Category: Russia

Interlitq’s Californian Poets Interview Series: Boris Dralyuk, Poet and Scholar, interviewed by David Garyan


Boris Dralyuk (photo credit: Jennifer Croft)

 

Interlitq’s Californian Poets Interview Series:

Boris Dralyuk, Poet and Scholar

interviewed by David Garyan

 

Boris Dralyuk’s poems to appear soon in Interlitq’s California Poets Feature

 

DG: Russian culture is incredibly rich—in the sense that it’s both European, but also very distinct from that tradition. Its Orthodox religiosity affects almost all aspects of life and the specters of communism seem to make their presence felt now and then. Geographically, too, the country straddles the line between East and West. In 2000, Oxford Professor G.S. Smith wrote this eerily relevant statement in an article published by the Modern Language Review: “In the political world, and in the academic world that reflects it more and more directly, a tendency has begun for Russia to be marginalized. Influential people increasingly seem to want to exclude Russia from Europe, and especially from its principal political articulations, which begin with the EU.” Twenty-one years later, the marginalization project seems to have been completed by the West. In this respect, to what extent, if at all, have political changes over years affected not only your work as a Russian scholar, but also personally?

BD: I’ll start by thanking you for inviting me to take part in this series, and for posing such provocative questions. I was born in 1982 on the periphery of the Soviet Union, in Odessa, Ukraine—very much in Europe, very much in the South—and so the Russophone culture I knew as a child was a warm and welcoming one, garrulous and gregarious, if more than a little rough around the edges. The twenty-four hours my family spent in Moscow in April 1991, on our way to the United States, were just as disorienting as my first day in Los Angeles. Perhaps even more so. I’m a great believer in sister cities—in the bond between towns that share certain cultural and physical attributes, like a similar climate, similar degrees of ethnic diversity, similar age, similar sprawl (horizontality, rather than verticality). And by many of those measures, at least in my blurred vision, Odessa and LA are not so very different, though of course LA is much larger. I’ve found myself entirely at home in other sister cities, too—in Buenos Aires, for instance. Moscow isn’t one of these cities, nor is St. Petersburg.

What I’m trying to underscore is that I tend to think less in terms of national cultures and more in terms of local ones, and that I see myself as an Odessan and Angeleno. When I began to study Russian literature academically, of course, I refined my understanding of the overarching features and trends that have come to define Russian culture, which is ever evolving but not without repeated patterns. I entered UCLA in 2000, the very year that Smith made his observation, and I was so excited to be reading Pushkin and Lermontov, Teffi and Yuri Olesha, that I paid little mind to the marginalization of Russia; Russophone poetry seemed the be-all and end-all, as did Anglophone poetry and all the subjects that lit up like targets in a pinball machine as I bounced between classes. Only later did I begin to give thought to the status of the field of Slavic studies in academia, and to the attitude towards Russia on the political stage—but I have to be honest, it never felt to me personally that the image of Russian politics abroad was any more tarnished than it deserved to be, or that the average American or European was any more hostile towards Russians than towards members of other nationalities, and this despite the Putin regime’s despicable, criminal behavior in Ukraine and elsewhere. I may be wrong about this, but in any case, I don’t feel that political attitudes towards Russia have seriously impacted my work as a translator—certainly not negatively. I translate the stories and essays of Maxim Osipov, who lives in Tarusa, 101 kilometers outside Moscow, and these brilliant, highly nuanced, not at all black-and-white depictions of Russian life have found an eager audience in the United States and in the United Kingdom. My translations of the equally brilliant, equally nuanced, though more surreal work of the Russophone Ukrainian author Andrey Kurkov are just as well received. It’s true that interest in new Russian authors waxes and wanes, but many factors are at play: general interest in work in translation; the economic health of the publishing industry; growing demand for perspectives from other cultures; and so on. But there’s always a contemporary Russian author “breaking through”—and more and more often these are women authors, authors from minority Russophone communities, experimental authors …. What’s to complain about?

DG: The great Russian poet, Osip Mandelstam, once famously said the following: “Only in Russia is poetry respected; it gets people killed. Is there anywhere else where poetry is so common a motive for murder.” Indeed, during Soviet times, people filled stadiums to hear poets like Andrei Voznesenski and Yevgeny Yevtushenko read—a feat perhaps utterly impossible for a US poet. Two questions: As a scholar of Slavic languages, how do you view the USSR in relation to all of Russian history and what do you make of Mandelstam’s claim?

BD: Important questions. My own sense is that in practice, from the time of the Civil War into the 1950s and even beyond, Soviet rulers reiterated, formalized, and intensified the worst, most oppressive tactics of past Russian tyrants, from Ivan the Terrible to Peter the Great. Population control and suppression of dissent through state terror and secret surveillance, the use of slave labor for construction, total censorship, imperial expansion and isolationism …. What was new was the scale of the enterprise, and the brazenness of the regime’s hypocrisy. And I think this brazen hypocrisy is one of the core legacies of the USSR; we see it in the smirking duplicity of Putin and his circle, in their hollow whataboutism.

Mandelstam was right, of course, about the high stakes of writing non-conformist poetry under Stalin. But do we really need poetry to matter in this particular way? There was and remains a degree of nostalgic envy in the West for the fatal significance of Soviet dissident art. But I feel dissident authors themselves would have much preferred to pursue their art without persecution and fear. It may have been a political poem—the infamous Stalin epigram—that ultimately cost Mandelstam his life, but I suspect what he wanted most was to write and publish freely on any topic he chose, not to use his poems as a political tool. To claim that art is apolitical is also a political stance, of course—but that’s the stance many dissidents took. In their view, politics were forced on art, like a straitjacket. Even Voznesenski and Yevtushenko, who were semi-official poets rather than dissidents, filled stadiums because they wrote about their subjective experience, about the individual, about love—a breath of fresh air after decades of formulaic Socialist Realism. The Thaw weakened the political demands placed on poetry, and the public responded. And I don’t mean to say that expressly political poetry is necessarily bad, only that those who are forced to politicize their poetry might desire greater freedom; in such circumstances, to be apolitical is to be radical.

Cults rise up around those who were, like Mandelstam, martyred for their art, but I would much rather have had more Mandelstam poems than the tragic story of his end, which lends, in my view, the wrong kind of significance to his work. I translate Isaac Babel, who was murdered by Stalin’s regime, and nothing bothers me more than the sight of his mugshot in articles about his work. I’ve even seen Mandelstam’s mugshot on covers of selections of his poems. Is that how these life-embracing artists, whose work overflows with vitality, would have wanted to be read—as victims? This sort of thing leaves a bad taste in my mouth.

