Hromadske Radio: On Chernivtsi’s Polyphony—Ihor Pomerantsev
Ihor Pomerantsev is a famous poet and journalist, author, and host of the truly cult radio show “Over The Barrier” on Radio Liberty. For the project “Encounters” Ihor Pomerantsev talks about the polyphony of Chernivtsi, and an identity that is very similar to a multi-glazed mosaic. The project “Encounters” is supported by the Ukrainian Jewish Encounter.
Iryna Slavinska: Today’s episode is dedicated to a talk with Ihor Pomerantsev, who is a famous poet and publicist and the author of the cult radio show “Over The Barrier” that has been aired on “Radio Liberty” for several decades now. We are talking about Chernivtsi, the city of polyphony, a city where many cultures blended. Ihor Pomernatsev recalls the languages in Chernivtsi, what nationalities he saw there, and if he experienced any issues with the national question living in Chernivtsi, Kyiv, and other cities. This recording was made during the “Meridian Czernowitz” festival in Ivano-Frankivsk.
Iryna Slavinska: I think it’s worth starting our talk about Chernivtsi, a very multinational city where there are many nationalities in the “city dissident” as you called it, where there are united so many layers and everything is mixed.
Ihor Pomerantsev: I was five years old when I arrived in Chernivtsi. My parents brought me from Transbaikal [a region to the east of Lake Baikal in Russia, editor’s note] and a child does not think in these categories of “multicultural” or even “nationality.” It is very natural for a child to perceive the world first of all through the senses, and erotically in a childish way etc. Coming from Transbaikal, I did not even know that there is such flora as the grape. Thus, for me the first perception of nationality or another nation was the grape. I did not know such a nation. Then, after some time, bit-by-bit, different languages were present in our family, because my father was born in Odessa. He was a military journalist and was writing in Russian. Before the war he worked as the main editor of the Russian-language youth newspaper in Dnipropetrovsk. He was then de-mobilized and was looking for work. There was some difficult campaign against cosmopolitans [An anti-Jewish campaign during the Stalinist era, editor’s note:], and my father from Odessa was not feeling very comfortable. We came to Kyiv and met his friend from Dnipropetrovsk days, Bella, who was at that time a very famous journalist and a very close friend of Brezhnev’s. My father told me that Brezhnev was a famous Don Juan and when my father worked as a night editor Brezhnev would come to the newspaper and this Bella was his lover. And in 1952, when my Father came to Kyiv, Bella told him, “Look, they will be rounding up Jews here, so why did you come?”
We went to provincial Chernivtsi where we had relatives. My father was looking for a job there but nobody wanted to hire him because of his origin. He put on all his medals and said he will spend nights in the newsroom. Most likely, they did not hire him to save him. It was most likely true that they already had lists of Jews for deportation. I suspect that the main editor of the newspaper Soviet Bukovyna told him to go to Putyla. It was the center of syphilis in Bukovyna, somewhere in the mountains. But my mom protested at home, and my father protested in the newspaper, and finally they hired him.
I am telling you this because thanks to this newspaper and to Chernivtsi, I understood that my father is fluent in Ukrainian and he writes in Ukrainian well. Then from all this it started. We arrived at our Russian relatives, and then later my father became friends with the journalists from Soviet Bukovyna. Borys Honcharenko and Fedir Petchenko came to visit us. They became writers afterwards. They were singing in Ukrainian and I understood that there is another language. It was all because of the family. Then we moved from the suburbs to the center, and there I had my Jewish childhood with all of these Jewish kids whose families talked in Yiddish. We spoke Russian at home, the guests were singing in Ukrainian, and all of this was absolutely organic and absolutely natural. Chernivtsi gave me a natural push to the polyphony of languages. From all this started my acoustics of language. I studied at a very good Chernivtsi school and my parents could have for example written a note excusing me from Ukrainian language lessons. I could not even imagine how I would come with such a note to school, and I did not want that. But even if I did ever want to come to my father with that, he would just beat me up. The children of Russian officers were in our class and they had such notes. I got vaccinated for the rest of my life. This experience is so cultural, and that is why I am not speaking in generalizations. This is absolutely in my blood and memory, in my language and acoustic memory. Chernivtsi is therefore for me a natural polyphony of languages.
