On Trial: The Soviet State versus “Abram Tertz” and “Nikolai Arshak”
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 translator, Yuli Daniel.
BOTH HAD BEEN ARRESTED on the 13th of September. After a “preliminary investigation” that lasted five months, they were brought to trial, which was held from the 10th to the 14th of February in a small courtroom in Moscow that accommodated about a hundred and fifty persons. Attendance was by invitation only: the place was carefully guarded, and permission cards were double-checked at the entrance. No official transcript of the proceedings is available, but an unofficial one, which “reached the West by undisclosed channels,” according to Mr. Hayward, “is of indubitable authenticity.” It is not complete. “Parts of it,” Mr. Hayward surmised, “were reconstructed from rough notes, but the bulk of it appears to be a verbatim record with only minor defects where the unknown observer was unable to catch a name…or left out words and phrases here and there.” And what a record! It is as weird as any of “Arzhak’s” or “Tertz’s” fantastic tales, and more tragic than any of them. Mr. Hayward has translated and annotated it, and supplied an invaluable introduction that provides relevant data about the background, the conduct, and “the aftermath” of the trial. In an appendix he has also given the text of an article on the two defendants, entitled “The Heirs of Smerdyakov,” which appeared in the Literary Gazette on January 22nd. It was written by Z. Kedrina, an occasional contributor to Soviet literary periodicals, who later appeared at the trial in the role of “public accuser,” to repeat the charges she had already made. “She…had clearly been ‘briefed’ by the authorities,” writes Mr. Hayward, “who commissioned the article from her. It is not unusual in the Soviet Union for a case to be presented in the press against people while they are still under preliminary investigation and before the trial, but it has not been common in recent years for writers to perform this function.”
The men were accused under Section 1 of Article 70 of the Criminal Code of the Russian Republic, which reads as follows:
Agitation or propaganda carried out with the purpose of subverting or weakening the Soviet Regime or in order to commit particularly dangerous crimes against the state, the dissemination for the said purposes of slanderous inventions defamatory to the Soviet political and social system, as well as the dissemination or production or harboring for the said purposes of literature of similar content, are punishable by imprisonment for a period of from six months to seven years and with exile from two to five years, or without exile, or by exile from two to five years.
The business of the prosecution, then, was to prove that the defendants had engaged in subversive propaganda “with the purpose of weakening the Soviet regime”; and since they were charged with nothing other than the crime of writing what they should not have written, the trial hinged on an interpretation of their work. The question of their having published abroad was also brought up, but since such publication does not in itself constitute a criminal act, there was actually only one point at issue: the nature and intent of their writings; and in this respect, as Sinyavsky pointed out in his “final plea,” their trial was unprecedented. “In the whole history of literature,” he said, “I know of no criminal trial like this one, even of authors who published abroad, and in a sharply critical way at that”—a remark substantiated by Mr. Hayward with specific illustrations: Pasternak, Zoshchenko, Anna Akhmatova had been denounced for their writing, but were not brought to trial for it; Babel, Pilnyak, Gumilev, who were exiled or executed, had been charged with extra-literary crimes. But in this case, the printed word itself, or rather the intention ascribed to the printed word, constituted the criminal act.
IN THE COURSE of the proceedings, it becomes increasingly evident that the men had been judged before the trial opened. Nothing they said made any difference to the court; no elucidation of their work could alter the view of it that had been formed already. In vain did Daniel repeat time and again that the “Public Murder Day,” which he had invented for his story, was not slander but “a literary device,” which he chose “as a way of studying people’s reactions.” In vain did Sinyavsky declare that the revolting fantasies of his unsavory character Karlinsky, in The Trial Begins, “a cynic…an amoral, worthless person” were not his own, that the imaginary narrator of his novel was not himself, that the nasty schemes dreamed up by its two police agents for unmasking treason were not a libel on the Soviet Union but referred “to a specific period, on the eve of Stalin’s death…the time of the Doctors’ Plot with its atmosphere of arrests and suspicion.” The court put its own construction on whatever passages it chose to single out, and ascribed to the author himself whatever words it found useful to its purpose of denunciation. Were it not for the tragedy of the affair, much of it would strike one as high comedy—such passages, for example, as the following interchange between Daniel, the judge, and the prosecutor: The judge, to clarify the meaning of “slander” invents a case. Two women, Ivanova and Sidorova, are “having an argument” in “a communal apartment”:
If Ivanova were to write that there is a certain lady who is making life difficult for another lady, then it would be an innuendo, an allegory. But if she were to write that Sidorova was throwing garbage into her soup, then we would have something like a libel, slander, or something else subject to legal proceedings…
Let me just use your example. If Ivanova were to write that Sidorova was literally flying on a broomstick or turning into an animal, that would be a literary device, not slander. I took an obviously fantastic situation…
Daniel, do you deny that the “Public Murder Day” supposedly proclaimed by the Soviet regime is in fact slander?
