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Reading In Exile

By Alexander Arkhangelsky Special to RIA Novosti 02/26/2007

JERUSALEM. In Moscow it's -20 celsius; in Jerusalem, +12. A whistling Alexander Gavrilov, the editor of Review of Books, rushes past. With the measured step of a convinced conservative, Alexander Kabakov walks up to the Russian stand. Someone asks Lyudmila Ulitskaya if she is a Christian; Ulitskaya explains that the question is rude, as it’s the same as asking whom she’s sleeping with, “but nevertheless I’ll answer it.” Dmitry Bykov flares up in front of an audience, loudly cursing Jews, the Jewish state and Jewish capital. The audience swallows the bait and gets angry; the writer is happy, the provocation successful. The Jerusalem book fair is in full swing, and Russia is its most important guest.

I first went to Jerusalem in 1993, also with writers. Viktor Astafyev wearily knocked back local opponents who spoke harshly to him about his correspondence with Natan Eidelman. The poet Olesya Nikolayeva declaimed her poems; the literary critic Irina Rodnyanskaya held forth while prose writer Boris Yekimov listened mockingly; Vladimir Makanin maintained an impressive silence; Bulat Okudzhava radiated a modest grandeur; Vladimir Soloukhin pronounced in his northern accent on faith and infidelity. At that time, it was all a gimmick. The Soviet Union had just collapsed, the cruelty of young nationalism reigned in the Baltic States, economic collapse was bearing down on Russia, and the putsch had just been put down. Most Russian-speaking Israelis in 1993 were new arrivals and as a whole they saw themselves more as Rigans, Tashkentians, Muscovites or Leningraders than fully fledged citizens of Israel. Attitudes to Russian writers “from over there” were fervent and awestruck; not like toward guests who had arrived from abroad, but like toward spirits arisen from that lost, abandoned world. For some reason it was important for everyone that the Russian writers confirm that back in Russia, everything was very bad, and all hope lost. These new immigrants were looking for confirmation that they’d done the right thing by leaving.

Today Russian writers and Israelis of Russian descent have two common traits: a love for books and a love for the Russian language. On average, an Israeli buys and reads two new books a month. Last year, The Master and Margarita was translated into Hebrew and sold 80,000 copies, which for a nation of 7 million people is about the same as selling 1.6 million copies in Russia, a nation of 140 million. Russian speakers read more than others. They brought with them to Israeli the heritage

of the world’s most literate country, and they carried it with pride. All new works of modern Russian literature of any quality, scale or caliber, from Dmitry Bykov to Yury Polyakov, and from Timur Kibirov to Alexander Kabakov, fly off the shelves. Orders for books that have just come out in Russia are sold out in just a few days – they are delivered by the planeload. The shelves at the Russian stand are carefully and steadily emptied, taken apart professionally and discriminatingly. Literary breakfasts drew audiences of up to 50 people; they crammed in like sardines for a meeting with the magazine Ogonyok – even though the magazine isn’t sold here, and can be read only online. Mikhail Gusman was showered with questions by a fan of his television series “First Person.”

One sixth of Israel’s population today speaks Russian, which is not one of Israel’s official languages; Russian – unlike, say, Arabic – is not a state language. One tenth of the Israeli parliament is from the Russian minority; there is almost complete equality with the Arabs, who also make up about 10 percent of the Jewish state’s legislature. But it is obvious that the exodus from Russian-speaking countries is now over. While it contributed much to Israel, it also created some serious problems. A huge wave of repatriates brought the country shards of a great humanitarian culture, outstanding scientists, and important people. It also snatched up workmen from Gomel, middle-aged women from Chernovitsk, and small-town shoemakers. It also drew in fugitive oligarchs. In addition, many of those who arrived in the 1990s defined their Jewish identity through a long history of discrimination. In Israel, strange though it may seem, they lost their former cultural and national identity. Against a background of anti-Semitism they felt like Jews. Against a background of real Jews they felt like Soviets.

Over time, the Russian language in Israel will inevitably start to grow old. A significant part of the younger generation of Russian speakers will switch to Hebrew and English. Some part of the literary culture will retain its Russian language element and will even attract young gifted linguists, but it will begin to look like the older Russian emigre communities in Europe - in the sense that the numbers will decrease, the group will be more closed and exclusive and become slightly naïve. Is this a good or a bad thing? For Russian writers it is obviously bad. For the Jewish state it is neither good, nor bad, but inevitable. But for now our interests coincide, and will continue to coincide for some time.

Alexander Arkhangelsky is a columnist for Izvestiya. The opinions expressed are the author's own, and not necessarily those of RIA Novosti's editorial board.

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