Isaac Deutscher 1954
Source: Isaac Deutscher, Heretics and Renegades and Other Essays (Hamish and Hamilton, London, 1955): ‘A shortened version of this essay appeared in The Times in November 1954 and gave rise to a considerable controversy in its correspondence columns.’ Scanned and prepared for the Marxist Internet Archive by Paul Flewers.
The ferment of ideas in Russia which has come to the surface since Stalin’s death continues to develop. For more than a year the Russian intelligentsia have been plunged in a controversy, the like of which they had not known for nearly a quarter of a century. Scientists, men of letters, artists, educationists, all have argued the issues which preoccupy them; and they have sometimes done this with a zest which shows them to be, after all, the descendants of the old Russian revolutionary intelligentsia. Behind the controversy there have been attempts, some audacious and others timid, at a ‘trans-valuation of the values’ inherited from the Stalin era.
It is in this triumph, be it even temporary, of controversy over conformity that Russia’s break with the Stalin era may be seen most clearly at present. This is no more a matter of calculated, mechanical moves made by party bosses, politicians and diplomats, moves of which it may still be said that they point to no significant change in the political framework or the social background of the Soviet Union. When some of the accepted standards of thought and behaviour and some of the sacrosanct axioms of Stalinism are emphatically and even vehemently questioned by scientists, authors, artists and even party spokesmen, when the whole of the Russian intelligentsia are engaged in restless and dangerous heart-searching, it is no longer possible to doubt that the urge for change and reform is strongly at work and only those who know little about Russia’s history can still argue that the intellectual ferment has little or no bearing on Russia’s practical politics.
What could be heard in all the recent debates has been a protest of the Soviet intelligentsia against the mental sterility and mediocrity to which Stalinism had condemned them. Economists have vented their resentment at an orthodoxy under which they were reduced to the role of Stalin’s gramophone records. Biologists have reacted against the humiliation they had suffered at Lysenko’s hands. Physicists have declared that they have had enough of the chauvinistic Great Russian swank, which was en vogue until recently, and of isolation from Western science. Painters and sculptors have revolted against that ‘socialist realism’ which has compelled them to dress, in shoddy style, Stalin and his entourage as demi-gods. Novelists and poets have expressed disgust at the patterns into which thought control had sought to constrict their creative imagination, at the compulsion to produce dramas without real conflict, novels without living people, and lyrical poetry without genuine feeling. ‘We have had enough of your Stalin Prizes and of the fantastic fees and of privileges corrupting us and our minds’, some of them have cried out publicly. The youth of Russia, the students of the Universities of Moscow, Leningrad and Kiev, have rebelled against the hypocrisy and rigid formalism of the Stalin cult. Two generations have joined hands in this movement: old people who have borne the burden of Stalinist orthodoxy in fear and meekness during the greater part of their lives; and the young ones who are straining to throw off that burden at the threshold of adult life. Even in the concentration camps in the Polar regions, if recent ex-inmates are to be believed, the deportees have formed themselves into distinct groups, produced their political programmes and blueprints for the future, and argued among themselves, something they had not done in the course of about twenty years.
The attitude of Stalin’s successors towards these developments is equivocal. Two souls seem to dwell in the breast of the Malenkov government. It was that government itself which initiated the present heart-searching when it buried the Stalin cult together with Stalin, when it ordered party propagandists to launch the attack against the ‘un-Marxist cult of the single leader’, when it intimated to the people that the time had come to do away with the totems and taboos of the Stalin era, when it threw into dramatic relief Stalin’s failures in various fields of policy, and when it thrust open the heavy gates of the Kremlin to the man in the street and to the youth of Russia. The intelligentsia have taken all these gestures and hints as a promise of a new era, an encouragement and a challenge to their thought, courage and dignity. Not for nothing did Ilya Ehrenburg call his new and controversial novel The Thaw.
Stalin’s closest associates and successors were indeed the first to break the ice. But soon they began to wonder in perplexity whither the drifting floes might not carry them. They had done away with the Stalin cult, by which they themselves had been oppressed, with a sigh of relief but also with mental reservations. Malenkov, Khrushchev and Molotov, not to speak of Beria, had owed their positions of power to Stalin. In varying degrees they had all been his accomplices. A frank and a radical disavowal of Stalinism would threaten to bring discredit upon their own heads. They cannot allow the Soviet people to know the full truth about the Stalin era. They cannot drag the corpse of their Master through the mud and at the same time save their own faces. Having at first quietly abandoned the cult, they could not then but seek to salve its wreckage. Having sneaked away from Stalinist orthodoxy, they cannot but try to sneak back to it.
