Russia in the Stalin years.
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An imposed censorship is mostly to blame for an almost 30 year dearth of good literature to come out of Russia known at that time as the Soviet Union. The megalomaniacal dictator Joseph Stalin and his regime intent on exercising total control over the population would arrest the likes of Isaac Babel, Osip Mandelstam amongst others --the former executed and the latter dying in a labor camp. Vladimir Mayakovsky commits suicide and a hero of the Russian revolution Maxim Gorky dies under mysterious circumstances--some believing him to have been poisoned on the orders of Stalin himself. The major part of Mikhail Bulgakov's works--probably Russia's most creative writer of the first half of the 20th century--remain in his home and unpublished until long after his death. His most famous work The master and Margarita appeared in 1966--26 years after his death. In the intervening years Anna Akhmatova and Boris Pasternak among others are also hounded by the NKVD or KGB.
World War II may bring a bit of relief but the dictatorships support is essential and apart from Mikhail Sholokov no noteworthy Russian writer or poet during these times seem to have found much real support from the regime--more often than not they found harrassment and/or imprisonment.
The ice began to thaw with the death of the dictator and the coming into power of Nikita Khrushchev. The murder of Anatoly Kuznetsov alleged (by some) at the hands of the KGB in London in 1979 might show that that thaw could at times re-freeze again and very hard. Kuznetsov's heavily censored Babi Yar was first published in the west as was Aleksandr Solzenhitsyn's One day in the life of Ivan Denisovich. The first tells the story of the German invasion during World War II into the Ukraine and the subsequent re-occupation by the Soviet forces afterwards. It is noted for it's harsh depiction of the policies and programs of both totalitarian regimes. The Babi Yar being the main killing ground of the Nazi occupiers and their demented mass murder of untold thousands--of mainly Jewish people in the ravine along a riverbank. Solzenhitsyn's book is the first real account of what it was like to be a Zek (slave laborer) in a Soviet labor camp and made of him an international figure. Later on he will pen a massive non-fiction work The Gulag Archipelago which will go into great detail about the whole network of labor camps--particularly of those above the Arctic circle.
Vasily Grossman's Life and Fate whose main character is a Soviet scientist and which centers around the siege of Stalingrad in World War II juxtaposes Stalinesque terror behind the lines against a micro-managed war at the front. Popularity with the regime often turns on unknown factors and friends and family also feel the brunt of this--a very menacing atmosphere is also apparent in Gernerations of Winter a novel by Vassily Aksyonov which is larger in scope and Tolstoyan in nature. The patriarch of the family--a renowned surgeon--Boris Gradov--is essentially apolitical. His eldest son Nikita a high ranking army officer will be arrested (his wife as well) and sent to the camps--from which he will be taken back out--re-juvenated and put in charge of an army corps when Stalin's armies prove unable to hold back the German onslaught--later on after becoming a Marshall it will become necessary for him to be killed. The younger son Kirill--an adamant communist will disappear completely but will find religion in the labor camps. In The life and extraordinary adventures of Private Ivan Chonkin a novel by Vladimir Voinivich a simple-minded soldier is given the task of standing guard over an airplane that has crash-landed in a remote village. This is more of a political satire in a Schweikian vein. Also in a satiric vein would be Venedikt Erofeev's Moscow to the end of the line--a short and often hilarious novel whose main character is gloriously drunk and regales his audience with stories of corruption centering on the moral lassitude of the state and the society it has engendered. Last and certainly not least are three books Children of the Arbat, Fear and Heavy Sands by Anatoli Rybakov--the first two are part of a set--there is a third chronicling in a Tolstoyan fashion the lives of a group of young communist intellectuals from a time frame just before World War II--it's major character being a Sasha Pankratov--an atheletically endowed intellectual who finds himself the victim of a misinformation campaign--more or less again a look inside a system of interrogations and survival in labor camps. It's very effective though and well worth reading. As for Heavy Sands I have a review posted on that recently and it focuses on German pogroms in a small Jewish village in the Southern Ukraine during World War II.
