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Tsypkin, Leonid Borisovich

(1926–1982), writer and physician. Leonid Tsypkin’s grandmother and other relatives were murdered in the Minsk ghetto during World War II, a fate he and his parents narrowly avoided when they managed to escape at the last moment on foot. After the war, he returned to Minsk where, in 1947, he graduated from medical school, in keeping with family tradition. For the rest of his life Tsypkin worked as a physician and medical researcher. In the course of his medical career he published nearly 100 articles in Soviet and international professional journals.

Tsypkin’s passion, however, was always literature, and he began to write poetry in the early 1960s. In the latter part of that decade he also started to write prose. Because his works were artistically innovative, intellectually honest, and emphasized Jewish themes, he could not publish them in the Soviet Union.

Tsypkin’s only son, Mikhail, immigrated to the United States in 1977. The Institute of Poliomyelitis, where Tsypkin had worked since 1957 as a senior researcher, retaliated by reducing his rank to that of a junior researcher, slashing his salary by two-thirds. In 1979, Tsypkin, his wife Natalia, and his mother applied for emigration visas. They waited for two years and still were turned down. During that time, Tsypkin was a pariah among the majority of his colleagues, who feared being tarnished by association with a refusenik.

Despite enormous pressure, it was during the years 1977–1981 that Tsypkin completed his main—and last—literary work, the novel Leto v Badene (Summer in Baden Baden). The novel was smuggled to the United States where it was published in Novaya gazeta, a Russian emigré weekly. The publication coincided with Tsypkin’s dismissal from the institute. As a refusenik, he could not find another job. Five days after the serialization of his novel began, he died of a heart attack on his fifty-sixth birthday. The novel was subsequently published in translation in England and Germany but received little critical notice.

In the early 1990s, Susan Sontag read Leto v Badene in its English translation and wrote about it as an overlooked masterpiece, describing it as one of the “most beautiful, exalting, and original achievements of a century’s worth of fiction and para-fiction” (Sontag, 2001, p. 98). In 2001, the New Directions publishing house issued it in the United States to overwhelming critical acclaim. It has been translated into more than a dozen languages, and was finally published in Russia in 2003. The main character of the novel is Fyodor Dostoevsky, depicted in all his complexity as a man of both genius and petty biases. Among other things, Tsypkin addresses the love of many Jews for Dostoevsky despite the writer’s outspoken antisemitism, drawing parallels between the character of the renowned author and Jews as he portrayed them. Apart from his celebrated novel, Tsypkin wrote a number of short stories and two novellas, Most cherez Neroch (The Bridge over Neroch; 1984) and Norartakir (1987).

Suggested Reading

Donald Fanger, “The Trampled Pride of the Possessed,” in The Los Angeles Times (18 November 2001): 8; Joseph Frank, “In Search of Dostoevsky,” New York Review of Books (23 May 2002): 74–76; Susan Sontag, “Loving Dostoyevsky,” The New Yorker (1 October 2001): 98; Leonid Tsypkin, “Ave, Mariya,” Russkaya mysl’ 3695 (1987); Leonid Tsypkin, Summer in Baden-Baden, trans. Roger and Angela Keys (New York, 2001).