Literature as a Refuge From Pain and Dead Words

Chukovskaya as a child with her father, Korney Chukovsky. (CC)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Daniel Delisau,  Las Palmas de Gran Canaria, 15 April 2018 — The life of the Soviet writer Lydia Chukovskaya revolved around a question from 1937: What was the fate of her husband, a reputed physicist, after he was arrested that year in the cruelest moment of the Stalinist purges? As fruits of the pain caused by that question, and that took a long time to resolve, she wrote two novels, Sofia Petrovna, One Exemplary Citizen and Immersion, a Path in the Snow.

In both works, published for the first time in Spanish in 2014 and 2017 by Errata Naturae, it is easy to guess the markedly autobiographical character of Chukovskaya’s stories. Like her, the protagonists of both novels never saw those they loved most after the mass arrests that took place in the Soviet Union between 1936 and 1938, and that, according to the historian James Harris, in his recent essay The Great Fear, entailed the execution of some 750,000 people for political reasons. continue reading

The protagonist of Immersion — written between 1949 and 1957 — is Nina Sergeievna, a translator and writer who is supposedly enjoying a privileged break in a dacha on the outskirts of Moscow, with other colleagues. But instead of enjoying a holiday offered by the Writers Union (the body in charge of ideologically controlling authors’ literary creations), Nina spends those days of February 1949 working on her translations and searching, in the solitude of the snowy forests, for possible answers to the disappearance of her husband.

“What was his last moment like? How did they make him pass from life to death? I don’t even ask myself why. I only ask: how? where? when?” the protagonist reflects in one of the immersions in her memories. Although her husband had been condemned to “ten years in a prison camp without the right to correspondence and the confiscation of possessions,” she has long since assumed he was dead.

Perhaps because of this, when Nina discovers the truth about the fate of her husband, there is no place for an unshackled pain, but rather a stoic acceptance. Biliban, a writer who takes advantage of his leisure to write a commissioned novel faithful to Soviet values, becomes the most important person to the protagonist during these days in the countryside, because for her, above all, he is one of the few messengers “from there,” from the labor camps.

Bilibin had left behind, in the gulag, the tomb of his best friend, and as a result of forced labor he had serious heart disease and a deep knowledge of the penal system. He had never heard of camps where convicts were held “without right of correspondence.” It was simply a euphemism told to the relatives of the prisoners who had been executed shortly after their arrests.

“You aren’t crying?” Bilibin asks Nina, after assuming the death of her husband. “No. If you… and other people… could bear it, it would be unfortunate for me to burst into tears,” she replies, in what is the clearest example of Chukovskaya’s narrative style, in which deep emotions do not overflow in a torrent but are enclosed in the most contained words.

In her works, the Russian writer did not know or wanted to set aside the realistic patina that prevailed in artistic creation during a good part of the Soviet period. Although, paradoxically, Chukovskaya came closer to reality when talking about a subject that the rest of Soviet literature, clearly propaganda, never touched on.

But in Immersion the attachment to reality that the author reflects in the story is contrasted with a desire to transcend literality and elevate the spirit through poetry. Tired of living in a society of hollow and empty words, the work of the poet becomes, for Nina, one of her greatest refuges of freedom.

“As always, reading the newspapers did not offer me anything useful, I was curious, I am forced to read them without getting anything useful, I could browse them, yes, but find out something, never.” The letters were combined into words, words into lines, lines into paragraphs, paragraphs into articles, but nothing was transformed into ideas, into feelings, into images,” thinks Nina, weary of the official press.

Chukovskaya, who in her childhood was entranced with long walks through the woods with verses and stories recited by her father — the children’s literature writer Korney Chukovsky — who wanted Nina to also experience the poetry of authors as important in Russian letters as Pushkin, Nikolay Nekrasov and Alexander Blok.

“There is nothing like the impotence of translation to better reveal that the verses are not only constructed with words, ideas, metric feet and images, but also with time, mood, silence, separation…” the protagonist of Immersion reflects, on translating the verses of a holiday companion, an old Jewish poet who lives with the fear of anti-Semitism unleashed by the purges.

Immersion is a novel very similar to Sofia Petrovna, written shortly after the disappearance and murder of Chukovskaya’s husband, as a first exercise to exorcise the pain and raise her voice even if there was nobody to listen to it. But it is more interesting to observe the differences between the characters in their ways of approaching life.

