The Dream of a Strange Man
I am strange. They call me a madman now. It would be a promotion
for me did I not appear as strange to them as ever. But I no longer
mind -- they are all dear to me now, even when they are laughing at me
-- indeed, something endears them to me particularly then. I would
laugh with them -- not at myself, that is, but because I love them -- I
would laugh if I did not feel so sad watching them. What saddens me is
that they do not know the Truth, and I do. Oh, how hard it is to be the
only one to know the Truth! But they will not understand this. No,
they will not.
It used to hurt me very much that I seemed strange. I did not seem
it, I was. I have always been strange and I think I've known it since
the day I was born. I believe I realised it when I was seven, I went to
school and then to the university, but what of it? The more I studied
the more I came to realise that I was strange. And so, as far as I was
concerned, the ultimate meaning of science was to prove and explain to
me, the more I probed it, that I was indeed strange. Life taught me the
same thing. With every year my awareness of how strange I was in every
respect grew and developed. I was laughed at by everyone and all the
time. But none of them knew or guessed that of all the people in the
world I knew best how strange I was, and it was the fact that they did
not know this that hurt me most of all, but the fault was entirely mine:
I was always so proud that I could never admit this knowledge to anyone.
My pride swelled in me with the years, and had I allowed myself to admit
to anyone that I was strange, I believe I would have blown my brains out
that same night. Oh, the torment I went through in my adolescence for
fear that I would weaken and make the admission to my friends! As I
grew to manhood I learned more and more of this awful shortcoming of
mine with every year, but in spite of this I took it a little more
calmly for some reason. I repeat -- for some reason, because to this
day I fail to give it a clear definition. Perhaps it was because of
that hopeless sadness that was mounting in my soul about something that
was infinitely greater than myself: this something was a mounting
conviction that _nothing_mattered_. I had begun to suspect this long
ago, but positive conviction came to me all at once, one day last year.
I suddenly knew that _I_would_not_have_cared_ if the world existed at
all or if there was nothing anywhere. I began to know and feel with all
my being that _there_has_been_nothing_ since I have been there. At
first I kept thinking that there must have been a great deal before, but
then I realised that there had not been anything before either, and that
it only seemed so for some reason. Gradually, I became convinced that
there would never be anything at all. It was then I suddenly ceased
minding people and no longer noticed them at all. It was quite true,
even in the merest trifles: for instance, I would walk into people as I
went along the street. Not that I was lost in thought either, for what
was there to think about, I had given up thinking altogether then: I did
not care. Neither did I solve any problems; no, not a single one, and
yet there was a host of them. But I did not care now, and all the
problems receded into the background.
And it was much later that I learned the Truth. It was in November,
the 3rd of November to be exact, that I learned the Truth, and since
then I remember every moment of my life. It happened on a gloomy night,
the gloomiest night that could ever be. I was walking home, the time
being after ten, and I remember thinking that no hour could be gloomier.
It was so even physically. It had been raining all day, and it was the
coldest and gloomiest rain, even an ominous rain, I remember, obviously
hostile to people, and suddenly after ten it stopped and a horrible
dampness set in, which was colder and damper than during the rain, and
steam rose from everything, from every cobble-stone, from every alleyway
if you peered into its deepest and darkest recesses. I suddenly fancied
that if all the gas-lights were to go out it would be more cheerful, for
gas-light, showing up all this, made one feel even sadder. I had hardly
eaten anything that day, and since late afternoon I had been at an
engineer's I knew, with two other friends of his. I said nothing all
evening and I believe I bored them. They were discussing something
exciting and actually lost their tempers over it. They did not care, I
could see, but lost their tempers just like that. I went and blurted it
out to them: "Gentlemen," I said, "you don't really care, you know."
They took no offence, they just laughed at me. That was because there
was no sting in my remark, I simply made it because I did not care.
They saw that I did not care and it made them laugh.
When, walking home, I thought of the gas-light, I glanced up at the
sky. The sky was terribly dark, but I could clearly make out the ragged
clouds and the fathomless black pits between them. Suddenly I noticed a
tiny star twinkling in one of those pits and I stopped to stare at it.
