Yuri Rytkheu : biography
Yuri Sergeyevich Rytkheu ( 8 March 1930 – 14 May 2008) was a Chukchi writer, who wrote in both his native Chukchi and in Russian. He is considered to be the father of Chukchi literature.
- Maxim Gorky RSFSR State Prize (1977), for the novel, "The end of the Permafrost" (Конец вечной мерзлоты).
- Orders: Order of the Red Banner of Labour, Order of Friendship of Peoples, Order of the Badge of Honor
Yuri Rytkheu was born 8 March 1930 to a family of trappers and hunters. His birthplace, the village of Uelen, was then in the Chukotka District, Far Eastern Territory, RSFSR, USSR; it is now part of the Chukotka Autonomous Okrug. His grandfather was a shaman.
At birth, he was given the name ”Rytkheu”, which means ”unknown” in the Chukchi language. Since Soviet institutions did not recognize Chukchi names and the Chukchi do not commonly use surnames, in order to obtain his passport he used his first name as his surname and assumed the first name and patronymic of a Russian geologist he knew.
Rytkheu graduated from the Soviet 7-year school in Uelen. He wanted to continue his education at the Institute of the Peoples of the North, but was not selected to study there, because of his young age. Consequently, he decided to go to Leningrad on his own, to continue his study. This travel was delayed for several years. In order to earn money for this journey, the future writer took odd jobs; for instance, he worked on the seas and on geological expeditions and trapped animals, stevedored at a hydrography base. Rytkheu moved to Anadyr and enrolled in a vocational school. In 1947 he started writing articles for the Anadyr district-based magazine Soviet Chukotka (Советская Чукотка), which published his first stories and poems. In Anadyr, Rytkheu met the Leningrad-based scholar Pyotr Skorik, who was leading a linguistic expedition in the area and who was responsible for helping the young writer move to Leningrad.
From 1949 until 1954 Rytkheu studied literature at Leningrad State University. He was only slightly older than 20 when his works started appearing in Young Leningrad (Молодой Ленинград), and then later on in other periodicals such as Ogonyok, Young World (Молодой мир), The Far East (Дальний Восток) and Youth (Смена). In 1953, the publishing company Young Guard published his first collection of stories The People of Our Coast (Люди нашего берега), in Russian. This book was later translated into Chukchi by A. Smolyana (А. Смоляна). While still a student, Rytkheu also translated the works of Pushkin, Tolstoy, Gorky and Tikhon Syomushkin into Chukchi. In 1954, Rytkheu was accepted into the USSR Union of Writers.
Upon graduating from Leningrad University, Rytkheu spent a few years living in Magadan, working as a correspondent for the newspaper Magadanskaya Pravda. After two years in Magadan, a collection short stories Chukotkan Saga (Чукотская сага) was published, and brought the writer recognition from both Soviet and foreign readers.
After Magadan, he moved to Leningrad, where he spent the rest of his life. In 1967, Rytkheu joined the Communist Party. Rytkheu travelled extensively around the world on creative trips and with cultural and goodwill visits. As Rytkheu spoke fluent English, he was invited to give lectures at American universities. He also worked with UNESCO for a time.
Rytkheu died in Saint Petersburg on 14 May 2008, after a long battle with myeloma. He is buried in Komorovskoe Cemetery near the grave of his wife.
After the collapse of the Soviet Union, his works were no longer published in the new post-Soviet states. Finding himself in a difficult position, he even said that he would emigrate to the United States. However, through Chinghiz Aitmatov, he met with Swiss publisher Lucien Leitess who signed a contract to publish Rytkheu’s works in German, and who would go on to become his literary agent. Rytkheu’s works were introduced to readers in France, Finland, the Netherlands, Italy, Germany, Spain, Japan, and other countries. Тhe German editions of his books have sold more than 250,000 copies and Swiss publisher Unionsverlag has published them in other European languages, as well. The situation in Russia, however, was quite the opposite since the time his book Путешествие в молодости was published in 1991. Since the turn of the millennium, the Governor of Chukotka Roman Abramovich has sponsored the distribution of a small run of Rytkeu’s works in Russia, approximately one a year, all of which are issued only in Chukotka. The first of these books was a new work called In the Mirror of Oblivion (В зеркале забвения).
Rytkheu’s works have been translated into numerous languages, including several national languages of the former USSR. In addition, the composer Eduard Artemyev set Rytkheu’s poems to music in the 1985 vocal-instrumental suite The Warmth of the Earth (Тепло Земли).
Only a few of his works have been translated into English, including his A Dream in Polar Fog (), originally published in 1970, which was published by Archipelago Books in 2005.
Colin Thubron summarized his career as follows: For his earlier books, there are those who never forgave him. His slavish pursuit of the Party line and open repudiation of his people’s traditions are embarrassingly manifest in works that celebrate the (nonexistent) transformation of his native Chukotka into a Soviet paradigm. ... But by the late 1970s, as the slow literary thaw continued, he started to write differently. Perhaps influenced by the derevenshchiki, the “village writers” who turned for their values to the unspoiled countryside, he began to extol precisely the Chukchi oral culture that he had once repudiated.Colin Thubron, "" (review of Yuri Rytkheu, The Chukchi Bible, Archipelago Books, 2009), The New York Review of Books, 18 Aug. 2011, p. 56
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