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Edenia: a lost Yiddish utopia for Ukraine and its afterlife in modern-day Kharkiv

Edenia: a lost Yiddish utopia for Ukraine and its afterlife in modern-day Kharkiv
A design by Jewish avant-garde artist El Lissitsky from his 1922 version of the Yiddish folk tale Four Billy Goats

Kalman Zingman’s 1918 Yiddish-language novella In Edenia, a City of the Future imagines a new world of tolerance and culture in eastern Ukraine. Now the region is war-torn and the Jewish population decimated. A new exhibition in Kharkiv — the site of Zingman’s utopia — aims to bring his vision to bear on a divided modern nation

30 June 2017

At one point in Kalman Zingman’s 1918 Yiddish novella In Edenia, a City of the Future, the protagonist Zalman Kindishman stands admiring a monument on the titular city’s Freedom Square:

A young girl with an ardent glance, her hair in loose curls, stepping with her feet on a snake, which is completely wrapped around her. In one hand she holds a blood-red flag and in the other — a black one. On the bottom of the red side is a bas-relief depicting high barricades, flattened faces — a war is going on. There is also a bas-relief on the other side, under the black flag, of the victims after the war, of those who were shot: a Russian, a Ukrainian, a Pole, a Jew, a Georgian, et cetera — all dead. The inscription reads: “They fought together, they died together.”

Edenia is a utopian future version of Kharkiv in eastern Ukraine, projected forward from the 1910s into the 40s. Now there’s another war going on nearby, this time between Russia and Ukraine; that, and the sickening disjunction between Zingman’s Yiddish fantasia and what actually befell the region’s Jews in the Second World War, might seem to discredit the author’s vision of cooperation and reconciliation.

For Russian-American artist Yevgeniy Fiks and American-Ukrainian curator Larissa Babij, however, the peculiar world of Zingman’s Edenia is worth remembering. Together, they have created a new exhibition named after his novella, currently on display in Kharkiv’s Yermilov Centre. In the novella, Kindishman visits Edenia’s art museum; Fiks and Babij have invited an international group of artists — the participants include Babi Badalov (Azerbaijan), Ruth Jenrbekova and Maria Vilkovisky (Kazakhstan), Aikaterini Gegisian (Greece/Armenia), Haim Sokol (Russia/Israel) and Nikita Kadan (Ukraine) — to contribute artworks towards a reconstruction of this imaginary space. In the process, they are posing many of the same questions of multiculturalism and futurism that occupied Zingman almost a century ago. What might a better future for Ukraine look like? And what position might religious and ethnic minorities hold within it?

“Utopian or futuristic Yiddish literature is not common,” Fiks tells me. “Most often Yiddish literature either talks about the present or remembers the past.” In Zingman’s text, Zalman Kindishman comes to Edenia to visit his old friend Yugendboym. Here, there is no money — every citizen has their material needs provided for. National communities — Jews, Ukrainians and others — live in complete harmony and are free to set their own laws. There are flying “aerotrains”, an artificially regulated climate, abundant gardens with children celebrating Jewish holidays by their thousands. Edenia is not a Jewish-only city, but one where questions of anti-Semitism have been superseded.

Zingman’s vision of a peaceful existence for Ukraine’s Jews clashes horribly with the country’s history. The post-revolutionary, short-lived Ukrainian People’s Republic (1917-1921) was the first modern state to have a Ministry for Jewish Affairs, and Yiddish was made a state language. But pogroms continued unabated, and between 1918, when Zingman’s book was written, and 1920, at least 31,000 Jews were killed in Ukraine — the real number may be as high as 100,000. The great majority died at the hands of nationalists and anti-Communists, many of whom saw Bolshevism as a sinister Semitic plot. Even greater horrors were to come in the Second World War, when the country was occupied by the Nazis and Ukrainian collaborators. An estimated one million Jews were murdered in Ukraine during the Holocaust; 70 per cent of the country’s Jewish population was killed or displaced.

The Drobitskiy Menorah, a memorial at Drobitskiy Yar, a ravine outside Kharkiv where over 16,000 Jews were murdered during the Holocaust

“Personally, I feel that the Yiddish question is precisely the question that should be raised when we talk about the present and future relationship between Ukraine and Russia,” Fiks says. “Perhaps the silence of Yiddish in the streets of both Ukraine and Russia, if acknowledged and contemplated, cries the need, the hope for a better world, a word of multiculturalism and autonomy.” For Babij, this is a question of both national and personal significance. “While working on this exhibition I could not help but notice how the site of multi-ethnic or inter-national coexistence has shifted to the scale of the individual,” she says. Hence the exhibition acts “not only as a reminder of Ukraine’s rich multicultural landscape of the past, but also as an attempt to present and enact a more complex understanding of cultural identity.”

