Maria Vassilievna Rozanova: a Major Figure of Russian Literature and Dissidence

It is not easy to profile Maria Vassilievna Rozanova (1930, Vitebsk – 2023, Fontenay-aux-Roses), a publisher, author, art historian, architect, jeweler and fashion designer. This valiant, brilliant and unclassifiable woman was a key figure in Russian intellectual life and a great mind.

In the 1970s and 1980s, Paris was the center of a third wave of Russian, or more precisely Soviet, emigration. The KGB and Politburo decided that it was more “profitable” to get rid of a number of well-known dissidents than to throw them into prison or subject them to inhumane treatment in psychiatric hospitals, risking a wave of protest in the West every time. This is how many writers, artists, philosophers, directors, musicians, etc. found themselves in Paris and other major Western cities. The profusion of people I witnessed in Paris was extraordinary: Andrey Sinyavsky, Oskar Rabin, Alexander Galich, Alexander Ginzburg, Leonid Plyushch, Mstislav Rostropovich, Vladimir Maximov, Natalia Gorbanevskaya, Vadim Delaunay, Vladimir Maramzin and many others.

In this constellation, one extraordinary figure stood out by virtue of her charisma, strength of character, sharp mind and capacity for hard work. It was Maria Vassilievna Rozanova, born in 1930 in Vitebsk, whose death we mourn today.

Maria Vassilievna was the wife of Russian literary historian and writer Andrei Sinyavsky, who, in the first half of the 1960s, managed to have satirical short stories ridiculing the Soviet regime published in the West under the pseudonym Abram Tertz (the name of a Jewish brigand). He was arrested by the KGB and put on trial in 1966, along with his friend Yuli Daniel, also guilty of publishing in the West. Sinyavsky was sentenced to seven years in a harsh prison camp for “anti-Soviet agitation and propaganda”. The trial, which marked the end of the Khrushchev Thaw, provoked a wave of protest in the USSR. The young Muscovite Alexander Ginzburg, who himself had published an underground poetic almanac, Sintaksis, in 1959-1960 and spent two years in prison for it, managed to gather his own transcripts and other documents from the trial to write a White Book, distributed via samizdat, clandestinely, and also published in the West. This was the birth of Soviet dissidence.

I am telling this story because Maria Vassilievna played a very active part in it. An art historian, architect-restorer and teacher, she had a fusional relationship with her husband. When he was arrested in 1965, their son Iegor (the future writer Iegor Gran) was eight months old. She endured lengthy searches, behaved insolently with investigators and later the jailers at the camp where Andrei was serving his sentence, supported him unconditionally, exchanged hundreds of letters with him during his incarceration and began an unofficial and successful career as a jeweler. Later, she boasted of having become a well-to-do woman and of having been able to provide for her young child, when the authorities thought she would be reduced to poverty. More importantly, the couple’s epistolary exchanges contained chapters from Andrei’s future book, Walks with Pushkin, written in 1966-1968 in the Dubravlag camp in Mordovia, which revolutionized the canonical image of Russia’s greatest 19th-Century poet. The book was published in 1973 in the West, under the pseudonym Abram Tertz, thanks to the efforts and perseverance of Maria Vassilievna.

Andreï Siniavski and Maria Rozanova on their arrival in France in 1973.

A year after Sinyavsky’s release, the couple and their son left Russia, at the suggestion of the KGB, and settled in Fontenay-aux-Roses, near Paris. Their house, surrounded by a large, neglected Russian-style garden, soon became a strategic location for dissidents in exile. Sinyavsky was appointed professor of Russian literature and civilization at the Sorbonne. In 1978, he and Maria Vassilievna began publishing a major literary and political review, Sintaksis, thus named in a bid to carry on the tradition started by Ginzburg. Unlike Vladimir Maximov’s Kontinent, this review was not subsidized, and Rozanova worked on all fronts: she was editor-in-chief (from 1982), proofreader, printer and administrator. She also acted as typographer and turned the printing press herself. At the same time, she worked at the French bureau of Svoboda radio, where she hosted a program called “We Abroad”. I was her guest on several occasions, and came to appreciate Maria Vassilievna’s finesse and fighting spirit.