That was because the tiny star gave me an idea: I would kill myself that
night. I had made up my mind to do it fully two months before, and poor
though I am I had bought a splendid revolver and had loaded it that same
day. Two months had already passed, however, and it was still lying in
my desk drawer; my feeling of not caring had been so strong then that I
wanted to choose a moment when it would be a little less so to do it in,
why -- I do not know. And so every night, for two months, I had gone
home with the thought of killing myself. I was watching for the right
moment. And now this star gave me the idea, and I made up my mind that
it had to be that night. I do not know why the tiny star gave me the
There I stood staring at the sky when suddenly the little girl
clutched at my arm. The street was already deserted and there was
hardly a soul about. A droshky was standing some way off with the
driver dozing in it. The girl must have been about eight. All she wore
in this cold was a poor cotton frock and a kerchief, she was drenched
through, but I particularly noticed her sodden, broken shoes. I
remember them even now. They struck me particularly. She suddenly
began to tug at my elbow and cry. She was not weeping, but was crying
out snatches of words which she could not articulate properly because
she was shivering all over as if in a fever. Something had frightened
her, and she called out desperately: "My mummy, my mummy!" I half-
turned towards her but said not a word and continued on my way, while
she kept running after me, tugging at my coat, and her voice rang with
that peculiar sound which in badly frightened children means despair. I
know that sound. Though her words were incoherent, I understood that
her mother lay dying somewhere, or perhaps it was some other disaster
that had befallen them, and she had rushed out into the street to find
someone or something to help her mother. But I did not go with her; on
the contrary, it suddenly occurred to me to drive her away. I told her
to go and look for a policeman. But she folded her hands in entreaty
and, sobbing and panting, ran along at my side and would not leave me
alone. It was then I stamped my feet at her and shouted. All she cried
was: "Sir, oh sir!" but, abandoning me abruptly, she darted across the
street: another passer-by had appeared there and it was to him she must
have run from me.
I climbed my five flights of stairs. I live in a lodging house. My
room is wretched and small, with just one attic window in it, a
semicircular one. The furniture consists of an oilcloth-covered sofa,
two chairs, a table with my books on it, and an armchair, a very, very
old one but a Voltaire armchair for all that. I sat down, lighted my
candle, and gave myself up to thought. The room next door was a real
madhouse. It has been going on since the day before yesterday. The man
who lives there is a discharged captain and he was having guests, about
six of them -- castaways on the sea of life -- drinking vodka and
playing _stoss_ with an old deck of cards. There had been a fight the
night before, and I know that two of them had torn at one another's hair
for quite a long time. The landlady wanted to put in a complaint
against them, but she is terribly afraid of the captain. The only other
lodger is a thin little lady, an officer's wife, a newcomer to the town
with three small children, who have all been ill since they came here.
The lady and the children live in deadly fear of the captain, they spend
their nights shaking with fear and praying, and as for the youngest
baby, it was even frightened into a fit once. The captain, I know for a
fact, sometimes accosts people on the Nevsky and begs alms. He won't be
given a post anywhere, but strangely (this is why I am telling all
this), in all the months he has been staying with us, he never once
roused any resentment in me. I naturally shunned his company from the
outset, but then he too thought me a bore the very first time we met,
and no matter how loudly they shout in their room or how many they are
-- I never care. I sit up all night and, honestly, I never even hear
them, so utterly do I forget them. I cannot sleep, you know; it has
been like that for a year now. I spend the night sitting in my armchair
and doing nothing. I only read in the daytime. I just sit there,
without even thinking. My thoughts are vague and stray, and I let them
wander. My candle burns down every night. And so, I calmly settled
down in my chair, took out my revolver and placed it on the table before
me. I remember asking myself as I put it down, "Are you sure?" and
answering very firmly, "I _am_ sure." That is, I would kill myself. I
knew that I would definitely kill myself that night, but how much longer
I would sit thus at the table before I did it I did not know. And I
would have certainly killed myself if it had not been for that little
You see how it was: though I did not care, I was still sensitive to
pain, for instance. If someone struck me I would feel the pain.
