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An Island in the Middle of the Raging Sea

December 3, 2013

Leonid Tsypkin was a doctor in Moscow during the overbearing and terror regime of Leonid Brezhnev.  He was Jewish, as were both of his parents (who also were doctors).  Some of his extended family were killed during Joseph Stalin’s reign and still more at the hands of the Germans, who invaded the family’s hometown of Minsk in 1941. Tsypkin distinguished himself in his profession as much as one was allowed at the time.  He was a research doctor who published many medical articles, a pathologist and a member of the Institute for Poliomyelitis and Viral Encephalitis.  However, because he was Jewish, he was a marked man by the Russian authorities and his professional life was kept in check.  He was further mistrusted because his son had emigrated and he also applied to leave the USSR.

Tsypkin secretly wrote literature.  He shared this with very few people – not even others who were part of the Russian underground literature were aware of it.  He said that he wrote for “the [desk] drawer.”  This was a very practical discipline, since there was no recourse for writers and artists disapproved by the Communist apparatchiks who ruled Moscow.  Many were sentenced to harsh and cruel jail or work camp sentences for nothing more than expressing themselves.  Late in his life, Tsypkin released some of his writings to a Russian-language journal in England, who published it seven days before he died in 1982.  While browsing in a London bookstore, Susan Sontag found an English translation of the book.  She liked it so much that she helped Tsypkin’s family find a publisher here and wrote a preface.  The book, Summer in Baden-Baden, was published in 2001.

Earlier this year, the publisher released a second book, The Bridge Over Neroch and Other Works.  Mid-twentieth century Russia offered most of its citizens a life filled with dread, deprivation, and humiliation and void of beauty, pleasure and dignity.  Tsypkin writes about the degraded experiences in both of the books.  In “Ave Maria,” a 1972 story about the funeral of an accomplished Russian pianist, Maria Yudina, Tsypkin described with lasting imagery one’s hope for an escape from all of this.

“I understood for the first time what church acoustics mean, although perhaps that was just the way [the priest] talked, and although he spoke about abstract things, it seemed to me that I grasped the secret meaning of his words, and everyone else also understood, and once again I felt I was just a part of them—I now imagined the road we had traveled together in the form of a triangle: the base of it lay somewhere in the depths of the centuries, then, as history progressed, it narrowed, until now only the summit remained, the sharp tip, and we were this pointed tip—an island in the middle of the raging sea, which had by some miracle survived world catastrophe, but with every passing day this island sank further and further, it was already covered by water, the water reached up to our chins, but we were all alive and could move ahead, holding hands, and we had to appreciate this, and when Father Nikon, referring to Dostoevsky, said that “beauty will save the world,” I felt a lump rising in my throat again and tears filling my eyes….”
– excerpt from NY Review of Books, December 5, 2013

From → Writing

13 Comments
  1. I am presently reading Paul Theroux’s book “Dark Star Safari” about his trip from Egypt to South Africa, Bruce. Several times he refers to authors thrown in jail and tortured in various African countries. Your story above, and Paul’s, reminds me of how much I appreciate the freedom we have. –Curt

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  2. Beauty will indeed save our world. Thanks for this reflection.

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  3. Absolutely! I have never looked at that P. Theroux book. I will check it out.

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  4. How horrible to have to write in secret for fear of punishment. Most of us are so fortunate and hardly give it a second thought. For others, it can put all they hold dear at risk. How sad.

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  5. My husband is a huge fan of Russian literature. It’ll be nice to surprise him with some interesting new books he’s never heard of!

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    • I found a copy of his first book (Susan Sontag’s discovery) at the local library.

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      • I’m not a big fan of Russian literature; I find it way too bleak. But my husband loves it and I have put this blog onto my calendar for a gift reminder.

        It looks like you are reading ALL of my posts today! Hanks, but save some for later or you’ll get a stomach ache!

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      • Ha ha. I think there are so many posts on your site, if I started from the beginning with the intent of getting to the end, I’d feel like I ended up in one of those long, long Russian novels….

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      • No. You would laugh. Not become suicidal!

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      • Yes, it’s an entirely different program over there at FiftyFourandAHalf than with Dostoevsky, et al.

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      • Glad we cleared that one up. I thought I would have to eat the dog (and sadly he died his summer so that option is out)

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