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 purity of Pasternak, the classic radicalism of Trotsky. On the other hand, neither are all his comments petty; the strictures in the Soviet Union on Kafka and Camus, on Antonioni and Bergman, are—at their varying levels—important. What is depressing, because of its implications, is the caprice of Soviet policy towards artists and intellectuals. The Nekrasov controversy increases our sense of a government that foresees a growing enforced alliance with an archenemy and that wants to make the alliance possible without losing its own identity, its own basic ideological differences. Thus a premier works up great public rages about abstract painting or, in this book, Nekrasov’s praise of the absence of “old worker” clichés in a Soviet film. It is difficult enough to work out a method for dealing with the secretly motivated expediency of Soviet politics; it is much more difficult to work out one for understanding the caprice and contradiction in the intellectual sphere, this near-panic growing out of the fear of similarity. Which writer on painter will be “in” or “out” next week? The Soviet government doesn’t know any more than we do. In this field, it is just nervous.
The popular stereotype in America is of the Soviet Union as monolithic, rigid; but actions like Izvestia’s attacks and Khrushchev’s tirades—and their reversals or cessations—are like a marsh of apprehension in the center of the mountain: uncertainly about the way to deal with the inevitable entrance of the outer world into Soviet intellectual life if political communion grows. One need not and should not predict eventual convergences between the Soviet and the U.S. on any easy planes, either of necessity (against China) or of our possible liberalization and their material improvement. Nevertheless, certain motions towards one another seem inevitable, and the contradiction between Khrushchev’s hope of political coexistence and his hatred of ideological coexistence seems rooted in this struggle to retain ideological 1918 in political 1964. Leaving our their effect on the internal intellectual climate of Russia, these serpentine twistings about novels and films and paintings have an unfortunate effect on international political relations: because they help to keep the Soviet Union fixed in the posture of the riddle-wrapped-in-the-enigma, well out of the accepted truth-and-deception diplomatic gavotte that other countries employ with one another and in which they feel comfortable. One need not consider the policies of the U.S. and the West to be pearls of rationality in order to be depressed by Khrushchev’s outburst against this mediocre writer.
As for Nekrasov’s facts and reflections about America, they are a combination of inaccuracy and trained-seal profundity. (His own mistakes are bad enough; by my count, the translator has misspelled fifteen names and foreign words.) A roof-top neon sign on The New Yorker (hotel) to Nekrasov marked the offices of the magazine. There are eleven TV channels in New York, he says; the corner of Lexington Avenue and 125th Street is the “outskirts” of the city. Chaplin was “deported” from America. Nixon is a millionaire as Kennedy was. All trains in America have names. As for Nekrasov’s reflections: if we would stop building missiles, we could afford more Chrysler Buildings. When he sees the Lincoln Memorial, he wonders:
Could this fighter for truth and justice have imagined what would happen in only half a century, that some of his descendants, the descendants of Washington and Jefferson, would try to smother the young Soviet Republic just born on the other side of the world?
He is disappointed that American youths asked him so few questions. “I simply was not interesting to them.” The possibility of double truth in his remark does not occur to this amiable, dull man. His translator, Elias Kulukundis, who is perfectly suited to him, says in an Introduction that “there is only one enemy” in the book, “not Stalinism, or dogmatism, or even communism…The enemy is banality. Nekrasov attacks this enemy on every page.” It is true that the author seems to think so, and this, too, helps to make the book melancholy.
F. D. Reeve, professor of Russian at Wesleyan University and a familiar of the quarterlies, was Frost’s interpreter on his Soviet expedition. Reeve’s chronicle proves him an unfelicitous writer and Nekrasov’s rival in banality of mind. When arrangements were being made, Reeve met with State Department officials in a room with vinyl floors, steel-and-plastic furniture, reached through a long corridor “punctuated by water coolers, red EXIT signs, and stainless-steel elevators. It seemed peculiar that the road to Russia lay through such an impersonal forest.” (As distinct from a personal forest, presumably.) Why peculiar? Most of the Russian offices he had seen had Victorian décor.
