Russia's intelligentsia under communism
Yearning to be free
Jul 2nd 2009
From The Economist print edition
Illustration by Daniel Pudles
Zhivago's Children: The Last Russian Intelligentsia. By Vladislav Zubok. Harvard University Press/Belknap; 464 pages; $35 and £25.95. Buy from Amazon.com, Amazon.co.uk
THE Soviet Union was a prison, especially for the lively minded, whose travel abroad and activities at home were dictated by the Communist Party’s cultural commissars. But in the period between the end of the Stalin terror and the start of the Brezhnev era’s grim stagnation, a lucky few enjoyed some wisps of freedom.
Cultural continuity between that period and a lost past is the central theme of “Zhivago’s Children”. The metaphorical reference is to Tanya, the child of Yuri and Lara Zhivago in Boris Pasternak’s great novel. Brought up by peasants, “she has no opportunity to inherit the tradition of free-thinking, spirituality and creativity that her father embodied.” How will she turn out? The novel leaves that fictional question unanswered. Vladislav Zubok’s book shows, with great sympathy and insight, what happened to Tanya’s real-life counterparts.
The Zhivago legacy is Russia’s “silver age”, when Anna Akhmatova, a poet, and Vasily Kandinsky, a painter, as well as others, flowered towards the end of the tsarist era and in the emancipated years immediately after the Bolshevik revolution. But Stalin, who liked uplifting stories and pictures featuring combine harvesters, banned their work as subversive and decadent. Many perished in the murderous frenzy of the 1930s. Yet enough survived to preserve at least some of the knowledge and traditions of the past.
The huge expansion of Soviet higher education after the war was supposed to create docile “cultural cadres”. What emerged were young people, marked by “boundless, sparkling optimism”, proud of their country’s achievements but open-minded to its failings. After Stalin’s death, their independent thought and behaviour became “oxygenated”. Tight-knit circles of friends, kompany in Russian, discussed love, life, letters and more. In one such group the young Mikhail Gorbachev struck up an instant, passionate and lifelong liaison with a bright culture-vulture called Raisa.
Writers such as Pasternak and Akhmatova were privately revered in these circles. But the real thaw began under the leadership of Nikita Khrushchev. The World Youth Festival in Moscow in 1957 produced an orgy, sometimes literally, of contacts with thousands of visiting foreigners including from the capitalist West. In a society where such meetings had been as unlikely as a total solar eclipse, that had a huge impact. So did a freer press: the hard-hitting mass-market newspaper, Izvestia, and brainy, liberal-minded periodicals such as Novy Mir. As cultural iconoclasm swelled, Stalinist clichés (and the hacks who produced them) began to tumble.
Other controversies raged too, such as “lyrics v physics”. One camp believed that science would perfect society. The other sought answers from art and literature. Disagreement over that ended friendships and marriages. As the mental wounds of terror and war began to heal, the hardy survivors of the 1930s began to speak more freely to their young counterparts. Growing knowledge of the lies and crimes of the past barely shook the new intelligentsia’s faith in the Soviet system. Their world view was still Marxist, their patriotism genuine. Yet in their self-awareness and sense of mission, Zhivago’s children began to resemble the Russian intelligentsia of a century before.
Mr Zubok poignantly details the lengthy and bitter decline that followed. The earthy Khrushchev resented the cultural elite’s pretensions. Party bureaucrats saw them as subversive. The crushing of the Prague Spring destroyed faith in the Soviet system, and the intelligentsia splintered. A growing camp favoured Russian traditions and even chauvinism, denouncing the others as disloyal and cosmopolitan (and Jewish). Some writers collaborated out of cowardice or cynicism; others emigrated. A lonely few became dissidents, focusing intensely on support from the West, largely detached from everyday life in their own country. Similar divisions remain in Russia now.
The picture Mr Zubok paints so painstakingly is vivid. Yet it is only a tiny corner of the dreary canvas of Soviet life. A few thousand people in Moscow and St Petersburg had a nice and interesting time in the 1950s. But for many millions of their fellow-inmates, the Soviet decades were unrelievedly awful.
Sunday, July 05, 2009
Russia's intelligentsia under communism