In Sofia Petrovna it is not a rebellious wife, aware of the lies of the state, who loses her husband in the purges, but a happy mother satisfied with the Soviet model who sees how her son is arrested, an engineer with a promising career ahead. The selfless mother, who stands in endless lines to ask about him in every prison and writes as many inquiries as necessary, will end up losing her mind when she sees no difference between the state propaganda she believes in and the injustice of the arrest and murder of her innocent son.

“If Sofía Petrovna symbolizes the failure of imagination and individual resistance, Nina Sergeievna, the protagonist of Immersion, a character much closer to the author, is capable, on the other hand, of understanding the genuine use of words and relies on writing as a defensive trench before the depraved use of language,” writes Marta Rebón (the translator) and Ferrán Mateo in an endnote.

Throughout her life, Chukovskaya was aware that the way she spoke and wrote conditioned her way of seeing reality and that poetic language was her best shield against the rhetoric that impregnated political and social life in the USSR.

Like Nina, she was also a deeply empathic person who ultimately could not remain quiet in the same way that her literature had been silenced. She ended up being expelled from the Writers Union in 1974 for her public defense of authors such as Andrei Sakharov, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn and Boris Pasternak.

Today, reading Chukovskaya’s work also awakens in the reader the need to defend herself against dead words through her own literary universe. But the words without a life of their own, to which the writer referred, have been forgotten in all those countries where the communist regimes were replaced by other forms of government. It is now lucid readers who must discern what is the inert language of their own time and of the place in which they have been fated to live.


The 14ymedio team is committed to serious journalism that reflects the reality of deep Cuba. Thank you for joining us on this long road. We invite you to continue supporting us, but this time by becoming a member of 14ymedio. Together we can continue to transform journalism in Cuba.

Stalin Is Dead, Long Live Putin!

The screening of ‘The death of Stalin’ was initially suspended in Russia. (Still)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Daniel Delisau, Las Palmas de Gran Canaria, 31 March 2018 — “I never thought it would be you,” says Svetlana’s character to the actor Steve Buscemi, who plays Nikita Khrushchev in The Death of Stalin. At the end of the film, the daughter of the late dictator realizes that, after the struggle for power unleashed by the death of the man who ruled the Soviet Union between 1924 and 1953, Khrushchev had won.

Eight years after the premiere of In the Loop, until now his only feature film, the director and screenwriter Armando Iannucci has returned to the big screen with a film that remains true to his characteristic humor, as he satirizes the intricacies and intrigues of the political game. continue reading

In approaching such a dark historical period, both in the history of Russia and for all of humanity, it is almost instinctive to want to find a moral lesson in The Death of Stalin, beyond the humor. But Iannucci’s objective seems to be the same as that captured in his debut: to convey that in the intricacies of politics, which sometimes border on the absurd, winners and losers always emerge among its participants.

In spite of the obvious and well-documented events, there is little reliable information about Stalin’s death and how the principal and decisive political decisions were made in the days following his passing. Luckily the secrecy inherent in political life in the Soviet Union lends itself to artistic creativity, since it cannot be said that the film is based on real events, but on hypothetical facts that have freed it from the straitjacket of historical rigor.

At other moments, on the other hand, the film needs only to sip from reality to unwind the absurd. In the face of a need to find doctors to treat the apparent stroke that ended up killing Stalin, the film shows his main collaborators wondering which doctors they might call, given than 37 of the best had recently been imprisoned precisely because they were accused of wanting to poison the dictator.

In real life, the sinister Lavrenti Beria, one of Stalin’s closest collaborators and head of the NKVD (the body responsible for political repression and the murder of thousands of people), began to put an end to the well-known Doctors’ Plot and other repressive labors just one day after Stalin’s death. Overnight the Soviet Union’s primary torturer became its first reformer and liberator in an attempt to launder his image.

This dichotomy is captured in the film and finally ends up making us realize that the work of Iannucci could well have been called The Death of Beria, because while Khrushchev ends up victorious in the struggle for power, the head of the NKVD ends up being condemned to death by his closest Party comrades, who were not much better than him but who feared and hated him in equal measure.

“This is how people die when their stories don’t add up,” Khrushchev lectures Stalin’s daughter in front of Beria’s cremated remains. Unlike Stalin and other dictators before and after him, who in real life knew how to play their role as tyrants until the end, Beria wanted to change his role in the script of life when it was too late.

