"The Man from the Yellow Star" was first published in With Both Feet on the Clouds: Fantasy in Israeli Literature (2010; English-language edition 2013). It provides a fascinating reading of the work of Arkady and Boris Strugatsky in context with the history of Jews in Communist Russia, and we are grateful to Dr Gomel for permission to reprint it here.
- Like and Unlike
- Isaac Asimov Is Armenian
- Escape Attempt
- Pearls Before Swine
- Hard to Be…
- The Ugly Supermen
- The Beetles and the Ants
- Today in Israel
Israelis do not read science fiction and fantasy.
Like any generalization, this one has many exceptions: a small but dedicated community of fans; youngsters hooked on Harry Potter; and computer geeks with their Dungeons and Dragons and Spore games, to name some. But as a generalization, it is true: the average Israeli reader disdains fantasy and prefers solid, old-fashioned realism. Many an enthusiastic new publisher, hoping to bring the latest in cyberpunk and urban fantasy to the Hebrew-speaking public, has found this out the hard way.
If only the publisher had known that there's a huge market for all sorts of fantastic literature in Israel, a market that consumes books at stunning speed, always eager for more! But this knowledge would not have saved him from bankruptcy, because the market in question has no need of expensive Hebrew translations. It is buying science fiction and fantasy in its own shops and in its own language, Russian. Among the many divides between the Hebrew-speaking majority and the huge Russian-speaking minority, this one is seldom referred to by the media. But the fact that Israelis, or rather Sabras, dislike fantasy and Russians adore it is profoundly significant. It is a reflection of the different histories and different mindsets of the two communities, and unless we understand the roots and implications of this difference, communication between the Sabras and the Russians is likely to be as hard as a conversation between humans and space aliens.
Like and Unlike [contents]
"Anti-Semitism is the dislike of the unlike."
Every Russian Jew can identify with this statement on a profoundly visceral level. We have lost our religion, they feel, our distinct Jewish language (Yiddish), and much of our history. So what is left to make us Jewish? The fact that we are "unlike" others.
Of course, Russian Jews are not alone in facing this void of identity. Ivan Kalmar paints a portrait of the Jewish subject he calls "the eji"—the Embarrassed Jewish Individual. The ejis are those who have left behind Orthodox Judaism, lost touch with the traditional Jewish community, and yet continue to regard themselves—and be regarded by others—as Jews . Kalmar argues that the edginess, the discomfort, the "being out- of-place" paradoxically enables the "non-Jewish Jews" to come to prominence in arts and sciences. "The 'unaffiliated,' the 'assimilated,' the 'secular' have been, if not the majority, certainly the creative element, the motor of Jewish cultural life" . But "secular" is too mild a term to describe Russian Jewry.
I grew up in a family in which the word "Jew" was never mentioned. The extent of our observance of the Jewish tradition was eating matzo together with bread somewhere in April, roughly in time for Passover. I believed that matzo was a sort of seasonal cracker, and the idea that it had some spiritual significance was altogether beyond my ken. The first time I went to a Passover seder in Israel, I found the experience as exotic as snake-handling.
Christianity, on the other hand, was very familiar. Since it is impossible to understand classic English and Russian literature without knowledge of Christian doctrine, such knowledge was available in scholarly volumes and special editions. By the time I was twelve, I had a decent grasp of the notions of the Trinity, transubstantiation, and atonement. At this age I also read the entire Bible, including the New Testament, and thought the latter pretty neat, especially as compared to Leviticus. For a short while I fancied Catholicism, but then became permanently converted to atheism by Darwin. Many prominent Russian-Jewish intellectuals, however, such as the poet Osip Mandelstam and his wife Nadezhda, had succumbed to the honeyed lure of Christianity while continuing to regard themselves—and being regarded by others—as Jews.
My upbringing was not unique. Larissa Remennick lists all the aspects of a Jewish identity absent among the Russian Jews: "Knowledge of the Jewish history and holidays, keeping some household and cooking traditions, the imperative to marry other Jews, religious rites of passage and Jewish education for the children, knowledge of the Jewish languages, and identification with Israel" . So what is left?
In trying to describe the essence of the secular Jewish identity, many writers resort to negatives: this is not what it is. Kalmar argues that while "Jewishness is not a matter of nationality, it is . . . definitely not only a matter of religion" . He quotes Freud's discussion of his Jewish identity in the Hebrew edition of Totem and Taboo, in which the founder of psychoanalysis describes himself as one "who is completely estranged from the religion of his fathers—as well as any other religion—and [one] who cannot take a share in nationalistic ideals, but who has yet never repudiated his people, who feels that he is in his essential nature a Jew" . In her recent book Ambiguous Selves: New Jewish Identities, Canadian Melanie Fogell writes that her sense of being Jewish in the safe, multicultural Canada was of not "quite fit[ting] in," "of not belonging" . And Saul Friedlander poignantly describes the situation of a secular Jew in the Holocaust: "My father was hunted down for what he had refused to remain: a Jew. What he wanted to become, a man like others, had been taken away from him, leaving him no possible recourse. He was being refused the right to live and no longer even knew what to die for" .
