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Talking off-podium with Russian authors Akhmetev and Neshumova

On their first ever trip to the United States, prominent Russian literary figures Ivan Akhmetev and Tatiana Neshumova will present a series of lectures at the University of Oregon, starting Friday, Oct. 3. Here’s a taste of what they have to share. For more details see our What’s Happening Calendar.

Russia has a rich history of samizdat, or reproducing forbidden literature by hand. What shape does that take now?

Neshumova: It’s mostly on the internet. For example, if a gay author wants to publish something controversial, they will use tools which are not censored by the government [in this case, blogs with readership of less than 3,000].

What other forms of samizdat are there?

Neshumova:  I am friends with young poets, in their early thirties, associated with Pussy Riot’s Maria Alyokhina. They just discovered using an old typewriter and have created five editions of underground poems, which include illustrations. The collections are called Obedki [Table Scraps]. Some poems are political and others are not.

Much of your work consists of reconstructing the past. As a historian, what are your responsibilities to the present?

Neshumova: When I go to political demonstrations, I take photos and videos, but I had to stop putting them online. I am just recording history now. I am not sharing it, because I don’t want the people in the photos to be monitored by the government.

Ivan, I understand you were once institutionalized and subjected to involuntary psychiatric treatment.

Akhmetev: Yes. In [1979], I got involved with some Moscow dissidents and took part in a human rights demonstration. There were KGB agents who took pictures of me. So, the following year, I was put in “psychological repression.”

Have either of you ever been confronted by the authorities in recent times?

Neshumova: We were gathered at a monument to Mandelstam, reciting samizdat poetry. There were police there with paddy wagons, ready to arrest anyone if they used a microphone to amplify their voice.

Akhmetev: We gave all of the policemen autographed copies of the book that was being recited, complete with autographs, as a show of faith.

How much is self-censorship part of the Russian literary tradition?

Neshumova: Well, I want so badly to write about the war in Ukraine right now, but I know better than to do so. The authors I research and write about moved very carefully in those times, because they had to. During the Great Famine[Ukraine, 1932-33], they never used the word for starvation, never put that down in correspondence. They used code words.

Are you concerned that your visit to the United States might draw negative attention to you back home?

Akhmetev: I sincerely hope not.

Neshumova: These are very complex times. One thing contradicts another. There are counter-measures against the west for sanctions against Russia. Meanwhile, the cultural institutions of Russia encourage exchange with the U.S. and Europe, because there are still cultural goals, to realize these people and not just separate from them.