Zhivago’s Children: The Last Russian Intelligentsia 
by Vladislav Zubok.
Harvard, 453 pp., £25.95, May 2009, 978 0 674 03344 3
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History has its moments of euphoria when people embrace in the streets out of sheer love for their neighbours, police horses are garlanded with flowers, and everyone understands that the old lies and repression are gone for ever. I’m not sure that these moments occur in Britain. Certainly they didn’t in the Australia where I grew up in the 1950s, and as a result I’m always bemused when I hear them spoken about: do such things really happen in the world beyond? I’ll never know because I always missed the moment. Khrushchev’s Thaw was over by the time I got to the Soviet Union, leaving only the post-euphoria hangover. I could have been in Paris in the summer of 1968 but stayed in Oxford instead, writing my thesis. Then I went to America, but it was already the early 1970s, and people were turning 30 and taking the flowers out of their hair.

Vladislav Zubok had a similar problem. Coming to maturity in the Soviet Union in the late 1960s, he was in time for the collapse and disillusionment that followed the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968 but not for the heady excitement that had preceded it, when reform-minded Soviet intellectuals looked forward to a Moscow Spring to match the Prague one. That cohort of Soviet intellectuals – ‘Zhivago’s children’, as he calls them – were his parents’ generation, not his; and this book, which he describes as ‘not just a scholarly project’, is his affectionate, often nostalgic tribute to them. It helps to know this – though the information is hidden in the acknowledgments at the very end of the book – because it not only explains who he is actually talking about but also accounts for an otherwise puzzling instability of tone between empathy and detachment.

The milieu of Zubok’s parents was the Soviet intelligentsia, not its celebrity wing but even so the intelligentsia of Moscow and Leningrad rather than the provinces: ‘television engineers … employees in the military-industrial complex … musicians, artists … art historians’. These were people who had been students in the immediate postwar period, had hoped for much from the Thaw and de-Stalinisation in the 1950s, believed in socialism with a human face in the 1960s, read the reform-minded journal Novy Mir, had a passionate respect for high culture, and listened to the songs of the balladeers Bulat Okudzhava and Vladimir Vysotsky on their tape recorders. It’s not a cohort defined by age because the postwar students included World War Two veterans born in the 1920s as well as school-leavers born in the 1930s. Nor is it a social group whose exact location and definition a sociologist could map. The subject of Zubok’s book is a group of people with a shared worldview, shared assumptions and experience, a group more or less synonymous for practical purposes with the Soviet intelligentsia of Moscow and Leningrad in the 1950s and 1960s.

The remarkable thing about this group as Zubok presents it is that its members were socialists and Soviet patriots who were at the same time spirited, romantic, optimistic, inclined to non-standard thinking and confident about the future and the possibility of change within a Soviet context. Readers used to a division of the Soviet intelligentsia into ‘party hacks’, who mouthed Soviet slogans but didn’t believe in them, and ‘dissidents’, the heroic challengers of the system who rejected socialism and Soviet values, may find the combination surprising. But both the socialist commitment and the belief in reform were crucial to the collective identity of Zubok’s people. When they lost the first and were disappointed in the second after 1968, the whole imagined community collapsed.

‘Zhivago’s children’, Zubok’s coinage, is something of a misnomer for a group of optimistic reform-minded socialists who were proud of their country and considered themselves children of the Revolution. Neither Pasternak nor Zhivago was a socialist, an optimist or a Soviet patriot. What they shared with Zubok’s group was a devotion to high culture and consciousness of descent from the Russian intelligentsia of the 19th century.

In the novel, Dr Zhivago is emblematic of the old Russian intelligentsia; in the imagination of many Soviet intellectuals of the 1950s and 1960s, Pasternak himself served this function. Along with Akhmatova, Nadezhda Mandelshtam and the medievalist Dmitry Likhachev, Pasternak was a survivor of the pre-Revolutionary intelligentsia who, after a period of eclipse and disgrace, was rediscovered by a younger generation in the mid-1950s. Some lucky or well-connected young intellectuals were able to visit these figures semi-surreptitiously at their dachas, listen to their poems and stories of the past, and get a whiff of a vanished world of high culture and aristocratic manners. But those who, like Josef Brodsky, took this spiritual reconnection deeply to heart were exactly those who were unlikely to retain socialist beliefs or Soviet patriotism, thus marginalising themselves in the group whose story Zubok wants to tell.

