Proud to Suffer

G.S. Smith

  • The Philosophy Steamer: Lenin and the Exile of the Intelligentsia by Lesley Chamberlain
    Atlantic, 414 pp, £25.00, March 2006, ISBN 1 84354 040 1

‘What is to be done in a country whose genius has gone?’ Lev Loseff asks in his poem ‘June 1972’; Loseff’s close friend Joseph Brodsky had left Leningrad that month. The question brings to mind the title of Chernyshevsky’s 1863 novel, which soon came to codify a central preoccupation of the Russian intelligentsia. But in this instance it also raises the notion that the poet’s departure symbolised a graver loss, to do with the country’s identity.

Many of Loseff’s readers, though, beginning with that vast majority of Russian intellectuals who remained in the country and would never have dreamed of leaving, would indignantly repudiate this idea, preferring even now to think of Brodsky as not much better than a traitor. They may have disagreed with the crude way in which it was articulated, but they would have sided with the official view of his departure: good riddance to bad rubbish. From a more cynical perspective, the removal of a talent such as Brodsky’s made things easier for the lesser lights he left behind. Soviet Russia, among other dubious achievements, led the world in the output of dead men’s shoes: until the mid-1960s, a man might become ‘either a corpse or a colonel’ at a young age. And surely the nation must amount to something more than the sum of the individuals who compose it; a single act of repudiation, no matter by whom it is perpetrated, is a minor matter. Eventually, however, those who share Loseff’s estimation of Brodsky must wonder whether his loss was a symptom of something having gone profoundly wrong in a society that had been quite buoyant in the wake of Stalin’s demise. Or perhaps losses of this kind were not a symptom but a cause of Russia’s sorry state.

Loseff’s question implies that the genius has abandoned the country of its own accord. Deportation abroad was extremely rare; however many thousands of miles away internal exiles were dispatched, they remained very much under Russian control. After the Revolution, people left the country voluntarily in great numbers. In 1917-22 (the ‘first wave’) they left largely for political reasons – most faced death if they stayed; in 1941-45 (the ‘second wave’) they also left mainly for political reasons, and with a similar alternative; from about 1972 to about 1985 (the ‘third wave’) they left for a mixture of ideological and economic reasons; and since 1991 (the ‘fourth wave’) they have left overwhelmingly for economic reasons. The loss of human capital in the first wave is usually considered to have been much greater than it was in the second. The third and fourth waves (Brodsky was a pioneer of the third) represent a brain drain of serious proportions, especially in such fields as medicine, physics and mathematics. The higher education the Soviet Union offered its citizens was probably its greatest achievement; by leaving, the emigrants were biting the hand that fed them.

The ones who left in the first and second waves became stateless and eventually assimilated into their host countries; a few eventually applied to return, usually with unpleasant consequences. Third and fourth-wave emigrants have by and large had a country ready to take them; indeed, in the case of the predominantly Jewish émigrés of the third wave, pressure and the promise of wheat imports from foreign governments were instrumental in securing their departure. (A well-known joke of the 1970s parodied a well-known saying of Lenin’s: ‘What is Communism? Communism is Soviet power plus Canadian wheat.’) The degree to which post-1970 émigrés have continued to identify themselves as Russian varies enormously, but as with their predecessors, assimilation has been the most frequent outcome.

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