"The Politics of Remembering": Friday Colloquium with MU Prof. Martha Kelly


For scholars who work at the intersection of literature and political life, the answer to the question guiding MU Associate Professor of Russian Martha Kelly’s February 24 talk at the Kinder Institute—does poetry matter in the public sphere?—is (and has to be) self-evidently ‘yes.’ As Prof. Kelly would go on to demonstrate in presenting her research on Russian poet Olga Sedakova, though, the complexity and joyful nuance of this query lies in the sub-questions that it gives way to, namely how and where can poetry be politically impactful.

As for the particular case of Sedakova, the question of how poetry can matter must be placed in conversation with claims that her work’s radiant imagination and spiritual depth speak to its inherently apolitical, non-contributive nature (particularly when set against the backdrop of the realism that characterizes large swaths of Russia’s present poetic landscape). Far from the case, Prof. Kelly argued that what critics deem escapist and impossibly disconnected about Sedakova’s poetry is actually indicative of a new language of politics and a new apparatus of memorialization that her work forges. The gentle desperation of a poem like Sedakova’s “A Mountain Lullaby,” for example, does not evade reckoning with historical trauma but instead constitutes a lyric mode of and voice for defying the patriotic, conservative suppression of unpleasant truths in which contemporary Russian political culture trades.

Especially when we shift the frame to consider not only how but also where poetry can matter, we see how Sedakova fashions remembrance as an act of resistance. For Sedakova, the answer to this question of where poetry matters—on Facebook of all places—might at first glance seem somewhat odd to American social media users accustomed to the platform’s critical thinness. As Prof. Kelly explained, however, Russian Facebook is actually a digital forum for public intellectuals—a space, that is, where dissident poetry is seriously considered. Within this new context, Sedakova’s timeline cannot be approached as an expression of whimsy but, instead, as an ongoing ritual of commemoration. Much like her description of the act of reading religious icons, as our gaze shifts from center-to-periphery on the timeline, we are witness to Sedakova’s performance of weaving together and un-weaving the solemn and the ephemeral. As meaning disappears only to be re-constituted, we understand memory as a moral, religious, and political imperative—as, Prof. Kelly concluded, a means of un- and recovering repressed stories and thus resisting those forces which damn citizens’ recollection of what is difficult and problematic about their shared history.

Martha Kelly received her Ph.D. from Stanford University and currently serves as Associate Professor of Russian in MU’s Department of German and Russian Studies. She is the author of Unorthodox Beauty: Russian Modernism and Its New Religious Aesthetics (Northwestern University Press, 2016) and the co-editor, with Swarthmore College Prof. Sibelan Forrester, of Russian Silver Age Poetry: Texts and Contexts (Academic Studies Press, 2015). Her research focuses on the unity of poetry, religion, and visual culture, from the late nineteenth century through the present, and her scholarship has appeared in journals including Russian History, Slavic and East European Journal. At MU, she teaches courses on Russian civilization, the Russian poetic tradition, and Dostoevsky and Tolstoy, among other topics.