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Writing in the Shadow of the Monolith

Tales of the Mountains and Steppes

by Aitmatoy Ch.
Moscow: Progress

The White Ship

by Aitmatoy Ch.
Crown

The Ascent of Mount Fuji

by Aitmatoy Ch.
Farrar, Straus & Giroux

Stikhi (Poems)

by Bella Akhmadulina
Moscow

Selected Poems

by Iosif Brodsky
Harper & Row; Penguin

Chast’rechi (Part of Speech)

by Iosif Brodsky
Ardis

Forbidden Fruit

by Fazil Iskander
Moscow: Progress

Sandro iz Chegema (Sandro from Chegem), Novy Mir

by Fazil Iskander

The Goatibex Constellation

by Fazil Iskander
Ardis

To Be Preserved Forever, in English

by Lev Kopelev
Lippincott in US; Secker & Warburg in Britain

Khranit’ vechno, in Russian

by Lev Kopelev
Ardis

Vremena (Times)

by Naum Korzhavin
Posev

(Three Tales), Novy Zhurnal (The New Review)

by Yury Mamleev

Blondin obeego tsveta (The Blond of Both Colors)

by Vladimir Maramzin
Ardis

Istoriia zhenit’by Ivana Petrovicha (The Story of Ivan Petrovich’s Marriage), Continent

by Vladimir Maramzin
No.2 pp.

Collected Tales (in Russian)

by Vladimir Maramzin
Ullstein Verlag

Seven Days of Creation

by Vladimir Maximov
Knopf

Kalina krasnaia (Red Snowball-Tree)

by Vasily Shukshin
Moscow

Shkola dlia durakov (A School for Fools)

by Sasha Sokolov
Ardis

White Grass

by V. Soloukhin
Moscow: Progress

Prigovor (The Sentence)

by V. Soloukhin
Moscow

Telenok bodalsia s dubom (The Calf Butts the Oak)

by A. Solzhenitsyn
In English: Harper & Row

Lenin v Tsiurikhe (Lenin in Zurich)

by A. Solzhenitsyn
In English: Farrar, Straus & Giroux

The GULAG Archipelago Two

by A. Solzhenitsyn
Harper & Row

Dolgoe proshchanie (A Long Goodbye)

by Yury Trifonov
Moscow

The Exchange,” Russian Literature Triquarterly

by Yury Trifonov
No. 5 pp.

Drugaia zhizn’ (“Another Life”)

by Yury Trifonov
Novy Mir, No. 8 pp.

Zhizn’ i neobychainye prikliucheniia soldata Ivana Chonkin (The Life and Extraordinary Adventures of Private Ivan Chonkin)

by V. Voinovich
In English: Farrar, Straus & Giroux

Ivan’kiada (Ivankiada)

by V. Voinovich
Ardis

An Incident in the Metropole,” Continent

by V. Voinovich

Kontinent (Continent) Anchor/Doubleday

published by Ullstein Verlag. Selections in English to be published by

In cases where Russian texts are cited, the Russian is given first with the English in parentheses after. A number of these authors have been published in English in Moscow, by Progress Publishers.

The Russian literary scene is bizarre. The funniest new satirical work by a Soviet writer is Vladimir Voinovich’s story of his own real-life battle to get into a two-room apartment which is coveted by another “writer” (only publication: Taiwan Belongs to China) who wants the extra square meters for a toilet (an American toilet at that) which he purchased while at the UN. The finest novel in the last twenty years (Sokolov’s A School for Fools) is by a Russian born in Ottawa who left Moscow this fall to become a gardener and lumberjack in the Vienna Woods. Solzhenitsyn has written a book about Lenin that his friends say is too autobiographical. The best-selling Soviet poet is a blind man who writes like Rod McKuen. The best Russian-language literary journal is published in Munich; the best Russian poet lives in Ann Arbor; and the first Agatha Christie in Russian has gone on sale in Jerusalem.

Because of this odd literary diaspora, a trip from Petersburg to Moscow provides only part of what one needs to know for a full picture of the current literary scene. But nearly every winter for seven years I have made the journey, and did so again in November 1975. Since these visits began in 1969 the community of Soviet writers has gone through several stages. From 1969 through 1971 there was still hope that things could be improved gradually. Then most people thought that the process of de-Stalinization, while it might have its detours and dead ends, could not be totally reversed—and that every year would see the publication of poetry and prose which couldn’t have appeared the year before. Beginning in 1972, however, particularly after Nixon’s visit and the internal crackdown which accompanied détente, the major topic of discussion in many families was whether to stay or to emigrate. By the end of 1975 many of the literary intellectuals who wanted to emigrate had managed to do so; those who remained had made a conscious decision to stay, either because of principles or for practical reasons.1

Things (including editors and censors) are getting tougher.2 Voinovich and others say that the level of the literary journals is perhaps lower now than under Stalin. The mood of the liberal intelligentsia seems demoralized and apprehensive. In spite of this writers keep writing in the face of bureaucratic meddling and foreign indifference.

