Margarita Meklina, born in Leningrad in 1972, is a Russian writer and journalist who lives in the San Francisco Bay Area. Her Russian-language manuscript, My Criminal Connection to Art, was nominated for The Russian Prize in 2009. The Russian Prize was originally established for writers who wrote in Russian but resided in the republics of the former Soviet Union. In 2008 The Russian Prize changed its rules, allowing participation of authors living outside the Russian Federation: this somehow resulted in poets and prose writers from Germany, Canada and the U.S. winning in all three nomination categories and “overpowering” writers from Kazakhstan, Georgia, and other former republics. Upon learning of the contest results this year, critics claimed that Russian writers living in the U.S. or Canada already “have a worry-free life in these politically correct countries with established social programs” and need no financial help, unlike writers from, e.g., the Baltic states, where any Russian speaker can be humiliated simply because she utters Russian—rather than Latvian or Lithuanian—words in the street. Meklina’s article below offers her firsthand report of her journey to attend The Russian Prize Ceremony in Moscow.
In mid-February, a peculiar email message from Moscow appeared in my mailbox. Signed “Organizing Committee,” it inquired whether I had a visa to Russia to attend a gala ceremony for the international literary prize Russkaya Premia.
“If you don’t have a visa, send us a copy of your American passport and the name of the city where your consulate is located, and we’ll take care of everything,”—stated the email.
An “organizing committee” powerful enough to arrange a visa to Russia was to be taken seriously. Having arrived in the U.S. fifteen years ago under refugee status, I was quite fearful. Are they luring me back to my country of birth to jail me for presumably not paying taxes, as was done to some of the Russian oligarchs? Did the current president not like a snippet from my interview, where I claimed that, in Russia, literature with approved political messages is financially backed by the government? Were they enraged by my short stories in Russian LGBT anthologies? Or were they maddened by my reports about the Rolling Stones and Bruce Springsteen concerts in the Bay Area?
I couldn’t sleep that night. On the one hand, some time ago I had submitted a work to this contest, with its substantial prize fund and a promise to publish the book of the first place winner. On the other hand, there was no chance that my entry would be given any serious attention, since almost all the jury members had said or written, at one point or another in my literary career, something bad about me. “The genius Meklina!” —ironically commented one critic, the editor of a “thick” literary magazine established in 1931 who still upheld its socialist realism traditions. “A complete graphomaniac!” —dismissed another one who considered himself a postmodernist.
I chose to participate in this contest out of desperation: working in a U.S. company in the customer service department, I was somewhat tired of clients who didn’t hide their annoyance at my Slavic accent. Neither was I enamored of fast-food clerks who invariably asked where I was from and whether “I liked it here.” Having lived in the U.S. since 1994, I would “like it here” more if not for these questions following me everywhere I dared to utter a few words.
The Russian Prize Committee declared on their website that their goal is to promote the Russian language throughout the whole world, and I was hoping that upon winning this prize, I would acquire an inner strength protecting me from my phone clients’ impatience. Besides that, the prize’s official sponsor was the Fund of the First President of Russia, Boris Yeltsin, known for his eccentricities and his energetic desire to turn Russia into a true democracy; his unrealized attempts were remembered fondly by many in my circle of friends. Yeltsin’s 1990s were a happy time for Russian liberals, when newspapers were allowed to criticize even the president himself, and nobody would lose their job—or their head—over criticism of political power or remarks about the war in Chechnya. The times are different now.
So I made up my mind to go, if necessary, and received another email: “Congratulations, you are a finalist! We are inviting you, all expenses paid, to the gala ceremony in Moscow.”
Keeping in mind brazen border officials, I printed out some information about The Russian Prize: namely that the prize was established four years ago as an initiative of the president’s administration and the fund “Russkii Mir,” and was signed into existence by the former Russian President Vladimir Putin. If border agents started questioning me, I was prepared to tell them, “You will have to deal with Mr. Putin if you do not let me go to this ceremony.”
My hopes of winning the major prize evaporated quite soon. A couple of days before arriving in Moscow, I received emails from my Russian pen pals, who warned me, “Have you noticed the Ossetian among the finalists in your nomination category? We don’t want to dash your hopes, but it’s not by chance. Aren’t you aware of our political situation?”
I studied the finalists’ names. They were chosen in three nomination categories (novels, poems, short stories), and came from all over the world. The Russian Prize website announced that “authors from six countries, Germany, Canada, Latvia, South Ossetia, Denmark, and the U.S.,” were selected, and, commenting upon this announcement, only one newspaper expressed disagreement with listing South Ossetia as a separate country and not as a territory within Georgia’s borders.
