“I varnish reality,
correcting my verse….
To speed up the bargain
that leads to my cheque,
I fracture the arms, and
I chop off the legs.
Hand it over, as bidden.
I lacquer and lie.
But I’ll keep some things hidden,
I’ll let some things lie;…
I shall publish, one day!”
These lines on the constraints of authorship under the Soviet system first appeared in print in Russia in 1987, three decades after they were written. Their author, Boris Abramovich Slutsky, had died the previous year. Perceived as an orthodox Soviet writer, he was largely ignored by the critics until it was discovered after his death that an estimated 60 percent of his poetic output remained unpublished. His defiant promise has now been fulfilled for him by others. More than a thousand of his “hidden” poems were published in Russia in the first five years after his death; they encompass Stalin’s Terror, the Nazi invasion and the war, the “Thaw” of the 1950s, and the system’s decline into senile decay. According to Gerald Smith, who has translated and annotated the first selection of his work available in English, although we are only beginning to see it whole, “[it] stands indisputably as the most valuable body of individual poetic testimony to the experience of the Russians under Soviet rule.”
When the Soviet Union was still a fearsome and enigmatic reality, such a testimonial might have won Slutsky instant fame. But to many in the West Soviet Russia now seems almost as remote as Nazi Germany, a horribly failed experiment now mercifully fading from memory.
Of course, this is not the case. In Russia the ultimate significance of Stalin continues to be the subject of passionate debate, while in the West scholars continue to cite dissident writers and intellectuals in an ongoing polemic, which began in the cold war, about the nature of the Soviet system. As shown by a recent public exchange between the distinguished US historians Martin Malia and Stephen Cohen, this dispute has thrown up opposing assessments of Russia’s post-Communist development.1
Malia is one of the most prominent proponents of the view that the Soviet system was a unique event, an unprecedented party-state, a secular theocracy enforcing its ideology through all-encompassing control over its people. Since such a monolithic structure was inherently incapable of fundamental reform, the argument runs, the collapse of perestroika in an empire still under Party control was both inevitable and desirable as the prelude to a painful but necessary transition to democratic capitalism. Opponents of this view argue, with Cohen, that the notions of Soviet “totalitarianism” and of a post-Soviet benevolent “transition” to capitalism are both ideological conceits, the first rooted in cold war politics, the second in the triumphalism of free market orthodoxies in the 1990s. Pointing out that even under Stalin a significant proportion of Russians had actively supported many official policies, they contend that a return to a Gorbachev-style attempt to shape a national consensus on political, economic, institutional, and moral values is still a possibility (if remote) and would cost the population far less than the current attempt to construct a Western-style system on the rubble of the Soviet order.
The idea of the Soviet Union as a malevolent “monolith” has steadily lost ground over the last three decades, but it has had a formidable source of support in Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn. The sensational publication in the West in 1974 of The Gulag Archipelago, Solzhenitsyn’s monumental history of Stalin’s forced labor camps, gave the world a powerful image of evil. It repeated the message of his novels The First Circle and Cancer Ward: that the Soviet people were either servants or prisoners of the system of ideological lies that permeated every aspect of their existence. Only a heroic few (such as the semiautobiographical Gleb Nerzhin in The First Circle) retained their moral integrity through a near-suicidal refusal to cooperate with the authorities in any way.
Many Sovietologists have cited The Gulag Archipelago as an allegory of the unchanging essence of the Soviet regime—a uniquely demonic utopia which could pursue its demented ideological vision only by means of mass violence and coercion. But this description is not compatible with what we now know about popular attitudes even in the Stalinist period. A wide-ranging sample of these is presented in Sheila Fitzpatrick’s study Everyday Stalinism, which draws on an impressive variety of primary sources to show how in extraordinary times—under an arbitrary, unpredictable, and violent authority and in the absence of all personal security—urban Russians still managed to pursue a multiplicity of everyday practices, such as studying, dealing with family problems, using patrons and connections, petitioning the authorities, and complaining—most frequently about bureaucratic rudeness and red tape and the government’s failure to ensure adequate supplies of food, goods, and living space. She identifies as well a wide base of active support among the young, who saw the regime as a modernizing and civilizing force. To support her contention that “the terror was not a terror for everyone,” Fitzpatrick quotes Solzhenitsyn’s recollection of the beginning of the Great Purges in 1937:
How could we know anything about those arrests and why should we think about them? All the provincial leaders had been removed, but as far as we were concerned it didn’t matter. Two or three professors had been arrested, but after all they hadn’t been our dancing partners, and it might even be easier to pass our exams as a result. Twenty-year-olds,…because we were the same age as the Revolution, the brightest of futures lay ahead.
