Lucy Popescu

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Film review – Half A Yellow Sun

Posted by lucypopescu on April 17, 2014

Half of a Yellow SunHalf Of A Yellow Sun takes its name from the flag of Biafra, the breakaway state which existed in Igbo-dominated south-east Nigeria from 1967 to 1970. The brutal civil war that followed the secession is the backdrop to Biyi Bandele’s absorbing feature-film debut, adapted from Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s award-winning novel.

Spanning a decade, Half Of A Yellow Sun opens in 1960 with newsreel footage of Nigerians celebrating Independence from Britain. We are then introduced to and follow the fortunes of Olanna (Thandie Newton) and her twin sister Kainene (Anika Noni Rose), the middle-class, well-educated and headstrong daughters of a wealthy Lagos businessman.

The two sisters begin to drift apart when Olanna decides to move to Nsukka to be near her boyfriend, Odenigbo (Chiwetel Ejiofor) a radical university lecturer. Olanna herself accepts a position in the Sociology department. Kainene meanwhile takes on the family business in Port Harcourt and becomes involved with Richard (Joseph Mawle), a young British writer. Olanna and Odenigbo’s relationship is initially rocky, exacerbated by his mother (Onyeka Onwenu), who takes an instant dislike to Olanna and tries her utmost to split them up. But it is Olanna’s betrayal of Kainene that is the more shocking and leaves the sisters bitterly estranged.

Just as Olanna and Odenigbo’s relationship finds a surer footing they are forced to flee their home with Odenigbo’s daughter and Ugwu (John Boyega), their loyal houseboy. Nsukka is one of the first Biafran towns to be captured by the northern Nigerian forces. The family, driven by circumstances, are forced to endure much hardship as they join the flood of refugees. Meanwhile, Kainene, forced out of Port Harcourt, has set up a refugee camp and it becomes inevitable that the two sisters’ lives will collide once again.

Clearly, Bandele understands the complexities of Nigerian history, tribal fault lines, and geography and he rises superbly to the challenge of conveying the sweep and chaos of the civil war through film. While Ngozi Adichie’s novel is told from multiple perspectives and jumps back and forth in time, Bandele focuses on Olanna and Odenigobo and wisely decides to give their story a linear structure. The narrative is punctuated with archival news footage and maps that show the path of the family’s flight. He is well served by a stellar cast who deftly convey the seismic shifts in emotion as they move from a world of privilege to one of privation.

Bandele interweaves the political and personal to great effect and the end result is a stunning evocation of 1960s Nigeria, sumptuously shot by John de Borman. The interior scenes of familial life and moments of intimacy are in sharp contrast to the exterior shots depicting the chaos and brutality of war. This is most powerfully realised in Olanna and Odenigbo’s wedding scene which is interrupted by a horrific shell attack.

It’s not all war and bloodshed. Much of our pleasure derives from the attention to detail — the costumes, hair, makeup and a terrific soundtrack. Bandele’s debut is both elegant and eloquent.

Originally published by

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Book Review – The Maya Pill

Posted by lucypopescu on April 10, 2014

The Maya PillGerman Sadulaev’s sprawling, unruly novel, set mainly in St Petersburg, is a blistering satire on Russia’s political corruption, economic instability and moral bankruptcy. Maximus, a mid-level manager at Cold Plus, a frozen food import company, is just one cog in the giant wheel of post-Soviet capitalism. When a mysterious box of pink pills turns up in a Dutch shipment of frozen French fries, Maximus decides to sample them and so begins a hallucinogenic journey that propels him into an uncertain future.

Maximus dreams of a distant past where his ancestor, Saat, a horse-herder, becomes the Great Khagan of ancient Khazaria. This is a land where people sleepwalk miles across the steppe to vote in the elections. Their minds are “divided into different chambers, each swarming with its own political party” wittily referred to as “peehives”. Later, Maximus learns that the Khazaris developed a toxic fish paste which was imported to central Europe and became a forerunner to the pink pills.

