From a response by the Russian literary critic Viktor Shklovsky (1893–1984) to a question by Serena Vitale, during an interview in Moscow in December 1978. Yevgeni Polivanov, who like Shklovsky was a member of the literary group Opoyaz in the 1920s, was accused of spying for Japan and was executed in 1938 during the Stalinist purge. Shklovsky: Witness to an Era, a collection of Vitale’s interviews with the critic, was recently published by Dalkey Archive Press. Vitale is a professor of Russian literature at the Università Cattolica del Sacro Cuore, in Milan. Translated by Jamie Richards.
Yevgeni Polivanov had only one hand. He’d lost the other when he was young — to imitate a character from The Brothers Karamazov, he lay on the tracks as a train passed over. And the train severed his hand. We became great friends. He was a brilliant man. He told me that one day, at the university, as he was listening to a lecture half asleep, his head back, suddenly he felt something like a jolt to his brain — and, he said, from that day on he began to understand languages. He knew twenty or so. On the street he could speak to the Gypsies in their tongue; he knew Korean, Chinese, Turkish, Japanese, and other, smaller languages. After the revolution he became a Communist, working for the Comintern. He had a dream: to create a table of all the languages, like Mendeleev’s. Unfortunately, this truly exceptional man learned to smoke opium in the Orient. After a certain point even that wasn’t enough — he began eating it. And he told me that he found it absurd that people could spend their money on anything other than opium. He was an unbelievable character: one time, he went to the university to present, if I remember correctly, his doctoral thesis. He came to the classroom in a coat but no pants, just underwear. Everybody at the university knew him, so they let it slide. He began to speak; halfway through they told him he’d said enough, but he replied: “Dear colleagues and professors, please allow me to continue. I don’t think you’ve understood anything yet.” The presentation went well, and he was awarded his degree.