Jan 12, 2021
Mikhail Krutikov, Der Nister’s Soviet Years: Yiddish Writer as Witness to the People. (Indiana University Press, 2019). 308 pp. $38.00, paperback.
In Der Nister’s Soviet Years: Yiddish Writer as Witness to the People, Mikhail Krutikov traces the life of Pinhas Kahanovich, who wrote under the pen name Der Nister (“the Hidden One”), and the author’s tumultuous transition from symbolism to socialist realism. The book provides a detailed description of Der Nister’s life, tracks the development of his Soviet-era oeuvre, and offers nuanced analyses of the writer’s socialist realist works that recent scholars have largely overlooked. Krutikov proposes the unique supposition that Der Nister was able to reinvent himself as a Soviet writer without forfeiting his creative autonomy and productively supports this theory by demonstrating how “[Der Nister’s] transition to realism after 1929 can… be seen not as a forced renunciation of symbolism but as the next rung in the spiral of stylistic experimentation, however difficult this process must have been in the Soviet context of the 1930s” (31). Krutikov complements close readings of Der Nister’s original Yiddish texts with demonstrated expertise in Russian literature, which allows him to concurrently situate Der Nister’s creative development within the frameworks of both Yiddish literary history and Soviet cultural expression under Stalin. He explains how Russian writers, such as Andrei Bely and Fyodor Dostoevsky, influenced Der Nister’s writing alongside Yiddish writers like I. L. Peretz and Reb Nachman of Bratslav. As the book’s argument develops, Der Nister is presented as a model for how all Soviet-minority writers were forced to adjust their aesthetics to survive the official shift to socialist realism in 1934. By grounding his analysis of Der Nister in this Soviet context, Krutikov asserts the importance of Der Nister’s Soviet works for any scholar wishing to better understand early-Soviet literature, while also highlighting the writer’s contributions to the twentieth century Jewish literary canon.
Krutikov structures his argument—that Der Nister subtly, yet significantly, retained aspects of his symbolist aesthetics in his socialist realist works—over the course of six chapters that are bookended by an introduction and epilogue. He orders his chapters chronologically to demonstrate how Der Nister was able to refine his writing style to ultimately find the medium through which he would be able to actualize the “mission that [he] conceived for himself of a writer – to be a spiritual leader of his generation” (18). Krutikov positions his analysis of Der Nister between existing work by other Yiddish literary scholars, such as David Roskies and Delphine Bechtel, but his knowledge of Russian literature allows Krutikov to uncover unique subtleties in Der Nister’s later writings. While previous volumes of scholarship might have concluded with the 1929 short story, “Under a Fence,” Krutikov uses this symbolist tale as an introduction of sorts, a means of laying the foundation on which he builds his larger argument. For Krutikov, this short story exists “as a kind of symbolic ‘fence’ in Der Nister’s literary evolution. It separates his symbolist and realist periods, closing the earlier modernist project of ‘deparochialization’ and opening the new project of preservation of the Jewish historical and cultural legacy in Soviet culture” (41). In this way, Krutikov gives overlooked works, including Hoypshtet (Capitals, 1934) and Korbones (Victims, 1943), the scholarly attention they had previously lacked.
Krutikov’s argument hinges on the problem of how to explain the shift in Der Nister’s poetics. To this end, Krutikov focuses on the circumstances that led Der Nister to reformulate his perception of the writer’s mission – his initial goal of bringing Yiddish literature from the peripheries and towards the center of early-Soviet modernism was overtaken by an obligation to protect and preserve the Jewish cultural heritage in the Soviet Union. Krutikov insightfully gleans this artistic transformation from the writer’s essays and correspondences. He extracts much from Der Nister’s letter to Dovid Bergelson: “the writer’s task is to create characters… that reflect and personify the key features of the nation’s collective existence in history… The writer… must be not only an artist but also a ‘national leader’ (folks-firer), who provides the people with a ‘truthful mirror,’ both for the present and for the future” (218). Through emphasizing this artistic transformation, Krutikov opens the door for countless comparisons of Der Nister to other, non-Yiddish Soviet writers, such as Anna Akhmatova and Varlam Shalamov, who also used their writings to record and commemorate the victims of Stalinism. But he also differentiates Der Nister from this group by highlighting his mission as a Jewish writer who sought to honor and preserve the identity of an entire people, not just individual victims.
