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Writers in a Cage

Boris Pasternak at the Baltic Sea, 1910; portrait by his father, Leonid Pasternak

The rise and triumph of the Soviet dissident movement in the second half of the twentieth century surely ranks as one of the finest episodes in Russian cultural history. Its significance lies not just in its civic achievements as a hugely effective political opposition, but also in a body of literary work fully worthy of Russia’s rich traditions. We need only think of the metaphysical poems of Joseph Brodsky or the dialogic novels and documentary prose of Alexander Solzhenitsyn (both winners of the Nobel Prize), the modernist fiction and essays of Andrei Sinyavsky, who wrote under the name of Abram Tertz, the polished stories of Varlaam Shalamov, and the penetrating memoirs of Nadezhda Mandelstam, Lydia Chukovskaya, and Evgenia Ginzburg, not to speak of the works of such diverse writers as Vassily Grossman, Venyamin Erofeyev, Vladimir Voino- vich, Inna Lisnyanskaya, and the singer-songwriters Bulat Okudzhava and Alexander Galich (and these are only a few of a great many gifted writers). If the classic nineteenth-century authors of Russia marked the golden age of Russian literature, and the modernists of the early twentieth, its silver age, the writers of the latter half of the twentieth century constitute a kind of bronze age and a fully worthy restoration of a great tradition, despite having to work in conditions of repression and censorship that far exceeded anything their predecessors had to cope with before the October Revolution.

Such were some of the thoughts aroused by Vladislav Zubok’s new book with its enticing title, and by his eloquent prologue, in which he discusses the extraordinary publication of Pasternak’s Doctor Zhivago outside the Soviet Union in 1957 and the implications of this event for Soviet cultural and political life. No one would call Pasternak a “dissident” in the usual sense of the word, yet his stubborn independence and his decision to allow foreign publication of his novel set an important precedent in post-Stalinist Russia. Although he was forced by government pressure to reject the Nobel Prize awarded to him in 1958, the damage was already done. Disregarding the reality of Pasternak’s situation, Solzhenitsyn later upbraided him for rejecting the prize, but without Pasternak, Solzhenitsyn’s own path would have been harder. As it was, Soviet censorship was breached for the first time after World War II, and Pasternak remained alive to tell the tale.

Pasternak also proved Stalin right about one thing. If you ease up on absolute censorship, you never know where things will end. Zubok understands this, just as he understands Pasternak’s significance as a taboo breaker and a living link to the moral and literary traditions of the Russian past. But Zubok, educated in Moscow during the last years of the Soviet Union and now a senior fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute in Washington and a history professor at Temple University, has a peculiar understanding of Pasternak’s legacy. He is little interested in Pasternak’s natural heirs in the dissident movement, and connects the poet instead to what might be called the “loyal opposition” of Soviet intellectuals, that is, to the postwar intellectual nomenklatura—the officially recognized writers, artists, and editors—and especially its liberal wing. This sleight of hand is unsettling, for his heroes prove to be Alexander Tvardovsky, editor of the leading literary journal of the period, Novy Mir (which published Solzhenitsyn’s One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich); Konstantin Simonov and Konstantin Paustovsky, two conventional novelists and memoirists; and Ilya Ehrenburg, the mercurial Jewish author and journalist.

From the younger generation he selects the novelist Vladimir Dudintsev (author of the “thaw” novel Not by Bread Alone), the poets Yevgeny Yevtushenko and Andrei Voznesensky, and the prose writer Vassily Aksyonov. To be fair, Zubok’s dense narrative encompasses a cast of many hundreds of writers, editors, painters, sculptors, scholars, critics, and literary bureaucrats of diverse views, and the liberal writers don’t take up a great deal of space. The point for Zubok is that they were leaders—ambitious, progressive, and rebellious (up to a point)—but the problem is that their other defining feature was their loyalty to the system.

This virtual exclusion of the dissidents from the equation takes some getting used to, especially since Zubok insists on referring to his subjects throughout as “Zhivago’s children,” but once one adjusts to this questionable idea, it’s impossible not to admire the thoroughness of his narrative. He defines his “children” as coming from three different generations: middle-aged liberals who survived World War II with their ideals more or less intact; people born in the Thirties who got most of their education after the war and derived their ideals from wartime experiences; and a postwar generation of students and young people who were completely post-Stalinist (but still Communist) in their idealism. Zubok alludes in passing to the role of several distinguished members of Pasternak’s generation as well: Anna Akhmatova, Lydia Chukovskaya, Nadezhda Mandelstam, and Dmitry Likhachev, acknowledging their role as carriers of prerevolutionary Russian values, but as with the dissidents, he pays little attention to their influence, a neglect that is doubly surprising since one of his themes is the attempt by Soviet intellectuals to revive some of the traditions of their prerevolutionary predecessors.

