Tuesday, December 11, 2018

Reflections On Solzhenitsyn's Centennial

Solzhenitsyn with Heinrich Böll in Langenbroich, West Germany, 1974 

One phrase struck me when reading Michael Scammel's column commemorating Alexander Solzhenitsyn's centennial, "A Writer Who Destroyed an Empire": Yeltsin’s “foolish desire to introduce Western democracy in Russia.” Foolish, Alexander Isayevich, really? I caught myself arguing with the departed sage. Scammel is right, though: Solzhenitsyn’s aversion to Western democracy and modernity - individualism, secularism, tolerance, the rule of law - was fundamental to his view of the world. His anti-Western, in effect anti-liberal, stance earned him his the nickname "Ayatola Solzhenitsyn." But his even deeper aversion to the Soviet system, for awhile, overshadowed his innate conservatism. Solzhenitsyn's anti-Soviet invective, at first only implied, began early and reached its peak — the publication of Gulag Archipelago in 1973 — when it began to resonate with the jitters shaking up the empire from within. It also dealt a death blow to the flimsier construct of Euro-Communism in Italy and France. With time, his impact waned, as his writings progressively fell out of step with the mood in Russia as in the West. To resort to Solzhenitsyn's own favorite habit of quoting Russian proverbs, each berry has its own day for picking — Каждой ягоде - свой срок.

The edition I assigned to my class
I learned this lesson while teaching "One Day of Ivan Denisovich" to Stanford students for over thirty years (1978-2016). My Soviet period syllabus always listed it as required, because I felt that no one should graduate from Stanford's Russian program without reading and understanding this little masterpiece. In the sense of its impact and condensation of key ideas, "One Day" is rather similar to Pushkin's "Bronze Horseman": it's an archetype. Not only did it spawn a whole era of the so-called "village prose" and its antipodes, but it helped to crystalized the ideology of resistance to communism based on what we now refer to as "conservative values," more specifically, values that are considered native to the Russian soil, the Russian version of Blut und Boden.

The first Russian edition of "One Day." 1963.
There was another, more personal reason: my own first encounter with "One Day" in 1962 when it had just come out. I read it in the cheapest mass edition printed on newsprint as if to match Solzhenitsyn's plain-speaking voice, and I was transformed. As I turned pages, my head was exploding with a burst of indignation and grief for the millions victims of Stalinist repression, hitherto unacknowledged and unmourned. I was sixteen then but I had already come to know two women Gulag veterans who never spoke about their past, and heard plenty of whispered stories about the poet Osip Mandelstam, family members of my friends and, of course, my own. Although only obliquely, I myself was touched by the Dr. Zhivago affair — through my older sister Marianna. She was friends with Irina Emelyanova, daughter of Boris Pasternak's last Muse, Olga Ivinskaya (the prototype for the Zhivago's Lara). Irina (herself a prototype for Katenka, the daughter of Zhivago and Lara) was imprisoned in 1960, along with her mother, both accused of serving as intermediaries between the Nobel laureate Pasternak and  his publishers in the West. Irina was released in 1962. Of course, I had my feelings about all of these abominations but to have them publicly articulated in a widely available publication was a revelation. 

Irina Emelyanova, Irina Odokhovskaya, Marianna Freidina,
Sergey Nekliudov, Alla Tarasova. Moscow, July 1962. 

Solzhenitsyn's "One Day" was published, indeed broadcast (in hundreds of thousand copies), on Nikita Khrushchev's orders. Khrushchev's aim was to mobilize public opinion against his Stalinist Party rivals. Unintentionally, no doubt, this publication brought about a universal catharsis. The whole vast country let loose a collective moan for all the Gulag victims who had remained unmourned since the 1930s. For this alone, we owe Solzhenitsyn the debt of undying gratitude. But "One Day" was much more than that.

Each time, rereading "One Day" before my lecture, I felt like a photographer developing a print in a chemical solution. Little by little, political and ideological changes in Russia – and later on in the West – made what seemed like a simple tale of the Gulag horror morph into an anti-modernist, nativist, nationalist allegory. Like Tolstoy and Dostoevsky, the other great Russian writers who donned the mantle of prophet, Solzhenitsyn, it seems, could see far beyond the horizon that was visible to his contemporaries. And he departed from this world in 2008 before the changes he wished for his beloved country matured and began to bear fruit — under Vladimir Putin's cultivation.

