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Blog - Emil Draitser







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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.

 What's in a Penname?

By Emil Draitser

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, Borya.

By the time I was eighteen, I had the good sense to remove the splinter from my name—to cut out that tumor, to operate on that ill-fated letter “u,” that purulent appendix that threatened peritonitis. For everyday use, I chose the name “Emil” instead.

The name seemed to me an ennobling, European-sounding, variant of my true name. In choosing it, I kept three letters of my name (m, i, and l), but got rid of the disgusting letter “u,” which oppressed me the most. No more Samuils of any kind. I’m Emil, and that’s it.

At that time, I knew about the existence of only two other Emils in the Soviet public domain. Both were positive personalities, no matter how you look at them. One was the French writer Emile Zola. Soviet literary critics praised him for his uncompromising criticism of bourgeois mores in his novel Nana and his truthful depiction of the sufferings and struggles of the working class in his book Germinal. The other Emil was Olympic long-distance running champion Emil Zátopek, a Czech by nationality. The newspapers wrote about his victories with much satisfaction. Though he wasn’t a Soviet athlete, he nonetheless represented a “brotherly socialist state,” in which, as in the USSR, sports was a matter of his country’s honor and glory, not a means of personal gain and profit, as in the capitalist countries.

It was already too late to change my passport, where the name I wanted so desperately to get rid of was as visible as the nose on my face. But now, introducing myself to young ladies, I called myself “Emil.”

Some ten years later, when, as a freelance journalist, I began contributing my articles to the newspaper Soviet Russia, without hesitation, I signed my first submission “Emil Draitser.” One of the editors read my piece and as he was about to sign off on it for typesetting, chewing his lips and adjusting the thinning gray hair that barely covered his head, he said: “Listen, Emil... You know... Well, your surname isn’t quite for the newspapers. You may want to change it,” he said, glancing at me seriously.

I understood that this was the condition for publishing not only the submitted material, but all of my future contributions as well. It wasn’t hard to guess what the term “not-for-the-newspapers surname” meant: it was a new euphemism for a “Jewish surname.” For the umpteenth time, I felt the burden of carrying God knows what, instead of a normal surname.

The euphemism “not-for-the-newspapers surname” was new only for me, however. As I learned much later, it had been born in September 1937, about three months before my own appearance in this world. And its indirect inspirer was none other than Adolf Hitler. In a speech at that time, to prove the Jewish nature of Bolshevism, the Führer cited the surnames of outstanding Soviet politicians whose articles appeared in the Soviet press. In direct response to Hitler’s derisive remark, the Central Committee of the Communist Party sent a confidential circular to the editors of all major newspapers and magazines. To avoid needlessly taunting the Fascist goose, the Central Committee suggested replacing the surnames of all Jewish authors with Russian-sounding pen names—that is, making them more “newspaper-like.”

In my journalistic time, from the mid-1960s to the mid-1970s, neither Stalin nor Hitler was around anymore. But the tradition proved to be long-lived. I already knew how to Russify my “not-for-the-newspapers” surname. The Moscow press published plenty of articles written by Shapiros, Finkelsteins, Katzes, and other Jewish journalists, but you wouldn’t know it just by reading their pen names. The alteration was a rather simple procedure, pretty much like removing a corn from the sole of your foot. The surname of the author had to be gotten rid of without a trace: indeed, what could one possibly cut out from a surname like “Finkelstein,” where each syllable shouted its Jewish origin?! Instead, you had to prune down your patronymic (Borisovich, Efimovich, Markovich) by discarding the possessive suffix “-ich”—and your pseudonym was ready. Now the direct associations with Jewish names were gone with the wind, so such pen names didn’t cause any objections. Many Moscow papers and magazines were replete with pen names like “Borisov,” “Efimov,” and “Markov.”

There were also some attempts to hide behind a wife’s name (a move that flattered her, thus benefiting the institution of marriage). This was how Sonins (from Sonya), Svetlanins (from Svetlana), and Nellins (from Nelly) of all kinds appeared in the papers. (For obvious reasons, only authors’ wives named Lena were out of luck.) I think the authors of these pen names didn’t suspect that they were following an old Jewish tradition: the surnames of some Jewish children raised without fathers were formed from their mother’s names. That was how surnames such as Khaikin (from Khaika, a diminutive of Khaia), Surkin (from Surka, a diminutive of Sura), and Khanin (from Khana) had appeared.

I followed the recipe and signed my article “Emil Abramov.” I thought the editor would kill it. Abramov! How else can you declare to the world that your father is a Jew!—and you too?
But nothing happened. My article appeared in the paper the next day.

Only then did I realize that there were Russian Abramovs, such as Fyodor Abramov, a well-known Soviet writer. There were also Russian Moiseevs and Davidovs. (Denis Davidov was a famous poet during Pushkin’s time.) These surnames were given to the offspring of families of the Orthodox old-believers who gave their children names drawn from the Old Testament. Yet, I don’t think any readers were unsure about the ethnicity of “Emil Abramov.”  In the Russian consciousness, the European name Emil invariably denotes a foreigner. Thus, it was clear even to a fool that “Emil Abramov” was a made-up name that belonged to “our own foreigner,” that is, to a Jew.

But the formality was observed. The Party-controlled press probably grew tired obliterating all Jewish names from its numerous publications. As well as my Jewish comrades-in-pen, I was needed for an important task, as Alexander Pushkin put it, “to burn human hearts with words.” Certainly, we weren’t Pushkins. But, apparently, there weren’t enough Russian “non-Pushkins” for such a labor-intensive task.

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."