The Stubbornly Jewish Worldview of the Soviet-Era Writer Friedrich Gorenstein

Gorenstein is best-known for his film scripts, written for Andrei Tarkovsky and others. Now, recently published in English for the first time, his own voice can be heard.


Observation
March 5 2019
About the author

Marat Grinberg is professor of Russian and comparative literature at Reed College. His essays and reviews have appeared in the LA Review of Books, Tablet, Cineaste, and Commentary.


Friedrich Gorenstein (1932-2002) is a major figure in the history of 20th-century Russian literature—and a most curious one. On the one hand, his novels blend fiction with religion, philosophy, and politics in a way that is quintessentially Russian, reminiscent of writers from Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy to Chekhov and, in the 20th century, Andrei Platonov. On the other hand, throughout his voluminous body of work, he defiantly tackles those selfsame issues as a Jewish writer, a Jewish thinker, and an uncompromising Jewish voice.

Until now all but unknown in English, this daring and complex author has at last been brought to the attention of American readers with the recent publication of Redemption, his first major novel, in a masterful translation by Andrew Bromfield.

 

Gorenstein’s life story replicates the grim travails of Soviet history. His father, a prominent academic in Kiev, was arrested in 1935 and sent to the Gulag where he soon perished. At the start of World War II, his mother died unexpectedly during the family’s evacuation to Central Asia, leaving Friedrich in an orphanage and later in the care of his aunts in Berdichev, Ukraine, where he returned after the combined atrocities of the war and the Holocaust had done their worst.

Haunted by past trauma, the youthful Gorenstein learned to remain in prolonged obscurity. He thus came to literature relatively late. His first and only “official” publication—“House with A Torrent,” a beautiful short story about his mother’s death—saw the light of day in 1964, at the end of a liberalizing period (known as the “Thaw”) inaugurated under Nikita Khrushchev.

Having studied screenwriting at the famed Moscow state film school, Gorenstein made a living by writing scripts for such notable directors as Andrei Tarkovsky (best known for Andrei Rublev and, with Gorenstein, the science-fiction feature Solaris). In 1980, seeing no future for himself in the Soviet Union, he emigrated to West Germany and remained in Berlin until his death in 2002 at the age of seventy. His works, which, in addition to Redemption, include an 800-page novel spanning the generations of Soviet history and a 1,500-page play about the reign of Ivan the Terrible, were published in various émigré venues and widely translated into French and German. Not until the Perestroika reforms of Mikhail Gorbachev in the 1980s did they finally come out in Russia itself.

From the early 1960s on, Gorenstein desperately sought recognition for his prodigious talent. He was indeed deemed a genius by many who knew him or of him, but when that no longer sufficed, he began to cultivate an image of a bitter and quarrelsome outcast. He was certainly an oddity: unlike many liberal-minded writers of his generation, he harbored no dreams of fixing the Soviet system or of restoring its supposedly humanistic roots. He also wore his Jewishness on his sleeve, putting off potential friends or allies by, for example, deliberately pronouncing his impeccable Russian with a Yiddish intonation. To this day, Russian fans of his writing feel the need to explain away his “provincialism.”

To Gorenstein himself, however, Jewishness was anything but provincial. Even as he places his work in the Russian literary tradition, complete with subtle homages to its great practitioners from Dostoevsky and Tolstoy to Chekhov and beyond, he uniquely insists upon his distinctive Jewish voice. Moreover, what makes him a Jewish writer is not merely the preponderance of Jewish themes and characters in his novels, stories, plays, and essays but precisely his polemical stance toward Russia’s history, language, literature, and religion—and toward the concomitant Russian demand for Jewish assimilation to those norms.

As he put it, “If I knew Yiddish, I probably would have become a Jewish writer and written in Yiddish. But I write in Russian, hence I’m a Russian writer whether anybody likes it or not.” Irreverently, Gorenstein speaks here to the undeniable fact both of his origins (Jewish) and of his actual language (Russian), chosen not so much by him as for him by the destructive forces of history. He regards Russian simultaneously as a tool and as a piece of cultural property that is enriched by his use of it:

I use it without right or permission from those I’ve insulted. I didn’t ask for it on a church steeple—I took it myself without any solicitations. “With such opinions,” [they say], “what right do you have to write in Russian?” What right? And what right do you have to use the Jewish Bible and the Jewish Gospels?

To call such a worldview unusual for an acculturated Russian Jewish writer of the Soviet era is an understatement. It flies in the face of both the assimilationist or conversionary ethos of a Jewish writer like Boris Pasternak and the anti-Jewish animus of great non-Jewish writers from Dostoevsky to Solzhenitsyn. But Gorenstein’s stance does resonate with a certain strain in modern Jewish literature in both Yiddish and Hebrew. His is a vision of a modern Jew speaking with an ancient voice, through which he reclaims his hereditary dues and graciously shares them with others.

Gorenstein’s invocation of the “Jewish Gospels” requires a word of explication. Coupling his artistic credo with his revisionist theology, he viewed the Hebrew and Christian Bibles as a single Jewish document. For him, Jesus was indeed King of the Jews, but in a strictly nationalist sense: another Maccabee come to remind his broken people of their once-fearless spirit. In this reimagining of the Gospels, Gorenstein was certain he was reinstituting historical truth: not merely confirming the link between Judaism and early Christianity but upholding Jewish pre-eminence, and doing so brazenly both as a Russian writer and as a Jewish provocateur. As for later Christianity, this to him amounted to a usurpation and betrayal of the Jewish lineage.

 

The power of Gorenstein’s writing lies in the fact that his weighty, nuanced, and idiosyncratic political and religious imagination is channeled through a spellbinding lyrical style. And that brings us to Redemption.

