Teaching Ukrainian Culture as if it were Russian

A former public affairs officer at the U.S. Embassy in Ukraine explained to me a few years ago how they were trying to help Ukrainian institutions to train Ukrainians to tell Ukraine’s story to the world, “because,” he said, “at this point wherever you look, Russia is telling Ukraine’s story.” I thought of this comment when reading the opening pages of Karl Schlögel’s 2015 Ukraine: A Nation on the Borderland (in Gerrit Jackson’s 2018 translation), where he writes:

For me, and I think for everyone who has studied it, Russia is more than a subject of research; it is deeply woven into our personal lives. And so, the so-called Ukrainian crisis was a moment of truth, challenging us to reconsider deeply held convictions and how we had arrived at them. It called for more than a review of the scholarship of the past and the evolution of the cultural, diplomatic or business relations between the countries. It struck to the core of our dedication to dialogue, and more was at stake than merely a position that might be revised or amended. What was cast in doubt was an undertaking to which we had devoted ourselves with heart and soul, an engagement that could not have remained without consequences, that might almost be called an enchantment or entanglement. In short, this was about Russia as an integral part of our biographies; the events in Ukraine called a major part of our life’s work into question.

(Schlögel 2018: 24)

Schlögel’s sentiment resonates deeply for me and I suspect for other Russian specialists as well. Perhaps that deep personal commitment has made it hard sometimes to change the way we approach our subject, I don’t know. But it is clear to me, as I think about his call for a re-assessment of our professional commitments and “entanglements” that I have tended to teach those aspects of history and culture that Russia and Ukraine share as if they were Russian in an uncomplicated way, without having much to say about the fact that they are also Ukrainian. In effect, I have told Ukraine’s story through a Russian lens.

I suppose it might be easy for some to dismiss the idea of teaching Kievan Rus’ as national in any sense, whether Russian, Ukrainian, or Belorusian. This, after all, would be a rather wooly anachronism since national consciousness in the modern sense is a much later phenomenon. That’s fine and true, of course, but does not explain the much more interesting modern historical phenomena associated with anchoring the identity and overall contours of a country in significant events, places, and personages from the past, especially when it is where one lives. In this context, it is not at all helpful to designate the literature, art, architecture, and cultural figures of Kievan Rus’ as “Old Russian” let alone “Medieval Russian” without specifying that these are all also “Old Ukrainian” and “Old Belorusian” too. And not just specifying but exploring what this means today and has meant historically, in practice for real people every day.

I’m thinking about this now because I’ll be teaching an intro-level Russian culture course again in the coming year after a five-year hiatus. Re-reading the materials I have used many times before is not making me cringe (at least not most of the time) so much as clarifying how much the present influences our views and interpretations of the past and also reenforcing the conviction that one must constantly revisit what one thinks one knows and how one thinks one knows it.

Teaching Ilya Repin

I have used Ilya Repin’s 1883 Procession of the Cross in the Kursk District in class many times over the years, especially as a part of teaching aspects of social activism in the art of nineteenth-century Russia. The painting’s contrast of abject poverty among the people to the lavish richness of the Church is easy for students to see, and closer scrutiny quickly enables them to decipher the complicity and cruelty of the military apparatus that appears to be keeping the people in line.

Jane Costlow’s excellent reading of the painting in her 2013 Heart-Pine Russia has opened up an entirely new dimension for me, which I’m looking forward to sharing with students the next time I teach it. Basically, she adds to the social commentary of the painting by paying special attention to landscape. My students and I have of course noticed many times that the landscape of the painting is dry and dusty, which lends a starkness to the scene and makes the social commentary harsher and rather unforgiving. But that was usually as far as we would take this line of thought.

We were missing something that, once pointed out, becomes as clear as the other aspects of the painting. Beyond the implied cruelty of people in positions of power toward other people, which one can see if one looks carefully, there is the implied rapaciousness of people toward nature in the background, which one can see if one looks still more carefully.

