Reading Mayakovsky in Sao Paulo: Boris Schnaiderman and the Legacy of Russian Studies in Brazil

By Cassio de Oliveira, Portland State University.

This article was originally published in the January 2017 edition of NewsNet.

A “remarkably successful effort at introducing modern Russian poetry to what must be an almost virgin audience” is how Victor Terras labeled a volume of poetry in translation, published in Brazil in 1969 and entitled Poesia Russa Moderna. Despite the decades that separate the publication of Poesia Russa Moderna from the present day, that book (currently in its sixth edition) remains a significant landmark in the establishment of a community of Russian literature scholars and admirers in Brazil. This is not least because, in the midst of a right-wing military dictatorship, it introduced readers to such poets as Khlebnikov, Kruchenykh, Tsvetaeva, and Mandelstam, and revitalized the status of Mayakovsky beyond a politically tinged reading of his poetry. While credit for the translations (also praised by Roman Jakobson and Krystyna Pomorska) went primarily to Augusto and Haroldo de Campos, brothers and founders of the Brazilian Concrete poetry movement as well as translators from other languages (e.g., from English, German, Modern French, Provençal, and Ancient Greek), the title page of the book also mentions “the revision or collaboration of Boris Schnaiderman.” This somewhat awkward editorial information is a nod to the translator, scholar, and teacher (including teacher of Russian to both de Campos brothers) who almost singlehandedly founded and carried forward the field of Russian literary studies and translation in Brazil, and who passed away in May 2016 at the age of 99. This article aims to commemorate his achievements in the field while also celebrating the legacy he has left in the form of an active community of translators and scholars of Russian literature in Brazil. I will conclude with some remarks on the state of the field, in particular on current translation projects and Russian studies scholarship in Brazil.

Russian Literary Studies through the Prism of Boris Schnaiderman’s Life: Born May 17, 1917 in the Ukrainian city of Uman’, Boris Solomonovich Schnaiderman and his family soon relocated to Odessa, where—in an anecdote he often recounted in interviews—as a young boy, he witnessed the filming of the famous Potemkin Staircase scene from Sergei Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin (1925). Sensing that the New Economic Policy would eventually be replaced with less business-friendly policies, Schnaiderman’s father, a merchant, decided to emigrate, and so, in 1925, the family arrived in Brazil. At his family’s behest, Schnaiderman studied agronomy in Rio de Janeiro, graduating in 1940.

Brazil had gone through a period of political instability in the late 1920s, which culminated in the rise of a populist dictator, Getúlio Vargas, who rode on the wave of an incipient “Red Scare”. Vargas’s dictatorship was consolidated in the wake of the suppression of a Comintern-supported communist insurgency in 1935. After graduation, Schnaiderman enrolled in a preparatory course for military careers, as military service was a requirement for acquiring Brazilian citizenship at the time. In 1944, with Brazil’s entry into World War II on the side of the Allies, Schnaiderman was sent to the Italian front in an artillery unit, serving in a position which, despite the hardship of the front, afforded him time to read books. His war experience would later be recounted in two volumes, one of them his only novel (a fictionalized memoir of the Italian front entitled Guerra em Surdina [Muted War], 1964), the other a collection of autobiographical essays released less than one year before his death.

Also in 1944, Schnaiderman’s first translation—of Dostoevsky’s Brothers Karamazov—was published under the pseudonym “Boris Solomonov.” This edition can lay claim to being the first translation of the novel into Portuguese done directly from Russian (and not, as it had often happened with Russian texts, from a German, English, or—more commonly—French translation). Upon his return from Italy, however, Schnaiderman steered clear of a Russia-related career, except for sporadic translation work for the TASS news agency in the late 1940s, and a few translations published under pseudonyms. He took up an appointment at a school of agronomy run by the Ministry of Agriculture in the Brazilian heartland, where he would work until 1953. Around the mid-1950s, Schnaiderman found himself back in São Paulo: he started frequenting a circle of intellectuals that gathered around the German émigré Anatol Rosenfeld, with weekly discussions of philosophy, aesthetics, literature, and psychoanalysis. Like Rosenfeld, who had begun publishing a regular column on German literature in the literary supplement to O Estado de São Paulo, in 1956 Schnaiderman published the first of more than 350 newspaper columns on Russian literature: it was the height of the Khrushchev Thaw, and the time when cultural ties between the Soviet Union and Latin America were at their closest. Schnaiderman’s first translation under his own name (of Chekhov short stories) came out in 1959, and, in 1960, he began to teach Russian at the University of São Paulo. Two years later, he would become the first faculty member in the newly formed Russian program, which would eventually add a graduate program in Russian literature and culture—the only of its kind in Latin America.

