What to Read When In Search of Eastern European Myths

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I began writing my novel Little Foxes Took Up Matches more than fourteen years ago, in January of 2008. The main character Mitya came to me as a small child who swallows a needle and then keeps on growing with the treacherous metal object lodged somewhere in his body. I kept abandoning the novel and returning to it on and off throughout the next decade until I realized that Mitya was the perfect lens through which I wanted to tell two stories that are incredibly important to me: growing up nonbinary and the utter desolation that ravaged the post-Soviet territories in the aftermath of the collapse of the Soviet Union, the repercussions of which are still felt in suffering and military conflicts.

However, it was only after I finished writing my then-fully realist novel, graduated from my MFA with it as the thesis, and found an agent, that I realized all its readers had an issue with the novel’s shapelessness. The story was full to the brim, yet something was missing to hold it together and cinch it in the right places. And this is when I sat down and wrote a fairytale, which was eventually woven throughout Mitya’s story as a dream to which he escapes when asleep and a metaphor for the events occurring within and around him.

I had never previously engaged in myth making, yet it felt natural and made all the sense in the world. Not only did it sharpen the contradictions in the issues I was describing, but it also added a universality to the narrative. Much like a fairy tale, the search for one’s place in a changing world of poverty, homelessness, love, and corruption are all subjects that remain, for better or worse, eternally relevant. I also realized that many of the books I enjoyed growing up, written during the Russian Empire or the Soviet Union, used myth making as a narrative tool or as a means of carving out a place in the world. Of course, this must be handled with care: Centuries of nationalist and imperialist myth making have demonstrated how it can lead to very dark places. But when done thoughtfully, it allows us to imagine a better world and can even be a blueprint for creating one.

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Novels, Tales, Journeys: The Complete Prose by Alexander Pushkin

The popular 19th-century Russian poet Apollon Grigoriev said, “Pushkin is our everything,” and this phrase looms over Russian literature still: the great-grandson of an enslaved African noble, fiery in writing, politics, and romance, is to the Russian language what Shakespeare is to English. His renderings of Slavic fairy tales into poems are impeccable—I even translated a part for my novel’s preface—but Pushkin’s prose retellings are just as spellbinding and full of imagination. I still can starkly remember how I first read them at twelve: weeping over the star-crossed romance in “Dubrovsky,” inspired by Yemelyan Pugachev leading the people’s rebellion in “The Captain’s Daughter,” spooked by “The Queen of Spades.” It’s not in the novel, but Pushkin was Mitya’s neighbor: The Moscow mansion where he lived is right next door to the apartment building where Mitya lives and where I lived for a few years as a child.

 

The Goatibex Constellation by Fazil Iskander

I adore the writing of the Abkhazian-Iranian Soviet writer Fazil Iskander—many of his works are set in his home village of Chegem and merge folklore, family history, and social satire. Unfortunately, most of his English translations are out of print, but The Goatibex Constellation is a perfect gateway drug. It follows a young journalist who gets fired, returns to his hometown, and ends in the local newspaper amidst a PR campaign for a recently introduced farm animal species. The journalist’s adventures are a fascinating view inside a Soviet media campaign, as well as an exploration of the local customs and citizens, uproariously funny and full of delicious irony but also an affinity for fellow humans.

 

The Passion According to G.H. by Clarice Lispector

Clarice Lispector’s Jewish family fled from the nationalist pogroms during the Civil War in their shtetl two hours away from the village where my Soviet Ukrainian grandmother would escape from the Nazi occupation in WWII. However, I only learned about Lispector during my MFA program at Columbia—the Ukrainian and Russian translations were not yet out—but then had a chance to work at New Directions Publishing and celebrate Lispector with them. I love books in which something mundane is a cause for the fantastical—and I guess G.H.’s crushed cockroach and Mitya’s needle, eaten alongside the stale cookie crumbs, are distant literary cousins.

 

The Three Fat Men by Yury Olesha

When I was a kid, filmstrips were already being phased out, but I still encountered them in my kindergarten. The one that stuck with me most was the one based on The Three Fat Man.” In it, a doctor was imprisoned by the country’s three richest men for refusing to switch their young heir’s heart for a metal one, thus making him heartless and incapable of pity. After eight years in captivity, the doctor grew hair and fangs, and his image, hairy and caged and dehumanized, stuck with me. I often think about it today: for instance, when observing how slavery replicates itself in mass incarceration in the contemporary US. And the book offers many other such parallels; after all, it is set in a popular uprising of the poor masses against the monopolists with genetic engineering and artificial intelligence as the backdrop.