The great diversity of Repin’s rendering of the earthbound crowd draws the viewer’s eye, but so do the figures who stand out above them. Rising above the crowd are eight or so figures on horseback, and if our gaze moves beyond them into the background, we are confronted with a bare and dusty hillside with stumps of recently cut timber and brush, a hillside where a forest used to be.

(Costlow 2013: 96)

The surprising thing is that I never noticed the stumps that are now so conspicuous to me. Of course it would be different if they were walking through a forest! Repin in fact has other paintings of processions, some of which were sketches in preparation for this larger work, where the people make their way through wooded areas, rendering the depictions lush and even bucolic in tone. The absence of forest here and the conspicuous markers that there used to be forest here are central to the expression and social commentary of the painting, which Costlow’s research on “the forest question” makes exceptionally clear.

Definitely one of my favorite parts of this fine book.

Bringhurst on Translation

I just read Robert Bringhurst’s “The Polyhistorical Mind” lecture, which is the first chapter in his 2006 book The Tree of Meaning: Language, Mind and Ecology, and was struck by this observation: “Few people earn a degree in European Studies or Asian Studies without acquiring some rudimentary knowledge of a European or Asian language. Students of African Studies are also routinely expected to learn an African language. But how many universities ask even their doctoral students in American Studies or in Canadian Studies [Bringhurst is Canadian–RSV] to learn an indigenous North American language? Not one.” Reading this in 2020, I am pretty sure he is still correct.

The essay has a number of moments like this, with direct, clear observations that amount to institutional interventions, and is unusual and refreshing from this standpoint. For instance, while he lauds the practice of including writers with Native American ancestry in the curriculum, he also notes, “When we teach Greek literature, we do not limit the offerings to novels conveniently written in English by Greeks.”

As he delves into why such things matter, moreover, he touches on the declining number of living languages in the world and the resulting impoverishment for what he calls the “intellectual biomass” of the earth, especially in its “word hoard and grammar hoard and story hoard.” I am with him throughout this section, but then, just as he is describing the accumulation of wisdom in the stories of the earth, his thought takes a strange turn in this paragraph:

Translation, of course, is a hurdle. But it can be crossed, unlike the painted wall of paraphrase or the blank wall of silence and denial. The labor and pleasure of crossing it should be shared, I think, as widely as possible. But it shouldn’t be thrust on the storytellers themselves.

(Bringhurst, p. 31)

I suppose I can agree with a lot of this, but the point of departure, namely, the “hurdle” of translation, strikes me as too easily leaped over in this cursory manner. And while there is a tiny gesture towards something that might actually not be a hurdle in the process, namely, the “pleasure of crossing it” (which also goes by extremely fast), the overall sense and mood here is of a labor that needs to be shared in order to be manageable.

The paragraph feels almost like an afterthought or perhaps a response to a question, anticipated or real, for just after this, we are back to the organic nature of the story within the language and the moment in which it is told:

Mythtellers tell their stories to those who are listening. They also tell their stories to themselves. That is hard to do in a foreign language. When you ask a mythteller to tell you a story in your language rather than hers, the mythteller must talk only to you, not to herself. And then something is missing.


I certainly see that this carries on the “sharing of the labor” idea from the previous paragraph, but it is still all negatively coded. I cannot help but think that by hurdling across the necessity of translation — rather than, what, wading into it to rest in its midst and contemplate things from that perspective, mid-hurdle, as it were — we miss so much that we might learn, not just about the stories themselves, the storytellers, and the cultures from which they hail, but also about ourselves and our relationships with one another.

Teaching Russian Culture

I’ve taught a version of Introduction to Russian Culture many times over the past several decades. I learned the basic material from Michael Flier at UCLA, then adapted quite a bit over the years, using music, religion, language, literature, geography, architecture, art, and a lot of history. The history has always seemed essential since many of the students who take the class (often to fulfill a requirement) don’t know much beyond the current headlines and a few key events.