It would have made more sense for Zubok to have called his group ‘Lenin’s children’, or perhaps, in deference to the first Bolshevik Commissar of Enlightenment, Lunacharsky’s. For it wasn’t from Pasternak and Akhmatova that Zubok’s people picked up those values of the pre-Revolutionary intelligentsia that are particularly relevant to his story – namely, optimism, revolutionary idealism and political engagement. As Zubok acknowledges, their Soviet schooling propagated ‘ideals of self-cultivation and self-improvement, and the pervasive cult of high culture … once intrinsic to the ethos of the Russian intelligentsia’; as a result, it produced young people ‘with intellectual curiosity, artistic yearnings and a passion for high culture’ who ‘identified not only with the Soviet collectivity but also with humanist individualism’. Zubok calls this result ‘unintended’, presumably because he wants to distance himself from any suspicion of Soviet nostalgia. In fact, it’s one of the paradoxes of Soviet history that it was exactly the result that cultural leaders like Lunacharsky and Gorky, Stalin’s chief theorist of culture, intended, however bizarrely those intentions may have coexisted with the terrorist practices of the Stalin period.

Whether they were Zhivago’s children or Lunacharsky’s, this idealistic group had an extraordinary capacity for repeated ‘moments of madness’, when the bright future for which they had longed seemed just round the corner. Over the quarter-century from the end of the Second World War to 1968 through which Zubok follows them, tears of happiness were shed on numerous occasions when it ‘seemed that we would start breathing freely with one more push’, that the time had finally arrived when ‘people would begin to speak and think freely, and not a single scoundrel would be able to indict them for anti-Soviet speeches.’ But tears of disappointment were equally frequent, when ‘hopes … lay shattered,’ when there were ‘no more illusions and dreams of a better future’. These moments were each time attended by shock that the ‘philistines’, so recently routed, were once again in the ascendant.

Such idealism and naivety are often attributed to the Khrushchev period, when de-Stalinisation and the Thaw fired the enthusiasm of the young, when Sputnik and Gagarin’s space flight made Soviet citizens proud of the country’s scientific achievements, and Khrushchev promised that Communism would be achieved within 20 years. But Zubok departs from the standard story in dating the beginning of the time of hope to the late Stalin period, specifically the immediate postwar years in the universities of Moscow and Leningrad, when veterans mingled with students straight from school in an atmosphere of optimism and energy generated by their survival of a terrible war and pride in the Soviet victory. ‘We not only thought, we firmly knew, that our country was the vanguard force of mankind,’ in the words of one of them. Among the cohort, thirsting after knowledge and high culture, were poets like David Samoilov and Boris Slutsky, future ‘enlightened bureaucrats’ like Anatoly Cherniaev, and a young Communist with a bright future, Mikhail Gorbachev, and his future wife, Raisa, both students at Moscow State University in the first half of the 1950s.

Most accounts of the late Stalin period foreground the ‘anti-cosmopolitan’ campaign (both xenophobic and anti-semitic) and the disciplining of the cultural intelligentsia known, after its point man, the Politburo member Andrei Zhdanov, as the zhdanovshchina, but these events are peripheral to Zubok’s story, since they seem to have left Zhivago’s children – including the many Jews among them – strangely untouched. Zubok even notes that the zhdanovshchina had the positive side effect of giving the young ‘a great appetite for forbidden cultural and intellectual fruits’. At a time when any sort of meeting in public remained constricted, young people of the postwar cohort developed the habit of gathering informally in private apartments to talk and listen to music and readings of unpublished work. Since dozens of people often attended, this was possible only because some of the students were from elite, politically connected families with large, luxurious apartments.

Stalin’s death in 1953 brings us into the more familiar territory of the Thaw, the rollercoaster years of hopes and disappointments for the intelligentsia. Highlights of the period included Khrushchev’s Secret Speech on Stalin’s crimes at the 20th Party Congress in 1956, the Moscow Youth Festival in 1957 and the publication of Solzhenitsyn’s One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich in 1962, or, before that, Vladimir Dudintsev’s Not by Bread Alone (1956) and Yevgeny Yevtushenko’s Babii Yar (1961). There were setbacks, too, including the scandal over the publication of Dr Zhivago in Italy in 1957 and the attacks on Pasternak that followed. But in general the atmosphere among the intelligentsia continued to be buoyant and Zhivago’s children remained socialists and Soviet patriots, ‘reborn Leninists’ who felt that the 20th Party Congress had given ‘new life to the Communist experiment, by cleansing it of Stalinist anti-semitism and chauvinism’. Novy Mir, which is estimated to have reached between three and five million readers each month, though its subscription list was restricted by the Central Committee to 1.2 million, published a series of controversial novels and stories while also extending its discussion of history and current affairs, all in the name of socialism as well as sincerity and truth. The newspaper Izvestia, edited from 1959 by Alexei Adzhubei, Khrushchev’s son-in-law, who was 35 when he got the job, pioneered a new style of ‘honest’ and lively journalism.

