The Mushroom that Grew at the Steps to our World: Irina Poljanskaja and the Writing of Ecological Crisis

I take as my point of departure for this paper two short works by the contemporary writer Irina Poljanskaja: “Čistaja zona” (first published 1991) and “Rynok” (1990). In both these stories Poljanskaja addresses with extraordinary force and subtlety the Faustian bargains of the modern world, turning her attention to the killing legacies of nuclear science and technology gone wild. In “Čistaja zona” the narrator’s tale begins in a hospital ward, where she is about to be operated on for an undisclosed illness; it ends with a remarkable flash-back to her childhood in a šaraška near Čeljabinsk, where her father—we come to understand—worked on the Soviet nuclear bomb. In “Rynok” another female narrator enacts a Dantesque journey through a provincial market; the plastic, too beautiful tomatoes that the peasant women offer become emblems of more systematic kinds of dissemblance and deception.

My intention for this paper is to present a reading of both works, focusing on Poljanskaja’s “ecological” concerns, and on her perceptive understanding of the ways in which the legacies of Soviet technological modernity inhere, as she puts it in “Čistaja zona,” “in the bones [of the fathers’] children.” “Nothing is lost without trace,” her narrator insists; this becomes a kind of credo—both artistic and ethical—for these two works of fiction.

While the focus of this paper will be these two stories (with some attention to biographical and socio-historical factors), I also intend briefly to consider contemporary American ecological writing, which presents interesting parallels to Poljanskaja’s work. At one point in “Čistaja zona” the narrator listens with nearly physical disgust to èstradnye pesni which celebrate a sentimental identification of women and “nature.” Her narrative suggests that we live in a world in which such simple metaphors have become highly problematic. I would like in particular to consider her perspective here in the company of Bill McKibben (The End of Nature) and Terry Tempest Williams (Refuge), two contemporary American writers who similarly consider the ravages of environmental (in Williams’ case, nuclear) degradation, and the danger to us of sentimental metaphors about the natural world.