So I’ve tended to start the first few weeks of class with an overview and a single volume history that goes pretty much from the origins of recorded history to the present. Generally, in such a book there are two hundred pages or so devoted to the time from about the 9th century to about the beginning of the 20th century, then another two hundred pages or so from the 20th century to the present. But we’ve generally had a second class that covers more contemporary material, more or less from World War II to the present, which means we really only need the first two hundred or so pages of the book. I have gone back and forth over the years between having students read the whole thing, even though we won’t really do much beyond WWII in this particular class, or reading only up to the point where we’re going to be digging in. I’m still not sure which is better.

I thought of this today when a friend sent me a funny meme with a painting of Jesus just after his birth, being held by one of the wise men, and in the background is a tiny crucifix hanging on a wall in the nearby stables. In the meme, someone has circled the crucifix with a marker and written “spoiler alert!”

It is a funny meme, but it also made me think of teaching the simultaneity of icon time in this class, where a figure like Mary might appear in a characteristic pose, her hands outstretched, her palms facing forward (which art historians call the “Virgin orans”) and then, pictured in her midsection, almost as if inside her womb, is Jesus. But Jesus is not shown as a baby typically. Instead, he is often shown as a young man, fully robed, one hand extended.

I once asked a specialist at the Russian Museum in St. Petersburg about this, and she suggested I try not to look at such depictions through a secular perspective. The things depicted might look like they should happen at different times (being inside or outside of a womb, for instance, or being an adult or a child), but that is only from a human perspective. The world depicted does not have time like that. Everything in the world of the icon is, in effect, simultaneous. This is the time perspective of the icon. This kind of challenge to our usual ways of thinking and interacting with the world is also one of the reasons why I love teaching this material to students.

Meaner Than That

It’s nice to see the hundreds of listens to Ba Ren Chi compositions on Jamendo since I released Cool 7 earlier this month. I was a little surprised to notice the piece “Meaner Than That” move up slowly as people sampled different ones. Not displeased (I personally like all of them), just surprised. One listener, LebKamp Radio RNB, even added it to a playlist (I need to figure out why this one sounds a lot quieter than most of the others on LebKam Radio RNB’s playlist–if anyone knows, please send word!).

Still, I couldn’t keep my hands off it and felt there was something of a missed opportunity in the B section, which was feeling a bit like it ended too abruptly. So I made a longer version. The A section is the same as before, but for B I added punchier accents in the brass and percussion, beefed up the counter melody that emerges in brass section No. 2 towards the end, and opened up the middle for more drums. The end is bigger, too. Here it is as an “extended version,” released yesterday as a “single” on Jamendo, a nice feature I will probably make use of as I develop album No. 2.

Ba Ren Chi

I just released an album on Jamendo: Cool 7.

The seven pieces were written over a dozen years or so, newly edited and optimized, all instrumentals. They are Rok Ni Yon, Tango Sorpresa, Para Margarida, Meaner Than That, ZAPP, Cool 6, and Lalo Si.

Jazz-ish, which means some fusion, some R&B, some latin, some rock. I seem to like writing for flute, vibraphone, acoustic bass, percussion, guitar. I prefer the sound and feel of real instruments, even if I can’t be in the same room with people now.

Every day’s a gift. Sharing.

Balancing Memoir with the Rest

I’m finding that balancing the various aspects that I have set myself the task of writing can be one of the most interesting and fulfilling aspects of Sea of Intimacy. Memoir and travel can push things along but also become somewhat less substantial, while the more research-focused aspects of the book, such as cultural history and ecology, can get bogged down in details. I’m also keeping an eye on how to be consistent, not in a doctrinaire or predictable manner, but at least so that the book does not end up having strange bulges of content or style.

Here is an example from the start of what I believe is chapter three.

