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Witnesses to Calamity

Dans le carnaval de I’histoire: mémoires Carnival in the spring of 1979

by Léonide Pliouchtch, translated by Simone Vincent
Editions du Seuil (Paris), 448 pp., 59F (to be published by Harcourt Brace Jovanovich)

The Challenge of the Spirit

by Boris Shragin, translated by P.S. Falla
Knopf, 262 pp., $10.00

Notes of a Non-Conspirator

by Efim Etkind, translated by Peter France
Oxford University Press, 265 pp., $10.00

In 1942 Lionel Trilling wrote an essay for The Nation called “Tacitus Now,” in which he remarked that “our political education of the last decades fits us to understand the historian of imperial Rome.” By “us” he meant, of course, Americans, whose tradition had excluded the atrocious things that Tacitus spoke of as a recent witness—“dictatorship and repression, spies and political informers, blood purges and treacherous dissension.” Trilling had in mind the events that shook the Soviet Union during the 1930s; and equally, no doubt, the Night of the Long Knives in Nazi Germany, the activities of the Gestapo, the attrition of the Jews. But, as Boris Shragin explains in the note “To the Western Reader” which introduces his book, the spiritual crisis of Germany is no longer actual and indefinitely continuing like that of Russia. The German people, in the shock of defeat, were ready to acknowledge their guilt, and for many of them that chapter is now closed.

However, as the three testimonies now offered by Plyushch, Shragin, and Etkind—who all left the USSR in the 1970s—make absolutely plain, such questions as the Germans were brought to ask about their own responsibility for the ordeal they and others had lived through have not so far been asked by many in Russia. Those who do ask these questions have to pay for it with a prison sentence, or malign “treatment” in a “special psychiatric hospital,” or with exile.

Tacitus looked back on eighty years of the Roman Empire, from Tiberius to Domitian, and he wrote, Trilling reminds us, with the despair of a convinced republican who knew that the past could never return. The account he gave of high politics over most of that period, with no prominent citizen safe from denunciation, and the caprice of a despot like Nero or Domitian spreading panic, and with panic irresponsibility, through widening circles, led one French historian cited by Trilling to wonder that the Empire did not collapse. The same features in Soviet society, as revealed in each of these books, prompt the same question; but whereas it has been contended that Tacitus gave only a partial view of the historical process, and that Rome was in the broader perspective “a healthy developing society,” any illusions of progress in the Soviet Union died within a very few years of Khrushchev’s “revelations” at the Twentieth Party Congress in 1956.

The parallel between early imperial Rome and the first sixty years of Soviet power should not be pressed too hard. But the example of Tacitus—“a dangerously subversive writer,” as Trilling points out, “under the dictatorship both of the Jacobins and of Napoleon”—is worth bearing in mind when we consider the best writing that comes from the Russian dissidents. The three books in hand qualify for that distinction. But their message, unlike that of Tacitus, is not void of hope. The equivalent of the ancient republican virtue that he admired may be achieved if a reborn Russian intelligentsia can live up to, and improve upon, a tradition that seemed to have been lost.

The three authors are very different. Leonid Plyushch, a mathematician and scientist, is a good party man (even, as a boy, wanting to serve in the KGB, from which he was excluded on medical grounds) who found that he did not belong to a good party. He was arrested for saying so and was put in a night-marish psychiatric hospital, kept behind electric wires, and guarded by sentries armed with submachine guns. Even now, after all his sufferings—it was only a courageous wife and equally courageous friends who, with the help of world opinion, managed to save him from being reduced to stupor and imbecility by the hospital doctors—Plyushch remains a Marxist.

Tatyana Khodorovich, a Christian who gave Plyushch’s wife truly heroic support when he was held in the hospital at Dnepropetrovsk, has taken issue with him over his Marxism in a recent number of Kontinent. She respects his moral integrity and humane feelings, and cannot reconcile them with a doctrine that would appear, from the historical record, to destroy just these qualities. But Plyushch argues that Marxism should be an “open” system of thought ready to challenge its own premises. Doubtful though the proposition may seem (could Marxism, for example, ever part with the idea of progress?), at least he gains from it a sense of continuing purpose and a method to support his trenchant critique of both Soviet and Western society. In his judgment both systems foster a growing amoralism of the young because they are two variants of the same diseased social form.

Boris Shragin writes as a philosopher, whose professional work has hitherto been in aesthetics and cultural history. The book by him is the most ambitious of the three, in the tradition of wide-ranging speculative thought which the Western reader may have already encountered in Berdyaev. For Shragin Russia has not, as Lenin claimed, won through to Marxism by suffering; the suffering is indubitable, but the outcome for his own thinking has been to shed Marxism and to find the truth in existentialism. Hence the importance for him of Berdyaev, and the attention he gives to a volume of essays which appeared in 1909 under the title Landmarks, by Berdyaev and six other intellectuals of the same mind.