Written in 1967, first published in Russian in the West twenty years later, the novel is set in an unnamed Soviet Ukrainian town, likely modeled on Berdichev, in the immediate aftermath of World War II. Virtually all of the town’s Jews, who had made up 80 percent of the population in pre-Soviet times, have been killed by the Nazis, with local help; tens of thousands lie in a mass grave in a quarry.

In this blasted wasteland we meet the novel’s protagonist Sashenka, a sixteen-year-old girl whose father has been killed at the front and whose mother works as a dishwasher at a military canteen where she steals food to feed her daughter and their two lodgers. Tormented by unfulfilled sexual desire, Sashenka detests her mother, who has found a new suitor. An avid Stalinist, the girl proceeds to denounce her mother to the state authorities as a thief, for which the woman is immediately arrested.

Intersecting with Sashenka’s story is that of Lieutenant August, a cerebral, anxious Jew whose parents and siblings were murdered during the war by a neighbor; the perpetrator was subsequently arrested and sent to the Gulag for collaborating with the Nazis. August has received permission to dig up his family’s remains and bury them in a dignified manner. Sashenka instantaneously falls in love with him; they marry; a daughter is born, whereupon August leaves town, never to return. Sashenka, hoping against hope that they will reunite, raises their daughter with her mother, who has since been released from jail and has a new baby of her own.

To grasp what Gorenstein is up to in this novel, it’s useful to know that, for much of postwar Soviet history, the particularity of the Nazi program to exterminate the Jews was erased from official Soviet historiography, with the multitudes of Jewish dead subsumed under the amorphous category of “peaceful Soviet citizens.” Gorenstein, in a novel that deliberately captures both the general Soviet and the particular Jewish experience of World War II, thus stands in a dissenting category of Russian Jewish writers and poets whose output, except for a small portion published officially during the war itself (and sporadically afterward), remained largely hidden away in desk drawers or circulated clandestinely.

In addition, and in contrast to most Western writers, who tended to separate the issue of both the Holocaust and the larger war against the Nazis from the issue of Soviet totalitarianism, some of these writers saw an indelible connection between Nazi and Soviet crimes. Most prominently, Vasily Grossman in his magnum opus Life and Fate depicted the Nazi and Stalinist systems as mirror images of each other. Grossman’s novel was seized in manuscript by the KGB in 1961; miraculously, a copy survived and was published in the West in 1980.

In Gorenstein’s Redemption, too, Nazism and Stalinism are inextricably linked, with the result that everyone residing in the postwar terrain is either an incubator or a carrier of irredeemable evil. In the mode of Greek tragedy, each character inhabits his or her own version of the disease, for which each one also pays. Yet their punishment does nothing to break the fog of doom that envelops and condemns them.

 

Whence the “redemption,” then? Like Dostoevsky, Gorenstein is merciless toward his characters, who resemble monsters in a Bosch painting. Yet the fact that all suffer, that all are simultaneously victims and perpetrators, also humanizes them and evokes pity in author and reader alike. Pointedly, however, Gorenstein refuses to let this vision qualify the particularity of the Jewish catastrophe, or dissolve into a shallow relativism. The Holocaust may constitute part of the overall East European “climate” of hate, a climate in which Jews themselves are by no means immune to the rottenness of human nature or the fatal and decidedly non-redemptive quicksand of radical politics; but at the same time, violence against Jews is of a special kind. As August expostulates:

There are ten-thousand [Jews] lying in the porcelain-factory quarries. . . . They were killed by fascism and totalitarianism, but my dear ones were killed by our neighbor with a rock. . . . Fascism is a temporary stage of imperialism, but neighbors, like rocks, are eternal.

August may be the product of a Soviet Marxist education, but his view of the perpetual peril of Jewish existence is unclouded.

Some readers of Redemption have seen a positive image in Sashenka and August’s child, whose birth redeems the pervasive evil in an almost Christian fashion. Gorenstein’s usage of the term “redemption,” however, is much more ironic and inconclusive, and in fact contradicts Christian ideas of redemption. In the novel, a professor of literature, hounded by the regime, helps August in uncovering his family’s remains. As they speak, he points to the notion of a “boundary” that humanity will cross once the cup of its inequity and suffering has at last overflowed. Beyond this apocalyptic boundary, he posits, “lies either universal life or universal death.”

For his part, August sees no possibility at all of recompense or redemption for what was done to his family and people. Instead, he opts for disappearance. The professor, too, dies, leaving behind writings that argue for the basic comedic insignificance of human existence, “our invented little earthly meaning of life” and the false idea that man is “himself and is unique, distinct from everything.”

Is there then no way to end the “soul-crucifying night” of history and arrive at “a naïve, unpretentious, human dawn”? Gorenstein’s own answer in Redemption would seem to be entirely negative, but elsewhere he expresses a view that, while no less disillusioned, and no less deeply informed by the sensibility of a post-Holocaust Russian Jew, stops short of utter despair. In one of his essays he writes:

In Vienna, I went to pray in St. Stephen’s Cathedral. “To pray” sounds strange in relation to me, a non-believer as far any religion is concerned. Not true, not a “non-believer”—a believer, but not religious. I do not follow rules and customs and cannot pray according to any canons. If I knew how, I would have gone perhaps to a synagogue. But what is it—this canon—and where is that Viennese synagogue?

For a Jewish writer in a world of shattered and decimated synagogues, there’s no other choice but to turn to the cathedral—that is to say, Western civilization and, in Gorenstein’s case, Russian literature. But there, even while marveling at the cathedral’s beauty, he will not let the synagogue out of his sight. In this intertwined calling lies Gorenstein’s own partial, stubborn “redemption” as a writer and a witness, as well as his artistic ticket to the canon of 20th-century Jewish literature.

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