Tag Archives: Ukraine

Visiting a painter’s studio

Yesterday, I had the opportunity to visit the painter Dmitrie Peicev (Димитър Пейчев) in his studio in Chisinau. Peicev was born 1943 in Burgugi, a Bulgarian village in the Budzhak region, the part of Bessarabia that belongs now to Ukraine (Odesa oblast). He received his artistic education in Chisinau and Moscow. The influence of the French impressionists, Courbet and of his teacher (and father-in-law) Mihai Grecu is visible in many of his paintings, although Peicev has his own distinctive style.

Peicev is also a poet. He has published three collections of poetry in his native language in Bulgaria. A fourth collection is in preparation. Many of his poems circle around childhood memories from his beloved Budzhak.

It was supposed to be a friendly, short visit; but we ended up (supported by some Moldovan wine) to discuss for about six hours a big variety of topics from the world of art, poetry, and life in general. For me it was particularly interesting to learn about the life of the Bulgarian minority in the region and their history and culture. And of course it was an opportunity to see quite a number of his artworks, mainly from recent years; portraits, landscapes, still lives.

Although the artist, a very humble person, who didn’t say anything bad about anyone during our meeting, has done a lot of efforts to keep his Bulgarian identity and to keep the Bulgarian community in the region together, I had the feeling that his experiences in Bulgaria were a bit mixed (to say it friendly). While he has some close friends in Bulgaria and spoke very fondly of his visits there, he is not very well known in Bulgaria, and a big exhibition tour years ago ended in a disaster for the artist: most of his 80 paintings exhibited there were stolen, and his experiences with Bulgarian art galleries (and the customs) were not of the kind that make him very eager to exhibit again in Bulgaria. Still, I hope that one day we will see a big exhibition of his artworks in Bulgaria.

The friendly artist suggested to paint my portrait; although vanity is usually not one of my sins, I am considering it…

I truly enjoyed to meet such an interesting person! My special thanks goes to my friend Kate Baklitskaya, who not only introduced me to the artist, but who was also brave enough to listen for the biggest part of the visit to our conversation in Bulgarian.

Some works of Dmitrie Peicev:

© Thomas Hübner and mytwostotinki.com, 2014-7. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without expressed and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Thomas Hübner and mytwostotinki.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.
© Dmitrie Peicev and National Museum of Art Moldova, Chisinau, 2010-2017

The Case of the General’s Thumb

“Kiev, night of 20th-21st May, 1997
Sergeant Voronko of the State Vehicle Inspectorate loved his snug little glass booth on Independence Square in the heart of Kiev, and never more than in the small hours, when Khreshchatik Street was free of traffic, and nipping out for a smoke was to experience a vibrant, blanketing silence very different from the fragile night stillness of his home village.”

But on that particular late evening, things turn out to be very different from usual for Sergeant Voronko. First he gets a call to go urgently to another post due to an emergency there, and when he has almost arrived there with his old Zhiguli car, he gets another call to go back again to his glass booth at Khreshchatik Street because his presence at the other post is no longer needed. When he is arriving back at his usual workplace, a corpse is hanging attached to an advertising balloon. The deceased is not only a distinguished general but also a presidential advisor and the circumstances hint at a crime with a political background. And, strangely enough, one of the general’s thumbs is missing. (At the end of the book we will know why.)

It is clear from the very beginning of the book that this is not an ordinary crime. The general’s connections, his links to the Ukrainian and also Russian Intelligence networks are uncovered step by step by the young investigator lieutenant Viktor Slutsky. Slutsky, and not one of his more experienced colleagues is dealing with the case – maybe someone thinks the rookie Slutsky will get (conveniently for certain people) lost in this complicated, entangled and twisted network of relations between all the players involved; or maybe he can be easily directed by someone who is pulling the strings behind the scenes? Both is very probable, and indeed Slutsky gets permanently calls on his mobile phone by a mysterious voice that is always strangely very well informed and tells the lieutenant what to do next. But when Slutsky meets Refat, a mysterious Tartar who works for the Russian Intelligence, he starts to be for the first time keeping a few secrets from the voice on the phone…

The other main line of the story follows Nik, an ethnic Russian that was recently expelled from Tajikistan with his family. Nik, with a background in police/intelligence work and a sound knowledge of German, is trying to get a job in Ukraine where he was born and where he intends to relocate his family too. Luck seems to be on his side when he is offered a job where exactly his abilities and experiences are needed. But he soon realizes, just like lieutenant Slutsky that he is mainly a pawn in a political chess game. He and Sakhno, the other agent he is joining to do some unclear business – including tossing fish over a garden gate, or carting a parrot around – in not exactly exciting German cities like Koblenz, Euskirchen or Trier, are always told what to do without any explanation – and they are also not supposed to ask too many questions.

