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Opening the Closed Trial

In response to:

Writers in a Cage from the January 14, 2010 issue

To the Editors:

I was the Moscow correspondent for the New York Herald Tribune in 1965 and 1966 and covered the arrest and trial of Andrei Sinyavsky and Yuli Daniel and the aftermath closely. I read Michael Scammell’s interesting and important article about Zhivago’s Children: The Last Russian Intelligentsia by Professor Vladislav Zubok [NYR, January 14]. There were errors in Scammell’s description of the Sinyavsky-Daniel trial that I should point out.

First, contrary to Scammell’s review, the trial was closed to all but a few family members, some selected intelligentsia, and members of the Communist Party–controlled Moscow Writer’s Union. The Soviet government thought it was staging a show trial and for that reason said it would be open. But when government officials learned that the two planned to plead not guilty, we foreign journalists were refused admission and were harassed outside the courthouse. Sinyavsky and Daniel were, of course, found guilty: Sinyavsky was sentenced to seven years at hard labor, Daniel to five. When two Scandinavian journalists applied to the court after the trial to read the record of the proceedings, they were denied on the ground that everything about the trial had appeared in the Soviet press.

Second, Scammell writes there were reports by foreigners from inside the courtroom that were sent abroad and broadcast back to the Soviet Union. Actually, after the trial, word spread through the foreign press community that Daniel’s wife, Larissa, was willing to talk to reporters to tell them what had gone on in the courtroom. By paying two kopeks at a spravochnoe buro (information booth), I was able to obtain her address. Steve Nordlinger of The Baltimore Sun and I, without telling our translators or drivers (all of whom, we assumed, worked for the KGB), went to her apartment, knocked on the door, introduced ourselves, and were invited in.

Neither Nordlinger nor I spoke fluent Russian and Mrs. Daniel spoke almost no English. So, using Russian, English, German, and hand signals, we discussed the trial. To make sure I understood, I repeated everything she said in my broken Russian and she would nod “yes” or “no” until we got it right. We wrote stories quoting her. She did not object to use of her name. My story was published in the Herald Tribune on February 23, 1966, under the headline “Soviet Writers’ Defense Is Revealed.” In part, she quoted Sinyavsky as telling the court: “I am not a Socialist realist; I am not a Marxist; I am an idealist, but I am not an enemy of the USSR.”

She said her husband’s defense was based on the tradition of Russian satire going back to the nineteenth century. She said Daniel told the court his works dealt with the problems of the Stalin era and some that have outlived Stalin, particularly purges that were then going on against many Soviet writers. “Who is responsible for this?” Mrs. Daniel said her husband asked the court. “I am. You are. All of us are.”

I began to fret that we had gotten Mrs. Daniel into trouble and some two or three weeks later I went back to her apartment and again knocked on the door. She opened it and said (quoting her as I remember it today), “Oh yes, you were here and wrote a story for the New York Herald Tribune and I want you to know you had a mistake in it.” I asked how she knew what the article said. She told me it was broadcast back into the Soviet Union on the Voice of America.

I recalled to her how hard we had worked to make sure we had everything correct. What was the mistake? I asked. “You said we lived in a three-room apartment. Actually we live in only two rooms and another family lives in that other room.” In their oppression at the time, Soviet citizens considered the inconvenience of communal living more important than other aspects of freedom.

Stuart H. Loory
Lee Hills Chair in Free Press Studies
University of Missouri School of Journalism
Columbia, Missouri

Michael Scammell replies:

I apologize for mistakenly characterizing the Sinyavsky-Daniel trial as “open,” and am grateful to Stuart Loory for correcting me (as did others in private communications). Mr. Loory and his colleague Steve Nordlinger did such a wonderful job of relaying information about the closed trial back to the West that my memory obviously tricked me, and it’s good to have these additional details.

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