The Reinvention of the Promised Land: Utopian Space and Time in Soviet Jewish Exodus Literature

Klavdia Smola. East European Jewish Affairs. Volume 45, Issue 1. April 2015.

Jewish Renaissance in the Late Soviet Era: A Return to Myth and Memory

The second half of the 1960s marked the beginning of a new sense of awareness in Jewish culture in the Soviet Union. A direct trigger for this “Jewish national rebirth” was the Six Day War in 1967, in which the Israelis against all expectations secured a quick victory over the Arab military forces, which were supported by the Soviets. As Alice Nakhimovsky notes, after the war the prevalent image of Jews (including Israeli Jews) in Russia changed dramatically within the space of one week. The widely held cliché of Jewish cowardice was at once countered within the Soviet population. The victory generated a wave of enthusiasm among Soviet Jews and gave impetus to the development of a broad cultural and political underground movement and to the first attempts to emigrate to Israel. However, the reason for the emergence of the Jewish (protest) movement lay more in the summation of historical factors, of which the experience of relative intellectual freedom during the period of the “Thaw” played a significant role. In this sense, the Six Day War merely marked the culmination of an earlier development, which was “confirmed” by the successive individualization of Jews in the (semi-)public sphere: “The Six Day War completed the process of ‘making Jews visible’ in Soviet society.”

The Jewish underground movement that emerged in the Soviet Union in the second half of the 1960s produced literature that became a part of the counterculture of Soviet dissent and helped create the counter-canon of Russian literature. At the same time, Jewish underground artists and authors also began to act on the basis of their own ideological and cultural premises: the battle for the return to Israel and the new Jewish renaissance in this unofficial intellectual sphere led to the emergence of new topographical concepts, which were inspired primarily by the Jewish cultural tradition and accordingly drew from an additional non-Russian and non-European cultural reference system. In fact, the exodus texts written in the 1960s to 1980s represented a new, late Soviet shaping of Zionist prose. They possess many characteristics of this tradition of Jewish world literature, always relating to the symbol of the Promised Land as a fundamental projection of aspirations as relevant to present-day thinking. This literature assimilates decisive impulses of Jewish literary texts written in various languages over long centuries of exile and fictionalizes the specific, involved view of Palestine and Israel held by the Jewish Diaspora. Late Soviet Zionist texts share the traditional Jewish vision of Israel as an imagined topos of the original homeland that is both retrospective (with reference to the biblical promise of the land and the seizure of Canaan) and prospective (return and redemption). The Exodus story contained in Sefer Shemot (Second Book of Moses) becomes a leading poetic, philosophical and at times religiously charged metaphor of liberation and reunification. In that respect, the aliyah texts inherit not least the literary tradition of the Russian Palestine prose of the halutzim (pioneers of the Jewish settlement in Palestine), represented, for example, in Mark Egart’s novel Opalennaia zemlia (Scorched Land, 1933/4).

The political rebellion of intellectuals critical of the regime, who as Jews in particular became victims of state persecution and half-concealed discrimination (e.g. in education and employment), not to mention the fact that the Jewish witch-hunts and executions of the 1940s and 1950s were still fresh in the memory, gained additional motivation and legitimization. This motivation was strengthened when Israel’s victory in 1967 triggered aggressive anti-Zionist and effectively antisemitic propaganda, which undoubtedly reminded the Soviet intelligentsia of the recent past—the last years under Stalinist rule. Zvi Gitelman writes in this context of the “threat of the second Holocaust.” However, it was precisely because of the ambiguity of the Jewish situation in the Soviet Union—on the one hand, state and everyday antisemitism; on the other, the high level of involvement of Jews in Russian culture—that the Jewish national movement led to a sophisticated and committed counterculture. Perhaps the most striking contradiction lay in the fact that the ethnos that had almost lost its roots suddenly tried to rediscover them in extremely unfavorable political circumstances. Michael Beizer, one of the active participants in the otkazniki (refusenik) movement, sees this as a certain dialectic of resistance: “It is highly likely that social exclusion and public stigmatization also played a large part in the development of a very lively Jewish cultural life among the refuseniks in the Soviet Union.”

Public discourse on the subject of the Jewish homeland, which was silenced for half a century by the Soviet powers—in particular, discussions of the possibility of emigration to Palestine, still lively in the early Soviet period—could be heard again in the 1970s. For the first time in decades, Russian Jews identified to a significant degree as people of the galut (Jewish Diaspora). In this sense, a certain kind of historicity can even be ascribed to those works that reflect on the living present, since their authors conceive of the events, plot motives, and mental processes portrayed as symptomatic components of (East European) Jewish history and the Jewish battle to survive in exile.

Below I will show that the historical dimension of the events dealt with in the literature nevertheless often has strong mystical and mythological traits and displays messianic-apocalyptic hopes of salvation. However, alternative literary space and time models represented in the aliyah literature hereby betray their rootedness in the teleology of the communist regime. The powerful Israel utopia reflects both the eschatological time of the Soviet empire and its phantasms of paradise on earth. Late Soviet Zionism and totalitarian discourse are shown to be two space-time utopias.

Without doubt this only concerns one branch of non-conformist Jewish prose, which was significantly more heterogeneous in its poetics and ideological views and produced very diverse texts such as Izrail’ Metter’s Piatyi ugol (The Fifth Corner, 1967), David Markish’s Priskazka (The Beginning, 1971), Arkadii L’vov’s Dvor (The Courtyard, 1972), Eli Liuksemburg’s Tretii khram (The Third Temple, 1975) and Desiatyi golod (The Tenth Famine, 1985), Iuliia Shmukler’s “Poslednii noneshnii denechek” (“This Last Day,” 1975), Efraim Sevela’s Ostanovite samolet—ia slezu! (Stop the Plane—I’m Getting Off, 1975) and Monia Tsatskes—znamenosets (The Standard Bearer, 1978), Feliks Roziner’s Nekto Finkel’maier (A Certain Finkelmayer, 1975), Iurii Karabchievskii’s Zhizn’ Aleksandra Zil’bera (The Life of Alexander Zilber, 1975), Iacov Tsigel’man’s Pokhorony Moishe Dorfera (The Funeral of Moishe Dorfer, 1977), Iuz Aleshkovskii’s Karusel’ (The Carousel, 1979), Feliks Kandel’s Vrata iskhoda nashego (The Gates of our Exodus, 1980), Iurii Miloslavskii’s Ukreplennye goroda (Fenced Cities, 1980), Efrem Baukh’s Lestnitsa Iakova (Jacob’s Ladder, 1984), David Shrayer-Petrov’s Gerbert i Nelli (Herbert and Nelli, 1984), Semen Lipkin’s Kartiny i golosa (Scenes and Voices, 1986), and Grigorii Vol’dman’s Sheremet’evo (1988).

Several studies have already established a connection between memory and historiography in Judaism, primarily Yosef Hayim Yerushalmi’s 1982 book Zakhor: Jewish History and Jewish Memory. With reference to Yerushalmi’s concept, literary scholars Bettina Bannasch and Almuth Hammer note that “all historical events in the Middle Ages and the early modern period, even the expulsion from Spain and the numerous pogroms in Poland and Russia in the 18th century,” were interpreted by rabbinic Judaism “as being prototypically prefigured in biblical disasters and salvific events.” The concept of emigration as both exodus (liberation and flight) and aliyah (Hebrew: “ascent”), linked with the negative connotations of existence in the diaspora, but also the attempt to semanticize a new way in categories of Jewish religious history—all this speaks, in the dissidents’ texts, the language of tradition, contextualizes it in the present, and conveys the idea of continuity, even in the desire for total renewal through transgression of the geopolitical border. The Russian Jewish philologist Mikhail Vaiskopf described these tendencies as follows:

The new exodus manifested the old predestination and teleology; history itself gained features of a monotonous sequence, almost a tautology … By drawing its inspiration from sacral precedents, the literature of a new exodus … tended towards myth, epic and ritual.

V novom iskhode otkryvalas’ prezhniaia prednachertannost’, teleologichnost’, i sama istoriia obretala cherty monotonnoi posledovatel’nosti, pochti tavtologichnosti … Cherpaia vdokhnovenie v sakral’nykh pretsedentakh, literatura novogo iskhoda … organicheski tiagotela k mifu, eposu i ritualu.

The re-strengthened collective memory of tradition required biblical symbols to be imbued with new semiotic power. Accordingly, the political implications of the underground Jewish culture enable Egyptologist Jan Assmann’s concept of “hot memory” to be updated: conceived of alongside “cold memory” as an option of cultural memory, intended to preserve historical continuity, it is called upon to bring about “disruption, reversal and change.” Images of biblical origins, the topos of the Holy Land, the destroyed Jewish temple, and the galut gain immense explosive power in secular (post)modernity. In this context, collective cultural amnesia is promoted to a historical event as defined by Lucian Hölscher: “Historical interpretations, as made in memories and expectations, are themselves historical events.”

