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.