Russian Literature
Russian Literature; drawing by David Levine

In cases where Russian texts are cited, the Russian is given first with the English in parentheses after. A number of these authors have been published in English in Moscow, by Progress Publishers.

The Russian literary scene is bizarre. The funniest new satirical work by a Soviet writer is Vladimir Voinovich’s story of his own real-life battle to get into a two-room apartment which is coveted by another “writer” (only publication: Taiwan Belongs to China) who wants the extra square meters for a toilet (an American toilet at that) which he purchased while at the UN. The finest novel in the last twenty years (Sokolov’s A School for Fools) is by a Russian born in Ottawa who left Moscow this fall to become a gardener and lumberjack in the Vienna Woods. Solzhenitsyn has written a book about Lenin that his friends say is too autobiographical. The best-selling Soviet poet is a blind man who writes like Rod McKuen. The best Russian-language literary journal is published in Munich; the best Russian poet lives in Ann Arbor; and the first Agatha Christie in Russian has gone on sale in Jerusalem.

Because of this odd literary diaspora, a trip from Petersburg to Moscow provides only part of what one needs to know for a full picture of the current literary scene. But nearly every winter for seven years I have made the journey, and did so again in November 1975. Since these visits began in 1969 the community of Soviet writers has gone through several stages. From 1969 through 1971 there was still hope that things could be improved gradually. Then most people thought that the process of de-Stalinization, while it might have its detours and dead ends, could not be totally reversed—and that every year would see the publication of poetry and prose which couldn’t have appeared the year before. Beginning in 1972, however, particularly after Nixon’s visit and the internal crackdown which accompanied détente, the major topic of discussion in many families was whether to stay or to emigrate. By the end of 1975 many of the literary intellectuals who wanted to emigrate had managed to do so; those who remained had made a conscious decision to stay, either because of principles or for practical reasons.1

Things (including editors and censors) are getting tougher.2 Voinovich and others say that the level of the literary journals is perhaps lower now than under Stalin. The mood of the liberal intelligentsia seems demoralized and apprehensive. In spite of this writers keep writing in the face of bureaucratic meddling and foreign indifference.

Leningrad is a colder, more imperious city than Moscow. Literary trials are more frequent there (just last year Vladimir Maramzin was on his way to the Archipelago—and now, thanks to a humane solution, he is in Paris, working for the new magazine Continent); the sense of community among the writers is much weaker than in Moscow. Leningrad is a city for individualists, like Nabokov. And it has been affected by the desolation caused by the exodus more strongly than Moscow—a few good people leave, and those who remain are even more isolated. Moreover, people seem less well informed about what is happening in Russian letters abroad. For example, not all the issues of Continent had penetrated there during my visit, and Solzhenitsyn’s Lenin in Zurich was not yet circulating—whereas these were available in Moscow before they were in the United States. Of course, talented writers remain, among them the poets Boris Slutsky and Viktor Sosnora, and prose writers Andrei Bitov and Igor Efimov, all of whom have had some international recognition. Joseph Brodsky’s absence is felt acutely, and his new “Sonnets to Mary Stuart” are being read with special excitement.

Moscow is busier and noisier, even when the snow covers everything. There is one very mundane reason for its stronger sense of community: several years ago a special block of co-op apartment buildings was built on Red Army Street near the Dynamo Stadium and the Aeroport subway. Hundreds of writers, critics, translators, scholars—and others of less obvious direct connection to the writer’s world—live there. Aeroport even has its own live-in KGB agent—General Viktor Nikolaevich Ilin, whose sphere is the Union of Writers. He has a generally good reputation even among what Westerners usually oversimplify as dissident writers. It is said that he can be tough and uncompromising, but that he can also be understanding, helpful, doesn’t break his word, has a strong sentimental streak—he is often seen patting the heads of writers’ children. In fact, he has known some of the younger published writers since they were school-children themselves.