Satan opens and closes the book. The plot, such as it is, focuses on Maximus’s attempts to break free from the constraints of “being an ordinary office drudge” and resist the Devil’s temptations. His job title is “Leading Specialist” but as he remarks: “That’s a great jumping off place for a career if you’re twenty-five. For a man of thirty-five it’s the kiss of death, a complete dead end.” Maximus is also an aspiring writer and, in a bid to understand “what makes him tick”, transports himself into the mind of his counterpart in Qingdao, Ni Guan, who is being wooed with classical Chinese poetry by a young office worker.

Sadulaev, a Russian-Chechen now living in St Petersburg, has an extraordinary imagination. His postmodern tale is a challenging, sometimes frustrating, read, but there are patterns in the chaos and at various times the reader’s perseverance is richly rewarded. Sadulaev is slyly critical of Putin’s authoritarian regime, describing the effects of the pink pills as “suppression of the will… and the inducement of a hallucinatory state.” The passages involving Maximus’s Dutch colleague, Peter, who assumes that because he is in Russia he can “purchase” a woman for half the price he’d pay in the rest of Europe, Maximus’s obsession with Britney Spears and his rant about an unnamed middle-aged female pop star (Cher) are less appealing.

The Maya Pill is a potent mix of political satire and meditations on Russia’s past, interspersed with vignettes about office and pop culture, mock treatises on Russian history, and meta-fictional asides. As Maximus remarks: “Books are also pills!” This one is not for the faint-hearted.

Originally published in The Independent


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Film Review – Dangerous Acts Starring The Unstable Elements Of Belarus

Posted by lucypopescu on March 27, 2014

dangerous actsIn Dangerous Acts StarringThe Unstable Elements Of Belarus (2013)Madeleine Sackler documents a year in the life of the Belarus Free Theatre (BFT), an acclaimed theatrical troupe forced to work underground in their native country. President Lukashenko, often dubbed Europe’s last remaining dictator, has ruled Belarus with an iron fist for the past twenty years. Free expression is suppressed and dissidents are frequently harassed or imprisoned.

As all the theatres are state owned, BFT has, since its founding in 2005, created secret performances that explore issues deemed sensitive by the state. As well as politics these include suicide, sexual orientation and alcoholism. The group is denied a government license and charging for admission is therefore deemed “illegal economic activity”. Most members of BFT have suffered for their art. They have been detained, harassed, lost their jobs in state theatre or been denied the opportunity to work elsewhere.

Beginning in 2010, Sackler records the performers’ dismay as President Lukashenko wins another term in power and their differing fates in the bitter crackdown that followed the rigged elections. Fearing arrest, for having supported opposition candidate Andrei Sannikov, the company’s co-founders, Vladimir Scherban, husband and wife team Natalia Koliada and Nikolai Khalezin, and veteran actor Oleg Sidorchik are forced to seek asylum in Britain.

Interviews with members of the troupe are combined with scenes from their shows performed in Belarus, New York, Edinburgh and London. These include Belarus 2011 and Being Harold Pinter – both dramatised the torture testimonies of Belarusian dissidents. Particularly affecting are the images of children in Minsk playing at arresting and handcuffing each other and the BFT’s attempts to interest the British public in the plight of Belarusian dissidents while leafleting in London. Sackler also uses footage of the demonstrations in Minsk, showing protestors being brutally hauled into vans by the KGB. Not surprisingly, all of the film shot in Belarus had to be smuggled out of the country.

Dangerous Acts might have benefited from a brief overview of Belarus, its economic ties to Russia and President Lukashenko’s rise to power for those who know little about the authoritarian regime. Sackler plunges in without offering much in the way of an introduction. Many non-theatre goers will probably never have heard of BFT and comparisons will inevitably be made with the better known Russian punk band, Pussy Riot, and their particular brand of performance art as protest. But these are minor caveats. Dangerous Acts is an absorbing documentary that shines a light on the courage and talents of its subjects. Their bravery is saluted in the closing sequence by various celebrities, from the late Philip Seymour Hoffman and Lou Reed to Mick Jagger and Sir Tom Stoppard.

