LEF, the journal of Levyi Front Iskusstv (Left Front of Art), Moscow and Leningrad, 1924. Cover designed by Liubov Popova. Museum of Modern Art, New York. (Gift of The Judith Rothschild Foundation. 00309.01E1-6. © The Museum of Modern Art; licensed by SCALA/Art Resource, NY)

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Russian Literature

Like secular Jewish literature, Russian literature invented itself relatively late. The eighteenth-century aristocrats who sought to create a national literature in Russian faced language problems (they spoke, by preference, French) and the necessity of imitating European models. The Russian apprenticeship, like the Jewish one a century later, ended quickly and permanently. By the early nineteenth century, Russian pupils had turned into masters whose works, no longer derivative, resonated across Europe.

In its classical (nineteenth-century) period, Russian literature was the repository of that culture’s most serious thinking about nationality, social relations, art, politics, and religion. Perhaps because of this, the writer was viewed as a secular prophet, the “teacher of life.” Not all writers accepted the calling, but for Russians escaping seminaries and their Jewish counterparts longing to join the secular world, literary texts served as substitutes for religious ones.

Jews arrived on the scene surprisingly soon, crossing barriers of religion, class, and language. Early writers, in the 1860s, wrote about Jewish communal life. Some were highly self-critical, in the style of the Haskalah, while others faced a Russian audience as explicators and apologists. By the next generation—from the turn of the twentieth century to the early revolutionary period—Jews wrote as Russians. They were poets, prose writers, and dramatists, as well as literary theorists.

Revolution brought the promise of mobility and advancement, followed by problems of state control. Russian writers suffered severely in the Terror of the late 1930s. The nineteenth-century image of the poet who died before his time was replaced in the twentieth century by that of the writer who disappeared in the Terror. This time, Jews (Osip Mandel’shtam, Isaac Babel) took their places as Russian artist-martyrs. Jewish writers who lost their lives in the Terror were not singled out because they were Jews. But outbreaks of state-sponsored antisemitism in the post–World War II years made it advisable for writers to conceal their Jewish origins as much as they could.

Title page of Sestra moia zhizn’ (My Sister, Life), by Boris Pasternak (Berlin, Petersburg, Moscow: Z. I. Grzebina, 1923). Portrait of the author by Iurii Annenkov. (YIVO)

Under Stalinism and for decades afterward, the arts were an enterprise of high seriousness. “Official” literature that toed the party line was offset by “unofficial” variants: “literature for the drawer,” written for the future; and “Aesopic” writings, whose coded references to difficult subjects eluded censors but not readers. By the 1970s, unofficial poetry and prose were circulating in typescript (a form known as samizdat), and unofficial manuscripts that were smuggled abroad often returned to the Soviet Union as Western-published books. Jewish literature belonged of necessity to the unofficial variety. The fragility of the process can be seen in the history of Vasilii Grossman’s epic and partly Jewish war novel Zhizn’ i sud’ba (Life and Fate). The manuscript, rejected by a Soviet publishing house in 1960, was seized by the KGB, which destroyed all known copies. After 20 years, a surviving copy was microfilmed and taken abroad by the novelist Vladimir Voinovich. The book was printed in Geneva in 1980; it appeared in Russia in 1990.

State pressure, and the responses to it, created two enduring paradigms for the Soviet writer: the writer as toady, and writer as recorder of truth. Readers’ perceptions tended to place writers squarely in one group or the other, although in fact even the most principled had moments when pressure proved too strong for them. Jews tended to be perceived as dissident, though this was by no means always the case. A joke that circulated among Jews made fun of the tendency to see Jewish writers as particularly honorable: “All Soviet writers fall into two categories: Jews and Russians. The Jews are Konstantin Paustovskii, Kornei Chukovskii, Viktor Nekrasov [all understood as Russians, although Chukovskii and Nekrasov were part Jewish], while the Russian writers are Aleksandr Chakovskii, Aleksandr Dymshits, Tsezar’ Solodar’ [notorious conformists, all Jews].”

From the nineteenth century through most of the twentieth, Jewish writers were ambivalent about their backgrounds. Religious affiliation was discarded by writers even in advance of the rest of the population, which would eventually adapt the Soviet notion of religion as entirely distinct from ethnicity. If individual writers were drawn to any concept of God, it tended to be the Christian one. What remained was the kind of self-definition expressed by the poet Boris Slutskii:

Skinny Jewish children

Scholarly, in glasses

Excellent at chessboards

Lousy at gymnastics

(“Evreiskim khilym detiam” [Skinny Jewish Children]; 1959)

Over the course of the twentieth century, there were several moments of return to Jewish awareness. The urge to document the Holocaust was crucial to Ilya Ehrenburg and Vasilii Grossman. The June 1967 War and subsequent aliyah movement inspired a second generation, for whom the possibility of emigration and the general weakening of the authoritarian state (for those who stayed) provided the freedom to write about Jews. At the start of the twenty-first century, Jews continue to write in Russian on three continents. But how long that will last is open to question.

Attitudes toward Jews in Nineteenth-Century Russian Literature

Il’ia Il’f in a cafeteria during his trip to America on behalf of Pravda, 1935. (Aleksandra Il’f)

The great age of Russian literature began as an age of poets, with the culturally defining works of Pushkin and Lermontov. Neither concerned himself with Jews: Jewish figures that appear in their poetry are Russian-language realizations of European models. The treacherous, money-hungry Jew in Pushkin’s Skupoi rytsar’ (The Covetous Knight; 1830) has obvious European forebears, as do the rational, impassioned Spanish Jews in Lermontov’s youthful play Ispantsy (The Spaniards; 1830). Lermontov, the rebellious romantic, is unusual in portraying a Jew with a dagger (“Kuda tak provorno, zhidovka mladaia” [Whither So Swiftly, Young Jewess]; 1832) who slays his daughter and her Christian lover. For most nineteenth-century writers, Jews ranked in the negative on the crucial scale of military valor.

When Russian fiction began depicting Jews, a major characteristic was a physical defenselessness so shameful as to be grotesque. In Gogol’s Taras Bul’ba (1835–1842), Jewish deaths at the hands of bored and drunken Cossacks evoke laughter. In Turgenev’s story “Zhid” (The Yid; 1847), the spectacle of a Jew being carried off for execution is comical even to the honorable Russian narrator. Both Gogol and Turgenev unite the stereotype of Jewish physical weakness with Jewish economic menace. Turgenev’s Yid is a spy, while in Taras Bul’ba, where the spy theme also comes up, the reader is constantly reminded of the Jewish stranglehold on the local economy.

In serious fictional surroundings, individual Jewish characters are often comic. Moiseika in Chekhov’s “Palata No. 6” (Ward Six; 1892) is freakish both at prayer and in his daily routine, a fitting background to a mental ward. The marked Jewishness of Isai Fomich in Dostoevsky’s Zapiski iz mertvogo doma (Notes from the House of the Dead; 1860–1861) is comic relief to his fellow prisoners and presumably to readers. The stupidity and harmlessness of these Jews is an extension of Jewish physical deficiency; it may also defuse the deep-seated notion of the Jew as menacingly clever.

