The Calvert Journal.

I’ve been alerted by a reader who works there to an online magazine about contemporary Russian culture, The Calvert Journal, and having finally had the leisure to check out the links, I’m impressed enough to pass them on and add the journal to my blogroll. A very topical piece by Uilleam Blacker is called “Blurred lines: Russian literature and cultural diversity in Ukraine“; it starts off [with a passage I'm deleting because it appears to be flamebait -- you can of course read it at the link -- and] goes on to discuss the complexities of Ukrainian literature, both past and present:

Despite their nationalised, politicised images, both Gogol and Shevchenko span the Russian-Ukrainian linguistic and cultural divide. This tradition continues today: across contemporary Ukraine, there are dozens of writers, from sci-fi novelists to prize-winning poets, who operate across the two languages. Andrei Kurkov, a Russian-language writer from Kiev, has probably sold more books in translation than any other contemporary Russian-language author. He writes his fiction in Russian, but often includes un-translated Ukrainian dialogue, while some of his children’s books and media articles come out only in Ukrainian. There are bilingual literary journals, like the Kiev-based Sho (its title means “what”, not in Ukrainian or Russian, but in surzhyk, the hybrid dialect spoken by many across the country), and one can buy anthologies of new and classic literature on Kiev or Kharkiv with texts in both languages (all of them original works: translation is not needed).

Kevin M. F. Platt writes about Latvia in “Multiple voices: Latvia’s Russophone poets embrace the power of difference“; he starts by describing the fraught history of Baltic Russians, then goes on to “the Riga-based poetry and multimedia collective Orbita, which has made a name for itself in over the past decade or so”:

Against this backdrop, the poets of Orbita stand out in sharp relief. This is a loose organisation comprised of the five poets who created the group in 1999: Timofejev, Semyon Khanin, Zhorzh Uallik, Artur Punte and Vladimir Svetlov. In addition, the group includes a large number of affiliates active in literature, visual art, music and so forth. Orbita is a hotbed of activity: a web portal, exhibitions, happenings and group appearances at festivals in Latvia, Europe, Russia, and publications of various sorts, poetic, artistic and critical. Although the poets of Orbita write in Russian, the group’s publications — including the poetic almanac, Orbita, multimedia DVDs, and a variety of other projects — are bilingual Russian–Latvian editions, produced in exquisitely designed and inventively laid-out volumes. Much of Orbita’s activity takes the form of poetic performance in collaboration with ethnic Latvian musicians, composers, artists, and poets in multimedia happenings involving recitals, music (either live or DJ), and projected video art with subtitles in Latvian and at times in English. Bilingualism is a distinctive feature of Orbita, and it reflects the group’s highly self-conscious location on the border between Russia and Latvia, or between Eurasia and Europe.

And a piece from last fall by Owen Hatherley describes “a lost generation of Yiddish writers”:

With the demise of Yiddish, due both to the Holocaust and the state of Israel’s preference for Hebrew, the poets, novelists and critics who wrote in this language have become obscure. Sherman’s anthology restores their importance. Yet the material in this book will be familiar to readers of those Russian Jewish writers who wrote in Russian, especially Isaac Babel and Vasily Grossman. The pivotal experiences are the same: revolution, a civil war accompanied by the ferocious pogroms of the White Armies, the “building of socialism”, Stalinism and the Holocaust. But the focus is different: we see a deeply local and specific commitment to internationalism and modernism, claiming both on their own terms, not as impositions from outside.

The poetry resembles German Expressionism in its intensity and angularity, appropriate to the often horrific subject matter. Leyb Kvitko’s 1923 cycle of poems 1919, for instance, about the pogroms of the Russian Civil War, are expressions of horror and helplessness from the perspective of the massacred in the shtetl: “We are small, very small / Terror drags us to the ground / A kin to its own dust” (Day and Night).

Each of the pieces is full of quotes and illustrations, and I’m looking forward to exploring the journal more thoroughly. Thanks, Jamie!