Apart from that there are two other books by Polish authors to recommend. A non-fiction work by Ryszard Kapuscinsi titled Imperium and a set of novels by W. S. Kuniczak The thousand hour day which has not a lot to do with things Russiam but its sequel The March certainly does. Both of these books like those by Aksyonov, Grossman Rybakov are epic in length and reminiscent again of War and Peace.
Now for what it's worth--these are just things that I have read and there certainly are a lot of other works out there and most probably works of equal or even better stature. I certainly haven't at the same time read some very important works by many of the authors even mentioned above--so it is a vast ocean that one can find oneself in but hopefully this will serve as a starter or a reference for some.
Wow, that is a really well written account. It's amazing (and sad) to think how many important and wonderful works the world missed out on because of these horrid events.
Thank you so much for the fine overview of the most important fiction of the period. If there are many Russian works of equal or better stature from the Stalin period, I certainly have not heard of them.
Aksyonov's mother Eugenia Ginzburg wrote a memoir called Into the whirlwind about her experience in the camps. And Aksyonov wrote a sequel to Generations of Winter.
There were, of course, many poets. Besides Gumilov who got shot, and Tsvetaeva who killed herself, there was Joseph Brodsky who escaped to America and wrote occasionally in English, before he died so young. And Czeslaw Milosz was a great Polish poet.
Well thanks very much for the nice replies. On Aksyonov I just finished his book a couple days ago and it was recommended to me by John who is also a member of this group. That was the first book of his for me and I expect I'll read him again. I'll keep in mind Ginzburg as well. Brodsky I've tried once--a series of Christmas poems which I'm not sure is all that representative of his work. Tsvetaeva I'm unfamiliar with. Milosz is a fine poet--as is another Polish nobelist Wislawa Szymborska though my favorite European poet would be Zbigniew Herbert.
#4-I only mentioned Milosz because of his having been in Poland during WWII and then participating in the politics of Poland before emigrating. Do you know the Mr. Cogito poems of Herbert? Szymborska is my favorite of the three, but I think that may be because she is a woman and her sensibility is closer to me than the others. Tsvetaeva is considered by many who know Russian to be a very great poet, along with Mandelstam, Akhmatova and Pasternak.
A long time fan of Herbert's. Yes I do have the Mr. Cogito collection. There is a new translation that came out this year of all his collected works including all his collections previously untranslated. I like Szymborska a lot as well. Other Polish writers I'd recommend would be Stanislaw Ignacy Witkiewicz--aka Witkacy, Witold Gombrowicz and Marek Hlasko, I'll have to look up Tsvetaeva.
iriley: try Zagajewski- he's younger than the others, but good. I'll have to look up Witkiewicz; I'm familiar with the others. I've loved Gombrowicz for a long time. Should we have a group for Polish writers- or eastern europe?
Excellent survey on Russian/Soviet writers, Iriley. Two others by Voinovich are The Ivankiad, a satire of Soviet bureaucracy, and Pretender to the Throne: The Further Adventures of Private Ivan Chonkin.
This gets a little away from the theme, but anything by Kapuscinski is very good.
I have an interesting edition of Babi Yar published in the UK with all the censor's deletions included in bold type so that you can see what it was that gave them fits. Some of it is understandable (from their point of view). Some of it just leaves you scratching your head.
And, in the area of coincidence, I have a book called Reading Like a Writer by Francine Prose in which she lists about ten things that should be read as soon as possible, if not earlier, and on that list is Zbigniew Herbert, Collected Poems, 1956-1998.
LRiley, a lovely post, but I have to quibble with a few things:
>An imposed censorship is mostly to blame for an almost 30 year dearth of good literature to come out of Russia known at that time as the Soviet Union.
You know, despite the censorship, the purges, the constant persecution of good writers, lack of freedom, material hardships and so on, the overall impression that I'm left with is that the Soviet Union gave rise to as much or more 'good literature' - even great literature - than many other countries did during the same period. Of course such things are not quantifiable and comparisons are juvenile, but if one is going to talk in terms of literary standards and numbers, then I would put the SU at the very forefront of 20th century literature.
I'm also not clear about why you say '30 year period' - you mention Stalin on the one hand, who did rule for around 30 years, but then mention writers who began their careers or came to prominence before Stalin's rule or well after Stalin's death. I guess you actually mean a 50 year period, from around 1920 to 1970? Forgive me for being so pedantic, but I'm just trying to clarify.
