The Russians
The Russians; drawing by David Levine

A foreign visitor to Russia usually manages to see only the strange and fascinating façade of the Soviet Union. He is busy rushing from the Kremlin to the Bolshoi Theater, from restaurants specializing in la cuisine russe (here, at least, he will sit for hours, the unwilling prisoner of the Russian promise, “right away”) to “Beryozka” shops, in which only foreign currency is accepted.

He may get a glimpse behind that façade as he travels on a carefully planned schedule from one large urban center to another, always in the enveloping embrace of Intourist. But such glimpses are rare and are inevitably confined to meetings with that tiny minority of Russians who speak foreign languages well and who are willing to risk prolonged contacts with outsiders.

The books under review are full of solidly documented reporting on life in Russia and supply much information which no tourist can ever hope to learn. Anyone interested in Russia can read them with profit, although both books suffer from diffuseness, and sometimes strike the reader as collections of unrelated anecdotes. Robert Kaiser and Hedrick Smith tend to tell the same stories, the inevitable result not only of the foreign journalist’s relative isolation in the Soviet Union, where both lived for three years, but of the monotony of Soviet life as well. It is unfortunate, therefore, that they mirror rather than complement each other. The fundamental difference between the two is less in content than in style: Smith’s prose is chattier, more colorful and personal, while Kaiser’s is more academic and measured.

Everyone knows people who have returned from Russia certain that they have penetrated to the core of that mysterious entity “the Russian soul.” Russia bewitches outsiders, and the search for the “essence” of Russia continues long after many Russians and Western observers have realized that the myth of such an essence cripples any rational discussion of the Russian malaise. What a wonderful defense it is for Russians to say “foreigners can’t possibly understand us.” The Russian inferiority complex toward the West (documented by foreign visitors to Russia three centuries ago) has found the cliché enormously useful.

Kaiser and Smith both understand this danger, but they cannot resist looking for answers to the Russian situation in what they take to be the personality of the Russian people. Both were Moscow correspondents for American newspapers (The Washington Post and The New York Times respectively). They might more accurately have called their books “Moscow Correspondent” or “Three Years in Russia.” Both wanted the title The Russians (Kaiser had to settle for Russia), and the choice is revealing. Both writers know the limitations of their experience—which was largely confined to the urban cultural and technical intelligentsia, a very small part of the Soviet Union’s 250 million people—and the elusive nature of the inquiry. But their speculations, although rarely naïve, are very broad. They consider, for example, the consequences of swaddling babies, the legacy of Russian history, the importance of Russia’s climate and vastness. Kaiser mentions the effects on Russian life of the peasant mentality, an extremely important subject which he fails to pursue. The personal and anecdotal method of both writers provides much information; but the frightening implications of the experiences they describe often remain obscure.

Whatever its roots in history, politics, economics, or geography, one phenomenon that has intrigued and appalled so many observers of other modern societies is readily found in Russia. This is the “totalitarian mind,” with its familiar characteristics: the tendency to “escape from freedom,” the pervasive social passivity, an under-developed sense of self and individual worth, the absence of a personal sense of moral obligation. The give and take between the individual and the community so common in democratic societies is almost unknown in Russia. Emotions of rage, complaint, or admiration accumulate without the slightest possibility of finding any legitimately sanctioned outlets for them. Most Russians carry within themselves a bundle of repressed emotions which, if unleashed, manifest themselves in the most contradictory ways, from monstrous cruelty and rudeness to sentimentality, simple-hearted goodness, and a willingness to forgive anything. Whatever else they may be, modern Russians are unpredictable. (But some may object: we find the same qualities in Dostoevsky; yes, but it is the difference in scale that is remarkable.)

A surface symptom of the price paid for this repression is Russia’s mass alcoholism. It is less noticeable perhaps in Moscow or Leningrad than in the provincial cities, especially in the industrial centers; in the countryside it has assumed staggering dimensions. The Soviet government realizes the economic cost of drunkenness—both Kaiser and Smith note the enormous loss of productivity it has caused. Yet the regime has done little to combat it except to raise the price of liquor, which is sold by the government monopoly; with the average Russian family spending in a year two month’s salary on drink, this is an excellent source of revenue in a country with a chronic cash flow problem.


Alcoholism also helps to reinforce social passivity and makes political manipulation easier. Drunkenness is a form of protest that can be tolerated not only by the rulers but by the ruled: watch how a Russian crowd instinctively joins to protect drunks on the street when they go too far. The reaction of a Leningrad worker at one of the many outdoor beer stands which dot all Russian cities is typical of a widespread attitude: “I don’t give a damn who governs, whether it’s a jackass or a bull from Tula, just so long as there’s enough vodka and beer.”

Despite the sporadic and half-hearted “campaigns” against alcoholism and other “transgressions” of labor discipline—how often the language recalls the Church Militant—something like an unseen conspiracy exists between the regime and the masses (that is, the workers and the peasants; the complicity of the intelligentsia is somewhat different). Many understand that they are the indispensable base of “Soviet power” and that little can or will be done to them. Absenteeism, slipshod workmanship, and shirking, all represent the most obvious signs of this cynical “anything goes” mentality. The regime suits most Russians very well. Most are already accustomed to their current low standard of living; they know they can work at half-strength without fear of dismissal. The constant shortage of labor—no longer the result of the war, but of inefficiency—further guarantees job security.

Kaiser and Smith describe all this in crushing detail. They make clear that mass inefficiency doesn’t contradict the fact that Soviet industry, especially heavy industry, is developing. Official Soviet propaganda that the Russians produce more steel or cement than any other country in the world may be true; but Russia devotes its major, and its most efficient, efforts to military production.

Most Russians can convince themselves that the regime supplies their daily needs. Free, if substandard, medical services, relatively cheap rents, and small guaranteed pensions encourage a sense of dependency on the state and the view that “I’m all right, Jack.” Such payoffs make possible an atmosphere in which the government can act irresponsibly and yet be lenient about personal behavior. (Nixon’s statement that “Americans are like children” shows a similar contempt; no wonder he feels at home with dictators.) Most Russians live in the present moment, with very little thought for the future. Kaiser’s excellent chapter “From Birth to Death: ‘We’re Living Well’ ” describes such attitudes perceptively. And there are some who understand that Russia today is an enormous rest home for the indigent in which the government pretends that it pays wages and the workers pretend that they work.

Most of the recent émigrés bring these dependent attitudes with them. Many of them experience bitter disenchantment when they face a way of life for which nothing in their own experience could have prepared them; where there is no constant governmental supervision and one must rely only on one’s own initiative, self-discipline, and skills. As Alexander Galich, the finest underground “social balladier” of his generation, put it to Robert Kaiser when they met in Washington: “At last I understand the meaning of that cliché, ‘the wild west.’ ”

Of course, in the twenty-odd years since Stalin’s death changes have taken place: the limited emigration, Solzhenitsyn and Sakharov, the dissident movement, samizdat, the religious revival. The present moment in Russia is undeniably without precedent. Nevertheless, even the most timid gestures of active protest have hardly appeared outside a very few large cities—Kiev, Leningrad, Moscow, the Baltic capitals. They have not even begun to penetrate the interior, by which we don’t mean merely the countryside, but cities with populations in the millions. The dissidents must do battle not only with an incommensurably more powerful state but with an enormous, inert population which remains profoundly indifferent to the struggle or does not even realize that one is taking place. Russia—that immense permafrost zone—may have begun to thaw, but the careful temperature controls of the regime have successfully limited the thaw to a few isolated spots on the surface.

The Soviet citizen’s mentality is bolstered by the hierarchical nature of traditional Russian society, with its respect for power. It is the regime’s greatest ally. It meets change with the greatest reluctance or resistance. More frequently than not the reaction to differing opinion and to the pathetically small amount of free information which filters through takes the form of defensiveness and hostility.

Consider the reaction to Solzhenitsyn. His name, not to speak of his writings, is far from widely known. At a recent factory rally in Leningrad called to condemn Sakharov, the worker chosen to make the ritual denunciation speech hopelessly confused the nuclear scientist with Solzhenitsyn. Solzhenitsyn’s moral summons to the Russian people can find a response only among those few intellectuals who think as he does, and it will remain unanswered not only among the masses of Russians but among the intelligentsia as well. For the fundamental religious consciousness which this neo-Slavophile preacher attempts to revive and animate has long been dead or, if it exists, can be found only in the obscure reaches of the Russian north where Solzhenitsyn’s passionate pastoral appeals will hardly reach. Any integral Russian consciousness—or widespread sense of a tradition—perished long ago in the Twenties, with the carefully planned destruction of the countryside and its peasant culture. By and large the intelligentsia witnessed this in silence (there were, of course, exceptions); their turn was to come in the Thirties, when any sense of continuity with the early hopes of the revolution received a death blow.