Writing about Jews inevitably involved allusions to the marketplace. An association between Jews and commerce was an automatic liability for Russian literature, which tended to treat buying and selling as morally suspect, even among Russians. In Turgenev’s “Zhid,” not only the old Jew, but even his beautiful daughter is desperate for money. By the late nineteenth century, the fact that some Jews had not only made money but were trying to pass as Russians aroused resentment. The widely read poet Nikolai Nekrasov describes Russian girls who have succumbed to Jewish money: “Where honor, youth, and strength / Once drew the female heart / Our girls are practical and smart / The golden calf is their demand / A gray-haired Hebrew’s filthy hand / Atop a pile of gold . . .” (“Balet” [Ballet]; 1865–1866).

Of the nineteenth-century giants, Tolstoy largely avoided writing about Jews, while Dostoevsky united the Jew as figure of fun (Liamshin in Besy [The Possessed]; 1871–1872) with intimations of the Jew as Christ-killer. In the religiously engaged Prestuplenie i nakazanie (Crime and Punishment; 1866), the villainous Svidrigailov commits suicide directly after running into an old Jew. In Brat’ia Karamazovy (The Brothers Karamazov; 1879–1880), the saintly Alesha, asked whether Jews in fact kill Christian children and drain their blood at Easter, responds “I don’t know.” Drawn to Dostoevsky’s powerful novels, acculturating Jewish readers ignored or forgave the antisemitism. Some wrote letters, most famously Avraham Uri (Arkadii) Kovner, a conflicted memoirist and polemicist who wrote in both Hebrew and Russian. Kovner’s correspondence prompted Dostoevsky to write his meditations on the “Jewish question” (in Dnevnik pisatelia [Diary of a Writer]; 1877), which, while leaving the door open for reconciliation (if Jews improved morally), reserved its strongest language for Jewish “pitilessness” and economic exploitation. A century later, a Jewish doctor and unpublished writer named Leonid Tsypkin took up the theme of an antisemitic Dostoevsky and his Jewish reader in the haunting modernist novel Leto v Badene (Summer in Baden [English title, Dostoevsky in Baden-Baden]; 1987).

The late nineteenth century had its antisemitic diatribes, most notoriously Krestovskii’s trilogy Zhid idet (Here Comes the Yid; 1888–1891). But that same era saw the beginnings of a principled public rejection of antisemitism. A growing number of writers, even while disdaining Jews in their personal lives, depicted them in fiction as individuals closely involved with Russians and equally capable of suffering, or deceitfulness, or transcendence. Chekhov depicted Russified Jews as liminal social figures, at times suffering (Anna in Ivanov; 1887), at times intriguing and threatening (Susanna in “Tina” [The Mire]; 1886). Nikolai Leskov, who often wrote about life among churchgoers, took up the phenomenon of Jewish converts in several stories, describing forced and calculating conversions as well as conversion from conviction. His interest in Jews extended to ethnography, embodied in a series of largely sympathetic articles (1879–1884) describing Jewish traditions, practices, and folk beliefs.

Of particular significance to Jewish readers were stories that gave moral weight to Jews from the Pale who spoke Russian poorly and were defenseless in pogroms. In “Skripka Rotshil’da” (Rothschild’s Violin; 1894) Chekhov describes a Russian fiddler—an occasional player in a klezmer band—whose antisemitism is rooted in his own unhappiness; the fiddler plays out his grief to a member of the band and then sends the Jew his violin. In Aleksandr Kuprin’s “Gambrinus” (1907), a Jewish fiddler has his violin smashed in a pogrom and his arm crippled in prison; he returns to play, transcendently, on a pennywhistle. Both of these stories had important afterlives in the twentieth century.

Russian Jewish Writing from the Late Nineteenth to the Early Twentieth Century

The early history of Russian Jewish literature is linked with the history of the Russian Jewish press. The name of the first journal, Razsvet (Rassvet in modern Russian orthography; Dawn), reflects the sensibilities of its Enlightenment founders. (The title page proclaimed, in Hebrew and Russian, “Let there be light.”) Razsvet was founded in 1860 by the writer Osip Rabinovich, with the active help of Nikolai Pirogov, a well-known Russian surgeon and educational official in Odessa. Toward its Russian readership—primarily, one suspects, censors—Razsvet strove to defend Jews as useful citizens; for the sake of Jewish readers, it criticized those aspects of Jewish life (Hasidism, early marriages, and so on) that it saw as unprogressive. After a year, official meddling made Rabinovich close the paper, but another journal soon appeared, with many to follow.

Gariki na kazhdii den (Little Gariks for Every Day), by Igor’ Guberman (Moscow: EMIA, 1992). Illustrations by Aleksandr Okun’; cover by Elena Sarni. “Garik” is a diminutive of Igor’, the poet’s name. Guberman called his short poems gariki. (Courtesy Alice Nakhimovsky)

A year before he embarked on Razsvet, Rabinovich had broken into the Russian press with a novella, “Shtrafnoi” (The Penal Recruit), about the suffering of a Jewish cantonist (forced recruit). The aim was not political (the law on cantonists had recently been annulled) so much as apologetic: through his unrebellious soldier, Rabinovich makes the case for ameliorating the conditions under which Jews lived. “Shtrafnoi” was followed by “Nasledstvennyi podsvechnik” (The Family Candlestick; 1860) published in Razsvet. Here again, the forced recruits and their families are loyal subjects of the tsar despite the injustices they suffer.

Love for Russia is prominent in Lev Levanda’s novel Goriachee vremia (Seething Times; 1875), about young Jews testing non-Jewish identities on the background of the Polish revolt of 1863. For Levanda’s young heroes, the question is which nation to assimilate to: the Polish or the Russian. From a Russian perspective, the question of Jewish loyalty was highly charged. While Levanda advocates Russification, the novel also presents other perspectives, reflected in romantic attachments between Jewish intellectuals and Polish aristocrats.

Also from the 1870s, the Jewish writer Grigorii Bogrov’s Zapiski evreia (Notes of a Jew), published in Nekrasov’s influential Otechestvennie zapiski (Notes of the Fatherland) between 1871 and 1873 before appearing as a book a year later, became required reading for a generation of assimilating Jews as well as for Russians curious about “real” Jewish life. Bogrov’s novel showed a hostility toward Jewish tradition that would have been less problematic had it appeared in Yiddish or Hebrew. But even as he pursues radical assimilation, Bogrov’s narrator questions its efficacy: “The moaning of the Jew doesn’t arouse anybody’s sympathy. Serves you right: Don’t be a Jew. No, even that’s not enough. Don’t be born a Jew.”

The years from 1880 to the revolution produced mature writers, if not the great ones of the generation to come. Poet Nikolai Minskii (Vilenkin) was well known first as a civic poet of liberal-revolutionary sympathies and later, incongruously, as “the father of Russian decadence.” Sasha Chernyi (Glikberg) was famous for his satiric poems. The short-story writer and playwright David Aizman focused on Jewish lives, with particular attention to the complications of Russian Jewish identity in the wake of pogroms. Jewish suffering, as well as the call of early Zionism, resonates in the lyric poetry of Shimen Frug. A critical and often sarcastic voice was that of Semen Iushkevich, whose novels and plays spotlight the impoverished proletariat on the one hand, and the overfed bourgeoisie on the other. His greatest creation was probably Leon Drei, the egotistical, womanizing, capitalist antihero of a three-volume novel of the same name (published serially, 1908–1919; in book form, 1922). Minskii, Chernyi, and Iushkevich left Russia after the revolution; Aizman also spent years in European emigration but died in Russia.