Their dilemma is not, however, determined by these considerations alone. There are in the Stalinist heritage important elements which no communist government could renounce, not even one consisting of men altogether untainted by Stalinism, if such a government were possible. Moreover, no anti-communist government could renounce them either. None could dismantle the planned economy set up under Stalin, or allow the peasants to leave en masse the collective farms and restore smallholdings, without condemning Russia to chaos, misery and famine (as this writer has argued in greater detail in one of his recent books). Stalin’s successors are, of course, explicitly committed to preserve and develop these elements of the Stalinist heritage.
Here is the deeper source of most of their dilemmas. The present social structure of the Soviet Union is already established too firmly to be undone, but not yet firmly enough to function altogether of its own accord, without coercion from above. It no longer needs for its survival all the totalitarian discipline by which it was set up, but it cannot altogether dispense with that discipline. Malenkov’s government has tried to find, by trial and error, a new balance between coercion and persuasion. It has relaxed the Stalinist discipline, but it watches anxiously to see whether the discontents and ferments released thereby are not growing into a menace to both the structure of society and the position of the ruling group. The controversy in the ranks of the intelligentsia and the official reactions to it are symptomatic of this complex situation.
The road back to Stalinist orthodoxy and discipline is barred, because that orthodoxy and discipline belong to an epoch which has come to a close. They fitted an essentially primitive, pre-industrial society engaged in feverish industrialisation and collectivisation. They resulted from the attempt to impose on the Russia of muzhiks an ideal and a way of life for which that Russia was not prepared, either materially or mentally. The primitive magic of Stalinism, the deification of the Leader, and the bizarre and elaborate rituals of Stalinism had all sprung from Russian backwardness and all served to tame that backwardness. Since the vast and swift transformation of the whole social outlook of Russia, undertaken by Stalin, was not based on the will and understanding of the people, its origin had to be traced to the superhuman wisdom and will of the Leader. Opposition was branded as the Devil’s work, especially when it was inspired by the Marxist tradition which was irreconcilable with the cult of the Leader and the primitive magic. Throughout the Stalin era the rulers, the ideologists and the policemen, too, were constantly engaged in turning the modern conceptions of Marxism into the idiom of primitive magic and in translating the do’s and don’t’s of that magic into the vocabulary of Marxism.
After decades of this ideological diet, the Soviet intelligentsia are visibly suffering from moral nausea. This is a very different intelligentsia from that which witnessed Stalin’s ascendancy. Their background is not the inert and helpless Russia of the muzhik but the second industrial power of the world which has reached the threshold of the atomic age almost simultaneously with the United States. To be sure, much of the old primitivism and barbarism remains embedded in Russian life. But while the old intelligentsia suffered acutely from the discrepancy between their own intellectual progress and the nation’s poverty and backwardness, the present generation of the intelligentsia suffers even more acutely from the contrast between the nation’s material progress and the backwardness of its spiritual climate.
This state of affairs concerns Soviet society as a whole, not merely the intelligentsia. The working of the national economy, the functioning of social institutions, and the efficiency of administration are affected by it no less than academic life, literature and the arts. The monolithic thought-control, which Stalinism had used to force through industrialisation and collectivisation and to make Soviet society accept all the attendant miseries, has now become a formidable obstacle to further progress in technology, government and social organisation. Having for decades lived under its own (triumphant!) brand of McCarthyism with its loyalty tests, charges of un-Bolshevik activities, witch-hunts and purges, terroristic suspicion and suspicious terrorism, Soviet society is now driven by self-preservation to try and regain initiative and freedom of decision and action. Too many of its public men, civil servants, scientists, intellectuals and workers have become cowed and intimidated creatures devoid of creative aspiration and ambition. What is surprising under the circumstances is not Russia’s failures but Russia’s achievements in so many fields. It is a fact that not long ago some of Russia’s best aircraft constructors, for instance, designed their best engines in prison cells and places of exile; and their lot was almost symbolical for the condition under which Russia’s creative energies sought to assert themselves under Stalinism.
