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The Other Svetlana Boym

For years, the late Harvard professor Svetlana Boym refused to acknowledge her Soviet self. After her cancer diagnosis, she finally looked backward.

Anthony David
April 29, 2021
Courtesy Judith Wechsler
Courtesy Judith Wechsler
Courtesy Judith Wechsler
Courtesy Judith Wechsler

At the memorial service for Harvard professor Svetlana Boym on Oct. 27, 2015, fellow faculty members lined up to laud her intellectual daring, frenetic vitality, and originality—her 2001 book, The Future of Nostalgia, changed how scholars look at memory and forever linked her name with the concept of nostalgia. Yet, since arriving at Harvard for graduate school in the 1980s, Svetlana had done her best to forget about her childhood and adolescence in Russia—not because she had been traumatized, but because the pull of those years threatened to derail her smooth assimilation into American life. Six months before her cancer diagnosis, she wrote an essay in Tablet in defense of this decision: “Immigrant resilience is built on forgetting and working towards a new start. What will the backward glance accomplish?”

Unmentioned during either her essay or her funeral service were the autobiographical stories and the novel she began drafting after falling ill, which she wrote in response to a challenge that a mentor in Leningrad had given her 40 years earlier—to examine the “ultimate meaning of life.” The way she responded to her mentor’s challenge debunked much of the scholarly oeuvre her esteemed colleagues had gathered to celebrate.

Svetlana kept her illness secret from all but a few close friends, mostly fellow immigrants, emigres, and internationals joined in “diasporic intimacy in the midst of the habitual estrangement of everyday life abroad,” as she wrote in her posthumously published book, The Off-Modern.

Maria Zervos, a Greek visual artist and poet, belonged to this inner circle. They became friends years earlier when Maria was a visiting fellow at the university. Once radiation and chemo began, Maria came by Svetlana’s house once a week to drop off Tupperware containers of homecooked meals, read poetry, and do reiki. Svetlana nicknamed her “my female Homer.”

One evening in February, after Maria read one of her own poems, Svetlana bolted upright and asked Maria, “Is Harvard killing me?” Maria knew Svetlana wasn’t blaming the university for her cancer. Her friend was really asking whether she brought on her own downfall, like the tragic hero Icarus. She reinvented herself to succeed in America, but what part of her did she have to deny in the process?

Svetlana began sending her friends snippets of autobiographical stories inspired by what she called the “immense energy of cosmic dreaming” provided by her Soviet childhood. With the time she had left, she was determined to recapture her youthful dream of becoming what she called the “last clumsy storyteller” from a “displaced dynasty.”

Without fail, from the age of 12 through high school, twice during the week after school and on Saturdays, Svetlana trooped over to the Daring Club housed at Prince Potemkin’s former villa, expropriated and renamed by the Bolsheviks as the Palace of Pioneers. Izrail Fridliand, who looked like a mixture of Leon Trotsky and a mad scientist, taught his students that truthfulness was the most essential tool of fiction. His motto came from Dostoyevsky: “Above all, don’t lie to yourself. The man who lies to himself and listens to his own lie comes to a point that he cannot distinguish the truth within him, or around him, and so loses all respect for himself and for others. And having no respect he ceases to love.”

Members called themselves “Daredevils” because the club demanded decisiveness, audacity, and the determined pursuit of the truth. Literature was no mere academic subject; rather, it was a way of life, a calling, a moral imperative.

Sitting in the waiting room at Dana-Farber Cancer Institute one morning before chemo, Svetlana pulled out her notebook from 1975 and reread an entry she had bookmarked, in which she recounts Fridliand’s formula for becoming a real writer. To measure up to the dynasty of masters that preceded them, he told aspiring young fiction writers, they had to play the long game. Instead of making a name for themselves by producing propaganda or easy entertainment, they had to “stifle the ego—the ‘I’—and think about people around them, about the home.”

As her condition deteriorated, Svetlana continued working on a series of interconnected autobiographical stories that blended fact with fiction. Straining to reclaim the memories she had spent years erasing, Svetlana emailed and called old Russian friends and pelted her parents, Musa and Yuri, with questions. She also scoured the internet for information on the avant-garde children’s book authors she had read as a child, who formed her sense of beauty, courage, truth, and friendship.

