Slav Sisters (The Dedalus Book of Russian Women’s Literature)
Edited by Natasha Perova

Surprisingly for someone who reads a reasonable amount (ahem!) of Russian literature, it’s only struck me relatively recently that much of what I read has been written by men. Particularly in the era before the revolution, the big names are male – Gogol, Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, Chekhov et al – and the women’s voices seem to be either non-existent, or possibly just not translated. I think the tide is starting to turn a little nowadays; the translations of the Columbia University Press’s Russian Library (Sofia Khvoshchinskaya already issued, and Karolina Pavlova forthcoming) are doing much to redress the balance when it comes to authors from the 19th century. The 20th is perhaps a little better represented, though mainly with poets; so I was pleased to be alerted by a post on translator Boris Dralyuk’s excellent blog to the existence of “Slav Sisters”, which had somehow slipped underneath my radar.

Dedalus Books are a publisher of literary fiction with an impressive backlist, which includes much translated literature. Laudably, Dedalus has declared it will celebrate women’s literature from 2018-2028 by publishing six titles a year for the decade to celebrate the anniversary of women getting the vote in the UK in 1918. Apparently most of these will be translated from other European languages, and “Slav Sisters” is a fine entry into that list of books.

This anthology focuses on Russian women’s writing in the 20th century, and the range of writers featured is impressive – in fact, let’s have a list of the contents and translators and celebrate them all:

1. Kishmish and Solovki by Nadezhda Teffi, translated by Robert & Elizabeth Chandler.
2. My Jobs by Marina Tsvetaeva, translated by Jamey Gambrell.
3. Autobiographical Sketches by Anna Akhmatova,translated by Andrew Bromfield.
4. Delusion of the Will by Lydia Ginzburg, translated by Boris Dralyuk.
5. The Lady with the Dog and The Death of an Official by Galina Scherbakova, translated by Ilona Chavasse.
6. What a Girl by Ludmila Petrushevskaya, translated by Joanne Turnbull
7. The Stone Guest by Olga Slavnikova, translated by Marian Schwartz.
8. The Gift Not Made by Human Hand by Ludmila Ulitskaya, translated by Arch Tait.
9. Philemon and Baucis by Irina Muravyova, translated by John Dewey.
10. Landscape of Loneliness : Three Voices by Svetlana Alexievich, translated by, Joanne Turnbull.
11. The Jewess’s Farewell by Margarita Khemlin, translated by Arch Tait.

That’s a staggering amount of talent, both in terms of the authors *and* the translators, to have featured in one volume! And indeed the contents make gripping, absorbing, moving and memorable reading.

People of my generation are in no danger of being saddened by returning to the scenes of our past – we have nowhere to return to…. (Akhmatova)

The content ranges from the factual (Alexievich’s heartbreaking interviews with Soviet women about their lives and loves; Tsvetaeva’s humorous yet dark memories of her attempts to work and survive in the wake of the Russian Revolution and Civil War) to the fictional (Scherbakova’s cynical and realistic take on Chekhov; Ludmila Ulitskaya’s sardonic tale of idealism meeting with reality). Slavnikova’s story brings us into the world of Russian gangsters before veering off into allegory; Muravyova cleverly opens her tale with an old couple’s mutual hatred and co-dependence, which is eventually revealed to result from a dark and truly horrific past. Teffi, of course, is as dry as ever, yet once again there is sadness and human suffering at the heart of her stories. Ginzburg’s genre-defying piece on the psychological landscape of guilt lingers in the mind. And Tsvetaeva and Akhmatova should need no introduction to readers of the Ramblings…

Teffi by Pierre Choumoff [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Well, I could go on and on about the jewels in this collection, but in fact each story is a gem. Editor Natasha Perova (who has an impressive pedigree, including starting the small press Glas) has chosen what I think is a perfect selection of works to not only show the variety of women’s writing from the last century, but also to tell women’s stories. That latter element was what stood out for me most strongly after reading “Slav Sisters”.These are voices that would have been silenced under Soviet rule, and it’s only with the collapse of the Communist regime that they’ve been able to find an outlet.

The human memory is constructed like a searchlight, so that it illuminates separate moments while leaving all around in impenetrable darkness. Even a person with a magnificent memory may and should forget some things. (Akhmatova)

Interestingly, I was reminded when I set out to write this post about the women authors who *were* published during the 20th century; I refer of course to those writing in the science fiction field. I’ve read a number of these authors in recent years and maybe that was one genre women could tell a story in, although many of these works were in coded form, with the actual meaning hidden under the narrative to avoid the censor’s eye.

Has anyone ever seen the place that love goes when it’s run its course? Maybe it isn’t a place at all, maybe love dissipates into molecules and atoms inside one’s own body, and the most searing of the passions turns into a horny toenail? Or maybe it all scatters like ashes, so there’s no use looking for any trace of those hungering, searching hands, or the ardent lips that kissed yours until pleasure mingled with pain. Scattered, like the white bloom of apple trees. (Scherbakova)

I could go on and on about how good these pieces are; how heartbreaking in many places; and how it’s a crime that all of these women have not been better known before. I was aware of many of the names already, of course – Teffi, Tsvetaeva, Akhmatova from the early years, plus Ulitskaya and Petrushevskaya from more recent times. However, several were new to me which makes the anthology especially valuable; I was particularly taken with Galina Scherbakova and Olga Slavnikova. The works are presented in what I assume is roughly chronological order; I *would* have liked to see a little more information included about original publication date and location for the pieces just to provide context. However, if nothing else the anthology proves that women all over the world have the same needs, desires, problems and everyday issues to deal with. We certainly are all sisters under the skin and this exceptional collection really is essential reading.

Review copy kindly provided by Dedalus Books, for which many thanks!

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