The Great Patriotic War is now nearly eighty years old, and yet it still resonates in the lives of the grandchildren of the surviving generation. This essay by Mariya Deykute attests to its power over our imaginations. Some of us continue to make decisions with that war in mind. I particularly admire how Deykute both personalizes the war and portrays her family’s lived experience of the war, touching on her grandmother’s and her mother’s stories. This war is both the environment in which people have lived and a character of our nightmares.
With gratitude to Olga Livshin for sharing this piece. Please click through to read the essay in full.
The Great Patriotic War came to visit me again today. I was throwing out wild raspberries. A week ago I had scrambled up the treacherous rocks of Narbona Pass to fetch a cupful. “Eat them,” my husband said. “Later,” I replied. The cup sat in the car on the trip back, full of small red not-spheres. They sat in the fridge for a week. “Should I toss them?” my husband asked. “No, I’ll make something with them,” I said. But today I found that white mold had claimed them, fuzzy rotting snowflakes…..
Part of Open Democracy’s “new series on activism, academia and equality in Central Asia,” this piece is by Aizada Arystanbek, “a Central Asian graduate student of gender studies in Europe” (links to the other pieces in the series are included). As she writes, “along with the thrill of being able to study what I am passionate about comes a certain violence of erasure, as I am left constantly searching for my identity in feminist academia.
As I think about Russia’s colonisation of Central Asia and the process of Russification my mother had to undergo in her school in Tselinograd (the former name of the current capital of Kazakhstan), I feel deeply for Latina, black and indigenous women who write about their ancestors being colonised, their land being stolen, and them being perceived as backward simply because they lacked culture in the western conception of the word.
But I am always caught in between these various identities and almost never am I seen for my own very distinguishable one, a Central Asian woman. I have to stitch together my identity in academia by myself, learning little-by-little from other feminist scholars of colour, hoping that I understand their experiences correctly and that their words will represent my struggle accurately when I use them in my essays.”
Central Asia, once part of the Soviet Union and now comprising independent nations, is not particularly well known in the West. In the U.S., academic study of the region has traditionally come out of Slavic departments, where it has only recently begun to garner more attention, although not necessarily about issues of gender and feminism. This series looks to be an important and much-needed step in this direction.
In 2015, Steven S. Lee published the monograph The Ethnic Avant-Garde: Minority Cultures & World Revolution. It may seem strange to write about a book four years after its publication, but the continued lack of racial and ethnic diversity in Russia studies makes Lee’s work more relevant than ever. Today we should consider The Ethnic Avant-Garde as not only a valuable source of information and analysis on a much neglected topic, but also as a springboard for reconsidering the field’s methodologies, as well as dominant political discourses on the region and its Soviet past.
WHAT IS THE BOOK ABOUT?
Lee defines the “Ethnic Avant-Garde” as referring to the diverse artists and writers who engaged with the Soviet Union from beyond its borders, but his central contention is that the phrase defines a “largely unrealized utopian aspiration […] the dream of advancing simultaneously ethnic particularism, political radicalism, and artistic experimentation, debunking the notion that particularism yields provincialism.” The Ethnic Avant-Garde, he adds, “foregrounds a distinct way of seeing – a ‘transnational optic’ that, for the contemporary reader, makes it possible to discern unexpected connections among radical artists and writers from many different countries.” The book does not idealize the Soviet system or its minority policy, but rather argues that foregrounding the Ethnic Avant-Garde facilitates a “minority and Soviet-centered remapping of global modernism” and “provides for new scholarly and creative communities in the present day.”
Chapter 1 analyzes the cultural exchange between Vladimir Mayakovsky and Langston Hughes by looking at the way in which the latter translated and adapted the poetry of the former. Chapter 2 considers Sergei Tretyakov’s play Roar, China and its reception in the United States. Chapter 3 looks at Hughes’ famous dismissal of the planned Soviet movie about African American struggles, and Chapter 4 addresses the complex attitude of American Jews towards socialist internationalism. Overall, the book covers the inter-war period from 1918 to 1939.