The original goal of Zionism was to make the Jews into a nation like any other nation. And that has meant a gradual but inexorable uncoupling of the Jewish/Israeli identity from Judaism. In the 1950s, David Ben-Gurion said that anybody who was crazy enough to call him/herself a Jew was a Jew. And in June 2006, the Israeli government passed a new law regularizing the naturalization of the children of legal foreign workers who grew up in Israel. The requirements for citizenship include knowledge of Hebrew, identification with Israeli culture, and army service. They do not include conversion to Judaism. The entire country melted when the picture of a cute Senegalese girl wearing a Purim costume was published in the Yediot Achronot. The girl might have been Christian, Muslim, or animist, but by participating in a communal ritual, she has become one of us.
Israeliness, in other words, is the outcome of being "like": anybody who is "like us," who speaks our language (Hebrew), reads our newspapers, plays our games, eats our foods, and fights in our wars can become an authentic Israeli. But this sharply contrasts with the Jewish sense of being "unlike," of being special, separate, and different; of not belonging anywhere. George Steiner made this "nomadism" into a defining feature of the Jewish intellectual. In the eyes of such an intellectual, Israel can easily appear to be the antithesis of true Jewishness. American Jewish scholar Jerold S. Auerbach in his book Are We One? asks, "What is Jewish, after all, about the McDonald's, Pizza Huts, and Tower Records that now dot the Israeli landscape? Or the discos blasting pop music on Friday nights, even in Jerusalem?" . Many Russians in Israel would subscribe to this statement without being in the least inclined to keep Shabbat or give up pork. What they miss in Israel is not belonging but alienation.
Isaac Asimov Is Armenian [contents]
Isaac Asimov (1919-1992), one of the great twentieth-century masters of science fiction, was not only Jewish but Russian-Jewish. Born in a shtetl near the city of Smolensk, he grew up in America but remained fluent in Yiddish until the end of his life. Even though the Soviet editions of his novels omitted to mention this fact, his name should have been a dead giveaway. Nevertheless, among my school-mates, all of whom were sci-fi fans and many of whom were Jewish, it was an article of faith that Isaac Asimov was Armenian.
The reason why we were reluctant to acknowledge that Asimov, Robert Sheckley, and many other beloved American science fiction writers were Jewish was not because we wanted to be like everybody else. Rather, we wanted to be like everybody who is unlike everybody else. The Soviet Jews did not try to blend in with the Russian majority. Instead, they created an imaginary community of mavericks, rebels, outcasts, and heretics, where they could feel at home without confessing their Jewishness. An Armenian was strange and exotic, and therefore we could identify with him. We loved all aliens because we were aliens ourselves.
The full history of Soviet Jews' love affair with science fiction is waiting to be written. Here I am only going to use some of its highlights to elucidate the conundrum of being "unlike" in the country of the "like" and to trace the gradual Jewish disillusionment with the Soviet utopia, which culminated in one of the most fantastic events of modern times: the exodus of Jews from the planet USSR.
Escape Attempt [contents]
Asimov was fun, Armenian or not, but the true speakers of the Russian-Jewish intelligentsia for several generations were two Soviet science-fiction writers working as a team. The Jewish brothers Arkady Natanovich Strugatsky (1925-1991) and Boris Natanovich Strugatsky (1933-2012) were—and still are—more than just bestselling authors. They are the voice of a culture. There have been better writers of fantasy and science fiction, but none more influential. The sequence of the Strugatskys' novels is the bible of Russian Jewry, starting in the Eden of Communism, continuing with the terrible Fall of the Holocaust and Stalin's Terror, and culminating in the Exodus of the rejected and the disillusioned.
The brothers' first novels were bland utopias, very much in the spirit of the 1960s, when the post-Stalin "thaw" created the illusion that the Terror was just a mistake and that true Communism, ardently embraced by many Jews in the 1920s and 30s, was still a real possibility. But historical memory would not be silenced, and the Strugatskys registered its stirrings in their first mature work, Escape Attempt (Popytka begstva, 1962), in which the nightmare of history catches up with a utopian day-dream.
In the Communist future of the novel, two friends, Vadim and Anton, are approached by a man who calls himself Saul and asks them to find an uninhabited planet for him. They comply, but the planet turns out to be inhabited with a vengeance. It is a vividly portrayed concentration camp hell, in which naked political prisoners are being tortured by the emissaries of a supreme ruler who is absurdly titled "The Great and Mighty Cliff; the Shining Battle with One Foot in the Sky" . It is hard not to think of another ruler who was addressed by his sycophants as "Father of Nations" and "Slayer of the Fascist Hydra." It is equally hard not to think of the freezing inferno of the Kolyma Gulags when reading a description like this: "Vadim saw dozens of distorted bodies pressed closely against each other; a tangle of naked skeletal legs with giant protruding feet; skull-like faces crisscrossed by sharp shadows; black gaping mouths. The people slept on the bare earth and on each other. They seemed to be packed in rows and piles like wood, and they were shivering in their sleep" (62).
