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Putin Makes Peace, but Not Before His Minions Try To Kill Jewish Poet Boris Khersonsky

As the Russian leader tightens his grip on the region, who will be the last to flee the fighting?

Vladislav Davidzon
February 13, 2015
(Tablet Magazine)

(Tablet Magazine)

As Vladmir Putin celebrates yet another diplomatic victory by force, one element of that victory has gone largely unreported in the Western media: the terrorist bombing campaign widely ascribed to clandestine Russian intelligence services that has been carried out weekly across the southern cities such as Kherson, Zaporizhye, Dnipropitrovsk. On Tuesday, on the eve of the Minsk II negotiations, the latest of these attacks targeted the home of the famous Russian-Jewish poet and clinical psychologist Boris Khersonsky in Odessa, where about a dozen similar bombings took place in the last two months. The doors, floors, and windows of Khersonsky’s apartment were blown out, and extensive damage was done to some of the rooms. (Full disclosure: I am a friend of the Khersonsky family.) The same floor of the building also housed a hostel that is currently hosting refugees from Donetsk and Lughansk.

The bomb had been hidden under a pile of garbage bags that lay between the apartment and the hostel. Khersonsky no longer lives at the apartment, but the apartment constituted the poet’s official registered address in city records. His ex-wife Tatiana Khersonska was present at the time of the explosion and has suffered acute hearing loss. The attack took place as Presidents Hollande, Merkel, and Poroshenko arrive in the Bielorussian capital on the eve of the second round of Minsk protocol negotiations that would reward Putin for sponsoring the violence of Russian-backed separatists and for a string of similar attacks.

Stylistically a quirky classicist, Khersonsky is likely Ukraine’s best-known Russian language poet. A graphomaniacally productive writer, he is the author of over two-dozen volumes of poetry (including an excellent bestiary and the slyly heterodox Hasidic Sayings), as well as collections of essays and memoirs. Over the last year he has been exceedingly candid commentator in his defense of Ukrainian sovereignty. Now one of the numerous death threats that the outspokenly pro-Ukrainian poet had received over the last several months has been acted upon. The blast took place after Khersonsky had posted a widely read post denouncing the bombings.

In addition to being a poet, Khersonsky is often quoted in places like The New Yorker on questions relating to Odessa’s literary history and the city’s tradition of multicultural tolerance. When Odessa erupted in deadly violence last spring, Khersonsky was cited in a piece in The Wall Street Journal reminding readers that the port retains its identity as a cosmopolitan and fiercely autonomous city:

Odessa is very different from the heavily Russian Crimea and from the industrial Donetsk region with a significant Russian population. Although it is mostly a Russian-speaking city, it is a true melting pot of cultures, where no single national idea predominates. “Separatism here is inspired from the outside,” said Boris Khersonsky, a prominent Odessa poet and psychologist, who is Jewish. “Odessa would like to be independent from everyone.”

Khersonsky is also the real-life model for the character of Pasha, a stubbornly recalcitrant poet who refuses to emigrate to America with the rest of his family, in his niece Yelena Akhtiorskaya’s critically acclaimed novel Panic in a Suitcase.

The poet’s son Michael Khersonsky is a filmmaker who has recently left war-torn Ukraine to work in documentary film production in New York City. His wife and baby son were out of the apartment at the time of the explosion. Michael informed me that the family was being helped by multitudes of people who answered a message he posted on Facebook and added, “I am very grateful to them. We are being assisted by the city authorities and by cadres of volunteers. Unfortunately no one can provide us with the main thing—a guarantee of our safety.” He said, “I am very worried about my family and loved ones.”

This vicious, squalid, and brutal attack was a targeted assassination attempt against a very great poet and his lovely family who belong to the core of Odessa’s artistic intelligentsia and cultural life. While it is certainly a case of moral senselessness, the assault’s logic however was not arbitrary. Odessa, as has become widely known over the past six months, is a critical junction for the expansion of the so called “Novorossiya,” the fledgling state entity that the Kremlin is attempting to fashion in southern Ukraine. Along with the besieged port of Mariupol, Odessa is Ukraine’s last remaining port in the wake of the Crimean annexation. Without an exit onto the Black Sea, its export economy would quickly collapse. The linking of the Crimean peninsula to mainland Russia across the Kerch Strait is an engineering problem of famous proportions. The costs of both of Moscow’s recently proposed bridge-and-tunnel projects are estimated to run into the tens of billions of dollars. It is widely believed that the Kremlin would instead prefer to annex a direct road linking the autonomous Moldovan breakaway region of Transnistria and the Crimean peninsula that the Russians have already taken—and that the world seems prepared to let them have.

Last spring, Russian intelligence services attempted to foment a separatist rebellion in proudly Russophone Odessa, utilizing the same techniques that they had used successfully in the armed takeover of the cities of Lughansk and Donetsk. Those attempts sputtered to a halt outside of Dombass, though not before 48 citizens of Odessa lost their lives in street clashes. After the rebellion fizzled out, the Ukrainian interior ministry culled the higher ranks of the Odessa police force of pro-Russian officers and influences.

Yet the terrorist bombing campaign carried out around the large population centers of southern Ukraine has succeeded in terrorizing both its ordinary and extraordinary citizens alike. It is a craven tactic, but it looks likely to pay dividends to its Kremlin sponsors in the social flight of people like Khersonsky, who have chosen thus far not to emigrate. In his social network profile, Khersonsky wrote candidly that when he is asked what he would do if a “Donetsk-style scenario” played out in Odessa, he replies that he will “tuck the cats under my armpits and leave.” That he could “not and would not want to live under the Putinist regime. Which would be a most difficult decision—especially in relation to the cats.”

After the bombing, Boris Khersonksy struck back by publishing a poem:

explosions norm of life coming to terms with them you
stop noticing man it be your end
the sapper and demolition man arm-in-arm in the park
whisper in each other’s ear what are they saying

get the gist of the action shovel means undermine
conspiracy means undermine, underhanded means overkill
granny grew plain dill* under the rain that fell mainly
elderly lady means elderberry, God means year

you get the gist of death out of the blue avalanche
gist of vodka for mortals to handle loss
mind means undermined means over and out
black square of a mustache means till death do we part

sapper and demolition pal arm-in-arm in the alley
terminating angel beholds them holds them with love
we are unfreebirds good night sweet prints turning read
shines the black sun the no one’s rose of a shell shard

(Translated from Russian by Vladislav Davidzon and Eugene Ostashevsky.)

*Ukrop is a slang neologism that literally means “dill” in Russian. It is a derogatory term for Ukrainians with roots in the fighting of the Dombass, which was later appropriated by the Ukranians and became something Ukrainians refer to themselves as. It now adorns patriotic T-shirts with a picture of dill and word ukrop.


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Vladislav Davidzon, the Chief Editor of The Odessa Review, is a Russian-American writer, translator, and critic. He was born in Tashkent, Uzbekistan, and lives in Paris.

Vladislav Davidzon is Tablet’s European culture correspondent and a Russian American writer, translator, and critic. He is the Chief Editor of The Odessa Review and a Non-Resident Fellow at the Atlantic Council. He was born in Tashkent, Uzbekistan, and lives in Paris.