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Human Rights Watch Film Festival – London

Posted by lucypopescu on March 19, 2014

untitledIn its 18th year, the Human Rights Watch (HRW) Film Festival will run from 18 to 28 March 2014 with a programme of 20 award-winning documentary and feature films screening at the Curzon Mayfair, Curzon Soho, Ritzy Brixton and the Barbican.

Jehane Noujaim’s award-winning documentary The Square (2013) serves as the Festival’s fundraising benefit at Curzon Mayfair on 18 March. Noujaim follows a group of young activists, including British-Egyptian actor Khalid Abdalla (United 93, The Kite Runner), as they demonstrate in Cairo’s main square and campaign for political change. They witness and document the overthrow of Hosni Mubarak’s 30-year-long dictatorship in 2011, the military’s brutality during the protests, the rise in popularity of the Muslim Brotherhood and the military’s removal of Mohamed Morsi, Egypt’s first democratically elected president, in 2013.The Square

Much of the footage, often captured on hand held cameras and mobile phones, gives a real sense of immediacy to the demonstrations in Tahrir Square. Particularly poignant is the central relationship between articulate campaigner Ahmed Hassan and fellow activist Magdy Ashour, who is a member of the Muslim Brotherhood. When Morsi comes to power in 2012, many of the revolutionaries, like Ahmed, feel betrayed, accusing the Islamist party of having struck a deal with the military. The Square shows how friendships and allegiances are tested at moments of political crisis and how quickly the tide can change. This is highlighted by the horrific mass killing by security forces of almost 1,000 Muslim Brotherhood protestors on14 August 2013.

On 20 March, the Opening Night of the festival at the Curzon Soho will see the UK premiere of Madeleine Sackler’s Dangerous Acts Starring the Unstable Elements of Belarus. The Belarus Free Theatre is an underground collective of performers who used to hold guerrilla performances in Belarus, critical of President Lukashenko and his repressive policies. Using smuggled footage and uncensored interviews, Sackler follows the attempted censorship and imprisonment of various members and the eventual flight into exile of founding members, Nikolai Khalezin and Natalia Koliada.

big menOther highlights of the festival include Rachel Boynton’s enlightening film, Big Men (Saturday 22 March 18.30 | Ritzy Brixton, Sunday 23 March 18.00 | Curzon Soho) about American oil investment in Ghana (following the discovery of a large offshore oil field). This is adroitly contrasted with the governmental corruption and perennial problems experienced by the older oil nation Nigeria. Boynton reveals the pitfalls of oil production from a corporate and personal perspective but allows audiences to draw their own conclusions. She gained unprecedented access to various factions interested in African oil, including Kosmos Energy, a Texas-based oil startup, keen to invest and reap rich rewards in Ghana and the militants sabotaging operations in the Niger Delta.

Another memorable feature is the UK premiere of Before Snowfall (Wednesday 26 March 20.45 | Barbican and Thursday 27 March 20.45 | Ritzy Brixton), Hisham Zaman’s extraordinary film about honour killing. An Iraqi Kurd, Siyar, the oldest son in his household, follows his older sister, Nermin, through Europe to Oslo, Norway after she flees an arranged marriage. The film is damning indictment of this barbaric tradition and also exposes the various criminal connections that help to sustain the practice.

The HRW film festival has fast become one of the best showcases for documentaries and features that draw attention to the various human rights abuses and crimes being committed around the world with impunity. This year, it’s organised around five themes: Armed Conflict and the Arab Spring; Human Rights Defenders, Icons and Villains; Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender (LGBT) Rights; Migrants’ Rights and Women’s Rights and Children’s Rights.


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Book Review – Talking to Ourselves

Posted by lucypopescu on February 24, 2014

talking to ourselvesIt is almost impossible to describe the multitude of emotions experienced on the death of a loved one. It is often hard to find the right words and you can feel emotionally isolated. Andrés Neuman’s gem of a novel, Talking to Ourselves, is a profound meditation on illness, death and bereavement and brilliantly illustrates literature’s ability to help readers confront and understand mortality. Neuman is never maudlin, although he must surely have experienced his own terrible loss to write with such conviction and depth.

