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History as the New Ideology of Patriotism In Russia: An interview with Alicia Ganieva

By Olivia Capozzalo and Smith Freeman.

Alisa Ganieva is a contemporary Russian author of fiction and essays. Originally from the Republic of Dagestan, now based in Moscow, Ganieva’s past writing has focused on life in the Caucasus. Her first two novels, Bride & Groom and The Mountain and The Wall, have been translated into English and published by Deep Vellum. She is the recipient of the Debut Prize and the Triumph Prize and a finalist for other literary awards such as the Belkin Prize and the Russian Booker Prize.

She spoke with Olivia Capozzalo and Smith Freeman of the podcast She’s In Russia about her forthcoming novel Offended Sensibilities, which is due to be published in Russian in August, 2018.

The following is an abridged version of the conversation between Ganieva and She’s In Russia. Click here to listen to the full conversation, plus a reading of the chapter from Offended Sensibilities by its translator Isaac Stackhouse Wheeler.

Keep up to date with Ganieva’s work by visiting her website.

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Olivia Capozzalo: Up until now, your writing has been almost exclusively set in and about Dagestan. You’ve often noted recent transformations in the Caucasus, namely the Islamification of the region. Could you summarize this transformation for us?

Alisa Ganieva: Dagestan, and the Caucasus in general, is a very vivid reflection of the greater Russia, maybe excluding this Islamic aspect. Specifically, I’m talking about how History is becoming the new center of gravity in society.

Everybody’s talking about our past. Everybody’s searching for some recipe, for some reason to be proud of one’s nation. Not in the future, not in the present—which is not very optimistic and bright—but in the past. We can see it in the official rhetoric and even in the newly introduced criminal articles, which are the focus of my forthcoming novel.

In my first two novels—The Mountain and The Wall and Bride and Groom—I’m depicting this Dagestani society where the conservative and traditional patterns of behaviour and lifestyle are being resurrected. Women, who used to be much more liberated in the past, are now turning into these so-called Eastern creatures, passive creatures. This transformation is very contrary to the internal spirit of the local women.

My new novel is set in some unnamed provincial town somewhere in Russia. But still, I’m writing about traditional and absurd models of life being resurrected in our reality, in the 21st century, when gossip, reporting, denouncing each other, and snitching on each other is becoming popular and fashionable again. The title of the novel is Offended Sensibilities or hurt feelings, which comes from the new Russian criminal article colloquially called “Offending Sensibilities of Religious Believers.”

These laws are often used very subjectively and absurdly to arrest and smear people. The Russian legal system is a little bit broken and these laws can be applied so that anyone can be accused of whatever you like. Everybody is guilty and everybody is innocent simultaneously. It’s a very subjective thing to decide who is and who is not.

One particular chapter of the book deals with a crime, the so-called “rehabilitation of Naziism.” In the chapter, the widow of a local regional minister, who is a principal of a school and part of the big state corruption system apparatus, is searched. Not for her real crimes, but for the absurd “rehabilitation of Naziism.” This law is relatively new in Russia, introduced just four years ago. And it says that misinterpretation of Soviet history during World War II, especially in public, can be punished by two to five years of imprisonment, or by a big penalty. There are two or three real-life cases so far.

But in my novel, I’m taking a grotesque and impressionistic look at present day Russia. It’s quite a difficult thing to write about something which is not yet ready, which is still unraveling in front of your eyes. And that may be why in Russian literature nowadays there are so many novels about our history — set  30 or 40 or 100 years ago — and very few novels about what is going on today. This may be because you need a special language to talk about present day, or because it’s hard to formulate your own relationship to what is going on outside your window.

Smith Freeman: You’ve often positioned yourself as the voice of Dagestan. I heard you once say that most stories from Dagestan are from a soldier’s point of view and that you try to represent a more normal, day-to-day life. Are there any unforeseen consequences of positioning yourself as a voice of Dagestan?

AG:  Yes, being a voice of something is a tricky thing, because you attract too much attention from both sides, both positive and negative. It’s both my problem and my advantage to have had a relatively peaceful, routine life in the Caucasus versus that of soldiers and rebellions. So my writing tends to be about hidden conflicts, about rumors, about families arguing about views on religion, about marriages conducted and spoiled.

When I first started getting published, there was different feedback, including negative feedback. You have to keep in mind that readers in the Caucasus are still very used to traditional literature. They are writing and reading from this canonical standard where you have positive protagonists who battle evil characters. Where the narrator takes an unambiguous, patriotic view of your motherland. And they deemed that my writing is too critical, too ironic. That I’m really poisoned by this postmodernism and irony. You have to keep in mind the modern canon of literature is still very alien to the Caucasus.

OC: I know you’ve had to tell this story a lot, but in 2009 you won The Debut Prize under a male pseudonym. Would you talk a little about the choice you made to use a male pseudonym?

AG: Yeah, I really, really have to repeat myself. Yes, I wrote my first long story, it was called Salam, Dalgat! It was like 9 years ago and I wrote it under a male pseudonym. And there were several reasons for doing that. First of all, I was already published as a literary critic and I wanted to hear an objective and clear assessment of my work. Also, when I am creating a new personality, the first gender you think of is male not female. We have all sorts of stereotypes against so-called female literature or women’s literature, which is considered to be Pulp Fiction, melodramatic fiction for housewives and so on. I wanted to battle these stereotypes.