Again, a very nice post. And I think you've read more of those bulky Russian tomes than I have, despite my interest in the period and region!
I'd like to add some more names/titles for reference, if you don't mind:
Kolyma Tales, by Varlam Shalamov - disturbing stories from the Gulag, before Solzhenitsyn or the Siberian camps were even known to the general world.
Andrei Platonov - many consider him a 'greater' writer than most of the other Soviets.
Mikhail Zoshchenko - short story writer, primarily a satirist, very popular in the Soviet Union
Konstantin Fedin - heard of him, but haven't read anything by him yet.
Boris Pilnyak - another major writer that was killed during the purges.
Andrei Bely - famous for his experimental, lyrical work St. Petersburg, which predated Ulysses by several years.
Yuri Olyesha - satirist, children's authors, best known for The Three Fat Men: A novel for children and Envy.
Ilya Ilf and Evgeny Petrov - brilliant comic satirists, famous for The Twelve Chairs.
Valentin Kataev - Petrov's brother; both a satirist and a 'serious' writer, but I haven't read anything by him yet.
Yury Dombrovsky, known for his The Faculty of Useless Knowledge which I have yet to own or read but am looking forward to.
Yuri Trifonov - one of the few major Soviet writers to stay in the SU.
Andrei Sinyavsky, who also wrote as Abram Tertz - also a Gulag survivor, he later emigrated to France.
Gladkov is famous for Cement but I've never been very interested in the book. Maybe some day.
Lydia Chukovskaya - close friend of Akhmatova, best known for Sofia Petrovna
Andrei Bitov, best known for Pushkin House.
Konstantin Paustovsky - most famous for his six-volume Story of a Life (the most common edition published by Pantheon, now out of print I think, only contains three of the volumes), he was nominated for the Nobel in '65, but the Soviets pressured the Academy to give the prize to Sholokhov because the latter's writing was closer to official ideology.
The highly controversial Ilya Ehrenburg, who was a Soviet propagandist and celebrated writer on the one hand, and a risk-taking critic of the Soviet Union and its culture on the other.
Daniil Kharms - another avant-garde writer who died during the purges, in a prison hospital.
There are two Erofeevs by the way, Venedikt and Viktor Erofeev.
The (experimental, for the most part) poets Alexander Blok, Sergei Esenin, Alexander Vvedensky, Nikolay Gumilyov, Valery Bryusov (also a novelist), and Velimir Khlebnikov.
I've never seen the work of Olga Berggolts around, unfortunately, but she was another well-known poet in the Soviet era.
And one of my favourites, Evgeny Zamyatin, author of We, a science-fiction dystopia written before Huxley or Orwell. Like Ivan Bunin, the first Russian Nobel Laureate, and Kuprin he was exiled from the Soviet Union. Vladimir Nabokov and Nina Berberova were also born in the Soviet Union but left due to the Revolution.
Fyodor Sologub was an older writer, older than Bunin, but he died in 1927, well after the SU was formed.
Gennadi Aygi is a little known but highly regarded poet who has been nominated for the Nobel Prize.
One musn't forget the incredibly influential literary critics D. S. Mirsky, Mikhail Bakhtin and Viktor Shklovsky (also a writer), the former having been killed during the Purges after his return from England, the latter two having produced brilliant work under very difficult conditions.
I'm sure there are others I'm forgetting (I'm not too fond of the poets Yevtushenko and Voznesensky) but my fingers are tired of typing!
Wow. This is a fabulous overview of Russian novelists, lriley, with worthy additions from the rest of you. I have added The Master and Margarita to my reading list. There are enough novelists listed here to begin getting a sense of the variety of styles, from the grimly serious (Solzenhitsyn, etc.) to the humorous (Erofeev, etc.).
Fantastic Iriley, what a great overview! and thanks for the additions, Existanai. I had no idea so many Russian writers of this period are now available in English.
One of the things I have always admired about the Russians of the Soviet period is that in spite of the terrible conditions of life under Stalin (or because of them?) Russians of all classes had an almost holy reverence for their literature, and especially their poets. The existance of a large underground samizdat, created and circulated at great peril testifies to this. So does the way many Russians learnt banned poetry by heart. Nadezhda Mandelstam in her biography of her husband, Hope against Hope describes how she would spend her nights memorizing her husband's poems, thus preserving them, because it was simply too dangerous to write them down.