DG: With Robert Chandler and Irina Mashinski, you co-edited The Penguin Book of Russian Poetry, released in 2015. Can you talk about the way this collaboration began, along with how this specific anthology is different from other ones dedicated to Russian poetry, and also about the particular authors you enjoy that appear there?

BD: My collaboration with Robert and Irina was formative—one of the great lucky turns of my life. It began when I met Irina and her late husband Oleg Woolf at a reading in New York City. I was instantly enveloped by their kind, open spirit, their irrepressible creative force. Within a week, I began translating the marvelous, sui generis, lyrically surreal prose of Oleg’s Bessarabian Stamps. At the same time I began to correspond with Robert by email, having answered one of his queries on a Slavic Studies mailing list. Robert and Irina, I learned, had recently begun work on what would become the Penguin book. Before long they invited me to join them. To say that I was honored would be a gross understatement—I walked on air for days on end. I was then a graduate student at UCLA. I had applied to study there as an undergrad a decade earlier with the goal of becoming a translator. This project felt like the goal I had been working toward all that time, and the four years that followed—during which Robert, Irina, and I, as well as all the translators whose work we included, exchanged thousands of letters and drafts—were the real education in translation I had been yearning for, the real on-the-job training. When we put the finishing touches on the book, I felt bereft; how would I go on without the daily inspiration afforded by my exchanges with Robert and Irina? I’m glad to say I never had to find out. We still write to each other every day, still collaborate on our many joint projects, and, through the Penguin book, have even recruited a fourth member to the team: Maria Bloshteyn.

What makes the Penguin book special is that we included no poem that doesn’t work as a poem in English, by our standards. Often enough, anthologists of poetry in translation are guided by the academic impulse to include whatever is deemed important in the original language. But in the absence of successful translations, how can one hope to convince readers with no access to the original that this or that important poem is indeed important? Poetry is lost in translation when we approach translations of poems as translations first and poems second; a translated poem that isn’t a poem does no one any good. True, it may be a tool for learning the original language, but then it isn’t really a translation—it’s a trot. Translations worthy of the name aren’t made for those who can read the original.

Of the lesser-known poets we included in the book, the ones I feel most passionate about are Georgy Ivanov (1894-1958) and Anna Prismanova (1892-1960), both of whom left Russia after the Revolution, never to return. You can read Prismanova’s poem “The Jolt” here, and a late poem by Ivanov here. Incidentally, in the introductory note to our selection of Ivanov’s poems in the Penguin book, we quote G.S. Smith, who describes the mood of the extraordinary lyrics the émigré poet composed in his final years: “An aging, careworn man, almost always alone and speaking to himself (except in a few love poems, among the most delicate ever written in Russian), quietly probes the balmy-rosy atmospheric permutations of an alien Mediterranean coastline into which remembered snowstorms threaten to intrude. Among provocatively offhand gestures about the pointlessness of it all, potentially redemptive values drift in with the snow, evoked and guided by the formal mastery of their verbal articulation.” Prismanova is often more visionary, more metaphysical, but the notes she strikes are not dissimilar. Both poets capture fundamental strains of the émigré sensibility, and I respond to their work at a deep level, for reasons that are perhaps obvious.

DG: Apart from Moscow and St. Petersburg—indeed incredible places—what’s one city in Russia you’ve always wanted to visit but haven’t been able to so far?

BD: I look forward to visiting Tarusa, the home, as I mentioned, of my friend Maxim Osipov. It has a fascinating history. During the Soviet era, it was just far enough from Moscow to serve as a legal residence for former political prisoners and other “undesirables.” As a result, it was a quiet hub of dissidence. And having translated Maxim’s stories and essays set in Tarusa, like “The Children of Dzhankoy,” which you can read here, I feel I’ve already “lived” there, as it were, and now I have a great urge to walk its streets.

DG: Let’s talk about translation. I do apologize for the length, but I’ve posed this question in more or less the same way to a couple different translators already—it’s one I particularly enjoy, and it deals with untranslatability. Essentially we’re dealing with the fact that individuals to whom certain literary legacies belong are more inclined to believe in the untranslatability of their own national poets and writers—a phenomenon, which, in their minds, attaches greater mystique and importance to these cultural figures; those looking in from the outside, however, that is those (we may call them foreigners but they might also be immigrants who can no longer speak the language of the country from which they emigrated) eager to consume the riches of another culture tend to believe exactly the opposite—that translation is not only just as effective but can also improve the original. For example, in a 1998 review article praising Robert Daglish’s translation of Quiet Flows the Don, scholars Barry P. Scherr and Richard Sheldon argue that readers looking to discover Sholokhov’s “original intentions” would actually fare better by reading the novel in translation, rather than in the original Russian, further stating that “in terms of textological issues, Daglish’s translation is arguably superior to any of the available Russian-language editions of the complete novel.” What’s your stance on the issue, not just in terms of Sholokhov, but Russian literature in general, and has there been a work you’ve translated that presented particularly peculiar challenges?

BD: A fascinating set of questions, really. You’re absolutely right to say that many people regard their favorite authors as untranslatable. That kind of proprietary attitude is easy to understand. Part of it owes to the affective connection we feel with one language or another; you hear people say that the word for love, in their mother tongue, means more than the equivalent word in some other language—and so naturally a love poem in that language would mean more …. But this is of course purely subjective, and has little to do with translation per se. It’s about what you know first and best, about the language you’re weaned on. Consider the case of Borges, whose first encounter with Cervantes’s Don Quixote was in English. When he later read the “original” it felt like a translation, and a “bad” translation, at that. So it isn’t a matter of translation – it’s a matter of first love.

As I said earlier, translations aren’t made for those who can read the original. It’s useful to hear what speakers of the original language have to say about one version or another, and certainly useful to have input from as many native speakers as possible when translating, but I feel a translation’s artistry ought to be assessed on the same terms as the artistry of any original work in the target language. The argument Scherr and Sheldon make is different. That’s a case of censorship and self-censorship. The translation of Sholokhov’s novel, like Robert and Elizabeth Chandler’s masterful recent translation of Vasily Grossman’s Stalingrad, is a heroic feat of reconstruction. Works that could not appear in the Soviet era without massive cuts and distortions—and, thanks to those cuts and distortions, are still partly discredited in Russian readers’ eyes—finally appeared in their true form only in English. Yet another gift of translation: it recovers treasures lost even to the original culture.

