Writer Versus Bureaucrat in the Soviet Union

Poet, critic, and professor of Russian literature at Wesleyan University, F. D. REEVE served as Robert Frost’s interpreter when the poet visited the Soviet Union shortly before his death. The provocative account of this journey wilt be published in March in his book ROBERT FROST IN RUSSIA. In the following article, Mr. Reeve discusses the anomalous position of the creative writer in the Soviet Union.

CONTEMPORARY Russian writers are not out to reshape Russian political institutions. Divisions in talent, in generations, in intellectual allegiance, have become clear and bitter, but the writers are politicians only in the sense that Russian writers have played political roles these last two hundred years — ever since literature in Russia has had a clear responsibility to its audience to express understanding of the values behind daily political and economic life. Writers today must wish to express a fresh understanding of the role of the Party in the entire life of the nation, including its consciousness; and that is precisely what all the writers and artists have said they wish. Not since Olesha’s speech at the 1934 Writers’ Congress has anyone publicly announced that artists cannot function within the Party or within the Writers’ Union. It is the dogmatists, in their attacks on certain writers, who have made contemporary Russian literature seem to be striving to be anti-Communist.

Leonid Ilyichev, the Party’s theoretician, said on December 17, 1962, “We have complete freedom to fight for Communism. We don’t have — and there can’t be — freedom to fight against Communism.” Yet the dogmatists and the liberals each assert that their interpretation of Communism is the only adequate one. The dogmatists are limited and tempted by problems of actual political control. The liberals are limited by the fact that they are inferior in number, though vastly superior in talent. Their frightening temptation is to imitate writers and artists outside Russia who play a role in society quite different from theirs and who have, baldly, more talent. A number of foreign writers do better work, and the Russians know it.

Our temptation is to hope that politics and talent stand in direct but inverse proportion. A certain Soviet sculptor whom I have met has been severely castigated time and again, but what depresses me most of all is that he, for all his buoyant spirit and noble effort, is not an outstanding artist. I remember his studio; I saw his sculpture, his sketches. We talked for almost two hours. He was extremely cordial, attractively modest, charmingly enthusiastic. Standing among his little bronze heads, in front of an enormous plaster-of-Paris mold for a building adornment he was doing for his living, with his bed and hot plate on a raised platform behind his dusty one-room studio, he was the essence of what we imagine the sincere, dedicated, bohemian, creative artist to be, certain that the meaning of life had to come out through the work of his hands. But — and here is the sad part — his skill is no greater than that of the average graduate of our first-rate art schools. He has high desires, but he does not “know how” — no one ever taught him.

I am aware that the present controversy in art can be reduced to a simple statement: censorship by the Party is again being enforced strictly. But I cannot feel that such a reduction clarifies anything. We know, for example, that officials of the Party and high-ranking scientists and technicians admire and buy advanced contemporary — the Russians call it “abstract" — art and literature. In fact, it is reported that numerous upper-class Soviet Russians have built up large collections of native modern art as a sound financial investment. We know that Khrushchev himself authorized publication of Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich over considerable Party opposition and, according to Yevtushenko’s autobiography, that he also authorized publication of “Stalin’s Heirs,”after it had been circulating from editor to editor for more than a year. We know that last August he authorized publication of Alexander Tvardovsky’s brilliant satirical poem “Tyorkin in the Next World.” If we trace the history of political control of literature in Soviet Russia, we see that it presents a confused pattern of insistence, retreat, and adjustment The Party itself has never been able to be adequately clear on just what it means by “control,” for, though it may wish never to lose final authority, it can never be certain as to what will threaten that authority. If the Party represses what does not threaten it, it exposes itself to criticism and recrimination by those high-ranking officials who, for a number of reasons, support a modern movement.

In short, I do not think we really get at an understanding of what is happening now if we simply call it political repression and let it go at that. We have to look deeper, to answer the question. What is the meaning behind Khrushchev’s statements on art? According to the press, he said, “People tell me I’m behind the times and don’t realize it, that our contemporary artists will be appreciated in 100 years. Well, I don’t know what will happen in 100 years, but now we have to adopt a definite policy in art.”Khrushchev’s remarks suggest that he was constrained to adopt a policy last year. That the “policy” petered out indicates how little Khrushchev was behind it.

ALL this persuades me to believe that Khrushchev is very much a moderate, a mediator between the extremes of the free or self-sanctioning imagination and the determined or autocratic manipulation of practical force. As Khrushchev said, “I’m a patriot.” The crackdown on intellectuals, then, is not so much a unilateral personal or Party decision as it is the consequence of a continual internecine, bureaucratic struggle for the right to make ultimate definitions. The forces operating would suggest that there is no end to the struggle — at least, no foreseeable end. Events continue to confirm this.

