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Russian Author Maria Stepanova Wins Leipzig Book Prize 2023, Supports Ukraine’s Struggle

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On Tuesday, Maria Stepanova, who is among Russia’s most powerful contemporary writers and is currently living in exile in Berlin, won the distinguished Leipzig Book Prize for European Understanding in 2023. The Russian-Jewish author was born in Moscow in 1973.

The author’s winning novel “In Memory of Memory” that scouts Stalinism and the fall of the Soviet Union was nominated for the Booker Prize in 2021. She was awarded the prestigious Leipzig Book Prize on Tuesday on account of her volume of poetry, “Girls Without Clothes.” Very sensitively it poeticizes the hidden violence against the female body and the asymmetrical power that is the cause of female oppression.

The jury praised Stepanova for the “unconditionality with which she insists on the poetic perception of the world,” while adding that her “work is at the same time an echo chamber of world literature in which Dante, Goethe, and Walt Whitman are just as present as Ezra Pound, Inger Christensen and Anne Carson.”

On the opening day of the 30th Leipzig Book Fair on April 25, the prize distribution ceremony was held. Organized for the “advancement of reconciliation” in Europe since 1994, the journalist Masha Gessen, another Russian who is living in exile in the US, won the award in 2019 for her book “The Future Is History: How Totalitarianism Reclaimed Russia.”

A Russia voice of Dissent

The 2023 award, backed by the author, has come at a controversial time when Russia, the home of the author, poet and journalist, is continuing to invade Ukraine which it defends for safeguarding the Russian language and culture in Ukraine.

As a brutal critic of Vladimir Putin and his administration, Stepanova praised in an interview with German public broadcaster RBB, Ukraine’s continuous fight against the invasion, and called it a fight of “good against evil”.

The Leipzig Book Prize jury saw the need and the importance of a Russian writer wanting to speak out. The statement passed by the jury read, “She helps the non-imperial part of Russia have a literary voice that deserves to be heard throughout Europe.”

Ukrainians doubts regarding ‘good Russians’

Some Ukrainians express resentment about Stepanova winning the award.

On the author’s Facebook profile, a Ukrainian journalist living in Germany, commented,  “I’m fed up with the Germans and their ‘good Russians’ and don’t want to hear anything about Russian culture, because this culture has achieved nothing, only evil.” 

The award won by the  Russian-language Jewish author is viewed as an insult to the citizens of the harassed country (Ukraine) fighting Russia not only for its territorial integrity but also to secure its right to its own culture, own language, own historical image, and scope in the future. Most of the Russian literature and music is banned in Ukraine because of the invasion.

Stepanova told Deutsche Welle (DW), a German media company, “I can certainly understand the feelings of my Ukrainian colleagues. In this situation, which is agonizing for us and immeasurably more terrible for Ukrainians, you can hardly imagine a dialogue right now, hardly a table where Russians and Ukrainians would sit together.”

Additionally, the writer who was the leader of a prominent Russian online platform promoting culture and art, ‘colta.ru’, before being banned, clearly stated that the Russian language should not be understood in equality with Putin’s imperialist plans.

She said, “Ukrainians should also be interested in ensuring that the Russian language does not remain the sole property of those who unleashed this war back in 2014 with the annexation of Crimea. After all, Russian is also the native language of numerous Ukrainian citizens and an important voice in the unique, diverse choir of Ukrainian culture.”

Russian language is a ‘minefield’

In addition, the Russian-Jewish author described her literary works as a struggle for her language. “I think the Russian language needs us more than we need it. And it is in poetry, which is always a language of the future, that salvation lies”, she told DW.

Stepanova correlated the Russian language to that of today’s “minefield”, on receiving the  Leipzig Book Prize. Stepanova told Deutschlandfunk radio, “As a poet in dark times, I work like a mine defuser. I dig up language and clean it up, try to give it a new existence.”

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