Jewish Fate and the Soviet-Jewish “Madam Bovary”

[From Mosaic magazine]

Arrested in 1949 on charges of “anti-Soviet crimes,” the great Yiddish author Dovid Bergelson was sentenced to death and executed by firing squad in 1952. Bergelson had fled the Soviet Union in 1921 for exile in Berlin, but in 1926 began to take a more pro-Soviet stance, arguing that the USSR was the best place for Yiddish culture to flourish, and he moved to Moscow in 1934.

Dara Horn writes:

[In the 1920s], Stalin’s effort to brainwash ethnic minorities involved the Soviet government’s financing of Yiddish-language schools, newspapers, theaters, and publishers, to the extent that there were even Yiddish literary critics who were salaried by the Soviet government. During World War II, Stalin used these loyal Jews to his advantage by creating a “Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee,” a group of Jewish celebrities, including Bergelson, tasked with drumming up money and support from American Jews for the Soviet war effort. After the war, Stalin announced that the committee he himself had created was actually part of a vast Zionist conspiracy. Bergelson and his co-defendants endured three years of torture in prison before pleading guilty to the crime of “nationalism” (read: Judaism). He was executed along with a dozen other Jewish luminaries.

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Yuri Tynianov’s “Film — Word — Music” (1924)

[From the Los Angeles Review of Books]

ALONG WITH the somewhat better-known Viktor Shklovsky and Roman Jakobson, the writer and literary theorist Yuri Tynianov was a central figure of the revolutionary-era school of literary and cultural criticism that came to be known as Russian Formalism. The Formalists were contemporaries and advocates of Futurist poets like Vladimir Mayakovsky and Velimir Khlebnikov, as well as early Soviet film pioneers like Sergei Eisenstein and Dziga Vertov. In keeping with the mood of avant-garde experimentation that held sway in the early years of Soviet rule, Formalist ideas about literature and art were radical and stark, especially in comparison with the mystical impressionism of pre-revolutionary Russian writers and critics. Like Shklovsky, Jakobson, and their colleague Boris Eikhenbaum, Tynianov was first and foremost a scholar of literature, but the creative explosions of the new Soviet film industry demanded the Formalists’ attention. Tynianov, like Shklovsky, dove in as both a theorist and practitioner; he began penning screenplays and working directly with actors and filmmakers, most notably with the wacky and inventive “Factory of the Eccentric Actor” (FEKS) group. He also wrote a series of articles on film, like the one below, which were published in daily newspapers, and in 1927 contributed to a substantial volume of Formalist essays on cinema, edited by Eikhenbaum. Tynianov’s writings on film are valuable for their insider’s perspective and the sense of palpable, physical immediacy they convey (even as he insists on the fundamentally abstract quality of film as an art form). He applies his formidable skills as a literary theorist to this material, teasing out fascinating parallels between the way words and images can be shaped and altered by their place in a work. But Tynianov is also unique among the Formalists, in that he argues for film’s essential difference from all other art forms.

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In praise of older books: Life and Fate by Vassily Grossman

[from The Irish Times]

I’m reading Life and Fate on a beach in Croatia. I peek from under my sunhat. Mothers and fathers, children, babies, grandparents. Lying in the sun. Swimming in the warm sea. In Moscow, Croatia and France play for the World Cup. Europe at peace.

My eyes return to the page. The Soviet Union. 1942 -1943. War. Jewish nuclear physicist Viktor Shtrum waits for the phone to ring, the door to burst open, the arrest. Stalin is unpredictable. You never know the hour.

In Stalingrad, Lieut Gen Yemenko confronts Gen Paulus. Their soldiers, men and women, die in their thousands. On the Kalmyk Steppe, Lieut Col Darensky can think of nothing but the lice. “(H)e had spread out his pants and was squashing the lice that infested them. He was moving his lips silently, evidently keeping a tally.”

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Vladimir Voinovich, Dissident Russian Writer, Dies at 85

[From the New York Times]

Vladimir Voinovich, a Russian writer whose satirical novels vexed the Soviet authorities in the Leonid Brezhnev era, resulting in his banishment from the country for a decade, died on Friday in Moscow. He was 85.

Vladimir R. Medinsky, Russia’s culture minister, confirmed the death in a condolence statement on Sunday. The cause was a heart attack, Mr. Voinovich’s friend Yulia Pessina said on Facebook.

Mr. Voinovich first incurred the displeasure of the authorities by supporting high-profile dissidents in the mid-1960s. Then he really inflamed them with his novel “The Life and Extraordinary Adventures of Private Ivan Chonkin.” The book did not clear the Soviet censorship bar in 1969 but circulated underground and was published in Europe four years later.

Mr. Voinovich found himself under scrutiny by the K.G.B., and later said that he believed that during one of its interviews with him in 1975 the agency poisoned him with a cigarette that had been laced with some sort of hallucinogen.

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The Soviet poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko (1933-2017) and the fate of the ‘60s generation

[From the World Socialist Website]

Yevgeny Yevtushenko, the best-known Soviet poet from the 1960s to the 1980s, died at 83 from cancer on April 1, 2017, in Tulsa, Oklahoma.

