which can only retrospectively be seen as part of history.

This is history in the
process of being repopulated with individuals, history told through a life story, however,
fleeting. This repopulation of history is so
mething that Khersonskii does
in the cycle
‘Telefonnaia knizhka’, and
on a large
r

scale in his 2006 collection
Semeinyi arkhiv
, which will
be explored in more deta
i
l below.


The ballad
haunted by the past

In this section, discussion will focus on Stepanova
’s use of elements associated with the
ballad genre to create narrative poetry which features uncanny events and characters,
and
withholds explanation. Critical interpretations of Stepanova’s work, and of the revival of the
ballad in general, have suggeste
d

that the combination of the familiar and the paranormal
may relate to historical trauma yet to be ‘worked through’.
This section will argue that the
evolution of narrative poetry to foreground characteristic features of the ballad has enabled
poets like
Stepanova to engage with difficult questions of collective loss, guilt, and
unacknowledged trauma.


Stepanova is one of many who has tapped in to the ballad’s potential for depicting a
disturbing mixture of the familiar and the uncanny.
Galina’s ‘Doktor Va
tson vernulsia s
afganskoi voiny’

(Doctor Watson is back from the Afghan war)

presents us with the familiar
trio of Holmes, Watson, and Mrs Hudson. Holmes is away in Odessa solving crime, but this
is not a story which ends with a neat

and rational

explanat
ion of who the criminal is and how
he was identified. Watson’s activities seem innocuous enough: visits to the British Museum
and to Bedlam (
activitie
s of a professional nature
, one might imagine
). As the poem
14


progresses, however, the picture becomes more
disturbing. Watson
seems to be obsessed
with evil
:



Доктор

Ватсон

вернулся

с

афганской

войны




Он эксперт по делам сатаны
.

Сквозь туман пробивается газовый свет,

Доктор Ватсон сжимает в кармане ланцет.

Возле лондонских доков гнилая вода,

Он не станет
спускаться туда.

Там портовые девки хохочут во мрак,

Пострашнее

любых

баскервильских

собак
...

36


The

Watson
with whom readers of

Conan Doyle are familiar
might equip himself with a
revolver when confronting a particularly dangerous villain, but not a lance
t in his pocket and
a horror of the prostitutes down at the docks
. While Mrs Hudson, seen

at the end of the
poem

cleaning a lancet
,

sigh
s
over how busy doctors are nowadays, readers
can be

far from
certain that Watson has been called out at night in his pr
ofessional capacity. His

thoughts,
reported by the
omniscient
narrator, are fixed on the
spectacle

of human
depravity
, and
whether this was what he and his comrades made sacrifices for in Afghanistan.
Readers
privy to Watson’s dark thoughts cannot share
Mrs Hudson’s straightforward view of him as a
hard
-
working doctor. Galina’s short narrative is the antithesis of Conan Doyle’s stories. It
hints at the presence of something unfamiliar where one might expect to be on entirely
familiar ground
, but refuses t
o resolve readers’ uncertainties.


The mixture of the familiar and the disconcerting realisation that things may not be as
they seem is
an

enduring

feature of the ballad

genre in Russia
.
The ballad was introduced
by

Vasilii Zhukovskii’s
‘Liudmila’ of 1808,

reworked as
‘Svetlana’
in 1813
,
and was
modelled
on works
of Western European

Romanticism.

This movement’s eighteenth
-
century
adherents were attracted to the folk ballad of oral culture, seeing it as an unmediated
15


expression of national identity.

Folk bel
iefs, legends, and customs were regular features of
the early Russian literary ballad. Zhukovskii’s ballads abound with tales of phantoms and
fortune
-
telling, and even the early Soviet ballad features its walking dead.
37

The
invasion of
the
paranormal

into

ever
yday reality

has continued to be a

common
ingredient

in

contemporary

ballad narrative.

Galina, for instance, begins ‘Vyzyvanie pikovoi damy’
(Summoning of the Queen of Spades)
with a girl who is visited by the mysterious ‘chernaia
prostynia’ (black she
et) which claims to be her mother and pleads to be let in, then offers the
girl a chance to escape to a different world, but ends with the routine of school and the
uncertainties of adolescence.
38

Sergei Timofeev’s ‘Tikhii bog’

(Quiet god)
is a young ma
n’s

tale of his encounter with g
od which took place as he was driving friends home from a
party.
39

Stepanova’s

tales

also
show the intrusion of mysterious and unidentifiable forces
into everyday life: a family’s pet dog is drawn into a forest, watched by a boy

who is
powerless to intervene or even to report what he see
s
; a pilot becomes obsessed by a
mystical feminine enitity he encounters in the skies; a young girl with a terror of water is

doomed by her marriage to a water spirit (
vodianoi
).
40

The ballad, for
all its apparent lack of
sophistication and affinity with popular culture, has the potential to generate works of
considerable complexity and significance, and t
he
obvious
associa
tions with folklore should
not
overshadow

the consciously literary nature of
Stepanova’s work.

In her ballads, c
ritics
have seen echoes of Pushkin, Pavel Vasil

ev, Boris Slutskii, Eduard Bagritskii, as well as
traces of the folklore of the criminal underworld and the urban romance
.
41

The vitality of the
ballad genre
relies

on
what I
l

ia Vinn
its
kii aptly calls its

‘omnivorism’, its ability to incorporate
‘the trash found on the streets’
. Vinnitskii says the ballad

can be characterised by a taste for
sensation, marginal, low
-
life characters, superstition
s
, and energetic, vulgar speech
.
42

All
these may be found in Stepanova’s ballads, but they co
-
exist with a repertoire of
sophisticated stanzaic forms and the

frequent

use of
literary allusion
, and show a genre in
evolution, revitalised by extra
-
literary elements
.



