The German PEN Center warned that Putin, and not Pushkin, was the enemy when there were attempts to discredit Russian literature due to the aggressive war on Ukraine. Thomas Rishke celebrates his 90th birthday on Saturday. As an editor and translator for a publisher, he has made Russian literature accessible to readers in the German Democratic Republic and in the united country for decades. We met up for a conversation that also touched on the Russian soul.
Mr. Rishke, you can’t choose your birthday. Her 90th birthday coincides with the 46th birthday of Russian dissident Alexei Navalny. What do you think that?
I didn’t know about it until she told me. Navalny is a man who can be argued about for a very long time. But we don’t want that now, do we?
Well, I am angry at the way he was tried in Russia.
It’s ridiculous, it’s true. I have really poisoned. While fighting for his life, he failed to comply with his terms, but was promptly arrested for it. It’s all a hoax coming from there. Let’s not even talk about the present.
we will. Her life’s work consists of teaching and translating Russian literature. Her reputation has gone through some changes. When I started, they talked about thawing…
no not yet. At first, the doctrine of socialist realism remained in force. But after the death of Stalin xx. The 1956 party convention was more likely.
Was cultural policy in the then Soviet Union more open than in the German Democratic Republic?
During this time yes. With the thaw came the early stories of Mikhail Sholokhov and Isaac Babel. Soon, the fourth generation of Soviet authors, that is, Yevtushenko, Aksionov, who experienced war in their childhood, quickly introduced into literature tones that had previously been resented. As well as mental problems and personal fates. There were authors who were supported in the Soviet Union with their heroic stories, there were those who were tolerated, like Trifonov and Yevtushenko, and finally those who were not allowed to appear at all and only partially fled into exile, like Solzhenitsyn.
Were you able to read the most famous dissident work, The Gulag Archipelago by Alexander Solzhenitsyn, in the early 1970s?
Yes, but not in the publishing house. I got it from my sister who lives in the west. She opened the book and tied it in bundles around her stomach. When I picked her up at the Bornholmer Bridge border crossing, we had to quickly find a place where she could free herself. The paper slipped! Since I read it, I know that you can no longer have a modern view of the world without knowing Solzhenitsyn and Shalamov.
You mean Varlam Shalamov, who also wrote about the camps.
yes. The Russians themselves do not reconcile with their past. They believe something along the lines of what Gerhard Schroeder said about Putin. It is a flawless democracy. It is certainly not democratic.
Did you learn anything about the Russian soul from literature?
I think this is a myth. There are of course national differences. The sheer size of the country may play a role. And the fact that the people were enslaved for a very long time. Serfdom was abolished in 1861, but Stalin de facto reintroduced it.
In which way?
Many people do not have a passport. The inhabitants of Russia, largely rural, were attached to their place. Added to this is the infinite capacity for suffering among the Russian people, which I find shocking. What they’ve been through! Revolutions, wars, Stalinism, the Gulag Archipelago, which destroyed or killed millions of people with imprisonment for twenty or twenty-five years.
Many observers are appalled by the brutality of Russian soldiers in the Ukraine war. How hospitals were attacked, school furniture was destroyed. Can you explain that?
They even mined cemeteries. Then the Ukrainians were forced to bury their dead in the forest. This did not happen even in the German war. I think the reason is that they are accustomed to violence and injustice from an early age. The country is corrupt on all levels, not just in politics. But it has nothing to do with the soul.
Did you expect such a war?
I wouldn’t have thought it was possible the day before. Putin and his servant Lavrov talk about demands that Ukraine had previously failed to meet. This is an independent country that was re-established in 1918 on the basis of a population survey and after the end of the Soviet Union.
Two open letters to Chancellor Schulz over the past few weeks have given the impression that the German public is divided: Should Ukraine be given more support or not? How do you see that?
The bad thing is: they are both true. Putin could destroy an already endangered planet. And I don’t mean just nuclear weapons. Think of droughts in Africa and North America. Ukraine is a supplier of wheat to many countries. Fields are now destroyed, and grain exports are hampered. why? This is far from any ratio. If it wasn’t so silly, I’d say: Kindergarten level. You didn’t lend me your game, so now I’m going to smash it. This war must surely end. but how? I’m actually an optimist, but it’s hard to stay that way. I have to think about my own war experiences.
I was just a kid then. Can you tell something about that?
Naturally. I come from Danzig-Langfuhr. When I was twelve years old, I saw the Russians invading Danzig at the end of March 1945.
Are you free?
I deliberately chose the word conquer. They bombarded the city with artillery and aircraft, expelling the German Wehrmacht. The city was damaged, not destroyed. But after 14 days they completely burned Danzig. A difficult time has begun. What the Russians did in Berlin and elsewhere to provide for the needs of the population did not apply to Danzig. There was hunger. Probably because he must be Polish.
You can’t find out in the GDR, can you?
No, this does not fit the picture. At the beginning of September 1945, they kicked me out, along with my mother and little sister. The loss of my country, my friends, and the landscape have occupied me for a long time.
So why did you stick to Russian?
I had bitter experiences, but I did not feel hatred. When I returned to school after a six-month break in Ludwigslust, where we lived next, I was bad at all subjects. I miss you a lot. I only made good progress on one subject that was new: the Russian language. It is for this reason that I later studied Slavic studies and ended up as an editor at Kultur und Progress.
The question remains how you came to translate.
I began to do this quite a bit. While I was studying, the first request from the publishing house was a story by Konstantin Paustovsky: “The Golden Rose”. Then it went slowly. The highlight was Mikhail Bulgakov’s 1966 film The Master and Margarita. And in the ’90s I was still able to translate what wasn’t allowed earlier for Bulgakov’s full version, eg “Teufeliaden” and “Hundeherz”, a really great story.
I have to go to war again. In opinion polls about whether Germany should get tougher with Russia, East Germans are more conservative. why?
Because we know the Russians. This reservation is not friendship. This is fear.
So, those so called Putin sympathizers are really just the ones who fear him the most?
I don’t think there is anyone in Germany who understands Putin.