February 25, 2004

The first prize was a death sentence...

Don't miss, don't miss, a splendid article, by a poet who fled from Soviet tyranny, only to find a new Leningrad right here in San Francisco...

...Throughout the fall semester the �Writers on Writing� class desecrated two things I hold dear: literature and America. It was a constant assault on my dedication to literature and my literary taste, and an insult to my love for this country. Not only were we forced to buy a bag of crappy books (except a few) with a price tag of around $200, but almost all these �writers� and �poets� presented on the lighted stage of the huge auditorium week after week used the opportunity to express their hate and contempt for America. Throughout the semester only a few talented exceptions abstained from expressing their political opinions.

If I have expertise in anything in this life, it is literature. I came from the Soviet Union, where literature, especially poetry, was a serious and deadly business. The second national prize for poetry in the USSR was five years in prison. The first prize was a death sentence, as seen by the fates of Nikolai Gumilev (execution by firing squad) and Osip Mandelshtam (a hungry death in the Gulag).

Night after night we typed for Samizdat (underground press) on primitive typewriters the smuggled poems of my friend Igor Guberman, who had been sentenced to five years in a prison camp. Kneeling on all fours (I was so pregnant at the time that I couldn�t sit), I read a book by Nadezhda Mandelshtam�the widow of the executed poet�that was brought into the country as contraband by some brave foreign visitors. The possession of this book was an offense punishable by law. The hostess begged me to leave, scared that I would go into labor right there in her apartment, but I finished that book understanding that this was my only chance to touch this dangerous copy....

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...Finally, it was America that paid our way out. The Jackson-Vanik amendment forced the Soviets to allow some groups to emigrate in exchange for a cheap grain trade agreement. Jews were the bargaining chip when the USSR was on the edge of starvation.

Divided by the number of people they finally let go, how many kilos of grain were paid for me? Or my mother?� What was the price in grain for the Moscow boy who became a student at Stanford and invented Google? Or another boy, who became the managing editor of this magazine? Or for the Russian taxi driver?...

By the way, The Jackson mentioned was Sen. Henry "Scoop" Jackson, a great man and a Democrat, back when it wasn't ludicrous to link those concepts. Many of the original "neocons" were staffers for Senator Jackson.

SF State U is less than half a mile from us. (Every year we have one lovely June day marred by the much amplified voice of someone like Willie Brown giving the commencement address) I bet you could find hundreds of people there who think the Soviets were just victims of bad press...

Thanks to Alan

Posted by John Weidner at February 25, 2004 12:00 PM
Weblog by John Weidner