As to peculiar challenges, every text presents its own. But the more I work, the more I realize that the hardest obstacles I face aren’t technical but temperamental. If I find myself at loggerheads with an author’s worldview, to the point that I rebel against it rather than trying to understand and sympathize with it, even the seemingly simplest text proves intractable. This doesn’t mean I only translate people I find savory—that’s not at all true. I can easily relate to the lowest of the low. In fact, it’s often those who feel they’ve attained absolute moral clarity, and who try to force that vision down the reader’s throat, that rub me the wrong way.

DG: We can safely turn to something less cumbersome—Los Angeles. What are some of your favorite Russian-American establishments in the city?

BD: In my collection My Hollywood and Other Poems, I have a poem set in Plummer Park, which is the center of the Russian émigré community in West Hollywood—a fading community I’ve written about here—and another set at the Russian Library, which was once based in Plummer Park but is now across the street. You can read about that library, and take a small visual tour, here. These are the places that tug at my heart ….  And then there are the little Russian shops all up and down Santa Monica Blvd., which are the setting of the third poem in the title sequence of my collection.

DG: Your 2020 blog entry “True Love for Women or for Mountains:” Peter Vegin Sees Ararat in Los Angeles” offers not only a unique perspective on LA, with its large Armenian community (many of whom are Russophone), but also a refreshing look at Russian literature, away from the usual emphasis on Chekhov, Akhmatova, or Tsvetaeva. The entry includes your translation of a poem by Vegin, who can hardly be considered well-known, much less often read. What are the challenges and rewards that present themselves with translating such writers as opposed to more prominent ones?

BD: I’m so glad you enjoyed that entry. Vegin is one of several Russophone poets of Los Angeles whom I’ve been translating, and whose work will appear in My Hollywood. It’s profoundly rewarding to unearth these lyrical threads and, gradually, to weave together a tapestry of Russian LA. The challenges of translating lesser-known poets are no greater than those of translating well-known ones, and the rewards are enormous. If I can bring a poem by Vegin, Vladislav Ellis, Korvin-Piotrovsky, Richard Ter-Boghossian, Vernon Duke, Natalya Medvedeva, or Zinaida Kovalevsky to just one reader, it’s a major victory against the forces of oblivion.

DG: If you had to recommend one Russian dish, which one would it be and can you find a good version of it in LA?

BD: Well, that would be (don’t even have to think about this) Olivier—Russian potato salad—which was invented by a Belgian chef at a fashionable Moscow restaurant in the 1860s. You see? Russia and Europe are indeed united, or can at least sit at the same table. If you happen to be in LA, go down to Traktir at the corner of Santa Monica and Crescent Heights. And order some herring on dark toast (“Moskovsky”) to go with the Olivier. And a shot or two of horseradish vodka.

DG: What are you reading or working on at the moment?

BD: I am, happily, not working on any big translation just now. My co-translators Alex Fleming and Nicolas Pasternak Slater and I have prepared a new volume of Osipov’s stories and essays, Kilometer 101, for NYRB Classics, to be published in the fall of 2022, and I’ve just finalized the copyedits on a new selection of Isaac Babel’s stories, Of Sunshine and Bedbugs, to be published in July. Right now I’m translating poems, mostly—poems by Russian Angelenos, other émigrés, and by Julia Nemirovskaya, whose work has been an essential part of my life for a decade. You can read one of my recent translations here, and more at Caesura, Exchanges, and elsewhere.

 

About Boris Dralyuk

Boris Dralyuk is the editor-in-chief of the Los Angeles Review of Books. He is co-editor (with Robert Chandler and Irina Mashinski) of The Penguin Book of Russian Poetry, editor of 1917: Stories and Poems from the Russian Revolution and Ten Poems from Russia, and translator of Isaac Babel, Andrey Kurkov, Maxim Osipov, Mikhail Zoshchenko, and other authors. His poems have appeared in The New York Review of BooksThe Hopkins ReviewThe New CriterionThe Yale Review, and elsewhere, and his collection My Hollywood and Other Poems will be published by Paul Dry Books in April 2022. His website can be found here.

 

Armenia and Israel: Politically Divorced, Culturally United, an article by David Garyan

30/10/2020
Ravenna, Italy

 

Armenia and Israel: Politically Divorced, Culturally United

In this time of war between Armenia and Azerbaijan, the latter being supported by Turkey and Islamic jihadists, I really don’t know if the ordinary people of these respective nations can really be friends anymore. Even before the conflict, it’s difficult to deny that ethnic tensions—between common individuals as well—have always existed. Indeed, as mature adults, we can all take part in the song and dance of politeness; we can even smile at each other without placing any warmth into our gestures; we can pretend and continue to live as if nothing serious is happening or has happened in the past, but this would all be a lie. In the end, the shallow politeness thoroughly meaningless because, let’s face it, for a Turkish person, it’s easier to establish a sense of camaraderie with someone from Azerbaijan, and, likewise, an Armenian would face fewer challenges becoming friends with individuals from Greece, just as an example.

Many times already I’ve stated that as an idealist in the Don Quixote style I’ve always thought and continue to think that everyone deserves to be judged based on their own experiences and traits, but why is this so difficult to do? Moreover, why can it be that the former premise’s logic sounds so true on the surface, yet, the very fundamental argument itself should be so hard to embrace in real life? In the most realistic sense, I don’t think it’s quite controversial to say, just as an example, that ordinary Jews and Palestinians would have a harder time forming lasting friendships with each other than with another party whose nation both individuals, respectively, aren’t engaged in a conflict with; let’s stop being idealistic for a second and recognize that wars between states (whether historical or current), genocides (again, historical or current), or any other conflicts certainly do affect, to a large extent, how everyday citizens affected by them will engage one another.

Why is the truth so hard to accept? The victims, in the case of the Jewish nation, for example, can be comforted in their suffering (relatively speaking) if the perpetrator—Germany—takes every conceivable step to not only apologize but also make amends. Even after all the reparations Germany has paid over the years—even after all the genocide memorials it has erected (like the one below in Berlin, which I visited in 2018) to commemorate the Shoah, many survivors of that tragic event, like Sonia Warshawski, still refuse to “forgive,” which is understandable, as per her logic.

