New article out: the Letters of Münevver Andaç to Nâzım Hikmet

Friday, May 8, 2020

Münevver Andaç
A new article of mine has been published. It discusses a series of about 500 letters--housed in archives located in Moscow and Istanbul, respectively. The letters were written to the Turkish poet Nâzım Hikmet, who was living in Moscow at the time, by his fourth (apparently common-law) wife Münevver Andaç, who was then still in Istanbul. Scroll down to the bottom of this post if you're interested in gaining access to the article. First, however, I'll tell you the story of how I came to work with these letters.  

The story begins in February of 2017, when I headed out to Moscow's Russian State Archive of Literature and Art (RGALI) for the first time. I was hoping to work with Nâzım Hikmet's personal papers as part of the book about him that I had begun to research. Looking at the information on the archive website, there was clearly a lot of interesting material in these files, including a collection of approximately 400 letters written to Nâzım by Münevver.  

External view of RGALI
At the archive, however, I'd been told that, in order to work with files I wanted to read, I'd first need to obtain permission from Nâzım's family--something that I didn't quite understand, because Nâzım's only son--who was well-known for resisting all interviews about his father--was then living in France. Was this the person that I was supposed to write? The director of RGALI's reading room gave me the email address--it provided no indication of the name of the person on the other end--of a "family representative," and told me to send a message asking to work with the documents.  

I wasn't very optimistic. None of the materials from RGALI had ever been used in the more than 100 biographies that had been written about Nâzım, so why should the situation be any different with me? It wasn't the end of the world, I reasoned. I had already found a wealth of new information about Nâzım in the other archives where I had been researching in Moscow. There were also a few non-restricted items related to Nâzım at RGALI, so I figured I'd just work with them. 

The view from Kolomenskaia
Back in my apartment in Kolomenskaia that evening, I duly sent off a message asking for permission. I then headed out to Alex Fitness across the street, and largely forgot about the matter--a post-workout stint in the banya will do that to you. Returning to my apartment later that evening, however, I was surprised to find a response to my message. And not only had I been given permission to work with the restricted materials, but also-- somewhat cryptically--the family representative responding to me mentioned that "soon we'll be meeting up for dinner." 

To be honest, I assumed that some sort of mistake had been made. Accordingly, I immediately forwarded the message to the archive director, then got up first thing in the morning the next day to start working with the files before anyone discovered the error. It turned out, however, that the family representative--who was the daughter (by a previous marriage) of Nâzım's fifth wife and widow, Vera Tulyakova (who passed away in the early 2000s)--knew the person to whom she was giving permission. It had not been a mistake, after all. Rather, some friends of mine had just done me an enormous favor. 

Nâzım Hikmet in Moscow, with
Vera Tulyakova to his right.
The previous Thanksgiving, I had gone to a wonderful dinner party at the home of some friends I'd met during the course of  Fulbright-related work I had done earlier in the fall. During the course of the evening, my friends had mentioned that they had a friend in common with Tulyakova's daughter. By the time I had gotten around to working at RGALI, however, a few months had already passed, and it hadn't occurred to me that she would end up being the "family representative" in charge of giving me permission. Without my knowledge, moreover, my friends had contacted the daughter a couple of weeks before I made my initial queries at RGALI, and were at that moment in the process of setting up a dinner involving all of us at the home of their mutual friend. (This was without question one of the most memorable nights I would experience that year in Moscow--but that's a story for another time). 

Nâzım and Münevver
following his release
from prison.  
The rest, as they say, is history (or, at least, historiography). I spent the next few months researching primarily at RGALI, working with a variety of personal and business papers of Nâzım from the final years of his life. While I wasn't allowed to take photographs of any of these documents, I was given permission to read anything I wanted and take notes on my computer. The restricted materials at RGALI contained lots of interesting documents: business contracts, photos, manuscripts, and letters--hundreds of letters from fans, writers, fellow Turks living in the Eastern Bloc, and many others. More than anything else, however, I devoted my time to reading through the letters that were sent to Nâzım by Münevver Andaç ("On-dach")

Fifteen years younger than Nâzım, Münevver had been raised in France. Her mother was French and her father was Turkish. Münevver's father also happened to be Nâzım's uncle, making Nâzım her first cousin. Münevver and Nâzım had first met in the 1930s, after she had come to Turkey from France and Nâzım had returned to Istanbul from the USSR, where he had lived for over six years in the 1920s. Much later, in the late 1940s, their relationship would be rekindled when Nâzım was in prison, where he was serving out a lengthy sentence resulting from trumped-up charges of having attempted to instigate a mutiny in the Turkish army and navy. 

1951 Chris-Craft motorboat similar to
the one Nâzım would use to escape 

from Turkey in 1951
Nâzım would eventually be released from jail in the summer of 1950, only to be told a few months later that--at the age of 49--he was being conscripted into the Turkish army for a period of three years. Convinced that he would never survive the period of his military service, Nâzım escaped from Turkey on a motorboat in June of 1951. Making his way to Romania, Nâzım traveled to Moscow, which would remain Nâzım's home base until his death in 1963. He traveled alone, leaving his wife and newborn son behind. 

