So much change has taken place in the Soviet Union in the last twenty-five years, particularly in the last ten, that it is difficult now even to imagine the excitement produced by the arrest, trial, and sentencing of two young writers, Andrei Sinyavsky and Yuli Daniel, in February 1966. Their “crime” had been to smuggle out, and have printed in the West under the pseudonyms of Abram Tertz and Nikolay Arzhak, various works of fiction and, in the case of Tertz-Sinyavsky, an essay, On Socialist Realism. Both were sent to work camps, Sinyavsky for seven years (though he was released after six) and Daniel for five. A year after obtaining his freedom, Sinyavsky emigrated to France; already a noted scholar at the time of his arrest, he took up a post teaching Russian literature at the Sorbonne. Daniel remained in Russia, and died in 1988.

Their case was not tried in public, but the proceedings were taken down secretly by several people admitted to the courtroom and published both in Russian and English a year later. The English volume, On Trial, also includes most of the other documents relating to the case—the press campaign launched against the defendants in advance of the trial, the protests of many Soviet Russian intellectuals, and the worldwide wave of petitions provoked by the arrests.1 The reasons for this extraordinary outpouring would seem to have been twofold. Khrushchev’s horrifying revelations about Stalin had badly shaken the faith in Soviet infallibility; and the grounds for the indictment itself erased whatever line still existed between literature and political propaganda. No law in the Soviet Union prohibited the publication of works abroad, and the authorities were thus forced to attempt to prove that the content of the works could be used as evidence of anti-Soviet activity. Many writers had of course been sent to prison camp in the Soviet Union, but never on the basis of evidence taken solely from their work; the implications of such a charge called forth an unprecedented upsurge of public and international solidarity. Historians of the post-Stalin era date the rise of the Russian dissident movement, and the large-scale establishment of a samizdat press, from the indignation aroused by the Sinyavsky-Daniel trial.


Andrei Sinyavsky thus became universally known once his identity as the mysterious Abram Tertz was revealed; but Abram Tertz would not have been pursued so relentlessly, and finally unmasked, if he had not already become a world-famous figure. The appearance of On Socialist Realism, accompanied by a volume of stories (Fantastic Stories), two long novellas (The Trial Begins and Liubimov), and a series of aphorisms (Unguarded Thoughts), revealed a writer and critic of major stature, with a voice and sensibility unlike anything that had emerged from the Soviet Union in a very long time. Indeed, so sharply did these works stand out amid the drabness of standard Socialist Realist prose—involving, as Christopher Isherwood once remarked long ago, “the usual sex triangle between a girl with thick legs, a boy, and a tractor”—that one Party critic insisted they were the forgeries of a White Russian émigré being passed off as the genuine article. No writer educated and living in Communist Russia could possibly have uttered such thoughts or created in such a style.

The thoughts in question, especially as they appeared in On Socialist Realism, told Western students of Soviet culture little that they did not already know.2 The brochure was, however, written with a lapidary vehemence clearly stemming from a bitter disillusionment with the very foundations of the Soviet world view—the belief, namely, that all the iniquities of Stalinism had been justified because Russia was well on its way to creating the perfect Communist society. Tertz-Sinyavsky thus offered one of the first glimpses of the rebellious sentiments seething, in the minds of a new generation, under the thick carapace of enforced surface unanimity. Even more, the style and technique of his own works could be seen as a response to the new situation created by the collapse of the revolutionary idealism in which Sinyavsky’s generation had been so assiduously educated. “Right now,” he wrote, in a passage that has become classic,

I put my hope in a phantasmagoric art, with hypotheses instead of a purpose, an art in which the grotesque will replace realistic descriptions of ordinary life. May the fantastic imagery of Hoffmann and Dostoevsky, Chagall and Mayakovsky…and of many other realists and nonrealists teach us how to be truthful with the aid of the absurd and the fantastic.

Tertz-Sinyavsky’s own works fully satisfy these prescriptions. Set in an unmistakable day-to-day Soviet reality, with all its depressing grimness and grinding deprivations, this recognizable world will suddenly be invaded by the fantastic, the grotesque, and even the supernatural. Sometimes, as in The Trial Begins, the distortions of the familiar are given in caricatural dream-visions, outrageous inversions of Marxist-Leninist clichés, and stylistic hyperbole. In Liubimov (regrettably translated as The Makepeace Experiment, though the place name is important), the fantastic is built into the very conception of the work: a harmless and well-meaning bicycle mechanic, Leonid Tikhomirov, suddenly acquires a psychic power that enables him to hypnotize the inhabitants of his homely little provincial town into believing they are already living in the Earthly Paradise.


The short stories contain narrators whose contorted and confusing images of reality can be attributed to the paranoia and schizophrenia induced by the conditions of living in a police society. But the supernatural also intrudes in the form of one narrator miraculously able to foretell the future (the authorities immediately try to make use of his gifts for Russian foreign policy), and another narrator, who works for a local Housing Department, may well be a house-demon of Russian folklore (domovoy), who explains the burbling and gurgling sounds in the plumbing as the voices of the water nymphs (rusalki) come to take refuge in the city from the pollution of their native habitat.

