Tamara Eidelman Kornei Chukovsky Born March 31, 1882

Russian Life/ 2012

It is difficult to imagine anyone in Russia (or, as far as the older generation is concerned, the entire territory of the former Soviet Union) who does not know who Kornei Chukovsky is. We all grew up with his immortal lines — so rich in rhyme and alliteration, that, alas, lose much in translation.

We heard them from our parents, our grandmothers, our grandfathers. We heard them in kindergarten and elementary school. We looked at the pictures (the most fortunate among us had editions of his books illustrated by Konashevich). We repeated the lines that grownups read to us, which easily stuck in our heads, and later we read them ourselves and watched the countless cartoon adaptations of Chukovsky’s works and listened to kindly «Grandfather Kornei at his Peredelkino dacha, where special events were held for children».

How wonderful it all was! And how sad that only one facet of this man’s amazing talent was ever given the recognition it deserved.

We know that this bothered Kornei Ivanovich. «I wrote twelve books and nobody paid the slightest attention, but no sooner did I write Crocodile as a joke than I suddenly became a famous author. I’m afraid that all Russia knows Crocodile by heart. I’m afraid that the words ‘Author of Crocodile’ will be engraved on my tombstone.» He made this statement at the height of his literary success.

Many years later, nothing had fundamentally changed. At the end of his life he remarked, «People have always been very nice to me, but none of them knew that I had written anything besides children’s books and From 2 to 5. ‘What! You’re not only a children’s writer?’ It was as if in my entire 70-year literary career I only wrote five or six Moidodyrs.»

By now, a great deal has been written about Chukovsky. Literary scholars know and appreciate his books about the history of Russian literature and the unique qualities of the Russian language. The Chukokkala that Kornei Ivanovich conceived while living in the Finnish town of Kuokkala in 1914 is irresistible for anyone interested in the cultural history of twentieth-century Russia. This unusual and fascinating «autograph book,» into which some of the superstars of twentieth-century Russian culture penned drawings, poems, prose, memoirs, or pasted memorabilia, represents a genre all its own and continued to grow into the late sixties. Everything in the country changed over those decades—the government, the people, ideas — but Chukovsky continued to ask every writer, poet, or artist he knew to make an entry into his Chukokkala.

For translators, Kornei Chukovsky is the author of books on translation theory who himself produced many exemplary translations from English. For historians, he is a man who left behind a fascinating diary. For students of the human rights movement, he is not only the father of the famous human rights activist Lydia Chukovskaya, but the owner of the dacha where Solzhenitsyn holed up to write The Gulag Archipelago (during his breaks from writing, Solzhenitsyn is purported to have strolled the grounds with a pitchfork, in case of KGB attack).

Chukovsky is also someone who endured unbelievable hardship, who grew up with the stigma of being born out of wedlock, who outlived several of his own children, who experienced hunger, unscrupulous attacks by boorish critics, and who was compelled to publicly repent acts that warranted no repentance . (Why do you write idiotic fairy tales about insects rather than celebrating the achievements of collectivization?) and endure backhanded references to his half-Jewish background. He also had to live with the seeming inevitability of arrest (that fortunately never came to pass), his own repugnance toward the big shots of official Soviet literature, and, in the end, the compulsory role of kindly «Grandfather Kornei,» whether he wanted it or not. …

Tamara Eidelman