From left to right: Geor­gy Chulkov, Mariya Petro­vykh, Anna Akhma­to­va, Osip Mandelstam

Grow­ing up as a Russ­ian immi­grant in Boston, I mem­o­rized a lot of poet­ry. It was a com­mon prac­tice in the Sovi­et Union, part of all school cur­ricu­lums, and my par­ents want­ed to pass it on to me even though they were rais­ing me in the US. In exchange for spoon­fuls of sweet con­densed milk, I would recite Osip Man­del­stam, Anna Akhma­to­va, and oth­ers; and decades lat­er, I can still recall the rhythms, the musi­cal pat­terns of the lan­guage, and some of the lines. 

I was not some­one who always want­ed to be a writer. I was inter­est­ed in the visu­al arts and had a good eye, but I was not a nat­ur­al sto­ry­teller. It was only when I got to col­lege that a friend con­vinced me to take a writ­ing class with him. I was study­ing pho­tog­ra­phy and feel­ing frus­trat­ed by the process — I was too shy to pho­to­graph strangers, and the kind of elab­o­rate pho­tos I set up were cum­ber­some and com­pli­cat­ed. In the writ­ing class, I could just make things up! I didn’t need anybody’s per­mis­sion or to coor­di­nate with any­one else’s sched­ule. The first things I wrote were poems — they weren’t musi­cal in their lan­guage like the Russ­ian poems I grew up read­ing, but they were prose poems that depict­ed arrest­ing and unset­tling moments. It took me a while, but I slow­ly fig­ured out how to string these images togeth­er until they formed scenes, sto­ries, and then even­tu­al­ly books.

For my most recent nov­el, Moth­er Doll, I drew on my life as a Sovi­et immi­grant. Like me, my main char­ac­ter, Zhe­nia, grew up in Boston and then moved to Los Ange­les and raised a child there. Unlike me, Zhe­nia finds her­self con­vers­ing via a psy­chic medi­um with her dead great-grand­moth­er, Iri­na, a Russ­ian Jew­ish rev­o­lu­tion­ary. In order to cre­ate Irina’s char­ac­ter, I read wide­ly about the Russ­ian Rev­o­lu­tion and took inspi­ra­tion from the lives of sev­er­al poets from that time peri­od, espe­cial­ly ones whose work I mem­o­rized as a child.

In exchange for spoon­fuls of sweet con­densed milk, I would recite Osip Man­del­stam, Anna Akhma­to­va, and oth­ers; and decades lat­er, I can still recall the rhythms, the musi­cal pat­terns of the lan­guage, and some of the lines. 

Much like Iri­na in Moth­er Doll, Osip Man­del­stam was Jew­ish and liv­ing in St. Peters­burg dur­ing the Rev­o­lu­tion. At that time, Jews in Rus­sia were most­ly con­fined to cer­tain geo­graph­i­cal regions — but a scant few, most of whom belonged to the mer­chant class, were giv­en papers to live in major cities. Man­del­stam grew up more priv­i­leged than most, as the son of leather mer­chants. He stud­ied in the Sor­bonne in France and at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Hei­del­berg in Ger­many, and then at the Uni­ver­si­ty of St. Peters­burg. The lat­ter insti­tu­tion was not open to Jew­ish stu­dents at the time, but Man­del­stam was some­how grant­ed admission.

Also like Iri­na, Man­del­stam was a sup­port­er of the Rev­o­lu­tion until he wasn’t. After the Bol­she­viks seized pow­er, there was a lot of pres­sure put on him to write pro­pa­gan­dist poems that praised the new order. His poems were deeply per­son­al and human­is­tic, and he was not inter­est­ed in writ­ing pro­pa­gan­da. His work often empha­sized the indi­vid­ual over the col­lec­tive, which made him a prob­lem for the cen­sors. In 1933, he wrote a poem that was crit­i­cal of Stal­in, and for this he was arrest­ed, tor­tured, and exiled out of the city to a small vil­lage in the Ural Moun­tains. He tried to return to Moscow, and he was arrest­ed again in 1937. He then dis­ap­peared into the labor camps where he died.

Many of the poets and artists from this time peri­od had once been sup­port­ive of and excit­ed by the Rev­o­lu­tion. They were drawn to its ener­gy and zeal, to the promise of a life more just than the one they had lived under the tsar. Most of these peo­ple were dis­ap­point­ed. Some escaped, immi­grat­ing to France and else­where. Oth­ers were dri­ven under­ground, and many more were killed.

Moth­er Doll draws on Mandelstam’s biog­ra­phy and even fea­tures a char­ac­ter named in his hon­or. As a child, I would try to pic­ture what it would be like to be brave like Man­del­stam was, stand­ing up to injus­tice and writ­ing poems about a dic­ta­tor who would sure­ly seek ret­ri­bu­tion. I also thought about what it would be like to be so attuned and true to one’s art that writ­ing was the only way for­ward, the only way through.

Katya Apekina is a nov­el­ist, screen­writer, and trans­la­tor. Her debut nov­el, The Deep­er the Water, the Ugli­er the Fish, was named a Best Book of 2018 by Kirkus, Buz­zfeed, Lithub, and oth­ers, was a final­ist for The LA Times Book Prize, and has been trans­lat­ed into Span­ish, Cata­lan, French, Ger­man, and Ital­ian. She is the recip­i­ent of an Eliz­a­beth George grant, an Olin Fel­low­ship, the Ale­na Wil­son prize, and a Third Year Fic­tion Fel­low­ship from Wash­ing­ton Uni­ver­si­ty in St. Louis, where she did her MFA. She has done res­i­dences at VCCA, Playa, Ucross, Art Omi: Writ­ing, and Fon­da­tion Jan Michal­s­ki in Switzer­land. Born in Moscow, she moved to the US when she was three years old and cur­rent­ly lives in Los Ange­les, Cal­i­for­nia. Moth­er Doll is her sec­ond novel.