Sunday, September 30, 2018

‘Odvukon’ Not Just a Russian Phenomenon

Paul Goble

            Staunton, September 29 – Nearly a half century ago, Roman Goul, a First Emigration Russian writer and critic and editor of Novy zhurnal, published two volumes of literary criticism under the title Odvukon, a Cossack term used to describe someone who rides two horses at once while standing up.

            Goul used the term to refer to what he saw as a Russian phenomenon that emerged following the Bolshevik revolution, one that led some of Russia’s finest writers and poets to go into emigration where they continued to work while others remained inside the Soviet Union and attempted to do what they could within the limits of communist restrictions.

            According to the émigré writer, Russian culture in the 20th century had been forced into the position of someone who was riding two horses at once, odvukon, as Cossacks put it, a difficult task but one that eventually, Goul hoped, would allow it to survive with the two streams coming together.

            Many scholars and commentators in both Russia and the West have picked up that idea as far as Russian culture is concerned, especially since 1991 when the collapse of the Soviet system allowed the two streams to flow back together.  But few of them have extended this metaphor to the other nations which lived under Soviet power; and that is a profound mistake.

            In almost all cases, the cultures and even the political lives of nations living under communism proceeded odvukon, with some of its representatives living beyond the borders of the Soviet Union and developing their national cultures and ideas while others remained inside doing what they could to do the same thing.

            Examples from the Baltic nations, Belarusians, Ukrainians, Armenians, and Georgians instantly spring to mind, but there were other and perhaps even more important examples of this phenomenon elsewhere, especially among the Turkic peoples who seldom have attracted as much attention.

            That makes a new book by Jeffrey B. Lilley, Have the Mountains Fallen? Two Journeys of Loss and Redemption in the Cold War (Indiana University Press, 2018).  In a sympathetic and detailed way, he traces the complicated careers of two distinguished representatives of the Kyrgyz nation, Chingiz Aitmatov and Azamat Altay.

            Aitmatov, of course, remained in the Soviet Union and distinguished himself both by pushing the limits of the permissible in his novels about the life of his people and by bringing to the attention of an international audience a nation many would never have heard of had it not been for his remarkable works.

            More than that, however, he talked about the legend of the mankurts, people who were reduced to subhuman slaves by regimes that stole their memory from them, a legend that has become a fundamental key to the understanding not only of the Kyrgyz but of all the peoples who were forced to live under sovietism.

            If Aitmatov is internationally known, Altay is not; but as Lilley makes clear, he certainly deserves to be. From the start at odds with the Soviet system and finding himself in the West as a result of World War II, he made a distinguished contribution to the study of Central Asia as a researcher at Columbia University and as a broadcaster for Radio Liberty’s Kyrgyz Service.

            In the last years of their lives, the two men, one a distinguished Soviet writer and the other someone who was usually denounced by Soviet propagandists as a traitor edged closer together because ultimately they were informed by a deep and profound appreciation of their nation’s culture and history.

            James Lilley shows how that happened.  For his efforts, he deserves the thanks of all those who study the former Soviet space. More than that, however, his book provides a model for what representatives of other nations with that experience can and should do.  Everyone will benefit if such works appear.   

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