Such examples give only a very inadequate notion of Tertz-Sinyavsky’s exuberance and imaginative inventiveness, which mingle the sharpest satire, ideologically honed to the finest cutting edge, with a sense of profound oppression and loss. All these qualities are combined in the most moving of Tertz-Sinyavsky’s short stories, “Pkhentz,” one of the few contemporary works worthy to be placed beside Kafka’s The Metamorphosis. The narrator is the inhabitant of another planet, stranded on earth as the result of some interstellar accident and living as a Soviet Russian citizen; he appears to be a hunchback because his body is more like a cactus plant than an earthly human form, and he must not only keep it concealed but also is forced to spend an inordinate amount of time in the communal bathroom since he lives only on water. The piercing sense of alienation expressed in this story is made all the more poignant, as in Kafka, because of the withering banality of the circumstances in which he is forced to survive. Clarence Brown was perfectly right to have included “Pkhentz,” as an undisputed masterpiece, in his Viking Portable Reader of twentieth-century Russian literature.

Since emerging from prison, Sinyavsky has published a number of important works which can only be mentioned here very briefly. His A Voice from the Chorus is largely a selection from the letters he wrote to his wife from the prison camp and hence first submitted to the censor; they deal mainly with reflections on art and religion, as well as reactions, raised to the level of philosophical generalizations, to the life going on around him. The book also includes extensive samples of the idiomatic speech of the other convicts, who came from all corners of the multilinguistic Soviet Empire.

Two other books, begun while Sinyavsky was still in prison, are scintillating critical studies of Gogol and Pushkin, which created a stir by their iconoclastic treatment of these two pillars of the Russian literary tradition, and, in the case of the second, an outright scandal. Sinyavsky was attacked both inside and outside the Soviet Union for his supposed defamation of the writer whose work has become, in effect, the unofficial Bible of Russian moral-cultural mores. In fact, Sinyavsky was reacting against the Russian habit of treating writers as cultural and political mentors—he was sentenced to hard labor because of his presumed neglect of such a civic responsibility—and he stressed all the frivolous, light-hearted, and amiably amoral aspects of Pushkin (of which there are a good many, particularly in his early work).

What almost caused apoplexy was such a sentence as: “Pushkin came rushing into great poetry on slender, erotic feet and caused a considerable rumpus.” Sinyavsky then compares Pushkin’s later attitude to life with that of Don Juan, who threw himself into each new adventure—as Pushkin into each subject—with perfect sincerity, becoming one with his theme “so that at each instant his infidelity is sincere and truthful…and…identifying himself with the other is his way of living and obtaining nourishment.” This is not unlike what Keats said of Shakespeare’s “negative capability,” and is surely the secret of what, according to Dostoevsky, made Pushkin Russia’s great national poet: his “panhumanism.” But Sinyavsky provocatively couches this idea in a phraseology calculated to shock Russian literary pieties, and to offend those who believe that a writer—especially a great Russian one—should have firm ideological commitments.

Two other works illustrate his strong affiliation with the Silver Age of Russian culture (the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries), and he has spoken of the urgent need to reestablish the links between this period and the post-Marxist present. The Russian religious philosophy of this era, he has written, “is very interesting,” and such writers as Berdyaev and Lev Shestov “tried, not to repeat but to rethink the very profound Church tradition in fresh terms, to think it anew, as it were, and very personally.”3


In 1982, Sinyavsky published a compulsively readable lecture course given at the Sorbonne on V.V. Rozanov, one of the most original, eccentric, and, to tell the truth, morally questionable of these religious philosophers. It is certainly exaggerated to say, as does the French critic Georges Nivat, that “in a sense all of Sinyavsky comes from Rozanov”;4 but he is powerfully attracted to certain aspects of Rozanov’s thought, most of all, perhaps, to his deliberate cultivation of the most flagrant self-contradiction. Many of Rozanov’s contemporaries considered him to be deceitful and treacherous precisely for this reason. He wrote both for and against Christianity, both for and against the Jews, both for and against social revolution. But Sinyavsky values such oscillations as a means of resistance to the pressure for ideological conformity. Rozanov’s taste for an often demeaning self-exposure, conveyed in a style of unusual spontaneity and intimacy—many admire him simply for his prose—has led to him being called the yurodivy (holy fool) of Russian thought; but, as Sinyavsky has recently written, “The idea of the holy fool is based on a profound religious idea: the contempt [for] one’s appearance and human dignity for the sake of God’s glory,” and this is how Sinyavsky justifies many of Rozanov’s aberrations.

Sinyavsky’s comment comes from Ivan-Durak (Ivan the Fool), an impressive work on Russian popular religion, which concentrates on the peculiar intertwining of Orthodox Christianity with magic and paganism, and reveals Sinyavsky’s deep fascination with these persistent elements of the Russian folk tradition that neither the Church nor the Soviet state has been able to stamp out. Part of this tradition is also embodied in the Raskol (the Old Believers) and the Russian sectarians, many of whom Sinyavsky met in prison camp. He writes about them with great respect, and concludes his book by describing a secret meeting at night in the boiler room of his camp in order to read the Apocalypse: each convict had been assigned a chapter and recited it from memory. “This was culture,” Sinyavsky writes, “in its oral transmission, in its primary essence, continuing to exist at the lowest level, the most underground, the most primitive…. But it was truly culture, and perhaps in one of the purest and noblest forms. And if these people and that transmission belt did not exist, the life of man on earth would not have the slightest significance.”

