Reflections on Russia
Zametki i Nabludeniya: Iz Zapisnikh knizhek razhnikh lyet (Notes and Observations: From Notebooks Over the Years)
Bibliographia: Dmitri Sergeyevich Likhachev
Glasnost: An Anthology of Russian Literature under Gorbachev
Stikhi iz Tyurmi (Poems From Prison)
Sleepwalker in a Fog
Just before he went into exile twenty years ago, Joseph Brodsky took up a long tradition and sent a letter to the tsar. “Dear Leonid Illich,” he wrote to Brezhnev, “A language is a much more ancient and inevitable thing than a state. I belong to the Russian language. As to the state, I believe the measure of a writer’s patriotism is not oaths from a high platform, but how he writes in the language of the people among whom he lives…. Although I am losing my Soviet citizenship, I do not cease to be a Russian poet. I believe that I will return. Poets always return in flesh or on paper.”
By the first months of 1988, it seemed like a renaissance in Russia. You’d ride the Moscow metro and see office workers, teachers, retired apparatchiks, all reading the latest excerpts in the monthly “thick” journals: Novy Mir, Znamya, and the rest. People wrapped the magazines in newspaper or oil cloth, the better to preserve them and pass them on from one reader to the next. They read all the time, riding up escalators, walking down the ice-slick streets, reading as if scared that this would all disappear once more into the censor’s hand. A people that had been deprived for so long of all that was best in its language consumed classics on the installment plan: Anna Akhmatova’s “Requiem” one week, Andrei Platonov’s Chevengur the next. When his own poems appeared in Novy Mir, Brodsky offered no thanks; nor should his readers, he told me. “That would be like thanking a thief for returning what is yours.”
Month after month, the editors of the journals and the state publishing houses printed everything they could manage until, finally, Sergei Zalygin, the editor of Novy Mir, shattered the last taboo with the publication two years ago of The Gulag Archipelago. What could be unsayable now when the regime, from Lenin on, has been declared guilty of terror?
The return of literature also meant the collapse of an enormous cultural bureaucracy that strangled independent talent and made sure that union secretaries had first printings in the millions and dachas by the sea. With glasnost, no one would ever want to read again the hackwork of the novelist-bureaucrats, for now all could see these were not writers. They were well-fed policemen.
Even now, the journals are filling in the missing pieces of Russian literature. Novy Mir, for its part, continues to publish excerpts from Solzhenitsyn’s novel The Red Wheel and his memoir The Oak and the Calf, though few readers are much interested. Solzhenitsyn is still revered for Gulag, but people are generally bored with the later work and are even beginning to lose interest in his long-promised return home from Vermont. One writer jokes, “Should we send a car, or will Aleksandr Isaeyich require a white horse at the customs gate?”
The literary euphoria of 1988 and 1989 is long gone; the process of …