Mario is dying of cancer. Wanting to share a last few meaningful days with his 10-year-son Lito, he decides to take him on a road trip in his brother’s truck. His wife Elena remains at home, seeking solace in books. The story unfolds through their different narratives. Elena keeps a journal, Mario is recording a series of tapes to leave for his son, and Lito, unaware of his father’s true illness, recounts the road trip in glorious detail.

In an attempt to make sense of Mario’s impending death and her own turbulent emotions, Elena examines various quotations from the authors she reads. These include John Banville, Roberto Bolaño, Javíer Marias and Virginia Woolf. In On Being Ill, Woolf declares “let a sufferer try to describe a pain in his head to a doctor and language at once runs dry”. Woolf’s question, why “illness has not taken its place with love and battle and jealousy among the prime themes of literature,” is just as relevant today.

After entering an intense sexual relationship with her husband’s doctor, Elena experiences shame and guilt but cannot stop herself. As Neuman suggests, grief has its own, often impenetrable, logic. When Mario is finally hospitalised Elena remarks “[p]ity has its own way of destroying”. She contemplates the horror of having lost all desire for Mario, feeling disgust, and yet still loving him: “He has shadows under his eyes, drawn features, no belly. There is a paleness about him that doesn’t seem to come from a lack of sunshine, but from somewhere deeper. A sort of white glow beneath the skin. There, between his ribs.”

Neuman is a master craftsman so Lito’s humorous observations leaven the darker material and he gives a vivid sense of a 10-year-old’s voice and preoccupations.

Impeccably translated by Nick Caistor and Lorenza Garcia, Talking To Ourselves is a wonderfully articulate novel about a vast and painful subject.

Originally published by The Independent on Sunday

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The 7.39 – DVD review

Posted by lucypopescu on February 18, 2014

the 7.39David Nicholls has had an interesting and varied career to date and has won acclaim for his work in TV and film as well as his fiction. His first feature film was an adaptation of Sam Shepard’s stage-play Simpatico (1999). Nicholls then cut his teeth contributing scripts for the popular TV series Cold Feet (2000) and a number of TV dramas followed. He gained wider recognition with his acclaimed book One Day which was made into a film in 2011. Despite his success in cinema, Nicholls has retained his affection for television. His latest offering, The 7.39 (2014), about an adulterous affair, demonstrates his usual flair for convincing characters and dialogue but lacks the rigour and passion of previous work.

Carl (David Morrissey), a commercial property agent, and Sally (Sheridan Smith), the manager of a gym meet on the crowded 7.39 train to Waterloo. Their first words are spoken in anger as Carl accuses Sally of stealing his seat. The next day, he apologises for his unchivalrous behaviour and a flirtation begins. Wisely, Nicholls refuses to rush the romance and the first half of his two-hour drama is taken up with developing the couple’s unconsummated relationship. A train strike provides them with the opportunity to stay overnight in London and take things further.

We quickly realise that their romantic attachment is unlikely to end well. Although undeniably bored with the monotony of his daily commute to work Carl is, to all intents and purposes, happily married to Maggie (Olivia Colman) with two children. Sally is engaged to her personal-trainer boyfriend Ryan (Sean Maguire) who is keen to start a family. We sense that Carl and Sally fall into the affair because they want some respite from the predictability of their home lives. They are also clearly sexually attracted to one another, and yet, confounding our expectations, their first attempt to consummate their relationship nearly ends in disappointment.

The second half of Nicholls’ drama is taken up with the blossoming and then unravelling of their love and the reactions of their respective partners to their infidelity. Although The 7.39 clearly recalls the 1945 film classic, Brief Encounter (deemed by many to be the most romantic film of all time), it is a far more desultory affair. Despite the top-notch cast and John Alexander’s slick direction, it’s hard to fully engage with the lovers’ predicament. But maybe that’s the point – they have loving spouses hovering in the background and their sense of responsibility finally smothers any passion. Nicholls is not known for his conventionally happy endings. He’s more interested in his characters’ journey and is adept at depicting life’s disappointments – the anxieties and petty resentments of ordinary people and the compromises they are forced to make.

