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Vol. 7 No. 7 · 18 April 1985

Mysteries of the Russian Mind

Marc Weissman

From the Kiev princes to Politburo rule, from the atrocities of the forced Europeanisation introduced by Peter the Great to Stalin’s Sovietisation, and from the Polish invasion of Moscow in the early 17th century to Moscow’s imposition of martial law on Poland in 1980, the so-called Russian soul has swung between enlightenment and barbarism, humanism and cruelty. Russia’s tragedy is that it finds both the European and the Asian ways of life alien: it has never been able to comprehend them as two different civilisations, but has tended to identify ‘European’ as ‘civilised’ and ‘Asian’ as ‘barbarian’, while wagging from one extreme to another, or trying to combine them in some paradoxical unity. For all I know, this may be one aspect of the ‘mysterious’ Russian soul.

Since the Soviet Union closed its frontiers and put up its Iron Curtain, the behaviour of its citizens has become less and less predictable to Westerners. When the Western mind concludes that it’s Chernenko who is going to be the successor, it’s Andropov; instead of Gorbachev it’s Chernenko; and when it’s really Gorbachev, this appears to be – as the Russian saying goes – the exception that proves the rule. As somebody who was allowed an insight into Soviet life, therefore, I take it to be my duty to unveil one of the ‘mysteries’ of the Russian mind by providing Western readers with a description of the food this mind lives on. In the true Russian spirit I start with a paradoxical comparison between Gothic and Party literature. The principal difference between the two lies in the fact that the one tells you about a past that never existed and the other about a future which will never exist. Both deal with dreams – only, for the first, the dream is an uninhibited flight of fancy, while, for the second, it involves endless variations on the theme of Lenin’s article ‘The Party Organisation and Party Literature’. The spiritual atmosphere of the first originates in Medieval fears which are purely European, whereas the granny of the second is Ghengis Khan. Both terrify imaginative people.

What is surprising, however, is that both are known to the Soviet public – though not equally well, of course. The Soviet period has seen editions of Horace Walpole, Ludwig Tieck, the brothers Brentano, E.T.A. Hoffmann, Charles Maturin, Jacques Casot, Novalis and others in a revised Russian translation. Although the editions were limited and the books were to become bibliographical rarities almost as soon as they left the printing houses, they are still very much sought after. The Collected Speeches of Konstantin Chernenko ran to as many copies as The Godfather: yet it is safe to assume that Walpole’s Castle of Otranto is more widely read than the Collected Speeches. Why? Could it be ... No, we won’t go that far. The very suggestion would automatically be labelled slander by the Soviet press. Anyway, it is to the Western reader that this diary is addressed: the author’s forehead is far too tender to try to break through the Iron Curtain. Some books do that, though, as part of the policy of ‘peaceful co-existence’, or in support of the claim made by the USSR Ministry of Culture that it keeps the Soviet people posted on the pearls of world literature. What gets through, however, classics apart, is not always pearls and not always representative of modern Western literature. This is hardly surprising, considering the criteria of choice employed by the Soviet censorship department, Glavlit. To get through, the book must be politically inoffensive, so far as the Soviet Union is concerned (even if it is basically innocuous but mentions something ‘Soviet’ or ‘Russian’ in passing, as in the case of Norman Mailer’s The Naked and the Dead, these passages are assiduously excised). It must be highly critical of life in ‘capitalist’ society (or must at least leave some slight revulsion about Western ways in the souls of the Russian readers). And it must not be sexually explicit. In general, the Soviet people must be kept away from any kind of dangerous excitement.

But even Glavlit is not all monolith, and is capable of slips, such as letting through to the country’s bookshops four years ago the notorious World according to Garp by John Irving. The result was a letter to Literaturnaya Gazeta by an enraged ‘intellectual’ who had bought the book for his teenage daughter. He intended it to help his daughter in her English studies, but instead found himself bombarded with all sorts of questions concerning those aspects of life he didn’t think his daughter was mature enough to know about. Belated action was taken and the cause of the embarrassment disappeared from the bookshelves.