While the revival of th
e ballad has coincided with the popularity of vampire fiction and
the supernatural world of

films such as ‘Nochnoi dozor’

(
Night Watch
)
, it can be argued that
16


the ballad’s use of similar elements may be rooted in something deeper t
han the desire to be
fash
ionable
: historical trauma
.
The resurgence of the ballad

in Russian poetry
seems to be
connected, as Il′ia Kukulin points out, with the aftermath of catastrophic historical events

that
affect the nation as a whole
:
the ballad

first took root in the wake of the Napoleonic Wars,
and reached a second high point in the years following the 1917 October Revolution and
Civil War.
43

The ballad’s reappearance after the collapse of the Soviet Union seems to
confirm this hypothesis
: the l
ate Soviet period brought both an encounter with the traumatic
Stalinist past, and the catastrophic experience of political transition accompanied by

inter
-
ethnic violence, economic hardship, and damage to national self
-
esteem
.
As yet, these past
and recen
t catastrophes have not yet been ‘worked through
’: ‘...the repressions of the Soviet
period are not perceived by contemporary society as a whole as a national trauma. There is
no doubt that the collapse of the Soviet Union was one such trauma. The diagnosi
s of
trauma can only be applied to this aspect. The repressions are just a “dark page” of our
history. But if this is not acknowledged to be a trauma it cannot be healed’.
44

The failure of
post
-
Soviet society to ‘work through’ past and recent catastrophes m
eans that the traumatic
memory of these catastrophes finds indirect expression through the appearance of the
uncanny, not just in ballads but in other genres such as Liudmila Petrushevskaia’s short
stories of the 1990s,
which resemble urban myths.
45



The r
eturn of the ballad
as an active
genre
element in recent
narrative
poetry
may be
seen, then, as a response to a number of factors: the exhaustion of other genres,
such as
th
e lyric and the epic narrative
poema
, and the need to give some expression to the
t
raumatic experiences of Stalinist repression and the collapse of the Soviet Union.
The
ballad
is
, however,

indirect in its

approach

to the

trauma
tic past
; it offers no testimony

o
f past
events, and makes no accusations, but shows an environment in which so
mething is not
right. Exactly what is not right is not stated by the narrator, and the hero has no better an
understanding of the situation than the reader.
46

In Stepanova’s ballads the plot is frequently
concerned with moments of personal, rather than hist
orical crisis, listed by Grigorii
Dashevskii:

‘people’s inability to cope with the events in their own lives: their own, or other
17


people’s growing up <...>, betrayal <...>, the deaths of loved ones <...>, separation <...>’.
47

The characte
rs faced with these

crises seem to have little in the way of an inner life
.
Kukulin
observes that while many elements of the post
-
Soviet ballad are characteristic of the
traditional ballad of Romanticism, they also contain something new: the characters portrayed
in the new b
allads are
frequently
grotesque, and they display kenosis, or self
-
emptying.
These qualities
, he argues,

make it possible for the ballads to function as allegories of
trauma which is not individual, but collective, and historical.
48



One of Stepanova’s most popular works of narrative poetry is her
Proza Ivana
Sidorova
, first published in

her blog on


Z
hivoi zhurnal


(under the name Ivan Sidorov)
,
but
which
appeared

in book form shortly thereafter, and
was
subsequently dramatised
.

It is

described by Mark Lipovetsky as a verse narrative which
grow
s from the foundations of the
ballad.

49

The narrator’s account

is supplemented
with
texts by other authors
, suggesting the
existence of real
-
world documentary evidence
:
letters from a police inve
stigator to his
girlfriend

Dina
, in which he shares mounting anxieties about a planned operation
, and an
excerpt from a book about the activities of the Moscow CID Special Section,
describing

the

events of that

same police operation, which forms a pivotal
moment in the narrative
.
The

narrative

begins with

the unexplained arrival of the alcoholic hero Alesha at the railway
station of an unknown town,

where he finds a sleeping girl. Alesha, the girl, and the black
hen that
accompanies the bemused hero
, move i
nto a house on the edge of town.
During
the course of the poem, the hero displays his kenotic characteristics:
for much of the time
he
is barely conscious of his actions, and seems to have
little or no

will of his own, accepting
the circumstances that he i
s presented with. In this unknown town

he becomes involved in a
struggle between the police and a gang of supernatural beings, led by
the

black hen
. Just
before he and the black hen are arrested,
the hero

is

temporar
ily

transform
ed

into a
cockerel
, and is
magically rescued by the hen’s associates when he refuses to cooperate
with the police
.

Alesha agrees to cause a diversion so as to assist with the gang’s attempt to
rescue the black hen from the police, an operation which leaves the police transformed int
o
glass, and Alesha returned to human form, with his dead wife standing beside him. Th
eir

18


reunion is disrupted by Major Kantariia of the Moscow CID, who had appeared to be in
league with the gang, but who now demands the return of her daughter, the girl fo
und at the
station. Mother and daughter are reunited, but Alesha’s wife cannot stay among the living
.
When they meet for the last time she is described in terms that connect her with the black
hen:



И тогда жена выходит ему во встречу.

Облик ее не птичий
, не человечий.

Но черными перьями, словно тучей,

она укутана с головой,

и это последний случай

увидеть

ее

живой
.

50


She tells him to look after their daughters
,

not to follow her, to give up smoking, and marry
again if he wants to,

then rises up into the
air,
leaving him
standing outside their home,
looking upwards
.



