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Review of The Russian Jerusalem - Ruth Gorb, Camden New Journal

29 May 2008
Elaine Feinstein has called her new book a novel. It is much more than that. It is a tapestry of poetry and politics and people, a personal memoir that merges into fiction. It is, above all, a celebration and a condemnation of Russia.

The characters are Feinstein’s own literary ghosts: Boris Pasternak, Isaac Babel, Ilya Ehrenburg. Most important is the tiny, fierce figure of the poet Marina Tsvetaeva. It is she, says Feinstein, who was the starting point of her infatuation with all things Russian.

It began in the 1960s with a collection of Tsvetaeva’s poems. Feinstein fell in love with them, and her own English version of them won her unexpected interest from two respectable publishing houses.

But more important was the effect the Russian poet had on Feinstein’s own work: “She was risky, exclamatory, passionate… I had been trying to be too English. She let me rip. I could write through her, say all the things she was saying. All my poems after that came out of my emotions. She changed my entire direction.”
Elaine Feinstein’s distinguished career as a poet, academic, novelist and biographer has won her numerous honours but perhaps nothing pleased her more than the acclaim she received for A Captive Lion, her biography of Tsvetaeva.

It was researching the book that took her on her first visit to Russia in the 1970s. The so-called thaw had not happened. “Everyone was frightened,” she says. “As a foreigner I brought danger. We were followed and our hotel room was watched. But I was protected.”

She appears to have had friends in high places. The glamorous and legendary poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko met her off the plane, looked after her, and took her to the Writers’ Union where there was not only the best chef in Moscow but an introduction to Margarita Aliger, the poet who was part of the commission set up to promote Tsvetaeva’s memory.

“She lent me her chauffeur-driven car; it was as if I had Marina driving me. Marina was my Russia,” she says. “And in some ways she is characteristic of the Russian soul. They love poetry, they know reams of Pushkin by heart.”

She is aware of her romanticism. It dates back to her days as a schoolgirl Communist – “it seemed the right way to be” – although her Russian-Jewish grandfather was completely bewildered by her youthful enthusiasm. “He remembered the Russian peasantry as illiterate and brutal. My imaginings were of strong people who stormed the Winter Palace. All fiction.”

The fiction was reinforced on her subsequent trips to Russia, although she grew wiser, albeit reluctantly. “I went once at the invitation of the GB-USSR Society. They took us all over Russia; everything was laid on, and they showed us their best – spectacular Georgian feasts, adorable little children dancers. You see what they want you to see, and you think, ‘it’s not that bad’.”

But it was that bad. On another trip she saw the Refusniks gathered together, and learned about the constant humiliation of the Jews – they had, for instance, to get a 10 per cent higher mark in examinations to get into a university. And although throughout the Soviet period anti-Semitism was officially forbidden, the endemic hatred of Jews is a leitmotif running through Feinstein’s chilling story.

As she travels through Russia, both in reality and in her imagination, she finds great beauty and terrifying cruelty. Stalin’s purges cut a swathe through dissident writers, intellectuals, Jews: Isaac Babel, arrested, tortured, murdered – “Babel loved the revolution and it killed him”; the great poet Osip Mandelstam, arrested, exiled, until he died in a labour camp. In one of Feinstein’s own heart-rending poems she writes of Mandelstam: “knowing the danger / of a knock on the door, arrest and the Lubianka…”

And, most poignantly, when Yevtushenko takes Feinstein to see Pasternak’s grave in 1978, he says: “Seventy years old… An amazing age for a Russian poet.”
Elaine Feinstein has written a book like no other. It is a series of vivid set pieces, swinging from the present to the past and back again, interspersed with Feinstein’s own elegiac poems. It is intensely personal. One scene is set in the stetl, the scene of Feinstein’s own Russian-Jewish roots. She wanders there, she says, in a dream without Tsvetaeva, her Virgil, to guide her.

It is as if she is torn between her own ancestry and her fantasy of Tsvetaeva. Her feelings about Russia are as mixed as ever. There have been periods of freedom there. Putin has brought stability – but at a price. She met the journalist Politkovsaya once: “Very earnest, very brave. She’s the only person I know who’s been murdered,” she says. “It’s very shocking. And nobody in Russia has reacted.

“I would not like to be within the borders with a Russian passport. But I’ll keep going there. I love the people, I love the literature. It’s a terrible country – and it’s wonderful.
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