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Emigration for Freedom

Friday, 10 Oct 2008 08:49 AM

By Lev Navrozov

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To my eternally young wife (and editor), Muza, on her birthday.

The verb “emigrate” originated in English in 1778 and the noun “immigrant” in 1789, but emigration has accompanied mankind throughout history. At the end of the first millennium, there was not yet a single German in Berlin, nor a single Russian in Moscow, nor a single Hungarian in Budapest (in fact, there was no city under this name until 1873). Madrid was not a Spanish settlement; it was a Moorish settlement, and no Turks lived in Ankara.

Christopher Columbus was a Genoese navigator for Spain; his Spanish name was Cristóbal Colón, and when he died in 1506, he still thought that the country he had landed in was India. Immigrants were a major factor of transformation of this “India” into today’s America, speaking “American English,” which differs slightly from “British English” or the English of other modern English-speaking countries. America also adheres to constitutionalism; that is, personal freedom.

In the 20th century, three major slave states came into being: Russia, Germany, and China, and the chief aim of emigration or flight from these slave states was personal freedom.

Just as in many other countries, private slavery in Russia was called “serfdom.” It was abolished in 1861 by Tsar Alexander II.

The serfs were the property (just like dogs or cattle) of their owners for whom they worked, mostly as peasants, were taken care of, and could be sold to other owners.

The Soviet state slaves were described by the Soviet slave-state media as the freest citizens on earth. This included the entire population, which actually belonged to the same slave-owner, glorified by the slave-state media as the greatest founder and leader of the “first free country in world history.”

It was assumed by the Soviet slave-state media that the United States and other “bourgeois” countries feared the new free Soviet society and sent their agents in to subvert it. Anyone who was heard to contradict the slave-state media was arrested as such an agent to be sent to a “labor camp” to do “honest work” — or was shot.

It is not psychiatrically surprising that my wife and I, both born Russians, studied English to transform ourselves, at least in our imagination, into dwellers of English-speaking countries. On the other hand, the dictatorship of Soviet Russia needed English-speaking Russians.

For example, it was said in the West that Soviet Russia did not publish the greatest Russian writer Dostoyevsky because he was not “politically correct.” So the Publishing House of Literature in Foreign Languages in Moscow began to publish my translations of Dostoyevsky. My wife became later, in the United States, a senior editor at McGraw-Hill, and if her English was good enough to be a senior editor in New York, it was certainly good enough for Moscow.

Then, in an attempt to flirt with President Nixon’s détente, several hundred “Soviet citizens,” born and bred in Russia, including my wife, our son, my mother and me, were “allowed to emigrate”! It was an incredible dream . . . yet we were more awake than ever.

However, even such a miracle did not eliminate the question of how I would make a living in that dream. Surely Western publishers had no need for new translations of Dostoyevsky.

True, I intended to smuggle out a manuscript, and it was published after we arrived in the United States by Harper & Row as a 628-page volume entitled “The Education of Lev Navrozov.” It received glowing reviews in The New York Times, The Washington Post, and other such beacons. But who could foresee it?

There was another possible path for me. Shortly before this miracle of being born again in the other world, one of the biggest Moscow drama theatres had asked me for an American play worth staging, but likely to be permitted to be staged by the Soviet censorship. I proposed my translation of “The Gentle People,” which Irwin Shaw had published in 1939. The Soviet censorship accepted the play, since all Americans in it were miserable: The worker owning a good house was miserable, since he wanted to spend his life fishing off his raft. His wife was miserable too — when asked about her health, she always replied, “I’m dying.”

Their daughter wanted to dance on the deck of a fashionable cruiser that passed by. Her father’s fishing friend was miserable because she ignored him and paid more attention to the local hoodlum, who had extorted money from her father to spend it on a bit of glamorous life for her.

Finally, her father and his friend invited the hoodlum for a trip on their raft, killed him in a comically inept way, and threw his body off the raft.

Why had I chosen this play? I believed that a new stretch of great American prose appeared with Hemingway after World War I. It was based on the rhythm of the English language. In Irwin Shaw’s play, the hoodlum, who bought orchids, but didn’t know that orchids do not smell, kept repeating in Hemingway’s rhythm: “Three dollars apiece, and they don’t smell!”

In the United States, I bought Irwin Shaw’s 346-page novel published in 1979 “The Top of the Hill.” I spoke with the publisher of Chronicles of Culture. He was from Poland, and he believed that the great American literature between the two world wars was going away. So he began to publish my reviews in his magazine.

Thus I wrote in the January/February, 1980, issue of his magazine that, while Irwin Shaw’s “The Gentle People” of 1939 showed traces of great American prose, his “The Top of the Hill” 40 years later showed zero. In such cases it would be better to show movies.

Irwin Shaw presented himself at the Chronicles of Culture and screamed at the editor as though the editor were obliged to publish only reviews of books that the authors of those books heartily approved.

But I continued to assert in my reviews that in its sterility the American prose was now not unlike the Soviet literature, except that the Soviet slave-state censorship had destroyed the great Russian literature, while similar array of pseudo-literature appeared in the United States possibly because it was equally profitable to publish a book of genius and “The Top of the Hill.”

Well, every free country consists of cultural contradictions, yet freedom makes it possible to choose. There was a time when even many Americans were sure that there should be no performances of classical music in the United States because the American music was jazz.

But surely in freedom this would not be obligatory for everyone, and classical music could be performed.

Freedom opens up beauty and wisdom for you personally even if no one else appreciates it.

As a writer, I write in my articles what I think — even if I were the only specimen of mankind willing to think so.

After the last Soviet dictatorship (of Gorbachev) collapsed in 1991 and Boris Yeltsin became the president, it was possible for me to “write politics” for former Soviet media giants such as “Izvestia.” My joke was that I had emigrated from Russia to Russia with my press center in New York. Unfortunately, Yeltsin was replaced, with his own blessing, by Vladimir Putin.

From Stalin’s Russia, I have brought out my experience of slave states. I have been trying to convey my experience to the West, and in the 1990s, also to Russia. I hope more can be done in this respect.

We — my wife, my son, and I — hope we can get from the West a bit of what we need and give the West a bit of what it needs. This is what the emigration for freedom is all about, is it not?

You can e-mail me at navlev@cloud9.net.

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