A Hero in the USSR

The Medvedev Papers

by Zhores A. Medvedev, translated by Vera Rich, with a Foreword by John Ziman F.R.S.
St. Martin’s Press, 472 pp., $11.95

Soon it will be the twentieth anniversary of the death of Stalin, and the chances are growing that he, rather than the liberation that followed his death, will be celebrated. The liberation was real; under Stalin the Soviet intelligentsia simply were unable to read such books of protest as this one by Zhores Medvedev, the Soviet biochemist whose book on Lysenko also appeared in the West two years ago. But the freedom has been stunted. Intellectuals see such books now only in samizdat, “self-publication” in typed or photographed copies passed about cautiously among friends, as were Medvedev’s book on Lysenko and the papers in this book.

Although no law forbids this practice, many people have been threatened, fired, and even thrown in jails and madhouses for participating in this method of evading prepublication censorship. When one reflects that more than a century has passed since a tsar promised the end of prepublication censorship on most books, the present situation seems more than merely strange. It suggests an eternal curse on the Russian intelligentsia, which seems doomed to Sisyphean struggle for elementary rights that are elsewhere taken for granted.

Watching from afar we tend to see only the periodic clashes between political bosses and a few famous writers. We are inclined to forget that these fierce dramas are staged not only because the bosses are stupidly fearful, but also because the artists’ fictions bring to unbearable focus the multitude of humiliations that one must silently swallow to make a career for oneself or sometimes even to survive. Of course there are humiliating hierarchies all over the world, which is one of the main reasons for the world-wide appeal of Russian literature. But Derzhimorda (literally, “Hold-the-snout”), a type of boss named by Gogol in 1836 and still a byword, has been especially characteristic of Russia. In this book Medvedev tells what happens when such men are in power.

In Obninsk, the town where Medvedev worked, a ninth-grader commented, in a composition on Pushkin:

The methods of dealing with dissidents and writers in Pushkin’s time were the same as today. There were informers, libels, and secret surveillance. But everything was simpler then, you could challenge your opponent to a duel. [P. 400.]

The consequences of this schoolboy’s comments are even more revealing of the peculiar situation in his homeland. The local chief of ideology heard about the “anti-Soviet” comment from his wife, a teacher in the school, who heard the other teachers talking about it. The ideological boss started an investigation, with the result that the other teachers were officially reprimanded for failing to report the incident; the boy’s father, an editor of the local newspaper, was expelled from the Party and dismissed from his job. The reprimanded teachers made a little gesture of protest: they stopped speaking to the informer, who had to be transferred, but her husband remained the local boss of ideology.

In that capacity he arranged for the dismissal of other suspect intellectuals, including …

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