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The Azadovsky Case

In a recent letter to The New York Review [October 8, 1981] Joseph Brodsky wrote eloquently and sardonically of the case of Konstantin Azadovsky—a brilliant scholar of comparative literature in the Soviet Union—who early in 1981 was sentenced to two years of hard labor in Siberia. Brodsky wrote of the grotesque disparity between the charge against Azadovsky—alleged possession of a minute quantity of drugs—and the punishment. As he noted, despite the “criminal” trappings of the case, only the KGB could be responsible for sending Azadovsky to such a destination, and the chances of further charges being fabricated against him in a remote labor camp are perilously high. But this is only the latest twist in a case whose ramifications would not appear out of place in the pages of Dostoevsky. For that reason I would like to add to Brodsky’s account of the affair and comment on its implications, not least for the light they throw on Soviet academic life and attitudes to literature, as well as on the future of cultural exchanges with the West.

Brodsky has pointed out Azadovsky’s importance as a critic and scholar with a wide interest in the links between Russian and West European literature, and around ninety publications to his credit. He is a Rilke specialist, and his pioneer edition of the Rilke-Pasternak-Tsvetayeva correspondence has not only appeared in Italian (Il settimo sogno—“The Seventh Dream”), but is due out shortly in French, German, and English,1 and another book, Rilke in Russia, will also be published in German. In addition to Azadovsky’s numerous translations from French, German, and Spanish, one might also mention his version of Shelagh Delaney’s A Taste of Honey, which ran at the Maly Theatre in Leningrad for six years.

In other words, having already entered European cultural and scholarly life, Azadovsky was about to break through to an even larger reputation—a reputation that would have added as much to his country’s prestige as to his own and brought luster to Soviet scholarship. Furthermore he had, from the Soviet point of view, clean hands. He had never dabbled in dissidence, his manuscripts had traveled abroad through the eminently respectable channels of the Soviet copyright agency VAAP, and there was never any question of clandestine contacts with the West. His correspondence with foreign specialists had been completely open, as were their visits to him in Leningrad.

There were no grounds, therefore, for thinking that Azadovsky was in any sort of danger. Less than a month before his fall Azadovsky had been formally invited to join the Party. This would scarcely indicate official disfavor. All the greater, then, was the astonishment when news got round of Azadovsky’s arrest on December 19, 1980. Astonishment turned to disbelief when it emerged that the charge was possession of drugs. Only in the following weeks did the details of how Azadovsky had been framed begin to form a coherent picture.

The first sign of trouble was the news that a close woman friend of Azadovsky’s, Svetlana Lepilina, had been arrested one day earlier on a drug possession charge. As a result of her arrest, it was said, Azadovsky’s flat had also been raided and five grams of marijuana found in his study, leading to his own arrest. Strangely for a drug raid, many books were removed, including works by Zamyatin, Pilnyak, Tsvetayeva, and other authors on the Soviet Index, as well as a number of photographs of Russian writers of the beginning of the century. The confiscation of the photographs aroused considerable alarm, since Azadovsky was the executor of the will of the late M.S. Boltsvinnik, who had built up a unique collection of photographs of twentieth-century Russian writers, many of them still proscribed by the Soviet government. Their confiscation or destruction would be an irreparable loss to literary scholarship.

Speculation grew over the reasons for this drastic move. By all normal yard-sticks Azadovsky’s life had been blameless, but looked at through the special lens employed by the Soviet security services it exhibited certain indelible flaws. Azadovsky is a Jew. His father Mark, a famous scholar, had been purged from Leningrad University in 1949 as part of Stalin’s campaign against “rootless cosmopolitans.” True, the campaign had been disavowed after Stalin’s death and its victims rehabilitated, but there was no getting away from the fact that Konstantin is undoubtedly cosmopolitan, at least in his interests. Neither being cosmopolitan nor being Jewish is popular at this time of latent xenophobia.

Then there was the odd affair of Azadovsky’s “banishment” in 1969, which came about as a result of his behavior as a witness at the trial of a friend, Efim Slavinsky. Slavinsky’s real offense had been his easy contacts with foreigners, but he too had been convicted on charges of possessing and distributing drugs. The affair was thus made to seem a purely criminal matter, with the involvement of the KGB concealed. Slavinsky admitted the charges, but Azadovsky, possessed by old-fashioned notions of honesty, refused to confirm them, and denied that he himself had ever smoked marijuana at Slavinsky’s place. It made no difference to the outcome, but soon afterward Azadovsky was excluded from the Herzen Institute and could find work no nearer to Leningrad than the provincial town of Petrozavodsk in Karelia, not far from the Finnish border.