Vladimir Putin and Solzhenitsyn in the writer's home. 2007

Solzhenitsyn's love and respect for custom and tradition grew into rabid nationalism, xenophobia, and aggression against Ukraine; his hope for order, into a brutal suppression of criticism and opposition; instinctive reliance on the folk's common sense for fairness, into a crooked criminal justice system; critique of Western consumerism and hedonism, into obscurantism and intolerance of the state-sponsored Orthodox Church; his opposition to censorship, into a virtual criminalization of free speech on social networks; his disdain for the popular culture of a modern metropolis, into the harsh policing of Russia's own bards and rappers.

But even in death, perhaps, especially in death, Solzhenitsyn's personal charisma has remained in force, and associating with him can enhance the authority of a politician. Vladimir Putin did not miss the opportunity and spoke at the unveiling of the monument to Solzhenitsyn in the Taganka district in Moscow. The head of the Russian state, he praised Solzhenitsyn for his support of the Russian statism (derzhavnost), a type of polity that favors state over society, and he singled out for special tribute Solzhenitsyn struggle with Russophobia.  "Even in exile," Putin noted, "Solzhenitsyn did not allow anyone to speak with disdain or ill about his motherland, he opposed all forms of Russophobia."

A term of relatively recent coinage, Russophobia was popularized in the 1980s by Igor Shafarevich, who attributed it largely to Jews. Replicating  Judeophobia, or anti-Semitism, Russophobia refers to some innate prejudice against Russia as a nation and Russians as an ethnic group — a prejudice that spawns critical opinion of the country and its government. The term is now habitually flung by Russian officials at anyone disparaging Russian policies or actions as a prejudice against Russia held by critics overseas or by Russia's own "internal enemies" (e.g., Sergei Lavrov in January 2018).  Those who know Solzhenitsyn writings from "One Day" to his much later history of Jews in the Russian Empire and Soviet Union (Two Hundred Years Together2002)will recognize that the seeds of this wholesale inversion of rational critical opinion into an ethnic prejudice were planted by the great author himself.

Putin at the unveiling of the monument to Solzhenistyn. 12.11.18

This moment of reflection on Solzhenitsyn's centennial unexpectedly illuminated the aphoristic lines Boris Pasternak dedicated to Lenin in his 1928 poem "Lofty Malady." Pasternak offered a formula for the paradox of the Russian revolution: its promise of freedom and justice in 1917 contrasting sharply with the incipient despotism of 1928. He found it in the archetype of divine vengeance for human hubris.

                               A genius arrives, heralding [new] privileges,
                               And he avenges his passing with oppression.

                               Предвестьем льгот приходит гений
                               И гнётом мстит за свой уход.

Almost a century later and a decade after Solzhenitsyn's passing, these words resonate with the  paradox of the now post-communist Russia.

* * *

Berkeley. 12.12.2018

Friday, December 7, 2018

Remembering My Friend Valery Chalidze (1939-2018)

Valery Chalidze, Vera Slonim Chalidze, Ilya Slonim,
Vicki Bonnell, Tanya Litvinov, with the Slonims'
dog Mr. Triqué. Moscow 1970-71.

Valery Nikolaevich Chalidze, physicist, legal scholar, and founder of the Human Rights Committee in the Soviet Union, died on January 3, 2018. For unrelated reasons, I could not attend the memorial for him in New York but I recalled a few episodes from our long association, wrote them down and had our mutual friend Jerry Schecter read them at the event. With the first anniversary of his death fast approaching, I decided to publish my recollections here.

* * *

Some seven years apart in age, Valery and I – were brothers-in-law, of sorts. We were married, serially, to the most attractive and smartest young women in Moscow, the Slonim sisters: he, to the younger Vera, I, to Masha. Neither marriage lasted long but enough to produce offspring: his daughter Masha Chalidze and my son Anton Freidin. Both are domiciled in England, both are happy and both have lovely, talented children of their own, second and third cousins all. Our lives were intertwined in other ways... Here, then, are the four luminous moments in the many years of our association.

