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“I said to God I needed 10 years where I would work day and night, and then I would be able to die”

Interview with Elena Chizhova. This Story belongs also to the Saint Petersburg Centre.

By Ginevra Avalle

Oxford, 26th September 2018

Elena Chizhova was born in the city of Leningrad (St. Petersburg) during the Soviet Union. She studied Finance and got a PhD in Economics, specialising in Scientific Management. During the perestroika, her life changed completely. She understood she needed to try to become what she had always dreamed about: being a writer. Her novels talk about Soviet history and social issues. She has been awarded several literary prizes, such as the Russian Booker Prize (2009). She has experience as an editor and involved with PEN since the early 2000’s. She is now Director and part of the Executive Committee of St. Petersburg PEN.

G.A. What is your role within PEN?

E.C. A year ago, we decided that our Executive Committee would exist without a President, so we are a group of people who are acting together. We have actually always been like that. As a former director, I never took decisions without knowing the other members’ opinions. But now the Executive Committee consists of nine members, including me, and I am directing everything inside the organisation. We have gone through a difficult situation in Russia between PEN Centres lately.

G.A. How did you first hear about PEN International and when did you join?

E.C. I first heard about PEN International in 1999. I knew there was some kind of organisation and a Russian PEN Centre, but I was involved in my own activities, so I wasn’t interested. I was the head of the magazine Lettre Internationale (Russian branch). It was the Chief of the Executive Committee in St Petersburg who asked me to become the director. They were having financial troubles with the previous director, I had a good reputation because of my writing and because I was editor in chief, and they needed someone with this kind of experience.

G.A. When was the St. Petersburg Centre created? What led to its creation?

E.C. The Centre was created in 1995. They got the idea from the Russian PEN Centre, which was funded in Moscow in the early 90’s. Ilya Shtemler and Valery Popov were the founding members. Now there are around 60 members. According to the Russian legislation, we were never a branch of the Russian PEN, because it was impossible to register as a related new organisation. Thus, for these 20 years, we have been considered separate organisations. The truth is that in fact we were in their shadow. The people of our Committee were writers, journalists, scientists. We were concentrated in our personal activities and we did not think in the international level, so it was good for us to be represented by Russian PEN abroad. We wrote our protest letters and did our activities. PEN International knew of our existence but did not have a straight contact with us. Our relationship with Russian PEN was not very active. From time to time they invited us to meetings and also from time to time asked opinions about the President of their PEN Centre. We did not agree with Andrei Bitov and at some point, we became very sceptical about the Russian Centre. 

GA. What are the key moments of the history of your Centre?

E.C. A key moment was after the Crimean Crisis, when Russian forces led to a kind of civil war. The minority were against the decision, the majority supported it. It was an explosion: people started to express what they think about their life, something that had not happened after the Soviet Union collapsed. We simply did not use to have serious discussions about that. The general idea was that the USSR was something abominable, but after Crimea people started expressing their disappointment with life in the Russian Federation, their secret dreams, and expectations. Everyone felt that it was necessary to take one side in the Crimean conflict. The Russian PEN Centre supported the occupation of Crimea, talking about loyalty towards the Government. It is true that they are defending journalists and writers, but those are always the ones in the side of the power. That is the main reason why St. Petersburg’s PEN decided to get out of PEN Russia, in which we belonged to the eyes of PEN International. We decided to cut the ties with them. We announced the decision in December 2016, saying we had nothing to do with their points of view. There was a sort of “Civil War” inside the organisation. In January 2017, about 70 writers, journalists, and editors, left the Russian PEN Centre. We wrote a letter to PEN International, because we decided to play a role internationally. We found out that Russian PEN was sending ugly letters to PEN International about us and the 70 members who left their Centre. We invited members of the International Board to visit St. Petersburg in May 2017. Several representatives of the Board, like Carles Torner, Kätlin Kaldmaa and Eugene Schoulgin, came first to St. Petersburg to discuss the situation. They also went to Moscow to have a meeting with Russian PEN. We were included in PEN International in the 2017 Congress. It was an important event; we had spent about a year in that atmosphere of scandal. When I came back from the Congress, members of my PEN Centre came to me to tell me how happy they were that the scandal was finally over. We could now continue doing what we had been doing, like defending St. Petersburg Public library or protesting against the construction of a skyscraper in the city Centre.

G.A. Could you tell me about some of your most important campaigns?

E.C. We have had several important campaigns, I will just name them. When we do one thing it is because we think it is important, so we do our best. For example, we did a campaign against a skyscraper by Gazprom which was offensive for St. Petersburg people. Lots of organisations, writers and artists were together in the idea to preserve our skyline. People from Moscow said we were too naive to think our voice would be heard, but we were passionate about that. Gazprom finally built the skyscraper in another place, far from the Centre. I actually like the building itself, it looks nice, but it didn’t belong in the middle of the city. We like to say we went on saving the city that our parents saved during the Second World War. That is the feeling: the city belongs to us, because it was saved by them.

We have done many other local campaigns, like when the local authorities wanted to give the St. Isaacs Cathedral to the Russian Orthodox Church. There is a difficult relation between the Intelligentsia and the Orthodox Church. In the 1990’s, the Church had a great credit from the side of Intelligentsia. But after that, the Church became like the oligarchy, an ideological department of the new politburo of the President. We found it outrageous that the authorities wanted to give away the St. Isaac’s Cathedral and we united with the people to protest, together with other civil organisations. They stepped back. 

