What Is the Secret of Chernivtsi?: A Conversation with Ihor Pomerantsev

By Kate TsurkanDecember 26, 2022

What Is the Secret of Chernivtsi?: A Conversation with Ihor Pomerantsev
IHOR POMERANTSEV is a writer and broadcaster from Chernivtsi in Ukraine. After leaving the USSR in 1978, he worked for many years at the Russian service of the BBC and at Radio Liberty. Father of acclaimed journalist Peter Pomerantsev, he is the creator of the annual Meridian Czernowitz Festival, which brings together many of Ukraine’s greatest writers alongside writers from all over the world. Pomerantsev’s work has been published in The Times Literary Supplement, Apofenie, The Oxford Review, and numerous other publications. He started a new podcast for Radio Liberty, entitled Humanitarian Corridor, immediately after the Russian invasion of Ukraine. 

Pomerantsev met with me in Chernivtsi to discuss the mythos of the city, the work of Paul Celan, the value (or lack thereof) of poetry during wartime, and more.


KATE TSURKAN: We’re meeting here in Chernivtsi, so I can’t help but begin by talking about the city. You probably know that Paul Celan, when accepting the Bremen Literature Prize in 1958, referred to it as “a region in which human beings and books used to live.” Would you agree with this statement?

IHOR POMERANTSEV: It would be nice, of course, to feel that one keeps up the traditions of great prewar writers. But I do not like to live by illusions. I grew up in Chernivtsi back when it was part of the Soviet Union, and the communists irradiated our historical and cultural memories of the city. I was a student at Chernivtsi University in the very same English department where Celan once studied, but his name was nowhere to be found. He did not exist in the Soviet Union. I only learned about him later on. It was a deliberate politics of cultural nihilism. The most commonly repressed people in Soviet Ukraine, besides human rights activists, were people of culture. Culture articulates the nation — if you cut off culture, there is no nation. Nobody is there to articulate it. The nation exists physically, but it does not exist on a linguistic and mental level.

But Chernivtsi itself was a kind of dissident, architecturally speaking. The architecture of the city was organized in a rational and civilized way, not like Moscow. There was a logic to it. It is the architecture of the 19th century, the peak of bourgeois development, perhaps the most productive moment in the history of mankind. Certainly, it sometimes lacked taste, but there was never a shortage of ideas. I think that, walking around the streets of Chernivtsi, you’re inclined to rational thinking. Plus, it’s a very beautiful place. Indirectly, the city itself influenced me. It was perhaps the only city in Ukraine, and I think the entire Soviet Union, where streets were named after figures like Goethe or Schiller. It was unique. Surprisingly, the Soviets didn’t change that — they decided to let it be. And these historical vestiges vaccinated the city against Soviet erasure, an inoculation that extended into other areas.

Famously, there was once a large Jewish population in Chernivtsi. After the Holocaust, there were almost no Austrian Jews left here. Those who remained were the most elegant, incredible people with regard to how they acted and dressed. But they were seen as foreigners by the Soviet establishment. Chernivtsi’s Jewish population also included those from Bessarabia, but they were different, and it was interesting to see — when, say, Bessarabian sons married Austrian daughters — how these cultures mixed. There were also fragments of the Ukrainian intelligentsia grouped around the university. My friends and I were exposed to the different cultural elements of the city — Jewish, Ukrainian, Russian, and so on. In spite of the horrors of the 20th century, Chernivtsi remained a city where people and books lived. My friends and I were all bookworms. We read American literature, the German classics, Marcel Proust — everything we could get our hands on. But we didn’t know our classics. They were hidden, and we only discovered them later on.

And how did you feel when you discovered the work of Paul Celan or other great writers from Chernivtsi? My Ukrainian in-laws, for example, described a feeling of betrayal when they realized that not only much of Chernivtsi culture and history but also that of Ukraine in general had been kept from them by the Soviets.

