Valery Petrovskiy is the author of numerous short stories—published both in English and in Russian—and IнтимNОе, a collection of short stories in Russian. I made Petrovskiy’s acquaintance online, after reading several of his short stories in English: struck by his symbolic language and compact narratives, I contacted him, and we soon developed a literary friendship. As we corresponded, I became more and more curious about his work, its national context, and the Chuvash Republic, his birthplace and home. In the ensuing interview, Petrovskiy, the first featured author in “The New хорошо,” discusses jazz, publishing, anthropology, and the most comfortable city in the Russian Federation.
~T.M. De Vos
Thank you for the questions you call initial. They cover all my life really, including the literary part, which is rather recent—just since 2005. At that time, I first started writing prose in Russian for an Internet site.
Soon I was lucky enough to have them published in a print weekly, Vedomosti, a tabloid in Cheboksary. As a rule they don’t publish any fiction, and in my case they made an exception. During the next two years it was a great experience: back then, no fiction was accepted by the media in Russia. In a short time, the readers got used to having my prose in the tabloid. I also had several short-short Russian stories published in KIL (Culture/Arts/Literature), a print literary journal, in Cheboksary in 2007. All in all, I published about 50 short-short stories during those two years.
As for print magazines, I was never published outside the Chuvash Republic in Russia, though it seems strange. Sure, I got some acceptance letters from the Russian-language magazines placed in Israel, Germany, in the U.S.A. In Germany, my short story was published in a Russian-language journal once.
I wasn’t aware of the term “flash fiction” then and instead called them “romance prose,” not because of any romantic essence—not every piece had it—but because of the style: so-called “poetic prose.” It was said that, in Russian, the works sounded rather poetic, to the point that folks used to ask me about my “poems” whenever they met me by chance. Now I’d rather call them “jazz fiction.”
I am curious about what jazz means to you and what elements in your fiction you view as jazzlike. Is this similarity a conscious effort to mimic jazz styles, or is it an effect you notice in retrospect, after considering some commonalities of your stories?
Jazz is nothing but improvisation, I would say. And I put down my lines following an inner impulse, not due to a working scheme, just as jazz freely runs. At the same time, jazz is music with abrupt transitions and turns, though following a cardinal line. I find my prose to be similar, to some extent, and my colleague, a writer, first declared it in a review he released
Not published in Russian magazines, I made my mind to translate the pieces into English and thereby get a wider audience. And I did some translations in summer 2009; with the backing of the English Department of a local university, it was my personal task. Still, translation is a different craft from story-writing, and the latter differs considerably from journalism. (I say that because I’m a journalism graduate from Moscow VKSch Higher School’s class of 1987.) A writer is one who knows the distinction.
I’m intrigued by the women you depict: Marina, Lucy, the slim girl on the train, the unnamed woman in “Subscriber is Not Available,” the character of the mother in “Into the Blue,” to name a few. These women almost seem more like symbols than real people—as if, in a sense, your narrators tell their stories through the women they have loved. I’m curious to know how you, as an author, view your female characters: what do they represent for your male narrators? What can we learn about your male characters through the women they pursue?
I don’t know any piece of literature not to depict women, neither in Russian nor in English. That’s what literature is for, as well as the arts. If there is only one lady to meet in any of my short stories, it’s a shortcoming; there should be more, of course.
Seriously, I don’t think it’s proper fully to describe a woman character to make readers admire her. Everyone has a mistress of his heart, and my female character should only remind him of her. Then the reader will find her the most beautiful lady. A few small traits are enough for that!
Any of my short stories, while written in a monologue, implies a dialogue with the reader. It’s appropriate for the short form, I suppose. It makes room for an action as wide as one’s imagination permits, and the hero’s traits are close to his own. A reader is the partner to my writing, and it depends on him to provide a heroine with the features he likes most. So you call them symbols…Yes, each is like a symbol of love, a goddess, and nobody knows in detail how she looks.
It’s interesting that you imagine a male reader: it’s as if the reader must imagine his own love interest in the place of the heroine.
It seems that my explanation made the point more complicated. And my hero is ever after a beloved.
This is interesting—can you tell me more about the model for your hero?
I’m afraid it’s beyond me!
