In December 1926 the German critic Walter Benjamin arrived in Moscow. Almost ten years after the Communist revolution, he was curious to see what revolution now looked like. It turned out, wrote Benjamin, that revolution was really renovation. Moscow was the city of Do-It-Yourself. Everywhere, he observed, there was this gusto for what the Russians called remont: an endlessly renewable, delighted, fussy passion for fixing, touching up, reupholstering, redecorating. “Each thought, each day, each life lies here as on a laboratory table.” He added: “The country is mobilized day and night.”1
Another inhabitant of this city was Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky, a Ukrainian writer with a comically unpronounceable Polish name. Benjamin, of course, was a tourist. Krzhizhanovsky—whose occluded literary career coincided with the era of Stalinist repression—was not. Krzhizhanovsky also noted the mania in Moscow—“that gigantic flattened human hive”—for amateur renovation:
A milliner and a watchmaker had divided the tinplate sign above a mended shop window. At a crossroad, in a rusty cauldron under caracoling smoke, a new sidewalk was boiling. A street photographer was fastening a backdrop of blue-and-white mountains to a tired acacia.
But this is a momentary idyll of activity. Ultimately, Krzhizhanovsky’s Moscow was a city of relentless nullification. Revolutionary remont busied itself with the renovation of sidewalks; it also busied itself, famously, with the engineering of souls.
In his great book Main Currents of Marxism, Leszek Kołakowski describes the nature of the mobilizing politics of the USSR in the 1920s:
The totalitarian character of the regime—i.e. the progressive destruction of civil society and absorption of all forms of social life by the state—increased almost without interruption between 1924 and 1953….2
One aspect of this absorption was the meticulous censorship of literature, which was a uniquely organized invention—a malicious care for the interior lives of writers. No difference was allowed between the cultural and the ideological. Trotsky first sketched out the Communist principles of literature in a note on June 30, 1922, describing how “an attentive, cautious, and gentle attitude is essential toward those works and authors who, although they carry an abyss of all kinds of prejudices inside them, are clearly developing in a revolutionary direction.”3 Four days later, Stalin jotted a quick confirmation: “Joining Soviet-inclined poets into a single core and doing everything possible to support them in their struggle—this is our task.”4 In the same year, the main censorship bureau, known as Glavlit, was set up. The censor was envisaged as a benevolent ideological coach. This benevolence manifested itself, as Krhizhanovsky notes, in a stamp imposed on manuscripts, a “narrow rectangle with the ten letters inside: DO NOT PRINT.”
Literature in Moscow in the 1920s and 1930s was a delirium of close reading. The state and the writer were in febrile communication. Consider, for…
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