But a modern industrial nation cannot allow its creative energies to be so constricted, unless it is prepared to pay the penalty of ultimate stagnation. The more a nation is technologically advanced the greater is the danger, because its very existence depends on the freedom of its technologists and administrators to exercise their abilities and judgement. The needs of Russia’s development are now in a much more direct and dramatic conflict with the Stalinist magic than ever before. The aircraft designers must be let out of the prisons, literally and metaphorically, if Russian aircraft design is to meet the demands which the international armament race, to mention only this, makes on it. The biologists have to be allowed freedom of research if farming is to make good its long lag behind the rest of the economy. Industrial managers must be released from the fetters of that Stalinist super-centralism which was still tolerable on a lower and less complex level of industrialisation, when the Politbureau could still have some insight into the affairs of every major industrial concern and settle them by its fiat. Nor can the mass of skilled industrial workers be kept in a condition of semi-serfdom if the efficiency of their labour is to rise. And, last but not least, authors, artists and journalists must be unmuzzled if the moral gulf between the rulers and the ruled is to be bridged or narrowed. This is why Stalin’s successors cannot easily go on enforcing the old discipline, no matter how much they may be afraid of the consequences of relaxation.
The twists and turns of their policy are reflected in the recent fortunes of the Stalin cult. For months after Stalin had died his name was not mentioned publicly. The silence about him could not have been deeper if he had died a hundred years earlier; and its meaning was underlined by the emphatic denunciations of the ‘un-Marxist cult of the single leader’.
But there was something unreal and awkward in that silence. There was in it a sense of tension and embarrassment which came from the fact that the new skeleton in the Soviet cupboard was the omnipresent deity of yesterday. After a lapse of time Stalin began to be mentioned once again, as if casually, by the propagandists. Discreet reminders followed of his merits so quickly forgotten. Then he was stealthily half-restored to the apostolic succession of Marx – Engels – Lenin. Even now, however, the place accorded to him in the historical retrospects, which are constantly drawn and redrawn and retouched, is not more than a modest footnote to the epic story of Lenin, the revolution and the Soviet state. Salvaged from the refuse heap, soiled and defaced, Stalin’s figure has been granted a new but rather meagre allowance of ideological respectability. These posthumous vicissitudes of the Stalin cult, so comic to the outsider, are gravely portentous to the Soviet citizen to whom they indicate how far he is, or is not, allowed to drift away from the old orthodoxy and discipline.
The debunking of Stalinism is now evidently under a ban. But quietly the departure from Stalinism continues in many fields. Where orthodoxy hampers technological progress and economic efficiency, the canons of Stalinism are being jettisoned without much ado. At the same time the reaction against Stalinism is being curbed and discouraged in those fields where it may directly impinge upon the political stability of the regime. But it is not easy to draw a line between social efficiency and political expediency, because often their requirements conflict with one another.
Perhaps the most important reform has just been decreed in education. Not only has the Stalin cult, which has clogged all processes of education, been played down. The educational system is in addition being freed from the grip of authoritarianism, and pedagogy is encouraged to take up again those experimental and more libertarian conceptions which animated the Soviet school in the early years of the Soviet regime. Under Stalin the educational system gave the pupil, apart from technical training and Politgramota ('political literacy’) the habits of unquestioning obedience. The relation of teacher to pupil was one of old-fashioned paternalism, a reflection of Stalin’s own paternalistic attitude towards ‘his’ people. Austere classroom discipline, obligatory uniforms, a multiplicity of severe and highly formal examinations had made the Stalinist school almost undistinguishable, in the manner and style of the teaching, from the school and seminary of the Tsarist era. Coeducation was, of course, frowned upon and eventually forbidden. The ghost of Pobedonostsev, the famous reactionary ideologue, seemed to stalk the schoolrooms and smile with malignant contentment.
Under the new reform coeducation has been rehabilitated and reintroduced. The curriculum has been broadened and made less rigid. The number of examinations is substantially reduced, and school discipline is to be less formal. The paternalistic system is giving place to one in which more emphasis is placed on the formation in the pupil of an independent mind and character. And, after an interval of nearly a quarter of a century, the Soviet school is now resuming the experiment in ‘polytechnical education’, which aims at bringing the classroom close to the industrial workshop and the farm, and at combining brain work with manual labour. When the experiment was tried out in the early years of the Soviet regime it failed in part because ‘polytechnical’ education requires for its success a highly modern industrial background and environment which was still lacking. In addition Stalin viewed the polytechnical school with suspicion and hostility because of its modernistic and anti-authoritarian outlook. Post-Stalin Russia needs an educational system more modern and free than that bequeathed by Stalinism; and even though such a system may become the breeding ground of political ferment, the dictates of efficiency seem to have prevailed in this case over those of political expediency.