I. Legal Counsel

Valery Chalidze and Vicki Bonnell. Moscow 1971.
Spring 1971 was when Valery and I first met. He was or was about to marry Vera Slonim, the sister of my, by then, ex-wife, while I was about to wed Vicki Bonnell, my wife of 47 years, and counting. I remember all of us gathered at the sisters' apartment hosted by their parents, Ilya Lvovich Slonim, a well-known sculptor, and Tatyana Maksimovna Litvinov, a translator of, among others, John Cheever. The friendships among all of us, including our in-laws, were much stronger than marriage. I have old photos that document one such moment.  

After Vicki and I were officially wed, we ran into a problem: Vicki’s visa – she was a US exchange student – was running out, and the authorities refused to extend it. Both of us were aware of the few mixed marriages that ended in forced separation and heartbreak. Chalidze, by then, had already formed the Human Rights Committee and had been dispensing legal advice, gratis, to people who had grievances against and were exasperated by the Soviet system. Though we were friends and practically relatives, on this occasion he received us in his famous room as our legal counsel, in a formal manner – black coat, white shirt and black tie. "An undertaker," Vicki quipped under her breath when we walked in. We knew the place was thoroughly bugged but, according to Chalidze's strategy, openness and transparency was our strength and worked in our favor. Besides, we had nothing to hide. We laid out and then discussed our situation, periodically rolling our eyes at the ceiling where, we assumed, the listening bugs were located. Chalidze’s sage prescription was simple: Vicki was to throw herself at the mercy of the Soviet State, that is to say, she was to cable a petition for extending her Soviet visa to Nikolay Podgorny, the titular head of Brezhnev’s USSR. She was to do so repeatedly. Preferably, once a day. We followed the counsel’s advice. 

To send the cables we used the Main Telegraph Office on Gorky Street. I still remember the face of the postal clerk in the window. She was trying to stay impassive, as she read and counted the words scribbled on the cable form, wondering whether to laugh or scream at the hutzpah of the American girl who was directly petitioning the head of the all-mighty USSR. But rules were rules, and the cables were accepted and sent. What happened next is still shrouded in mystery. Vicki never received a response. Alas, Chalidze’s prescription did not work as well as we hoped. Still, we got more time to spend together: she overstayed her visa for a couple of weeks, ostensibly waiting for a merciful response from Nikolay Podgorny. The advice may have helped also in another  way – by elevating our case to the "Kremlin level" so that a few months later I was granted permission, unprecedented at the time, to leave the workers’ paradise for permanent residence with my American wife in the United States. 

II. Fortune Cookie

Less than a year later, a law professor from Georgetown University Law School, Samuel Dash, visited Chalidze in Moscow. He was impressed. Before saying goodbye, Sam Dash pulled out a piece of his Law School stationary and hand-wrote an invitation to Chalidze to present a series of lectures at Georgetown on the human rights in the USSR. Those were tough times for Soviet dissidents. Emigration had not yet become a real option. What defined the horizon for people like Valery was jail or Siberian exile. Chalidze knew the calculus, and he was ready to face the music (if one is ever ready for an ordeal). As I write this, I recall Vera telling me that they decided to formalize their relationship, in part, for her to have the right, as a spouse, to visit Chalidze in prison. But instead of a prison sentence, Valery received a call from the authorities to pick up his passport for the visit to the US. He must have been stunned. He later told me that while getting his papers, he caught a glimpse of Sam Dash’s invitation sitting on the official’s desk: the Russian word – fake (липа) – was scrawled over it in a thick red pencil. 

On Thanksgiving Day 1972, I was at JFK with my friend Joseph Brodsky (like me, а recent arrival in the US, a "refuJew," as he joked over our status) to greet Valery and Vera. In the evening, like seasoned New Yorkers (neither of us was a US citizen then), we broke bread, so to speak, over their first truly American meal: Mushu Pork and Kung Pao chicken at a Chinese restaurant in the Village. There was a lot of excitement over this most American of all the emigre holy communions. We had all known each other back in Russia, and we were delirious to have been able to reconnect in NY. Fate saved best for last. As Valery cracked his first ever fortune cookie, a thin strip of paper fell on the brown oilcloth. It had just four words: “Change for the better.” 