For four years, Nâzım and Münevver were not able to correspond regularly with one another, as the Turkish government had prohibited anyone in Turkey, including his family, from communicating with him. Then, in March of 1955, the Turkish government gave Nâzım and Münevver permission to write letters to one another, which they continued to do until October of 1960. The files that I worked with at RGALI contained Münevver's letters to Nâzım from March of 1955 until May of 1959. 

Fragment of one of the two original
letters in the Aziz Nesin collection.
There's another part to this story: several months later, when I was researching in Istanbul, I found a separate cache of Münevver's letters to Nâzım, written between December of 1959 and October of 1960. Unlike the letters which I had read in Moscow, the Istanbul letters--located at the archive of the Aziz Nesin Vakfı in Çatalca--are copies. According to the staff in Çatalca, the Turkish writer Aziz Nesin had visited Moscow in the mid-1960s and had, apparently, been given permission to look at the letters by Vera Tulyakova.  

Aziz Nesin
Aziz Nesin, it seems, then copied out about 90 of these letters by hand. These copies, unlike the originals, are written in the Arabic script, which Aziz Nesin (and many other Turks of his generation) employed in his personal correspondence and notes. Alongside these copies were two original letters, included perhaps as a means of better establishing the legitimacy of the copies. While there are a handful of biographers who have referred to a few of the Istanbul letters, the fact that they were produced in handwritten Arabic-script appears to have discouraged most of Nâzım's biographers from working with them very closely. 

Fragment from one of Aziz Nesin's 
Arabic-script copies
The article that I've written is based upon both sets of letters. As Nâzım's side of the correspondence has been lost, the correspondence that I write about is a one-sided story, but one that still provides insights into the lives of both Nâzım and Münevver. Nâzım's years in the USSR (1922-28 and 1951-63) are not well-known. As I argue in this article, Münevver's letters provide "echoes" of Nâzım's words and actions. Even if we don't have Nâzım's side of the correspondence, we do have Münevver's reactions and responses to what Nâzım said and did

These letters also tell us quite a bit about Münevver Andaç, who was a fascinating figure in her own right. An understudied figure in the history of Turkish literature, Münevver was not only one of the most important translators (into French) of Nâzım Hikmet, but also of Yaşar Kemal and Orhan Pamuk, who won the Nobel Prize for literature in 2006. Münevver, who would herself escape from Turkey on a motorboat in 1961, would end up outliving Nâzım by 35 years, passing away in France in 1998. 

Münevver's life in Istanbul was hard. As had been the case with Nâzım prior to his escape from Turkey in 1951, Turkish authorities had refused to give Münevver a foreign passport. She was stranded in a country where--by virtue of the fact that Münevver was the wife of Turkey's Public Enemy # 1--she was harassed by the police, who were constantly parked in a jeep across the street from her house and followed  Münevver wherever she went. For this reason, she had relatively few visitors--who wanted to hang out with someone who was constantly trailed by the cops?--and unable to gain steady employment outside the home (where she worked as a translator). Her life had become a form of house arrest. 

Is that something which any of you can relate to right now?  

If you want to read about
the porosity of the
Russian-Ottoman border...
What I find particularly poignant about Münevver's story today is the degree to which she, like Nâzım, had been stranded in Turkey. The two of them lived in a time of closing doors. Whereas in the final half-century of the late imperial era the Ottoman-Russian frontier had been quite porous, from the 1930s until the early 1990s crossing the Turkish-Soviet border was a much more complicated and difficult process. The drama of Münevver and Nâzım's lives, in some ways, was most keenly expressed in the inability of these two erstwhile border-crossers to leave Turkey legally. For years, each of them--in their own way--had been trapped inside. 

Nâzım and his generation had come of age during this time of relatively open borders. He took advantage of this opportunity in the 1920s by traveling and working in the USSR for almost seven years. Much of Nâzım life story, moreover, was dominated by the theme of being trapped on one side of the Iron Curtain or the other. While Münevver's story is less well-known, in many ways it is a very similar one.

Even though I first started writing this article many months ago, its message struck a special chord with me while I was going over the final proofs during the first weeks of Montana's shelter-in-place directive--and not only in the simpler way, discussed above, of Münevver living under a kind of house arrest. What if, in a broader sense, we are also living in an era of closing doors? I wonder to what degree those of us who came of age in the 90s--a generation that grew up with walls, then was suddenly liberated of them--will respond to this new reality. In the US and Europe, borders have been shut down, ostensibly on a temporary basis, but it is unclear whether or not they will ever re-open to the same degree. 

Will the closing of previously-open doors become the theme of our generation, too?  
The article is called "Echoes Across the Black Sea: the Letters of Münevver Andaç to Nâzım Hikmet." Both the HTML and the pdf versions of the article can be found here. If you find the Münevver article interesting, you might also want to check out a previous article I published on Nâzım, which draws upon a different set of archival materials from Moscow.  

Are you a Turk across empires? Order a copy today, then get another one for your library.


More commentary, photos, and links can be found at the Borderlands Lounge..  


  1. Really interesting article, Jim. Thanks for sharing it. I didn't know anything about Ms Andaç. Or Aziz Nesin's use of Arabic script.