Lastly there was Azadovsky’s private life. He had never married but lived at home with his elderly widowed mother (now seventy-seven), helping to care for her. For a number of years Svetlana Lepilina also lived with him as his common-law wife, until she moved out in the summer of 1980. Lepilina, it turned out, had been married once before—to a man who subsequently died of drug poisoning. The circumstances of his death are not known, and it happened long before Azadovsky met Lepilina, but again there was a fortuitous connection with narcotics.

None of this added up to a case, even by the flexible standards of the KGB, but on February 19, when Svetlana Lepilina was brought to trial, two charges were made against her. One was that when her rooms were searched two days after her arrest, 0.06 of a gram of marijuana was found in her jacket pocket. However, there were a number of oddities in the report of this search. The garment in question was described as “a brown jacket of beige color,” and the signatures of the two civilian witnesses to the search (at least two are obligatory under Soviet law) did not tally with the names in the report. Lepilina herself was not permitted to be in the apartment when it was searched, whereas one of her neighbors in the communal flat, a Mrs. Petrova, was present, although she had no reason to be there.

This was all the more curious since Petrova is the mother of one Tkachev, who some time earlier had had a violent argument with Lepilina and Azadovsky in the flat and had struck Azadovsky over the head with a monkey wrench. Lepilina had sued Tkachev for assault, and had then been asked to call off her suit by a police official named Bodu; at Azadovsky’s insistence, however, she had both pursued her suit and made a complaint against Bodu—successfully. Tkachev was sentenced to a year’s imprisonment, and Bodu received a reprimand.

Because of irregularities in the search of Lepilina’s flat the charge concerning the jacket was not pressed. However, the second charge was more serious. When first detained and searched on December 18, Lepilina was found in possession of a packet containing four grams of marijuana. She claimed that a man named Hassan had given her this packet, saying that it contained medicine, and had asked her to deliver it to a certain address. But under pressure Lepilina apparently agreed to plead guilty of possession.

Her trial was held behind closed doors. The only witnesses called were the two vigilantes (druzhinniki) who had helped the police make the arrest and a girlfriend of Lepilina’s. According to the charges, the police had arrested Lepilina because of her “suspicious behavior,” yet the vigilantes testified that they had been instructed at the police station to go to the courtyard of the house where Azadovsky lived, wait for Lepilina, and arrest her there, regardless of how she behaved. An attempt was also made to prove that Lepilina had been on her way to Azadovsky with the drug, but this line was eventually dropped for lack of evidence. In view of her “honest” confession and the fact that it was a first offense, Lepilina was sentenced to one and a half years’ imprisonment in a “normal regime” labor camp.

Azadovsky’s trial took place one month later, on March 16. By mid-morning fifty or sixty people had gathered outside the courtroom, about two-thirds of them Azadovsky’s friends. Most were prevented from entering by a crowd of police cadets in civilian clothes (a familiar tactic in political trials but rare in civil ones), but five friends made it inside the court. According to their account Azadovsky sought to have the trial postponed, partly because he was feeling sick (a prison guard had slammed the steel door of the cell against his head a few days previously and he was suffering from concussion and vomiting) and partly because his defense lawyer, Rozanovsky, had only just been appointed and had had no time to prepare a case. Azadovsky’s previous lawyer, Semyon Kheifets, had abruptly withdrawn from the case without explanation. The court, however, refused Azadovsky’s request.

Throughout the trial Azadovsky denied that he ever used drugs and maintained that the marijuana had been planted on him by Inspector Khlyupin, the police officer in charge of the search. He also maintained that the search was illegal. Khlyupin’s warrant justified it on the grounds that Lepilina was cohabiting with Azadovsky, even though she had moved out. Curiously, the police claimed to have discovered more marijuana in the pocket of Azadovsky’s jacket. Presumably the intention in both cases was to establish habitual use, but this charge was also dropped. The jacket episode did, however, serve to trap Azadovsky into making a serious misjudgment, thereby damaging his defense.

It seems that during his pretrial investigation Azadovsky was deliberately misled into thinking that Lepilina had mentioned his jacket in her confession. He could have received such misinformation only from his investigator his lawyer (at the time Kheifets), or an in former planted in his cell, but whatever the case, the unknown informant seems also to have suggested that Azadoysky try to smuggle out a note to Lepilina. Azadovsky did so and in his note he asked Lepilina to testify that she herself had recently worn his jacket, implying that any marijuana found in it must have been hers. he felt able to ask this, he wrote, because she had “nothing further to lose” and he was sure she would understand. The note was discovered (“in the prison yard,” according to the prosecutor) and used as tacit admission of guilt.

