Borys Khersonsky has such lines devoted to Osip Mandelstam: “The Christian must be persecuted, the Jew – despised, the poet – killed.” Throughout his life, the author of these lines also follows the path of a loner and holds back the tide, often jeopardizing himself and his relatives. About the challenges of time, persecution, harassment and Russian fakes, values and principles, childhood and the period of formation, about the past and present – in a conversation with the contemporary intellectual and philosopher Borys Khersonsky.
You are an all-arounder so I don’t even know what side of your personality to choose. If you had to describe yourself with just one word, what would you use: poet, publicist, mental specialist, rector, researcher, lecturer?
I am a human. Indeed, I have always developed in many directions at once. But there have always been two main activities which prevailed: medicine and literature. Naturally, I started to write poems a way earlier than I became a doctor.
Mrs Alevtina, a progressive headmaster of the 116 School where I studied, offered me to go to Moscow to enter the Literature Institute. But I refused as I was a Jewish and was aware that Jewish people weren’t accepted to such universities. She insisted, saying she knew the right people there who would help me to be accepted. But I thought that it was embarrassing to be a poet in the USSR. Because I realised that I would have to write something about Lenin, the Party, and other propaganda staff. Only if you wrote one such a poem, you could write 10 normal ones and publish a collection. When I turned 21, I was even offered to publish my poems but only if I wrote 10 propaganda pieces. So I was thinking for a while… and started to write, but I could only create a kind of parodies on soviet poetry, everybody laughed. I mentioned those texts in my memories but only the KGB could get interested in them. I decided that I would write but wouldn’t publish my works.
Natives of Odesa often blame you on not having been born in Odesa. But I know that your family has lived in our city since the middle of the XIX century.
Even since the early XIX century.
Well, there you are. Why then were you born in the town of Chernivtsi?
My grandmother’s parents who lived in Chernivtsi had a nice apartment there. And in Odesa, my family lived in a communal apartment which was terrible. There was only a toilet, no kitchen, no bath. They bathed at a bath-house. And as for washing clothes, they had to put a pot on a gas stove and boil clothes there…
That’s why the first post-partum months, my mom spent beside her mother who gave her all the help a woman needs at the beginning.
My sister was also born in Chernivtsi because it was more comfortable. It is hard to imagine those conditions we lived in even now.
But you spent your childhood in Odesa, didn’t you?
I did. Actually, for some years we lived in the town of Starobilsk (where Zhadan, a famous Ukrainian contemporary author was born). My parents were appointed there when they graduated from a medical university.
I was 2.5-3 years old, but I remember well how our house and yard looked like. My father didn’t even believe me when I told that. But I drew a plan of how to get to the hospital, and he understood that I wasn’t lying, I really remembered it.
What was Odesa like when you were a child, a teenager? Because you often write that your Odesa is different from that which is described in myths which have been spread lately.
Until recently, I always felt about Odesa as about a very pretty but very neglected city. I mean I never saw buildings’ facades painted, I saw all entrance doors closed, you always had to go through a back door. This is how it was. Huge lines, even to the bath-house, to the supermarket… Empty windows, clothes which were impossible to wear – this is a Soviet reality. It was really terrible… I guess the worst period was in the early 60s when there were two-block-lines to buy some bread. We came to a dairy’s shop at 6 a.m. and were waiting whether they would bring products or not. The level of hatred in those lines was so high that if those people had been given guns, they would have killed each other.
But you had to leave the city for the second time when you were entering the medical university. Was it impossible to enter the Odesa one?
It really was. Because the Odesa University, as well as others, had a Jewish admission percentage which accounted for 2%, not more. But at that time, there were many Jewish people living in Odesa, and the university officials were particularly anti-Semitic, so it was impossible to enter the university. The town of Ivano-Frankivsk also had that admission rule but there were less Jewish people entering. My grandparents were living in Chernivtsi, which is not very far from the town, then. In Ivano-Frankivsk, Mrs Lilia Zvereieva lived, a friend of my father. I was very impressed by studying in Ivano-Frankivsk. Now I regret of exchanging into the Odesa University, the atmosphere in Frankivsk was a way better.
When exactly in childhood did you feel another attitude to your nation for the first time?
My parents were concealing from me that we were the Jewish. We weren’t Jewish in cultural regard: nobody knew neither Hebrew nor Yiddish, nobody attended a synagogue. My mother’s father went there on a Yom-Kippur Day and brought matzoth for Pesach. These are all which we had remaining from the Jewish culture, 500 grams of matzoth once a year and Shalom Aleichem.