Writers with Roots in the Early Twentieth Century

Vot kakoi rasseiannyi (That’s How Absentminded!), by Samuil Marshak (Moscow and Leningrad: Detskaia Literatura, 1937). Illustrations by B. Konashevitsa. (YIVO)

Like the division between the pre- and postrevolutionary period, the division between the late nineteenth and early twentieth century is in some ways arbitrary. Writers such as Mandel’shtam and Boris Pasternak had roots in the early twentieth century, yet wrote much of their greatest works in the repressive years that followed the Bolshevik Revolution. Still, in the broadest sense, the early twentieth century can be understood as the foundational period of Russian modernism, which united prose, poetry, the visual arts, music, and dance in a dazzling experiment that spread to Europe and America (with émigré practitioners such as Marc Chagall) or remained in Russia, seeking a way to survive.

Convinced that modernity required a new kind of art, modernists bonded in competing groups, each of which issued a manifesto. Art was seen as the central explicator of life; the manifesto was an act of group definition. Writers were symbolists, futurists (who, according to their famous 1913 manifesto, wanted to “throw” the classics “overboard from the ship of Modernity”) and acmeists (who regarded the classics with reverence). In political and religious orientation they ranged from mystical Christians to avant-garde leftists, with many stops in between.

The new generation of Jews, educated in Russian, had little interest in a religious past. Immensely talented and desirous of belonging, they could be found in virtually every competing school. Osip Mandel’shtam began as an acmeist and theoretician of acmeism; Boris Pasternak started as a futurist. In this generation we also find the first writers who were half-Jewish or who were wholly Jewish but did most of their work after emigration. The half-Jewish Vladislav Khodasevich, a poet of classical purity and twentieth-century sensibilities, was the grandson of the notorious apostate Iakov Brafman. Lacking the complexes of many Jews, he “translated” the Hebrew poetry of Ḥayim Naḥman Bialik and Sha’ul Tchernichowsky from literal Russian-language versions provided by the Jewish poet Leib Jaffe (Leyb Yaffe). Working with Khodasevich on the Hebrew translation project was Vladimir Jabotinsky, the Zionist leader who also wrote Russian-language fiction. Khodasevich and Jabotinsky emigrated, as did a fourth remarkable poet, Dovid Knut. A Russian poet with strong Jewish loyalties, Knut fought in the French resistance during World War II, about which he wrote a book; after the war, he moved to Israel.

Many assimilated Jews drawn to the arts made their mark as literary historians. Semen Vengerov of the famous Vengerov (Wengeroff) family, after accepting baptism, became a professor at Petersburg University and an authority on Puskhin. If Vengerov was the first Jew to explicate Russian texts for Russian readers, he was far from the last. The philosopher Lev Shestov wrote about Dostoevsky from the point of view of that writer’s (and Shestov’s own) critique of rationalism. Mikhail Gershenzon influenced Russian Christian thought, viewing poetic texts as incorporating inchoate religious meanings. Yet he did not convert, and wrote the introduction to the Russian anthology of Hebrew poems that had engaged the attention of Jabotinsky and Khodasevich.

The most groundbreaking critics were the literary and linguistic theorists, eventually termed formalist, who sought to discover the internal laws governing the unfolding of individual literary texts and the development of literary styles over time. In Saint Petersburg, members of the loose-knit group Obshchestvo Izucheniia Poeticheskogo Iazyka (Society for the Study of Poetic Language; Opoiaz [commonly spelled Opoyaz]) examined what they called the literary device. Among these impassioned interpreters of text were many Jews, including Iurii Tynianov and Osip Brik, while two of the most famous, Viktor Shklovskii and Boris Eikhenbaum, were Jewish only through their (baptized) fathers; their last names placed them in the “Jewish” category for generations of Soviet readers. The Moscow equivalent, the Moscow Linguistic Circle, was founded by Roman Jakobson, who brought the method west when he left Russia for Prague and eventually the United States. In addition to examining works of Russian and Western classics, the formalists were immediate explicators of the literature unfolding in their midst. Jakobson and Brik were close to the futurist poet Vladimir Mayakovsky, while Tynianov wrote fiction as well as criticism.

It is not a great leap to see in this immersion in literary interpretation a combination of both Jewish attitudes toward text and an assimilated Jewish predilection for overturning old orthodoxies. Another factor was the desire to represent a cultural tradition—Russian and general European—that was not theirs by right of birth. Thinking about Jewish literary theorists from the point of view of a Russian Jew in the 1990s, the novelist Aleksandr Melikhov observed ironically: “Yes, yes, the ecstatic drive to possess Russian culture . . . was the special province of unrepentant Jewry. A normal person has no reason to study the back alleys of his ancestral lands—for that you have Jewish estate managers. A normal person has no need to extend himself beyond the limit, so if you have made yourself into some kind of extraordinary interpreter of Tolstoy or Pushkin, it follows that you’re an Eikhenbaum, a Lotman, or in the best case, that half-a-you-know-what Tynianov.”

Jews who became the creators or explicators of Russian literature found that attitudes toward them varied. Leftist circles were more welcoming; among others, social antisemitism revealed itself in gossip and dismissive name-calling. Nadezhda Mandel’shtam, friend of the Russian symbolist Zinaida Gippius, was known by her cohorts as “Zinaida’s Yid.” At the same time, the lives of Jews and Russians were becoming closely intertwined both professionally and privately. The Russian poet Mayakovsky lived in a ménage à trois with two Jews: Liliia Brik, his longtime muse; and her husband, the formalist and later Marxist critic Osip Brik; Mayakovsky’s books were illustrated by the Jewish artist El Lissitzky and his poems explicated by Roman Jakobson. A few years after the revolution, the Russian poet Marina Tsvetaeva gave voice both to this unprecedented intermingling and to a new (although distinctly minority) interpretation of the label “Jew” as the state’s honorable outcast: “In this most Christian of worlds / Poets are Yids.” (“Poema kontsa” [Poem of the End]; 1924).

While Tsvetaeva’s comment would resonate for a later generation of non-Jewish artists (Shostakovich, Yevtushenko, Siniavskii), in the meantime Jewish writers faced identity issues that non-Jews did not. There were a variety of responses. While Knut and Jabotinsky affirmed their Jewish ties and left Russia, Boris Pasternak, whose father Leonid became a culturally committed Jew in emigration, rejected his background; “with my love, my tasks and my affinities, I should not have been born a Jew,” he wrote in a letter of 1928. “Nothing would have been gained and nothing would have been lost. But what freedom I would have given myself!” Much later in life, he would write powerful poems on the Russian liturgical calendar. Osip Mandel’shtam viewed himself as a poet in universalist Christian terms (the poet as possessor of the transforming word; poetry as a phenomenon of Western Christian culture). His distaste for his Jewish origins is encapsulated in the description of his family bookcase in his memoir, Shum vremeni (Noise of Time; 1925). Abandoned on the lowest shelf lie the Pentateuch, a Russian history of the Jews, and his own discarded Hebrew primer. But even in Shum vremeni, Mandel’shtam writes movingly about his grandfather’s Jewish honesty and the authenticity of the writer S. An-ski, a family friend. Eventually, he defined for himself an identity that reached back to what he saw as an ancient and honorable Hebrew past, a means of moral separation from the Soviet world.

