Gathering Poetry Of U.s.s.r. Emigres Vstrechi, A One-of-a-kind Journal For Russian-language Writers, Is Published In Philadelphia.

Posted: February 12, 1990

Ah, glasnost - glory of literature; savior of the censored and repressed;

conservator of the obliterated, the forgotten, the annihilated. What could possibly be amiss with this simple policy of openness, which has attained the ethereal status of sacred doctrine with the Soviet intelligentsia?

"It could ruin us!" joked poet Valentina Sinkevich, editor of Vstrechi, a Russian-language poetry journal that is printedin wide-open Philadelphia. "We have had editors in Moscow say, 'We could easily print 10 (thousand) to 15,000 copies of your magazine. So, of course, I wrote to these few people there, editors of a very good magazine, and I said, 'Well, actually to publish an extra 15,000 copies, I will be broke, absolutely broke!' And then they said they are going to sell it in rubles. Then what happens? . . . Actually, it's very easy to sell Vstrechi over there, but then, what do you do with these few rubles?"

Sinkevich laughed. Such a problem to have, and so unexpected! When, in 1977, she founded Vstrechi - which is, as far as anyone knows, the only poetry journal of the works of Russian-language emigres printed anywhere in the world - Sinkevich gave no thought to the possibility of distribution in her native Soviet Union. The Brezhnev regime and its docile publishing houses hardly welcomed the writing of exiles and emigrants, to put it mildly; as a result, she focused on the situation outside the country, where there was a notable absence of outlets for the talented poets who had left their homeland.

"Many Russian poets didn't have any place to publish their work because, you see, Russian poetry abroad is not such a hot item, so to say," Sinkevich lamented the other day while sitting in the kitchen of her home in Overbrook Park. "But if you're Russian, you have some kind of natural inclination to poetry; there is some kind of reverence. You don't grow up without knowing Pushkin by heart, without knowing Lermontov by heart. You absolutely grow up with poetry. I didn't meet anywhere else such a love for poetry. . . . Even here, these Russian poets do write. They write until they are dead. We have poets who are 80 years of age and they still write and they still publish.

"Russian magazines abroad, they do publish poetry. But there are not enough places where you can publish. So this particular publication, Vstrechi, is a special publication. It's only poetry."

All 800 copies of the first issue were given away. Since then, producing an

average of 500 copies of the journal per issue, almost entirely with her own meager funds and no staff, Sinkevich has built a subscription list that includes libraries and Slavic-language departments in universities all over the United States, as well as such institutions as the British Museum, the Sorbonne and now, thanks to Mikhail S. Gorbachev and his policies that have transformed Soviet society, several libraries in the Soviet Union.

"I have been sending it to the Leningrad Public Library," she said. "In the beginning, there was complete silence. Then the third year I started to get a thank-you note. Now, the last issue I sent, they already reciprocated and sent me three books for my one copy."

Vstrechi, which comes out annually in the fall and averages about 128 pages, is also available on the black market and in a few bookstores in Moscow for $50 to $75 a copy. (In Philadelphia, it's sold for $8 at some Russian- language bookstores.)

"They are desperate for getting information and material from us emigrants," she said, noting that the journal has been a primary outlet for many important poets whose work has been, until recently, banned in the Soviet Union. Ivan Elagin, for instance, who left the Soviet Union during World War II and lived subsequently in Germany and the United States, was a contributor

from 1977 until his death in 1987. In fact, the entire 1987 issue was devoted to his work. Now Elagin's poetry has come into vogue in Moscow, where it is finally being published for the first time.

"Elagin wrote a lot of poetry that was political, and this is why he's so popular now over there - he was condemning the Russian '30s," Sinkevich said. ''They are planning to publish two volumes of his works."

Vstrechi also has published a considerable number of poems by Irina Ratushinskaya, whose memoir of imprisonment in the gulag, Grey Is the Color of Hope, attracted considerable critical attention when it was published in this country in 1988. Ratushinskaya now lives in London.

The editorial engine behind Vstrechi is a diminutive, auburn-haired woman of 63 with pale blue eyes and a manner of extreme modesty that cloaks a passion for literature. In 1942, Sinkevich was seized by German troops in her native Kiev and transported to Germany to forced-labor camps. After the war, she spent five more years in a camp for displaced persons in Hamburg before finally arriving in the United States in 1950. She was drawn to Philadelphia by the possibility of a job.

"At the end of World War II, if I had returned to the Soviet Union, I would have been in another camp because I was working for the enemy," she said. "And Russians being Russians of that time, they didn't recognize prisoners of war. They said, 'All bullets for the enemy and the last for yourself.' I was something almost like a collaborator, so I just chose not to return. . . .

"Also, I was growing up in a family of the so-called old intelligentsia, and my parents already lived in fear, and I inherited this fear of the Soviet government. Practically everybody from our immediate circle, everybody was one way or another arrested, some member of the family was arrested."

Before the war, Sinkevich had begun to write poetry, but the horror and trauma of the labor camps silenced her.

"I couldn't write while I was in camps," she said. "There are times when

physically and mentally you can't function normally, and I just couldn't function normally under those circumstances, so I didn't write."

But when the war ended, poetry returned. She published literary essays and some poetry in the emigre press, and in 1973, her first book, Lights, was published - at her own expense. That personal experience brought home the difficulty faced by Russian-language poets everywhere, and Sinkevich realized that, because of the lack of outlets, literature in the Russian language faced a potentially devastating loss.

"This is our mission," she said, "to preserve and not forget. To keep alive, to keep this spirit of creating alive while living in a language not your own. You see it's very difficult - you are reading another literature, and you also hear another language. So you cannot allow yourself to cease to hear your own tongue."

Not surprisingly, the advent of glasnost has brought tremendous change. For one thing, Vstrechi is available in the Soviet Union, and exiles and emigres are now being published in Soviet periodicals. Sinkevich has even returned to Moscow and Kiev. She gave a reading last year at Moscow University at the invitation of the Soviet Writers' Union, and her work will be published in several Soviet publications, including Novy Mir, the pre-eminent literary journal.

"In 1977, nobody was even dreaming of being published in the Soviet Union," she said. "And right now, I will be published in the Soviet Union! Yes. I've even got already some rubles for it! Here, nobody is paying attention that I will be published there. But in Russia, I can remember Pasternak or Solzhenitsyn. They were almost killed. And in Stalin's time, you would be killed for publishing abroad. And here nobody cares that I'll be published abroad in Russia."

She paused and shook her head.

"I consider myself very lucky to have lived in two cultures," she said. ''I can write in my own language and actually create this magazine, and I never knew that it was that important for Russians over there. This is like a document of what is going on and how you can survive outside of your own land."

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