My Pen Name – Emil Draitser

“Your surname isn’t quite for the newspapers, Emil.”

I wish I’d never heard this declaration. It stunted my enthusiasm for my new occupation.

By the time I start contributing to the Soviet satirical magazine Crocodile, I’ve already begun signing my work not with my real name, but my pen name. When I brought my first write-up signed “Emil Draitser” to the editorial offices of Soviet Russia, the central paper of the Russian Federation, the head of its feuilleton department and well-known journalist Boris Protopopov read it, nodded in satisfaction, and had raised his pen to sign it off to the typesetters. But his pen suddenly froze in midair.

The editor thought for a minute, chewing his lips and adjusting his thinning gray hair that barely covered his bald head, and said:

“Listen, Emil,” he chewed his lips some more. “Your surname… Well, you know… It’s not quite for the newspapers. You may want to change your byline.”

He lowered his face and looked over the rim of his glasses at me.

I understood that changing my byline was the condition for publication, not only of the article in his hands, but also of my future contributions to the paper.

It wasn’t too hard to guess that a “surname not for the newspapers” was his way of saying my surname was too Jewish.

Because my publications before that had amounted to no more than satirical notes based on readers’ letters to the editor, they didn’t have my byline. They usually were signed either by the name of the person who wrote the letter or by some clearly made-up name, like Samoletov, which means “An Airplane’s Son”.  

I figured that Protopopov didn’t mind my first name. It didn’t sound obviously Jewish, like Isaac, Haim, or Baruch. He didn’t even know that Emil wasn’t my true given name either….

My childhood and adolescence fell on the second half of the 1940s and the beginning of the 1950s – that is, during the crushing times of Stalin’s state-sponsored anti-Semitic campaigns. First, they were camouflaged as a “struggle with cosmopolitanism,” then as the “fight with World Zionism”, and then as the discovery of the infamous “Doctors’ plot,” the alleged plot of a group of Kremlin doctors, mostly Jewish, to murder top Soviet leaders. In the atmosphere of daily fear, a teenager, I was tormented by the fact that in all my documents, my given name was unmistakably Jewish to a Russian ear— “Samuil”.  (I was so used to hiding my Jewish name that, even after immigrating to America, when obtaining my naturalization papers, I officially changed my given name “Samuil” to “Emil.”)

To add insult to injury, both my patronymic “Abramovich” (besides the first and last name, every Soviet passport indicates also the name of the person’s father) and my surname gave me away as a Jew as well. (In the Western world, a Jewish person was someone who practiced Judaism. In both the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany, Jewishness was a matter of race or ethnicity, regardless of religion. Even if a Jew converted to Christianity or Islam, their Soviet documents would mark them as a Jew.)

By the time I was eighteen, I had begun introducing myself as “Emil” in my social interactions. It seemed to be an ennobling, European-sounding, variant of my given name, of which I preserved half of the letters. The name “Emil” had a positive aura in the Soviet cultural firmament of the time. I knew about two famous Emils, and both were positive personalities, no matter how you saw them. One was the French writer Emile Zola. Soviet literary critics praised him for his “uncompromising criticism of bourgeois mores” in his novel Nana about a high-class prostitute and his “truthful depiction of the sufferings and struggles of the working class” in his book Germinal. The other was Emil Zátopek, an Olympic champion in long-distance running, a Czech by nationality. The Soviet newspapers wrote about his victories with much satisfaction. Though he wasn’t a Soviet athlete, he represented a “brotherly socialist state,” in which (as in the USSR) sports were a matter of his country’s honor and glory, not a “means of personal gain and profit,” as is the case with the sportsmen in the capitalist countries.

When, in the Soviet Russia editorial offices, the editor found my surname “unfitting for the newspapers,” I already knew how to make it kosher. I had to Russify it. It wasn’t something totally new. Plenty of articles written by Shapiros, Finkelsteins, Katzes, and other Jewish journalists appeared in the Soviet press, but you wouldn’t know it just by reading their pen names. For the most part, the alteration was a rather simple procedure. The Jewish-sounding surname of the author had to be eradicated without a trace. Really, what could one possibly salvage from a surname like “Finkelstein,” where each syllable screams your Jewish origin? Instead, you had to prune down your patronymic (Borisovich, Efimovich, Markovich) by discarding the possessive suffix “-ich”—and your pen name was ready. The papers and magazines were replete with pen names, like “Borisov,” “Efimov,” and “Markov.”

Some Jewish journalists also attempted to hide behind their wives’ names, a move that flattered her, and thus strengthened the writer’s marriage. This was how bylines like Sonin (from Sonia), Svetlanin (from Svetlana), and Natashin (from Natasha) appeared in the papers. (For obvious reasons, only authors with wives named “Lena” were out of luck; you couldn’t possibly sign your work as “Lenin” without raising readers’ brows…)

I guess the authors of these pen names didn’t suspect that they are following an old Jewish tradition: the surnames of some Jewish children raised without fathers were formed from their mother’s names. That was how surnames such as Khaikin (from Khaika, a diminutive of Khaia), Sorkin (from Sorka, a diminutive of Sora), and Khanin (from Khana) had appeared.

