To advance my project of learning about today’s Russian literature, I’m reading a prize-winning biography of a famous Soviet writer Valentin Kataev. It’s important to explore different genres, so why not a biography?
Kataev wrote a lot of children’s lit in the Soviet times. I loved his books. The plots were oriented towards kids but the language was very sophisticated, poetic, and appealed to mature artistic sensibilities.
Kataev was one of two Soviet writers who openly wrote about anti-Semitism. (The second one is Alexandra Brushtein.) Obviously, it was pre-Soviet anti-Semitism that they criticized. Nobody was allowed to suspect there was Soviet Jew-hatred. But even then it wasn’t a widely explored subject.
In his most famous novel, Kataev describes Jewish pogroms in Odessa in 1905. The protagonist is heavily based on Kataev’s own childhood experiences. The character’s family helps hide a Jewish family from a murderous mob. The horror of anti-Semitism and the utterly despicable nature of the Jew-haters are described in a gut-wrenching way. Soviet children learned about anti-Semitism (and about the existence of Jews) from Kataev’s novel. I cried over those pages countless times as a kid.
The truth, however, was quite a bit more complicated.
Unlike his protagonist whose father is a humanist opposed to any injustice, Kataev grew up in a fiercely antisemitic family. His very first published poems were in the vein of “Jew-lovers and rabbis have spread around the Russian steppes” (“юдофилы и раввины заполонили русские равнины”). And what’s more, the poems were published by the exact same group that organized the Odessa pogroms of 1905. Kataev’s family didn’t belong to the social class that actually went out to murder and rob Jews. They were of the class that theorized the need for the pogroms.
It’s not Kataev’s fault that he grew up in a family of despicable people. He was all of 13 when he published the “rabbis in the steppes” poetry. He departed from this mentality quite early enough, participated in creating the most endearing Jewish characters in the Soviet (or any) literature*, and married a Jewish woman. It’s still fascinating to find all this out, though.
I will post a full review of the book once I’m done. For now I wanted to share this story because for those of us who know Kataev’s novels, this is all very interesting.
* Apparently, Kataev helped his brother Yevgeni work on the plot of The Twelve Chairs, widely considered to be the most Jewish work of literature after the Bible.