This is where the paradigm of cultural memory meets that of cultural semiotics. The investigations into culture and literature as memory texts refer repeatedly to the mechanism of the desemiotization and resemiotization of cultural symbols, as developed by cultural semiotics, and which first set the history of culture in motion. Renate Lachmann speaks, with reference to Yurii Lotman, of the “[cultural signs] entering into latency,” or inversely of their “reactualization,” and differentiates between informative and creative memory. It is creative memory that is able to make “the full text mass of a culture potentially active.” In an earlier study, Jan Assmann describes such landscapes established in the culture as topoi that can under some circumstances regain their semiotic significance and thus their topicality: “they are … in their entirety raised to the rank of a symbol, i.e. semiotized.”

Before and during the change to postmodernism, with its skeptical, subversive, and ludistic ways of dealing with cultural and religious Jewish topoi, the late Soviet aliyah literature (re-)produces idealistic, backward-facing models of Jewish topography and identity. In so doing, it turns out to be both a refutation and—perhaps unintentionally—a mirror image of communist and socialist-realist teleology.

Symbolic Land Seizure in the Exodus Literature

Having emerged in opposition to the political regime, the exodus literature projected its pathos of resistance onto geographic categories, and charged them politically and allegorically. Here, the spatial level intersects with the time axis, as the past and on occasion the present contrast the surroundings to be left behind with the place of the future, which lies on the other side of the ideological and geographical border.

Efrem Baukh’s novel Jacob’s Ladder is centered around the gradual spiritual transformation of the well-to-do Moscow psychiatrist Emmanuil Kardin, who begins to remember his Jewish roots in the second half of the 1970s, leading to a difficult inner liberation. This process can be traced back to the awakening of his suppressed Jewish memory, and is described by the main character himself as the successive restoration of the inner past of a human being. The powerful influence of this past leads in the end to emigration to Israel. The more Kardin dives into the world of his patients, Jewish intellectuals, the more he feels as if he is suffocating in his “stable” and “healthy” private and professional environment—until he rediscovers for himself the Hebrew language, which he has nearly forgotten since his childhood, and the old Jewish books (primarily Kabbalistic studies and their major work, the Zohar). In the course of this spiritual conversion, he is assailed by memories of his Jewish family, of the fate and death of his parents and grandparents, and then of the history of Diaspora Jews in general, of which they have become a part. However, memory transgresses natural biological barriers and reaches deeper layers of the past that are recorded in tradition. It goes as far as his own thousand-year-old Hebraic origins, the source of a secret link with the Jewish people. This relatedness, which is hidden in the prophetic-magic letters of the Hebrew alphabet, has an increasing effect on Kardin’s identity, and forces him to distance himself from his family. A nearly obsessive preoccupation with Judaic texts brings about the realization of a spatial discontinuity (homeland vs. exile) based on the Jewish tradition, and conveys to Kardin in numerous variations the idea of the need to return to Eretz Yisrael. The quotation from the Sefer ha-chinuch conveys an equivalence between life in the Diaspora and death; in the Zohar, Rabbi Yohanan speaks of the future subterranean return of all dead Jews to the Promised Land. However, Kardin also remembers the words of his grandmother, which proverbializes the old longing of East European Jews for a homeland: “Lang vi der idisher goles” (“As long as the Jewish exile”). Communist Judeophobia, amongst other things, now stands for Kardin in the context of the Jewish Bible story with its key events such as the exodus from Egypt and the victory over Haman—this is the next test for the people of Israel and the next attempt to extinguish them. He maps the topographies of the eternal city of Jerusalem through reading the Prophets. The evocative reference to the story of the patriarch Jacob, which is contained in the title of the book, is developed into a structural analogy: just as Jacob wrestles with God and finally wins before entering into the land of Canaan, so too does Kardin overcome his doubts, the burden of the life in galut. He is helped in this process by the biblical “signpost”—the ladder metaphor as a way of ascending to God. Jacob’s ladder is thus an iconic trope of the whole text and provides the plot structure.

Present day ideologies now appear to Kardin as deceptive simulations of the Bible stories: the communist ascent into the “bright future” is a perverted variant of Jacob’s ladder. The tragic history of the twentieth century has already been foreseen in texts such as the Book of Enoch (the suffering of the dead and the imprisoned is the new incarnation of hell, as described in the First Book of Enoch and then by Virgil, Dante, and Milton). The physical outlines of the Hebrew letters that emerge during the process of anamnesis serve as a warning to the forgetful, who further the disastrous course of history: they are, as Kardin’s patient Plavinskii explains, fishhooks, skewers, and forks, each letter concealing Gehenna:

You are in the habit of treating the Ancient Hebrew like any other language … Oh, how wrong you are … You are playing with fire, yes, yes, quite literally … there is “gimel”—”ג”—a hook, “dalet”—”ד”—a snag, “vav”—”ו”—a spear, “lamed”—”ל”—a gallows, look, look, “mem”—”ם”—a trap, and so on—”ayin, tsade, kaph, qoph, resh”—עצכקר—they are hooks, “shin”—”ש”—a fork … It is the language of fiery Gehenna, which must burn us every moment of our lives, if we want to remain human.

Vy privykli otnosit’sia k drevneevreiskomu, kak k liubomu drugomu … O, kak vy oshibaetes’ … Igraete s ognem, da, da, v bukval’nom smysle … vot—„gimel'”—„ג”—bagor, „dalet”—„ד”—kriuk, „vav”—„ו”—kol, „lamed”—„ל,”—viselitsa, gliadite, gliadite, „mem”—„ם”—kapkan, а dal’she—„ain, tsadi, kaf, khof, resh”—עצכקר—kriuki, kriuch’ia, „shin”—„ש”—vily … Eto iazyk geenny ognennoi, kotoraia kazhdyi mig zhizni nas zhech’ dolzhna, esli khotim liud’mi ostat’sia.

The awakening of the Jewish memoria evokes cautionary apocalyptic visions.

For Kardin, his frenzied protest at an international conference marks the beginning of a tormented life as a dissident. He is imprisoned in an unknown, remote psychiatric institute and subjected to gruelling compulsory treatment. The employees of the secret service, who interrogate Kardin, are given attributes of the underworld and the dead: this is spelled out by the almost blatant epithets, such as “rykhlyi” (brittle/flabby), “odutlovaty[i]” (puffy), “gnilostn[yi]” (putrid/decayed), and “obriuzgshii” (flabby/ withered), used to describe the appearance of the state employees. The cynical speech of an old investigating officer “v serom” (“in gray”), who gives a lecture about humanity being too immature to face the truth, recalls the sophisticated philosophical arguments of the Grand Inquisitor in Dostoevsky’s Brat’ia Karamazovy (The Brothers Karamazov), in particular with Inquisitor’s rationale for the necessity of evil. The half-dead old man is a vampire with a peculiarly young face, which refers to the numerous victims of the blood-sucking regime. Kept in the dark about his fate until the last moment, Kardin is eventually thrown out of a car in the middle of a forest. Sometime later, he leaves the country, after he—just like all the other mythological and literary figures alluded to in the novel—has fathomed hell.

Another exodus work, David Markish’s early novel The Beginning, tells the story of the author’s exile in Kazakhstan during his teenage years, and, as in the novel by Bauch, it is defined by purposeful development in the protagonist’s character. Here too, a historical resemiotization of the Holy Land is crucially important. When the young Simon Ashkenazi learns that his family is to be sent into exile, Kazakhstan sounds to him like an unknown, beautiful, and free country, empty and sunny, inhabited by simple people who let their sheep and goats graze in the endless valley. Although this idyllic place far from the authorities embodies human values in Simon’s imagination, it cannot replace Palestine. It is already clear to the boy that the Jews will always be outsiders, “whether in Moscow, Siberia or Kazakhstan” (“bud’ to v Moskve, v Sibiri ili v Kazakhstane”). The dream of Israel and passionate hatred of the ruler Stalin are decisive in shaping the boy’s character.