Mentally it was exactly the same: if something very pathetic happened I
would feel pity, just as I would have felt pity in the days before I had
ceased caring for anything in the world. And I did feel pity earlier
that night: surely, I should have helped a child in distress. Why had I
not helped her then? Because of a thought that had occurred to me; when
she was tugging at my coat and crying out, a problem suddenly confronted
me and I was unable to solve it. It was an idle problem but it had
angered me. I got angry because, having definitely decided to commit
suicide that very night, I ought to have cared less than ever for
anything in the world. Then why had I suddenly felt that I did care and
was sorry for the little girl? I remember I was frightfully sorry for
her, my pity was strangely poignant and absurd in my position. I really
cannot give a better description of that fleeting feeling of mine, but
it remained with me even after I had reached my room and had seated
myself in my chair, and it vexed me more than anything else had done for
a long time. One argument followed another. It was perfectly clear to
me, that if I was a man and not yet a nought, and had not yet become a
nought, I was therefore alive and, consequently, able to suffer, resent,
and feel shame for my actions. Very well. But if I was going to kill
myself in a couple of hours from then, why should I be concerned with
the girl and what did I care for shame or anything else in the world? I
would become a nought, an absolute nought. And could it be that my
ability to feel pity for the girl and shame for my vile action was not
in the least affected by the certainty that I would soon become
_completely_ non-existent, and therefore nothing would exist. Why, the
reason I had stamped my feet and shouted so brutally at the poor child
was to assert that "far from feeling pity, I could even afford to do
something inhumanly vile now, because two hours hence all would fade
away". Do you believe me when I say that this was the reason why I had
shouted? I am almost positive now that it was that. It had seemed
clear to me that life and the world were from then on dependent on me,
as it were. I should even say that the world seemed specially made for
me alone: if I killed myself the world would be no more, at least as far
as I was concerned. To say nothing of the possibility that there would
really be nothing for anyone after I was gone, and the moment my
consciousness dimmed the whole world, being a mere attribute of my
consciousness, would instantly dim too, fade like a mirage and be no
more, for it maybe that all this world of ours and all these people are
merely part of myself, are just myself. I remember that as I sat there
and reasoned, I gave an entirely different twist to all these new
problems that were thronging my mind, and conceived some perfectly new
ideas. For instance, a strange notion like this occurred to me:
supposing I had once lived on the moon or Mars and had there committed
the foulest and scurviest of deeds imaginable, for which I had been made
to suffer all the scorn and dishonour conceivable in nothing less than a
dream, a nightmare, and supposing I later found myself on the earth,
with the crime committed on that other planet alive in my consciousness
and, besides, knowing there was no return for me, ever, under any
circumstances -- would I _have_cared_ or not as I gazed at the moon from
this earth? Would I have felt shame for that deed or not? All these
questions were idle and superfluous since the revolver was already lying
in front of me and I knew with all my being that it was bound to happen,
and yet the questions excited me and roused me to a frenzy. I no longer
seemed able to die before I had solved something first. In short, that
little girl saved my life because the unsolved questions put off the
deed. Meanwhile, the noise at the captain's began to subside too: they
had finished their game and were now settling down to sleep, grumbling,
and sleepily rounding off their mutual abuse. It was then that I
suddenly fell asleep in my chair in front of the table, a thing that
never happened to me before. I dropped off without knowing it at all.
Dreams, we all know, are extremely queer things: one will be appallingly
vivid, with the greatest imaginable precision in every minutely finished
detail, while another will take you through time and space so swiftly
that you hardly notice the flight. Dreams, I believe, are directed by
desire, not reason, by the heart and not the mind, and yet what
fantastic tricks my reason sometimes plays on me in dreams! The things
that happen to my reason in sleep are quite incredible. To give an
instance: my brother has been dead these five years. I dream of him
sometimes: he takes an active interest in my affairs, we are very fond
of one another, yet all through my dream I know perfectly well that my
brother has long been dead and buried. Why does it not surprise me then
that though dead he is still there beside me, worrying about my affairs?
Why does my reason reconcile itself to all this so willingly? But
enough. To return to my dream. Yes, my dream of November the 3rd.
They all tease me now that, after all, it was nothing but a dream. But
surely it makes no difference whether it was a dream or not since it did
reveal the Truth to me. Because if you have come to know it once and to
see it, you will know it is the Truth and that there is not, there
cannot be any other, whether you are dreaming or living. Very well, it
was a dream -- let it be a dream, but the fact remains that I was going
to snuff out the life which you all extol so, whereas my dream, my dream
-- oh, my dream revealed to me another life, a life revived, magnificent
I said that I fell asleep without knowing it and even continuing
with my musings on the same matters when no longer awake, as it were. A
dream came to me that I picked up my revolver and pressed it to my heart
-- my heart and not my head, whereas I had definitely decided to shoot
myself through the head, and the right temple it had to be. With the
revolver pressed to my heart I waited a moment or two, and suddenly my
candle, the table and the wall in front of me all began to rock and
sway. I quickly pulled the trigger.