In its twenty-four years of existence, in its 37 issues, the review published, in addition to articles by Sinyavsky and Rozanova, writers, literary critics and dissidents such as Efim Etkind, Lev Kopelev, Igor Pomerantsev, Andrey Amalric, Vladimir Sorokin, Friedrich Gorenstein, Sasha Sokolov, Andrey Dovlatov, Boris Groys and so many other talented authors. But also Western academics such as Georges Nivat, Alain Besançon, Slawomir Mrozek and Vittorio Strada. Today, these remarkable texts can be read here.

Maria Rozanova works in her house in Fontenay-aux-Roses // Archive video, screenshot

The couple’s hopes of Gorbachevian glasnost were quickly dashed after the armed assault by the Supreme Soviet commanded by Boris Yeltsin in 1993, in response to his attempted impeachment. From today’s perspective, it signified an authoritarian turn by the Yeltsin regime, which gradually paved the way for the establishment of Putinism, even though, at the time, many democrats supported it as a legitimate and necessary measure. In this, Sinyavsky and his wife shared the same appreciation as the writer Vladimir Maximov, even though as emigrants they often held opposite opinions. As a sign of reconciliation, Maximov is said to have brought Maria Vasilyevna a bouquet of white roses.

Sinyavsky and Maria Vassilievna even took part in Gorbachev’s 1996 election campaign, when the former Soviet president positioned himself as a “third force” against both Yeltsin and the Communist Zyuganov, calling on voters, in vain, to make a social democratic choice. Together with Gorbachev and Raissa, they criss-crossed the vast country to speak to the people, overcoming the hostility of local authorities. An unforgettable experience that convinced Maria Vassilievna that Russia was somehow incorrigible.

In an interview in 2004, she said:

“Three things have ruined my homeland.

The first is its size. It’s the richest country in the world, but with the poorest population! Other countries are much poorer. But they know how to make the most of their lesser wealth, which is not our case. Because slaves don’t know how to think, how to build, they only know how to obey, how to perform. And when slaves come to run the state, as has happened in our country, they are naturally incapable of doing anything.

The second thing is monstrous, incredibly inflated national vanity. The Americans are stupid, the French are stupid, only the Russians are the smart ones. This raises a legitimate question: if you’re so smart, where’s your money? Why don’t you know how to earn it?

And the third is orthodoxy. It’s a fatal thing. Anyway, Catholicism and Protestantism as ecclesiastical institutions suit me much better. Forgive me, but emperors used to bow to the Pope, not the other way round. And yet, after the Decembrists, the Synod allowed the secrecy of confession to be broken. Today, the Church is also adapting to the state in every possible way.

In 1995, I said: ‘I won’t go back to the motherland, because I’m afraid I’ll die of exasperation!’”

Maria Vassilievna Rozanova was the last surviving participant in the intellectual ferment and struggles of Russian dissidence in France. Her death on December 13, 2023 brings to a close an extraordinary, rich and daring adventurous life.

The writer Dmitry Bykov, who knew her well, said after her death: “Maria Vassilievna Rozanova, an eternal source of strength and light. The word ‘death’ is taboo in her case. ’Death does not exist!’ she always insisted, and I think she knew what she was talking about.”

RIP

Born in Moscow, she has been living in France since 1984. After 25 years of working at RFI, she now devotes herself to writing. Her latest works include: Le Régiment immortel. La Guerre sacrée de Poutine, Premier Parallèle 2019; Traverser Tchernobyl Premier Parallèle, 2016.

See also

Russian Expansionism: Enduring Goals and Recurring Methods

Russia's messianic, expansionist and militarist propensity is inseparable from the autocratic matrix of Russian power.

The Quarrels of the Russian Opposition

A new documentary, produced by Alexeï Navalny's Anti-Corruption Fund and devoted to the Yeltsin period, has sparked contrasting reactions. This intense controversy reveals a lot about the state of mind of Russian society.

Most read

Russian Expansionism: Enduring Goals and Recurring Methods

Russia's messianic, expansionist and militarist propensity is inseparable from the autocratic matrix of Russian power.

The Great Russian Pretence

The Russian propaganda discourse resonates with certain conservatives. Our author looks at the way in which, far from defending a European “civilization”, the Putin regime has transformed into an “eschatological sect”.