The exile to Kazakhstan resembles a salvific alternative to big city life, as represented by repressive Soviet state discourse. Simon’s romanticization of the unambitious inhabitants of the Steppe—”He even envied them: they lived in dirty caravans in the big wide world” (“On dazhe zavidoval im: oni zhili v griaznykh kibitkakh na velikom prostore zemli”)—goes straight back to the role of Kazakhstan as another Palestine, a substitute promised land of peace and brotherhood. The establishment of the State of Israel, painfully realized some years earlier (it is not referred to explicitly but is still implied), coincides, according to the logic of the narrated time, with the time of the murder of Simon’s father in Soviet imprisonment. This temporal allusion evokes the idea of cultivating one’s own land, the simple work of agricultural activity inspired by the spirit of nation-building. It is no coincidence that Simon continually projects the bare Kazakh landscape that surrounds him onto imaginary topographies of Palestine. The depiction of youthful zeal, focused uncompromisingly on regaining his own Jewish territory, draws on Zionist ideas and recalls visions of earlier Jewish settlers in the Yishuv. The scholar of Israeli collective memory Yael Zerubavel shows how, in Yishuv culture, the landscape took on a highly symbolic and mythical significance. For example, to the Yishuv, the desert in which they planned to settle embodied the innocence of nature and a reconnection to the tradition of the patriarchs. Topographies revived proud biblical events and figures—the Maccabees or Bar Kokhba—in the collective thinking of Yishuv enthusiasts, and moved many authors to write romantically breathed poems and travel into the desert. The symbolic appropriation was intended not least to sharpen the patriotic spirit of adolescents, and made use of ritual patterns of action: “In the Yishuv’s emergent Hebrew culture, the desert served as a mythical space imbued with memories of ancient forefathers and hence a territory that made it possible for Jews to reconnect with that past … Traveling, and especially the physical experience of hiking, were considered an effective venue for mnemonic socialization and a means to instill in youth the love of the homeland and intimate knowledge of its landscape.”

With reference to these parallels, Markish’s The Beginning can be categorized as a Zionist youth novel, in which the didactic implications of Simon Ashkenazi’s fictionalized socialization process cannot be ignored. The book illustrates the exemplary development of a new, Israeli Jew. Simon’s exceptional personality is characterized by an unwillingness to compromise, a sense of freedom, and a proud awareness of his foreignness as a Jew, all of which give his figure idealizing, even programmatic traits. These idealistic features foreshadow the youth’s future—the merciless fight for the right to emigrate—and also characterize the political context at the time the work was written. However, the character’s maturation and his overcoming of the most difficult obstacles on the way to achieving his goal do not just symbolize the development of one protagonist who happens to be close to the author. The plot symbolizes the birth of a new, strong, and independent personality, which corresponds to the Zionist ideal and should serve as an example to the whole generation of young Soviet aliyah fighters. Against the background of Jewish discrimination during the anti-Zionist campaign in the late Soviet Union, the new Zionism summons up values and ideas that have inspired the Zionist movement since its beginnings in the nineteenth century, and thus connects with a significant tradition. One of the most important components consists of the need to promote the upbringing of a generation that is fearless and capable of resistance, one which can thwart the traditional image of the Diaspora Jew. Simon seems to possess the tendencies and tastes of the “new Jew” from birth. As a child, he learns to ride a horse against the wishes of his mother, but vigorously refuses to learn the violin, a traditional part of education for Jewish children in Europe. He feels an aversion towards commerce as a profession, considering it unworthy of Israeli Jews.

The ideational mainspring of the novel is political, not the apocalyptic-messianic and mystical aliyah concept that appears in Efrem Baukh. Nevertheless, it too is inspired by the idea of the unity and continuity of Jewish history from its beginnings until the present. However, the Jews function less as a religious and cultural community and more as a community of the persecuted. The Soviet Union is therefore merely a new imprisonment, just as Stalin represents a reincarnation of the archetypal Jewish enemy, of whom there have been many since Amalek and Haman. According to Simon’s belief, events such as Stalin’s death form part of ancient Jewish history rather Russian-Soviet history, and are correspondingly reinterpreted, or doubled coded. The uncompromisingly chosen minority point of view indicates at the auctorial level the effect of the cultural reorientation among Jewish non-conformist intellectuals in the late Soviet era. In the framework of this concept, history is construed as transparent and target-focused. Diachronous and polytopical events are construed as directly comparable and thus synchronous and are lifted out of their immediate geographical and political surroundings. This encourages a mythical, symbol-laden understanding of history, which assimilates the memory paradigm of religious Judaism, changing it in a Zionist sense.

The dichotomous and linear (the future happens at the same time as the biblical past) determines the structure of the exodus texts and forms isomorphisms at the levels of the time-space structure, the characters, the fictional perspective, and, at times, the language. The specific semantization of the present time, which evokes archaic and legendary conceptions of history, creates topographic fantasies and leads to an exciting superimposition of the real and the imaginary Israel. Although several of these texts were written after repatriation in Israel, they describe the moment before crossing the border or the time of crossing itself, so that Palestine remains a vision of the future and a projection of symbolic, religious and political dreams. It is a real territory and as such permits all the contemporary, environmentally characteristic, and documentary references used within the relevant literary texts; however, it is also a phantom that continues the centuries-long tradition of the “poetic inhabitation” or the “textual repatriation” of Zion. In Markish’s novel, Israel, in one of the episodes, is imagined at the moment of the origin of the Jewish Diaspora—the battle for the city of Jerusalem between the Jews and the Romans in the first century.

The vision of Jerusalem as a holy, mythical city develops in the consciousness of the protagonist of Iuliia Shmukler’s short story “Ukhodim iz Rossii” (“We’re Leaving Russia”):

She herself did not want to go to Paris or London, but only to Jerusalem. Just the sound of this name was magical to her. For her, it was not a city where people drink coffee and buy soap, but a secret refuge, specifically for spiritual revelations.

Sama ona ne khotela ni v Parizh, ni v London, a tol’ko v Ierusalim. Odin zvuk etogo imeni kazalsia ei volshebnym. Dlia nee eto byl ne gorod, gde p’iut kofe i pokupaiut mylo, a nekotoraia obitel’, spetsial’no dlia dukhovnykh potriasenii.

This Israel belongs to the spaces “that are no longer defined just in real, territorial or physical terms, nor just in symbolical terms, but both at the same time, and thus gain a new quality: they are called ‘heterotopias’ by Foucault, ‘imaginary geography’ by Said, ‘global ethnoscapes’ by Appadurai, and ‘thirdspace’ or ‘real-and-imagined places’ by Soja.”

The Mysticism of the Exodus

When Yurii Lotman investigates the semantics of geographical locations in the Russian Middle Ages, he points out that geographical concepts and places were at the time “imbued with moral-religious significance”: “Certain countries are considered either righteous or sinful. Each geographical relocation thus becomes a movement along the vertical axis of religious and moral values, of which the highest point is in heaven and the lowest point is in hell.” Lotman emphasizes the symbolic and utopian traits of medieval landscapes and borders: “This specific understanding of geography, which was not yet a scientific discipline in its own right, bearing more resemblance to a religious-utopian classification system, is very characteristic of the Middle Ages … Ridding oneself of sin was thought of as walking away from something, as a spatial movement.” Kenneth White, the founder of geopoetics, refers to hermetic and infantile traits of Christian ideas of space; accordingly, geography was not considered a science in the epistemological context of the Christian Middle Ages: “Le monde chrétien est, sauf exception, un monde fermé, restreint, infantile même, attaché par une corde symbolique à Jérusalem, umbilicus terrae. Dans le contexte épistémologique chrétien, la géographie avait peu ou pas de place” (“The Christian world is, without exception, a closed world, restricted, even infantile, attached by a symbolic cord to Jerusalem, umbilicus terrae. There was little or no room for geography in the Christian epistemological context”). In this worldview, Jerusalem as the umbilicus terrae therefore determined spatial categories such as proximity or distance.

The Six Day War marked the moment of a spiritualization of the Israeli region, as the biblical territories of Israel were “reconquered,” allowing the victory to be understood as a divine plan. Zali Gurevitch and Gideon Aran identify the caesura in 1967 as the time when the geohistorical and metaphysical concepts of Israel were united, and space and time were remythologized:

Within less than a week, Israel was cast back two or three thousand years … To embark on this wondrous journey along the time axis, one needed only to travel several kilometres, sometimes only a few meters … This reduction in distance and creation of a territorial continuum allowed for a telescoping of history. A biblical reality appeared to prevail in Judea and Samaria—visitors encountered a real situation that only yesterday was considered archaic or mythical.

Uri Eisenzweig regards the “Zionist utopia” in Israel, which manifested itself particularly clearly in 1967—admittedly from a decidedly critical perspective—as “l’imaginaire social israélien” (“The Israeli social imaginery”). He gives a rationale for his investigation into the collective imaginary in Israeli state Zionism by confronting its mystical religious projections—”[l]a nocivité fondamentale de la fable religieuse du ‘Retour à Sion'” (“The fundamental harmfulness of the religious fable of the ‘Return to Zion'”)—with the historic reality and the geographical environment of its realization.