Joseph Brodsky. San Francisco. 1973.
With an almost childish smile, Chalidze kept repeating these four words. It seemed he was mentally toying with the idea that he had just received a validation from Lady Fortune herself. Over the years, there were many occasions to recall this omen: when he was taken to visit the Justices of the US Supreme Court, when he started his publishing venture, when he received one of the early MacArthur genius awards (1985), or when he met Lisa, who would soon become his wife, while on a speaking tour in the American West.  

III. Press Conference

Fast-forward to December 1972. I was in Washington, staying with Jerry and Leona Schecter, my old friends from Moscow where Jerry used to head the Time Magazine bureau. Chalidze was giving his famous first press conference at Georgetown University on the state of human rights in the USSR. By then Time Magazine’s Diplomatic Correspondent, Jerry Schecter was going to attend and he took me to the press conference with him. 

Jerry and Leona Schecter, with Strobe Talbott (center). Wshington 2010.
I still remember one of the topics Chalidze spoke about before the Q&A: the mistreatment of political prisoners in Soviet labor camps. Citing UN nutritional standards, he accused Soviet authorities of subjecting political prisoners to a starvation diet, in effect, torture by hunger. The relevant nutritional data had been circulating in dissident publications for some time, but to hear this well-documented evidence summed up by the word “torture” spoken from a high podium by a well-known Russian dissident, with all of the Washington press corps in attendance, was a whole other matter. The words were like an exploding bomb shell. To this day, I remember the numbers — 800 calories, 1200 calories – as Chalidze delivered them in a calm and thoughtful voice… In case you are wondering what these numbers actually meant, the UN sets the minimum energy requirement for an adult at 1800 kcal.

The press conference was over. Reporters were rushing out to file their stories. I held back to avoid the stampede. The room emptied quickly and suddenly I found myself in the company of a three grim-looking middle-aged portly men in long coats and fedoras. They were unmistakable. Nashi!(out guys), flashed in my mind, as I realized I was surrounded by a clutch of Soviet reporters. I shuddered. At the time, I was beginning the project of translating into English, with Strobe Talbott, the second batch of Nikita Khrushchev’s memoirs (Khrushchev Remembers, vol. 2), and I was anxious to avoid the attention of the Soviet security “organs” (my family was still back in the USSR and could face reprisals). I guess, in their mind, I, too, belonged to an unmistakable species. 

Before I could slink out of the room unnoticed, one of the fedoras nodded in my direction. Instantly, I was cut off at the path by a tall athletic–looking fellow with a square jaw and a flattened nose. I had not noticed him in the room before. With a carnivorous grin, he he cut me off before I could reach the door, pulled out a camera — it looked tiny in his huge paws — and snapped two pictures of me. Operation completed, he winked at me with a grin, as if saying "it didn't hurt, did it?" and stepped aside. 

I rushed out, my heart was thumping as if I had just escaped death. The next moment, I felt ashamed: just look at Valery’s fearless, dignified cool, and he was taking on the whole of the USSR! I came to value his temperament even more during the many hours we spent over the years discussing philosophy, law, our ex-wives, and, yes, of course, politics both in Russia and the US. 

In the end, politics — our views had diverged — poisoned our conversations, although the friendship never broke up. Now, I regret that our political biases, now in retrospect so small, made our contact less and less frequent as the new century dawned.

A few days after the Georgetown press conference, Soviet officials had Chalidze's passport confiscated, informing him that he had been stripped of Soviet citizenship. He never went back, even after Mikhail Gorbachev restored it to him in one of his early perestroika gestures in 1987.

IV. The Federalist

In 1990, a week before Thanksgiving, I was in Washington to give a paper at the annual meeting of American Association for the Advancement of Slavic Studies (I was already a tenured professor at Stanford then). All of a sudden there was a call from Valery. He had a new crazy scheme (he was a fountainhead of ideas): Will I consider undertaking a translation of The Federalist Papers into Russian? A selection. 55000 words. And the deadline, I asked? It was Christmas. No way, I responded! And  agreed. Only later did I find out that the project, which may have been invented by Valery, was supported by Brent Scowcroft, National Security Adviser to Bush 41st. The idea was that apart from its distribution in the USSR, George H. Walker Bush would present a copy of the translation as a special gift to Mikhail Gorbachev, who was at the time busy with a radical revision of the Soviet Constitution. The summit was scheduled for the end of July 1991.