 Originally published by

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Book Review – The Assassin From Apricot City

Posted by lucypopescu on February 18, 2014

the assassin from apricot cityIn The Assassin from Apricot City, Polish writer Witold Szablowski strikes an excellent balance between hard-hitting journalism, astute political analysis, and humorous observations. His reportage provides a fascinating insight into contemporary Turkey, its strengths and many contradictions.

Szablowski begins by exploring the diversity of opinion surrounding the demonstrations that took place in Taksim Square, Istanbul, in June 2013. Initially, aimed at preventing Gezi Park from being turned into a shopping mall, they became a direct action against Turkey’s authoritarian government. Through interviews with demonstrators, students and local businessmen Szablowski explores the increasing polarisation of Turkish society and heightened tension between Islam and secularism.

Szablowski is eloquent on Turkey’s conflicting aspirations towards and distrust of the West as represented by the main political parties. In one hilarious passage, he uses the length of politicians’ moustaches to differentiate between them: “The nationalists have the longest ones…well groomed, trimmed along the upper lip….The socialists have a small feather-bed under their noses, which comes right down to their teeth…the ones who take the greatest care of their moustaches are the Islamists. Theirs are exactly the same size as the space provided for them by nature, and they keep them trimmed to a length of no more than five millimetres.”

Interviewing ordinary Turks, journalists, academics and other experts, Szablowski traces Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s rise to power. The picture he draws is of a savvy operator who carefully repositioned himself politically in order to win votes. Once “a diehard Muslim” he has tempered his outward behaviour in recent years: “Erdogan now offers his hand to women without feeling that he is sinning. But privately he will never offer his hand to any woman, except for his wife.” His authoritarian stance may yet be his undoing as he is increasingly battered by protests and political resignations.

In the east of the country Szablowski discovers that “[n]owhere in the world does a brother love his sister as much, nowhere do the children love their parents as much, or the parents their children.” But in this close-knit community, where family honour is everything, this can become a deadly love. Women are routinely murdered after falling for the wrong person, for having a high school sweetheart or for being raped.

For anyone interested in this rich, varied, frustrating country, The Assassin from Apricot City is essential reading, seamlessly translated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones. Szablowski’s combination of literary reportage and personal reflections are reminiscent of the late Ryszard Kapuściński’s dispatches from foreign parts. The book ends with an image which perfectly summarises the country’s competing influences: “a picture of two women standing side by side, up to their waists in water. One was in a Muslim costume, covering everything except her eyes. The other was topless.”

Originally published in the


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Book Review – A Country Too Far: Writings On Asylum Seekers

Posted by lucypopescu on February 16, 2014

A Country Too FarA Country Too Far, co-edited by Rosie Scott and Tom Keneally, is a timely attempt to set the record straight about asylum seekers in Australia, to counter the negative media propaganda and to protest at the government’s treatment of them. Featuring some of Australia’s finest writers, it is an immensely readable, humane collection of fiction, memoir, poetry and essays.

Keneally’s most famous work, Schindler’s List, was about the courage of one man who saved the lives of over a thousand Jews at great risk to himself. Schindler was no saint, but he learned to feel empathy for his Jewish factory workers. In his powerful essay ‘A Folly of History’, Keneally calls for a similar understanding and compassion to be extended to asylum seekers and underlines the fact that children are among the victims of Australia’s inhumane policies.

Several authors draw the parallel between the experiences of Jews seeking safety during the Holocaust and Australia’s contemporary treatment of the dispossessed. In an extract from her award-winning novel, All That I Am, Anna Funder recalls the plight of German refugees fleeing the Nazis aboard the St Louis. Cuba, the United States and Canada refused asylum and turned the ship away. Funder perfectly summarises the aims and import of the anthology when she writes: “it is an act of imagining the lives of others, and as such an act of compassion as holy as any…an act designed to make sure we do not stop ourselves from imagining properly and in every human detail, the plight of asylum seekers…an act designed to make sure that we do not stop there: that we do something. We need to honour our obligations to them, and to ourselves.”