For Warshawski, who stated the following, forgiveness was something that had to come from God, not herself: “I shall never forget. I shall never forgive. Why I say I cannot forgive? Because forgiveness, in my opinion, has borders. How in the world can I tell you I forgive? I will feel ashamed, embarrassed, what I have seen those people dying, those terrible things. Who am I that I can forgive? This has to come from a higher power. Not from me. This is impossible. I would be wrong.” Her statement makes sense in the end because she ultimately concludes it by saying there’s no hatred in her heart; that would be self-destructive, but forgiveness is another thing.

If that’s the standard we were to apply, then, how are Armenians supposed to feel anything but animosity towards the Turkish state, which has, for one, made no attempt to pay any reparations, and secondly, refused to recognize our own suffering; in addition, what are we supposed to do when, to this day, the vehement campaign of denial continues? It naturally benefits the perpetrator’s state (both in terms of politics and mentality) for the victim to stay silent and pretend like nothing has happened. In this respect, to be quite honest, I’m always a little upset when Turkish people are extremely nice to me. Although I appreciate it, I often feel cheated because while their gestures can be interpreted in very positive ways, the positivity of such “friendliness” also plays a large role in pushing this unresolved issue of the genocide, along with the general tension between us (which does exist), further into the corner; that’s exactly what I mean by the song and dance of politeness—the more “positive” it is, the more damage it really does, and the harder it tries to be friendly, the more forceful this effort of taking out the obvious “tension” from the equation becomes.

Now, am I saying Jews and Palestinians can’t be friends? No, because there are plenty examples of that and even marriages between the two (the most famous being a celebrity union between Lucy Aharish, the “first Arab to anchor a Hebrew-language program on Israeli television,” according to Deutsche Welle, and Tzachi Halevi, an Arabic speaking Jewish actor who appeared in a Netflix TV show called Fauda). Suffice it to say, there was plenty of backlash, according to that same Deutsche Welle article, which only proves my point, but still, things like this happen and are by no means an impossibility. “We’re signing a peace accord,” the couple joked to an Israeli newspaper.

Likewise, am I saying Armenians and Turks can only hate each other? No, because there are plenty examples which prove the contrary and marriages too. Like in the case of Israelis and Palestinians, just think of the Turkish-born Armenian academic Daron Acemoglu (one of the pre-eminent economists in the world and the most cited one in the past ten years who married his Turkish spouse—another academic, Asuman Özdağlar, with whom he has two children).

Indeed, things like this may and do happen, but that’s not the point at all. While Acemoglu’s marriage hasn’t brought about the same criticism as the aforementioned Israeli-Palestinian one, it’s nevertheless a rare occurrence because of the animosities that such marriages can create, as we’ve already seen. What I’m saying, thus, is that it’s better, especially now, not to deceive ourselves regarding the tension which exists and has always existed between our peoples. To say that Armenians respect Turks and Azeris as much as they respect everyone else would be a mistake because that’s not true by any stretch of the imagination, and neither is it true for the other parties involved. If we pretend there are no problems and continue going about our business, smiling at each other, continuing the song and dance of politeness, then we miss the chance to solve the very issues we have—entirely for the reason that we do continue going about our lives in a manner that suggests there are no problems at all. We pretend there are none, so there must be none. Resolutions, however, don’t come out of nowhere; they arise precisely out of conflicts, and only through our willingness to face them can they truly manifest.

Well, why am I saying all of this—the article is about Jewish and Armenian cultural connections, solidarity, and similarities. Like all of my pieces that meander, however, there’s also a point, here, for all that I’ve written as well. Now that Israel is openly selling weapons to Azerbaijan and making no qualms about it, the natural tendency would be to ignore the problem and go on with our existence; nevertheless, I think this approach would entail making the same mistake as I’ve described above—the pleasant song and dance of politeness that means absolutely nothing to anybody.

Instead of playing games with my emotions and hiding the way I feel, I would like to come out and say that, yes, I’m deeply troubled and upset by the realpolitik Israel is conducting. As a nation which has endured genocide as well, and one which actively promotes their suffering as “unique” from what other people have suffered, I find it rather discouraging that their government would act in this manner.

Naturally, it’s quite unfortunate that, unlike Azerbaijan, Armenia has very little it can offer Israel, as highlighted by a recent opinion piece published in Haaretz, aptly titled, “Disunited by Genocide: How Armenia’s Relations With Israel Have Come to a Dead End.” Indeed, as the author says, firstly, we don’t have oil; secondly, we neither have money to buy Israeli weapons nor can we provide the much-needed bases for their planes to use in case Iran gets belligerent—it’s imperative for us to get along with Iran because together with Georgia (the only other border open to us) we have no more outlets to the world. However, Israel hates Iran because it’s their number one enemy, and so it goes ad nauseam; furthermore, Israel has been relying on Azeri oil for decades and the former’s relations with Iran aren’t exactly great. Isn’t it just a wonderful example of having your hands tied? As the author writes, “From Israel’s perspective, the notional brotherhood between Armenians and Jews, sharing the same destiny as victims of genocide, was not as meaningful as robust economic, strategic, and cultural relations with Turkey.” Enough said.

Truly, in the end, it doesn’t matter that Jerusalem—one of the holiest sites in the world—has an Armenian Quarter; it doesn’t matter that both people suffered unspeakable horrors and that there are many Armenians who protected Jews during the Shoah (according to the World Holocaust Remembrance Center, there are 24 such names to be found among the Righteous Among the Nations); it doesn’t matter that Armenians will forever be indebted to some of the greatest Jewish writers like Franz Werfel, Vasily Grossman, and Osip Mandelstam (pictured below in his more fortunate years) for bringing international attention to their suffering. None of this culture, solidarity, and history really matters for politics because it’s no different than trying to feed a starving person with religion; it’s all good and well, but the lofty sentiments are simply of no use for the person who needs something tangible—food, clothing, and oil, perhaps.