The new “God-seeking” grows in intensity among those who now realize the extent of the displacement from Russia’s moral and cultural traditions since 1917 and who feel nothing remains uncompromised but religion. But it offers no prospect of having a serious social effect. At its best—at its worst it is merely the newest fashion, like collecting icons or antique furniture—it can supply only inner support for moral survival, for bearing the burden of the “double life” so commonly observed by Kaiser and Smith in those who have lost faith in everything.

The truth of the facts and the social conclusions in Solzhenitsyn’s GULAG are potentially far more provocative and bracing than his religiosity. But were a copy of this book to appear under the pillow in every Soviet household, most would not bother to read it through. “It’s too painful” already has been a frequent reaction. Even more common is the resentful question, “Why does he have to go picking at the scabs of wounds that have healed? It’s all over now.” As a friend of one of us has sadly remarked: “Solzhenitsyn and his friends should have called their book ‘From Under the Stump’ (Iz pod pnia) not ‘From Under the Rubble’ (Iz pod glyb).” Information will have to pour in, it will have to bombard every citizen daily if minds fed for decades on lies and misinformation are to be pursuaded to crawl out of their shells.

Even if this were possible, serious changes in Russia would have to find support in social conditions as well. But the reality of today’s Russia stupefies and demoralizes. The official press remains as bankrupt as ever. There is no reliable source of information and the fact that no one believes what is written in the press is as frightening as if everyone believed it: people are ready to believe anything else, including the wildest rumors. Nor can one overemphasize the effects of simple exhaustion. How often do people return home in a rage after a day of fighting lines for the simplest necessities of life (not tape recorders or pocket calculators) only to collapse in tears or fall into a kind of torpor. Such people do not produce revolutions—of “rising expectations” or of anything else.

And then fear. It is true that the times when “Animal terror wrote on the typewriter,” as Mandelstam noted in his “Fourth Prose,” and everyone was paralyzed with the possibility of extermination have ended for most Russians. (The terror of the “psikhushki,” the infamous “psychiatric clinics” for the politically dissident, threatens relatively few.) “But why risk what modest gains we have made?” they ask. “Why risk being forbidden to travel abroad?” the more fortunate want to know. Hedrick Smith’s strong chapter on the “Province of the Privileged and the Pariahs” is very acute about such fears. Smith quotes by way of illustration this song by Galich.

Let others cry out from despair,
From insult, from hunger and cold!
In silence we know there’s more profit,
And the reason is—silence is gold.
That’s how you get to be wealthy,
That’s how you get to be first,
That’s how you get to be hangman!
Just keep mum, keep mum, keep mum.

Those wishing to study the resigned psychological mood of the late Sixties and Seventies should start with these lines. Behind them is the feeling that anything attained is precarious, the ever present fear that it could always be worse. Rock the boat and everyone may suffer. Many even long for the “good old days” of “the boss” (Stalin).

The duality of present-day Russia—the ferment among small numbers of intellectuals and the psychological paralysis of the rest—finds its mirror in Russian cultural life, a subject that is dealt with cursorily by both Kaiser and Smith, though Smith’s account is the stronger here. Neither gives an adequate picture of a dismal situation.

By comparison with the early Sixties, today the arts in Russia are in a state of utter exhaustion, even “decadence.” The official ideology of Socialist Realism has lost none of its force, even though it is dead. No one any longer knows what it means, unless it means flattery of the authorities in forms they can easily understand. This makes it a powerful weapon in the hands of the cultural ignoramuses who control the arts; by invoking this ossified sacrament they can block anything they find incomprehensible or threatening. The voluntary and involuntary exodus of some of Russia’s best talents has hastened the cultural decline. That the flight cuts across generations makes it particularly ominous for anyone concerned with the future. The finest poets, writers, and critics (Brodsky, Gorbanyevskaya, Solzhenitsyn, Siniavsky), the best musicians and dancers (Rostropovich, Makarova, Baryshnikov) realize that the hopes of the early Sixties are irrevocably dead. Their loss will be felt for a great many years.