Aeroport living arrangements make life rather incestuous, with frequent sexual and intellectual shifts and quakes. The writers see each other regularly, if only when small groups collect in the courtyards for “Russian conversations.” The company they keep tends to be that of their peers—and perhaps in a certain sense they are cut off from “real life.” When they aren’t at home, they are often in “Houses of Creation” in Peredelkino and other retreats around the country—again with the same people. The Union of Writers sends them off on Komandirovki (“business trips,” with the emphasis on the root “command”) during which they collect material for stories, sketches, poems, etc. Perhaps this is one reason why a popular genre is the story about an incident on a train. Currently the most visited place is called BAM (Baikal-Amur-Mainline), a huge industrial complex including ports and resorts, now under construction but already much written about. Red Square demonstrations on TV are punctuated by the rising melodic line of “BAM, BAM, BAM, BAM, BAM” sung by an enthusiastic pop singer. Nothing is more salable than a BAM poem or a BAM story.


For most of the writers who remain part of the literary establishment, life goes on in its usual way. For example, every Soviet man and wife have a legal right to eighteen square meters of living space, but mere membership in the Union of Writers entitles one to an additional twenty square meters. There are special resorts, special doctors, special movies, and the luxury of the Central House of Writers in Moscow, where a gala celebration took place on November 7 (the anniversary of the October Revolution). Three large halls were filled with tables loaded with caviar, sturgeon, vodka, and champagne. In the inner chamber, formerly part of the Masonic Lodge which Pierre Bezukhov joined in War and Peace, a rock band was perched on an ornately carved wooden balcony, playing for an extremely well-dressed crowd. This is the Soviet equivalent of Hollywood stardom, and no doubt it is something for which many writers work with zeal.

I went to this gala directly from the small two-room apartment of Nadezhda Mandelstam. The storm over her memoirs has died down considerably, but there are still many who will not go to visit her, and she lives for the most part in isolation.3 Her opinion of contemporary literature is as harsh as it is terse (“What literary scene?”), and if one looks only at the Soviet equivalent of the best-seller list, one can see why.

The most famous and widely read living poet of the country is Eduard Asadov, whose works are bought by hundreds of thousands of ordinary readers. Like Rod McKuen he is an unabashed sentimentalist, but he is also a Soviet Victorian, giving such advice as don’t go to bed with anyone before you sign up at the Palace of Weddings. Lumbering war novels are also read eagerly (a favorite topic of Soviet writers), and spy stories in which the KGB or its ancestors defend the father-land are popular. But the best-selling prose work of last year was a nonfiction study by Vladimir Soloukhin, short-story writer, poet, and collector of Russian antiquities.4 His The Sentence (first published in the magazine Moscow) was one of the few genuine (not officially promoted) best-sellers in the Soviet Union. It tells the true story of his being diagnosed as a cancer case—and after treatment and torment discovering that the diagnosis was wrong. The abundance of personal and physiological detail, as well as the exposé of some doctors, is unusual for Soviet letters.

The late Vasily Shukshin, short-story writer, movie director, and actor, has become fantastically popular. He died of a heart attack in 1974, but since then his work has been the rage of the country—particularly his story, later made into a hit movie, The Red Snowball-Tree, a tragedy set partly among Russian thieves and low life, which played in fifty Moscow movie houses simultaneously in 1974. People from all over Russia make pilgrimages to his grave, particularly women, but he also has admirers among excellent literary critics such as Lev Anninsky; and some writers, including Solzhenitsyn, rate him highly.

Nearly everyone agrees that the Seventies are a time of prose, not poetry. The stars of the late Fifties and early Sixties are not much in evidence, though perhaps this is not their fault. Yevtushenko’s reputation is lower than ever, partly because of his reputed contacts with the KGB, and while it is impossible to know the truth of this rumor, he is felt to be seriously compromised. Voznesensky has been rather silent, and not much is said about him. No one mentions Yuri Kozakov or Yury Nagibin, two of the most popular prose writers of the 1960s. Akhmadulina published a book in 1975, but it contained only a handful of new poems. Aksyonov has been writing a great deal, but publishing very little. He gave lectures at UCLA last summer, with great success—an unprecedented event for a good Soviet writer, and a hopeful sign that the Union of Writers may be willing to join the real world (the poet Evgeny Vinokurov recently visited the University of Kansas, and there is some hope that Akhmadulina will be allowed to visit the United States this year).