Translations of Sinyavsky’s work into English dropped off after A Voice from the Chorus, and very little of his post-prison writing has attracted publishers here. This situation, however, is improving. A charming novella, much more light-hearted than his previous fiction and directly inspired by E.T.A. Hoffmann, Kroshka Tsores (A Little Jinx), has just been accepted by Northwestern University Press, which also, if my information is correct, plans to bring out the book on Pushkin. For the moment, we have two new products of his extremely busy pen, a so-called “novel,” Goodnight!, in a lively and fluent English version, and a recent summa of his reflections on the post-1917 culture of his native country, Soviet Civilization. The remainder of this article will be devoted to a necessarily summary discussion of these two highly original and, like everything Sinyavsky writes, inimitable texts.


Goodnight!, whose enigmatic title may contain a satirical allusion (this is only a guess) to a popular Soviet TV program of the same name for children, is called a “novel”; but this designation, as so often in Russian literature, is more misleading than helpful. There is nothing conventionally “novelistic” about the book, which is squarely based on various incidents in Sinyavsky’s life and, in the last section, contains an incriminating confession that was no doubt very painful to make. The first-person narrator is Sinyavsky himself, who calls up events of his past, starting with his arrest, with all the imaginative and stylistic brilliance, all the play of literary, artistic, and ideological allusion, all the sarcasm and the (often self-mocking) irony familiar from his fiction.

The book also includes entirely imaginary or at least not directly autobiographical sections—a brief play in an Expressionist, Brechtian style, a short excursus on mice, extracts from a presumably eyewitness account of the torture and carnage surrounding the murder of Dimitry the, Tsarevich by Boris Godunov, and a cynical yet wholly reverent dialogue in Heaven between Jesus Christ and His Mother that might have come from The Master and Margarita. All these, as Sinyavsky explains, because “sometimes a writer is free to disregard the facts in order to elucidate them more fully and lend them greater power….” The book is thus a bewilderingly rich mix of memories and reflections that ebb and flow in no apparent order except that of one incident recalling another, or a phrase or expression setting off a particular memory-related response. But through all this nonetheless weaves the narrative of how the “believing Komsomol member” that Andrei Sinyavsky still was in the 1950s became the literary outlaw Abram Tertz (the Jewish name comes from a thieves’ ballad popular among students); and it is this narrative thread, to the regrettable neglect of much else, that we shall try to follow.

The first chapter, called “The Turncoat,” begins at a point when Sinyavsky had long been Abram Tertz in secret without quite realizing what this assumed identity really involved; but he learned very quickly after his arrest. “A ridiculous intellectual,” whose “only thought was to behave with as much decency and dignity as possible,” he passively allowed himself to be taken into custody on the street without fuss, was pushed into a limousine and driven to Lubyanka prison. At first he denied knowing anything about “Abram Tertz,” to the great amusement of his interrogators, but soon realized that by doing so he was playing into their hands. “The more I denied I was Abram Tertz, the more guilt I would experience”; by his denial he accepted the implicit assumption that what he had done was a criminal offense. But once he confessed to being Tertz, openly accepting his fictitious identity, his entire situation changed—not practically, of course, but psychically and morally.

For who and what was Abram Tertz? “I can see him as if it were just yesterday,” Sinyavsky writes with pride, “a crook, a cardshark, a real son of a bitch, his hands in his pants pockets, his mustache stringy, his cap snapped down over his eyes, walking with a light step…. He’ll steal, but he’ll croak before he’ll squeal.” Once having become Abram Tertz, he accepted the outlaw code of his alter ego and stood firm against all attempts to make him “squeal” by pleading guilty. The jazzy playlet, which contains some extremely funny (Groucho) Marxist exchanges (“The Three Sisters are calling upon the fraternal peoples of New Guinea—to Moscow, to Moscow!,” etc.) dramatizes the unsuccessful efforts to make him admit that some of his works were slanders on Russian life and culture and thus anti-Soviet propaganda. As he realized later, the Sinyavsky-Daniel case had been intended “to be a present to the party from the KGB on the occasion of the 23rd Congress. A model trial served up with an eye to the West on a crisp snow-white napkin.” Sinyavsky’s stubborn refusal to accept any guilt (Daniel expressed a partial repentance, but withdrew it later in an open letter), sabotaged the whole arrangement. “Like blowing up a long-awaited new building…or a factory.”