Late Soviet exodus texts, inspired not least by these symbolic geopolitical attributions, in a certain sense by the return of the mythical to the Jewish collective consciousness, revive archaic space-time patterns. They do this by transferring mystical-messianic, apocalyptic, and moral-religious ideas onto the geopolitical constellation of “Israel vs. Soviet Union.” This is demonstrated in an exemplary way in the work of the exodus mystic Eli Liuksemburg.

Liuksemburg’s novel Desiatyi golod (The Tenth Famine) is a complex religious-philosophical work with crime novel tendencies that marks the high point of his artistic reflections on the theme of the late Soviet exodus. The storyline originates in a narrative coding method that plays as much with the linearity of narrated and remembered time as it does with the verifiability of reconstructed events; the aporias of the plot, which are created by the subjectivity of the narrative perspective and are also characteristic of his earlier story “Tretii khram” (“The Third Temple”), are intensified due to a particular polyvalence of the text.

The text presents the notes of Ieshua Kalantar. These notes include shreds from his memory, reflections on the current course of events, inner monologues, religious and philosophical trains of thought, and spiritual revelations. Ieshua finds himself at the time of events in a psychiatric institute in the central police headquarters in Jerusalem, where he is being treated by a group of doctors. His arrival in Jerusalem, or rather his travel route, rouses Israel and provokes a flood of newspaper articles with headlines such as “Ieshua out of the underworld” (“Ieshua iz preispodnei”) and “Those who served God with their legs” (“Sluzhivshie Bogu nogami”); according to one of the doctors treating him, his name will go down in the history of Zionism. Yet Ieshua is mentally broken and physically exhausted; his sickroom is like a prison and the constant medical observations to which he is subjected are harrowing (the discomfort of the numerous tubes attached to his body becomes a leitmotif of his confession) and are about more than just his medical well-being. Having traveled to the Holy Land from Uzbekistan underground, he is suspected of spying on behalf of the Soviet and/or Arab secret services.

The discrepancy between the protagonist’s spiritual mission and the geopolitical antagonisms of which he is a part becomes the key theme and ultimately forms the decisive, conceptual antinomy of the novel. Therefore, the same topographical locations—primarily Israel as a real state and as the holy land of the patriarchs—are always double coded, without any connection being made between these two locational interpretations that are central to Israeli history. Eventually there emerges from Ieshua’s patchy and puzzling memories the story of a unique undertaking: led by the Polish Hasidic Kabbalist and Shoah survivor Rabbi Vandal, a group of Jews from Bukhara resolve to emigrate to Jerusalem via a secret natural tunnel. The Rabbi’s charisma is due to his comprehensive religious knowledge and spirituality, which manifests itself in the boundless freedom of earthly holders of power and in the gift of miracles. Following his fateful meeting with Rabbi Vandal, Ieshua decides to return from galut—to Israel.

For the small group of emigrants around Rabbi Vandal, the Land of Israel, and Jerusalem in particular, embody a spiritual place enlightened by the Judaic tradition. Told from the perspective of the narrator Ieshua, the new exodus is woven into a tight web of connotations that refer to the original texts of the Bible and Jewish mysticism. Tradition and allegory regain their significance in the mysterious experiences of the protagonist—the miracles of the recent present confirm spiritual continuity, the durability of the belief that has been around for thousands of years. In the secret tunnel deep under the earth, Ieshua watches a line of bodiless figures pass by, glowing strangely:

Oni plyli mimo v zhutkom fosforicheskom svete, a ia voskliknul ispuganno: “Rebe, chto eto, rebe?”

“Dushi evreev,” skazal on spokoino. “Gde by evrei ni umer, ego dusha idet v Ierusalim, ibo v den’ voskresheniia mertvykh tam vostrubiat v truby, i kazhdyi budet sudim.”

They swam past, surrounded by an unnatural phosphorous light, and I cried out in fear: “Rebbe, what is that, Rebbe?”

“The souls of Jews,” he replied calmly. “No matter where a Jew dies, his soul goes to Jerusalem, for on the day of the resurrection of the dead, there the trumpets shall sound, and every man shall be judged.”

The souls of the dead as sparks of light can be traced back to biblical motifs: “in Judaism and thus in Kabbalistic language too, the individual soul [is] described as a spark of light that irradiates (emanates) light from ‘above’.” They also evoke the vision of the prophet Ezekiel and the words of YHWH, as mentioned above in the analysis of Efrem Baukh’s Jacob’s Ladder: “Behold, I will open your graves, and cause you to come up out of your graves, and bring you into the land of Israel” (Ezekiel 37:12). Meanwhile, the motif of the subterranean route to the Holy Land refers to Jewish popular belief, midrashim, and Hasidic legends, and designates Israel as a sacred place intertextually from the very beginning. The scholar of Jewish folklore Haya Bar-Itzhak highlights this motif, for example in the origin myths of Polish Jews, where it conveys the idea of a secret geographic connection between the Polish Diaspora and the holy land of Israel; this connection legitimizes Poland as a place chosen by God for Jews to inhabit: “the spatial connection between Poland and the Land of Israel is via a subterranean passage that leads from synagogues in the Diaspora to the Land of Israel, or through the medium of stones from the Holy Temple that are incorporated into the walls of the local synagogue.” In a Hasidic legend retold by Martin Buber, the Baal Shem Tov sets off for the Holy Land at the suggestion of Carpathian robbers: the robbers lead him “along a very strange path, through caves and holes under the earth, to the land of Israel.” However, when the Baal Shem sees “the flame of the circling sword” that “blocked his next step,” he turns back. Viktoriia Mochalova also mentions a Polish legend about a “white Rabbi” who disappears forever into a forest cave that leads to Israel. In Hasidic literature, the motif of the ban from on high on Jewish emigration to Palestine and the associated obstructions and suffering are well known. Liuksemburg makes use of this motif when he presents the subterranean journey of his protagonist to Israel as a daring spiritual religious breach and a particularly passionate, costly undertaking. In the aforementioned legend retold by Buber, the abyss to Israel is filled with mud, and in The Tenth Famine Ieshua describes the cave as a “deadly abyss, which stank of damp and the grave” (“gibl[ое] podzemel'[е], raziashche[е] sklepom i syrost’iu.”)

Significantly, Ieshua answers the Israeli security service’s question as to whether he found treasure and gems in the caves positively, as he described the fine, pearl-like souls of the dead Jews he saw there. The miracle he experienced clashes with the sceptical rationality and the war- and profit-oriented mentality of the state police (in both Israel and the Soviet Union). The subjects and figures mentioned in Ieshua’s discussions with the doctor, which form paradigms for Jewish religious thinking − the liberation of the Jewish people by Moshe Rabbenu; Rachel’s grave near Bethlehem and thus the weeping of the foremother for her children − evoke the original scenes of exile, but also the hope of successful resistance and divine mercy.

In the figure of Rabbi Vandal, Liuksemburg creates an exceptional personality who succeeds in opposing the monstrous state systems at a spiritual level and dares to lead an exodus, like Moses before him. The topos of the path, which implies both geographical and spiritual (upward) movement, is given symbolic significance here. The exodus takes place explicitly in memory and on the basis of the biblical Exodus − the rabbi convinces his followers to abandon the supplies they have prepared for the risky and difficult, even impossible path, since “a legion of helpers” (“legion pomoshnikov”) will help them: “Did we carry anything on our shoulders, when we came out of Egypt? All objects, all possessions were transferred by a miraculous cloud … your things will always be with you, you can always find them when you want to!” (“Razve tashchili my chto-nibud’ na sebe, kogda shli iz Egipta? Vse predmety, vse veshchi perenosilo Chudesnoe Oblako … veshchi vsegda budut s vami, vy ikh naidete, kogda khotite!”) The Rabbi mourns the destroyed Temple along the way, sitting on a sack filled with ashes just like the witnesses to the catastrophe − the prisoners of Titus − and later his own teacher, the famous Galician tzadik the Gaon of Bavaria, used to do. For the “rebels,” the commemoration of biblical events is not just identity defining but also life sustaining: the old and insane Isaak Fudym succeeds in opening the exit to the cave, which is blocked with heavy stones, without outside help, because he firmly believes that his son Isaac built the Third Temple with his own might. As a result of this there is a miracle, and the stones move to one side by themselves.