Among literary people the most highly regarded prose writers who still live and publish in the Soviet Union are Aksyonov, Trifonov, Iskander, Belov, and Aitmatov. Aitmatov is extremely popular. The Ascent of Mount Fuji, which he co-authored, was translated (poorly) into English last year, mainly because of its political interest (a parallel with the Solzhenitsyn case); but in his generally uncontroversial fiction there is a very heavy streak of sentimentality. Belov represents “country prose,” a strain which became fashionable during the Sixties.

I saw a private showing of a marvelous West German TV documentary about this movement, with beautiful photography of the far north, where Belov lives, and an interview with him and Astafiev. They maintain, with some cogency, that the purest Russian was preserved only in the country and especially in the north—and that one cannot write good prose by living in Moscow or other cities. This has some truth to it, but if Belov’s work were not enlivened by his skillful storytelling and interesting characters, his folk rusticity might seem a kind of reverse snobbery. A similar linguistic Slavophilism is found in Solzhenitsyn, who highly praises the country writers. But some critics see country prose reaching a dead end of monotony now: and indeed you can go only so far with stories of kind country folk and eccentric woodland loners.

Yury Trifonov began his career as an admirer of Hemingway and was the youngest writer to win the Stalin Prize. His work has since developed considerably, and he has become, in the last few years, the chronicler of the mores and morals of the new Russian professional class: teachers, translators, office workers, managers, scholars. He does this with considerable honesty and psychological acuity, notably in a series of long stories published in Novy Mir. One hears it said that he is able to publish grittier, more honest prose than others precisely because he is a Stalin Prize laureate. In Trifonov’s world, as for example in his most recent story “Another Life” (Novy Mir, August 1975), people live with wives and husbands they no longer love, in-laws cause daily misery, children leave the nest, and death or sickness haunts the characters, who have often failed to find the peace they seek in life. Trifonov’s novel Impatience, about a group of nineteenth-century terrorists, has just been translated into German.

Fazil Iskander is an Abkhazian (from a small republic on the Black Sea), but writes in Russian. The Goatibex Constellation was his best-known longer work until a new novel, Sandro from Chegem, was serialized in Novy Mir in late 1973. However, some 60 percent of the novel, including the parts mocking Stalin, was left on the floors of the editorial and censorship offices, a blow from which Iskander is still trying to recover. A satirist with large sympathies for his subjects, Iskander is in many ways the most translatable and transportable of Soviet writers, in spite of his provincial subject matter. Many of his relaxed and charming first-person narratives start with crazy incidents among southern mountain folk or collective farmers, where a goat can be worked up into a yarn.

Only a small group of Moscow writers have openly defied the authorities by publishing their works in Russian abroad. There are several centers for publishing such work in the West. Old émigrés who sometimes regard the Third Wave of émigrés as coddled (by their hosts), spoiled by Soviet education, and lacking in initiative, point out that no major new publishing houses have been started by the new émigrés. But there were already three established ones: 1) YMCA Press in Paris, the oldest and largest (about twelve titles per year), Solzhenitsyn’s current publisher, but specialists in theology and philosophy; 2) Posev, in Munich, a somewhat more militant and political house; 3) Ardis in Ann Arbor, for unpublished classics and for younger writers. There are also two “thick” journals (a Russian tradition for 175 years), combining literature, history, and politics—The New Review (Novy Zhurnal) in New York and Facets (Grani) in Munich. The quality of these journals, and of the main Russian-language newspaper, Paris’s Russian Thought, has not been high in recent years, but it has been improved by the Third Wave.

The most interesting new Russian-language periodical was founded with the help of Solzhenitsyn and Ullstein Verlag, and is named, for reasons which must be obvious, Continent, with a subtitle, in bold type, “A Literary, Socio-political, and Religious Journal.” It is published in Russian and plans are being made for translations into other major languages (the first selection in English will soon appear). It is edited in Paris by Vladimir Maximov, author of Seven Days of Creation, who emigrated from the USSR two years ago after being thrown out of the Union of Writers for excessive candor. It was hoped that this new journal would be the great tribune of the Third Wave—it could be the liberated voice—and that its quality would be high. Moreover, Continent is unique in publishing openly some writers—such as Voinovich and Vladimir Kornilov—who still live in Moscow. It is printed in a small four-and-a-half by seven inch format so that it can be easily held in the hand, or hidden in the pocket. Of course, it is not allowed through Soviet customs, but nevertheless copies get into the Soviet Union, and anyone in Moscow or Leningrad who is diligent can find all of the first five issues.

