Introduction | Sigrid Rausing | Granta


Sigrid Rausing

The title of this issue – Last Notes – has a dual meaning, alluding to soundscapes and music, our theme, and also to the fact that this is the last issue of Granta I will edit. Thomas Meaney, our new editor, has now taken over from me – his first issue (on Germany and German writing) will be out this autumn.

I came to the magazine in 2005 and took over the editorship in 2013. Reflecting on those years, I am struck by the momentous changes in perceptions of writing and publishing. We have had the Black Lives Matter movement, Me Too, and the Trumpian Fake News debates, all of which touch on the question of truth and of representation – who gets to write about whom? – and therefore on editorial considerations. Much else changed, too. A literary magazine relies on trading arrangements, and Brexit has made for some delays and difficulties. Covid, too, was a challenge, but it coincided with advances in technology enabling working from home, which changed our work practice.

This has also been an era of brutal war. In Possession, our 2015 summer issue, we published ‘After Maidan’ a long piece by Oliver Bullough on Ukraine. He describes arguing with a Russian on a bus somewhere near the border. What was the West doing supporting Ukrainian fascists, the man wanted to know. ‘If the Ukrainian government is fascist, why is the prime minister a Jew?’ Oliver asked. The answer was obvious, at least to the man on that bus: ‘Of course he’s a Jew, they’re all Jews.’ We know by now that in the distorted post-Soviet codes of Putin’s Russia ‘fascist’ is the term for any invented enemy of the state, and that ‘Jew’, at least to Russian ultra-nationalists, at times can mean more or less the same thing.

Later the same year I commissioned another piece on Ukraine, ‘Propagandalands’ by Peter Pomerantsev (winter 2016). Peter travelled to the Donbas where Russian separatists battled Ukrainian activists in the long-standing conflict. Again and again, he heard the phrase No one hears the Donbas, expressing the local sense of alienation and disaffection. The people of Donbas, many of them Russian speakers, felt marginalised, and were receptive to Russian propaganda. Much of it made no sense, strings of evocative words dating from the Second World War and the Soviet past, but that, Pomerantsev wrote, ‘. . . almost seemed to be the point: break down critical thinking with absurdities and false logic, then open people up emotionally with images of suffering and trauma before promising them glory.’

Three of the pieces in this issue are set in Ukraine. Peter Englund, the Swedish historian, travels to the front. Ed Vulliamy investigates music in Ukraine, and Ada Wordsworth writes about the silence in the villages where she works restoring war-damaged houses, after the cacophony of sirens in Kharkiv.

The reports of fatalities and the gradual destruction of Ukrainian buildings and infrastructure are relentless. The war is creating a zone of destruction reaching from Chernobyl to the Donbas, some of the most fought-over land in European history. Some Westerners tend to seek fault in their own actions or inaction after the fall of the Soviet Union. The West, they argue, manifested the hubris of victory, while the Russians felt humiliated by the destitution and dysfunctionality of their state. I travelled regularly in the post-Soviet space, and that is not what it felt like to me. To the contrary, I saw alliances made between a variety of people – they were not all Russian – and Western liberals and academics. I saw universities and institutions founded or strengthened, and archives opened up. Like-minded people in the post-Soviet space started all kinds of new initiatives, creating ethnographic museums, collecting evidence on Stalinist atrocities, making orphanages more humane, formulating disability rights, measuring toxic pollution and environmental damage. Perhaps it is that vision that has been lost in those countries – that the work of thousands of activists has a genuine effect. Britain has a long tradition of honouring the voluntary sector, but in Russia many of the people trying to make things better were silenced by the oligarchs and the kleptocratic and repressive state.

Rather than focus on Western hubris or inertia, I think it’s more interesting to think of the current moment in Russia as a neo-Stalinist revival – a brutal, repressive and expansionist regime forming political alliances (as Stalin did) with conservative Orthodox religious leaders and extreme nationalists, targeting human rights activists, feminists and gay and trans people. Propaganda, disinformation, staged political events and TV news shows conducted with a certain slick and vacuous knowingness, set the tone. Rehabilitating Stalin, inside and outside Russia is on the agenda. The only thing missing is socialism itself – it’s hard to get a sense for what Putin’s party actually stands for other than a ‘glorious’ Russia.

