Literary Life at a Crossroads

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Subject essay: James von Geldern

Liberals and conservatives waged a tug-of-war over the fate of Soviet literature that yielded spectacular results in 1956-1957. A two-year interim of quiet had stabilized the Soviet arts world after the first thaw of 1954. Writers who made their careers under Stalin retained control of the Writers Union, while younger writers continued to test the limits of expression without straying into disloyalty. It was an equilibrium, not a peace, one broken at the same Twentieth Party Congress that witnessed Khrushchev’s Secret Speech. Departing from the tradition of a single report on literature, delegates heard two reports. Aleksei Surkov, conservative secretary of the Writers Union, delivered a predictable speech on the ideological tradition of socialist realism. Mikhail Sholokhov, usually a conservative but never predictable, and a fine writer who would receive the Nobel Prize in 1965, stunned and delighted delegates by ridiculing Surkov and the pretensions of all literary administrators in sometimes salty language. As delegates howled with laughter, Sholokhov stated “There is nothing that a writer can learn from Surkov.”

In the aftermath of the congress, writers could risk violating unspoken rules. Nevertheless, two literary scandals of 1957 show how sensitive authorities still were, and how confused boundaries could be. Vladimir Dudintsev’s novel Not by Bread Alone (published 1956), was the first to be attacked when official spokesmen criticized him in a public discussion held in May 1957. Dudintsev was an odd target. The style of his novel was entirely conventional, less adventurous than even the average work of socialist realism. Like many early critics of Soviet socialism, he did not doubt the fundamental justice of the system, wanting only to improve it. Dudintsev’s use of contrasting characters – Drozdov, the self-serving industrial bureaucrat, and Lopatkin, the independent and creative inventor – was meant to overturn the conventions of socialist realism, yet its style belonged very much to that school. Although his villains were bureaucrats and members of the Communist Party, his hero was an engineer, who triumphed in end due to the patronage of higher party officials. It must be noted that when Dudintsev was criticized, his defenders spoke up as well, and no punishment was inflicted on him.

Boris Pasternak and his novel Doctor Zhivago were a different matter. Along with Anna Akhmatova, Pasternak was the last of the great pleiade of modernist poets that Stalinism had ground into silence. Except for a brief clearing during the war, Pasternak was forced to rely on translation work (which included magnificent translations of Shakespeare’s tragedies) to remain professionally active. Working all the while in secret on a novel that he completed in the mid-1950s, Pasternak waited for the right moment, which he thought he saw in the months after the secret speech. By all accounts, he was surprised and somewhat piqued when the manuscript was rejected byNovyi mir. He then sent the novel to the Italian publisher Feltrinelli, who brought it out in 1957, despite furious Soviet demands (and Pasternak’s half-hearted demands) that the novel be returned. English and French translations soon followed the Italian, all of which preceded Russian publication. Pasternak was publicly vilified for his purported act of treason, a campaign that intensified when he received the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1958. Although he refused to travel to accept the prize, he was an official outcast until his death in 1960.

Despite Pasternak’s astonished protestations, official critics might have been correct to condemn the novel. If Dudintsev questioned only the working of the Soviet bureaucracy, Pasternak placed the value of the entire revolution in doubt. His hero, Iurii Zhivago, whose name means life, refuses to immerse himself in public life or socialist construction during the years of revolution. Instead this doctor and poet, an embodiment of the Russian intelligentsia, follows his own set of human values and is eventually destroyed. Although by Soviet standards Zhivago is a failure, Pasternak clearly intends him to be a model of sensitivity, integrity and courage. He dies pennilessly and useless, yet leaves behind a magnificent cycle of poems that not only crown his life, but were perhaps Pasternak’s own greatest works.

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