REVIEW OF THE BOOK
The strongest suit of The Ethnic Avant-Garde is the multitude of significant, but little known, examples of cultural interaction between Western ethnic minorities and the Soviet Union. Perhaps the most emblematic of these is Lee’s analysis of Vladimir Mayakovsky’s “Black & White” (1925) – a poem in which Willie, a black sweeper at an American cigar company in Havana, slowly gains awareness of racial inequity – and its subsequent translation into English by Langston Hughes in the 1930s. Through analysis of word choice, form, and rhythm, Lee reveals the cultural collaboration that took place between these seemingly disparate authors (even though Mayakovsky was no longer alive by the time of Hughes’ translation), and highlights the way in which Hughes not only translated Russian into English, but also represented Afro-Cuban culture in a way that was comprehensible to an American audience. Another strength of The Ethnic Avant-Garde is that its content – the book covers multiple ethnicities, including African American, Asian, Afro-Cuban, and Jewish – reflects Lee’s mission to “delineate an avant-garde grouping that cuts across racial, ethnic, and national boundaries.”
This ambitious motivation is, in part, responsible for the book’s shortcomings. The concept of the Avant-Garde is inherently abstract (think of Kazimir Malevich’s paintings), so it is not surprising that Lee’s writing style is heavily theoretical – his use of Vladimir Tatlin’s Monument to the Third International (1919 – 1920) as a visual metaphor for the Ethnic Avant-Garde is a prime example of this tendency. The plethora of abstract concepts with which Lee grapples frequently leads to dense and obtuse paragraphs that would make little sense to a reader who was not well-versed in the theoretical underpinnings of modernism. Terms such as “Freudian melancholia” and “Now-Time,” for example, receive little explanation. This trend carries through to the final chapter which, instead of bringing the book’s narrative to a close, offers yet more theorization – this time, focusing on how Karen Tei Yamashita’s I Hotel (2010) negotiates the “eternal idea” of Mao’s Cultural Revolution and its reality. While the discussion of Yamashita’s work is rigorous, it does feel like something of a non sequitur in a book that primarily discusses the Soviet Union.
WHY IS IT SIGNIFICANT?
Let’s turn to methodologies. Russia studies, like every field of area studies, is an umbrella term that houses multiple disciplines – namely, international relations, political and social science, history, literature, art, and language. Yet, while Russia studies is a broad church, there is a strange lack of interdisciplinary dialogue, particularly when it comes to the international relations and political science strands. For scholars of literature and art, it is natural to draw on the research in these fields in order to understand the backdrop of, and worldview encoded in, the work. However, there is little in the way of reciprocal influence due to the unfortunate tendency among IR and political science scholars to see their disciplines as detached from the “softer” realm of cultural studies. The Ethnic Avant-Garde embodies the fruitful results of this kind of interdisciplinarity work. Lee himself is an Associate Professor of English Literature at Berkeley, but he uses the techniques of literary analysis in order to draw wider conclusions about the social and political nature of the relationship between the Soviet Union and ethnic minorities abroad.
Interdisciplinary methodologies, in turn, prompt a rethinking of Western political discourse on the Soviet Union. Understanding the cultural ties and, indeed, the cultural attraction that it exerted for Western ethnic minorities invites a critical reassessment of the traditionally antagonistic Cold War rhetoric. The dominant U.S. rhetoric of the Cold War period posited the Soviet Union as the antithesis to American ideals of democracy and capitalism. Encoded in this rhetoric, however, was the pervasive inequity in racial relations, especially regarding the African American community. Thus, anti-Soviet discourses erased the experiences of those ethnic/racial groups who were not included within these “patriotic” ideals. Granted, The Ethnic Avant-Garde does not technically cover the Cold War (i.e. post-World War II) period. However, its final chapter does suggest that the People’s Republic of China – founded in 1949 – offered a beacon of hope for Western ethnic minorities. The nuancing called for by Lee’s work, in turn, spotlights the ever growing need for greater diversity among the practitioners and scholars who study the region.