Iryna Slavinska: And if in the context of this story we are talking about the relations among different nationalities in Chernivtsi? If it is not about the acoustics of language, but about the relations of live people with live people, how did that function?
Ihor Pomerantsev: Listen, in your childhood you are not making any conclusions that this person is Ukrainian, and this person is Russian, and that person Jewish or Moldavian. This came later, at the university, where I understood the problem. In Chernivtsi there was not only the university but also markets. I went with my mom to the markets. I remember that some fat Jewish ladies were bargaining with Hutsul [Ukrainian Carpathian mountaineer, editor’s note] ladies. They found a mutual understanding through their fragments of Yiddish and Hutsul languages. For me it was a little symphony in the symphony. But quite frankly I understood the language problem already at the university.
Iryna Slavinska: How did that happen?
Ihor Pomerantsev: We had Ukrainian and Moldavian philology. There was also Russian. I studied in the English department and already started to write poems. When you write poems, you have a different attitude towards language. You understand that language is a musical instrument and you are the music. There were rumors about Moldavian nationalists, and somebody was expelled, and it was obvious that this nationalism is connected to the language. I mean, the language was seen as politics. At that time such an understanding came to me. Then Ukrainian so-called nationalists appeared. The language was again a political instrument and the young poet starts to think: Why? Why is it like this and not different? For me as a poet, any language—not only your native language—is a treasure and you treat it as something sacred. Therefore, if someone hates or tortures any language, you feel it as your own personal pain. Later on, I read essays by different writers about languages and understood that I am not unique in this way. Elliot, Tolkien—who by the way was a linguist and wrote very nicely about the Anglo-Saxon roots of English, and even wrote about the Welsh language—felt the relationship with languages as if they were a very big part of their lives. In Chernivtsi, I think it became clear to me that there are regimes and countries that want to dominate everything, that want to own everything. These countries are called authoritarian or totalitarian and they want to tame the languages because it is all politics for them.
When I moved to Kyiv in 1972 I already had a feeling. My Chernivtsi experience was rich and multi-lingual. Symphonic. I already knew that a language is not only an instrument for lyrical poetry, but it was something vital and existentially a matter of life or death.
Iryna Slavinska: How was the life of a person who speaks Ukrainian and Russian and has a Jewish origin in Chernivtsi and in Kyiv? Was there any difference?
Ihor Pomerantsev: You understand I have a mixed origin. My last name is more Russian than Jewish. I look like a writer, and that is why my life was not disturbed or ruined.
Iryna Slavinska: So I assume that you never experienced antisemitism?
Ihor Pomerantsev: No, I had the feeling of my origin, but I have never been a victim. All my friends felt this more or less dramatically. I remember when I entered the university in 1965, all my friends left for Siberia. Jews were not allowed to undertake university studies, and they were wunderkind! They all got doctorates when they were 27 or 28 and then they left for the U.S. or Israel. But I always had some sympathy and understanding towards this problem. When I came to Kyiv, antisemitism was state policy at that time. In Kyiv and in Chernivtsi. It is just that in Chernivtsi this Jewish element was very important even though they were only fifteen or twenty percent. But still this nation is very energetic and creative. Destructive and constructive. The presence of Jews in Chernivtsi until the big emigration was notable if not dominant. Their temperament influenced ideas and habits. In Chernivtsi I accepted the Jews as a people like any other—the wealthy, prostitutes, murderers, and so on and this was the way it was. In Moscow, Leningrad, or Kyiv there were different kinds of Jews, you found those with higher education and the elite.