Continent’s editorial board includes Andrei Sakhavov, Galich (the wellknown poet and chansonnier whose songs many Russian intellectuals know by heart), Ionesco, Milovan Djilas, Robert Conquest, John Bayley, and others, including Naum Korzhavin, a talented poet in his fifties; though little published in Moscow, he is about to publish two books and has written fascinating essays analyzing the Russian intelligentsia. Andrei Sinyavsky (Abram Tertz) was on the board through the first four issues, but he resigned in an argument over his wife’s role in the journal before No. 5 appeared. He continues to lecture at the Sorbonne. The opening issue of Continent showed promise, but most readers agreed that its quality declined in the subsequent three issues—only to rise again, rather dramatically, in No. 5. It has published poems by Brodsky, Galich, and Korzhavin; Tertz-Sinyavsky’s long essay “The Literary Process in Russia”; Solzhenitsyn’s “An Unpublished Chapter from The First Circle“; Maramzin’s “The Story of the Marriage of Ivan Petrovich”; Viktor Nekrasov’s charming “Notes of a Loafer”; Voinovich’s “Incident in the Metropole”; and Kornilov’s “Without Arms, Without Legs.”

Probably the most important prose in Continent is the series of excerpts from Vasily Grossman’s For the Right Cause. But the late Grossman’s friends in the Soviet Union are angry with the editors for printing only parts of a novel which is famous for being the only manuscript in the history of Russian literature to have been put under physical arrest. After Grossman sent it to a Soviet journal, the editor passed on the offending pages to the KGB, who sent operatives with a warrant for the arrest of the manuscript. All known copies, drafts, and notes were carried off, and, so everyone thought, destroyed. Then, mysteriously, some years later a copy turned up, and then multiplied.

Translations traditionally form an important part of Russian “thick” journals. So far Continent has published translations of Cardinal Mindzenty’s memoirs, works by Ionesco and Djilas, and most recently, Koestler’s Darkness at Noon—a sensation for a Russian audience, and one of the main reasons why No. 5 has been praised so highly. The journal averages 450 pages per issue, about half of which is literary. The editors have obviously been pushed into printing some things they will later regret: the terrible poems of “Wanderer” (pseudonym of the archbishop of San Francisco, whose sister is editor-in-chief of Russian Thought in Paris and, like her brother, on the editorial board of Continent), prose by Sinyavsky’s wife Maria Rozanova, and a boring story by Iosif Bogoraz (“The Stoolie”). Nevertheless, Continent has obviously become a major force in Russian letters right now. It deserves praise and support—and along with the works of Solzhenitsyn it is among the most frequent topics of discussion among Moscow and Leningrad intellectuals.

What are the Russians talking most about now? The furor over Mme Mandelstam’s Hope Abandoned has given way to vitriolic arguments about Solzhenitsyn’s The Calf Butts the Oak. The Calf is the story of Solzhenitsyn’s literary career from its public beginning in 1961 when, as he relates, his friend Lev Kopelev took the manuscript of SH-854 (later censored down to One Day of Ivan Denisovich) to Novy Mir, until his exile from the USSR. The 620 pages of this sprawling, often sloppily written book are highly readable. The major figure, apart from the author, is Alexander Tvardovsky, the editor of Novy Mir who first published Solzhenitsyn, and who then alternately sponsored him, placated him, put him off, and defended him over the years until Tvardovsky was forced to retire from the journal (he died not long after in December 1971).

Nothing is more hotly argued now than Solzhenitsyn’s portrait of Tvardovsky. Depending on whom you talk to, Solzhenitsyn’s picture of Tvardovsky is unwittingly or wittingly vicious; disrespectful or respectful; tendentious or tender; mendacious or objective. Most of the former editorial board of Novy Mir are up in arms (for themselves as well as Tvardovsky); Roy Medvedev has condemned Solzhenitsyn’s portrait in a long rebuttal. While Solzhenitsyn seems not to be the most objective man in the world, the vehemence and variety of the reaction make me think (especially after the Mandelstam affair) that on the whole Solzhenitsyn comes close to the truth. The hostility of some criticism springs primarily from the Russian tendency to prefer saints’ lives to candid biography. They want to remember Tvardovsky only as the brilliant author of the World War II poem Tyorkin, fighter for truth and justice, and not as a man sometimes also debilitated by alcoholism and long membership in the club of “bosses,” as the Russians term higher-ups.

