An Old Flame
dg on the loose in the USSR, October, 1988
Another small treasure from my boxes at the farm. Forgive me for this. These old texts are like a memory palace for me. I see my other self, sequestered in time, but still familiar and the old impressions flood back.
In 1988, the Soviet Writers Union invited me and a Québecois writer, Gilles Pellerin, to tour the Soviet Union, a country that no longer exists, to meet writers and publishers and promote amicable intellectual exchange. This was in an era of Soviet funny money. The Soviet Writers Union, supported by the state, had bags of money to pay our travel expenses, hire interpreters, drivers, cars, etc. We ate caviar at every stop while the average Russian had difficulty finding a fresh tomato in a grocery store. I saw “writers” driving up to the Writers Union HQ (called the House of Writers) in Moscow and loading heaping boxes of groceries into the trunks of their cars. It was very nice for Gilles and me. We arrived in Moscow in October, stayed a while, flew to Tbilisi in Georgia, stayed a while, flew to Kiev, then back to Moscow, and took a night train to St. Petersburg, and stayed a while. I have never been treated so well (meanwhile, only in the open markets of Tbilisi did I see ordinary people wonderfully supplied with fresh food).
We met Russian, Georgian and Ukrainian authors and publishers, visited publishing houses, drank too much vodka at any number of dinners and parties, walked in Tolstoy’s Moscow house (and heard his voice emanating from strategically place speakers), went to monasteries (just beginning to open up again). Gilles and I would co-interview people. We each had an interpreter, one for French, one for English. So there would be at least three languages in the air, and lots of intuitions suspended between the words. I remember one interview, I forget what I had asked, but the author was droning on, perhaps a bit bored. In the midst of the droning translation, my interpreter said, “For me, the task was always to liberate myself from love.” Gilles and I looked at each other. It was electrifying, but the droning went on. That line became the theme and a running motif in my story collection 16 Categories of Desire.
My interpreter in Tbilisi was a graceful young woman named Inga Paliani (mentioned in the essay below). I remember best the way she would sit next to me at those endless dinners, with speeches and toasts, leaning in to translate and explain and contextualize. (If I sound nostalgic about this, well, I am.) And then the time she took me to the cemetery where Stalin’s mother was buried and recited one of Stalin’s poems. She translated two of my short stories and got them published in a Georgian literary magazine. And then, only recently, managed to find me again on Facebook. She is now a Georgian diplomat, posted in Latvia.
Gilles was much smarter about the trip than I was. He had memorized 1000 Russian words before we landed. Moi? Zero. I trusted in the God of Serendipity to lead me. As I have most of my life. The unexpected is an adventure. I always think, Why prepare? Why attempt to control the outcome? Despite our metaphysical divergences, Gilles and I became friends. Gilles Pellerin’s Quebec publishing house L'instant même was the first to translate my work, producing French editions of my novel The Life and Times of Captain N. (translated as Le Redempteur by the notable French-Canadian novelist Daniel Poliquin) and my short story book A Guide to Animal Behavior (Daniel Poliquin again, with title Le Récit de Voyage en Nouvelle-France de l'Abbé Peintre Hugues Pommier.)
Returning to Canada, I wrote a piece about the trip for the magazine Books in Canada. It was called “A State of Strangeness” (1989 Books in Canada, January-February). See below. It is of a world that no longer exists. Odd to think.
A State of Strangeness
AT 2 A.M. on my second night at the Russiya Hotel in Moscow, I was awakened by a knock at the door. Half asleep, I stumbled into my Calvin Klein boxer shorts – if it was the KGB, I wanted to show them the best the free world had to offer. The knocking persisted. I turned the latch and peeped outside. A dark-eyed Tartar woman of about 22 stood in the corridor. As soon as I opened the door, she lunged toward me, speaking Russian. "I don't speak Russian," I said, suspecting a trap. My head was full of Globe and Mail headlines: Soviets Jail Canadian Author. Prime Minister Says Glover No Spy.
She spoke again, this time with vexed insistence. Once more I failed to understand. My mind rioted with possibilities. Where were my pants? Where was Alyosha, my trusty Gogolian interpreter? "I don't speak Russian," I said again. The air was full of electricity and vodka. Once more she lunged, trying to come through the door, an unlit cigarette poised at her lips. "Please," she whispered in hoarse, uncertain English. "Please, can you give me fire?"