I followed the custom. I shortened my patronymic “Abramovich” and sign my article “Emil Abramov.” I thought the editor would nix my idea right there and then. Abramov! Who possibly could the bearer of such surname be, if not a Jew!

However, Protopopov didn’t mind. My article appeared in the paper the next day. Only then did I realize that there were ethnic Russian Abramovs, such as Fyodor Abramov, a well-known writer. He belonged to the new generation of Russian village-prose writers that called for the rejection of the corrupt ways of the city life, and to instead return to the moral purity of the country life.

There were also ethnic Russians with such surnames as “Moiseev” and “Davidov”. (In fact, Denis Davidov was a famous military commander during the 1812 war with Napoleon and a notable poet of Pushkin’s circle.) These surnames were given to the offspring of families of the Old Believers who gave their children names drawn from the Old Testament.

Yet, I think not one reader had any doubts about the ethnicity of “Emil Abramov.”  In the Russian consciousness, the European name Emil invariably denotes a foreigner. Thus, it was clear even to a fool that “Emil Abramov” was a made-up name that belonged to “our own foreigner,” that is, to a Jew.

However, the formality has been observed. The Party-controlled press probably had grown tired obliterating all Jewish names from its numerous publications. They needed me, as well as my Jewish comrades-in-pen, to carry out an important function: as Alexander Pushkin put it, “to burn human hearts with words.” Certainly, we journalists weren’t Pushkins. But, apparently, there weren’t enough Russian “non-Pushkins” for such a labor-intensive task.

One day, a curious incident regarding my pen name took place. Sasha Shcherbakov, head of the feuilleton department at the Komsomol Pravda, who often published my satires, told me, smiling sardonically:

“You know, Emil, the other day I got a call from one Eduard Abramov. He was asking for you.”

I mentally scanned my recent publications, but I didn’t recall any person by this name.

“Who is he?”

“He’s introduced himself as a Moscow police officer in the rank of a major.”

Naturally, I pricked up my ears. Why was a police officer interested in me? In the rank of a major to boot… As many Soviet citizens did, to be on the safe side, I usually kept my distance from any policeman, even if he was just a traffic cop….

“What did he call about?”

“Well, he wants to meet with you.”

“What the heck could Major Abramov possibly want from me?” I asked.

“Have you written anything about him?”

“Nope,” I said.

“Well,” Sasha says, “if you did write about him, and he didn’t like your criticism, he’d want to talk to me, the editor. In order to wage his objections, if he were to have one. Nothing like that…. He just wanted to have a private meeting with you.”

“Ahem… What the heck does he want out of me?”

We guessed what had seemingly taken place. From time to time, some lyrical miniatures under the same pen name as mine, “E. Abramov”, have appeared in the Moscow press. Apparently, in his free-from-police-business time, Major Abramov scribbled a bit. From time to time, in my satirical pieces, employees of the local law enforcement agencies have appeared. So, it was only logical to assume that, offended by the criticism of the central press, the police chiefs suspected Major Abramov in defaming their line of work and called him up on the carpet for explanation. Where did he find the nerve to air out the dirty police laundry in public!

It was quite possible that, in order to avoid further possible embarrassment, Major Abramov wanted to ask me to change my pen name.          

Upon reflection, I decided not to respond to the policeman’s call. If he was so concerned with his unfortunate byline, let him change it. After all, I had nowhere to retreat. By signing my work the way I did–that is, by my truncated patronymic, at least I preserved my father’s name. And I was thankful at least for that…


I appreciated how lucky I was with my pen name when, one day, at the editorial offices of the trade-union paper Labor (Trud), the head of feuilleton department, Yuri Zolotarev, a tall, balding middle-aged man, bug-eyed, with the bags under the eyes (which I later learned were caused by some kidney disease) – introduced me to another freelancer. A thin young man of medium height, trim, agile, with a quick, inquisitive look, he intensely listened to every word of his interlocutor. Despite the liveliness of his nature, he didn’t produce an impression of an easy-going guy. Melancholy of unknown origin was frozen in his big dark brown eyes. His name was Grigori Kremer.

Talking to him, I realized that his was the Muscovite version of my biography. He also graduated from a technical college (in his case, Moscow Civil Engineering Institute), and, while maintaining his job as a technical design engineer, he’s also contributed satirical pieces for the Moscow press. Just as I’ve done, he used his weekends, holidays, and vacation days to travel for his journalistic assignments. Sometimes, he took days off at his own expense and, just like me, in his spare time during his engineering business trips, he managed to check out a letter to the paper that had been written in the same city.

The man both looked Jewish and had Jewish surname, Kremer. So, it puzzled me that his pen name, “Grigori Kroshin,” wasn’t created the way most Jewish journalists made their pen names. I asked him about it.

“Well, old man,” Grigori said with a sad grin, “you’re just plain lucky with your father’s name. Everybody knows Fyodor Abramov, our remarkable village-prose author. But what could I do if my father’s name is Max, and my patronymic is Maxovich? If I were to go your way of creating my pen name, that is, circumcising my patronymic, Maxovich, what would we have? That’s right – Maxov. Have you ever heard a Russian surname “Maxov”? I bet you haven’t. There are no biblical characters in neither the Old or New Testament named Max, and that’s it! Therefore, there are no ethnic Russian Maxovs, be they the descendants either of the Old- or New Believers… So, in my case, the fig leaf of the possessive suffix ‘-ov’ wouldn’t fool anyone. But what could I do?”