Speaking of saints, Solzhenitsyn’s most recent book in Russian, Lenin in Zurich, is being read with more humor and less pleasure. It contains an omitted chapter from the first “Bundle” or “Fascicle” (as Solzhenitsyn calls the parts of his World War I novel), plus ten chapters taken from Fascicles II and III (October 1916, March 1917). Solzhenitsyn had written part of this before he left Russia. When he found himself in Zurich he did some further research and decided to print these motley chapters together in advance of the entire novel. This was obviously done for polemical purposes—another blow against the Soviets. But the sad result is a kind of inverse biographie romancée, complete with psychological eavesdropping on Lenin’s inner thoughts, as for example when he is seen standing alone, staring out over a rippling lake and pondering revolutionary tactics and a ménage à trois with Krupskaya and the disturbing, delectable Inessa.

This is funny enough, but the peculiar thing is that the portrait of Lenin is being called a self-portrait of the author. A man who knew Solzhenitsyn for many years insisted to me that Solzhenitsyn has not only given Lenin his own language and traits of character, but that he has even made him relive certain incidents from his own life. It is certainly true that reading Lenin in Zurich and The Calf Butts the Oak together one is struck by the similar, almost stream-of-consciousness, style, and by the obvious parallels between Lenin’s plotting revolutionary “blows” against the tsarist regime and Solzhenitsyn later preparing his attack against the Soviet system. One could deduce that Solzhenitsyn feels great kinship with Lenin.

The attitude toward GULAG, at least in liberal circles, is totally different. Russians find these volumes devastating. Still, opinions of Solzhenitsyn as a writer in the Soviet Union vary greatly: a few consider him a great writer, an equal of Tolstoy; most draw a distinction between his political greatness and his artistic abilities; many agree that he cannot handle the novel form, particularly when he gets away from his primary subject, the prison camp. I would say that Solzhenitsyn is the poet of scorn, and by itself that is probably not enough for art. But the heavy irony and sledge-hammer blows which can ruin his fiction enable him to deliver his relentless attack on the Soviet system, and no one doubts his pre-eminence as historian and poet of the Archipelago.

Solzhenitsyn’s old prison mate and friend Lev Kopelev published in 1975 his remarkable 700-page memoir To Be Preserved Forever—the motto on the dossiers of political prisoners. (It is being translated into ten languages.) Kopelev also tells a story of war and the camps, but from a quite different point of view. Kopelev was a true believer from youth, and even in prison he wrote poems of praise to Stalin. He has greater knowledge of and sympathy for the Party faithful than Solzhenitsyn, and one learns more from Kopelev about how they really think and live. He was arrested in 1945 for “bourgeois humanism”—i.e., trying to prevent atrocities against German civilians—and his memoir is in part the story of his own very gradual disillusionment with the system.

The implications of Soviet membership in the Universal Copyright Convention are being discussed with great urgency. To help implement copyright control and sales abroad, the Soviet government has set up VAPP, and every contract signed by a Soviet writer now is accompanied by a release form in which the writer makes VAPP his agent for dealing with foreign rights. Without the help and approval of VAPP, nothing written and published after May 1973 in the USSR can be published abroad. Moreover, it is rumored that laws have been passed making it illegal for Soviet writers to publish their work abroad first. This belief was strengthened by what some took as a threat from a VAPP officer, Boris Pankin, in the Literary Gazette some time ago.

Those who have published abroad openly, and those who are considering doing so, are in a quandary, and the émigré publishing houses are holding files full of works until the writers decide whether to go ahead. They can’t predict what the official reaction is going to be, and there have been no test cases so far. To add to the difficulty, all works published in the USSR are censored and edited—and some writers would prefer to see their complete versions published, even if in a foreign language. It remains to be seen whether VAPP will permit this.

Voinovich, one of the most popular new writers of the Sixties, is perhaps the most interesting case. He was thrown out of the Union of Writers two years ago, after he wrote an open letter criticizing Boris Pankin for hinting that writers publishing abroad could be punished. Voinovich is now unable to publish in the USSR, but he behaves almost as if he were a free man. He has published in Continent; the first two parts of his novel (written between 1963 and 1970) The Life and Extraordinary Adventures of Private Ivan Chonkin just came out (YMCA Press, 1975), and his satire Ivankiada is being published in the United States.