In October I spent two weeks in the USSR, courtesy of the Canadian Department of External Affairs and the Soviet Writers' Union, trying to get a feel for contemporary Soviet literature. The first thing you find out is that there isn't just one: the Soviets proudly tell you they have 76 “registered national literatures." Then they tell you that their biggest problem today is not censorship but lack of paper.
Another day: whirling through Dzerzinsky Square in our chauffeur-driven Soviet Writers' Union Volga, I pointed out what I thought was an attractive modern red stone building on the corner. "That's the KGB headquarters," said Alyosha glumly. Across the street, he indicated with a certain depressed irony, stood Moscow's largest toy store.
In Kiev, crowds of fervent believers (in an officially atheist country) reached to touch my hands after I interviewed Holy Father Ioanafan, the new abbot of the Petcharska Lavra Monastery, the famous Monastery of the Caves (final resting place of John the Long-Suffering, who spent 30 years buried up to his neck in sand) reopened by the church only four months before.
In the art deco dining room of Leningrad's venerable Europe Hotel, the house band played Nino Rota and Madonna hits. A drunk at the next table vomited between his legs and fell asleep against the wall. A tipsy Russian woman came to our table looking for a dance partner, then staggered away, drifting from table to table, man to man, through the evening. I recalled a sentence spoken by the dour Daniel Granin, a physicist-turned-novelist, during an interview that afternoon: "For me, the task was always to liberate myself from love."
PUT THIS another way – travelling to the Soviet Union is like taking a trip in a faulty time machine. The Soviets have the world's only manned space station, but in Georgia, their Deep South, peasants still sing hymns to Lile, the sun goddess. The U.S.S.R. won more Olympic medals in Seoul than any other country, but the television sets that carried the Games to the Soviet public explode so routinely that hotels supply them with printed warnings.
The same applies on the literary scene. The Soviets have massively popular literary magazines, in which novels appear in serial form much as they did in the time of Dickens, Dostoevsky, and Tolstoy. What these magazines print often dates from the Stalin and Brezhnev eras; comparatively little contemporary writing appears in the official press. Yet huge chunks of Soviet literary history are simply missing. Spend a day in any Canadian university library and you'll know more about what's been written by the best Russian, Ukrainian, or Georgian writers in the last 70 years than the common reader in the Soviet Union.
Since Mikhail Gorbachev introduced his policy of glasnost or "openness," the Soviets have been racing to, as they say, "fill in the gaps." A recent issue of Ogonyok, a glossy weekly noted for its outspokenness, ran an essay called "An Extraterrestrial Evening" – first published in 1936 in an emigre journal – by the late great poet Marina Tsvetaeva, along with a selection of poems by the dissident writer Yuli Daniel, his first Soviet publication "after a break of twenty years." Ogonyok described Daniel, in a typical Soviet euphemism, as "a man with a difficult fate”: he was jailed in 1966 for sending banned poems to be published abroad. (Daniel died on December 30, 1988.)
The same issue carried a two-page column by Yevgeny Yevtushenko showcasing poems by several repressed, dead writers, along with an interview with Boris Pasternak's sister, an article on a "neglected" painter, and an interview with John Updike (sometime translator of Yevtushenko's poems). The one piece of more or less new literature was an excerpt from 1935 and the Years After, a novel by Anatoly Rybakov, the author of the celebrated Children of the Arbat.
(Children of the Arbat is a case in point — the book's publication was announced in 1966 but delayed until last year.)
This is the faulty time machine of Soviet life with a vengeance. Well known in the West, Tsvetaeva, Daniel, and Yevtushenko's repressed writers are "new" to the average Soviet. This gives the Soviet literary scene a feeling of "strangeness" — from ostranenie, meaning "making strange," a Russian Formalist term invented by the late Viktor Shklovsky: ". . . to make the object and artistic fact we must first of all 'shake up' things. We must rip them from their ordinary sequence of associations." '
The reasons for all this "strangeness" relate to Soviet political history and the personalities of the country's leaders. Russians, unlike Canadians, have a boldly messianic tendency (you can see it in Dostoevsky and Tolstoy); they really think they can save the world. Hence, Soviet and pre-Revolutionary Russian rulers never felt any compunction about meddling with history. They treated it like Play-Doh, something they could abandon in a cupboard for centuries, then suddenly punch into shape when the whim seized them.
