Witch Hunt

On Trial: The Soviet State versus "Abram Tertz" and "Nikolai Arshak"

translated, edited, and with an Introduction by Max Hayward
Harper & Row, 183 pp., $4.95

Yuli Daniel
Yuli Daniel; drawing by David Levine

In 1960 two English translations from the Russian, an essay and a novel, roused speculation in the West about the identity of their author, who called himself “Abram Tertz.” The essay, “On Socialist Realism,” was a brilliant analysis that showed up the absurdities of the official doctrine; the novel, The Trial Begins, was a satiric fantasy, clearly based on the notorious “Doctors’ Plot” of 1952. These were followed in 1963 by a collection of stories, Fantastic Stories, and in 1965 by another novel, The Makepeace Experiment. In 1962 a short story, “This Is Moscow Speaking,” appeared under another pseudonym. “Nikolai Arzhak.” All these works were marked by a lightness of touch, a sharp intelligence, a bright, satiric wit, a creative fancy which one had learned not to expect from the USSR. They were said to have been smuggled out. What, then, was going on behind the Iron Curtain? Either the whole thing was a hoax, or else the exposure of Stalinist frame-ups and the campaign against the Cult of Personality were having a salutary effect on thought and art, for although the works in question could hardly be called anti-Soviet or anti-Communist, they did display unusual detachment and a capacity to penetrate below the surface to the ethical meaning, the broadly human significance, of events and doctrinal assumptions. Was it becoming possible for Russians to see their country in a critical light? Of course, with the Pasternak episode still fresh in mind and the more recent fuss about Evtushenko’s Prococious Autobiography, one hoped that the identity of “Tertz” and “Arzhak” would remain a secret for as long as this was necessary to save them from persecution.

Then, in January 1965, the news came out: “Abram Tertz” and “Nikolai Arzhak” had been found out: “Tertz” was Andrei Sinyavsky, a well-known literary critic, who had published in Novyi Mir, the most distinguished literary journal in Russia, articles on several “proscribed” artists: Pasternak, Mandelshtam, Babel, and others. All of them were dead. And although a much publicized photograph showed him as a pallbearer at Pasternak’s funeral, this did not mean, Sinyavsky implied in his trial, that he had been a close friend of Pasternak. He had written, he said, about him and the others because he “wanted to,” because he “loved [them] as a human being and as a writer,” and some of them had doubtless influenced his work as “Abram Tertz.” Already after his arrest, his brilliant and scholarly essay on Pasternak was published as the introduction to the fullest edition of Pasternak’s poetry to have come out in Russia so far; significantly, it contained a preface by the Editorial Committee of the series in which it appeared, “Bibliotheka Poeta,” pointing out the ideological flaws of this “powerful and original” poet, who, they said, had a “legitimate” place in “the history of Soviet poetry,” although his philosophic tendency diminished his greatness. “Arzhak” was the…

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