In his fictionalization of the figure of Rabbi Vandal, Liuksemburg refers to Jewish folklore and Kabbalistic stories, just as the whole text of the novel is filled with subjects and motifs that are rooted in the Judaic tradition. The reference to the aggadic tradition, Jewish hagiography, and Hasidic legends, with their central motif of the miracles of the tzadikim, functions as a counterbalance to the world of political fighting, hatred, and atomic war. The religious spirituality and apparent irrationality of the rabbi’s intellectual world call to mind numerous stories of strange decisions by Hasidic leaders apparently motivated by hidden logic; the anachronistic, alienating effect of this world in these times of military technocracy and a sophisticated secret service apparatus is conceptual. The present is a time of spiritual amnesia, which points to the approaching global catastrophe; in the memory-less “Now,” warnings from the ancient past—the Torah and the prophets—intrude; the (end) times of spiritual thirst, the Tenth Famine, are beginning.

The complex Judaic referential structure of the text points to the intellectual background of its creation: intensive studies of religious writings within the circles of non-conformist Soviet Jewish authors. However it also reflects more concrete geocultural and biographical factors. Liuksemburg, who grew up in Uzbekistan, refers in the novel to so-called “oriental” Central Asian Jews, who lived on the edge of the Soviet empire—in Bukhara—and yet still kept their ethnic and religious traditions. For Liuksemburg, the remaining Jewish believers that live on the periphery represent an oasis of Jewish culture, a fragment of authentic Jewish life. The spiritual energy of real change emerges on the edge of empire (cf. the semiotics of borders below).

The spatial topoi in the novel form a dense innertextual and intertextual structure, which point to the archaic, mythical spiritual experiences of the protagonists. Thus the escape cave is likened to an open vagina in the earth, which bears its children again with painful labor—and with painful labor the children themselves are reborn. The titular metaphor of the Tenth Famine leads to the central topos of the path. Ieshua uses a parable to explain to his father why he is ready to follow Rabbi Vandal unquestioningly. When God created the world, he ordained ten famines: nine have already gone, and the tenth will be the hardest, as it will be a famine of the spirit, and the people will long for God’s word. The Tenth Famine is the longing of galut Jews—”collective, passionate, fervent thoughts” (“mysl’ … kollektivnaia, strastnaia, isstuplennaia”) for return and liberation. Ieshua believes these powerful thoughts develop into telekinesis and remove all material obstacles on the way to the Promised Land, and that this is how the secret cave paths to Jerusalem emerge.

Yet leaving has a tragic nuance, as only a few Jews decide to go; the first awakening of Israel − Rabbi Vandal’s first attempt at exodus − is condemned to failure from the beginning. Ieshua first learns of the aliyah movement by Soviet Jews that took place some years later from two young ex-Soviet repatriates, who question him, the tunnel survivor, in the Jerusalem clinic. He answers as follows: “so we set off first … set off first and arrived last. Actually we didn’t arrive at all! My God, I’m the only one who made it, and I too am half dead” (“ved’ my … pervymi vyshli … vyshli-to pervymi, а doshli poslednimi. Mozhno skazat’, sovsem ne doshli! Odin tol’ko ia, da i to polumertvyi, Gospodi”). From here onwards, the reference to the prior canonical exodus text gains a counterfactual and relativizing character. Like Moses, Rabbi Vandal does not reach the Promised Land; only his coincidental “followers” (Soviet Jews) do, who nevertheless will never learn anything about their spiritual ancestor and never arrive in spiritual Israel. A major historical-religious defeat is implied: the true exodus, inspired by the spirit of Jewish tradition and accompanied by a living miracle, i.e. the presence of God, misses its goal. In the end there is only one witness able to recount it (Ieshua), and no one believes him, so the exodus returns to the sphere of the legendary and becomes part of the myth (according to Ieshua’s report, for example, their packages were borne by the air, and food appeared from nowhere). Arrival means a switch into a new prison and finally into death for Ieshua: he is blown into the abyss near his second place of birth, the “blood cave,” by a violent gust of wind.

The idea of the spiritual exodus and the spiritual Israel is related to Jewish mysticism and is dealt with in a particular way in the novel: fictive events that take place in a real historic context and thus evoke contemporary history are measured against the mystically interpreted revelation of biblical tradition, the exodus from Egypt as described in the Torah. The “exodus from an inner Egypt,” of which Gershom Scholem speaks in connection with the mystic imaginary world of Judaism, is doubtfully projected onto the real late Soviet exodus and the state of Israel. The tzadik, Rabbi Vandal, remains in a tragic sense a lamed vavnik, one of the so-called “thirty-six,” a hidden righteous man, who was not able to save the world.

After the death of Ieshua, only Rabbi Zachary Bibas from the Institute of Kabbalah is able to read his incomprehensible scribblings and even blank pages, and to understand their meaning. Here there is repeated evidence of the gift of the mystical sages of the Kabbalah to unlock the deepest, hidden scriptural meaning. However, the story of the secret journey cannot be verified and the investigations—like the text of the novel itself—result in an aporia. Nevertheless, the dichotomous-aporetic ideational structure of the novel is steered in a certain direction, since the Kabbalist Rabbi Bibas, for whom Ieshua’s journey is a sign of the Shekhinah, and Ieshua himself the highest proof of God’s existence, has the last word: the wise men, he says, foretold that the Promised Land would only be properly inhabited again if the Jews pursued it with all the strength of their souls. Rabbi Bibas postulates the polarity of Judaic spirituality and science as follows:

There is no doubt that, in the so-called scientific sense, there is no system of cave tunnels leading to Jerusalem from other continents! Nevertheless, souls are coming here, they are coming continually, because this way was created by God at the end of the sixth day, on the evening of the first Sabbath, like the scriptures, like the rainbow, like manna, like the shamir worm, like the talking donkey that belonged to the sinner Balaam, like the crack in the earth that swallowed up Korach and his tribe, like the ram for Abraham and Isaac, like the mythical grave of Moses.

Poniatno, chto nikakoi peshchernoi sistemy v Ierusalim s drugikh chastei sushi—v tak nazyvaemom nauchnom smysle—ne sushchestvuet! No dushi siuda idut, idut posoianno, ibo sei put’ byl sotvoren Bogom v sumerki shestogo dnia—nakanune pervoi subboty, kak pis’mena, kak raduga, kak mann, kak cherv’ shamir, kak govoriashchie usta oslitsy nechestivtsa Bilama, kak pervye kleshchi, kak past’ zemli, poglotivshaia skopishche Korakha, kak oven dlia Avraama I Itskhaka, kak chudesnaia grobnitsa Moshe.

In spite of the puzzling and in part unresolved action segments, as well as numerous references to Islam not mentioned in this analysis, the Jewish tradition to which the text of the novel refers produces a transparent pattern in the plot that amounts to teaching and warning and that postulates a clear moral structure. The Tenth Famine and the exodus take place against the background of (East) European Jewish history in the twentieth century—the Holocaust and communism. The figure of Rabbi Vandal stands for Polish-Jewish spirituality, which, although martyred, still survives: “A quarter of a century ago, the first groups of evacuees came to Bukhara—suffering Jews from Poland” (“Chetvert’ veka nazad pribyli v Bukharu pervye eshelony evakuirovannykh—isterzannye evrei iz Pol’shi”). The period identified here conceals the first precise reference to the time of the plot: it is the second half or the end of the 1960s, the beginning of the Jewish national movement in the Soviet Union. The concept of the exodus and the gathering of the Jews in the Holy Land, which forms the subject of the novel, achieves preordained status thanks to the Kabbalistic-mystical interpretation of events. Thus Rabbi Bibas states at the end:

And yet the exodus did take place—and the Shekinah is here! … And this young man from Bukhara, Rabbi Ieshua ben Nisim, is the true hero of this great deed. Through the will of his soul, he compelled the spirit of Rabbi Vandal to accompany him, and this spirit helped him in spite of the laws and the order of the underworld.

I vse-taki iskhod sostoialsia—a Shekhina zdes’! … A etot iunosha iz Bukhary, rebe Ieshua ben Nisim,—istinnyi geroi etogo podviga. Voleiu svoei dushi on zastavil idti i dukh rebe Vandala, i etot dukh emu pomogal, vopreki zakonam i poriadku preispodnei.

Rabbi Bibas’ conviction that Ieshua led the Shekinah out of exile into the Holy Land once again links the idea of the exodus with the idea of the apocalyptic salvation of humankind—an association that is suggested several times in rabbinic exegesis (midrashim) and the Kabbalah. This eschatological approach reinforces the notion of the failure of the exodus in the historical present, and allows forward-looking, prophetic echoes of what happened to be heard.