 

The Cavalry Maiden by Nadezhda Durova

Nadezhda Durova was the Russian Mulan, who joined the Russian army during an early Napoleonic war disguised as a man. The rumors about the fighting “Amazon” even reached Tzar Alexander I, who met Durova personally, presenting a medal for bravery, giving his permission to continue serving, and even contributing a new pseudonym to avoid Durova’s cover being blown. I’m not entirely sure what pronouns to use when talking about Durova; even after bravely resisting the French Invasion of Russia and retiring, Durova was reluctant to give up male clothing and bristled at being called a woman. But whether this is a story of a nonbinary hero or one of feminist resistance, Durova’s memoirs are an inspiration.

 

When the Whales Leave by Yuri Rytkheu

Decades of Cold Wars have prevented many diverse Soviet writers from being published in English, and this primarily affects the works of women and Indigenous authors. However, there are lucky exceptions, and one of them is the great Chukchi writer Yuri Rytkheu. Translations of his works came out from Soviet presses and have recently been revived by Archipelago and now Milkweed Editions. When the Whales Leave is a much-needed book for our times. Based on Chukchi folklore, it follows the love between a human woman Nau and a whale Reu, who have children of both species. However, as the couple becomes a distant myth and their descendants multiply, the coexistence between the humans and the whales is endangered by the human desire to dominate nature.

 

The Collected Tales by Nikolai Gogol

I would wager that Nikolai Gogol is one of the most accessible writers to make kids read classics because some of his short stories are incredibly spooky. And as much as I love “The Dead Souls” and the St. Petersburg stories such as “The Overcoat,” my heart forever belongs to the Gogol of the Ukrainian Tales, where women go on dates with the devil, your father may turn out to be an evil wizard, and vareniki jump into greedy mouths on their own accord. My Ukrainian grandmother’s maiden last name was similar to one of the villages where Gogol’s tales unravel, and I always half-imagined that she hails from a place riddled with spirits.

 

The Way Things Were by Marko Vovchok

When US readers think of abolitionist literature, they usually go to the Anglo tradition of race-based chattel slavery, but my Russian and Ukrainian people have also contributed a great deal of writing to this genre, and such literature led, in part, to the abolition of serfdom in the former Russian Empire. One example from this category is Marko Vovchok, who wrote incredible short stories about indentured servitude in Ukraine and Russia in the mid-19th century, where she weaved reality into folk tales or amazed her genteel readers by merely allowing them to see serfs as actual people. Unfortunately, Vovchok’s reputation later in life was marred when she hired a bunch of female translators, did not pay them, and appropriated the translations—what irony.

 

Under House Arrest by Yevgeny Kharitonov,

The sole English translation of Yevgeny Khartinov’s works is sold out online, and I am likely to blame because I love nothing more than buying his book as gifts and snatching up every single out-of-print copy that goes for sale. Kharitonov was a gay poet, prose writer, playwright, and theatre director, whose works are full of tender imagination, as he sought to express culturally what was forbidden socially. A new translation of some of his writing is in the works by someone I know, and I hope that I’ll also be able to translate some of his work myself in the future.

 

The White Ship by Chingiz Aitmatov

Chingiz Aitmatov became a legend in his homeland of Kyrgyzstan and all across the Soviet Union with his novel Jamilia, a story of a woman’s defiance against tradition in what Louis Aragon called the “world’s most beautiful love story.” The White Ship came a decade later and was also told from a small boy’s perspective. The lonely protagonist finds solace in listening to the elderly Momun tell him local legends about sacred deer and imagining that his missing father is a sailor on the white ship that can sometimes be gleaned on the Issyk-Kul lake. One day, the boy decides he’ll swim toward the ship like a fish. But then, tragedy strikes . . . I love narratives that center on small, curious, kind, and lonely children—much like my protagonist Mitya—and this one, inspired by Aitmatov’s own childhood, when his father was accused of nationalist activity and executed, is a beautiful and sad gem.

