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Levin, Doyvber

(1904–1941), Russian writer. Doyvber (Boris Mikhailovich) Levin was born in the shtetl of Liady, Mogilev province. In 1921 he entered Petrograd University, transferring the next year to the theater department of the State Institute for the History of the Arts, from which he graduated in 1928. In the 1930s he lived in Leningrad, where he published eight books, most of them for young people, and wrote the scenario for the children’s film Fed’ka. Levin fought in the Soviet–Finnish War of 1939–1940. He was killed on 17 December 1941, on the Leningrad front.

In the mid-1920s, Levin joined the radical left (in the artistic sense) literary group whose central figures were the poets Daniil Kharms, Aleksandr Vvedenskii, and Nikolai Zabolotskii. The group is best known by the acronym OBERIU (Ob”edinenie Real’nogo Iskusstva [The Union of Real Art]), which it bore from 1927 to 1930. The Oberiuty, as its members were called, extended the poetics of Russian futurism, primarily the ideas of absurd, “trans-sense,” and “abstract” verse (by analogy with painting) developed by Velimir Khlebnikov and Aleksandr Kruchenykh. They were close to the artist Kasimir Malevich.

Levin was deeply involved in all the activities of the Oberiuty, in particular the famous literary-theatrical evening “Tri levykh chasa” (Three Left [Avant-garde] Hours) that took place on 24 January 1928. He directed Kharms’s play Elizaveta Bam (1928). The scenery was designed by Anatolii (Tankhum) Kaplan, who began his career as a graphic artist with illustrations to Levin’s novella Vol’nye shtaty Slavichi (The Free States of Slavichi; 1932).

While the works of Zabolotskii, Kharms, and Vvedenskii are widely known as classics of twentieth-century Russian literature, those of Levin have largely been forgotten. In part, this is because his archive was burned during the Leningrad blockade. While Kharms’s manuscripts were published in Russia beginning in the 1990s, many of Levin’s unpublished stories have not been preserved. Levin’s only surviving works, his children’s books, had been very popular before the war, but, because of their Jewish settings, proved “unsuitable” for reissue in the years of postwar state antisemitism.

From the end of the 1920s, Levin, along with other members of OBERIU, followed the counsel of Samuil Marshak and began writing for young people. The very first publication by Boris Levin (as he then called himself) caused a problem: there was already a well-known writer by that name. Needing a pseudonym, he took his own Jewish name, Doyvber. All of Levin’s important books written in the 1930s—Desiat’ vagonov (Ten Wagons; 1931), Vol’nye shtaty Slavichi, and Ulitsa sapozhnikov (Shoemaker Street; 1932)—have Jewish themes.

Desiat’ vagonov is a reworking of the oral stories of children orphaned by the civil war, who were living at the Leningrad Jewish Orphanage. Levin created an astonishing picture of the horrors of the civil war, pogroms, and destruction in Ukraine, as seen through the eyes of children. The three other novellas are about life in the shtetls of Belarus in the years before the revolution and during the civil war. Vol’nye shtaty Slavichi is about a shtetl that was taken over for 33 hours by a band of anarchists. Ulitsa sapozhnikov is the life story of a Jewish adolescent. Likhovo (1934), the most mature of Levin’s novellas, tells about prerevolutionary Jewish impoverishment.

The plots of all three reflect the norms of Soviet mass literature: a class war, the attainment of proletarian consciousness by unorganized craftsmen, ties between antisemitic pogromists and the Jewish bourgeoisie, and so forth. The flat, uninteresting subjects contrast with Levin’s masterful writing, with its precise depictions of the everyday life and social structure of the shetl and its surrounding areas. All the shtetls have real-life prototypes. Elements of grotesque and descriptions of fantastic visions, as well as the breakdown of the structures of ordinary speech, are combined with delicate psychological insight and superbly realistic dialogue.

Levin’s books were illustrated by the best Jewish graphic artists of his time: Solomon Iudovin, Eduard Budogoskii, and Kaplan. His prose adhered to a standard Soviet way of depicting the Jewish theme in Russian-language books as belonging to the past: in the hero’s childhood and before the revolution.

Suggested Reading

Evgenii Mikhailovich Binevich, “A lebediker denkmol,” Sovetish heymland 5 (1978): 148–154; Evgenii Mikhailovich Binevich, “Plechom k plechu s chitatelem,” in Do poslednei minuty, pp. 136–140 (Leningrad, 1983).



Translated from Russian by Alice Nakhimovsky