By no means am I drawing a parallel between Israel and a starving person; what I am doing is highlighting the fact that for countries to ensure political stability, they need something more than lofty ideals to bring it about. We can’t offer Israel any of that because like them, we find ourselves, once again, in the same position of being surrounded by hostile powers—the US, thousands of miles away, is basically the only lifeline Israel has, while Russia, much nearer for us, is our own equivalent. We must play by their tune or risk being wiped out, and, thus, any Western reform that Armenia wants to institute—well, it better think twice about that, because if Russia doesn’t like it, then goodbye to that security, which is by and large exactly how things transpired during the leadership of the progressive Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan, who most likely took it a little too far with his ambitious Western reforms; Russia is, hence, not to “rushing” to help us during our most pressing time of need. After all, it’s not difficult to imagine what Putin is thinking: If you want help, go ask America and Europe, both of whom you’ve been courting these past two years. Fair enough, I guess.

Again, what’s the point? The point is precisely politics and it’s nothing personal. At the end of the day, although I’m angry with Israel’s continued selling of weapons to Azerbaijan, I can’t let go of my sympathy towards the Jewish people themselves, along with the solidarity our people ultimately share, and the impact their writers and artists have made on our culture, and visa versa. I still plan on visiting Israel, walking among the streets of the Armenian Quarter, touching the Western Wall, visiting the Dead Sea, and lively Tel-Aviv.

When all the dust has settled, so to speak, at least in the context of politics, I really don’t think this hypothetical question is relevant to our discussion: Would Armenia, for example, placed in the same difficult geopolitical position of necessity, sell weapons to Palestine—with the knowledge that they would use them to attack Israel? I don’t like to think about it because, if forced, as Israel today is, Armenia would probably act much the same way, and the reason for this being that culture and religion, like I’ve already said, provide no sustenance for the physical body; ultimately, politics deal very little with the metaphysical realm, insofar as ideals concern their existence, at the very least.

This article, however, is about culture and history; on these pages, the shared pain of genocide and suffering do matter. Werfel, Grossman, and Mandelstam can be heard. The historical presence of Armenians in the city of Jerusalem is relevant and is certainly felt. I must admit that I feel positively overwhelmed as I write this. In a strange way, I feel more connection to Israel than I’ve ever felt. I want to go there, take in the history, talk to the people, listen to their stories, tell them where I’m from, and just connect with them on a human level—outside the context of politics. I know this is possible because of how much we really have in common with each other. It’s a history that no amount of money, oil, economic advantage, or military superiority can equal.

Anyone who studies the past will be aware that the Ottoman Empire had to collapse in order for the Jews to have a chance at statehood in Palestine, a territory which the aforementioned empire controlled at that time. After WWI, as most of us know, that empire crumbled, and with this development arose the opportunity for the English finally to realize the goal of the Balfour Declaration, effectively leading to the creation of a Jewish state some thirty years later, something which wouldn’t have been possible without the Ottoman defeat that necessitated their relinquishing of Palestine to the victorious British. And today, while the mighty Turks have long gone, the Armenian presence in Jerusalem has remained.

I feel incredibly proud that we should have the distinction of having our own quarter, and while many people feel that it separates us from the rest of the Christian community in the city, I feel just the opposite, despite the fact that according to Adnan Abu Odeh’s article, “Religious Inclusion, Political Inclusion: Jerusalem as an Undivided Capital,” published in the Catholic University Law Review, “Armenians consider their quarter to be part of the Christian Quarter.” I certainly sympathize with this notion; however, Christianity itself is something unique for the Armenians as they were the first nation to adopt it as their official state religion.

Indeed, the Armenian presence in Jerusalem predates the Turkish arrival by at least a thousand years, when the former began arriving to the holy city shortly after their conversion to Christianity in the fourth century, whereas the Turks entered Europe only in the 14th century, and Jerusalem even later, in the 16th century; clearly, then, it isn’t “our city” or a city “from us,” as the great dictator known as Erdogan recently claimed—one of his most outrageous but nevertheless not his sole asinine remark.

Places aren’t the only thing which links Jewish people with Armenians. There are also important figures. I will not discuss every last person, historical personality, and event that connects our people; my aim will be to mention those Jews, like Werfel, Grossman, and Mandelstam, who’ve spoken and written at length about Armenia, mainly to try and convince my fellow countrymen that while it’s completely acceptable to be angry at Israel at this moment (let’s not fall prey to the song and dance of politeness), we shouldn’t forget that the Jewish people themselves are really not our enemies. In my heart, I’m convinced that the majority of Jews don’t approve of this particular action their government has taken, if only on a moral level. I believe that the people living in a nation which has endured the Shoah (an event so recent that some survivors are with us to this day) stand in solidarity with Armenians during our difficult time and it’s completely inconceivable to me how so many people with a direct and indirect connection to such a horrific event could be anything but upset—on a moral level—with the current actions of their government.

As I’ve said, there’s no room for politics in this article; it’s about people like Franz Werfel, without whom the Armenian Genocide would’ve been mostly forgotten had he not written The Forty Days of Musa Dagh. So powerful and popular was the book, that the Turkish lobby had to go through considerable lengths just to stop the movie from being made by MGM. In his foreword to the almost 900-page novel, Werfel wrote the following: “This book was conceived in March of the year 1929, during the course of a stay in Damascus. The miserable sight of maimed and famished-looking refugee children, working in a carpet factory, gave me the final impulse to snatch the incomprehensible destiny of the Armenian people from the Hell of all that had taken place.” When I read the book a year ago, I couldn’t for one second—nor did I want to—ever put down the book. I must reiterate that it’s definitely not an understatement to say that the event would’ve been largely forgotten were it not for Werfel’s efforts. Here he is pictured with representatives of the French-Armenian community, most likely in Paris.

A less well-known example is Vasily Grossman—the great Russian novelist, and dissident. Born on December 12th, 1905, in Berdichev, Ukraine, he volunteered to become a frontline correspondent after the outbreak of WWII. Along with being present at the Battle of Moscow, the Battle of Stalingrad, the Battle of Kursk, and the Battle of Berlin, his account of the horrors at the Treblinka and Majdanek concentration camps are among the first eyewitness accounts of Nazi atrocities committed against the Jews. His extensive 1944 account, The Hell of Treblinka, was used at the Nuremberg Trials as evidence by the prosecution.

After the war, Grossman (pictured below) returned home, but became increasingly dissatisfied with the Soviet Regime and its repressiveness. In the 1950s, he began writing his long novel, Life and Fate, whose central premise was that communism and fascism are essentially alike, despite the fact that the former defeated the latter and liberated Europe from it. Shortly after submitting it for publication in 1959, the KGB raided his apartment, seized the carbon copies, his notebooks, and typewriter ribbons—it was naturally to Grossman’s advantage, however, that they didn’t know he was keeping two other copies of the novel with his friends. Still, Grossman died, in 1964, never knowing whether his work would ever be read. In 1974, with the help of the great dissident, Andrei Sakharov, the novel was smuggled out of the country by his friend Semyon Lipkin and it was published in 1980 in the West for the first time. Russia itself followed along in 1988.