Efim Etkind is a philologist, among whose teachers was Zhirmunsky, schoolfellow of Mandelstam, lifelong friend of Akhmatova, and, like her, honored by the University of Oxford at the end of a career in which persecution had not weakened his love of truth. Etkind himself first ran into trouble in 1968 when the KGB seized on a single sentence in the preface to his anthology of foreign verse in translation. He had stated, mildly enough, that during the most difficult years of repression many Soviet poets “were deprived of the possibility of expressing themselves to the full in original writing and spoke to the reader in the language of Goethe, Orbeliani, Shakespeare, and Hugo.” This was the first step to his ruin six years later; and the story he tells, though far less harrowing than that of Plyushch, is an indictment of equal force.

He has a superb sense of scale. The Etkind affair was not to be compared with certain more conspicuous engagements in the war of liberation; Etkind was no Solzhenitsyn (though his friend and supporter), and no Joseph Brodsky (though a staunch ally, and a witness at his trial). But all the issues raised by their persecution were present in his more routine case, and he is able to illuminate the society in which he lived no less clearly than the others, by showing, like the expert teacher he must be, all the implications.

Shragin tells at one point of a discovery made in local archives by Korolenko, the contemporary of Chekhov. In 1741 the Empress Elizabeth had come to the throne by the removal of an infant, Ivan VI. A merchant of Arzamas was unwise enough to pay into the imperial treasury a silver ruble bearing the head of Ivan VI. Nobody thought him other than completely innocent; but “as by natural law” there had to follow “instructions from on high, and questioning under torture.” And everyone who had been unlucky enough to associate with the merchant was terrified of being implicated in the “secret affair” behind his action. All this, as Shragin observes, happened two hundred years before the purges of Stalin’s time.

He argues that the Russian subject has felt helpless before his arbitrary rulers from Muscovy to the present day, and that the very institution on which the Slavophiles pinned such great hopes, the mir or village commune, was no respecter of individual rights. “He may be a good man,” the peasants would say about the victim of an injustice, “but I can’t go against the mir.” The line of complicity stretches unbroken to the woman court functionary who said to Plyushch’s wife, in tears, “Forgive me, I have my job to do,” and to Etkind’s worthy colleagues—some of them competent literary scholars and genuinely decent men, but with privileges or immunities to keep—who voted against their conscience at his academic execution:

Fear conquers everything: honour, conscience, friendship, decency, and all that one might expect of an intellectual. These are all acquired cultural characteristics, but fear is a biological instinct, the animal need for physical self-preservation.

A society that is founded upon fear becomes inveterate in its habits. The citizen cannot afford to care about others. His own security can be swept away by forces altogether outside his control, and he may even come to depend upon despotism as part of the natural order. Shragin, like others before him, suggests that Russians “sustain a deep-seated love” for the “oppressions and punishments” that assail them. Certainly there are a fair number today who regret the passing of “firm government” with Stalin’s death and posthumous disgrace. And there must be more still who feel an ignoble relief when the man who breaks from the conformist ranks and thereby shames the rest is finally put down. Shragin tells of a wholly respectable friend who felt this way about Andrei Amalrik when the KGB lost patience with him.

Whether we accept Shragin’s view of the Russian as a natural recidivist to the bad old ways, or refuse to believe him when he says that “the archetype of the subconscious” will dog any nation’s life forever, there seems little doubt that the “thaw” which began twenty years ago has hardened again to a frost of increasing rigor. Too many people, perhaps, were implicated in the wholesale injustice of the past. Akhmatova at the end of 1955 discussed with Lydia Chukovskaya the possible rehabilitation of the latter’s husband, who had been executed at the end of the Thirties. She was deeply skeptical about the likelihood of real justice being done. “It’s easy to understand that if there were millions who suffered, then those responsible for their doom are no fewer. Now they are trembling for their names, posts, apartments, dachas. The whole calculation was that nobody would come back.” In March 1956, however, just after the Twentieth Party Congress, she said that with the exodus from the camps “two Russias [were] looking each other in the eyes”—the one that had been in jail, the other that had done the imprisoning. “A new epoch had started.”