As Eli Liuksemburg’s example shows, the dichotomous perspective of Jewish dissident literature does not just refer to the context of political resistance, but often reproduces the ontological division of the world into the divine (promise and gathering) and the earthly or politically realistic (i.e. having departed from the divine order), as specified in Jewish apocalypticism. The existence and the expansion of state powers, whose strength rests on false premises, has disastrous consequences and leads ultimately to Armageddon. According to theologian and apocalypticism scholar Ferdinand Hahn, “the opposite relationship of God and the world gains” its dualistic character because “the empires are an incarnation of evil, godlessness and enmity against God, an expression of self-assertion and extreme claim to power.”

In the Lotman sense (cf. above), aliyah as referred to in the works in question is both a geographic shifting of one’s home and an ethical-religious ascent. This topos of transformation through locational change follows the laws of mythical space, according to which “the object, having found a new place, can lose the connection to its previous state and become a different object.” In the context of this view, the Soviet empire is sometimes assigned the characteristics of the sinful biblical city of Sodom and has to be left behind both spiritually and physically, if one wants to avoid the wrath of God. In the major texts by Efrem Baukh and Eli Liuksemburg in particular, the sacral dimension of the Israel topos serves as the foundation for the overall philosophical idea complex, which brings to life the images of the heavenly Jerusalem contained in the books of the Jewish prophets.

By drawing on apocalyptic and messianic ideas, non-conformist Jewish exodus literature is referring to the original schemata of political refusal that are rooted in Judaism. The scholar of cultural memory Aleida Assmann localizes the emergence of the Book of Daniel in the time of Jewish resistance to Hellenization, more precisely in the time of the Maccabean Revolt:

The apocalyptic view of history was developed by religious minorities who found themselves faced with an oppressive political power. Their weapon against an expansive empire was ideological; they relied on an authority that was more powerful than the great power that surrounded them. In this way, they devised a spiritual, transcendent empire.

The resulting conclusion, that an apocalyptic view of history “derives from socially marginal opponents” who “outdo” the official historical concept “with a universalistic plan of history,” is decisive for my argument, as is the idea that “linear time thus becomes a destructive force in God’s judging hand.”

Strategies of literary resistance employed by Jewish dissidents at the time of the aliyah use a system of subversive apocalyptic space-time metaphors to foil the equally teleological and eschatological “imperial time” of the Soviet regime. Because of the radical counter-positioning of their own group with regard to the “belief” of the Soviet majority, Jewish intellectuals and, in particular, aliyah writers readopt the Judaic commandment to preserve the purity and exclusivity of diasporic unity, albeit in a modified environment and often with secularized content. The Jewish principles of spiritual territory, as incorporated in scripture and thus in the word, and the “portative fatherland” (Heinrich Heine), as well as the central Judaic concept of the makom, are all, however, invalidated at the same time in favor of the finalized idea of a concrete—holy and traditional—place, i.e. in favor of emigration and spatialization. This idea is utopian in nature: “The return to the Land was intended to bring about a reintegrated Judaism—a reunification of Book, people and place.”

If one considers the relationship of Zionist resistance to Soviet ideology against this historical background, it becomes particularly clear that this is a case of two space-time utopias, indeed two religious systems, colliding with each other: the communist, which “occupies” a large part of Eastern Europe, and the Judaic, which opposes it with its “righteous” state in the near East. The geographical utopias of the dissidents arose in the empty spot that communist ideology was no longer able to conceal. It is no coincidence that Peter Vail’ and Aleksandr Genis describe the Siberia travels in the context of the 1960s as a source of metaphysics for the Soviet people, which was able to fill the historical gap for a short time and was therefore very significant for the compensatory preservation of Soviet belief. Gradually robbed of its idealistic implications and mythical power, the Soviet Union mutated into an empire, as Vail’ and Genis explain. However, two time concepts meet here too, as mentioned—the imperial and the apocalyptic, which are related to each other: “Both time constructions, the imperial and the apocalyptic, are eschatological; they exist in the same salvation-historical context and are linked to apocalyptic visions of salvation … Imperial time, with its glorification of continuity, and apocalyptic time with its waiting, hoping and pleading, correspond within the same historical context to the opposed perspectives of above and below. Imperial time means the sacralisation of power and the blocking of temporal change … Apocalyptic time means the delegitimization of power and the destruction of the world.”

For Russian-Jewish dissidents, the exodus tradition becomes a weapon against a present that has been robbed of its memories. However, Yael Zerubavel finds evidence of the use of such a “‘hot’ memory” as early as the late Yishuv period of Jewish culture in Palestine. Before the foundation of the state, the “symbolic bridge” to the heroic biblical past served to consolidate national consciousness and allowed the settlers to construct a coherent history of their own people: “This was indeed the challenge that Zionist national memory faced … in its attempt to form a sense of continuity between the ancient national past in the Land of Israel and its modern revival, following a rupture of two thousand years in exile.” “[T]he selective dimension of national memory” was—and here Zerubavel also refers to the memory concept of Maurice Halbwachs—linked extremely closely with space, and this gave it a mythical power of connection. As a result, Zionist dissident and emigration literature continues a long literary tradition of retrospective land utopias of Judaism.

Beyond the Topos of Israel

Literary strategies of resistance in Jewish dissent are not only implemented with the help of the central Israel topos, but also through the creation of recurring spatial structures and connections in the text, which form a dense network of references. The relationship between the minority, resistant Jewish culture and the hegemonic Russian culture gains a spatial expression and is located, assessed, and semantized with the help of space metaphors and constellations. At the same time, fundamental dichotomies are reproduced at a topical level.

The following semantic spaces determine the fictional world of the Exodus texts:

Spaces of Punishment and Isolation

Closed and monitored spaces such as psychiatric institutes, prisons, detention centers, camps, but also state authorities such as the Department of Visas and Registration (OVIR). As far as Jewish written sources are concerned, their space of isolation and supervision is the archive that replaces the publicly accessible memory space of a library; the “banishment” of Jewish writings to the archive finds its structural counterpart in the imprisonment and thus isolation of Jewish intellectuals. In Feliks Kandel’s Vrata iskhoda nashego (The Gates of Our Exodus) the fate of the 16-volume “Jewish Encyclopedia” by Brockhaus and Efron, published in Russia in 1906-13, is picked out as follows:

In large libraries, it stood in open stacks at first, next to other encyclopedias: walk up and take it off the shelf. Then it travelled to the lower shelf, just above the floor, where few would notice it. Then it was removed to the second row of books, where no one would find it. Later it disappeared into a special book depository, where it was not lent to everyone—only those who had a certificate from their place of work stating that it was necessary for specific research purposes.

V bolshikh bibliotekakh ona stoiala v otkrytom dostupe, riadom s drugimi entsiklopediiami: podkhodi i beri. Potom ona pereshla na samuiu nizhniuiu polku, u pola, gde ne vsiakii i zametit. Potom ushla vo vtoroi riad knig, gde ne zametit uzhe nikto. Potom sginula v spetskhranenii, gde vydavali daleko ne kazhdomu, a tol’ko so spravkoi s mesta raboty, chto trebuetsia ona dlia opredelennykh nauchnykh issledovanii.

The shifting of the books to the bottom and the back, and then from public rooms to closed and monitored rooms, following the movement of gradual concealment, serves as a spatial metaphor for progressive exclusion.

Imaginary Spaces of Judaism

These are spaces of madness, memory, fantasy, and dream, most of which are conceived of as places of refuge for oppressed individuals in a parallel world. Jewish holy places emerge in these spaces, such as the Third Temple or the Land of Israel. Spaces open up from the shtetlekh, which have as memory remained in childhood forever, and from past, often legendary, epochs of Jewish history, as well as from the biblical past, and spiritual, occult experiences of the Kabbalah. In Eli Liuksemburg’s The Third Temple, for example, Isaak Fudym, who is suffering from paranoia and hallucinations, builds the Third Temple on Mount Zion in his imagination. Whilst he ekes out his days in a psychiatric institute in Tajikistan in central Asia, he is at the same time convinced he is living in his beloved Israel. His roommate Natan Iospa is also obsessed with the idea of reaching Israel. In the night, the effects of his sleeping medication always wear off just as he is about to climb into the departing airplane he sees in his recurring dreams. He wakes up in the mornings crying and depressed. The dualistic, bipolar worldview of Jewish dissident authors is manifested in the significance of such imaginary spaces.

