In March 2020, Darya Protopopova, author and researcher in literary modernism, published her first novel, 1982, in which she, inspired by Orwell’s dystopia, tells the story of a neurotic, high-strung childhood, set in the pivotal time in Russian history. Anna Kanunikova talked to Darya about her novel that will soon be shown at the 33rd Moscow International Book Fair, and about being a working mother, among many other things.
Anna Kanunikova: Darya, for those who have not read your book yet, but would like to read it or find out more about it after our interview, could you please describe its main focus?
Darya Protopopova: This book grew out of my attempts to preserve the corner of Moscow where I grew up, in text. The area of Moscow surrounding the old Dynamo Stadium has changed a lot lately, so I have been feeling acutely that my memories could also disappear because of those changes. The area has a rich historical past: where we currently have Pravda street, there used to be a large printing house of the former leading Soviet newspaper, linked to major railway lines with its own railway track. The track wasn’t protected: a section of it even emerged into a street. I remember skipping over those tracks as a child and thinking, ‘How strange, a railway line disappearing behind solid metal gates?’ Prior to Pravda Street, the area housed a pottery workshop of Savva Mamontov, the famous Russian entrepreneur and patron of the arts; he moved the workshop there from his estate Abramtsevo in 1900, after his financial ruin. The workshop closed down around 1925; I doubt even my parents heard about it: they were more in awe of another artistic spot in the neighbourhood – the Residence of Artists (городок художников) in Upper Maslovka Street. I also remember things that are more private: skating at an open-air ice rink (it was like a lake of ice on a football field); riding on a tram down my street, Lower Maslovka (that tram route was demolished in 1999)… I have always been afraid that younger Moscovites will not have access to these living memories, in which I can still smell the smells, see the colors and touch the destroyed stadium mosaics, wooden swings in a playground – small yet poignant details. For next generations, for my children, this world has already been lost forever, but through text, these memories can be revived.
Anna Kanunikova: Your novel is autobiographical to a certain degree. Many writers bring details of their own lives to their writing. How important was it for you to endow your novel with such details and how difficult was it to recall them and put them to paper?
Darya Protopopova: It was important for me to compose the whole picture from small and very specific sensory parts, because in my memory I preserved so many of them, and so many of them disappeared from reality with the flow of time. Those details also create a solid, tangible setting for the story. For instance, in one scene, I describe a real shop in a small “gardeners’ comradeship” (садоводческое товарищество); in that shop, the main character, Kira, watches a block of butter being cut with a wire. I guess you can find wires in modern cheese and butter slicers too, but in that Soviet shop they used an ordinary wire that they forced into the butter like a garrotte. It paints a picture, doesn’t it? Outside the shop there were heavy, cast-iron swings: I was terrified of them, and yet they were my rare chance at fun. So I filled the novel with things that once really existed, while allowing the characters to live their own lives, which are only partly a reflection of actual events. An important step for me was finding photographs of those places in that era in private archives; the photos by a wonderful photographer Yuri Zak (@yurizak) were eventually included in the publication and became a visual complement to the text.
Anna Kanunikova: How did it happen that your book was inspired by Orwell? Do you argue with his work?
Darya Protopopova: I never failed to be surprised by how much my own memories of the early 1980s – the period covered in the first part of the book – coincided with the way Orwell once imagined them. However, in recent years, his final masterpiece, 1984, has become so popular that, despite it being set in the dystopian London, many Western readers perceive the story of Winston Smith almost as a documentary of what it was like to live in the real 1984 in a real totalitarian country. That was what I felt like debating. It is common to hear now, with regard to the 1980s Moscow, “Oh, you were in total Orwell back then!” Well, yes and no. Look at one of Yuri’s photographs, for instance, of what used to be a view from my window – the Moscow Machine-Building Plant “Banner of the Revolution” in Lower Maslovka Street. Big Brothers are gazing at you from the banners draped from the plant’s walls to mark an anniversary of the Bolshevik revolution. Yet, I remember walking past those banners, never looking at them, never thinking about them, enjoying the first snow, catching snowflakes with my varezhki, thinking about snowflake structures and how street lights look like dandelions if you squint at them. Such thoughts are outside history, you conquer your drab surroundings in them. Yet they are as real as history and deserve to be remembered, along with a permeating smell of “boiled cabbage”, with which Orwell opens 1984.
