Isaac Babel’s Ghost Was Not on the Guest List

Pain, Euphoria, Utopia at a Polish-Ukrainian literature festival in Amsterdam

By Arturo Desimone

“I’m thrown back by a boot, I have no strength left,
In vain I beg the rabble of pogrom,
To jeers of “Kill the Jews, and save our Russia!”
My mother’s being beaten by a clerk.

O, Russia of my heart, I know that you
Are international, by inner nature.
But often those whose hands are steeped in filth
Abused your purest name, in name of hatred.


No fiber of my body will forget this.
May “Internationale” thunder and ring
When, for all time, is buried and forgotten
The last of antisemites on this earth.

There is no Jewish blood that’s blood of mine,
But, hated with a passion that’s corrosive
Am I by antisemites like a Jew.
And that is why I call myself a Russian!’’

(from Babi Yar, by Yevgeny Yevtushenko, translated by Benjamin Okopnik[1])


For the first time ever, a Ukrainian-Polish literary festival graced Amsterdam in 2016, under the logo of  ”Read my World,” the annual world-literature festival in Amsterdam, which exhibits the emerging literature of a different geographical area each year.

These are times of polarization in Ukraine and in Poland. Most Ukrainian invitees in the festival seemed handpicked, according to their euphoria for the most recent attempt at revolution: few pessimists or cynics critical of the November 2013 ‘’Euro-Maydan’’ revolution—the Ukrainian imitation of the Arab spring and occupy movements, oddly timed during the downfall of its role-model the Arab Spring. Because optimistic support for the Euromaidan rites of spring appeared to be the precondition for ‘’curating’’ Ukrainian performers, there was no room for polarization within the panel-talks.

Ukraine is still embroiled in what continues to be a dangerous international conflict, shortly after the latest attempt by Ukrainians at repeating the equally insubstantial “Orange Revolution” of 2004. Even in Poland, the current elected right-wing government is a source of polarization among writers. Many are big names fill the blacklists of the ruling Catholic nationalists. Some recognized Polish artists and many resentful ones favor the current regime. Polish film director Krystof Zanussi says the current government failed to fulfill its promises, though Zanussi, known for his aristocratic views and descent, at first welcomed the religious values in politics.

Ukrainian guest-curator Iryna Vykyrchak admitted that she needed to repress and adapt her usual aesthetic standards, to be open-minded about the media-savvy activist Dutch approach. For Vykyrchak, literary narratives of political horrors are usually more interesting as distance has settled in: ideally, the author composes in a state of remembering, rather than instant reportage. Memory is weaker than imagination: hopefully more truth is revealed when the former is vanquished by the latter, unbeknownst to the gullible author who succumbs to his own art.

Polish guest-curator Gzegorz Jancowicz was more playful with the concept, despite the current grim period for Poland’s literary establishment, typically comprised of visionary progressives like Olga Tokarczuk. The novelist Tokarczuk now lives at the center of the media-blitz, under the fiery scrutiny of the resentful uprising of conservative, religious-nationalist bureaucrats of the Law and Justice Party.

The absence of ”pessimists of the intellect” among Ukrainian invitees, suggests the Ukrainian literary landscape is marked by a consensus of Utopian faith in the second Orange revolution that ousted the democratically elected president in 2014.  This, however, makes an incomplete picture, more suggestive of the intentions and logo of “Read my World”’s Dutch academic-activist organizers. Every year, the Amsterdam festival struggles to make the art be proven ”newsworthy” and of political utility, making the festival more closely resemble the typical Amsterdam cultural fairs such as the IDFA documentary festival (held annually in the Tuschinsky Theater.) Such conflations risk awkwardness, not always a noble risk-taking.

This year’s focus was on the ”’live journals”: activist diaries of literary writers such as Ukraine’s Andrei Kurkov, as well as the blurring of borders between literary and journalistic writing.  During the panel talk ”On Past Violence & Hate Speech” there emerged an interesting dissonance when  novelist Tockarczuk was paired with Dutch journalist Frank Westerman to speak of extremism.

Tockarczuk is currently the target of much extremism in today’s Poland. She is acclaimed as a’ ‘living classic”,  in part because of her large novels, the most recent of which is a family history about a family of assimilationist Polish Jews who are tempted to convert to Christianity because of the pressures of antisemitism of the era. (the scene read by the non-Jewess Tockarciuk possessed remarkable familiarity, artifacts from a world I had explored of my grandfather’s Polish Jewish family in Czestochowa.)

After the air-time on Polish television, when a Polish paparazzi crew popped her a question about her views on the anti-semitic and feudal past, the writer earned an undesirable and warped fame: hotly discussed by conservatives who had not read her books, and yet had taken offense. The wave of death-threats from nationalists has not abated. Her writing has touched nerves of painful incidents of Polish history, while doubting more self-flattering historical narratives embraced by the recently established orthodoxy of right-wing writers of ”Pro Polish” epics and Polish victim narratives about being ”the crucified nation” (a concept Pope John Paul 2 promoted in his country, whose faithful seem not to have noticed Francis.)