Vadim and Anton attempt to help everybody, with the predictable result of provoking the incomprehension and hostility of guards and the inmates alike. Saul is savvier, telling them: "You are trying to change the natural course of history! Do you know what history is? It is humanity itself. You cannot break history's backbone without breaking the backbone of humanity!" (84). Saul should know. The ending of the novel reveals him to be a Russian POW in a Nazi camp who inexplicably managed to escape into the future. Shaken by his experiences on the hellish planet, he goes back into his own time and dies a hero's death.
Escape Attempt ends with an image of the "oily smoke" rising from the stacks of a Nazi camp, conflating the Holocaust and Stalin's Terror in a trans-historical allegory of freedom and compassion versus slavery and cruelty. But in doing so, it denies the Jewish dimension of the Holocaust. And the character of Saul confirms this denial. "Saul" sounds unmistakably Jewish in the Russian text; his physical description—"a thin, very dark face with protruding brown ears"—is a stereotypical Jewish physiognomy (13). But from the epilogue we find out that his real name is Savel Petrovich Repnin, an impeccably Russian cognomen. A seeming Jew is a Russian hero; Auschwitz is the same as the Gulag.
Denying the Jewish uniqueness of the Holocaust is not denying the Holocaust. It took moral courage to deal with the sensitive issue of concentration camps in 1962. But the Strugatskys' allegory dissolves the victimization of the Jews in the larger victimization of the intelligentsia, "people who want strange things," as the novel puts it. It was fashionable in the thaw years to interpret the Terror as a war of the rabble against the intelligentsia, overlooking the starved Ukrainian peasants on the one hand and the well-fed intellectuals of Stalin on the other. This way the Strugatskys' Jewish readers, urban intellectuals, white-collar professionals, and successful techies, could confront the history of their victimization without confronting it as Jewish history. We have been persecuted because we are unlike the rest of you. There is no need to ask the uncomfortable question, what are the unlike like?
Pearls Before Swine [contents]
As the '60s progressed, Khrushchev's thaw was caught by a new frost. Instead of rejuvenating itself, the country was sliding into senility. For more than three decades, Soviet culture had fed on the bloody exaltation of the march into the Promised Land that had demanded innumerable sacrifices but promised the Communist millennium. And suddenly, after Stalin's death, the promise sounded hollow, the glow of the future dimmed, and people were left in the lurch, struggling against the disintegrating economy and pervasive boredom. The utopian intoxication was over, often supplanted by its alcoholic twin.
And at the same time, the so-called anti-Zionist campaign was getting underway, to persist throughout the remaining years of Soviet Russia as a spiteful, demeaning, backbiting form of anti-Semitism, without the tragic enormity of the Holocaust or even the demented grandeur of the Doctors' Plot. In 1963, the Ukrainian Academy of Sciences published a volume called Judaism Without Embellishments  graced by a Der Sturmer-like caricature of a Jew wearing a prayer shawl on the cover. Many such volumes floated in the murky soup of official propaganda, seemingly irrelevant since few took them seriously, and yet at the same time as inescapable as a bad odor. Jews were not slaughtered or expelled, but they were on a daily basis humiliated, and made the butt of obscene jokes, whispered comments, and routine discrimination. There was no officially declared policy of Jewish quotas for higher education, as there had been in Tsarist Russia, but everybody knew that these quotas existed. Bright Jewish boys and girls who grew up in Kiev or Moscow, both capital cities, and wanted to study nuclear physics or Russian literature, went to second-rate colleges in provincial towns and prayed for a miracle that would allow them to transfer back. Certain departments, notably in the humanities, were practically closed to Jews because of the widely-held belief that their "inauthentic" rationality would poison the pure springs of Russian or Ukrainian culture. The Jews had been the exalted heroes of the Revolution and the tragic victims of Nazism. Now they became dupes of the "fifth rubric" ("piataia grapha").
The Jews were considered an ethnicity, not a religion (there are two separate words in Russian to designate an ethnic Jew and a person who subscribes to Judaism as a religion). Every Soviet citizen had an internal passport, and every passport, along with the rubrics of sex, birthplace and so on, had the fifth one, the rubric of ethnicity. And so every "pure" Jew found him- or herself saddled with a verbal equivalent of the yellow star.
Fortunately, there was a loophole: a person of mixed ethnicity could choose to be registered in the ethnicity of either of his parents. The intermarriage rates of Russian Jews skyrocketed shortly after the Revolution and have remained very high until today. Consequently, there were many Jewish children who at the age of sixteen, when the time came to go to the nearest police precinct and receive their passports, could choose to be Russians, Ukrainian, Georgian, or of some other ethnicity. There was no end of jokes directed at these crypto-Jews:
"The teacher addresses her class: you, Feinstein, Rubinstein, and Ivanov on maternal side! Tomorrow you don't come to school; we are hosting an Arab delegation!"
It would be easy to compare the victims of the fifth rubric with the Spanish Marranos, the Jews forcefully converted by the Spanish Inquisition who continued to practice their religion in secret. But the Marranos knew what they were suffering for: their God. What positive identity could Soviet Jews salvage from the malicious baiting by the system? "Jew" did not designate religion, or even race as it did in Nazi Germany. The word was a meaningless obscenity, an invitation to petty malice. A persecuted people can thrive if they know the reason for their persecution, but absurdity wears them down as surely as it wore down Josef K., the protagonist of Franz Kafka's Trial, whose last, most burning regret is not that he is being murdered but that he is being murdered senselessly and humiliatingly, "like a dog."