When Grossman got into trouble with the Soviets, he was sent to Armenia by the authorities with the hopes that the trip would take his mind off the matter and get him to write something different. It was precisely this trip which produced the non-fiction work, The Armenian Sketchbook, the cover of which you see below.

Grossman spent his time in the country visiting the country’s most important sites, such as the Etchmiadzin Cathedral, the oldest one in the world, along with Lake Sevan, and the Temple of Garni, the only Greco-Roman structure in the post-Soviet states, built in the first or second century of the Common Era. One of the most poignant passages from the book is the ending, where he describes a wedding scene: The speeches and toasts seem to be unrelated to the occasion, but he finally understands that they have everything to do with the wedding and Grossman at last realizes that he has been accepted into the Armenian circle, so to speak. He writes: “Never in my life have I bowed to the ground; I have never prostrated before anyone. Now, however, I bow to the ground before the Armenian peasants who, during the merriment of a village wedding, spoke publicly about the agony of the Jewish nation under Hitler, about the death camps where Nazis murdered Jewish women and children. I bow to everyone who, silently, sadly, and solemnly, listened to these speeches.” It’s for writers like this—books which will exist for as long as humanity lives—that Armenians must be thankful for. We must look past the politics and somehow reconcile our anger with Israel (which, again, like in the case of Turkey, we are justified in expressing) to see that the issue Armenian-Jewish relations is far more subtle and complex than we think it to be.

The last important Jewish figure who wrote about Armenia is Osip Mandelstam. Considered one of the greatest Russian poet, if not the greatest of the twentieth century, Mandelstam was the quintessential dissident. In the 1930s he was twice arrested by Stalin and sent into exile—the second time he was given five years in a labor camp, where he ultimately died. Due to the sensitive nature of his work, he often couldn’t even write it down. His wife, Nadezhda, a name which means “hope” in Russian (certainly a tragedy for him to have a wife with that name when there was so little of it left for him), would usually commit his poems to memory and write them down later.

Mandelstam visited Armenia in 1930 and stayed for eight months. In the midst of the ancient culture and picturesque countryside, the great poet rediscovered his creativity and composed one of his most powerful poems, inspired by the burnt-red landscape, ancient churches, and mountains. His visit produced the prose work, Journey to Armenia, along with his Armenian poetry cycle, which Ian Probstein so generously translated for Interlitq, along with commentary, and it can be read here. An excerpt worth quoting:

I always feel that my spirits are lifted when I read Mandelstam’s words, because as Probstein said, for Mandelstam, “even in Voronezh exile (1935-1937), which he perceives as ‘a lion’s den’ alluding to Daniel, he is still thirsty of life and thinks of an earthly paradise. Hence he viewed his brief journey to Armenia in 1930 not as escape from his harsh reality but as a discovery of the roots of humanity and civilizations.” It’s with this thirst for life, I believe, that we Armenians should move forward and continue living. We now face the same difficulties that Mandelstam encountered during his own life and we owe it to this great Jewish poet to continue fighting our own battles with the same courage and determination—until the very end.

 

About David Garyan

David Garyan has published three chapbooks with Main Street Rag, along with (DISS)INFORMATION, a full collection with the same publisher. He holds an MA and MFA from Cal State Long Beach, where he associated himself with the Stand Up Poets. He is currently studying International Cooperation on Human Rights and Intercultural Heritage at the University of Bologna. He lives in Ravenna.

“Quarantine Diaries,” by David Garyan (Day 49)

Quarantine Diaries – Day 49
May 2nd, 2020

Trento, Italy

 

Russia

Today marks the end of WWII in Europe and the complete destruction of Nazi Germany in the symbolic sense. The culminating battle in the city of Berlin lasted just over two weeks and saw roughly 70,000 to 80,000 casualties on the Soviet side alone. The iconic photo depicting the Soviet flag being raised over the Reichstag has acquired mythical status.

Nevertheless, this victory, at least in the United States, is always overshadowed by D-Day, which neither won the war nor was it even a decisive factor—so late in 1944—in bringing the conflict to an end. By the time the US had begun its Normandy landings, the USSR had already been driving the Germans back for three years and were beginning to initiate Operation Bagration, which, according to Arthur C. Hassiotis’s book, The Extraordinary Rise of the Russian Empire, would go on to inflict the biggest defeat in German military history; besides, he added that the “total collapse was the worst catastrophe in the history of the German Army, and the greatest in German military history.” Not bad, I would say.

Moreover, the Soviet Union had, already in the years of 1942-1943, secured a successful victory at Stalingrad, which was the bloodiest battle in the history of warfare, involving the destruction of the entire German 6th Army, which was responsible for murdering 30,000 Jews at Babi Yar in 1941; if anything, it was this battle that was the turning point of WWII. The city has captured the literary imagination of poets and writers, such as Langston Hughes, who wrote about it in “Good Morning, Stalingrad” and Carlos Drummond de Andrade who likewise pays homage to the city in “Letter to Stalingrad.” Likewise, six months before US troops landed in France, the Soviets had already concluded the nearly 900-day Siege of Leningrad, considered perhaps the longest and most gruesome in history, accumulating more casualties than US and British forces suffered during the entire war.

Alexander Werth, who was a correspondent for the London Sunday Times and BBC, accompanied Soviet troops as they pushed the Germans out of the city. Shortly after the siege was lifted, he interviewed numerous locals, later reporting that the ordeal claimed “the lives of an estimated 1,000,000 city residents.” Similarly, Harvard historian Michael Walzer further stated in his book, Just and Unjust Wars, that “More civilians died in the siege of Leningrad than in the modernist infernos of Hamburg, Dresden, Tokyo, Hiroshima, and Nagasaki, taken together.” In the US, however, none of this is really taken into consideration, as the Western Front dominates the discussion.

