Just before he went into exile twenty years ago, Joseph Brodsky took up a long tradition and sent a letter to the tsar. “Dear Leonid Illich,” he wrote to Brezhnev, “A language is a much more ancient and inevitable thing than a state. I belong to the Russian language. As to the state, I believe the measure of a writer’s patriotism is not oaths from a high platform, but how he writes in the language of the people among whom he lives…. Although I am losing my Soviet citizenship, I do not cease to be a Russian poet. I believe that I will return. Poets always return in flesh or on paper.”1
By the first months of 1988, it seemed like a renaissance in Russia. You’d ride the Moscow metro and see office workers, teachers, retired apparatchiks, all reading the latest excerpts in the monthly “thick” journals: Novy Mir, Znamya, and the rest. People wrapped the magazines in newspaper or oil cloth, the better to preserve them and pass them on from one reader to the next. They read all the time, riding up escalators, walking down the ice-slick streets, reading as if scared that this would all disappear once more into the censor’s hand. A people that had been deprived for so long of all that was best in its language consumed classics on the installment plan: Anna Akhmatova’s “Requiem” one week, Andrei Platonov’s Chevengur the next. When his own poems appeared in Novy Mir, Brodsky offered no thanks; nor should his readers, he told me. “That would be like thanking a thief for returning what is yours.”
Month after month, the editors of the journals and the state publishing houses printed everything they could manage until, finally, Sergei Zalygin, the editor of Novy Mir, shattered the last taboo with the publication two years ago of The Gulag Archipelago. What could be unsayable now when the regime, from Lenin on, has been declared guilty of terror?
The return of literature also meant the collapse of an enormous cultural bureaucracy that strangled independent talent and made sure that union secretaries had first printings in the millions and dachas by the sea. With glasnost, no one would ever want to read again the hackwork of the novelist-bureaucrats, for now all could see these were not writers. They were well-fed policemen.
Even now, the journals are filling in the missing pieces of Russian literature. Novy Mir, for its part, continues to publish excerpts from Solzhenitsyn’s novel The Red Wheel and his memoir The Oak and the Calf, though few readers are much interested. Solzhenitsyn is still revered for Gulag, but people are generally bored with the later work and are even beginning to lose interest in his long-promised return home from Vermont. One writer jokes, “Should we send a car, or will Aleksandr Isaeyich require a white horse at the customs gate?”
The literary euphoria of 1988 and 1989 is long gone; the process of returning a stream of literary classics is nearly at an end. Circulation has plummeted for journals that had been so popular and seemed so essential. Subscriptions for Novy Mir have dropped from 2.5 million to 250,000, Znamya is down from 1 million to 250,000, Druzhba Narodov has gone from 1.2 million to 90,000.
To some extent, the trend reflects a healthy decentralization in publishing. Some of the provincial journals, such as Volga, which is published in the city of Rostov-on-Don, have attracted attention in the capital. Last year, Volga published an astonishing oral history of the army massacre of peaceful demonstrators in the town of Novocherkassk under Khrushchev. Meanwhile a few new journals, such as Andrei Bitov’s Solo and Mikhail Berg’s Journal of New Literature, are competing for readers by concentrating solely on poetry and fiction and leaving politics and criticism to the others.
Economic reality is also a factor. The “thick” journal has a nearly two-hundred-year history in Russia, and subscription rates were high even during the gloomiest days of the “era of stagnation” under Brezhnev. Cover prices were low and there was always something worth reading tucked away amid the ultra-official stuff. But now, with rising paper and printing expenses, the cost of a journal has gone up almost as quickly as the price of meat and vodka. Editors are asking readers to pay more for less. In those first years of glasnost, people subscribed to particular journals because they knew it would be their first chance to read long-censored books like Pasternak’s Doctor Zhivago or Grossman’s Life and Fate. The riches were extraordinary, but, after all, there was not an unlimited supply.
“In the euphoria of things, we believed a little naively that there would be this great cultural flowering,” the literary critic Natalia Ivanova told me over coffee at the House of Writers a few months ago. “But it was silly to assume that there was a Mandelstam, much less five or ten of them, waiting out there under a rock.”
Although some still wonder why no renaissance of new writing came out of the glasnost era, the greater mystery is why there is any genuine literary culture left at all. The persistence of a Russian intelligentsia, a class marked for oblivion and then moral slavery, is one of the miracles of a murderous century. Russia is only now beginning to recover from the decades-long collectivization of literature and writers, a period that began with tragedy, then elided into farce the day Brezhnev was awarded the state’s highest literary prize for his ghost-written memoir, The Little Land—a work that a young Party secretary named Mikhail Gorbachev praised for its “philosophical penetration.”
But Russian literature did survive, and in the post-Stalin era it did so for a number of reasons. Khrushchev’s “thaw,” however short-lived, permitted the publication of a few essential texts, especially Solzhenitsyn’s One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, and provided sense of possibility for writers and readers, a sign of vulnerability in the regime. Under Brezhnev’s neo-Stalinism, young intellectuals spent nights typing samizdat editions of contemporary novels and dissident essays so that at least small circles of readers in the big cities had a chance to read them.
