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The Arts in Russia Under Stalin

For more information about Isaiah Berlin, see the Isaiah Berlin Virtual Library. For permission to reprint any material by Isaiah Berlin, contact Curtis Brown Group Ltd.

In the autumn of 1945 Isaiah Berlin, then an official of the British Foreign Office, visited Russia for the first time since he had left it in 1920, aged eleven. It was during this visit that his famous meetings with Anna Akhmatova and Boris Pasternak took place.1 At the end of his period of duty Berlin wrote a remarkable long memorandum, to which he gave the characteristically unassuming title “A Note on Literature and the Arts in the Russian Soviet Federated Socialist Republic in the Closing Months of 1945.”2

He was modest, too, about the content of his report. He enclosed a copy of it with a letter dated March 23, 1946, to Averell Harriman, US ambassador to the USSR. In the letter, written from the British embassy in Washington, he told Harriman: “I enclose a long and badly written report on Russian literature etc. which I am instructed to forward to you by Frank Roberts [British Minister in Moscow]. I doubt whether there is anything in it that is either new or arresting—here only Jock Balfour [British Minister in Washington] has read it, in the Foreign Office I doubt if anyone will. It is confidential only because of the well-known consequences to the possible sources of the information contained in it, should its existence ever become known to ‘them.”’

Berlin’s self-effacing account of his dispatch is of course quite misleading. As Michael Ignatieff writes in his biography of Berlin: “Its modest title belied its ambitions: it was nothing less than a history of Russian culture in the first half of the twentieth century, a chronicle of Akhmatova’s fateful generation. It was probably the first Western account of Stalin’s war against Russian culture. On every page there are traces of what she—Chukovsky and Pasternak as well—told him about their experiences in the years of persecution.” 3

—Henry Hardy

The Soviet literary scene is a peculiar one, and in order to understand it few analogies from the West are of use. For a variety of causes Russia has in historical times led a life to some degree isolated from the rest of the world, and never formed a genuine part of the Western tradition; indeed her literature has at all times provided evidence of a peculiarly ambivalent attitude to the uneasy relationship between herself and the West, taking the form now of a violent and unsatisfied longing to enter and become part of the mainstream of European life, now of a resentful (“Scythian”) contempt for Western values, not by any means confined to professing Slavophiles; but most often of an unresolved, self-conscious combination of these mutually opposed currents of feeling. This mingled emotion of love and of hate permeates the writing of virtually every well-known Russian author, sometimes rising to great vehemence in the protest against foreign influence which, in one form or another, colors the masterpieces of Griboedov, Pushkin, Gogol, Nekrasov, Dostoevsky, Herzen, Tolstoy, Chekhov, Blok.

The October Revolution insulated Russia even more completely, and her development became perforce still more self-regarding, self-conscious, and incommensurable with that of its neighbors. It is not my purpose to trace the situation historically, but the present [autumn 1945] is particularly unintelligible without at least a glance at previous events, and it would perhaps be convenient, and not too misleading, to divide its recent growth into three main stages—(a) 1900-1928; (b) 1928- 1937; (c) 1937 to the present—artificial and oversimple though this can easily be shown to be.

First Period: 1900-1928

The first quarter of the present century was a time of storm and stress during which Russian literature, particularly poetry (as well as the theater and the ballet), principally (although one is not allowed to say so today) under French and, to some degree, German influence, attained its greatest height since its classical age of Pushkin, Lermontov, and Gogol. Upon this the October Revolution made a violent impact, but it did not dam the swelling tide. Absorbed and inexhaustible preoccupation with social and moral questions is perhaps the most arresting single characteristic of Russian art and thought as a whole; and this largely shaped the great Revolution, and after its triumph led to a long, fierce battle between, on one side, those primarily artistic rebels who looked to the Revolution to realize their own most violent “anti-bourgeois” attitudes (and attitudinizing) and, on the other, those primarily political men of action who wished to bend all artistic and intellectual activity directly to the social and economic ends of the Revolution.