 

The Song of the Forest by Lesia Ukrainka

Lesya Ukrainka is one of the most outstanding Ukrainian poets of all time, and thankfully some of her plays have been translated into English. The Song of the Forest is my favorite—it was written in her final years, when Ukrainka was living at a Georgian resort in Kutaisi, hoping that the gentle climate would heal her tuberculosis. The play brings together Ukrainka’s yearning for the plentiful forests of her native Volhynia and the magic of Ukrainian folklore that she studied rigorously and is infused by the poet’s utmost concern with human strife.

 

The Mother by Maxim Gorky

A quiet, downtrodden woman, Pelageya Vlasova, is used to a life of poverty, back-breaking labor, and domestic beatings, where her only joy is her young son. So when her abusive husband dies, and her son Pavel grows up to become a revolutionary, Pelageya’s first instinct is to despair. But instead, she becomes an agitator for the workers’ cause and reinvents herself into an outspoken revolutionary. Maxim Gorky’s most famous novel was based on the real story of Anna Zalomova, the mother of revolutionary Pyotr Zalomov and written during Gorky’s journey to the US in 1906. More than a century after its completion, its commentary on the role of women in politics is just as fresh. In addition to the feminist self-mythologizing of the heroine, it also explores the so-called “God-building,” where socialist politics were explored through an agnostic lens.

 

The Twelve Chairs by Ilya Ilf and Evgeny Petrov

If there is one book I would recommend to better understand the complexities of a post-Soviet psyche, it’s The Twelve Chairs. This 1928 satirical classic follows the misadventures of former nobleman Kisa Vorobyaninov in the era of New Economic Policy, as he sets out to look for his family’s diamonds hidden in furniture and becomes entangled with an illustrious conman Ostap Bender. Nearly every sentence in the book has become an aphorism in the Russian language, and this brilliant picaresque novel, written by two Odessa natives—one Ukrainian, another Jewish—is an apt portrait of the comic lengths to which our compatriots will go for gain.

 

Heart of a Dog by Mikhail Bulgakov

Heart of a Dog is probably as much quoted in Russia as Bulgakov’s Master and Margarita, if not more. In the novel, a stray dog, Sharik, gets a transplant of a human pituitary gland and testicles by an experimenting doctor and starts to take on human qualities—some problematic. Unfortunately, some have been interpreting the story through a rather chauvinist lens. The doctor, a snobbish eugenicist with connections in the Communist party, is considered a progressive luminary, and the human-turned-dog Poligraf Poligrafovich, who questions things he sees around himself, is viewed as subhuman. But I think it’s a more poignant exploration of humans, which shows how easily our species is corrupted compared to the blunt simplicity of animals who don’t know how to be deceitful.

 

Tropisms by Nathalie Sarraute

Born in Russia to a Jewish family, Nathalie Sarraute moved to France as a child and gave the French language one of its finest literary masterpieces: Tropisms, twenty-four independent short texts, explore the small ways in which the human reacts to stimulation. The book had many obstacles: at first, it wasn’t published for seven years, and then, the book’s success was hindered by the war. As the Nazis occupied France, Sarraute had to go into hiding and even get a divorce from her beloved husband so as not to endanger him with her Jewishness. However, just like this marvel of a book, Sarraute persevered and lived to the age of ninety-nine, cementing her spot as one of the most celebrated French authors.

 

Volodya: Selected Works by Vladimir Mayakovsky

There is nothing as exciting as creating and bringing to life the mythology of a new country—or, rather, a country started anew. Vladimir Mayakovsky became the ultimate poet of the Russian Revolution, then of the young Soviet Union, and, as a result, finally himself, a mighty poet with a tender core. To be honest, I find it hard to relate to the existing Mayakovsky translations; as a Russian speaker, it’s a bit jarring when the meaning is conveyed, but Mayakovsky’s choppy rhythm is not there and lines don’t resonate with his booming voice—but one can still approach the atmosphere of Mayakovsky’s famous performances and marvel at the poet’s imagination.

 

 

 


Katya Kazbek is a queer bilingual Russian/English writer, translator, and editor of Greek, Russian, Ukrainian, and Jewish heritage, who lives and works in New York City, NY. She writes about the world’s cultures for supamodu.com and elsewhere. More from this author →