I was poor student of American history and because I had never taken  it seriously (how could such a young country have history?), I nearly flunked my citizenship exam in 1974 (I though the Boston Tea Party was about "liberty" only to be set right that it was about money, i.e., taxation without representation). Needless to say, I had not the faintest idea what The Federalist was about. But I soon made up for my ignorance. Suffice it to say that working sixteen-hour days seven days a week, translating into Russian gem after gem of the Founding Fathers’ practical wisdom was a most effective intensive course in American constitutional history. I am forever grateful to Valery and our two other well-lettered collaborators, the late Leon Lipson of Yale Law School and Lisa Chalidze, both erudite lawyers, who held my hand, so to speak, as I was digging deeper and deeper into the thinking of those remarkable sages, Hamilton and Madison. It was no less of a struggle to be able to render their thought into my native modern Russian, the language in which political discourse had been poisoned by decades of Marxist Hegelian cant. Lisa's and Leon's help with concepts, constitutional law, and the historical context was invaluable.

It did not take long to realize why The Federalist had never been translated into Russian. The hardest was the elucidation of the concepts that had received short shrift in Russian political thought, dominated as it was, first, by the French and, later, German traditions (Rousseau, Hegel, Marx), with very little space left for the Anglo-Saxon political thought, such as that of John Locke. It is little exaggeration to say that American political discourse had no equivalent in Russian and had to be invented. It emerged in the course of the continuous back–and–forth I had with Chalidze, as we both poured over the translation, word by word, paragraph by paragraph, article by article, culminating in the rendering of the US Constitution into what I hoped was plain Russian (our volume of The Federalist ended with the full text of the U.S. Constitution).

That December 1990 and well into January 1991, our phone lines for voice and fax machines (the Internet had not yet been popularized) hummed non-stop between my home Berkeley, California, and his in Benson, Vermont. I don’t know if Valery ever became a US citizen, but I have no doubt that in a deep sense, both of us became American in the process of preparing this volume: there is no immersion more profound than the rendering of another’s complex thought into your native tongue. At the end, I felt confident enough to write an introduction for the Russian reader.

Our American Federalist in Russian was finished sometime in February or March 1991. A year later, when the Soviet Union was no more, and Mikhail Gorbachev was its president emeritus visiting U.S., I was at a reception for him at the house of George Schultz at Stanford. Nikolay Nikolaevich Vorontsov, who was also there (he had served as USSR Minister of Natural Resources in Gorbachev's government), introduced me to his former boss. I tried to press my signed and leather-bound copy of the Russian Federalist into his hands. Gorbachev took the book, turned it over, looked inside it, then at me, and shot: “But I already have a copy.” Then, noticing my long face, he graciously took it, thanked me, passed it on to his aide, and reqarded me his radiant Gorbie smile. I was disarmed.
The Russian edition of The Federalist
Papers: Selected Articles

I still do not know if Gorbie or his associates had found the volume helpful as they were revamping the USSR Constitution in the summer 1991. Regardless, their efforts soon became irrelevant. In AUguest 1991, the USSR, de facto, ceased to exist. Still, there was a great demand for the Russian Federalist in Moscow of the new post-Soviet Russia. Every time I visited there (and I often did in the 1990s), I took a batch of copies. The press run of ten thousand was soon depleted. I gave away my own last copy to Sergey Nikolaevich Yushenkov, a liberal Duma Deputy, who was murdered under mysterious circumstances in 2003. I know the Russian Federalist was used by the legal scholars who shaped the Russian Constitution of 1993, among them, my friend Viktor Leonidovich Sheinis. 

Oh what a waste of effort, the reader might say, given the authoritarian regime that now rules Russia! Yes, you have a point. The stratospheric rise in oil prices in the early 2000s turned out to be a greater driver of change in Russia than the ideas of The Federalist. But ideas —a renewable resource, unlike oil —take a long time to sink in and take effect. But they do, with time, as they have over the last three centuries of Russian history. I am confident that my Russian countrymen will have opportunities to benefit from The Federalist in the not so distant future, as they have benefited from the commitment to the rule of law – the common denominator for the opposition in Russia today — that Valery Chalidze, in one of his “crazy schemes,” planted in Soviet soil in the 1960s. Or in 1970 when he founded, along with Andrei Sakharov and others, the Soviet Union’s Committee for the Defense of Human Rights. He made a difference, as Gorbachev recognized while he was launching perestroika, and his legacy will continue to influence Russian legal and political thought and practice for many years to come. R.I.P.