Among other sections of the population, passivity could be as much a strategy of self-protection as the expression of fatalism. Ideological control was far from total: in the 1937 census more than half the population identified themselves as religious believers, thus rejecting a basic principle of the Soviet world view. Outward conformity to ideology and ritual were commonly combined with a skeptical attitude toward authority and the official press. Official images were subverted in jokes: the increasing arbitrariness of arrests and executions during the Terror of 1937-1938 was the subject of much grim humor.
But in correcting the image of an enserfed and terrorized population, Fitzpatrick goes too far. She has treated the forced collectivization of the peasants in another book.2 One chapter of the present volume deals with “outcasts” of Soviet society, including priests and other categories of persons stigmatized, along with their families, because of their class origins or political convictions, and often sent into internal exile, along with criminals, prostitutes, and others. But she devotes only eight pages to what it was like for the average citizen to live through the Great Purges, which swallowed up the relatives of thousands of urban Russians who, as Anna Akhmatova records in her poem “Requiem,” stood in line summer and winter outside prisons, hoping for news of the disappeared—an everyday practice. This does not figure in Fitzpatrick’s account, which concludes as follows: “There were fearful things that affected Soviet life and visions that uplifted it, but mostly it was a hard grind, full of shortages and discomfort. Homo Sovieticus was…above all…a survivor.” This would seem a more fitting description of the British home front during World War II than of Russia under Stalin, whose savagery claimed millions of lives in the 1930s.
The imbalance in Fitzpatrick’s book may derive from her conflation of the terms “Stalinist” and “Soviet”; in her usage the Stalinist regime represents “a maximalist version of the latter and its defining moment.” This view would be strongly disputed by many scholars, as well as dissidents, who saw Khrushchev’s repudiation of Stalin’s crimes as marking a radical change of direction for Soviet society. Fitzpatrick’s revisionism downplays Stalinism just as the “monolith” model downplays de-Stalinization: in both cases the result is a static vision of the Soviet era which will not accommodate the varied testimonies of those who lived through it.
A balanced picture of the period may be impossible; but the discovery of Boris Slutsky’s hidden poetry is a significant step in that direction. Yurii Boldyryov, who prepared his unpublished poems for the Russian press, describes them as episodes of an epic drama that faithfully charted the peripeteia of his savage times.3 As such they are comparable in importance with the work of Solzhenitsyn. Both writers were born into the Soviet system and became fervent believers in its gospel. With the loss of their political faith they both took on a new mission: to record the cost in human suffering of the great utopian experiment of their age. But while Solzhenitsyn’s perspective on his society was increasingly dominated by his new religious nationalism, Slutsky’s was inspired by a skeptical humanism which prevented him from fitting his observations into any dogmatic scheme.
He was born in 1919 into a Jewish family in Ukraine and grew up in the industrial city of Kharkov. His father was a manual worker, his mother a part-time teacher. He came to Moscow in 1937 and attended courses in literature and law. Smith has translated his principal poems and jottings on his attitude to Stalin. “I grew up under Stalin…./He was my lighthouse and my harbour./That’s about it./That he was mortal never crossed my mind.” He saw no alternative to Stalin, “and, I must confess, did not look for an alternative.” He recalled that (although his dormitory neighbor was taken away one night) the purges scarcely impinged on his consciousness: he could always find answers to his questions in the official media: “I believed every slogan.”
Immediately after the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union in 1941 he volunteered. His duties as a political officer in the front line included indoctrination of the troops and participation in military tribunals. He served throughout the war, and was severely wounded in the head. He began publishing his poetry in 1953, and four years later formally became a Soviet writer by joining the Writers’ Union, participating in its infamous denunciation and expulsion of Pasternak after the publication abroad of Doctor Zhivago.