Comments

  1. Fascinating! I’ve met Ukrainians and Moldovans in California who speak perfect Russian–in addition to Ukrainian and English–interesting cultural phenomena.

  2. The author needs to stop speaking for all the Russian-speaking Ukrainians – who supposedly don’t need protection from the neo-Nazis. I, for one, am a Russian-speaking Ukrainian, and I definitely need this protection, because the pro-Nazis have already threatened to imprison me, because I haven’t supported the “revolution”. There are more like me, too.

  3. Well, I’m sorry to hear that, but I’d really prefer this didn’t become a forum on the current political situation. There are more than enough places to vent about that.

  4. I’d really prefer this didn’t become a forum on the current political situation. There are more than enough places to vent about that

    Yes, LH. I also resisted the urge to give some opinions on Russian usage patterns in Ukraine and the South in general, and on differences between Crimea and Eastern Ukraine in particular. The important point is that the paragraph you cited is a circum-political flamebait, and in the current unfortunate and open-ended situation with Ukraine, it just might be helpful to minimize flame-baiting. Thanks for understanding, and hopefully you also appreciate ours!

  5. J. W. Brewer says:

    “Both Pomerantsev and Klekh write evocatively about the lost cultural richness of western Ukrainian cities like Lviv and Chernivtsi, both of which, as part of eastern Poland and Romania respectively, were home to diverse populations before the Second World War.” Wait, so is this not the right forum to call upon the current Ukrainian government to decline to retain the tainted fruits of Stalinist aggression, brutality, and ethnic cleansing and return those stolen cities to their rightful sovereigns?

  6. No, this is not the right forum, as I think you know perfectly well. If people can’t resist using this post as a pretext to vent, I’ll have to close comments. Sheesh.

  7. I also resisted the urge to give some opinions on Russian usage patterns in Ukraine and the South in general, and on differences between Crimea and Eastern Ukraine in particular.

    I think that opinions about usage patterns, whether controversial or not, are perfectly on-topic for LH, though of course the Hatster is the final arbiter about that. That’s very different from Panu-style meltdowns involving the fears of individuals.

    JWB: To take your remark more seriously than, perhaps, you intended it, no state can afford to admit that its present or former borders are illegal. Doing so would call into question everything done there, from transfers of land to the existence of corporations with state charters to the validity of degrees from state-supported universities. Similarly, on the face of statutes the first year of Charles II’s reign is called his twentieth, but the de facto abolition of military tenures by the Long Parliament had to be accepted, for land had been bought and sold, sometimes many times over, as if free of these burdens throughout the Commonwealth period, and reimposing them after 1666 would have been a hopeless task.

    Indeed, annexation and secession are both known concepts, but no state in modern times (as far as I know) has ever unilaterally ejected or excised part of its territory without an independence movement there, no matter how troublesome or worthless they thought it. There does not even seem to be a really suitable verb for this action.

  8. (I should perhaps add that “military tenure” in the 17th century no longer involved a duty to find soldiers for the king’s wars; it simply meant that on certain defined occasions, notably when land changed hands either by inheritance or by sale, the lord received additional money payments above the usual rent. Also, for 1666 above read 1660, and by “accepted” I meant “made legally retroactive by Act of Parliament in that year”.)

  9. My impression here in Poland is that most Poles have no desire to grab Lwow, or the rest of Eastern Galicia, back. It is too late, it would be like moving back into an old family house where your parents had been murdered.

  10. J. W. Brewer says:

    JC: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/District_of_Columbia_retrocession might be a historical example. There are various examples where the European powers got so caught up in the momentum of giving up rule over their colonial empires that they tried to surrender sovereignty in areas where many/most of the locals did not want them to leave, or at least not to leave under the then-current circumstances. Occasionally, such local resistance was even listened to and the power retained territory it had thought it was going to manage to get rid of (Anguilla and Mayotte would be instances of that); there are also less happy examples where sovereignty was abandoned against the wishes of the affected population.