I will miss Chalidze.

27 May 2018, Berkeley

Friday, April 27, 2018

Easter or Passover: My Exchange with Gary Saul Morson


The Right Supper

Gregory Freidin and Boris Dralyuk, reply by Gary Saul Morson

In response to:
The Horror, the Horror from the February 8, 2018 issue

To the Editors:

An old-time reader of The New York Review and a Russianist, I am heartened by your continued interest in Russian history, politics, and culture, as in the review of the most recent translations of Isaac Babel [Gary Saul Morson, “The Horror, the Horror,” NYR, February 8].

The reviewer’s general thesis is spot on. Babel’s prose (for that matter, any modernist prose) loses its éclat when translators substitute their interpretive elaborations for the master’s condensed staccato phrasing. But one begins to question the reviewer’s judgment when he refers to Babel’s protagonist-narrator in Red Cavalry as Vasily (he is Kiril) Lyutov and then proceeds to quote from a new translation of “Crossing the Zbruch,” ignoring a real howler: “shards of the hidden dishware Jews use once a year—at Easter.” Babel’s Russian: “Черепки сокровенной посуды, употребляемой у евреев раз в году—на Пасху [cherepki sokrovennoi posudy, upotrebliaemoi u evreev raz v godu—na Paskhu].” Babel’s narrator, the crypto-Jew Lyutov, does many awkward things in Red Cavalry but he would never confuse Easter and Passover. Nor would any Russian, Jewish or otherwise.

The howler goes back to Walter Morison’s translation: “fragments of the occult crockery Jews use once a year at Eastertime.” Sanctified by Lionel Trilling’s introduction and usable, if full of errors, it served for decades as the standard rendering of Babel into English. I do wonder what an earnest reader has been making out of this “occult crockery” or “hidden dishware” that “Jews use at Easter.” An allusion to blood libel?

Yes, in Russian, the word Paskha may refer to either the Christian Easter or the Jewish Passover. But the context in the story—a Jewish hovel in a shtetl that had just suffered a pogrom at the hands of the retreating Polish army—points only to Passover. It is at Passover that traditional Jews bring out their best tableware (sokrovennaia posuda—literally, set-aside dishes) for the Seder meal (my grandmother did). The award-winning translator Peter Constantine could not help inventing the Seder plate, but he got the Jewish holiday right: “fragments of a holy Seder plate that the Jews use once a year for Passover.”

Translating Babel is a herculean task despite or, perhaps, because his deceptively simple stories “pierce the heart” with such chilling immediacy. Translation mistakes are unavoidable. But why err unnecessarily when the answer to the riddle, at least in this case, lies in plain view?

And one last thing. In the review, the photo of Isaac Babel with a child in his arms is of Babel holding his son—not grandson—Mikhail, taken in January 1927.

Gregory Freidin
Emeritus Professor of Slavic Languages and Literature
Stanford University
Stanford, California

