It’s almost time to celebrate the centenary of the Russian Revolution, but there are few real celebrants left, in Russia at least. For most Russians, Stalin the nation-builder is part of the usable past, but Lenin cuts less ice, and the Bolshevik Revolution is an outright embarrassment. No doubt it won’t be possible to ignore the centenary altogether, as Putin might like. A few years ago he declared that 1917 remembrance should take the form of ‘deep, objective, professional evaluation’, noting that at the same time the event might be downgraded from a ‘revolution’ to a more pedestrian ‘overturn’ (perevorot). In Ukraine, Poroshenko thinks the occasion should be marked, but only for the ‘grim lesson’ to be learned from it.
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Vol. 38 No. 24 · 15 December 2016
Sheila Fitzpatrick’s memories of Igor Sats and Andrei Platonov reflect, among other things, the state of mind of many young Westerners in the years before 1968 (LRB, 1 December). This was a time of political romanticism, of dreams of revolution, but it was also marked by a great deal of ignorance and by a taboo on discussion of one of the most terrible aspects of Soviet history: the destruction of the peasantry in Ukraine as well as in other southern parts of the Soviet Union, between 1929 and 1933.
I too, as it happens, was ‘adopted’ by Igor Sats, but a little later than Fitzpatrick; I was awarded a French government scholarship to study in Moscow during the year 1970-71. I too regularly visited him in his apartment in the Arbat. Muscovite intellectuals – disillusioned and ashamed after the Red Army’s invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968 – had, by then, lost their last hopes of change for the better. The Sats I knew was a wounded man, full of guilt and remorse, though still able to talk with pride about his years with Lunacharsky.
I was well prepared to hear Sats’s accounts of the 1920s and 1930s, since I had already completed a dissertation on Platonov and his Dantesque novel The Foundation Pit, the Russian text of which had just been published in the West. Together we read through it, page by page. He explained the social and political context, speaking openly about the scenes of violence and veiled cruelty that Platonov evokes so precisely. He sighed deeply as he recounted moments from his own past as a young ‘activist’ who had played his part in the brutalities of forced collectivisation. ‘When I think about the things I did then …’ he said as we read the scene when Platonov’s activist deports – or ‘liquidates’ – the villagers by putting them all on a raft and sending them off downriver.
Sats was an excellent secretary, a gifted autodidact and an important witness to his time. But Fitzpatrick’s memories of him are tinted with nostalgia; my own image is of a more dramatic figure, a man who, like so many of his contemporaries, was led astray by a mixture of generosity and revolutionary enthusiasm to the point of becoming complicit in terrible crimes. Platonov – more than any other writer – found the words to embody this ambivalence.
During my time in Moscow I also became acquainted with people who had known Platonov’s close friend Vasily Grossman, who in 1942 arranged Platonov’s appointment as a war correspondent for Red Star, thus rescuing him from poverty and disgrace.
University of Paris 8
Vol. 39 No. 2 · 19 January 2017
Annie Epelboin writes with her own memories of Igor Sats (Letters, 15 December 2016). Of course people show different sides of themselves in different contexts. But in this case, there is an obvious explanation, not related to the revolutionary romanticism she (wrongly) attributes to me. As long as Sats was working with Alexander Tvardovsky at the journal Novy Mir, they were engaged in a struggle to make the Soviet Union a better place, closer to what they saw as the original Bolshevik spirit. That involved maintaining, perhaps to some extent also cultivating, the revolutionary romanticism of their youth. But all that changed when Tvardovsky and Sats were dismissed from Novy Mir in 1970. Igor was 67 when that happened, and he perceived it as the end not only of his hopes for the Soviet Union but also of his own ability to do something useful in the world. A photograph he sent me after the dismissal (reproduced in my memoir A Spy in the Archives) shows him totally despondent, and in the years that followed his mood only grew darker. This had an aspect of political disillusionment but also of consciousness of approaching death, about which, to me at least, he spoke equally often. Evidently Epelboin met him at this time too. But I was writing about him as he was in 1967, the year of our meeting and in the first months of intensive, almost daily conversations.
I once asked Sats why he stayed in the party, given his attitude to it in its current form. His answer was that this was the hand fate had dealt him – just the one party and the one country (odna partiia, odna strana). In other words, it was no longer a choice and he couldn’t rewrite his life. I think he kept that attitude to the end. But when I first knew him, there was pride in it, as well as a certain ruefulness. By the end, it was mainly sadness.
A brief correction to my contributor’s note for the original piece (LRB, 1 December 2016): it was based on a paper written for a conference, ‘Utopie und Gewalt’, held in Berlin on 1-2 December 2016. A longer version was published in German in Osteuropa 8-10 (2016).