Tvardovsky’s “Tyorkin in the Next World” appeared last August in both Izvestia and Novy Mir with, as Adzhubei’s note in Izvestia indicated, official blessing. In the October issue of Oktyabr, D. Starikov, an infamous hatchet man, published a long diatribe called “Tyorkin vs. Tyorkin.” In it, he tried to flag down Tvardovsky against any possible continuation of the story of the World War II tanker-hero Tyorkin and to discredit Tvardovsky for attempting, “as once Gogol did in The Inspector General, ‘to heap up in one pile everything that’s bad about Russia’ . . . yet using as the hero not a vivid character . . . but a mask.” Admitting that “Tyorkin” is an attack on “the cult of Stalin” and its still-existent consequences, Starikov says that the poem “palpably fails in defining its hero’s and the author’s social orientation.” Chalmayev’s attack on Solzhenitsyn’s latest story, “For the Good of the Cause,” tries to turn Russian classical literature into a shillelagh:

But this “grandeur” |in suffering] is not so much something of A. Solzhenitsyn’s own as it is of F. M. Dostoevsky’s . . . ! Why artificially archaize one’s own view of the character of the people, present it tendentiously in a one-sided way . . . ? Solzhenitsyn is caught in his own game of abstract ideas.

Literature that has urged reform without suggesting appeal to values that can be identified as Western, even if such literature has become notorious in the West for political reasons, has not been attacked: for example, in the article in which Solzhenitsyn’s “For the Good of the Cause” was attacked, his One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich was praised. So far as I know, Fyodor Abramov’s semifictionalized account of corruption on a kolkhoz, “Beating around the Bush,” in the January, 1963, Neva, has not been subjected to ridicule.

If we will pause a moment to consider the difficulty, not from a negative point of view — the fact of censorship — but from a positive point of view — the arguments advanced by those who censor — we will find indications that the censors are concerned not about doctrine but about their own position. The pretense of unity, whether or not under pressure from the existence of an external, so-called enemy, is made in terms which are now incredible. The labels used by the censors expose their own fright and the depth of the schism. “The whole point of this criticism,” said Alexander Korneichuk,

is that Yevtushenko, Voznesensky, and others remain our comrades in the struggle for Communist culture. . . . To be sure, in the creative writing of some young authors there have appeared tendencies alien to our art — a trend toward so-called deglorification, toward debasement of the image of the positive hero. It’s happening in the theater . . . and in literary criticism. . . . And I’d like to point out, also, why the young writers, the very ones who commit unseemly errors, are supported by some of their venerable colleagues. . . . There’s a hue and cry over certain isolated figures. Abroad, people shout about them: the new generation, the new wave! All the editors publish them. And so some of the venerable writers decided: better change our ways or else “they’ll make it,”and they’ll push us right out of literature. . . . There’s a bitter struggle going on in the world and any coexistence of socialist and bourgeois ideologies is out of the question. . . . The Party has called on us to check our ideological arms. This we do with a sense of the greatest responsibility to the Party and the people.

Necessarily, however, the Party’s authority can only be negative: it can shriek propaganda, and it can punish politically. But it cannot alter the values. “I wouldn’t feel I had the right to criticize anything abroad,” wrote Yevtushenko, “if I didn’t speak openly about what I dislike in my own country.”

THE crackdown on the worlds of literature, art, and music, though not unexpected, came suddenly. With hindsight, one can say that there were episodes, separate incidents and remarks, which indicated, as far back as the summer of 1962, that deStalinization was not proceeding as fast as it should — as fast as the intellectuals wanted it to. At that time, a well-known literary critic told me that things had taken several backward steps since spring, and that the developments of the near future were uncertain. Yet, he insisted, every effort by the bureaucrats was being met with outspoken opposition, and, despite the bureaucrats’ ever-increasing pressure, opposition was increasing. Though fabrications and false charges were again being made, I was told, they were made orally. The bureaucrats could be outargued and, sometimes, outvoted. Aleksei Surkov, poet, formerly secretary of the Writers’ Union, who had been replaced in that post by Konstantin Fedin in the more relaxed period which followed Khrushchev’s revelations about Stalin, told me at that time that Khrushchev had personally approved the reissue and recelebration of Bedny’s poetry; but I didn’t grasp the import of this until the crackdown, when Bedny joined Sholokhov, Gorky, and Mayakovsky as a paragon of socialist realism. I did not heed that warning signal because I had heard that Gumilev’s Letters on Russian Poetry was soon to come out, and that there was to be an edition of Pasternak’s complete poems. Meyerhold had been revived, and people were talking of Sologub, Andrei Bely, and others.

