The Blumkin Project: A Bio­graph­i­cal Novel

Chris­t­ian Salmon; William Rodar­mor, trans.

  • Review
By – October 3, 2022

While researcher Chris­t­ian Salmon is mov­ing, he redis­cov­ers a box marked The Blumkin Project,” a vast col­lec­tion of his thir­ty-year-old notes and doc­u­ments about Yakov Blumkin — a poet, ter­ror­ist, spy, and rare-book col­lec­tor. Using a black­board to put … up pho­tos of the main char­ac­ters [and] maps of cer­tain cities or neigh­bor­hoods where the action takes place,” Salmon embarks on a jour­ney across three con­ti­nents and two cen­turies to recre­ate Blumkin’s biog­ra­phy. Doing so is no easy feat; Salmon faces the real­i­ty of closed archives, cen­sor­ship, state pro­pa­gan­da, and con­flict­ing infor­ma­tion from wit­ness­es to Blumkin’s life. To over­come such lacu­nas, Salmon turns to a stag­ger­ing array of nov­els, poet­ry, mem­oirs, films, and even art from the time lead­ing up to the Russ­ian Rev­o­lu­tion and beyond. As a result, read­ers glimpse a fas­ci­nat­ing por­trait of a young Jew­ish rev­o­lu­tion­ary — a mys­te­ri­ous fig­ure, yet instru­men­tal in shap­ing mod­ern Rus­sia and Iran. Against the pres­sures of a tumul­tuous era in which the lives of indi­vid­u­als had tum­bled into a kind of weight­less nar­ra­tive,” Salmon attempts to give Blumkin’s sto­ry coher­ence and to sit­u­ate it among broad­er his­tor­i­cal and cul­tur­al forces.

Blumkin is a com­pli­cat­ed man, at once a vic­tim and per­pe­tra­tor, a mur­der­er and cal­cu­lat­ed strate­gist, a friend and ene­my to strong­men like Lenin, Trot­sky, and Stal­in. In this equal­ly com­plex biog­ra­phy, Salmon invites us into his research process, with all its strug­gles and rewards. Vis­its to his­tor­i­cal sites that have since been paved over are jux­ta­posed with moments of serendip­i­ty in archives and muse­ums in New York, Cam­bridge, and Rus­sia. Along the way, Salmon’s per­son­al moti­va­tions and inter­ests as a fic­tion­al Bol­she­vik” begin to peek through, as do his desires and spec­u­la­tions about a past (and there­fore a future) that he wish­es exist­ed. He open­ly rumi­nates on how the nar­ra­tive he is con­struct­ing might trans­late into some­thing grander: Now imag­ine that same scene in a movie … ” In doing so, Salmon allows Blumkin’s nar­ra­tive to become both a cel­e­bra­tion of his­tor­i­cal inquiry and a broad­er geneal­o­gy of our mod­ern geopo­lit­i­cal real­i­ty. This biog­ra­phy, then, is far from objec­tive. It hov­ers between bio­graph­i­cal and nov­e­l­esque, with Salmon bring­ing his own uncer­tain­ties to bear: Were my motives that of a his­to­ri­an, a mil­i­tant, a writer? Did I want to write a biog­ra­phy or a nov­el?” The fusion of Salmon’s and Blumkin’s lives is not a dis­trac­tion, how­ev­er. It is an essen­tial com­po­nent of a reflec­tion that often mourns a lost vision of a rev­o­lu­tion­ary future. It is true that Salmon is ask­ing us to eval­u­ate Blumkin’s char­ac­ter and lega­cy; but more than that, he is ask­ing us to eval­u­ate the his­tor­i­cal and cul­tur­al forces that pro­duced Blumkin — and then forced him into obscurity.

Joshua Krucht­en is an edu­ca­tor and cur­rent doc­tor­al can­di­date at NYU spe­cial­iz­ing in the lit­er­a­ture and his­to­ry of ear­ly mod­ern Europe.

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