In his review of
Proza Ivana Sidorova
,
Lipovetsky

identifies
in this ‘collective
nightmare’
the presence of the uncanny, which he

interprets in Freudian terms as a
manifestation of something
familiar but unidentifiable, repressed, but secretly recognised
,
which returns in a monstrous form.
51

The encounter with

characters and places that are

known but not recognised
is a
recur
ring figure

in the poem. When the hero Alesha is freed
by the mysterio
us gang, he is transported to the house in which he and the girl had been
living
, where he

find
s

the table set and a company
of strange creatures
assembled
. H
e

is
most unwilling

to recognise it as the same place:



А за тем столом, а за тем столом



лучше

б век не видать, кто за тем столом!


19


Смотрит пьяница на знакомое,

но бесмыссленно, как на пятак:

не узнал бы этого дома я,

все за вечер в нем стало не так
.

52


While such resistance to recognising what is actually familiar is a recurring motif in the
poem,

there are moments in which a character realises something familiar in what he had
initially thought to be entirely alien: even before the black hen morphs into Alesha’s dead
wife he seems to sense some kind of familiarity between them.
The investigator wh
o writes
to Dina recognises a kinship between himself and a zombie

they had both pursued as part of
their duties
:



Помнишь, в июне, году в девяност
о

пятом

оборотня ловили в гречишном поле?

Так вот и я бегу без ума и воли,

в форменном кителе порванном и из
мятом.

53


The zombie was once his prey, a mindless creature, but the investigator senses that he is
now

in the same position:

cornered and deprived of any means of escape.

The investigator’s
capacity for empathy with something that might be thought of as completely alien and
threatening is echoed elsewhere in the poem. The black hen, a character Lipovetsky
understands as an embodiment of death, like the other female charact
ers (the major, her
daughter, and Alesha’s wife), acts with compassion and tenderness
.

Death and horror
, he
comments, have

become something that is familiar, intimate


but still frightening.

54

Yet this,
suggests Lipovetsky, is wh
ere
the process of dealing

with trauma may begin:
Of Stepanova,
he writes:
‘... she looks into the Russia
n
-
Soviet
-
Post
-
Soviet Unheimlich. She does not

attempt to aestheticise it, nor

does she recoil in horror’.
55

The trauma of the past

remains a
monstrous ‘other’ until it is acknowl
edged as part of the self.

Lipovetsky remarks that th
e

20


past needs to be understood as the

“inner Other” of each one of us
’ before it
can be
addressed
.
56



The principal characters of
Proza Ivana Sidorova

are marked by the experience of
loss

and their conco
mitant sense of guilt
: Alesha’s wife is dead, and he is estranged from his
two daughters; the investigator Major Kantariia
is seaching for

her daughter. The unnamed
author of the letters to Dina refers to someone else, Nina, who has gone missing
, and
ident
ifies this event as the point at which he began to lose his enthusiasm for his work
. At
th
e end of the poem the

major has regained her daughter, but
there is no universal
redemption:
Alesha’s encounter with his dead wife leaves him in a state of uncertaint
y
:



Нету ему ни покоя, ни утешения,

словно неверное он предпринял решение.

57


The story ends with him outside his home, released, it seems, from the burden of
alcoholism, guilt and grief, and about to return to everyday realities.

Stepanova’s use of the
ballad genre to create a fictional space in which trauma may be acknowledged shows the
creative
evolut
ion of a genre which leaves room for narrative loose ends, and offers an
antidote to verse narratives emphasising a single, suffici
ent interpretation of
history
.


History as loss and absence
: Boris Khersonskii

At the end of
Proza Ivana Sidorova
Stepanova’s hero has faced the trauma of
his
past and
come back home. For Khersonskii, home is the starting point of an encounter with the pas
t
which is
made up from stories of

the lives of real people
, his relatives
.

His
2007
collection
Semeinyi arkhiv

has been described as ‘a successful experiment in non
-
fictional poetry’.
58

Most of poems in the collection are given headings relating place and
date, such as
‘Berdichev, 1911


Odessa, 1988’, ‘Bel

tsy, 1942’, or ‘Odessa, 1984


Kolyma, 1940’; some
of the dates and place names, or the combination of a certain place and date, are already

signs

which stand for historical catastrophes, but the narrati
ve is concerned with the people
21


whose lives ran their course in those places

and during those years
.

The poems

refer to
family photographs, letters,
domestic objects
, telling the stories of the individual lives to
which these objects testify.

The preoccupation with recreating the past on the basis of
documents is reinforced by the short poems which are interspersed among the
reminiscences, and describe artefacts of Jewish religious ritual, now
up for sale at auction
.
Their transformation from
objects of religious observance to auction lots is a result of the
almo
st complete disappearance of the sou
thern Russian Jewish community to

which
Khersonskii’s family
belonged
.
The reasons for this community’s disappearance lie in the
troubled history of
the twentieth century. The events are not dwelled upon in Khersonskii’s
poems. Galina notes that any ‘lacunae or partial information can be easily supplemented by
someone with experience of Soviet realities’.
59



Where Stepanova draws on the ballad genre to

deal with unspoken trauma,
Khersonskii turns to documentary evidence in
Semeinyi arkhiv
, and in other works such as
the cycle ‘Telefonnaia knizhka’, to piece together a narrative of
relatives’ and friends’
lives
shaped, disrupted, and too often cut short
by history
.
The narrator of
Semeinyi arkhiv
is
surprised by the fact that all four people on one photograph lived out their natural lifespan:



Все персонажи скончались в разное время.

Смерть их была естественной,

жизнь


относительно благополучной.

В

это

невозможно

поверить
.’
60



When relating the stories of less fortunate relatives, Khersonskii maintains the same
restrained and factual tone. The fate of Daniil, who made a career in the Soviet army, is
foreshadowed in group photographs of his friends from w
hich some faces have been
expunged. The readers are then told of the documents kept by his wife, which explain his
fate, at least up to a point:


22



Потом он исчез. В семье сохранились

три официальных бумаги, отражающие

три версии его судьбы.

