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Tuesday June 28, 2022

From an Historian’s Notebook: Russian Lullaby

Irving Berlin
"Be Careful, It's My Heart," is the song Irving Berlin sings during an interview in Berlin's New York office, July 16, 1942. (AP Photo/Murray Becker)

A few days ago, unexpectedly, a song came to my mind as I listened to the news, counted the dead, read a few commentaries on NATO, and checked in with my friends in Russia and Ukraine (which of them had been arrested or electrocuted for demonstrating? Who had made it out of Kyiv or Odessa? where were they and what were their plans for the future?), it occurred to me that there was no way anyone with any sense could predict what would happen to them in a few days, or in a few hours. But, I thought to myself, I was trained as an historian. It was our job to make sense of messy pasts, disentangle interested parties’ stories, and explain the fine mess we’ve got ourselves into. And the first thought in my head was not at all what I expected: a song, a lullaby.

Russian Lullaby: a song written in the United States by the Russian Jewish émigré, Irving Berlin, formerly known as Israel Beilin, a name not calculated to win him an audience in his new country. He was actually born in Siberia in 1888, but his family came from what would now be Belarus, in what was then imperial Russia. Why Siberia? I don’t quite know the story, though any historian reading this detail will think immediately of political exiles and deportations, so successfully invoked by Alexandr Solzhenytsin in the context of its Soviet avatar, and now returned to us, as I think of friends demonstrating against Vladimir Putin’s Ukrainian war, as the threat of sixteen years’ deportation for opposing the war in public. Irving Berlin once said that his earliest childhood memory was of watching his house burn down as he was laid out on a blanket on the street in front of him. He lived to see his song, White Christmas, turned into a racist anthem by British conservatives and fascists in the Merrie England of the 1960s and 70s. That conquest of English hearts and minds must be regarded as quite a success for a poor Jewish immigrant to America, and when he died in 1989, he had nearly outlived the Soviet Union.

While various clever intellectuals from the postcolonial era who have learned that pronouns kill and black lives matter respond to Putin’s war by attempting to cancel Pushkin (Russian, and not black enough), Tchaikovsky (he celebrated Napoleon’s defeat, and France is in NATO), or Marx (wasn’t he important in Russia?), it’s just as well that the Jew-who-was-not-white-enough, who unwittingly lent a Christmas song to the fascists (should he not have known better? Christmas is white privilege), should not be remembered for this song, which embodies wanton act of multiple cultural appropriations:

 Rock-a-bye my baby
Somewhere there may be
A land that’s free for you and me
And a Russian lullaby.

 ‘A land that’s free for you and me’, the promise of a meaningful life in a new country whose claims to freedom he usurped; the child’s yearning for a return to a Russian soundscape that he can claim but never fully own; an exiled Jew’s Russian lullaby. It’s enough to make rootless cosmopolitans of us all.

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