“By the time of my birth, Stalin had been dead for 5 years 1 month and 4 days.”
Robert Chandler, the translator who gave us Vasily Grossman and Andrei Platonov, sent me a copy of The Naked World (MadHat Press, 2022) by Irina Mashinski. The book collects her poems translated or freely adapted from the Russian, and poems and short prose pieces written in English. Mashinski was born in Moscow in 1958, emigrated to the U.S. with her husband and daughter in 1991 and has published eleven collections of poems and essays in Russian. I know her as co-editor with Chandler and Boris Dralyuk of The Penguin Book of Russian Poetry (2015). With Chandler, Maria Bloshteyn and Dralyuk she translated Portraits Without Frames by Lev Ozerov.
The sentence quoted above is from “The Thaw,” the book’s opening piece. It suggests one of Mashinski’s themes: the unwelcome intersection of history and politics with private life. The title refers to the brief period in the Soviet Union following Nikita Krushchev’s secret speech to the 20th Communist Party Congress in 1956. Krushchev denounced the cult of personality surrounding Stalin, and ushered in an easing of oppression and censorship that lasted into the mid-1960s. Mashinski writes:
“I was born in Moscow in the spring of 1958, the year of the impetus. It was during that year that [Yuli] Daniel and [Andrei] Sinyavsky [aka Abram Tertz] started publishing their work in the West, which eventually led to their show trial in 1965-66, which in turn inspired the dissident movement.”
In Mashinski’s poems and prose, history suffuses private life, often quietly, sometimes unpleasantly. Her parents met in 1957 during the Festival of Youth and Students, “when Moscow was, for the first time in decades, flooded with young people who smelled of soap and freedom and strolled and danced in the city’s freshly washed streets. My parents were part of this July whirlwind—and before I knew it, I appeared.”
She recounts the arrest and banishment of relatives – and the pleasures of a Soviet childhood with her family. She recalls a winter day spent skiing at the Architects’ Union resort in Sukhanovo with her father. While there she reads Oscar Wilde’s De Profundis and is “overcome by the pain and sorrow.” She writes:
“I didn’t know back then—and I doubt that even my father knew when we were skiing in Sukhanovo—that tens of thousands of people were shot in those same woods in 1930-50s including the 20,761 executed by the decision of the Troika [three NKVD officials], between August 1937 and October 1938—people whose names are known now.”
One of the finest pieces in The Naked World, “The Poet and the Child,” appears near the end of the book and, at least on the surface, makes no overt references to politics. It reads as a gentle, nonpoetic, apolitical poetic manifesto. Mashinski relaxes and luxuriates in her understanding of human nature – precisely what Soviet Communism sought to manipulate and ultimately destroy:
“It is rare that a grownup acts by association in everyday life—as rare as a slip of the tongue. How often do we shove a rake into the tableware drawer? For a child, however, a rake and a fork are, basically, one and the same. A child doesn’t deal in labels but in the substance of things. Such deep metonymy requires unconditional faith. And it is faith that breaks down first. This is precisely what happens in adolescence.”
Mashinski recalls a time “when the world was mobile and shimmering with kinship.” She strives to recapture this sense:
“This is why the poetic world, which lacks consistent correlations and is not regulated by the direct logic of concepts—this world of objectified meanings and all-permeating kinship—is off limits to those who’ve become irreversibly grownup, who have traveled too far upon the road at the beginning of which stands the symbol.”
Mashinski’s work has the charm of a gifted child, one undefeated by experience and the crushing weight of history.