Changes are also introduced in ‘inner-party education’, that is in the methods by which the collective mind of the party is shaped. Stalinist techniques of indoctrination are being partly abandoned in favour of a more sober and open-minded propagation of pristine Marxism-Leninism, as Stalin’s successors understand it. To people in the West, inclined to lump together all these isms, the difference may seem too subtle to be of practical political significance. To Soviet citizens, however, the idea of a restoration of original Marxism-Leninism has a peculiar appeal, comparable perhaps to that which the Protestant rediscovery of the Bible once had to Western Europeans surfeited with the scholasticism of medieval theology. During the Stalin era an ‘exaggerated’ devotion to Marx and Lenin tended to mark a party member as a heretic. The Marxist classics were read, as a rule, in pre-digested excerpts and under the guidance of official commentators. During the great purges of the 1930s Stalin even issued a formal ban on the ‘individual’ study of Marx by party members. The reading of Marx’s works was allowed only within the party’s study circles; and attendance at those circles was compulsory for party members. Stalin felt that the individual study of Marxist classics induced in the student an attitude of independent inquiry critical of accepted truths; and he devised rules of party indoctrination which left the member with no time and opportunity for brooding over the texts and drawing his own conclusions. Marx had ‘sown dragons'; and Stalin needed sheep.
Stalin’s successors can hardly wish to raise a new breed of dragons; but they have not much use for the Stalinist sheep either. Compulsory indoctrination through party cells and study circles is abolished – attendance at those circles is henceforth optional. Party members are allowed and encouraged to study Marxist literature and party history in private. An all-round attempt is made to free ‘ideological training’ from canonical rigidity and to impart to it a somewhat more modern and business-like style, although it is extremely difficult to eradicate from the party’s mind (including the mind of its instructors) the ecclesiastical stamp which Stalinism had left on it.
The new outlook has been most remarkable in academic life, especially in those branches of science the teaching of which has the most direct bearing on economic efficiency. Already the appointment last year of G Alexandrov to the post of Minister of Culture augured a new departure. At the height of the Zhdanov period Alexandrov had been dismissed from his post as the chief officer for ideological instruction and he remained eclipsed till the end of the Stalin era. In his History of Philosophy he had allegedly sinned with ‘objectivism’ and ‘kowtowing’ before Western philosophy. In truth, his History was written well within the party tradition, but as an academic textbook it baldly but objectively, without the admixture of much polemical invective, outlined the main trends of classical and modern philosophy. This was an unpardonable offence only a short time ago. Alexandrov’s appointment to the Ministry of Culture foreshadowed therefore encouragement for conscientious academic inquiry, a break with the glorification of all things Russian, and also a sound reappraisal of the achievements of Western science.
The reappraisal has since found its expression in a series of debates on the fundamentals of philosophy and science which are still in progress in all Soviet seats of learning, and in the scholarly periodicals, from where the controversy has overspilled into the national press. Recently, for instance, an eminent Academician, Professor SL Sobolev, surveyed in Pravda the problems of Russian academic life in terms which amounted to a severe indictment of the Stalin era and to a fervent plea for the restoration of intellectual integrity. The glorification of all things Russian and the drive against ‘kowtowing before the West’ had, according to Sobolev, led Soviet academic bodies to ‘ignore the new physics’ developed in the West. Sobolev castigated the obscurantist attitude prevalent until recently towards the work of Einstein, for which Lenin had shown high respect and intense interest, regardless of Einstein’s ‘naivety in matters of pure philosophy’. Ridiculing the attempts to ‘annihilate the theory of relativity’ Sobolev writes:
To us are dear also the names of the scientists of all countries... The most interesting discoveries... are always connected with the renunciation of preconceived ideas and with the audacious breaking of old norms and notions... The clash of opinions and freedom of criticism are the most important prerequisites of scientific progress... The dogmatic attitude, which substitutes fixed propositions for genuine research, is the mortal enemy... Our academic circles are still far from having lived down that attitude... Some trends and works are given testimonials of political loyalty. Others... get the standard labels ‘reactionary’ or ‘idealistic’.
This is only one of the very many voices which could be heard recently pleading for the abandonment of the black-and-white approach and for the revival of the art of fair and dispassionate debate.
