Russia’s ‘Year of Literature’


Russia has proclaimed 2015 the Year of Literature. Coming from the state where nothing happens without Putin’s personal approval, the initiative can only inspire scepticism, not pride.

Throughout Russia’s history, genuine writers were the main opposition to authoritarian regimes and were relentlessly harassed for speaking out. Sensing hypocrisy, Kommersant newspaper is publishing a calendar of Russia’s literary persecutions: e.g., February 24 marks Leo Tolstoy’s excommunication from the Orthodox Church and February 28 confiscation of Vasily Grossman’s famous novel, Life and Fate.

If the Kommersant calendar of Russia’s literary harassments were comprehensive there would be enough cases of writers’ arrests, book banning, deportations, and murder to mark every day of a year. All literary celebrations in Russia begin with Alexander Pushkin, the national genius and the country’s pride. The poet, however, pursued his entire writing career under police surveillance. Censored by the Tsar himself and prohibited from traveling even within Russia, he needed a special permit to publish and to read his poems to friends.

Tolstoy lived under police surveillance for 50 years. Russia’s intellectuals were always watched; yet, there are more police reports on Tolstoy than on any other public figure. Three police departments maintained constant surveillance. Scrutiny was intensified during Tolstoy’s last decades, after he had denounced the authoritarian regime and its obedient Orthodox Church. Tolstoy accused the Church of endorsing all repressive government policies and war. Had Tolstoy lived today, he would protest Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the role of the official Church, which hasn’t changed. During Tolstoy’s life, his nonfiction circulated in underground copies. It was never reprinted in Soviet Russia; will it be celebrated today?

Back to the calendar of literary persecutions: April 23 will mark an anniversary of Fyodor Dostoevsky’s incarceration in Peter and Paul’s Fortress. In 1849, Dostoevsky was arrested for belonging to a group studying utopian socialism and narrowly avoided execution by firing squad. The day when his death sentence was commuted to hard labour in Siberia was the happiest in his life, he said: Dostoevsky was singing in his cell. Later, when he became loyal to the regime, the police still treated him as a former political convict, confiscating some of his manuscripts at the Russian border.

The fate of twentieth-century writers was far more tragic: under the Soviet dictatorship 2,000 were arrested and of those 1,500 perished in the gulags. Every Soviet republic lost its bravest and most talented. In Russia, Isaac Babel, Boris Pilnyak, and Osip Mandelstam were among those tortured and killed under Stalin. Mandelstam was re-arrested on May 2, 1938, for composing a satirical poem about Stalin; he died that year in a transitory camp in the Far East. As he had famously remarked, “Poetry is respected only in this country––people are killed for it. There’s no place where more people are killed for it.” Mandelstam’s spiritual legacy survives today only because his widow, Nadezhda, was heroically hiding it for decades from the authorities.

The Soviet state routinely persecuted writers, seizing their manuscripts, libraries, and archives in the course of arrests. There was one case though when a novel was “arrested” independently from its author.

On February 28, 1961, the writers’ community in Moscow, to which my family belonged, was shaken by the news that the KGB had searched Vasily Grossman’s apartment and confiscated the manuscript of his major novel, Life and Fate. Depicting WWII, the Gulag, and the Holocaust this novel is compared today to War and Peace––both in scope and mastery. However, the author died without seeing his masterpiece published or his papers returned to him. Grossman was the first to compare, with clarity and depth, the Nazi and Stalinist totalitarian systems. Timely release of this novel would have had tremendous impact on Soviet Russia and would have changed what the nation knew about its Stalinist past. Sensing a threat to the regime, the authorities vowed to keep it suppressed for 200 years; in the event, they succeeded in postponing the book’s publication by three decades. In December 2013, the FSB released Grossman’s papers from its vaults, much to surprise and delight of the Russian State Archive for Literature and Arts. This archive had long petitioned the authorities to release all confiscated writers’ libraries and manuscripts, including Grossman’s.

Writers’ deportations should also be marked on the calendar, like feast days: along with freedom deportees were awarded world fame. Joseph Brodsky was put on a plane to Vienna on June 4, 1972; Alexander Solzhenitsyn was flown to West Germany on February 14, 1974. (A tradition of exiling Russia’s intellectuals to Germany is an old one.

In 1922, protesting Lenin’s deportations, the German chancellor quipped that “Germany was not Siberia.” The list of Russia’s literary martyrs is long and distinguished. Anna Akhmatova, Marina Tsvetaeva, Boris Pasternak, and Mikhail Bulgakov were not imprisoned, but they endured decades of persecution.

Bulgakov, to whom Stalin himself had repeatedly denied publication, died in obscurity on March 10, 1939. A brilliant satirical writer and playwright, he was destined for posthumous world fame. One of the finest poets of her generation, Tsvetaeva was driven to despair and took her own life on August 31, 1941. It should be noted that by the end of the Soviet era, the same Party officials who earlier prohibited Bulgakov’s and Tsvetaeva’s works were showing off the volumes in their own libraries––not because they came to value genuine literature, but because these editions were impossible to get.

During the Year of Russia’s Literature officials will make speeches, to be broadcast through state-controlled media. This strikes me as ironic, since writers succeeded despite government interference in their lives and work. Today, the state is broadening its sphere of influence, and Soviet practices of controlling literature are being revived. Last December, Russia’s Minister of Culture Vladimir Medinsky said that Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment and Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina should be excluded from the high school curriculum as inappropriate. The minister, whose previous responsibilities include the Federal Tax Police and the menacing Presidential Commission Against the Falsification of History, will determine the lists of books for patriotic reading. Will Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Akhmatova, and Grossman make it to the recommended lists?

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