What might a better future for Ukraine look like? And what position might religious and ethnic minorities hold within it?

The question of Ukraine’s past and its impact on the future is a live one; in Fiks’s words, the country is reinventing itself “with forces of multiculturalism on the one side and extreme nationalism on the other in a state of constant flux.” In its attempts to wrench itself free from Russian influence and plant its feet firmly in the western European community, post-Maidan Ukraine has not always trod delicately: from the controversial programme of “decommunisation” to the nationalist historical retrofitting promoted by Volodymyr Viatrovych’s Institute of National Memory and the uncritical public lionisation of wartime figures like nationalist militia leader Stepan Bandera. The reappraisal of Zingman’s novella and an attention to Ukraine’s historical hybridity is timely, even if, as Babij admits, the Kharkiv exhibition represents a “relatively small, bounded space”.

One of the most intriguing aspects of Zingman’s work is its combination of futuristic technologies with a lingering, “old world” devotion to eastern European Yiddish cultural tradition. Edenia is dotted with memorials exalting Jewish artists and writers: Yitskhok Peretz, Roza Fayngold, Sholem Aleichem, El Lissitsky. Its citizens are avid readers to the extent that the literary scholar Professor Shvartsvald is treated like a rock star, his lectures on Peretz overflowing onto the street.

For Babij, Zingman “maintains a separation between the realms of everyday activity, where technological advancements have increased the comfort and ease of residents’ lives, and the sphere of culture. It’s interesting to contrast this vision with that of the early Soviet avant-garde, which envisioned art and its formal possibilities as a means to transform out-dated ways of living, to shape and prepare society for new forms of organisation, often through a violent break with and obliteration of past cultural traditions.”

The exhibition itself jumps across time and space, its contributing artists turning their hands to themes of migration, religion and repression. Curandi Katz embroiders textiles with the borders of territories unrecognised by international law — including Russia-annexed Crimea, an open wound in the Ukrainian national psyche. Ruth Jenrbekova and Maria Vilkovisky have created a video guide to their own utopian projection: a world in which the Central Asian states have formed into a federation of autonomous tribes. Perhaps the most pointed commentary on the erasure and resurfacing of history is provided by Nikita Kadan’s Viewers (2016). The great Constructivist designer Alexander Rodchenko produced a series of portraits of Soviet leaders in Uzbekistan in 1934; when these figures were repressed a few years later, Rodchenko blacked out their faces in his copy of the album. Kadan reproduces these disfigured portraits, labelling them “the faces of the spirits of history… History (in other words, the accumulation of ruins) happens under their watchful gaze.”

Zingman’s novella ends abruptly with Zalman Kindishman’s mysterious disappearance and death. The Jewish culture Zingman so cherished was brutally cut down a few decades later. Many Ukrainians are now no clearer as to the future they are headed towards than their predecessors of the early twentieth century. What place does utopian thinking occupy in the modern nation state? “I think the term utopia, especially after the events of the twentieth century, is loaded and politicised,” Fiks concludes. “I think hoping and seeking happiness is a very basic, very human thing. But we must be very wary and very conscious about our methods.” For Babij, Ukraine today is “carried away by visions of a better future, whether in the shape of an idealised image of the European Union or the soothing promises of a strong, authoritarian neighbouring ruler or the hope that current Ukrainian politicians will miraculously change the way this country has been run for the past 25 years.” Hence the importance of history: “the past is really the only thing we can look at and talk about concretely.”

Edenia is governed by two sects. The Heavenly Ones “renounce all earthly pleasures, all the enjoyments that life can bring. They maintain that there is an even higher world, a more beautiful one.” The second sect are the “Earthly Ones, who say: enrich and improve life, so that heaven can be on earth.” This practical, materialist message is what is picked up and translated for modern Ukraine in Fiks’s and Babij’s exhibition. Our best bet might be to follow the advice given by Yitskhok Peretz, one of the Yiddish writers celebrated in Edenia, in one of his poems: “Don’t think the world is a wasteland — created/For wolves and for foxes, for spoils and for booty… Oh, don’t think the world is a wasteland.”

In Edenia, a City of the Future is on display at the Yermilov Centre in Kharkiv until 9 July.

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