A dog's lot is hard; how much harder it is to be treated like a dog if you used to be a god! The Revolution's Jews, Stalin's Jews, felt themselves to be immeasurably superior to the dull, sluggish Russian masses, which they tried to set aflame with their messianic rhetoric. There were hardhitting, ruthless, arrogant Jewish commissars whose ascetic cruelty was redeemed, in their own eyes, by their total dedication to the cause. They took pity on no one, least of all themselves. Like the Jewish protagonist of the poem "February" (1933-1934) by Jewish poet Eduard Bagritsky, who rapes a Gentile prostitute, the object of his former puppy love, they were in revolt against the fearful gray world of the shtetl and the imbecility of the Russian masses.
And now Soviet Jews were dragged back into that gray world, forced to swallow the insults and drunken mockery hurled at them by the children of the peasants they had tried to "raise" into Communism. Can there be greater humiliation? The Strugatsky brothers gave their embittered readers a flattering mirror, in which they could still discern their own trampled-down divinity.
Hard to Be . . . [contents]
Hard to Be a God (1964) has been published in English, like most of the Strugatskys' novels, and like most of them, it has failed utterly at crossing the barrier of cultural translation. Within the context of the Anglo-American literary tradition, the novel is an average sword-and-sorcery fantasy, marred by plot incongruities and boring philosophical digressions. However, within the context of the history of the Russian-Jewish intelligentsia, it is a gospel.
The novel describes the trials and tribulations of an agent of the future communist society sent to help the inhabitants of a planet mired in a strange combination of medieval savagery and fascism. If Escape Attempt dealt with the residue of the Holocaust and the Terror, Hard to Be a God addresses their causes. According to the book, the mass violence of the twentieth century is the revenge of the rabble upon the idealistic (Jewish) light-bringers.
Don Rumata (Anton) is a "Progressionist" whose task it is to speed up the historical development of the planet, just as it was the self-appointed task of the Jewish agents of the Revolution to speed up the historical development of Russia. Unlike many of the agents, he is a humane and sensitive man. He is striving to protect the "book-readers," the local intellectuals who are persecuted by the philistines, without using deadly force. Nevertheless, the end of the novel depicts Rumata taking up arms against the black Order that has seized power in the pseudo-medieval kingdom of Arkanar.
The color symbolism in the novel is highly significant, conveying its coded political message, which is the connection between the "gray terror" of everyday life and the "black terror" of political repression. The gray terror is "meschanstvo," an untranslatable Russian word that describes a combination of materialism, self-interest, ignorance, and bad taste. "Meschanstvo" is the stifling world of the self-satisfied rabble, which the Jews of the Revolution had tried so assiduously to eradicate by unleashing the Red Terror. But now, in the dusk of utopian disillusionment, the Terror is re-evaluated. Instead of the intelligentsia's attack upon "meschanstvo," it is represented as an attack of "meschanstvo" upon the intelligentsia.
"When the gray is triumphant, the black comes to power," says Rumata, summing up his theory of totalitarianism, which conflates Nazism and Stalinism in the common narrative of the revolt of "meschantsvo" against the intelligentsia. When his fellow double agent protests this conflation, pointing out that each historical event is special and unique, Rumata cuts him short: "There is no theory here, but simply the fascist practice; here beasts kill human beings every day." Who the beasts are is clear: fat, dull plebes, happy to serve any tyrant who promises bread and circuses. And human beings? They are like a book-reader saved by Rumata, "a real intellectual, true humanist, indifferent to possession; his only property is a bag full of books." Once upon a time this was the image of a yeshiva student, "talmid hacham," mocked by communism and secular Zionism alike and opposed to the "new man, facing a radiant destiny," whether this new man was a commissar or a Sabra . But now, shorn of his ritual side-locks, the "talmid hacham" is resurrected as the prey of the gray and black beasts of repression, a misunderstood messiah of culture and learning. Rumata sentimentally identifies with the meek, stooping book-readers, calling them "flesh of my flesh." Not so long ago, it was Jewish Rumatas who regarded a dusty shtetl yeshiva as "a leper colony" . But now, having tasted the dim-witted ingratitude of the Russian masses, Jewish intellectuals are beginning to rediscover the lost Jewish world. Not, however, in the mass graves of the former Pale of Settlement where "the black" had taken care of the remnant of Yiddishkeit, but in other galaxies—and increasingly upon other shores.
I do not remember when the notion of emigration was first broached at home. I do remember that it appeared to me extremely frightening.
It was not because I identified with Russian culture or language—I did not. Nor was I so attached to my friends that I could not imagine leaving them behind. But there was something final about the idea of moving outside the boundaries of the USSR. I felt like an astronaut about to be launched into another galaxy.
Stalin's idea of building socialism in a single country, vocally opposed by the internationalist Trotsky, had triumphed in unpredictable ways: the USSR had cut itself off from the rest of the world. We were, of course, fed the daily diet of propaganda pabulum about the iniquities of American capitalism and Zionism, but somehow these angry articles and news clips did not seem to relate to actual places or actual people.