In appearance, Tokarczuk seems harmless: dyed dreadlocks, stout and short; a kindly scholar who advocated vegetarianism and philo-semitism in Poland. Yet her historical fiction, such as the 2015 novel Jacob’s Scriptures (Księgi jakubowe, winner of the Polish Nike award) turns against all sweet narratives of kings-and-queens histories of Poland. Nationalist myths depict the Polish peasantry as rustic, simple lovers of traditionalism, suddenly besieged by the communist Red dragon that came to devastate lala-land. What Tokarczuk has unearthed, is not only the much explored history of anti-semitism: her literature reaches into the humiliation of the peasantry, the violent classism of Polish history. Her most recent big novel tells of the humiliations and strivings of a Jewish family wanting, desperately, to become Polish and to convert to Catholicism, meeting rejection from a 19th century Polish society. Assimilated Jews contributed Polish cultural milestones in literature and art, a legacy that is largely forgotten today–but not by Tokarczuk.

She has been demonized by nationalist radio in a country fond of conspiracy theory addled on by the paparazzi. A visitor walking down Warsaw’s main boulevard in 2010 would have seen the infamous encampment of religious protesters outside the presidential palace, as they prevented the president of the nation from entering the building, punishing Komorowski for rumors about the president being in cahoots with none other than the KGB behind the assassination plot that downed Lech Kacynski’s airplane. Karol Wojtyła’s beatification only made the martyr-complex more prominent, a reliable insecurity. Conspiracy theories abound in Poland. In the absence of Jews since the holocaust, other perceived ”traitors” are sought to blame for national tragedies and for the vestiges of Russian dominance.

Poland is never an anti-literary or unread country, however. The new “Law and Justice” political orthodoxy, fond of censorship, of paranoia, traditionalism and the national epic, simply favours its own writers: a cadre of disappointed artists who (according to the curator Jancowicz) were neglected and excluded in past years for being square.

If such a mounting resentment at having been overshadowed or unrecognized predominates among the newly returned conservative writers, it is despite the fact that they had one great success from their ranks: the cardinal, published poet, playwright, novelist and philosopher Karol Józef Wojtyła, author of ”Theology of the Body” became Pope from 1978 until his death as Jean Paul II in 2005; rapidly beatified—perhaps the final blessing upon his Vatican II house-cleansing-campaign against radical Franciscan elements. Poems and theater pieces by Wojtyła  have long been taught to Polish schoolchildren since the post-Perestroika generation.

Krytyka Polticyzna, (literally ”Political Criticism”) a ‘post- left” organization and magazine. Krytyka‘s  publishers from both the Ukraine and Poland chapters were present to give talks amid older generations of Slavic writers at the festival. During the lecture “Literature and Politics” the Amsterdam audience got the opportunity to meet representatives of what has been called “The Largest Political Organization in Poland”. That is not the Polish Catholic Jesuit Order, nor is it a nationalist network. It is indeed, the Left-wing organization Krytyka Politicyzna, also a publisher of left-wing literature, they brought the left-wing pop-culture theorist Slavoj Zizek to fame in Poland. Jas Kapela represented the Polish original chapter of the group, while Anna Kravets spoke on behalf of the Ukranian chapter.

Speaking the language of cultural theorists, Kravets at some point raised the issue of Iconoclasm in the Ukraine, and the tendency of Ukrainians during the regime-change of 2015 to attack and destroy statues. Razed statues include those depicting resistance-fighters who resisted Nazi occupation. Such depictions were destroyed by West-Ukrainian nationalists who aimed their rage at ”the communists”, who are also put on an equal footing, however disingenuously, with Nazism. At the mention of a critique of iconoclasm, the elder writer Andrei Kurkov responded by attempting to place it into context: Kurkov explained that for many people of the older generations, there is a haunting sensation that the statues of Lenin are, like the State or like the personal God impressed upon them in infancy, always watching them, stern and omniscient in the village squares. The removal of Sovietic statues had once brought a sense of freedom. Yet Kurkov’s anecdote does not do justice to the  ”historicide”, the violent and insensate destruction of history and the monuments depicting soldiers who fought against the Nazis, and who never represented any Party theology of the Bolshevik revolution.

Even the Bolsheviks had an original policy of preserving statues of the Tsarist regime that showed artistic value[2]; and there remains the option of moving a statue into storage.

The concerted smashing of monuments is in the end another form of monumentalism. The ”historicide” and pulverization of monuments, like the erection of landmarks, are varying constructions of the totalitarian imaginary, similar in their function of displacement (of geography, of humans and of old facts) while enforcing loyalty with a pull like gravity itself.