That said, Zubok is a reliable and prodigiously well-informed guide to the opinions, attitudes, and changing fortunes of loyal Soviet intellectuals during the approximately twenty years between the early 1950s and 1970s. Among other things he shows how members of all three generations endured a series of shocks after the war and how they repeatedly had to adjust or change their thinking as their hopes for reform rose and sank with each new crisis. The first major shock was the death of Stalin, of course, in 1953, a leader with almost godlike stature in the eyes of older generations, who were almost afraid to confront the future when Stalin’s deep freeze suddenly lifted. Universal fear soon gave way to a cautious cultural liberalization, dubbed “the thaw” after a novel of the same name by Ehrenburg, which was then eclipsed by Khru- shchev’s dramatic secret speech of 1956, in which he enumerated some (but far from all) of Stalin’s crimes and denounced him as a despot. For educated Russians, “a world of certainties came to an end, now that core beliefs and commonly accepted wisdom had turned to dust.”

Khrushchev’s speech turned out to be even more important than Stalin’s physical death, for it announced the death of Stalinist metaphysics. Khrushchev, writes Zubok, had dealt “an irreparable blow to the teleological view of Soviet history” and revived the “‘accursed’ questions” of the nineteenth century: “who was to blame and what was to be done,” and so on. The publication of Pasternak’s novel was one byproduct of the upheaval. Another, according to Zubok, was that Soviet intellectuals—and especially the young—began to turn increasingly to the “universal ideals of justice and human rights” for answers to those questions, thus becoming, in Zubok’s view, “Zhivago’s children.”

Zubok tells his story with a density of detail and complexity of analysis that is truly remarkable. Ranging across the entire spectrum of Soviet cultural life, he carefully plots the rise and fall of magazines, publishing houses, and cultural institutions, together with the changing consciousness of the intellectuals—writers, editors, scholars, government bureaucrats—as they adjusted to ongoing revelations about the past, digested each new crisis, and tried to take advantage of the new freedoms they appeared to promise. Zubok shows how Khrushchev’s de-Stalinization led to a cautious opening to the West, encouraging the intellectuals to begin looking abroad for wider horizons. He also explains how the regime was always uneasy about these efforts if not hostile to them, and shows how the complex interplay between Soviet foreign and domestic policy created not only opportunities but also unexpected setbacks.

The first and most serious setback came with the crushing of the Hungarian Revolution of 1956, which brought particularly bad news for intellectuals. The KGB reported that the rebellion had been sparked in part by subversive literary discussions in the Petöfi Circle Club for writers and intellectuals in Budapest, and the implications were clear: lift the lid on intellectual life and you’ll get a counterrevolution. The resulting surge in Soviet nationalism threw a pall on the very idea of more cultural freedoms, and liberalization was temporarily halted. But this backlash was followed by a hugely successful World Youth Festival in Moscow in the summer of 1957, and the launching of the Sputnik satellite in the fall of that year.

The publication of Doctor Zhivago in December was a double-edged sword: the fact that it happened—and Pasternak survived—was an encouraging sign, but its publication also led to an outburst of official anti-Western propaganda that almost canceled its benefits. The festival seemed to indicate that controlled cultural exchanges with the West were a good idea after all, and the success of Sputnik emboldened Khrushchev to declare that the Soviet Union had completed “the full and final construction of socialism.”

It was an empty boast, of course, but however capricious and erratic, Khrushchev’s policy of making overtures to the West linked the Soviet Union to the outside world more closely than at any time since the early Thirties, and Zubok astutely argues that the subterranean changes that occurred inside Soviet society can be connected to parallel cultural trends on the other side of the no longer quite iron curtain as well. In his desire to emphasize these similarities and explain Soviet society to Western readers, Zubok plays a bit too fast and loose with terms like “new deal” to characterize Khrushchev’s decision to supply more consumer goods, “new journalism” to describe Izvestia ‘s cautious investigative articles, “new wave” for the arrival on the literary scene of poets like Yevtushenko and Voznesensky, and especially “baby boomers” for the younger Soviet generation.

Still, he makes some valid comparisons between the young radicals of 1968 in both the East and the West, and judges the social and political upheavals of that era to have common roots in political stasis and frustrated idealism. His argument is generally convincing, though he passes over the irony that young Western radicals were promoting many “socialist” ideas that were being discredited in the East (though not so much by Zubok’s “Zhivago’s children”).

Zubok is the author or coauthor of several books on the cold war. He writes about his present subject with both academic rigor and the informed sympathy of a former insider, and he charts the progress of his “children” with a wealth of illustration, drawing on the memoirs, diaries, and published reminiscences of many of the leading writers and other cultural figures, as well as making excellent use of the newly opened archives of the Writers’ Union and other official bodies, not to speak of the vast literature that has grown up around this subject. His book is scholarly but also highly readable and accessible, and is rich in anecdotal material that enlivens the sociological analysis.

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