By 1964, the popular goodwill toward the Soviet Union in Brazil began to sour when a right-wing military coup took place, reinforced in 1968 with a decree that consolidated the stranglehold of the military and severely curtailed civil rights. Schnaiderman’s newspaper columns started coming out less frequently; he had a close call with the secret police when, one evening in 1969, he was detained for a few hours after they burst into his classroom. The notoriously soft-spoken professor reportedly greeted the intruders with a single question: “We are here in the classroom with nothing but chalk and an eraser, and you interrupt the class armed with machine guns?” Despite that brush with the law, Schnaiderman continued to publish, teach, and engage with scholars abroad and in Brazil. In 1968, for instance, he organized Roman Jakobson’s lecture series in Brazil; the partnership with the de Campos Brothers yielded Poesia Moderna Russa as well as a volume entirely dedicated to the poetry of Mayakovsky, later followed by a translation of The Bedbug in collaboration with theater director Luís Antonio Martinez Corrêa.

Schnaiderman never restricted himself to translation alone, whether as an activity or as a topic for analysis (the latter most notably in the 2011 volume Tradução: Ato Desmedido [Translation: An Unmeasurable Deed]): His multiple volumes of essays range from topics such as Italo-Russian-Brazilian cultural links, through post-Soviet Russian culture, to exegeses of the stalwarts of Russian literature and philology: Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, Mayakovsky, and also Bakhtin, Propp, Shklovsky, and Lotman. Schnaiderman’s efforts to popularize Russian literature in Brazil were recognized with multiple awards, including the Jabuti Prize (the most prestigious award in Brazilian book publishing) in the categories of essays (1983) and translation (2000), an award for the corpus of his translation work from the Brazilian Academy of Letters (2003), and the Medal of Pushkin from the Russian Federation (2007). He retired from the University of São Paulo in 1979, and became Professor Emeritus of Russian in 2001. His second book-length work on the Italian Front (Caderno Italiano, or Italian Notebook) was published in 2015. He passed away on May 18, 2016.

Current Activities: Schnaiderman devotes a chapter of his volume of essays Projeções: Rússia/Brasil/Itália (1977) to “the isolation in which a good part of South American intellectuals live, their backwardness in contacts with the world.” “Barreiras do Obscurantismo” (“Barriers of Obscurantism”), the essay, originally published in 1963, is a review of two books: an anthology of Russian poetry published in Ecuador and a commentary on “contemporary Russia” written by an Argentinean academic. Schnaiderman criticizes the provincialism, the uninformed opinions, and the amateurism of these two volumes, produced by authors and editors who either did not have access to or interest in the by-then recent scholarship on their topics. It is fair to say that, as far as possible, these “barriers of obscurantism” have been torn down over the past decades in Brazil and elsewhere in Latin America. While much of this phenomenon is due to Schnaiderman’s own efforts to introduce intellectual movements such as Russian Formalism and the Tartu School to a Brazilian audience, the increasing professionalization of Russian literary studies in Brazil also resulted from the collapse of Communism, which helped to depoliticize or de-ideologize much of the scholarship on Russia and the Soviet Union.

Translations: Given Schnaiderman’s legacy as a translator and the acute dearth of reliable translations from Russian into Brazilian Portuguese, it is natural that his most visible manifestations in the field would occur in the realm of translation. In the early 2000s, Brazil’s largest publishers put forth a wave of translations, beginning with Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment by Paulo Bezerra (2001). A veritable Russian literary revival ensued, with many translations issued in the series “Nova Antologia do Conto Russo,” dedicated to works by Central and Eastern European authors. Some titles were translations by Schnaiderman, who painstakingly revised and refined his previous work. Yet many were also by young translators, and, while the focus was still on the classics (Dostoevsky figures massively among then), other titles had either an encyclopedic scope or were meant to introduce a Brazilian readership to authors heretofore unknown to them. Since the classics have often already been translated in standalone editions, the organizers of this anthology saw fit to include lesser-known works, such as Pushkin’s A Journey to Arzrum and Dostoevsky’s “Polzunkov.” Among lesserknown authors in Brazil, two important landmarks have been the publication of Varlam Shalamov’s Kolyma Tales (Editora 34, in six volumes, 2015-) and a new translation of Babel’s Red Cavalry (2015), published by the nowdefunct Cosac & Naïfy. A planned series of translations of novels and other works from the time of the Revolution promises to further fill the void in early Soviet literature in Brazil.

