Dwelling in the Promised Land as a Russian

This week, World Literature Today posted a transcript of a conversation with Russian/American Julia Nemirovskaya and the translator of her poetry Boris Drakyuk. Julia is my former colleague at BYU and my friend.

José Vergara introduces the two poets (interviewed by himself and students in his Bryn Mawr class) as follows:

Until recently, poet Julia Nemirovskaya and translator Boris Dralyuk had little reason to believe that they wouldn’t be able to return to their birthplaces—to Moscow and Odesa, respectively. Although both have lived in the US for many years, they have retained their ties to their birthplaces, while cultivating russophone literatures through various projects including their writing, translations, and teaching. Now, with the onset of Putin’s war in Ukraine, those ties to eastern Europe have become much more tenuous and their self-identification as émigrés and expats more complex.

Thoughts about ecological catastrophe are one focus of the interview (Julia has a “Fire” cycle about the forest fires that threatened and transformed her home in Oregon), the intricacies of translation another.

Several times the conversation turns to what it means to live away from home, apart from one’s native language and culture, especially during a war. Julia comments on the tragedy:

...before this war, our wave of emigration had not experienced exile. We could travel back and forth. We called ourselves expats, not emigrants. Of course, I often feel displaced. The way I act and talk has been awkward and strange even just because English is not my native tongue. Now I know I will never go back. There are hundreds of thousands of Russians who ended up abroad these days because of persecution or a desire not to be affiliated with Putin’s regime. Russian poetry is one as never before, yet people who stayed may soon be cut off from social media, the Western press, and their readership at home. I’m collecting my friends’ poems about war. Ukrainian voices have to be our absolute priority now. Russians need to fade into the background. Yet the Platinum Age of poetry is still here, and the russophone voices are compelling. I’m witnessing the birth of а stunning tragic war poetry tradition. It has to be appreciated just as the unbearable situation of the people whose language is being used by a bloodthirsty maniac at home and hated by passersby abroad. As we know, many German writers in a similar situation committed suicide. I would do all I can to prevent seeing any of my friends follow suit, first and foremost make sure their voices are heard.

My friend Zarko Radakovic understands what Julia is saying here…he watched his beloved Yugoslavia violently dismembered by violent nationalists. There is plenty of nationalist violence in my own country, but I understand the personal severing of ties to language and landscapes only by proxy.

Yesterday I wrote to Julia expressing my love and solidarity. While doing so my mind slipped back to the years when we were colleagues in the Department of Germanic and Slavic Languages at BYU…1993-1999, exactly the years when my attempts to “dwell in the promised land as a stranger” took an unexpected and unfortunate series of turns. Julia and I left BYU the same year.

Julia joined our department at a time of relative openness to hiring excellent colleagues without regard to their religious or non-religious affiliation. Her only dietary restrictions, for instance, were related to her on-campus work—she was free to drink wine and coffee at home. Later, however, when the Math Department wanted to offer a position to Julia’s husband Arkady Vaintrob, he was told he would have to commit to living the Word of Wisdom full time. Julia asked our department chair what could be done. Arkady should simply lie to them, he suggested. Arkady cannot tell a lie, she replied. I wish that were the case with our administrators, he said.

Intent on hiring a man whose work would be critically important to BYU math students, the head of the Math Department arranged for a conversation between Arkady and an apostle, a member of the BYU Board of Trustees, sure that something could be worked out. Things went well until the apostle asked Arkady whether he might ever consider converting to the Mormon Church. No, Arkady said. And that was that.

Julia and Arkady left us, confident in their ability to find positions elsewhere. (They now have tenured positions at The University of Oregon.) When we lamented the coming loss and the effect on their family, Arkady said that his experience as a Jew in the Soviet Union left him well acquainted with such events and that we shouldn’t worry.

We didn’t worry. But we did mourn.

Adjusting to life in Provo and BYU in the first couple of years, Julie asked me, tentatively, carefully, about Mormon culture. In my experience, she said, meaningful cultures produce remarkable works of art and science and thought. I look around me here and, with a few exceptions, find little of that. I said I had long wondered about the same thing and, in fact, had written some about that, especially in regard to the Mormon university that should be a major cultural catalyst but that was increasingly featuring dogmatic exclusion of the competing ideas that produce great work of many kinds.

My Dwelling in the Promised Land as a Stranger is a document of my experiences at a university I loved and gradually came to mourn. I refer several times in the book to what it meant to our department to lose her contributions (and to Math to lose Arkady’s).

Julia’s poetry and the contemporary Russian poetry she is gathering in this time of war makes me want to learn Russian … and to hope that Boris Dralyuk has ample time to augment his own poetry with more translations.

The conversation with Julia Nemirovskaya and Boris Draljuk posted is on the World Literature Today site.

See also the March 21 post by Boris Dralyuk to his website for thoughts on Russian and Ukrainian and LA literary interweavings

About Scott Abbott

I received my Ph.D. in German Literature from Princeton University in 1979. Then I taught at Vanderbilt University, BYU, and Utah Valley State College. At Utah Valley University, I directed the Program in Integrated Studies for its initial 13 years and was also Chair of the Department of Humanities and Philosophy for three years. My publications include a book on Freemasonry and the German Novel, two co-authored books with Zarko Radakovic (REPETITIONS and VAMPIRES & A REASONABLE DICTIONARY, published in Serbo-Croatian in Belgrade and in English with Punctum Books), a book with Sam Rushforth (WILD RIDES AND WILDFLOWERS, Torrey House Press), a "fraternal meditation" called IMMORTAL FOR QUITE SOME TIME (University of Utah Press), and translations of three books by Austrian author Peter Handke, of an exhibition catalogue called "The German Army and Genocide," and, with Dan Fairbanks, of Gregor Mendel's important paper on hybridity in peas. More famously, my children are in the process of creating good lives for themselves: as a model and dance/yoga studio manager, as a teacher of Chinese language, as an ecologist and science writer, as a jazz musician, as a parole officer, as a contractor, as a seasonal worker (Alaska and Park City, Utah), and as parents. I share my life with UVU historian Lyn Bennett, with whom I have written a cultural history of barbed wire -- THE PERFECT FENCE (Texas A&M University Press). Some publications at http://works.bepress.com/scott_abbott/
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