In a classic of Soviet humor, The Golden Calf by Ilya Ilf and Evgenii Petrov, a confidence man who dreams of living a good life in Rio de Janeiro says wistfully, "There is nothing beyond the border. The world ends here." Even the countries of the Eastern bloc were almost beyond reach; as for Western Europe or the US, they were practically an afterlife. Scientists, athletes, and actors who were grudgingly allowed to leave the country defected in increasing numbers, despite the omnipresent KGB agents that accompanied every delegation abroad. Defectors became "socially dead," unspoken of, obliterated by what Istvan Rev calls extinguishing of the name . Alexander Kaletskii's dissident novel Metro, set in the 1970s, depicts a delegation of Soviet actors traveling to Canada and the US. Most of its members are plotting a defection, yet finding themselves in Montreal and New York cannot quite believe that these cities are real. Rather like the protagonist of The Matrix, they feel part of a clever simulation.
But just as the cinematic Matrix succumbed to the determination of Neo, the Soviet virtual reality was shattered by the determination of the Jews. Their love for science fiction apparently served them well. Of all the inhabitants of the planet USSR, the Jews were the only ones who managed to build a spaceship and take off.
On May 15, 1970, a group of sixteen people, all but two of them Jewish, tried to hijack an aircraft and fly to Sweden. The leaders of the group were Eduard Kuznetsov and Mark Dymshitz. The attempt failed; the sixteen were arrested and sentenced to long imprisonment (Kuznetsov and Dymshitz, in fact, were initially sentenced to death for treason but won an appeal). Most of them were released early, due to international pressure. Only the two non-Jews, Yuri Fedorov and Aleksei Murzhenko, served their full terms.
The failed hijacking, known in Russian as "the Leningrad affair," was not really about Zionism. It was about the breaking down of the mental Berlin Wall that separated the Soviet Union from the rest of the world. It was about reconnection. The paths of the two Jewish utopias, Communism and Zionism, were about to cross again. Between 1960 and 1970, only about 4,000 Jews emigrated from the USSR, most of them to Israel. In the following decade, this number rose to 250,000. The great exodus had begun.
The Ugly Supermen [contents]
The Strugatsky's novel The Ugly Swans (Gadkie lebedi, written in 1967; published in 1972; revised by Boris Strugatsky in 1993) is a literary symbol of this exodus. It is a novel about escape, and it is also a novel that escaped. Too provocative to see light in the USSR, it was published abroad, despite the considerable risk to the writers such a step entailed.
The novel takes place in an unnamed totalitarian country whose deified president once led a successful war against the Nazis but has now become a brutal dictator. The protagonist, a war-hero-turned-writer, contemplates with revulsion "portraits in all newspapers, in all textbooks, plastered on every wall—the face that once seemed admirable and full of significance and now became flaccid and dumb, like a pig's snout with a giant, fanged, drooling maw." It is easy to supply the missing name, Stalin. The names that are present in the text, however, are more of a puzzle.
The protagonist is called Viktor Banev, a good Russian name. Other characters' cognomens, however, are foreign-sounding, with a clear Jewish tilt. Prominent among them is Dr. Golem, who presides over a leprosarium where the victims of the "spectacles" disease are kept. The lepers are feared and despised by the rabble, but it turns out that they are spiritual and intellectual supermen (the name of their condition is a pun on the Russian equivalent of "egghead").
Surrounded by the drunkenness, filth, and stupidity of a provincial town, the lepers (also called "wetties" because of their ability to cause cleansing rains), reach out to the town's children. Led by the ugly supermen, the children leave their parents' suffocating world behind. In the last pages of the novel, the stinking town melts away: brothels, barracks, and banks become "porous, transparent, turn into drifts of dirt, and disappear."
The opposition of the rabble and the intelligentsia is here brought to the point of a civil war. There are no redeeming features in ordinary lives, which are soaked in cruelty, boredom, drunkenness, and lust. When the disembodied Voice addresses the distraught townspeople, it explains that the superhuman children are contemptuous of their all too human parents: "They do not want to grow up alcoholics and rakes, small-minded people, slaves, conformists; they do not want to be made into criminals; they do not want your families and your state." Where Rumata tried to "elevate" and "enlighten" the masses, the new supermen just want to be left alone, to pursue their own dream, to build their own utopia. Let my people go!
But who are "my people"? The name of Dr. Golem seems a giveaway, and there are other scattered hints that invite the reader to interpret the allegory as pertaining to the Jews. Banev remembers the traditional stereotypes of the "wetties" as cringing and obsequious creatures who are nevertheless hated and feared because of their mysterious powers. He is pressured into writing an article about the leprosarium, in which the lepers and their doctors would be denounced as "vampires and child abusers under the mask of healers," a rhetoric familiar to the Soviet readers from the time of the Doctors' Plot.
But in fact the supermen both are and are not the Jews. Like Rumata and his "book-readers," they are an idealized self- image of the intelligentsia: people who literally starve without books; who "live in the future . . . who are smart; stunningly smart . . . and talented. . . . They have strange desires; and they completely lack ordinary wants". This is the traditional Russian image of the intellectual, going back to the nineteenth-century novels of Turgenev and Dostoyevsky.
