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The Arts in Russia Under Stalin

Witch hunts occurred; heresy, both on the right and the left, was continually being “unmasked” with grisly consequences to the convicted heretics; but the very ferocity of such ideological disputes, the uncertainty as to which side would be condemned to liquidation, communicated a certain grim life to the intellectual atmosphere, with the result that both creative and critical work during this period, while suffering from one-sidedness and exaggeration, was seldom dull, and indicated a state of continuing ferment in all spheres of thought and art. Well might the sympathetic observer of the Soviet scene compare such activity favorably with the slow decline of such of the older generation of émigré Russian writers in France as Vyacheslav Ivanov, Balmont, Merezhkovsky, Zinaida Gippius, Kuprin, and others, though their literary technique was, at times, admitted, even in Moscow, to be often superior to that of a good many of the Soviet pioneers.

Third Period: 1937 to the Present Day

Then came the great debacle which to every Soviet writer and artist is a kind of St. Bartholomew’s Eve—a dark night which few of them seem ever completely to forget, and which is scarcely ever today spoken of otherwise than in a nervous whisper. The government, which evidently felt its foundations insecure, or feared a major war in, and possibly with, the West, struck at all supposedly “doubtful” elements, and innumerable innocent and harmless persons besides, with a violence and a thoroughness to which the Spanish Inquisition and the Counter-Reformation alone offer remote parallels.

The great purges and trials of the years 1937 and 1938 altered the literary and artistic scene beyond all recognition. The number of writers and artists exiled or exterminated during this time—particularly during the Ezhov terror7—was such that Russian literature and thought emerged in 1939 like an area devastated by war, with some splendid buildings still relatively intact, but standing solitary amid stretches of ruined and deserted country. Men of genius like Meyerhold the producer and Mandelshtam the poet, and of talent like Babel, Pilnyak, Yashvili, Tabidze, the then recently returned London émigré Prince D.S. Mirsky, the critic Averbakh (to take the best-known names alone) were “repressed,” that is, killed or done away with in one way or another. What occurred after that no one today seems to know. Not a trace of any of these writers and artists has been sighted by the outside world. There are rumors that some of them are still alive, like Dora Kaplan, who shot and wounded Lenin in 1918, or Meyerhold, who is said to be producing plays in the Kazakhstan capital Alma-Ata; but these seem to be circulated by the Soviet government and are, almost certainly, quite false.8 One of the British correspondents, whose sympathies were all too clear, tried to persuade me that Mirsky was alive and writing in Moscow incognito. It was obvious that he did not really believe this. Nor did I.

The poetess Marina Tsvetaeva, who returned from Paris in 1939 and fell into official disfavor, committed suicide, probably early in 1942.9 The rising young composer Shostakovich was criticized in 1937 so harshly, from a quarter so high, for “formalism” and “bourgeois decadence,” that for two years he was neither performed nor mentioned, and then, having slowly and painfully repented, adopted a new style in closer accord with present-day official Soviet demands. He has on two occasions since then had to be called to order and to repent; so has Prokofiev. A handful of young writers unknown in the West, who are said to have showed promise during this period, have, so one was told, not been heard of since; they are unlikely to have survived, although one cannot always tell. Before this the poets Esenin and Mayakovsky had committed suicide. Their disillusionment with the regime is still officially denied. So it goes on.

The death of Gorky had removed the intellectuals’ only powerful protector, and the last link with the earlier tradition of the relative freedom of revolutionary art. The most eminent survivors of this period today sit silent and nervous for fear of committing some fatal sin against the Party line, which anyhow was none too clear during the critical years before the war, nor thereafter. Those to fare worst were the writers and authors in closest contact with Western Europe, that is, France and England, since the turning of Soviet foreign policy away from Litvinov’s policy of collective security, and toward the isolationism symbolized by the Russo-German Pact, involved individuals regarded as links with Western countries in the general discredit of pro-Western policy.

Bending before authority exceeded all previously known bounds. Sometimes it came too late to save the heretic marked for destruction; in any case it left behind it painful and humiliating memories from which the survivors of this terror are never likely completely to recover. Ezhov’s proscriptions, which sent many tens of thousands of intellectuals to their doom, had clearly, by 1938, gone too far even for internal security. A halt was finally called when Stalin made a speech in which he declared that the process of purification had been overdone. A breathing space followed. The old national tradition reacquired respectability; the classics were once again treated with respect, and some old street names replaced the revolutionary nomenclature. The final formulation of faith, beginning with the constitution of 1936, was completed by the Short History of the Communist Party of 1938. The years 1938 to 1940, during which the Communist Party made even greater strides in the strengthening and centralization of its power and authority—tight enough before this—remained, during the slow convalescence from the wounds of 1938, blank so far as the creative and critical arts were concerned.