THE PERSONAL IS POLITICAL
The iconic slogan of the 1960s and 70s women’s movement has been repeated to the point of banality over the last six decades, but this does not mean that it is any less relevant today. Academic book reviews rarely mention the author’s personal biography, but in this discussion of racial and ethnic diversity in Russia studies it is salient to point out that Lee himself – as he writes in the Acknowledgements – is the child of Korean immigrants to the United States. He is among the few ethnically East Asian scholars in Russia studies (other examples being Notre Dame’s Emily Wang and UPenn’s Brian Kim). Lee’s personal background makes The Ethnic Avant-Garde political: beyond its specific content, the very fact that a seminal contribution to the field has been made by a person of color is, in itself, worthy of celebration. Most significantly, however, is that The Ethnic Avant-Garde points to the way diversity in the profession can facilitate a dramatic reinterpretation of the Soviet Union’s place in the global cultural space by foregrounding the inter-ethnic and inter-racial connections that the present Eurocentric scholarship has overlooked.
On November 25th, Punctured Lines hosted our first literary event in San Francisco. Thanks to a conference that brought to San Francisco scholars, translators, and writers in Slavic, East European, and Eurasian Studies, we were able to gather a star list of participants. A few of the readers have appeared in Punctured Lines, and we certainly hope to feature more of their work. Following the scheduled portion of the event, we hosted an open mic that turned out to be a great crowd-pleaser. Below are the pictures we captured that night and brief descriptions of everyone’s contributions.
Shelley Fairthweather-Vega opened with an excerpt from her recently published translation of Talasbek Asemkulov’s novel A Life at Noon — available for purchase here. A story about a musician growing up in Soviet Kazakhastan and learning his art form from his father.
Yelena Furman read the opening from her short story “Naming,” recently published in Narrative Magazine, and available in full online (free, with free registration required).
Wayne Goodman read a few brief excerpts from his historical novel Borimir: Serving the Tsars that re-imagines gay romance in Imperial Russia. There’s lots of awkward flirting! This book is available for purchase on Amazon.
Maggie Levantovskaya read from her essay about a trip to Auschwitz concentration camp “To Conjure Up the Dead,” published in Michigan Quarterly Review. The bizarreness of Holocaust tourism with the post-Soviet twist. An excerpt from this essay appears online.
Masha Rumer shared an essay about exposing an unsuspecting date to the delights of pickled herring-and-boiled beet salad, aka “Seledka pod shuboj.” He lived long enough to propose. We’re hoping to read the follow up on this story in her upcoming book, Parenting with an Accent: An Immigrant’s Guide to Multicultural Parenting. More about Masha and her book in the Q&A she gave Punctured Lines.
Sasha Vasilyuk followed with an excerpt from her novel-in-progress about a Soviet prisoner of war. We will be following the development of this project closely.
Mary Jane White delighted us with her translations from Marina Tsvetaeva — her delivery of the “Ode to the Rich” landed particularly well with our audience. Mary Jane’s book of her own poetry and translations from Tsvetaeva Starry Sky to Starry Sky is available online. We will be following up with news of her upcoming book of translations from Tsvetaeva’s Berlin and Prague years, Poems of an Emigrant: After Russia, Poem of the Hill, Poem of the End, and New Year’s.
Josie von Zitzewitz followed up on the thread of discussion about the lack of visibility of contemporary Russian literature in the United States, and introduced a project that she’s developing with Marian Schwartz and Hilah Cohen, soliciting work from young Russophone writers to create a feature publication in an American magazine (possibly more than one).
Joining us for the open mic portion of the show, we had Maxim Matusevich, a writer and a historian of USSR intersections with African countries. He delivered an excerpt from his hilarious short story about cultural encounters between American students going to study abroad in St. Petersburg.