Reading Plyushch’s account of his student days just at this time one can see in what sense the epoch was new. For a while hitherto inaccessible books flooded in. Plyushch was able to read Kafka, Ionesco’s Rhinoceros, Waiting for Godot. Even the Stalinists of yesterday talked for a time in liberal phrases, and one half of Russia flinched under the accusing eyes of the other. By the time of the “Prague spring” in 1968 that phase had ended. As Etkind tells us, the same leaders were using the same language, but now the words had the opposite meaning. The Soviet citizen has to be prepared for such shifts: you read the press with the sensitivity of an animal who forebodes every change in the weather.

Yet Akhmatova was not wholly wrong about the coming of a new epoch. The first works in samizdat began to circulate. In this way, the poetry of Voloshin, Tsvetaeva, Mandelstam, and Paustovsky’s disquisition on the earliest novel of exposure, Not By Bread Alone, came into Plyushch’s hands. Samizdat was the most successful Russian invention since the samovar. It has the great merit of spontaneity, and resembles throwing a bottle into the sea, except that at least half a dozen copies of the message set off in as many bottles, and the sea is full of waiting hands which multiply the copies if the reader approves of the message. Through samizdat the new adversary Russia is kept in being, and the honesty and critical spirit that otherwise flourish only in the camps can find expression and support. And it is by means of this self-regulating underground press that the new intelligentsia has been able to maintain itself.

At this point we must return with Shragin to Landmarks. By 1909 the old intelligentsia, so long a coherent group, was near to disintegration. The Provisional Government that took over in February 1917 was the one and only fling of the intelligentsia in active politics, and within seven months they had been hustled out of the way by the professionals of the Bolshevik party. Berdyaev and his associates of 1909 undertook a thorough review of the assumptions that had governed the old intelligentsia. The origins of this group may be traced, so Shragin contends, as far back as Alexander Radishchev, whose classic protest against serfdom, A Journey from Petersburg to Moscow, appeared in 1790, just one year too late for his own good. (After the events in France of 1789 Catherine’s liberalism shrunk away.) As Radishchev wrote:

I looked about me—my heart was troubled by the sufferings of humanity. I turned my eyes inward—I saw that man’s woes arise in man himself….

However, it was with Belinsky in the 1840s that the intelligentsia really came into being, under his direction and to some extent in his image. Nobody has written more tellingly of this monastic order without a God, as he called them, than the late Viktor Frank, son of a contributor to Landmarks. The Russian intelligentsia during the nineteenth century had some exceptional virtues which shaded off imperceptibly into grave deficiencies. Its members’ dedication to the cause of popular freedom was absolute, but it made them blind to Pushkin’s warning: “God save us from seeing a Russian revolt, meaningless and merciless!” Their asceticism too easily turned them into philistines, who lacked altogether the fineness of critical sense that Turgenev, for one, admired in Belinsky. Their commitment to the pursuit of scientific truth failed very often to save them from converting a zeal for this truth into a dogma. There were among them too many flat-footed utilitarians, and too many enthusiasts who would sacrifice worldly prospects, health, freedom, but never accept the need for revision of their ideas. It was to an unsparing reappraisal that the authors of Landmarks summoned the intelligentsia, and it is such a reappraisal that Shragin wants to make now.

During the last ten years, Shragin is convinced, a new intelligentsia has been born. Its predecessor was scattered by revolution and civil war. Those who stayed in the Soviet Union were gradually put under the screws, and finally broken in the purges. The body that goes by that name in official Soviet language is rather a mass of technicians, obedient executives in the ministries or the Writers’ Union who have long ago traded conscience for limited power. But the mark of the old intelligentsia when it still existed was an unwillingness to compromise. Intense indignation took over whenever compromise came into sight. It was necessary for the intellectual’s self-respect that he should keep outside the system.

Cromwell’s experience taught him early on that an army cannot be effective without mutual tolerance. It seems to be a lesson that the new intelligentsia has learned. Plyushch, by no means representative of them as a Marxist, when the doctrine has so much fallen into disrepute among his fellow countrymen, is yet representative in the willingness he shows to respect the views of others. His work as a scientist lay in cybernetics, and his reading had soon led him to yoga and telepathy, and to the literature of the absurd which caught so exactly the nature of Soviet society. His buoyant humanism—it may well be a Ukrainian quality—is reflected in the title chosen for the memoirs. From Mikhail Bakhtin, author of a celebrated work on Dostoevsky in 1929, he has derived the idea of the carnival element in popular culture, and of its spirit as triumphant over the miseries of alienation and the vicissitudes of human life. The songs of Aleksandr Galich, who recently died in Paris, express perfectly for Plyushch the energies of carnival, and he finds a similar support in the playfulness of Mozart and Einstein.