В первой началь
ник управления НКВД

сообщал заявительнице, что его

весьма осведомленное ведомство

не располагает информацией

о судьбе ее мужа.

В двух других имеются расхождения

по поводу даты и причины смерти,

и ей оставалась выбрать

одно слово из двух



пневмония


или


расстрел

.

Она прочитала и сохранила

эти бумаги вместе

с похоронкой на сына
.

61


After the three documents from the NKVD about Daniil’s arrest and death, the narrator
produces a fourth: the notification of their son’s death at the front. This is the first
and only
mention of their son in the poem, but it is not a casual afterthought. Gubailovskii compares
Khersonskii’s style in
Semeinyi arkhiv

to the diary of Tania Savicheva, in which she recorded
the deaths of all the other members of her family in the Len
ingrad Siege:


‘In
Semeinyi arkhiv

Khersonskii is using exactly the same kind of language which is
presented in the diary of the twelve
-
year
-
old girl. It is impossible to speak of a tragedy of this
kind in a voice that is even slightly raised. The proper
thing to do in such cases is to state the
facts in a way that only appears from the outside to be cold and harsh. The slightest
23


expression of anger or compassion risks succumbing to hysteria. This statement of facts is
what creates an epic, and it is an ep
ic that is antiheroic’.
62



Gubailovskii rightly identifies the significance of the impersonal qualities of
Khersonskii’s narrative voice
.

U
nlike the official Soviet epic
poema
, which celebrated
triumphs

won through heroic struggle and sacrifice, Khersonskii’s work dispenses with the
heroic, offering no compensatory tales of selfless endurance
.

He
refuses to move from fact
to displays of emotion,
and
refuses to direct the reader’s response beyond presenti
ng the
evidence of catastrophe.

Irina Rodnianskaia, who likens Khersonskii’s work to that of an
archaeologist, comments that ‘between the speaker and what is said, there is usually some
intermediary object which one might call, in the broadest sense, an ar
tefact: a photograph
from the “family archive”, a telephone number in a notebook...’.
63

Like an archaeologist,
Khersonskii reconstructs glimpses of
a
n apparently

distant
past
,

but the
facts
that he
assembles are drawn from a past already known to the
reader, who can appreciate their
significance without further explanation
.


There are, however, elements in the collection which suggest

a

more personal
response
.
A doctor and psychiatrist by training, Khersonskii
places at intervals in his
collection

acc
ounts of dreams

narrated in the third person, which function as a kind of
indirect
commentary on
his own
work of remembering. The final dream places the narrator
with his mother in a ship about to leave the harbour; on the quayside are his father and son,
both aged about twenty
-
five. The dreamer
, who forms the connection between them, has a
sudden sense
that his own position between the older and younger generations renders him
superfluous
:



Видящий сон ощущает себя стариком,

он
промежуточное звено, без ко
торого

можно легко обойтись...

64


24


The dreamer sets off down
some
steps

to go below deck
, stumbles, stretches out his hands
and finds they are
rest
ing
on
a white marble arch:



...Время

не пощадило ее. Поверхность, когда
-
то гладкая,

изъедена и бугриста.
Когда
-
то на ней

было что
-
то написано. Он и сейчас

видит знакомые буквы: але
ф
, ламед, вав;

знаки, которые он никогда

не был способен связать в слова
;

но под пальцами буквы теряют свои очертанья.

Остается только поверхность мрамора,

изъеденная, бугристая.

То
лько

поверхность

мрамора
.

65


The white marble stone, its surface pitted and uneven, is described as an arch, but its barely
legible, and
,
for the dreamer, unintelligible inscription, suggests a tombstone. The dream
seems to imply doubts about the
possibili
ty

of recreating past lives
, but these are at least
partially answered by the prayer
(
one of four

in the collection
) which ends
Semeinyi arkhiv
.
I
n
the final prayer

the speaker thanks God for bringing the dead back to life, if only in
people’s memory
:



И
верен Ты своему обещанию

вернуть к жизни усопших.

Благословен Ты, Господь,

Бог наш, Царь Вселенной,

воскрешающий мертвых.

(Хотя бы в непрочной памяти нашей.

25


Хоть

изредка
.)

66



Galina describes
Semeinyi arkhiv

as an epic
, an ‘attempt to resurrect an epoch
by
putting together individual fragments


photogra
p
hs, objects, snatches of conversation
remembered by chance, a kaleidoscope of scenes which passed across a child’s field of
vision... This epic is fragmentary but at the same time whole


like History its
elf’.
67

The
elements of narrative, dream, auction catalogue and prayer
brought together by

Khersonskii
offer a range of perspectives from which to contemplate this past.



Khersonskii’s work may

be described as epic because of the expanse of his
narratives
(a century in
Semeinyi arkhiv
, decades in ‘Telefonnaia knizhka’ and ‘Pis

ma k
Marine’

(Letters to Marina
)
)
, and because of his
detached, impersonal
narrative voice. His
work is, however, also characterised by fragmentation; it sets out episodes but refrain
s from
placing them in a larger

continuous

narrative.
This may be in part because the narrative is
already well known. It may also be connected with the fact that
Khersonskii’s preoccupation
with loss and absence reverses the narrative trajectory associate
d with the traditional epic
tale of origins; his poems trace
disparate
endings, not
shared
beginnings.

