Czernowitz in German, Cernauti in Romanian, Chernivtsi in Ukrainian. This city in the Carpathian foothills of southwestern Ukraine knows the stories of many cultures.
These stories were told in many languages — German, Hebrew, Yiddish, Romanian, Ukrainian. Historically a cultural and architectural center, Chernivtsi was even dubbed Little Vienna and Jerusalem-upon-the-Prut, after a Danube tributary that runs through the city.
This multicultural city is currently hosting an international poetry festival, “Meridian Czernowitz.” One of the participants and organizers of the festival is the writer and poet Igor Pomerantsev, who has worked for more than 20 years as a broadcaster for RFE/RL. Irena Chalupa, the director of RFE/RL’s Ukrainian Service, tried to wrest from him what it is about Chernivtsi that produces so much talent.
RFE/RL: The capital of Bukovyna, Chernivtsi is one of the country’s most interesting and colorful cities. When you think of this city, which is in many ways your hometown, it formed you more than any other place that you have lived in in your life. Do you think of it as Czernowitz, or do you think of it as Chernivtsi?
Igor Pomerantsev: For me, Chernivtsi is a city and Czernowitz is a book. Every city has its image. When we speak about Venice, it’s glass, water, and film stars. Parma, immediately — ham. And by the way, both cities have festivals in September every year. In Parma, it is the festival of ham; in Venice, it is stars.
For me, Czernowitz is associated first of all with the book, because traditionally it was the city of very diligent book reading. The poet Rosa Auslander is from Czernowitz. In her memoirs, she describes Czernowitz as a city whose residents only spoke on intellectual topics and read Schopenhauer, Marx, and so on. I remember once I spoke to an old lady from Czernowitz — she was a friend of Paul Celan, a great poet from Czernowitz — and she said, “Look, Igor, in the 1930s we already preferred Kafka to Thomas Mann.”
RFE/RL: So Chernivtsi is a city, Czernowitz is a concept, a myth, an idea, some larger aesthetic, artistic, intellectual space. What is that space like for you?
Pomerantsev: You know, in astronomy there is the concept of a white dwarf. It’s a very small planet but with colossal energy. So in a way Czernowitz is a small place. I don’t know how it happened that such a colossal creative energy was concentrated in this small space. I have my idea of the secret of Czernowitz, I connect it with the cosmopolitan spirit of the city, with the simultaneous presence in the air of the city of many languages. I call this the wind of languages, and if you grow up with this breeze, your ears are different and you have a different sense of acoustics. I generally think that culture is a many linguistic phenomenon.
RFE/RL: In your very moving essay about Czernowitz, “Memoirs of a Drowned Person,” you talk about the poet Paul Celan, who was born in Czernowitz, and you refer to his poetry as a poetry of pauses. On the one hand, you have a music of languages in Chernivtsi, but on the other hand you think of Celan, a poet from Chernivtsi, as a poet of pauses. What does this mean?
Pomerantsev: Why do I like his pauses? When we think of Dublin, we immediately associate it with James Joyce. As you walk around Dublin, you realize that Dublin is overcrowded with Joyce’s roots, road, steps, metaphors, and so forth. It’s as if there is a lot of Joyce’s furniture in Dublin, and you can’t avoid it.
Paul Celan was a very, very delicate poet. He left no spots of sweat, or tears, or blood in Czernowitz. I think that for him pauses were not an avant-garde artistic means; I think his pauses are the most tragic syntaxes and punctuation in the poetry of the 20th century. I think it’s directly connected with the fate of his parents, who perished under the Nazis. Actually, I think that with his experiences in the Romanian labor camp, his psyche was distorted and traumatized for the rest of his life. At the end, he committed suicide.
When I read his poems, I understand that these pauses are the pauses of a distorted, excited, nervous psyche. That is why his lacunas excite you. Celan again and again starts from the same sentence. … His is possibly the most impressive syntax in European poetry of the second part of the 20th century. You know Theodor Adorno asked, “Who can write poetry after Auschwitz?” I think that Paul Celan answered that question with his poetry and first of all with those tragic pauses.
A ‘Colossal Sensuality’
RFE/RL: What has Chernivtsi given you as a creative person? You left the city as a young man and you did not go back for 40 years. In your essay about the city, you write that you always think of Chernivtsi as small, diminutive — a little place. We’ve talked about the richness of small things. Did you take a bit of the city with you when you left on your life’s journey?
Pomerantsev: I was brought up in Siberia, not far from Lake Baikal. I remember my life and early childhood as a nonstop winter. I don’t even remember summers in Siberia because they were so short. I think the very first shock that I experienced as a child when I was brought to Czernowitz was a sensual one, as if I left a black-and-white film and came into a colored world. You know, this colossal sensuality is a kind of battery for me to last till the end of my life. My attitude to words, for example, is clearly a Czernowitz attitude, a sensual one. I generally consider Czernowitz and Bukovyna the distant Mediterranean.