The rigid censorship which shut out all but carefully selected authors and ideas, and the prohibition or discouragement of many nonpolitical forms of art (particularly trivial genres such as popular love, mystery, and detective stories, as well as all varieties of novelettes and general trash), automatically focused the attention of the reading public on new and experimental work, filled, as often before in Russian literary history, with strongly felt and often quaint and fanciful social notions. Perhaps because conflicts in the more obviously dangerous waters of politics and economics might easily be thought too alarming, literary and artistic wars became (as they did in German countries a century earlier under Metternich’s police) the only genuine battlefield of ideas; even now the literary periodicals, tame as they necessarily are, for this very reason make livelier reading than the monotonously conformist daily, and purely political, press.

The main engagement of the early and middle 1920s was fought between the free and somewhat anarchist literary experimenters and the Bolshevik zealots, with unsuccessful attempts at a truce by such figures as Lunacharsky and Bubnov.4 This culminated, by 1927-1928, first in the victory, and then, when it seemed to the authorities too revolutionary and even Trotskyist, in the collapse and purge (during the 1930s), of the notorious RAPP (the Revolutionary Association of Proletarian Writers), led by the most uncompromising fanatic of a strictly collectivist proletarian culture, the critic Averbakh. There followed, during the period of “pacification” and stabilization organized by Stalin and his practical-minded collaborators, a new orthodoxy, directed principally against the emergence of any ideas likely to disturb and so divert attention from the economic tasks ahead. This led to a universal dead level, to which the only surviving classical author of the great days, Maxim Gorky, finally and, according to some of his friends, with reluctant despair, gave his blessing.

Second Period: 1928-1937

The new orthodoxy, which became finally established after Trotsky’s fall in 1928, put a firm end to the period of incubation during which the best Soviet poets, novelists, and dramatists, and, indeed, composers and film producers too, produced their most original and memorable works. It marked the end of the turbulent middle and late 1920s, when Western visitors were astonished and sometimes outraged by Vakhtangov’s stage5 ; when Eisenstein, not yet a film producer, directed his amusing futuristic experiments on stages discovered in the disused palaces of Moscow merchants, and the great producer Meyerhold, whose artistic life is a kind of microcosm of the artistic life of his country, and whose genius is still only secretly acknowledged, conducted his most audacious and memorable theatrical experiments. There occurred, before 1928, a vast ferment in Soviet thought, which during those early years was genuinely animated by the spirit of revolt against, and challenge to, the arts of the West, conceived as the last desperate struggle of capitalism, presently to be overthrown on the artistic as well as every other front by the strong, young, materialist, earthbound, proletarian culture, proud of its brutal simplicity and its crude and violent new vision of the world, which the Soviet Union, agonized but triumphant, was bringing to birth.

The herald and chief inspiring force of this new Jacobinism was the poet Mayakovsky, who, with his disciples, formed the famous LEF6 association. While there may have been a great deal that was pretentious, counterfeit, coarse, exhibitionist, childish, and merely silly during this period, there was also much that was brimming with life. It was not, as a rule, didactically Communist so much as anti-liberal, and had in that respect points of resemblance with pre-1914 Italian futurism. This was the period of the best work of such poets as the popular “tribune” Mayakovsky, who, if he was not a great poet, was a radical literary innovator and emancipator of prodigious energy, force, and, above all, influence; the age of Pasternak, Akh-matova (until her silence in 1923), Selvinsky, Aseev, Bagritsky, Mandelshtam; of such novelists as Aleksey Tolstoy (who returned from Paris in the 1920s), Prishvin, Kataev, Zoshchenko, Pilnyak, Babel, Ilf and Petrov; of the dramatist Bulgakov; of established literary critics and scholars like Tynyanov, Eichenbaum, Tomashevsky, Shklovsky, Lerner, Chukovsky, Zhirmunsky, Leonid Grossman. The voices of such émigré writers as Bunin, Tsvetaeva, Khodasevich, Nabokov were heard only faintly. The emigration and return of Gorky is another story.