In the grim year 1979, a group of twenty-three writers, led by Vassily Aksyonov and Viktor Erofeev, circulated an underground anthology called Metropol, revealing for thousands of readers the endurance of formal innovation, passion, and wit in Russian literature. The range of contributors was remarkably wide. Vladimir Vysotsky, a national hero on the scale of John Lennon, published songs about the camps and street life which he could never have sung from a public stage. Viktor Erofeev published two outrageous pieces, “Humping Hannah” and “A Fin de Siècle Orgasm,” stories in which the characters try to shut out the public, political life around them by immersing themselves in their own emotional and sexual worlds. Yevgeny Rein, the Leningrad poet whom Brodsky credits as a strong influence on his own writing, contributed a set of startling lyrics, including one that begins, “It was in the fifties. / Stalin had croaked,” echoing Osip Mandelstam’s famous poem comparing Stalin to a cockroach. For his metaphor, Mandelstam was arrested and sent east in a railroad car to die. Not surprisingly, the first secretary of the Moscow Writers’ Union, Feliks Kuznetsov, denounced Metropol as “subversive…nothing but an attempt to palm off literary waste that has nothing to do with true literature.”
For scholars and literary critics, the trick was to find a “cover,” a field that did not seem to bear any overt relation to the Soviet period. Historians studied the personality cults of Byzantium, sociologists studied the death of the Russian village. At Tartu University in Estonia, the scholar Yuri Lotman won an ardent following of students by using the study of literature and semiotics as a cover for an analysis of political and cultural life in Russia. One of Lotman’s students, Arsyeni Raginski, became under Gorbachev one of the founders of Memorial, the public organization that called for an end to the state’s control over historical studies, and for the construction of monuments to commemorate the slaughter of innocents since 1917.
In emigration, some writers thrived despite the painful absence of a mass audience and the ambient noise of their native language. Their strategies for survival varied. Some, like Andrei Sinyavsky in Paris, never learned the new language and went on writing his novels and essays in an enclosed linguistic universe. Brodsky, probably the most successful of the exiles, wrote the superb essays in Less Than One in English and the best poems in A Part of Speech and To Urania in Russian. Both writers were embarrassments to the literary establishment. They contradicted the vulgar image of the wandering émigré writer, lost without Soviet soil under his feet and the stink of a steelworks in his nose.
Emigré publishers such as YMCA Press and Posev and the journals Kontinent and Sintaksis were able to make their Russian-language editions available in Moscow with the help of cooperative diplomats, tourists, and journalists. Some of the émigré publishers were supported by CIA funds—for once a worthy investment. A young academic couple in Ann Arbor, Carl and Ellendea Proffer, raised their own money and created Ardis, the most heroic Russian-language publishing house of them all. Nadezhda Mandelstam, who knew everyone, helped the Proffers find the best poets and novelists in the country, and when some of them emigrated to the US, the Proffers were there to help with an introduction, a job, a place to stay.
Saints are the purest of cultural heroes, but saints were not completely responsible for the survival of Russian culture. Andrei Sakharov, after all, could not do everything. At least as important were those imperfect men and women who found a way to live and work honorably, people who neither advertised their acts of decency nor denied their moments of weakness.
Dmitri Sergeyevich Likhachev, an eighty-five year-old scholar of medieval Russian literature, has been such a man. Until he delivered a few eloquent speeches as the senior deputy in the now-defunct Soviet parliament, Likhachev was little known outside academic circles. He made no dissident declarations, called no press conferences, and yet he has held for decades a position in culture roughly equal to Sakharov’s in human rights: that is, he has been its conscience and guardian.
Likhachev’s office at Pushkin House in St. Petersburg, a palatial literary institute on the banks of the Neva, seems designed to ignore all things Soviet. The feeling of entering his office is the reverse of what happens in Nabokov’s story “The Visit to the Museum” when the pitiful exile wanders through an obscure gallery in France and magically finds himself “not in the Russia I remembered but in the factual Russia of today.” One enters Likhachev’s study as if into another time; there is an old edition of Dal’s Dictionary, a prerevolutionary clock, a portrait of Pushkin where the dull face of a general secretary might have been. This is not some cultural fantasy, but rather an act of attention and defiance. In a city where the main library lost thousands of volumes from fire and rot, where Rembrandts fade on the walls of the Hermitage and the Pirogovski Museum was leveled to make way for a wretched hotel, Likhachev has created an ideal room in which to read and think.
“Most of all, I like the quiet,” he told me one winter afternoon last year. “Russia is a noisy state.”
As a boy, Likhachev watched the February and October revolutions from his window. A decade later he had an even closer view of the rise of Soviet civilization by spending a six-year stint in the gulag. Likhachev was arrested in 1928 for taking part in a student literary group called the Cosmic Academy of Sciences. The club posed about as great a threat to the Kremlin as The Harvard Lampoon does to the White House. For admission to the club as an “academician,” Likhachev delivered a humorous paper on the need to restore the old orthography in order to maintain the cultural link with prerevolutionary Russia and to make spelling easier. Later, one of his interrogators railed at Likhachev for daring to waste his time on such “unproductive” trivia.
“What do you mean by language reform?” the interrogator shouted. “Perhaps, we won’t even have any language at all under socialism!”
Likhachev spent part of his prison term working on the construction of the White Sea canal and the rest of the time at Solovki, a labor camp on a White Sea island which Lenin had established in 1920. The monastery on the island had been used as a prison before, but a single statistic can give some idea of the difference between the tsarist repressions and the Bolshevik terror. From the sixteenth century to the end of the Romanov dynasty in 1917, there was a total of 316 inmates at Solovki. On a single night—the night of October 28, 1929—Likhachev listened to the gunfire as 300 men were executed.
It was autumn and my parents had come to visit me. We had rented a room from one of the guards. A man came running to see me on that night saying the wardens had just been to the barracks to arrest me. Well, I told my parents that I had to go because I was being summoned for night work and that they shouldn’t wait up for me. I could not tell my parents that they were coming to take me away and shoot me. I hid myself behind stacks of firewood so they would not see it happening.
