About one hundred and fifty Slavists of all ages gathered in the Dominicuskerk in Amsterdam on Sunday at the invitation of bookshop Pegasus. Not that they were worried about the state of Russian literature, which some say is in danger of being canceled because of the war in Ukraine. Nor did they look for new talent that might have escaped the Kremlin’s clutches as a result of that war to end up as a Marian apparition in the lap of Saint Dominic.
No, it was about the writers of the 1920s, such as Anatoli Mariëngof, Daniil Kharms, Velimir Khlebnikov and Isaak Babel. The name of one Konstantin Vaginov also fell, who interested me so much that I looked him up in A History of Russian Literature by Andrew Kahn and associates. Die Vaginov (1899-1934) appears to have published two extraordinary novels about young intellectuals who cannot comprehend the revolution of 1917 and the civil war. One of those novels is called The Song of the Goat (1928) and is a tragicomic story, in which goats symbolize the intellectuals crushed by the Bolsheviks. Vaginov would no doubt have shared that fate had he not died of TB at the beginning of the Stalin terror. His books did not appear again until the 1970s, first in the West and from the late 1980s also in his native country.
Now that millions of Russians have left their country in protest against the war in Ukraine, there is a fifth wave of emigration since the revolution of 1917. Russian literary life has also moved on that wave from Moscow and Saint Petersburg to Berlin, Yerevan, Tbilisi , Tel Aviv, New York, Istanbul and Amsterdam. The writer Maxim Osipov recently moved to the latter city. He and his publisher have now come up with the idea of setting up an exil publishing house and publishing anthologies for those exiles. It remains a plan for the time being, because first the money still has to be on the table. But if it works it would be nice. It somehow reminds me of the days, a century ago, when Vladimir Nabokov published his first three Russian novels in Berlin.
When I got home I hit the awesome two piece Russian Literary History by Willem Weststeijn after it. The work is a candy store with articles on the most diverse writers and themes from Russian literature, which he published in newspapers and magazines over the decades. I read it for hours, looking for writers from those four previous waves of emigration. And then I suddenly came across esquire William Karl Siewertsz from Reesema. He had joined the Communist Party in 1909 and emigrated to Moscow in 1924, where he went to work for the Comintern. He married a descendant of a famous Russian royal family, with whom he had a son, Jan William, in 1934. That son is still alive. Since 1990 he regularly publishes collections of poems under the name Aleksandr Argutinsky-Dolgoroeki.
When his father William Karl was unable to translate Stalin’s work, he kept files on Dutch comrades in Moscow. On the basis of that information, they were arrested and executed during the Stalin terror. He himself died of a heart attack in 1949. His son ended up in an orphanage. I could write a novel about it.
A version of this article also appeared in the newspaper of September 23, 2022