Thaw Poets

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Subject essay: James von Geldern

In July 1958 Moscow authorities erected a monument to Vladimir Maiakovskii on what was then renamed Maiakovskii Square. By 1961 young Muscovites had appropriated for their own uses this monument to the “”best and most talented poet of our Soviet epoch” as proclaimed by Stalin, making it the gathering spot for youth. Most famous were the poetry readings, which could gather thousands, even in the dead of winter. The verse was pointed, irreverent, sometimes opaquely caustic, which authorities took to be anti-Soviet. By April they took action, driving young people from the square by force, and when gatherings persisted, using expulsion, provocation, persecution, and searches. On occasion even snow plows were used. Some poets were arrested, others committed to psychiatric care. By May new laws against parasitism (people avoiding socially useful work) were passed and used against the poets. All this took place in the two months following the space flight of Iurii Gagarin.

The disbanding of the open meetings, unnoticed by most Soviet citizens, might have been the most pivotal event of that eventful year. The gatherings served many as a first experience in open society, a public place where people could engage in open conversation and act as if they were free. Though some retreated into despair after the readings were closed, other members of the generation of 1961 continued the custom of dissent. Vladimir Bukovsky, who was beaten by police at Maiakovskii Square, became one of the first and most irreconcilable dissidents in Soviet society, a model for future dissenters. Informal practices of 1961, such as the distribution of carbon-copied poetry, gave birth to samizdat (self-publishing), the unsanctioned basement publication that would be the lifeline of future dissidents.

The poetry readings were the embryo of a civil society, but they also bred state practices of repression that would last through the 1980s. Jailing poets as parasites and dissidents as deranged became normal police measures in later years, and led to a string of brutal trials through the 1960s. Soviet psychology, already a weak profession, was further discredited when it was enlisted to pathologize dissent and a youthful longing for cultural expression. Much in the spirit of Khrushchev himself, the young poets were forthright adherents of the destalinization campaign, which caught its second wind in 1961. Yet no less valuable was the insistence of the same poets that there was an entire world of pleasures beyond politics that was central to human existence and, by implication, beyond Soviet discourse.

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