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A Rizalista in Moscow
A Rizalista in Moscow
On June 3, 2009 President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo on a visit to Moscow, awarded the Presidential Medal of Merit to Igor V. Podberezsky, a citizen of Russia, D.Sc. (Philology), and a leading research fellow at the Institute of World Economy and International Relations, Russian Academy of Sciences.
I cannot recall any of Russia’s Southeast Asia experts, at any rate those studying ASEAN’s founding members, having been thus honored. The citation describes Igor Podberezsky as the first specialist in the study of Philippine culture. Was he really the first, chronologically speaking? Apparently not.
In the year 1937, the same year in which Igor Podberezsky was born in Bryansk, the future Academician Alexander Guber and Olga Rykovskaya published a biography of Jose Rizal (1861–1896), whose poetry, novels and journalistic writings are revered in the Philippines as the highest manifestation of the national spirit.
Some 25 years later, when Igor Podberezsky was nearing graduation from the Moscow State Institute of International Relations (MGIMO), Georgy Levinson edited a collection of Rizal’s articles, a gift for the centenary of the Philippine genius.
In short, the Philippines and its culture had been studied well before Podberezsky’s time, with one important reservation. There was an aspect of drama in the work of such pioneers as Guber or Levinson, those highly enlightened and creative men; the drama lay in the fact that, the conditions in Russia country at the time being what they were, they could not visit the Philippines. Neither of the men had the good fortune to study Philippine languages in live communication with native speakers of those languages; to absorb knowledge of an unfamiliar culture from the culture itself, not from books in Spanish or English. This may have been the reason why Guber and Levinson, with their lively interest in Philippine culture, mostly worked on themes in political and socio-economic history. Their follower, a young intellectual of the 1960s, entered the world of scholarship under somewhat different circumstances, and he did not waste the chance offered by the fates.
True, his prospects did not appear too bright at the start, either. Having achieved independence in 1946, for a whole 30 years the Philippines refused to enter upon diplomatic relations with the USSR. Not only membership in the banned Communist Party, but even brief trips beyond the Iron Curtain were viewed in that country as «subversive activity.»
Understandably, it took a long time to find a Filipino teacher for a Tagalog language group of students, the first at MGIMO-U. Eventually a political émigré named Manuel Cruz was found who had arrived in Moscow in 1956 and stayed on in this country for 11 years. His real name was Teodosio Lansang. He went back to his native country (incidentally, with the permission of President Marcos himself), having first educated quite a few students here and published a Tagalog-Russian and Russian-Tagalog dictionaries. It was from Cruz that Igor Podberezsky basically absorbed the knowledge that enabled him, while still an undergraduate, to teach Tagalog at his alma mater, then defend a dissertation for the scholarly title of Ph. D. (Philology), and later publish a textbook of Tagalog for university students, the first ever in the Soviet Union. Communication with enthusiastic colleagues who had also mastered that language, such as S. P. Ignashev, v. A. Makarenko, G. A. Rachkov, L. I. Shkarban, contributed to his professional achievements.
More importantly, beginning in the early 1960s, official Manila’s attitude toward the Soviets began to soften. More and more frequently and daringly, Filipinos traveled to this country while Soviet people, to the Philippines. «People’s diplomacy» by journalists, athletes, artists and, naturally, translators, paved the way for contacts at the highest political level.
Podberezsky’s linguistic skills were a pleasant surprise for the Filipinos he met in those days. He listened keenly to the way they spoke, took note of the popular idioms they used, and got rid of the bookish and obsolete phrases that sometimes amused his interlocutors. That was the way Francisco Sionil Jose, venerated writer and journalist, author of the famous Rosales Saga, remembered him. Their first meeting in Moscow in 1967 was the start of half a lifetime of friendship. The fruit of their mutual attraction was three novels and numerous short stories by Frankie published in this country in Soviet times in Igor Podberezsky’s translations. Incidentally, these texts were the source of later translations into Lithuanian, Latvian, and Ukrainian.
In 1969 the Union of Soviet Societies of Friendship invited to the USSR a politician who made no secret of his ambition to run for the post of Philippines president. He was 37-year-old Benigno «Ninoy» Aquino. A better interpreter than Igor Podberezsky simply could not be found for such a visitor; by then the man had been to the Land of Seven Thousand Islands and had a grasp of realities there. Apparently Aquino realized that it was no amateur he was dealing with. Also conducive to closer rapport between them was the fact that the Senator’s manners were quite unaffected and he was only five years older than the companion with whom he traveled all over this country.
The relationship continued in 1970 to 1971 when Podberezsky, the first of Soviet nationals, was lucky enough to take an internship course at the University of the Philippines. Ninoy, by then already the opposition leader and a very busy man, found him in Manila and took him to the province of Tarlac to his family estate. Who in Podberezsky’s place could have imagined that his cordial host’s future held a prison term, emigration and death from a bullet when he returned to his home country, and that the state would eventually be headed by his spouse Corazon? At the time she seemed shy and self-effacing, hardly ever joining conversations among men. But the Senator’s only son, 11 year-old Noynoy, was already being coached for a career in politics, as it were. Once the lad, who was an anchor on a children’s TV show, invited «Uncle Igor» to the studio and talked to him on camera, completely unembarrassed, about what the Soviet capital looked like, if there were many cars in the city, and about Moscow ways generally. Incidentally, he was doing all that sitting on the floor. Does the incumbent president of the Philippines remember that episode?
