Katja Petrowskaja grew up in Kiev, studied in Estonia and Moscow, and lives in Berlin. Maybe Esther was written in German and first published in Germany, in 2014. It was translated to English by Shelley Frisch and published in 2018. She came to the Bay Area Book Festival about a year ago, and I went to her talk and picked up this book. When I started reading it, frankly, I wasn’t sure I was going to finish it. As far as family stories go, this one felt too similar to my own–and why read about something I already know so well, from living it?
I stuck with it because Petrowskaja’s a good storyteller, and a tenacious one, because she has followed her family story several more steps than I have ever done with mine, and because on the page she’s able to capture the complex emotions of following these heartbreaking stories. Of course, in actuality, her family’s story isn’t anything like mine. The similarities begin and end with this: We both grew up in Jewish families in the Soviet Union and emigrated after the Soviet Union fell apart. I write in English, she in German. If it felt like a familiar story at first, it’s precisely because I haven’t read enough books like this. I’ve only read just a few that focus on the Soviet Jewish family saga with any degree of depth (Margarita Khemlin’s Klotsvog in Lisa C. Hayden’s translation being the most recent, and wildly different from Maybe Esther), and they feel the same only because the gap between Kiev and Leningrad Jews in the 1980s is a lot narrower than, say, between Petersburg Jews and New York Jews. That is, it feels close enough to home.
There are a few main characters in Petrowskaja’s family saga. The story of Grandmother Rosa provides the main through-line. She grew up in a Jewish family, and her father, Ozjel Krzewin was born in Vienna, lived in Poland, and then died in Kiev, and ran a private school for deaf-mute children throughout his life–Rosa, too, inherited the profession of educating deaf-mute children. Rosa’s husband and Katja’s grandfather, Ukrainian Vasily Ovdiyenko during WWII was captured and became a prisoner of war in German labor camps. When he returned from the war, he met his wife briefly, but then went to live with another woman and stayed with her for more than forty years. Shortly before his death, he came home to Rosa–who was still waiting for him.
In writing the book, Petrowskaja follows the story of the Jewish side of the family, and then she also traces Vasily’s journey through the German labor camp system throughout Austria–it was a brutal three-year journey that few survived. She visits several labor camps that also served as death camps for Hungarian Jews, to arrive at an epiphany: it must’ve been something that Vasily witnessed in the camps that made his return to his loving family, a wife and two children, impossible after the war.
I don’t know where this conviction stemmed from, but it was right here in this small camp that something happened after everything that had happened already that made my grandfather’s return home impossible, so that he, back in Kiev, could not stay with his family, not with his daughter and not with his wife, Rosa, whose mother and sister lie in Babi Yar, which makes a person Jewish forever, I know that his failure to return had something to do with the death march of the Hungarian Jews
That sentence doesn’t have a period and it doesn’t need one. I should add, that actually this relative’s experience Katja and I, too, have in common: my grandfather, Jewish, was a POW in a German labor camp, and survived. He did return to the family, and one of the things I’m forever trying to write about is what his survival looked to the rest of us, his family, living with him. I finished the book grateful to Katja Petrowskaja for finding the words to unpack some of her experiences.
In a post from a few weeks ago, I mentioned Completely Different — a Russian-language collection of queer science fiction published in Bishkek, and Calvert Journal’s publication of a translation of one of the pieces. In a series of Twitter posts, Hilah Kohen responded and partially reviewed this collection. Given how rare conversations about queer Russian-language science fiction are in the English-language russophone zone, and my delight in them, I asked for Hilah’s permission to put her response on Punctured Lines. Enjoy! (I’m preserving most of the Twitter grammar.)
Completely Different, the collection of queer Russophone sci-fi and fantasy that this story in @calvertjournal comes from, is available [on Academia.edu as a PDF]. I was late to the party and haven’t read all of it, but what’s really struck me so far is how many pieces center the aftermath of all queer feminists splitting off from society completely and (literally, cuz sci-fi) building their own world. (Sounds dead obvious, I know, but imo it’s not & says something really interesting about post-Soviet opposition politics).
In this piece, the queer separatist utopia is a planet where residents rebuild their own bodies rather than terraforming. In another, it’s a “dimension” that only special augmented reality glasses can see (the patriarchy has its own, mutually exclusive AR system).