Reports were contradictory. Though a volume of Pasternak’s poetry was to be published, the decision had been made at the highest level, so I understood, not to publish Doctor Zhivago in the foreseeable future.

Pressure from both sides kept increasing. Yevtushenko’s “Stalin’s Heirs” appeared in Pravda in October. Victor Nekrasov’s travel notes on Italy and America came out in Novy Mir. Part Five of Ehrenburg’s Memoirs was published. There was Solzhenitsyn’s short novel. More Akhmatova poems appeared. Voznesensky was showing ever greater audacity and technical ability, coming closer and closer to brilliance.

Literaturnaya Gazeta carried Kornei Chukovsky’s astringent plea for a sane and honest use of language and the public appeal by a group of Leningrad academicians and professors, Victor Zhirmunsky among them, for the establishment of a high school devoted to sound training in the humanities. Though at the end of December Alexander Chakovsky replaced Kosolapov as editor of Literaturnaya Gazeta and rumors spread that Ermilov would replace Tvardovsky on Novy Mir (which did not happen), in early March Yevtushenko was reciting his poetry to huge crowds in Paris. At one reading he was introduced by a member of the French Communist Party, who said,

Not long ago, when people used to say to us that there were no creative artists in the Soviet Union, we would cite Mayakovsky and Eisenstein. But then we would be told: you keep talking to us only about the dead and distant. Let’s rather talk about now! Very well! Today we can cite them, without fear of being contradicted, the names of creative artists as alive and flourishing as Voznesensky and Yevtushenko.

Khrushchev’s domestic difficulties, under Chinese pressure, under failure of his agricultural programs, under opposition reportedly by such conservatives as Kozlov, under the absence of any détente with the West before the signing of the nuclear test ban, may have been and may still be very grave indeed, but one wonders if they were really so grave that he, of all “peaceful co-existers,” had to risk alienating French Communist support? What remains of any notion which “replaces” the doctrine of peaceful coexistence but subverts the authority of other national Communist parties?

Indeed, what can a Russian believe at all if, on the one hand, he feels sold down the river by statesmen and politicians, and on the other, he sees the evidence of disagreement among writers of prestige. Yevtushenko says in his autobiography that he disagrees with Ehrenburg:

I disagree with the term “the thaw” which Ilya Ehrenburg off-handedly tacked onto this whole intellectual process. I’ve even protested such a definition several times, and I want to explain why. . . . As far as I’m concerned, this period can be characterized only as a spring season. . . . One feels that all the upsurges of winter are doomed to come to nothing. . . . It’s because I’ve always believed in this spring season of deStalinization that I’m not too disturbed by criticism and attacks on me.

Sometimes it seems as if Yevtushenko had decided unilaterally to resolve the conflicts and contradictions in Soviet literary life. “The stronger they are,” he said of the Stalinists, “the stronger we are.” Could he have deliberately taken an aggressive political stance in order to maintain the notoriety of his poetry? In the West he has become the emblem of a new and courageous generation. In Russia, as B. Runin’s long and sympathetic article on him in the February, 1963, Voprosy Literatury stated clearly, he is the symbol of all that has happened in Russia in the last ten years. The split in political allegiance is reflected in the poet himself. Half of him, it seems, wishes only to write sincere, moving, individualistic lyrics. Half of him craves publicity, even as he knows its dangers: “For many years,” he said, the Western press

has been helping our dogmatists by saying that the young generation of poets is “un-Soviet” and against Leninism. They help our dogmatists who say the same thing. . . . As for me, this press first called me the accursed poet of Red Square, and now I’m the official poet of the Kremlin. The Western press would prefer me in a Siberian camp. It would be more sensational.

Most young Russians, Yevtushenko said, are not addicted to Western jazz, nor is there such a split between younger and older generations in Russia as many commentators insist. Yet, on the other hand, I recall an instance which revives the feeling that young, modern Yevtushenko is, above all, the representative figure of his time. In the last two years he has received less and less praise in his own country and more and more abroad, until the literary worlds both in Russia and outside it have started downgrading him in favor of Voznesensky, Akhmadulina, and other young writers. Once, I remember, Yevtushenko asked me about an American newspaper correspondent and what his political point of view was.