Like the disputed headwaters of the Danube, claimed by different isolated villages in the Swiss and Austrian Alps, the sources of the American branch of the Valentino clan are historically murky and of dubious authenticity. One spokesperson, an elder member of the Brunetti family, Vittorio by name, whose mother Giovanna was a Valentini from the original home village of Mola di Bari in the modern province of Puglia, Italy, once told me the story of an infant boy, Pietro, who died after an altercation between the eldest Valentini son and his step-father Vito-Nicola. A carriage, a whip brandished, a baby thrown or dropped after the startled horse bolted—all fine high-drama details sworn to by Vittorio, but uncorroborated by the historical record.

I have a half-dozen photographs from the time in question. On my first trip to the region, decades before I knew I would one day be writing this account, a cousin took me to a photography studio where I saw a number of postcards created at the turn of the twentieth century. Today I wonder who would have purchased such cards then and for what purpose—this out of the way village was not on any tourist itinerary at the time and was rather a point of egress than one of arrival—but I saw them as the epitome of local atmosphere and asked whether the proprietor could enlarge them for me. He could, he maintained, but the price would be steep. An avid tennis player and coach, he would require tennis balls, lots of them, in exchange. The balls were cheaper in America. We came to an agreement. I shipped the balls. He sent me the enlarged prints, three of which now hang on the wall of my study. Each is presented as if inspired by an old veduta, where the angle of perception and what it takes in is paramount.

And so from the spiaggia orientale, or eastern beach, we spy the central portion of town essentially from the south-east—the rocky coastline slips not just southward but also eastward here, dropping quickly into depths that the northern portions of the Adriatic can only envy. One picture shows a half-dozen men in baggy white shirts, long dark pants, and the wool caps that have been worn in the region since Ancient times and would become fashionable as the beret of the twentieth century. They are situated on and about their twenty-foot boats, which have been beached in what appears to be sand. The boats have no apparent rigging, only large oars that, judging by their size, it would take two men each to maneuver. Everyone appears to be busy with something. One stands off to the side, repairing a net, another crouches by the water, his back to the camera. A few look suspiciously in its direction. Behind them, the port is visible to the right, the Castello Angioino in the medieval heart of town to the far left. Built in the late thirteenth century according to a design by French architect Pierre d’Agincourt for Charles I of Anjou shortly after he had added “King of Albania” to his many titles, the castle has always struck me as strangely out of place in this sleepy setting. One of its central remaining exterior walls slopes menacingly towards the sea in two directions, while the spit of land between its sharp northern corner and the water’s edge feels narrow and constricting. Its front gate faces Dubrovnik across the way.

The second, labeled “Porto,” shows a group of boys, twice as many as there were sailors in the previous view, clambering every which way across four tied-up vessels and up on the pavement. They appear to be working the oars, pretending to throw nets (obviously put away for safe keeping). They are of various ages, five to twelve, as far as I can tell. Some are shoeless, naked to the waist, thoroughly brown even in black-and-white, and wearing shorts—which probably accounts for their looking like hooligans—while others are dressed in long-sleeved button-down white shirts and dark slacks. By contrast to their elders, none wears a hat. Two are foregrounded, both shirtless and shoeless, one sitting cross-legged, his arms rapped loosely around his bony knees, the finger and thumb of his right hand, secured around his left wrist, the other lying sideways on an overturned rowboat. Both are looking straight at the camera. I wonder if there might be some socio-economic distinctions to explore here, but I don’t know enough to delve in. I wonder too whether one of the boys photographed might not have become someone I would one day know, with a cocked fedora and pleated slacks that fell just so. This too is impossible to say for certain.