Khrushchev emerges victorious from the struggle for power, and the NKVD’s chief, Lavrenti Beria, ends up condemned to death by his closest comrades in the Party. (Still)

The sarcasm inherent in British humor, one of the main characteristics of which is the most subtle personal undermining, flows very well in political comedies such as In the Loop or The Death of Stalin, where the suspicion, paranoia and hatreds of the main characters — almost all of them politicians — form the central nucleus through which the action takes place.

“Coco Chanel messed with your head?” an annoyed Marshal Zhukov asks Georgi Malenkov, who is presented as a weak character with a ridiculous hairstyle, and who became Stalin’s successor for nearly two years after the dictator’s death, until he was deposed by Khrushchev.

There is, however, an ambiguity in this comedy around the use of Anglo-Saxon black humor. As a screenwriter, Iannucci is aware that humor has no limits, but its use in The Death of Stalin raises doubts about its intentionality.

Despite being a comedy, there are plenty of unpleasant scenes for the viewer, including executions, arbitrary arrests and torture carried out against the Soviet population for political reasons. Listening to the ingenious dialogues of several characters in the basement of the Lubyanka building — the headquarters of the NKVD — while in the background the gunshots of summary executions are heard, it is difficult to discern whether Iannucci’s goal is simply to exploit black humor as much as possible or to create feelings of disappointment in the audience, who know they are laughing at some macabre and fictional scenes but who also know that in an underlying sense what they are seeing and hearing is shockingly real.

Coincidentally, leaving humor aside, the projection of The Death of Stalin in Russia last January has managed to say more about the country’s current political situation than it does of the period led by the long-dead Soviet dictator. Fruit of an authoritarian tic, the Ministry of Culture at first suspended the projection of the film for being an insult to the history of the USSR and to Soviet citizens, but it was finally exhibited, at least in one Moscow cinema and to packed audiences, possibly because Russian law prevented its prohibition.

“Do not worry, nobody is going to be killed tonight, I promise,” says the director of Radio Moscow to the bewildered audience at a concert that had only been broadcast live, but that by order of Stalin had to be repeated so that it could be recorded and a copy sent to him.

Nobody comes to a bad end in that scene. Nor has the Russian authorities’ objection to the public screening of the film gone beyond the anecdotal. But reality and fiction are here to show us a country whose society is not yet able to demonstrate its patriotism — questionable but legitimate — if it is not centered on an authoritarian leader.

In the past it was Stalin and the rest of the Soviet leaders; today it is Vladimir Putin, who has been ruling for 18 years and can now remain in power for another six years, after his victory in the recent elections. It remains to be seen if the struggles between his successors that will take place after his departure may be the source for the script of another movie.


The 14ymedio team is committed to serious journalism that reflects the reality of deep Cuba. Thank you for joining us on this long road. We invite you to continue supporting us, but this time by becoming a member of 14ymedio. Together we can continue to transform journalism in Cuba.

Cuban Reality Seen Through Sexuality

Interior of the nightclub Siá Kará, in Havana, where the writer Rubén Gallo was and whose experiences he collected in ‘Theory and Practice of Havana’. (

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Daniel Delisau, Las Palmas de Gran Canaria, 4 March 2018 — During a conference in New York, the Cuban novelist Wendy Guerra spoke, defending the idea that the body was the only area of freedom, in reference to sexuality. A student who seemed not to have understood the subject of the talk asked the writer if she was referring to the theories of the philosopher Judith Butler. “The body is the anti-theory,” Guerra replied. “With the body we seduce, we make love, we enjoy.” The student, turned red in response to the response, before hearing the speaker’s final sentence: “The most fundamental human right is the free movement of bodies,” she snapped. continue reading

The Mexican writer Rubén Gallo, present at that talk, picked up this anecdote in Theory and Practice of Havana (2017, Editorial Jus), his last book and in which he describes his experiences while living in Cuba for six months in 2015. The chronicle of this professor of Language and Literature at Princeton University lends itself to reading from multiple angles, but it is in sexuality and in the need to reflect on the differences between how life works on paper and how it is in the reality where Gallo’s work finds its reason for being.

The author’s arrival in Havana coincided with the release and return of the three remaining Cuban spies of the five who were arrested in 1998 in Florida, and also with the restoration of diplomatic relations between the Government of Raúl Castro and the United States, now paralyzed once again.

From the first moment Gallo establishes the difference between theory and practice. The beginning of his book contrasts a triumphant passage from the newspaper Granma, which celebrates the arrival of the spies and the new relations with Washington, with the departure of Norbey, a 20-year-old young man from Holguin whom the author met at a party.