Meanwhile the shooting was in full swing. I was not found. It meant that I was also included in that number, I was also meant to be one of those three hundred. So they took somebody else instead of me. And when I emerged from my hideout the next morning, I was a different man. So many years have passed since then, more than half a century, sixty years in fact, and I still cannot forget it. Exactly three hundred people were mowed down just like that, as a warning…. Three hundred shots, one per man. The executioner was drunk so he did not manage to kill them all immediately. But all the same, they threw the bodies in a big pit. The executioner is older than me, and he is still alive.2
Likhachev was a natural scholar, so alive to the Russian language that while sitting in the camps he compiled a dictionary of gulag slang and published it, amazingly enough, in a prison journal. While Stalin’s ideologues were busy creating an ersatz theological language—the language of Pravada and the Communist Party—Likhachev was instinctively interested in the vulgar tongue.
When he returned to Leningrad from the camps, Likhachev continued his career in literary scholarship with a doctoral dissertation on the twelfth-century chronicles of Novgorod. In his later books he wrote extensively about early Russian poetics and the great masterpiece of medieval Russian literature, The Song of Igor’s Campaign, about the development of literary genres and the way Russian culture evolved as part of the cultural history of the West. Contrary to the Marxist-Leninist view of medieval Russia as an era of unending feudal darkness, Likhachev’s Russia was a bastion of cultural development within a greater Europe. In many of his essays Likhachev traces the crosscurrents of influence between Russia and Europe, noting the influence of Dutch painting on Russian gardens, for example, or the connections between Pushkin’s settings and the landscape paintings of Claude Lorrain. In one painstaking linguistic and historical study, Likhachev put to rest the old “Varangian theory,” which held that Scandinavians—the Varangians, or Norsemen—and not Russians established the first Russian state at Novgorod, by establishing that the Russian princes “spoke only the colloquial Slavonic language and read only Slavonic, and that no traces of Scandanavian languages have remained in Russian Christianity.”
Reflections on Russia is a collection of recent essays and interviews, first published in Soviet journals. At the heart of the collection is Likhachev’s belief that the Orthodox church, despite its terrible history of theological schisms and of sycophancy toward the state, is an expression of the “happiest Christianity,” a faith of great sensual beauty which was, through Byzantium, Russia’s cultural and linguistic link with the Eastern Mediterranean and Europe.
Note that even Catholic churches are barren in their grandiosity. But see how a Russian church, thanks to its light, bright, shining iconostasis, thanks to the humanistic organization of space, its cosmic nature and golden flames, is simply beautiful. And it shines.
Likhachev’s idealized description is a declaration of faith as well as of scholarship. Even after decades of state-enforced atheism and the institutional and theological decline of the church, Likhachev will not admit defeat. For him, to lose the link to the Russian Orthodox Church would be to lose the connection both to “Russianness” and to European culture:
One cannot overestimate the role and significance of the language which has come across to us with the church books from Bulgaria. The liturgy was conducted exclusively in that language. It was a language of a highly developed culture which gradually absorbed the eastern Slavic lexicon and spelling…. But it was not merely a matter of a highly organized and complex literature which became known and understood in Rus’. There was also an easing of communication with other peoples which, as is well known, is often hindered by religious prejudices or a conviction of cultural and moral superiority. But Christianity as a whole stimulated a consciousness of the unity of humanity.
In a career of more than a half-century, Likhachev has written essays on virtually everything, from the history of Russian architecture and ballet to Pushkin and city planning. Remarkably, he has never conformed to the political and linguistic demands of Soviet orthodoxy. The plainness of his prose seems almost to defy the indirections and falsehoods of official Soviet scholarship; his religious and political tolerance and his “pan-Europeanism” are a direct challenge to Bolshevik fanaticism, xenophobia, and exceptionalism.
Notes and Observations, a collection cobbled together in 1989 from diaries and notebooks which he kept for decades, includes a memoir of his childhood and youth in prerevolutionary Petersburg. Reading that memoir, with its distant sounds of barges, trolley cars, and church bells, one is struck most of all by Likhachev’s passion to restore the city’s “cultural ecology”—the libraries, the museums, the architecture, and language—after long abuse. Without any nostalgia for tsarist oppression, or illusions about the meanness of Russian life before 1917, Likhachev yearns for the tolerance and literacy that were all but lost in the Soviet era. In his thinking and style, he stands outside the intellectual current that has dominated the past century in Russia, the utopian hysteria of Cherneshevsky and Lenin. Instead, he is a rare living link with the liberal tradition of Herzen, Turgenev, Berdyaev, and Solovyov.
It is true that after returning home from the camps, Likhachev lived pretty well “under communism.” His work was published abroad and at home, and he was elected to boards and presidiums. Likhachev did not “come to the square,” as the dissidents used to say, to demonstrate against the invasion of Czechoslovakia. He did not write declarations on onion-skin paper or go on hunger strike. But Likhachev also did not cheapen himself, never stooped to vulgarity in his work or in the conduct of his public and private life. Once the Brezhnev era began, the rewards for an obedient deed were sweet—trips abroad, say, for an ode about the latest feat of socialist construction. But when he was called on to sign a petition condemning Sakharov at the height of the official slander campaign in 1975, Likhachev refused. Silence had its price. A couple of KGB thugs beat him up in the stairwell outside his apartment.