Chonkin may turn out to be among the most popular Russian works published abroad in recent years (it will be published in the US by Farrar, Straus and Giroux). Voinovich has handled all of these publications rather openly, through a lawyer in Seattle. And while communications with him are still often carried on by hand, through friends, Voinovich is willing to discuss his situation on the international telephone. Talking to him, I understood that he was simply tired of being afraid and of giving in. Now he is calm and resigned, he says, to anything that may happen—arrest, exile, or even death—whatever will be.

His satire Ivankiada is the account of how he got his apartment in the writers’ co-op—after monumental and petty obstacles were put in his way by a well-connected Party functionary who wanted to get the extra apartment next to his own, tear down a wall, and install an American toilet. This sounds trivial, but what is original is the way Voinovich describes all of the steps, the meetings of the co-op boards, angry and fearful conversations with all kinds of Soviet people, and the names and offices of the bigwigs involved (including some of the most important men in Moscow). Russian readers say that Voinovich’s document provides a microcosmic view of how everyday Soviet life works.

Chonkin, which was repeatedly rejected by Soviet publishers and attacked by colleagues in the Union of Writers, is the story of a bumbling Soviet Schweik during the beginning of World War II. Its satire is mild, but in the Soviet Union the Soviet Army is one thing you don’t criticize. It is a very readable and funny novel, with interesting portrayals of country life and psychology. There is even some mild sexual detail, and language which does not meet Soviet standards of purity. Both will seem rather tame to a Westerner, but the book is enjoyable in a way that is very unusual for Russian writing—relaxed and good-humored, with no “cursed questions,” no soapbox rhetoric.

One recent event I think will leave a mark on the literature of this decade. This is the debut of Sasha Sokolov, a thirty-one-year-old Muscovite whose first novel, A School for Fools, is being published abroad in Russian this month, with English and German translations underway. While it is not an anti-Soviet book or a political one, both its subject and its form make A School for Fools censorable in the USSR, and so Sokolov sent it abroad anonymously. Joseph Brodsky originally picked it out of a pile of samizdat manuscripts, and during the last year this “enchanting text,” as Wladimir Weidle, the most distinguished Russian critic living abroad, calls it, has created a stir among advance readers. Vladimir Markov says there has never been anything like it in Russian literature, “though if Joyce had written the last chapter of Ulysses in Russian it would have sounded like this.”

A School for Fools describes life in the country, centering on a “special” school for retarded, and often psychotic, children. The novel’s nameless hero, and one of the main narrators, is a former pupil in the special school. His father is a chief prosecutor, responsible among other things for the schizophrenia of his only son. The student’s only hero is the eloquent geographer Norvegov, an idealist and dreamer who hates the way the school and the society are run. His speeches, along with the young man’s hallucinatory reminiscences, are among the best parts of the novel, whose characters include the narrator’s mistress, some whimsical railroad workers, and some semi-mythic people whose existence remains in doubt. Sokolov is very Russian in his moral concerns, particularly in showing with imaginative force the past causes and future consequences of a given act. But in his sense of measure, his quiet wit, and his delicacy of touch he is rather un-Russian.

After Sokolov wrote this book he fell in love with a young Austrian woman, and when she was barred from the USSR he publicly protested. His marriage to a foreigner was opposed by his father—a retired two-star general in the GRU (Soviet military intelligence)—and at a news conference Sokolov accused his father of spying on the United States and Canada when he was with the Soviet embassy in Ottawa during the war. His father responded by proclaiming him mad. The story has many ups and downs from that point, but after the Helsinki pact and his fiancée’s televised hunger strike in a Viennese church Sokolov was given an exit visa. He is now working in the Vienna Woods.5