Lastly, the world I was depicting was a very male dominated world of very brutal tension between different branches of Islam, between relatives, and between different gangs on the street. Everything was so far away from what is supposed to be literature written by a woman. So I chose this male pseudonym and it happened to be a life changing decision because when my identity was revealed, of course there was a big outrage and uproar and maybe some sadness on some people’s parts because some of them, especially my countrymen, said that a girl from a good family didn’t have any right to depict the street colloquial language and dialogue of this male dominated world. And others were really sure that I was some bearded stranger, some savage from the Caucasus. Of course, a very colonial way of thinking about the inhabitants of these fringes of the country.

SF: When you were accepting the debut prize the organizers knew that you weren’t a man right?

AG:  At first nobody knew. The competition was very big, like fifty or sixty thousand manuscripts and then there was a long list consisting of one hundred authors and I went to the press conference announcement of the long list. I remember that the judges were talking about this new author I had created and they didn’t know of course that I was present. And then the short list was announced and it was a huge competition. And again all the talk was about this particular new author that I had created. And then I had to make a false e-mail and ICQ—we still had ICQ accounts in those days—and I had to find a picture of a man to use. And then I was asked to send my passport details because all the short-listers were invited to Moscow to participate in master classes and to discuss their manuscripts with the members of the jury.

And so I decided it was time to tell someone. I told everything to do to the director of the prize and she was outraged as well. She said “How did you manage to to lie to me?” She was a very experienced editor. She had worked at a literary magazine for 20 or 30 years and she boasted that she could determine the gender, the age, even marital status of the author, just from reading one page of his or her fiction. And she couldn’t say that I was a female author, so she was really disillusioned with her own talents.

OC: Oh my God.

AG: And then she said, “Okay, we will not say anything to the judges. We’ll say that this boy got stuck on his way to Moscow. And then you’ll be there instead of him as a critic and just representing the region or something.” So I did that for two or three days and then only on the day of the announcement of the winners were the judges told that I was the true author.

I remember that they were really emotional. And one of the judges started reading my manuscript again and again in order to find the signs of the female style. And he found some part where I was describing a Dagestani wedding tradition in which a stick adorned with some sort of textile is passed from one dancer to another dancer. I named the textile and the judge said “Here is the token of a female style, a man would have never mentioned the name of the textile, so I should have known!”

OC:  Wow, would you say that this obsession with biographical detail of the author of a text is an important part of Russian literary criticism right now?

AG: Yes, in Russian universities when professors are talking about Russian classics they always talk about the writers’ biographies, about their sufferings and marriages and deaths and births. And I noticed that in the US for example, the center of gravity lies in the field of text first of all. So you read and discuss text and maybe you can discuss biography as a matter of second importance.

OC: Yeah, yeah I would agree with that.

AG: So there was quite a lot of attention paid to my personality and that was part of the reason I took a pseudonym. I didn’t want to there to be bias to my long story. I wanted a clear judgement. And that’s it.

OC: It’s like the male author can be invisible, but not the female author.

AG: Yes, you are right.

OC: So in your forthcoming novel, we have this one chapter that focuses really specifically on the incident of the retelling or the miss-retelling—according to the law—of a part of World War II. Is that the subject of the rest of the novel?

AG: The novel is structured partly as a poison pen novel, partly as neo-noir detective. It starts with a very rainy evening and a person driving a car and accidentally driving into an unknown man who asks for a ride. And then suddenly this unknown man dies and then he turns out to be a regional minister who had been receiving anonymous blackmail letters.

The novel is set in this typical provincial Russian town, entrenched in snitching and reporting on each other. Nearly all of my characters are receiving these strange anonymous letters or notes or messages and some of them are arrested and there are all these different pretexts for their arrests and many of these characters are not that sympathetic, not that cute. And many of them really are guilty of something, but usually not what they’re accused of.

And that is the essence of today’s Russia, when even statesmen guilty of corruption are arrested, they are arrested not for the corruption but because they lost their benefactors from above.

These real-life laws, like the “offending sensibilities of religious believers,” aggravate this divisiveness in society. Because it gives every citizen the ability to sink his neighbor or his enemy—to report on somebody. And so finally, of course this detective plot line is unraveled and the character who is guilty of writing these blackmail messages is found in the final chapter of my novel. But it is not really the point because reporting continues, blackmail continues.

In Russia persecution is rampant, anyone can be targeted: homosexuals, those who think differently, those who act differently, those who engage in street protests, and usually these people are denounced for something very different from the real reason for their persecution.

A good example is the historian Yuri Dmitriev. He was kept in prison for almost two years just for expressing his attitude towards Stalin’s Great Terror in the 1930s. The Great Terror is a topic that our officials try to avoid because history is becoming the new ideology. Patriotism is becoming the new ideology. So accusing the wrongdoings of the Soviet leaders is interpreted as treason and anti-patriotism.  My novel is about this atmosphere mainly.

 

ABOUT
Olivia Capozzalo and Smith Freeman co-host She’s In Russia, a podcast that aims to combat “Cold War 2” by providing a fuller image of Russia and Russian life. Olivia lives in St. Petersburg and Smith lives in Brooklyn. Listen to the podcast and follow them on Twitter.

 

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Wednesday, June 6th, 2018.