Isaac Deutscher 1954

Ferment of Ideas in Russia: III

Source: The Times, 18 November 1954. Scanned and prepared for the Marxist Internet Archive by Paul Flewers.

The next controversial issue, which may also seem odd to outsiders, ostensibly concerns only the theatre. Even in Stalin’s days the public, the critics, the actors and the producers had already grumbled about ‘the lack of real conflict’ in the contemporary Soviet drama; and this lack has since come to be recognised as the main fault of the contemporary Soviet play. In the Russian theatre the performance of a classical play is usually a sublime artistic festival. But the same theatre is transformed into a pit of boredom the moment a contemporary play is put on the stage. Now the audience has risen to boo and to hiss; and the booing and hissing are echoed by the literary and theatrical periodicals.

Here again a political issue looms in the background. The theatre pays the penalty of monolithic politics. No contemporary conflict can be acted on the stage when no such conflict is permitted or admitted in life. Rather unfairly, the playwright is asked to solve a problem the solution of which lies ultimately in the hands of political leaders. The official view is still that there cannot and does not exist any antagonism between the various classes and groups of this allegedly classless society, between worker and peasant, manager and bureaucrat, party man and non-party man, or between ruler and ruled, and young and old, not to speak of any conflict between the sexes. The monolithic regime has been designed precisely to veil and to suppress existing social antagonisms, and to keep them below the surface of the national mind. Society is not allowed to become aware of the nature of its inner conflicts, to let those conflicts run their course, or to seek consciously a solution to them. Soviet drama has thus been denied its nourishment and life-blood, and not surprisingly, it has been withering from pernicious anaemia.

Positive Heroes: From this point the literary debate has shifted to the problem of the ‘positive hero’ and the villain in current literature. Here again the literary debate touches the very springs of Soviet morale. Whether a literature succeeds in producing a ‘positive hero’ and whether that hero evokes response depends, apart from the writer’s power of artistic presentation, on whether the ideals and virtues embodied in the hero carry conviction with a given environment, and whether they correspond with its mood. Under dictation the literature of the Stalin era tried to portray the ruling group as the paragon of virtue; and so its characters could not be animated by genuine emotion or invested with psychological truth: they had always to move and speak and behave in accordance with the latest party resolution or government decree. As Pomerantsev put it, readers of the Soviet novel ‘have been deafened by the triumphant roar of tractors'; and in this roar were drowned the cries, the groans, the sighs and the rejoicings of the human being. The ‘positive hero’ has been an automaton; driven by a false official optimism; and the present demand for a hero with genuine emotional experience is part of a revulsion against the crudity of that ‘optimism’.

Recently Soviet writers have produced a crop of novels and dramas with villains as their chief characters. As a rule, the villain is only yesterday’s hero turned inside out. More often than not he is a member of the dominant and privileged social groups shown as corrupt, opportunist and cynical. Even official critics have sometimes admitted that the villain appears more alive and psychologically convincing than the ‘positive hero’. Yet there is still no sign of any ‘real conflict’, for the villain finds no worthy antagonist in any positive character. In a few cases the only positive type is a survivor of the Old Guard of the revolution, once the butt of the Stalinist satire, who is now portrayed wistfully as a character of moving if somewhat anachronistic nobility and is poignantly contrasted with the young bureaucrat and careerist.

Two Poets Dismissed: This revelation of the real temper of an important section of writers and artists has caused some alarm in the ruling group. The well-known poets and novelists; Tvardovsky and Panferov, who edited Novii Mir (The New World), a leading monthly which has been the mouthpiece of the literary opposition, have been dismissed from their posts. But the suppression has been half-hearted by Stalinist standards, and so far it has only affected the extreme manifestations of opposition. The debate still goes on between party spokesmen and those writers who have voiced discontent in a more moderate manner.

The cry for ‘real conflict’ and for genuine heroes and villains will not die down soon. It has its origin in an urge felt by the intelligentsia, and far beyond the intelligentsia’s ranks, for a revision and redefinition of the accepted ideals and values. The cry testifies to the restless search of post-Stalin society for its own moral, political and cultural identity. This is a difficult and in part a tragic search which is likely to go on for years. What it does demonstrate is that the society emerging from three decades of Stalinism has little resemblance to that of Orwell’s 1984. Its creative impulses and longings have not been destroyed under the crushing pressure of thought-control. Flattened and cramped, they are nevertheless throbbing and stirring.