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A Scandal in Moscow

Tolstoy and Dostoevsky were contemporaries, but never cared to meet. Turgenev and Dostoevsky hated each other with a passion. Much of Russian literature is the story of arguments between writers with wounded egos. All too often the Russian writer is childishly certain that the truth belongs to him alone. Perhaps for this reason the sixty-seventh International PEN Congress this past May was one of the most absurd events in the entire history of the PEN movement. A huge lie lay behind it. Although Russians are sometimes called master liars, in this case the Russian writers were too clumsy in trying to cover up their disagreements over the war in Chechnya, and the lie came to the surface right under the eyes of their surprised foreign colleagues.

Yet everything began with such pride and good cheer. The Russian PEN Club won the honor of playing host to the millennium 2000 Congress in Moscow. Despite a chronic lack of funds which has prevented any renovation of Russian PEN’s rather shabby headquarters, the Russian PEN Club managed to find from private contributors the money to provide their distrustful guests with Western-style comfort and safety, and all without dipping into the pocket of a dubious government. And when Putin’s wife indicated a desire to visit the congress, an invitation was tactfully not extended. An ordinary bureaucratic human rights event promised to become a celebration. But Moscow is a city of surprises, where any undertaking may take an unusual turn.

The well-restored center of contemporary Moscow, with its brightly lit streets and its rich boutiques, excellent restaurants, and frenzied nightclubs, was meant to provide major proof that times change for the better. The well-prepared program of the congress included serious discussions on the future creative sources of literature; a grandiose evening of poetry in twenty languages from English to Romanian; and even a comradely soccer match between the writers and a local professional team. (The writers lost by the dignified score of seven to eight.) The officiating general of the congress, the German Nobel laureate Günter Grass, danced Russian folk dances at a writers’ picnic held in the immediate vicinity of Boris Pasternak’s Moscow dacha.

The entire affair was ruined by Chechnya. Günter Grass’s introductory remarks at the opening of the congress (which were not without the expected German repentance for the past) began with concern over Chechnya. However, Russian PEN rose to the occasion. It had prepared such a forceful resolution condemning abuses of human rights there that even the war’s most irreconcilable opponents, the Polish and Finnish delegations (countries that have experienced Russian aggression firsthand), were pleasantly astounded. The Poles had brought a statement condemning the war in strong, if general, terms, and told the Russians that they would walk out if they weren’t allowed to have their say. They were immediately treated to beer and given the floor. Moreover, some European delegations didn’t want to come to Moscow at all, comparing Moscow’s policies to those of Nazi Germany. Instead of being offended by this, Russian PEN invited a Chechen writer, Islam Elsanov, to speak at the congress; his account of extraordinary horrors and excesses committed by the Russian occupying army and of the desperate situation of the Chechen refugees made it clear to everyone that freedom of speech still exists in Russia.

However encouraged by this the delegates and foreign journalists may have been, they were disturbed by the fact that with each passing day tension visibly grew among the Russian PEN membership. The Russians smoked glumly, turned their backs on one another, and soon it was apparent that some kind of trouble was brewing among them.

The Russian PEN Club is an unusual member of the international writers’ alliance. It is relatively young, founded in 1989 on the crest of perestroika by a decree of Mikhail Gorbachev. It wasn’t a simple birth. The International PEN committee approved the establishment of the Russian section as an exception: censorship still existed in the Soviet Union at the time, and according to the charter of PEN, countries with censorship cannot be accepted into PEN. The first president of Russian PEN was Anatoly Rybakov, the author of the anti-Stalinist novel Children of the Arbat. After the coup of 1991, he resigned to become honorary president, and a struggle for the leadership took place between the poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko and Andrei Bitov, the author of the novel Pushkin House. Bitov won. A well-respected and flexible intellectual, Bitov is still president of Russian PEN despite the fact that his two legitimate terms have expired; but it has proved difficult to find anyone better suited to the position. And indeed, during this congress, Bitov made every effort to keep the PEN delegates happy.