One such author was Kornei Chukovsky, who together with his fellow Jewish writer Samuil Yakovlevich Marshak founded the Daring Club in 1962. When she mentioned his name to Musa, her mother reminded her how they had read Chukovsky’s story of Doctor Aibolit or Dr. Ouch-It-Hurts a hundred times. The conversation jogged her memory; eventually Svetlana recalled how Dr. Ouch-It-Hurts led her to a “world of painted lakes and singing monkeys, where small human deeds really matter and there is still a place for artistic play and random kindness.” Svetlana marveled at Chukovsky, who had the courage to stay in the Soviet Union, though he could easily have emigrated to the U.S. or Israel, and inspired millions of Soviet children with his gentle humanity.

Svetlana spent hours on the phone with her best childhood friend Natasha, who became a physician and lived with her husband and son in the city renamed St. Petersburg. They talked about the open discussions and debates on books at the Daring Club, how Izrail Fridliand shared with them Solzhenitsyn’s illegal Gulag Archipelago, whispered jokes about the KGB, spoke openly about the depredations of Stalinism, and assigned writing assignments on Big Ideas.

In March, a scan showed that the main tumor in her abdomen was still growing. Battling the pain, exhaustion, and bouts of nausea, Svetlana explored the meaning of life by fictionalizing her situation. In the fragmentary novel found on her computer after her death, a disenchanted professor writes a novel about her Soviet youth.

The professor, named Inna Punina, is an immigrant from Leningrad who, in the early 1990s, landed a job at the Center for Russian and Eurasian Studies within an unnamed university in Boston. In a key scene that launches Inna on her quest to write her novel, she attends a faculty meeting where she proposes to protest Putin’s 2014 power grab in the Crimea by renaming their department from the Center for Russian and Eurasian Studies to the “Center for the Study of the Crimea and Caucasus.”

“We must discuss this matter objectively,” one esteemed colleague responds, “and without taking sides.”

“Excuse me,” Inna responds, raising her voice, “people are objectively dying there. And young boys are recruited to fight fascism.”

“Let’s stay away from emotional arguments at the moment,” adds a senior faculty member, waving off her concerns.

Inna excuses herself to go to the bathroom—their indifference to human suffering makes her want to vomit. “I am having motion sickness … Why are we here? To expand the world, to make meaning!” Inna recalls how as a teenager in Leningrad she used to write essays on the “meaning of life,” and even if her fellow professors in America roll their eyes at such questions, she cannot live without them. “Oh my God, I am so ridiculously Russian after all.”

With the time she had left, she was determined to recapture her youthful dream of becoming what she called the ‘last clumsy storyteller’ from a ‘displaced dynasty.’

Inna—single, childless, and burned out—finally sees through the Potemkin village of her own scholarship. “She wrote a book about forgetting and its role in cultural survival,” she pronounces, addressing herself in the third person. “She didn’t just forget her forgetting—she justified it theoretically.”

Inna then turns away from scholarship and writes a novel called Loving and Leaving: My Autobiography. In this novel-within-a-novel, a character named Lena meets a man on a Crimean beach in 1979 and immigrates with him to America even though “she was too young to want to love, she was seeking adventure.” Lena ends up living on the East Coast, middle-aged and lonely, hooked on antidepressants.

The story’s second main character, also named Lena, makes a different choice that day on the beach. She rejects the man’s offer to take her to America and returns to Leningrad, where she eventually marries a man named Boris. Lena, Boris, and their son Yurochka, named after Pasternak’s hero from Doctor Zhivago, share a cramped, two-room, Khrushchev-era apartment with Boris’ nosy yet loving Jewish parents, a couple of blocks from Lena’s old high school.

Lena gets a job as a fifth-grade teacher and “from a very progressive point of view, opens her students’ eyes to life.” Despite hardships, she and Boris have a loving marriage.

