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  • In the Shades of Spain:Gor′kii’s Last Legacy to Hebrew Literature
  • Ruth Rischin (bio)

The ideological rivalry between two modern Jewish literary cultures in Soviet Russia, resolved shortly after the Bolshevik Revolution by the expulsion and ostracism of the Hebrew and the official empowerment of the Yiddish, is dramatically resurrected in an unknown episode of the mid-1930s. Recorded in the documents of the publishing house "Academia" that I examined at the Russian State Archive of Literature and Art are the detailed plans, initiated in 1936, for publication – in 1938, no less – of a Russian anthology of selected works of the Hebrew poets, prose writers, and philosophers of the Golden Age of Muslim Spain from the 10th to the 13th century.1 Texts as distant from the edicts of the Proletkul't as lehayims of the brimming wine cup resurface in these "Academia" proposals, contracts, assignment of lines, and handwritten copies of projected tables of contents.2 There is nothing more, as if on the scattered sheets before me had been inscribed: "My name is Ozymandias, king of kings: / Look on my works ye Mighty, and despair!"3 And yet, set against the murky context of national minority politics and Stalinist aspirations in Spain in the 1930s, a [End Page 513] publication history of this projected volume can be reconstructed. That narrative is the subject of the discussion that follows.

Over 750 years before Shelley wrote his Ozymandias sonnet, Samuel Hanagid, Hebrew poet, statesman, and military hero, also known by his Arabic name as Isma'il ibn Nagrela, led the Zirids of Granada against the Abbadids of Seville.4 Taking pause at day's end, the poet surveyed his troops billeted in a town repeatedly laid waste across the centuries, and he wrote:

I bade my troops encamp once at a townThat enemies had razed in ancient times.Where are the folkWho long ago inhabited this place?Where are the men who built and those who wrecked?They've exchanged their palaces for sepulchers.They've moved from lovely mansions into dirt.Never forget my soul, that one day soonThis mighty host and I will share their doom.5

Samuel Hanagid was to have been given a prominent place in this anthology, authorized in early winter of 1936 by "Academia," the flagship scholarly publishing house of Soviet Russia, headed by Maksim Gor'kii from 1931–35. It was to consist of works by Hebrew writers who had assimilated the genres and forms of Arabic letters – men trained in medicine, science, and linguistics, who had made their way into caliphate circles, where they functioned as patrons of culture and as national policy makers, and in the case of Samuel Hanagid, as a general of the Muslim armies.6 Three volumes were to be published between 1938 and 1942, devoted to poetry, prose narratives, history, and philosophy, with supplements giving the Arabic, Hebrew, and in some cases, Spanish, of given texts.7

This anthology came to "Academia" at a time when Gor'kii, once the reigning dean of Russia's literary culture, and now fallen from favor, lay critically [End Page 514] ill in the Crimea, confined to house arrest.8 Curiously, the initiator of this anthology was neither an "Academia" insider nor a literary scholar. He was the well-placed communist apparatchik, Semen Markovich Dimanshtein, former Commissar of the Jewish Section (Evsektsiia) of the Commissariat of Nationalities, the main agency behind the Sovietization of Jewish cultural life from 1918 to 1930.9 That Commissariat had decreed that Yiddish was to be the only recognized Soviet Jewish language.10 In those very years, Russia's Hebrew writers, most notably, Chaim Nakhman Bialik, had been driven out of Soviet Russia, all institutions of Hebrew cultural life had been closed, and any Zionist affiliation was suspect.

In 1936 Dimanshtein, subsequently head of the State Research Institute on the Nationalities of the USSR, made a proposal to "Academia" that, given the ideological orientation of his Soviet state function, could only be viewed as a betrayal of his office – the issuing of an anthology of Hebrew-Arabic literature of medieval Spain that would outclass any competing project initiated in the West...


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