The Triumph of an Underground Man

Mikhail Tsypkin
Leonid Tsypkin at his lab at the Institute of Poliomyelitis near Moscow, early 1970s

Leonid Tsypkin was the authentic underground man of the Soviet “era of stagnation,” leading a hidden life as a writer during Leonid Brezhnev’s years as Party leader. He died of a heart attack in Moscow in 1982 at the age of fifty-six, professionally humiliated and socially isolated, a brokenhearted Jewish refusenik, denied permission to join his only son, who had emigrated. Not a word of his small body of literary work was printed anywhere until just a few days before his death, when a fragment of his novel Summer in Baden-Baden appeared in a small-circulation New York émigré journal, Novaya Gazeta. The news of his publication in America was a last comfort, his son Mikhail Tsypkin says.1

His novella The Bridge Over the Neroch was written in the 1970s. “I fire up my imagination with images of revenge—each more refined than the last,” the narrator writes, as he remembers how he was slapped in the face by another boy as a teenager and called a “dirty Jew.” Tsypkin’s writing is full of the revenge fantasies of an outsider for a lifetime’s humiliations and slights. How satisfying, then, that when Summer in Baden-Baden finally appeared as a separate edition in Russia in 2003,2 it was introduced with a translation of Susan Sontag’s essay “Loving Dostoevsky,” in which she described Tsypkin’s work as one of the most “beautiful, exalting, and original achievements of a century’s worth of fiction.”

Sontag had chanced upon an obscure English translation of Summer in Baden-Baden in a bin of used books on London’s Charing Cross Road; her high opinion led directly to its republication in New York and translation into several languages.3 Fittingly, The Bridge Over the Neroch and Other Works, Jamey Gambrell’s excellent translations of Tsypkin’s autobiographical earlier prose writings,4 involves a converse form of reciprocity between Russia and the West; its publication by New Directions was supported by a grant from the cultural foundation of the Russian billionaire Mikhail Prokhorov.

The stories of Tsypkin’s near misses as a writer are as piquant in their detail as the story of his reputation’s eventual elevation by Sontag. A medical research scientist by profession, he began writing lyric poetry in the early 1960s, when he was in his late thirties. An aunt, Lydia Polyak, who worked at the Gorky Institute of World Literature in Moscow, had cultivated his love of literature, introducing him to the poetry of Marina Tsvetaeva, Osip Mandelstam, and Boris Pasternak (to whom he was especially devoted). In 1965, Polyak arranged for Tsypkin to show some of his verse to the literary scholar Andrei Sinyavsky. Just a few days before they were to meet, Sinyavsky was arrested. He had been smuggling work to the West for publication under the pseudonym Abram Tertz.

After a show…

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