The Belarusian poet Lina Kazakova lives in Portland, Oregon, in double exile. She initially relocated from Minsk to Kyiv in November 2020. From there she emigrated to the U.S. in January 2022, a time when the harbingers of the war to come began to multiply. Her departure from Minsk still fell in a time of hope when the protests following the presidential election of August 2020 hadn’t yet run out of steam. Yet, already then, the repression apparatus kicked into gear: the number of protesters, journalists, and human rights activities receiving long prison sentences steadily increased. On her outward journey Kazakova still hoped to be returning soon—a hope unfulfilled, and today less imaginable than ever before.
The central feature of her poetry is her hometown, Minsk, which stands at the intersection of Soviet past and Belarusian present, of childhood and adulthood, and offers a place of refuge and mourning. Kazakova’s poems are perambulations during which she looks into the city’s eyes—and something looks back: every object is rife with life and history. Her Minsk is the meeting place of the twentieth century: the crimes and hopes of the Soviet era, the little people in between, and the eternally returning wars. Today, more so than ever following the Russian invasion of Ukraine, her poems ask questions: can we learn from the past? If so, what is the role of art in this process? The German translator and Slavistics expert Jakob Wunderwald spoke to the poet for V/A in the context of our ongoing focus theme Ruptures. The conversation is complemented by Kazakova’s poems, which appear in English translation for the first time, as well as illustrations by the artist Anna Balash.
JAKOB WUNDERWALD Let’s start at the beginning. You lived in Minsk until 2020?
LINA KAZAKOVA Yes. I was born in Minsk, so was my husband. We wanted to stay in Minsk, but that became an impossibility for us after the events of 2020, as it did for many others. We went to Kyiv, where we wanted to stay—the year we spent there was enough to develop a connection with the city. It’s a double catastrophe; Kyiv had become our hometown, filled with friends and acquaintances, right up to the day we left. It affected us personally when we had to leave for the second time, and that time we had to leave Ukraine. But, of course, that’s what it’s like for many people who had to flee Belarus. Two such moves within little more than a year, a never-ending nightmare. But what can you do? What people have to live through in Ukraine right now is a thousand times worse. One of our friends in Kyiv had to survive all the first days’ bombings staying in the apartment building hiding in the bathroom with her 7-year-old daughter. Another one spent the beginning of the war in Irpen which is a border town with Bucha, and which was bombed severely and sieged for several weeks with no water and food supply, no electricity for days. Not to mention all the atrocities we learned about later… This is unimaginable, this is beyond everything we’ve ever lived through… I’d really rather not discuss this further right now. Too many emotions.
Our heads we shook in guilt and sorrow,
What we couldn’t do, time completed.
Here is my sister, water thawing,
Here are my brothers, brown leaves.
Oh, if there is something still appealing –
Taking off your backpack on a park bench.
Little buddies, coffee cups, good evening,
Icy branch, my dear friend, how are you?
JW I ask about Minsk because an acquaintance from Minsk had taken me to a reading in Berlin where I first heard your poems. When we heard your poems, images of the city immediately rose in front of our eyes, as well as a very, very large melancholy. This city, in which you no longer live and to which it becomes more difficult to return every day. What does Minsk mean to you?
LK The answer depends on how I can try to describe the horror of these events, what the events since 2020 mean for my generation, the children of the 1970s, in particular. Not just as events but as an existential catastrophe—as the complete breakdown of the identity to which I belong: people who were born in the 1970s and earlier. For us it is a complete breakdown that we could never have imagined, that doesn’t fit with our consciousness and how we grew up. I was one of the children for whom the idea of 15 republics, 15 sisters in spirit, was real. There was us and Ukraine and Georgia, etc. That was an inseparable part of my childhood. This unbelievably huge country. What occurred later made us lose this earlier home. My home once was the Soviet Union. It’s where I was born, and that’s what it says in my birth certificate. We lost it for the first time when it collapsed, and we’re losing it anew with the war. We haven’t just been robbed of our future but also our past. It strikes fear in me how this war deleted our past. This past, I think, is what it’s about when trying to answer your question about Minsk.
My generation grew up in this Soviet Minsk. We developed our personalities in the Soviet era, but then we had to continue living in a completely different time, with completely different values and necessities. In all of us you’ll find this rupture, this misfortune. I wrote a poem about it, about a life that is torn asunder by an explosion. This rupture is in all of us. This suffering. But, actually, I’ve always thought that it’s also something incredibly valuable, these Soviet experiences we carry with us, because it also is completely unique knowledge—and that needs to be transmitted, all the things we only know for ourselves. This unbroken desire is expressed in almost all my poems; they want to transmit this secret code. At the same time, there’s resignation and pessimism because it’s an eternal search for people like yourself. You give them signals. I’ve also written about that. These aren’t just words in a poem but acknowledgements of the fact that certain things can only be understood by people that share the same experiences.