The agent of this deception may have been Kheifets, who is known for his connections with the KGB. (He had been planted as one of the defense lawyers in the notorious “hijackers’ trial” of 1970.) If he entrapped Azadovsky, this might account for his sudden disappearance from the case.

The other main point at issue in the trial was Azadovsky’s character. The prosecution had two lines of argument in its attempt to blacken his reputation. One was guilt by association: Lepilina had already confessed and been convicted—how could her former lover not be guilty as well? And how could he account for his friendship with Slavinsky, another convicted drug user? Secondly, Azadovsky had a negative character reference from the Party section at Mukhina College, describing him as a failure in his teaching career and a man unfit to work in education. He was accused of spending too much time on research and neglecting his “social tasks” (e.g., attending ideological lectures). And he was also accused of having been lax in dealing with the case of a junior teacher named Ravich—when, in fact, Azadovsky had been instrumental in getting the man fired for drunkenness and pilfering and had done so against the opposition of the Party section at the College. When Ravich later sued the College for wrongfully firing him, he named Azadovsky as principally responsible.

Azadovsky pointed out that his “social accuser” from the College was the same man who only a month before his arrest had approached him with an invitation to join the Party, an honor that hardly accorded with the shameful character reference that the accuser now provided for the court. And Azadovsky asked that a statement praising him as a lecturer, signed by most of his colleagues, be admitted as evidence. This, it turned out, had been “lost.” Also lost were letters from high-ranking philologists requesting clemency.

As for the “social accuser,” he said in evidence that the change in the College’s attitude was due to new information it had received. “If we had known about the 1969 affair we would never have taken him on,” he said. (Nor, presumably, would he have invited Azadovsky to join the Party.) And “now that we have found out about his double life and his books and his contacts” the College wanted nothing more to do with him.

And so Konstantin Azadovsky’s brilliant academic career lies in ruins, while his name is being erased from Soviet literary history. Three of his contributions have already been withdrawn from a forthcoming volume in the Literary Heritage series to mark the centenary of the birth of Aleksandr Blok. Doubtless it won’t be long before the well-oiled machinery is brought into action to deny that such a critic ever existed.

Why was the attack on him mounted? No one who knows Azadovsky believes for a moment that he smoked pot. He was too careful for that. Could it have been Ravich’s revenge on Azadovsky for getting him sacked from the College? Was it perhaps Tkachev’s revenge for Azadovsky’s refusal to let Lepilina drop the case against him? Or Bodu’s? Azadovsky had undoubtedly made enemies, and it is quite possible that these enemies, with their police and Party connections, were strong enough to bring about his downfall. Such sordid intrigues are hardly restricted to the Soviet Union. But the result in this case is that a man has ended up in Siberia, from which there is a real risk of not returning.

The Soviet Union’s most powerful and independent organization, the KGB, had to have been watching and waiting behind the scenes until the time was judged ripe to pull all the threads together. But this still leaves the question of the KGB’s motives. Brodsky’s suggestion that the KGB needed to meet its quota may strike some readers as facetious, but there is probably some truth in it. It may sound similarly frivolous to suggest that the KGB was also trying out a new technique of framing political opponents or suspected subversives on criminal charges. The same technique has been tried out in Czechoslovakia with considerable success, and in Poland before Solidarity. The advantages are obvious: no messy interrogations, no need for confessions of guilt, no defiant political statements from the dock, and no complications with mental hospitals and the risk of provoking foreign protests. A prosecution for drugs can be passed off as perfectly normal: who doesn’t have a drug problem nowadays?

It may also have been Azadovsky’s independence of mind and incorruptibility that singled him out. A truly orthodox academic would not have paid so much attention to Pasternak and Tsvetayeva, or adhered so tenaciously to the Leningrad tradition of a high and disinterested literary culture. Literature is cosmopolitan, and it is in this direction that the authorities may have been most anxious to exert pressure.

Azadovsky’s foreign contacts were of the most open and innocuous kind. He had never been allowed abroad (itself a mark of disfavor) and his foreign visitors were bona fide scholars with similar interests. Moreover Ardis, the Michigan publishing house with which Azadovsky was suspected of having contact (though he merely had some of its books on his shelves), represents, from the KGB’s point of view, the “soft” end of Western subversion. If even such tenuous connections are now regarded by the Soviet authorities as excessive, the outlook for cooperation between scholars from East and West is extremely bleak.

