Monday, December 28, 2009

A Note on Zhivago's Children 
Zhivago's Children by Vladislav Zubok.

I have always been interested in the artistic and intellectual life of the Soviet Union, but most of what you read deals with the brief period of openness at the beginning of the revolution and then the tragic reversal under Stalin. Those stories are almost unbearable, and perhaps that's why I'm drawn to them. Also, the art and literature of that period is really powerful. But what happened after Stalin died, and particularly after Khrushchev's "secret speech," in which he discussed Stalin's crimes? That's what this book deals with.

Because it deals with the intelligentsia as a whole over a long period (basically from 1953 until the 1990s), there is a blizzard of names to contend with. The book is told in more-or-less chronological order, so the same intellectuals pop up at various points of the book. Like Orlando Figes's books The Whisperers and Natasha's Dance, it's hard to keep track of all the characters. Zhivago's Children would have benefited from an appendix that simply listed the main players and what they did. As it is, I have turned down hundred's of pages where I want to dig a little deeper into the work of the personages who are mentioned here.

The book mainly deals with generation that was too young to fight in World War II. They went to university in far greater numbers than any previous generation of Russians, and while they were there, they were learning bowdlerized and corrupt course studies (part of the book deals with the way younger scientists stamped out hackish anti-science like Lysenkoism and the belief that quantum physics was "bourgeois"). But college isn't just a bunch of people sitting in classes learning propaganda. It's a venue for young minds to get together, and that's what happened.

We see their hopes rise in the "Thaw" under Khrushchev, only to be dashed in part because of Khrushchev's personal inability to appreciate art and literature (Stalin, weirdly enough, had much more sophisticated tastes), and ultimately by Khruschev's failure as a leader and his replacement by more Stalinist leaders (although none that followed Khruschev were nearly as murderous as Stalin). The "Thaw" saw the rise of samizdat (self-published magazines). We learn about the "stiliagi" or "style-apers" who loved Jazz and Western fashions. The government were alarmed by the styliagi, who were the first manifestation of dissatisfaction from this new generation. One response was to mock them in Krokodil, the satirical magazine--which, of course, just spread the news! (It's funny how youth fashions so disliked by elders are spread this way, no matter what country. I wonder how many kids got into punk rock after seeing the notorious anti-punk episodes of  CHiPs and Quincy.)

These kids were still operating in an almost totally closed society, but Khrushchev started doing cultural exchanges--which brought a huge increase in contacts with the world. Not just the U.S. and Western Europe (which were certainly important) but also third world countries and perhaps most important, Eastern European countries. Zubok describes a period of cultural exchange that was exciting. Suddenly jazz was OK, and there were exhibits of modern art. It was at one of those exhibits that the "Thaw" started to end--Khrushchev attended an exhibit of abstract painters and didn't understand what he was seeing. He called the artists "faggots" and thought it was a fraud on the Soviet people. The intelligentsia were perplexed--Khrushchev, after all, had just permitted the publication of Solzhenitsyn's searing One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich. But it was a class thing--Solzhenitsyn's book was understandable and featured a peasant protagonist. To Khrushchev, these artists seem like a bunch of spoiled city boys putting on airs.

Those who came forward in the Thaw either made some kind of accommodation with the government, perhaps still with hopes of reforming it from within, or became dissidents. The human rights movement arose after the arrests and convictions of Andrei Siniavsky and Yuli Daniel in 1965. These writers had been publishing stories abroad under pseudonyms--stories that even with the thaw would not have been permitted within the Soviet Union. Supporters of the pair had come to the conclusion that violent revolution was not only impossible, but degrading. (For them, Stalinism is what happens when you win through revolution.) So armed with Soviet law (which guaranteed certain rights, even if they were not actually observed), they started doing public protests. And amazingly, they were sometimes successful. (They got Daniel and Siniavsky's trials made public, even though the two were found guilty.)

But the dissident intellectuals, as heroic as they were, were not able to do much. The government made cynical deals with them. For example, they allowed increases in Jewish emigration in the 1970s. This was, indeed, an improvement in a basic human right, but at the same time allowed the government to siphon off troublesome people, and allowed them to imply that Jews weren't patriotic, weren't "real" Russians. (A theme in the latter half of the book is the rise of the antisemitic Right in Russia.)

What finally had to happen was for a solid insider, Gorbachev, to take power and deliberately attempt a "Prague Spring" for the Soviet Union. The Soviet Union collapsed, and the intelligentsia pretty much died with it. This is a surprisingly little-known earthquake in European intellectual histoty, and this book really does a great service by reminding us what happened. The painful, compromised history of this small and admittedly somewhat priviledged group is powerful reading.

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