Maybe Esther, A Family Story by Katja Petrowskaja, translated from the German by Shelley Frisch

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.

For a more formal review of this book, please read Linda Kinstler’s review in LARB.

Emily Couch on The Ethnic Avant-Garde and Diversity in Russia Studies

By Emily Couch

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.

Emily Couch is a Staff Intern at the Kennan Institute.  She recently completed a double Master’s degree in Russian & East European Studies at University College London and the Higher School of Economics (Moscow). She has just returned from a year living in Russia where, in addition to her degree, she interned with the independent Russian pollster, The Levada Center.  Earlier this year, she defended her thesis entitled The Inter-regional Diffusion of Russian Protest Repertoires in a Trans-National Context, 2008 – Present.  Her articles have been published by news outlets including The Moscow Times and The Calvert Journal.
Twitter: @EmilyCouchUK

Yelena Furman’s short story “Naming” published in Narrative Magazine

We congratulate our own Yelena Furman on her first ever fiction publication. Her story “Naming” appears in the Fall 2019 issue of Narrative Magazine. It centers an immigrant protagonist — Sofia, Sonia, Sonechka — who moves back to Moscow in 1992 for a job copyediting “one of the many publications springing up in the newly liberalized atmosphere now that the Soviet Union had collapsed.” This is a delightful tale of search for identity, romance, a connection with the place, and, of course, books.

The story is available online after a free registration to the website. If it resonates with you, please leave a comment on the website, write back to us or to the author directly. Publishing short stories can be a lonely business, and the most effective way to support a writer is to comment on the work you love.

From early on, the most significant episodes of my life were bound up with books. I was reading Eugene Onegin when we left the Soviet Union, The Seagull when I lost my virginity, and the Russian realists when I fell in love, a process that spanned several authors. I was in my last year of college, in 1992, when I met Daniel, a graduate student. I caught him looking at me during our first class meeting for a seminar on nineteenth-century Russian fiction. He didn’t look away when I met his stare, which betrayed too much self-confidence on his part yet was oddly intriguing. We didn’t speak, but for the next few weeks I would continually feel his bright-green eyes on me. Daniel’s eyes were his most striking feature; they had the ability to bore into you with an unearthly intensity and leave you feeling as though you’d just been seen through to the inside.

https://www.narrativemagazine.com/issues/fall-2019/fiction/naming-yelena-furman

A Soviet YA Classic: Aleksandra Brushtein’s Дорога уходит в даль (The Road Goes off into the Distance)

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.”

The Novel That Introduced Soviet Jews to Their Forgotten History

New Book: Katia Raina’s Castle of Concrete

Thanks to Lea Zeltserman and her Soviet Samovar newsletter for the mention of this novel. This is labeled as “Young Adult,” which means might fly under the radar when I look at reviews of contemporary fiction. This also means, it might be a gripping and fast-paced read. The description and preview of the first few pages are certainly promising.

Sonya is a daughter of a “dissident poetess moneyless famous jobless” mother, who had nearly aborted her. Jewish, too–being Jewish in the Soviet Union seems to be a major theme of this book. The novel takes place just before the collapse of the Soviet Union, and emigration looms large. Sounds both familiar and intriguing.

Publisher: Young Europe Books

Agent: Jessica Regel

Upcoming Book Announcement: Alex Halberstadt’s Young Heroes of the Soviet Union

From the publisher: “In Young Heroes of the Soviet Union, Russian-American author and journalist Alex Halberstadt sets out on a quest to name and acknowledge a legacy of familial trauma, and to end a cycle of estrangement that afflicts his family. This journey leads him to track down his grandfather–one of the last living bodyguards of Joseph Stalin–and to examine the ways in which The Great Terror and decades of Soviet totalitarianism indelibly shaped three generations of his family. He goes back to Lithuania, where his Jewish mother’s family was from, to revisit the trauma of the Holocaust and a pernicious legacy of anti-Semitism that has yet to be reckoned with. And he explores his own story, as a fatherless immigrant who arrived in America–to a housing project in Queens–as a twelve-year-old boy and struggled with feelings of rootlessness, identity, and yearning for home.”

Publisher: Random House

Agent: The Wylie Agency

Pub date: March 10, 2020

Jewish Underground Culture in the late Soviet Union

Klavdia Smola (whose new book we introduced earlier) guest-edited an issue of a scholarly journal, East European Jewish Affairs (Volume 48, Issue 1). Several essays in this issue touch on Soviet Jewish literature and its authors. From the introduction: “Klavdia Smola examines Jewish art and literature that originates in the context of the late Soviet unofficial public sphere. Her premise is that the Jewish cultural underground, like the late Soviet unofficial culture as a whole, emerged within a specific communicative niche, which was the result of intensive private exchange, limited knowledge, and collectively discovered sources. <…> She examines the ways in which the semi-private public life and political pressure influenced Jewish cultural production. Her main thesis is that precisely this context determined the aesthetic nature of the artifacts: their intertextuality, numerous cross-medial links, and the incorporation of the alternative lifeworld into art. The predominantly non-Jewish socialization of the “new” late Soviet Jews and their close contact with other unofficial artists produced a highly mediated and highly synthetic culture.”

The table of contents is here. As often with academic publications, you’ll need access to an academic library to read these pieces. They go for $43 a piece!

Klavdia Smola’s: Reinventing the Tradition. Contemporary Russian-Jewish Literature.