In dreams you sometimes fall from a great height or you are stabbed
or beaten, but you never feel the pain unless you jerk and actually hurt
yourself against the bedpost; you do feel the pain then, and it is
almost certain to wake you up. It was the same in my dream: I felt no
pain but with the sound of the report my whole being seemed to be shaken
up and suddenly everything was extinguished and there was a horrible
blackness all around me. I seemed to have gone blind and mute, I was
lying on something very hard, stretched out on my back, seeing nothing
and unable to make the slightest movement. Voices shouted and feet
stamped all about me; there was the captain's low rumble and the
landlady's shrill screech -- and suddenly there was a blank again, and
now they were carrying me in a coffin with the lid nailed down. I could
feel the coffin swaying and I was reflecting upon it, when all of a
sudden the thought struck me for the first time: I was dead, quite dead.
I knew it without a doubt, I could neither see nor move, and yet I could
feel and reason. But soon I reconciled myself to this and, as usual in
dreams, accepted the fact without demur.
And now they were piling earth over my grave. Everyone left, I was
alone, utterly alone. I did not stir. Whenever I used to imagine what
it would be like to be buried, I generally associated but one sensation
with the grave: the feeling of damp and cold. And now too I felt very
cold, the tips of my toes were the worst, and that was all the sensation
I lay there and, strangely, expected nothing, resigning myself to
the fact that the dead have nothing to expect. But it was damp. I do
not know how long I lay there -- whether it was an hour, or a day, or
many days. All of a sudden a drop of water, which had seeped through
the lid of the coffin, fell on my left closed eye; a minute later there
was another drop, a minute more and there was a third, and so on, drops
falling at regular one-minute intervals. Indignation mounted in my
heart, and suddenly I felt a physical pain in it. "It's my wound," I
thought. "My shot, the bullet's there..." And the water kept dripping,
a drop a minute, straight down on my closed eye. I suddenly invoked,
not with my voice for I lay inert, but with the whole of my being, the
Ruler of all that was befalling me:
"Whoever Thou may be, but if Thou art and if there does exist a
wiser order of things than the present, suffer it to be here too. But
if Thou art imposing vengeance upon me for my unwise suicide, with
ugliness and absurdity of the life to come, then know Thee that no
tortures I could ever be made to suffer could compare with the contempt
I shall always feel in silence, be it through millions of years of
I invoked and fell silent. Deep silence reigned for almost a full
minute, and one more drop fell, but I knew with infinite and profound
faith, that all would be different now. And suddenly my grave was rent
open. That is, I do not know if it was dug open, but a dark and strange
being picked me up and bore me away into space. I suddenly recovered
sight. It was deep night, and never, never had there been such darkness
yet! We were flying through space, the earth was already far behind us.
I asked the one that bore me nothing at all, I waited, I was proud.
I made myself believe I was not afraid, and my breath caught with
admiration at the thought that I was not afraid. I do not remember how
long we flew nor can I venture a guess: everything was happening the way
it usually happens in dreams when you leap over space and time, over all
laws of life and reason, and only pause where your heart's desire bids
you pause. I remember I suddenly saw a tiny star in the darkness. "Is
this Sirius?" I could not hold back the question, although I did not
want to ask anything at all. "No, that is the star you saw between the
clouds on your way home," replied the one that was bearing me away. I
knew the being was somewhat human in likeness. Strangely enough, I had
no love for that being, I rather felt a deep aversion for it. I had
expected complete non-existence and with that thought I had shot myself.
And now I was in the hands of a being, not a human being of course, but
a being nonetheless that _was_, that existed. "It just shows that there
is life hereafter," I thought with the peculiar flippancy of dreams, but
the essence of my spirit remained with me intact. "If I must _be_
again," I thought, "and again live by someone's inescapable will, I do
not want to be beaten and humiliated! You know that I am afraid of you,
and for this you despise me," I suddenly said, unable to hold back my
cringing words which held an admission, and feeling the pin-prick of
humiliation in my heart. There was no reply, but all at once I knew
that I was not being despised; I was not being laughed at nor even
pitied; I knew that our flight through space had a purpose, mysterious
and strange, concerning me alone. Fear mounted in my heart. Something
was being mutely but painfully transmitted to me by my silent companion,
piercing me through as it were. We flew through dark and unfamiliar
space. I no longer saw the constellations my eyes were used to seeing.
I knew that there were certain stars in the vastness of the sky whose
light rays took thousands and millions of years to reach the earth.