Leningrad is a colder, more imperious city than Moscow. Literary trials are more frequent there (just last year Vladimir Maramzin was on his way to the Archipelago—and now, thanks to a humane solution, he is in Paris, working for the new magazine Continent); the sense of community among the writers is much weaker than in Moscow. Leningrad is a city for individualists, like Nabokov. And it has been affected by the desolation caused by the exodus more strongly than Moscow—a few good people leave, and those who remain are even more isolated. Moreover, people seem less well informed about what is happening in Russian letters abroad. For example, not all the issues of Continent had penetrated there during my visit, and Solzhenitsyn’s Lenin in Zurich was not yet circulating—whereas these were available in Moscow before they were in the United States. Of course, talented writers remain, among them the poets Boris Slutsky and Viktor Sosnora, and prose writers Andrei Bitov and Igor Efimov, all of whom have had some international recognition. Joseph Brodsky’s absence is felt acutely, and his new “Sonnets to Mary Stuart” are being read with special excitement.

Moscow is busier and noisier, even when the snow covers everything. There is one very mundane reason for its stronger sense of community: several years ago a special block of co-op apartment buildings was built on Red Army Street near the Dynamo Stadium and the Aeroport subway. Hundreds of writers, critics, translators, scholars—and others of less obvious direct connection to the writer’s world—live there. Aeroport even has its own live-in KGB agent—General Viktor Nikolaevich Ilin, whose sphere is the Union of Writers. He has a generally good reputation even among what Westerners usually oversimplify as dissident writers. It is said that he can be tough and uncompromising, but that he can also be understanding, helpful, doesn’t break his word, has a strong sentimental streak—he is often seen patting the heads of writers’ children. In fact, he has known some of the younger published writers since they were school-children themselves.

Aeroport living arrangements make life rather incestuous, with frequent sexual and intellectual shifts and quakes. The writers see each other regularly, if only when small groups collect in the courtyards for “Russian conversations.” The company they keep tends to be that of their peers—and perhaps in a certain sense they are cut off from “real life.” When they aren’t at home, they are often in “Houses of Creation” in Peredelkino and other retreats around the country—again with the same people. The Union of Writers sends them off on Komandirovki (“business trips,” with the emphasis on the root “command”) during which they collect material for stories, sketches, poems, etc. Perhaps this is one reason why a popular genre is the story about an incident on a train. Currently the most visited place is called BAM (Baikal-Amur-Mainline), a huge industrial complex including ports and resorts, now under construction but already much written about. Red Square demonstrations on TV are punctuated by the rising melodic line of “BAM, BAM, BAM, BAM, BAM” sung by an enthusiastic pop singer. Nothing is more salable than a BAM poem or a BAM story.

For most of the writers who remain part of the literary establishment, life goes on in its usual way. For example, every Soviet man and wife have a legal right to eighteen square meters of living space, but mere membership in the Union of Writers entitles one to an additional twenty square meters. There are special resorts, special doctors, special movies, and the luxury of the Central House of Writers in Moscow, where a gala celebration took place on November 7 (the anniversary of the October Revolution). Three large halls were filled with tables loaded with caviar, sturgeon, vodka, and champagne. In the inner chamber, formerly part of the Masonic Lodge which Pierre Bezukhov joined in War and Peace, a rock band was perched on an ornately carved wooden balcony, playing for an extremely well-dressed crowd. This is the Soviet equivalent of Hollywood stardom, and no doubt it is something for which many writers work with zeal.

I went to this gala directly from the small two-room apartment of Nadezhda Mandelstam. The storm over her memoirs has died down considerably, but there are still many who will not go to visit her, and she lives for the most part in isolation.3 Her opinion of contemporary literature is as harsh as it is terse (“What literary scene?”), and if one looks only at the Soviet equivalent of the best-seller list, one can see why.