By contrast to Sokolov, writers over forty, whether they live in the USSR or abroad, and whether they publish in Novy Mir or in Continent, tend to be “realists,” conservatives in form. It is impossible to tell the dissidents from the socialist realists. Trifonov, Iskander, Voinovich, Nekrasov, Solzhenitsyn—they are all men of the old school, in the grand tradition of Tolstoyan prose, or, less grandly, as it has passed through several decades and numerous Fadeevs. At Trifonov’s a photograph of Ernest Hemingway hangs on the wall; Voinovich uses a rather old-fashioned nineteenth-century narrator in Chonkin; and formally large parts of Solzhenitsyn’s novels can be said to be pure socialist realism. Some even compare him to the grandfather of socialist realism, Chernyshevsky, arguing that he is righteous, tendentious, wooden, humorless, and clumsy in romance. Indeed the Russians are generally proud of their eschewal of “modernism.” One critic I talked to at length last November argued strongly that now there was “one literature,” a “single flow,” whether it was published abroad or at home made no difference—there was essential unity in theme and manner.

However, there are some new writers—mostly in their thirties—who like Sokolov are more adventurous in form. To varying degrees they show the influence of Joyce, Bely, Faulkner, and other classic twentieth-century Western writers. The short stories of Maramzin exemplify this trend. It is characteristic that Continent should publish one of his most conservative tales. Others contain a variety of experiments with unreliable narrators, take-offs on Nabokov, inverted structures, stream-of-consciousness dream sequences, tortured diction borrowed from the uneducated Soviet man in the street. In this Maramzin is strongly influenced by Andrei Platonov, the Thirties writer rediscovered in the 1960s, whose language frequently borders on absurdity or insanity or both.

In poetry, a somewhat similar line is being followed by Eduard Limonov, a Leningrader who now lives in New York. His work has been influenced by the absurdist school of the Thirties called the Oberiuty. More decadent, and also more fantastic, is the prose of Yury Mamleev, who has spawned a school of samizdat imitators, even though he has never been published in Moscow and has been living in New York. Mamleev writes about such Soviet bizarreries as a psychopathic vampire, a kind of bloodoholic, who is trying to stay on the wagon, or at least on the Moscow bloodmobile (he manages to refrain from killing people when he gets a job in a bloodbank). Crude scatological detail and spoofs of metaphysical fiction are also typical of Mamleev’s work, some of which has recently appeared in The New Review in New York.

From the Soviet Union to Israel there are many young unpublished writers experimenting with everything from concrete poetry to mystical monologues, as lacking in intelligibility as in punctuation. Much of this work is sterile, but it typifies an honest effort to recover some of the avant-garde spirit of the Twenties, from which most Russians were cut off. Remember that until the Sixties Russians knew virtually nothing about Kafka, Proust, Faulkner, or Camus—and Joyce has still not been published officially.

Joseph Brodsky, whose new book Part of Speech will appear shortly in Russian, is more a traditionalist than an experimenter—but he has done things with rhyme, grammar, and logic that even a Futurist would flaunt. The intentional collapse of connectives in his “Sonnets to Mary Stuart” again suggests Platonov, and there are some purely cinematic effects: but the basic form and some of the motifs go back to Pushkin. Part of Speech is made up exclusively of work done since Brodsky left the USSR in 1972, including a Derzhavinesque tribute to Marshall Zhukov (which annoyed many fellow émigrés when it was published in Continent), a poem about Venice, a cycle of Mexican poems, a London poem, some love poems, and a long philosophical monologue called “Lullaby of Cape Cod.” Travelogues are a weakness of all recent émigré writers, but presumably this enthusiasm for exotic place-name rhymes will pass. Brodsky is at his best in memory poems like the sonnets to Mary Stuart, or his meditations such as the “Lullaby” (he recalls being bowled over by the sound, in Russian, of the title “Lullaby of Birdland”). No book of poetry is more keenly awaited in the Soviet Union.

The hunger for books, the passionate desire to contribute to European culture, these continue among the intelligentsia in the Soviet Union. Western reprints of Nabokov’s Russian novels and the complete poetry of Akhmatova and Mandelstam are passed around with an excitement which the blasé Westerner might not at first understand. Soviet conservatives who enforce customs rules banning the import into Russia of books printed in Russian have still not discovered that such works are no more a threat to their system than The Catcher in the Rye was to the US. We can hope the “spirit of Helsinki” and détente will yet lead to more freedom, but at the moment Russians, wherever they are, have to read, write, and publish in the shadow of a monolith.

This Issue

February 19, 1976