I arrived in Kyiv in 1972 and felt differently and by the end of the summer I understood that Kyiv was frozen in fear. A new wave of repression had started. Many nationally conscious Ukrainians were arrested. I had arrived and there was an atmosphere of fear. Simply fear. A poet took me to visit the journal Vsesvit to talk with the translator from the French Mykhailo Moskalenko. I somehow started citing Nadezhda Mandelstam and talking about samizdat [dissident] literature and Moskalenko raised his eyes to the ceiling. The offices were bugged and they were monitoring conversations and I was an idiot from Chernivtsi. There was a frozen state of fear among the Ukrainian intelligentsia. A new world, a political world, had opened up for me there and I immediately understood on which side of the barricades I should be. As a matter of fact, I had some trouble with the KGB in Chernivtsi. I was under surveillance. I was bringing in samizdat from Moscow. Later I also had created a student club of polyglots where we discussed topics disliked by the authorities and I was not accepted for placement in the Intourist hotel where I could use my foreign language skills. I already knew what was going on but in Kyiv I at last understood the widespread nature of the repression and the tragedy for the language and the culture. I was traveling to Moscow and there dissident Russian writers were hardly ever touched but in Ukraine writers were the targets of repression. I understood that culture is a very important instrument for the articulation of a nation. That’s why in Ukraine the nation was forbidden. You could be a Ukrainian, but the Ukrainian nation was forbidden. That’s why all the repression was targeted at culture, which could articulate the nation. That’s why the world of Ukrainian culture was in the camps.
Iryna Slavinska: Looking at this ratio of Jews in Chernivtsi from one side, where Jews live and are the big part of the stratum, and Kyiv on the other hand, where it was an intellectual elite in particular, as you said, and it was all in the 70s. If you look at this ratio in Ukraine in 2014, how would it work?
Ihor Pomerantsev: I work in Prague, but come here regularly. I know and read about what is going on here and I think that first of all, Ukraine does not have state antisemitism. Secondly, there are not that many Jews in the country. Thirdly, there could be such a phenomenon as phantom hate, but I do not feel it and do not see it. And this is shown by sociological research and surveys. When I came to Munich I was thirty years old and met some young Ukrainians there of my age, and in talking to them I understood that they are absolutely new western people. They were very ashamed of the antisemitism of their parents. I felt that also in London, where they talked about that openly.
Iryna Slavinska: In London among Ukrainians?
Ihor Pomerantsev: Yes, among Ukrainians who grew up in London and who knew that it was bad form to be racist, etc. You are asking about 2014, and I think that there is a similar situation to the one I have seen in Germany in 1978 or in London in 1980. The young generation pushes away phobias; this is something archaic from the nineteenth century for them. Of course not everyone, but the general atmosphere is European and tolerant. These problems can be discussed, but it is not even that interesting to talk about them because they are not relevant.
Iryna Slavinska: During the discussion that you moderated at the festival “Meridian Czernowitz” in Chernivtsi in the fall, the poet from Odessa Borys Khersonskyi was talking about identity and he said that there are cities such as Chernivtsi or Odessa where the identity consists of a mosaic of small glazed pieces. How can this metaphor be used towards the description of the Ukrainian identity in general and its multicultural feeling, taking into consideration all the nationalities that live here and lived here, and taking into consideration all the languages that are and were here?
Ihor Pomerantsev: Western political scientists often say that Ukraine is similar to Poland and Ukraine should somehow be oriented towards Poland. This is a big mistake. Poland is more or less a homogeneous country with a strong ethnic identity. Ukraine is much richer from the demographic point of view. We should think of England or America and not Poland as a model, though of course the western orientation is good. Ukraine therefore has the great potential to be some sort of symphony. I think this potential of Ukraine is its treasure. Many languages are spoken in the country: there are Crimean Tatars, and Germans, Jews, and Poles. Chernivtsi provided me the first lesson of this and the entire Ukraine is like a big Chernivtsi for me. You know, it is so good that Ukraine speaks different languages, that it is a giant acoustic choir. This delights me when I come to Ukraine. Working at the radio in the ars-accoustic genre, the art of sound, I perceive Ukraine as a godsend for the radio person who works in this genre. This is not just due to Ukrainian politics or my close friends but a phenomenon, an acoustic phenomenon of European import for me. She sings to me in different voices.
Iryna Slavinska: You were listening to the show “Encounters” that is broadcasted with the support of the Ukrainian Jewish Encounter. Iryna Slavinska was working in the studio. Listen. Think.
Originally appeared in: https://hromadskeradio.org/programs/zustrichi/pro-bagatogolossya-chernivciv-igor-pomerancev
Translated by: Olesya Kravchuk, journalist, interpreter
Additional translation and editing by Peter Bejger