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Read an Excerpt from Holy Winter by Maria Stepanova, Translated by Sasha Dugdale

Excerpt from Holy Winter by Maria Stepanova, translated by Sasha Dugdale banner. Background image of textured glowing area of white shades in the midst of black, solid area of grey to the left with text and Open Book logo overlaid, and image of book cover to centre right.

A powerful and influential figure in Russia's cosmopolitan literary scene, Maria Stepanova watched this world torn away by Putin, and by the suppression and civil liberties violations that followed. 

In Holy Winter (Book*Hug Press), the author flies into a rush of poetic inspiration, with poetry that captures winter and war, banishment and exile, social isolation and existential abandonment. She melds form by intertwining signals from the media and social networks, love letters, travelogues, and fairy tales, and creates a rich and varied collection that reaches back to the greatest Russian wordsmiths and closer contemporaries like Sylvia Plath, Inger Christensen, and Anne Carson.

We've got an excerpt from the Holy Winter to share with our readers today on Open Book. Read on to immerse yourself in this poet's masterful work:


Excerpt from Holy Winter by Maria Stepanova, translated by Sasha Dugdale


What a winter towering in the yards

Like an oak

Like a stump

Like a shrine


Airborne particles of frost-ash

Tiny cavalry officers

Circling the guilty head

Diving on its very dome


Time for hibernation.


As an undone corpse subsides where it is slain;

Inexorable as the gathering pace of a train

Lie then, where you are laid

For the rules are already made.


There was once a hare, and once a vixen

And they lived by the deep blue sea.

First they lived in an ancient dugout

But then they both built homes


The vixen built a house of ice

And I’ve heard the hare’s was of mica

Built from timid hare-tears

And sad cabbage saliva


And so they lived in harmony, hare and fox

On holy days they set off fireworks.


—I had a dream: In my dream a table, and on it

Lay the most wondrous youth

And he was arrayed in

Palest attire, sable shroud.

—Little Mother, most gracious Majesty!

—My marble-hewn hero.

My own darling, quite beyond compare

How I love you. Wait and see.


Then everything went to sleep:

The wind in the chimney, the fire in the hearth,

And an ache in a head, and the water in the tap.


Then everything stopped still:

The hairdresser at the end of a shift in her overalls

Her legs stretched out, eyes half-shut

And the homeless man in the stationary tram

And traffic lights, switched to amber


And in the winter air the police batons

And the yellow sky, supported by pillars of smoke

And people in furs in hats in police vans

And people apprehended at their registered address

Their almost transparent houseplants

Their speechless domestic animals

Their warm clothes, their cold drinks

We, wrapped in snow for safe-keeping

Like pictures overlaid with glassine,

Suddenly came to a stop.



I remember when I was packing to leave, for life

That first time I felt my spirit dumb within me

As if it knew what it would now have to learn

And my wife wept, and my two friends, the bravest ones,

But my daughter was away, she’d come home to find me gone.

Dawn broke—and half the night spent burning

    manuscripts and documents.

I took no clothes, I chose no slaves to take with me.

When I think back I find myself already on the ship

The sea all around me, the sea on the decks,

The helmsman prays, the water roars, sailors swear,

My nostrils fill with waves but I write on

Let’s see what tires first, the storm, or my appeal.



Maria Stepanova, born in Moscow in 1972, is one of the most powerful and distinctive voices of Russia’s first post-Soviet literary generation. She is an award-winning poet, novelist, essayist, and journalist. Stepanova’s works have been translated into many languages and published widely. She has received several literary awards, including the prestigious Andrey Bely Prize and Joseph Brodsky Fellowship. Her novel, In Memory of Memory, was a finalist for the 2021 International Booker Prize and has been translated into many languages. Stepanova founded and was editor-in-chief of the online independent crowd-sourced journal, which engaged with contemporary Russia’s cultural, social, and political reality until the full-scale Russian invasion of Ukraine when all dissenting media in Russia were forced to shut down. As a prominent critic of Putin’s regime, Stepanova had to leave Russia and is now living in exile in Berlin.

Sasha Dugdale is a poet and translator. She has published five collections of poetry with Carcanet (UK), the most recent, Deformations, was shortlisted for the T. S. Eliot Prize. She is a translator of Russian drama and poetry, including work by Elena Shvarts, Maria Stepanova and Marina Tsvetaeva, and former editor of the international magazine Modern Poetry in Translation.

Buy the Book

Holy Winter

A profoundly moving book-length poem from “Russia’s greatest living poet” (Poetry) and the acclaimed author of In Memory of Memory.

Maria Stepanova was a highly influential figure in Moscow’s cosmopolitan literary scene for many years until Putin strangled it, along with civil liberties and dissent. Written in a frenzy of poetic inspiration, Holy Winter speaks of winter and war, banishment and exile, social isolation and existential abandonment. Here, she masterfully interweaves confusing signals from the media and social networks, love letters, travelogues, and fairy tales, creating a polyphonic evocation of frozen time and its slow thawing.

Like Joseph Brodsky before her, Stepanova has mastered modern poetry’s rich repertoire of forms, moving effortlessly between the traditions of Russian, European, and transatlantic literature. With echoes of Ovid, Pushkin and Lermontov, Mandelstam and Tsvetaeva, and kindred poets like Sylvia Plath, Inger Christensen, and Anne Carson, Stepanova’s is a potent and vital voice like no other.