Likewise, the Russian people are apt to suffer in what looks like a silent stupor for ages only to explode in a sudden rapture of millenarianism. Russians have a tendency to see themselves as history incarnate. Andrei Bitov, whose books Life in Windy Weather and Pushkin House have been published in the United States, told me over dinner and drinks at the Moscow House of Writers, "I myself resemble history. Up to my waist, I am Stalin. From my waist up to my neck, I am Brezhnev. And on top I have just, a bit of Gorbachev. I am this country." That's why Marxism, a theory of history, actually a religion of history, managed to sink such a deep tap root into the Russian psyche.
In a system like this, writers are incredibly important. They witness history and carry the message. They are the country's prophets, disseminating truth and moral tone. Stalin called them "engineers of human souls." (Russians love industrial metaphors — Moscow News, an English language weekly, describes writers as "cultural workers.") But writers have a distressing tendency to argue, protest, and reveal family secrets.
(Stalin was a Georgian, and the Georgians say all Georgians are poets. In Tbilisi, I visited the grave of Stalin's mother near the little church of Mama Daviti on the slopes of Holy Mountain where she lies surrounded by national writers, actors, and painters. All at once, my interpreter — by this time I had a new interpreter, the lovely Inga Paliani — began to recite a poem of Stalin's she had learned in school:
Buds of the roses opened
And leaned over the violets
And the nightingale sang, saying,
Revive, oh, beautiful country,
And be happy, oh, Land of the Georgians,
And, Georgian youth, learn well
And make your country happy.
When she finished, she turned to me and said, "Of course, when he left Georgia he became quite different; he became not-Georgian.”
In 1932 Stalin formed the Soviet Writers' Union, not, as one might expect, as a device for defending authors' rights but as a party organ for controlling their behaviour. From then on, Soviet writers had to be members of the union to succeed as writers, i.e., to be published. Expulsion from the union (or simply not allowing a writer to join) has always been a powerful disciplinary tool.
As recently as 1979, Viktor Yerofeyev and Yevgeny Popov were denied entry into the union for — along with Andrei Bitov, Fazil Iskander, and Vasily Aksyonov — publishing outside official channels a collection of new writing called Metropol. (Eight copies were printed inside the U.S.S.R.) In 1987 an issue of Moscow News was pulled from the presses because it contained a letter to the editor written by Yerofeyev and Popov.
Today both men are union members. Yerofeyev has just returned from a two-month teaching stint in the United States, and Bitov read in Toronto in October at the International Festival of Authors. All four veterans of the ill-fated Metropol — Yerofeyev, Popov, Bitov, and Iskander — are leading lights in the literary scene that is beginning to form in the wake of glasnost. (Aksyonov resigned his membership in the Soviet Writers' Union over the union's rejection of Yerofeyev and Popov. He emigrated to the U.S., where he has become a prominent emigre writer.)
A writer who can manage to live within the system can prosper. Members of the Soviet Writers' Union are a privileged class in a supposedly classless society. Even in Stalin's time, they had special apartment buildings set aside for them. Outside Moscow today there is a lovely little village called Peredelkino where many prominent writers have country houses, the famous Russian dachas; and the House of Writers, the union headquarters on Herzen Street in Moscow, has what is reputed to be one of the finest restaurants in the city.
Stalin put his stamp not only on what authors wrote about but on how they wrote it. In 1934, at the First Congress of Soviet Writers, Socialist Realism became the official style of the new Soviet literature. Concocted by Stalin and Maxim Gorky, it combined the ideals of the Russian Revolution with the classical realism of mainstream l9th century Russian literature – Tolstoy especially, along with Chekhov and Dostoevsky. As such it was a chimerical beast, full of contradictions that twisted authors into knots. Abram Tertz, a pseudonymous Soviet author writing in the French magazine Esprit in 1959, denounced socialist realism in the following way:
If many Soviet authors are going through a crisis at the moment ... it is because they have to seek a compromise and unite what cannot be united: the "positive hero," who logically lends himself to schematized, allegorical treatment with psychological character study; and elevated declamatory style with verisimilitude to reality. This results in a monstrous salad. The characters torment themselves almost à la Dostoevsky, grow sad almost à la Chekhov, arrange their family life almost à la Tolstoy, and yet at the same time vie with each other in shouting platitudes from the Soviet press: "Long live peace in the whole world" and "Down with the warmongers." This is neither classicism nor realism. It is semi-classical demi-art of a none too socialist demi-realism.
Soviet editors and writers today sneer what they call "secretariat writing" and say it is fast disappearing from the pages of literary journals. (Ironically, the clotted, moralizing novels of Alexander Solzhenitsyn are some of the best examples of Socialist Realism in practice.) But in the country that gave the world Russian Formalism, Cubo-Futurism, and Acmeism, publishers are still leery of experimentalism, Bohemianism, or anything that smacks of the off-beat.
