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Fighting Words

Daria Serenko, translated from the Russian by Eugene Ostashevsky, interviewed by Jana Prikryl
“Everybody in Russia who opposes the invasion is fighting at the cost of their lives and their freedom for a future without war and dictatorship.”

Vlad Dokshin for Novaya Gazeta, 2021

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

The Bridegrooms,” a prose poem by Daria Serenko from our last issue, imagines what happens when a whole country, having invaded another, remains in denial: its dead soldiers come home only to be treated as though they weren’t dead. Their sweethearts are obliged to go on living with them. The corpses receive funerals but the funerals are paired with their weddings, “to avoid going through the expenses twice.” History filters into the poem in unexpected ways—the dead soldier has nothing to wear to his wedding-funeral but his father’s old suit, which is available because “the father got blown up back in Chechnya.” The poem’s conceit is thought through so insistently, as if the fantasy were merely dull fact, that when we reach the last line—which I won’t spoil here—it comes as something of a heart attack.

Serenko was forced to leave Russia in March, and posted the poem on social media in late September. I emailed with her this week through her translator, the poet Eugene Ostashevsky, to learn a little more about how the poem came together and how she sees the future of resistance in Russia.

Jana Prikryl:“The Bridegrooms” has such a headlong, unstoppable tempo. Could you talk a bit about how you wrote it, how much you shaped it once the initial idea occurred to you?

Daria Serenko: I wrote it in a minibus on the way from Tbilisi to Grigoleti, Georgia. I was traveling with other antiwar activists from the Feminist Anti-War Resistance, the group that I helped found in late February in order to protest the Russian invasion of Ukraine. We were taking a short weekend trip together after a very hard week. Before my poem came the sleepless nights that followed the announcement of mobilization in Russia on September 21. We held rallies against mobilization, assisted victims of police brutality, helped those who had been drafted to leave Russia, and also helped antiwar activists—who were under criminal prosecution for their civic position—to leave Russia. On the minibus I was reading a story by the Belarusian writer Tatsiana Zamirovskaya. It was about Walter Benjamin, who tried to escape from Occupied France and committed suicide in a hotel because the authorities of Francoist Spain had pledged to deport him back over the border.

I’m in Georgia now. Many Russians are fleeing repression and mobilization by crossing the Georgian border in Upper Lars. Just crossing the border for most of them takes several days. All these terrible stories came together in the imagery of my poem: the mobilized conscripts stuck on the border between life and death, the meat grinder of the fascist state trying to swallow as many people as quickly as it can, the men—both those who hate the war and try to dodge it and those volunteering to kill and be killed for Putin. When you write a poem on the road, after several night shifts of activism, as historical events overlap and become superimposed on one another, the speed at which the poem rushes through your head also increases.  

We know that “The Bridegrooms” was first posted online in Russian, but where exactly, and what kind of response did it get?

I posted the poem on social media—Facebook and Instagram. There were two kinds of reactions in the comments. Many Russians wrote that the absurd realism of the text gave them goosebumps, and they thanked me. Other Russians found it nauseating and cynical, and they asked, “Daria, it’s dark and horrible in our world anyway; why do you multiply the darkness and the horror, why did you write this thing?” I would answer that it’s not the responsibility of literature to offer people support and pleasure. Literature can do that, but it doesn’t have to. I also said that many people want literature to be like a woman: comfortable, submissive, and pleasing to the eye. I am not interested in that sort of expectation—either as a writer or as a woman.

As a cofounder of the Feminist Anti-War Resistance, and a poet, how do you think about the relationship between writing poetry and organizing political protests?

In my life, the connection between literature and activism has for many years been completely straightforward. Everything I write is political or politicizing. I can’t think about anything else, I can’t do anything that is not activism, and therefore I can’t write anything else. But it is important not to equate literature with political protest, otherwise there is a risk of falling into inaction. Yes, the word is already a deed, but it may not be enough. Protest mobilizes people, protest has a very applied and clear pragmatic function, while literature does not have to do all that. Also, literature and its effects are more difficult to predict. Literature offers more room for individual interpretation. But sometimes it’s not activists who connect literature with activism but the dictatorship: the Russian poet Artyom Kamardin was recently detained by the police for his pro-Ukrainian poems, which he had read publicly, and raped with a dumbbell by security forces.


How do you see the future in Russia for those who oppose the invasion of Ukraine?

I find it hard and painful to speculate about the future of Russia and Russians, because political persecution forced me to leave the country. My compatriots who have remained to live under dictatorship become justifiably irritated when those who have left talk about the future. And then there’s the difference between “How do you see the future of Russia?” and “How do you want to see it?” I would like to see Russia lose this war, I would like to see the whole mad narrative of imperial greatness crumble before our eyes, and the colonized and Russified peoples across the territory of the Russian Federation gain recognition and freedom. Everybody in Russia who opposes the invasion is fighting at the cost of their lives and their freedom for a future without war and dictatorship.

I think that, in the near future, the antiwar activists who remained will face an escalating nightmare—violence, torture, long prison sentences. Also, any kind of legal protections may completely cease to work with respect to antiwar activists. Russia, which has isolated itself from international law, can afford to torture and kill. At the same time, the antiwar movement will continue to grow, and part of it will become radicalized, turning into an underground guerrilla movement. This will be the direct result of actions by the authorities. Antiwar protest will stand on three pillars—women’s resistance, the resistance of non-Russian ethnic groups, and radical guerrilla resistance.

What are you reading these days, and is it informing your own writing in any particular ways?

I have almost no time to read literature. The last time I read a lot was when I was imprisoned for two weeks right before the war, for posting a red exclamation point on Instagram, since that’s a logo associated with Navalny. Friends and fellow activists had brought me fourteen books, and I was swallowing a book a day in the cell. I was reading a biography of Susan Sontag, and Anne Carson’s The Autobiography of Red, rereading my own book, Girls and Institutions, because they detained me with it. After the war started I read Eugenia Ginzburg’s memoir, Journey into the Whirlwind. But now I have no time to read practically anything, save for histories of antiwar movements and works of political analysis. I have very little time or strength (because all my strength is spent on activism), and so I have to choose between reading and writing. I choose writing. So what influences me now is not fiction or nonfiction but the war itself, and the fact that I am a citizen of the aggressor country. Russia, in the grips of a dictatorship, has instigated an unprovoked war and is carrying out a genocide of the Ukrainians. The current political and human situation is monstrous. I would have preferred that no human being acquire this experience and that it had never turned into a poem. I would have preferred that my poem, which you published here, had never existed.

Serenko’s response to the final question has been clarified.

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