The story of the Thaw often ends in 1964, the year of Khrushchev’s fall from power, or even earlier, but Zubok’s perspective is broader. He is interested not just in the poets and novelists among Zhivago’s children, or those eagerly read by them, but also in the natural and social scientists in the cohort and in the ‘enlightened bureaucrats’ who, back in the postwar years, had been their fellow students. It’s unusual for a historian of Soviet culture to use this term (introduced into Russian history by the late Bruce Lincoln to describe the ministerial officials who in the 1840s, despite the conservatism of Tsar Nicholas I, managed to draft most of the great reforms implemented in the 1860s by his successor, Alexander II). Not only that, Zubok’s practice is also at odds with the Russian intelligentsia’s long tradition of categorically excluding ‘bureaucrats’ – that is, anyone holding an official state or Party office – from its ranks. But as scholarship on the postwar period develops, it is becoming increasingly clear that bureaucrats were no less likely than poets to be reform-minded (and a lot more likely to get their reforms implemented).

The early Brezhnev period was a highpoint of the kind of reform in which experts – economists, sociologists, demographers, cyberneticists – from Soviet ‘think-tanks’ collaborated with officials in the Central Committee and the ministries. The (unsuccessful) 1965 economic reform sponsored by Kosygin is a case in point, but there was such a buzz of activity across the social sciences that one sociologist later called it the zenith of ‘the officially recognised role of the intellectuals’ in Soviet society and policy-making. In the mid-1960s Zhivago’s children – including these reform-minded social scientists – were still collectivists, despising the ethos of capitalism in the West as well as the ‘materialism’ of much of the Soviet elite: they aspired to a purer as well as a more scientific socialism. Even the newly emerging ‘dissidents’ (human rights activists who had no access to the Soviet corridors of power) still shared these assumptions: as Zubok points out, the rights they advocated didn’t include the rights of private property.

Yet the collapse of these hopes was just round the corner. It came with the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in August 1968, which put an end to the liberalisation of the Prague Spring and was the beginning of ‘the long decline of Zhivago’s children and the death throes of their dreams’. For Zubok, socialist idealism was the group’s sine qua non: without it, ‘in the absence of that dream, the very idea of an intelligentsia in Russia began to seem like the figment of a naive imagination.’ Intellectuals in Moscow and Leningrad had welcomed the idea of socialism with a human face and hoped it would travel from Czechoslovakia to the Soviet Union. Extensive personal and intellectual contacts between East European and Russian reform-minded intellectuals made the invasion particularly bitter, yet as at every other moment of disappointment over the preceding ten years, the intellectuals caved in, with only a minority even signing letters of protest. They yielded to ‘the brutal force of the authoritarian state’, in Zubok’s formulation; but his account shows how little actual force was needed to bring Zhivago’s children into line. For all his sympathy with the group, Zubok has to admit that they ‘rarely lived up to the ethos and ideals of the old Russian intelligentsia’, regularly falling back into the bad habits of ‘conformism, cowardice, mutual denunciations, cynicism and hypocrisy’.

Given the regularity of the euphoria/ disappointment cycle, Zhivago’s children might reasonably have hoped that 1968 would turn out to be just a stop along the way rather than the terminus. It turned out otherwise, however; and the main factors Zubok pinpoints in one of the most interesting chapters of his book were the rise of a Western-oriented dissident movement, the growth of Russian national sentiment within the educated elite, and, above all, the Jewish emigration of the 1970s.

The dissidents were the small minority of Zhivago’s children who kept up their criticism of regime policies after 1968, but from the position of outsiders rather than, as before, quasi-insiders. Socialism quickly disappeared from their platform. Finding themselves shunned by the majority of the intelligentsia, they made little effort to win its support, let alone that of the broader population, and addressed their message almost entirely to the West. The close association with Moscow-based foreign correspondents that ensued was interpreted by the KGB, as well as by many ordinary Russians, as treachery and collaboration with the Cold War enemy. In terms of Russian public opinion, it didn’t help that many of the dissidents were Jewish, often very critical of the Russian national character (such comments as ‘slavery is in the Russian genes’ were often heard in dissident circles), or that the rights of non-Russian national groups mistreated by the Soviet (or Russian-imperialist) regime were one of their favourite political causes.

The counter-development of the 1970s, the growth of Russian nationalism, enjoyed considerable support at all levels of Soviet society up to the Politburo. Nationalism came in various forms, from a fascination among writers with the old Russian village to an anti-semitism fuelled by the possibility of Jewish emigration that opened up in the early 1970s, resulting in the departure of 200,000 Jews, including many members of the intelligentsia, in the course of the decade. From the Western point of view (expressed most vehemently in the US), the Jews were a persecuted people in the Soviet Union who should be rescued from their misery. In Soviet popular opinion, they were a privileged group (Zubok runs through the indices of Jewish over-representation in elite occupations) who were now being given yet another privilege for which nobody else was eligible: the right to emigrate. The emigrants themselves often cited fear of pogroms as their reason for leaving, but Zubok is sceptical: he thinks they were mainly worried about the educational and professional prospects of their children in the Soviet Union, as well as being disappointed with the prospects of socialist reform: ‘Soviet Russia had seemed like the “Promised Land” to their grandparents and parents during the 1920s,’ but now it ‘had become a ruined utopia for them and their children. Why tolerate an uncertain future in which they and their children might be scapegoated for Soviet misrule by the growing number of Russian anti-semitic nationalists?’

With the end of the socialist dream, in Zubok’s presentation, most of Zhivago’s children simply gave up being interested in politics, deciding to cultivate their dacha gardens and enjoy their opportunities for foreign travel. In the place of socialism, new interests developed: Russian Orthodoxy and Zionism (sometimes pursued simultaneously by assimilated Jews); Zen Buddhism. People focused more on their private lives, drawing a sharper line between the public and private spheres. They became more materialistic and developed a new vocabulary of cynicism. The age of enthusiasm was over.

There was, however, an unexpected postscript: the Gorbachev era of socialist reform at the end of the 1980s. In Zubok’s definition, Mikhail and Raisa Gorbachev remained Zhivago’s children, their socialist idealism untouched because of their two decades on ice in the provinces. When they returned to Moscow in 1978 on Mikhail’s appointment to the Politburo, they re-established their old connections with social scientists and ‘enlightened bureaucrats’. Critics and supporters alike saw parallels between Gorbachev’s glasnost and the Prague Spring 20 years earlier. But perestroika came too late, in Zubok’s view: the civic-minded intelligentsia Gorbachev had counted on as a mainstay was no longer there to be mobilised in support of socialist reform.

In assessing the significance of Zhivago’s Children as an interpretation of Soviet cultural history, it is important to bear in mind that the cohort of Zhivago’s children is Zubok’s construction, and clearly reflects the particular experiences of his parents and their friends. He has generalised these experiences to cover the whole Russian intelligentsia (however that slippery term is defined), but other trajectories and experiences were undoubtedly possible. The late Stalin period was a time of hope for some, but not for those who fell victim to the anti-semitism of the period. The early Brezhnev period may have been exciting for well-connected reform-minded sociologists and economists, but it was miserable for Tvardovsky’s Novy Mir. Many more such instances could be listed, though the point of an analysis like Zubok’s is not that the experiences he describes are fully representative but that that they are grounded in individual experience and, most important, illuminate broader questions. If we accept that Zubok meets these criteria, what are the areas he most illuminates?

The first surprise is that for at least a quarter of a century the Soviet regime had an asset that is generally overlooked: a supportive and patriotic intelligentsia, a cultural elite enthusiastically committed to socialism. In other words, the Soviet regime appeared to have solved one of the major challenges that confronted it after the October Revolution: how to co-opt the intelligentsia as a partner, to make it a subordinate but supportive participant. Of course, the problem was not solved for ever, but even the 25 years Zubok claims the solution lasted is a pretty impressive achievement. Indeed, there would be an argument both for back-dating it to the mid-1930s (this is just an empty space in Zubok’s analysis, presumably because his parents had not yet arrived on the scene) and post-dating it into the 1980s, making the duration of the partnership closer to half a century.