Yevtushenko, born in 1932 in the small town of Zima in Siberia’s Irkutsk region, became one of the leading Soviet poets of the “thaw period” under Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev. Those years were bound up with official condemnation of the “cult of personality” around Joseph Stalin and the widespread hope within the Soviet people that the country could be renewed on a socialist basis.

In one of his most renowned poems, “The Heirs of Stalin,” published in 1961 at the time that Stalin’s body was removed from the mausoleum in Moscow’s Red Square, Yevtushenko wrote:

Let someone repeat over and over again: “Compose yourself!”
I shall never find rest.
As long as there are Stalin’s heirs on earth,
it will always seem to me,
that Stalin is still in the Mausoleum.
[Translated by Katherine von Imhof]

Yevtushenko’s father was a geologist of Baltic German origin. His parents divorced when he was 7 years old. The boy’s original last name was Gangnus, but his mother changed it to her family name after they moved to Moscow at the end of the war.

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Yevgeny Yevtushenko obituary

[From The Guardian]

In the middle of a novel published in the Soviet Union in 1981, two young people are exchanging opinions about Russian poetry. After several names have come up, one asks the other, “And how about Yevtushenko?”, to which he gets the reply: “That’s another stage that’s already past.” An unremarkable exchange, of course, save that the novel (Wild Berries) was by the poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko himself.

It indicates several things about Yevtushenko, who has died aged 84: his unquenchable self-regard, his ability to laugh at himself, his appreciation of the vagaries of fame. It also reminds us that there was a brief stage when the development of Russian literature seemed almost synonymous with his name.

Notoriety of a political sort first came Yevtushenko’s way in 1956, with the publication of his narrative poem Zima Junction, which encountered heavy criticism. The poem had no anti-Soviet message, but touched on tender spots, such as confusion over the direction of the country after Stalin, that Soviet writers had mostly avoided. It provoked outrage in sections of the Soviet press.

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Review of Masha Gesson’s *Where the Jews Aren’t*

A Promised Land in the U.S.S.R. Masha Gessen’s book about a failed Soviet experiment asks searching questions about Jewish identity.

[From the New Republic]

The twentieth century did not bring an end to Jewish wandering. I’m a case in point: All four of my grandparents, originally from Poland, survived the Holocaust and made their way to Israel. There my parents were born. But the socialist ethos of Israel in its early years did not sit well with my paternal grandfather, and he did not feel safe there. He had seen the destruction of the Warsaw Ghetto and the gas chambers of Majdanek. And having sent two of his sons to the Israeli army, he was not eager to send another two. His attachment to a Jewish state was strong, but his survival instinct was stronger. My grandfather continued to wander, looking for the safest place for his family to remain Jewish, moving to Los Angeles well into the middle of his life, where he started a factory in East L.A., and where I was born.

The idea of Israel as the glorious culmination of Jewish history has left these alternate endings in the shadows. But other notions of Jewish home and Jewish survival have always jostled against Zionism, both before there was a state and long after. At the end of the nineteenth century, as Jews and anti-Semites alike grew obsessed with the “Jewish problem,” debates and sub-debates proliferated about what a solution should look like. The Jews needed their own place? Fine. But did that place need to have its own political and military power? Did it need to be in Palestine? Was it reasonable or desirable to imagine a fantastical return to the glories of the temple period and the rebirth of an ancient language?
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Chernobyl Prayer by Svetlana Alexievich review – witnesses speak

[from The Guardian]

cover.jpg.rendition.460.707think it can be safely said that for the majority of Russians, over the greater part of recorded history, to have been born in that country has not been to draw one of the winning tickets in the lottery of life. A true history of its people need be no more than the howls of despair of millions of voices, punctuated by moments of incredible tenderness, courage and grim humour.

Which is more or less the Belarusian writer Svetlana Alexievich’s technique: her books are collections of hundreds of interviews with people who have been rolled over by the various incarnations of the Russian state. In Chernobyl Prayer each interview is usually a few pages long, and reads as a monologue – which is how they are described in the contents pages. “Monologue on how easy it is to return to dust”; “Monologue on how some completely unknown thing can worm its way into you”, and so on.

 The scale of the devastation and its insidious nature are perhaps beyond the power of the individual mind to imagine, which is one good reason why the polyphonic form Alexievich has made her own (and for which she won the Nobel prize for literature last year) is so appropriate. Only the voice of the witness can do the events justice, and, in Chernobyl Prayer, after some useful facts about the explosion and its aftermath (“travelling through the villages, one is struck by the overspill of the cemeteries”), we launch into the testimony of the widow of one of the firefighters called in to deal with the explosion. The description of his death from radiation poisoning – two weeks of increasing agony – was so harrowing that I wondered if I would be able to proceed. What kept me going was the strength of her love for her husband, and the child she was carrying; the baby seemed to absorb the radiation meant for her as it was born dead.
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