Anna Kanunikova: So would it be right to say that you are opposing Orwell’s dystopia with a certain utopian childhood world?
Darya Protopopova: Yes, it was important for me to express my belief that any given period in history has its own, even if tragic, beauty, but at the same time, I do not paint a world where everything is perfect. There are problems, and grievances and disappointments – like in any human life. The story of the heroine is a personal, unique path, but at the same time it is in many ways similar to other stories of that time: in 1988-1991 millions of Russian people had to queue for hours to buy basic products, like eggs or even bread. Every human life has these two sides – personal and historical, and it is an old ongoing debate whether we are defined by the times we live in. We are, but our aim should be to rise up above our times and look at ourselves from the point of view of eternity. My main character, Kira, escapes from the reality of the 1990s into the world of ancient Greece. Later on, she discovers that her mother, with whom she has, to put it mildly, a strained relationship, has her own favourite historical ‘refuge’, if you wish. The novel is titled 1982, but it is the number which the heroine both loves and wishes to outgrow, or surpass, in her mentality.
Anna Kanunikova: 1984 is a political novel. The times that you are describing were an era of great historical and political changes for the country. Is the external political context important for your book, or are the described events merely a story of family and growing up beyond contexts?
Darya Protopopova: I am an anti-political person: as someone who grew up in Soviet Russia, went to university during early years of Russian liberalism, and then moved to England in search of better research facilities, I’ve been, so to speak, on both sides of the barricades. The Cold War mentality is still going on, both in Russia and in the West, and to me it is frankly absurd in the context of the 3rd millennium when (I may sound naïve to many people now) everyone should feel like they are citizens of Planet Earth. Even the very opposition of Russia vs. Western world is so wrong and outdated now, sending us back to the 16th century and Richard Hakluyt’s tales of ‘Muscovy’. I love Orwell; when I was teaching English at a secondary school in London, I was delighted to discover that Animal Farm was on the GCSE curriculum. But then I saw how, after reading that novel, many children end up thinking that the Russians are either power-thirsty pigs or passive cart-horses, working themselves into an early grave without ever questioning the authorities. In order to understand Orwell, one needs to study a lot of history, preferably with various professors, to get multiple points of view, and then read his novels as metaphors, not as propaganda and definitely not as some form of prophetic documentary. Because the 1980s seem like a distant past, when young people read 1984 for the first time, they see it not as a dystopia, but almost as an eyewitness account of real events, just with a change in location (from the USSR to England). This is why my novel starts with Orwell on the Isle of Jura, devastated physically and apprehensive about the world after the Teheran Conference. It is important to remember that such were the circumstances in which he was writing 1984. I wanted to emphasise how that text grew out of his fear for the humanity as a whole, not out of hate towards one particular country. Anyway, this is just a side note: Orwell speaks better for himself in his Preface to the Ukrainian edition of Animal Farm.
Anna Kanunikova: This book is your first work in this format. Tell us what difficulties a young author might face while working on his or her first book, and what have you encountered?
Darya Protopopova: I guess I struggled with the same things many women writers face. I am a working mother, and the process of writing a book while thinking about your children and work is difficult. The difficulty lies not only in the lack of time, but also in the need to free up your mind completely, in order to write. Joyce Carol Oates, famous American novelist, once said, ‘The great enemy of writing is interruption’. I almost cried when I read that quote, as I’ve written pages and pages while my children kept coming into my study asking for help with their homework or simply for a hug. You hug them, and you are feeling bad both as a mother and a writer. My ideal of a writer is still a lonely individual, sitting somewhere in a silent house or in a house where everyone is tiptoeing around you because you are WRITING. When Dostoevsky was writing The Brothers Karamazov, nobody was allowed to enter his section of the house (a separate bedroom and a study) in Staraya Russa. But then, again, by that time he was already an established genius. When you decide to write your first novel, the biggest fear is the fear of ridicule. You don’t want to be that pathetic character who says, ‘I am writing a novel’, and everyone in the room smiles awkwardly. To conquer that fear, I said to myself, ‘I am writing this because I want this imaginary world, these characters to exist no matter what, even if nobody reads about them, even if nobody likes what I am writing. I am writing because those characters are forcing me to put them on paper. I am also writing because I am tired of sad endings.’ In fact, I would have been happy if someone else had written this book. If they had, I would have enjoyed a relaxing couple of years, and still would been told if Kira survives until spring.