This act (which he later bitterly regretted) was prompted not by servility but by a fervent patriotism: he believed that Soviet writers who published abroad what they were forbidden to publish at home were serving their country’s enemies. His own published poetry was optimistic in tone, stressing the value of work and the virtues of the Russian people, but his political orthodoxy stopped short of eulogies of the Party, which he had joined in 1943. He never held any office in the Writers’ Union—the principal path of advancement for a Soviet writer—and he published very little, earning a modest living through writing items for radio. After the death of his wife in 1977 he suffered a severe depression, intensified by chronic pain from his head wound, and wrote nothing for the last nine years of his life.
Slutsky’s external conformism masked an increasing distrust of the slogans and stereotypes of official ideology. Solzhenitsyn’s vision of the world was radically altered when his arrest in 1945 transformed him from a model Soviet officer into an outcast. Slutsky underwent a similar experience when he became a target of the anti-Semitic campaign that swept the country in 1953 after Stalin’s doctors, most of them Jewish, were accused of plotting against his life. Slutsky escaped relatively lightly: for six months he was banned from working for radio and thereby deprived of his only regular source of income. Some of his most powerful “hidden” poems are on the theme of Russian anti-Semitism. One describes the sense of shame and nausea that he felt in Moscow’s public spaces where “All look at you with silent spite/and wait for you to justify yourself/…But where is the court and who the judge/that will hear my pleas/ and take my merits into account?”
The trauma of his overnight transformation from war hero into “enemy of the people” is reflected in a poem of the 1960s (first published in 1990) expressing his weariness with the stereotypes of “positive heroes” and the “negative villains” whom exponents of the official literary doctrine of Socialist Realism were expected to depict for the public’s edification. Better to write about animals or trees:
There’s no way of telling whether a particular oak
is a Jew or not a Jew,
a progressive or an idiot,
a cosmopolitan [Soviet-speak for Jew] or a patriot.
…An animal is an animal, a door is a door.
Measure its length and breadth,
then check your measurements a dozen times,
and it will remain a door.
But a man—
you measure him, weigh him,
write a hundred reports on him,
and it seems you have him fixed
he was there before, but now he’s gone without a trace.
“You can’t shove everything into a scheme”: Slutsky’s personal experience as a victim completed a process of disenchantment with official dogma that began with his war experiences, which he regarded as the most valuable of his life.
Although he passionately believed that the defensive purpose of the war justified the enormous losses inflicted on his country, as a political officer he knew that the official image of Red Army soldiers performing patriotic feats with the slogan “For the Fatherland, for Stalin!” on their lips was only one part of the picture. In a poem first published during official de-Stalinization, he recalls how his generation was taught to fight by officers newly freed from the Gulag, victims of the Great Purge that had destroyed the army’s high command just ahead of the Nazi invasion.
In prose memoirs included in the present volume (none of which was published in his lifetime), he remarks that the officially trumpeted heroism of tank crews who burned to death in their tanks was in reality often motivated by fear of the punishment meted out to those who allowed equipment to fall into enemy hands. He records how blunders were dressed up as victories for propaganda purposes and prisoners shot because it was too much trouble to escort them through the snow to interrogation points. His poem “A Bucket of Dead Men’s Vodka” tells of the cynicism of the master sergeants who were issued daily a hundred grams of vodka for each name on their roll call; when the dead had been counted after combat, they would feast in their dugout on the unclaimed rations.
The erosion of Slutsky’s ideological certainties made him not a cynic but a humanist who approached moral problems from the perspective of individual cases rather than as instances of general principles. One poem written in the 1950s shows him haunted by judgments he felt he had got wrong when he served on military tribunals; another expresses his anguished sense of inadequacy when he had to sit in judgment on a sullen, terrified man with a self-inflicted injury, a criminal and outcast, whose “fixed stare pleads/ with me to take his part.”
In the remarkable poem “The Hospital,” the first version of which Slutsky wrote in the autumn of 1945, he contrasts the clear-cut oppositions of official ideology with the messy ironies of life. The scene is a field hospital hurriedly fitted out in a village club which had once been a church. Frescoes gleam in the corners, while a devil lies on the clammy floor—a Wehrmacht corporal, dying with a stomach wound. Opposite, a young Soviet officer, his army tunic gleaming with decorations, is breathing his last on a trestle bed. Stroking his medals, he demands, with weeping insistence, as an officer and a Russian and as a human being, that the vile Prussian be removed from his proximity. At last “An orderly picks up this humble man,/carries him off as far as ever he can,/that he might not/ with his dark death/disturb the Soviet officer’s/shining death./Silence comes down again.”
