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, 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 …

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