(Worth nothing that “kvir-feminizm” works differently in Russian than in English. Even waaay outside scholarship/theory, people use it to label a worldview aligned with intersectional feminism and opposed to TERFism/”radical feminism” but in the same semantic category as both.)
Anyway, with earthly utopias so lacking, these stories could just indulge endlessly in their fictional utopias (since they did take the unexpected imaginative step of separating them out), but no, they have to struggle with the prospect that no matter what beautiful, willfully self-contradictory society Russophone queer feminism might build on its own, it’ll never be content without going back to the old world ~forever~ because the very fact of reproduction means some citizens of the utopia will always be abroad.
This article published in December just before the holidays, seems worth highlighting. The topic is dear to me: I’ve been an avid reader of science fiction and fantasy literature, and I am particularly fond of contemporary feminist science fiction. But first, I want to highlight the books that Tuorma mentions in her essay.
Tuorma begins with a review of a scholarly volume, The Post-Soviet Politics of Utopia (I.B. Tauris, Sept. 19, 2019), edited by Mikhail Suslov and Per-Arne Bodin. As always with scholarly publications, this book is insanely expensive. Amazon, however, does have a decent preview of it that includes the introduction and gives us a good sense of the various threads of inquiry in this book.
Summarizing the volume’s findings, Tuorma writes, “Current Russian scientific and fantasy literature, both utopian and dystopic, seems to lack the radical and transformative power seminal to science fiction.” She suggests, following the advice of a Finnish-language publication Voima “to abandon dystopias, the predominant mode of global cultural production, and to envision ecological and economic utopias instead.”
She offers one recent anthology of Russian-language feminist and LGBT science fiction that comes from outside of the imperial center. This book, Совсем другие, is available in full from Academia.edu–in the Russian language. An English translation of its opening story, “Element 174,” penned by Kyrgyz activist and academic Syinat Sultanalieva, recently appeared in The Calvert Journal, translated by Lesya Myata and Samuel Goff.
I was born this way: a shameless lesbian. Ever since it became clear that I would have to be physically present on the planet of Omay, it had been my personal goal to sleep with as many of their famously gorgeous women as possible. There were rumours that they were all lesbians. I think my brothers would have understood, had they known about my plans — after all, it wasn’t exactly easy to get hold of women on Earth. There weren’t many left, and those that remained had mostly already been distributed amongst the domains. Those who grew up in ours were either too young or already related to me. I might be a lesbian, but I’m not so craven as to seduce them. I had to get by as best I could, making rare visits to the worse-for-wear residents of the Wild Zone or engaging in self-care. Luckily my father had some antique pictures and videos of sordid delights from before the Exodus, so I could indulge my fantasies at will.
I’m incredibly grateful to Tuorma for pointing out what looks to be a very exciting read.
Looking over the articles that comprise the scholarly volume, I do find it unfortunate that the names of whom I think first in the list of post-Soviet science fiction and fantasy authors had not been taken up for consideration. My personal anthology of writers in this genre begins with the names of Max Frei, Lena Eltang, Linor Goralik, Elena Pervushina–that’s off the top of my head…
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.
A recent review singing the richly deserved praises of our own Olga Zilberbourg’s debut English-language collection, LIKE WATER AND OTHER STORIES, out now:
“In an era of ‘short shorts’ hailed in by the venerable Lydia Davis—and culminating in ‘the fragmentary’ in the recent Nobel Prize-winning work of Olga Tokarczuk—one wonders if there remains space for a new collection of shorts: stories that up-end expectation and offer distinctive voice and lesser charted areas of exploration. San Francisco-based, Russian émigré writer Olga Zilberbourg, in her first story collection published in English, allays that concern. Zilberbourg is author of three Russian-language story collections; her fiction has been widely published in esteemed US literary journals; and she has won numerous prizes, including the Willesden Herald International Short Story Prize in 2016. A native of Leningrad, raised in St Petersburg, Zilberbourg moved to the US in 2006 to study at the Rochester Institute of Technology, later earning the MA in Comparative Literature at San Francisco State University.”