In a later commentary on the poem (which was based on an incident related to him by a fellow officer) Slutsky sums up its theme: “the way things got cruel on both sides.” He had spent a night in just such a makeshift hospital, lying beneath production diagrams which had been hung up over religious murals. In the poem this juxtaposition of symbols of faith makes a subversive point with great economy: as Slutsky put it in his commentary, the abolition of religion in the Soviet Union was “not straightforward, not complete, and not final.” He believed that the poem had broken new ground; its laconic style, based on everyday speech and focused on one central image drawn from empirical observation, became the model for his later writing.
“The Hospital” was first published in 1957, after the twentieth Party Congress had led to a loosening of controls on literature. Slutsky became one of the earliest stars of the Thaw. The first collection of his poetry, Remembrance (1957), defied the silence on the horror of the war and its cost in shattered human lives—the legions of grieving widows, and the crippled men who peopled city streets. Another collection published in 1964 contained poems on a previously taboo subject—the fate of Russian Jews under Nazi occupation. “How They Killed My Grandma” describes how the Jews of his home town were herded through the streets to their place of execution. His grandmother was shot along the way for shouting defiance at the German guards. One of his best-known poems, “God,” which circulated widely in samizdat before being published at the height of de-Stalinization in 1962, describes a glimpse of a motorcade bearing the cruel deity through Moscow, his bodyguards “almost hunchbacked with terror” at his side. Anna Akhmatova told him that she did not know of a single household that did not possess a copy.
Other writers began to admire Slutsky as a complex artist. As Gerald Smith notes in a sympathetic introduction to his poetry, it is full of subtle word-play. While Smith’s renderings are sensitive and often ingenious, he sometimes needlessly translates plain Russian into British slang. There seems no reason for translating “ot radosti” (literally: “because I felt pleased”) as “‘cos I felt so chuffed”—a term which, like some others in the quotations below, will probably require further elucidation for US readers. The English often sounds odd—possibly the result of an attempt to poeticize Slutsky’s terseness. I am puzzled by the last three words in the phrase “a telegram dispatched to times in hope” in Smith’s rendering of one of Slutsky’s comments on his poetry. The Russian source for those words is simply “griadushchemy“—“to the future.”
Slutsky was a master of the deadly one-liner. The priorities of Stalin’s regime are neatly caught in his description of the country’s slow recovery after the war: “First they built palaces, then houses.” While his poems are formally conservative in their use of rhyme and meter, he shared Mayakovsky’s predilection for breaking up lines and stringing them out vertically rather than horizontally. His imagery is often powerful, such as his description (in a poem first published in 1989) of the knots of people gathered around the lists of executions that were posted daily in the capital during the Terror, “trembling with horror, like ghostly whirlwinds of ashes.” Or himself as a fledgling poet at the height of Stalin’s terror: “How pushy I was!/How resolute and jaunty,/when every moment held disaster!/Iambics pranced/on four brave feet!/Like cats between car wheels, rhymes darted.”
His admirers, such as the poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko, recall that he was seen as an oddity. His war poetry was officially condemned as unpatriotic and “antiheroic,” while his dry, terse, prosaic style repelled many of the dissident intelligentsia whose taste had been shaped by the older generation of Soviet poets: the classicism of Akhmatova, the complex lyricism of Pasternak, or the surrealism of Nikolai Zabolotsky. Nor could he compete with the new wave of young Thaw poets, such as Yevtushenko, Bella Akhmadulina, Robert Rozhdestvensky, Andrei Voznesensky, or the balladist Bulat Okudzhava. Exuberant, daring, formally innovative, defenders of the emotions, they recited or sang their verses to packed stadiums in the 1960s. Their histrionics soon eclipsed Slutsky’s brief fame, all the more so because his most controversial poetry remained unpublished. He seemed to delight in emphasizing his unfashionableness, presenting himself as a blunt ex-soldier who called things by their names, “not an impudent lyricist.” Others could indulge in the play of styles and registers: his aims were different. In his poetic manifestos (illuminatingly grouped together by Smith), he defined his role:
I can’t be overtaken,—I’m not competing.