In the course of this controversy more problems may well arise than its initiators had intended to pose. When Pravda readers are told that the ‘clash of opinions and the freedom of criticism are the most important prerequisites of the development of science’ they may well reflect whether this applies to social and political sciences as well, and to politics itself. In those fields there has been almost no sign of any ‘clash of opinions’ or freedom of criticism. True, the political outlook, too, is more sober and rational than it was in Stalin’s days, but it continues to be ‘monolithic’. Stalin’s successors are evidently determined to keep politics insulated from the ferment of ideas. They appeal to the party to exercise its ‘collective judgement’, to rely on no single leader, and to revive ‘inner-party democracy’. But, like some of the characters in Tolstoy’s War and Peace, who criticising the Tsar’s policy always instinctively stopped just at the point where they might seem to reflect on the Tsar himself and on autocracy, so the party spokesmen always stop at the point where the logic of their own arguments might lead them to plead for the right of the rank and file to dissent from the policies of the leaders and to seek a change in the party leadership.
The politically-minded citizen finds, however, a sort of a substitute for political controversy in recent literary debates. Something like an explosion of discontent occurred in literary circles soon after Stalin’s death. The distance between literature and politics is, and has always been, extremely short in Russia, where art for art’s sake has never found much response. Russians have always expected their novelists, and poets, and literary critics to act as their social conscience and to produce the political message of their time. Only very few of the great writers have failed to meet that expectation. Pushkin, Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Gorky, not to speak of such writers as Byelinsky or Chernyshevsky, each was something of a political institution in his days. On the other hand, many of the leaders of the revolutionary movements were men of letters. When Trotsky was once asked why Soviet Russia had no literary critic of the calibre of a Byelinsky, he answered that the new Byelinskys sat on the Politbureau and had not enough time for literary pursuits. Stalin expelled the Byelinskys from the Politbureau and from literature; and he exterminated them. But Trotsky’s observation was essentially correct: the Russian man of letters is potentially a political spokesman; and any ferment of ideas in literature affects contagiously the political atmosphere in the country.
Let us now survey briefly the issues which have stood in the centre of the literary debates and consider their significance.
To outsiders it may appear odd that the debates reached the highest pitch of political passion when one literary critic, V Pomerantsev, published an essay saying that the test by which a work of literature must be judged is whether it expresses a sincere emotion or not. To treat sincerity as the criterion of artistic value is hardly a new or a very sophisticated idea. An essay like Pomerantsev’s would scarcely have given rise to a cause célèbre outside Russia. But in Russia this exaltation of sincerity has had the effect of a bombshell. After the terrified hush-hush of so many years, Russia’s political acoustics have become very sensitive, so that now even fairly innocent words may sound like a call to revolt. Implicitly, Pomerantsev has denounced the literary output of the Stalin era as a product of hypocrisy, and this alone would have been enough to set against him multitudes of axe-grinders. He has also tried to substitute the test of sincerity for the accepted tests of ideological reliability and political loyalty. Unwittingly perhaps, he suggested that for a Soviet writer to be loyal meant to be hypocritical, or, at any rate, that disloyalty may be redeemed if there is a sincere emotion behind it. This is how the party leaders have understood him, and how the reading public, too, was bound to understand him.
Pomerantsev has been silenced and denounced, although the denunciation has been couched in terms far less severe than those that were customary in Stalin’s days. The party spokesmen have argued that the need for sincerity is taken for granted but that it is intolerable that the test of sincerity should be set against the tests of truth and devotion to the communist cause. And hosts of propagandists and writers are engaged in a drive against ‘Pomerantsevism’. Nobody who does not wish to forfeit respectability will now come out to defend that old frail lady, sincerity.
But before the drive against Pomerantsev had begun sincerity was by no means defenceless. To her rescue rushed enthusiastically the undergraduates of the Universities of Moscow and the Komsomoltsy. They swamped the desk of the editor of the Komsomolskaya Pravda with letters ardently supporting Pomerantsev’s ‘thesis'; and some of the letters got printed. For weeks the lecture halls of the universities and the clubs and locals of the Komsomol resounded with passionate pleas for Pomerantsev.