How could this have happened? Zubok does not address this question, presumably because it is a given for him – a matter of simple observation – that his parents’ generation were socialist idealists and patriots. But there is surely a clue in his emphasis on the Jewishness of many of Zhivago’s children, the importance of which becomes visible when the cohort disintegrates in the wake of the Jewish emigration of the 1970s. This Jewish theme, building on and expanding the insights of Yuri Slezkine’s The Jewish Century, is the second major area his account illuminates.* Many Jewish Communist intellectuals were just one generation out of the Pale: theirs was one of the two great upward mobility stories associated with the Revolution. No wonder Jews of this generation tended to be socialists and Soviet patriots.

The other great upward mobility story – unmentioned by Zubok – was that of workers and peasants (mainly Russian and Ukrainian by nationality) who, partly as a result of Soviet affirmative action policies in higher education in the 1920s and 1930s, made it into the elite and became first-generation administrators and professionals: Khrushchev and Brezhnev were both products of this process, as basically was the peasant’s son Gorbachev, though he was too young to have been a formal beneficiary of affirmative action. These two sets of arrivistes, Jews and lower-class Russians, were the core of the new Soviet intelligentsia, and, unlike the old Russian intelligentsia, they thought of the Soviet regime as ‘ours’ rather than ‘theirs’. In addition to their socialist commitments, both groups had a great respect for high culture and a desire to acquire it: they were Zhivago’s children in this sense, accepting as they did the surviving members of the old intelligentsia as their teachers.

The third main achievement of Zubok’s analysis is its abolition of the hard and fast dividing line – beloved of many Russian intellectuals, especially in post-Soviet retrospect – between ‘intelligentsia’ and ‘bureaucrats’, since Zhivago’s children are both, and Gorbachev is one of them, which means that we finally have a back story for perestroika that makes sense. In the usual telling, Russian history has a long line of ‘Tsar reformers’, starting with Peter the Great and ending with Gorbachev, who got it into their heads that Russia ought to be changed and made the nobles go along with the idea. The reforming impulse is seen as Westernising, alien. But Gorbachev was a Westerniser only to a limited extent, even if, as Mrs Thatcher noted, Westerners could do business with him. His real context was socialist reform, as understood by Soviet and East European intellectuals in the 1950s and 1960s, the time of his political and intellectual formation.

In the end those same intellectuals failed him, and Zubok has some harsh words to say about their impracticality, lack of vision, disloyalty, and the ‘elitist and overweening’ attitudes that led them to claim ‘supreme authority over public morality and political matters’ during perestroika. The intelligentsia turned out to be venal, seduced by (often illusory) prospects of individual betterment under post-socialism. They failed to appreciate the value of state support for culture and science and overestimated their own value on a free market. One of the big miscalculations of the intellectual elites at the end of the Soviet period was that a move towards capitalism would bring new and even better support, that ‘the West out of gratitude would provide a new Marshall Plan for them.’ It was a moral miscalculation, in Zubok’s view, as well as an economic and financial one: they should have stayed true to the old Russian intelligentsia’s commitment to ‘serving the people’. (This last phrase is unexpected: Zhivago’s children, in Zubok’s account, may have been socialists, but they were also firmly embedded in a privileged elite that seems to have had as little to do with ‘the people’ as possible.) In any case, Zubok’s conclusion is that they got their comeuppance: when they abandoned Gorbachev and perestroika, they ‘sawed off the bough on which they were all sitting’; the end of socialism in the Soviet Union turned out also to mark the ‘death of the Russian intelligentsia’.

In Zubok’s telling, it is a sad story, almost a tragedy. Yet I sometimes found it hard to repress the thought that Zhivago’s children not only enjoyed a nice life compared to the rest of the Soviet population but also had a lot of fun along the way. All those moments of boundless hope and tears of happiness! And even after the iron entered their souls after 1968, the joys of foreign travel were available as a recompense for lost idealism, all the sweeter because so long denied. One of the characteristics of Zhivago’s children that Zubok fails to stress was their remarkable capacity for what Bourdieu called ‘misrecognition’, making them not only blind to their privileged position in society but also able to construe it in terms of virtue and moral leadership. Not least among the advantages Zhivago’s children possessed was the ability to have their cake and eat it too.

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