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Svetlana Boym: An Exchange

A conversation on how to interpret, and honor, the brilliant Harvard professor’s legacy

by
Anthony David,
Judith Wechsler,
David Damrosch,
Masha Gessen,
Musa and Yuri Goldberg,
Kristian Feigelson,
Alexis Nuselovici,
Stephanie Sandler,
Susan Rubin Suleiman,
and
William Mills Todd III
May 07, 2021
Poklekowski/ullstein bild via Getty Images
Poklekowski/ullstein bild via Getty Images

Judith Wechsler; David Damrosch; Masha Gessen; Musa and Yuri Goldberg; Kristian Feigelson; Alexis Nuselovici; Stephanie Sandler; Susan Rubin Suleiman; and William Mills Todd III write:

Anthony David’s article on Svetlana Boym (April 30, 2021) gives a particular interpretation of the life and work of that brilliant, multifaceted scholar and writer. While we understand the constraints of a short article, we are dismayed by Anthony David’s misinterpretations on a number of important points.

The original title of the article, “Is Harvard Killing Me?” (chosen by Tablet, but based on what the author writes) was misleading. Harvard was supportive throughout Svetlana Boym’s career and she was very happy there, first as a graduate student and then as a member of the faculty, tenured early in her career. The title may have seemed catchy, but it was simply wrong. More seriously, the article creates a false impression of a woman who denied her Russian origins in order to achieve a “smooth assimilation” in America—an absurd claim about Boym, who neither attempted nor desired a smooth assimilation. The article flattens out Boym’s complex, lifelong relationship to the land of her upbringing, always an engine of her path-breaking work on nostalgia and issues of migration and identity.

Far from wanting to “forget” her childhood and adolescence in St. Petersburg (Leningrad at the time), Boym remained in touch with close friends in the city and went back to visit on several occasions and to film there, as soon as travel became possible. Her first two books are about the Soviet Union/Russia: Death in Quotation Marks (1991), is in good measure about the revolutionary poet Mayakovsky, and Common Places: Mythologies of Everyday Life in Russia (1994) was written after her return to the country nine years after leaving it. Her best-known book, The Future of Nostalgia (2002), draws extensively on her life experience; her later book Another Freedom (2012), published several years before the onset of her illness, builds on her ongoing fascination with the life and work of the Russian literary theorist Victor Shklovsky.

Anthony David makes much of Boym’s final fiction about a Russian emigre who almost regrets leaving her native country when, on a visit to St. Petersburg, she meets a childhood friend whose life could have been her own if she had never left. David conflates the fictional characters with the author herself, an elementary mistake that is surprising from the pen of an experienced reader and literary biographer. In reality, Svetlana Boym was always exploring multiple identities and possibilities of home. For example, in her last years, she began to learn Hebrew with Tamar Abramov, a former graduate student at Harvard who had become a close friend; she visited Tel Aviv several times, drawn to its vibrant intellectual and artistic life, but never considered living anywhere other than Cambridge. She was not “rooted” in Cambridge, but it was certainly a place where she felt at home.

In our many conversations with her as family and friends, over the decades and during her final months, we never got the impression that Svetlana regretted her “life’s decisions.” Like most thoughtful people, she was constantly examining her choices, but she did not regret leaving Russia and settling in the United States, any more than she ever forgot her origins.

The tragedy of Svetlana Boym’s life was not in the choices she made but that she was conquered by cancer at too young an age.

Anthony David responds:

I’d first like to thank the authors of the letter, and the editors of Tablet, for the opportunity to discuss Svetlana’s legacy. Those who signed the letter want to honor her complex personality and her work. So do I.

A main point made by the signatories can, I believe, be addressed through greater clarity on my part. It is abundantly clear that Svetlana never forgot that she was born and raised in the Soviet Union, and that much of her scholarship draws from this past. There were, however, elements of the past she deliberately forgot. My article quotes from her own writing in Tablet, “Immigrant resilience is built on forgetting and working towards a new start. What will the backward glance accomplish?”

She returned to the theme of forgetting in her series of autobiographical short stories. In one, titled “Children, We’ve Been Deceived!” she said of her book Common Places: Mythologies of Everyday Life in Russia, “Twenty years ago, I thought that if I transform myself from an unhappy communal apartment dweller into a cheerful scholarly mythologist of Soviet life, I would be able to recreate the Soviet common places. Looking back at my textual communal apartment I see many spaces of forgetting. What I forgot or didn’t feel was worthy of writing were more individual experiences in the collectivized space, in particular, my own.”

During her months of illness, she turned to such individual experiences. In early January 2015, after receiving news of her diagnosis, she read her teenage diaries for the first time since retrieving them during a visit to St. Petersburg in 1991. That same day she described to a friend in Scotland the uncanny experience of encountering her younger self. “I am surprised to learn that as much as I changed, there are some things that stayed the same :) for example, I was very worried back then that I would lead a very ordinary life and wouldn’t write anything truly important.”⁠

She then revealed in the same email the nature of her new project. “I feel I have new ideas and inspirations and I’d like to do some autobiographical writing but need time that those hospital visits are killing :).”

One such autobiographical project was a series of short stories that culminate in the story of Zenita. As Masha Gessen wrote in her brilliant piece on Svetlana in The New Yorker, she wrote the story of Zenita to describe the “lives she might have led” had she stayed in Russia.

The letter says I conflate the fictional characters with the author herself when I describe the scene of an emigre meeting a childhood friend back in St. Petersburg. But this scene comes from the story of Zenita and is difficult to misinterpret: “It’s during that time, in 1998 or so,” Svetlana writes, “that Zenita met a visiting professor from America, glamorous Susana-Svetlana, who looked a bit like her only her gait was very different.”

In one respect, I agree with Svetlana’s family, friends, and colleagues who insist that Svetlana never regretted leaving Russia and coming to the U.S. Her stories were not a repudiation, but a very human assessment of the price she paid for her extraordinary success. In her final months of life, she learned to value the humanism of her Soviet youth, values she never mentioned in her scholarship, and she wanted that story, too, to be a part of her legacy. In May 2015, in the midst of painful rounds of chemo, she wrote to a friend that despite the illness, she was returning to her novel. In a note she then wrote at the top of the first page, she quoted a short story by Nabokov by saying there are moments of “plenitude—like this is your day—this is the best or one of the best things I could hope for.”

I would like to conclude by inviting those who signed the letter, and anyone else who knew and loved Svetlana, to help me better understand these exquisite works of fiction and memoir. I can be reached by email at [email protected].

Anthony David teaches creative writing at the University of New England campus in Tangier, Morocco. His most recent book, with Ami Ayalon, is Friendly Fire: How Israel Became Its Own Worst Enemy and Its Hope for the Future.

Judith Wechsler is the National Endowment for the Humanities Professor, Department of Art History, Emerita, Tufts University.

David Damrosch is the Ernest Bernbaum Professor and Chair at the Department of Comparative Literature, Harvard University.

Masha Gessen is a writer and journalist.

Musa and Yuri Goldberg are Svetlana Boym’s parents.

Kristian Feigelson is Professor of Film Studies at Sorbonne-Nouvelle, Paris.

Alexis Nuselovici (Nouss) is Professor of Comparative Literature at Aix-Marseille University.

Stephanie Sandler is Ernst E. Monrad Professor Slavic Languages and Literature at Harvard University.

Susan Rubin Suleiman is professor emerita at Harvard University and the author, most recently, of The Némirovsky Question: The Life, Death, and Legacy of a Jewish Writer in Twentieth-Century France.

William Mills Todd III is the Harry Tuchman Levin Professor of Literature, Emeritus, Harvard University.

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