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Tuesday February 19th 2019

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Translating the Siege of Leningrad

By C. S. Satterwhite

“All great betrayals move in daylight, pass like kin into the widest roads, burn fields and crops and salt the earth, burn homes to usher out the living. Nothing lasts.”

These lines are from Jonathan Fink’s most recent book of poetry, “Barbarossa,” a collection of sonnets about the 1941 Siege of Leningrad. Collaborating with violinist Leonid Yanovskiy, the two University of West Florida professors are the minds behind “Art as Grit: Siege of Leningrad in Music and Poetry,” the latest installment in the Experience UWF Downtown Lecture Series.

The title for Fink’s book comes from the code name for Nazi Germany’s surprise invasion launched against the Soviet Union toward the beginning of the war. Fink’s book of sonnets is a historical overview of the infamous siege, one of the longest and most costly in human history, told in poetic form.

Fink said he was inspired to write this book after a visit to the Museum of the Defense and Siege of Leningrad, located in the former Leningrad, which was renamed St. Petersburg after the Soviet period.

The challenge for Fink was to create an artistic image of the siege, where over a million people died, and translate this carnage into poetry.

“Capturing the horror of the siege was definitely a central focus of the collection and to be as factually and artistically accurate as possible about the effects of the siege on the citizens of Leningrad,” said Fink.

In “Barbarossa,” Fink recreates scenes from the siege with sonnets detailing the fear and grotesque spectacle taking place in the birthplace of the Bolshevik Revolution. Featured prominently in Fink’s book are the heart-wrenching poems describing the surprise of invasion, the starvation of the Soviet citizenry and even the desperation that turned hundreds of citizens to cannibalism within a year.

“My hope was to think of each of these sonnets as entry points into individual experiences of the personae,” said Fink, “whether that individual experience reflects a moment of horror, joy, tenacity, compassion, cruelty, etc.,” he said.

Fink used the 14-line poems as a means to provide “form and structure to a project that would be otherwise unwieldy in scope.”

The collaboration between Fink and Yanovskiy came after the two colleagues served together on various university committees. Knowing Yanovskiy grew up and studied in Russia, Fink gave the world-renown violinist a copy of his book.

“The idea to combine the reading of the poems and musical performance came to me as soon as I started reading Jon’s sonnets,” said Yanovskiy.

Yanovskiy thought to pair Fink’s sonnets with a work by the great Soviet composer Dmitri Shostakovich, a firsthand witness to the Siege of Leningrad.

“After having survived many months of living hell of the Leningrad siege,” said Yanovskiy, “Shostakovich became the most outspoken [in his music] eyewitness to one of the most horrific human tragedies in contemporary history.”

“As a great humanist and artist, in his music, Shostakovich gave the most astonishing account of the war and its effects on human race,” said Yanovskiy.

The choice to perform Shostakovich’s “Piano Trio Number 2” was natural, as the composer first performed the piece in Leningrad in November 1944—the same year the siege ended.

“Like Jon’s sonnets, the music of the Trio is full of paradoxes,” said Yanovskiy. “It is simultaneously objective and personal, profoundly tragic and miraculously uplifting.”

While Fink’s focus was not on the music itself but on the “musicality, rhythms and tonality of the language of the poem,” he admitted to being captivated by the story told by Shostakovich’s piece. “I have been amazed,” said Fink, “at the ways in which Shostakovich’s Piano Trio Number 2 captures its historical moment and the narrative…as relayed to me by Leonid.”

Fink and Yanovskiy’s performance is a part of UWF’s popular Downtown Lecture Series, a program hosted by UWF highlighting faculty in the liberal arts.

“One of the wonderful benefits of living in a university town is the learning opportunities the campus provides,” said Jocelyn Evans, associate dean of the UWF College of Arts, Social Sciences and Humanities. “The UWF Downtown Lecture Series brings these opportunities off campus and to our downtown district so that more people can enjoy and benefit from the experience,” said Evans.

Previous lectures in the series featured discussions on public art, Spanish colonialism and foreign affairs.

“Through our events, we hope to positively impact our community by showcasing the relevance of the arts and sciences to building and sustaining contemporary culture.”
Fink hopes the event will give the audience an “appreciation for the dynamic sense of art” and “serve as an expression of and vehicle for tenacity and resilience.”

“Additionally, I hope the audience takes away a deeper understanding of the history of the siege as well as an appreciation for the ways in which multiple genres of art can speak together to a historical or current moment,” said Fink.

Evans also has high expectations for the event.

“I have seen more meaningful conversation across generational divides, ethnic divides, political divides and socioeconomic divides happen as a result of these events than as a result of anything else the university provides to the Pensacola community,” said Evans.

Following the performance, Fink and Yanovskiy, along with historian Daniel Miller and musicologist Victoria Yanovskiy, will engage with the audience in a talkback session about the event.

“We have wonderful faculty who love to engage in conversations about their fields of study,” said Evans. “The series showcases that talent.”

Art as Grit: Siege of Leningrad in Music and Poetry
WHAT: The third installment of this season’s Experience UWF Downtown lecture series
WHEN: 6 p.m. Thursday, Jan. 31
WHERE: Old Christ Church, 405 S. Adams St.
DETAILS: uwf.edu/downtownlectures