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Jakarta Post

Tracing the Indonesian literary scene’s ‘Russian connection’

  • Sebastian Partogi

    The Jakarta Post

Jakarta   /   Mon, January 7 2019   /  03:18 am
Russia House: Indonesian poet and University of Indonesia’s (UI) School of Humanities lecturer Zeffrey Alkatiri (far right) poses for a photograph with faculty members of the UI’s Humanities School of Russian studies department on the sidelines of a meeting in Depok, West Java. (Courtesy of Zeffrey Alkatiri)" width="780" height="430" border="0">Russia House: Indonesian poet and University of Indonesia’s (UI) School of Humanities lecturer Zeffrey Alkatiri (far right) poses for a photograph with faculty members of the UI’s Humanities School of Russian studies department on the sidelines of a meeting in Depok, West Java. (Courtesy of Zeffrey Alkatiri)

Indonesian literary editors and writers share their stories on how the works of Russian writers, along with the complex historical and sociopolitical context that frame these works, has left an imprint on their current literary careers.

PT Gramedia Pustaka Utama editor Mirna Yulistianti is one of them.

She said that since her senior high school days, she had always been interested in linguistics. Therefore, she decided to specialize in language, which is often considered by Indonesians as having ‘third-class’ status compared to the more prestigious natural sciences (first-class) and social sciences (second-class) streams.

Driven by her interest in linguistics, coupled with her curiosity about Russia as a big yet “mysterious” nation, she enrolled in the University of Indonesia (UI) school of humanities’ Russian department in 1994 (when the school was still known as the School of Literature).

She said that one of the first assignments she could recall was to read the Indonesian translation of an 1836 play called The Government Inspector by Nikolai Gogol, which left a lasting impression on her: “I was fascinated how the writer could criticize the government in such a humorous manner,” she told The Jakarta Post in a recent interview.

From there, Mirna started to learn more fascinating facts about Russia’s experience with authoritarianism and how, despite repressive actions taken by the government against dissidents, Russian writers were still courageous to voice their opinions on the importance of personal and societal liberty.

“[The writers] still expressed their views despite knowing that the government would either punish them or prevent them from receiving international awards for their works,” Mirna said, citing the example of Russian writer Boris Pasternak, who controversially won a Nobel Prize for Literature in 1958 but was never able to receive the award due to having his movements restricted by the Soviet Union government.

The English translation of Pasternak’s novel Doctor Zhivago was released in 1958 but the novel did not circulate in the Soviet Union until 1988 due to its allegedly “anti-Soviet” content.

From there, Mirna said she had unveiled the fascinating world of Russian literary writers and the regime that they criticized; discovering these writers’ courage in expressing their thoughts despite the dire consequences they knew they would have to pay. This, according to Mirna, has made her fall “more deeply in love” with her chosen subject.

“There is no single Russian writer whose personal biography is not interesting,” Mirna said.

“For instance, the poet Vladimir Mayakovsky was a supporter of [communist ideologue and politician] Vladimir Lenin but had also been highly critical of him. It was fascinating to see someone who supported leftist ideology but had also been able to be critical of it all the same. Mayakovsky committed suicide in the end,” she continued.

She said she was also fascinated by Russian mythology, which features gods and goddesses with grotesque physical appearances, ones which would be considered ugly by society’s narrow standards. Mirna said she was fascinated by how Russian mythology portrayed its heroes and heroines which stood in contrast to the Greek tradition, which features physically beautiful gods and goddesses. 

Indonesian poet Zeffry Alkatiri, an alumnus of UI who is now a faculty member in the School of Humanities, had a slightly different story in terms of his introduction to the Russian studies department. Initially, he was enrolled in the school’s Arabic department in 1980.

After studying Arabic for quite some time, he found the campus building next door, home to the Russian department, far more intriguing in terms of the posters and books that they displayed (at that time the UI campus was still located in Rawamangun, East Jakarta before relocating to Depok, West Java, in the 1990s).

Despite its fascinating decorations and storage of documents, however, at that time the building looked like a no man’s land with no human activity at all, Zeffry said. Soon he knew why: At that time, Zeffry explained, from 1978 to 1981, UI temporarily closed the department because no students enrolled in it.

“I was curious, why was this department abandoned? How come nobody looked after it or had an interest to delve into the subject matter [of Russian studies], taking into account that Russia is a giant civilization?” he told The Jakarta Post over the phone.

Mirna Yulistianti (JP/Sebastian Partogi)

Russia House: Indonesian poet and University of Indonesia’s (UI) School of Humanities lecturer Zeffrey Alkatiri (far right) poses for a photograph with faculty members of the UI’s Humanities School of Russian studies department on the sidelines of a meeting in Depok, West Java. (Courtesy of Zeffrey Alkatiri)Indonesian literary editors and writers share their stories on how the works of Russian writers, along with the complex historical and sociopolitical context that frame these works, has left an imprint on their current literary careers.PT Gramedia Pustaka Utama editor Mirna Yulistianti is one of them.She said that since her senior high school days, she had always been interested in linguistics. Therefore, she decided to specialize in language, which is often considered by Indonesians as having ‘third-class’ status compared to the more prestigious natural sciences (first-class)...