Ludmila Ulickaja was born in Yekaterinburg, Siberia, in 1943, where her family had been exiled for political reasons. She was less than a year old when they were allowed to move back to the capital. She grew up and studied in Moscow where she lives to this day. She graduated as a geneticist and worked as a researcher at the Moscow Institute of Genetics from where she was dismissed in 1970. After spending nine years at home caring for her ailing mother and raising her sons, she was literary secretary at Moscow’s Jewish Theatre, wrote poems, screenplays, radio plays, narrative prose and plays. Her first volume of short stories was published in 1983, but was hardly taken note of. Her short novel Sonechka, published in France in 1995, was a resounding success and received the Medici Prize in 1996. Since then, the volume has been published in nearly thirty countries. Her novels Medea and her Children, Kukotsky's Case, Women's Lies and others were great successes both at home and abroad. Erzsébet Vári talked to Ulitskaya at the 16th Budapest Book Festival where she was Guest of Honour, and where her book Daniel Stein, Translator (2006) was launched in Hungarian translation.
Hungarian readers have shown a keen interest in your work ever since the publication of a magazine interview in which you stated that your reception in Western Europe has been more successful than in Central and Eastern Europe. What work did you put aside to come to this festival? What are you working on currently?
I haven't had time to write for a while now. It's not just the foreign invitations that are occupying my time, but also my commitments to various social causes. For example, I'm working on a project associated with a UNICEF-sponsored children's book campaign. We're collaborating with anthropologists to publish books on world cultures, AIDS and the immigrant experience.
I've also founded the "Good Books" Foundation, which works to bring high-quality literature to the reading public, especially children. In the past, the publishing industry operated much more smoothly. Today, the number of librarians has shrunk by a third. Sadly, profit and not quality determine to a great extent the way books are published, distributed and even received by the public. In this way, a lot of low-quality books reach the readers, including the children. This mass of printed material doesn't inspire any thought on the part of the reader, and that's a big problem.
Your novel Daniel Stein, Translator was just released in Hungarian translation. Did the translator, Géza Morcsányi, contact you with questions about the work? Do the translators of your books generally communicate with you?
Yes, they do ask me questions, especially about new phenomena of everyday social life that they may not be familiar with. I've been translated into thirty-two languages so far, so I can't judge the quality of many of them. But the translators' questions are very revealing. The Japanese translators have a very deep understanding of Russian culture and society, and ask the most astute questions. But I've also had translators who haven't asked a single question.
Across the globe, people are raising their voices in response to burgeoning neo-Nazi movements, Holocaust denial and anti-Israel sentiment, as well as Israel's policies regarding Palestine. It seems to me that your latest novel is very helpful in understanding these problems, and in amplifying the critical voices.
What I've written is literature. The story is fictional, and first and foremost reflects my perspective on the world, and that of the main character. So the book can't offer any answers to political questions. Of course, I did base my main character, Daniel Stein, on the life of Oswald Rufeisen, the real-life Brother Daniel.
I'm well aware that the questions I'm dealing with can't be answered. We live in a terrible world, and have to coexist with countless problems. What I've learned from the main character of this story is how we can reject certain things, and how we have to relate to others. That we should always do unto others as we would wish them to do unto us. That's acting with conscience, and it's our only means of survival. This is the point of view from which I write.
Has the situation with the Tatars in Crimea changed at all since you wrote Medea and Her Children?
I have relatives living in Crimea, and I visit them yearly. We used to take summer holidays in the region where the persecuted Tatars live, and we knew what was happening to them. Today there are great disparities and tensions between the rich and poor Tatars who were returned to the areas where they originally lived. We've also seen the Islamification of the Crimea, which has led to conflicts between the Christians and Muslims there as well. The situation is very tense.
There was a period of ten years when you ceased working. During that time you cared for your mother and raised your children. I read in an earlier interview that you rejected the question asked by a feminist as to whether you sacrificed your carrier for the sake of your family. What did that period mean to you?
Yes, between 1970 and 1979 I didn't work. I nursed my ill mother until she passed away. Then I gave birth to my two sons and raised them. From a political and social point of view, it was a horrible time. We live in a dreadful world even today, but the '70s were truly terrible. Reading was tremendous help for the wellbeing of my soul. I read a great deal in those years. In 1979, I was able to return to the theatre.
As a geneticist by training, I am completely cognizant of the differences between the male and female organisms. Men and women are fundamentally different, down to the last cell, and these differences have psychological implications as well. At the same time, gender is not cut-and-dried, there are individuals across the spectrum, especially these days. There are the so-called masculine women and feminine men. When we consider the individual, then the strict boundaries are increasingly questionable, and the spectrum acquires more meaning.
So far as my writing is concerned, I'm not interested in the classifiers that are used to describe me: author, female author, etc. My writing reflects my personality, my unique composition. In Russia, women are considered the better, more noble half of society, and I attempt to illustrate and emphasize this in my work. I would add that the greatest task facing men and women is to understand each other – and this is an absolute necessity if we are to live in harmony.