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Cities of refuge
11 min read

“My city, which is not mine”

The situation for an increasing number of Russian intellectuals became impossible following the murder of opposition politician Boris Nemtsov, who was gunned down in Moscow on February 27, 2015. This included Russian writer Anzhelina Polonskaya, who was forced to flee in September and found a refuge in Frankfurt. In this personal text, she talks about her new identity – being a writer living in exile.

Credits Text: Anzhelina Polonskaya Translation from Russian: Håkan Lövgren March 10 2016

War in you and in me

War in you and in me. Civil war.
I’m tired. Read me a story,
take the stockings off your right and left feet
and lie down on the sofa with me,
quiet and virginal
without a hint of gender,
in the nameless living room. While the Russians
stick each other with knives.
While soldiers are stomp on women’s breasts
in prisons and cellars.
Tanks move slowly, tanks move in columns.
Let’s be husband and wife,
with no need for words,
take my voice like a violin
and put it in its leather case.

“Good morning, Fuehrer! – we are your people!
Shove our faces into the asphalt,
pierce our backs with the Kremlin’s stars,
we’ve been declared
the new


of degenerates.”

Fascism and Russia – a long story.

Hold me so tight I can’t breathe – don’t let me go anywhere,
not even to my mother, to say nothing of anywhere else.
Just stroke my hair.

Translated by Andrew Wachtel

The poem that I have chosen as an epigraph to this essay was written long before the leaders of my country had agreed upon a “new cold war.” I was not trying to foresee anything. It was a sudden flare, a unique protest, a personal disagreement with a regime about to change its course. On New Year’s Eve in 1999, when the entire nation was celebrating, all of a sudden it lost the freedom it had been given by Mikhail Gorbachev (for which he was cursed by his own people). I could still not imagine the scope of this disaster. What happened then and what is happening now in Russia reminded me of a famous painting by Pieter Breughel, “The Blind Leading the Blind”: a separately considered human entity which over a rather short period of time is transformed into an anonymous mass, a throng of people, blindly walking towards a huge hole in the ground. Instead of my native language, I would hear a beastly roar.

It may not be that sudden. Perhaps serfdom never disappeared from the Russian collective consciousness? And is the move to negate any manifestation of life also a “national Russian idea?” “To prohibit.” “To destroy.” “To annihilate.” My contemporary has gone from simple serfdom to a form of cannibalism, losing all morals in the process. He has become a heathen, a barbarian who worships one god only – evil.

The enormous geographical territory, lovingly referred to as the Motherland, is waging war – outside of, as well as within the country’s borders. Not only does it occupy and shell foreign territories, it also makes short work of its own population by suppressing every nonconformist manifestation, just short of physically destroying its people. Anyone who does not agree with this state of affairs is immediately relegated to the category of hostage. There is no choice: you will either find yourself deeply isolated and gradually going mad, or you leave the country. The majority of the latest wave of emigrants sincerely love Russia and they do not identify it with the government. In my view, this is a great mistake, since the government is nothing other than a reflection of the millionth “I.” As we know, the repressive machinery has no soul. It destroys and ruins human lives indiscriminately. Those most devoted and loyal to the regime are falling under its knives, all the while thinking that they can buy their way out of misfortune, by turning their backs, by closing their eyes.

Indifference – it must be the triumph of ignorance?

Saint Isaac of Nineveh used to compare a sinner to a dog “that is licking a saw without seeing the harm it is inflicting upon itself, getting drunk on the taste of its own blood.” That is the way my country looks today.

I am a person without a past. If I were to look back, I might see the fragments of a broken mirror. I had no prior “authentic” experience of so much human loss until after the death of my adopted father (I don’t accept the word “stepfather” in this situation), who was ruined by a pack of scoundrels who were running the country and a close person’s betrayal. I had a hard time reconstructing a complete picture of what happened without exposing my scars. That summer, after returning from Germany where a grant from the Akademie Schloss Solitude had made it uniquely possible for me to work on two books (poetry and prose), my mother and I ended up together for the first time. We spent three months at our country house which had been built with love, trying to preserve what little remained of our former lives. My mother is my family. And her presence alone, despite our living apart, gives meaning to my existence, to everything that I do.

I wrote and completed a book of short stories and wrote a blog, where I responded rather harshly to every new case of “arm twisting” that was turning the country into a camp. Human beings are born free, and that is how they should leave this earth. No one may deprive you of that right. A person is not to be made a fool of or to be broken. It is possible to physically destroy someone, which is what happened to the Russian member of the opposition, Boris Nemtsov. His murder right next to the Kremlin walls became an explicit demonstration of the authoritarian powers, a warning to all thinking, liberal people. Evil has let it be understood that it has no rivals. And it knows no obstacles.