(Today, the example of dismantling of statues in Ukraine presents an interesting inverted mirror to the situation in the United States: in Ukraine the sentimental nationalists who blame the Jews for communism and Ukrainian national tragedies insist on the destruction of Soviet statues of anti-nazi resistance; meanwhile, in the United States the young Jewish woman Heather Heyer was sadistically mauled by anti-semites who defended a statue of a Confederate soldier and their belief that the Confederacy should have been victor of the 19th century war.)

Andrei Kurkov, the Ukranian author of more than 20 novels, presented his book of reports chronicling events at the Maidan protests. At other events he gave words of love for the author Andrei Platonov—who was condemned by the Soviet literary police and the Writers Union to pick up the leaves in the courtyard outside the Writer’s Workshop. Kurkov spoke with loving recollection of his favourite pet, the cactus plant, and how a cacti-collection foreshadowed his becoming a writer: the first time he discovered a private world of his own, withdrawn from the surveillance and shibboleths of the collectivist workers’ society of his Red childhood. “Our flat was dark because I kept the cacti in their vials in the window. I knew their names in Latin” It was his first experience of a private world in which to immerse himself, to work alone. As significant was his noticing the fact that writers who gained the benefits of the Writer’s Union did not have to work. “As I child I was told that Lenin loved animals, loved children, and loved work. Therefore, I learned to love animals, to love Lenin, and to love work. At some point, it became time to drop at least one of these loves.”

Perhaps a strong connection to the sweetness of childhood years, no matter the unhappiness or deprivation that visited a writer’s childhood, becomes the very foundation and well-spring of literary solitude.

Among those not curated for the festival, were Ukrainian Russian-language novelist Aleksandr Kabanov. Perhaps the reason for not inviting Kabanov was his lack of a euphoria for the revolution (always to be referred to as revolution, never as ”mass-demonstration” or ”’regime-change”)

Kabanov on his blog recently told being subject to harassment from the nationalists among his countrymen, ever since he announced a change in his walking-habits: ever since Kiev’s Moscow boulevard was re-christened as ”Stepan Bandera Boulevard” he avoids the avenue.[3]

Such revulsion is justified and sympathetic: Bandera was an instrumental participant in the Nazi Operation Barbarossa, a chief hooligan leading pogroms that killed roughly 100,000 Poles and Jews in the region of West Ukraine.[4] Bandera continued to give directives from his prison-cell following imprisonment by German officer supervisors, who feared the servant’s megalomania would erupt in an attempted mutiny vying to take over Ukraine. Bandera’s devoted followers seem a prelude to the later All-American Manson Family (the latter also relentlessly slew Poles and gained a regional appreciation, in California.)

At the “’Read my World” fest dedicated to Polish and Ukrainian writing, there was no mention of such complaints as those of Kabanov, or of any writer who does not share in the euphoria or the void of self-criticism surrounding Euro-Maydan (the second failed Orange Revolution).

The sanctity of the Euro-maydan experiment goes unchallenged. Such caution was a continuation of the mentality of denial that motivated Ivy League academics to circulate strange petitions in 2014  urging people to stop talking about the presence of right-wing gangs at the Maydan square, even as those very real gangs had begun to use random knife-attacks to quell the presence of the Ukrainian Left groups.[5]

From Julia Fiedorczuk’s ”Orion’s Shoulders” (transl. Bill Johnston, World Literature Today[6])

“Dark death is throbbing softly among the stars,
“revolving round the axle of the heavens” –
fiery Betelgeuse, Rigel, Bellatrix –
the Reapers are riding through the autumn sky
– just look!
We look. You’ve mist and strands of cobweb in your hair,
you’re carrying a bagful of cold pears.”

At the festival I was introduced by a participant to two Ukrainian activists—one a poetry-lover, the other a software-developer without links to literature. I asked them to tell me about the Bandera Boulevard issue. The activists jumped, slamming me for my tawdry journalism, for my not having studied Bandera’s articles in Ukrainian and for claiming Bandera led pogroms. They said I was Putin’s fool. What were the poet and the hacktivist, then—Tymoshenko’s jester?

”Where are you from?” they asked.

“Argentina” I answered, to keep it simple, no mention of Aruba.

“What about all the Nazis fled to Argentina? And you call us Fascists!”

I told them I specialized in talking and writing about Argentinean Fascism. I did not tell of my mother being Jewish, our roots partially in the region of Poland and Ukraine, or that many more Jews than Nazis inhabit Argentina, home to the world’s third largest Jewish community.