Early Soviet Period

The Bolshevik Revolution of 1917 did not at first affect the way that writers saw literature and their place in it. But the fates of the writers just mentioned would be heavy indeed. Of the non-Jews, Mayakovsky had a high-flying career and then shot himself (1930); Tsvetaeva emigrated, then returned to Russia, where she hanged herself (1941). Of the Jews, the Briks survived the purges, though Liliia’s second husband, a general, was executed. Osip Mandel’shtam died in the gulag (1938). Pasternak—who at one point fielded a call from Stalin, asking what to do about Mandel’shtam—survived. But in 1958, he was forced to renounce his Nobel Prize.

In the short term, however, the situation after the revolution was exhilarating. With no more restrictions on where Jews could legally reside, young people flooded to the major cities to become writers, artists, and journalists, their prospects broadened because much of the prerevolutionary intelligentsia had left.

Writers continued to form groups, often with heavy political investment. Brik, and to a lesser extent Shklovskii, became associated with the Levyi Front Iskusstv (Left Front of Art; LEF), a group that united experimental aesthetics with pronounced Soviet loyalties. More strident Marxist groups, magnets for some Jewish polemicists, battled to set ideological policy for all of Soviet literature. Leopol’d Averbakh was general secretary of the politically vigilant Rossiiskaia Assotsiatsiia Proletarskikh Pisatelei (Russian Association of Proletarian Writers; RAPP) and editor of a journal called, appropriately, Na literaturnom postu (On Literary Guard). A. Lezhnev (Abram Zakharovich Gorelik), another Jew, was associated with the anti-RAPP group Pereval (Mountain Pass), which linked revolutionary politics with a call for “sincerity” and a “realistic depiction of life.”

Not all groups, and not all Jews, were politically strident. The formalists continued to produce major works. In Leningrad, the Dadaist group OBERIU (Ob”edinenie real’nogo iskusstva), the last of the avant-garde, also had its Jewish members (Doyvber Levin) and associated philosophers of Jewish origin (Iakov Druskin). The Serapion Brotherhood had a Jewish sister, Elizaveta Polonskaia. The Serapions, united by their ultimately futile dedication to independent thinking, had as their major theorist the playwright Lev Lunts. Lunts’s intensity, as related by a memoirist (“‘Are you prepared to study the laws of literature?’ he would cry, his hands raised over his head in a biblical gesture”) recalls a reverence toward culture characteristic of this generation of secular Jews. After Lunts’s death in his early twenties, his ideas were developed by another Jewish Serapion, Veniamin Kaverin.

The depiction of Jewish characters in the developing Soviet literature was predictable. Two famous novels written by non-Jews have Jewish heroes, idealized to fit prevailing trends. The hero of Aleksandr Fadeev’s Razgrom (The Rout; 1925) is a paragon of revolutionary virtue, a Jew of iron will and courage who effortlessly earns the trust of workers and peasants. The novel ends in a burst of reverse stereotyping, as the heroic Levinson leads his men through an ambush. The hero of Valentin Kataev’s Vremia vpered (Time Forward; 1932) is an engineer, reflecting the ideological priorities of the first Five-Year Plan. No character in either novel notices that these men are Jews. This is particularly striking in Vremia vpered, where even the archenemy of the Jewish hero never thinks an antisemitic thought.

Jewish writers who came of age in the 1920s reflected a more complicated reality. The poet Eduard Bagritskii made a Jewish commissar into an epic hero (Duma pro Opanasa [The Lay of Opanas]; 1926) in a manner not unlike Fadeev’s. But his long poems “Proiskhozhdenie” (Origin; 1930) and Fevral’ (February; 1934) get their intensity from a young man’s need to flee the shtetl and his attainment, through revolution, of the social and psychological equality denied to him in the Old World. The satirist Il’ia Il’f shared Bagritskii’s association of revolution with Jewish freedom, but his evaluation of the outcome is often cynical. Isaac Babel, the twentieth-century master of the short story, is the only one of these writers for whom Jews were a central theme. His civil war stories (Konarmiia [Horse Army; usually translated as Red Cavalry]; 1926) treat some Jews as philosophizing victims of violence and others as conflicted perpetrators. Jewish boys who long to overcome their weaknesses are the focus of his childhood cycle, while the Odessa stories make heroes out of comic Jewish gangsters.

Also coming to fame in the 1920s—but at this point living the expatriate’s life in Paris—was Ilya Ehrenburg. Ehrenburg’s Neobychainye pokhozhdeniia Khulio Khurenito i ego uchenikov (The Adventures of Julio Jurenito and His Disciples) came out in 1921 as a satire of European national myths. Among the characters (a proto-Nazi German, a gullible African, and so on) is Ehrenburg himself, the Jew as skeptic. “When everybody else says yes, Jews say no,” declares Ehrenburg, whose real life would, in future decades, put that notion to the test. His other Jewishly oriented satire from the 1920s is Burnaia zhizn’ Lazika Roitshvanetsa (The Stormy Life of Lasik Roitschwantz; 1929), featuring a warmhearted but conniving Jewish hero.

The 1920s also marked the beginning of Jewish involvement in literature for children, most prominently by Kornei Chukovskii and Samuil Marshak. Chukovskii, whose half-Jewish origins are probable rather than certain (his father, named by some as Emmanuil Levinson, a printer, never married his mother and left the family early) was one of Russia’s best-loved, and longest surviving, intellectuals. He was a childhood friend of Jabotinsky, with whom he remained close. Chukovskii’s poems for children belong mainly to the 1920s: “Moidodyr” (Rub-and-Scrub; 1923), “Mukha-tsokhotukha” (Little Buzzy Fly; 1924), “Telefon” (Telephone; 1926), “Aibolit” (Ouch-It-Hurts; 1929), among many others. Marshak, a more obvious Jew, also had more to hide: as a young poet before the revolution, he wrote Zionist verse and contributed to Jewish anthologies. As a promoter of children’s literature, he included not only his own brilliant verse (for example, “Mister Tvister”; 1933) but also his gifts as editor and protector. Marshak brought into children’s literature some extraordinary writers whose experimental bent had made them otherwise unprintable in the early Stalinist years. In 1937, at the outset of the Terror, the publishing house he presided over was shut down and many of its writers were arrested. Among his protégés was Doyvber Levin, whose children’s novels (Desiat’ vagonov [Ten Wagons; 1931] and Vol’nye shtaty Slavichi [The Free States of Slavichi; 1932]), are about Jewish children who lived through the revolution and civil war. Another children’s writer who focused on the Jewish past was Aleksandra Brushtein. Her autobiographical trilogy, Doroga ukhodit v dal’ . . . (The Road Goes off into the Distance; 1955) is about a young girl who comes of age in prerevolutionary Vilna. While the Jewish environment is not stressed, the fact that it is mentioned made the book a significant repository of information for Soviet readers.

From the 1930s to the Death of Stalin

The comparative freedom of the 1920s ended in repression, terror, and war. In 1934, all Soviet writers became part of the Writers Union and thus were subject to centralized control. At its opening congress, writers—now, in the Stalinist phrase, “engineers of human souls”—were presented with a single permissible style: socialist realism (“the true depiction of reality in its socialist development”). The term really meant “easy to follow” and “party line.” Its opposite was formalism, which came to mean “complex” and “ideologically suspect.” Nothing tainted by formalism was publishable, and writers deemed formalist were in danger of losing their livelihoods at the very least.

The pressure to conform was extreme. Writers were sent on trips to factories and were expected to glorify what they saw, with obligatory tributes to Stalin. The most notorious such junket was the 1933 trip to the Baltic–White Sea Canal, being built by forced labor; it resulted in a special volume for Stalin’s fiftieth birthday. Most writers who participated did so out of fear; some who went on the trip (Il’f, for example) managed to stay out of the published volume. Silence became the only viable form of dissent and self-preservation. At the first Writers Congress, Babel declared himself a “master of the art of silence”—although his speech also praised Stalin’s “muscular” prose style and called on writers to emulate their leader.