Spaces of Suppression and Overwriting

Here, the palimpsest, with its multi-layered surface structure, becomes an effective metaphor for the collective forgetting induced either consciously or negligently by the authorities. The “palimpsest” metaphor is used here clearly in the tradition of Heinrich Heine’s well-known use of the term. Like Heine, who sees the half-obliterated lines of an ancient Greek love poet gleam through the newly black monastic script of a patristic sacred text on the face of an older woman (Die Harzreise), the Jewish authors are concerned with “revealing the conditions of the errant present;” they become “[lawyers of a] marginalised tradition.” Recurring motifs that serve this figure include the misuse of synagogues (as a bread factory, a warehouse, and a stable) and Jewish gravestones (as building materials). Gravestones often represent the practice of overwriting in concrete literalness. Jewish names and quotations from the Torah are removed from the gravestones and replaced by others. They are therefore lifted out of their syntagmatic order and placed into a different cultural and ideological reference system. Sometimes the textual replacement is preceded by the physical re-placement of the stones, for example from a Jewish to a non-Jewish cemetery. In Iakov Tsigel’man’s Pokhorony Moishe Dorfera (The Funeral of Moishe Dorfer), after the war the protagonist recognizes in a newly paved street gravestones from the Jewish cemetery of the former Jewish shtetl: “I saw that the pavements were now plastered with gravestones from the Jewish cemetery. It’s true, I was walking along the stone path, and suddenly I noticed it!” (“Ia videl, chto mogil’nymi plitami s evreiskogo kladbishcha vystlany teper’ trotuary. Da-da, ia shel po kamennomu trotuaru i vdrug uvidel!”)

In the context of cultural erasure, the apocalyptic vision of Emmanuil Kardin, the protagonist of Jacob’s Ladder, is representative: he sees ancient Hebrew scriptures and major human artworks vanish into thin air. Kardin’s patient Plavinskii, who becomes his spiritual teacher, mentions the river of forgetting, the Styx, and prophesies that memory “will be wiped out, like Chagall’s frescoes from the walls of the old Jewish theater, like the names Kandinsky and Tatlin. Only this will stay—the glowing screen—the summit of urban thought” (“sotrut, kak freski Shagala so sten byvshego evreiskogo teatra, kak imena Kandinskogo, Tatlina. Ostanetsia vot—svetiasheesia tablo—vershina urbanisticheskoi mysli”). Here, the glowing empty screen is a symbol of both cultural annulment and soulless, traceless urban architecture. As Plavinskii declares, the Kabbalistic connection of names, which can ward off dark powers, is threatened with an obliteration of names (stiranie imen) by Satan’s hand.

However, human beings in particular can become the place of overwriting and forgetting. For Efrem Baukh, that role is played by the spiritual convert Boris Pasternak, amongst others; for David Shrayer-Petrov, it is the Jews who, in the course of assimilation, accepted Russian or Ukrainian names, or the Lithuanian Karaites, who deny their Judaism out of fear. In Herbert and Nelli, the investigating first-person narrator, who is also the author’s alter ego, travels to Trakai to ask the few remaining Karaites there about their origins and religion. However, the Karaites seek to conceal the affinity of their religion with Judaism: they do not want to be associated with the Jews for fear of persecution, a fear that is projected onto both the Germans in the past and the present-day Soviet powers. They perceive the suggestive questions put to them by the narrator as bothersome and dangerous. Here, the theme of remaining cultural and religious traces, of layers of the past that have been inscribed on the palimpsest and then covered, and yet remain in residual form, is merged with the theme of crypto-Judaism, mimicry, and the underground (literarized in the post-Soviet period in David Shrayer-Petrov’s stories “Mimikriia” (“Mimicry,” 1996) and “Belye ovtsy na zelenom sklone gory” (“White Sheep on a Green Mountain Slope,” 2003). However, in an overall sense, the entire assimilation history of the Diaspora Jews can be interpreted as a process of “name erasure.”

The Soviet periphery often functions as a place of ousted or hidden Jewish belief/culture—the shtetl abandoned in the past by the protagonist, border locations or places far from the center of Soviet power, for example in Lithuania or central Asia. As the Jewish tradition is still preserved in the periphery, the marginal often appears as a space of meaning and living memory. The geographical edge of the empire is thus semiotically charged and is in contrast to the lack of cultural signs at the center. Thus Emmanuil Kardin travels to his small hometown, in order to experience this journey as a revelation and a literal, geographical return to his roots. In David Shrayer-Petrov’s novel Herbert and Nelli, the first-person narrator visits Trakai in Lithuania, where a few Karaites still live. In the above-mentioned story “White Sheep on a Green Mountain Slope,” the narrator meets a family of crypto-Jews in the mountains of Azerbaijan. In The Tenth Famine, Eli Liuksemburg, who grew up in Uzbekistan, refers to the Central Asian Judaism of Bukhara. In David Markish’s Zionist pedagogical novel The Beginning, Kazakhstan, the place of exile, functions as another Palestine—a substitute space of freedom, which is regarded as a place of maturation and a preliminary step in the aliyah process.

Oases of Jewish belief and resistance in the cities provide a similar substitute function, for example the Moscow synagogue on Arkhipov Street. On the other hand, homes (and especially kitchens) that are traditionally used as meeting places for Jewish dissidents are spaces of suppressed and secretly practiced Judaism.

Counter-Spaces of Judaism

The standard counter-spaces of the Jewish protest movement that feature in the literary texts are urban centers of Soviet life, which in most of the texts are also the living places of the non-conformist protagonists, and symbolize the repressive ideological counter-discourse of Judaism. The center is in this sense contrasted with the periphery on the one hand and the underground (for example the closed living spaces of dissidents) on the other.

In Iakov Tsigel’man’s grand narrative The Funeral of Moishe Dorfer, the “Red Zion” of Birobidzhan features as a reversed counter-space of the Israeli utopia. Birobidzhan is here a dystopian place, an anti-place, a place of simulacrum, that falsifies the Jewish dream of the Promised Land, and a place of collective (self-)deception. “The Zionist idea of the gathering of the Jewish people” in its “socialist variant” represents the mimicked exile of the Jews, which increases the state of exile. However, in this text, Birobidzhan is also a palimpsest of buried, half-erased and aged signs, worn out symbols, and cultural empty spaces. Traces of the former life—the ideological fervor of the early years, symbolized in building materials and tools—are buried under rubbish heaps. Walking through the town, the narrator links the backyards he passes to cemeteries of history, as they still harbor the axes and saws of the first Birobidzhan enthusiasts beneath the building waste and broken asphalt. In the material graphicness of hidden, delimited town spaces such as old backyards, rubbish dumps, and alleyways, the diachronic of history appears as burial and decay. The narrator takes on the role of an archaeologist as he “searches for the truth about the town” in these abandoned spaces (“vkhozhu vo dvory i ishchu pravdu o gorode, staruiu pravdu gorodskoi istorii”).

The topos of the path and the border also have a decisive meaning in exodus prose, in which there is a high level of semantization of certain spatial phenomena. Both topoi meet in the general symbolization of the central aliyah concept—as a spiritual ascent and a crossing of the existential border. They derive from the mythopoetic and religious space model discussed above. Vladimir Toporov analyzes how, in the context of this model, protagonists need to walk a difficult or hopeless path in order to achieve a higher spiritual or sacred rank: “Anything significant or valuable is linked to an extreme effort, a victim, an ‘either-or’ situation … The culmination of the path … lies at the gap between two sections, which signifies the border crossing.”

The topoi of the path and the border become externalized and spatialized when this mental process is reflected topographically, for example in the attempt by Eli Liuksemburg’s protagonist to reach Israel by means of an underground tunnel or via the Afghan border. Biblical primal subjects such as the Israelites wandering through the desert become role models in the process. Motifs of liberation and transgression come to a tragic climax if they take place in an imaginary space—in a dream or in the imagination of a mentally ill person—and thus come to nothing. In Liuksemburg’s The Third Temple, the act of crossing the border fails because of the sinful murder committed in the past, and the territory of the Holy Land thus becomes a sacred space of purity that Fudym will never reach.

At the point where the exodus prose shares its motifs with emigration literature, it also produces transit spaces, the semantics of which radiate far beyond the situative meaning of the direct diegesis. In Shrayer-Petrov’s Herbert and Nelli, the queue at the OVIR visa authority is dense with Jews for whom the years of waiting for a travel permit have become a way of life: “Never before has Herbert Anatol’evich heard so many different Jewish family names. You could use this list [of the people waiting—K.S.] to trace the history and geography of the Jewish Diaspora, like an ethnographic guide” (“Nikogda eshche Gerbert Anatol’evich ne slyshal podriad takogo raznoobraziia evreiskikh familii. Po etomu perechniu mozhno bylo, kak po etnograficheskomu putevoditeliu, prosledit’ istoriiu i geografiiu evreiskoi diaspory”). The ensuing enumeration of Jewish family names, together with etymological explanations, tells the story of the origins, wanderings, and assimilation of people in galut.