“So, I had to be inventive,” Grigori continued. For a moment, his eyes sparkled with mischief. “I came up with a truly Russian pen name, ‘G. Kroshin.’ It at least allows me to keep the first two letters of my Jewish surname. It’s better than nothing, old man, isn’t it?”

I agreed. I felt lucky for being able to preserve at least the name of my father, if not my surname.

“Well, to add insult to injury,” Grigori said, “eventually I had to change my surname legally from “Kremer” to “Kroshin”. The payroll departments in various papers kept mixing up my true surname with my pen name.”

Grigori produced a strained smile:

“After all, I decided that my made-up pen name suits a satirist. The root of the name ‘Kroshin’ comes from the verb kroshit’, ‘to shred’. Aren’t we, Soviet satirists,” he gave me a knowing look and said in a mocking tone, “supposed to be equipped with crocodile-size teeth to shred those ‘isolated shortcomings that are in our way to the shining heights of communism’?… Well, I managed to preserve at least a stub of my family name. Still better than nothing. Isn’t it, old man?”

We stepped outside, onto the sidewalk of Gorky Street, and, narrowing his eyes as people do when they know their interlocutor won’t be able to answer their next question, he asks:

“Do you know, good man, where and when it all had started – forcing all Soviet journalists with Jewish surnames to use Russian-sounding pen names?”

I shrugged. It seemed to me that it had always been that way out there — the need to hide your Jewishness, especially in the Soviet press.

“Well, I’ll tell how prompted it. I bet you won’t believe it.”

He lowered his voice and almost whispered it into my ear:

“It was… Adolf Hitler. The Fuhrer of the Third Reich himself!”

I stopped in surprise:

“Don’t pull my leg, Grisha!” I said, using the nickname.

“I knew it,” he laughed in satisfaction of the effect he’s produced. Then, he continued, this time, in a serious tone:

“An old typesetter working for Pravda shared it with me one day. They were running my piece in the paper. So, I stopped by to proofread the galleys. After that, I popped by their buffet to get a bite; it was lunchtime… I sat down at a table next to an old man who turned out to be a typesetter. A puny old man, his small body thin as a dry mushroom. One thing led to another, and we chat for a while. I asked him whether he had ever typeset any of my pieces. Curiosity got the best of me. You, of all people, know very well that it’s not every day you meet a person who typesets your story by hand, line by line… So, I told him my pen name – “Kroshin”. He stared at me and snorted. Don’t pull my leg, man, he said. Judging by the way you look, if you are a Kroshin, I’m Finkelstein…. Well, I told him that he was right, that my family name was Kremer. ‘Well, that’s better,’ he blabbed out. ‘And you’re telling me– Kroshin, Kroshin… Ha!’… He waved his hand in my direction in such a slow motion that I realized that, in spite of him being on the clock he was tipsy. You know that, in any printing shop, there’s always alcohol of some kind on hand. To dilute printing ink, if needed…”

“And here he asks me whether I know when and where it all started in our Soviet land — the tradition of substituting the Jewish names of Soviet journalists to Russian-sounding pen names. He remembered it, he said, as if it were yesterday, although it all had started almost thirty years ago. He couldn’t remember the exact day, but he believed it was sometime in   September 1937. Speaking in the Reichstag, the Fuhrer waved a copy of Pravda at the podium. ‘Here,’ he shouted, ‘just look at who leads the Bolshevik propaganda, dear comrade-in-arms! All articles, one after another, are written by Jews!’

“’Well, the very next day up there,’ the typesetter said while pointing to the ceiling, ‘they dispatched a circular directive to all editorial offices around the country. The directive was to immediately replace all Jewish bylines with the Russian-sounding pen names. I remember it well because I was young then, just married, and I couldn’t wait for when my shift ended so that I could run home and hop into bed with my young wife. Here our printing shop manager runs into the shop and cries out, ‘Stop the presses! Stop the presses!’ We weren’t allowed to leave the premises before we went through the whole typeset of the morning issue and found the Jewish names, replaced them with the new ones, and reset the pages.’”

“So, Emil, “Grigori said, before we were about to part our ways. “It looks like we both are part of a historical process, aren’t we? “


Professor Emeritus at Hunter College in NYC,  Emil Draitser is a three-time recipient of the New Jersey Council on the Arts fellowships and numerous grants from the City University of New York. His work has appeared in the Partisan ReviewKenyon Review, and North American Review, as well as in the Los Angeles TimesSan Francisco Chronicle, Chicago Literati, and other periodicals. His most recent books are Shush! Growing up Jewish under Stalin and Stalin’s Romeo Spy.His forthcoming volume is titled – Farewell, Mama Odessa: Portrait of an Exodus. This article is part of his book-in-progress titled “To Laugh or Not to Laugh: Writing Soviet Satire”.

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