    The spectre of Greater-Romanian etc. irredentism aside, I really don’t understand what effect Blacker was trying to achieve in the sentence I quoted. As a matter of uncontroversial history the “lost cultural richness” (and ethnolinguistic diversity) of the cities in question dates from a time when they were not sensibly categorizable as “Ukrainian” cities, so using that lost history in the context of talking up the supposed diversity of present-day Ukrainian-ness (including its Russophone strands) is baffling.

  11. No, this is not the right forum

    Reminds me of that wonderful orator and sometime prime minister of Canada John Diefenbaker, who, knowing full well the rules of parliamentary discourse, once raised a query: “Mr. Speaker, would I be ejected from this House were I to call the Honorable Member from (insert name of riding [constituency]) an idiot?” The Speaker, of course, told Diefenbaker that ejection is exactly what would transpire. Replied Diefenbaker, “Very well, I understand. Then I won’t call the Honorable Member from xxxx an idiot.”

    (N)o state in modern times (as far as I know) has ever unilaterally ejected or excised part of its territory without an independence movement there, no matter how troublesome or worthless they thought it.

    Thoughts jump to Lampedusa, that island speck of Italy closer to Tunisia than to Sicily, or Ceuta and Melilla, Spain’s postage stamps on the Moroccan coast, chock-a-block full of would-be EU residents aka African economic migrants.

  12. One stabilizing effect of Stalin’s staggering brutality was the aggregation of eastern European ethnic groups into physical territories that matched the political boundaries much better than they ever had before in that part of the world. This was much more significant in the Warsaw Pact buffer states than in the republics of the Soviet Union itself, of course. And it came on the heels of the virtual extermination of an important minority group by the Nazis.

    For a fictional example of countries ejecting territory, I give you Moosylvania:
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RSVq7X7OPeQ

  13. The Tumbleweed Farm says:

    One can always remember the example of Malaysia “expelling” Singapore in 1965:
    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Singapore_in_Malaysia#Separation

  14. TTF: One can, perhaps, but two cannot, at least if I am one of them. Thanks for the counterexample. Even so, Malaysia didn’t try to make the expulsion retroactive in force.

  15. (N)o state in modern times (as far as I know) has ever unilaterally ejected or excised part of its territory without an independence movement there, no matter how troublesome or worthless they thought it.

    What about the most obvious example? The break-up of the Soviet Union could be seen as essentially Russia unilaterally ejecting a large part of its territory. There were no independence movements of significant size in Belarus, Armenia, Kazakhstan or Uzbekistan in 1991.

  16. I don’t think that the breakup of a (con)federation counts as expulsion in this sense. Juridically, at least, the Soviet Union and Russia (the RFSFR) already existed as separate entities. When the former ceased to exist, the latter became its successor state, it’s true, but that was because it was the obvious candidate. If the United States or Switzerland ceased to exist in a similar manner, there would be fifty or twenty-six fully sovereign states, none of which would be its obvious successor (to the Security Council seat in the case of the U.S., the various treaties, the national debt, etc.)

  17. There were no independence movements of significant size in Belarus, Armenia, Kazakhstan or Uzbekistan in 1991.

    Belarus I’ll give you, but Belarus is a special case in many ways. There were certainly independence movements in the others; “of significant size” is, of course, in the eye of the beholder. Some Armenians began calling for idepnendence as early as 1966, when the National Unification Party called for “an independent Armenia which would include Western Armenia, Nakhichevan and Karabakh” (Ian Bremmer and Roy Taras, New States, New Politics: Building the Post-Soviet Nations, p. 481). The Karabakh movement became widespread in the late ’80s, and although “Compared to the other Soviet republics, Armenia was slow to raise the issue of independence,” the new Armenian parliament adopted a Declaration on Independence in August 1990 and boycotted the All-Union referendum in March 1991, holding its own referendum in September (which voted overwhelmingly for secession).