Thank you, as always, to Lisa Hayden of Lizok’s Bookshelf for keeping us all up to date on prize-related announcements. We are happy to share the list here, particularly as it contains her very helpful, and entertaining, descriptions of the nominated works. Less happy is the subject we’ve talked about previously on this blog (and which, in the wake of the Nobel, some of us have debated in a – let’s go with “spirited” – manner on Twitter): of the sixteen titles, only three are by women. While no one in their right mind would suggest that gender should be the sole criterion for anything, really, there is a real issue with Russian literary prizes being overwhelmingly skewed toward male writers (googling the major award winners will confirm this in short order). This is not meant as a slight to any of the men on the list, but it is a question that needs to be asked, over and over, until we arrive at a workable solution: how do we honor good writing whoever the writer may be while at the same time ensure more balanced representation in terms of nominations and winners? Suggestions welcome; perhaps someone can forward them to the Russian prize committees.
It is hard to overstate just how much Aleksandra Brushtein’s autobiographical novel about Aleksandra (Sasha) Yanovskaya, a young Jewish girl growing up in Vilna at the turn of the century, was beloved by generations of Soviet children. At a time when I have completely forgotten plots of books I read much later, I can still recall various episodes from this one. A copy of the book, which my family took with us when we left the Soviet Union, is one of my prized possessions. My mom loved this book so much she wanted to name me Sasha (an attempt ended by my great-grandmother Aleksandra’s announcement post my birth that Ashkenazi Jews cannot name children after living relatives). A remarkable thing about this novel is that it has a Jewish protagonist and depicts Jewish life but still became so popular in a country as anti-Semitic as the Soviet Union. Its popularity has endured in contemporary Russia, where “since 2005, a new printing of the book by different publishers has appeared almost every two years,” including an annotated edition.
Yet as Liza Rozovsky’s article notes, Brushtein “is barely known outside the Russian-speaking world.” To date, there is no English translation. If there is a translator out there who could take on this project, many in the diaspora would be eternally grateful on behalf of their children and their English-speaking friends’ children. In any case, it’s great to see this book being written about at length and we — and our inner younger selves — are thrilled to highlight it on Punctured Lines.
“The book that is imprinted in my memory as a moral and political compass, and the book I would like my children to know, is a Soviet-era work for children and juveniles titled “The Road Slips Away into the Distance.” It’s an autobiographical trilogy by the Jewish children’s playwright and memoirist Aleksandra Brushtein, who is barely known outside the Russian-speaking world. The first volume of the work was translated into Hebrew in the 1980s, but Brushtein (1884-1968) remains unknown in Israel, too. In the Soviet Union, where it ran through many editions of tens of thousands of copies each, the trilogy achieved cult status.”
“In ‘Rubicon,’ which opens Olga Zilberbourg’s Like Waterand Other Stories, the narrator, on her way to pick up her son from preschool, says, ‘spring came on hard and much too early this year, which must be why the dimensions of reality shifted.’ If the story’s realistic beginning gives the impression that this shift is figurative, it soon becomes apparent that reality really does alter: on a street in San Francisco, a young man she knew back in 1990s Russia, who is ‘still seventeen on this day in 2018,’ drives up to hand her a ‘TDK compact cassette, the exact kind he and I used to exchange in high school.'”
“A NOVEL ABOUT a Soviet military factory whose workers must eventually adjust to a post-Soviet way of life does not sound like a thrilling read. Yet there’s a very good reason why Ksenia Buksha’s The Freedom Factory (Zavod “Svoboda”) won Russia’s National Bestseller Prize in 2014 (Buksha is only the second of three women to do so since the prize’s founding in 2001) and was also a finalist for the Big Book Award. In the author’s hands, this unpromising raw material is skillfully transformed into a genuinely and unexpectedly compelling narrative.”
Olga Bukhina wrote a fascinating piece on the C.S. Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia in the Soviet Union. My parents were regular consumers of Samizdat, but I don’t remember seeing the Narnia books in their hands — perhaps, it’s the overtly Christian message that put them off. My parents weren’t interested in religion or science fiction, but I was, and just a few years later I devoured Lord of the Rings when it was officially published in 1991. (Of course, it’s entirely possible that my parents read it without my knowledge. Parents are apt to do things like that…)
Narnia was not just a religious threat; in the Soviet context, it was clearly political. The message of these fairytales turned out to be much more dangerous than particular words and images that could be eliminated by censorship. The words of the faun Mr. Tumnus, “It is winter in Narnia, and has been for ever so long… Always winter and never Christmas; think of that,” in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe (The Chronicles of Narnia. New York: HarperCollins Publisher, 2001, p. 118), resonated to the reader as an image of the Soviet political winter without any hope for change; the change being symbolized by Christmas.