The Terror that unfolded in the late 1930s cut short the lives of many writers. Some were arrested because of what they wrote (in Osip Mandel’shtam’s case, a privately circulating poem about Stalin); others were arrested because desperate colleagues named them as members of Trotskyite cells. Babel was arrested comparatively late, in 1939. Because his prison files (though no manuscripts) have come to light, we know that he was tortured, that he named names but rescinded them as soon as the torture stopped, and that he was shot.

Women, among them many Jewish women, played an important role as memoirists of the period, and as preservers of literature that could not be published. Nadezhda Mandel’shtam preserved her husband’s verse by memorizing it and later wrote three volumes of remarkable memoirs (first volume published in New York; 1970); by that time, she had herself become a cultural icon. Emma Gershtein wrote important memoirs about Mandel’shtam during his exile in Voronezh (first partial publication, Paris; 1986). Evgeniia Ginzburg wrote two volumes of memoirs about her arrest and survival in the gulag (first volume, Frankfurt; 1967). Mention should be made of Lidiia Chukovskaia, who was of partial Jewish descent and was married to a Jewish physicist who became a victim of the Terror. The daughter of Kornei Chukovskii, Lidiia Chukovskaia wrote memoirs about the poet Anna Akhmatova in addition to probably the first, and certainly one of the finest, novels about the Terror period (Sof’ia Petrovna; written 1939–1940; first published in Paris in 1965 under the title Opustelyi dom [The Deserted House]).

When the Soviet Union was invaded by Germany on 22 June 1941, a time of genuine patriotism and unexpected freedom ensued. Ilya Ehrenburg became the best known of the war correspondents; almost as widely read was Vasilii Grossman, just beginning his career. As Grossman’s life became bound up with Jews—his mother was killed in the Berdichev ghetto and he himself was the first journalist to enter and write about Treblinka—he joined Ehrenburg on the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee. The aim of both men was to document Nazi atrocities against Jews, in a volume to be called Chernaia kniga (The Black Book, with a companion account, Krasnaia kniga [The Red Book]) of Jewish heroism in the Red Army.

Jewish issues were selectively silenced both during and immediately following the war. Writing in the military newspaper Krasnaia zvezda (Red Star) in 1943, Grossman mentioned the massacre of Kiev Jews at Babi Yar two years earlier, but in all subsequent reprints this paragraph was cut. His essay “Ukraine without Jews” was deemed publishable only in Yiddish translation. Attempts by a few writers to discuss the Holocaust—or even to imagine Jewish characters in the war years—all ran into problems. Grossman’s first postwar novel, on the battle of Stalingrad, was denied the title “Stalingrad” because of the objections of the writer Mikhail Sholokhov. “Who gave him the right to write about Stalingrad?” fumed the future Nobel laureate at an editorial board meeting; the antisemitic implication was clear to everyone and the book was renamed Za pravoe delo (For a Just Cause). The poet Margarita Aliger, also of Jewish origin, eulogized Jews in one section of her long war poem Tvoia pobeda (Your Victory; 1946). The subsequent history of Aliger’s poem tells a lot about the way some writers internalized state policy. An uncensored version with more extensive Jewish references circulated privately in the late 1940s and continued to do so for decades. But when she revised the poem for her 1970 collected works, the poet took the published version and weakened its Jewish content still further.

Repressions following World War II targeted two groups: writers and composers guilty of formalism, and Jews (labeled rootless cosmopolitans) in a broad range of professions. The opening salvo was the January 1948 murder of Solomon Mikhoels, the director of the Moscow State Yiddish Theater and chair of the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee. While Mikhoels’s murder was called an accident, the signal was widely understood. As the Russian Shostakovich, condemned for formalism, said to Mikhoels’s daughter, “This is a campaign which starts with the Jews and will end with the whole intelligentsia.”

In early 1953, with the country in the throes of the Doctors’ Plot, a letter of ominous text (condemning Jewish “billionaires, millionaires, and Zionists”) and even more ominous subtext was prepared for signature by prominent Jews, including many writers. The text of that letter, or an archival variant of it, was published in Russia in 1997, together with the names of 58 well-known Jews. While the facts of the incident remain murky—the published list of names may not have been final—the incident itself had huge, if long unpublishable, repercussions. Ehrenburg wrote a letter of protest to Stalin that has now come out in print. Prior ideological subservience was not a good predictor of what people actually did: among the courageous few who appear not to have signed was Isaak Dunaevskii, a composer of “mass” songs including the Soviet national anthem. 

While the death of Stalin put an end to the Doctors’ Plot, the affair had major resonance for Vasilii Grossman, who did sign. Grossman spent the remaining seven years of his life in a heroic effort to overcome what he saw as his cowardice. His epic novel Zhizn’ i sud’ba (Life and Fate; completed and confiscated in 1960, first published abroad in 1980) was the uncensored sequel to Za pravoe delo. Zhizn’ i sud’ba follows the fates of a Jewish doctor taken to a death camp and a Jewish physicist who is cowed into signing a condemnatory letter similar to the one that Grossman signed; it also takes up issues such as the Stalinist gulag and the fate of the Russian peasantry. Grossman’s striking rediscovery of his Jewish connection was not unusual. As his contemporary Boris Slutskii wrote about reconsidering Jewishness in the postwar years,

Give age or wisdom its due

I now see in myself a Jew

And I thought that I cut through

I didn’t tear through, I tore up

I didn’t cut through, I cut off.

(“Uriel Acosta”; 1960s)

Dissidence, Renewal, and Emigration in Late Soviet Jewish Writing

The opening of the final Soviet era—when the regime, with its lesser and greater repressions, seemed unshakable—differed vastly from its end. Through the 1960s at least, Jews did not advertise their ethnicity in public. Antisemitism expressed itself in unofficial but well-understood quotas at high-powered educational institutions and in workplaces, and was reinforced, especially in the 1970s, by strident anti-Zionism in newspapers, books, and magazines. Yet certain prestigious professions (physics, mathematics, classical music) were heavily populated by Jews. As the satirist Mikhail Zhvanetskii wrote, “In every country Jews are a minority, but in any given field, they’re a majority. Take physics: a majority. Take chess: a majority. . . . Many people can’t see why this happens so they start pogroms” (“Vraga davai!” [Give Us an Enemy!]; 1994). While Jews in private took huge satisfaction in this achievement despite the odds, their pride was accompanied by widespread ignorance about Jewish history and religion.

In contrast to the situation a century earlier, in the liberal wing of what was called the creative intelligentsia, Jewish and non-Jewish Russians were united by personal and family ties. Some disaffected Russians identified with Jews. The poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko (Evgenii Evtushenko) ignited a huge controversy with the publication of his “Babi Yar” poem (1961). Shostakovich, who made significant use of Jewish themes, set the poem as part of his no less controversial Thirteenth Symphony (1962). That either of these works would see the light of day was not guaranteed, a fact appreciated by their impassioned audiences.

A major change in Jewish consciousness was initiated by the Israeli victory in the June 1967 War, which overturned stereotypes about Jews held by both Jews and Russians. The poet Igor’ Guberman encapsulates this feeling in a characteristic epigram:

A fresh idea has come in view

The Hebrew image seen anew

Every tailor and professor

an inveterate aggressor.