This seems to have been the critical point of the story. The Komsomoltsy protested not only against the stereotypes of the Soviet novel, its lifeless heroes, its unconvincing plots and its ‘ideologically correct’ happy endings. By allusion, or perhaps even directly, they also criticised the accepted conventions of political life, conventions equally artificial and equally ‘lacking in sincerity’. They blamed the literary mirror and also the political reality it mirrored. Older people had taken the new promise of a freer era with a dose of incredulity and caution: they had burnt their fingers before. The teenagers, on the contrary, reacted with an ardour and flamboyance by which the party leaders were taken aback. Official spokesmen have, in fact, declared that the last occasion when a similar outburst of youthful rebelliousness was witnessed in Moscow was thirty years ago when – oh, horror! – Moscow’s undergraduates acclaimed Trotsky’s tirades against the ‘degenerate’ party bureaucracy. Unfortunate boys and girls! After the intellectual slump of the Stalin era a Pomerantsev was enough to kindle their enthusiasm! Yet despite its crudity, this adolescent riot will probably be remembered as a blow struck by Russia’s youth at the Byzantine hypocrisy bequeathed by Stalinism.
The next controversial issue, which may also seem odd to outsiders, ostensibly concerns only the theatre. Even in Stalin’s day 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 as if 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 real 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.
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’.
An official spokesman and laureate, Konstantin Simonov, writes in Pravda:
We have often shown our positive heroes in a vacuum. We have laid out with carpets the road on which they were to walk, and with our own hands we have removed from it all obstacles and have evened out all the humps and bumps. Sometimes we have taken the villains by their hands and led them off the broad road on which our positive hero was about to march. Thus we have done away with the genuine difficulties which are encountered in any struggle against evil and backwardness.
The novelistic ‘heroes’ were, of course, modelled on the bureaucratic leaders of the Stalin era who also ‘moved in a vacuum’, making sure that no hurdles and no humps and bumps of opposition were in the way.
Reacting against this, Soviet writers have recently produced a crop of novels and dramas with villains as their chief characters. As was to be expected, the reaction took an extreme and crude form, and it has been all the more revealing for that. 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 group 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. This streak of nostalgia after the early days of the revolution comes sometimes very clearly to the surface. In one of the most hotly debated novels, Seasons of the Year by V Panova, the characters are full-blooded and alive in the early days of the revolution, but become shadowy and fade as soon as they move into the Stalin era. A Pravda critic remarks that the mere transfer from the one era to the other seems to cast a blight on Panova’s every character; and that only the criminal types are an exception: they flourish throughout. Consequently, he says, the moral outlook of Soviet society ‘resembles the landscape of an Arabian desert’.
This revelation of the real temper of an important section of writers and artists has caused alarm in the ruling group. The well-known poets and novelists, Tvardovsky and Panferov, who edited Novyi Mir and Oktyabr, leading monthlies which have been the mouthpieces 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 affected only 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.
A most instructive exchange has taken place between Ilya Ehrenburg and Konstantin Simonov in connection with Ehrenburg’s The Thaw. Ehrenburg’s chief character is a painter, Vladimir Pukhov, who has wasted his artistic personality through the constant adaptation of his gift and craft to prevalent tastes and prejudices. Pukhov is painfully aware of his decline, and in Russian fashion he indulges in restless morbid self-exposure, which does not prevent him, however, from going on with his opportunistic pot-boiling. It is difficult to withstand the impression that Pukhov is a pathetic projection of Ehrenburg himself who was once a novelist of considerable talent. ‘In present circumstances’, Pukhov – Ehrenburg holds, ‘it is nonsensical to speak of the love of art, and it is impossible to engage in genuine art.’ Ehrenburg produces a whole gallery of frustrated and embittered artists, and the situations he depicts are reminiscent of older novels describing the tragedy of the artist in Victorian society. ‘All here are tacking about and dodging and telling lies, some cleverly, others stupidly.’ ‘They do not pay for ideas – if you have any ideas you can only break your neck.’ ‘The injured are not liked by us – we trust only the successful’, these are some of the epigrams of the disillusioned Pukhov – Ehrenburg.
The official critics have not denied the truth of Ehrenburg’s picture as far as it goes. Simonov writes:
It is also true that in our visual arts we have had and still have too much official pomposity... We have seen too many idealised portraits, too many medals, uniforms, gala dresses, and too little thought and human warmth on faces... too little of the life of ordinary people, of their workaday experience, love and friendship.
What Simonov reproaches Ehrenburg with is that he treats Pukhov with too much sympathy, as a victim of Soviet society, not one of its drones; and that by failing to bring to life a single positive character, Ehrenburg has overdrawn the picture in a hue of unrelieved gloom. Finally, Simonov hints that the emotional exaggerations of the literary opposition strengthen only the hands of the defenders of the Stalinist status quo.
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 which is 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.