The twelve poems
in
his cycle
‘Telefonnaia knizhka’ present
characters no longer alive; the names and
telephone numbers that supply the title for each po
em are crossed out. In some cases the
poem recalls their death, which for some is premature, or how they succumbed to illness or
disgrace. As the cycle progresses, there is an increasing emphasis on absence. In ‘
247
-
11
-
12 (sprosit′ Sergeiia Anatol′evicha)


(
247 11 12 (ask for Sergei Anatol′evich)
)

the narrator
visits an old man who seals a piece of blank paper in an envelope with no address, and
gives it to his visitor to post.
68

The final poem makes explicit the

theme of

absence

with
which the cycle is preocuppied. It presents an old man who is addressing a visitor, Marina,
but his voice is joined by a second voice, not Marina’s, who makes it clear

through his
comments
,
which strongly resemble

stage directions,

that the old man i
s in fact alone
. The

poem

begins
:


26



Это ты, Марина? Входи. Пальто повесишь сама.

Понимаешь, высокая вешалка, эти боли в плече.

(Никто не входит.)
Зябнешь? Ну что поделать, зима,

а батереи чуть теплые. Ты опять о враче,


но нечего тут лечить. Заходи, садись
, оглядись.

(Стул отодвинут. Никто не садится.)

Ну

вот
!

69


Like the dream that comes at the end of
Semeinyi arkhiv
, this poem seems to provide a
comment on the poet’s enterprise of putting together memories of past lives, recreating
something which cannot
be recovered

except in the most fleeting way
. The old man’s
monologue goes unheard, but by addressing Marina he
revives her memory

for a brief
moment
.


Conclusion

The post
-
Soviet revival of narrative poetry offers an example of the way in which literary
ge
nres evolve. The narrative
poema
, a flagship genre of Soviet official literature

characterised by its focus on heroic figures and events of historical significance, and by a
narrator who expressed a strongly directive response to the events recounted, began to run
out of steam as the Soviet Union declined. In the post
-
Soviet literary
world of overturned
hierarchies and multiple conflicting perspectives, narrative poetry looked to reshape itself by
avoiding teleological plot, preferring fragmentation, and by rejecting overt authorial
interpretation. The epic tradition supplied a
detache
d and impersonal narrative voice,
while
the traditional ballad offered a way of telling stories at speed and without e
lucidati
on.
Elements from outside the classical literary tradition also played their part in renewing verse
narrative
: popular culture sup
plied elements of urban myth and horror story, while
documentary offered the objective evidence of artefacts as a means of reconstructing the
past.

27



In Tynianov’s view of the evolution of literary genre, change may lead to a different
emphasis being placed

on certain

elements within a given genre, or to the emergence of a
new genre with its origins in one or more existing genres. The fact that the term ‘new epic’
has been proposed as a generic description of recent works of narrative poetry suggests that
th
e developments outlined in this article have been seen by some as
amounting to
the
evolution of a new genre
, rather than to changes within the existing genres of epic
poema

and the ballad.
It can, however, be argued that the
hierarchical
relationship betwe
en genres
of lyric and epic poetry

has changed, with a new, and perhaps unexpected prominence of
the epic, which has shaken off its associations with official Soviet culture to emerge
revitalised, both by drawing on classical tradition and on influences be
yond literary culture:
the horror stories of urban folklore and the assorted contents of a family archive.






1

For an introduction to memory stud
ies, see
A Companion to Cultural Memory Studies
,
edited by Astrid Erll and Ansgar Nünning (
Berl
in & New York: De Gruyter, 2010), and, for
specific discussion of memory in the Russian context, Aleksandr Etkind,
Warped Mourning:
Stories of the Undead in the
Land of the Unburied

(Stanford CA: California University Press,
2013).

2

Tynianov, ‘The Literary Fact’, in
Modern Genre Theory
, edited by David Duff (Harlow:
Longman, 2000), pp. 29
-
49 (p. 3
3
); for the Russian original, ‘Literaturnyi fakt’, see Iurii
Tynian
ov,
Poetika. Istoriia literatury. Kino
,
compiled by E. A. Toddes, A. P. Chudakov, M. O.
Chudakova (Moscow: Nauka, 1977),
pp. 255
-
69.

For an account of Tynianov’s thinking on
genre, see David Duff, ‘Maximal Tensions and Minimal Conditions: Tynianov as Genr
e
Theorist’,
New Literary History
, vol. 34, no. 3 (Summer 2003), pp. 553
-
563. The same issue
contains Tynianov’s essay ‘The Ode as an Oratorical Genre’, translated by Ann Shukman,
pp. 565
-
596
; for the Russian original, ‘Oda kak oratorskii zhanr’, see Tynia
nov,
Poetika.
Istoriia literatury. Kino
, pp. 227
-
52
.

28







3

Alastair Renfrew
,
Towards a New Material Aesthetics: Bakhtin, Genre, and the Fates of
Literary Theory

(London: Modern Humanities Research Association and Maney Publishing,
2006)
, p. 82
.


4

See Natal′ia

Ivanova
’s passing

remark, in
an article o
n ‘non
-
fiction’, that the
poema

had
almost died out
:

‘Po tu storonu vymysla’,
Znamia
, 11 (2005), pp. 3
-
8 (p. 4).

5

See Evgenii Dobrenko, ‘Raeshnyi kommunizm: poetika utopicheskogo naturalizma i
stalinskaia kolkhoznaia poema’,
Novoe literaturnoe obozrenie
, 98 (2009)
, pp. 133

80 (pp.
133
-
4).

6

‘Sincerity’ was foregrounded by V. Pomerantsev’s ‘Ob iskrennosti v literature
’,
Novyi mir
,
12 (1953), 218
-
45; ‘Self
-
expression’ was a term put forward by Ol′ga Berggol′ts, ‘Razgovor o
lirike’,
Literaturnaia gazeta
, 16 April 1953, p. 3, and particularly in ‘Protiv likvidatsii liriki’,
Literaturnaia gazeta
, 28 October 1954, pp. 3
-
4.
For more on the post
-
Stalin revival of lyric
poetry, see K
atharine
H
odgson
, ‘Russia is reading us once more: the rehabilitation of lyric
poetry’, in
Dilemmas of De
-
stalinization
: Negotiating Cultural and Social Change in the
Khrushchev Era
, edited by Polly

Jones (
London and New York: Routledge, 2006
), pp.
231
-
49.