This book comes to us from Germany, with the promise of the Russian-language edition in the next year (thanks to the always wonderful NLO Press). Klavdia Smola (PhD from Technischen Universität Dresden) examines Soviet-era Jewish underground literature from the 1960s and 1970s to the beginning of the 21st Century, and studies the way this literature relates to the tradition of Jewish literature and to the official literature of the Soviet Union.

The book is available from Vandenhoek & Ruprecht Verlage.

Der Kampf sowjetischer Juden um das Recht der Emigration nach Israel führte seit der zweiten Hälfte der 1960er Jahre zu einer jüdischen Kulturrenaissance im Raum des Inoffiziellen. Literatur, die aus der Feder nonkonformer jüdischer Intellektueller in Russland, Israel, Amerika und Deutschland entstand, schöpfte nun erneut aus den jüdischen und judaistischen Kulturquellen und nahm so den jüdischen “cultural revival” der postsowjetischen Periode bis in die Gegenwart vorweg. Diese Rückkehr förderte jedoch nicht nur Poetiken der Erinnerung und Rekonstruktion, sondern auch der imaginativen Subversion und des performativen Bruchs. Diese Studie erschließt das Phänomen der wiedererfundenen Tradition in der russisch-jüdischen Literatur seit den 1960er Jahren im Dialog mit aktuellen Kultur- und Literaturtheorien.

Or, in Russian,

В монографии прослеживается, как в русско-еврейской литературе после долгого периода ассимиляции, Холокоста и десятилетий официального (полу-)запрета на еврейство заново «изобреталась» еврейская традиция. Процесс «переизобретения традиции» (Хобсбаум) начался в контркультуре еврейских диссидентов-отказников, в среде позднесоветского андерграунда 1960-1970-ых годов, и продолжается, как показывает проза 2000-2010-ых, до настоящего момента. Он обусловлен тем фактом, что еврейская литература создается для читателя «постгуманной» эпохи, когда знание о еврействе и иудаизме передается и принимается уже не от живых носителей традиции ‒ из семейного и коллективного окружения, но из книг, картин, фильмов, музеев и популярной культуры. Такое «постисторическое» знание, однако, результат не только социальных катастроф, официального забвения и диктатуры, но и секуляризации, культурного ресайклинга традиций, свойственного эпохе (пост-)модерна. Оно соединяет реконструкцию с мифотворчеством, культурный перевод с практиками создания вторичного – культурно опосредованного – коллективного «воспоминания», ученый комментарий с фольклоризацией. Когда «естественная» преемственность уже невозможна, а традиционная герменевтика (прошлого) натыкается на лакуны, следы и фрагменты, литература сама становится тропом памяти, восполняющим потерю своими собственными символическими средствами.
Бóльшая часть монографии посвящена советскому еврейскому андерграунду и вышедшей из него прозе эксодуса (еврейского исхода). Автор показывает, как в процессе возвращения ассимилированных позднесоветских евреев к своим корням в литературе возникала альтернатива соцреалистическому канону (подобно множеству других альтернатив периода позднего коммунизма, например, деревенской прозе или ре-этнизации литератур советских республик) и в то же время во многом его зеркальное отражение. Телеологию прозы алии/исхода «пересекает» скептический, антисионистский литературный нарратив тех же лет ‒ и она же отдается поздним эхом в новом консерватизме и почвенничестве еврейской литературы 2010-х годов.
В этой же главе изучается возрождение идишского сказа и восточноеврейского фольклора в 1970-1980-ые годы.
Вторая большая глава монографии посвящена постсоветской и новейшей русско-еврейской литературе: с одной стороны, постмемориальной поэтике культурной памяти и «придуманных воспоминаний», с другой, поэтике дискурсивной деконструкции языка и идеологии советской империи.
В целом автор показывает, как современная русско-еврейская литература, не будучи продуктом живой преемственности, обращается к традициям еврейской письменности, начиная с библейского и средневекового иудаизма и кончая раннесоветскими (анти-)сионистскими романами, и «переписывает» например сатиру маскилов, хассидский мидраш или идишские травелоги. Исследуются как совсем или почти неизвестные, так и уже отмеченные критикой тексты еврейских авторов, перформативно «изобретающих» еврейскую традицию. Таким образом переосмысливается сама история русской литературы, ставится под вопрос ее монокультурный (славянский) контекст.
Помещая русско-еврейскую литературу в общие макрокультурные рамки эпохи, автор обращается к теории гуманитарной мысли последних десятилетий: культурной семиотике Юрия Лотмана и Бориса Успенского, работам о мифе Мирсеи Элиаде, геопоэтике Кеннета Уайта, теориям культурной памяти Алеиды и Яна Ассманов и постпамяти Марианне Хирш, постколониальным и постимпериальным исследованиям, а также наследию постструктурализма.

Russians in the Catskills – Tablet Magazine

Tablet Magazine has published an excerpt from Maxim D. Shrayer’s new book, A Russian Immigrant: Three Novellas. The book is upcoming September, 2019 from Cherry Orchard Books (gotta love the name of the press) and is already available for preorder.

The novellas feature episodes from the life of Simon Reznikov, a young Soviet Jewish man who immigrates to the United States with his parents and studies literature in New England. How will his future turn out? He can’t see the next turn his life will take ahead of time, yet, once that turn comes, there are ways in which it has been completely predictable.