The most famous and widely read living poet of the country is Eduard Asadov, whose works are bought by hundreds of thousands of ordinary readers. Like Rod McKuen he is an unabashed sentimentalist, but he is also a Soviet Victorian, giving such advice as don’t go to bed with anyone before you sign up at the Palace of Weddings. Lumbering war novels are also read eagerly (a favorite topic of Soviet writers), and spy stories in which the KGB or its ancestors defend the father-land are popular. But the best-selling prose work of last year was a nonfiction study by Vladimir Soloukhin, short-story writer, poet, and collector of Russian antiquities.4 His The Sentence (first published in the magazine Moscow) was one of the few genuine (not officially promoted) best-sellers in the Soviet Union. It tells the true story of his being diagnosed as a cancer case—and after treatment and torment discovering that the diagnosis was wrong. The abundance of personal and physiological detail, as well as the exposé of some doctors, is unusual for Soviet letters.

The late Vasily Shukshin, short-story writer, movie director, and actor, has become fantastically popular. He died of a heart attack in 1974, but since then his work has been the rage of the country—particularly his story, later made into a hit movie, The Red Snowball-Tree, a tragedy set partly among Russian thieves and low life, which played in fifty Moscow movie houses simultaneously in 1974. People from all over Russia make pilgrimages to his grave, particularly women, but he also has admirers among excellent literary critics such as Lev Anninsky; and some writers, including Solzhenitsyn, rate him highly.

Nearly everyone agrees that the Seventies are a time of prose, not poetry. The stars of the late Fifties and early Sixties are not much in evidence, though perhaps this is not their fault. Yevtushenko’s reputation is lower than ever, partly because of his reputed contacts with the KGB, and while it is impossible to know the truth of this rumor, he is felt to be seriously compromised. Voznesensky has been rather silent, and not much is said about him. No one mentions Yuri Kozakov or Yury Nagibin, two of the most popular prose writers of the 1960s. Akhmadulina published a book in 1975, but it contained only a handful of new poems. Aksyonov has been writing a great deal, but publishing very little. He gave lectures at UCLA last summer, with great success—an unprecedented event for a good Soviet writer, and a hopeful sign that the Union of Writers may be willing to join the real world (the poet Evgeny Vinokurov recently visited the University of Kansas, and there is some hope that Akhmadulina will be allowed to visit the United States this year).

Among literary people the most highly regarded prose writers who still live and publish in the Soviet Union are Aksyonov, Trifonov, Iskander, Belov, and Aitmatov. Aitmatov is extremely popular. The Ascent of Mount Fuji, which he co-authored, was translated (poorly) into English last year, mainly because of its political interest (a parallel with the Solzhenitsyn case); but in his generally uncontroversial fiction there is a very heavy streak of sentimentality. Belov represents “country prose,” a strain which became fashionable during the Sixties.

I saw a private showing of a marvelous West German TV documentary about this movement, with beautiful photography of the far north, where Belov lives, and an interview with him and Astafiev. They maintain, with some cogency, that the purest Russian was preserved only in the country and especially in the north—and that one cannot write good prose by living in Moscow or other cities. This has some truth to it, but if Belov’s work were not enlivened by his skillful storytelling and interesting characters, his folk rusticity might seem a kind of reverse snobbery. A similar linguistic Slavophilism is found in Solzhenitsyn, who highly praises the country writers. But some critics see country prose reaching a dead end of monotony now: and indeed you can go only so far with stories of kind country folk and eccentric woodland loners.

  1. 1

    Among the writers who have emigrated: V. Maximov, Viktor Nekrasov, Andrei Sinyavsky, Vladimir Maramzin, and most recently, Natalya Gorbanevskaya (December 1975) are in Paris; Alexander Galioh is in Munich, Alexander Solzhenitsyn in Zurich, Alexander Sokolov in Vienna, Naum Korzhavin in Boston, Joseph Brodsky in Michigan.

  2. 2

    The scholars, writers, scientists, and mathematicians who work openly for political and religious rights continue to be harassed and arrested; some are still being drugged in mental hospitals. See Peter Reddaway, “The Relentless KGB,” NYR, February 5, 1976.

  3. 3

    See “The Attack on Mme Mandelstam,” NYR, February 21, 1974.

  4. 4

    The following story is told about Soloukhin. During the war he was a soldier in the Kremlin Guard. When Churchill came to Moscow he reviewed the Guard, and for some reason stopped in front of Soloukhin for a long time, then went on, and praised the Guard. Stalin called aside an aide and told him to find out who that soldier was and to give him whatever he wanted. The aide went to Soloukhin, told him Stalin would grant him one wish, and Soloukhin said he wanted to study at the Gorky Institute of Literature. This was done, and that was the beginning of his literary career.

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