Many of the writers do just that – they imagine what it is like to be an asylum seeker fleeing terror or destitution. What it means to leave behind one’s home and loved ones, to pay smugglers extortionate amounts of money only to risk losing everything at sea. And then, after everything, to be detained for years on end as if one is a criminal.

Rodney Hall and Arnold Zable vividly imagine what it is like to cross dangerous waters in leaking boats. Their stories remind us that it is fear and desperation that drives people to make this life-threatening journey. They forcefully stress the need for asylum seekers to be treated compassionately on arrival, to be offered safe refuge swiftly and without unnecessary imprisonment.

Scott writes poignantly about a woman who befriends an asylum seeker, tries to instil in him some hope, but can’t save him from committing suicide. Frequently, asylum seekers say the wrong thing on arrival and it is later used against them. As Scott’s character remarks, it is simply because “[t]hey’re interviewed by officials the day they arrive. They’re terrified and exhausted after their ordeal. They don’t understand English.”

Denise Leith’s piece about one asylum seeker’s attempts to find peace by growing seeds and tending a vegetable patch is equally memorable. Attempting to deal with all that he has lost, he muses “I must not think of that thing I cannot even begin to hold in my heart and so I decide that I will think only of the sun on my back and of the life it gives to this beautiful garden.”

This stunning anthology is already creating something of a buzz in Australia. Horrified by the number of children detained, Keneally concludes: “We who apologised to the Stolen Generation will have much to apologise for to those among these children who ultimately become Australian. Apology, however, will validate but not ease the present pain.”

I want to publish a similar collection here. Britain has a long history of providing safe refuge to those fleeing conflict, poverty or terror and it is something we should be proud of. But most of the stories about asylum seekers that we read about in the media today are negative. I volunteer as a mentor with Freedom from Torture’s creative writing programme, Write to Life, and the stories we hear there are about the emotional scars of torture, the pain of leaving family behind and the difficulties of adapting to an unfamiliar language and culture. Building on the success of A Country Too Far, I want the British anthology to directly challenge the negative press given asylum seekers here as well as serving as a testament to the strength of the human spirit. Using the works of celebrated writers is one sure way to generate more positive perspectives of asylum seekers. Writers are uniquely placed to challenge pre-conceived ideas and stereotypes because of their understanding of the power of words and ability to articulate truths.

In Australia, various publishers expressed an interest in A Country Too Far without even seeing a manuscript because of the list of names Keneally and Scott were able to pitch. There was an intense auction which Penguin won. It was published last October to great acclaim.

Monica Ali, William Boyd, Moris Farhi, Elaine Feinstein, Aminatta Forna, Hari Kunzru, Marina Lewycka, Ruth Padel and Alex Wheatle are just some of the writers who have already pledged their support and agreed to contribute to a British anthology. Now I just need to find a publisher with the same brave vision as Penguin Australia.

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Book Review – Words Will Break Cement: The Passion of Pussy Riot

Posted by lucypopescu on February 16, 2014

words will break cementInternational attention is focused on Russia’s hosting of the Winter Olympic Games this month, so Masha Gessen’s enlightening account of the detention and trial of feminist punk band Pussy Riot is timely.

In 2012, Maria Alyokhina, Kat Samutsevich and Nadya Tolokonnikova were sentenced to two years in a labour camp. They were accused of “hooliganism” and “hatred towards Orthodox believers” after staging a brief performance in the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour in Moscow aimed at drawing attention to the Russian Orthodox Church’s close ties to the Kremlin.

Throughout their trial they maintained that their “punk prayer” was a political protest and not anti-religious. In her defence statement Tolokonnikova argued: “Passion, openness and naivety exist on a higher ground than do hypocrisy, lying and false piety used to mask crimes. Top state officials go to church wearing the correct facial expression, but they lie, and in doing so they sin more than we ever did.” In court, the song’s lyrics were deliberately obscured so that anyone following the state media’s coverage would be unaware that it was a protest against Vladimir Putin.