Perhaps the most compelling aspect of Krutikov’s book is the account of Der Nister’s gradual transformation as a writer under the auspices of socialist realism, even as the author delicately, yet persistently, inserted aspects of his symbolist aesthetics into his texts. Socialist realism began to appear across the USSR in the 1920s and became the officially sanctioned literary form of the Soviet Union in 1934, when guidelines defined socialist realism as writing that is proletarian, typical, realistic, and partisan . Krutikov argues that, despite the manner in which socialist realism effectively banned any art or literature with a pessimistic or critical view of the state, Der Nister carefully concealed symbolic elements within his prose in an attempt to retain his artistic identity and subtly voice sentiments against the increasingly oppressive Stalinist system. 1 1 In this regard, Krutikov joins a wave of scholars who have debunked the myth that socialist realism was monolithic and resulted in only bland and overly-idealized depictions of Soviet life. See Thomas Lahusen and Evgeny Dobrenko’s Socialist Realism without Shores (1997) and Lilya Kaganovsky’s How the Soviet Man was Unmade (2008) for more on this topic. Der Nister was able to, almost counterintuitively, insert the most substantial symbolist constructions into his works that are most grounded in historical reality. For instance, in discussing Der Nister’s Holocaust stories, Krutikov explains how the writer “reconnects the fragments of written and oral memories of the traumatic experience, creates archetypical characters out of real protagonists and constructs a narrative by way of constructing reality through symbolic structures” (245). Krutikov includes an account by Yiddish writer Yosef Kerler, who during the evacuation from Moscow traveled on the same train as Der Nister and noted how he “was always looking for people with great stories to tell, to collect material that he would later transform into his fiction” (251). Krutikov astutely likens Der Nister’s role on the train to the anonymous narrator in Sholem Aleichem’s Railroad Stories, a comparison that supports one of his most intriguing arguments: that Der Nister himself attempts to “enact his symbolist dream” – an effort that “reached its culmination in his trip with a transport of Jewish settlers from Ukraine to Birobidzhan in 1947.” Der Nister sought to “[overcome] the catastrophic disruptions of Jewish history by bringing the immemorial wandering of the Jews to an end and willfully initiating new national revival in the Soviet Far East” (18). It is through his transition to realism that Der Nister is able to assume this role of witness to the people and construct his supraliterary, transcendent literary persona.
In his analysis of The Family Mashber (Di mishpokhe Mashber, 1939), the most famous of Der Nister’s realist works, Krutikov stresses the author’s resolve that future generations preserve family memory. While there already exists substantial scholarship on The Family Mashber, Krutikov excels at building on such work with new insights and readings of the monumental novel. For instance, Krutikov further develops Leonard Wolf’s suggestion that Der Nister “created a realistic novel and compelled it to serve his symbolist imagination” by explaining how the chronology of the story creates a “structural scaffolding [that] organizes the narrative and adds certain symbolic gravity to the realistic story” (205). At this point, Krutikov works towards the conclusion of his multi-chapter argument that “History… becomes a realm in which symbolic imagination can find protection from the violent assaults of reality” (211). Indeed, Der Nister used the fictional nineteenth century city of N. as a vessel through which he could discuss complex matters of religious faith, wealth, and morality that would have never made it past Soviet censorship in any other form. 2 2 Krutikov notes Nikolai Gogol’s Dead Souls (1842) as a possible source of influence for Der Nister’s novel. Gogol set this prose “poema” in the anonymous town of NN. and established a precedent in Russian literature for using abbreviations to mark a text’s setting as provincial and removed from any specific geographic context. Der Nister employs a form of folksy storytelling narration, which dates back not just to Sholem Aleichem and Mendele Mokher Sforim, but also to Nikolai Gogol and his skaz narrative form. The unnamed narrator’s meticulous attention to detail and sardonic postulating provide a comprehensive overview of life in the city of N. and also direct the reader’s focus to the most important aspects of the narration. Through his narrator, Der Nister transcends his role of writer and becomes an intertemporal liaison between his readership and nineteenth century Imperial Russian Jewry.
In The Family Mashber, Der Nister demonizes material wealth to appease the Soviet censors, but also to establish Krutikov’s conception of the “structural scaffolding,” within which Der Nister could include potentially subversive imagery and themes. The first part of the novel revolves around Moshe Mashber’s financial collapse. Fiat money plays a massive role in the story’s development and becomes perhaps its most enigmatic and significant symbol. Moshe attributes money with an almost divine power, and this misplaced faith ultimately causes him immense suffering. Moshe’s obsession with money demonstrates the tenuous nature of wealth and illustrates fortune’s ability to corrupt. Der Nister distances Moshe’s sentiments from proper Soviet economic ideology by noting in his Preface that “the world depicted in this book – the economic base on which it rested, its social and ideological conflicts and interests – disappeared long ago.” 3 3 Der Nister, The Family Mashber, translated by Leonard Wolf (New York: New York Review of Books, 2008), 31. Despite this warning, Der Nister seems to urge his readers to consider their current system and the durability of its moral foundation. Der Nister’s desire for his readers to apply the lessons from his novel to their current lives is perhaps best articulated by Luzi Mashber, who states that “standards of measure were different at various times. That in particular epochs even the measure of good and evil was different.” 4 4 Ibid., 96 As Krutikov puts it, “the mythological cyclical time of Der Nister’s symbolist tales meets the unidirectional linear time of socialist realism… Der Nister suspends the single axis of historical necessity, replacing it with a vision of open-ended potentiality, most importantly, including the potentiality for redemption” (211). Krutikov builds upon this point by linking his argument to the work of prominent Yiddish literature scholars to explain how “The Family Mashber offers redemption to all characters. The past has disappeared, but, in [Harriet] Murav’s words, it ‘remains unfinished and undead; the futures it contains are virtual realities which may yet be realized’” (212). In this sense, The Family Mashber transcends its status as a historical novel and becomes relevant to all epochs and societies.