It would spoil the fun if I would retell the story here in detail, so I better stop here with the synopsis.

You can read Kurkov’s novel like you would read any fast-paced crime/espionage genre novel. It is a real page-turner and I read it in one evening. There is a lot of action, good dialogues, very credible characters and an interesting story. All ingredients you need to enjoy a book of this genre.

But there is also a second, less obvious layer of the story. Kurkov is a master of intertextuality. The book is full of allusions to other works and writers of the genre but also to Russian literature. Ian Fleming, Eric Ambler, John Le Carre, but also Michail Bulgakov, Ilf & Petrov, Yevgeniy Zamyatin, to name just the few references which I have discovered – and I am sure there are much more in the book. If you are well-read, you will enjoy this book therefore even more.

Additionally, there is a dry humor in many scenes, for example in an early chapter when Slutsky goes home after work to his family:

“Now, up to the eigth floor, and supper. The lift had yet to be installed, a fact for which the tenants, except perhaps the elderly couple on the twelfth floor, were physically the fitter.”

And, although on the surface this is not the main topic of the book, the strained relations between Russia and Ukraine cast already their long shadows over the story:

“RUSSIA AND UKRAINE – NEITHER PEACE NOR WAR? Ran the eye-catching Izvestiya headline. It was a question, it appeared, of determining the frontier, or, more exactly, of the two sides being able to agree where it ran.”

In this novel, things are rarely as they seem to be at a first glance. Even an innocent turtle keeps a dark secret.

Kurkov is a compassionate author. Viktor Slutsky and Nik Tsensky, the two main characters in this book share the same dream: to have a normal life in a decent flat with their families. And when Kurkov is granting almost all surviving characters in the story a happy end, it is like he is winking at us readers. They might be pawns in a political chess game, but they keep their dignity, and as a reward deserve a fairy tale-like ending.

Andrey Kurkov was a new discovery for me: it was the first book by him I read, but it will be definitely not the last.


Andrey Kurkov: The Case of the General’s Thumb, transl. by George Bird, Melville House, New York 2012

© Thomas Hübner and mytwostotinki.com, 2014-5. Unauthorized use and/or 
duplication of this material without expressed and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Thomas Hübner and mytwostotinki.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content. 

A Belated Echo

Josef Burg, born 1912 in Wyschnyzja, a small town in the Bukovina, at that time part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, now belonging to the Ukraine, reached an almost biblical age. He died 2009 at the age of 97 years in the nearby town of Tschernowzy (Czernowitz).

Czernowitz, his home for most of his life, once housed a vibrant German-speaking Jewish community. Czernowitz not only had one of the best universities in Austria-Hungary and an excellent German theater, it had also dozens of newspapers and literary journals. It was, according to the poet Paul Celan who was born there, a place where people and books lived. It is therefore not surprising that Czernowitz was also the home of important German poets like Celan himself, Rose Ausländer, Immanuel Weissglas, Alfred Gong, and several others.

Josef Burg was one of the last of this generation of authors. But contrary to the above mentioned poets, Burg wrote mainly prose – and he wrote exclusively in Yiddish, not German. Yiddish, the traditional language of Eastern European Jews is derived from Medieval German (Mittelhochdeutsch) but has absorbed many Hebrew, Slav, and recently English words. By the educated Western European but also by most Zionist Jews, Yiddish was considered as ‘jargon’, a ‘wrong’ German, a dialect of the uneducated and backward people from the ghettos of Eastern Europe. But this point of view doesn’t do justice to this language – it is rich, colorful, even juicy, and it has produced many eminent writers and an extremely interesting literature. Josef Burg was one of the last authors to write in this language.