Under Bitov’s leadership, Russian PEN has become an organization of the country’s talented writers; in contrast to other national PEN organizations, it is extremely difficult to get in. The exacting requirements have been set up as a defense against Russian PEN becoming yet another Writers Union, which under the Soviet regime had more than seven thousand members in Moscow alone, which meant, in effect, seven thousand ideological “Party assistants.” Russian PEN’s policy regarding new members is that they must meet the executive committee’s unspoken condition: a writer may join PEN if he can be recognized by his writing, that is, if he has created his own, perhaps not momentous, but nevertheless recognizable literary style. This is why there are fewer than two hundred PEN members in all of Russia.

Membership in Russian PEN has become a kind of writers’ mark of distinction, deeply envied by less successful colleagues and periodically denounced by journalists. Writers who compromised themselves by collaborating with the Soviet regime are not admitted. Furthermore, market popularity is not sufficient for a writer to become a member of PEN; you will find none of the authors of hugely popular mysteries and detective stories. However, the aging of Russian PEN is a sore point: young writers, such as Viktor Pelevin, who is particularly well known among young people, are not much interested in PEN; in other cases, they are not accepted, since in the harsh new conditions of the market it is practically impossible for them to publish their books. So it is difficult for them to become known outside a small circle.

Russian PEN’s elitism throughout the 1990s was largely offset by its successful defense of the rights of journalists and writers in Russia and the former republics of the USSR. It won several sensational cases and was instrumental in getting more than a few people released from prison. Among them were the environmentalist Alexander Nikitin, who was accused of spying for Norway; the young poet Alina Vitukhnovskaya, who spent several years in jail on false charges of distributing narcotics; the Far East military journalist Grigory Pasko, who was accused of collaborating with the Japanese secret services, and others. Thanks to Russian PEN, Vasil Bykov, Belarus’s best-known author, is now living in Germany on grants rather than in Belarus, where freedom is in great danger under President Alexander Lukashenko.

Russian PEN protested sharply against Russian military actions in Chechnya during the “first” Chechen war in the mid-1990s, which ended with the de facto victory of the Che-chens and a peace perceived as shameful by many Russians. However, since the fall of 1999, the situation has changed dramatically. The invasion of Dagestan by Chechen rebels seeking to establish a unified Muslim state in the Caucasus did not provoke a nervous reaction in the Kremlin alone. Many Russians were outraged. Then came the apartment building explosions in Moscow and two other Russian cities. Hundreds of innocent people died. Moscow officials attributed the explosions to Chechens, although this has never in fact been proven.

When Vladimir Putin sent troops into Chechnya last year, Russian writers began to split into patriots and pacifists. The Western delegates to the Moscow congress, delighted with the anti-Putin resolution on the war, hardly suspected that in fact only a minority of members of Russian PEN supported it. Many had been utterly captivated by Putin’s friendly visit to Russian PEN in December of last year. Sitting on a lumpy sofa, without the least formality, the future president was so open, so human.

However, the congress approached inexorably and a panic began in Russian PEN: it was understood that open support of Putin would estrange Russian PEN from the international PEN community. Since I was against Putin’s position, the leaders of Russian PEN asked me to become an official delegate. God, how I hate writers’ congresses! All those long, monotonous speeches about how literature is alive, in spite of everything—spoken in deadly earnest. But I wanted to save face for Russian PEN. The congress passed its resolution deploring the war. Not a single Russian newspaper printed it.1

What was the congress like? International PEN is made up of nice people who are ready to defend a writer’s freedom, but have no general strategy for defending literature itself. Their schematic approach was evident in the Moscow meeting as well, when the president of Chinese PEN was put under pressure to denounce the Chinese authorities, thereby risking being jailed himself when he returned home. Aging is a problem not only of Russian PEN, but of the entire international organization. And the Moscow congress showed many that internationally prominent writers are not really very interested in PEN’s affairs, which further damages the organization’s prestige.

Looking at the collection of gray literary functionaries, second-rate French poets, and the rest of the not very impressive audience, it seemed to me that PEN had turned inward, and was all too concerned with distributing money to arrange meetings that are interesting only for those involved. The free lunches, excursions about town, and visits to the theaters reminded me of events staged for pensioners. A few more colorless meetings like this, I thought, and PEN will breathe its last. There will no longer be anyone to defend a writer’s freedom.

