Russian poet Maria Stepanova has won the Leipzig Book Prize

Maria Stepanova, a powerful contemporary voice of Russian literature living in exile in Berlin, has been awarded the prestigious Leipzig Book Prize for European Understanding in 2023.

Russian writer Maria Stepanova (Ekko von Schwichow/
Russian writer Maria Stepanova (Ekko von Schwichow/

The Russian-Jewish author, whose novel “Memory of Memory” explores Stalinism and the collapse of the Soviet Union, was nominated for the Booker Prize in 2021 for her volume of poetry “Girls Without Clothes”, honored in Leipzig on Tuesday. ” It has been described as a sensitive and highly poetic study of the often hidden violence against the female body and the power imbalances that drive this oppression.

In a statement, the jury praised the “unconditional insistence on the poetic perception of the world”, and added that Stepanova’s “work is at the same time an echo chamber of world literature with the likes of Dante, Goethe and Walt Whitman. Present as Ezra Pound, Inger Christensen and Annie Carson.” “

The award ceremony was held on April 25 at the opening ceremony of the 30th Leipzig Book Fair. Presented for “progress of reconciliation” in Europe since 1994, another Russian exile, US-based journalist Masha Gessen won for him in 2019. The book “The Future is History: How Totalitarianism Reclaimed Russia.”

Russia’s voice of dissent

Somewhat controversially, the 2023 prize for the Russian-Jewish poet, novelist and journalist, born in Moscow in 1972, comes amid Russia’s ongoing assault on Ukraine – which is carried out partly under the guise of saving the Russian language and culture in the former Soviet Union. State.

Stepanova, a staunch critic of Vladimir Putin’s regime, praised Ukraine’s resistance to the invasion, calling it a battle of “good against bad” in an interview with German public broadcaster RBB.

The Leipzig Book Prize jury noted the importance of a Russian writer willing to speak out.

“She helps make the non-imperialist part of Russia a literary voice that deserves to be heard across Europe,” read the jury statement.

Ukrainians reject ‘good Russians’

But Stepanova’s award has angered some Ukrainians.

“I am fed up with Germans and their ‘good Russians’ and don’t want to hear anything about Russian culture, because this culture has achieved nothing, only evil,” wrote a Ukrainian journalist living in Germany on her Facebook account. She has written She declined a DW request for further comment.

Similar sentiments have been expressed on social media. Giving a prize to a Russian-language writer is seen as an insult to the besieged country’s citizens who are fighting for their territorial integrity, but also for the right to their own culture, their own language, their own historical image and vision of the future. Much Russian literature and music was banned in Ukraine after the invasion.

“I can certainly understand the feelings of my Ukrainian colleagues,” Stepanova told DW. “In this situation, which is painful for us and extremely terrible for Ukrainians, you can’t really imagine dialogue now, hardly at the table where Russia and Ukrainians sit together.”

But the author, who headed, an influential Russian online platform for culture and the arts, says the Russian language should not be equated with Putin’s imperial regime, before banning it.

“Ukrainians should also be interested in ensuring that the Russian language does not become the sole property of those who started this war by annexing Crimea in 2014,” she said. “Finally, Russian is also the mother tongue of many Ukrainian citizens and an important voice in the unique, diverse choir of Ukrainian culture.”

The Russian language is a mine field

Maria Stepanova also regards her literary work as a struggle for her language.

“I think the Russian language is needed more than we need it,” she told DW. “And it is in poetry, which is always the language of the future, that salvation lies.”

After receiving the Leipzig Book Prize, Stepanova compared today’s Russian language to a “minefield”.

“As a poet in dark times, I act as a mine diffuser,” Stepanova told Deutschlandfunk radio. “I dig up the language and clean it up, try to give it a new existence.”

This article was originally written in German.

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