Slavonic item of the month : May 2014

This month, we look at a 2011 set of poetry by Lev Rubinshtein printed on hundreds of index cards, replicating Rubinshtein’s own kartoteka (card catalogue) approach to the physical recording of his poetry.  The piece starts off with a reflection on this year’s Victory Day and Rubinshtein’s role as a dissident figure in modern Russia. 

Cards from Lev Rubinshtein's Chetyre teksta iz Bol’shoi kartoteki (2014.6.85-88)

Cards from Lev Rubinshtein’s Chetyre teksta iz Bol’shoi kartoteki (2014.6.85-88)

This month saw Victory Day on May the 9th, originally the Soviet annual celebration of the end of World War II and still celebrated by many post-Soviet states, Russia primary among them.  Given the appalling military and civilian losses caused by the Eastern Front and its attendant atrocities, this day of celebration is always painfully underscored by the unparalleled cost of victory.  For many in Eastern Europe, memory of the war has the awful added dimension of a particularly complex relationship with the Soviets and Nazis.  The continued turmoil in Ukraine has shown both how little the ghosts of the 20th century seem to have been put to rest and also how quickly people jump to exploit them, using sweeping generalisations and heightened emotional language to cause further division and mutual resentment.

The 2014 Victory Day was therefore a source of concern and nervousness for many, with the emphasis on WWII history having been a major factor in the stirring up of public opinion over the Ukrainian upheaval and the incorporation of Crimea into Russia.  On the day, news agencies focused on the prolonged Red Square military parade and Putin’s visit to Crimea.  With headline-grabbing political posturing and extreme public opinions on offer, there was little appetite in the press to focus on the more thoughtful and sober marking of an emotional and difficult day of remembrance by ordinary people.  And this is where Lev Rubinshtein comes in.

Described in Mark Lipovetskii’s article on him in the 2004 volume Russian writers since 1980 (R718.60, v. 285) as “one of the most prominent poets of Russian conceptualism and postmodernism”, Rubinshtein has in recent years also become a major figure on the current dissident scene.  As many others, Rubinshtein has an active and popular presence on social media – through his Twitter account, for example, and his facebook page.  The latter, not restricted by the word (or, rather, character) limit of the former, is where he posts lengthier reflections as well as anecdotes and poems.  While he never shies away from speaking out against human rights abuses, hypocrisies, and intolerances, what runs through all Rubinshtein’s posts is a sense of simple humanity and decency, free from deep-dyed political or tribal affiliation.  Many of his posts are in fact reminders to his readers of the basic values and basic happinesses too often lost sight of in anxiety and anger.  It is worth learning Russian simply to read Rubinshtein’s posts.

His post on the 9th of May was typically simple and moving, shifting his own and his readers’ minds away from any cynical and political exploitation of the day to personal and family memories.  What he writes is simply his family’s experience which, although it is therefore a particular set of memories, is written for commemorative and not political purposes.  The post is provided below in a rough and ready translation.  [Towards the end, Rubinshtein refers to “coloured ribbons,” referring to the proliferation of commemorative ribbons seen in some part as empty and needless symbols.]

Many people say that our day of celebration has been stolen.  Yes, we are up to our necks in streams of aggressive vulgarity, of shouting, of pathos and the rending of clothes.  And this has only grown and grown in recent years.  So it is.  But on this day I will still bring out and study an old photo of my father which he sent from the Leningrad front.  A photo which shows him with new insignia.  A photo which made my brother, aged 5, on seeing it, ask my mother so loudly that the whole queue for bread heard it, “Mama!  Who’s more important – Papa or Stalin?”  I will still remember how that same brother could never, to the end of his life, quit the habit of collecting crumbs left on the table and eating them.  I will still remember my mother’s stories of that wonderful night when no-one slept because they were all waiting for an ANNOUNCEMENT.  And when that announcement came through, the whole of Moscow poured out onto the streets and went to the centre.  There they cried and laughed, and strangers hugged each other.  Neither they, nor I, nor we needed then nor need now to cover ourselves in coloured ribbons.  Therefore no-one can ever steal anything from us.  Happy Victory Day, my friends.

he four boxes containing Lev Rubinshtein's Chetyre teksta iz Bol’shoi kartoteki (2014.6.85-88)

The four boxes containing Lev Rubinshtein’s Chetyre teksta iz Bol’shoi kartoteki (2014.6.85-88)

Rubinshtein was first published in the 1970s, in Russian samizdat and foreign publications.  The University Library’s holdings of his work, in terms of his own books, do not go so far back.  An author search of Rubinshtein, Lev shows that we have in total seven books by Rubinshtein at the moment; we have also got several more currently on order.  The oldest at the time of writing is a 1998 set of essays (Sluchai iz iazyka (translated in Lipovetskii’s article as ‘Happenings of language’), 2011.8.2374), and the sole non-Russian item is a 2001 translation into English of poems, published in the Glas new Russian writing series (Here I amL756.c.112.27).  The item picked out as the May item of the month is much more recent, a particularly interesting set of poetry published in 2011.

Lipovetskii refers to Rubinshtein’s “distinctively personal literary genre, a kind of multirhythmic and multidiscursive poem in the form of the card catalogue” – the kartoteka style of writing on catalogue index cards which the poet first employed in the early 1970s while he was working as a bibliographer (he was a librarian for over 20 years).  Lipovetskii says that Rubinshtein “describes his initial impulse to use this highly unorthodox form for his poetic experiments as a desire to combine visual and verbal media.”  In 2011, the publisher Vremia produced a set of four boxed Rubinshtein poems printed on cards, imitating the kartoteka.  The title of the overall set is Chetyre teksta iz Bol’shoi kartoteki (Four texts from the Large Kartoteka), and the four poems it contains date from 1986 to 2006.  The two illustrations used on this page show, first, the initial cards of the third poem (1993’s Melankholicheskii al’bom (Melancholic album)) and, second, the four boxes of the set.

Chetyre teksta iz Bol’shoi kartoteki can be ordered to the Library’s West Room (classmark 2014.6.85-88).

The Slavonic item of the month feature aims to celebrate, through examination of particular pieces, the diversity and riches of Cambridge University Library’s Slavonic collections.  It has been running since April 2013.  Items featured in previous months can be found here on the Slavonic webpages.

Mel Bach

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