V Karalasingham 1969

A Sad Day For Soviet Arts

Source: Appendix to R Weerakoon, Alexander Solzhenitsyn: Soldier, Prisoner, Writer (International Publishers, Colombo, May 1972), originally published in Samasamajaya (the Sinhala publication of the Lanka Samasamaja Party), November 1969. Scanned and prepared for the Marxist Internet Archive by Paul Flewers.

The twelfth of November 1969 was a sad day for Soviet arts. On that day the Soviet weekly Literary Gazette, the organ of the Writers Union, announced the expulsion of Alexander Solzhenitsyn, one of the most famous of Soviet novelists, from the Writers Union, ‘in a small item at the bottom of an inside page’, according to the Moscow correspondent of The Times (London) of 13 November.

A week prior to the announcement, the branch of the Writers Union at Ryazan had recommended the expulsion of Alexander Solzhenitsyn, and this meeting was attended by one Franz Taurin, an official of the Federal Union, that is, the headquarters. From this The Times correspondent infers that the move to expel originated in Moscow.

The statement announcing the expulsion declared among other things:

As is well known in recent years the name and works of A Solzhenitsyn have been actively used as propaganda for a campaign of slander against our country. However, A Solzhenitsyn has not only not publicly stated his attitude towards this campaign, but regardless of the criticism of the Soviet public and repeated recommendations of the Soviet Writers Union has, by a number of his actions and statements, in essence promoted the exaggeration of the anti-Soviet sensation surrounding his name.

The name of Solzhenitsyn may not be very well known to many in Ceylon that a short introduction of this writer would not be out of place.

Solzhenitsyn was born in 1918, the son of an office worker and a school-teacher. He was born, the reader will note, after the October Revolution of 1917, and in his early boyhood Trotsky was expelled from the Soviet Union. While he was still at school the great purge of old Bolsheviks took place, and Solzhenitsyn grew up under the Stalin regime. In due course he graduated from the University of Rostov in Mathematics, while at the same time following a correspondence course in literature. At the outbreak of the war, or soon thereafter, he was called up. He served continuously at the front as a gunner and artillery officer, commanded his battery and reached the rank of captain. He was twice decorated in the course of the war. But, early in 1945, while this model citizen of the Soviet Union was still on active service, now with the advancing Red Army in East Prussia, he was arrested and charged with making ‘derogatory’ remarks about Stalin and sentenced to imprisonment. He served his term in the slave camps in the Arctic region and was later transferred to Karaganda in Kazakhstan. He was released after Stalin’s death in 1953, but it was only after another three years that he was allowed to return to Russia from exile. He now settled in Ryazan and taught physics and mathematics in a secondary school.

Soon after there took place the Twentieth Congress of the CPSU, and the period of ‘de-Stalinisation’ opened after Khrushchev’s famous Secret Speech when he bared some of the crimes of Stalin. In the field of literature and the arts a liberal atmosphere now prevailed and Ehrenburg’s The Thaw and Dudnitsev’s Not By Bread Alone were among the works that looked at Stalinism in a critical spirit. It was in this period that Solzhenitsyn wrote his first novel, or rather novelette, One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, which dealt with life in one of Stalin’s innumerable slave-labour camps. Even in the conditions of the ‘liberalism’ of the Khrushchev era, the very theme – concentration camps – was political dynamite. The manuscript was submitted to the Soviet literary journal Novy Mir (New World) whose editor Alexander Tvardovsky was a member of the Central Committee of the CPSU and had a liberal reputation. However, it is reported that only a decision at the highest level finally permitted the appearance of One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich. The November 1962 issue of Novy Mir carried the entire novel and the issue sold out immediately. Its impact was staggering and critics both in the Soviet Union and abroad hailed it as a literary masterpiece. An English translation appeared in 1963 and Western critics soon began to link Solzhenitsyn with the great Russian literary masters, in particular Dostoyevsky. And not only in the West. The popular contemporary Soviet poet Yevtushenko has placed Solzhenitsyn along with Tolstoy. This was followed by two other published works which further enhanced Solzhenitsyn’s reputation within the Soviet Union.

In late 1966, he completed Cancer Ward, which examines Soviet society after the death of Stalin and before the ‘liberalisation’ Congress of 1956 through the life of a group of patients in Ward No 13, the cancer ward of a hospital. The central characters are Pavel Nikolayevich Rusanov, a petty bureaucrat and police informer, and Filimonovich Kostloglotov, a rebel against the bureaucracy and former inmate of a Stalin prison camp, both of whom along with other characters are now patients in Ward No 13.

In 1967 the novel was submitted for publication, but the Soviet censorship for a long time would give no reply – neither a clearance nor a ban. But there were ample indications, not it is true of a return to the terror of Stalinism, but of a tightening of the screws, and a longing for the strong-arm methods of Stalinism in the summit of the Soviet bureaucracy. Persecution of writers once again commenced and at least two, Daniel and Sinayevsky, were sentenced to varying periods of imprisonment, and numerous other writers were denied publication of their works. But the very eminence of Solzhenitsyn as a writer and his recognition within Russia made the job of the censors rather difficult. While they were undecided the Soviet people, the heirs of the revolutionary tradition from Chernyshevsky and Herzen to Lenin and Trotsky, had found their way of overcoming the censorship, and stultifying the reactionary law of censorship which Stalin introduced in his time to protect his police regime.