Joseph Brodsky, winner of the 1987 Nobel Prize for literature, is a case in point. A member of the Leningrad literary fringe, Brodsky left the Soviet Union in 1972 after being charged with "parasitism," a catch-all term Soviets use for people who don't fit, can't find jobs, etc. Another Leningrad writer, Daniel Granin (I found a copy of his new novel Buffalo in a hard currency store, a sure sign of an author's prestige), told me, "Brodsky left because he was forced to live in unendurable circumstances. He was squeezed out. A lot of things contributed to this — for one, the things he wrote. Somehow Brodsky wasn't eager to obey certain regulations of both poetical and civil life."
Soviet editors I spoke with were clearly a bit mystified by that Nobel Prize. "When he left, he had only published three poems in the Soviet Union," said one. Now, however, Brodsky has been pardoned by the government newspaper, Izvestia, in an article declaring him one of the greatest Soviet writers of the century. His poems are beginning to appear; the Moscow literary magazine Yunost printed ten of them in its August issue, part of the flood of expatriate literature that includes Nabokov, Solzhenitsyn, and Nekrasov.
THE SOVIETS are only just emerging from Stalin's version of their history and literature. (There was a brief "thaw" under Khrushchev, followed by the neo-Stalinist Brezhnev’s "stagnation.”) Glasnost has lifted many restrictions that clogged literary progress. In print, the Soviets are going through a typical orgy of self-flagellation. Editors are stampeding to publish exposes of Stalinist excesses, to find the lost, banned, repressed, or expatriated works long unavailable to the public.
There are moral and generational aspects to this surge of old writing. Many editors suffered under Stalin and Brezhnev or had family and friends who suffered. Some compromised or found themselves safe niches through the hard years and now bear a kind of survivor's guilt. The fear that the paranoia, bureaucratic frustration, lying, and doubletalk of Stalinism have left permanent spiritual scars haunts the Soviet intelligentsia and echoes the Czech emigre writer Milan Kundera's obsession with the insincere art of kitsch.
Andrei Dementyev, editor-in-chief of Yunost ("Youth" — one of those Dickensian literary magazines, called "thick journals," with a stupendous monthly circulation of 3,050,000), told me, "To what degree you accepted or protested depended on background, family, genetic program, your level of self-honesty, and your external situation. You see, we're brought up with a sense of unity. When I was a boy, a lot of people believed the slogans, believed in Stalin and all the decisions that were being made during that time. This doesn't mean, we are all Janus-souled. Our honesty would reveal itself in other ways. Some became workaholics, keeping their wounds inside themselves. Others tried to adapt, or protested, or believed everything. All this goes to make up the very complicated psychological structure of our society, a structure which has not yet fully shown itself in our literature. I regret the number of generations that grew up at a time that crippled men's souls."
In the same vein, Andrei Bitov, who at fifty has suddenly found himself so much in demand that between visits to the West — the U.S., Canada, Japan — he gets no time to write, points out that, "A lot of people still don't want to face this but, for the individual, glasnost doesn't mean new possibilities. We still have to learn to be ourselves. The hardships of the past have perverted the people here." (Bitov has made his share of compromises. During the 1979 Metropol scandal, he threatened, along with Iskander and Aksyonov, to resign from the writers' union in support of Yerofeyev and Popov. Only Aksyonov followed through. Now Soviet writers condemn Aksyonov for abandoning his country. As Dementyev said, the Soviet psyche is very complicated.)
Publishing the lost literature of the last 70 years is a way of healing psychic wounds and making peace with a seamy past, but the process also reveals fresh flaws. Glasnost may allow editors the theoretical freedom to publish whatever they want, but one gets the feeling these editors are simply taking refuge in yet another officially sanctioned niche. No one is quite sure where Soviet literature is going next; no one is quite sure how long the Gorbachev "window" will stay open; no one is going to stick his neck out.
THE RUSSIAN WORD Gorbachev uses to describe his program for restructuring Soviet society is perestroika. But perestroika is also supposed to mean a streamlining of bureaucracy, more emphasis on supplying consumer goods and creature comforts to the people, and a general easing of controls on the way individuals run their lives. But, aside from the new openness, precious little perestroika has taken place in the Soviet literary industry.