We can move on. Until I “met” you, I was quite ignorant about the Chuvash Republic. Of course, one can always search online and find some standard facts about nearly any location on Earth, but I would be interested in your own description of its culture, history, and daily life.
The outstanding Chuvash personalities are mainly known nowadays for their success in art, literature, and sports.
Chuvash avant-garde poet Gennady Aigy (1934-2006) was repeatedly nominated for a Nobel Prize in literature. My compatriot Andrian Nikolayev was the third cosmonaut in the U.S.S.R., with his Vostok 3 flight (August 11-15, 1962). Vladimir Bashkirov twice climbed Mount Everest in 1995 and 1997. After the first Olympic champion in 1968, Valerian Sokolov in boxing, we have five more of them in my republic since then.
The Chuvash people are proud of dancer Nadezhda Pavlova, winner of the Grand Prix in the Second Moscow International Ballet Competition in 1973, which made her famous all over the world. In 1999, she went to Washington, DC, to open the Russian Cultural Center there. You see, in the Chuvash Republic, men are daring and ladies are attractive: in 1996, Aleksandra Petrova was crowned “Miss Russia.”
Making a list of great personalities is not the best way to speak of a nation. For a long time, mine was the third most populous nation in Russia according to statistics, after ethnic Russians and Tartars. Cheboksary is situated on the Volga River just between the large Russian city of Nizhniy Novgorod and Kazan, capital of the Tatar Republic.
As for the origin of my nation, scholars’ opinions differ. Manuscripts detailing the history of my tribe can be found in ancient Persian, Armenian, Greek and Chinese, and in Byzantine and Arabian scripts. Scholars place the ancestors of the Chuvash people so far afield as the upper reaches of the Tigris River in Turkey, which starts from Chazar Lake. The Chazar people were kin to our Chuvash ancestors, the Suvar/Bulgar people. Thus, my folks are of ancient Iranian origin, probably. You never can tell a Chuvash by his appearance—they took me for a German in Europe!
More scholars found the place of origin for the Chuvash people in the upper reaches of the Selenga River, between Lake Baikal and the Mongolian border, Chinggis Khan’s country of birth. Many old Chinese manuscripts confirm this origin in mentioning severe tribes from the North.
Let me share you just one fact about why China is called so. In my native language, Chuvash, “chin” means “a man,” a human being. The Chuvash language is considered as belonging to a separate Bulgarian branch of a large Turkic language family, one related to the extinct Khazar and Hunnic languages.
My native language seems to be a relic: as my folk would say, “Doomsday comes when the last of the Chuvash folk would pass.”
Having studied in Moscow as well as Cheboksary, how would you compare these two cities? What is “Russian” about each?
Sure, Moscow is a great city, with ten million inhabitants or even more, and Cheboksary is a city with a population about a half of million. They get their Russian look mostly because of churches, I think; there is a good amount of them. They make the cities picturesque and Russian-looking, though they both still keep a Soviet appearance on the whole. It makes it easy to travel over Russia: many cities are very much alike, in spite of great distance between them.
That considered, my city is quite close to Moscow: a mere 650 kilometers away.
All Soviet nations are considered to be Russians by the U.S.A., and Cheboksary is the capital city of the Chuvash Republic. I belong to the Chuvash nationality, the majority in my republic and in the city. There are about two million people of my nationality all over the world, mostly in Russia. I’m sure a good number of Chuvash people can be found in the U.S.A. as well, mainly ladies married to Americans, possibly, and many students. My classmate got a PhD in Canada, another got a Masters of Public Administration at Syracuse University, a prestigious one.
In my republic, the Russian and Chuvash are spoken equally. All the students inside the Chuvash Republic study the Chuvash language, and they study it just outside the borders of the Republic, where many Chuvash people also live. It’s mainly so in neighboring regions: for example, in the Tatar and Bashkir republics, some Chuvash settlements can be found.
I think, the task is to make Cheboksary more Chuvash-looking: it would attract more travelers and reveal its national origin. By the way, the Chuvash have another name for the city—Schubashkar, originating from Suvars-kar (Suvars’ fortress; Guard of the Suvars-Chuvash).
What does it mean to be more “Chuvash-looking”? Are you referring to a specific architectural style or period?