As shown above, one way in which the search for spiritual alternatives in late Soviet society expressed itself was in the rediscovery, the expansion, and, at times, the breach of geographical spaces. This tendency is evident in a radical form in the political spirituality and Palestine topos of the Jewish emigration movement; less radical forms of spatial distance to the regime included, as Juliane Fürst shows, travel within the provinces, expeditions, and business trips to distant republics of the Soviet empire, stays in dachas, and the cellars (where dissidents met and lived) and kitchens of “underground” homes: “The idea of emigration thus emerges as the ultimate extension of the flight from Soviet officialdom that had been characteristic for the critical intelligentsia in the late 1950s and the 1960s.” Vail’ and Genis provide a list of examples of the places of refuge, peripheral and alternative spaces used by the Soviet intelligentsia, which laconically call to mind the multiplicity of displacement states—exile, hiding, unemployment, homelessness, emigration—present in late communism. “In order to survive, the [intelligentsia] had to withdraw to the periphery. From now on, its place was in the stoker’s cellar, in the exile settlement, in the guard’s house, in the outlying shack, and finally in emigration.”

Consequently, in the collective consciousness of the critical intelligentsia, Israel was one in a series of spaces of alterity that have been sought out, discovered, and invented, and that, depending on the context, are understood as places of privacy, resistance, or freedom.

Time-Spaces of Resistance as a Reflection of the Canon

Elsewhere, I have highlighted the mirror-image relation of the exodus literature to the canon-forming literature of social realism and the traditions of the Russian “novel of insight” (roman-prozrenie). Here I would like to refer merely to the temporal-spatial and historical-spatial facets of their relationship to the counter-model of the Soviet idea complex.

The contrastive but also repetitive recourse of the aliyah literature to the canon manifests itself in a teleological version of history, which accentuates the specific role of Israel and the Jewish people and the future gathering of the dispersed in the Promised Land. Katerina Clark describes an analogous concept of history in the Stalinist novel as a “divine plan of salvation;” she talks about “translating History into symbolic form.” The historical and religious elevation of the aliyah movement fits into the historical concept of salvation vs. the apocalypse, which is characteristic of totalitarian art and literary forms in the Soviet Union and elsewhere. The negative communist totality is replaced by another effective utopian construct, thus preserving a monolithic identity of the new human being.

Jewish (literary) dissent also inherits topographical sacralization practices from the Soviet empire: as a topos of salvation and transformation, Israel/Jerusalem develops an auratic attraction of the kind possessed by the communist capital of Moscow, particularly in the early Soviet period: “In the 1920s and 1930s, Moscow became a projection screen that beamed out enormous energy: whatever happened in this new Mecca, everything changed there, became part of its magic.” As Jacques Derrida expressed in Moscou aller-retour, the “pilgrimages” of Western intellectuals to Moscow after the October Revolution produced a “Back from the USSR” literary genre. Moscow became a transrational place of spiritual metamorphoses; Clara Zetkin even described the Soviet Union as a Holy Land. Topoi of the spiritual fatherland, of the eschatology and messianism associated with the place, and of the topographically realized u-topia now pervade the Israel fantasies of the dissident culture.

In contrast to the art of Soviet propaganda, which relied on recoding, i.e. reinterpretation of biblical and in particular Judaic symbols, exodus literature could make direct use of biblical pre-texts and pre-images. The extensive reference to these sources represents a refiguration and revision of Judaic symbols and rhetoric references as compared with their use in Soviet ideology. In his investigation into the religious roots of Bolshevism, Mikhail Vaiskopf demonstrated the use of auspicious topographic rhetoric in the language of Lenin’s speeches. In one of numerous examples, and in a clear reference to the biblical figure of Joshua, the leader of the revolution announces the imminent entry of the proletariat into the “socialist Canaan” (“sotsialisticheskii Khanaan”). There is also the metaphor of the “Marxist Moses,” famous among Jewish socialists and popularized by Dem’ian Bednyi. It is symptomatic that the Bolshevist rhetoric, with its dense and “confessionally” heterogeneous religious intertextuality (Vaiskopf talks about the “allusive system” [“alliuzivnaia sistema”] of this rhetoric), contrasts the Bolshevist passion for the spirit and soul of the revolution with the rejected Menshevist “Old Testament” loyalty to “dead letters.” Thus the new Bolshevist religion reproduces the old Christian accusation of pharisaism and levels it at the opposition, in the sense of its own “New Testament” dismissal (if only allegorical to begin with) of Judaism, so that the “counter-reformation” of the Jewish non-conformist intellectuals, which takes place some decades later, possesses a historical logic and has “system-immanent” ideological traits. If one considers both the much-examined eschatological-messianic expectations that the Russian-Jewish intelligentsia had of the revolution, and later Soviet state antisemitism, spiritual Jewish dissent takes on a demonstrative orthodox character, avenging the sin of falsifying the true teachings on behalf of the persecuted minority.


The exodus works discussed here have at their heart a new concept of the Jewish homeland. Archetypal opposites from the Jewish tradition—which, since the destruction of the Second Temple and the Diaspora, adhere to European-Jewish culture and history, and which are understood according to a strict hierarchy—homeland vs. Diaspora, rootedness vs. migration, Jewish vs. non-Jewish, and on occasion also orthodox vs. secular—are revived and related to the present. The ideas handed down in the Talmud, which construe Jews as a community of kinship and origin, and the Jews of the Diaspora as a community of persecuted people, experience a renaissance within the new Zionist thought paradigm.

Most of the texts analyzed here transfer the salvific expectations of return from the religious to the secular-historical, and open up the symbolic within the text universe to reality. However, in so doing they break with the long Jewish literary tradition of the poetic inhabitation of the Holy Land, of “poetically inhabiting makom,” which Amir Eshel describes as follows: “Indeed, Jewish writers across the generations of exile were not so much obsessed with the urge to return to Zion—a notion many of them regarded as messianic—but were motivated by the desire to inhabit their dwelling place poetically.” The scholar of Jewish literature Sidra DeKoven Ezrahi writes about “textual repatriation” as “alternative sovereignty” in Jewish exile poetry: “In its most radical form, this is an imaginative license that has no geographical coordinates: it is an affirmation and reconfiguration of the Jewish word as nomadic exercise and Jewish exile as a kind of literary privilege.” The eternally deferred return and salvation of the diasporic existence and the tradition of the scripted, symbolic homeland as makom—Jacob’s Bethel, House of God—thus become indispensable sources of literary inspiration in Judaism. However, the deterritorializing model of the Jewish homeland, which has been established for centuries and partly constituted by Jewish literary history—”The homeland was … removed from geography into a spiritual category”—is revised in the late Soviet dissident context.

Because, however, Israel always forms an ideal, utopian, future-linked construct in the works in question, this tradition is perpetuated at the same time. It is therefore not surprising that repatriation produced a series of bitterly ironic literarizations of real aliyah experiences. As Sidra DeKoven Ezrahi puts it, skeptical stories of return, “though based on the model of pilgrimage … are suffused with a modern skepticism and a form of critical thinking that refuses to take refuge in the promise of collective social or religious redemption.” Prose texts such as Grigorii Svirskii’s publicistic-autobiographical trilogy Vetka Palestiny (The Branch of Palestine, 1970-93), Efraim Sevela’s Ostanovite samolet—ia slezu! (Stop The Plane—I’m Getting Off, 1975) and Prodai svoiu mat’ (Sell Your Mother, 1982), Yurii Miloslavskii’s Ukreplennye goroda (Fenced Cities, 1980), David Markish’s Pes (The Dog, 1984), and Iacov Tsigel’man’s Prikliucheniia zheltogo petukha (Adventures of the Yellow Rooster, 1986) deny the concept of the irreversible border crossing and often present a structural counter-thesis to the exodus works. Like the exodus texts, these works demonstrate a diverse range of poetics; however, they negate the final topographical and spiritual shift. They postulate a tautological repetition of homelessness on the other side of the border and the movement towards a return to the foreign, i.e. a perpetuation of the wandering state. The skeptic travel narrative, which also follows a rich tradition of Jewish Diaspora literature, conceives of the Promised Land as a semantic void, a profane place uninhabited by meaning, the anti-makom.

If one looks carefully at Judaic concepts of Soviet dissent, the thesis of cultural semiotics about the mythological coding of historical events that recurs in Russian cultural thinking—a mechanism that is activated at times of violent change and intellectual shift in particular—is proven once again. Soviet dissent imbues the political present with the power of the mythical by drawing on legendary layers of both the past and distant geographical spaces. This recourse creates a “gigantic compression of space-time” and with it an immense intellectual appeal. The Jewish tradition rediscovered in this way is able to establish a new, alternative collective identity and, in so doing, simultaneously finds itself in the sphere of the Russian-Soviet myth complex.