For example, the Soviet Union recently passed laws allowing a limited amount of free enterprise. Private businesses, called cooperatives, are springing up everywhere: restaurants, contractors, farmers' markets, garages. I even found a cooperative theatre called Theatre in the Podol (it opened in March, 1987) in Kiev's old Jewish quarter. Vitaly Malakhov, the artistic director, is allowed to choose his own repertoire without overt government influence. Recent productions have included Shakespeare's Richard III (with an anti-Stalinist twist) and The Dive, a contemporary play by Vsevolod Shevchuk, a Ukrainian writer.
But there are no "cooperative" magazines or presses, enterprises that might indicate a truly free and flourishing literary scene. The antiquated Soviet publishing industry, with exactly the same number of magazines today as there were in Stalin's time, is like a snake that has swallowed a very large dog. With all the banned literature now permissible, a new, young generation of writers is finding it difficult to get published. As Bitov said, regarding the 1979 Metropol episode, "That was our attempt to start the first free publication in the Soviet Union. Starting new magazines is not forbidden, but it's not allowed, if you know what I mean. But it has to happen because there is no voice except for my generation or the dead. The dead are very popular in the Soviet Union today."
The official reason the state committee governing publishing (Goscomin) doesn't allow cooperative ventures is that there is already a shortage of paper and printing facilities. Glasnost has fostered a "circulation miracle" among existing official publications, so much so that Goscomin has had to slap on acros-the-board circulation ceilings. Yuri Surovtsev, the Soviet Writers' Union secretary, asks, "How can we start new magazines if we can't supply the existing ones with paper?"
But the real issue is control. Writing in Ogonyok, a magazine that strenuously protested the subscription limits, Andrei Memzer wrote, "Putting limits on subscriptions could easily be perceived as a victory for the so-called forces of stagnation, as a means for rolling back glasnost." Bitov said, "What we fear the most is the printed word, because the printed word is a document that can be presented as evidence."
Pressure for change is coming from the bottom and from the top, both pushing against a grey, Stalinist bureaucracy in the middle. While I was in the U.S.S.R., I heard of two avant garde, unofficial magazines, Mitin, a poetry magazine published in Moscow, and The Trolley Car, a student magazine in Kiev that prints six copies per issue. At the same time, a group of writers' union officials, including its deputy chairman, Afanasy Veselitsky, recently became so frustrated with the archaic state apparatus dealing with international copyrights, the All Union Agency for Writers' Rights (VAAP), that they applied for permission to set up a cooperative company that will act as agent for Soviet writers wishing to publish abroad.
NEAR THE END of my time in the U.S.S.R., I went to a party given by Nadia Scriabin, deputy editor of the Moscow Worker Press, at her shabby (but fashionable and prestigious) Gorky Street apartment, Jack London and Mark Twain shouldering Chekhov and Tolstoy on her bookshelves, the plumbing disembowelled and running continuously like a mountain stream, the bed curtained off in the living room. We ate sturgeon, quail, caviar, and white mushrooms and drank Georgian wine and Starka vodka.
Nadia's friend Vyacheslav Pietsoukh, a short-story writer, wore a World War I Red Army cap, played the guitar, sang Russian folk songs and proposed long, sentimental toasts. Nadia, her eyes sparkling, kept toasting "the beauty of men." Slava Pietsoukh is 42, and with two books out in the Soviet Union, he is a new star on the literary scene. A critic, Lev Olinsky, has written of him that "Chekhov works on external facts with an abyss stretching beneath those symbols. Pietsoukh actually sees the abyss with his own eyes. The extreme foolishness in his works is a form of self-preservation for a human soul in a catastrophic situation."
Pietsoukh embodied much of what I'd come to understand about Soviet Russia. He was messianic, passionate, bitter, generous, funny, and patriotic. He was at once smug about his country's literature and history (his father was a fighter pilot in the Great Patriotic War) and deeply embarrassed by its technological backwardness. "I have a proposition to make to the West," he said. "We're very short of underwear here. We'll send you writers if you send us underwear."
He also felt that strange (to a Canadian) and deeply tragic identification of the Russian writer with his country. "I am a Communist," he said, "but I'm not a member of the Party. The practice of my country does not deal with Communism at all, which is, in fact, nothing more than the idea of establishing God's kingdom on earth. The tortures of the Russian people are just a kind of bail for that redemption. Communist Christianity is the position on which we stand, and should. We'll be the first to give the world the true deliverance Christians have been building for 2,000 years.
"Society is the only happiness, that's what I think. We have suffered torments, but we are the ones who are going to build it. We are a spiritual nation. A lot of things are cemented by love, hope, and belief. I believe in my country, my people and my state, and that's why I write."