John Bayley

  • No, I’m not afraid by Irina Ratushinskaya, translated by David McDuff
    Bloodaxe, 142 pp, £4.95, May 1986, ISBN 0 906427 95 9
  • Shcharansky: Hero of Our Time by Martin Gilbert
    Macmillan, 467 pp, £14.95, April 1986, ISBN 0 333 39504 2
  • The Russian Orthodox Church: A Contemporary History by Jane Ellis
    Croom Helm, 531 pp, £27.50, April 1986, ISBN 0 7099 1567 5

Pushkin, of all people, was not at all opposed to the censorship of his time. ‘Let us have a strict censorship by all means, but not a senseless one,’ he writes to a friend, as if strictness (strogost) were a cosy and reassuring fact of Russian life, as it might be in England village cricket or well-rolled umbrellas. How else explain the perverse logic of the business, on the face of it so unnecessary and counterproductive, even by Marxist standards?

In his bones Pushkin was no doubt aware that his status as a poet depended on the shamanistic independence and authority which Tsarist oppression bestowed on him. The poet was ex officio a rival voice: he hints as much in his thrillingly powerful and melodious poem, ‘The Prophet’, which Dostoevsky towards the end of his life used to declaim to his friends in a mad quavering treble. But the poet’s and artist’s status does not by itself explain the widespread acceptance in Russia of the principle of censorship, nor why it should be so genuinely popular with ordinary people. It is, paradoxically, one of the few institutions in the Soviet state that expresses the will of the majority, and in so doing reminds us of the delicate balance of forces in an open society which enables it to set aside the majority feeling in favour of hanging, anti-homosexual laws, rescinding state payments to hippies. If it comes to that, there would probably still be a majority in this country in favour of the Lord Chamberlain’s rules on the theatre.

There are ways round this in a pluralistic society, but in a monolithic one the bosses have no choice but to bow to majority feeling. In a revolutionary situation these things sort themselves out. At the start anything goes, as it did in Russia in the first heady years of the Twenties. But then the philistine power of the new proletarian bourgeoisie, who have acquired all the benefits of the new system, makes itself felt. How can the proletariat feel comfortable with these antics going on? Why did we make a revolution, comrade, if X and Y can go around saying what they please? The new state must recognise the phenomenon of mass agoraphobia which it has brought into being, and take measures to protect the patients. The bosses have got nothing against X and Y personally – Ratushinskaya and Shcharansky in this case – but getting rid of them will make things normal and comfortable again.

All this has a familiar ring to it, not only a Biblical one. Elitism, so-called, is unpopular in the socialist society, a smear word to be used against artists and dissidents, Jews and intellectuals. (The KGB, like the Militant Tendency, never, of course, constitutes an ‘élite’.) Would Ratushinskaya consider herself an élite person, one marked out with a coal of fire, like Pushkin’s prophet, to preach the word in her poems? Would she, for this very reason, like Pushkin, instinctively approve of censorship? In one of her poems she writes, ‘Let the majority control the laws,’ suggesting, as Tolstoy did, that freedom is to be equated with a special position of helplessness inside the state. Shcharansky is a different matter, a man who has fought all his life for the right of Jews to leave Russia for Israel. This is a more straightforward matter of separate identities and divided allegiance, for not only were many Jews convinced Communists and members of the Party: they shared with Russia all they had themselves put into fighting the Germans in the war. Colonel Lev Ovisishcher, one of Shcharansky’s fellow martyrs, was an ex-pilot and political commissar, who had gone up in a small plane with a megaphone at Stalingrad, to try to urge the Germans to surrender. Martin Gilbert’s account of Shcharansky’s struggle is admirably done, as one would expect of the author of so many spare and scholarly historical inquiries, including a definitive study of the Jewish Holocaust.

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