7

Kosti
ukov, ‘S soboi i bez sebia’,
Arion
, 4 (2006)
,
http://magazines.russ.ru/arion/2006/4/ko27.html

[accessed 13 April 2012] (para. 31 of 41)
.

8

Brodsk
y
, ‘Bol′shaia elegiia Dzhonu Donnu’,
Sochinen
iia

(Ekaterinburg: U
-
Faktoriia, 2002),
pp. 10
-
16; Sedakova, ‘Elegii’,
Stikhi

(Moscow: Gnozis, Carte Blanche, 1994), pp. 299
-
316.

9

Kozlov, ‘Elegiia nekanonicheskogo mira’,
Arion
, 2 (2011)
,
http://magazines.russ.ru/arion/2011/2/ko19.html

[accessed 13 April 2012] (para. 15 of 56).

10

On ‘neo
-
archaist’ poets, see Andrew Wachtel, ‘The Youngest Archaists: Kutik, Sedakova,
Kibirov, Parshchikov’, in
Rereading Russian Poetry
, edited by Stephanie Sandler (New
Haven and London: Yale University Pres
s,1999), pp. 270
-
86.

See, for example,
Kutik,
‘Oda
na poseshchenie Belosaraiskoi kosy’
,
Arion
, 2 (1997);
Anatolii

Naiman, ‘
Oda
’,
Novyi mir
, 5
(2011)
, pp. 3
-
4
; Aleksei Tsvetkov, ‘Oda vode’,
Oktiabr′
, 1 (2009)
, p. 36
; Dmitrii Bobyshev,
29







‘Oda vozdukhoplavaniiu
’,
Zvezda
, 8 (2002)
,
http://magazines.russ.ru/zvezda/2002/8/bob.html

[accessed 31 May 2012];

Dmitrii
Polishchuk, ‘Dve ody sapficheskie’,
Novyi mir
, 8 (1999)
, pp. 113
-
4.

Amelin’s first collection of
poems was
Kholodnye ody: kniga stikhov

(Moscow: Symposium,

1996); as the title
suggests, his odes are not the impassioned panegyrics of tradition. See Tat′iana Bek, ‘Sev
na Pegasa zadom napered, ili Zdravstvui, arkhaist
-
novator!’,
Druzhba narodov
, 11 (1997)
,
http://magazines.russ.ru/druzhba/1997/11/bek.html

[acce
ssed 31 May 2012] (para. 2 of 14)
.
On the ‘new archaists’, see the roundtable discussion ‘Russkaia poeziia v kontse veka:
neoarkhaisty i neonovatory’,
Znamia
, 1 (2001),
pp.
154
-
66.

The ode does also feature as a
satirical or humorous genre, trading on the
incompatibility of high style and low subject
-
matter: see, for example, Lev Smirnov, ‘Oda santekhniku Red′kinu’,
Znamia
, 2 (2001),

pp.
124
-
5,

and Marina Boroditskaia, ‘Oda blizkorukosti’,
Novyi mir
, 3 (2006)
, p. 3.

11

Wachtel, ‘The Youngest Archaists’, p. 2
82.

12

Ibid.
, p. 286.

13

Gubailovskii, ‘Polosa priboia: o zhanre poeticheskoi miniatiury’,
Arion
, 4 (2003)
,
http://magazines.russ.ru/arion/2003/4/g26.html

[accessed 31 May 2012]

(
paras 11
-
12 of 28)
.
Iurii Rakita, ‘Kremnievyi vek setevoi poezii’,
Oktiabr′
, 4
(200
3
),

pp. 175

87 (p. 176)

declared
the ideal genre for internet poetry to be the short poem of between two and four stanzas, as
it could fit in its entirety on the screen without requiring the reader to scroll down to find the
end.

14

Shaitanov, ‘Ansats’,

Voprosy literatury
, 5 (2008)
, pp. 79

88 (p. 83; p. 88).

15

Kozlov, ‘Zhanrovoe myshlenie sovremennoi poezii’,
Voprosy literatury
, 5 (2008)
, pp. 137

59 (p. 159).

16

‘Zhanrovoe myshlenie’, p. 148
.

17

‘Zhanrovoe myshlenie’, p. 150.

18

Tynianov, ‘The Literary Fact
’,
p.
39.

30







19

Kukulin, ‘Ot Svarovskogo k Zhukovskomu i obratno: o tom, kak metod issledovaniia
konstruiruet literaturnyi kanon’,
Novoe literaturnoe obozrenie
, 89 (2008)
, pp. 228

40 (p.
239)
.

20

Kozlov, ‘Elegiia nekanonicheskogo mira’,
para.
2
of 56
. Emphasis
in the original.

21

Tynianov, ‘Promezhutok’,
Poetika,

Istoriia literatury, Kino
, compiled by E. A. Toddes, A. P.
Chudakov, M. O. Chudakova (Moscow: Nauka, 1977), 168
-
95 (p. 191).

22

‘Promezhutok’, p. 191.

23

Fanailova,

Pesni severnykh iuzhan
’,

Novaia
russkaia kniga
, 1 (2001),
http://www.guelman.ru/slava/nrk/nrk7/7r.html

[accessed 13 April 2012] (para. 6 of 18). It
should be noted that Fanailova is herself one of the poets whose work is dominated by
lengthy narrative forms.

24

Mikhail Kheraskov,
cited by Mark Altshuller
in
Handbook of Russia Literature
, edited by
Victor

Terras

(New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1985)
, p. 344.

