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Perversions of Historical Memory

Sophie Pinkham, interviewed by Lucy Jakub

This article is part of a regular series of conversations with the Review’s contributors; read past ones here and sign up for our email newsletter to get them delivered to your inbox each week.


In our March 10, 2022 issue, Sophie Pinkham wrestled with the oeuvre of Russian Formalist critic and novelist Yuri Tynianov. Of his historical fiction, written during the repressive early years of the Soviet Union, she writes, “The attentive reader notices parallels and patterns, silent gestures toward the tyranny and absurdity of the moment of writing: after all, history repeats itself.”

Sophie Pinkham

Pinkham first visited Russia as a volunteer for the Red Cross, just out of college. In 2008 she moved to Ukraine, and after the Maidan revolution in 2013–2014 wrote Black Square: Adventures in Post-Soviet Ukraine, a work of memoir and social reportage that offers an arresting portrait of the country’s cultural identity and political upheaval. Over the past three years she has become a frequent voice in the Review, writing on history and politics in Russia and Ukraine, and on literature and art under autocracy. In 2019 she profiled Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky and his sitcom-cum-service career. As an American observer, Pinkham has a sharp eye for the surreal and telling details of post-Soviet politics and culture—as she puts it, the “heavy-handed postmodern novel” that is history unfolding in Eastern Europe.

This week, over e-mail, she shared what she’s been seeing and hearing of the war in Ukraine from her perch in Ithaca, and told me about her next book project, a cultural history of Russia’s forests.


Lucy Jakub: First—are your friends in Ukraine okay? Who are you in touch with?

Sophie Pinkham: Yes, fortunately all my friends in Ukraine are fine so far—or rather, as fine as you can be when your country is being invaded and bombed. Some are still in Kyiv, especially men over eighteen, who aren’t allowed to leave. Several made it to Moldova or Poland with their families. A lot of them have young children—one of my closest friends had his first child on January 1—and it was especially alarming to wonder how they’d get out. It broke my heart to see his pictures of his wife in a winter coat, breastfeeding their baby in a dark car, or to have my first video call with them and their baby cut short when an air raid siren went off and they had to go and hide in a sauna in the basement of a hotel. But of course, many people in Ukraine now don’t even have that level of security.

Some friends with grown-up children found themselves in the situation, when the invasion started, of being separated without any clear way of reaching them—a nightmare. Another of my closest friends was in New York on a business trip when the invasion started. She’s been beside herself with anxiety for her mother and brother, and for his young children, whom she helps raise. Like many people in Kyiv, her family chose not to evacuate, at least not so far. They wanted to be at home, and her brother wanted to stay and fight. She told me she didn’t sleep for the first week or so of the invasion. A lot of my Ukrainian friends in the US have been physically sick with worry and grief.

One of my dearest friends, the bandleader and accordionist Sergei Topor, has been energetically helping to evacuate people from Kyiv to Moldova, where he’s from. Lots of people are doing this now—there’s an unbelievable level of solidarity and spontaneous organization. We used to drive around Ukraine in Topor’s big, brightly painted van, to concerts and festivals. Now he’s helping transport women and children to safety. He was always good at organizing things, and he used to do it in the name of fun. Now his logistical skills have the most serious possible ends.

I spend hours every day on Facebook, which is the most popular social media network for Ukrainians, following the news of others I know in Ukraine. It’s full of posts that say, “I’m alive”: the ultimate status update. I see who has joined the army or Territorial Defense forces, who’s organizing humanitarian aid, who has posted music or artwork or poetry protesting or documenting the war. The artistic impulse hasn’t been stifled. Though the situation is so dark, morale is astonishingly high. There are still plenty of remarkable “digital artifacts,” as I thought of them while I was combing through Ukrainian social media posts for Black Square—for instance, a Kyiv rockabilly musician posted a video of himself in his fatigues, crouching in a hallway, singing a song he wrote about Javelin missiles set to the tune of Dolly Parton’s “Jolene.”

Meanwhile, my Russian friends are posting goodbye messages with their phone numbers and Telegram handles, because Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram are being blocked in Russia as part of the crackdown on every kind of free expression. In some ways it’s a continuation of trends that have been evident for years, but many opposition-minded and liberal Russians are experiencing it as a violent rupture, the end of any imaginable future for them in their country. Many people I know are scrambling to get out of the country before it’s too late—whether because they’re at risk of conscription, or because they’ve already been labeled a “foreign agent” as a result of their NGO work, or because the prospect of remaining in Russia has simply become unbearable, frightening. You can now be sentenced to fifteen years in prison for simply speaking or writing truthfully about the invasion of Ukraine.

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One good friend, a musician I met when he was performing with my Ukrainian friends, said he didn’t mind the economic collapse so much as the idea of living in “digital 1984.” He’s moving with his family to Israel. He’s fortunate to be in a relatively comfortable economic position, though he’s preparing to give up everything familiar and start life over. For poorer Russians—for people dependent on Western medicines, for instance—the results of sanctions, countersanctions, voluntary boycotts of Russia, and the collapse of the ruble will likely be disastrous, even life-threatening.

This suffering is obviously less acute than that of Ukrainian friends, but it’s painful to watch. And many of my Russian friends and acquaintances are also sick, sometimes literally, with guilt and shame about what Russia is doing. One lives just across the border from Ukraine, and she’s been watching the explosions with horror. She has lots of Ukrainian friends—we met in Crimea, before Russia took it—and she knows exactly what’s happening. She told me it’s excruciating to feel so helpless to stop it. Many Russians, unfortunately, have swallowed the grotesque propaganda about the invasion—but not all, by any means.