“How can you call yourself a journalist?” the poet-activist was shorter than his friend the computer hacktivist, dressed up in a scarlet suit and corduroy reminiscent of Oscar Wilde pictures, yet much more imposing despite being the dandy of the pair. The computer dandy insisted Bandera had written only a few articles, why didn’t I do my homework? “

How was it possible for Bandera to have been a pogrom-leader if the Nazis had jailed him?” the poet asked, insisting my sources were Putin. I told him the Jewish Daily Forward and the Israeli Haaretz are not the Kremlin. An article in Haaretz, about a Moscow Chief Rabbi’s having slammed Peter Poroshenko for his whitewashing of Ukraine’s holocaust history, was a good source.[7]  Yet somehow I found myself slipping, becoming more ashamed of having planted an accusation, when I all thought I had done was ask him about his country’s situation. I held back firmly from the verge of blubbering apology.

“A Moscow Rabbi is not free in Putin’s regime working with the Orthodox Church” he said. Indeed, Putinist state ideology backs the RoC, an institution that was always at the forefront of anti-semitism. But it was unlikely that a Russian Rabbi, capable of surviving Russia as a Jew, would easily bow into being a stooge for Putin. Impossible. I was about the give up, bowed in embarrassment for my libel of the Euro-Maydan, when my new friend sought another clarification of national PR: according to him, there was no real anti-semitism in Ukraine, he explained, ”but the Jews were unpopular because they were rich people from Russia and the Ukrainians were poor peasants,” he said.

And at this, my instincts and guts returned; it was now clear to me just who had imbibed propaganda.

Like all patriots, they were insecure. I warned him of anti-semitic stereotypes, affirming that many Jews in that region had lived in slums, but he could not possibly understand or un-anchor himself from myth. For a moment I was in the barrack in Poland that the great Odessan, Ukrainian writer Isaac Babel described in Red Cavalry, speaking to a dandy Cossack whose Christian blue eyes saw miraculous crimes coldly, calculating an eternal fist.

I tried remaining cordial with the dandy and his companion after we debated about history and lies.

Though discussion is nearly impossible in these circumstances, the only way to ever undo the theologies of anti-semitism that survived socialism is to openly speak without fear.

The festival was realized thanks to Ukraine’s ”Creative Europe” membership, which allows budgets for ”cultural partnership programs” reaching up to 2 million euros in European countries. “Creative Europe”  is usually facilitated to Euro-zone countries at a usually very expensive fee. Ukraine was the historic exception, invited to join at a symbolic fee of 1 Euro, which could have even been paid for by a poet, (but only poet who enjoys access to online banking)

Such solidarity explains why, at the encounter, there was unfortunately no possibility for Russian poets—including dissidents like St. Petersburg poet Lev Rubinstein—to read alongside his Ukrainian fellow travelers during a terrible time of war. Russia is still the East and the European Union is not Gorbachev’s dream of a Common European Home with centers in Moscow, Brussels and Ankara.

Could it be that a worthy poet might have a political position regarded as unfavorable by the consensus and still be deserving of an audience? A new politics defines many of the cultural programs that today thrive in Amsterdam: the avant-gardeism of post-politics, where even if a writer ”becomes a weapon in the era of information wars” (as the Polish curator stated) in a diverse arsenal aligned in one uniform direction. An international conference could, in theory allow for a divided house and debate between guest-artists expressing polarized opinions rather than illusions of “community’’.


[1] Fragment quoted from a complete translation on the website of

[2]    Walsh, David “The Foul Attempt to Censor and Suppress Dana Schutz’s Painting of Emmett Till” World Socialist Website March 24, 2017 Web.

[3]    Blog post by Nina Targan Mouravi, Russian-Dutch translator, 2016 Web

[4]    Lipshiz, Cnaan, “Stepan Bandera: Jews Out Marchers” Jewish Daily Forward Magazine, January 2017

[5]    “Ukraine, Putin and the West” N + 1 magazine, issue 19, spring 2014. Editorial


[7]    JTA Chief Russian Rabbi Denounces Ukraine President’s Lies on Jews in Crimea, in Ha’aretz, December 2015,

2 thoughts on “Isaac Babel’s Ghost Was Not on the Guest List

  1. Thanks for posting this–very interesting, and disturbing. I am becoming ever more skeptical about the Euromaidan movement (I’m a professional academic studying Russia, FYI), but it seems we can’t criticize it at all…


  2. Reblogged this on arturoblogito and commented:
    “Isaac Babel’s Ghost Was Not on the Guest List: Pain Utopia Euphoria at a Polish-Ukrainian literary festival in Amsterdam” re-blogged from the Global Literature in Libraries website. My article reviews the Read My World festival’s events of Polish and Ukrainian literature, held last autumn in Amsterdam, with various points of criticism, especially: where was the ghost of Tales from Odessa writer Isaac Babel? Thanks to the editor Rachel Hildebrandt of the Global Literature in Libraries project for publishing on the GLIL blog, I celebrate your project! This month the theme of all posts is relevance to Jewish issues and history


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