25

Andrei Rodionov, ‘Prevrashchaiutsia v tkani zhivye mashiny’,
Zhurnal “RETs”: “Novyi
epos”
, 44 (June 2007), p.

28,
http://www.polutona.ru/rets/rets44.pdf

[accessed 16 April
2012]
; Mariia Galina, ‘Mertvyi sezon’
,
Novyi mir
, 5 (2010), p. 6
.

26

Khersonskii, ‘Telefonnaia knizhka’
,
Zhurnal “RETs”: “Novyi epos”
, 44 (June 2007), p
p. 38
-
41.

In ’
82
-
14
-
72 (sprosit′ Dodika)


(
p. 39),

the narrator confesses himself unable to reconcile
the fragile Jewish boy who kicked out frantically at people in a frenzy one New Year with the
man who
had both feet

amputated because of diabetes, and died young of a heart attack,
but he does not
suggest any explanation.

27

Svarovskii, ‘Neskol′ko slov o “novom epose”’,
Zhurnal “RETs”: “Novyi epos”
, 44 (June
2007), p. 4.

28

Il′ia Kukulin, ‘Aktual′nyi russkii poet kak voskresshie Alenushka i Ivanushka’,
Novoe
literaturnoe obozrenie
, 53 (2002)
, pp. 27
3

97 (p. 275).

29

Svarovskii, ‘Neskol′ko slov o “novom epose”’, p. 5.

30

Svarovskii, ‘Neskol′ko slov o “novom epose”’, p. 5.

31







31

Tynianov,
‘Promezhutok’
, pp. 192
-
3.

32

That winter the events began. And he ended up in Afghanistan. And, as you’ve already
guessed,

never came home again.
Khersonskii, ‘Malen′kaia ballada’,
Novyi mir
, 12 (2007)
, p.
4.

33

Kostiukov, ‘S soboi i bez sebia’

(para. 39 of 41).

34

Fanailova, ‘Mariia Stepanova,
Pesni severnykh iuzhan


(para. 13 of 18).

35

Fanailova, ‘Mariia Stepanova,
Pesni
severnykh iuzhan


(para. 2 of 18).

36

Doctor Watson is back from the Afghan war


he is an expert in matters satanic. The
gaslight gleams through the fog, Doctor Watson grips a lancet in his pocket. By the London
docks the water is foul, he will not go down

there. There the harbour girls laugh in the dark,
more terrible than any number of Baskerville hounds.

Galina, ‘Doktor Vatson vernulsia s
afganskoi voiny’,
Arion
, 1 (2005), http://magazines.russ.ru/arion/2005/1/ga13.html [accessed
11 April 2012].

37

In

Nik
olai Tikhonov’s poem of the early 1920s, ‘Pesnia

ob otpusknom soldate’,

in N.
Aseev, E. Bagritskii, V. Lugovskoi, N. Tikhonov,
Sbornik stikhov

(Moscow: Sovetskaia
Rossiia, 1971), pp. 168
-
9,

a soldier who is granted leave to see his dying wife is killed in
battle, but still sets off when given permission to do so by his commander. Aleksandr
Kochetkov’s
later

‘Ballada o prokurennom vagone’,
Russkaia sovetskaia
poeziia
, compiled
by V. Ognev and B. Fogel

son (Moscow: Khudozhestvennaia literatura, 1990),

pp.

244
-
5,
however, appears to dismiss the notion of love that conquers death, as the female
protagonist’s protestations that nothing can separate her from her beloved are contradicted
when he is killed in a railway accident and her promise that they will be reun
ited is not
fulfilled.

38

Galina, ‘Vyzyvanie pikovoi damy’,
Znamia
, 9 (2007)
, pp. 75
-
7.

39

T
imofeev, ‘Tikhii Bog’,
Zhurnal “RETs”: “Novyi epos”
, 44 (June 2007), p. 44.

32







40

These are the events at the core of three poems by Stepanova: ‘Sobaka’, ‘Letchik’, and
‘Vodianoi’, from her collection
Pesni severnykh iuzhan

(Moscow: Argo
-
Risk, 2001),
http://www.vavilon.ru/texts/stepanova1
-
1.html#1 [accessed 12 April 2012].

41

Fanailova,

‘Mariia Stepanova,
Pesni severnykh iuzhan
’;
(para. 5 of 18);
Il′ia Vinitskii,
‘”Osobennaia stat′”: ballady Marii Stepanovoi’,

Novoe literaturnoe obozrenie
, 62 (2003), pp.
165

8 (p.165).

42

Vinitskii, ‘”Osobennaia sta
t′”: ballady Marii Stepanovoi’,

p. 165.

43

Kukulin, ‘Ot Svarovskogo k Zhukovskomu
’, p. 238.

44

Aleksei Levinson, ‘Abort v sotsial′nom lone’, www.polit.ru/article/2004/01/13/levi
n
son
[accessed 19 May 2012]

(para. 11 of 67)
.

45

On Petrushevskaia’s stories, see Lesley Milne, ‘Ghosts and Dolls: Popular

Urban Culture
and the Supernatural in Liudmila Petrushevskaia’s
Songs of the Eastern Slavs

and
The Little
Sorceress
’,
The Russian Review
, vol. 59, no. 2 (2000),
pp.
269
-
84.
On

p. 273 Miln
e draws a
parallel between the T
error and the theme of the unburied
body in the story ‘Incident at
Sokolniki’, set in wartime, and states that this could have applied to the relatives of all those
who perished during the Stalinist
T
error, but also sees a connection with the return of
soldiers’ bodies in zinc coffins from A
fghanistan, a traumatic experience from the more
recent past.