The culture magazine Piauí also published an excerpt from a recent translation of the Nobel laureate Svetlana Alexievich’s Voices from Chernobyl (Companhia das Letras, 2016). Notably, on the occasion of Schnaiderman’s passing, a number of his translations came out in the literary supplement to the widely circulated newspaper Folha de São Paulo: five poems by Lermontov and an excerpt from Bunin’s “The Case of Cornet Elagin.”

Scholarly Engagement: Although the translations are the most visible facet of Russia-related scholarly and cultural activity in Brazil, the country is also home to a small but active contingent of Russian literature scholars, many of whom are involved in the aforementioned translation projects. The Russian program at the University of São Paulo maintains a busy agenda of events, including guest talks and roundtables featuring internationally renowned researchers from the United States, Great Britain, Europe, and Russia. There are also a number of scholarly journals, in print or online, dedicated exclusively to Russian language and literature, including RUS and Kinoruss, the latter dedicated to individual filmmakers, such as Andrei Tarkovsky and Alexander Sokurov, and featuring articles by local and foreign scholars.

One area of scholarly production that, from a Western or Russian perspective, might appear to be lacking is monographs. This is due to different requirements for academic tenure, which deemphasize the publication of revised dissertations in book form, and likewise due to the small market for Russian literary studies (and small number of quality university presses). The disparity between the large number of translations and the lack of monographs is glaring, and Bruno Gomide’s appeal for a volume intended to a Brazilian audience that would “provide a panorama and introduction to Russian literature” should be heeded by current and future scholars. Honorable exceptions are Homero Freitas de Andrade’s O Diabo Solto em Moscou [The Devil Loose in Moscow](EDUSP, 2002), a biographical sketch and selection of autobiographical prose by Mikhail Bulgakov; Arlete Cavaliere’s Teatro Russo: Percurso para um Estudo da Paródia e do Grotesco [Russian Theater: Course for the Study of Parody and Grotesque] (Humanitas, 2009), on parody and the grotesque in Russian theater; and Gomide’s own Da Estepe à Caatinga: O Romance Russo no Brasil 1887-1936) [From Steppe to Caatinga: The Russian Romance in Brazil (1887-1936)] (EDUSP, 2011), a historical overview of the reception of Russian (and occasionally “pseudo-Russian”) literature in Brazil before the first wave of Soviet-Brazilian encounters in the 1930s.

To an audience in the “Global North,” the participation of scholars from Brazil in international conferences such as ASEEES constitutes the most visible facet of the field. The 2015 ASEEES convention included a panel on Russian-Latin American literary and cultural relations, with talks by Brazil-based and foreign scholars on such topics as the first productions of Chekhov plays in Brazil and the insertion of Russian literature in the Latin American cultural canon over the twentieth century. The 2016 convention featured a panel on Russian-Brazilian encounters in film (for instance on the reception of Jorge Amado film adaptations in the Soviet Union), part of a series on film exchanges between Latin America and the Eastern Bloc; as well as a paper on Schnaiderman’s role in the Brazilian reception of Lev Tolstoy.

In an essay in Projeções, Schnaiderman produces a broad overview of the Russian scholarship on and popular perception of Brazil, historically based on an exotic, at times wildly fantastic, conception of the country as a tropical virgin paradise. The article is dated 1962, in the midst of what Tobias Rupprecht calls Soviet internationalism after Stalin—the process of mutual rediscovery between the Soviet Union and Latin America. Thanks to Soviet internationalism as well as the pioneering efforts of Schnaiderman and a whole generation of translators that came in his wake, much progress has been made in the diffusion of Russian literature (and culture more broadly) in Brazil. It is to be hoped that, now that an enviable critical mass in the creation of a literary canon through quality translations has been reached, more resources will be devoted to the expansion of studies of Russian literature, whether in comparison with the Brazilian and Latin American traditions or on their own. Granted, the needs and established practices of the discipline differ from those in the “Global North” and are often directly tied to the whims of state budget allocations and the vagaries of the national economy. Yet Schnaiderman’s many volumes of essays, as well as the paratexts (prefaces, introductions, etc.) that accompany contemporary translations, already constitute a key first step towards the consolidation of a body of interpretive work on Russian literature in Portuguese.


Cassio de Oliveira is Assistant Professor of Russian in the Department of World Languages and Literatures at Portland State University, where he teaches courses in Russian language, literature, and culture, especially film.