In Life and Fate, Vasily Grossman noted the loss of diversity on the streets of Leningrad after Stalin’s purges. A certain type – high cheek bones and blue eyes set wide apart – now predominated. The description fits Putin perfectly: his people may have been among those who genuinely mourned Stalin’s death, the hundreds of thousands of people gathering in streets and squares all over the Soviet Union. Perhaps that is what Putin represents, or purports to represent: a grandiose and nostalgic return to order, to autocracy and to Russian supremacy, the ‘older brother’ among ‘fraternal’ nations.


In the village in post-Soviet Estonia where I carried out fieldwork in the early 1990s, the summer months brought visitors from Sweden, many of them former child refugees from the war. There was an economic imbalance between visitors and locals, yes, but often a very real sense of kinship was re-kindled, too. In Estonia, the people who in the late 1980s and early 1990s were engaged in liberating and reimagining the nation – in the early days this was sometimes syncretically referred to as ‘building capitalism’ – by and large inherited the state. In Russia, the alliance between the oligarchs and the kleptocratic state crushed or obscured the liberals (and many of the oligarchs, too).

I bought some Soviet coffee-table books at that time, including one about Soviet Ukraine. It had this to say about the ‘great fraternal friendship’ between Russia and Ukraine:

In 1913 Lenin wrote: ‘Given united action by the Great Russian and Ukrainian proletarians, a free Ukraine is possible; without such unity, it is out of the question.’ History proved the correctness of Lenin’s great prophecy. His words about the unity of the Russian and Ukrainian peoples are inscribed on his monument in Kiev, the capital of the Soviet Ukraine. It was thanks to the common struggle of the Russian and Ukrainian workers, of the two fraternal peoples, that a free Ukraine indeed became possible. Free for all times . . .


In this issue, Anjan Sundaram describes the deafening building bonanza in Phnom Penh in 2017 (much of it financed with Chinese investments) that took place alongside the suppression of democracy and the political exultation of ‘harmony’, embodied in shiny new buildings with bland international names like ‘Sky Villa’ and ‘The Peak’. But culture is not just a manifestation of economic conditions: when lunch hour struck and the workers downed tools, you could hear the wooden clatter of street chess and admiring cries from spectators and opponents reacting to unexpected moves. And this in Cambodia, where only a few decades earlier most of the educated class was destroyed by the Khmer Rouge, one of the most brutal left-wing movements in history.

The writer Madeleine Thien drew my attention to the last book written by her friend Y-Dang Troeung, formerly a child refugee from Cambodia. Troeung passed away before publication of Landbridge, a moving exploration of the violence of the Khmer Rouge and American mass bombing in the region, interlaced with letters to her child. Our excerpt is taken from the end of the book.

What comes after a dictatorship such as the murderous reign of the Khmer Rouge? At best, justice and restitution, but also thoughtful reflections from the aftermath. Memorialising (when it’s not hijacked by the state) is an essential part of the democratising project. The words are dull, but they mean something like freedom. Waking up without fear. Trusting the state, the police, the army. Talking about, and writing about, what happened, and how and why; where the graves are, who died, and who gave the orders.


Wiam El-Tamami writes about the soundscape of Cairo, another city of hardening repression, rampant inflation and a building boom. Her text is concerned with loss of hope – hope in the nation, the city, and her own body – the three intertwine and are made one in this poignant description of repression and polarisation.

Al-thawra ontha [the revolution is female]’, people chanted on the marches in Beirut, playing on the gendered noun. Sama Beydoun’s photographs document Beirut nightlife at a time when the city felt pregnant with freedom and demonstrators passed each other notes with slogans that avoided sexist, slut-shaming or homophobic language.


Being the editor of Granta has been a hard position to give up, but it’s time for new thoughts and directions, new editorial discussions, and new taste. Literary magazines tend to come and go, reliant as they are on donations or patrons. To secure Granta’s future we have transferred its ownership to a charitable trust, and I would like to thank the British Council for the grant they have already given. I hope that in the months and years to come, when we begin our fundraising activities, we will find support among British institutions and individual donors. If you were to ask me why literary magazines are important, I would say that they are performance spaces for new writers, a place to experiment with voice, to engage with the editing process, to meet other writers and to gain readers and recognition. Without that space, which is both playful and profound, some nebulous quality in the culture dies.

Artwork © Etel Adnan, Untitled, 1998, The Estate of Etel Adnan, courtesy Galerie Lelong & Co © ADAGP, Paris and DACS, London 2023

Sigrid Rausing

SIGRID RAUSING is the publisher of Granta magazine and Granta Books. She is the author of History, Memory and Identity in Post-Soviet Estonia (2004), Mayhem (2017), Everything Is Wonderful (2014) and the co-author and translator of And The Walls Became the World All Around Me (2024).

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