“He’s not sympathetic to you,” I said frankly. “He doesn’t understand your poetry or what you’re up against. He just sees you as a political figure, as a Russian ‘angry young man.’ ”

“But I gave him a long and honest interview,” Yevtushenko half complained to me.

“You must have seen what he’s written,” I replied. Yevtushenko said nothing. “That kind of thing won’t do anybody any good, I think,” I said. Yevtushenko silently nodded.

At the end of Leskov’s tale The Enchanted Wanderer, Golovan, the wanderer, talks about having been “magnetized” to be cured of drinking. A charlatan has played a trick, which turns out to be not quite a trick, either. We might say that Yevtushenko, magnet that he is, poet and wanderer, has been “magnetized” too. And if we are tempted to blame him for it, we must stop and remember what we have done to encourage it.

REPORTEDLY, Khrushchev won approval for publication of One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich at a November meeting of the Central Committee over considerable opposition, and he told Western diplomats after the meeting that he had wanted to propose further liberalization measures. In September, I know, he had agreed with Frost that intellectual and political coexistence was not only possible but also desirable and that mutually antagonistic propaganda was a vulgar nuisance which must be curtailed, if not entirely eliminated. He had promised Frost to expunge it. But then, last winter, even as the weather turned, Khrushchev reportedly said that “ ‘people’ felt that the Soviet Union would get indigestion if it went too far.”

At the art exhibit in Moscow in December of 1962, Khrushchev, our press reported, spoke out rudely against “abstract” art. “As tong as I’m President of the Council of Ministers,” he said, “we’re going to support a genuine art. . . . We have to organize our society so it’s clear who is useful and who is useless.”

We can see behind his remarks a benevolent autocrat forced into taking a position, which he is not theoretically prepared to take, in order publicly to preserve a theory without which, he has been told, his autocracy will not work. We see a man convinced by circumstance. We see a man being driven, as Tolstoi said Napoleon was driven. And I remember that a year or two ago a number of intellectuals spoke warmly of Khrushchev as a moderating force, as a politician with a conscience who was trying to restore power to the bureaucracy of the Party. The real struggle, they said then, lay among the bureaucrats — and against them.

It is the bureaucrats, it is men like Korneichuk, who have insisted on establishing a national allartists’ union. Last summer they failed, but if such a union is ever established, certainly it will be an instrument for almost total control. Yet in the crackdown last year we noticed the amount of attention paid to Western values, even by the dogmatists. Everybody wrote and talked with one eye on the West. The more accounts you read, the more you are struck by this. You notice a continual shifting back and forth of various groups. And, above all, you notice the fidelity and consistency of certain individuals. For example, Fedin, secretary of the Writers’ Union, author of a number of novels, including the famous Cities and Years, summed up his opening speech to the fourth Plenum of the Union on March 26, 1963, by putting above everything else the individual talent of the artist. He said:

Every artist expresses his own emotion in relation to his sense of obligation to the people and to the idiosyncrasies of his own talent, to his own artistic individuality. This has become one of the tenets of socialist realism, one of the aesthetic principles of Soviet literature. And we are delighted that the importance of artistic individuality was reaffirmed by Nikita Sergeyevich Khrushchev, also, in the peroration of his speech at the meeting between leaders of the Communist Party and writers and artists.

Is this 1964 or 1946? Not one of the subsequent reports of Fedin’s speech even vaguely hinted at what had been its theme. Yevtushenko confessed error, though his confession was judged unacceptable. Voznesensky, less hard-pressed, of course, said he wanted to work, work, work to show his real self. And yet none of them really yielded. Fedin said his say and kept mum. Yevtushenko complained about distortions introduced by L’Express but did not take back the substance of what he had written. Voznesensky said, with ironic double meaning, that he would never forget “Nikita Sergeyevich’s harsh words.” Back in 1953, Khachaturian had said that “creative problems cannot be solved by bureaucratic techniques.”

In 1963, all the writers were saying the same thing. Even mild-mannered Shchipachev, replaced by Markov as head of the outstanding Moscow section of the Writers’ Union, insisted that the section had only been supporting real literary talent. Back in 1954, Katayev supported partyness as essential for every writer; in January, 1963, he openly said he wanted to write a book about the real America based on extensive travel throughout the country.

