Friday, March 4, 2011

Aflatuni on Post-Soviet Identity

Sukhbat Aflatuni (May 2009) / Image courtesy of A. Stepanenko and Interpoezia

In doing some reading lately on Sukhbat Aflatuni (a.k.a. Yevgeny Abdullaev), the influential Russian-language poet from Tashkent, Uzbekistan, I came across an interview with him that I thought worth translating and excerpting here. Aflatuni is one of the writers, along with Andrey Volos, Gary Shteyngart, Lara Vapnyar, and David Bezmozgis, who Julie A. Buckler claims have prompted scholars to broaden their conceptions of Russian culture. In the interview, he makes several intriguing comments on how he views his own cultural identity and his position as a poet.

Here’s how the interviewer, Sandzhar Yanyshev, initiated the conversation:

Sukhbat, after what happened in the former Russian [sic] colonies, when the country itself emigrated from under one’s feet and people found themselves emigrants in their own homes without taking a single step, many native speakers of Russian preferred to “return” to the place where Russian language and culture reside—that is, they left for Russia. You, a Russian poet and Russian philosopher, stayed. Why?

And here is Aflatuni’s reply:

Every poet has his diagnosis… Some leave, others get stuck with their wings in their nests. Notice that I don’t say, “Every poet has his fate.” Fate is something heroic, something theatrical. But how is it that one can exist when we’re talking about a mix of passions, habits, dreams—that is, the very things that hold us to the place where we were born? That’s a diagnosis. It’s some kind of Oedipal complex. We all circle around it—the homeland—irrespective of whether we “left” it or didn’t leave it. You circle it, I circle it. We zigzag differently and our circling bears different fruit, but it’s the same mechanism of unquenched attraction to that place where you breathed your first breath and cried your first cry. […] And as for where language resides… Language, like the speech organ with which it shares a name [the word язык means both “language” and “tongue” in Russian], is always inside the author. If it’s outside, then it’s no longer language, but rather some kind of microphone or loudspeaker. For me, Russia, and especially Moscow with its literary salons and thick journals, is the acoustic environment, the amplifier, that allows me to be heard and not just mumble something into my scarf.

I find it fascinating that Aflatuni sees the question of Russian identity as a disorder that must be diagnosed—and he implies that everyone suffers an “Oedipal complex” about their home, not just writers on the periphery.

Incidentally, if the theme of ethnic and linguistic identity among Russians in the post-Soviet world is one that catches your interest, consider reading Denis Gutsko’s novel I Speak Russian (Русскоговорящий), which won the Russian Booker prize in 2005 and concerns a Jewish-Georgian native speaker of Russian who fails to attain Russian citizenship after the fall of the Soviet Union. Unfortunately, the book has not yet been translated into English, but you can find an English summary of it on (If Gutsko’s novel ever does get translated, its title might be given as something like Russian Speaker or Russian Native Speaker.)

Speaking of big questions of Russian identity, here is my translation of the second half of Aflatuni’s 2008 poem “two cities: Moscow and ‘Peter’,” which concerns the cultural sway of the two capitals (and maybe a third force):

Moscow and Peter: a strange marriage
she is a Scythian, he’s a Varangian

two cities: Moscow and Peter
two faces in granite—shattered—
two faces: thesis, antithesis
Moscow and Peter;
the train-station
moon, like a Muslim at his shop,
peers down at them with disdain

(Москва и Питер: странный брак: / она — Скифянка, он — Варяг // два города — Москва и Питер / два лика в треснувшем граните / два лика: тезис — антитезис / Москва и Питер; / свысока / на них глядит вокзальный месяц / как мусульманин у ларька)


  1. Thank you for this fascinating post, Jamie! I hadn't known about Aflatuni/Abdullaev and was only dimly aware of Gutsko. Now I'm going to check if I can track down a library copy of his book. Here's a link to a review of 'Русскоговорящий' that those who read Russian might appreciate:

    I wanted to raise a pedantic (but not negative!) point about your translation of the poem (which intrigued me as I'm currently reading Belinsky's famous article contrasting the same two cities): in Aflatuni's Russian, the granite is cracked, rather than the faces; in your version, the faces are cracked (as I read it). Does your translation intentionally transfer the fracture? Your version might thus be better than the original, since it's hard to imagine a sculptor carving faces in already cracked granite, yet the image of cracked faces that you create is very effective.

  2. Clearly, I've let my blogger duties fall by the wayside. My apologies for taking so long to reply to this message. And thank you for the link to the review of Gutsko.

    I see what you mean about my parenthetical "shattered." I set it off by dashes with the intention of having it refer to the word that came immediately before, "granite," but I now see that it could refer to the entire preceding phrase. (Of course, I placed the word at the end of the line so that it would create a near rhyme with "Peter.")

    I wonder, though, does it matter much? As you say, it would be hard to imagine a sculptor carving already-cracked granite, and as a viewer, it would look the same anyway: the cracked face and the cracked granite occupy the same space.