What does it mean to experience the city in this way? What was it like to be a child in this city? It was an experience of taking possession of space. The space of the city belonged to you—completely. There was an urban particularity about life back then, a specific way of building. When compared to life in New York, for example, where a courtyard always is a closed space that you can access only with certain pass codes (if there even is a back exit at all), which in turn means that only people living in the house can get inside, a courtyard in Minsk is a kind of large universe. A child can travel through it and can appropriate the arches of doorways, stairs, garages, and pathways. That’s a source for so many experiences, walking around as a child. We were on our own. I would walk home from school alone from afternoon care because no one could come and pick me up. I went to school alone from the first day, walked home alone, opened the door myself. So the space was completely mine. It quite naturally belonged to this early experiences because I interacted with it. It’s probably from this that the method of my artistic work derives. It’s about a relationship to space as a source, a friend, about continuous contact and interaction. There are images in my poetry, for example, of pressing yourself against a wall in an underpass or touching snow. My sister, water thawing, my brothers, the brown leaves. It all comes from there, all of it. The possibility of finding solace in this urban space, or to be rescued, from whatever. No matter how deeply you enter it, the city is a healer, a comfort. It gives you strength to live.
About a quarter to ten
in the “Centralny” supermarket,
when a gloomy man repairs an advertising light box,
when an old beggar woman counts the day’s takings,
when the salesgirl covers pastries with plastic food wrap,
when the men in gray and black finish their last beers,
when some sleepy guy copies the list of medicines for his kid
from the voice of his wife on the phone
and the pharmacist checks back the names again and again,
in this very moment – when the day clashes with the truth,
it feels as if you were holding a baby sparrow in your hand,
and as if you had someone to show it to
JW You’ve basically already sketched out your creative approach. There’s something hidden in the objects, in the city. You can feel it when reading your poems. To what extent is this a conscious decision? Do you look for these images in the city?
LK Whether it’s a conscious approach or the method came first and then it became a conscious decision? Definitely the latter. Looking and listening, that was the method. When speaking about my artistic biography, I only started writing very late in life. I was already over 30. What you describe happened only later, and it happened in a manner of a door opening in front of me. It was like a storm, an avalanche. This pain appeared, I walked around, had to write something down, and if I hadn’t written it down, I wouldn’t have found any peace anymore. Then an image, a line came to me, something I had actually seen or heard. A sentence and an answer in the street. Such an image starts working inside you, like a dream you only understand once you’ve tried to decode it. Then you find words that fit. “Only these words, only in this order,” to say it with Brodsky.
A poem is a way out when there’s no way out. It comes into being in desperate moments when you have to make impossible decisions. Once you understand that, you understand what poetry is and why it can help you so much. Thanks to poetry I know that the world isn’t just chaos, if only I knew exactly how it was meant to be, when there’s this glittering of truth in certain moments, this beauty of a correct solution in words, when the words find you. These words are proof that something true, that some truth is possible: a kind of justice, peace, if you will, that there truly is an order and not everything chaos. But that’s how I explained it to myself later on. The images came first. I’m not really a visual person, but when I write, there’s a kind of film. People say that about the fine arts, that truth resides in noticing, not in judgment. My poetry contains no judgments, or at least only few. I usually don’t say, “what is that?”, but only: “look!” And then that happens or not. What I offer is an interaction with the image.
To return to your earlier question once more: such an image, such a feeling, has to do with time slipping away, with the feeling that you are in possession of the space, this child-like feeling—Denis Novikov puts it like this in a poem: “We once were rulers here / And yet not everything seemed good to us.” It doesn’t strike me as a coincidence that one of my poems written after the outbreak of the war contains this term: rulers of the streets. I want to reconstruct that, this feeling that it’s my space, my city. It was taken from me. In one of my poems that’s literally there: I turn to the city as to a higher being that can help me or not. And when everything happened in 2020, I was simply insulted that the city didn’t help us, didn’t defend us. That’s a strange thing: you place your soul in things that don’t have one. But that’s exactly how I feel about Minsk. Minsk absolutely is a living being for me. I can feel insulted by it. I can love it, hate it, and so on.