Paustovsky, who visited France after recuperating from a heart attack, spoke in Paris of the injustices and stupidity of the Soviet intellectual bureaucracy. Seven years ago, in 1956, in a speech to the Moscow section of the Writers’ Union, Paustovsky had condemned the bourgeois Drozdovs (Drozdov is the villainous bureaucrat of Dudintsev’s Not by Bread Alone) for ruining society. “The problem is,” he said,

that in our country a completely new social stratum exists with impunity and even, to a certain degree, flourishes — a new petite bourgeoisie. It is a new population of rapacious and propertied people who have nothing in common with the Revolution, with our regime, or with socialism. . . . If it were not for these Drozdovs, people such as Meyerhold, Babel, Artyom Vesyoly and many others would still be alive among us. . . . They were destroyed in the name of the stinking comfort of these Drozdovs.

Paustovsky spoke openly to Frost in the late summer of 1962; he talked to him as senior artist to senior artist, as man of talent to man of talent, for whom only the integrity of intellect could signify anything. Although under attack last February, Paustovsky was the subject of a warmly appreciative article in Literaturnaya Gazeta last November.

In October, Barabash. assistant editor in chief of Literaturnaya Gazeta, attacked Solzhenitsyn’s “For the Good of the Cause” as being false; about ten days later in the same paper, the successful novelist Daniil Granin defended the story as a highly skilled search for justice and truth.

In December, 1962, Victor Nekrasov wrote with obvious defiance in his travel notes on America not only that the still-unreleased and heavily criticized Russian film by Khutsiev, “Ilyich’s Gates,” was “a landmark in our film art,” but also that such a film was good and truthful, like the American film Marty, that story of “the first, shy love of the sweet, enchanting American guy, Marty.” “When questioning stops, you stop, too,” said Nekrasov; “satisfied, safe, uneventful, and unquestioning existence — that’s not life.” And Ehrenburg, attacked publicly by the Party for falsifying and degrading Soviet history and privately by intellectuals for having failed to present the true account of the past which they wish history in Russia once more to be, wrote in the fifth part of his Memoirs published in mid-February: “I long ago found that where politics is the decisive factor memory is an onerous prejudice.”

We come around, finally, to a conflict of personalities, the war between the artist and the bureaucrat. The brake on liberalization which the newspaper Literatura i Zhizn was created to be has now become the motor, too. At the Twentieth Party Congress, even Sholokhov said that “there are no high-quality, first-rate books, and there won’t be any unless the literary situation changes radically, and only the Party can do that.” Ironically, Sholokhov is one writer who has not helped such a change to come about. Ironically, the quest for excellence has led to undermining allegiance.

We, on our part, may admire the short stories of Kazakov, Nagibin, Yashin; the plays of Shvarts, Pogodin, Alyoshin; the poetry of Voznesensky, Yevtushenko, Kirsanov, Vinokurov; the criticism of Shchoglov, Ivanov, Nikolai Zhdanov, for these are all first-rate writers. But we know that not much of Soviet literature is up to our best standards. Often we do not even expect it to be. Often we prefer to patronize its awkward but, to us, flattering celebration of Westernness.

We are guilty of disservice to young Russian writers, to precisely those who have been trying to make literature less and less political. Every time they take a stand for themselves, our newspapers construe it as a political stand against the Soviet regime; our papers make it into a political opposition and play into the hands of the bureaucrats of literature. The art that is trying to be apolitical, self-authoritative, nonrepresentational we have made rebellious, derivative, and politically indicative.

The Leninist doctrine of the political obligation of a writer to his party, turned into a social obligation to his country, has now come head on against profound disillusion with existing political values. Intellectual activity that would wish to be apolitical is being forced into a political stance by dogmatists and sensationalists, by men who have no real respect for literature at all. Russian writers wish to apply common Western techniques and styles so that art may again become, in their hands, they feel, as meaningful, as socially determining (not socially determined) as in the nineteenth century.

I cannot forget a late summer afternoon in the pine forest north of Leningrad. Frost and Akhmatova, both reputed candidates for the Nobel Prize, sat calmly though stiffly in the living room of a small dacha, making small talk about literature. Suddenly Anna Andreyevna said she would recite a poem, her latest poem, a poem she had written only a few days before. The whole history of Russian literature seemed suddenly brought down to a moment in the poem’s last line, for nothing is more exigent than the reality of a beautiful thing:

I ought to genuflect with Morozova,
To do the dance that Herod’s step-daughter does,
To fly up with the smoke from Dido’s fire,
And join Jeanne d’Arc in an auto-da-fé.
Lord! You see, the thing is, I’m worn out
By all this resurrection, death, and life.
Take everything, but let me feel once more
The freshness of this last, this scarlet rose