Nevertheless, those who know anything about WWII are aware that it was, in fact, the Eastern Front which was by far the most important theater of action; over a thousand miles long, nearly all extermination camps were liberated there, including Auschwitz on January 27, 1945, which is, not coincidentally, when Holocaust Remembrance Day is celebrated. Furthermore, and most importantly, 75-80 percent of Nazi forces were expelled on the Eastern Front by the Red Army; hence, D-Day can’t hold the significance many ascribe to it, as the Eastern front—both in terms of length and ferocity—was the decisive theater of battle in Europe.

Except for Pearl Harbor, the war never reached US soil, making it possible for the country to lose less than half a million people in the entire conflict and allowing it to avoid the necessity of rebuilding any infrastructure; the USSR, on the other hand, lost twenty five million, and according to documents quoted at the Nuremberg Trials (now archived by the Yale Law School Library), the nation witnessed the destruction of “1,710 towns and more than 70,000 villages and hamlets. They [the German] burned and destroyed more than 6 million buildings and rendered some 25 million persons homeless.” Moreover, “the invaders destroyed 31,850 industrial works which employed some 4 million workers,” along with “36,000 postal and telegraphic offices, telephone centers, and other communication centers.” WWII had, thus, made the US the wealthiest country in the world while the USSR was forced to busy itself rebuilding a crumbling nation that had saved Europe from fascism.

It’s a miracle, then, that only sixteen years after this conflict, the USSR had the ability to gather enough resources and willpower to send not only the first man into space, but also the first woman, Valentina Tereshkova, who made her flight on June 16, 1963; and if that wasn’t enough, the first space walk was also performed Alexei Leonov two years later.

It isn’t farfetched to say that the US went to the moon simply to beat the Russians, for what impressive feat has NASA done today when there’s no enemy to beat, so to say? Historically, the US has always thrived on conflict. Everything from the tyranny of the British Empire, to the savagery of Native Americans, along to the aggression of the USSR has been used as an instrument of justification by which this country has given itself the permission to act in tyrannical, savage, and aggressive ways when implementing its domestic and foreign policy.

In fact on the eve of the Soviet Union’s collapse, Georgy Arbatov, an advisor to the Soviet Union, told US officials the following: “We are going to do a terrible thing to you. We are going to deprive you of an enemy.” Indeed, the US has always justified other people’s tyranny, savagery, and aggression to interfere in foreign affairs in similarly tyrannical, savage, and aggressive ways. In a 1985 interview with Noam Chomsky, Marshall Goldman, and Russ Johnson, the latter, a Senior Program Associate for the American Friends Service Committee, stated that the US has over two thousand military bases scattered all across the world and that if the Martians came down to earth, they would see the US as the expanding threat to the rest of the world, not Russia (this particular audio bit starts at 4:29).

Let’s leave politics aside for a minute, however, and discuss the important contributions that women made in the fight for freedom during WWII. Sending the first man and woman to space is a wonderful accomplishment; however, very few are aware of the indispensable roles that women played in the aforementioned conflict. Indeed, it was the Soviet Union which first allowed female pilots to fly combat missions; members of the 588th Night Bomber Regiment were known as the Night Witches. These regiments consisted of almost one hundred young pilots who flew a combined total of 30,000 missions, producing more than twenty Heroes of the Soviet Union, including two fighter aces, Yekaterina Budanova (shot down at the age of twenty six on her last mission, 19 July 1943, near Novokrasnovka) and Lydia Litvyak (shot down at the age of twenty one on August 1, 1943 after taking off from her base at Krasnyy Luch).

Besides fighter pilots, the Soviets employed women as snipers with great success, of which Lyudmila Pavlichenko, with 309 confirmed kills, became the most successful female sharpshooter in history. Equally impressive is Roza Shanina, whom the Ottawa Citizen described as “the unseen terror of East Prussia” in a September 20th, 1944 article. She died on January 28th, 1945 at the age of twenty in the East Prussian Offensive. It’s hard to imagine the woman below earning that title.

It’s for all these reasons that, to this day, I’m discouraged to see the constant lack of recognition by the US for the sacrifices which the Soviets made—sacrifices that allowed them (a country isolated from the rest of Europe by an ocean) to become the richest and most powerful in the world without making nearly the same sacrifices that everyone else made; even this arrogance can be survived, however; but when the US somehow claims to have won the war by landing on the beaches of Normandy, you really have no choice but to hate everything that it represents—its unchecked capitalism which has destroyed an entire generation of young people; its anti-intellectual atmosphere and idiotic obsession with sports (no, you’re not the world champion of anything that anyone besides you cares about—try football, European style, for a change); but most of all I hate its free yellow journalism media which uses any excuse to blame Russia for its own faults and shortcomings. And why in the world did we name one of the most prestigious literary prizes after a guy—Pulitzer—who with the help of Hearst basically furnished a war with Spain by publishing false reports in their newspapers; only the greatest country in the world is capable of such insanity.

For all intents and purposes, yes, I’m a US citizen, but I’m also a product of the European continent. I was born in Armenia in 1987, when it was still a Soviet republic and I moved to Germany with my parents right after the system collapsed. I only came to the US in 1999, at the age twelve, on the verge of being a teenager. Despite being naturalized and swearing the oath ten years later, I can’t say I ever fully became an American—whatever that means (when I visited Mexico in 2012, the Mexicans cautioned me in claiming the label all for myself). Indeed, Mexico is part of the continent, but let’s leave that aside for now and continue with my attempt to become less patriotic.

My grandfather, Artashes Garyan, who passed away in the year 2000, was a dedicated communist; he believed in the system. He was both naïve and an idealist in the sense of Don Quixote, but he was, likewise, a good man who was prepared to make every sacrifice for the good of his family.

The exact date of his birth is unknown; however, he was born in the year 1924. On the eve of defending his completed PhD dissertation (Kandidat nauk), his advisor, Lisovsky (who had always joked that among Armenians there are only the very brightest and the extremely stupid) died suddenly, and my grandfather was forced to find a new chair who would administer the defense of his dissertation. The Soviet system is a little confusing in the fact that there are two stages for the PhD. According to UNESCO’s International Standard Classification of Education (ISCED), the Kandidat nauk is considered by Western standards to be the equivalent of the doctoral degree (level eight). If a graduate wishes to be considered a “doctor” in the USSR, however, the Kandidat nauk would have to complete the second stage of the PhD to attain the Doktor nauk, which usually required ten years of additional research after the first stage of the entry level dissertation. My grandfather only completed the first stage (as shown below).

