“I varnish reality,
correcting my verse….
To speed up the bargain
that leads to my cheque,
I fracture the arms, and
I chop off the legs.
Hand it over, as bidden.
I lacquer and lie.
But I’ll keep some things hidden,
I’ll let some things lie;…
I shall publish, one day!”
These lines on the constraints of authorship under the Soviet system first appeared in print in Russia in 1987, three decades after they were written. Their author, Boris Abramovich Slutsky, had died the previous year. Perceived as an orthodox Soviet writer, he was largely ignored by the critics until it was discovered after his death that an estimated 60 percent of his poetic output remained unpublished. His defiant promise has now been fulfilled for him by others. More than a thousand of his “hidden” poems were published in Russia in the first five years after his death; they encompass Stalin’s Terror, the Nazi invasion and the war, the “Thaw” of the 1950s, and the system’s decline into senile decay. According to Gerald Smith, who has translated and annotated the first selection of his work available in English, although we are only beginning to see it whole, “[it] stands indisputably as the most valuable body of individual poetic testimony to the experience of the Russians under Soviet rule.”
When the Soviet Union was still a fearsome and enigmatic reality, such a testimonial might have won Slutsky instant fame. But to many in the West Soviet Russia now seems almost as remote as Nazi Germany, a horribly failed experiment now mercifully fading from memory.
Of course, this is not the case. In Russia the ultimate significance of Stalin continues to be the subject of passionate debate, while in the West scholars continue to cite dissident writers and intellectuals in an ongoing polemic, which began in the cold war, about the nature of the Soviet system. As shown by a recent public exchange between the distinguished US historians Martin Malia and Stephen Cohen, this dispute has thrown up opposing assessments of Russia’s post-Communist development.
Malia is one of the most prominent proponents of the view that the Soviet system was a unique event, an unprecedented party-state, a secular theocracy enforcing its ideology through all-encompassing control over its people. Since such a monolithic structure was inherently incapable of fundamental reform, the argument runs, the collapse of perestroika in an empire still under Party control was both inevitable and desirable as the prelude to a painful but necessary transition to democratic capitalism. Opponents of this view argue, with Cohen, that the notions of Soviet “totalitarianism” and of a post-Soviet benevolent “transition” to capitalism are both ideological conceits, the first rooted in cold war politics, the second in the triumphalism of free market orthodoxies in the 1990s. Pointing out that even under Stalin a significant proportion of Russians had actively supported many official policies, they contend that a return to a Gorbachev-style attempt to shape a …