Don’t have to be avoided,—I’m not in the way.
I can’t be moulded, for I’m unyielding.
I stand there and absorb what causes pain….
I don’t advance advice, nor proffer pity.
I summarize, and speak for all to hear….
Against the exaltation of our poets,
against that clamour, thunder, detail, show,
there’s something that we need,—as plain as porridge,
taken as it comes and on its own.
I am that something.
“An era has ended. It needs to be described,” he wrote in the 1960s. Solzhenitsyn dedicated The Gulag Archipelago to those who did not survive to tell of their sufferings. Slutsky wrote that if his poetry had value, it would be only because “the silent Soviet people”—the nameless, the forgotten, the murdered—“sometimes speaks with my words.” Both were reviving a tradition that had started under tsarist censorship, in which the Russian writer became the voice of the na-tion’s conscience. But while Solzhenitsyn is reminiscent of Tolstoy the moral preacher—a dominant authorial presence, polemicizing, denouncing, exhorting, guiding the reader to the correct conclusion (his personal vision of moral renewal), Slutsky’s approach reminds one of Chekhov, whose “honest stories” (he declares in a poem published after his death) served him as a beacon in the moral darkness of his age.
The two writers have much in common. When radical critics reproached Chekhov for lacking a clear ideology expressed through stereotypical heroes and villains, he responded that violence and lies respect no ideological boundaries. Slutsky declared that he had no system, and never started from an abstract plan; he was “a factologist, a naturalist, an empiricist.” His inspiration was his own limited experience—“I tell of things that happened.” In a poem written in the 1970s, he notes that what interests him most is not the tragedies that “step out on stage”—such as Hamlet and King Lear—
It’s different dramas that occupy me:
dramas without a gram of greatness,
uttered by an unprepossessing man
who’s not been given a leading role,
who’s treated his pain with vodka, and is
no tsar, no god: he’s nothing special.
No thousand-candle-power lightboard,
but a three-ruble table lamp;
no first-night audience, but a wife
to listen to his long-drawn-out lament,
tragic, comic, and strange all at once.
A wife, a wife, and no-one else.
This could be a scene from a tragi-comedy by Chekhov, reminding us that everyday human experience can’t be reduced to tidy moral or aesthetic categories. Slutsky’s cast of ordinary Russians under extraordinary pressures included workers, peasants, intellectuals, taxi drivers, war widows, old women in the towns and the countryside, former political prisoners, the children of executed “enemies of the people,” and Soviet dignitaries. Hunger, privation, and loss are common themes, but another theme linking many of these portraits is what Slutsky calls the “moral wear and tear” inflicted on ordinary people by decades of Soviet rule. Harassed in all conceivable ways by authorities who play alternately on their consciences and their fear, “their ethics have worn as thin as their jacket and trousers.”
In these poems Soviet society is grim, but it is not the ideological monolith that some Sovietologists make it out to be. Martin Malia, for instance, describes the regime as held together by a “logocratic spell” which was broken only when the dissident intelligentsia seized the opportunity offered by glasnost under Gorbachev to carry out Solzhenitsyn’s famous injunction, “Refuse to live according to the Lie,” thereby destroying the system. “A few months of speaking the truth and—behold!,” Malia wrote, “Soviet pretensions were set on their real clay feet and ‘demystified.’ …Forthwith the country ceased to live according to the Lie.”
This dramatic account is belied by Slutsky’s poetry, which supports the view, documented by Fitzpatrick and others, that even under Stalin ideas and values contradicting official ideology were common currency. Slutsky writes that he was educated in modern Russian history by the stories told by the sons and daughters of those who had helped build the Soviet state and then perished in the Gulag. Several of his poems show how people retained an independent moral sense even when submitting to coercion. “Doctoring Forms” describes the self-contempt felt by a Soviet citizen filling in a bureaucratic questionnaire and concealing such dangerous information as the existence of relatives abroad, “so as to force his simple biography as close as possible to the ideal.”
