Both Sides of the Ocean
Robert Frost in Russia
These are two sad little books. Each deals with the travels of a writer under the auspices of his government. In 1962 Robert Frost spent two weeks in the Soviet Union. In 1960 Viktor Nekrasov, a Russian novelist, spent two weeks in the United States. Frost remarked toward the end of his trip that cultural exchange “was a good thing but that it didn’t go very far, didn’t amount to much.” Nekrasov said, “…in the two weeks I spent in America, I didn’t make friends with a single American…. When I write about Americans, about their tastes and aspirations, about their likes and dislikes, I shall be writing at second hand…. And so the portrait won’t be a very accurate one, and not a very clear one either…” Each man can be taken at his word. The airplane conduces to “instant experience”; just add jet fuel and stir.
Nekrasov would be deservedly obscure in this country by reason of his one American publication—his novel Kira Georgievna—except that Khrushchev kicked him upstairs into the company of Yevtushenko and Ehrenburg. In March 1963, the Premier reproved these three publicly for soft attitudes towards the West and for lack of devotion to the Party. Nekrasov’s sins had been committed in the present book, published in Novy Mir, which had evoked in Izvestia the comments that among other things, he was guilty of “bourgeois objectivism” and of “promoting peaceful coexistence in the field of ideology.” In June 1963, Khrushchev even hinted that Nekrasov might be expelled from the Party.
In the event, this did not happen but what were these objective sins? Here are examples. In Italy, which Nekrasov visited after America, he was unable to answer such questions as why, in a country that has sent a sputnik around the moon, people still have to stand in line for consumer goods. He is regretful that much contemporary literature and many new films are not available in the Soviet Union. He suggests that it would be good to try “cinema-verité” in Moscow or Kiev or Bratsk. “Why don’t we take a camera and a tape recorder and go out into the street, just as Jean Rouch did in Paris?” He thinks the average Italian trattoria is better than the restaurants in his native Kiev. “You go in and you don’t smell the rank, meaty odors of the kitchen…. The tablecloths are all clean, and the waitresses don’t squabble over forks and knives…” In New York he saw Negroes in his hotel and in his restaurant, and they were not ejected. He took pains to see districts other than slums wherever he went. “If that’s all you want to see when you go to a foreign country, why go at all? I am always ashamed when I see people take pleasure in the misfortunes of others.”
It is not the smallness or obviousness of some of his comments that makes the official outcry against him so depressing. One does not except from Nekrasov the heretical…
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