EDITOR’S NOTE: Jaywalker Magazine is pleased to introduce the first of a continuing series of pieces examining the role that adversity plays in the arts. Inspired by the seemingly unsinkable spirit of our first artist - novelist, poet and essayist Yuri Tarnopolsky - these articles will focus on the internal spiritual struggles and successes rather than the public accolades. An artist cannot be defined by sales or critical acclaim, nor successful expression or portfolio; but simply by the deep calling to express oneself regardless of the challenges, whether internal or external.
"Adversity and the Artist" will look at hardship from a very personal perspective, with the individuals in question defining the very meaning of adversity for themselves. For one person, adversity may be religious or social pressure, while for another it may be anorexia, rejection or depression, yet still others may be plagued by drug addiction or illness. Prepare to see the inner struggles of artists of all kinds, whether primroses or wallflowers, tyros or titans. "Adversity and the Artist" recognizes that suffering does not discriminate; and that it has a thousand faces.
An email interview with Yuri Tarnopolsky
Soviet Jew, chemist, wordsmith and father Yuri Tarnopolsky is probably best known for his struggles in the former Soviet Union as a refusenik – a citizen refused permission to leave Russia. He became an activist, which ultimately led to three years imprisonment at a Siberian labour camp. After tireless efforts by Jewish groups in America and France, Yuri was released to Israel, ultimately making his way to the United States.
He would publish his experiences as
a prisoner of conscience in the book “Memoirs of 1984”.
Tell us about your life as
an artist, Yuri...
“All artists live two lives: as
artists, and as anybody else. I lived four lives: as a poet, as a chemist, as a
subject of the apocalyptic Communist Russia, and as anybody else. All four of my
lives were entangled like Laocoon and his sons in the rings of the sea
“The poems I wrote could not be
published. Moreover, they could not be even shown to a stranger who could report
on me. As a scientist I had to struggle with scarce supply and lack of
scientific literature. As almost everybody else in Russia, I had to solve
(unsuccessfully) daily problems of finding a source of proteins, shoes, and a
warm hat for Siberian winter. As anybody else, I could fall in love, and the
quirky arabesque of my existence would be completed with the last stroke
connecting love and poetry through the shame of being a slave. I wrote about it
in my Russian poetry and in “Memoirs of 1984” in English.”
“When I came to America in 1987,
after a ten year long hiatus in my professional life and three years in a
Siberian labour camp, I was 50 years old. This simplified everything: I had to
build a new life for my wife and daughter. In this I modestly succeeded. The new
reality, however, was incompatible with the Russian rhymes. I also brought with
me some new scientific ideas, pretty far from chemistry, but that seemed to be
relegated to the status of a hobby.“
“Nevertheless, since I had now a
single life instead of four, did not need to stand in line for half decomposed
proteins, did not need a fur hat for the warm Rhode Island, and had access to
all the literature of the world, a moment came when, like a woman who feels the
first movement of her fetus, I sensed the sprout of poetry probing its way from
the depths of my mind to the tips of my fingers on the Latin keyboard. I felt
much happier than when I had come out of the prison gate.”
“In due time, the seeds of my
scientific ideas gave some timid sprouts, too. But the hourglass of my existence
has a great imbalance of sand in its two parts.”
“I believe that the external
adversity is what can be fought off somehow. It is possible to lose, but it is
also possible to win. The things like old age and debilitating diseases must be
simply accepted as part of the natural order of things. Then what remains?”
this is really hard. Fortunately, this is an
honest fight (which is not so common in the natural order of things) and the
opponents feed on the same proteins. For an artist, this is win-win.”
“Oh, please, don't count me as an optimist.”
Are you implying that you could be counted as a
“Yes. Suppose I am an optimist: then no failure
can disappoint me because it is an accidental deviation from the order of
things. No big deal. Next time. As far as success is concerned, it is no big
deal either because it had to be expected. For a pessimist, a success is a proof
that he or she can beat the fate. An eminent scientist (Albert Szent-Gyorgy)
once noted that in his youth he went fishing with the largest hooks: it was
better not to catch a big fish than a small one.”
But can one’s pessimistic spirit find
any good in oneself? That is, in setting such high standards for success on
the outside does one not also set such impossible standards for the self? Does
this not risk an unscalable wall of self-doubt?
“Yes, it does. We can add self-doubt to the list
of internal adversities: it is the worst of them. I have called it fear. Well, I
had to fight it all the time. Most of the times I won -- because there was
enough time. But remember, I am speaking only about myself. Quoting the great
ones, all we have to fear is the fear itself.”
“It all is not so gloomy: there is still a
chance to catch a minnow.”
What were your greatest fears, and how did
they influence you?
“Fear of failure: if an ambitious goal was taken - for example in science, to do something considered impossible (I did it at least four times). There were moments when I cursed myself: how could I get into this idiotic venture? Fear for
myself and my family, when I was in prison. Fear
of making a factual or technical error, which came with age--I made at least one
big but feel I could make more. All that made me much more cautious,
unfortunately. But impossible things are still my catnip, although I fear that
to follow my instincts is currently my biggest mistake yet.”
“But the most humiliating and debilitating fear
of all--and only in America--was the fear to lose my job.”
Why would the fear of losing your job top
“Because of its purely gut nature. I came to
America with 50 years behind my back and $60 in my pocket. To lose my job meant
to lose everything. I wanted to keep my promise to my family. It was the
strongest animal fear I ever knew.”
“This is an excellent way to put it, only without “become”. I guess I
have always been a prisoner of my conscience. In a Russian poem I wrote:
conscience is eternal,
Like the soul,
Although forever lonely.”
What was the promise to your family?
"My promise to my family was: We will have a decent life outside Russia."
The pessimist in you had set high standards for success earlier - such standards are more readily aspired than achieved: do you feel that you lived up to your promise?
"I think I have. When I promised a decent future, with all my abstract bookish knowledge of "life outside Russia" the reality turned out much better. Immediately, new hopes and ambitions grew on the new soil. They certainly exceeded my possibilities."
“My daughter has a family of her own and lives very well. My wife has
achieved something really rare: she is a teacher of English in America, as she
was in Russia. I am a minimalist in my needs and habits. I am retired and the
freedom from the fear to lose my job--what a heavenly bliss! The luxury of
studying and understanding the new world and the great global transformations is
my personal reward of incomparable value. I am rich beyond the wildest
“Are we all happy? No. To be unhappy is human -- a pessimist's
With many thanks to Yuri for reminding us to continue working as artists, despite our self-doubt or lack of recent recognition. And, as well, for reminding us that the spirit of the artist exists in a higher plane than that of our suffering. Perhaps it is this inexorable spirit itself that marks true artistic achievement.
You can visit Yuri Tarnopolsky's website at: