Cultural Identity Construction in Russian-Jewish Post-Immigration Literature

  • Author / Creator
    Treewater, Regan C
  • The following dissertation examines narratives of immigration to Western Europe, Israel and North America authored by Russian-speaking writers of Jewish decent, born in the Soviet Union after World War II. The project seeks to investigate representations of resettlement experiences and cultural identity construction in the literature of the post-1970s Russian-Jewish diaspora. The seven authors whose selected works comprise the corpus of analysis write in Russian, German and English, reflecting the complex performative nature of their own multilayered identities. The authors included are Dina Rubina, Liudmila Ulitskaia, Wladimir Kaminer, Lara Vapnyar, Gary Shteyngart, Irina Reyn, and David Bezmozgis. The corpus is a selection of fictional and semi-autobiographical narratives that focus on cultural displacement and the subsequent renegotiation of ‘self’ following immigration. In the 1970s and final years of Communist rule, over one million Soviet citizens of Jewish heritage immigrated to Western Europe, Israel and North America. Inhospitable government policies towards Soviet citizens identified as Jewish and social traditions of anti-Semitism precipitated this mass exodus. After escaping prejudice within the Soviet system, these Jewish immigrants were marginalized in their adopted homelands as Russians. The following study of displacement and relocation draws on Homi Bhabha’s theories of othering and unhomeliness. The analyzed works demonstrate both culturally based othering and unhomely experiences pre- and post-immigration resulting from relegation to the periphery of society. Based upon the concept of performativity developed by Judith Butler, this study maintains that the cultural display of self is a performative act which manifests in a variety of ways. Chapter One presents the research problem, introduces the corpus of analysis, discusses the concepts of unhomeliness, identity and performativity as theoretical tools, provides a justification of the methodological framework being utilized, and finally positions Russian-Jewish post-immigration literature within the canon of diasporic world literature. Chapter Two focuses on a contextualization of Russian-Jewish character portrayal from a historical perspective, charting the metamorphosis of the Wandering Jew, as first conceived of by Christian society, through this enduring figure’s transformation beyond stereotyped caricature. This study postulates that contemporary Russian-Jewish authors have reclaimed the literary image of the Wandering Jew as their own, effectively reconfiguring the character for their post-immigration narratives of displacement. As this project shows, the multilayering of cultural influences often results in ambiguous conceptualizations of self, a common feature of the literary make-up of Russian-Jewish post-immigration protagonists. Such ambiguity is often accompanied by a desire for self-definition and is frequently associated with the geroi khudozhnik (artist figure), who symbolically embodies post-immigration identity renegotiation. The artist appears regularly in these works as the perpetual creator and designer, who is equally engaged in the ongoing reformulation and shaping of his/her own post-immigration identity. Chapter Three focuses on the literary construction of post-immigration spaces and how they both inform and reflect cultural distinctiveness. Through examinations of unhomeliness, nostalgia, and the search for belonging, the project approaches representations of both physical and symbolic spaces as culturally significant. Chapter Four deals with the construct of performativity as it applies to displays of cultural identity. The chapter explores the culturally performative actions of post-immigration protagonists through the consideration of established character types, language usage, and the physical presentation of self in connection with multilayered identity. By identifying significant themes common to the project’s literary corpus the symbolic implications of everyday choices made by the analyzed characters exemplify the importance of understanding Russian-Jewish post-immigration experiences. The present comparative literary investigation of seven authors from this group demonstrates how the presence of multiple simultaneous cultural influences -- Soviet, Russian, Jewish, German, Israeli, American, Canadian – results in highly specific and complex presentations of ongoing identity negotiation.

  • Subjects / Keywords
  • Graduation date
    Spring 2017
  • Type of Item
  • Degree
    Doctor of Philosophy
  • DOI
  • License
    This thesis is made available by the University of Alberta Libraries with permission of the copyright owner solely for non-commercial purposes. This thesis, or any portion thereof, may not otherwise be copied or reproduced without the written consent of the copyright owner, except to the extent permitted by Canadian copyright law.
  • Language
  • Citation for previous publication
    • “Jerusalem and Istanbul – Juxtaposing and Personifying Ancient Cities for a 21st Century Readership” BCES Conference Book 2015 1.3 (May 2015): 73-79.
    • “Jewish Russian-ness or Russian Jewish-ness: Dina Rubina and the Russian-speaking Aliyah Identity” Modern History of Russia (2014): 181-189.
    • “A Culture of Suffering” We’re from Jazz: Festschrift in Honor of Nicholas V. Galichenko. Ed. Megan Swift and Serhy Yekelchyk. Washington, DC: New Academia Publishing, 2010. 103-119
  • Institution
    University of Alberta
  • Degree level
  • Department
  • Supervisor / co-supervisor and their department(s)