“Freedom is very personal. It means different things to different people”
Lyudmila Ulitzkaya (born 1943 in Davlekanovo) is a writer, screenwriter and translator. For her work she got several international awards and nominations, e.g. the Russian Booker Price. She was interviewed by the journalist and translator Nikita Verlichko (born 1990 in Novosibirsk) who studied economy and Political Journalism at the HSE faculty of Political Science.
Verlichko: What was your first memory like?
Ulitzkaya: Moscow's yards — they were fairly poor, fairly ragged. Two barracks in the yard. And the newcomers, consequently. There were quite a few real Muscovites, and after the war there were mostly newcomers.
Verlichko: You lived in a communal apartment.What was your relationship like with your neighbours?
Ulitzkaya: Very good. My mother was wonderful by nature. She was an absolutely lovely woman — she was sweet, cheerful and friendly. And I have to say that although there were, of course, scandals in our communal apartment, but my mother was the kind of person who would wash it all away like water. But my parents were also scared of the authority, afraid of being reported. They were partly scared of neighbours who could do a lot of harm by reporting them. Of course, in this regard it was a very torturous life.Our family has always suffered from this authority. We couldn’t stand it. And my father was a member of the [Communist] party—my grandfather sometimes made fun of him. No… We had no illusions.
Verlichko: Your paternal grandfather is the author of several books. At the same time, your maternal great-grandmother wrote poems in Yiddish. Whereas your mother was a biochemist, and your father was an engineer, a scientist. Have you been hugely interested in science or literature since childhood?
Ulitzkaya: I was preparing for a career in biology, of course. I really liked biology. My mother was a biochemist, and, sure enough, I was very drawn to it. But it didn't work.
Verlichko: Do you remember the age or the moment when you realised that you would become a biologist and enter the Faculty of Biology?
Ulitzkaya: I knew it since I was a kid, because I really loved my mom's laboratory. I would come there — the magic glass, coloured solutions, dogs, the vivarium. I got all this in the end. Not for long, but I did.
Verlichko: Did you plan an academic career after graduation?
Ulitzkaya: Yes, I wanted to do science, of course. After graduation I worked for two years at the Institute of General Genetics. But then our entire staff was dismissed.
Verlichko: It's been mentioned somewhere, and I don't know if it's true, that you were caught reading and reprinting samizdat.
Ulitzkaya: Yes, that's why we were dismissed. Samizdat. There was a whole group of young people reading, and the laboratory was just closed. But no one was imprisoned, thankfully. We gave it to the typist to reprint, and either she or her relatives ran to the KGB and reported us. You know, you may call me a dissident if necessary. I have never defined myself that way. But I’ve been friends with people who were part of this movement, I was friends with them, I was acquainted with them, I supported them in every possible way when it was needed.
Verlichko: In your novel “Daniel Stein, Interpreter” one character says: “I have been interested all my life in the topic of personal freedom. It always seemed to me to be the supreme blessing”. Can you agree with these words?
Ulitzkaya: The thing is that freedom is very personal. It means different things to different people. Besides that, freedom is perceived differently at different life stages. For a child walking around kindergarten, freedom means climbing over the fence. I feel like a free person. I don’t feel bound by anything. There are no such things in life that I would like to have, to do, to eat or to see — and I couldn’t because of the lack of freedom. No. I can do it these days. Perhaps I may not have enough money to go to Mexico for the premiere of the new play by a director acquaintance. It would cost a lot, and it’s a little tough. But I don’t feel like there are any restrictions to my freedom.
Verlichko: When did you experience the most restrictions? And how has it changed over time?
Ulitzkaya: Of course, in the Soviet times, when restrictions were all around. It’s ridiculous to talk today of how many of them were there. There were way more restrictions. When believers couldn't go to church, because someone would find out about it, report them, then they would be fired,that kind of thing. But it didn't really affect me. I didn’t have a full time job for a long time. So, there was no need to measure your behaviour neither with the committee of the party nor with trade union committee or with the bosses. I wasn’t interested in this famous triangle stamped on your personal reference.