46

Grigorii Dashevskii, ‘Mariia Stepanova:
Schast′e
’,
Kriticheskaia massa
, 1 (2004)
,
http://magazines.russ.ru/km/2004/1/dash42.html

[accessed 13 April 2012] (para. 9 of 26).

47

Dashevskii, ‘Mariia

Stepanova:
Schast′e
’ (para. 11 of 26).

48

Kukulin, ‘Ot Svarovskogo k Zhukovskomu’,

p. 234.

49

Lipovetsky, ‘Rodina
-
zhut′’,
Novoe literaturnoe obozrenie
, 89 (2008)
, pp. 248
-
56 (p. 249).

50

And then his wife comes out towards him. Her appearance is neither that of a bird, nor of a
human. But, like a cloud, black feathers are wrapped around her from the head down, and
this is the last chance to see her alive.
Stepanova,
Proza Ivana Sidorova
, i
n
Zhurnal “RETs”:
“Novyi epos”
, 44 (June 2007),
pp. 14
-
24 (
p.
24
)
.

33







51

Lipovetsky, ‘Rodina
-
zhut′’,
pp. 250
-
1.

52

But at the table, at the table


better for a hundred years not to see who is at the table!
The drunk looks at the familiar scene, but mindlessly,

as if at a five copeck piece: I wouldn’t
have recognised this house, in one evening everything about it has changed.
Stepanova,
Proza
, p. 18.

53

Remember, in June of ninety
-
five, when we were chasing a zombie through a field of
buckwhea
t
? That’s how I’m ru
nning now, mindless and aimless, in a torn and crumpled
uniform tunic. Stepanova,
Proza
,

p. 21.

54

Lipovetsky, ‘Rodina
-
zhut′’,
p. 255.

55

Lipovetsky, ‘Rodina
-
zhut′
, p. 256
. In the original, Lipovetsky uses the German
‘Unheimlich’, meaning ‘uncanny’.

56

Lipovetsky, ‘Rodina
-
zhut′’, p. 256
.

57

He feels no peace or comfort, as though he made the wrong decision. Stepanova,
Proza
,
p. 23.

58

Galina, ‘Boris Khersonskii.
Semeinyi arkhiv

, Znamia
, 11 (2007), pp. 209
-
11 (p. 211).

59

Galina, ‘Boris Khersonskii, p. 210.

60

All the
people

died at different times. Their deaths were from natural causes, their lives
were relatively happy. It’s impossible to believe this.

Khersonskii, ‘Berdichev, 1911


Odessa, 1986’,
Semeinyi arkhiv,

http://www.vavilon.ru/texts/khersonsky1
-
1.
html

[accessed
29 May 2012] (poem 17 of 48).

61

Then he disappeared. The family kept three official documents, giv
ing

three versions of his
fate. In the first one the head of the NKVD administration informed the enquirer that his
thoroughly well
-
informed de
partment had no information on her husband’s fate. In the two
other documents there are discrepancies concering the date and cause of death, and she
was left to choose between ‘pneumonia’ and ‘shooting’. She read them and kept the
documents together with t
he telegram informing her of her son’s death in action.

Khersonskii, ‘Odessa, 1919
-
1974’,
Semeinyi arkhiv
, (poem 24 of 48).

34







62

Gubailovskii
, ‘Svet otsutstviia’,
Novyi mir
, 12 (2007),
http://magazines.russ.ru/novyi_mi/2007/12/gu14.html

[accessed 13 April 201
2] (para. 11 of
24).

63

Rodnianskaia, ‘”Nikakoe lekarstvo ne otmeniaet bolezni”: o poezii Borisa Khersonskogo’,
Arion
, 4 (2007), http://magazines.russ.ru/arion/2007/4/ro24.html [accessed 13 April 2012]
(paras
22
, 5 of 33).

64

The dreamer feels he is an old
man, he is an intermediate link, with which one might easily
dispense.

Khersonskii, ‘Bruklin, avgust 1997 goda: snovidenie’,
Semeinyi arkhiv

(poem 47 of
48).

65

Tim
e has not spared it. The surface, once smooth, is corroded and pitted. Once it had
something
written on it. He can still see familiar letters: aleph, lamed, waw; signs that he was
never able to put together into words; but beneath his fingers the letters lose their shape.
What remains is just the marble surface, corroded, pitted. Just the marble s
urface. ‘Bruklin,
avgust 1997 goda: snovidenie’,
Semeinyi arkhiv

(poem 47 of 48).

66

And you are faithful to your promise to return the departed to life. Blessed are you, o Lord,
our God, Lord of the Universe, who brings the dead back to life. (If only in o
ur fragile
memory. If only rarely.)

Khersonskii, ‘Molitva’,
Semeinyi arkhiv

(poem 48 of 48).

67

Galina, ‘Boris Khersonskii.
Semeinyi arkhiv
’, p. 211.

68

Khersonskii,


247
-
11
-
12 (sprosit′ Sergeiia Anatol′evicha)

, ‘Telefonnaia knizhka’,
Zhurnal
RETs:
“Novyi e
pos”
, 44 (June 2007),

p. 41.

69

Marina, is that you? Come in. Hang up your coat yourself. You see, the coat hooks are
high up, and I’ve got these pains in the shoulder.
(No
-
one comes in,)

Are you cold? Well,
what can you do, it’s winter, but the radiators are barely warm. You’ll mention the doctor
again, but there’s nothing here to be cured. Come in, sit down, catch your breath.
(The chair
is pulled out. No
-
one sits down.)

There we are!

Kh
ersonskii,


240
-
33
-
87 (sprosit


Marinu)

,
‘Telefonnaia knizhka’,
Zhurnal RETs:
“Novyi epos”
, 44 (June 2007),

p. 41.