The heavy-handed response of the authorities backfired. The feminists’ provocative act of resistance and subsequent trial served to draw global attention to Putin’s repressive rule and their harsh sentencing struck a chord with thousands of ordinary people around the world. Samutsevich was given a suspended sentence on appeal after her lawyer argued that she had not physically taken part in the action. Despite national protests and international calls for leniency Alyokhina and Tolokonnikova served time in appalling conditions (poignantly documented) in separate labour camps.

Gessen offers potted biographies of all three women, tracing the influences that led them into political activism. Central to Gessen’s book is her detailed record of the trial, which she compares to the dissident trials held between the 1960s and mid-1980s; they provided one of the few forums in the Soviet Union for public political debate. Gessen underlines the farcical elements of court procedure and how little has changed. Then, as now, the judge’s role was that of a “bureaucrat with a rubber stamp…[whose] job was to facilitate a smooth and speedy hearing…and to issue a preordained verdict”. The three defendants saw the importance of making bold political declarations they knew would be heard and Gessen includes full transcripts of their statements.

Alyokhina and Tolokonnikova were released from prison last December. Many believe the amnesty was intended to distract attention from the protests surrounding Russia’s hosting of the Games. The book’s title, from a quote by Solzhenitsyn used by Tolokonnikova  in her closing statement, is apt. Words Will Break Cement serves as a powerful indictment of the return to soviet-era tactics to silence dissent.

Originally published in The Tablet

PEN is using Winter Olympics to highlight the draconian restrictions placed on free expression in Russia in recent months. For further information on PEN’s ‘Out in the Cold Campaign’ visit:



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Book Review – Journey to Karabakh

Posted by lucypopescu on January 28, 2014

Journey to KarabakhAka Morchiladze’s extraordinary novella opens and closes in Georgia following the collapse of the Soviet Union. During the civil unrest that ensues, twenty-four-year-old Gio and his slacker friends discover, if you’re not a member of the “mkhedrioni” militia in Tbilisi there’s little to do except drink, smoke and get laid.

Gio comes from a wealthy family and wants for nothing, but is tired of his aimless existence and a domineering father who makes most of his decisions for him. The previous year, Gio had fallen for a beautiful, melancholy prostitute: “Yana was everything to me. She embodied something I never even knew I wanted, something I had never even dreamed of. I think she represented the very thing people live for.”  His father disapproved of their relationship and when Yana became pregnant with his child they were forced to split up.

Now, listless and with nothing better on offer, Gio is persuaded by his best friend Goglik to drive them across the border to Ganja in order to buy cheap drugs for an acquaintance. But this is a road trip with a difference. As darkness falls, Gio unwittingly drives into Karabakh, a region hotly disputed between Armenia and Azerbaijan, and the friends are chased and shot at by a menacing group of Azeris in a 4×4. Taken prisoner, the hapless pair are beaten-up and thrown into a cell with Rafik, an Armenian military commander. In the middle of a shoot out, Gio escapes with Rafik, leaving Goglik behind.

Over the next four days, in a remote village, supposedly a guest of Rafik and his gaggle of Armenian soldiers, Gio reflects on his past, his family and the girlfriend they refused to accept. He admits to himself, “If there’s one thing I know for sure it’s that I don’t know anything.” Morchiladze’s narrator may be volatile but he’s honest.

Despite being in the middle of a war zone, Gio starts to feels more tranquil. Liberated from familial constraints, he is finally able to think for himself. When three Russian journalists turn up to write about the Armenian side of the conflict, Gio realises that he may not be as free as he had thought and plans a daring and dangerous escape.

Gio’s rite of passage through geographical and emotional conflict is as entertaining as it is illuminating about ethnic tensions in the region. His increasing cynicism and despair is also emblematic of Georgia’s own strife as various factions fight for control. As Morchiladze wryly suggests, sometimes the fight for liberty throws up more limitations than the repression it seeks to escape.

Originally published by The Independent on 27 January 2014



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