Lately we have been campaigning for Oleg Sentsov, together with the Free Word Association. We have written to the authorities asking for his release. Yuri Dmitriev is also an important case; he is a historian. They are afraid of and offended by people who investigate the past, their ancestors. They want to stop people who work on memory. He is not in Siberia like Sentsov, but in Petrozavodsk not very far from St.Petersburg. We are waiting for his second trial. In the first, he was found not guilty and we were very happy. But now there is a second case, in which they accuse him of pornography. They are forcing her adopted daughter to testify against him. It is just a way to shut him down. It started as a local case, but now it is known in all Russia. Moscow keeps his eye on him, it is too loud. We as St. Petersburg PEN made an event supporting him a month ago, and his daughter came to take part in it. We are sure that he is a political prisoner. Some members of PEN Moscow and St. Petersburg PEN went to Petrozavodsk, where the case was starting, they visited him several times and wrote things to help him.

G.A. What would you like to see achieved with the Exhibition for your Centre?

E.C. My experience is that people start cooperating in two situations: when they have common problems and when they just like each other. These are the only effective ways to work together; otherwise people are only involved in their personal activities. To be honest, I do not trust very much in giving information to everybody so that everyone knows who we are… I don’t think this will make people cooperate with us immediately. But it will help to learn about the existing PEN Centres and to analyse the ways they work and organise their activities. For example, I will hear from projects from the Norwegians and learn how they work. It is a good way to incentive the circulation of ideas amongst PEN.

G.A. Is there anything you would like to share regarding your experience as a writer and a member of PEN?

E.C. When I do something for my PEN Centre, I am open to people. My personal life is not connected to PEN, though. It’s not because I don’t think it is serious, but just because when I am writing I am closed from the whole world. I don’t think the two worlds are interrelated.

Our Centre takes parts in both sides of PEN’s activities: campaigns and literature. Every month we hold literary events, we invite people to give talks and presenting the books, not only to our members. We have a seminar dedicated to prose writing. I participate in this seminar as a writer, not as a director. For 20 years, I was a mother, a businesswoman, a scientist during daytime, and a writer during night-time. It is a habit that I have: the two parts of my professional life are independent; I can switch them on and off. When I am a director, I don’t feel like a writer and vice-versa.

G.A. Now let’s talk a little bit about you. When did you start writing?

E.C. During the Perestroika, I saw I could finally become what I wanted: a writer. But I did not want to be a sort of Soviet writer, or underground writer. I wanted to avoid ending up in exile, because I am not a hero and did not want to sacrifice myself for that. I respected them for that, but I didn’t want to be an underground person. I suffered a lot. I wrote for myself for 20 years without publishing. When Perestroika came, I thought it was a chance I had to take. I had been a businesswoman for years because I needed to feed my family. One of my novels was dedicated to this time, but it is not translated into English, only into German. However, The Time of Women won Russian Booker Prize and got translated into 17 languages, including Arabic and Chinese. 

But there was a crazy experience that I had to deal with that made me realise I had to stop and become a writer. I found myself in a big fire in the middle of the sea, in a boat in the late 90’s. Everyone was crying and screaming, there was a lot of panic. After six hours, the crew managed to stop the fire. When someone knocked on the door to say it was over, I realised for how long it had lasted. At some point, I had climbed and looked at the deck. The fire was in the sky and naked members of the crew were trying to stop it; their clothes would get burn. There were some goods on the deck, they carried them from Istanbul. It was a real hell. When the captain sent the message asking for help, the Turkish authorities said we were not in their waters. The Ukrainians said they would like to help, but that they didn’t have any fuel. We were completely alone. It is hard to imagine all that.

While I sat in my cabin, it was the second time of my life I spoke with God. I don’t like to disturb neither gods nor people with problems that I can solve myself. But with the fire, I needed some assistance. I offered to God a deal. I said: ‘I understand I am sinning; I am not so good, not perfect. But lots of people did a lot to make me a writer. And it would be silly to kill me now when I am about to fulfil all these efforts and expectations. I said: ‘I needed 10 years, where I would work day and night, and then I would be able to die’. After 10 years, I won the Russia Booker Prize. For me, it means that we fulfilled our contract. 

G.A. Do you feel very attached to St. Petersburg?

E.C. I am the fourth generation living in St. Petersburg from my mother’s branch. My great grandmother arrived in the end of the 19th century. From that time on we’ve lived there. I have just written a new novel that will be published in Russian called The City Drawn from the Memoir. I describe the history of my family during the whole 20th Century. It is a sort of combination between the memories I have of my conversations with my great grandmother, my mother, and the history of the city. It talks about what St. Petersburg means for my generation; how it formed our attitudes and the role it played in the history of the USSR. 

G.A. Do you feel the need to self-censoring when writing?

E.C. When I write novels, I am free. From time to time, I have to find clever words, which is like censoring myself. It depends on the situation. When I speak in television, I try not to create problems to the people who invited me. I do not only speak for the people who share my point of view, but for everyone: I have to find a diplomatic way to express my ideas. 

The Russian situation is difficult to explain. There are some free mass media (like Novaya Gazeta or Echo of Moscow). At the same time there are some forms of repressions and dangers, but it is not like in the USSR.