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The Secret Sharer

Things That Happened commentaries by

by Volume 19. Glas New Russian Writing, by Boris Slutsky, edited, translated, and with an introduction and G.S. Smith
Moscow/Birmingham: Glas (distributed in the US by Ivan R. Dee), 314 pp., $14.95 (paper)


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;…
My book—uncorrected—
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by the critics until it was discovered after his death that an estimated 60 percent of his poetic output remained unpublished.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.1

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 national consensus on political, economic, institutional, and moral values is still a possibility (if remote) and would cost the population far less than the current attempt to construct a Western-style system on the rubble of the Soviet order.

The idea of the Soviet Union as a malevolent “monolith” has steadily lost ground over the last three decades, but it has had a formidable source of support in Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn. The sensational publication in the West in 1974 of The Gulag Archipelago, Solzhenitsyn’s monumental history of Stalin’s forced labor camps, gave the world a powerful image of evil. It repeated the message of his novels The First Circle and Cancer Ward: that the Soviet people were either servants or prisoners of the system of ideological lies that permeated every aspect of their existence. Only a heroic few (such as the semiautobiographical Gleb Nerzhin in The First Circle) retained their moral integrity through a near-suicidal refusal to cooperate with the authorities in any way.

Many Sovietologists have cited The Gulag Archipelago as an allegory of the unchanging essence of the Soviet regime—a uniquely demonic utopia which could pursue its demented ideological vision only by means of mass violence and coercion. But this description is not compatible with what we now know about popular attitudes even in the Stalinist period. A wide-ranging sample of these is presented in Sheila Fitzpatrick’s study Everyday Stalinism, which draws on an impressive variety of primary sources to show how in extraordinary times—under an arbitrary, unpredictable, and violent authority and in the absence of all personal security—urban Russians still managed to pursue a multiplicity of everyday practices, such as studying, dealing with family problems, using patrons and connections, petitioning the authorities, and complaining—most frequently about bureaucratic rudeness and red tape and the government’s failure to ensure adequate supplies of food, goods, and living space. She identifies as well a wide base of active support among the young, who saw the regime as a modernizing and civilizing force. To support her contention that “the terror was not a terror for everyone,” Fitzpatrick quotes Solzhenitsyn’s recollection of the beginning of the Great Purges in 1937:

How could we know anything about those arrests and why should we think about them? All the provincial leaders had been removed, but as far as we were concerned it didn’t matter. Two or three professors had been arrested, but after all they hadn’t been our dancing partners, and it might even be easier to pass our exams as a result. Twenty-year-olds,…because we were the same age as the Revolution, the brightest of futures lay ahead.

Among other sections of the population, passivity could be as much a strategy of self-protection as the expression of fatalism. Ideological control was far from total: in the 1937 census more than half the population identified themselves as religious believers, thus rejecting a basic principle of the Soviet world view. Outward conformity to ideology and ritual were commonly combined with a skeptical attitude toward authority and the official press. Official images were subverted in jokes: the increasing arbitrariness of arrests and executions during the Terror of 1937-1938 was the subject of much grim humor.

But in correcting the image of an enserfed and terrorized population, Fitzpatrick goes too far. She has treated the forced collectivization of the peasants in another book.2 One chapter of the present volume deals with “outcasts” of Soviet society, including priests and other categories of persons stigmatized, along with their families, because of their class origins or political convictions, and often sent into internal exile, along with criminals, prostitutes, and others. But she devotes only eight pages to what it was like for the average citizen to live through the Great Purges, which swallowed up the relatives of thousands of urban Russians who, as Anna Akhmatova records in her poem “Requiem,” stood in line summer and winter outside prisons, hoping for news of the disappeared—an everyday practice. This does not figure in Fitzpatrick’s account, which concludes as follows: “There were fearful things that affected Soviet life and visions that uplifted it, but mostly it was a hard grind, full of shortages and discomfort. Homo Sovieticus was…above all…a survivor.” This would seem a more fitting description of the British home front during World War II than of Russia under Stalin, whose savagery claimed millions of lives in the 1930s.

