History of Russian-Israeli Literature

The Israeli Science Foundation grant, 2021-2025


The Main Purposes of the Project

The goal of this research project is to create a historiography of Russian-Israeli literature (literature in Russian language, written in Israel and the Land of Israel). In spite of a hundred-year history and thousands of prose, poetry, and dramatic works, such a historiography has not yet been written; moreover, scholars are still far from understanding on what kind of theoretical principles such a study should be based. We propose as a starting point a conception of the complex dynamic literary process as a dissipative-emergent community of utterances (individual works): each one taken separately can be difficult to define in terms of identity and belonging, but together they constitute a system that has the emergent quality of being Russian-Israeli literature. All other poetic and historical characteristics and the phenomena under study can be examined, where appropriate, in the light of this understanding. At the same time, the interrelationship between these phenomena and such related spheres of meaning as Jewish identity, the arts, Hebrew literature, the history of emigration, Israeli everyday and cultural practices, political reality, and so forth, should be made sense of to the extent to which all this is included in this literary process. We write a history of Russian-Israeli literature that understands the literary process in light of the complex of elaborately changing meaningful clusters or networks uniting numerous components of its appearance scattered in space, time, language, and genre. At the same time, regardless of the strong syncretic, “horizontal” ties that are characteristic of Russian-Israeli literature, the very concept of the process will not allow attention to diachronic progressions and connections to lessen. Such a historiography is an organic part of three institutionalized histories simultaneously: the history of Israeli literature, the history of Russian literature, and the history of Jewish literature, each one of which is unimaginable today without an understanding of the contribution that is made by Russian-Israeli literature, and their study turns out to be inadequate without the point of view that a knowledge of it and its history brings.


Head of the project: Prof. Roman Katsman

Research assistants: Alexei Surin, Elena Promyshliansky



Brief Introduction

Literary works in the Russian language in the Land of Israel and the State of Israel has been going on for one hundred years already and comprises many hundreds of authors. It begins in the 1920s, when some writers of the Third Aliya, such as Avraam Vysotsky, continued to write in Russian after emigration, sometimes combining this with writing in Hebrew. Many representatives of Hebrew literature continued to write in Russian in the Land of Israel, either in their artistic works or in personal correspondence (Aleksandr Pen, Rakhel Bluvshteyn). In the prewar and postwar years, it turns into a light trickle, including, however, such significant figures for Russian-Jewish emigration as Yuly (Julius) Margolin, the author of the well-known Travels into the Land of the Zeka. During the aliya of the 1970s, which summarized the growth of Jewish self-awareness in the USSR during the 1960s, a small but very active circle of Russian-language writers and intellectuals emerged (such as David Markish, Efraim Baukh, Yakov Tsigelman, Mikhail Gendelev, Maya Kaganskaya), and the Big Aliya of the 1990s, which became possible as a result of the disintegration of the USSR and the change in the immigration laws of the USA, turned Israel into the largest center of Russian literature in the world outside the post-Soviet space (Dina Rubina, Alexander Goldstein, Dennis Sobolev, and many others). The “Putin Aliya” of the 2000s and 2010s in many ways consists of intellectuals and freelancers, among whom there are quite a few writers for whom continuing to write in Russian in Israel or in any other corner of the world is something that is self-evident. Over the past one hundred years, the social and cultural profile of olims (repatriates) has changed more than once, as have the historical and ideological contexts of their works; writers have come and remained permanently or left for other countries, but the Russian-Israeli literary process has not been interrupted for even a day and has often included people and texts that have influenced all of Russian, Jewish, and world culture. Russian-Jewish communities in other countries as well have always been and continue to be drawn into this process. The intellectual and creative contacts of representatives of the Russian-Israeli community and representatives of the (not only Jewish) cultural elites of other countries are also of great interest. A particular subject of the study is also publishing activity in Israel, which includes thousands of titles of books and dozens of periodicals and newspapers, many of which, particularly during the seventies and eighties, were platforms for first publications of eminent writers of the twentieth century who were deprived of the possibility of publishing in the USSR. Literary works also do not lose touch with other arts and cultural practices, such as, for example, painting, theater, music, museology, and so forth, and this has significance for the study of such composite genres as song writing for a fuller understanding of the creations of authors who contribute to several forms of art and for a complex evaluation of the social functioning of a relatively small but very robust and active Russian-Israeli artistic community. Russian-language creativity in Israel supports intensive contacts with literature in other languages, above all in Hebrew and Yiddish, as well as with literature in other European languages. Emigrants from the USSR write literature in Yiddish, sometimes combining this with writing in Russian (Ber Kotlerman, Velvl Chernin). Bilingual Russian-Hebrew authors are emerging (Gali-Dana Singer, Khava Brokha Korzakova), which is not at all uncommon considering how deep rooted bilingualism is in Jewish culture (Niger 1990). The sesquialteral generation (dor ekhad va-khetsi) of olims is returning to its Russian and Soviet roots in its Hebrew-language works (Rita Kogan, Aleks Rif, Yael Tomashov). Interlanguage contacts include not only the question of influences and personal relations among writers but also such significant issues as the translation of Russian-Israeli literature, above all into Hebrew. In this light, the problem of the definition and self-definition of cultural identity both of individual representatives of this literature and of the community as a whole is brought into focus in all its clarity. At the same time, cultural identity inevitably also includes such complex and controversial issues as nationality, religiosity, and regional identity: Jewish, Israeli, Russian, Soviet, European, and sometime also Caucasian (Alexander Goldstein), Lithuanian (Grigory Kanovich), and so forth.

Even this brief summary testifies to the fact that Russian-Israeli literature represents a broad and significant phenomenon encompassing a most important historical period and reflecting the problems and patterns comprising its social, political, and esthetic processes.