After I familiarized myself with the biography of the Ossetian finalist, I grew suspicious. The 42-year-old Tamerlan Tadtaev from Tskhinvali, self-described as a “newbie” who started writing only three years ago, proudly emphasized that he had participated in the “Georgian-Ossetian conflict,” once as a soldier in the Russian Army and another time as a witness to the “atrocities of Georgian aggression.” Among his achievements, he listed the war medal “Defender of the Motherland.” In his prose, Tadtaev focused on South Ossetia’s fight for independence, as well as war and sex.
I will never forget one short story written by him, about an Ossetian solder, apparently an alter-ego of Tadtaev himself, who had happened upon a Georgian woman grieving over losing her husband to bombing. The Ossetian solder stared at her, a young long-haired beauty bent over the body of her dead husband, and was aroused. After grabbing her panties from one of the drawers, he returned to his military base and sniffed them while masturbating. Puzzled, I read more. Other stories were similar, with more war and more sniffing. Speaking of his literary style, the stories were too well-written for a novice, as though somebody’s skilled hand had polished them ad nauseam; speaking of the topics, they were macabre and masturbatory at the same time.
The official ceremony took place on April 1, 2009, in a Moscow hotel with the appropriate name “President.” The ceremony was not open to the public, and only selected literati had received invitations: at the entrance, I showed my passport to a uniformed police officer; he checked it against some papers and let me in. Tadtaev, a rather quiet, plainly dressed, and thinly built man, had already been informed by the organizing committee that his ambassador had been invited, and he looked humbled by the proportions of the event. No ambassadors from Latvia, the U.S., or other “finalist countries” were in sight, to nobody’s surprise.
The ceremony started pompously, with TV celebrities announcing the winners and a popular TV actor reciting their poems and prose. The Russian Minister of Culture sent a congratulatory message; the Ossetian ambassador gave a short speech thanking the organizers for nominating an Ossetian citizen. Then finalists themselves were given the podium.
Tamerlan Tadtaev bitterly noted that his intention was to stop writing about the war, but Georgia gave him more “bloody material.” Then he added, “I would like to thank Russia, because, if not for Russia, South Ossetia would disappear from the face of the earth. I’m saying it not as a bystander but as a participant in the military action. I’m thanking Russia for recognizing Ossetia as a separate state and for recognizing me as a writer.”
One after another, the finalists came onto the stage. The winner in the novel category, the 81-year old Boris Khazanov, had been arrested in 1949 for anti-Soviet propaganda and had spent six years in incarceration; he emigrated to Germany in the eighties and has lived there since then. During the last decade his novels and essays have been published in Russia. This is the overall situation: former dissidents and immigrants whose writing had not previously reached Russian readers are now participating in the literary process on the same terms as writers who reside in Russia, with the Internet making it easier. In his speech, Khazanov focused on “language, which becomes frozen in immigration as though in a fridge.”
Another finalist, Andrei Nazarov, whose ancestors had served in the White Army and “had all been killed by the Soviets during and after the Revolution,” sadly noted in his speech that it was not he who should get the award but Nabokov and Bunin, who had never received any prizes from the Soviet government and had to live in despair and isolation. “Unfortunately,” added Nazarov who emigrated to Denmark from Russia in 1981, “they cannot come to this ceremony because it’s too late—they are all now dead, and I wish they were here.” After these words, he left the stage, a man in his sixties who looked even older because of his ailing health and limp, but his speech didn’t leave much of an impression on an audience eager to rush to the free buffet with drinks and food.
The first prize in the short story category was awarded to me. After the ceremony, I stumbled upon the main juror, the one who ironically called me a “genius,” and the phrase he greeted me with was, “Are you surprised that you got it? You haven’t read the other nominees . . . they were even worse than you!” With these words, he parted, and so did I, flying back to the U.S. the next morning.
At the Russian border, when I filled in the customs declaration, I was asked to do it six times, since the official didn’t like my handwriting. “Don’t you know Russian? You have to fill in here and here.” A baggage handler, a tired Russian blond in her forties having a bad hair day, asked me to place my suitcase on the scale. Exhausted from only three hours of sleep after the ceremony, I wasn’t prompt enough. “Don’t you understand the language? Do what I tell you!”—she blurted out the already familiar phrase. I didn’t answer this question, saving my answer— “I’m a writer” —for call center clients and fast food clerks in the U.S. No matter which country you are in, to luggage handlers or call center clients this answer is highly irrelevant.
Margarita Meklina is a fiction writer born in St. Petersburg, Russia, who came to the U.S. as a refugee in 1994. She is an author of two prize-winning collections of short stories in Russian and is at work on a young adult novel in English.
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