The Stalinist thugs who appear in these poems are inspired not by ideology but by practical calculations common among people who claw their way upward in backward and authoritarian regimes. Thousands of Soviet biographies are summarized in the splendid poem “What’s What”:
A country boy, who’s known since he was an infant
what’s what, especially when times were dour,
given the bum’s rush from the front,
will quietly sneak through the back door.
What is self-worth to him? Drought dried bone-dry
half his relatives; but he survived,
and suffered through to harvest time;
if he’d ever answered back,
he’d have been a dead duck.
That country boy, who contrived to pass
through village school—a trier, top of his class,—
won’t put up with airs and graces,
solemn words and fancy phrases.
What’s it to him? He’s seen it good,
this leg-trap, and he knows you can’t go past.
Swine get to eat. No help, of course, from God.
The corn’s been burned up to the last.
That country boy, he knows…
that to be a peasant
is no life now: always going short, vodka-sodden,
muddling along; not very pleasant.
So, graduated from the faculty of philology,
this boy, who had arrived almost without shoes,
draws the logical conclusion…
forget everything it’s wisest to forget,
remember everything they tell you….
He turns into an informer, puts the boot
into some other pathetic clod,
because he’s dined on husk and shoot
and he knows exactly
While showing that Soviet society was not a pliable mass, Slutsky does not underestimate the influence of official ideology, and the deep and tragic confusions created both by the process of de-Stalinization and by its subsequent reversal in the 1960s. When Stalin’s crimes were officially exposed and the amnestied prisoners began returning from the camps, “the eternal values—truth, freedom, conscience—began to emerge, like bears from winter sleep.” But on seeing a newly amnestied prisoner on a summer street, sullen, gloomy, and probably drunk, instantly recognizable in the padded jacket worn in the camps, it was hard to get used to the idea that an “old padded jacket…/is just an item of clothing/ and not a scoundrel’s uniform.”
Another poem on a returnee from the camps conveys the confusion of such people with a Chekhovian mix of tragedy and black humor: “What god is he to serve?” Should he seek oblivion in some warm corner in the Russian South? Or buy a sheaf of typing paper and throw the crimes and errors of his persecutors in their faces? Or simply rise each day at six, rush to his letterbox, “and if the daily paper hasn’t come, curse the Soviet government for this offence?”
Slutsky comments caustically on the halfheartedness of the rehabilitations and the meagerness of the compensation offered to the victims and their relatives. Despite the demands of civil rights activists, no members of Stalin’s political police were ever tried for crimes against humanity, and many of them were living alongside their victims on fat pensions when the liberalization measures of the early 1960s stopped and Russia entered the oppressive stagnation of the Brezhnev years. Slutsky depicts one such person, who had excelled in his trade: “He could beat a cheek down to the bone/so the bone stuck out of the meat.” Pensioned off with benefits and bonuses, he filled his days by playing dominoes.
“They’re all retiring,” Slutsky writes in the 1970s. Time has begun to blot out ancient suffering. Battered by old age and routine problems, victims and tormentors alike plod on, “somewhere beyond hate, with conscience now a mystery,/…Their news is history.” Disillusioned with ideology, the new generation has turned to other alternatives. “Some drink, some sniff, and some inject,” some pray, others fill scrapbooks with pictures of the Romanov dynasty.
The picture of a society adrift presented in Slutsky’s last poems contradicts the popular notion of Soviet tyranny ceding to the moral force of dissident writers and intellectuals. Western observers have long been fascinated by the image of the Russian writer—whether Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, or Solzhenitsyn—as prophet, preaching repentance and a new dawn. After Solzhenitsyn’s expulsion in 1974 Slutsky published a poem celebrating his courage (an act which itself was heroic) but he himself never aspired to be a dissident “positive hero.” In one of his last poems he protests the arrogance of poets who rate their inner struggles and insights “above a dozen generations’ toil.” In a poem entitled “Man,” he notes that in Russia this noble species devoted far more passion to queueing for sugar to make jam than to debating the meaning of life, and they should not be reproached for so doing: first things first.
Slutsky stresses his own ordinariness. “Glancing about, as if the hounds were at us,/the head pulled cautiously into the chest,/harassed, vainglorious, timid, and anxious,/we poets go our way among the rest.” He took pride in sharing the privations and fears of the people he portrayed, standing in line for defective goods, patching up old clothes, plagued by bureaucracy, and hoping one day to acquire an apartment of his own with “my own personal dog to chase my own personal cat.”
