(No. 15/2004 - March 2004)
Editor: Fran Bock

Vitaly Charny has contributed to this newsletter many sketches of noteworthy Jews of Belarus, with illustrations from his extensive stamp collection. We thank him for this article on Lazar Ginzburg, better known under his nom-de-plume, Lazar Lagin. Famous as a writer of science-fiction stories, Lagin was another of the creative geniuses to emerge from the Vitebsk region during the early years of the 20th century.

This article is copyrighted by Vitaly Charny.

Reprinting or copying of this article is not allowed
without prior permission from the copyrightholders


Lazar Lagin

(1903 - 1979)

by Vitaly Charny

Well-known fictional characters sometime come to life from their book pages in monumental form of sculpture where they work hard attracting crowds of tourists to town squares. There is the Little Mermaid sculpture in Copenhagen, Denmark; a statue of the famous Don Quixote and his squire sidekick, Sancho Panza, in Madrid, Spain; a statue of Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn in Hannibal, Missouri; and more.

Now, the town of Vitebsk in Belarus has decided to erect a statue of Starik Hottabych (old man Hattabych) - an old genie Hassan Abdarahman ibn Hattab. Maybe not well known in the West, this story written by Vitebsk-born Lazar Lagin was universally popular in all countries of the former Soviet Union. The book has more than 100 editions. There is a new English language edition of 2001 shown on the picture below. The statue, supposed to be ready in 2008, will be erected in a city park, located on the same place where Lagin's family house once stood.

Lazar Lagin (LUh - ghin) is a pen name of Lazar Iosifovich Ginzburg who was born in the Belarusian town of Vitebsk on December 4, 1903. It was the same year when in Vitebsk Gubernia (province) the future famous American abstract painter Mark Rothko was born, and when Marc Chagall begun to study painting at the Vitebsk art school. (See Vitaly's articles on Yehuda Pen, Konstantin Shapiro and Abram Brazer.)

Lagin was born into a poor family with many children. His grandfather rafted timber down the Dvina River to the Baltic Sea and his father worked as a salesperson in a hardware store. Lazar's education consisted just of 4 years at school before he participated in the Civil War at the age of 15. He also participated in action during WWII, serving on Black Sea Fleet and finishing the war with Russian marines liberating countries of Eastern Europe along the Danube River. He was several times decorated for bravery.

Lagin worked for most of his life in different magazines and publishing houses, but also wrote a few novels and several short stories, all in the science fiction genre. His pen name of Lagin was created by putting together the first syllables of his first and last names - LAzar + GINzburg. Besides writing his own popular books, he arranged to get published the works of several other outstanding authors, including the Strugatsky brothers, the best of all Russian science-fiction writers.

To commemorate Lagin's centennial birth anniversary, Belarus Post issued on December 4, 2003 a pre-stamped postcard with an original stamp. To signify the first day of issue a special cancellation was used with Vitebsk PO #15 postmark and the date 04.12.2003. The stamp portrays Lagin behind his desk while working on his typewriter and smoking a pipe (see illustration below). Apparently Belarus doesn't follow the healthy trend of America and Western Europe to remove anything related to smoking from postal matters even at cost of correcting original pictures or photos. The cachet of the card depicts a scene from his book with most popular characters - Old Genie Hattabych and his young master - Vol' ka flying a magic carpet over Russia.

Lagin is best known to several generations of readers in Russia for his Starik Hottabych (in English translation Old Genie Hottabych). The charming and entertaining childrens book could be called the Russian Thousand and One Nights though it was written to be politically correct in Soviet style.

This is what Lazar Lagin has to say of the Old Genie Hottabych: "In one of Scheherezade's tales I read of the Fisherman who found a copper vessel in his net. In the vessel was a mighty Genie - a magician who had been imprisoned in the bottle for nearly two thousand years. The Genie had sworn to make the one who freed him rich, powerful and happy. But what if such a Genie suddenly came to life in the Soviet Union, in Moscow? I tried to imagine what would have happened if a very ordinary Russian boy had freed him from the vessel...."

This is the story of cultural conflict between the book's main characters on multiple levels: different times, different places, different generations, and different social systems. Hattabych tried hard to satisfy every wish of his master - a young pioneer Vol' ka - but mostly in vain while his best intentions made things go wrong.

A palace better than Sultan's own and arriving caravans of camels loaded with all kind of treasures -this was not the way of life in Soviet Moscow and had to be refused, to Hattabych's surprise. It was no help to Vol'ka's football team when Hattabych supplied each player with his own football. What about help during Vol' ka's geography test, when Hottabych is very much ignorant about spherical shape of Earth? What about the use of a telephone, which Hattabych made from a solid piece of precious stone? However, one can perfectly understand the Old Genie's failure to adjust to Soviet made shoes - he just gave it up and remained wearing his ancient slippers. Nevertheless, Hattabych was a fast learner and invaluable aid against bad guys.

The Russian movie made from the book in 1957 was very popular as well. Originally written in 1930s, the story has strong smell of socialist ideology; however the aroma is more comical than scary, especially after the end of the Cold War.

Lagin had painful memories associated with the book, as his daughter recalled. When in 1937 the tide of Stalin's purges was in its high, especially among people of culture, her father decided to disappear for while. He organized for himself kind of sabbatical behind the Arctic Circle, traveling to Spitzbergen Islands in the Arctic Ocean. It was the place where Lagin wrote his wonderful Hattabych story. He certainly needed some magic that time. Meanwhile his Moscow apartment was visited a couple of times with arrest warrants in his name. But state security people were too busy to search for the writer around the huge country.

Lagin sent the book to potential publishers, and it received a clear welcome. However, it was decided to use the book for purposes of communist education, i.e., brainwashing. The book grew to almost twice its size in order to show all kinds of bad guys plotting aginst the peaceful land of workers and peasants. The first edition of the book appeared in 1938. It was quickly updated for a new edition in 1940 and afterwards received many corrections depending on the political realities. Only recently was it possible to clean up Lagin's book and return it to its original version.

Copyright 2004 Belarus SIG and Vitaly Charny

Back to the index of the Belarus SIG Newsletters

Back to the Belarus SIG website