Reeve on the Soviet people: “Pretenses to communism aside [sic!], relations among individuals in Russia have an equality, an urgency, an immediacy about them which makes each day eventful and gives the person who lives through it a sense of achievement.” On Russian choices among living American writers: “They prefer J. D. Salinger and John Updike. For, they insist, life has a happy ending.” On Khrushchev’s ultimate forgiveness of Nekrasov, Ehrenburg, and others in the following year. “I like to think that Frost’s talk with khrushchev and Khrushchev’s pledge to stop the name-calling and the propaganda helped improve the conditions of our world.” Next to Reeve, Nekrasov almost scintillates.
The eighty-eight-year-old Frost was asked to visit Russia by President Kennedy as our half of a two-poet exchange deal. By this time Frost was a kind of portable Roman ruin, his mind not untouched by senility. At the outset Frost said, “The exchange of poets between countries is more useful than the conversation of diplomats.” A dubious statement, of course, if he really meant “useful,” but at least more enthusiastic than his later comments. It seems clear from this book that Frost’s visit made, in general, a greater impression in the U.S. than in the Soviet Union. During the initial press conference at the Moscow airport the Russians “looked trapped. They looked bored…The Russians didn’t understand him.” His arrival received only a “note” in the Moscow newspaper next day, with no quotation of his extensive comments.
We have all seen photographs of Frost in a Russian schoolroom, and very impressive they are—the sage and the tykes; but as recorded in this book, the visit was a fiasco. Frost himself called it “a damned fool errand.” “We could only agree,” says Reeve. “Though the Russians later said that there had been a mistake in selection of the school, the trip was depressing.” When Frost arrived in Leningrad, the news appeared on page four of the morning paper. The evening paper ran a “brief notice.”
There were well-attended public readings, television appearances, some entertaining by various writers’ groups, but one gets the sense of politeness rather than enthusiasm except in the case of Yevtushenko and of a few others. Above all Frost was eager to meet Khrushchev, who was vacationing in the south and who was evidently not bursting with like eagerness. At last, however, it was arranged. Frost flew south, became ill, and Khrushchev visited his bedroom. They talked for an hour and a half, with Reeve as one of the translators. After some opening chat, the old man did what he had really come to Russia to accomplish: he gave Khrushchev “his notion of the inevitable course of civilization and what he believed the Caesars of our world had to do.” This included his ideas for reuniting Berlin, reunifying Germany, opening trade routes.
It is clear from this account that Khrushchev listened politely and then dealt top cards from his ready deck of answers. It needs small imagination and no derogation of Frost to see how little the comments of the ancient, sick, politically inexperienced poet meant to the Premier. Yet to Reeve:
What remains of this meeting, as of Frost’s whole trip to Russia, is the dramatic confrontation of two irreverent and much-honored men, each of whom was more affected by the other than most people suppose.
What really remains of the trip is an impression of foolishness: the foolishness of sending an old and feeble man on this tiring journey, the deeper foolishness of supposing that visits by artists unite nations qua nations. If there were the slightest truth in it, the world would have been more peaceful at least since the steamship was invented. It was foolish, too, to let the poet make himself look even slightly silly by confusing his poetic mission with political advice. Every great man is entitled to some silliness, but we ought to be clear when it happens and his government should try not to abet it. There is even something cruel in the way this “foolish fond” old king was persuaded to wander.
President Kennedy did a greater service to Frost than suggesting this tour when he spoke at the dedication of Amherst’s Frost Library in October 1963—one of the luminous speeches of his broken career. He put it pungently when he said of Frost’s latter-day Grand Old Man image: “If Robert Frost was much honored during his lifetime, it was because a good many preferred to ignore his darker truths.” This book, like the Russian expedition, is part of Frost’s public honor, not his darker truth.
Frost July 30, 1964