I would like to see more signboards and billboards in the Chuvash language around the city; I think that there are more of them in English in Cheboksary. We need more Chuvash décor in the architecture style, especially as my nation is proud of its rich folk embroidery tradition. On the whole, the city should look more Oriental, as I see it.
To my mind, a Suvars/Chuvash settlement had appeared here earlier than the Kazan settlement started, though the Kazan city has officially celebrated its millennium.
What does it mean to you to be a writer from Chuvashia, and from the Russian Federation as a whole? How conscious are you of nationality or of the Russian-language literary tradition as you write?
It was very useful to meet students of various nationalities within the U.S.S.R. and those from all over the world while studying in Moscow. And it was the Russian language which bonded us then.
To my mind, Russian literature is more devoted to romance—see the novels of Bunin, Turgenev, and Lermontov. The other thing, let me say so, is that Russian stories are more sentimental. The room for emotions is wider there, from tears to joy, one following the other immediately. American stories I find to be more positive, with more active action, with less reflection, maybe. These differences suit the national traits perfectly, I think.
It makes sense that literature would mirror some of an author’s national traits. What about the Russian people, in your opinion, gives them, and their literature, more emotional range?
Literature is nothing but expressed suffering. Remember Dostoevsky.
Because of my Chuvash origin, I hope that I have a peculiar view on nature and society which is interesting to diverse audience. I mean that one’s “mother tongue” sets one’s original mentality; it’s very deeply ingrained. And it reveals itself in my works, I hope, even if they are written in Russian and published in English then.
I am really curious to know what a Chuvash outlook on nature and society might be. Can you tell me more about your perspective?
It’s a matter of faith. Even to date, not all Chuvash people are Christians. There are a few settlements with unbaptized folks, and they follow their own outlook on nature, an ancient one, starting from Zoroastrianism. A good folio by Dr. A. Trofimov was released by the Chuvash Publishing House not long ago, called simply “Zoroastrianism.” I heard the Chuvash people had 77 minor gods during their pagan past, one for every natural phenomenon. Then a Chuvash outlook on society might be a “green” one.
In my opinion, writing is rather an unconscious process with me, a stream-of-conscious mode, and my native Chuvash language influences the result much. For me the rhythm of my prose, the alliteration within, are the most important things while writing. Just see the titles: “Last of Blossom,” “Lucid Story,” “Folly or Do You Follow Me,” “Bees’ Garden of Eden,” “Little Lady,” “Spiced Sprats,” “St. Peter, a Fitter,” “Ball Waltz Dance Class,” “Corkscrew Rule,” and “Witness for Defense.”
We have two writers’ communities in Cheboksary: one is an association for professional writers of about 150 members—you need two books to join them; the other community is wider, consisting of about 500 members, not professionally qualified and with only one book publication needed for admission.
What are some of the conversations taking place in these writing groups? What sort of projects do they have—magazines, readings, reviewing works by other authors, or some other activities?
I’m not a mutual admiration society member! Seriously, once I was invited there for a sitting. They considered new members to accept, and then reviewed a new book, or vice versa. In fact, professional bodies are deprived of influence on writing or the publishing process, and it’s like this all over the world. It’s a common practice; art is an individual make-up.
How large an audience is there in Chuvashia, and the rest of the Russian Federation, for literary fiction and poetry? How much interest is there in reading and supporting contemporary authors?
The print weekly Vedomosti where I released my stories in 2005 through 2006, had a circulation of 6,500. It is estimated that four people read every printed issue of a newspaper as a rule; thus I had an audience of about 30,000 readers every week. I had fifty stories or more published then.
Sure, the audience is diverse according to age and social position. Students prefer e-texts to read on their smart phones and other devices. Detective stories by the women writers Dontsova or Ustinova are super-popular among women of middle age in Russia. Youngsters like horror and fantasy stories. The trend is global, I think.
Reading is very popular with kids now, I suppose. There never were so many admirable books for kiddies in the U.S.S.R., with fantastic pictures to enjoy. And every bookshop is proud of its audiobooks section, in foreign languages as well. The segment of translated literature is ever more popular. I wouldn’t say so about modern Russian literature: there is a small list of widely published authors. It depends on publishing house politics, not a government policy.