Perhaps we were already flying through those regions. I waited for I
knew not what, my tormented heart gripped with a terrible anguish. And
suddenly I was shaken with a feeling that was familiar and so stirring:
I saw our sun! I knew it could not be _our_ sun which had begotten
_our_ earth, and also that we were infinitely far away from our sun, but
my whole being told me that this was a sun exactly like our own, a
duplicate of it, its twin. My soul rang with sweet and stirring
ecstasy: this familiar source of light, the same light that had given me
life, evoked an echo in my heart and resurrected it, and for the first
time since my burial I sensed life, the same life as before.
"But if this is the sun, if this is a sun exactly like ours, then
where is the earth?" I cried. And my companion pointed to a star
sparkling in the darkness like emerald. We were flying straight towards
"Are such duplications really possible in the universe, is this
really the law of nature? And if that star is an earth, can it be an
earth like ours ... exactly like ours, wretched and poor but dear and
ever beloved, inspiring even in its most ungrateful children a love as
poignant as our own earth inspires?" I cried out, trembling with
rapturous, boundless love for that dear, old earth I had deserted. A
vision of the poor little girl I had hurt flashed past me.
"You shall see everything," my companion said, and I sensed a
peculiar sorrow in his words. But now we were quickly nearing the
planet. It grew as we approached, I could already distinguish the
oceans, the outline of Europe, and suddenly a great and holy jealousy
flared up in my heart. "How can such a duplication be and what for? I
do love and can love only the earth I have left behind, the earth
bespattered with my blood when in my ingratitude I snuffed out my life
with a shot through the heart. But I never, never ceased to love that
earth, and the night I parted with it I think I loved it even more
poignantly than ever before. Does this new earth hold suffering? On
our earth we can only love truly by suffering and only through
suffering. We can love in no other way and know no other love. I must
have suffering, if I would love. I want, I long this instant to kiss
that one and only earth I left behind me, and weep, and I do not want, I
defy life on any other!"
But my companion had already left me. I do not know how it came
about but suddenly I found myself upon this other earth in the bright
sunlight of a day as lovely as paradise. I believe I was on one of
those islands which on our earth comprise the Greek Archipelago, or it
may have been on the mainland somewhere, on the shore which the
Archipelago adjoins. Everything was exactly the same as on our earth,
but it all seemed to wear the radiance of a holiday, and shone with the
glory of a great and holy triumph at last attained. A gentle emerald-
green sea softly lapped the shores and caressed them with a love that
was undisguised, visible, and almost conscious. Tall and beautiful
trees stood in flowering splendour, while their countless little leaves
welcomed me (I'm certain of it) with their gentle and soothing rustling,
and they seemed to be murmuring words of love to me. The meadow was
ablaze with bright, fragrant flowers. Birds fluttered above in flocks
and unafraid of me alighted on my shoulders and hands and happily beat
me with their sweet, tremulous wings. And finally I saw and came to
know the people of this joyous land. They came to me themselves, they
surrounded me and kissed me. Children of the sun, of their own sun --
oh how beautiful they were! I have never seen such beauty in man on our
planet. Only in our youngest children could one, perhaps, detect a
distant and very faint reflection of this beauty. The eyes of these
happy people shone with a clear light. Their faces were aglow with
wisdom and intelligence matured into serenity, but their expression was
gay; their words and voices rang with childlike joy. Oh, I instantly
understood all, all, the moment I looked into their faces! This was an
earth undefiled by sin, inhabited by people who had not sinned; they
dwelt in a Garden of Eden just like the one in which our ancestors, so
the legends of all mankind say, had once dwelt before they knew sin,
with the only difference that the whole of this earth was one great
Garden of Eden. These people, laughing happily, clung to me and
caressed me; they led me away and every one of them showed eagerness to
comfort me. They did not question me about anything at all, they seemed
to know all, and were anxious to drive the suffering from my face.
I repeat, you see: let it be nothing but a dream. But the sensation
of being loved by those innocent and beautiful people will remain with
me for ever, and even now I can feel their love pouring down on me from
up there. I have seen them with my own eyes, have known them and been
convinced; I have loved them and, afterwards, suffered for them. Oh, I
realised from the first that I should never be able to understand them
at all in many things; for instance, it appeared inexplicable to me, a
modern Russian progressive and wretched citizen of St. Petersburg, that,
knowing so much, they did not possess our science. But I soon realised
that their knowledge was enriched and stimulated by other penetrations
than ours, and that their aspirations were also quite different from
ours. They desired nothing and were content, they did not strive to
know life the way we strive to probe its depth, because their life was
consummate. Their knowledge was finer and more profound than our
science, for our science attempts to explain the meaning of life.