(“Gospod’ likhuiu shutku uchinil, kogda siuzhet evreiia sochinil” [The Lord Conceived a Heady Brew, in Thinking up the Idea “Jew”]; first published 1989)

By the 1970s, the aliyah movement was in full swing. From this point onward, it is hard to separate literature written by Jews in Russia from literature written in Russian by expatriates in Israel, Germany, France, and the United States.

Before the advent of glasnost, popular writers who worked at the edge of the permissible incorporated Jewish references that were decoded and appreciated by cognoscenti. The Strugatskii brothers Boris and Arkadii wrote science fiction that was easily interpretable as social commentary. While nobody could positively identify the caste of bespectacled pariahs in a book such as Gadkie lebedi (Ugly Swans; 1972) as Jews, the analogy seemed plausible to some readers. The songwriter and dramatist Aleksandr Galich and comic essayist Zhvanetskii made sharper references to the Jewish situation. Neither writer was publishable, but they were permitted to perform in public venues, and everybody listened to their privately circulated tapes.

The poetry revival that was a prominent feature of the 1960s and 1970s has its roots in the postwar years. Poets David Samoilov (Kaufman) and Boris Slutskii both wrote memorably about the war, and served as mentors for the generation of the 1960s and 1970s as those younger writers discovered their individuality and independence. Slutskii’s colloquial, ironic, sometimes tragic voice matched his perception of the Jewish condition. The next generation, by contrast, was more detached from Soviet structures and beliefs. Important groups of nonconformist poets, separated by city, stayed in contact both with one another and with visual artists of the developing underground. Genrikh Sapgir was known as a brilliant children’s writer and screenwriter for cartoons. His poetry, unpublishable in Soviet journals of the time, made its first appearance in the famous but quickly suppressed typewritten magazine Sintaksis (Syntax; 1959–1960), which he put together along with Aleksandr Ginzburg. Naum Korzhavin had become well known through his poetry readings, which had been followed by his arrest, exile, rehabilitation, and finally, in the 1960s, by both sanctioned and typescript (samizdat) publications; he emigrated to the United States in 1973. In Leningrad, poets Evgenii Rein, Anatolii Naiman, Joseph Brodsky, and the Russian Dmitrii Bobyshev were known as “Akhmatova’s orphans”; the name invoked both their friendship with the great poet and their inheritance of her modernist mantle. As Russian intellectuals, they gave their primary and conscious allegiance to the Russian language, Russian high culture, and European culture in general.

Of the four Leningrad poets, it was Brodsky who claimed a lasting place in world culture. A master stylist in Russian and eventually also in English, Brodsky won the Nobel Prize in 1987. His poetry rarely touches Jewish themes (the early “Evreiskoe kladbishche okolo Leningrada” [A Jewish Cemetery near Leningrad]; 1958 is often cited in this context, along with “Leiklos” [1971], in which he pictures himself as a Lithuanian Jew a century back). By contrast, he wrote a Christmas poem every year. But these are primarily time markers that embody an ironic and sad stocktaking of himself and the world, with no sense of common redemption.

An important moment in Brodsky’s biography, and in the history of Russian culture, was his trial, in 1964, on a charge of parasitism, meaning that he was not “productively” employed. The trial was a spectacle, unexpectedly (for the authorities) transcribed by the writer Frida Vigdorova. Included in it was a classic interchange between writer and totalitarian state. “What makes you a poet?” asked the judge, implying that only the Soviet Writers Union could bestow the title. “God,” answered Brodsky. Brodsky’s trial concluded in his exile to the north and eventually to his expulsion from the USSR.

A year after Brodsky’s trial came the trial of two more writers. One, Iulii Daniel’, was a Jew, the son of a Yiddish writer; the other, Andrei Siniavskii, was a Russian who used the Jewish pseudonym Abram Terts. The transcript of the trial was widely disseminated outside the Soviet Union. Daniel’s magic-realist stories, whose publication in the West led to his arrest, did not appear in Russia until 1990.

The artistic underground of the 1970s nurtured enormously talented writers who eventually left the country. The half-Jewish Vladimir Voinovich, mentioned earlier as the risk-defying courier who brought Grossman’s novel out of the Soviet Union, burst onto the international scene with the satires Zhizn’ i neobychainye prikliucheniia soldata Ivana Chonkina (The Life and Extraordinary Adventures of Private Ivan Chonkin; 1975) and Ivankiada (Ivankiad; 1976). Expelled from the Writers Union and forced out of the Soviet Union, he commenced a distinguished career, including the anti-utopia Moskva 2042 (1986). Vasilii Aksenov, son of the gulag memoirist Evgeniia Ginzburg, got his start within the relatively freewheeling generation of the 1960s; after his participation in the unsanctioned Metropol’ collection of 1979, he went to the United States, where he acquired an English as well as Russian language audience for his novels Ozhog (The Burn; written in 1975), Ostrov Krym (The Island of Crimea; written in 1979), and many others. Another migrant to the United States—before the Metropol’ scandal—was Sergei Dovlatov, who died young. Half-Jewish, like Aksenov, Dovlatov wrote stories about his Jewish Armenian family; his ironic take on everyday life represented a retreat from the position of moral certainty that had animated Russian literature for many years. Fridrikh Gorenshtein, a noted screenwriter and another Metropol’ participant, moved to West Berlin in 1980; his psychological-metaphysical Psalom (Psalm), written before emigration, imagines a Jewish antichrist who appears in Russia as a vehicle for God’s punishment. The novel can be interpreted as a polemic with Dostoevskian notions of Russian Christianity, and also with the phenomenon of Christian conversion that took hold of a part of the Russian Jewish intelligentsia in the 1970s.

A more intensely Jewish novelist is the Russian Israeli David Markish, son of the Yiddish writer Perets Markish (and brother of the late scholar Shimon Markish, whose essays on Grossman, Babel, and other Russian Jewish writers defined a field of study). Markish’s interest in the peculiarities of the Russian Jewish psyche is often projected historically, as in Shuty (The Jesters; published in Tel Aviv in 1983), about Jews in the court of Peter the Great, and Stat’ Liutovym: Vol’nye fantazii iz zhizni pisatelia Isaaka Emmanuilovicha Babelia (Becoming Liutov: Improvisations from the Life of the Writer Isaak Emmanuilovich Babel’; published in Saint Petersburg in 2001). Feliks Roziner, who lived both in Israel and in the United States, became famous for his striking novel Nekto Finkel’maier (A Certain Finkelmeyer; 1981). Finkel’maier is about a Jewish poet much like Brodsky, but with a tragic fate; the novel—published in London, where it won a Russian literary prize—examines the Jew as Russian writer on a complex background of late Soviet ethnic relations. Another gifted participant in Jewish underground literature was David Shrayer-Petrov. His novel Gerbert i Nelli (Herbert and Nelli), written in Moscow in the early 1980s, was eventually published in Israel (1982) and Moscow (1992) and longlisted for the Russian Booker Prize; his recent novels and stories continue their focus on Jewish–Russian relations and Russian Jews abroad.

