Cultivating Their Dachas

Sheila Fitzpatrick

  • Zhivago’s Children: The Last Russian Intelligentsia by Vladislav Zubok
    Harvard, 453 pp, £25.95, May 2009, ISBN 978 0 674 03344 3

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.

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[*] Reviewed by Sheila Fitzpatrick in the LRB of 17 March 2005.