Perhaps because Likhachev was not an open dissident, perhaps because of his age and distinction, the Gorbachevs went out of their way to show their respect, making him head of the national cultural fund in 1986. Likhachev used the position artfully, working for the restoration of various Russian manuscripts, monuments, libraries, and other cultural institutions. He also attacked such hate groups as Pamyat that exploited the cultural issue as a way to put forward an authoritarian, anti-Semitic brand of Russian nationalism. In the long essay “Reflections on Russia,” Likhachev, the cultural historian and moralist, makes a comprehensive and convincing case that Russian “feeling” and pride need not be illiberal, xenophobic, or threatening to the interests and lives of non-Russians. In this regard, he extends Dostoevsky’s argument in “Two Camps of Theoreticians” that “narrow nationalism is not in the Russian spirit.”3
“Nationalism is a manifestation of the weakness of a nation and not of its strength,” Likhachev writes.
For the most part, it is weak nations that are infected by nationalism. They are trying to maintain themselves with the aid of nationalistic feelings and ideology. But a great nation, a nation with its own great culture, with its own national traditions, is obliged to be good, especially if the fate of a smaller nation is linked with it. A great nation must help a smaller one to maintain itself, its language and its culture….
Patriotism is the noblest of feelings. It is not even a feeling; it is the most important aspect of both a personal and social culture of the spirit when a person and a whole nation can somehow rise above themselves and set goals that are beyond personal aims.
Nationalism, however, is the gravest of human misfortunes, Just like any evil it hides, lives in the shadows, and only pretends to be based on love for one’s country. But in fact it is spawned by malice and hatred for other nations and for those people in one’s own nation who do not share these nationalistic values.
The importance of Likhachev’s position at a time when the ideology of communism has collapsed and a virulent nationalism periodically threatens to fill the vacuum cannot be overestimated. Like Sakharov’s call for an end to Communist Party dominance in 1989, Likhachev’s attacks on Great Russian nationalism, on anti-Semitism and theocracy, come at an absolutely critical time. Likhachev’s plea to preserve a heritage that had been so ignored and abused has helped to spark wide discussions in recent months of Russian character, ideals, and nationalism. As a scholar and moralist, he has played a critical role in helping Russia to discover its cultural identity and its place in Europe. “I am afraid I was not a great man,” Dmitri Sergeyevich told me not long ago, “though I did the best that I thought I could do at the time.” Others have thought a bit more of him. Eight years ago, astronomers in Russia discovered “small planet” No. 2,877. They named it Likhachev.
In 1982, Ardis published the anthology Contemporary Russian Prose, which helped bring to an American audience a range of the best writers working in the Soviet Union and in emigration. The highlights of that collection were Andrei Bitov’s meditative story about the interior life of an artist, “Life in Windy Weather,” and Sasha Sokolov’s short novel, “A School for Fools,” which uses a Joycean stream of consciousness to describe life in a Russian mental institution. The 1990 Ardis collection Glasnost: An Anthology of Russian Literature Under Gorbachev is a progress report on prose in Russia. This time the most commanding voices are those of Tatyana Tolstaya (about whom, more later) and Lyudmilla Petrushevskaya.
Petrushevskaya, a playwright and short story writer in her mid-fifties, is an urban realist. The atmosphere in her work is as cramped, overheated, and painfully intimate as the communal apartments of Russia. Her people tend to be bitter, defeated, cynical, cruel, and, most of all, overcome with want. “Our Crowd,” translated in the glasnost anthology, is a woman’s relentless monologue indicting her friends in the intelligentsia for their petty betrayals and hypocrisies. The piece begins with an echo from Dostoevsky’s underground man: “I’m a hard, harsh person, always with a smile on my full rosy lips and a sneer for everyone.”
Somehow, in just a few pages, the voice scans a life in which the invasion of Czechoslovakia and dissident petitions, sexual betrayals and drunken scenes, blur into a feeling of anomie, a spiritual exhaustion from which no one can recover. The monologue, in a tone of bitter pride, ends with the woman’s pathetic plot to arrange for the care of her son, Alyosha, after she is dead. She is suffering from an unnamed congenital disease and has already begun to go blind. One guesses the disease is life in Russia. In her twisted scheme, the woman beats her child, believing that this will somehow help him avoid a state orphanage. Instead, she hopes her crowd will pity her son and adopt him.
That’s how I calculated it all, and that’s the way it will be. And what’s also good is that this whole group family will live in Alyosha’s apartment, in his home, and not he in theirs…. I think he’ll figure it out, he’s a very perceptive boy, and there among the painted eggs, among the plastic wreaths and the rumpled, drunken, kind crowd he’ll forgive me for not having let him say good-bye, and for hitting him on the face instead of blessing him. But it’s better this way—for everybody. I’m smart, I understand things.
Although the glasnost period did not produce any masterpieces, Russian literary life went through a profound change since 1985. The Gorbachev era was witness to the last euphoric gasp of the intellectual-as-hero, the writer as politician and priest. The most important of the new writers are rejecting that historical role and arguing for a less vatic, more “private” literary culture.
No one described the peculiarity, the publicness, of the Russian writer better than Vissarion Belinsky in his famous letter to Gogol written in 1847:
You do not, I see, quite understand the Russian public. Its character is determined by the condition of Russian society, which contains, imprisoned within it, fresh forces seething and bursting to break out; but crushed by heavy repression and unable to escape, they produce gloom, bitter depression, apathy. Only in literature, in spite of our Tartar censorship, there is still some life and forward movement. This is why the writer’s calling enjoys such respect among us, why literary success is so easy here even when there is little talent…. The public…sees in Russian writers its only leaders, defenders and saviors from dark autocracy, Orthodoxy and the national way of life.
For Belinsky, the writer is the voice not merely of himself, the language, or even God, but of the people. The writer says what the people would say if they only could. Dostoevsky and Tolstoy emodied this Russian view of the writer as spokesman, moralist, political opposition, wiseman, and healer. The Soviet period is filled with writers who pretended to the role—not the least of whom was Solzhenitsyn, who said in Cancer Ward that the writer is “a second government of his country.” Belinsky saw the reason for all this in the history of repression in Russia—and he did not live to see the worst of it. The Russian faith in writers only intensified among the intelligentsia under Brezhnev, Andropov, and Chernenko. At poetry readings people would send written questions up to the podium asking: Is there a God? Will we survive? What’s ahead? In the West, any writer worth the title would run for the fire exit. But to whom could a Russian reader turn? His priest who was an informer for the KGB? The Institute of Marxism-Leninism? His most honorable representative in the Supreme Soviet? And hadn’t his own government endowed writers with this respect? You only jail the ones you fear.
When the time came at last in the spring of 1989 to elect a parliament, the 2,250-member Congress of Peoples Deputies, many urban districts elected literary figures: the poets Yevgeny Yevtushenko and Vitaly Korotich; the novelists Ales Adamovich, Fazil Iskander, Daniil Granin, Chengiz Aitmatov, and Nikolai Shmelyov (who is also a leading economist); the literary critics Dmitri Likhachev, Vyacheslav Ivanov, Tomas Gamkhrlidze, Yuri Karyakin, and Sergei Averintsev; the journalists Yuri Chernichenko, Yegor Yakovlev, and Yuri Shcherbak. Along with the physicist Sakharov, the economist Gavriil Popov, and the historian Yuri Afanasyev, these writers helped to form the core of the progressive wing of the parliament, the Inter-Regional Group, which for at least a year was the main opposition to the Communist Party.
In their attempt to maintain the old order, conservative writers also took on a public role. The leaders of the military, the KGB, and even the hard-line wing of the Communist Party were either too slippery or too stupid to say directly what they thought: how Gorbachev was “selling out” Leninism and the army, how Shevardnadze “lost” Eastern Europe, how the West was going to use Russia as a playing field for imperial robbery, etc. The writers for the hard-line press, Literaturnaya Rossiya, Nash Sovremenik, and Molodaya Gvardia, were less reticent. In those monthlies, one could find paeans to Stalin and the Red Army, and some of the most revolting variations of anti-Semitism since the forgery of The Protocols of the Elders of Zion. In March 1990, seventy-two members of the Russian republic’s writers’ union, a hard-line stronghold, published a letter in Literaturnaya Rossiya saying that “it is precisely Zionism that is responsible for…Jewish pogroms and cutting off the dry branches of their own people in Auschwitz and Dachau.”
To some degree, the season of the writer-politician was great fun. Imagine Meet the Press featuring Mailer and Vidal instead of Clinton and Quayle. But sometimes, not so fun. When Gorbachev formed a short-lived “presidential council” in 1990, he tried to balance the group by appointing a presumed moderate, the Central Asian novelist Chengiz Aitmatov, and a conservative Russian nationalist, Valentin Rasputin, from the Siberian city of Irkutsk. Never mind that Gorbachev ignored the writers in the democratic-radical camp. It was a contest to decide which of the writers he did select was the more pathetic: Aitmatov, who joined in the denunciations of Sakharov and Solzhenitsyn in the 1970s, or the (alas) more talented Rasputin, who has written some brilliant short stories about the degradation of village life, and whose main political causes appear to be not only a worthy attempt to save Lake Baikal from polluters, but an equally powerful urge to cleanse the Russian motherland of Jewish influence.4
By the second and third sessions of the Congress, the ability of the liberal writer-politicians to pose as the leading spokesmen for radical reform began to fade as Boris Yeltsin found his stride and younger leaders developed a following. Writers still made some of the most eloquent speeches—recall Ales Adamovich warning Gorbachev eight months before the coup about the specter of men “in epaulettes.” But their moment had passed. Some liberals began muttering ruefully about “getting back to the book” or, worse, “doing a little teaching.”
Until the last days of 1991 and the fall of the regime, the right-wing writers remained the clearest voices of reaction. While the top ministers planned the coup operation at a KGB dacha near the Vnukovo airport, the literary men kept no secrets. On July 23 last year, three writers—Alexander Prokhanov, Valentin Rasputin, and Yuri Bondarev—joined by hard-line generals, signed an ominous “Word to the People.” The appeal, which ran in the communist daily Sovietskaya Rossiya, declared that Russia was in the midst of an “unprecedented tragedy”:
Our Motherland, this country, this great state which history, Nature and our predecessors willed us to save, is dying, breaking apart and plunging into darkness and nothingness…. What has become of us, brothers?
The main author of the appeal, I’ve been told, was Prokhanov, a novelist-militarist whose ode to Soviet empire in “A Tree in Kabul” earned him the nickname The Soviet Kipling. He waited for the coup as if it were Christmas. “Get ready for the next wave, my friend,” he once warned me. “Get ready.” Whoever wrote the appeal—Prokhanov, Rasputin, Bondarev, or some combination—clearly believed in the tradition of the writer-as-prophet. While doing the devil’s work, they wrote in the voice of Jeremiah. As Natalia Ivanova points out in a stunning essay in the monthly journal Znamya, the July appeal, with its vulgar nationalism and self-pity, matched almost perfectly the language of the doomsday declarations issued on the first morning of the August coup.5 The conspirators envisioned a new vanguard, not of Communists, but of soldiers, priests, workers, peasants, and, of course, writers.
Ivanova also points out that “on the eve of the coup the military state publishing house issued in the millions a brochure called The Black Hundreds and the Red Hundreds, which laid out in detail the program of the national party in 1906.” Like the putschists, she notes, the program wanted to dissolve parliament, declare military, emergency rule, and ban all left-wing newspapers and journals. Ivanova believes that while the conservatives must be held responsible for their role in the plot, the liberals also bear guilt for failing to make the connection between the hard-liners in the leadership and the authoritarians in the nationalist press.
The national-patriotic—or, to be more precise, the national-socialist—ideology began forming a long time before perestroika, even in the 1960s…. By 1988 it was out in the open…. If before 1991 there was a strengthening of the ideology, then after the beginning of that year a foundation was formed with considerable financial aid from the highest levels, and with help from powerful organs of the press.
In reading through fourteen issues of Prokhanov’s paper The Day, Ivanova shows how leading generals, industrial bosses, and Party ideologues attacked anything resembling democracy and decentralization. Over and over again they said the time had come to act. And one day before the presidents of the republics were scheduled to sign a union treaty that would help to dissolve the internal empire, they did.
The coup collapsed, partly because its supporters failed to understand that the people had changed. The putschists, Ivanova writes,
thought they were dealing with “Homo Sovieticus,” but instead they were dealing with a people…. They failed to understand that in the years of perestroika so many people had learned so much about themselves.
Part of what caused this essential transformation in the Russian people was the return of a genuine literature and journalism. People knew a lie when they read one.
The man considered the “ideologist” of the coup, former chairman of the Supreme Soviet Anatoly Lukyanov, is now in isolation cell #4 of Matrosskaya Tishina, one of the most notorious prisons in Moscow. He still believes in “the cause,” he says, and we should trust in him. After all, he is a poet.
Human gratitude! There will be none of that!
Do not wait for it, do not torment or mourn,
All trust is now in ashes,
And there are glib slanders in all the papers,
But I know that there will be rewards,
There will be an honest trial in our souls,
There will be new shoots, like the gifts of spring.
This and other such lyrics have been published in pamphlet form and widely distributed in Moscow. The editor, a reactionary named Vladimir Bondarenko, insists in a preface that Lukyanov must be regarded in the tradition of such “great prison poets” as the dissident Yuli Daniel. But Bondarenko should understand that the only people buying “Poems From Prison” are those interested in artifacts and irony. Far from being a prophet and a patriot, this poet is charged with treason.
The collapse of the literary police, the rise (God willing) of democracy, and the inexorable arrival of commercial television and pop culture all cannot help but change the place of writers in Russia.
Soviet communism and its attendant “equality in poverty” provided readers and writers with a perverse coziness in Brezhnev’s “era of stagnation.” A bloated academic system supported thousands of no-show jobs at institutes, magazines, and publishing houses. I knew many middle-aged intellectuals in Moscow and St. Petersburg who took those jobs because they were left alone to read, drink tea, do as they pleased. In another world, where work sometimes offers economic possibilities beyond base survival, those same people might well have gone into business, medicine, law. But in a system in which everyone was taking in roughly the same miserable salary, why bother?
Now, like it or not, the new world is coming. Young people who might have studied philology ten years ago are now dying to get into business school. Soon they will discover, if they care, that there is not much time left for reading when you are trying to corner the silver market, raise a family, and keep up with the reruns of thirty-something. I can’t imagine that many of those young, economically ambitious Russians will not soon share that awful anxiety of the American yuppie whose black Penguins stare down at him from the shelves, angry and unread. Capitalism is hard, Dostoevsky long.
Literature will always matter greatly in Russia, if only in a different way and to a smaller audience. A critical change in Russia, or in Eastern Europe for that matter, has been the de-sacralization of the writer as a public actor. Until recently, right-minded Western writers would return from the region, thinking, as Philip Roth did, that “in my situation, everything goes and nothing matters; in their situation, nothing goes and everything matters.”
As democracy develops in Russia and Eastern Europe, the writer is no longer the shadow government, singular and huge, but rather a particularly eloquent kind of citizen. When Solzhenitsyn issued his pamphlet Rebuilding Russia: Reflections and Tentative Proposals last year he was contributing to a national debate and that is all. Nearly everyone was pleased that he had joined the discussion, but no one was so awed as to endorse his proposals without reservations.
In a democracy, literature remains essential even when it is not knocking down regimes, regiments charging. Auden’s line in “In Memory of W. B. Yeats” that “poetry makes nothing happen” is too often read as a way of denying that literature has influence of any kind. But the poem does not mean that at all. It means instead that literature does not pass bills, start wars, or end them; instead it makes something happen, but imperceptibly, under the skin, one reader at a time. That role, so deceptively modest, is one that Mayakovsky or the Socialist Realists would have rejected. But in Russia, it is the future. In a few years, we will be about as interested in Solzhenitsyn’s proposals for resettling eastern Siberia as we are in Tolstoy’s crackpot theories of sexuality. The art is elsewhere.
Still, the painful questions will remain: How many people read? What is the effect of modern democratic society on that number? In an interview with me five years ago, Brodsky anticipated that an inner laziness and complacency, and not censorship, is the real modern enemy of literature in the modern world:
I think the day will come when everything will be published. In no time the Soviets are going to realize that it really matters very little what’s published and not published. They are bound to realize what the West realized long ago, that there are far worse fates for books than not being published or burned. It’s that books are not being read.