To the Editors:
As Isaac Babel’s Benya Krik says to a grieving mother after his gang has accidentally bumped off her son, “Everyone makes mistakes, even God.” Translators certainly make their share, as do reviewers. I want to point out a couple of mistakes made by Gary Saul Morson in his survey of several recent Babel translations, including my own. In the first place, the word Babel uses to describe the ruins of Novograd-Volynsk is skryuchennykh, not skruchennykh. The two are similar in sound and meaning, and can easily be confused. I translate the word that occurs, skryuchennykh, as “gnarled,” which is one of the meanings it carries when associated with old fingers or claws, and sometimes trees. In the very next story, “The Italian Sun,” Babel describes another scene of ruin: “the hooks of wicked old women’s fingers sticking from the earth.” The gnarled ruins and the hooked old fingers might resonate for a careful, imaginative anglophone reader. (Another minor mistake: the English nursery rhyme to which Morson refers was translated by Kornei Chukovsky, not Samuil Marshak.) But the important point is that individual words do not occur in a vacuum or in a decontextualized pattern of repetitions. Morson takes issue with my contextual translation of the word istlevshikh and quotes the relevant explanation from my introduction, but not in full. I write:
Other translators have rendered the word used to describe the state of the letters—“istlevshikh”—more or less literally, as “mouldering” or “that had rotted,” but this is a shade too ghoulish, and isn’t true to the lyrical tone. If one takes a moment to imagine what Babel’s narrator imagines—the romance of this decadent “way of life”—one can conjure the fragile letters before one’s eyes, feel their texture; they have been “worn thin” by friction and sweat. Here, Babel has waxed romantic. Throughout the cycle, Babel uses the same adjective to describe things ranging from “decayed wadding” and “rotten hay” to an old rebbe’s “withered fingers.” Context is everything. There’s plenty of brutality in these stories; it derives its effect from the beguiling lyricism that surrounds it.
Boris Dralyuk
Executive Editor
Los Angeles Review of Books
Los Angeles, California
Gary Saul Morson replies:
I thank Gregory Freidin and Boris Dralyuk for their comments. I did make two careless mistakes. First, a typo: the word is indeed (in one common transcription from the Cyrillic) skryuchennykh, not skruchennykh. Although my subsequent discussion, which suggested “crooked,” makes clear which word I meant—that is, the word that also appears in the nursery rhyme—I am glad to be corrected. Both Marshak and Chukovsky translated the nursery rhyme. Second, as I check Babel’s text, I see that the name is Kirill Vasilievich (Kirill, son of Vasily), not Vasily.
Freidin, who is in my opinion a fine critic, thinks it is a “howler” to translate Paskha as “Easter” rather than “Passover.” But as he acknowledges, the word Paskha does mean Easter as well as Passover, so it is hard to see how either choice could be a howler. Vinokur, as well as Morison, chooses “Eastertime”: “I find turned-out wardrobes…human excrement, and shards of the dishware Jews keep hidden and use once a year, at Eastertime.”
The reason I prefer “Easter” is that the narrator makes sure not to tell the Jews that he too is Jewish—he is, as Freidin acknowledges, a “crypto-Jew”—and they treat him accordingly. The story depends on the fact that the Jew acts and speaks as if he is not a Jew, and this is what Babel wants the (“earnest”) reader to understand. Lyutov (the name is chosen because it does not sound Jewish) does not “confuse Easter and Passover”; he pretends to be a non-Jew encountering the strange customs of Jews. He describes Jewishness from outside the culture, anthropologically, as if speaking to readers who are also outsiders, as the very need to explain that Jews use special dishes at that time of year suggests. Indeed, perhaps the best rendition would be: “at their Easter.” Babel’s narrator tries to hide his Jewishness even from himself, to overcome it, to act and speak like the non-Jews he envies.
The real problem here goes to the heart of why translation is so difficult. The original can remain ambiguous, meaning either Passover or Easter, but in English one must make a choice. My central point about Dralyuk is that he (like many other good translators) interprets the original when he does not need to. Indeed, he makes a principle of doing so. Depending on what one is translating, that can be the best way to proceed. But to catch Babel’s prose—prose that can refer to “invisible voices”—one often has to refrain from interpreting. You don’t want to take away the feeling of oddity and surprise. We have good translations of Babel, including Morison’s, Dralyuk’s, and especially Vinokur’s, but we still await one that really captures his prose in all its glorious strangeness.

Monday, February 26, 2018

Russia: A Very Brief History, Updated

View from Millionnaia Street onto the Palace Square before the Hermitage, with St. Isaac's in the distance; in the foreground, a detail of the caryatid in the entryway to the Maly Hermitage. St. Petersburg. 2006. Photo by the author.

Situated on the great Eurasian plane, Russia has been vulnerable to invasions from both East and West (Mongols, 1247-1480; Poles, 1605-1610; French, 1812; Germans, 1941). By the same token, once a centralized autocratic state was established under the grand princes of Muscovy, beginning with Ivan III (1462-1505), Russia could easily expand laterally and hold contiguous territories. Either way, holding the perimeter required a military force, consequently, taxes, and a powerful state to collect them.  Even today, after the dissolution of the USSR in 1991 and the secession of Ukraine, Belorus, the Baltic republics and those of Central Asia, Russia spans the entire northern part of the Eurasian continent, from the Pacific to the Baltic Sea, and south to the Black Sea, including the latest claim to the Crimean Peninsula.