JW And how do you see the people in the city? It seems to me that the people in your poems are looked at from a position of absolute sympathy. Are the city and the people a great organism for you? Do you also feel the closeness with them that you feel with the city? Or is that something else?
LK To answer that I need to go back to 2020 again. Since then I’ve talked with many of my friends, for example about the possibility of being arrested, of going to prison. For many of them, and for me, the worst was not the fear of violence. That was also bad, like the cold, like prison. To this day we can’t sleep peacefully when we think about the people that are there. Still, the worst was to be so close to evil, to see it and not be able to turn away because it was coming down on us from all fronts. We had known it existed, of course, but it had never been so close and so visible as in 2020. Many people had to confront it face-to-face. After all this it’s difficult to say that I’m still a humanist, that I believe in humans, that I haven’t become a misanthrope. I’ve seen what people are capable of, and these people are the same people—it’s them. As it reads in one of my poems—“With eyes, straight as the sky, gaze the Soviet children.” It’s them, the judges that hand out these terrible sentences. It’s them in Russia that support the war. It’s to a great degree people from my generation. What should I do? What should I do with that?
Of course, humanism remains my foundation. Here’s a story: if you asked me what I’d do if there were no restrictions, I’d tell you that I’d write a thesis about the 1970s in the Soviet Union, about the culmination of humanism, as I’d call it, in art, particularly film. I’d try to understand how that could have happened, where these films, these heroes, these actors came from; these authors and poets, how they could have developed in a society whose daily life was so far removed from the values they promoted. Real life was hard. In spite of that there were films like those by Georgiy Daneliya, “Mimino” for example, or Vitaly Melnikov’s “The Elder Son,” Ilya Averbakh’s “Faratyev’s Fantasies,” and animated films like “Hedgehog in the Fog” and “Tale of Tales” by Yuri Norstein. Until this, our catastrophe, the war, happened, I thought that there had been two horrible periods in European history, in which Europe had birthed a monster: the time of the inquisition and the time of fascism and the Second World War. And both times European civilization reacted to catastrophe with an uprising of humanism. The renaissance in the first case, the whole world of postwar Europe in the second, in all its spheres: anticolonial politics, literature, cinema, everything was filled with humanism. I think that Soviet art of the 1970s, and of the 1960s, the Thaw, was also a reflection of that. Humanism as the answer to evil—I still believe in that. And today it’s so difficult to talk about it, the hate that now fills everyone also fills me. And yet: there is this sentence in Márquez that you can only see a person from above when you extend your hand to help them. That’s a very important principle for me. I very, very, very consistently try to understand people, and still there are things that cannot be understood or forgiven.
Have you seen how life is slipping away?
Through the hands frying cutlets,
Through the hands scrubbing the floor,
Through the hands putting a kettle on the stove day after day,
Through the hands holding a handle on a crowded bus?
It seemed to us all this existed by itself,
But then a mother fell to thinking with a spoonful of porridge in her hand –
And the river stopped flowing,
The snow no longer fell,
The wind died down.
JW While we’re talking about Soviet cinema: in your poems there’s a feeling of nostalgia. It seems to me that it’s not nostalgia for a specific time but about an idea of time, about the possibilities that existed in this time. Is this correct?
LK Yes, you sense that correctly. This type of nostalgia is about a kind of value system. When you take a closer look at it, the Soviet era was often fertile. It was, at the time I was born, no longer as bloodthirsty as before; after all, we’re talking about the final period of the Soviet era. All the truly dreadful things had already happened. Many directors, writers, poets, actors suffered terrible fates, were persecuted and also censored. My favorite Bulat Okudzhava, whom I often quote, survived the war and time of repression. Or if we think about the poems by Gennady Shaplikov, who killed himself out of Soviet despair but also wrote such poems. They envelope you like mist. Warm soil on which you can lie and watch the clouds filled with happiness before you die—if you want to—or simply keep on lying. That’s who I learned from. They chose a different path—answering to evil not with hatred but with an eternal love to everything in this world which was not evil.
It also has to do with the topic of guilt, which we talk about today. Many people now, post-Soviet people who live consciously, feel guilt for what happened, for us not stopping it somehow. We’re guilty just because we’re alive. So where does my love for life come from? Perhaps I just think it’s interesting to live. I find it interesting to see what comes next. Like in Mandelstam: “The coachman’s back, and foot-deep snow: / What else do you want? They won’t lay a hand on you, / Won’t kill you.” That’s how I feel. Just to live, that’s what I always wanted. But that, it turns out, wasn’t enough. Evil does not fear our patience, our little deeds, our inner growth, or our poems. It only fears action in its last consequence. The war has uncovered this contradiction.