    Kazakhs had been nursing grievances about they way they were treated in the USSR for some time, but Dinmukhammed Kazaev, the Party head, kept it under control; when he was replaced by a Russian, Gennadi Kolbin, with no previous connection to Kazakhstan in December 1986, there were serious riots which “stimulated the development of Kazakh nationalism” (Bremmer and Taras, p. 552), and Kolbin was replaced in 1989 by Nazarbaev, who suppressed both Russian and Kazakh nationalist groups. When Nazarbaev became the first president of Kazakhstan in April 1990, he at first spoke only of “Kazakh self-finance and self-administration.”

    That quickly changed however, when Russia’s Supreme Soviet voted for sovereignty in June 1990. The sovereignty question split the Kazakh and Russian populations… The atmosphere was not helped by Moscow’s decision to publish Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s essay, “How Are We To Build Up Russia?,” in the Soviet press, which among other things proposed that northeast Kazakhstan was a part of historic Russia which should be “returned.”

    A strongly worded sovereignty bill passed the Kazakh legislature in October 1990; Nazarbaev, of course, wanted to keep the Soviet Union together (he thought independence would be “economic suicide for the republics”), but I don’t think one can say popular support for independence was insignificant (though of course it’s impossible to be sure in the context of a Soviet republic).

    As for Uzbekistan, the situation is comparable to Kazakhstan with Karimov playing the role of Nazarbaev, but he did have to suppress an independence movement:

    The most visible political opposition movements in Uzbekistan in the period of Soviet disintegration were Birlik (Unity) and Erk (Will). Birlik’s case, in particular, is illustrative of political consolidation in Uzbekistan. Less a democratic movement than a reflection of the elation of independence, Birlik started early in 1990 as only a small group of intellectuals. It quickly discovered broad popular support, however… Birlik’s leaders defined its main goals as achieving economic and political sovereignty…

    There’s more on these movements at ground level in Marat Akchurin’s Red Odyssey: A Journey Through the Soviet Republics (Harpercollins, 1992), which I highly recommend to anyone interested in this stuff.

  18. J. W. Brewer says:

    When it becomes obvious that the old order is collapsing and a power vacuum is about to emerge, groups will predictably spring up to seek to fill that vacuum. You just need to be careful in assessing which is cause and which is effect. Similarly, political actors whose preferred solution for what comes next is not, under the circumstances, geopolitically feasible, either need to change their policies and jump on some readily-available bandwagon or be consigned to (at least short-term) irrelevance or worse.

  19. J. W. Brewer says:

    The Hatherley piece could have, but did not, answer a puzzle I’d been wondering about, viz. what was the timeline of the decline of active Yiddish use (in speech and in writing) among the descendants of the old Yiddish-speaking population in the USSR compared to the timeline of the same decline among the separate group of descendants who were living in the US instead. Obviously the US did not feature quite the same sort of gyrations in “nationalities” policy that the USSR did, but the end result ended up much the same.

  20. The break-up of the Soviet Union could be seen as essentially Russia unilaterally ejecting a large part of its territory.

    From here:

    Serhii spoke about the break-up of the USSR in the fall of 1991, arguing that a crucial variable in the breakup of the whole country was the fact that Ukraine voted overwhelmingly (92.3%) for independence in a referendum on December 1. While Mikhail Gorbachev still held out hopes that Ukraine and Russia could work closely “in the formation of a union of sovereign states,” Ukraine’s independence effectively nixed that.

    Doesn’t sound like Ukraine was unilaterally ejected.