By becoming Abram Tertz, Sinyavsky thus foiled the KGB; but his real triumph came in the train taking him to the prison camp. He had been warned to be wary of the nonpolitical prisoners, the real Abram Tertzes, who were notorious for their ruthless cruelty to the others; and Sinyavsky was genuinely frightened, as well he might have been. In fact, to his amazement the prototypes of Abram Tertz greeted their fictional spokesman with friendship and even deference. “Each of them hurried to express his respect for me, to put it mildly. They had read about it in the papers!” Abram Tertz had been catapulted into fame; but even more, “the abuse heaped on me by the radio, at meetings and in the press was an honor—I’d been honored! And the fact that I had smuggled my manuscripts out to the West, had not confessed, and remained unbowed at the trial conferred on me an exaggerated stature.” The criminals who had also never bowed before Soviet law clamorously greeted Abram Tertz as one of their own; and the chapter ends with the triumphant exclamation: “You’ve lost the argument with me—you’ve lost, Pakhomov [the name of his KGB investigator]!”

A year later, Mariya Sinyavskaya comes to visit her husband in “The Public House” (as the second chapter is called) a phrase that can also mean “brothel.” This is a building at the entrance to the camp in which convicts are allowed to spend three days each year with their wives or members of their family. There is a heartfelt invocation to Mariya and all the other wives (“Oh, Russian women, draft horses of the nation!” who “all come to the public house from every corner of the land”), and what the Sinyavskys tell each other when they meet alternates with dialogues taking place in the adjoining rooms. (The mother, come to visit her son, who had been tricked into returning to Russia by a letter to which her signature was forged; an ex-German collaborator who urges his lieutenant son to renounce his father publicly for the sake of his career.)

There are also stories of fabulous escape attempts that sound like, but presumably are not, excellent examples of the Sinyavskian “fantastic” (one convict has constructed a plastic submarine with paddles made of tin cans, and might have reached the safety of Mother Volga if he had not run up against an underwater barrier). Most important, though, is the news brought by Mariya of events surrounding the trial. But since the Sinyavskys knew the rooms were bugged (the whir of the listening devices at night sounded like the scratching of mice, hence the small “treatise” about them) they spoke innocently of past vacation trips to the North while Mariya wrote in her notebook and “cut the paper into strips like herbs and tossed pinches of paper macaroni into the saucepan.”

These strips contained a “soup of celebrities,” the names of those who had spoken up in Sinyavsky’s defense and of less well-known friends who had also stood fast; as well as others who had failed to pass the test of loyalty. Also, an unknown benefactor had left a chicken in front of the door after Sinyavsky’s arrest, and a debate had broken out: Should it be cooked, or was it a poisoned gift from the KGB? It was eaten by Mariya and her friends with great enjoyment, never forgotten, and taken as a good augury. Such news slides into recollections of the days when information about Abram Tertz began to filter back—first at a session at the Gorky Institute, when the assembled scholars were told in strictest confidence about the interest his works were arousing in the West, and “with each new reference to Tertz, my ears, like a vampire, distended with new, claret-colored flesh.” Sinyavsky felt like H.G. Wells’s Invisible Man, everywhere present but never seen, transparent, and hoping to leave no footprints in the snow.

But, after a while, his trail was picked up, nobody still knows quite how. One rumor making the rounds was that the CIA gave him to the KGB in return for information about a new Soviet submarine; just a business deal between competing firms. “Mariya and I were immediately enraged at this. Cut the price! A little humility, please!” The Russian ambassador in Paris tried to do a little fishing for Tertz’s identity at a reception, “casting his line with virtuosity at the person who was my impresario at the time,” but was told with French aplomb that the manuscripts published in Paris had arrived in the mail.

Warning signals, however, began to accumulate—the janitor in the Sinyavskys’ building was asked if they had many foreign visitors, Sinyavsky’s withdrawal records in the Lenin Library were commandeered, when walking at night he became aware he was being shadowed. He had once intended “to check out a mass of books that had nothing to do with me” so as to dissolve his identity in the vast reaches of the Lenin Library (Borges would have loved the idea), and he fantasizes amusingly about how this might be done. He would withdraw, say, Sherlock Holmes, Nat Pinkerton, “if I knew English I’d ask for Agatha Christie!…or the Count of Monte Cristo—what better literary patron for a convict on the lam?” But somehow he had never gotten around to covering his tracks in this way, and “while we were making jokes they were excavating.” Indeed, he had known it all in advance—in The Trial Begins a sieve is placed over the sewage pipe in the author’s apartment house, and the rejected drafts he flushes down the drain, carefully retrieved, send him to prison camp.


A deep strain of piety and reverence for the family, and for the moral and human values that it embodies, runs through the “public house” chapter and softens the bleak treatment of sexual relations that some critics had noticed in the earlier Sinyavsky. It is thus only fitting that the next chapter, “My Father,” should be a loving evocation of his own family, especially of his father, whom he obviously adored, and who fits very well into the classic Russian category of “repentant nobleman.” Of gentry origin, he joined the ranks of the revolution after reading Crime and Punishment (“I’m afraid that it wasn’t Raskolnikov who drew him to the revolution but Sonya Marmeladova”) and he became an agitator and member of the Left Socialist Revolutionary Party, which continued the traditions of the Populists of the 1870s. Historians have noted an “ecstatic cult of the revolution” in the Left Socialist Revolutionaries,5 who also believed in the spontaneity of the masses and opposed the Bolsheviks’ assumption of dictatorial powers. They were severely suppressed in 1922, and Sinyavsky’s father suffered all his life because of this ill-fated affiliation. His past “hung over him like an indictment, creating an atmosphere of heroism and long years of hopeless poverty.” His mother, a teacher and librarian from a peasant family, could never understand his father’s “cold disdain for bourgeois vulgarity. A revolutionary nobleman knows how to lead the simple life.”

It is one of the ironies of Russian culture that such people believed themselves to be “materialists” and “egotists.” Sinyavsky’s father thought of himself as a rationalist and materialist through and through; he was widely knowledgeable about science, and “after reading a few books on modern power engineering, he worked out a scheme in which nothing was lost but everything went into outer space as a cloud of will power” (is this not one of the sources of Liubimov?). But Andrei, brought up in his father’s cult of revolutionary idealism and personal self-sacrifice, is not deceived. In a passage that Dostoevsky would have admired, he speaks of his father in words that reveal much about himself as well. “Which way were you Christians looking when humanity was abducted by atheism from under your noses? The revolutionaries were drawn to the heights. What match were all those petty officers who thought only about themselves and their estates…. Who could have known back then at the beginning how it would all turn out?” Well, if his father had paid a little more attention to Raskolnikov….

The senior Sinyavsky had been accused of being an American spy in 1922 because he had distributed gifts to schools and kindergartens donated by the American (Hoover) famine-relief society. Exculpated then, he was rearrested in 1951, when Stalin was making a clean sweep of “the last Mohicans of the revolution,” and purged them along with the Jews. The house search made at that time was a traumatic experience; it lasted twenty-one hours, turned everything topsy-turvy, and, to prove pro-Americanism, unearthed a perfectly legal magazine called Amerika that Andrei had bought the day before for some reproductions of Picasso. Looking through Andrei’s notebooks, the KGB man pointed out that he spoke of the “official definition of socialist realism,” and asked menacingly if this meant there was an “unofficial” one. “I’ll say here that this incident, along with the overall tone of the search, undoubtedly served as the seed of Abram Tertz’s scandalous essay that would be cooked up some five years later.”

The climax of this chapter occurs as father and son tramp through the woods in silence, shortly after the father’s release from prison, the older man abruptly cutting short all attempt at conversation. Finally, cocking his head to one side as if listening for a signal, he tells Andrei that scientific experiments of some sort had been performed on him, and that his brain waves could now be read back in Moscow except at certain times when his control was not functioning. He speaks lucidly and calmly, describes the apparatus that had been placed in his head—some loot from Nazi Germany—and concedes that, while he might be having hallucinations, he does not believe so; nor can Andrei detect any signs of mental disturbance.

What, Andrei asks himself, was he to make of all this? Even more, why should he

have become enraged by the simple scientific hypothesis that his [father’s] brain had been tapped and was now under surveillance. And that was me—me!—who accepted every last fantasy, fable, and faith! Who believed in devils, in magic, in a God in Heaven, whatever you like!

After a few years, his father’s brain surveillance appeared to cease, but “the reality of what happened to him,” his son writes, “remains a mystery to me.” But on their way home, Andrei himself underwent some sort of mystical experience when, looking at a cluster of trees agitated by the wind, he felt that “spirits were at work, and I could not break free of them, for I too was raised into the air by a feeling of what could be called reverential terror.” Reality “seethes, as you and I do, like the universe in an abyss of hypotheses and hyperboles.” The mystery of his father’s thought-control thus only reaffirmed his own belief in the mystery of the universe and the invisible dimensions of “reality.”

This sense of mystery is transferred to the political plane in the next section, “Dangerous Liaisons,” in which Sinyavsky recounts his fascination with an actress presumably endowed with clairvoyant powers; the “liaisons” are sexual and also links between empirical reality and the paranormal and supernatural. The time is the short period of Stalin’s last illness and his death; on the night he dies, “The Mustache” appears to the actress-medium, then living on the outskirts of a prison camp in the Far North, as “a weighty column” made of “pure coldness, of something like methane or nitrogen reduced to absolute zero.” He asks forgiveness for his sins, and when she refuses, tries to argue her into complying with his wishes in a superbly sarcastic parody of various ideological strategies including the Russian Orthodox (“he had of course been trained in a famous seminary”).

She finally forgives him for herself, but not for all the others; he must seek them out one by one, “beseech them in the name of our Lord,” and with these words the column vanishes as the Devil traditionally does at the sight of the cross. For Sinyavsky, the grip of Stalin was itself something magical, supernatural, extraordinary, and he evokes with a certain shudder of terror and yet of perverse pleasure those years “of mature, late-flowering Stalinism…all those bits and pieces of madness and horror that I describe here, all the witches and vampires that charged daily life with the electricity of an imminent end of the world….”

During Stalin’s last days, and when his death is announced, Sinyavsky immerses himself in reading old accounts of the murder by Boris Godunov of Dimitry the Tsarevich, whose death the people refused to believe just as they desired not to believe that of Stalin. And he sketches a hallucinatory scenario, recalling what occurred during the Time of Troubles in the seventeenth century, in which a Stalin the Pretender arises claiming never to have died, and begins to march on Moscow from the Caucasus. The delirious details of this putsch, which come straight from the pages of Russian history (all the leaders of peasant rebellions always claimed to be the true tsar, not dead but returned from hiding), furnish a remarkable example of Sinyavsky’s gift for satirical political fantasy; one does not know whether to laugh or weep at the pompous communiqué, with its deadly pastiche of Stalinist-Marxist rhetoric. This gloomy celebration of the bewitched and diabolical world of late Stalinism, ending in a nighttime bacchanalia of people trampling each other to death to view the corpse, contains some of the most powerful and haunting pages in contemporary Russian prose.

Sinyavsky himself is a child of these years of Stalinism, and his final chapter, “In the Belly of the Whale,” concentrates on one of its predominant features—denunciation of others in the name of Socialist virtue, the pathological hunt for spies, traitors, and enemies of the people inculcated from childhood. The mythical hero of this period, in whose cult all Soviet children were educated, was Pavlik Morozov, a young Pioneer who turned in his own father for selling false papers to kulaks in exile and who testified against him at his trial; he was later murdered by the kulaks and became a martyr. “The blessed Pavlik Morozov walked among us, as if alive,” Sinyavsky writes, “like the incorporeal youth in Nesterov’s visionary painting…. A wanton little smile of holiness weeps, curdling on the martyr’s lips.”

His example inspired many, and “we knew idealists of the highest purity and caliber, people who were kind by nature and who were proud of their denunciations, made without any intent of personal gain.” All this is a preparation for the portrait of a childhood friend called only Sergei or Seryozha, who was much more sophisticated than the youthful Sinyavsky, and who introduced him to the Impressionists, Cézanne, Gauguin, and some of the newer Russian poets, while Andrei was still stuck in admiration of the utilitarian Pisarev.

In a series of anecdotes and recollections, Sinyavsky builds up a portrait at once pseudo-admiring and venomous of Sergei/Seryozha as unscrupulous, sadistic, cowardly, treacherous, and ultimately a provocateur and KGB informer. Two of Sergei’s friends and fellow classmates, Kabo and Breghel, disappeared in the camps, and Sinyavsky knew that Sergei had been responsible for their arrest (he admitted it, after the returning pair boldly denounced him at his doctoral examination). This admission was volunteered because Sinyavsky told Sergei that he too had been approached to become an informer, and that they were both in the same boat.

One of Sinyavsky’s classmates at the university, who soon became an intimate of his circle, which also included Sergei, was Hélène Peltier, later Peltier-Zamoyska, the daughter of the French naval attaché in Moscow who was to become (and still is) an eminent French Slavist.6 She had learned Russian in France during the Second War, and as a special diplomatic favor was admitted to Moscow University just as the Iron Curtain was being banged shut. Hélène Peltier was a revelation for Sinyavsky and his friends, bringing with her a culture and an intellectual world wholly new to them (she was a believing Catholic, steeped in contemporary French literature, and astonished everybody, after getting an A in the course in Marxism-Leninism, by announcing that she was still an idealist). She firmly defended her completely alien convictions in the impassioned conversations to which young Russian intellectuals are so drawn; and while they initiated her into their cult of Mayakovsky, whose heretical Futurist past allowed them to look into all sorts of then forbidden poets and artists, she argued in favor of Christianity and brought her friends art books on Picasso and Van Gogh, whose reproductions dazzled them. “I had never seen anything more beautiful in my life.”

One day Sinyavsky was called to his draft board, taken into a separate room, and found that the KGB was interested in this friendship. He was told to continue it, even deepen it, and summoned two more times; at the last meeting he was ordered to propose marriage. The purpose seemed to be to compromise Hélène in some way so that she could be used for KGB purposes; but this was too much for Sinyavsky to stomach. He confessed to Hélène at their next meeting, and speaks of this moment as “the most serious crisis in my life, after which it was emotionally impossible for me to return to the ranks of moral and political unity with the Soviet people and Soviet society, placing my hopes in the initial purity of the revolution.” It was at this instant, one can say, that Abram Tertz was born; and it is poetic justice that Hélène Peltier, in a few years, was to become Tertz’s courier to the West, who smuggled out his works and arranged for their publication. But it was necessary for self-protection to make the KGB believe that the marriage plan had fallen through because of a quarrel caused by Hélène’s outraged feelings; for this they used the known informer Sergei, concocting a scenario and acting it out for him so that he could report it.7

The plan worked, though the KGB did not give up entirely, and, when Sinyavsky’s father was under arrest, ordered Andrei to write Hélène that he was going to be in Vienna (on the way home from a supposed university assignment in Prague) and would like to meet her there. The KGB took pictures of her dining with Sinyavsky and a “friend” (a worldly KGB colonel) but no attempt was ever made to use this photograph. The book ends as Sinyavsky is on the way back to Russia in a train filled with returning officers and soldiers, listening to the crash of empty bottles thrown out of the windows along the way, and reminded by the whistle of the locomotive of the days when, as a child, he had slept out of doors in the country and “your conscience is clean as you hear a train passing on the far side of the ancient woods, the locomotive whistling at the Batraki landing, out past Syrzan.” And then one understands better a poignant passage just a few pages back, addressed rhetorically to Hélène Peltier, but penetrated by that deep nostalgia for a lost paradise that is one of the most pervasive motifs in Sinyavsky’s work:

Even though they say I called Russia a bitch, Russia is my mother, Lenka, and it was so beautiful and just in my eyes when I was starting out in life.


Soviet Civilization is subtitled “a cultural history,” and it is important to keep this qualification in mind. Sinyavsky is not writing history per se, that is, a recital of specific events through which something called “Soviet civilization” came into being, but rather an outline of its fundamental principles seen primarily through the literary examples that express its dominating values. As was the case with On Socialist Realism, there is little here not already familiar, at least abstractly, to anyone who has dipped into the flood of literature about Soviet life and culture. What makes it so valuable, however, is that these principles are defined by someone who has lived them from the inside, who often illustrates their workings with incidents from his own life, and who has felt both their seductive power and all the inhuman consequences of their practical realization. And who is also one of the most perceptive connoisseurs of the literature that responded to the revolution, both positively and negatively, and sometimes in both ways at the same time.8 Sinyavsky’s book is unrivaled in the sensitivity of its penetration into the inner workings of the Soviet cultural psyche; and precisely for this reason he has no easy answers or consoling panaceas. What he does, however, is to affirm certain moral values, whose denial or suppression he believes responsible for the worst excesses of the Soviet system.

Sinyavsky joins many others in viewing the Russian Revolution, despite all its Marxist slogans and its claim to be the realization of a “scientific” historical law, as ultimately religious in inspiration, an attempt to realize the Kingdom of Heaven on earth, “a marriage of the most exact historical science (Marxism, by its own definition) and man’s religious strivings from time immemorial.” Dostoevsky was the first to realize this perverted religious nature of Russian aims, and Sinyavsky quotes both Mayakovsky and Aleksandr Blok to support the validity of Dostoevsky’s intuitions.

Blok’s great poem “The Twelve,” in which a detachment of Red Guards march through a howling snowstorm while

crowned with a crown of snow- flake pearls
a flowery diadem of frost
ahead of them goes Jesus Christ,

is the poetic incarnation of the apocalyptic significance of the revolutionary upheaval. It released an elemental force whose imagery was always that of a natural catastrophe, but which was felt to provide the basis for a renewal of the world and hence not to be judged according to ordinary moral standards. The same conception can still be found as late as Doctor Zhivago, but Sinyavsky also notes another aspect of such release in the unbridled behavior of the Cossacks in Babel’s Red Cavalry. When the Cossack leader Pavlichenko tramples on the corpse of his old barin for an hour, he is expressing this elemental force in its most terrible form. “The idea of power here is vital. For power is the principal product of the revolution and the class struggle.”

The triumph of power was then channeled by the Bolshevik party into what Sinyavsky calls the notion of a “real-life utopia,” the belief that all the age-old dreams of mankind were to find their fulfillment in the Soviet state. This state and its system were being created in defiance of all the Socialist dogmas the Bolsheviks had nominally accepted, the dogma, namely, that the revolution could only occur in an advanced industrial economy; but instead of material existence dominating ideas, as Marxists were supposed to believe, “in practice, the idea forms everything, dominates everything.” The Soviet state is the first completely ideological state in history; and emerging as it did after the chaos of the First World War, which shook Western civilization to its foundations, it gave life a new meaning and purpose. “For many people, for many years [and here Sinyavsky is by no means talking only for or about Russians], this was undoubtedly the attraction of the revolution and the civilization that it forged.” This civilization, as Sinyavsky sees it, was a strange combination of the fantastic and the rational, and he links some of the grandiose artistic projects of the Russian Futurists to this dream of a complete transformation of the world and of mankind. Even though they at first limited themselves to art, the Futurists were expressing “the utopian spirit that the revolution partly adopted and encouraged and then destroyed.”

What dealt the death blow to the early utopian energy of the revolution was the competing spirit of revolutionary utilitarianism, which came straight from the Russian 1860s and required the sacrifice of everything for the social good. The Futurists, who had begun as artists, threw themselves into the service of the revolution, heaped scorn on the bourgeois art of the past, and were trapped when “the revolution introduced a spirit of cruel expediency that went so far as ascetic intolerance of anything that seemed useless in the moment.” To illustrate the point, Sinyavsky tells the story of the hapless Mayakovsky, who was asked, at a public reading, whether he would write in iambic verse if ordered to do so “for the good of the revolution.” Since this good was the ultimate criterion of value, he could only answer “Yes”; a short time later he committed suicide. This utilitarian spirit distorted all aspects of the life of the new society and “man’s every move was now judged by the good or harm it did vis-à-vis communism’s supreme goal…. Superutilitarianism became perhaps the essence of Bolshevik psychology.”