In one of his short stories A loschn beazmoj (A language of its own), Burg is describing the surprising reactions of his environment towards Yiddish: as a student in Vienna just before the Anschluss in 1938, he is witnessing how a Jewish student from the East is earning verbal abuse and even open hatred from his Jewish colleagues from Vienna – just because he is addressing them in his native language (which for sure all of his colleagues at least understood).

A short time later the narrator is congratulated by his professor for his excellent German. When the professor asks the foreign student what his native language is, he answers: “Yiddish, Herr Professor!”. The professor, probably a conservative Austrian aristocrat reacts not like the student expects:

I remark that he wants to say something. Maybe the hackneyed “Yiddish is spoilt German”. But he looks at me vividly. Warmth and a certain hesitation are in his gaze. And he says something unexpected. Simple, pure and full of expression: “Yiddish, young friend, is a language of its own.”

(Ich bamerk, as er grejt sich epess sogn. Efscher doss ojssgedroschene “Jidisch is a fardorbn dajtsch!”. Nor er kukt af mir zudringlich. Sein blik is erwoss farzojgn un warem. Un er tut umgericht a sog. Poscher, rejn un saftik: – Jidisch, junger frajnt, is a loschn beazmoj!)

The stories in Josef Burg’s collection of stories A farschpertikter echo (A belated echo) are grouped in three thematic chapters. One is consisting of childhood memories from his poor shtetl and its lumberjacks and rafters. The second deals with the life of the survivors and their attempts to find back to some kind of normality, which for most of them is impossible (Burg for example was the only surviving family member – he lost 50 relatives in the holocaust). And the third is focusing on the time of the persecution.

All of these stories leave a strong impression on the reader. That is partly because of the backdrop of these stories: the genocide. But it is also because of the art of Josef Burg. He leaves everything superficial out and is concentrating on the essential: the fate of the people he is describing, their hopes and fears, their rare joys and frequent sorrows.

In jene teg (In those days) is a good example. On five pages only, Burg is describing the fate of a man he knew in Vienna in 1938. The crippled Galician Jew is like the narrator a regular guest in the Cafe Central, a popular meeting point of intellectuals, writers and artists. The man with the hunchback is one of these luftmentschn that are such a familiar view in many Yiddish stories: someone with an unidentifiable profession (this one seems to be a photographer and a poet, but it is doubtful how he can survive from this almost non-existing income), origin and future, living on the edge of destitution.

The friendly and very modest behavior of this Quasimodo make the narrator curious and he is finally befriending this man. But he is too shy and modest to recite his own poems, as much as the narrator insists. After the Anschluss and the introduction of the “racial” laws in Austria, the Cafe Central has closed its doors for the Jews and on a last occasion before the narrator leaves Austria (he is a foreigner and therefore lucky to find a way out of the mousetrap which Vienna has become for local Jews), he is meeting his friend a last time and his friend is finally giving him a notebook with his poems:

“You wanted my poems? Here you are…Maybe they prove to be useful for you…for sure not for me anymore.”

(“ir hot gewolt majne lider?…Ot hot ir sej…Efscher wet ir sej kenen ojssnuzn…Ich – schojn sicher nit.”)

Some years later, the narrator learns about the fate of his friend from another emigrant: the poet was hiding in a chest, but found while sleeping by the SS. They buried him alive. The manuscript with the poems is handed over to a Jewish publisher in Prague who is later also to become a victim of the Nazis. The notebook is lost without a trace.

“Maybe one day you will remember me!”

(“Efscher wet ir amol mich dermonen!”)

Josef Burg remembered him. And we need to be grateful for this work of a great writer.



Josef Burg: A фаршпэтиктэр эхо: дэрцейлунген, новелес, фарцейхенунген, Sovetskij pisatel, Moscow 1990

Josef Burg:  A farschpetikter echo / Ein verspätetes Echo, P. Kirchheim, München 1999

Translations from Yiddish to English in this blog by Thomas Hübner


© Thomas Hübner and mytwostotinki.com, 2014. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without expressed and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Thomas Hübner and mytwostotinki.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.