Within the Soviet Union the dissidents would appear to be united in the fashion of the various resistance movements in Europe during the Second World War. Indeed, their solidarity is less troubled, since it is based on personal friendship, and the secret tensions between Christian democrats and communists which strained the resistance even at its best are not evident in Russia today, where they have a cause but no parties. In emigration, however, the quarrels begin, as Plyushch foresaw, and as Shragin was shocked to find when he arrived in the West.

Much of this dissent among the dissidents abroad is provoked by the attitudes of Solzhenitsyn, to whom the movement owes so much. He stands, as has often been noted, in the tradition of Tolstoy, the “pitiless critique” of whose Confession worked so strongly upon the young Plyushch. Solzhenitsyn is another grandly self-sufficient and largely self-taught thinker, and like Tolstoy he poses moral problems in an unshielded light which others can feel is unbearable in its glare. Etkind’s “digressions” in the manner of Sterne’s or Pushkin’s are indispensable to the book, a technique of enlargement and deepening. One of them he devotes to the very poignant and complicated question of whether to resist unto death, or to compromise so that something may be saved. It is the choice every dissident, every man of conscience, may have to make at some time in the Soviet Union.

Etkind sets up a debate between a disciple of Solzhenitsyn and a responsible college teacher who may calculate that a concession here or there will enable a necessary book to get past the censorship (in all its twelve stages) or save his pupils from falling into the hands of some unscrupulous careerist. It is an issue in which casuistry can very easily play too much of a leading part. And yet casuistry, as Yvor Winters once pointed out, can deal more sensitively with the complexities of a moral situation than intransigent puritanism, which describes not unfairly the attitude of the “Solzhenitsynites.”

Shragin inveighs against Solzhenitsyn’s book From Under the Rubble, accusing him of unfairness toward some of the samizdat writers and some of those who have suffered in defense of human rights, and of being hostile toward the views of those who strive, in Solzhenitsyn’s words, for “freedom and the multiparty parliamentary system.” Shragin comments:

Naturally anyone is entitled to think that democratic freedoms are unnecessary and pernicious and that a one-party system is the political bulwark of national concord. But the question is, how do we then avoid intolerance, intransigent narrow-mindedness, and the deliberate depreciation of those who think differently from ourselves? How can we avoid “taking part in the lie” if we do not love, respect, and value the only true freedom, that of others.

On the issue of compromising with the meretricious, however, Shragin is on Solzhenitsyn’s side, as was Galich. In his book of early memoirs, General’naya repetitsiya (Dress Rehearsal), Galich speaks of the theater directors who put on one worthless play after another in the never to be realized hope of eventually reversing the trend. Voltaire’s maneuver in dedicating his anti-Christian tragedy Fanaticism, or Mahomet the Prophet to his actual adversary, Benedict XIV, cited by Etkind, is quite different—not so much a concession as a ruse of war.

Etkind himself was fortunate to have worked as a translator. (He is likewise fortunate in having found an excellent translator for his book.) Until the affair of his “sentence,” his work kept him away from the direct line of fire, so that in the Mayakovsky House he could concentrate in seminars on the exact meaning of words, and so protect the honorable tradition of Russian philology. He realizes the importance poetry has for the survival of a humane Russia, and this impelled him to defend Joseph Brodsky, on trial as a “parasite.” The poet and the philologist in Russia have been close allies since the time, sixty years ago, when Jakobson, Eykhenbaum, Zhirmunsky, and Tinyanov were young. As a philologist Etkind explains the full nuances of such terms as pokazukha—the “false front” to impress foreigners—and prorabotka—the “working over” to which an offender is subjected by his associates. The full meaning of apparatchik, or “organization man,” is shown in the person of one Kondrashov—“a comic figure, but frightening too.” The excellence of Etkind’s book lies in his attention to the specific. It is both a scrupulous report and a seminar on Soviet life for the Western reader.

As the new intelligentsia turns by degrees into the third emigration, fidelity to the language and to its poets is needed more than ever. In a moving passage about his attachment to “this one old Petersburg house” which served as a center for the Writers’ Union, Etkind describes himself as a thread in the fabric of Russian life: “Pull out the thread and it no longer belongs to the fabric, it loses its usefulness and its beauty.” Russians more perhaps than any other people cannot bear separation from their homeland. Etkind laments that the “creators of Russian culture are being scattered throughout the countries of the West, our culture is disintegrating.” It is a terrible prospect, and much will depend on what happens both inside Russia itself and inside the emigration during the last years of this century, one seemingly so calamitous for Russian civilization. The calamity, however, has been redeemed by many heroic acts of witness, and a spiritual victory of which the great modern poets are the proclaimers. In this sense the threads are knit together once again, and the fabric cannot be destroyed.

Letters

Looking for Livy October 12, 1978

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