Tatyana Tolstaya, the most promising of all the “post-Soviet” writers, deserves as wide a hearing as she can get. She is forty years old and began writing just a couple of years before the rise of Gorbachev. As a child of the glasnost era, she has hardly had to worry about the censor much less the knout. Though her great grand-uncle was Leo Tolstoy, she is not his inheritor. There is no attempt at all in her fiction to preach or prescribe, no ambition for epic. She is a miniaturist, a writer who revels in the play of language and mystical narratives that feel somehow like Russian folklore. In “Sweet Shura,” an old woman, “her prerevolutionary legs bowing in wide arcs,” dreams all her days of her “decayed admirers and husbands.” In “The Circle,”
The world is ended, the world is distorted, the world is closed, and it is closed around Vassily Mikhailovich…. Once, dropping off sheets at the laundry, Vassily Mikhailovich stared into the blossoming clover of cotton expanses, and noticed that the seven-digit notation sewn on to the northeast resembled a telephone number; he secretly called, and was graciously welcomed, and began a boring joyless affair with a woman named Klara.
With her sense of comedy, her lush, exact, and surprising language, Tolstaya is more in the tradition of Gogol than in the line of her illustrious relative. Her two collections of stories, On the Golden Porch and now Sleep-walker in a Fog, are attempts to push the Russian language away from political argument and spiritual instruction; instead she re-creates a texture of thought and dreaminess that is peculiarly Russian. Although she shares Petrushevskaya’s local-ness—kitchen tables, dachas, teapots—Tolstaya’s sentences, her shimmering surfaces and quirky details, set her apart. She sounds like no one else. (Her translator, Jamey Gambrell, has made sure that this is as true in English as it is in Russian. Gambrell is a wonder.) Here is Tolstaya in “The Moon Came Out” describing a lovelorn woman, no longer young, in her communal apartment in Leningrad. The imagery is so bizarre and true, so joyfully busy, that it’s almost as if Breughel had painted a canvas called “The Lonely Russian Woman”:
A long communal corridor ran through Natasha’s dwelling; overhead in the half-dark swam washbasin tambourines, dusty Aeolian bicycle harps, and over the exit, rising like a plague cemetery up in arms, the black skulls of electric meters huddled together; as night fell the white stripes of their teeth, each row marked by a single bloody tooth, began madly spinning to the right. In the evening, soccer games whistled and blazed behind other people’s doors, other people’s husbands argued loudly; grandmothers sitting on high beds scratched their legs. A cheerful plumber reached for his rosy young neighbor in the kitchen; the neighbor woman flapped her elbows and the cheerful plumber exclaimed delightedly: “Goooood and spunky!”
In the morning there was the humiliating visit to the toilet with its oozing pistachio walls, carefully torn rectangles of Socialist Industry or The Week, and a swaying dog-leash chain ending in an old-fashioned porcelain pear, on which some wise Englishman, to help things along, had written the black word “Pull” in English and had even drawn a tiny pointing hand in a black cuff: which direction to pull. But just for fun, the cheerful plumber always deliberately disobeyed the Englishman’s directions, and while Natasha fumed indignantly in the slime-covered isolation booth, old lady Morshanskaya, ailing and disheveled in her nightgown, was already pounding on the door.
Like many other Russian writers, Tolstaya has been spending time in the United States lately. She is living in Maryland while her husband teaches at Johns Hopkins. While she’s been here, Tolstaya has been moonlighting as a magazine warrior for The New York Review, The Guardian, and The New Republic. So far her favorite targets have included condescending American feminists, Mr. and Mrs. Gorbachev, Western “Russia watchers,” and Gail Sheehy.
Sheehy tells us that she decided to live in the Soviet Union just the way the Soviet people supposedly do. To this end, she pockets the salt and pepper given out with breakfast in the airplane, though I wonder how many days she planned to get by on this quantity of spices. It’s a nice detail—except that Soviet people, when they steal, steal by the wagonload.6
Though those pieces usually set out with a discussion of an issue or book of the moment and attract attention for the ruthlessness of their attack, they always get around to a discussion of Russian character, the strangeness and particularity of the people. For Western readers accustomed to the polite avoidance of such discussions, Tolstaya is unrelenting, discomfiting, and absolutely refreshing. Unlike Likhachev, who tends to emphasize the ideal, Tolstaya casts her eye on the damage done to the great majority of Russian people. In her scheme of things, a limited class of “Europeanized” Russians—literate, law-abiding, logical, civil—stands off to the side, half-terrified, half-astonished by the mass of “Asiatic” Russians who are “pre-logical,” lazy, dishonest, emotional, anti-intellectual, cruel. Both sides regard each other with fear and suspicion. Sometimes, there is violence.
As a journalist, Tolstaya can sound like Mencken. Her voice howls off the page. She is outrageous, and not at all by accident. She knows about American pieties—especially the taboo against any talk of national character—and she delights in crushing them. “Even in the middle of Moscow, within a ten-minute walk from the Kremlin, live people with the consciousness of the fifteenth or the eleventh century,” Tolstaya wrote in a review in these pages of Robert Conquest’s The Great Terror.
When you have any dealings with these people, when you start a conversation, you feel that you’ve landed in an episode of The Twilight Zone. The constraints of a short article don’t allow me to adequately describe this terrifying feeling, well known to Europeanized Russians, of coming into contact with what we call the absurd, a concept in which we invest far greater meaning than Western people do. Here one needs literature—Kafka, Ionesco; one needs academic scholars like Lévy-Bruhl with his study of prelogical thought.
Tolstaya told me recently that “the basic problem is that no one knows what the narod, the people, is. There is something there, a difference. It’s not usually discussed because somehow democratic society doesn’t allow you to think that way. It’s taboo. All too often, the discussion of these views leads to racism. Perhaps people become writers in Russia because they are fascinated with these creatures. They are so unpredictable that it’s interesting. You with your logical mind cannot predict their behavior. They are like children. They are capricious, unaware of what just happened. They have a strange idea of time, a strange idea of honesty, they have no honor, it’s very easy for them to steal, it’s just natural.”