I can't think of any other Western country in the 20th century that had a comparable respect and devotion for literature.
On Solzhenitsyn's return to Russia, one of the things he bemoaned was the gradual death of this attitude towards literature, which he put down to the growing commercialism and materialism of Russian life after the Soviet system collapsed.
Btw, Shostakovich's 13 symphony is an oratorio set to Yevtushenko's poem Babi Yar. IMO it's his greatest work, and for any lover of 20 century Russian literature and music, it's a must listen to.
You're welcome, tomcatMurr. I'm not sure that Russia was the only country in which such a love of literature thrived, and it may not have been quite as popular as some like to remember it, but I do think that the Russians are much more prolific readers, generally speaking, than almost any other nation (and that is true even today, to some extent, despite Solzhenitsyn's complaint, which I also agree with completely, and which will probably be borne out by the next generation or so); all the more ironic, then, that they've had to deal with so much cruelty and stupidity. You're absolutely right about Mandelshtam, Akhmatova, etc. of course - Hope Against Hope is one of the most moving books I've read.
I should confess that the initial statements made leading into the topic were more of the generalized nature--a kind of how to begin and accuracy may have taken a back seat so as I could get the subject into motion. I'm more of the enthusiast than an expert on Russian or Eastern European literature anyway. Going down Existanai's list is quite amazing. A note on some of those. I have a book of short stories by Zoschenko which I haven't read but will probably read soon. Bely's St. Petersburg comes from the pre-communist era. I've also read Zamiatin's We and Dombrovsky's Faculty of useless knowledge and also Voznesensky and Yevtushenko at least a couple times each. Nabokov I've read many times--not all that much of that however with the exception of Bend Sinister seems to focus on the Russian communist regime although I'm aware he was very anti-Soviet. Now it may be I've not read the right ones. I also have books by Velimir Khlebnikov and Gladkov. It's a big subject and trying to find your way around it is kind of like trying to wrestle a bear. Basically rather than comparing one book to another I was trying to fit some of my past reading material into a kind of theme and I am more or less happy with how it turned out but it might lack a bit in objectivity and accuracy now and again. In any case that list is quite amazing and I'll have to add some of those names to authors to look out for.
It is easy to talk about the oppression of the Soviet era but in reality, this was just a (harsher) continuation of the oppression of the Tsarist era. (It is interesting given this history, that the Russians seem happier with less democratic govt than their former satellite countries). We concentrate on the Soviet era due to it's international importance but for the majority of Russians there was not much a change in their living standards, if anything they went up! It is interesting how many Russian writers see 'struggling' as a key part of the Russian psyche. It is almost as if the struggle makes them unique, makes them Russian.
There is a great deal of difference in the oppression of the Soviet era and the oppression under the czar. I don't have statistics on the number of people sent to Siberia, but I do know that the lot of the peasants was horrible under both regimes, especially after the revolution during forced collectivization. But after a while, the lower classes began to reap benefits like education, industrial jobs, medical care, housing, vacations, entertainments etc. The upper classes were deprived of a great deal of their property, all of their prestige, and the hierarchy of the czar's civil service was no longer their route to success. The life of the prosperous landowners, the respected intelligentsia, and the civil servants was totally wiped out. If you had been a bourgeois, heaven help you. The most gifted in the society emigrated right after the revolution with few exceptions like Akhmatova. And the civil war between the Whites and the Reds took a lot of lives and caused a lot of suffering. Can you say that the crimes of the NKVD and the KGB were just as bad as the oppression under the czar? My guess is that they were worse, but I can't prove it.
Lriley, I feel bad about my trivial pedantry now, as I didn't really mean to correct but was wondering whether you wanted to stick to the Stalinist era or expand a little beyond it. And yes, Bely and some of the others on my list wrote their major works after the Revolution, but I was trying to pick writers who died after 1920 and hence saw and were affected by something of the Civil War, the Soviet regime, etc. I'm hardly an expert however, though I've lived in Russia, and my list is a complement to yours because these are equally important writers whom one encounters sooner or later if one is interested in Russian literature - they are not obscure figures.