Verlichko: Back to your biography. What were you doing after the lab was closed?
Ulitzkaya: I just didn't work for nine years. I was married, had one child, then another. I read books. And then I started working not in biology, but in theatre. I was writing plays back then. Since then, I still write plays sometimes, and I still have a particular interest in theatre.
Verlichko: When did you publish your first book?
Ulitzkaya: The first book came out in 1993. It was published in French, not in Russian, by [Éditions] Gallimard, as a fluke. The first book in Russian was published in 1994.
Verlichko: How come the first book was published in French?
Ulitzkaya: My friend was working in France at the time. She took the manuscript with her and showed it to translator she knew who translated for Gallimard. She liked it. She brought it to Gallimard. I got a contract that completely shocked me via mail. In Russia, I had some publications in magazines. And then suddenly Gallimard, the best publisher in France, the most famous, offers me a book. It was wonderful, of course.
[Europe used to be] Some remote space that probably didn't exist at all. It was from the realm of fiction. It was impossible to imagine, and one couldn't even think of ever seeing Paris, London, or New York.
Ulitzkaya: You know, it was roughly like in Dumas' books. Some remote space that probably didn't exist at all. It was from the realm of fiction. It was impossible to imagine, and one couldn't even think of ever seeing Paris, London, or New York.
Verlichko: How did you perceive Europe when you started visiting it, when you saw it?
Ulitzkaya: You know, the thing is, for me, Europe started with Paris. And I didn’t understand Paris during my first visit, because I was walking there, and I had a feeling that I was walking between postcards. The city was so cut off from me. But when I started visiting it more often, I became both warm and interesting, of course. And I found friends there. The city isn't really made of buildings — it's mostly made of people.
Verlichko: When you started visiting Europe, did you feel the difference between Eastern and Western Europe?
Ulitzkaya: First of all, there was nothing in common. A poor miserable life, a communal apartment. On one half of the table there was mom and dad's thesis research, on the other half of the table there was a frying pan. One room. Everybody lived that way.
Verlichko: Do you perceive Europe and the USSR as opposites? Has Moscow ever been a part of Europe?
Ulitzkaya: No, never. Never. Of course, there was Russian culture, much more closely linked to the European world than the Soviet one. Obviously. From a young age I was very fond of Pasternak, who was surely a European. He was a person who got his philosophical education in Germany. He had brilliant knowledge of languages. The Silver Age of Russian literature was absolutely unique. And yet, it was amazing with its huge European background. Soviet literature was also a huge cultural decline in a way, though not lacking some interesting things. The Russian avant-garde was an interesting movement, after all, and also purely Russian. But of course, we generally didn’t come close to Europe in many respects.
Verlichko: Still not.
Ulitzkaya: Yes, of course.
Verlichko: In the 90’s you got a scholarship and went to Germany.What did you do there?
Ulitzkaya: I was working, writing my books. That was a very Kulturträger German work. They were spending a lot of money to bring Russian, Polish writers — writers of whichever origin basically — and giving them an opportunity to work. I’ve stayed there on scholarship many times, and I’m very grateful for that. Books published from the 90’s to the beginning of the21st century were mostly written in Germany.
Verlichko: At the beginning of the conversation, you said that European cities were like realms of fiction to you when you were a child. Does it still feel that way?
You see, the world is made in a planetary way. That's the last important thing I'm going to tell you today. The thing is that young people of today— I am very fond of them — are willing to work wherever they are able to obtain the most interesting job. They know languages already, and they easily learn the new ones. I see these modern young people everywhere. They come from Russia, and they can study anywhere. I look at young people with much hope and joy. They are less aggressive than our generation, they are much more educated. And they are much freer. So, I wish for all of us a good “movement” with all my heart.
Verlichko: Lyudmila Evgenyevna, thank you very much for your time.