I relish Tolstaya’s performances in the press almost as much as I think Tolstaya does. But I admire the stories far more. At first it seems that they cannot be the work of the woman who wrote the articles. But they are. Tolstaya may be ambivalent about the Russians, despise them at times, but she also has great pity and love for them. At the end of “Most Beloved,” the narrator realizes that her childhood nanny, the woman who had cared for the family at their country house, who taught them grammar and games, is dying. Tolstaya makes the decay of the summer house stand in for her grief over the approaching death of Zhenechka, the most beloved:
There’s a rustling in the gray grass, the creak of cracked shutters. Overnight yet another colored pane will fall from the veranda, overnight the grasses will rise still higher, the path we walked in the morning will be swallowed up and our footsteps will vanish; fresh mold will bloom on the front porch, a spider will spin the keyhole shut, and the house will fall asleep for another hundred years—from the underground passages where the Mouse King roams, to the high attic vaults from which the fleshless steeds of our dreams take flight.
Tolstaya’s stories are filled with beautiful grotesques, the mentally imbalanced, intellectual misfits, malicious children, lovelorn old women, people who live in a world that seems somehow pre-industrial, even primitive, in a cityscape as timeless as the murk of a Russian village. There are no brand names, television shows, politics. People dream, deceive, love, and, mostly, fail. Would-be writers take notes in copybooks that come to nothing. One day is like the other. There are no other places but Russia. Russia is the world. The main character in “Sleepwalker in a Fog,” Denisov, day-dreams over a map of the world and, because his life is so insular, the very existence of Australia arouses within him “special doubt.” Later, this same man, who can hardly drag himself from bed, dreams the Russian dream. He will inspire a moral and political rebellion:
Deep in the night he nurtured the thought that it would be fine to lead some small, pure movement. For honesty, say. Or against theft, for example. To purify himself and call on others to follow. For starters he’d return all borrowed books. Not filch any more matches or pens. Not steal toilet paper from offices and trains. Then greater and greater things—before you knew it, people would follow. He’d nip evil in the bud, wherever he encountered it. Before you knew it, people would remember you with a kind word.
The next morning Denisov begins a rebellion in a butcher shop, calling on the crowd to demand that their meat be weighed accurately. For a moment, the crowd stirs. It all comes to nothing, however, the moment that a famous actor—“who just that week had frowned manfully and smoked meaningfully into the face of each and every one of them from the television screen”—strolls through the store and diverts attention from the rebellion. As always, nothing ever gets done. The Oblomov principle, the triumph of sloth, prevails: “Denisov had tried inventing things—nothing got invented. He had tried writing poems—they wouldn’t be written.”
“Night,” the best piece in the collection, is a kind of perverse What Maisie Knew. A Russian boy, seemingly retarded, watches in awe as that most impressive of Russian personages, the brass-hipped mother-warrior, girds for another day:
Mamochka is carrying out her morning ritual: She honks into a handkerchief, pulls her stockings, sticking and prickling, onto the columns of her legs, fastens them under her swollen knees with little rings of white rubber. She hoists a linen frame with fifteen buttons onto her monstrous breast; buttoning it in the back is probably hard. The gray chignon is reattached at Mamochka’s zenith; shaken from a clean nighttime glass, her freshened teeth flutter. Mamochka’s facade will be concealed under a white, pleated dickey, and, hiding the seams on the back, the insides out, napes, back stairs, and emergency exits—a sturdy blue jacket will cover the whole majestic building. The palace has been erected.
The immensity of Mamochka in the distorting eye of the child and the bond between mother and son, his dependence and her devotion, are perfectly done. For a cruel moment—a page or two that is almost agony to read—the boy is lost on the streets, torn away from all his bearings. “In the entryways wolves stand in black columns….” Finally, mother and son are reunited, and their days together resume.
In nearly every story, you can feel Tolstaya’s ambivalence. She despises these people for their ignorance, loves them for their strangeness and warmth. It is that quality of comic ambivalence that helps make her stories seem like brilliant shards from a modern Dead Souls.
“It would be a pity to destroy this uniqueness,” she told me. “It’s as if you were to go to some place in Africa where they do something horrible or strange, eat children or pretend to be tigers. Finally, you want them to go to university or something. But in a way it would be a pity. There would never be anyone else in the world who paints himself with stripes and believes he is a tiger…. I suppose, the only way to change things is to destroy Russianness as we know it and then weep over the ashes…. The Russian muzhik should be turned into a petit bourgeois man.”
And so while Tolstaya does not have in her fiction a weakness for Tolstoyan pronouncement, there is a political thread in these stories. Unlike a politician, who is supposed to reassure, to promise new worlds in a four-year term, Tolstaya’s questions make us uneasy. They make us wonder if a people so damaged by centuries of isolation and violence can change as suddenly and as successfully as we’d like to believe. We explore with her, as we do with Dmitri Likhachev, what Russianness means, now and in the future.
May 14, 1992
The Washington Post, July 25, 1972. ↩
From an interview in the documentary film Solovetski Power, 1988. ↩
F.M. Dostoevsky, Polnoe sobranie sochinenii, Complete Collected Works, Vol. 20 (Leningrad: Izdatelstvo Nauka, 1980), p. 22, quoted in Reflections on Russia. ↩
See Peter Matthiessen. “The Blue Pearl of Siberia,” The New York Review, February 14, 1991. ↩
“Writers and Executors,” Znamya, October 1991, pp. 203–219. ↩
“President Potemkin,” The New Republic, May 27, 1991. ↩