Three hundred delegates from around the world drank a lot of vodka, while Russian writers accused one another of being “traitors.” Finally, during the concluding press conference, my old friends, the bearded Siberian Evgeny Popov and the Americanized Vasily Aksyonov, a resident of Washington, D.C., supported by fifteen other writers, including some worthy people (a dissident, Lev Timofeyev, who had done time in Soviet prisons, and a poet, Yury Kublanovsky, from Solzhenitsyn’s entourage), made a stunning announcement.2 We are, they said, against the Russian resolution. It is one-sided, they said; it will only encourage the Chechen fighters; and it says nothing about the threat of international Islamic terrorism. Thus, the Russian war in Chechnya was indirectly justified, and my friends found themselves at odds with the charter of International PEN, which repudiates the use of force.

Not long ago, in The New Yorker, I recalled the story of the samizdat literary almanac Metropol, which Aksyonov, Bitov, Popov, and I compiled under Brezhnev during the gloomy year of 1979. We were blacklisted and weren’t published in Russia for many years, and Aksyonov went abroad. Who could have imagined that, after maintaining our friendship for twenty years, we would in the year 2000 become political opponents because of a war in Chechnya and that we would cease saying hello to one another? The division of the Russian intelligentsia over Chechnya is a true moral drama, the plague of Russia today. I have no doubt that this is a colonial war being waged by a huge country against a small people which wants and is worthy of independence. Yes, I admit that the Chechens are not angels, that they take hostages, and they often torture and viciously murder Russian prisoners of war. But Chechnya is their homeland, and not mine. Russians don’t belong there if they are not wanted. The situation in the Russian PEN Club resembles the painful split among French writers in the 1950s over the war in Algeria, or among American writers over the war in Vietnam. Now it’s our turn to hate one another because of a dirty war.

Yevgeny Yevtushenko once wrote: “In Russia the poet is more than a poet.” I am afraid that he is absolutely right. But why do I say “I am afraid?” After all, from Yevtushenko’s point of view, this is great praise. Every significant Russian writer has, in one way or another, gone beyond literature into public life. In the best case he becomes the conscience of the nation, in the worst simply a pontificator. The bacilli of prophecy run in the blood of Russian literature. This national tendency is understandable: in the unfree country that Russia has almost always been, the writer’s moral authority was extraordinarily high, despite sadistic censorship, and in part because of it. In the moral struggle with excess, the writer took on the defense of human rights that elsewhere is accomplished by democratic institutions. But the writer is also human, and even an intelligent mind can get carried away when the nation’s greatness is in question. Dostoevsky, who understood politics very poorly, called on the Russian government to seize Istanbul, and the divinely talented Pushkin spoke out against the Polish uprising of 1830. Elements of xenophobia can be seen in writers as different as Gogol, Chekhov (even he!), and Solzhenitsyn. Some of our former Soviet dissidents were close in their views to the right-wing and far-right-wing European parties, at first because such parties were staunchly anti-Communist, and later because of their nationalist proclivities. The instinctive racism of many Russian intellectuals takes them too far in that direction.

The entire congress—especially, of course, the Poles and Finns—expressed its disgust with official Russian lies about Chechnya, but it didn’t know what to do with the Russians at the congress itself. Who was representing whom? Who was lying about Chechnya and why?

Smelling of Russian vodka, the congress never did find an answer.

Translated from the Russian by Jamey Gambrell

  1. 1

    The statement said, in part: “The Assembly of Delegates of International PEN…calls upon both Russian and Chechen authorities to comply with international laws prohibiting direct attacks on civilians, including writers and journalists… Further calls upon the President of the Russian Federation and all competent authorities to stop this war immediately and to begin negotiations with those forces in Chechnya, including the legitimate president Maskhadov, who are ready for the peaceful solution of the conflict.”

  2. 2

    The other signers were Valery Popov (St. Petersburg), Anatoly Kurchatkin (Moscow), Konstantin Kedrov (Moscow), Sergei Tsvetkov (St. Petersburg), Mikhail Kuryaev (St. Petersburg), Vladimir Makanin (Moscow), Anatoly Korolev (Moscow); Roman Solntsev (Krasnoyarsk), Vladimir Salimon (Moscow), Mikhail Uspensky (Krasnoyarsk), Ilya Shtemper (Moscow), and Anatoly Kobenkov (Irkutsk).

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