Closely linked, in fact, with political changes in the Soviet leadership, the choice of ‘permitted’ books can appear merely whimsical. In spite of the efforts of black-marketeers and Samizdat publishers, the population’s reading habits are on the whole determined by what the state offers. The reasons for this are quite obvious: not only disseminating but also possessing, reading and discussing Samizdat publications are offences punishable by the USSR Criminal Code provisions contained under the general heading of ‘Anti-Soviet Activities’. It is understandable that very few Soviet citizens are prepared to expose themselves to the country’s draconian legal system – otherwise the very existence of the Soviet state would be in danger. That is why the image of Russian (and of world) literature as presented in the West is far removed from the one which exists in the minds of the Soviet people themselves.

Educated Westerners often put authors like Solzhenitsyn on a par with Tolstoy and Dostoevsky, thinking of him as a ‘literary colossus out of Russia’, and some of them even wonder what the Soviet rank-and-file think of his literary abilities. A very naive question. For most Russians the mere mention of Solzhenitsyn’s name brings a shudder. His books are almost impossible to obtain, even if one is determined to go ahead and ignore the risks involved. The Soviet reading public knows Solzhenitsyn, not for the value of his works, but mainly from the wanton propaganda campaign whose organisers recently decided they had conferred too much credit on Solzhenitsyn’s personal qualities and started to refer to the ‘CIA operation Solzhenitsyn’. Ironically, one minor propaganda coup was achieved with the involuntary help of Solzhenitsyn himself: his name is phonetically associated with the root of the Russian words lozh and solgat – ‘a lie’ and ‘to tell a lie’.

The propaganda turned Solzhenitsyn into somebody like Orwell’s Bernstein, and the meetings of collective farmers who denounced the works they were unable to read bore a close resemblance to Orwell’s Hate Weeks. However, it is not as easy for the Soviet public to conjure up Orwellian images for comparative purposes as it is for Western readers. The name of Orwell is almost never mentioned in Russia: even among intellectuals. Aptly enough, he has been rendered a ‘non-person’.

Solzhenitsyn and Orwell apart, what kind of books are actually read in the Soviet Union? I trust the reader will forgive me if I have so far led him to believe that the only alternative is Pravda, Gorky, Simonov, and other socialist realists. It is often claimed by the USSR Ministry of Culture’s brochures that in the Soviet Union people read more books than anywhere else in the world. I would not discount this statement, although it has to be taken with a handful of salt. The Western reader has to bear in mind that there are very few other sources of entertainment in the Soviet Union. In the West, the most widely read publications are Sunday-paper colour-supplements and magazines specialising in various leisure activities. The curious mind, seeking to fill its empty spaces, slows down its quest as it relaxes in front of a television soap opera or to the sound of non-stop popular tunes humming on the radio, whereas in the Soviet Union fiction is a form of escape from the boredom of the mass media. A question arises here. Who is the better-off – those who are free to watch Coronation Street and Jaws or those who are compelled to read books by Dostoevsky and Balzac?