Weren’t you bullied at school?
The first time I felt that at school was in my Class 3: somebody wrote “sheeny” in my textbook. I was unlucky, some of my classmates were true anti-Semites, and they weren’t embarrassed to show it. Later, I exchanged into another class and had no problems with anti-Semites until I finished school. Generally, there weren’t many of them in Odesa, I was just unlucky to have them in my class. One of the poems has such lines, ‘ Somebody wrote “sheeny” in my class-five-History-textbook,” this is how it starts, it is written in Russian, I don’t remember the whole poem, but such memories stayed with me.
Did it hurt you that you were forced to leave for another town to get a degree? How were you explained that you had to do this?
We took it as reality. My best friend went to the Russian town of Perm to enter a medical university. And for first three years, he worked in the Hanty-Mansiyskiy Autonomous Okrug. He got his experience as there were many patients with different mental issues which were particular just for that region. I even asked on Facebook whether those diseases still exist. And people from Hanty-Mansiysk told me that it is the same as it was 50 years ago.
Why didn’t you defend your PhD thesis in Odesa?
I didn’t even try to. It was also impossible. In fact, I wrote my thesis 5 years before I defended it. But at first, I had an academic advisor in St. Petersburg, Russia – Professor Tonkonohy, he is a neuropsychologist, he was even famous at that time, but then moved to the US three months before my defence. It took me aback. Only later, he assigned me and my work to another advisor – Professor Bazhyn. Bazhyn told me that before I had a completed thesis he wouldn’t even register me as a doctoral research scholar. But I had a completed thesis so it didn’t stop me.
But it was the year when the KGB started to prosecute me, that’s why the defence date was postponed twice. In 1982, I was hiding from the KGB in Simferopol, Crimea. It was a very unfortunate year for Odesa: almost everybody was ransacked. A friend of mine was arrested and sentenced to a five-year exile, he did his jail time. Interestingly, the books he was judged for were published while he was in the camp. He was told to write a release notice to get free, and he said that he hadn’t written any notices to be arrested so he wouldn’t. So, he did his term. He returned being well-fit, unlike me.
He told me, “What it is like to take the middle path. See, how good I look, and you went all grey…” It took him much time to find a job. Then, we helped him to get a job at the library of the Gaaz Foundation, he worked there for a while and then migrated. He has recently died from cancer in Switzerland. This is Petro Butov, he was a theoretical physicist just before being arrested, he resigned from his position at the university and became a simple worker. Because it was harder to arrest a worker, as he belonged to the working class. But he knew he would be arrested. He decided to tell everything about his beliefs when he would be questioned. He asked his wife whether she was ready to let him be in exile, she let him. So he said to them, “I hate you all, I am not a public enemy, you are public enemies. Yes, I believe Afghanistan is a venture, and people who spilt their blood there did it for nothing, and this is a crime, and you have to pay for it.” This is how he spoke with them, they had no chance to release him.
Why were you prosecuted?
I helped to spread underground press. I belonged to an unofficial psychological club. However, all it was based on anti-Semitism, in the first place. My works were also self-published, so they had questions to me.
When you decided to be into the underground press, did you believe that the word can undermine the system?
No! To be honest, I didn’t believe that we would manage to do some political revolution, as Viachek Ihrunov believed because he had some political intentions. But I had no. I wanted to read what I want. I strived to use the freedom of speech when you write something and can type it when you want to read something and you read! I read such works as The Gulag Archipelago by Solzhenitsyn, Doctor Zhivago by Pasternak… But we not only read but also created books. So I was charged with producing and spreading materials disrespectful toward the USSR. I could have been sentenced to three years. It was the maximum I could get. And as soon as I lied at interrogations I could get one more year for misrepresentation. They threatened me I would be sentenced… but fortunately, it didn’t happen.
I know that before the house-check, you had to destroy your works, what texts were those?
First of all, these were my short tales, fairy tales… Jewish-themed texts were also destroyed, poems were, but I managed to recover them. But as for prose, I’ve never managed to recover it. Only some fairy tales, I even published them in Odesa, but they still weren’t saved. There was a small newspaper, I can’t even remember its name now, It was issued by a talented artist. I remember neither his nor the newspaper’s name. He moved to Israel after a while. I only remember he had his own brand of vodka “Three Comrades” with Marx, Stalin, and Lenin, it had even a tag.
You have often confronted with some forces. When did a comfort period come? A period when you feel free, calm.
I have never felt this way.