The dying out of what was left of the old intelligentsia further demoralizes those who feel they cannot abandon Russia. They transmitted, in the cultural equivalent of a relay race, whatever had survived of the tradition. How many friends have said that they decided to emigrate when they could no longer bear yet another trip to the cemeteries of Moscow and Leningrad? The sense of literally burying Russia’s past had become too much.

The weariness of those who helped make the avant garde of the early Sixties cannot be ignored. The struggle with the authorities has simply exhausted their creative energies. Modest talents like Aksyonov, Nagibin, and Tendryakov are now silent or trapped in self-parody. Even the invigorating popular jokes about “Radio Armenia,” which reflected the comparative daring of the Khrushchev period in such a lively manner, are now pale and tired; their targets are no longer the Party but canonic figures of the revolutionary past like Chapayev and his machine-gunner Petka.

“Elite literature” has virtually disappeared from the pages of the Soviet press. This has been accompanied by the decline of literary standards in samizdat. Depicting forbidden truths, no matter how ineptly, now guarantees admiration for being “original.” For all the seeming variety, even what many cultivated Western readers consider some of the “most interesting” new prose printed in Russia—for example the “regionalist” writers like Belov, Soloukhin, Abramov, and the late Shukshin—is usually of interest only for ethnographic or sociological reasons. Once again, as in the decades under Stalin as opposed to the early Sixties, Russian writing cannot fairly be considered in anything but a provincial Soviet context. Some younger writers, like Andrei Bitov, whose unpublished novels made him for many the hope of Russian letters, have shut themselves up in silence, despairing of ever finding publishing outlets. They live (like Mandelstam, Pasternak, and Akhmatova in the Thirties) by translating and editing.

The decline of the “culture of the word” is even more noticeable in poetry, seemingly stockpiled by one printer, devoid of the slightest tinge of originality. The most important poet remaining in the USSR, Andrei Voznesensky, finds himself the target of increasingly vicious critical attacks because he is “too complex” or writing “not in the current” (not, mind you, “against the current” but “not in it”). One can judge the present state of his writing only by examining his desk drawers. The fate of Leningrad’s two finest poets, Dmitry Bobyshev and Alexander Kushner, the only writers in whom one feels the presence of the real “Petersburg tradition,” is equally troubling: the first is not published at all and the other prints only what can pass through the fine sieve of the censor (precious little).

The treatment of what in normal societies are considered “classics,” books found in cheap editions in any bookstore, has further exacerbated the degradation of literary values even among the comparatively well educated. For decades the brilliant literature of early twentieth-century Russia was suppressed and hidden from view. Now it is being issued in carefully controlled doses. (The hunger for it among the young is one of the few encouraging signs in the cultural scene today.)

A cautious selection of Mandelstam’s poems, containing a preface with anti-Semitic overtones which slights and dishonors him in every possible way, or Bulgakov’s Master and Margarita uncut are presented as the latest “novelties” of Russian letters (and the Mandelstam has gone into a second and third printing for sale, of course, only in the West or, even more incredibly, in the special Beryozka shops for foreigners inside Russia). Bely’s Petersburg (published in 1916), a selected Remizov, or an academic edition of Akhmatova, now canonized as a Soviet poetess, are to be treated in the same way. The technique recalls the remark of the hero of Nabokov’s The Gift: “When had this strange dependence sprung up between the sharpening of thirst and the muddying of the source?” (Nabokov is the most widely admired Russian prose writer among the few who can obtain his writings; the most frequent comment is, “My God, we had forgotten how Russian could sound!”)

But the most courageous editor is never allowed to go too far. Those who would be too bold must consider the fate of the journal Novy mir (also a desert) or the stifling of the series “The Poet’s Library,” Russia’s only near equivalent to the Oxford Standard Authors, except that these classics are not kept in print. The power of self-censorship has not lessened.

The artificial disruption of any normal development of literary history and sensibility has in large part been created by Soviet writers themselves, most of whom are low-brow illiterates whose culture matches that of the political authorities they serve and who reward them well. These cynical hacks scramble for traveling privileges or bigger country houses, and doggedly oppose translations of Western literature, terrified that these will compete with their own rubbish and cause a loss of the paper quotas allotted for collected editions of their own works, which few buy (the collected works of writers like Gribachov, Sofronov, and Serebryakova are charmingly called “planned losses”). They still insist that Proust, Henry James, and Joyce are literary degenerates who depict morally unpalatable topics harmful to the “simple Soviet man,” to use one of their favorite phrases. The extent of their self-righteousness and contempt for the Soviet reading public is boundless.