>jargoneer: It is easy to talk about the oppression of the Soviet era but in reality, this was just a (harsher) continuation of the oppression of the Tsarist era. (It is interesting given this history, that the Russians seem happier with less democratic govt than their former satellite countries). We concentrate on the Soviet era due to it's international importance but for the majority of Russians there was not much a change in their living standards, if anything they went up! It is interesting how many Russian writers see 'struggling' as a key part of the Russian psyche. It is almost as if the struggle makes them unique, makes them Russian.
Jargoneer, I have to done my pedant hat again. Apologies in advance, but you should be disabused of some of your notions immediately because they are very common stereotypes and badly distort all potential attempts at understanding the country. Like all stereotypes, they have a small kernel of truth to them, which I'll try to get to in a moment, but they're so caricaturistic that they oversimplify and offend far, far more than they reveal!
It is true that there was a great deal of oppression and suffering in the Tsarist era. Whether Soviet oppression was just an appendage to it or a whole new beast is debatable; although I lean towards the former view myself, it's a bit on the metaphysical side, and it's necessary to point out that it was hardly a continuous, smooth process, with one easing into the place of the other - rather, there were periods of struggle and anarchy, a whole new bunch of people were employed, with different ideas and motivations, the justifications were different and the systematization of the oppression was of a very different and much more severe scale, ramped up primarily by Stalin and de-escalating greatly after him, though it always continued to some extent, with an increase or decrease in severity depending on the administration.
Also, there was tremendous change in the living standards! Being the largest country in the world, there was of course regional variation at all times, but you can roughly put it this way: extreme suffering and harsh conditions after the Revolution and during the Civil War (famine, food shortages, housing shortages, etc.), followed by a brief period of economic stability and growth, during which living standards - which went down drastically during the First World War and the Revolution - didn't really go up but become more 'settled'. This general state of affairs more or less continued till the Second World War when things got worse again. There was stability, regrowth, etc. following the Second World War, peaking around the 60s and 70s, after which there was instability again, leading finally to the collapse of the Soviet Union etc.
It's true that a surprisingly large number of Russians will always repeat the 'Strong Hand' slogan (Russia is a difficult country to manage, and it needs a 'strong hand' in power) and I've always found it disturbing that so many appear to prefer autocracy to democracy (which they haven't yet achieved and probably won't in the near future, barring sudden changes) but that doesn't make them representative of Russia. Firstly, it's not really true that they yearn for autocracy - they simply miss or want periods of time in which their lives are unaffected by political events, and whoever can promise such an ideal becomes popular, regardless of the unofficial state of affairs. Secondly, you might be surprised to learn many Russians are disgusted by their governments and aspects of their history, and of course some have fought actively to change matters, but such people are not always visible. To pick a really weak and potentially misleading analogy, it is a bit like Liberals in the US trying very hard to educate the right-wingers about the country's crimes of the past and the present. They often fail due to the latter's refusal to see past parochial and patriotic beliefs, but that doesn't mean a right-winger is necessarily a good representative of the US.
And I don't really believe that many writers see 'struggle' as part of the Russian psyche! Struggle is one strong component of it, partly because it is inevitable that a country that has witnessed so much tragedy will attempt to deal with it in its literature, partly because it was emphasized by 19th century writers like Dostoevsky who form our idea of 'Russian literature', and partly because the 'struggle' for a new country, a new man, was part of the official ideology in Soviet literature, but if you look past these general points you find an immense intellectual and emotional kaleidoscope - what is often ignored in Russian literature is the tremendous, constant innovation and breadth that is not paralleled in many other literatures except perhaps France, Austro-Hungary etc. In fact, popular fare in Russia can be as light, silly and tasteless as that anywhere else in the world, and its audience hardly rarely sees the world or themselves through the lenses of any serious issues.
Sorry, almigwin, I saw your post only now.
>The most gifted in the society emigrated right after the revolution
Though most of what you say is true, I'd like to take exception here and point out that a great many gifted people supported and stayed after the Revolution. Unfortunately their vision did not coincide with that of tyrants like Stalin and they were sooner or later expelled, persecuted or killed as well.
