Andrei Sinyavsky served six years in Soviet prison camps following his trial in 1966 for publishing his work in the West under the pseudonym Abram Tertz. Since emigrating in 1973, he has lived in France, and recently started, with his wife, the magazine Syntaxis. Sinyavsky agreed to this interview on Solzhenitsyn and the new Russian nationalism after Solzhenitsyn himself had given an interview to the BBC. The text Sinyavsky refers to was published in The Listener of February 15 and 22, 1979.
OLGA CARLISLE: Nationalism can be regarded as a natural reaction to the uniformity of modern life. But right now it appears that Russian nationalism is taking on a new, ominous political significance. I would like to have your thoughts on this subject.
ANDREI SINYAVSKY: The issue of Russian nationalism is all important for me today, and rather painful. My entire life, all my literary activities, are tied to Russia. I feel very close to some of our turn-of-the-century philosophers, like Berdyaev, with their Slavophile tendencies. I am not at all a Westernizer, to use the accepted term. I love the West and I am interested in it, but it is the study of Russian culture which is my profession. Before my arrest, I often traveled with my wife into the depths of Russia, examining icons and ancient manuscripts. Our Russian traditions are very dear to me. However what I observe today of Russian nationalism forces me to reevaluate it, and to look at its wider implications. As everywhere else at this time, in the USSR there is a search for national identity both on the part of Russians and of the minorities the Soviet Union encompasses. Looking at the emerging African countries backed by the Soviet Union, certain republics such as the Ukraine or the Baltic nations ask themselves why they too could not have political autonomy. And indeed, why shouldn’t they?
As far as the Russians are concerned, there is a renewed interest in ancestral traditions, and this is an excellent thing, coming as it does after years of enforced cultural uniformity. A quest for a nation’s roots is going on—historical, religious, literary. However, the Russian nationality is the dominant one within the Soviet Union, and as it did at times before the revolution, the Russian sense of self is becoming very assertive, very insistent. It takes on a chauvinistic cast. There is a lot of hostility toward the rest of the world—toward other Soviet nationalities, toward the West. Toward China also, but that is understandable to some degree. For us China is a caricature of our own past: Mao reminded us of Stalin.
An example of this hostility is the rebirth of anti-Semitism at all levels of government, where it is no longer repressed. It flourishes among the working class, in camps. During my six years as a zek [camp inmate], I got along with everyone except the camp authorities. Yet one day certain zeks who were nationalists presented me with an ultimatum: I had…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.