It is all the more tragic that in this country of readers—where books partly compensate for the squalor, the visual poverty that surrounds Russians in vulgar poster art, and the low quality of cinema, television, and theater—the law of supply and demand has never been allowed to function. The printings of good books are small (10,000 copies of the first edition of the new Mandelstam collection were bought by people with connections long before the book appeared in bookstores) and they are rarely reprinted. A thriving black market in books has resulted, and speculators swarm about the large bookstores. Ask not only for a Western classic but even for Chekhov or Dostoevsky, and after the ritual reply “u nas net” (“don’t have it”), someone will furtively offer it to you at a fabulous price. How can we be surprised by this when the largest Soviet publishing house in Moscow (Khudozhestvennaya literatura) is run by an ignorant economist with a long record of Party service and the one in Leningrad by a former baker who has publicly confused the Soviet writer Victor Nekrasov with the major nineteenth-century poet of the same last name.

In the Sixties there were several talented directors in the Soviet film industry—Tarkovsky (Andrei Rublev), Paradjanov (Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors and Pomegranate Colored, the latter shown in few theaters, in a mutilated version), Andron Konchalovsky (whose The Lame Woman Asya Who Loved But Never Married was never distributed), and Alov and Naumov (a version of Dostoevsky’s “A Vile Tale”). Now Paradjanov sits in prison; Alov and Naumov have produced a vulgarly commercial version of Bulgakov’s play Flight; Konchalovsky, having apparently decided to preserve the spotless honor of his father, the KGB’s favorite, Sergei Mikhalkov, has made his treacly Song for Lovers into an equally tearjerking film. Tarkovsky has become a tiresome exhibitionist displaying his complexes in Mirror (replete with direct quotations from Fellini).

The standard Russian films are worse than B movies in the West. Soviet viewers are protected from Western films not only in the name of ideological purity but because the best foreign films more often than not are box-office disasters (the only Bergman film shown in Russia, Wild Strawberries, did not even pay for itself). No wonder: a recent statistical survey (unpublished) of the mass film audience in the province of Vologda made by a young film student found a level of perception so primitive that any visual metaphors baffled the audience (who thought them part of the “real” action); anything but the expected clichés irritated the majority.

The myth of the Soviet ballet also collapsed by 1970. It occurred with seeming abruptness, but the decline had been proceeding at a leisurely but inevitable pace ever since the early 1960s. Only ten years were needed to turn the Kirov Ballet, considered by many the finest classical company in the world, into a citadel of the routine and shoddy, so much so that even those who wish it well now say, not without malice, “What a strange company! All the soloists live abroad, but the corps de ballet is at home.” (The theater is popularly known as the “Kirov Theater of Opera and Corps de Ballet.”) Not merely have six soloists sought a haven in the West, but a generation of teachers and dancers who preserved the Petersburg ballet tradition have either died or retired (or been forced out). Years of carefully cultivated mediocrity and “standardization” have wiped out any creativity and emasculated many talented dancers who simply have no repertory.

The steady deterioration of the Bolshoi Theater has not yet reached the critical stage of the Leningrad company, but its downward course continues. Under the Party “commander” Sophia Golovkina, the Moscow choreographic school lies in ruins. The theater itself either remounts sterile productions of classics or propagates harmless new “ballet dramas,” some of which (like the recent Ivan the Terrible) openly celebrate totalitarian power. The less said about the provincial ballet the better. The situation calls to mind the fate of ballet in Italy. Once the “home of the ballet,” Italy turned in the nineteenth century to technique instead of creation. Its virtuosos astounded the world for a time, but everything gradually fell apart with the death of a creative tradition. Today “Italian ballet” sounds like a contradiction.

Despite eschatological prognoses like those of Amalrik (“Will the Soviet Union Survive Until 1984?”), the Soviet Union is far from being on the point of collapse, for all the disorder and disorganization which eat away at it from inside. Like that “remarkable piece of apparatus” in “In the Penal Colony” by Kafka, it goes on working by itself.

This Issue

April 1, 1976