Vladimir Maramzin has suggested (in an article in the Paris-based Russkaya misl‘) that in addition to trying to cut off contacts, the KGB is waiting to see what sort of reaction Azadovsky’s sentence will provoke in the West. If Azadovsky is allowed to disappear quietly and his fate quickly forgotten, perhaps others will come to share his fate.2 But the KGB may have miscalculated and stirred up a hornet’s nest in different quarters—in the many departments, institutes, and schools of Slavic Studies scattered about Europe and North America.

Many in the KGB and the Party, of course, regard all Western Slavic specialists as subversive by definition, and in the present Soviet atmosphere of chauvinism, anti-Semitism, and distrust of all things foreign, breaking off contacts may seem desirable. Party leaders are in any case more concerned with the views of grain and computer salesmen than of literature professors. And yet the Soviet government can’t afford to be entirely indifferent to cultural matters, for Russian culture is one of its most prized propaganda weapons. Considerably earlier and far more clearly than the governments of the West, the Soviet leaders perceived the propaganda value of literature, music, ballet, even folk dancing, and have assiduously promoted and exploited these arts for decades. But it has been a policy with diminishing returns, for 90 percent of Soviet culture was created by people nurtured either before or just after the revolution, and these have nearly all died off. What is left is largely a museum culture, strong in performance and feeble in creation.

The exception is literature, but even here the best living Russian poet (Brodsky) and the two best living prose writers (Solzhenitsyn and Sinyavsky) came to the West, as did Vasily Aksyonov, the late Alexander Galich, Natalia Gorbanevskaya, Naum Korzhavin, Vladimir Maramizin, Vladimir Maximov, Viktor Nekrasov, Vladimir Voinovich, Alexander Zinoviev—the list could be continued—and what remains of Russian literature in the Soviet Union is little more than a rump. For Western Slavicists this creates complications. For many decades now they have been faced with a dilemma that is unknown to scholars in most other foreign literatures (though perhaps familiar to Latin American and Chinese scholars): how to square their consciences with the fact that in order to establish contacts with native scholars and maintain a living relationship with Soviet culture, they have been obliged habitually to censor their actions, words, writings—even their thoughts—and to pretend that nothing bad is happening, that everything is normal.

For a few the price has not been high, but most have been conscious of the sacrifice they are making and have justified it as the price of keeping a dialogue going between the two cultures. Above all it has been a means of holding out a lifeline to honest, gifted, and struggling Soviet scholars like Azadovsky. But if even specialists like Azadovsky, who managed to combine to an exceptional degree loyalty to the system with scholarly integrity, are no longer to be tolerated, why submit oneself to the difficulties and humiliations when the only people one is allowed to see are bland, glib, and cynical Party hacks, while the people of talent are silenced?

The Russian specialists are the best Western friends the Soviet Union has left. Self-interest drives them to maintain links. But they are now finding themselves isolated in another sense as well—they are without students. It is no secret that enrollments in Russian studies have dropped catastrophically throughout Western (and Eastern) Europe and in the US. Various reasons have been advanced to account for this phenomenon, but one has been overlooked: boredom. Students have been far quicker than their teachers to realize that the Soviet Union—and Soviet culture—have less and less to offer. The hope that stirred during the Khrushchev years for a more open situation for writers and literary scholars has almost completely faded. For intellectual interest and excitement, for living issues, students have to turn to the older European cultures or, increasingly, look to Latin America, Africa, Asia. As for teachers of Russian, increasingly disheartened and disillusioned, they are obliged to bury themselves more and more deeply in the past.

The rigged trial of Azadovsky and the elaborate scaffolding of deception erected around it may just be the result of personal vendettas. If they are, they reveal a sick and corrupt society prepared to destroy its best citizens and cut itself off from foreign scholars for the sake of allowing private empires to flourish unchecked. But if, as I suspect, it is something more sinister, it is yet another nail in the coffin of Russian culture, whose eventual funeral will attract few, if any, to mourn it.

  1. 1

    Harcourt Brace Jovanovich plans to publish the book next year.

  2. 2

    Maramzin’s prediction has already come true. On December 4, 1981, the young Leningrad historian, Arseny Roginsky, was sentenced to four years in a “normal regime” labor camp on a charge of forgery. A Jew and the son of a former political prisoner, Roginsky had been regarded as too “unreliable” to be given an academic post, despite the brilliance and originality of his historical research, and since 1977 had been subjected to repeated harassment. Earlier in the year the KGB confiscated his library card, and when he borrowed or fabricated another in order to continue his research he was arrested and charged with “forging official documents to obtain special privileges” under Article 196 of the criminal code. Like Azadovsky, Roginsky has been convicted on a criminal charge and will be subjected to all the rigors of a criminal camp, without the moral support of other political prisoners.

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