Join me on a short trip to the country’s capital. Let me make it very clear from the start, though, that I am not offering you anything more exciting than one of the usual Intourist routes. Let us present ourselves as open-minded, peaceful-co-existence-bound, reliable sources of much-valued hard currency – a real delight for the USSR Foreign Tourism Committee to have over. We shall not go where we are not invited. This explains why the sound of sniggering over recent ‘forbidden’ publications will never reach our ears from the Kremlin canteens; why our roundabout ways will never lead us to the spacious halls of the Central Lenin Library where bearded, bespectacled scholars are busily plastering the cracks in the facade of the most just state on earth. Neither are we going to be shown an ordinary ‘rayon’ library where, in a half-empty hall, some worker is probably making notes on Shepetalo’s Design of the VAZ-2011 Motor-Car’ in a vain bid for tips on improvising makeshift spare parts – those spare parts the shops are short of. Instead, we will do something simple, but not at all obvious: we will go down, sink even lower than the level of Moscow pavements, into a brightly-lit cave of the central Ploschad Revolyutsii metro station. Even before we reach the bottom, we notice some people bent over books standing on the steps of an escalator. Down at the station itself stands a serious-looking girl in thick-rimmed bifocals, leaning against the wall. She is dressed in a fashionable sheepskin coat and holding a book in her hands. We cannot help spotting the name of the author printed on the colourful cover of the paperback: François Mauriac. Overlooking her, in a niche, is the figure, slightly larger than life, of an armed revolutionary sailor carved in black basalt. The sculpture, which is probably there to symbolise the Soviet Army and Navy on guard to protect the peaceful labour and meaningful recreation activities of the Soviet people, is swollen with the pride of its creators and would not bother to look at what book the girl is reading. The sailor’s gaze is aimed well above the people’s heads, at a point somewhere in the misty far reaches of the beautiful Communist tomorrow.

The rattling and squealing of an approaching train stirs the people on the platform. The girl closes the book with her index finger inserted between the pages and gets in. Let’s follow her into the car. It’s not the rush hour yet but we find all the seats occupied. Never mind: it is easier to make our observations from above without attracting anybody’s attention. The girl is luckier than us – she squeezes herself between a stocky gentleman with the appearance of a wrestler-cum-bouncer, and an old babushka whose heavy breathing and pale, flabby cheeks betray a sad combination of asthma and age. Almost everybody reads. It’s a reading car.

The wrestler’s (or bouncer’s) eyes are fixed on a tatty book with an unrecognisable cover – actually, it looks as if some wrestling techniques have been tried on it. Nevertheless, your hidden talent as an archaeologist assists you to make sense of some upturned phrases and to identify them with the pot-boiler Boxing Ring beyond Barbed Wire, which is all about miracles of heroism shown by a Soviet boxer in a Nazi concentration camp. Somewhat disappointed, you look sideways to see what the babushka is reading. Here our persistence is rewarded. It is the magazine Inostrannaya Literatura – ‘Foreign Literature’ – which, along with verses by Vietnamese and Mongolian poets (mysterious enough for Russian readers, even in translation), prints the latest translations of Western novelists, such as Camus, Irving Shaw or Iris Murdoch. My God! She’s reading Updike’s Marry me. What’s this – a desperate attempt to bridge the generation gap? The magazine is extremely popular with younger people, sometimes it even dictates fashions, as was the case with Hermann Hesse’s Steppen wolf, when university students copied the manners of the lonely wolf in order to impress their girlfriends.

At the third stop the girl stands up and heads for the door. This time we shall leave her alone, unless we want the girl interrogated about her possible links with the imperialist world we represent. Anyway, it’s too late. ‘Mind the doors,’ warns a pre-recorded voice after the door has slammed shut.

A moment’s reflection costs you your last chance to get seated. A young pioneer kid in a red tie (just like one we saw on television saluting to the standard Party call, ‘Young pioneers, to the struggle for the progress of the Communist Party cause, be ready!’) promptly makes for the vacated seat. And, of course, he has got a book too – in fact, he shivers with anticipation as he opens it. If you cast a cautious look down, you will see what I just saw: knights and castles, battle of Hastings, somebody asserts that God has forsaken the Normans – wait, it must be Ivanhoe. You have heard his name before, haven’t you? But it may be news to you that in the Soviet Union generations of children have been brought up on Scott’s historical novels. The explanation is at hand: one of the founders of Marxism-Leninism referred to his books as a truthful representation of the class struggle in Medieval Europe. Meanwhile the poems of a second Scotsman, Robert Burns, are better-known in Russia than in his native Scotland – and for reasons that go beyond ideology. Burns’s language, somewhat difficult to understand in the original, has been beautifully rendered into lucid conversational Russian verse by Samuel Marshak.

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