Jokes aside, at some point I just I stopped waiting for the right moment and started typing the first pages of my novel on my phone, while commuting to work. One sentence, even one word a day is still better than nothing.
Anna Kanunikova: The topic of female creativity is now more relevant than ever. In literary circles, there is still a conventional division into “female” and “male” literature. What is your attitude to this and would you assign your book to any category?
Darya Protopopova: This phenomenon exists because we are still not used to the female perspective in literature. This perspective definitely exists, it is different from the male perspective, and that’s great. The female perspective can be interesting for both women and men, it is very important to celebrate and promote its existence. There should be more female authors and the “female perspective” should not be regarded as something of questionable value. Guzel Yakhina, author of Zuleikha Opens Her Eyes and My Children, said recently that, in her opinion, attention to gender in literary discussions in modern Russia is ‘over the top’, that in Russia ‘women got all the rights, including the right to vote, long time ago’. Yes, we got the right to vote in 1917, but that does not necessarily make the art of writing easier for us. Yes, in the 20th and early 21st centuries, we had a number of outstanding female authors, including Yakhina herself, but writing as a career choice is still very problematic and scary for women, not just in Russia, but everywhere in the world. For example, if you decided not to have children in order to focus on your art, as a woman you feel like you need to justify that by being a best-selling author, otherwise this whole “writing” thing would seem like a waste of time to your family and friends. And, if you have children, as I said, you are your own worst judge.
In one aspect, though, I agree with Yakhina, or rather, I see how her idea can be developed. In order to write, you need to stop thinking about gender labels. At some point, I’ve asked myself, isn’t being interrupted by my children and my cooking and my menstrual cramps and my worries about how I look in my 30s causing my writing to be of poorer quality than that of a man? The answer is no. If I am worse than a male author, it would not be because I am a woman, it would be because I am less gifted, linguistically or in terms of imagination. But, I hope, I have enough quality material to offer to the reader. The first draft of my novel won in a writing competition, and was praised by writers whom I respect. Then I re-wrote and expanded the draft and published it with the innovative publishing service Ridero.
In short, my book is written from a woman’s point of view, but it is written for everyone and does not target any particular audience in this regard.
Anna Kanunikova: And yet, for whom is this book? Many readers, like myself, may have grown up after this era and are only familiar with echoes of it. Did you primarily wish to appeal to the nostalgia of those who lived at that time, or was there more of an intent to tell about it to those who have never seen it?
Darya Protopopova: For me, it was more of an opportunity to tell a new story and give some understanding of the 1980s-1990s to those who grew up in later times. But I still think that it is important not to write a book with someone specific in mind, otherwise you can get too hung up on conditional expectations. I also wanted to write a story that could happen at any time: after all, building blocks for writers are all the same. A character grows up in a particular neighbourhood, but, like anyone else, she or he has parents or a parent figure, disturbing relatives or neighbours, encounters at school, moments of grief and happiness. However, one thing I am particularly interested in is the trauma that the collapse of the Soviet Union caused in people. In post-Soviet literature and cinema this trauma is often presented through characters who are into crime or alcoholism, or both. I tried to go down a different route – fragile women ending up with phobias or psychological disorders, such as various subcategories of OCD.
Anna Kanunikova: Darya, after the release of your first book, what are you planning to write next? And has this book influenced in any way your current work and ideas for the future?
Darya Protopopova: I would like to change the vector a little from memoiristic stories to something that would let me free up my imagination and humour (even if that humour has a tinge of sadness to it – after all, I am a Russian writer). Now I am finishing a collection of short stories about people who are very different from me. One story is even from the point of view of a parrot. Russian formalist Viktor Shklovsky called this technique “defamiliarization”– I am having great fun with it! Since I still believe in filling pages with details taken from real life, a lot of what I am writing now is about London, where I am spending most of my time. Which does not prevent me from taking part in Russian book fairs, like the upcoming International Book Fair in Moscow.
 Guzel Yakhina in interview with Yulia Varshavskaya for Zima Magazine, 06 March 2019.