"We are all Jews now." This has been said in various contexts: by defiant defenders of the West, perceived by radical Islam as an American-Zionist entity; by nouveaux riches of Reagan's and Thatcher's era identifying with the supposed Jewish money; by non-Jewish victims of Nazi persecutions. But this phrase had a particular meaning at the beginning of the great exodus from Russia: we are not all Jews, but we would like to be. Suddenly, the Jews were metamorphosing from helpless victims into the Chosen People once again. No matter with what hardships, but they, alone of all the Soviet nations, were allowed to leave planet USSR. Ludmilla Alekseeva, Russian human-rights activist, dryly notes that the "Let My People Go" movement, supported by the starry-eyed American Jews who imagined thousands of fiddlers on the roof exiting through the Iron Curtain, might just as well have been called the "Let My People Go Anywhere but the USSR" movement . Had they been allowed to look for an "historical motherland" elsewhere, millions of Chechens, Georgians, Ukrainians, and Russians would gladly have followed the Jews out of Russia. Indeed, the high percentage of ethnic Russians in the aliyah was due not only to intermarriage but to fake marriages and outright falsification of documents. Even in the late '60s and '70s there was a brisk trade in Jewish wives and husbands, despite the dangers of KGB harassment. The relationship between the Russian and Jewish components of the intelligentsia, always complex and problematic, was strained almost to a breaking point by the mixture of identification, envy, and resentment provoked by the exodus. And the Strugatskys, the spokesmen of the intelligentsia, faithfully reflected this strain.
The Ugly Swans performs the same sleight of hand with regard to the exodus as Escape Attempt did with regard to the Holocaust: Jewish history is subsumed in the history of the "unlike." The lepers are the intelligentsia who, disillusioned with the world they have helped to build, are setting their eyes on a new utopia. But the protagonist does not join them. Banev is watching from the sidelines, by turns hopeful and skeptical, frightened and enthralled. In one scene, he believes he is turning into a leper and panics, only to be reassured that he is merely suffering from a food allergy. With his defiantly Russian name in the company of the Golems and the Zurzmansors, Banev is left behind, while the ugly supermen lead an exodus out of the failed millennium, now finally and irrevocably turned gray.
In 1972 the Soviet government adopted a so-called "diploma tax," to penalize those would-be Jewish emigrants who had received higher education "at the expense of the state." The tax was soon revoked, but a whole array of arbitrary measures snipped away at the Jewish pride of being the most educated ethnic minority in the Soviet Union.
The Strugatskys' conflation of Jewishness and intellectualism was a commonplace, taken for granted by Jews and anti-Semites alike. "Perhaps the pinnacle of the perceived Russian-Jewish identity was (and still is) the ambition for excellence and achievement, in any given sphere of activity, with the corollary high valuation of education, hard effort, and intellectualism" . Over half of all Russian Jews received post-secondary education, while in some places this percentage reached 75%; in the capital cities, 90% of employed Jews were working in white-collar occupations . And now the government was making this cherished accomplishment into an Achilles heel of the exodus: any Jewish scientist, engineer, technician, or doctor could be arbitrarily slapped with the verdict of having had access to "state secrets" and denied an exit visa to Israel. "Refuseniks," as they soon became known, were suspended in a limbo, herded through a maze of incomprehensible bureaucratic obstacles with no exit in sight. "Refusal" ("otkaz" in Russian) was not for a set period of time: it was a punishment of infinite duration that could be revoked at any moment or could go on forever.
Even before seriously considering taking part in the exodus myself, I became acquainted with several Kiev refuseniks. They all had something in common: a restless, hungry, searching look, as if looking for something precious they had lost without quite remembering what it was. They were ex-engineers whose nights were spent guarding some decrepit building site and whose days were busy with petitions, demonstrations, private seminars, and Hebrew lessons. They took their dissident activities as seriously as they had taken their physics and math.
The foundation for their legal and paralegal actions, which included endless petitions to various Party organizations, open letters, and peaceful demonstrations, were the recently signed Helsinki Accords (1975), in which the Soviet Union agreed to respect "human rights" in exchange for the West respecting "territorial boundaries." No doubt the Soviet leaders felt they had gained Western concessions in Eastern Europe for the price of empty words. There had been, after all, eloquent promises of democracy in Stalin's Constitution. But times were a-changing; Big Brother was dead; and the efficacy of the Soviet Newspeak had been whittled to nothing through overuse. The intelligentsia rediscovered the power of literal meaning. In 1976 the Moscow Helsinki Group, a still-extant human rights watchdog, was founded, and it insisted that the Soviet government should mean what it says and say what it means. If the Helsinki Accords promised family reunification, then the government must explain why "Ivanov on maternal side" was not allowed to reunify with his beloved Aunt Perla in Tel-Aviv. The government blinked its piggish eyes and slowly simmered in indignation at those pesky bespectacled kikes who dared to turn the regime's bureaucratic Juggernaut against itself.
Jews plunged with enthusiasm into trying to force the Soviet language to make sense. While the first refuseniks had relied on hunger strikes, the post-Helsinki generation invested its formidable energy, talent, and education into legal baiting of the regime. An unequal tug of- war soon developed: the powers that be tried to strip the Jews of their intellectualism; the Jews retaliated by demonstrating the sheer stupidity of their masters.
