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Aizman, David Iakovlevich

(1869–1922), Russian fiction writer and playwright. Born in Nikolaev, in the Russian Empire (now Mikolayiv, Ukraine), David Aizman led an itinerant life most of his adult years. In an autobiographical note he wrote, “To the present day I have no certain place of residence. . . . I suffer a great deal from the absence of a residence permit. . . . I am a writer. I pass myself for a shop assistant” (Odessa, 15 January 1914).

In 1896 Aizman left Odessa to study painting in Paris, where he met and married a Jewish Russian doctor. In 1898 they moved to the French countryside, returning to Russia in 1902. In France, Aizman gained his voice as a Jewish Russian writer and made his debut in Russkoe bogatstvo (Russian Wealth), a prominent Russian monthly with a populist stance. Two of his most original works of fiction, the novellas Na chuzhbine (In a Foreign Land; 1902) and Zemliaki (The Countrymen; 1903), are set in France and were written while he was living abroad. In the first two decades of the twentieth century, his stories and novellas appeared regularly in leading Russian periodicals, and major theaters staged his plays. Znanie, the publishing house associated with Maksim Gorky, was among his publishers, and an eight-volume edition of his works was released between 1911 and 1919.

In 1908, the writer Aleksandr Amfiteatrov described Aizman’s style thus: “After Dostoevsky and also partly [Vsevolod] Garshin, we have not had a verbal artist who would know how to ‘strike the hearts with an unprecedented force’ more poignantly, consistently and effectively than David Aizman” (A. Amfiteatrov, “David Aizman,” in Sovremenniki [Moscow, 1908], p. 188). From early on, Aizman’s stories were characterized by a Chekhovian power of understatement. In Ledokhod (Ice Breaking; 1905), Utro Anchla (Anchl’s Morning; 1906), and, with its harrowing account of a pogrom, Krovavyi razliv (The Bloody Deluge; 1908), Aizman’s neorealist fiction shows the influence of Gorky and Leonid Andreev.

Aizman’s accounts of Russian and Ukrainian antisemitism and the anti-Jewish violence of 1905–1906 made his writing unpalatable for Soviet literary canonizers. His books went out of print in the USSR in the early 1930s, where he was chiefly remembered as a playwright (his most significant play is Ternovyi kust (Thorny Bush; 1907) and in connection with Gorky’s Znanie circle of writers. Neither a Zionist nor a revolutionary who wrote about Zionists and revolutionaries, he remains vastly forgotten by the Jewish reading public both in the former Soviet Union and elsewhere. If a distant echo of his acclaim once reached the ears of an American audience, it was through Leonard J. Lehrman’s opera Sima (1976), which was based on Aizman’s short novel Cheta Krasovitskikh (The Krasovitskii Couple). It is hard to think of a better text, however, than Aizman’s The Countrymen to experience what the critic Shimon Markish deemed as “[Jews’] irrational, obsessive love for that [Russian] land, that people, which, it would seem, have done everything to instill hatred in themselves” (S. Markish, “O evreiskoi nenavisti k Rossii,” Dvadtsat’ dva 38 [1985]: 213).

Suggested Reading

Alice Stone Nakhimovsky, “Encounters: Russians and Jews in the Short Stories of David Aizman,” Cahiers du monde russe et soviétique 26.2 (April–June 1985): 175–184; Maxim D. Shrayer, “Exile and the Unburdening of Guilt: Aizman, Melnyczuk and the Jewish-Slavic Confrontation,” Symposium 57.3 (2003): 137–156; Mikhail Vainshtein, “Svidetel’stvo ochevidtsa,” in Krovavyi razliv i drugie proizvedeniia, by David Aizman, ed. M. Vainshtein, vol. 2, pp. 243–257 (Jerusalem, 1991).