Rabbis in the Steppes

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.

5 thoughts on “Rabbis in the Steppes

  1. I loved the Mel Brooks version of Twelve Chairs as a kid. I have never read the original novel. Mel Brooks has certainly done plenty of very “Jewish” movies. Twelve Chairs never struck me as one of them.

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    1. The main character, Ostap Bender is a Jew. It’s never said directly, and in the Soviet ecranizations the character is either played by an actor from Georgia or a blue-eyed, blond Russian guy. The result is predictably horrid.

      The only time a Jewish actor played this character was in the sequel, The Golden Calf. And that’s why it’s a great movie. You can’t have a Georgian playing a Jew! It’s stupid, with all respect for Georgians.

      I had no idea there was an American version.

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      1. I do recommend it. One thing though that I expect will annoy you is that Dom Deluise plays the corrupt Russian Orthodox priest like an American Evangelical. It is very funny as far as making fun of American Evangelicals. Deluise voiced a bunch of Don Bluth cartoons in the 1980s, including Tiger in American Tail.

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  2. // The Twelve Chairs, widely considered to be the most Jewish work of literature after the Bible.

    Why? I read it and liked the old movie with Mironov as Ostap Bender in the 1976 TV version of The Twelve Chairs.
    Didn’t know his father was Jewish till today.
    Yet wouldn’t think to connect his character with Jewishness.

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    1. I think that Mironov was horrid in that role. He’s angry, mean, and perpetually annoyed. There’s zero humor or kindness in that character.

      As to why it’s a Jewish novel, I don’t know how it can be read outside of the protagonist’s Jewishness. How does he make sense? Why is he the way he is? Why is he so irrepressible, so endlessly hopeful and at the same time so tragic, why is he so out of place everywhere?

      Have you noticed that Panikovskiy is Jewish, at least!

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