In the Shades of Spain: Gor′kij’s Last Legacy

From 1931 to 1935 Gor′kij’s editorial leadership of the Soviet publishing house, “Academia,” made manifest his commitment to issuing classics in world culture, some of which, unrealized, form a part of the unexamined cultural history of the nineteen thirties. Among these is an anthology of Medieval Hebrew-Arabic literature of Spain (eleventh–fourteenth centuries), emblematic of the fate of the Jewish literary intelligentsia in the period of the Spanish Civil War and Soviet literary politics in the years from 1936–1938. The choice of Gor′kij as chief editor of “Academia” had been predicated not only on producing classic works for a Soviet readership, but on showcasing the “Academia” list in the West. The projected publication of Hebrew-Arabic letters of a golden age in Spanish culture emerges as a paradigm through which the aspirations of Gor′kij, the compilers of the anthology, and the poets and specialists who were to be its illustrious contributors, might be understood as Aesopic commentary: History throws up its own unwitting correspondences. My paper, based on the “Academia” archive at RGALI, will make this clear.

In 1936, “Academia” had projected an anthology of the Sephardic Jewish efflorescence in eleventh-to-fourteenth-century Spain for publication within the year. Two volumes, one of belles-lettres, the other, of philosophical and historical writings, were under consideration. Poets Benedikt Livšic, Pavel Antokolskij, and Elizaveta Polonskaja, together with the Jewish historian, S. Cinberg and the leading Orientalist at the Saltykov-Ščedrin Library, Yehiel Ravrebe—all had contracted to collaborate in this effort to bring the gems of Sephardic Jewish literature and learning into the Russian literary canon.

This projected anthology particularly reflected the goals and standards of Gor′kij’s leadership of “Academia” (1931–1935). Indeed, in translating Samuel Hanagid (996–1056) the project stood on the cutting edge of the discipline, for the first authoritative edition of Hanagid’s poetry, taken from manuscripts in the precious Cairo Geniza repository, had been issued in Cambridge, England just two years earlier. The anthology of Hebraeo-Arabic literature of Medieval Spain affirmed Gor′kij’s encouragement of Soviet publications for “Academia” in the science of prosody, such as the volumes that he had co-edited with Brjusov of the poetry of Latvia and Finland. The Hispanic-Hebraeo-Arabic anthology was to have introduced examples of Arabic quantitative metres in the lyric forms of the non-strophic qasida and the strophic muwashshah, as these were assimilated into Hebrew poetry, and it also was to have included selections from medieval theoretical writings on prosody. As such, the planned anthology drew on the full range of the Hispanic Judaeo-Arabic mind. Given to anacreontic lyrics, lyrical reflections on war, and philosophical elegies, it was distinct in its represented genres from collections of modern Hebrew poetry in Russian brought out (1918–1922) by such Russian Modernists as Xodasevič and Jaffe. Above all, this anthology embodied Gor′kij’s lifelong affirmation of Hebrew culture and can be seen as an extension of his policies as founder and chief editor of Universal Library (1919–1924) for which he had solicited the cooperation of Chaim Nachman Bialik, whom he had both protected and extolled in print.

Of all the bizarre twists in the transplantation of Hebraic culture beyond fifteenth century Spain, this, surely, was one of the most paradoxical. The ban on Hebrew culture in Soviet Russia, personified in the mandatory exile of the Habima Theater in 1926 that until then had been protected by Gor′kij, was being stringently enforced. Under the policy of “national in form, socialist in content,” the Sovietization of Jewish culture was in full swing. By 1936 the campaign against Formalism left no place for complexities of lierary expression in any language. Why, then, would a State publishing house choose to revive a literature that had been officially banned?

The history of this volume of Medieval Hebrew literature in translation must be glossed within Russian literary politics of the 1930s. Until late summer 1936, materials had merely trickled into the “Academia” editorial office. By Fall, however, permission to visit libraries outside of Moscow and acceptances from solicited contributors had markedly accelerated. What had happened? In July, the nations of Europe had responded to the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War, proclaiming a new alignment. In counterpoise to rising Fascist Germany, the Soviet Union had rallied to support of the Spanish Republic. The treasures that “Academia” had been gathering from private libraries and that had been on hold in the “Academia” editorial offices, suddenly acquired the immediacy of the embattled Spanish hillside. Eleventh-century Samuel Hanagid who had led Muslim armies to victory against neighboring insurgents now had become a newly discovered warrior of a living Spanish heritage.

There may have been another cultural paradigm at work as well. The poets and philosophers of mid-tenth- to mid-eleventh-century Andalusia had worked with the rulers of the principalities in which they lived, making for an elegant symbiosis of culture and statesmanship. The historical analogy of the relationship of the Jewish writer and his value to the State presumably was not lost on Russia’s cultural panjandrums. Indeed, in it may have been concealed the particular “export” value of the Judaeo-Arabic literary volumes, just as to an extent, the Soviet “export” of writers to cover the Spanish Loyalist cause cloaked the darker side of life at home.

The message did not succeed. In 1938, after a year-and-a-half of successful negotiation and translation, all aspects of the “Academia” anthology of Hebrew literature were blocked. Officially, the project was not proscribed. Rather, “Academia” house abruptly was “restructured.” In its new organization there would be no place for an anthology of Medieval Hebrew Literature, its editors, or its contributors. The purges were in full tilt. Benedikt Livšic and Yehiel Ravrebe were shot. The fate of the translations that they submitted, along with Polonskaja and Antokolskij, is not clear. More than likely, they were destroyed.

Gor′kij’s most recent biographer, Lidija Spiridonova, following Romain Rolland, claims that “the terror in the USSR began not with the murder of Kirov but with the death of Gor′kij” in June of 1936. At that juncture, she asserts, “Academia” was doomed. If so, its projected anthology of Hispanic Hebrew-Arabic poetry reveals it truly to have been dipped in the shades of Spain: in the colors of resistance, reversal—and of “wine”: “Red to the eye, sweet to the drinker, once it goes to the head, it rules the heads of states.”