Polina Barskova

Living Pictures

Original Russian title: Живые картины, published in 2014 by Izdatelstvo Ivana Limbakha
(German title: Lebende Bilder)
ca. 218 pages
Polina Barskova
Foto: Polina Barskova
© Ostap Kin

Polina Barskova, born in Leningrad in 1976, was a literary wunderkind and published her début when she was only eight years old. She studied Classical Philology in Saint Petersburg, Slavistics in Berkeley and currently teaches at the Hampshire College in Amherst. Apart from her extensive poetic work – eight volumes of poetry published since 1991 – she dedicates her work as a literary scholar and editor to the poets of the siege of Leningrad. Living Images, her first volume of prose, has been awarded the Andrei Bely Prize. She has been living in the USA since 1998.

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USA & Canada (NYRB), UK & Commonwealth (Pushkin Press), France (Noir sur Blanc)

»A precise, tremendous and beautiful book.« Maria Stepanova

Saint Petersburg, the city of Pushkin, Bely and Akhmatova, the city of the siege of Leningrad, is the imaginary centre of this book

Andrei Bely Prize 2015


They refuse to seek shelter in the cellar and wait it out in the dark, draughty art gallery, defying the cold and the hunger. Mojsej, 25, and Antonina, 37, work at Leningrad’s Hermitage, one of the most beautiful museums of fine arts in the world. In the winter of 1941/42, it becomes their last refuge.

In the beginning, they recite poetry, tell each other the fairy tale of the Snow Queen, re-enact paintings by Rembrandt that are supposed to be evacuated from the museum. When they try to remember a song, their voices fail. Listening into the silence, the repeated calling, ensuring that the other is still there, the conversations between two lovers, reduced to rudimentary fragments, ultimately turn out to be a »documentation of voices« of real people who died during the siege of Leningrad. This focal text of the volume, preceded by ten longer and shorter pieces of prose, is entitled »Living Pictures«. All of them revolve around Saint Petersburg as an imaginary place, even when they are set in Lowell/ Massachusetts, in San Francisco or by a stream in Siberia and deal with childhood, first love or painful losses.

Polina Barskova’s poetic language calls us, through space and time, as witnesses to the scenes and inserts every experience into the larger context of history. By attempting to interweave private recollections and cultural memory, she defies traditional narrative forms – not programmatically but based on an existential experience.


»The gems within the collection Living Pictures are found in the chapter ›Reaper of Leaves‹, lovingly wicked observations on Leningrad’s literature and its ›third-rate writers hopelessly trying to light a fire under the word.‹« Franz Haas, Neue Zürcher Zeitung

»If you engage with Polina Barskova’s venture of [creating] an enchanting experiment with prose, you will experience the continually branching-out contextuality of the arts in living pictures.« Herbert Wiesner, DIE WELT

»When [Barskova] lets Yakov Druskin and his younger brother Michail enter the stage, she manages to create a fascinating portrait of two people on just twelve pages ...« Andreas Platthaus, Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung

»Living Pictures is […] a richly woven book on art, artists, the conditions of their mutual pervasion in times of endurance.« Jonis Hartmann, Fixpoetry

»Living Pictures is a highly poetic book about memories of a Soviet childhood and a reinvention in the USA, with interludes of a choir of voices from St. Petersburg. Polina Barskova’s prose elegantly joins all the genres to create a new narrative form.« Christine Hamel, WDR

»The endeavour […] is not exclusively sombre but of meticulous […] precision and concreteness, full of exuberant narrative and stylistic ideas, sometimes full of humour.« Erich Klein, ORF