Over a River Strangely Rosy: Reading Poetry in WartimeRoundup
tags: Russia, war, poetry, Ukraine
Joan Neuberger is Earl E. Sheffield Regents Professor of History at The University of Texas at Austin, where she teaches modern Russian culture in social and political context, with a focus on the politics of the arts. Her most recent book, This Thing of Darkness: Eisenstein’s Ivan the Terrible in Stalin’s Russia (Cornell, 2019), was a finalist for 4 awards and won the American Historical Association's George L. Mosse Book Prize. She is also the president of the Association for Slavic, East European and Eurasian Studies (for 2022).
I spent most of my life not reading poetry. Right now it’s the only language that makes sense to me.
But I can’t write poetry, so I don’t have the words I need to talk about the subject that preoccupies all of us: the vicious, criminal, irrational Russian war on Ukraine and the lies that the Russian government is using to justify its plunder and murder.
And my familiar historical voice — narrative, engaged, analytical — appears to have fled. As if it wants to escape the carnage, the need to understand and explain, the tangled complications that come with loving and identifying in some way with this whole region.
Some of my colleagues in history and the social sciences do have words, though, and I am full of admiration for people who have managed to pull their thoughts together to say something important about these incomprehensible events as they unfold, something to counter the Russian government’s lies: Francine Hirsch on memory politics and war crimes; Mark Edele on Putin’s paranoia; Victoria Smolkin, Rebecca Adeline Johnston, and Matthew Lenoe on Putin’s and Medinsky’s nationalist-fantasy history; Rory Finnan on misunderstanding Ukraine; John Connelly on Ukrainian democracy and Russian empire; Nicholas Mulder on sanctions; Hilary Lynd and Adam Tooze on the view from Africa; Sasha Razor on the view from Belarus; Maksim Trudolyubov and Tony Wood on “how to lose a war by starting one”; Keith Gessen on “how we got here”; Nancy Ries and Catherine Wanner’s collection of ethnographies; and the many daily observations and acts of witness appearing in the Los Angeles Review of Books, New York Magazine, and elsewhere.
When I say I can’t write about this, I know it’s a dodge. It’s my job to explain things about Russia and its various incarnations of empire. I know how to do that — I’ve been doing it for a long time. I consider scholarship to be as necessary as anything humans do. But, in this moment, analysis seems to me to be somehow incomprehensible and profoundly unsatisfying.
I’m not alone.
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