I asked Kaminsky about Odessa. He started by saying, “Russian literati are pretty Nazi in their snobbishness about location. For the last 200 years — pretty much the only years of full-time literary activity in the country — there were only two places where literature happened: St. Petersburg and Moscow. Moscow was the city associated with Tsvetaeva [Marina, another one of Russia’s greatest poets — she hung herself during the Stalin era after years of exile, despair, hunger, and grief], Pasternak, and later Yevtushenko [Yevgeny] and Voznesensky [Andrei]. St. Petersburg was the city of the old lit glory, from Pushkin and Lomonosov to Akhmatova, Blok, Mandelstam, and later Brodsky [Joseph, who came to America in the 1970s after being convicted in the Soviet Union of being a “parasite on society,” i.e., he was a poet]. Moscow and St. Petersburg poets could not stand each other — famously Brodsky and Yevtushenko.” (Yevtushenko visited and toured America several times in the ’70s and ’80s and emmigrated to the U.S. in the ’90s and is on the faculty of the University of Tulsa. Brodsky, not too many years after winning the Nobel prize in literature in 1987, died of heart disease, a chain-smoker to the end.)
After mentioning these literary feuds and squawks, Kaminsky said, “But that sort of thing happens in every country.” Quite right, Professor Kaminsky. My favorite American literary dustup was when Ernest Hemingway (who was wearing pajamas at the time) punched Wallace Stevens in the face. I am also amused by the story of Hart Crane tossing his typewriter out a second-story window because it would not write a letter in perfect Spanish (a language of which he knew about six words) to the president of Mexico because he was hot about something.
Then, when Kaminsky was 16, his father and his family were granted political asylum in the U.S. This is how Kaminsky explains it: “The reason my family got asylum has, to be honest, nothing to do with me. It would be silly of me to claim other people’s medals. I was 16 years old, I was dating girls, so Odessa was a place like any other for a 16-year-old who was discovering the streets and does not know the alternative. It was an exciting time. Yes, it was not fun, to put it mildly, to be a Jewish kid in the Ukrainian high school at that time, or now. But that is how things were then. My brother left for the USA first. He fell in love with a woman who was going to America — they love each other, they must live together, they got married. They wanted to have kids. So, they left. My father said, back then, if you want to go, go, but we are not going. And so at that time my family stayed.”
This was all matter-of-fact, and then he said something that both did and did not surprise me. “My father was pretty well-to-do. He was able to bribe the Soviet police, so being Jewish was not so much of a problem in 1991. The problems began a few years later. USSR fell apart. My father had many friends, some of them from childhood, who were journalists. He was a businessman — involved in things as different as a brush factory to the filmmaking industry — but his friends were mostly writers. He had money, they didn’t.
“They came to our house for parties often, he tried to help them out. It was a feeling of festival, in a way. When USSR fell apart there was an air of freedom, and the journalists and writers were the first who thought everything is permitted, they can now write about any sort of corruption. They thought the pen can win battles, and so on. In Ukraine, more so than in Russia — although it is pretty much the same in Russia now — the old bureaucracy stayed in power, even though they changed party affiliations.
“So when the journalists wrote about corruption, they were killed on the streets. It was pretty shocking. Pretty immediate. My father’s good friend was Boris Derevyanko, a curious man, editor of the major newspaper in Odessa, who was also an opera theater historian. He wrote about corruption. He published a book about opera in Odessa. He was shot.”
I had to think for a moment about those last three short declarative sentences. There’s something about that middle sentence being the middle sentence that contains a knot of truth about being human: we are, some of the time, probably more often than not, failed, miserable, and odious creatures.
Kaminsky: “The problem for my father was that it really looks bad on paper when you are a Jewish man who has friends who write about the government. And he helps them with money. Plus, being Jewish backfired then — when the state collapsed, there was no police to bribe.”
No police to bribe? I had to remind myself I wasn’t in a Kafka story. This past summer I was in Prague, and it happened to be the 75th anniversary of Kafka’s death. There wasn’t a peep about it in the papers. I asked a senior Czech writer about this, and he explained simply, and a little sadly, that the Czech people have mixed feelings about Franz Kafka: even though he lived in Prague most of his life (and wrote all his great books there), he wrote in German (there were hundreds of thousands of ethnic Germans in Czechoslovakia then), and he was a Jew.
Kaminsky again: “It was all in the street. That you are Jewish is written on your face. As they say in Russia, ‘We beat you not in your passport, we beat you in your face.’ ”
I wanted to know more about his coming to America, and he said, “I can only speak for myself, since my family came to a place only a few immigrants ever come to: upstate New York. If we came to Brooklyn, we would be a different story. But in upstate New York, when our plane landed and the cab took us to our apartment, it was snowing, it was Saturday, and there were no people on the streets [emphasis his]. Coming from Odessa, which is pretty cosmopolitan, I honestly never before experienced the situation when you drive down the street in the broad daylight and there is not a single human being walking. My first experience of USA was surreal. Like there is an atom bomb attack and everyone’s just disappeared. It’s a lonely country. Of course, I got used to it.”