The Politics of Dissent: Turmoil In Soviet Literature

Last November the Soviet literary magazine Novy Mir caused quite a stir by publishing One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovitch the first novel of an obscure mathematics teacher and former Red Army officer, Alexander Solzhenitsyn. Released with the express permission of Premier Khrushchev, One Day is a powerful, often humorous account of life in Stalin's forced labor camps. Translator Max Hayward, among others, hailed the novel as a "literary masterpiece" when it was published in the West several months later.

The principle importance of the novel, however, is political and not literary. Soviet authorities no longer deny the existence of slave labor camps under Stalin; but never before has the regime allowed publication of such a brutally detailed description of that chapter in Soviet history.

Immediately Western commentators were predicting a new era of cultural freedom in the Soviet Union. A headline in The New York Times of November 29 reported "Easing of Curbs on Soviet Literature Is Attributed to Order by Khurshchev." Hayward and Leopold Labedz proclaimed in their introduction to the Praegar translation that One Day "is a revolutionary document that will effect the climate of life inside the Soviet Union."

Premier Khrushchev evidently thought so too, and was not quite as enthusiastic about the prospect as Hayward and Labedz. Several days after the Times story appeared Khrushchev visited an exhibition of paintings and sculpture arranged by the Moscow branch of the Union of Soviet Artists. The Premier's reaction to some of the abstract art on display was someting less than charitable, and a day later Pravda re-asserted in an editorial the momentarily forgotten priciples of social realism.

Khrushchev's Ultimatum


It was only the beginning. On December 17 Khrushchev and other top Party officers met with "representatives of literature and arts" to remind them of the Party's determination to continue to define the tasks and direction of artistic creation." Last week the Kremlin was the scene of another such meeting, and press reports said "Mr. Khrushchev's words were widely regarded as an ultimatum to writers, painters, composers and other artists who had challenged the authority of the Communist Party in cultural affairs."

To understand this succession of events one must understand the doctrine of socialist realism, which remains the chief tenet of the Soviet faith in all areas of artistic endeavor. Socialist realism is not merely a prohibition or restriction of certain forms of expression. Under the doctrine artists are expected to make a positive contribution to the education of the toiling masses in the "spirit of socialism." Practically, they are also expected to serve the political needs of the State, whatever those might be.

Thus giving permission to publish One Day must be seen as a purely political decision by the regime. First of all the novel serves the cause of anti-Stalinism, and concomitantly the cause of Stalin's denunciator Khrushchev. As the editor of Novy Mir wrote in a preface to the original publication, "Only by going into its consequences fully, courageously, and truthfully can we guarantee a complete and irrevocable break with all those things that cast a shadow over the past."

And too, the relative liberality and boldness of Solzhenitsyn's story adds to the image of progressiveness deliberately fostered by the present regime. The editor of Novy Mir declares "This stark tale shows once again that today there is no aspect of our life that cannot be dealt with and faithfully described in Soviet literature." Here the image is more important than the reality: if Soviet citizens (and Western observers) can be convinced there is greatly enhanced cultural freedom, then the real state of affairs is not so important.

Two previous revolutionary phenomena in Soviet cultural life can also be understood as political creations. In the aftermath of Stalin's death Ilya Ehrenburg published a novel, The Thaw, which lent its name to a whole period of increased freedom of expression. An otherwise drab story, The Thaw did have some kind words for freedom of expression in art, and was quite a bold venture compared to the material produced during Stalin's last years. The story touched a pent-up longing for freedom that threatened to break forth; the regime quickly clamped down, issued a succession of reprimands to Ehrenburg and others, and "the thaw" was over.

In addition to Ehrenburg (a venerable intellectual with remarkable resiliency and staying power) the chief symbol in the West of dissonance in Soviet literature is the young poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko.

A dedicated Communist, Yevtushenko has travelled widely in Europe and will soon visit the United States to present a series of lectures and readings. Several of his poems, particularly a bitter attack on Soviet anti-Semitism called Babi Yar, have struck a note of dissension. And various observers have written that he has become a symbol of rebelliousness for the restless element of Moscow's youth.

Without trying to say too much on too little evidence, it seems clear that Yevtushenko is basically a hireling of the Soviet government, bent on emulating the toadying tactics of Ehrenburg. At the World Youth Festival in Helsinki, where he paraded around in loud Italian silk shirts, Yevtushenko became so incensed at the anti-Communist demonstrations he composed a poem on the spot denouncing the "pimple-faced, gum chewing" students. "If I had not been a Communist before, I would have become one tonight," he said.

There is no denying both Ehrenburg and Yevtushenko have quarrels with the Soviet regime. But they value survival, and allow their opposition to creep into their work only by implication, and only occasionally.

Yet the golden boys sometimes overstep the bounds, and when they do the image of dissent is suddenly revealed for what it is. Last week Khrushchev denounced the elderly Ehrenburg for pleading for co-existence between socialist realism and Western art forms. "Whoever preaches the idea of peaceful coexistence of ideologies slides down to the positions of anticommunism" Krushchev declared, and added that Ehrenburg had committed a "gross ideological error."

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