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Holy Winter: “Everyone I meet is an exile”

Forced to return to Russia in 2020, Maria Stepanova used Ovid as inspiration for this remarkable book-length poem.

Photo: IMAGO / TT

In early 2020, Maria Stepanova was forced to return to Russia, her homeland – no easy place for a vigorously anti-Putin poet, author and public intellectual. Snowed into her countryside dacha and isolated by the pandemic, Stepanova gave in to melancholia. Then she read Ovid. And then she sat down and wrote Holy Winter, a remarkable book-length poem that testifies to the vast creative energy of this major European author and occasional Wahlberlinerin.

Stepanova weaves a work that is intimate and erudite

Holy Winter is driven by metamorphoses and key changes; the “I” and the “you” become entangled, lost, and found. There is speech, but there remain so many kinds of solitude – not least that of Moscow’s long-emptying intellectual agora: “And everyone I meet is an exile / Thrown into the damp sackcloth of winter.” From her Post-Ovid Syndrome, Stepanova weaves a work that is intimate and erudite, ambitious and self-deprecating. It is also – in Sasha Dugdale’s English translation – frankly gorgeous, sounding marvelously the lyrical possibilities of wintriness.