Given recent nationalist movements among minority groups across former Soviet republics, Krutikov’s book comes at a particularly significant moment. Before Yiddish writers and artists experienced the wrath of Stalin’s paranoia, Der Nister witnessed the show trials of the Ukrainian intelligentsia, which marked the beginning of the Stalinist anti-Ukrainian campaign that ultimately led to the mass famine of 1932-33. While Krutikov notes that the Yiddish intelligentsia were in a more secure position at the time, he explains that “the anxiety and fear that [Der Nister] experienced during the early 1930s left discernible traces in his writing of that time” (62). In this regard, Der Nister’s role as “Witness to the People” expands beyond his own Jewish compatriots. Krutikov wisely resists the urge to suggest that Der Nister foresaw his eventual death at the hands of Stalin, but he does convincingly demonstrate how the public kangaroo court trials and mass arrests of Ukrainian academics sparked an uneasiness as well as a propensity for subtle subversion in Der Nister’s realist writing. By bringing up the downfall of the Ukrainian intelligentsia, Krutikov creates a link between the fates of Ukrainian writers with those of Der Nister and other prominent Soviet-Yiddish writers. This link calls for further work in comparative studies of the literatures, cultures, and histories of Soviet minority nationalities. Terry Martin’s Affirmative Action Empire: Nations and Nationalism in the Soviet Union, 1923–1939 (2001) touches upon this theme from a politico-historical standpoint, but there are many possibilities to investigate the works and lives of Soviet-Yiddish writers in comparison with those of Ukrainian, Belarusian, and other Soviet-minority writers. A comparative analysis of Ukrainian and Yiddish Stalinist literature would be particularly compelling. The generation of Ukrainian writers that perished under Stalinist repression came to be known as the Executed Renaissance and was largely responsible for the modernization of Ukrainian national literature. This group of writers deserves further scholarship in its own right, but to compare them to Der Nister and the Soviet-Yiddish writers for the similarities in their literature, not just their tragic demise, could generate a theoretical framework for how minority groups maintain a national literature under an oppressive political system. 5 5 Extant scholarship in this field includes Amelia Glaser’s Jews and Ukrainians in Russia’s Literary Borderlands (2012), which provides a historical analysis of the coevolution of Jewish and Ukrainian literature through close readings of five writers from across both canons , and Mayhill Fowler’s examination of the rise and fall of the Soviet Yiddish-Ukrainian theater in Beau Monde on Empire’s Edge (2017).
In a broader sense, Krutikov’s characterization of Der Nister as a “witness to the people” frames the Yiddish writer alongside other contemporaries who had spoken out against Fascism and written to preserve the memory of those who perished at the hands of Stalin. However, Der Nister is rarely (if ever) considered in the same breath as Akhmatova, Osip Mandelstam, and other “people’s witnesses.” In a recent trend within Russian Cultural Studies, scholars have begun to speculate about mourning theory in the context of the Soviet terror. In Warped Mourning: Stories of the Undead in the Land of the Unburied (2013), Alexander Etkind creates a theoretical framework within which one may contextualize Russian memorial practices for victims of Stalin. While Der Nister and his Yiddish-speaking contemporaries would certainly fall within this category, theorizing suffering and literary memorialization of the Jews in twentieth century Eastern Europe is worthy of its own project. As this project would relate to Der Nister, Vasily Grossman is a writer of particular interest. A Jewish-Russian prose writer who wrote both reportage and fiction portraying Soviet-Jewish suffering during the Holocaust, Grossman produced work that runs parallel to Der Nister’s Korbones and other writings. Harriet Murav began this task in her 2008 article “Violating the Canon: Reading Der Nister with Vasilii Grossman,” but there remains an opportunity to include more artists and writers, such as Peretz Markish and Nadezhda Mandelstam in this potential study of Jewish memorialization under an oppressive Stalinist regime.
Krutikov’s book represents an important step in the field of Soviet-Yiddish Studies. While research in this discipline has grown markedly since the fall of the USSR, many writers remain unknown to scholars outside the field of Yiddish literature. Krutikov’s book makes Der Nister’s life and works more accessible to a wider readership of scholars in fields adjacent to Yiddish literature. Krutikov’s philological skillset and meticulous archival research shine throughout this book, a landmark study of both Der Nister and Yiddish literature under Stalin. With Der Nister’s Soviet Years, Krutikov provides Yiddishists with a refined and informative examination of Der Nister’s Soviet works, while also offering a starting point for any reader interested in learning more about Soviet-Yiddish literature.