Until 2014, you’d been deeply engaged with the Russian culture, you often went there. Had you felt, forecast such a scenario for Ukraine and Russia?
If you had asked me in 2012 whether I felt direct aggression against Ukraine, I would have answered negatively. But when now I read my poems which I wrote then, I understand that I felt and forecast that. I have even such lines, “Russia is being glued with the Armenian Ararat mountain, or at least with Ukraine”. This poem was published in 2012, but written back in 2010.
Even today, you feel like you are in the opposition. I wonder what that narrow Odesa “circle of experts” blame you on?
Many factors influence it: first, I am successful beyond Odesa, it is a big fault. Because when you live in Odesa, you have to be interested in publishing in Odesa, and for this, you have to wait for two years for your works to be published in some anthology which isn’t read by anybody. It is ridiculous. Also, you have to mention certain elements: acacia, the sea – necessarily, chestnuts and Babel (famous Odesa writer of the beginning of the XX century) of course… It is a typical set of symbols and metaphors which is unconditional for the Odesa literature, and it limits the Odesa literature.
I wrote an essay on this theme called Odesa Syndrome. I guess it was published in 2008. Today, I’d rewrite it, because many things have changed, there are certain positive changes. I mean now it is not only a dictatorship of the Odesa’s taste which still prevails. For example, we are now sitting in the book-coffee-shop where we can speak Ukrainian and nobody will judge us. Liudmyla and I can read our poems here, some other similar locations have also appeared – the Hrushevsky library, the Green Theatre.
I asked about your place of birth on purpose. Many people blame you on not being an Odesite enough, they also account your anti-Russian position for it.
Yes, they write that I was born in Chernivtsi, and that’s why I speak some Chernivtsi dialect, that I am not a native Odesite… However, I was three months old when I came to Odesa. Many slanders… they also say that I tolerant the German-Romanian occupation, and this lie even was translated through the top Russian TV channel. They say that I deride the victims of the Holocaust. Some Odesa online newspaper once wrote that I glorify the Romanian occupation during World War 2, and there, just beside, was a post “Holocaust victims commemoration gathering. Borys Khersonsky will read his poems.” It means that I arranged the Holocaust victims commemoration gathering on the same day when I glorified the Romanian occupation.
It is quite possible in the post-truth epoch…
Yes, indeed, it is post-truth. But we know that repeating a lie, again and again, makes people believe it. Not all people, but still the majority.
You once said a very important thing for me: we shouldn’t be silent when hurt. This is why as far as I understand you profoundly, considerably, emotionlessly reply to these slanders in your posts.
You do it gainly, fan them away like flies. What can really bowl you down? What really irritates you?
What irritates me the most is the war which lasts more than the Great Patriotic War (in the post-soviet countries, it is more common to say the Great Patriotic war (1941-1945) than the Second World War as Germany invaded the USSR on June 22, 1941. However, some western Ukrainian lands belonged to Poland then so the war started in 1939 there). It lasts so long that people are getting used to the fact that every day people die in the east. And I can’t see the end, I can’t see how we can resolve it, I can’t see the exit. However, I realise that it will last long, I hope it won’t last forever. I realise that I won’t go to Crimea once again, I won’t visit Moscow, or Russia in general, despite good relationships with many friends who live there. This is what irritates me. As for the Odesa situation, it doesn’t, I’ve got used to it. Well, if I am not invited to the Odesa Book Festival, then I will go to other cities. And despite everything, I will take part in the Odesa International Literature Festival which is handled by Germans and Swiss. And this is a tradition already. I have participated in all five years of the festival.
I have taken negatively the results of the Presidential Election. I suppose the Parliamentarian Election’s result will be similar. I realise it is revenge, but it happened already, and we are to live with these authorities for the next five years. However, I am not sure whether we have these five years. What will be the consequences? Will society tolerate revenge? I mean we are now in the state which also irritates me.
What comforts you and what should we be comforted with?
My life comforts me. I give lectures, I am a therapist, and I write poems and prose. I guess I feel free. I mean I see no limitations in the work I do. I believe every Ukrainian should go on doing what they do the best, should do what they have done: if they published Ukrainian books, they should keep on publishing, if they wrote about our country and the war, they should keep on writing, if they were teaching, they should keep on teaching – the only condition is they shouldn’t be bribed for exams. That’s what can comfort us. Each of us has a certain level of will.
Interview by Svitlana Bondar
Photo by Dmytro Zhuravel
While the interview was being prepared for publication, the father of Mr. Borys, Hryhorii Khersonsky, passed away. The editorial staff expresses condolences to the Khersonsky family.