The imbalance in Fitzpatrick’s book may derive from her conflation of the terms “Stalinist” and “Soviet”; in her usage the Stalinist regime represents “a maximalist version of the latter and its defining moment.” This view would be strongly disputed by many scholars, as well as dissidents, who saw Khrushchev’s repudiation of Stalin’s crimes as marking a radical change of direction for Soviet society. Fitzpatrick’s revisionism downplays Stalinism just as the “monolith” model downplays de-Stalinization: in both cases the result is a static vision of the Soviet era which will not accommodate the varied testimonies of those who lived through it.


A balanced picture of the period may be impossible; but the discovery of Boris Slutsky’s hidden poetry is a significant step in that direction. Yurii Boldyryov, who prepared his unpublished poems for the Russian press, describes them as episodes of an epic drama that faithfully charted the peripeteia of his savage times.3 As such they are comparable in importance with the work of Solzhenitsyn. Both writers were born into the Soviet system and became fervent believers in its gospel. With the loss of their political faith they both took on a new mission: to record the cost in human suffering of the great utopian experiment of their age. But while Solzhenitsyn’s perspective on his society was increasingly dominated by his new religious nationalism, Slutsky’s was inspired by a skeptical humanism which prevented him from fitting his observations into any dogmatic scheme.

He was born in 1919 into a Jewish family in Ukraine and grew up in the industrial city of Kharkov. His father was a manual worker, his mother a part-time teacher. He came to Moscow in 1937 and attended courses in literature and law. Smith has translated his principal poems and jottings on his attitude to Stalin. “I grew up under Stalin…./He was my lighthouse and my harbour./That’s about it./That he was mortal never crossed my mind.” He saw no alternative to Stalin, “and, I must confess, did not look for an alternative.” He recalled that (although his dormitory neighbor was taken away one night) the purges scarcely impinged on his consciousness: he could always find answers to his questions in the official media: “I believed every slogan.”

Immediately after the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union in 1941 he volunteered. His duties as a political officer in the front line included indoctrination of the troops and participation in military tribunals. He served throughout the war, and was severely wounded in the head. He began publishing his poetry in 1953, and four years later formally became a Soviet writer by joining the Writers’ Union, participating in its infamous denunciation and expulsion of Pasternak after the publication abroad of Doctor Zhivago.

This act (which he later bitterly regretted) was prompted not by servility but by a fervent patriotism: he believed that Soviet writers who published abroad what they were forbidden to publish at home were serving their country’s enemies. His own published poetry was optimistic in tone, stressing the value of work and the virtues of the Russian people, but his political orthodoxy stopped short of eulogies of the Party, which he had joined in 1943. He never held any office in the Writers’ Union—the principal path of advancement for a Soviet writer—and he published very little, earning a modest living through writing items for radio. After the death of his wife in 1977 he suffered a severe depression, intensified by chronic pain from his head wound, and wrote nothing for the last nine years of his life.

  1. 1

    See “A Mess in Russia: Two Views of Why,” The New York Times, March 27, 1999, p. B7. See also Malia, Russia Under Western Eyes: From the Bronze Horseman to the Lenin Mausoleum (Belknap Press/Harvard University Press, 1999), Chapter 5; and Cohen, “Russian Studies Without Russia,” Post-Soviet Affairs, Vol. 15, No. 1, pp. 37-55 (January-March 1999). For the earlier history of this debate, see Cohen, Rethinking the Soviet Experience: Politics and History since 1917 (Oxford University Press, 1985).

  2. 2

    Stalin’s Peasants: Resistance and Survival in the Russian Village After Collectivization (Oxford University Press, 1994).

  3. 3

    See Boris Slutsky, Sobranie sochinenii (3 vols.), edited by Iu. Boldyryov (Moscow: Khudozhestvennaia literatura, 1991). Some of the quotations in this review are my translations from this collection of Slutsky’s published and unpublished work.

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