The author, a physicist and poet, was sentenced in 1983 to seven years at hard labor in a Soviet prison.
On my passport the nationality column says Russian. Does that mean my homeland is Russia? Maybe, but I’d already become an adult by the time I got to geographical Russia, and even then I saw only a bit of the geography: Moscow, Leningrad, and that was all. Was I moved by the birches they sing about all the time? I have to confess, no. Those ever-rustling birches don’t grow in Odessa where I was born. The map calls it the Ukraine and my heritage would seem to be Ukrainian culture, speech, customs.
If you’ve ever been to Odessa, however, you wouldn’t be fooled: it’s not the Ukraine. I, for instance, knew all about Ukrainian speech, books, and turns of phrase, but in my twenty-four years of living in Odessa I never once had to use Ukrainian—there was no one to talk it with. Traditional Odessan speech, though related to Russian originally, gradually became infused with so many local sources, colors, and idioms that it had a unique and bawdy personality all its own. This robust creature was wholly outlawed, however. As the secretary of the Odessan City Komsomol said, only the “great tradition of revolutionary working-class struggle” could be recognized in the local language. And the spunky humor festival long held in Odessa was banished to outlying Kalinin where, neatly cut off from its sources, it neatly died. Let us remember that we are a generation that has been blessed by the blossoming of Soviet power: we have been educated in Soviet fashions by the most highly educated specialists; so we have swallowed the biggest pill of all: that our Homeland (with a capital letter) is the entire Soviet Union. From one blessed border to the other, the vast Siberian taiga and the little Baltic states are all one home, all ours. Who cares if we tore off a small chunk of Finland, or Poland, or Japan—it’s still the same dear place, one we love to distraction and would gladly lay down our lives for. The only thing is that we know no normal person can have such a sense of homeland.
What else is there? Poland? That is where my great-grandfather got himself killed for taking part in a patriotic revolution. My ancestors had large estates there, which they lost just about the time they got smart enough to survive as new creatures in Odessa. I learned a little of the old Polish world through books, and a little about Polish literature through cracks here and there in the screen of Soviet censorship. I got some glimmerings of the Polish character, too, from tirades in the work of Maxim Gorky in which a crude world, safely separated from polite society, was described, not as Gorky saw it, but through the eyes of a simple, politically illiterate gypsy woman.
But I shouldn’t forget that it was the Soviet authorities…
This article is available to online subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:
Purchase a print premium subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all all content on nybooks.com.
Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.
Purchase a trial Online Edition subscription and receive unlimited access for one week to all the content on nybooks.com.