I kept my distance from my mother's refuseniks friends; their obsessive involvement with the Soviet bureaucracy struck me as dangerous. Having been a Young Pioneer, I knew that expecting rationality from the system was futile. The regime was insane, driven mad by the utopian hangover and senility, and this insanity was contagious. Whoever speaks the language of Hell, George Steiner once said, cannot expect to unlearn it and speak the language of Paradise. The Soviet discourse was the language of an inane Limbo, and whoever spoke it ran the risk of being infected by its petty viciousness.
And then there were the real, physical dangers. Refuseniks were constantly harassed by the KGB: sometimes interrogated for hours; sometimes roughed up; and sometimes put on trial and sent to the Gulag. In 1973 in Kiev, Alexander Feldman was tried on a trumped-up charge of "hooliganism," and each of several following years there was a similar trial of a Jewish activist: one in Vinita, one in Odessa, then one in Leningrad, another in Moscow. . . . In 1977, Ida Nudel, a frail but indomitable woman who much later showed the same spirit in the political fracases of Israel, was sent to Siberia. Also in 1977, Anatoli (Natan) Shcharansky was arrested and sentenced to 13 years in jail. He would eventually become the "poster boy" for the refusenik movement.
But no matter how wary and undecided I was, I was beginning to feel suffocated by the familiar streets, familiar sights, and familiar slogans all around me. Without any Jewish epiphany, I was being inexorably brought to the point of realizing I did not belong in the country of my birth. The final straw was my participation in the Babi Yar demonstration. Babi Yar was the site of the Nazi massacre of the Jews of Kiev, when more than 30,000 people were murdered over the course of three days. A handful of Jewish activists would show up on each anniversary of the massacre, perhaps bringing a wreath with a Hebrew inscription or reading a prayer. I attended on this occasion with great trepidation, standing aside, keeping my head down. There were insolent KGB agents walking around our tiny group, snapping pictures. Eventually, several people were arrested.
It was a beautiful fall day, the honeyed sunlight glinting on the memorial, which showed a woman in a Ukrainian ethnic dress histrionically throwing her arms around a couple of drooping kids. The inscription said something about "Soviet citizens killed by the Nazi invaders." There was no mention that these "citizens" were Jews. And then I knew I had to get out before I too started speaking the language of lies and evasions, the language of the Limbo. I had discovered, finally, that I was "unlike," and could no longer fit in.
The Beetles and the Ants [contents]
The Strugatskys' Beetle in the Anthill (Zhuk v muraveinike, 1980) takes up the theme of the Wanderers, a non-humanoid super-civilization that had been sporadically referred to in their previous works (including Escape Attempt, in which the Wanderers had created the mysterious machinery misused by the camp guards to torture and kill the inmates). Such super-civilizations are common in science fiction; the Wanderers provided the welcome allure of the alien in a fictional universe that sometimes seemed altogether too human and familiar. Nothing was known about them except for the fact that they had no home planet and avoided any contact with other civilizations.
But in Beetle in the Anthill the Wanderers are suddenly brought into the thick of human affairs. The novel's protagonist, Lev Abalkin, discovers that he is one of thirteen "changelings," children grown from the fertilized human ova left by the Wanderers on a distant planet thousands of years ago. Desperate to solve the mystery of his origin, he breaks into a museum where the alien incubators are stored. There he is killed by a Secret Service Agent, fearful of the "unknown dangerous program" that Abalkin may be carrying, unbeknownst to himself, in the depth of his unconscious.
The setting of the novel is the Communist society of Escape Attempt and Hard to Be a God, but now it has turned chaotic and ominous. The shot at the end of the novel brings down the curtain upon the already tattered utopian dream, breaking the violence taboo of Soviet science fiction. But even more disturbing than the overt paranoia of the killing is the covert and senseless paranoia that envelopes Abalkin's quest for his origin, expressed in stupidity, lies, evasions, and sheer bureaucratic muddle. Thwarted at every step, Abalkin is determined to salvage some logic from this miasma of absurdities. He wants to "find out, once and for all, why he is prevented from doing the work he loves; who—personally—has been interfering with his life; who he could hold responsible for the debacle of his cherished plans for the future; for his bitter incomprehension of the events of his life; for the fifteen years wasted in slogging at a hard and unwanted job".
Any refusenik could identify with this list of demands; any refusenik knew the frustration of butting his head against the wall of institutional paranoia. And there are scattered details facilitating this identification: there are thirteen changelings, as there are thirteen tribes of Israel; Abalkin is marked with a mysterious birthmark in the shape of the Russian letter "Zh," which is the first letter of the word "Zhid," "kike." . . . But like the Soviet Limbo itself, the novel promises an explanation and then snatches it away at the last moment. The mystery of the Wanderers is never solved; neither Abalkin himself nor the reader finds out what the Wanderers intended, whether the genetic "program" even existed, or whether the "changelings" were hidden supermen, evil "pod people," or mere confused victims.