  21. J. W. Brewer: I meant to drop a few lines on that subject when you raised it before. Short answer: Yiddish held on much better in the former Pale than it did among migrants to the US and elsewhere. Whether the Soviets were for or against Yiddish in the period (they were both, long story short), it was doing fine. Declining, of course, but still the daily vernacular among most Jews in the Ukrainian and Byelorussian SSRs. Then World War II happened. While a significant minority of Soviet Jews living in the former Pale survived (usually by fleeing eastward or joining the Red Army—Stalingrad was safer than Babi Yar), Russophone Jews were overrepresented in this group, and Yiddish speakers overrepresented among those who stayed behind and were generally shot. As a result, the Yiddish-speaking communities that sustained the language effectively ceased to exist, and Yiddish became rarer in the shtetlekh than in the Ashkenazic emigre communities around the world. There’s an interesting project run by Prof. Dov-Ber Kerler of Indiana University called AHEYM devoted to finding the last elderly Yiddish speakers in these towns and gathering linguistic and ethnographic information from them.

  22. There’s an interesting project run by Prof. Dov-Ber Kerler

    That’s a new one for me. I’m going to send the link to my Yiddish-interest list.

    It reminds me of Dovid Katz’s Atlas of Northeastern Yiddish. Through his home page he links to at least 50 video clips of elderly Jews in that region of Eastern Europe speaking Yiddish. The most recent clip is dated February 2014.

  23. J. W. Brewer says:

    So I assume part of the backstory is that the newer Jewish communities that developed in the decades prior to WW2 in Moscow and other places east of the old Pale (which thus had the comparative good fortune to stay east of the shifting frontlines during the war) had already largely lost Yiddish even though they presumably had been founded by internal immigrants from a Yiddish-speaking background?

  24. J. W. Brewer says:

    Re the Pale, I am reminded of a rather bleak description of Anne Applebaum’s of the region near the present Lithuania/Belarus border where every little town has a Catholic church, an Orthodox church, and a solidly-constructed two-story stone building currently being used to store farm machinery that once upon a time was the synagogue.

  25. So I assume part of the backstory is that the newer Jewish communities that developed in the decades prior to WW2 in Moscow and other places east of the old Pale … had already largely lost Yiddish even though they presumably had been founded by internal immigrants from a Yiddish-speaking background.

    Yes, essentially, with caveats and qualifications, of course. Some of it is sociological, reflecting the type of people who were choosing (and, just as importantly, who were allowed) to relocate east of the old Pale.

    Applebaum’s quotation isn’t entirely accurate; sometimes the old synagogue is now an abandoned stable.

  26. Applebaum’s quotation isn’t entirely accurate; sometimes the old synagogue is now an abandoned stable.

    Many were in fact built of wood. Tomasz Wisniewski’s Synagogues and Jewish Communities in Bialystok Region has many fine illustrations of these old buildings. They're mostly renderings made from old photographs.

    The link is to a Polish edition with a Polish title. My copy has an English title which can be seen along with some photos of wooden synagogues if you enter the book title into Google Images. You'll also see the book's cover in its Polish version. The text in my copy is mostly Polish but also contains some English.

  27. Drat! Messed up a code in the hyperlink. Proszę, Hat to the rescue!

  28. J. W. Brewer says:

    I would tend to assume the stone ones were statistically more likely than the wooden ones to have survived (albeit repurposed) to the time of Applebaum’s travels in the region circa 1990 as the stasis of Soviet occupation was melting away and no one was entirely sure what was going to happen next.

  29. I would tend to assume the stone ones were statistically more likely than the wooden ones to have survived

    One would presume. The large stone synagogue in Krynki, the town of my father’s birth, was apparently blown up by the Nazis as they retreated. Not 50 miles away is the beautifully restored stone synagogue in Tykocin.

  30. Doesn’t sound like Ukraine was unilaterally ejected. Of course not, who claimed it was?

  31. Um, you? What else does “The break-up of the Soviet Union could be seen as essentially Russia unilaterally ejecting a large part of its territory” mean?

  32. Tykocin is one of the most amazing places I’ve been. It is also the birthplace of L. L. Zamenhof’s father.

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