The Patriotic War

Then war broke out and the picture altered again. Everything was mobilized for war. Such authors of distinction as survived the Great Purge, and managed to preserve their liberty without bowing too low before the state, seemed to react to the great wave of genuine patriotic feeling if anything even more profoundly than the orthodox Soviet writers, but evidently had gone through too much to be capable of making their art the vehicle of direct expression of the national emotion. The best war poems of Pasternak and Akhmatova sprang from the most profound feeling, but were too pure artistically to be considered as possessing adequate direct propaganda value, and were consequently mildly frowned upon by the literary mandarins of the Communist Party, who guide the fortunes of the official Writers’ Union.

This disapproval, with undertones of doubt about his fundamental loyalty, did finally get under Pasternak’s skin to so effective a degree that this most incorruptible of artists did produce a handful of pieces, close to direct war propaganda, which had been too obviously wrung out of him, sounded lame and unconvincing, and were criticized as weak and inadequate by the Party reviewers. Such pièces d’occasion as the Pulkov Meridian by Vera Inber, and her war diary of the Leningrad blockade, and the more gifted work by Olga Bergholz, were better received.

But what did emerge, possibly somewhat to the surprise of both the authorities and the authors, was an uncommon rise in popularity with the soldiers at the fighting fronts of the least political and most purely personal lyrical verse by Pasternak (whose poetic genius no one has yet ventured to deny); of such wonderful poets as Akhmatova among the living, and Blok, Bely, and even Bryusov, Sologub, Tsvetaeva, and Mayakovsky among the (post-revolutionary) dead. Unpublished works by the best of the living poets, circulated privately in manuscript to a few friends, and copied by hand, were passed to one another by soldiers at the front with the same touching zeal and deep feeling as Ehrenburg’s eloquent leading articles in the Soviet daily press, or the favorite conformist patriotic novels of this period. Distinguished but hitherto somewhat suspect and lonely writers, especially Pasternak and Akhmatova, began to receive a flood of letters from the front quoting their published and unpublished works, and begging for autographs and confirmation of the authenticity of texts, some of which existed only in manuscript, and for the expression of their authors’ attitudes to this or that problem.

This eventually could not fail to impress itself upon responsible Party leaders, and the official attitude toward such writers grew somewhat softer. It was as if their value as institutions of which the state might one day be proud began to be realized by the bureaucrats of literature, and their status and personal security became improved in consequence. This is not likely to last, however: Akhmatova and Pasternak are not loved by the Party and its literary commissars. To be nonpropagandist and survive you must be inconspicuous: Akhmatova and Pasternak are too obviously popular to escape suspicion.

The Present

The more benevolent, if no less watchful, attitude of the official state censors has enabled the better thought of among the established writers to adjust themselves in what they plainly hope is a series of relatively secure niches; some have avowedly harnessed themselves, with varying degrees of conviction, into the service of the state, and declare that they conform as faithfully as they do, not because they must, but because they are true believers (as Aleksey Tolstoy did with his radical revision of his famous early novel The Road to Golgotha, which originally contained an English hero, and his play about Ivan the Terrible, which, in effect, is a justification of the purges). Others apply themselves to nice calculation of how much they can afford to give up to the demands of state propaganda, how much being left to personal integrity; yet others attempt to develop a friendly neutrality toward the state, not impinging, and hoping not to be impinged upon, careful to do nothing to offend, satisfied if they are suffered to live and work without reward or recognition.

The Party line has suffered a good many changes since its inception, and the writers and artists learn of its latest exigencies from the Central Committee of the Communist Party, which is ultimately responsible for its formulation, through various channels. The final directive is today officially produced by a member of the Politburo, Mikhail Suslov, who for this purpose replaced Georgy Aleksandrov. Aleksandrov was removed, so one is told, for writing a book in which Karl Marx was represented only as the greatest of philosophers, instead of someone different from and greater in kind than any philosopher—an insult, I suppose, rather similar to describing Galileo as the greatest of astrologers. Suslov is responsible to the Party for propaganda and publicity; the members of the Writers’ Union who adapt this to the needs of their colleagues are the Chairman and in particular the secretary, a direct nominee of the Central Executive Committee of the Party, and often not a writer at all (thus the late Shcherbakov, a purely political figure, a powerful member of the Politburo at the time of his death in 1945, was at one time secretary of the Writers’ Union).

  1. 7

    The Ezhov Terror, the most frenzied phase of the purges here described, refers to the arbitrary repression orchestrated by Nikolay Ivanovich Ezhov, head of the NKVD (the precursor of the KGB) 1936-1938.

  2. 8

    Dora (her given name was Fanya) Kaplan was indeed shot four days after her arrest, on September 4, 1918. Meyerhold was shot on February 2, 1940.

  3. 9

    In fact on August 31, 1941.

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