At the beginning of the last century, Otto Weininger, a Jew and an anti-Semite, wrote in his infamous book Sex and Character, "The Jew is nothing." The Jew is a shape-shifter, with no definite national character, no backbone, adapting to every situation, taking on the coloration of every culture he penetrates, and yet at the same time retaining his own malevolent essence. Capable of mimicking the common (Russian) humanity, the Jew, as Dostoyevsky wrote, still retains some "far deeper mysteries of their law and their makeup." The Jews of anti-Semitism, Sander Gilman points out, are a chameleonic race, alien body snatchers who are just like everybody else, and yet, deep inside, different.
From the light-bringers of utopia, to the gods of Culture, to the departing supermen, Russian Jews had been admiring their own reflection in the magic mirror of the Strugatskys' fiction. And this is what it all came down to: the perpetual enigma of unearned victimization; the insoluble mystery of the alienated self; the identity that is the absence of identity. They do not want us because we are different, but what does this difference mean? We do not know and they do not care. Lev Abalkin is simply another incarnation of Josef K.: dying like a dog, victim of a universal conspiracy that may not even exist.
In 1984, the Strugatskys ended the Wanderers saga with the novel Waves Still the Wind (Volny gasyat veter; translated as Time Wanderers). The solution is predictable: the Wanderers are not non-humanoid aliens at all but a race of supermen who originated within humanity and eventually transcended and abandoned it. The protagonist, Toivo Glumov, hates and fears the hidden super-humans, calling them "traitors . . . parasites. Like those wasps that lay eggs in living caterpillars." And of course, he eventually finds out that he is one of them. His is a dilemma that would be familiar to Daniel Deronda, the protagonist of George Eliot's 1876 eponymous novel: an English aristocrat who discovers his Jewish origin. Deronda's proto-Zionist solution is to move to Palestine and try to establish a Jewish state there. Glumov's solution is to disappear into interstellar space. However, by the time the novel was published, in 1986, I was no longer interested in the Man from the Yellow Star, except in an academic sense. I was in Israel. I had no time for Jewish metaphysics; I had taxes to pay.
Today in Israel [contents]
"Israelis and science fiction?" a Russian friend of mine tells me. "They just don't get it."
The mystique of the "unlike" is lost on Sabras. I came to Israel because I believed that this was the only country in the world where I did not have to feel Jewish, where I did not have to spend my life wrestling with the enigma of my identity. In Israel, "you're not different. You can be 'just like everybody else' even out in the street. That, more than anything else, was the goal of those who, in the smoky cafes of Vienna or Odessa, first dreamed up the Return to the ancestral home" (Kalmar 212). And so Sabras read Asimov with as little interest in his ethnicity as if he indeed were Armenian. They watch Star Wars and do not see a hidden meaning in Luke Skywalker's mysterious and complicated identity. They do not read the Strugatskys. Science fiction and fantasy seem irrelevant to those who have left the alienation of the Diaspora behind.
But this "rootedness" is yet another delusion, a phantom of another Jewish utopia. Within Israel, we may be "not different," but Israel itself is not "just like everybody else." It is a Jewish state, heir to the mysterious convolutions of Jewish history and Jewish identity. Russian Jews have learned their lesson: no matter how you try to fit in, while you may end up as a god or a dog you will never be one of the crowd. A Wanderer always remains a Wanderer, even when he tries to settle down. It is now up to Sabras to face the profound fantasy of our existence.
- Ivan Kalmar, The Trotskys, Freuds and Woody Allens: Portraits of a Culture (London: Penguin Books, 1994), 13. [return]
- Ibid, 23.[return]
- Larissa Remennick, Russian Jews on Three Continents: Identity, Integration and Conflict (New Brunswick: Transaction Publishers, 2007), 2-7; 24. [return]
- Kalmar, The Trotskys, Freuds and Woody Allens, 75. [return]
- Ibid, 91. [return]
- Melanie Fogell, Ambiguous Selves: New Jewish Identities (Calgary, Alberta: Detselig Enterprises Ltd, 2006), 10. [return]
- Saul Friedlander, When Memory Comes, trans. Helen R. Lane (New York: Farrar, Strauss, Giroux, 1979), 56. [return]
- Jerold S. Auerbach, Are We One? Jewish Identity in the United States and Israel (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 2001), 12. [return]
- Arkady and Boris Strugatskie. Popytka begstva. Trudno byt' bogom, Khishchnye veshchi veka. Sobranie sochinenii, Vol. 3 (Moscow: Text, 1992), 81. [return]
- Kichko T. K., Iudaizm bez prikras (Kiev: Izdatel'stvo AN USSR), 1963. [return]
- Friedlander, When Memory Comes, 59. [return]
- J. Hoberman, The Red Atlantis: Communist Culture in the Absence of Communism (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1998), 71. [return]
- Istvan Rev, Retroactive Justice: Prehistory of Post-Communism (Palo Alto: Stanford University Press, 2005), 64. [return]
- Alekseeva L.M. Istoriia inakomysliia v SSSR. Noveishii period. Vilnius, Moscow: Vest', 1992. Quoted from http://memo.ru/history/diss/books/alexeewa/. [return]
- Remennick, Russian Jews on Three Continents, 25. [return]
- Ibid, 17. [return]
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