Despite loving his native country, the young man must soon return to Ottawa, where he emigrated after having met his Canadian boyfriend on the island. The old official press and the people in the streets celebrate the arrival of the revolutionaries and of the United States while the young people leave in silence, says Gallo.

Before a Western society that has seen the resurgence of puritanical behavior, fruit of a new era of cultural repression, Theory and Practice of Havana fixes its gaze on the Island with this dissecting attitude toward reality to show us a country where censorship exists but in which sexual relationships are morally less typified than in other parts of the world. “In Cuba, people live their sexuality without worrying about labeling or adjusting to a model of identity,” the Mexican professor said in an interview.

The failures of the Cuban Revolution and its questionable successes, the strong presence of Santeria among the inhabitants of the island or the vibrant nightlife of Havana are some of the many topics included in this chronicle, but eroticism is present in all of them equally from the first page. “It’s a sex bomb,” Gallo said of the Norwegian ambassador Norbey, who once a month liked to organize a “boys only” party as his home.

The gaze of the Mexican chronicler does not hesitate to revel in or describe the beauty of the waiters and the regulars of well-known nightspots in Havana nights such as Siá Kará or Cabaret Las Vegas. Nor does he have any qualms about narrating, with more or less metaphorical success, his own sexual encounters with men, and those of others.

Although this chronicle avoids falling into simplistic identity classifications, it turns its focus on those people who because of their sexual or gender orientation were, and still are, marginal characters, such as homosexuals, transvestites and transsexuals. But he also focuses on the jineteros, males whose exercise of prostitution is seen on the island not only as an almost normalized profession, but as a way of life.

Jineterism is no longer taboo in Cuba: even the police are into it […] Now it’s like being a self-employed person… Can you imagine, a self-employed Pinguero [another term for a male prostitute],” said university professor Eliezer, an extravagant character who started out as a bookseller in Havana during the economic crisis of the 1990s, when trade was still illegal.

Known for his wide catalog of books considered “uncomfortable” by the authorities, protected from the eyes of State Security by the disorder that prevails in his premises, Eliezer’s bookstore is presented as a refuge of the forbidden.

“This country has wanted to control everything and what they will never be able to control is this place: chaos has been my protector,” the bookseller told Princeton students who came to visit him. But in this space, as in so many others of the Cuban ecosystem, desire is at ease and the place is frequented by yumas — foreigners and Cubans alike, attracted by the beauty of Eliezer’s assistants, who come from other provinces of the Island.

It is absolutely unimportant to say how Theory and Practice of Havana ends — with a passage that details how Fidel Castro’s death was experienced in the underworld of Havana’s gay establishments — since, as in a travel story, the importance of the experiences gathered in this book is neither the point of departure or the destination, but everything that the protagonists experience along the way.

An example of this is a chapter in which Rubén and Nicolás, a Spanish architect of Cuban origin who the professor met at one of the Norwegian ambassador’s parties, start a car trip to Baracoa to visit the house where the latter was born. On the way back Nicolás intends to tell him how on one occasion he went to bed with a transvestite, a cyclist, and a yabó (a person who has decided to become a saint of one of the gods of Cuban santería).

This situation, which would feed the invention of a joke about the meeting of four people so disparate in the same room, ends up being the least remarkable of the anecdotes that occur during the journey. Instead, the important thing is the stories that Nicolás will tell about each one of them, but also the experiences of the more than one hundred passengers that the writer and he transported in his rented car and who found themselves hitchhiking along the road.

The advantage the Mexican chronicler brings to his observations on the Island that serve him to establish interesting comparatives is, however, also the book’s main weak point, since it remains the gaze of a tourist who tries to find in Havana what is fun and unexpected.

“How could Norbey have exchanged this electrified city for that bland city (Ottawa)?” Asks Rubén. “You say that because you live there and not here, if you lived here you would see things differently,” the emigrant replies in another conversation between the two that revolves around the same question.

But despite ignoring the fact that routine and gray lives can occur in the apparently funniest places, in Theory and Practice of Havana Rubén Gallo has managed to leave the eminently theoretical spaces of his teaching profession to take to the streets to discover the lives of others.


The 14ymedio team is committed to serious journalism that reflects the reality of deep Cuba. Thank you for joining us on this long road. We invite you to continue supporting us, but this time by becoming a member of 14ymedio. Together we can continue to transform journalism in Cuba.