Adoption of Orthodox Christianity from Byzantium (988) brought Russia early into the fold of Christian Europe, but it also set it apart from the Roman Catholic West. Therein lies the beginning of Russia’s ambivalence toward the West and the recurrent belief in Russia’s special destiny as the bearer of true faith, whether Orthodox Christianity (“Moscow the Third Rome”), or the Slavic commonwealth imagined by the nineteenth-century Slavophiles, or revolutionary socialism preached by radical Westernizers, or world Communism inaugurated by the Bolshevik revolution of 1917, or, of late, the conservative nativist nationalism of Putin’s Russia.

Isolated and fractured under the Mongol dominion and later threatened by the increasingly aggressive West, Russia was barely touched by the major European movements, the Renaissance, Reformation and Counter-Reformation, until the Enlightenment. Its own Russian Orthodox Church was never free from the tutelage of the state and to this day remains unreformed. Westernization came with Russia’s emergence on the world stage under Peter the Great (1682-1725). A modernizing autocrat, Peter established a lasting pattern for meeting the challenge of the modernized West – maintaining an uneasy and shifting balance between selective adoption of modern Western institutions, knowledge, dress and manners while protecting the centralized state and its power to impose corvée, heavy taxes, and to repress dissent.

Where the modernizing reforms were successful, achievements have been spectacular: in literature (Pushkin, Gogol, Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Chekhov), music (Chaikovsky, Stravinsky, Shostakovich, Prokofiev), art (Repin, Kandinsky, Malevich), theater and ballet (Stanislavsky, Meyerhold, the Ballets Russes), film (Eisenstein, Vertov, Pudovkin), science (Mendeleev, Pavlov, Sakharov, Kapitsa), hi-tech weaponry and space technology (the Bomb, the Sputnik). Russia was first recognized as a military superpower when it defeated Napoleon in 1812 and under the Soviets when it vanquished Nazi Germany in 1945. It still enjoys a quasi-superpower status, largely thanks to its nuclear stockpiles and Europe's largest military. But the price of modernization has exacted a heavy toll: Peter’s reforms strengthen serfdom, abolished only in 1861, private ownership of land and property rights, abolished under communism and restored after 1991, are still subject to the whim of the state authorities; civil society is thwarted by the officialdom and state control of the electronic media; corruption is ubiquitous and practically unchecked.

Deep antagonism between modernizing trends, especially the rule of law and the concentration of unchecked power at the top — be it under a tsar, a communist dictatorship (1917-1991), or Vladimir Putin’s vertical “sovereign democracy” — has produced an unstable and skittish polity. Periods of repression (extreme under Stalin) are punctuated by decade-long episodes of exuberant liberation (viz. Gorbachev and Yeltsin), but consolidating reforms are, in turn, undermined by renewed centralization and turn toward authoritarianism at the top.

Emancipated from communism in 1991, Russia has been struggling to institute democracy and a market economy in the face of countervailing trends, among them, Muslim irredentism in the Caucasus, endemic corruption and state control of the economy, rise of nativism and nationalism, and, on the part of the power elite, a backsliding into a populist authoritarianism stoking resentment against the West. Significant progress has been achieved nevertheless, in part, because the profits from the rich deposits of oil and natural gas have been shared broadly, albeit unevenly. A new generation of Russian citizens, modern and free from the instinctive Soviet fear of state authority, is now entering their twenties and is bound to affect the country's future by expecting more democracy and more freedom. But the overall picture remains mixed, especially since Russia’s annexation of the Crimea in 2014 and subsequent fomenting of civil war in eastern Ukraine. Russia’s aggression toward Ukraine led to the imposition of sanctions by the US and EU, as well as relative international  isolation.  Russia's aggressive meddling in the US Presidential Elections in 2016 has led to further estrangement between the two nuclear superpowers. The benign international climate Russia enjoyed for over two decades since the end of the cold war and collapse of communism has been replaced with a renewed antagonism with the West.

Copyright © 2010, 2018 by Gregory Freidin

PS. This is the most recent update for the essay on Russian history in 300 words that I was commissioned to write for an on-line reference in 2000. I've updated it twice now, trying to keep it short enough - 700 words - to fit into a newspaper column. For the 2010 version, click here.