Writers in a Cage

Boris Pasternak at the Baltic Sea, 1910; portrait by his father, Leonid Pasternak

The rise and triumph of the Soviet dissident movement in the second half of the twentieth century surely ranks as one of the finest episodes in Russian cultural history. Its significance lies not just in its civic achievements as a hugely effective political opposition, but also in a body of literary work fully worthy of Russia’s rich traditions. We need only think of the metaphysical poems of Joseph Brodsky or the dialogic novels and documentary prose of Alexander Solzhenitsyn (both winners of the Nobel Prize), the modernist fiction and essays of Andrei Sinyavsky, who wrote under the name of Abram Tertz, the polished stories of Varlaam Shalamov, and the penetrating memoirs of Nadezhda Mandelstam, Lydia Chukovskaya, and Evgenia Ginzburg, not to speak of the works of such diverse writers as Vassily Grossman, Venyamin Erofeyev, Vladimir Voino- vich, Inna Lisnyanskaya, and the singer-songwriters Bulat Okudzhava and Alexander Galich (and these are only a few of a great many gifted writers). If the classic nineteenth-century authors of Russia marked the golden age of Russian literature, and the modernists of the early twentieth, its silver age, the writers of the latter half of the twentieth century constitute a kind of bronze age and a fully worthy restoration of a great tradition, despite having to work in conditions of repression and censorship that far exceeded anything their predecessors had to cope with before the October Revolution.

Such were some of the thoughts aroused by Vladislav Zubok’s new book with its enticing title, and by his eloquent prologue, in which he discusses the extraordinary publication of Pasternak’s Doctor Zhivago outside the Soviet Union in 1957 and the implications of this event for Soviet cultural and political life. No one would call Pasternak a “dissident” in the usual sense of the word, yet his stubborn independence and his decision to allow foreign publication of his novel set an important precedent in post-Stalinist Russia. Although he was forced by government pressure to reject the Nobel Prize awarded to him in 1958, the damage was already done. Disregarding the reality of Pasternak’s situation, Solzhenitsyn later upbraided him for rejecting the prize, but without Pasternak, Solzhenitsyn’s own path would have been harder. As it was, Soviet censorship was breached for the first time after World War II, and Pasternak remained alive to tell the tale.

Pasternak also proved Stalin right about one thing. If you ease up on absolute censorship, you never know where things will end. Zubok understands this, just as he understands Pasternak’s significance as a taboo breaker and a living link to the moral and literary traditions of the Russian past. But Zubok, educated in Moscow during the last years of the Soviet Union and now a senior fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute in Washington and a history professor at…

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