A Riddle of Art and Identity

A Riddle of Art and Identity

Shrayer explores Russian poet Eduard Bagritskii's curious and tragic life

By Sean Smith
Chronicle Editor

The 20th-century Russian poet Eduard Bagritskii's life was a relatively short one, says Asst. Prof. Maxim D. Shrayer (Slavic and Eastern Languages). But his experiences as a Jewish artist in a repressive, anti-Semitic society offer lessons that go beyond the realm of literature.

Shrayer discusses these issues in his recent book, Russian Poet/Soviet Jew: The Legacy of Eduard Bagritskii, using an historical context to augment his biographical and literary assessment of the poet. Shrayer's book also includes the first English translations of his major writings.

The life and work of Bagritskii (1895-1934), Shrayer says, offer classic themes such as the riddle of assimilation and self-identity, and the allure - and inevitable disappointment - of utopian society.

"He is very typical of that generation of Jewish artists who entered the mainstream of non-Jewish society and culture," said Shrayer. "He is also a perfect case study of the limits of assimilation - something which has broad meaning for the United States of America, a nation of immigrants.

"His life raises many questions: Is assimilation truly possible? Who determines the degree to which someone is assimilated? And when we can say this truly happens?"

A native of Odessa, Bagritskii enthusiastically embraced Bolshevism, participating in the February 1917 Revolution and the Russian Civil War. As Shrayer explains, Bagritskii believed that the liberated Jews of the Russian Empire would enjoy harmony with their fellow Soviet citizens, and no longer be victimized by ethnic strife.

But Bagritskii was disillusioned by the wave of anti-Semitism that swept Soviet society in the late 1920s, Shrayer said. He realized that Soviet ideology not only demanded that Jews shed their cultural, historical, and religious identity but also encouraged them to engage in a Soviet brand of Jewish self-hatred.
Asst. Prof. Maxim D. Shrayer (Slavic and Eastern Languages)

Bagritskii's later years were marked by a critical examination of his own Jewish identity, Shrayer said. Having previously rejected his Jewish self, he returned to a biblical notion of Jewish selfhood. Bagritskii's last testament, the narrative poem "February," is a controversial story of a Jewish youth's rejection by and subsequent triumph over an ethnic Russian girl from the upper class.

"His experience represents one of the key, and most painful questions in Jewish 20th-century history: Why did Jews become involved in movements, like the Russian Revolution, that ran counter to their whole nature as Jews?" Shrayer said. "As the Soviet Union fades further into history, we are only just beginning to gain a perspective."

Shrayer will revisit these themes in an Oct. 19 lecture that will accompany the forthcoming McMullen Museum of Art exhibition on the Russian advant-garde.

Many of the artists featured in the exhibition are Jewish, he points out, and dealt with many of the same questions as Bagritskii.

"They had a dual identity they were always trying to negotiate," Shrayer said. "As in Bagritskii's works, the implications of what's in their art go well beyond the actual artwork itself."

Shrayer's lecture, titled "Jewish Identity, the Soviet Avant-Garde and the Limits of Assimilation," will take place Oct. 19 at 7:30 p.m. in Devlin 101.


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