State control was absolute throughout. The only period of freedom during which no censorship existed in modern Russian history was from February to October 1917. In 1934 the Bolshevik regime tightened old methods by imposing several stages of supervision—first by the Writers’ Union, then by the appropriate state-appointed commissar, finally by the Central Committee of the Communist Party. A literary “line” was laid down by the Party: at first the notorious Proletkult, which demanded collective work on Soviet themes by squads of proletarian writers; then the worship of Soviet or pre-Soviet heroes. Nevertheless, arresting and original artists were not, until 1937, always brought to heel by the omnipotent state; sometimes, if they were prepared to take sufficient risks, they might manage to convert the authorities to the value of an unorthodox approach (as the dramatist Bulgakov did); sometimes unorthodoxy, provided that it was not positively directed against the Soviet faith, was given some latitude of expression, as a not unwelcome seasoning, at times exceedingly sharp, of the flat daily fare of normal Soviet life (for example, the early, gay, malicious satires of Tynyanov, Kataev, and, above all, Zoshchenko). This was not, of course, permitted to go far or occur too often, but the possibility of it was always present, and the genius of writers was to a certain extent stimulated by the very degree of ingenuity which they had to exercise in order to express unconventional ideas without breaking the framework of orthodoxy or incurring outright condemnation and punishment.

This continued for some time after Stalin’s rise to power and the imposition of the new orthodoxy. Gorky died only in 1935; and as long as he was alive, some distinguished and interesting writers were to a certain degree shielded from excessive regimentation and persecution by his immense personal authority and prestige; he consciously played the role of “the conscience of the Russian people” and continued the tradition of Lunacharsky (and even Trotsky) in protecting promising artists from the dead hand of official bureaucracy. In the field of official Marxism an intolerant and narrow “dialectical materialism” did indeed hold sway, but it was a doctrine concerning which internal disputes were permitted, between, for example, the followers of Bukharin and the followers of the more pedantic Ryazanov or Deborin; between various brands of philosophical materialism; between those “Menshevizers” who saw Lenin as a direct disciple of Plekhanov, and those who stressed their differences.

  1. 1

    See Isaiah Berlin, “Conversations with Akhmatova and Pasternak,” The New York Review, November 20, 1980, pp. 23-35, reprinted in an anthology of Berlin’s work, The Proper Study of Mankind (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1998).

  2. 2

    The original text is to be found in the British Public Record Office file FO 371/56725. The version published here incorporates two sets of revisions made by the author—one probably not many years later (including a few references to post-1945 developments), apparently in preparation for a talk; the other in 1992, in response to a request that the memorandum should be published in Russian. A partial Russian translation appeared as “Literatura i iskusstvo v RSFSR” (“Literature and Art in the RSFSR”), Nezavisimaya gazeta, December 16, 1997, in the supplement Kulisa NG, No. 2, December 1997, pp. 4-5. Until now no version of this document has been published in English. The present title and the notes (which incorporate information supplied by Helen Rappaport, to whom I am duly grateful) are mine.

    Crown copyright material in the British Public Record Office is reproduced by permission of the Controller of Her Majesty’s Stationery Office; revisions (c) The Isaiah Berlin Literary Trust 1997, 2000.

  3. 3

    Michael Ignatieff, Isaiah Berlin: A Life (Metropolitan Books, 1998), p. 161.

  4. 4

    The first two holders of the post of People’s Commissar for Education. Anatoly Vasilevich Lunacharsky (1875-1933), dramatist and literary critic, notable for educational reforms under Lenin’s New Economic Policy, was commissar from 1917 until 1929, when Stalin removed him from office. Andrey Sergeevich Bubnov (1883-1938), a left-wing Bolshevist (Trotskyist), later changed sides to support Stalin, and succeeded to the post, which he held until 1937.

  5. 5

    Evgeny Bagrationovich Vakhtangov (1883-1923), actor, director, and drama teacher, pupil of Stanislavsky, was famous for his innovative work in the Moscow Arts Theater in the early 1920s.

  6. 6

    Left Front of Art.

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