But in his late poetry he also speculates on what the Soviet experience revealed about the nature of history. The evil age he lived through was not historically unique. “In Adam’s time, not in Stalin’s,/all this began,/though with time it did grow larger,/and fair copies were done.” Stalin “wasn’t a wizard or a magus/he didn’t invent arbitrary rule on his own;/with smoothly accumulating paces/he walked a beaten road.” In “The State of Serfdom” he writes:
Were things like this? They were, and so will be.
From time to time the sleeper is awakened
by caterwauling from a drunken tocsin,
or proclamation of a constitution.
From time to time, as if having a fit, in plot
grows some bananas, even pineapples.
She brings them forth: but then, late or soon,
she says indifferently: “Bad move!”
Gerald Smith finds Slutsky’s vision gloomy and nihilistic. I believe this is a misreading. He was merely applying his down-to-earth approach to an observable fact: that the chanciness of history and its ratio of hits to misses are much closer to processes in nature than we might like to believe.
This perception reflects his achievement in overcoming his cultural con-ditioning. For the last two centuries the dominant tendency in Russian thought of all political shades has been to concentrate firmly on a utopian future. Many thinkers disillusioned with radical populist or Marx-ist theories of inevitable progress turned—and are still turning—to forms of religious and nationalist messianism, Dostoevsky and the philosopher Nicolas Berdyaev being two notable pre-revolutionary examples. Slutsky belongs to a more tenuous tradition which began in the mid-nineteenth century with Aleksandr Herzen, who attacked all teleological visions of history as noxious illusions that erode our sense of responsibility to the present. “No trumpets should sound for the triumph of truth,” Slutsky writes: it comes into being all the time, through quiet effort. Like Herzen and Chekhov, Slutsky redirects our attention from the myth-ical radiant future toward the prosaic present, and the prosaic virtues of stamina, resilience, humor, and compassion. Happiness is not a goal, but part of the mixed texture of any life, even under Stalin. In one of Slutsky’s poems, a Soviet citizen bursts into song after putting a pillow over the telephone he knows to be bugged.
Most of all, Slutsky celebrates the miraculous fact that the corruption of the Soviet system failed ultimately to destroy the sense of right and wrong among Russians: “Worn out, like rails over which all the engines of the world have been driven, they can still receive any signals sent out by good.”
Were Slutsky a nihilist, he would not have devoted himself so fervently to recording, for the benefit of future generations, “what gave our times their special cut.” He exchanged the false optimism of historical determinism for the more sober view that the openness of history and the human capacity to reassess the past ensure that no evil can be permanent, no good lost forever. Even the case of Cain and Abel remains open for review, he writes. In history
there are no final endings….
And those on whom sentence has been passed
arise again in a new generation.
The fathers are resurrected by the sons.
This poem was first published in 1988, during the Soviet Union’s second period of self-appraisal. Slutsky’s writings show Soviet Russia to have been a society that was evolving, even maturing, through its people’s experience of terrible suffering and through their capacity to confront the errors of the past. This evidence should be borne in mind by those who believe the Soviet file should now finally be closed.
March 9, 2000
See “A Mess in Russia: Two Views of Why,” The New York Times, March 27, 1999, p. B7. See also Malia, Russia Under Western Eyes: From the Bronze Horseman to the Lenin Mausoleum (Belknap Press/Harvard University Press, 1999), Chapter 5; and Cohen, “Russian Studies Without Russia,” Post-Soviet Affairs, Vol. 15, No. 1, pp. 37-55 (January-March 1999). For the earlier history of this debate, see Cohen, Rethinking the Soviet Experience: Politics and History since 1917 (Oxford University Press, 1985). ↩
Stalin’s Peasants: Resistance and Survival in the Russian Village After Collectivization (Oxford University Press, 1994). ↩
See Boris Slutsky, Sobranie sochinenii (3 vols.), edited by Iu. Boldyryov (Moscow: Khudozhestvennaia literatura, 1991). Some of the quotations in this review are my translations from this collection of Slutsky’s published and unpublished work. ↩