Not all literature by and about Jews was unpublishable in the last decades of Soviet power. Children’s writers Boris Zakhoder and Lev Kassil’ commanded (and continue to command) a wide readership. Anatolii Rybakov’s novel Tiazhelyi pesok (Heavy Sand), about a Jewish family in World War II, appeared in 1979. Grigorii Kanovich’s Svechi na vetru (Candles in the Wind; 1986), a trilogy, is unusual in Russian literature in its depiction of shtetl life from the inside—a subject that Kanovich, now living in Israel, knew from his childhood in independent Lithuania. Kanovich shows the shtetl as it is torn apart by poverty and conflicting ideologies, and eventually destroyed by the war. The trilogy begins with the youth of the impoverished hero, who becomes a gravedigger, and ends during the Holocaust, as he takes part in the resistance. Kanovich’s next novel, Park zabytykh evreev (The Park of Forgotten Jews; 1997), describes the Soviet period, drawing to a close on the eve of Lithuanian independence. Its Jewish heroes, whose complex and sad lives were tied to the Soviet past, have no future.

Post-Soviet Jewish Literatures

An important consequence of the fall of the Soviet Union was the publication of suppressed literature. In addition to works already mentioned, readers in Russia could read, in ordinary editions, Jewish stories by Boris Iampol’skii (1912–1972) and poems on Jewish themes by Semen Lipkin (1911–2003), as well as his memoirs of Vasilii Grossman.

The post-Soviet stage of Russian Jewish literature is an international one. With Russian Jews maintaining close ties across continents, the “other” reality, wherever that is, is in large part known. Popular Russian Israelis, including the novelist Dina Rubina and satiric poet Igor’ Guberman, publish in Russia and give readings wherever Russian speakers live; Zhvanetskii reads to audiences in Moscow, Tel Aviv, and Brooklyn. The Moscovite Lev Rubinshtein is a dominant figure in postmodern Russian poetry, with close ties to the Moscow artistic underground of the late Soviet period. The New York painter and sculptor Grisha Bruskin, who also emerged from that milieu, has become, in addition, a writer; his poetic, Jewishly oriented memoirs Proshedshee vremia nesovershennogo vida (Past Imperfect), Myslenno vami (Yours Truly; 2003), and Podrobnosti pis’mom (Details to Follow; 2005) were enthusiastically received. [For an example of Bruskin’s artwork, see image at left.]

The sharply observant Rubina (1953– ) writes most recently about Russian émigrés in Israel. Her best-known novel, Vot idet Messiia! (Here Comes the Messiah!; 1996), is both satirical and sad: its characters struggle to orient themselves in religious and political categories that did not exist in their previous lives. In Russia, Asar Eppel’ (1935– ) emerged in the 1990s as an important writer of short stories. His collection Travianaia ulitsa (The Grassy Street; 1994) is about life on the outskirts of postwar Moscow. His characters, among them many Jews, exist in an impoverished, often coarse reality that also encompasses the longings of the soul. Novelist Liudmila Ulitskaia (1943– ) has achieved widespread popularity—and won numerous literary prizes—both in Russian and abroad. Medeia i ee deti (Medea and Her Children; 1996) is a novel about family and relationships set in the south of Russia; Veselye pokhorony (The Funeral Party, 1998) is about the passing of a Soviet-Jewish artist in émigré New York. Another striking writer is Aleksandr Melikhov (1947– ), the author of Izgnanie iz Edena, ili ispoved’ evreia (The Expulsion from Eden, or Confessions of a Jew; 1994). The narrator is a half-Jew who returns to childhood memories of his Russian “Eden” where he was, or longed to be, a happy member of a Russian herd. A Jew for him is an unrepentant outsider often hypercorrecting in his desire to join the nation. As a state of mind rather than a reflection of any kind of knowledge, Jewishness is inherited in full force even by the narrator’s officially quarter-Jewish son.

While Melikhov’s meditations on Russian Jewish identity suggest that it is infinitely heritable no matter how thin the content, the truth of that ironically offered presupposition remains to be seen. At the beginning of the twenty-first century, a shared language, culture, and social memory give Russian Jews across the globe a shared literature. The effects of multinational acculturation on the one hand, and intensified Jewish education and institutions within Russia on the other, have yet to play themselves out.


[The following list identifies and briefly describes the work of Russian writers who are not the subject of an independent biographical entry.]

Aliger, Margarita Iosifovna

(1915–1992), poet, playwright, and translator. While her first collections (God rozhdeniia [Year of Birth]; 1938 and Zheleznaia doroga [Railroad]; 1939) glorified Stalin’s Five-Year Plans, Margarita Aliger was best known as a war poet. Her long poem Zoia, later made into both a play and an opera, publicized and to an extent mythologized the heroic death of a high-school girl named Zoia, who while on a partisan mission was captured by the Nazis and hanged. A later war poem, Tvoia pobeda (Your Victory; 1945), took up Jewish themes as part of its survey of Soviet heroism and suffering during the war. Uncensored versions of the poem’s “Jewish” chapter began circulating very early, in the late 1940s, though when the Polish American writer Alexander Donat selected them for inclusion in an anthology of Russian Jewish poetry (published in 1973), Aliger denied authorship. Her diffidence may have been connected with her experience during the anticosmopolitan campaign of 1948, when she was publicly criticized. Party loyalty might have been a factor as well (she joined in 1942). At the outset of the Thaw, she edited the important liberal anthology Literaturnaia Moskva (Literary Moscow; 1956). After Khrushchev put a halt to his experiment in artistic liberalism, Aliger apparently argued with him at a state banquet.

Dar, David Iakovlevich

(1910–1980), writer and mentor. Wounded while serving as a war correspondent, David Dar (Rivkin) settled in Leningrad, where he published nine books. His reputation as a dissident came mostly from the irreverent remarks he enjoyed making at various cultural events. Dar was a mentor to many beginning writers, some of whom became well known. At the age of 70, he immigrated to Israel, where he published a book of short essays (Ispoved’ bezotvetsvennogo chitatelia [Confessions of an Irresponsible Reader; 1980]), none of which could have been published in the Soviet Union. Among his other books are Boginia Dunia i drugie neveroiatnye istorii (The Goddess Dunia and Other Unbelievable Stories; 1964) and a fictionalized biography of Konstantin Tsiolkovskii, called Ballada o cheloveke i ego kryl’iakh (A Ballad about a Man with Wings; 1966). Some of his legacy appears in Dar (2005).

Dovlatov, Sergei Donatovich

(1941–1990), fiction writer and essayist. Born in Ufa, in the Urals, during a wartime evacuation, Sergei Dovlatov grew up in postwar Leningrad. Expelled from the university, he was drafted into the army, where he served as a guard in a criminal camp in the Komi region. This experience, unusual for an urban bohemian with dissident views, formed the basis of his story cycle Zona (The Zone; published in the West in 1982). Dovlatov completed journalism school and worked for the magazine Sovetskaia Estoniia (Soviet Estonia); because his writings were unpublishable, they were important only to readers of underground literature. In 1978, he left for New York, becoming editor of the newspaper Novyi amerikanets. His books have now reached an admiring Russian audience. They are notable for their retreat from the great ideas that often animate Russian literature. Among them are Nevidimaia kniga (The Invisible Book; 1978) and Nashi (Ours; 1983).