I felt like an archeologist who had discovered streets paved with gold. Plus, as I told you, I studied in the same English department as Celan, albeit at a different time. I liked to imagine that we walked the same corridors and sat in the same rooms. For me, the English language was a kind of bridge. In my young years, perhaps because of my provincial tastes, I was very oriented toward modernism. James Joyce was a formative influence. In addition, my first novella during the times of samizdat was called Reading William Faulkner. It was lightly based on Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury. Celan can be spoken of in the same vein as Joyce for how they both experimented with language. Before Celan, it was typical for German-language writers to obey the rigidity of grammar. But Celan, because of his tragic life, treated the German language as if he wanted to hurt it — to torture it a bit …

When I discovered Celan, I was already familiar with the work of other German-language writers, such as Rainer Maria Rilke. I loved Rilke because, although he followed the rigidness of German grammar, he was absolutely free with his imagination and delved deeply into poetic lyricism. He was a rebel from the inside, if you will. But Celan was more of a radical. He was reproached for this, by the way, in his first big publication. It attracted the attention of critics, and one famously remarked that Celan wrote in a kind of “Bukovinian dialect.” This was absolutely incorrect. Celan mastered classic German.

When I left Chernivtsi for Kyiv, I met the great Ukrainian poet Mykola Bazhan. He was part of the communist establishment but shared my proclivity for modernist literature. After reading my samizdat novel he invited me to his office. (He even went to Moscow and tried to help me after I caught the attention of the KGB, but sadly nothing came of his efforts.) Anyhow, Bazhan asked me about Celan, and it was the first time I’d heard of him. Bazhan was an encyclopedist, like Diderot. He knew everything. Thanks to him, I was introduced to my Chernivtsi compatriots, Paul Celan and Rosa Ausländer. But Chernivtsi was a cradle of talented people from numerous fields, not only literature. Later, I started digging — what is the secret of Chernivtsi? How did it become a hidden literary capital of German literature?

In 1848, there was a revolutionary uprising in the Austrian Empire; it failed. Some of the intelligentsia who had taken part were sent into exile, including to Chernivtsi. Back then, Chernivtsi was considered to be like Kamchatka, or Alaska. These intelligentsia were not deprived of rights at the edge of the empire; they could still work. By the way, they included not only Austrians but also Croatians, for example. Among the Austrians was the poet Ernst Rudolf Neubauer, a very well-educated young man who was full of energy. He started publishing the first German literary supplement, Bukowina, and taught many students of different nationalities, including a young Mihai Eminescu, the famous Romanian poet. The Ukrainian writer Yuriy Fedkovych was among Neubauer’s associates, and Fedkovych dedicated his first book to him. I think this all explains a lot. Why Chernivtsi and not Ternopil? Nothing bad about Ternopil, but they didn’t have great people like Neubauer back then. Sadly, he is forgotten today by many people in Vienna and in Chernivtsi intellectual circles. I’m especially proud that I wrote about him and did my own small part to revive his status within the cultural ethos of Chernivtsi. It’s not a coincidence that he passed through here. Neubauer and others like him brought the fire — they’re what made Chernivtsi great.

This question of forgetting is one that simultaneously fascinates and horrifies me. I am writing my dissertation on the famous French science-fiction writer J.-H. Rosny aîné, whose work has in recent years been rediscovered. He was a visionary but extremely worried about the limitations — the mortality, if you will — of his words.

Yes, I know of Rosny … The Quest for Fire was translated into Russian many years ago. He’s a very interesting writer.

Well, I approach this issue from a wider context. For me, there are two branches of thought here — one includes the classic heroes from Greek mythology who performed deeds to become gods and be immortal. How they achieve it is a different story. I remind you that Heracles started by killing his teacher, then his children. To redeem his sins, he became a hero. This can be applied to modern history as well. Nelson Mandela, for example, was seen by many as a terrorist before becoming a hero. Menachem Begin and Stepan Bandera are two other examples. The way of heroes is very dialectical and complicated. Poets, too, fight for immortality but in a more peaceful way. They are geniuses and have a chance to become immortal — that is, to enter the literary canon.