At Aquino’s house Podberezsky was merely an occasional visitor, while in the home of another politician, Congressman Carmelo Barbero (whose daughter was at one time a student at the Patrice Lumumba University of Peoples Friendship in Moscow), he was staying permanently throughout the year. To live with a strange family, however hospitable, is something of a trial. When the culture is also alien, this is doubly difficult. To understand and accept it, and through that to represent one’s own culture with dignity, is a matter of honor. Having passed that test, Podberezsky got two rewards in one go. First, a closer acquaintance with him gave the Barbero family the idea of adopting the man. Second, he learned to see things through Filipino eyes, thus becoming a practicing culturologist. As for a writing culturologist, he became that as he worked on his book Sampaguita, Cross and Dollar (1974)…
Anything Igor Podberezsky has ever tackled since, he did in the manner he had learned from Sampaguita — with passion and originality, permanently in quest for heroes and plots. While working on his doctoral thesis, and later on a monograph about the evolution of Rizal’s writing (1982), he emphasized over and over this point: the founder of modern Filipino literature had not sprung out of nowhere. A barren soil unready for the event will never yield this kind of fruit.
Incidentally, we also owe to Podberezsky new (and more importantly, accurate) translations of the titles of Rizal’s novels into Russian. The first one bears the title Noli Me Tangere, literally «Do not Touch Me» in Latin, and the conventional Russian translations carried something like «Touch Me Not» on their covers. But in the 19th century doctors used the phrase from the Gospel to refer to certain types of cancer. Putting it on the title page, Rizal, who had medical training and was once in charge of a cancer ward, warned that he would speak about a terminal illness that affected his country under foreign domination. Hence the translation of the title into Russian that literally means «The Malignant Growth," suggested by Podberezsky. The name of the second novel, El Filibusterismo, is unimaginatively translated in this country as The Filibusters, as though that was a thriller about the adventures of Caribbean pirates.
Meanwhile, the Spanish colonizers branded filibustero anyone who had the temerity to oppose them. Mental ferment, capable of leading straight to revolution, is what occupied Rizal’s mind, and the Russian title literally meaning «The Mutiny» suggested by Podberezsky fits the book nicely.
In the Philippines, where Rizal is a Christ-like figure, and the day he died for the cause of national liberation is marked as a sacred date, the works of Podberezsky were duly noticed and appreciated. Such gestures as an invitation to give the annual Rizal lecture in Manila and admission to the elite Order of the Knights of Rizal speak volumes.
Each new visit to the archipelago (and there have been 10 in all) brought Podberezsky more friends and acquaintances. The list of them is nothing if not impressive — from Ferdinand and Imelda Marcos to Jaime Cardinal Sin, from «Leftist deviationists» at the University of the Philippines to Jesuit fathers managing another educational establishment of prestige, Ateneo de Manila. But perhaps the most memorable were his meetings with Sionil Jose, and Nick Joaquin whom Igor Podberezsky believes to be a Nobel-caliber writer. Translations of two novels by Joaquin and a series of his essays that made up a separate collection became yet another milestone in Podberezsky’s work. In actual and imaginary conversations with these authors, who philosophized on the subject of national identity, he sought ideas for a new monograph dedicated to culture studies in the Philippines…
Studying Civilizations in a Globalized World (supervisors v. G. Khoros and Ye. B. Rashkovsky). Year in year out he speaks at inter-institute forums on the civilizations of China, India, Latin America, the Islamic World, and of course Southeast Asia, understood as a civilization community in its own right. So far only part of what he has done within this project has seen the world. We will eagerly await publication of the rest.
But how about the Philippines? Don’t you believe Igor Podberezsky if he complains that his feel of the country is not what it used to be; he starts every morning with a review of the Philippines press on the Internet.
It is gratifying to know that people in the Philippines have not forgotten him. Responding to his old friend being decorated with the Presidential Medal, Francisco Sionil Jose (National Artist of the Philippines) does not spare words of praise: «It is such a trite cliché but it has to be repeated — that I don’t have the words to express my personal gratitude to Igor for introducing me to the Russian people, my country as well, and most of all, our National Hero, Jose Rizal. But more than these, what Igor has done was to explain myself to me, us to ourselves. He defined our literature in English as the unique achievement that it is, different from the English literature of the English-speaking countries. He positioned our national hero in a manner that we could appreciate him more, imbibe him in our very marrow. And most of all, for me at the very least, he confirmed my faith in our creativity and perseverance — all of these in spite of the mountains of rubble that impede us.»
So is Igor Podberezsky Russia’s Expert No. 1 in Philippine cultural studies? Sure — he is the first, meaning the best.
«Говорят эксперты МГИМО», может не совпадать с мнением редакции портала.