Eikhenbaum, Boris Mikhailovich

(1886–1959), literary theorist and historian. From a Western perspective, Boris Eikhenbaum is not obviously Jewish: his father was baptized and his mother Russian. In Soviet Russia, where the label “Jew” was strictly ethnic, Eikhenbaum’s Jewishness was self-evident not only to the Russian intellectuals who studied his works, but also to the Soviet government. At the time of the anticosmopolitan campaign, he was denounced along with other Jews who held literature professorships at Leningrad University. He was fired and for a number of years was not permitted to publish. Eikhenbaum was a founding member of the innovative and influential formalist school. Unlike older literary critics, who sought to understand what a work of literature meant, formalists aimed to understand how a piece was put together. The name of their society, Opoiaz, was an acronym for Society for the Study of Poetic Language; it had ties to both avant-garde poets and theoretical linguists. Eikhenbaum joined in 1918, establishing an important part of the formalist canon through numerous famous studies, including “Kak sdelana ‘Shinel’’ Gogolia?” (How Is Gogol’s “Overcoat” Made?; 1919) and Molodoi Tolstoi (The Young Tolstoy; 1922). In the 1930s, as the political climate grew hostile to formalism, Eikhenbaum continued to work on Tolstoy and on scholarly editions of major Russian writers.

Kaverin, Veniamin Aleksandrovich

(1902–1989), novelist. Veniamin Kaverin (Zil’ber) begin his career as a Serapion brother and an academic student of literature (his novel Skandalist [Troublemaker; 1929] is a roman à clef about the formalist school during the 1920s). Later, he turned to realistic prose. Perhaps influenced by his brother Lev Zil’ber, a well-known microbiologist, he devoted two novels (Otkrytaya kniga [Open Book; written 1946–1954] and Dvoinoi portret [Double Portrait; 1964]) to the pressures faced by biologists in the Soviet period. His best-loved work is the novel Dva kapitana (Two Captains; 1939, second part 1944), about a Soviet captain who seeks the traces of a lost Arctic expedition. Most recently, it was adapted as the musical Nord-Ost. After the death of Stalin, Kaverin fought for the rehabilitation of repressed writers.

Knut, Dovid

(1900–1955), poet, short-story writer, and resistance fighter. While Dovid Knut (David Mironovich Fikhman) spent most of his life in emigration, initially in France, his combination of immense poetic talent, expressed in the Russian language, and unwavering Jewish loyalties made him unusual for his age not only within Russia but also abroad. In the 1920s and 1930s, Knut was active in the literary life of Russian Paris, where he was highly valued by such émigré giants as Ivan Bunin. Knut published several books of poetry and short stories about the Bessarabian Jews among whom he grew up. At the start of the war, he and his wife Ariadna Scriabina (the daughter of the composer), who had converted to Judaism, joined the Resistance; she was caught and killed on a mission to bring Jewish refugees to Switzerland. In 1949, Knut left for Israel.

Lunts, Lev Natanovich

(1901–1924), playwright and critic. Lev Lunts was a founding member and, during his brief life, the chief theoretician of the Serapion Brothers writers’ group. Lunts declared that literature does not have to be engaged with political or social questions. Of his plays, only Vne zakona (Outside of the Law; 1923) was produced, though not in Russia, where it was prohibited. Among his other plays are Obez’iany idut (The Monkeys Are Coming; 1923), Bertrand de Born (1923), and Gorod Pravdy (City of Truth; 1924); he also wrote some fiction, including some, recently published, based on biblical themes. In 1924, seriously ill, he joined his family in Hamburg, where he died.

Roziner, Feliks Iakovlevich

(1936–1997), novelist, essayist, and poet. Feliks Roziner’s novel Nekto Finkel’maier (A Certain Finkelmeyer) became an underground sensation, receiving the Parisian Dal’ Prize for 1981. The novel, which has been translated into many languages, portrays a poet who, needing to conceal his Jewish name, adopts the identity of a Siberian reindeer hunter. Roziner subsequently left for Israel and eventually the United States. He was the author of several books of poetry, short stories, a family memoir (Serebriania tsepochka [The Silver Chain]; 1983), as well as studies of major artists and musicians (Grieg, Prokofiev, Ciurlionis). His collected works appeared in Russia in 1996, including his final novel Akhill begushchii (Running Achilles), winner of the Saint Petersburg Severnaia Pal’mira prize for the best work of fiction in 1994.

Samoilov, David Samoilovich

(1920–1990), poet, translator, and mentor. David Samoilov (Kaufman), who left his studies at the Institute of Philosophy, Literature, and the Arts for the front, began publishing his intimate, conversational, sometimes ironic war poems only in 1958. Some of his lines, such as those defining the “fateful” generation of the 1940s, became iconographic, repeated, even 60 years later, at public celebrations of the victory over Nazi Germany. Samoilov, whose many students revered him as a man of conscience—high praise in Soviet times—never abandoned the war theme. In a poem published after his death, he explains why:

If you cross out the war

What’s left isn’t much

A paltry art

to rekindle your guilt.

What else? Self-deception

That turned into fear

Wisdom: that your own shirt

is closer to the body. And fog.

No, do not cross out the war

For it served a generation

As a kind of expiation

For the nation and for itself.

Strugatskii, Arkadii Natanovich

(1925–1991), science fiction writer. The brothers Arkadii and Boris (1933– ) Strugatskii were the premier Russian writers of science fiction that readers understood as social criticism. Arkadii was educated as a translator from English and Japanese, and Boris as an astronomer; their joint writing career began in 1958. Their ironic touch and use of the science fiction genre to examine moral and intellectual questions outside of the Soviet frame made them very popular. Among their most famous works are Ponedel’nik nachinaetsia v subbotu (Monday Begins on Saturday; 1965), Ulitka na sklone (Snail on a Hill; 1966), Trudno byt’ bogom (Hard to be a God; 1966), and the screenplay for the film Stalker (1979).

Volodin, Aleksandr Moiseevich

(1919–2001), playwright. After returning from the front, where he had been wounded, Aleksandr Volodin (Lifshits) studied playwriting at VGIK (Vsesoiuznyi gosudarsvtvennyi institut kino, the national film institute in Moscow). His first play, Fabrichnaia devochka (A Factory Girl; 1956) had a long run in Moscow, Leningrad, and other cities. His most famous were the long-running Piat’ vecherov (Five Evenings; 1959), about a man and woman reunited after half a lifetime, and Moia starshaia sestra (My Older Sister; 1961). Audiences prized Volodin’s plays for their freshness and attentiveness to emotional complexities. Volodin also wrote popular screenplays for films, most notably Piat’ vecherov (directed by Nikita Mikhalkov; 1978) and Osennii marafon (Autumn Marathon; directed by Georgii Daniela, 1979), an often poignant comedy about a professor involved with two women.

Suggested Reading

Rita Genzeleva, Puti evreiskogo samosoznaniia (Moscow and Jerusalem, 1999); Mikhail Krutikov, “Constructing Jewish Identity in Contemporary Russian Fiction,” in Jewish Life after the USSR, ed. Zvi Gitelman, pp. 252–274 (Bloomington, Ind., 2003); Simon Peretsovich Markish, Babel’ i drugie (Moscow and Jerusalem, 1997); Alice Nakhimovsky, Russian-Jewish Literature and Identity (Baltimore, 1991); Gabriella Safran, Rewriting the Jew: Assimilation Narratives in the Russian Empire (Stanford, Calif., 2000); Maxim D. Shrayer, Russian Poet/Soviet Jew: The Legacy of Eduard Bagritskii (Lanham, Md., 2000); Maxim D. Shrayer, Anthology of Jewish-Russian Literature, 1801–2001: Two Centuries of a Dual Identity (Armonk, N.Y., 2006); Efraim Sicher, Jews in Russian Literature after the October Revolution (Cambridge, 1995).