>Can you say that the crimes of the NKVD and the KGB were just as bad as the oppression under the czar? My guess is that they were worse, but I can't prove it.
Rather than 'more' or 'less' in such debates, they key word is actually 'different'. There were many atrocities under the Tsars, but as in any history, such things were cyclical, arbitrary, extreme in some places and circumstances and mild in others. Clearly, the middle classes and the well-to-do under the Tsar were as comfortable in Russia or more so than in other Western countries, but there were two important qualifications - there was little freedom of speech, and Russia had a much greater problem with poverty than other Western countries, and when we pay attention to groups affected by the latter two points, one's idea of Russia changes. That was the purported premise of the Revolution, after all. On the other hand, the Stalinist terror was quite unlike anything before or after in scope, enforcement, etc. Millions were killed and many more had their lives ruined by Stalin or Stalinist measures, and although it was quite arbitrary in its choice of victims, it was very systematic in its procedure and immense in scale. But the Stalinist system, although long and harsh and influential, was hardly retained by later generations.
No reason to feel bad Existanai--my remarks were just meant to explain what was going in my head when I was writing it. Sometimes those first couple sentences to get something moving are difficult for me--I think for others as well. In any case I have no problem with you broadening it out and I think a lot of other people here (including myself) saw that in a positive light. The fact is I thought of including a couple other writers including Dombrovsky--but his book had become vague and I think I felt as if I were petering out by the time I got to Rybakov--who is a writer I very much admire.
I should say also to almigwin I also thought of mentioning Zagajewski as he is quite a good poet himself--a winner of the Neustadt prize and I have a large collection of his work called Without end.
I could write an entire essay about this and a look at my library will reveal my extensive interest in Russian history. But I think the oppression under Stalin, who was head of a totalitarian system that sought to control all aspects of its citizen's lives, was in a whole different league from that under the Tsars, who were autocrats who wanted to hang onto their power, but did not seek that day to day control. As I say, I could write an essay, but will just make two points: Stalinism showed a cavalier disregard for human life on a vast scale as demonstrated by huge slave labour projects such as Belomor, for which there are no real Tsarist equivalents (unless perhaps you go back to Peter the Great's construction of St Petersburg), as well as the mass deportations of the kulaks and the Caucasian nationalities under appalling conditions. And if you look at the fate of political prisoners, Lenin's comrades who remained within Russia had comparatively easy lives in exile and in some cases escaped repeatedly and were sent back without any serious worsening of their conditions of exile; whereas under Stalin, you could get ten years in a far worse Gulag camp for saying a joke about Stalin, or even for being related to someone convicted of a political "offence" (wife or member of the family of an enemy of the people). None of this is to deny the genuine suffering and deprivation of liberty under the Tsars, but the oppression of the human spirit and human lives under Stalinism must I think be judged as worse under any reasonable criteria.
Absolutely, John. I only wished to mention that what was true of Stalinism was not true of the entire history of the SU, and that it's not as simple as comparing pre-Revolution times with post-Revolution times.
#19 Thank you for completing the argument I was trying and apparently failing to make. The deportations, exiles, slave labor, spying and murders under Stalin have only been outdone by Hitler. I thank my lucky stars that my grandparents got here before the revolution, or we would all be in the ditch in Babi Yar with whatever relatives we had left there.
Sorry, I wasn't saying that the repression was the same under the Tsars and Stalin in particular but just making a general point about Russia, democracy and ordinary lives. It is obvious that the dangers of life under Stalin were greater (#19 by numbers alone Stalin easily outdoes Hitler, although Pol Pot probably does deserve a special mention here for killing a quarter of the Cambodian population, for crimes like being a doctor, wearing glasses, etc).
It was interesting that after the breakup of the CIS many Russians bemoaned the lack of a strong leader. You would see interviews of old people on the news talking positively about Stalin. Obviously, this was probably due to the nosedive living standards initially took but there does seem to be part of the Russian psyche that needs a strong leader, a strong Russia. (But is this any different than the US?). Which is probably why Putin is popular - he represents the people against the new capitalist exploiters. This is not to say that there isn't any criticism of Putin, there is plenty, although being openly critical has resulted in a few 'murders'/'accidents' recently.