Two chapters are devoted to Lenin and Stalin, the first of whom Sinyavsky sees as having founded a “state of scholars,” that is, a state governed by those who were entitled to rule because of their superior knowledge, “state-of-the-art specialists in the application of Marxism to present-day policy.” Lenin himself was a “rather kind person whose cruelty was stipulated by science and incontrovertible historical laws.” Sinyavsky finds him even more difficult to understand than Stalin because of this “all-consuming intellectuality—the fact that from his calculations, from his neat pen, flowed seas of blood, whereas by nature this was not an evil person.” By concentrating all power in his hands, however, and setting up the mechanisms of a police state with the most careful attention to details, Lenin paved the way for Stalin, who erected a “state church” on Lenin’s foundations, and for whom the most important thing “was to imbue his power with an impenetrable mystery, a supreme irrationality.” He was, Sinyavsky writes, “a kind of hypnotist who managed to convince the people that he was their god by shrouding his cult in the mystery he knew power required.” It is in Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita, rather than in anything written by historians, that Sinyavsky thinks one finds the best sense of the “mass psychosis” that overcame Soviet society during Stalin’s reign.

The aim of all this was to create a new human type, Soviet man, whose main characteristic would be the suppression within himself of any trace of “egoism or individualism, the desire to live for oneself as opposed to the common good.” Morality was redefined according to the “superutilitarianism” already mentioned, and became subordinate, according to the dictates of Lenin, to the class struggle of the proletariat; this had not been the case earlier, as Camus also long ago noted in L’homme revolté and his play Les Justes, because the populist terrorists had continued to believe that revolutionary violence was a terrible evil even if a necessary one. As one of them wrote, “You don’t have to think that by lying you are sacrificing yourself, that by killing you are saving your soul.”

But this is exactly what the Communists did think, or at least taught, and they set out to construct a new human personality whose moral and emotive reflexes would work according to the commands of such a code. The hero of this new ethos became the then head of the secret police (Cheka), Feliks Dzherzhinsky, an otherwise exemplary human being, devoutly religious when young, who loved nature, flowers, and children, lived the life of an ascetic, and became a cruel and pitiless executioner in order to fulfill the highest demands of revolutionary duty. Sinyavsky cites a number of poems (including one by Mayakovsky) celebrating Dzerzhinsky and holding him up as a “knight of the revolution” whose example Soviet youth would do well to follow.

In writing of the dissident movement, Sinyavsky stresses its essentially moral, apolitical character; the dissidents had seen and felt all too well what resulted from taking politics as the be-all and end-all of human existence. The dissident movement, Sinyavsky says, fights “not for material privileges. Not even for democracy. It fights for the individual. After a hiatus of fifty years, Soviet man suddenly discovered that he was a person, not an impersonal sociopolitical category.” In these days, when American universities are filled with people insisting that “persons” can only be defined (or should be defined) in terms of “race, class, and gender,” Sinyavsky’s pages might help them to see what occurs when impersonal social-political categories take precedence over individuals and are used as unquestioned guides to social action.

So far as the future is concerned, Sinyavsky fully appreciates the relative freedoms granted in recent years but he is properly skeptical of the depth and durability of the changes. “For now,” he wrote in 1988,

we have no reason to doubt the sincerity of Mikhail Gorbachev and of his noble efforts and intentions. However, once again, Soviet liberalism and the sovereignity of the Russian people are ultimately contingent on the goodwill of the father-tsar and his loyal courtiers.

He compares Soviet civilization with a pyramid, the most stable and enduring of architectural forms, and wonders whether a pyramid can really be restructured; at the moment the question still remains open. Drawing on his own encounters in prison with various nationalities, he illustrates the intractable hatred of the conquering Great Russians that he found among all of them. But what bothers him most is the growth of anti-Semitism, which has now become accepted even by an influential fraction of the intelligentsia, and openly advocated by a mathematician of international renown, Igor Shafarevich, whom Sinyavsky sees as only “developing one of Solzhenitsyn’s ideas.” Sinyavsky and his wife, who is an art historian, edit a Russian language journal in Paris, Sintaxis, which has carried on an unremitting campaign against advocates of anti-Semitism and those who reject the possibility (or desirability) of a Western-style “pluralist” democracy in Russia.9

The roots of anti-Semitism in Russia, as everywhere else, go back a long way, but Sinyavsky interprets it, in the Soviet era, as a transference from the now invisible class enemy to an easily identifiable group of foreign origin; he notes that official anti-Semitism only began to be encouraged after the state “had liquidated the last class enemies, the kulaks, or prosperous peasants.” Also, he acutely points out that

the Jews played the role of the Russian nobility in Soviet history. After the revolution, they occupied many posts in literature, in art, and in science. But it’s absurd to want to get even with them for their having assumed this positive role of the intelligentsia.

Nonetheless, in what he calls a “glimpse of the future,” he foresees the possibility of a resurgent Russian nationalism turning into a kind of fascism under Orthodox auspices and allying itself with a more or less intact Soviet state. Anti-Semitism and charges of Russophobia (Sinyavsky himself has been called a Russophobe) in such an atmosphere are like playing with matches in a room with gasoline fumes; and if an explosion occurs, “May Christ forgive us for once again linking his name with the urge to launch massacres and pogroms.”

Do we not here come full circle back to The Trial Begins? In the last scene, an old dagger with a handle in the shape of the cross is found by a Jewish doctor-convict digging in a Siberian trench, and he holds it up for the admiration of two fellow diggers: “A nice place they found for God—the handle of a dagger. God was the end and they turned him into the means—the handle. And the dagger was the means and became the end.”

This Issue

June 27, 1991