It’s not an easy task to get in touch with a leading publishing house in Moscow or St. Petersburg, and I was not lucky enough. The only thing I can tell you that they are not after a short story collection in any way; an anthology might occasionally be published after a literary contest. It seems that to get a poetry book published is a harder task. Publishing politics are just the same: to make a profit on any book released.
You see, the writer Jane Basova from Cheboksary has won a few national awards in Russia for her novellas since 2002 and she got published this year only. She writes for a middle school-aged audience.
National literature is rather popular in my republic, and among Chuvash Department students and national art students. We have the National Library, which strives to promote Chuvash literature, and the Chuvash Publishing House, a very good publisher which produces books mainly written in the Chuvash language.
What does the National Library do to promote Chuvash literature? Do these promotions help it to reach a wider audience throughout the Russian Federation, or is it mainly focused within Chuvashia?
I see you had a nice practice at the New York Public Library! And the National Library activities to promote Chuvash literature deserve respect: readings, conferences, national literature debates, presentations, expositions, and what-not… And I like the regular Biblionights with a reading program: I was happy to be a featured author once.
Yes, the National Library provides community and school libraries outside the Republic as well with Chuvash books, wherever Chuvash people live, but the supplement is small: not enough. And they are obligated to supply libraries in Chuvashia with the national literature too, I think.
What are some of your favorite Chuvash works? Have any of these been translated into other languages?
I like Mikhail Youchma’s book “Schursamga” (“Young Wolf with a White Spot on His Forehead”), which he presented to me. Youchma wrote about 30 plays and more than 80 books translated into about 100 languages. The book has a great deal of poetic prose and dwells on a wolf’s life in the wild.
Another book I’d like to mention is Chveder Ujar’s “Where Are You, the Sea.” Again, the prose is very poetic, and the action takes place in nature: on their holidays, two boys go to the sea through the Siberian taiga and get lost there. Don’t be upset—there’s a happy ending.
And I was surprised to find the novella “Lily” by Vasily Ektel to be so strikingly romantic.
Would you consider serving as a translator for some shorter works for the English audience?
Let it be not any Chuvash author, to date I don’t know any interesting piece—because of my ignorance, perhaps. And I stand outside Chuvash writers’ communities as an author writing in Russian.
But I’d like to translate some Chuvash folk songs into English. They are really brilliant, and some of them have been known for about two hundred years. There are wedding songs, recruiting songs to be sung when leaving for the Army, guest songs for arrivals and departures, then songs to be sung around the table, and so on…
All in all, there are a few thousand songs which have been archived since 1850. And I’m thinking over that great project, with a dozen of them to begin…
How does writing—and life—differ in the Russian Federation from that in the U.S.S.R.?
When I lived in the U.S.S.R., I wasn’t a writer yet, just a journalist. And we never published creative writing in the weekly, due to the edition’s rules. There were several literary journals and magazines in the Chuvash Republic which received the government’s support and published prose and poetry. I think it was similar all over the U.S.S.R.
Authors had enough payment and a great deal of time to create masterpieces as published books meanwhile. The honorarium they received was high: my fellow writer said he could afford a car with his first book fee, but there was none in sale in 1984, unfortunately.
I am very jealous!
Oh, you don’t want an ‘84 model auto today, do you?
My first car was a dark-brown ‘82 Mustang that stalled at red lights, so I would have definitely been interested not too long ago.
These days it’s vice versa: a wide range of cars for sale, and never enough money to get a new one.
Still it’s very comfortable to live in Cheboksary. In 2002, the city was declared to be “the most comfortable” one in Russia. I’m not a driver; still, it never takes me more than five minutes to get a bus in the city. Visitors find it clean and tidy. There are five bridges to link the parts of the city that make it look beautiful.
I am becoming more and more curious about Cheboksary. What about it, in your opinion, is so comfortable?
I think that is thanks to the city’s size and disposition, first of all. One can easily reach any place in half an hour. And its proportions: the amount of citizens is appropriate to the city’s area—that is algebra and geometry! But now there are traffic jams to deal with as well, so as not to make you jealous.
And I feel comfortable in Cheboksary because I love the city. For the last three years I’ve been living on a rural side, in a remote village called Aslamas, and visiting the city once a week on business. It takes me an hour to get there by bus, and then I enjoy the city and meeting my friends.