It is interesting that the most famous writers at present are not novelists or poets but reporters, who literally take their lives in their hands to criticise Putin's government. See Anna Politkovskaya who was shot in October last year and who wrote beforehand - 'Some time ago Vladislav Surkov, deputy head of the presidential administration, explained that there were people who were enemies but whom you could talk sense into, and there were incorrigible enemies to whom you couldn't and who simply needed to be "cleansed" from the political arena. So they are trying to cleanse it of me and others like me.'
Will we see another flow of dissident writing from Russia? Another wave of artists having to leave Russian?
Yes, Anna Politkovskaya's murder was very depressing. One of the few brave people who was reliable and known to the public. You will not find her books in any Moscow bookstores, however.
>Will we see another flow of dissident writing from Russia?
Likely not. As in any other country with large income disparities (the US, many Third World countries, etc.) the affluent class like to portray themselves or be portrayed as representative of the country, and the mindset is increasingly that of the average Westerner, in which one is too sated with mass culture, too apathetic about the marginalized, too self-centred to care for much besides one's career, family and so on. In brief, dissidence mattered because literature and expression in an era without much freedom mattered, but when you don't know or don't care much for such things, then dissidence becomes largely irrelevant or somewhat unusual, seen as the domain of activists, subversives, crazies and so on.
I agree with John (message 19) about the judgement on Stalin versus the Tsars. Interestingly, I have just finished reading Nabokov Speak Memory, which is a wonderful book with truly amazing writing, and Nabokov has some views on this very question. He came from a very privileged stratum of society so some might say that his view is skewed, but I think he was also a shrewd observer. This is Nabokov:
"Under the Czars, despite the fundamentally inept and ferocious character of their rule, a freedom-loving Russian had had imcomparably more means of expressing himself, andused to run incomparably less risk in doing so, than under Lenin. Since the reforms of the eighteen sixties, the country had possessed a legislation of which any Western democracy might have been proud, a vigorous public opinon that held despots at bay, widely read periodicals of all shades of liberal political thought, and what was especially striking, fearless and independent judges. When revolutionaries did get caught, banishment Tomsk or Omsk was a restful vacation in comparison to the concentration camps that Lenin introduced. Polticial exiles escaped from Siberia with farcical ease, witness the famous flight of Trotski...merrily riding back in a Yuletide sleigh drawn by reindeer."
I think one of the great risks of pursuing idealistic goals through the use of violence is the feeling of certainty in one's own rightness which gives the reformers the feeling that any means are justified in working toward the achievement of their ideals. One might compare, also, the history and literature of the French Revolution and of the Inquisition period in medieval Europe (which Dostoevsky refers to very specifically in Ivan's famous speech in The Brothers Karamazov). And, dare I say it, the American Revolution - which did not result in the repression of individual rights in general, because of the foresightedness of Thomas Jefferson and others who added the Bill of Rights to the Constitution. But the U.S. has been through its episodes of violent repression, during the persecution of Native Americans and the turmoil over slavery and the Civil War. One might also compare the current conflict in Iraq, which has not produced much fiction yet, but a huge amount of nonfiction, both pro-war and con.
This is a really interesting thread, which I would love to see developed further with more in-depth comparisons of specific books.
Your comment about indealistic goals and the use of violence brought to mind a great quote from Witold Bombrowicz:
"...but these theories which drift across the sky become ridiculous, blind, ignoble, bloody, vain. Gentle ideas are pregnant with mountains of corpses."
#25, 26 autocracies, fascist dictators, demagogues and religious zealots also produced mountains of corpses. The Ghandi salt march approach doesn't work with madmen. No one would have had to write about "the gas ladies and gentlemen" if Hitler had been stopped sooner. Would anyone here think it better not to have fought WWII?. Sometimes it is a question of which mountain of corpses is going to be the biggest.
#25One might also compare the current conflict in Iraq, which has not produced much fiction yet, but a huge amount of nonfiction, both pro-war and con.
Margad, I beg to disagree. The war in Iraq has produced lots of fiction, huge stinking, steaming heaps of it in fact. Weapons of mass destruction? The Iraquis want us there? We're winning? Most official statements from the US and UK governments about the war are fiction; most of what the craven and puerile media are reporting is fiction too.