The landing in New York is the stuff of family legend, but firmer somehow, as appropriate for landings, and there is a paper trail, some of it now digitized. We know that then Giovanni Valentini, later John Valentino, arrived at Ellis Island for the first time in April of 1920, one of three Giovanni Valentinis recorded to have arrived in that year. One of these was forty-six years old, another nine, and the third eighteen. The eighteen-year-old was our guy. That his name had not yet been changed is clear from the available documents: Giovanni Valentini he was and Giovanni Valentini he would remain until sometime between then and 1925, when he applied to become an American citizen as John Valentino. The stories about the Ellis Island officials making a mistake are not borne out by the record. He was the one who changed his name, though why is not clear. His first son, christened Pietro, later popularly referred to as Pete, often wondered about the life Giovanni had left behind him in the old country, speculating—to the consternation of his two sisters—that Giovanni might have been running from something, the law maybe, or a local woman. Or a local woman with a baby. Or the policeman father of a local woman with a baby. Giovanni never let on.

From here I can slice a bit through the region’s rich history of mixings and crossings, reflect on the family nickname of skavatil (which I once thought was related to the word schiave (slave), whose connection to the words Slav and ciao I explore in Chapter Two, and once again closely observe what happens when my Asian partner and I appear together in this quiet provincial town, all while keeping the general emphasis on the virtue of mixture (see earlier post on “bastards”).

Family Humor

I’m proofing Kin, which has been slow going I’ll post separately about that and am finding myself laughing at many things that before I didn’t notice or don’t remember noticing as funny. Jergović’s humor is almost always rather dark, and I recall someone noting how frequently he found himself laughing while reading another of his books. At that point, I wondered if I was translating the same author or, a more scary thought for a translator, if I had missed something in my reading. But reading it all together has reassured me.

Below is an example, which uses the rather normal expression spavati kao zaklan, and then goes to town with it. Normally, the expression would just be rendered as “sleep like a log” or something similar in English, but here there’s quite a bit more. The scene unfolds as a Turkish caravan with a couple of Venetians and a Parisien are passing through Zagreb in the mid-nineteenth century on their way to Ottoman Sarajevo.

Ganimed slept like a slaughtered man, in a deep, rich feather bed prepared just for him. The rest, including Botta and Sarchione, slept on ordinary army straw, but for him, as a special guest, the feather bed had been prepared that was kept, cleaned, and aired out in case one day, God willing, some Viennese prince or Pest count might stop at Blind Marica’s. As it had been decades since any prince had been to Zagreb, let alone to their inn, they made use of the occasion to offer the feather bed to a guest worthy of such attention. And Ganimed appeared to be just such a personage: handsome and slender, with a lofty bearing like some Russian princeling. The truth was that the old woman and her young valet, with a mustache like that of the most refined postman, had not accorded this honor because of Ganimed but more for themselves and the story that they would tell for a long time thereafter, and which they would continue to live off until an actual prince might come, about the youth who was so handsome one could not look away.

He really did sleep “like a slaughtered man.” The valet, who had learned this strange local expression, told him he would sleep precisely so in their bed of goose down. Botta translated his words calmly. Ganimed was shocked, but this served as the inspiration for his self-portrait, surely the best known of Ganimed Troyanovsky’s drawings that have been preserved and about which we should say several words here, for later there will not be time.

The painting Self-Portrait with a Slit Throat was kept in the permanent exhibit of the Art Gallery of Bosnia and Herzegovina until the war. For financial reasons, or as a consequence of the lack of public interest in art, the permanent exhibit was never shown in its entirety again after the war, and the gallery closed for good in 2012. Self-Portrait with a Slit Throat was kept all this time in a gallery storeroom and only displayed on two occasions to the public over the last twenty years. The first time was immediately after the war, in 1996, at the exhibit The Free-hand Sketch – Drawn and Painted Works of Well-Known Architects, which was held in Paris’s Museum of Architecture, and the second was when it was included in a small 2005 display of Ganimed Troyanovsky’s works in the foyer of the Vienna Opera House on the occasion of the building’s construction.