RFE/RL: Yes, they are probably more exotic and passionate than most other regions…
Pomerantsev: The concentration of color, sounds, aromas, perfumes, smells. When I [visit] Turkey, or Greece, or Italy, it immediately strikes me as if I have been there before, although I have never been there. As a Soviet citizen, I simply couldn’t afford it. And then I understand that it’s the Czernowitz echo. Czernowitz was always an architectural dissident in the Soviet Union. Its very architecture was subjective. It is modernist, and all these modernist architectural curves could lead very sensitive young people very far away. So without any intention of my own, I was very much formed by this modernism in architecture. Germans say that architecture is frozen music, so I think that I even heard this frozen music.
RFE/RL: Having returned to this place that was so colorful, so arousing, so stimulating, compared to the frozen Siberian wasteland you left behind, did you find it the same 40 years later? Were you perhaps afraid to go back?
Pomerantsev: I was afraid. I know that to see your first love is always a disappointment. You see an old woman and you don’t know what to tell her, and the most idiotic thing is to ask, “How are you?” after 40 years. What shall I say to Czernowitz after 40 years? What should I tell this city? “How are you?” And the city will answer me, “Don’t ask silly questions. We’ve managed fine without you.”
I had this shy, timid feeling, and I somehow felt as if I had taken some drugs just to decrease my nervousness. I was taken by car to a street that I loved in my childhood, which was named after a hero of the civil war, the Bolshevik Shchors. My favorite cinema was on this street. I spent months in this cinema. And I see that this street no longer has the name of this scandalous, possibly nonexistent Bolshevik, who was created by Stalin and the film director Dovzhenko. Now this street bears the name of Metropolitan Andrey Sheptycky.
For me, this was a colossal event because Sheptycky is a great and noble Ukrainian hero, and I thought, “I was playing on Shchors and Lenin streets and now children are playing on Sheptycky street.” I think toponymy is important; the names of streets penetrate even in childhood. So in a way I felt bold, and I understood that contemporary Czernowitz children are getting the same bacilli as I was getting as a child. I am not an exception; one simply should be open and sensitive.
RFE/RL: This city, which was such a cultural crossroads for centuries, such a melding of histories and languages, is now part of Ukraine. It still retains its colorful character somewhat, remains multicultural, but is certainly no longer what it once was. Once it was referred to as “Little Vienna.” Where is the Ukrainian point in this “Meridian Czernowitz”?
Pomerantsev: You spoke about this city being a cross of cultures, but this kind of crossing of cultures could happen not just in the city but in separate outstanding figures. The very first figure which comes to mind is the great Ukrainian writer Olha Kobylianska. She is a classic of Ukrainian literature. By the way, not many people in Ukraine know that she started writing in German. She was published in German. Slowly she changed languages, I think, because the competition in German was very, very tough. She left German for Ukrainian, but to the end of her life her German was better than her Ukrainian. She personifies the crossing of those cultures. I am sure that she could be a close friend of Paul Celan, but this didn’t happen for only one reason. She was 40 years older than Paul Celan.
A Poetry Meridian
RFE/RL: Czernowitz — today, Chernivtsi — is a fascinating place because it is a city of many cultures, many stories, different people, many colors, poems, songs. The combination of all of these people together in some way creates this almost mystical energy or atmosphere that produces creative people and also sustains a certain kind of environment in terms of artistic discussion. You are off to Chernivtsi for this poetry festival “Meridian Czernowitz.” You’re one of the organizers of this event. There are many poetry festivals in Ukraine. What makes this one different?
Pomerantsev: I think that we live in a new Europe and some old magnetic cultural fields are reborn, and there is a term in the history of culture — retrospective utopia. There definitely is a retrospective utopia about the former Austro-Hungarian Empire. It’s more developed actually in the empire’s former colonies. There is myth, a dream, to return to this utopia. In Austria, there is also a strange feeling — small Austria, which calls itself an empire, Reich.
It’s a kind of reciprocal process. If Austria finds its former integral parts, and the integral parts find Austria again, they could re-create a new-old cultural space. There is a touch of utopia, but it is a great motivation. I personally do not have these utopian ideas, but nevertheless I think that Ukraine presently distances itself from Western Europe politically, but civil society and normal people want to communicate and exchange with Europe. It’s an instinctive feeling to be back in Europe, that is this poetic festival.
RFE/RL: I find that those parts of Ukraine that were part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire long for that past in a very palpable way. If you go to any of the cities of this region, such as Lviv, Chernivtsi, Ivano-Frankivsk, the Austro-Hungarian past is almost held up as a historical high point. There was a level of life, social engagement, and national development that certainly ceased to be when these territories became part of the Soviet Union. The kind of artistic freedom that we’re talking about that a city like Chernivtsi is famous for was certainly choked immediately.
Pomerantsev: In all communist countries there was a break of cultural and historical memory, and one of the aims of this festival is to restore this historical and cultural memory. We will see if this will happen, but it is certainly worth a try.