The Russian word which describes the people’s ingenuity is samizdat, which translated means ‘self-publication’, and a whole literature has sprung up, all the works refused by the censor, all the works too revolutionary even to present to the censor, have been unofficially published in this manner. The publications, it has been estimated, run into several thousands of each book or poem, and these are the copies that Western publishers obtain to bring out their ‘pirated’ editions. The samizdat or self-publication consists in the making of typed copies of manuscripts, and each one who receives a typed copy for reading in his turn makes another set of typed copies which are circulated, and the new recipients in their turn type out further new copies. It is the simple method of the ‘chain letter’ but now carried out on a colossal scale of manuscripts that run into several hundred pages. The people’s determination to overcome the censorship sustains them in this tremendous work. By this means a free press, that is, a press free of the intervention of the censor, on however modest a scale is established, at least as far as literary works are concerned.

Cancer Ward was circulating in this manner even before the censor refused publication. Solzhenitsyn already in 1967 protested and warned Soviet authorities that his manuscript was circulating in unofficial copies and that such circulation would soon reach publishers outside the Soviet Union, who for their own reasons are waiting for such copies, since these are free of author’s royalties and therefore very profitable to capitalist publishers.

In the meantime a number of Soviet authors themselves demanded the publication of Solzhenitsyn’s Cancer Ward and another novel, The First Circle, including the magazine Novy Mir and its editor Alexander Tvardovsky. When the Soviet Writers Congress met in May 1967, Solzhenitsyn defiantly circulated among the delegates a document which called for the end of censorship and demanded of the Soviet Writers Union that it protect the rights, freedoms and lives of Soviet writers. This letter of Solzhenitsyn’s is historic in several respects. Its very circulation at the Soviet Writers Congress in May 1967 – although the congress itself was properly stage-managed – was an act of tremendous courage which only a truly great writer could do. In the next month, that is June 1967, it was powerfully to influence the Czechoslovak Writers Union when it met. It is common knowledge that this session of the Czechoslovak writers in June 1967 marked an important turning point in the struggle which finally overthrew Novotný and introduced the democratisation programme of Dubcek in 1968. And at this congress Solzhenitsyn’s letter was read to the Czechoslovak writers, and we give below Milan Kundera’s recapture of its impact on the old diehard Stalinists. Milan Kundera was the editor of the Czech Writers Union weekly, Literární listy, and a Communist of long standing who was closely identified with the democratisation of 1968. This is what Kundera said in 1968 of Solzhenitsyn’s letter:

When Pavel Kohout [a Czech Communist writer] began to read Solzhenitsyn’s letter in which this great heir of Tolstoy described the tragic lot of Soviet literature under Stalinism and under neo-Stalinist conditions, Jirí Hendrych [the Czech Stalinist Minister of Culture under whom the censors functioned] turned purple in the face, rose from his seat in the first row on the dais, put on his coat over his white shirt adorned with suspenders, and perspiringly left the hall; on his way out, he passed Prochazka, Lustig and me, who were sitting in one of the back rows, and said the following memorable words: ‘You have lost everything, everything.’ (Literární Listy, 1 August 1968, and quoted in Prague’s 200 Days)

There can be no doubt that the Soviet writer Solzhenitsyn’s denunciation of censorship played an important role in the struggle for democratisation in Czechoslovakia. His letter on the subject became the manifesto of the Czech writers in their struggle against Novotný in 1967, and equally when the Soviet Army moved into Czechoslovakia in August 1968 to crush that revolution for socialist democracy Solzhenitsyn has been in the forefront of the agitation among Soviet writers against military intervention. Here is socialist internationalism in life and this is what the Soviet bureaucracy fears, the linking up of genuine revolutionaries among Soviet and other writers from Czechoslovakia, Poland, GDR, Hungary, etc, on a socialist Marxist programme.

Solzhenitsyn is more than a great writer, he is the spearhead and symbol of the struggle against bureaucratism and for socialist democracy in the Soviet Union. He is also the herald of the struggle of all writers in socialist countries for democracy and freedom within the framework of nationalised, socialist property relations. He is an opponent of Stalinism and all neo-Stalinist manifestations, an opponent who bases his opposition on the socialist programme of Marx and Lenin, and that is why the Soviet bureaucracy is mortally frightened of a man who wields not the machine-guns and tanks of Soviet Marshals but a... pen. And the man who wields the pen, in this instance, is a man with an important difference from the others – he is of the highest moral integrity. He is incorruptible and courageous. He has already defied his persecutors to do their worst and has declared he would not abandon the tiniest fraction of his position. It is the combination of his incorruptibility and courage with his literary eminence that has driven the Soviet bureaucracy to expel Solzhenitsyn from the Writers Union. But in the year 1967, before the storm broke, Novotný too expelled the Czech writer Prochazka from the party’s Central Committee. But that did not save Novotný. Neither will the present expulsion save Brezhnev, when events in the Soviet Union march to their inevitable climax. Let us not forget that the Soviet people have an important task before them, viz, to wipe out the shame of their rulers’ military intervention against Czechoslovakia in August 1968. They owe it to themselves, to the Czechoslovak people, to the international proletariat and to the world communist movement. The writers of the Soviet Union are beginning to give expression to that and it will not be long before other sections of Soviet society join them. That is how it all started in Czechoslovakia too!