I was persecuted by the KGB in Kyiv, but I didn’t become a hero. If I’d wanted to become a hero, then I likely would have ended up in the camps. It was a choice I had to make. So, I was forced out. Since then, I have been fighting, perhaps hopelessly, for immortality by way of my words. The paths of heroes and writers sometimes cross: Ukrainian samizdat writers inevitably caught the attention of the KGB, as did human rights activists. For example, Yosyf Zisels was actually under investigation by the same KGB officers as I was, and his place was searched because he’d gotten books from me. We are good friends, but our paths in life were always different. He is a hero of public life, and I am more private — that is the nature dictated by poetry.

You are here in Chernivtsi now as part of the annual Meridian Czernowitz literary festival. What was it like for you to experience the event during wartime?

At first, the idea of having a literary festival during wartime certainly does sound a bit odd. That’s why we renamed it this year to “Meridian Czernowitz Poetry Readings.” The context of war casts a shadow over everything we do now — let me give you an example. I attended one of the events where the Austrian poet Milena Findeis was accompanied in Ukrainian translation by our famous local German scholar Petro Rykhlo. In the middle of the event, Milena broke down and started crying. Rykhlo is usually quite the stoic, but I noticed that his lips were trembling, and soon the entire audience was in tears. Then everyone overcame their emotions, and the event continued. Afterward, a Ukrainian woman came up to her and said, “Thank you for your tears.” I have contradictory feelings about this statement! Findeis read some really great poems. But in the context of war, tears mean more than poems; human touch is more necessary than brilliant metaphors. This is difficult for me to admit because it almost feels like the defeat of poetry, in a sense. I suppose it was the emblem of this year’s Meridian Czernowitz. Emotions overwhelmed all of us, and literature took a step back. It was three days of collective catharsis.

And how has your relationship to the Russian language changed since the start of the full-scale invasion, if at all? You often write in Russian, but it is not your only language.

Out of principle, I haven’t allowed my texts to be published by Russian-language media outlets since 2014. Look, the problem lies with some native Russian speakers, not with the language itself. I still love British literature, especially Arthur Conan Doyle and Rudyard Kipling, although it must be said that they were clearly imperialists. The territories of language, politics, talent, intellect, and morality very seldom share mutual borders. If you’re not infantile, you can analyze and put aside certain things. The language itself is not guilty. For instance, the German language was ostracized during World War II. At the same time, I recall how, back in the late 1970s when I worked at the BBC, I had German colleagues who had been there since the 1930s. Do we call them “Good Germans”? England, in a wise way, accepted all allies against Nazism. Ukraine, too, appears to be interested in embracing all of its potential allies in the fight against Russia.

I have a friend, a Slovak writer who lives in Switzerland. She knows Russian very well, but once she said to me: “You know, Ihor, I love Russian, but on the other hand, I’m allergic to it. It’s too civilized.” The language plays a dominant role in world literature, but in Ukraine, many great writers and translators were violently repressed by Russian authorities. Innovation in Russia has always been at the expense of others. They are not the first empire to be guilty of this, either. Different times are governed by different ethics. I am speaking about dialectics. Of course, I feel the reverberations of empire in the Russian language, but it’s like with English, if we circle back to Joyce. In A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, the main character, an Irishman, speaks with an English cleric. And suddenly, the artist starts feeling he does not command the language as well as the English cleric. The doubts manifest and he decides to solve the problem by using English as an instrument to show the hidden power of the Irish soul. So, we are not alone facing the problem of language.

My son Peter was brought up in London. He finished his studies at the University of Edinburgh, and today he is a British journalist. He once wrote, and I was astonished: “Yes, I write in English, and when I do it, I should confess that I take on all the sins of empire.” I sent him the quotation from Joyce, and it resonated with him. There are many cases where writers — as well as ordinary people — have very complex struggles with language. But even if we take into account that the English language is imperialistic, we should also not forget that it is the international language of morality, democracy, and human rights. Unlike English, Russian doesn’t bring anything positive to the institutions of the world. True, they have some impressive writers.

Ihor Pomerantsev. Photo by Julia Weber.


Kate Tsurkan is the founding editor of Apofenie magazine.


Featured image: Arthur Dove. Black and White, 1940. Smithsonian American Art Museum, Gift of the Sara Ruby Foundation. www.si.edu, CC0. Accessed November 18, 2022.

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Kate Tsurkan is the founding editor of Apofenie magazine.


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