Nemtsov’s death was a personal tragedy for me.

In October 2011, the Oratorio “Kursk” premiered in Melbourne. It was our joint work with the Australian composer David Chisholm. The Oratorio was dedicated to the submarine Kursk which perished in the Barents Sea. This incident is not commemorated in Russia. The disaster was too overwhelming in its scope. The death of the sailors was so painful. The president’s extended silence which evolved into cynical pronouncements, was clearly testifying to the fact that the discussion of the event was closed. They stopped printing my work. I no longer concerned myself with the single published editions of my selected poems; I did not want my editors to get into difficulties. I made an independent decision not to publish any books in Russia (my last collection of poetry was published in 2008).

Luckily, and thanks to my translators, the books are now being published in the West. Every professional writer understands how many nuances and subtleties of the language are lost in translation, particularly when poetry is involved. However, on the other hand, had it not been for the translators’ heroic efforts, humanity would have been deprived of the masterpieces of world literature – they deserve a deep bow. Today I am dependent upon people from different countries; publishers, readers, all those who help me in making my voice heard. And I am infinitely grateful to fate for this rare opportunity.

Already in the spring, my personal mail started to contain anonymous letters with threats. (I will not bring up the style of these letters here.) The gist of them was always the same: they “suggested,” coarsely and imperatively, that I would be thrown out of the country. Of course, I understood that this was a deliberate campaign, intended to induce fear. Telephone calls with long silences began to happen, and the worst thing was that mother was the one picking up the receiver. After Nemtsov’s death in February 2015, it was clear that the situation had become extremely serious. Any of two “dissents” could turn out to be the last one. People were given prison terms for single demonstration violations, for carrying white ribbons as a symbol of protest.

A mass departure of intellectuals started. Writers, thinkers and anyone with a sense of dignity to keep were “pressured” to leave the country, just like during the Bolshevik rule in the early 20th century. Following old traditions, many of them went to Berlin. Russia had formed a circle, another Dantean circle of hell. My homeland turned into an impenetrable wall. At that very moment I received an invitation from Frankfurt. There was an opportunity to live and work there, thanks to organizations defending general human values, one of which was the right to express oneself freely.[1]

It turned out to be a difficult choice. I realized that I would abandon my not-so-young mother to face a mountain of problems, thus leaving her without my help and support. On the other hand, if I were to decline the invitation, we would both die. Working “to put food on the table” is a guaranteed death sentence to creativity; I must be able to tell the truth.

In September of 2015, I left the country.

I am writing these lines, sitting in the lounge of comfortable apartments at the top floor of an old private residence. To our great fortune, the building escaped destruction during the bombardments of the Second World War. High up there is a bas-relief of a woman’s head. I hope it brings luck. An incredibly beautiful panorama view of the city at night is opening up in front of me. Through the glass windows of the balcony door I see a lemony-blue light on the ridge of a skyscraper, reflected and running along the river, looking like photographs of arctic light in an illustrated magazine I might be leafing through.

The city is particularly striking in the dark. My city, which is not mine. After living here for almost half a year, I have found solace in the face of people to whom I have been a stranger. Be that as it may, I have not received one single phone call from the vast Russian Diaspora. No one came to my readings during the Frankfurt Book Fair. There were Germans who had studied the Russian language, autograph-collecting admirers who could not speak any other language than German. No Russians, however – the usual story. A casual friend, a former fellow countrywoman (I will leave her name out of the picture) advised me to keep away “from them”.
“Why?” I asked.
“Here they long for the Soviet Union and look down on liberals.”

My first book of prose will be published in March at the Akademie Schloss Solitude: a collection of short stories called Greenland. Greenland is not a continent, not a geographical spot on the world map – it is a freezing soul.

It is getting darker and darker every day in my home country. It is an absurdity – a point of no return. Sadly, I don’t see any future for Russia. One thought in particular horrifies me, namely that the door of my beautiful home might be flung open by the foot of a barbarian, a person in camouflage. Loneliness is rather a tough ordeal. Not everyone can fully manage it – the yearning for home, for the bit of sky above your head, for the bright star in the winter night; for the heart that is beating like yours, far away, hundreds of miles away. But you know that it is there, and this mighty knowledge will bring strength to your struggle. We are alive, still alive to those whom we love. So, as far as your Mother Country is concerned, it is right there with you – in the language you write.

[1] The reference is to the international organizations, ICORN, City Council, Frankfurt Book Fair, Litprom, which help to find refuge for writers, journalists, and artists in general, who are being persecuted by their countries for publicly expressing their convictions.

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