Self-Portrait with a Slit Throat is one of Ganimed’s most elaborate paintings, with a multitude of details amid the five colors of the brush strokes and a slight watercolor overlay. The setting…

There follows a wonderful ekphrasis of this delicate painting…

Music Saving

COVID-19 isolated me, as it did most of us, in ways that we could not have anticipated. I found a variety of ways to not go crazy. One was to rediscover music, not listening so much as making, something I have done off and on for many years since I was a teenager. In the age of non-contact, what I found was notation software, which has come so far it is hard to believe. I started composing again this spring and summer, picking up threads from years, sometimes decades ago and creating completely new ones from scratch. It does not seem to want to stop at this point, but calls constantly. I have to resist in order to get my “work” done.

I’ve put up so far a lucky thirteen pieces at the YouTube channel I created for sharing. The name Ba Ren Chi is something I thought up years ago, the Japanese Romanization, one possible one anyway, for the first three syllables of my last name. It seems apt.

The latest is mean, I mean that’s in the title, Meaner Than That, and the two before were spur-of-the-moment compositional gifts to my mother on her 90th-birthday and my wife on her we won’t say which birthday. Then before that Cool 6, which I find so fun, and then older ones like the zany Zapp, the eclectic Rok Ni Yon, and the sincere September Elegy. And that’s only seven of them.

I am sharing because it’s really all I want to do. Have a listen if you’re at all interested. No pressure to like or become a follower (or whatever the YouTube version of that is). I put little stock in such things. But if anything speaks to you, please drop me a line via comments here. It will make me feel very good.

Kakania in The Massachusetts Review

An excerpt from the fifth part of Kin is in the current (summer 2020) issue of The Massachusetts Review.

Thanks to the editors, especially Corine Tachtaris and Jim Hicks, for their interest and support. It’s a strong issue with plenty of global awareness and representation, including translations by Patty Crane (Tomas Tranströmer), Peter Bush (Juan Vitulli), Tess Lewis (Karl Markus-Gauss), Mirgul Kali (Mukhtar Magauin), Matthew Rinaldi (Maria José Silveira), Patricia Dubrava (Augustín Cadena), Julia Sanches (Soledad Puértolas), and Samantha Kirby (Ornela Vorpsi). There is also an essay on translation by Allison Grimaldi Donahue. Miljenko Jergović’s “Kakania” appears in my translation on p. 233. That’s quite a line-up, and yes, I did just put all the translators’ names first and their authors in parentheses after.

The cover features an intriguing aspect of translation that several of my non-fiction writer and translator colleagues and I have discussed in the past. Jergović is indeed an essayist as well as an author of fiction and poetry. His book Kin, which now has a cover up at the publisher’s website, has been characterized variously as an “epic,” a “saga,” a “family novel,” a “chronicle,” and “historical fiction.”

Partly, this is due to deliberate genre-bending by the author. He likes to write in the in-between spaces and test the boundaries of invention. But it is also due, in my opinion, to a general tendency in the English-language book market to mark the distinction between fiction and non-fiction more rigidly. The book is clearly what the French would call littérature, a category that does not translate well into the English market.

The section from which “Kakania” is drawn bears the wonderfully ambiguous title Inventarna knjiga, which plays with the notions of the inventory (a list of factual items, often in a commercial context) and the invented (the stuff of fiction) all while highlighting that this is a book within a book. What is its genre? This is not just a question about how to classify it, one of the emptiest and least interesting questions in genre criticism. It’s about how to read and understand it, just as one understands a government building by learning to recognize and mentally prepare oneself based on the architectural features it deploys.

Literary magazines tend to use genre markers in their own distinctive ways, narrowing down entire categories into the basic headings of poetry, fiction, nonfiction, drama, and review. (Translation can fit anywhere.) Sometimes editors play around with these categories and encourage crossings and mixings, but the labels are almost always there, and the option of simply presenting everything as littérature is relatively rare.

The most capacious of these, in my experience, tends to be non-fiction, and indeed, “Kakania” slips in here as “essay,” which seems perfectly fitting in terms of its spirit of exploration and experiment, even if it feels much narrower than what Jergović is up to in Kin.

Due out in May 2021.