At the end of the trial, both defendants were permitted to make “final pleas,” which turned out to be not pleas at all, but dignified and well-argued statements of their position, of the false accusations against them, and of the flagrant injustices in the conduct of the trial. In the course of his speech, Daniel gave an excellent summary of the methods used by the prosecution in its attack: “to attribute to the author the ideas of his characters”; to quote out of context; to make out that “critical remarks…intended to expose” one character in a book were meant to apply “to the Soviet system”; “to invent something on the author’s behalf and say that the work has anti-Soviet passages even though there are none”; to make out that criticism of one period is “criticism of a whole epoch”; to assert “that criticism of the part applies to the whole, so that disagreement with certain things is made out to be a rejection of the system as a whole.” “Throughout the trial,” he said, “I kept asking myself: What is the purpose of cross-questioning? The answer is obvious and simple: to hear our replies and then put the next question, to conduct the hearing in such a way as finally to arrive at the truth. This has not happened…. Deafness to all our explanations was characteristic of the whole of this trial.”
AND SINYAVSKY in a kind of despairing, exasperated irony: “The arguments of the prosecution give one a feeling of being up against a blank wall, on which one batters one’s head in vain…the same hair-raising questions from the indictment, repeated dozens of times and mounting up to create a monstrous atmosphere in which the boundary between the real and the grotesque becomes blurred, rather as in the works of Arzhak and Tertz.” And he repeats again “a few elementary arguments about the nature of literature” that the prosecution has been apparently unable to grasp: “that words are not deeds, and that words and literary images are conventions; that authors are not identical with the characters they create.” The prosecution, he points out, maintains the view “that literature is a form of propaganda, and that there are only two kinds of propaganda: pro-Soviet or anti-Soviet. If literature is simply un-Soviet, it means that it is anti-Soviet. I cannot accept this.” Sinyavsky is tragically right. It was not two men, but literature itself, that was here on trial, judged and condemned by men who either really had no conception of what literature is about, or pretended they had none; they found literature as literature guilty of subversion, and sentenced two of its courageous and able representatives to hard labor in Siberia, Sinyavsky to seven years, Daniel to five. It was a dismal and tragic affair, dismal in the confrontation of rational good sense and stubborn obtuseness, tragic because reason was helpless and stupidity all powerful.
WHEN QUESTIONED about the propriety of sending their works abroad, Daniel pleaded guilty to “unethical” behavior; Sinyavsky admitted to having exported his writings “unofficially” but not, he said, “illegally.” Both men explained that their writing was unacceptable in their own country, not for political but for artistic reasons. It was not anti-Soviet, but its substance was unusual and its form unfashionable. In one of his stories, said Sinyavsky, there was a sentence that he could apply to himself: “‘Just think, if I am simply different from others, they have to start cursing me.’ Well, I am different. But I do not regard myself as an enemy; I am a Soviet man and my works are not hostile works. In this fantastic, electrified atmosphere anybody who is ‘different’ may be regarded as an enemy, but this is not an objective way of arriving at the truth.” The official view was other. “The careful and objective conduct of the case,” one reads in Pravda for February 22nd, “was a graphic proof of the democratic nature of the Soviet regime. It would be strange if the courts were expected to display a ‘liberal approach’ to the enemy’s ideological scouts who were caught red-handed,” on which Mr. Hayward very justly comments: “The use of the word ‘ideological’ here is interesting. It is tantamount to saying that Sinyavsky and Daniel were tried and sentenced for ‘ideological’ deviation, or, to put it in other terms, for heresy.” Well, the USSR prides itself on leading the world in every kind of innovation. It can now chalk up another first: the revival in modern times of the trial for heresy.
At any rate, some of our questions about “Tertz” and “Arzhak” have been answered by the Sinyavsky-Daniel trial. Three points have become clear. First: it is at his peril that a Soviet writer expresses any unfavorable view of his country, even though he speaks in the form of fantasy and about such aspects in the nation’s past as have been officially denounced. In the second place: there are still men in Russia who, despite years of indoctrination, can think independently and have the courage to say what they think. Several writers, it seems, offered themselves as witnesses for the defense, among them the humane and well loved Paustovsky—but their evidence was not admitted in court. Finally: Western support is dangerous to the Soviet citizen. The prisoners were at great pains to minimize their relations with the West:
I still have no full picture about Western reaction to my work [said Sinyavsky]. But I have a strong impression that bourgeois propaganda indulges in wishful thinking. The epithet “anti-Soviet” is often used in the West for sensational purposes…Goodness knows what they have written about me there.
The situation, clearly, is a painful one: On the one hand, independent Soviet writers feel, justifiably, that only in the West can they get a hearing; on the other, their Western sympathizers may be doing them more harm than good. They give them moral support, but endanger their lives. The dilemma is real, and characteristically tragic.