For example, there’s the poet Alexander Delfinov. He lives in Berlin. He says that he’s currently only interested in direct poetic action—as a punk. Every day he writes a poem about the war. They’re very good poems; I read each one, and I understand that it might just truly be the time for such poems. But at the same time I understand that I couldn’t write such poems. I wasn’t in the war, and I struggle to write in the name of a person who was. For Aristotle one of the functions of art is consolation, and I’ve always been someone who consoles. And as has become apparent now, I cheated. I’ve made the mistake, I consoled, and what now? That really, truly hurts. And for now I still don’t know which way to go. After the war broke out, I couldn’t write at all for a long time. Only now the first poems are slowly appearing. They’re not war reports, not the kind of things other people are writing. The feeling of guilt, also of responsibility, I think that it’s not just me that has it but many people in Russia, in Belarus, artists in particular. This dreadful guilt to have stood by and watched, to have relented, to not have stopped it all.
When it was all over, nothing left anymore
They stayed in a tower, on the top, twelfth floor
Аfter all these years, where can I find you?
Proletarskaya station, take the subway
To this large-panel hole in the sky,
To their quiet cove
They took only things
Which were free of cost
To visit, to talk – what else is there –
Came only those who didn’t care
And twenty more years over the stacks and the walls
Black sky became sun and the empty one paused
And twenty more years in foggy softness
Up and down moved peacefully birds and poplars
While on the streets, in the river of lights,
Were still not enough minutes, days, and nights
Down there, stray dogs and the paper boat fleet
Guarded their lives – passed, complete
JW If we could return to the reality in Belarus once more—you write your poems in Russian, but your poems still are deeply Belarusian. A poet from another country could not have written them. What do you see as the Belarusian element in your poetry?
LK We could talk about poets of my generation, for example about Sabina Brilo or Tanya Skarynkina, and some younger poets you heard in Berlin, like Nasta Mancevich. When we write about Belarus, about Minsk, then there’s a shared way of seeing. To use an analogy, in Minsk, and in other cities, there is a practice where people hired by the city authorities cut trees, not fully cut them down but cut big boughs leaving the tree looking horrible for years after. My heart burns every time I see it. I constantly pity them, live in constant nostalgia, missing what no longer can be brought back. That’s what human life is like quite often: when a person lives for their fate long enough, then it’s most likely going to disappear. The house you passed will be torn down, the tree felled. What I mean by that, the reason I talk about these trees, which supposedly are being rescued from some disease by members of the federal building administration, is that I look at them sometimes and understand that this is exactly what life is like. This image that you have to look in the moment from now until the end of your days. And that’s also the only beauty on which you can rest your artistic work, as the given in your thinking, do you see?
That’s the only thing we must describe, not what can still be rescued. It’s this way of looking at the world, to not turn away, to not look for something untouched, but to look at and describe the trees, no matter how much it hurts: an empty pit in place of a house, that’s what it’s about. This is the experience with which we’ve been living in Belarus for a long time, this experience that you can’t change anything isn’t just the experience of the last two years, that you can’t even defend someone against an injustice, as if your hands were tied. You get used to that, you being to justify yourself, but that’s not how it should be. And this experience connects us as Belarusian poets. To not turn away, to not look for what has not been touched, but to try to speak to what remains, with what we’re left with.
I think the Belarusian element in my poetry appears as follows: of course every person who speaks Russian can understand my poems at surface level. But only those who share this experience of life in Belarus—not only in Minsk but all Belarus—can truly understand most of my work. Minsk doesn’t play the role it does in my poetry because the city is some sort of big hero but because this experience happened to me there. It’s difficult to describe this experience, but with age I’ve learned that I absolutely must not try to simplify it. That’s the biggest mistake, the attempt to simplify that those who didn’t have it can understand. The simplification leads nowhere. You have to take complexity as it is. And poetry gives us an opportunity here because it allows you to say something truly laconically. You can speak about truly complicated things that don’t fit anywhere, that don’t fit into a particular epoch, because we don’t live in one epoch but with our head in one, with our body in another, and with our feet in yet a third. You have to explain that at great length, and this explanation can be poetry. A key to all this complexity. Based on this you can understand that not everything is flat or black and white. You can enter this world, this alternative universe, that artistic work is capable of creating. In this regard writing is therapy—in place of this unending dread you can find a point at which you can think on and, with that, live on. And that’s probably what characterizes us in Belarus, I think: we’ve been living in a situation of continuous pain—and yet, we’re still alive.