In a scene Svetlana wrote after a fateful doctor’s visit in June, Lena drives her son to kindergarten, and on the way, she sings the theme song from the animated cartoon series Cheburashka, the Soviet Mickey Mouse. Cheburashka, an eternal optimist, was also a Jewish icon because his creators, Yiddish-speakers at an animation studio in Moscow, turned the happy creature into an everyday hero devoted to building a better, freer, more just socialist society.

After drafting chapters of her novel about Inna Punina, Svetlana continued writing a series of short stories about her early years, which variously describe her childhood growing up in the communal apartment, her adventures in the parks and courtyards of her section of Leningrad, her life with her family, her school years, her rites of passage in the communist system, her dreams of becoming a writer, and the reason she decided to emigrate.

In her final story, she tackles the question about the meaning of life by creating the character of Zenita, a version of Svetlana who, like Inna Punina’s second Lena, stays in Leningrad after high school, despite her disillusionment with the Soviet regime’s corruption and hypocrisy.

Zenita reads Russian fiction voraciously, risks arrest by attending secret meetings of dissidents who discuss smuggled chapters of the Gulag Archipelago, and writes short stories about her everyday life. She yearns for a true partner who shares her humanist ideals, and eventually, she finds him.

In her 20s, Zenita marries Yurochka, the same name Lena gave her son. She learns how to handle his Jewish mother who believes no woman can ever be good enough for her child, teaches high school math, becomes a mother, and devotes her free time to activism: “Zenita took her firm stand for justice inside the country,” Svetlana wrote shortly before she died, clinging to the values of “peace, internationalism and love between people” she was raised on. She seeks to “improve the system from within, tries to make it better, not leave it. Zenita … is the one who wouldn’t need to emigrate.”

The years pass, and Putin reestablishes authoritarian rule, but Zenita continues publishing short stories and literary essays and fighting for a free society in the spirit of the Daring Club. “In my heart of hearts,” Svetlana wrote at the end of the story, “I know that Zenita is right.”

In a scene she wrote during the month leading up to surgery on July 20, Svetlana and Zenita have a chance encounter in the city renamed St. Petersburg. Zenita marvels at how “glamorous,” strong, and independent the free-spirited American professor seems. But she also notes “something ungrounded about her.” Out of discretion, she refrains from asking if Svetlana has love in her life.

That night, Zenita compares her prosaic life to Svetlana’s “enchanted expanding world” and questions her decision to stay in impoverished Russia—that is, until she falls asleep “touching Yurochka’s beloved body ever so slightly.” Doubts disappear, and in the morning she “puts on some eye cream to cover her blues. For the blues are just a part of life. Zenita remains grounded and strong.”

Eye cream won’t cover up Svetlana’s blues. With two failed marriages and her health rapidly declining, she finds herself “staring at the ceiling, letting angry short circuits of thought overwhelm my best ideas and sparks of wonder.” She imagines Zenita snapping in anger, “You are the one who got all our chances”—and just look what you’ve done! Where’s the meaning in your life? Where’s the purpose? Is it really enough to be a professor in victorious America? Has America even won the Cold War? Maybe everyone lost.

As the story continues, Svetlana, filled with regret about her life’s decisions, watches a PBS special featuring Yuval Harari’s Sapiens: A Brief History of Humanity. Sapiens, she concludes, is a “foreboding scientific fairy tale” in which “humanity in the future gets superseded by super-reach cyborgs of inhuman longevity.”

Such “dystopian” technological modernism, she concludes, poses a far greater “threat to humanity” than the socialist “utopianism” she was raised on in Leningrad.

Reflections on the Western “dystopia” leads Svetlana back to Zenita. In her youth, her doppelganger “drew pictures of rockets, looked at photographs of animals and people who traveled into space and wanted to see a real Sputnik—which in Russian means both a satellite and a life companion.” The comment on the dual meaning of Sputnik captures for Svetlana the meaning of life, which isn’t to be found by fleeing the planet or changing countries. It is possible in all places and at all times, because it is inseparable from love and from fighting tirelessly to improve the conditions of life wherever you happen to be.

“Maybe now,” Svetlana concludes after finally addressing her mentor’s challenge, “I can extend my hand to that little Soviet dreamer.”

 After an unsuccessful surgery, Svetlana Boym died on Aug. 5, 2015.

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.

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