Very much agree on #28--it always seemed to me that the invasion and leadup to it in 2003 was scripted beforehand only it got away from the script almost from the beginning. It's like they've written an ending but can't quite seem to find a formula to get to it.
Great quote from Gombrowicz on #26 also. Witold was lucky in a way being exiled in Argentina during World War II and missing out also of the Iron Curtain years in his native Poland. One subject not really touched on above is the spillover effect of Stalin's regime after World War II on the other countries of the Soviet bloc and how it likewise would effect their literature--their cultures.
WWII and 9/11 are the two reasons I haven't considered myself a pacifist for many years, though I am constantly reconsidering. I read somewhere recently that Gandhi himself was not, in fact, a pacifist and believed there were circumstances under which war was quite justified. But in his time and place, the salt march approach was the most effective - the British had the weapons and the Indian lower classes did not. Regarding WWII, Hitler started the war. Neither the British nor the U.S. became involved (rightly or wrongly) before being attacked, the British by Germany and the U.S. by Japan.
I see your point, tomcat, but I did mean literature - beautiful prose about unbeautiful events, thoughtful writing that encourages deeper thought.
I like the quote from Witold Brombowicz - beautiful prose about unbeautiful events. Do you remember what book, John?
I wonder if it's right for writing about war to be beautiful?
Having recently finished the gossipy and informative Stalin: The Court of the Red Tsar by Simon Sebag Montefiore, I thought that Isaac Deutscher's classic and still magisterial political biography on Trotsky would be a good bookend. I'm half-way through The Prophet Armed -a very curious book to read nearly two decades after the collapse of the USSR and the Soviet Bloc! From intellect to horror to Zizek...
The Bombrowicz quote was from a piece he wrote in the NY Review of Books (April/1988).
Thanks for giving us the correct spelling for Gombrowicz. It's good to have the touchstone - evidently he's written quite a few books.
I was trying to think of Hannah Arendt's name yesterday while I was posting. I haven't read any of her books yet, but she is so often quoted and referenced that her ideas (one hopes, accurately) have become common knowledge.
Kencf, I hope you'll do a comparison review for us when you've finished Deutscher's book. It would be interesting to consider how Russia might have developed differently if Trosky rather than Lenin (and later Stalin) had ended up in the ascendant. Perhaps considerably, or perhaps not at all?
I am going to reread Dickens' A Tale of Two Cities and Pasternak's Doctor Zhivago. It occurred to me these would make interesting comparisons. I have read both, but too many years ago to compare them effectively. On my way home, I read the first chapter of Tale of Two Cities, and was impressed by how much I had forgotten. We always hear the opening line, "It was the best of times; it was the worst of times ..." which is indeed a brilliant opening. But the point he is making in Chapter 1 is that the time he was writing about, just before the outbreak of the French Revolution, was essentially just like the time he was living in. It had never before struck me that A Tale of Two Cities was specifically intended as a warning to Dickens' readership - that they had better solve the problems of endemic poverty and its attendant violence or a similar revolution with a similarly brutal aftermath could break out in the England of Dickens' time.
I'm only halfway through The Prophet Armed, which itself ends in 1921; Trotsky was out on his ear only a few years later. (The trilogy goes Armed 1879-1921, Unarmed 1921-1929, Outcast 1929-1940.) Even while he was in New York City for just over two months (!) in 1917, Trotsky fully expected the proletarian revolution to be uneven but worldwide -but he always, always included Germany. He went on to take a leading role in the Bolshevik coup d'état;, to establish the Red Army and win the Russian Civil War (and invade Poland to boot), but Stalin went on to assiduously patronize and cultivate the middle cadres, so ultimately he controlled the state-party apparatus and purged everyone and their dog. Any post-Tsar Russia whatsoever would have had to massively industrialize in any case, whoever was in charge and by whatever ideology, and it all would have been terribly wrenching... but was the Great Purge/Terror really necessary? I think not.
I think that a more interesting and far more nuanced what-if would be this: Leon Trotsky (1879-1955). Hey, Kerensky made it to 1970!
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