Christopher Fort closed the evening with a poem that he read in both Uzbek and English, bringing our attention to a particular rhyming pattern of Turkic languages. We have previously linked to Christopher’s interview about translating Abdulhamid Sulaymon o’g’li Cho’lpon novel Night and Day. This novel is now available for purchase online.
Jorge Ferrer and his English translator Jacqueline Loss, writing for World Literature Today, offer us an interesting glimpse of Svetlana Alexievich’s reception in Spain. Ferrer was born in Havana and now lives in Barcelona and translates Russian-language writers, including Svetlana Alexievich, into Spanish. I love knowing that a character from Secondhand Time has a life of her own on the stage of a Barcelona theatre.
I’m just going to simplify the problem for us to understand: (1) A Belarusian writer who operates by means of a method usually called “novel of voices” includes in a book a woman’s testimony; (2) An actress reads that testimony in Spanish translation, falls in love with the witness, takes that text to the theater, and constructs, in a parallel manner, a life in the real and digital worlds; (3) The actress asks the translator of the original text into the language in which she represents the character to write a new monologue for the witness, that is, to take her out of the realm of reality and transport her into fiction—from being a person, to turn her into a character and, instead of translating the life transcribed for her, write a future life for her.
Beyond the encounter with Alexievich herself, Ferrer takes us on several delightful tangents in this essay. This piece feels particularly appropriate this week, when we’re celebrating the 30th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin wall.
Shortly after my mother died, the kids and I established the routine of taking long beach walks about an hour before sundown. We lived on Staten Island then, the long beautiful stretch of Great Kills beach was only seven minutes away by car. My husband and I had separated just a few months before my mother’s death, and all three of us were still reeling from these two blows. David was almost 18 then, Stephanie had just turned 15; I would look at our shadows and see that they were about the same lengths. We looked like three orphaned siblings rather than a mother and her kids.
One week before my mother died, I went to a Russian food store on Staten Island to buy caviar. I was brought up in the Soviet Union, where caviar was considered a special food reserved for children and dying parents. I never thought of it as extravagant or a romantic delicacy. My mother would offer me some before important tests in school, because it was chock-full of phosphorus that supposedly stimulated brain cells. I remember eating caviar before school, at seven am, still in my pajamas, shivering from the morning cold, seated in the untidy kitchen of our Moscow apartment, yawning and dangling my legs, bumping my knees against the boards of our folding table, holding that piece of bread spread with a thin layer of butter and thinner layer of caviar.
On a personal note, this observation about caviar did hold up in my family, in part. When my grandmother was dying, my mother fed her caviar sandwiches. (Before the tests, though, I got a chocolate bar.) I’ve never seen this detail about caviar captured in prose before–it resonates so deeply.
“A FRIEND’S TEN-YEAR-OLD SON son recently came up to me at a party to ask, ‘You’re from Russia, right?’ Sensing caution in my assent, the boy hesitated before asking the next question, clearly trying to phrase it in a way that wouldn’t cause offense but would express his curiosity. He finally came up with, ‘It’s a very violent place, isn’t it?'”
Guest-edited by Larissa Shmailo and Philip Nikolaev, Issue 26 is dedicated to political poetry and prose in translation from Russian and written originally in English by writers with Russian affiliations.
A note from the publisher: This November, Academic Studies Press will publish the first English translation of Cho’lpon’s Night, the first half of an unfinished dilogy whose intended second book, Day, was lost when Chol’pon was executed by Stalin’s secret police in 1938.
Stalinism undoubtedly robbed the Uzbek people and the world of an incredible talent at a young age—Cho’lpon was most likely 41 when Stalin’s secret police, the NKVD, took his life—but it is because of Stalinism and Cho’lpon’s erasure from Soviet Uzbek life that the author is so interesting and enigmatic a figure today. The absence of information about his life and his oeuvre echoes across history and continues to affect how Uzbek audiences relate to the author. This absence provides opportunities for individuals to offer differentiated and heterogenous interpretations of the author’s biography, his art, and consequently, Uzbekistan’s past, present, and future.