How has the Internet affected the audience for your work? What kinds of feedback or responses have you gotten from your readers?
Thanks to the Internet, I turned out to be a writer. Firstly, it was rather for my personal blog, when I decided to post my early works. I told myself, “Just enter a few works! Let it be five!” And then it became 15, 25, 45…
Soon after, I published them at the Prose.ru portal, a very popular one in Russia; anyone can join. It happened in Autumn 2004. Since then, I have had over 5,500 readers there, about one thousand a year.
The amount of the works presented there is about 2,100,000 and written by more than 120,000 authors.
How do you translate your work into English—do you work with another person, or do you do your own translations? Do you write first in Russian and translate, or do you write some stories in English specifically?
I had a good number of stories and was at a loss where to send them in Russia.
My efforts to publish the pieces in print literary journals in Moscow were in vain for several years. And there were not many online magazines—I found just a few. I tried one, only to meet with sharp criticism after my short story got published there. Two critical articles mentioning my work were released, too much for the beginning. I suppose the piece was not an ordinary one, which made it a subject for criticism.
I know that harsh criticism early in one’s publishing career can be very discouraging to an emerging writer. What were some of the criticisms written about your work, and in what ways did it differ from the expected form or style?
Their criticism was just like this: “I know how a piece should look. And it’s not a proper-looking one.” I don’t take this case seriously; the criticism was not professional. In Russia, we have two or three departments of Creative Writing, and a few students study Criticism. These graduates commonly work at any of a dozen Moscow print journals.
As for my piece, the so-called critics expected more adjectives, I suppose, then dialogue and the right conclusion. You know, much prose—not only in Russia—is rather similar: quite appropriate, but with the aspect of new-laid eggs of the same hen.
I have another question about this criticism: in the U.S., only books are typically reviewed. Is it common, in the literary community, to review individual poems or short stories published in literary journals?
Selected poems, when there are several of them published in an issue, could be reviewed, no problem, in the case that they were of some distinction. I think the same case would be with a short story collection, consisting of a few notable works at least. And critics write reviews of a magazines’ current issue, for sure.
As for me, the sameshort story was accepted by an American journal not long ago! You know the piece— “Autumn Ahead,” T.M., not so bad, I hope. So I started publishing in English.
Translation of the pieces is ever mine, though not quite perfect, I’m afraid. It’s rather close to my text in Russian; that’s why it needs editing sometimes. Most of my works are published in English with only proofreading, and few are slightly edited. To my mind, it never made the piece better, but less emotional and quite smooth. I think I need to work closely with an editor to reach a better result.
Since I brought my works to the American literary market in January, every month I had two pieces published, as a rule. And I have some more pieces forthcoming in the U.S.A. in November, while two pieces found a home in some Australian June issues.
That is really quite a few! How many pieces do you normally write each month?
It depends, you know. Now I’m mostly busy translating my works for a chapbook.
And I’m about to start writing in English someday.
When you began to assemble your book of short stories, ИНТИМNOЕ, did you arrange them around a central theme, or did you assemble them over time?
The book “IntimNOe” is a collaborative production by me as a writer and Alex Nasekin as an artist, though the idea was mine. It came after I saw his art and suggested that he publish under the same cover. He was cautious enough to ask for my stories to read first and then responded positively. His artwork and my short stories had much in common, both depicting men and women.
So the problem was not with a theme, and the approach was obvious: frank speaking about life, small pieces of everyday life, making a day sparkle. That’s what a short story collection is appreciated for, I think; I mean stories by Sherwood Anderson, J.D. Salinger, Ernest Hemingway. The last two were highly esteemed in the Soviet Union, and I’m fond of Sherwood Anderson. His “Winesburg, Ohio,” reminds me so much of the U.S.S.R.
I know this book very well—I read it in high school. I grew up in Michigan, right next to the state of Ohio. I had always thought of it as very region-specific, in other words, a classic representation of Midwestern and other American small towns—I am very curious to know what similarities Winesburg has to the U.S.S.R.
