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The Azadovsky Affair

To the Editors:

Eight months ago, on December 19, 1980, the Chairman of the Department of Foreign Languages at the Mukhina College of Applied Arts in Leningrad, Professor Konstantin Azadovsky, was seized on the street. Three months later he was tried on trumped-up charges of possessing drugs, and as you read these lines he is doing time—two years—in a labor camp near Magadan.

To simplify your search of this place on the map of the USSR, you may be advised to find first the Kolyma River that flows into the Arctic Ocean at approximately 62°NL. This name makes every Russian shudder, and not so much because of the temperatures peculiar to this region as because the permafrost basin of this river is the burial ground for millions of Soviet citizens who perished during Stalin’s reign.

Even if the charges against Professor Azadovsky were real, he’d never end up in the said parts as a result of them, if only because the main principle of the Soviet penal policy in regard to petty criminals is that they should serve their terms within the administrative confines of their actual habitation. Destinations like Kolyma are traditionally preserved for political prisoners. Professor Azadovsky, however, hardly qualifies for that status either.

Professor Konstantin Azadovsky is one of the best Russian scholars of comparative literature today. He has to his name nearly ninety publications of various length covering a vast variety of subjects, including “Dostoyevsky in Germany,” a monograph on Grillparzer, studies of Alexander Blok, and of the “new peasant poets” (Nikolay Klyuev and Sergey Esenin), an essay on “Rilke and Tolstoy,” and so forth. He is unquestionably the leading Russian expert on Rilke, whom he has translated extensively, as well as on Paul Celan, Antonio Machado, Ruben Dario, RenéGuy Cadou, and many others. Because of the nature of his professional interests, he also maintained scholarly ties with a number of Western specialists in corresponding fields.

The latter activity is in Russia an open invitation for harassment, unless, of course, such contacts are initiated or encouraged by the State itself. However, there is very little for any State in someone’s study of folklore motifs in the works of Grillparzer. And throughout twenty years of his academic career Professor Azadovsky has been several times banned from publishing, transferred to teach in the North, interrogated, threatened with reprisals: the State has its own routine. So does a scholar who, if he is any good, doesn’t allow anyone’s routine to interfere with his own.

It’s this typically academic negligence that helped bring Professor Azadovsky to his arrest and subsequent deportation to the Kolyma region. He had published in Italy earlier that year the collection of an unpublished correspondence between Boris Pasternak, Marina Tsvetaeva, and Rilke which Professor Azadovsky unearthed, edited, and for which he wrote a preface. The discovery of that great platonic triangle is one of the greatest events in the world of literary criticism, and Professor Azadovsky has contributed to this discovery greatly—to say the least, a decade of his life. The manuscript of this collection was submitted to a Western (and quite procommunist at that) publisher absolutely legally, through the offices of VAAP. But Professor Azadovsky was arrested on drug charges, severely beaten on his head by his guards with the metal door of his cell, and, while feeling ill, was taken to the courtroom. He stood trial, denied the charges, and was transported to the place you may have a hard time finding on the map. As for the drug charges, they make sense only as a spinoff of the Marxist dictum that “religion is the opium of the people”; in this sense, culture is drugs.

All this may seem odd to you, but it should be remembered that the whole thing took place in Leningrad, which enjoys the reputation of “the cradle of revolution” and therefore the local KGB apparatus is given an absolutely free hand. It’s not that places with a lesser claim to fame lag very much behind Leningrad in the degree of exercised lawlessness—quite the contrary. Still, the authorities there may be mindful of occasional federal scrutiny. In Leningrad they are not, nor are they afraid of foreign journalists, as is often the case in Moscow.

It is bad enough when the State owns a watchdog; it is still worse when this watchdog falls prey to central planning. Like everywhere else, in a Socialist state the vigilance and efficiency of its police is measured by statistics. However, the reduction in crime rate isn’t necessarily the KGB’s idea of a good showing. Hence the character of so many cases and hence often their timing. Professor Azadovsky was arrested on December 19, 1980, not so much because the authorities had a case against him as because the year was drawing to a close and the KGB needed an extra case for its annual report. Furthermore, he was sent so far up North not so much because he had to be isolated as because of the KGB’s desire to remind both the intellectual community and itself that the old track still may be put to use. Finally, in those remote parts it is easier to charge a man with whatever offense and extend his sentence. A polar bear would do for a witness.

This KGB decision to resort to its old paraphernalia is the most alarming aspect of Professor Azadovsky’s case, and we urge everyone who reads this letter to use every available avenue to convince the Soviet authorities to reverse the verdict and to release the man. Apart from anything else, Professor Azadovsky is the sole source of support to his old and gravely ill mother, the widow of the famous Russian folklorist Mark Azadovsky, who in his own time became a victim during the campaign against “rootless cosmopolitans” in 1949. The chances for success in this case—as in so many others—are obviously quite slim, but your appeal still may prevent yet another metal pipe plunging into Professor Azadovsky’s skull.

Joseph Brodsky

The Azadovsky Defense Committee

c/o The New American Review

500 Eighth Avenue, Suite 1204

New York, New York 10018

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