Emil Draitser is Professor of Russian at Hunter College of the City University of New York. In addition to his twelve books, his work has also appeared in the Los Angeles Times, the Partisan Review, and the North American Review.
Draitser's latest work, his memoir, Shush! Growing Up Jewish Under Stalin was just published by UC Press. In the blog entry below, Draitser writes about the meaning and toils of his surname and penname.
As I describe it in Shush!, my childhood and adolescence coincided with the second half of the 1940s and beginning of the 1950s, that is, during the crushing times of Stalin’s state-sponsored anti-Semitism. His campaigns against Soviet Jews were camouflaged first as a “struggle with cosmopolitanism,” then as a “fight with world Zionism,” and then as the discovery of the infamous “Doctors’ plot,” the alleged plot of a group of Kremlin doctors, mostly Jewish, to murder top Soviet leaders. In this atmosphere of daily fear, as a teenager, I was tormented by the fact that in all documents my birth name was unmistakably Jewish—Samuil. To make matters worse, both my patronymic “Abramovich” and my surname gave away my Jewishness as well.
I was especially vexed by the second
vowel of my first name, the Cyrillic letter “u” (pronounced as “oo”).
It seemed that this was the root of all my misfortunes—it was precisely
this letter that gave me away as a Jew. Really, the letter wasn’t
present in a whole slew of boys’ names—Styopa, Kolya, Dima, Vanya,
Author Footnotes: My real name, given at birth, Samuil Draitser, remained the same in my official documents (in both my birth certificate and, later, my passport). I so used to hide my Jewish name even after immigrating to America, when obtaining my naturalization papers, I changed my official Soviet name "Samuil" to "Emil".
Also, for most Americans,
"Jewish" means practicing Judaism. But in the Soviet Union, as in the
Nazi Germany, it meant race or ethnicity, regardless of religion. Even
if a Jew converted to Christianity or Islam, Soviet documents would
list him or her as "Jewish ethnicity."