His so-called doctoral work in the Soviet sense is still in Vanadzor (though undefended) in the possession of my grandmother, Tatyana Zhukovskaya (affectionately known as Batanya in our family).

My grandfather met his future wife in Moscow’s Gorky Park in 1957; at that time, he was studying at the Moscow Institute of Steel and Alloys State Technological University, and my grandmother worked as a cook in a cafeteria. On a casual stroll with his friend, they encountered two women picking phlox (my grandmother’s favorite flowers); they played a prank on them by pretending to be the police and asking for their papers. Subsequently, my grandfather asked where this Tatyana worked; she responded, “in a clinic,” which was a lie. When my grandmother didn’t show up for the date she had promised him, he went looking for this Tatyana in every hospital in Moscow. It seemed that fate was against him, but he nevertheless ran into Tatyana—at a clinic—by chance; she was trying to obtain an excuse from a doctor to skip work that day and go to the movies with her friends.

The rest is history: They married in 1958 and moved to Vanadzor a year later.  She still lives there to this day in the same apartment, which I remember very well. This is a photo shortly after their marriage.

My grandmother was born on March 8, 1932 in the village of Zhukovo, near the border of Belarus. She endured a most difficult childhood because of the war, almost starving to death. In her childhood imagination, she described witnessing rivers bleeding red and Soviet war machinery stuck in the mud. She described running barefoot through the snow and eating potato peels. She described her younger brother, Viktor, dying in front of her eyes of starvation. She described her saving grace—a friend named Lola afflicted by mental health problems, who had given her a few potatoes that saved the family from starvation. All this she described and much more that I can’t remember now.

Still, how she encountered two pilots who gave her some coins is coming back to my mind, along with her story of the hungry Nazi soldier chasing a pig. And, yes, how she fell asleep in the forest from exhaustion one time, causing her mother, Pelageya, to worry sick—a villager named Taras later discovered her. Stories like this stay in your mind no matter how many times you’ve forgotten them. Looking at this picture, I fully understand both the beauty and cruelty of time; it destroys youth but also numbs memory—my grandmother’s smile in old age is a testament to her strength.

Despite the family’s perseverance, however, when the threat became too great, authorities evacuated them to Mariinsk in the far east, where they spent almost two years with Kukai and Kukzai, two of the local villagers. Perhaps the most gracious people in the entire settlement, the native couple had a son who was in the war; by God’s grace, he returned when it was all over and afterwards sent my grandmother’s family a letter—the only part of which she remembers is a sentence of incorrect Russian: “вы очень хорошие человеки.” The last word, “человеки,” means humans, which wouldn’t be the proper usage in Russian; however, because they mostly spoke the local native language, the son couldn’t make the distinction between the aforementioned word and the correct term for the occasion, “люди,” which means people. The whole sentence means: You’re very good people.

My grandmother’s uncle, Emelyan Ivanovich Zhukovsky, met a tragic end in 1937, four years before the war even hit the home front. The story goes that in a drunken revelry he and his friends sang a crude political song: “Сегодня убили Кирова, завтра убьют Сталина.” Today they killed Kirov; tomorrow they’ll kill Stalin. Under Stalin, countless people were denounced and disappeared without a trial. After some searching, we managed to find Emelyan’s record on this website, which lists his date of birth as 1908. He was arrested on the 15th of April and sentenced to ten years under article 58 section 10, which was anti-Soviet agitation; most of the people charged under this code were executed right away. According to the website he was rehabilitated by the government on the 22nd of June, 1992.

My great-grandfather, Alexey, was coerced at gunpoint by the Germans into becoming a collaborator; he was tasked with collecting intelligence and spying on the village, earning him the title “chief.” He double-crossed the Germans, however, and began hiding Soviet partisans (whom my grandmother remembers seeing) in the house. The Soviets made no attempt to find out what he was really up to—they shot him on the spot for treason; one of the partisans later said: “What have you done? He was helping us.” So it goes. This is just one family’s story. There are undoubtedly millions of tales like the one I’ve told all over the Russia and the former republics it once commanded, which is why colossal memorials, such as the Tiergarten monument in East Berlin, were erected to honor the dead.

This nation lost more than 25,000,0000 people to win the war; I think these sacrifices must be recognized because they’re real and the suffering people endured will not be forgotten. It, thus, upsets me deeply when the US turns a cold shoulder on these stories, focusing solely on their own sacrifices. A worthy read is John Dower’s 2017 article “Why Can’t Americans Remember Anyone’s Death Other Than Those of Their Own?” Published in The Nation, the title alone says enough, but speaking about the US, adding the following may help drive the point home: “Apart from the Civil War, its war-related fatalities have been tragic but markedly lower than the military and civilian death tolls of other nations, invariably including America’s adversaries.” In this respect, I’m truly torn—as a naturalized US citizen, I swore allegiance to this country, but if war did break out between the two countries, could I, like Arjuna in The Bhagavad Gita, make war on my own relatives? I don’t think so.

Walking around the German-Russian Museum in Berlin, I spotted this war poster. It’s hard to believe that the narrative between the US and Russia was once like this.

Hopefully one day—barring a war—we can go back to normal. In fact, relations between the two countries were even better before WWII. Before 1917, Russia was the only formidable power “with which the United States had neither a war, nor serious diplomatic dispute.” Russian support for the American Revolution even led President Jefferson to declare that “Russia is the most cordially friendly to us of any power on earth.” During the Civil War, likewise, Russia was the only European power to support the Union, which led President Lincoln’s Secretary of State to proclaim that Russia “has our friendship, in preference to any other European power.” And who can forget the similarities between Czar Alexander II and Abraham Lincoln; it was, indeed, the former who freed his serfs on February 19, 1861 as the US followed suit and brought liberty to the slaves a couple years later, according to The New York Times. Both men were assassinated. A statue of the czar and the president was erected in 2011 on Bolshaya Pirogovskaya Street in Moscow to commemorate the 150th anniversary of Alexander II’s liberation.

I do envision a day where relations between both countries will be cordial again. It would be for the betterment of everyone to see these great powers on the same side.

 

About David Garyan

David Garyan has published three chapbooks with Main Street Rag, along with (DISS)INFORMATION, a full collection with the same publisher. He holds an MA and MFA from Cal State Long Beach, where he associated himself with the Stand Up Poets. He is currently studying International Cooperation on Human Rights and Intercultural Heritage at the University of Bologna. He lives in Ravenna.