I adore the author! Once I ran across my friend, a college student for psychology then, she looked so happy. The reason was that she got some books by Sherwood Anderson that day! I didn’t know she’d been after him. The other day I presented her with Salinger’s “Catcher in the Rye.”
There many small towns in Russia, which are very much like Winesburg: old folks toiling in a garden plot, many middle-aged people out of work, and no opportunities for young people to get jobs. And surely, there is a great deal of wine to make it more like “Winesburg!”
As a rule, such a town is picturesque: its past is rich in historical events and it has its own legends to take pride in.
As for ИнтимNOe, Alex Nasekin and I defined the amount of works to include to make the book comfortable to read and pleasant to look at. We liked the sacred number of 33, Christ’s age; we then included that number of my works and the same number of Alex’s pieces, consecutively. Next, I defined an opening piece and one to finish with. That was all! The order of the other works didn’t matter much: to my mind, they all matched each other.
And Alex did his best to position his works according to my list of short stories. How he managed that I don’t know. Design-wise, the book looked marvelous, I dare say. And it was nominated for design at the Moscow All-Russia Book Fair in Spring 2008.
How did you come to collaborate with Alex Nasekin? To what degree is his artwork a response to your stories, or vice versa?
Alexander Nasekin was a prominent artist in my republic at the time I started writing prose. He had had a few personal exhibitions in Chuvashia, Russia, and abroad: Germany, Italy, France, I suppose. He knew me as an editor of a popular youth weekly in the late 1980’s.
Still, I was a novice in story writing and I depended on Alex to accept my suggestion of a joint venture. Then we managed it together, and it was he who arranged the content of the book properly, as a designer. The cover was made by the well-known book designers Jalyl and Halil Gainutdinov. Thus, the book “IntimNOe” was really a joint production!
My suggestion came about after I had visited Alexander on some business and saw his masterpieces on his wall. All his artworks portrayed men and women, a couple here and there, to be exact. I enjoyed his art. By the way, he won all three prizes at the International Moscow Art Week a few months ago!
I can tell that my short stories and a sequence of his artworks are supplementing and amplifying each other, but it’s never just illustrating.
That is really interesting. What kind of content was published in the youth weekly you edited in the ‘80s? Do such publications still exist?
You know, every issue of a newspaper, a weekly, or a journal is kept at a state periodicals archive, and a copy can be found at the National Library. Surely, the publications of the weekly are preserved there. The content was uncommon for a Soviet newspaper even for the Perestroika period in the late ‘80s: we published many and many letters from readers. The weekly turned out to be a Wall of Democracy on which one could write any idea one wished—a kind of YouTube, only with letters instead of video. Just imagine, it was 1987!
My graduate studies in journalism, in Moscow, occurred during Gorbachev’s Perestroika and Glasnost period. Soon after, I took the position of editor-in-chief with a youth weekly in Cheboksary. My staff and I reached a weekly print circulation of 130,000, which has never been beaten. The population of the republic was, at that time, 1,300,000, and one person out of every ten was a subscriber to the publication.
Very impressive! What about it made it so successful?
The concept was not mine; the idea belonged to George Yanilkin, then my deputy editor and a well-known Chuvash journalist and Moscow University graduate. It was a tabloid concept, the first in Russia, and it was devoted to common people’s life as spoken by them: family events, congratulations, greetings, just hailing a friend, talking politics, discussing recipes, personal romance stories, anecdotes to enjoy.
To finish, here is a literary joke from me:
Chuvashpoet and Nobel Prize nominee Gennady Aigi once wrote a verse: Нет мыши/есть or, in English: no mouse (it) is.
The author meant that a reader can put a comma anywhere he likes:
NO, MOUSE IS (there) or NO MOUSE, it IS (out).
Let me paraphrase it:
An American would exclaim, I suppose:
“No mice? Wow!”
Then a Chinese person would be glad to know:
“No mice? (More) rice!”
A Russian might say: “No mice/eyes.”
A Chuvash would say: “No mouse/mouth.”
My folk don’t like too much talking…
T.M. De Vos is co-editor-in-chief of Gloom Cupboard and author of The Dimestore World, a poetry collection forthcoming from Patasola Press. She is a lover of sad languages, independent republics, and being in transit. Eastern European authors interested in being featured in “The New Хорошо” should contact her at email@example.com.