In Black Square, you wrote that after the Maidan revolution your experiences in Ukraine and Russia suddenly made sense to you as part of a historical trajectory (and enabled you to write that book). I wondered whether the Russian invasion has similarly transformed your perspective.

It certainly has. This invasion is the horrible culmination of the events that started in early 2014, when Russia snapped off Crimea from Ukraine and then supported the separatists in the Donbas, making parts of Luhansk and Donetsk oblasts into isolated, impoverished “people’s republics.” At that time, I had a strong sense that the triumphalist post-cold war narrative of the “end of history”—not in the sense of Francis Fukuyama’s book, which actually predicted the reemergence of war as a means of giving societies a sense of meaning and purpose, but in the watered-down popular usage—had been definitively invalidated. The move to liberal democracy, or something like it, wasn’t a one-way journey. For instance, it was possible to be sucked back into a reactionary empire that seemed to have died a natural death long ago.

And then there’s the continued perversion and inversion of historical tropes and historical memory—most notably of the memory of World War II, the touchstone of Russian national identity. This is something I wrote about at length in Black Square, and now it’s even more blatant. As Zelensky noted in one of his wartime addresses, the last time Kyiv was bombed was in World War II—but now it’s being bombed not by Germany, but by Russia. Meanwhile, Russia is justifying the invasion with propaganda about “denazifying” Ukraine, even as it organizes rallies of young people adorned with “Z,” the pro-war symbol that opposition-minded Russians call “the new swastika.” It’s like a heavy-handed postmodern novel. 

Russia has seemingly been indiscriminately targeting cultural institutions, memorials, and architecture in Ukraine, despite sharing so much of that history. Besides lives, what’s at risk of being lost?

Like many longtime observers of Russia and Ukraine, and like many Russians and Ukrainians, I didn’t expect Putin to launch a full-scale invasion, despite the magnitude of the military buildup in the months preceding it. Maybe I was in denial—the thought was too appalling. But even on a rational level, I couldn’t imagine that Russia would bomb Ukrainian cities that have had such an important part in Russian as well as Ukrainian history—especially Kyiv, which was after all the seat of the early Slavic federation Kyivan Rus’, which helped give rise to what we now know as Russia, and Odesa, a legendary city in Russian culture, home to so many iconic Russian-language writers (most notably Isaac Babel), musicians, and other cultural figures and famous cultural moments, like Eisenstein’s scene of a tsarist massacre of fleeing civilians on the seaside staircase in Battleship Potemkin. For Putin to bomb the city that’s home to the eleventh-century St. Sophia Cathedral, one of the only remaining buildings from Kyivan Rus’, or the eleventh-century Kyiv-Pechersk Lavra, the Monastery of the Caves, is like bombing the grave of his own ancestors. I guess he doesn’t care.

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The murderous attack on Ukrainians is also a kind of cultural and historical cannibalism. But, again, that fits with the distortions of history that have characterized Putin’s time in power, especially recently. And the Russian government has shown very little care for, say, Soviet architectural landmarks in Russia—why would they care about the ones in Kharkiv? Though they use Russian cultural history as a kind of weapon, they show precious little concern for its preservation or its true meaning.

You’ve embarked on a new book, a cultural history of Russia’s forests, and I’m curious about the environmental aspect of the project, which seems like a departure for you. I’m reminded of Bathsheba Demuth’s Floating Coast, which you reviewed for us—she was not an environmental historian before she wrote that book, but writing an economic history of the Bering Strait required a deep understanding of the ecology of the region. What are you having to teach yourself?

Before Covid, I had been considering writing a book about how climate change would transform Russia. My feeling was and is that the climate and our attitude to nature are the most urgent questions facing us as human beings—though, of course, there’s a lot of competition—and I wanted to apply my knowledge of Russia to the question of climate. I eventually moved away from that initial idea, though it’s an important question that shouldn’t be forgotten because of this war or as Russia becomes a pariah state. (The UN’s climate change negotiating bloc just ejected Russia because of the invasion of Ukraine—I’m not sure that was a good idea.) The fact remains that Russia accounts for about a fifth of the world’s forest cover, though those forests are burning and being cut at an alarming rate, and it’s a major fossil-fuel producer. How it treats its share of the natural world will affect us all.

I arrived at the idea of a cultural history of Russia’s forests because I realized what a powerful symbolic presence forests, trees, and related folklore have in Russian culture and in Russian national identity. It’s not as much of a departure for me as it might seem. The iconography and emblematic meaning of the land was something I thought about for Black Square: the bare, wild nature of the steppe and Ukraine’s celebrated, fertile “black earth” are both important elements in Ukrainian history. I considered the meaning of place again in my academic research, which was partly about the Pushkin estate museum in Pskov Oblast, in western Russia. That museum’s materials, in Soviet times and later, emphasized the idea that the land itself, the site of very old Russian settlements and battles against invaders, had given rise to Pushkin’s genius, and that his spirit could be heard (literally) in the trees on his former estate. (Lately I keep remembering that, when I went to the Pushkin estate for research in 2017, a taxi driver who heard I was American shouted at me about how NATO was trying to bring noble Mother Russia to her knees.) 

This new project does involve learning about things like the ecology of the different types of forests in Russia, the medieval Russian fur trade, the types of wood that are best for shipbuilding, the patterns of Siberian forest fires, and ideologically motivated Soviet tree-planting campaigns. I love to learn new things, so I’m glad about that—and I recently moved from New York City to Ithaca, which has led to much more time spent in nature and thinking about trees. But this is a cultural history with a big dose of politics, so it’s largely about the sorts of things I’m used to writing about: literature, visual art, film, music, protest politics. I’m excited about it, though writing about Russia feels different after this invasion. I expect that quite a lot of my interviews for the book will be with Russians in exile.

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