Science itself strives to fathom it in order to teach others how to
live; while they knew how to live without the help of science, I saw it
but I could not understand this knowledge of theirs. They showed their
trees to me, and I failed to appreciate the depth of the love with which
they gazed at them: it was as if they were speaking to beings like
themselves. And do you know, I may not be wrong if I tell you that they
did speak to them. Yes, they had found a common tongue and I am
convinced the trees understood them. This was the way they treated all
Nature -- the beasts who lived in peace with them, never attacking them
and loving them, captivated by the people's love for them. They pointed
out the stars to me and spoke to me about them, saying things I could
not understand, but I am positive they had some tie with those heavenly
bodies, a living tie, not spiritual alone. Oh no, these people did not
insist that I should understand them, they loved me anyway, but then I
knew that they, too, would never understand me and so hardly spoke to
them about our earth. I only kissed the earth they lived on and without
words adored them, and they saw it and permitted themselves to be
adored, unashamed of my adoration, for their own love was great. They
felt no pang for me when, moved to tears, I sometimes kissed their feet,
joyfully certain in my heart of the infinite love with which they would
reciprocate my emotion. I sometimes asked myself in bewilderment: how
was it that they never insulted one like me, never roused one like me to
feelings of jealousy or envy? I asked myself again and again, how did
I, a braggart and a liar, refrain from telling them of all my acquired
knowledge of which they naturally had no inkling, from wishing to
impress them with it, if only because I loved them? They were gay and
frolicsome like children. They wandered about their beautiful groves
and forests, singing their beautiful songs, eating light food -- the
fruit of their trees, the honey of their woods, and the milk of the
beasts devoted to them. They toiled but little to procure their food
and clothing. They loved and begot children, but never did I detect any
signs of that cruel sensuality in them, which almost everyone falls
victim to on our earth, one and all, and which serves as the sole source
of almost all the sins of mankind on our earth. They welcomed the
children born to them as new participants in their bliss. There were no
quarrels or jealousy among them, and they did not even understand the
meaning of these words. Their children were the children of all of
them, for they formed one family. Sickness was very rare, though there
was death: but their old people died peacefully; they seemed to fall
asleep, blessing and smiling upon the ones they were taking leave of,
themselves carrying away the clear smiles of those surrounding them in
farewell. I saw no grief or tears then, only love multiplied as it were
to ecstasy, but an ecstasy that was serene, contemplative and
consummate. It was as if they kept in touch with their dead even after
their death, and that their earthly ties were unsevered by death. They
hardly understood me when I asked them if they believed in life eternal,
for evidently their faith in it was so implicit it presented no problem
to them. They had no churches, but they had a vital, close and constant
association with the Sum of the universe; they had no creed, but instead
they had the unshakeable knowledge that, when their earthly bliss was
consummated to the ultimate extent of its earthly nature all of them --
the living and the dead -- would come into even closer contact with the
Sum of the universe. They looked forward to that day with eagerness but
with no impatience of morbid longing. It seemed rather that they were
already carrying a foretaste of it in their hearts, sharing it with one
another. Before going to sleep at night they would sing, their voices
blending in true and blissful harmony. Their songs spoke of all that
the passing day had granted them to feel, they hallowed it and bid it
farewell. They hallowed Nature, earth, sea and woods. They were fond
of making up songs about one another, praising one another like
children; they were the simplest of songs, but they came from the heart
and stirred other hearts. Why songs alone? Their very lives were spent
admiring one another. It was a sort of infatuation with one another,
universal and complete. However, some of their songs, solemn and
exultant, I hardly understood at all. While understanding the words, I
could never grasp their full meaning. It remained beyond my
intelligence, as it were, yet instinctively my heart grew more and more
responsive to it. I often told them that I had foreglimpsed this long,
long ago; that all this happiness and glory had stirred a chord of
anguished longing in me while on our own planet, mounting at times to
unbearable sorrow; that I had foreglimpsed all of them and their glory
in the dreams of my heart and the visions of my mind; that often I could
not watch the sun go down on our earth without tears... That my hatred
for the people on our earth always held sadness: why could I not hate
them without loving them, why could I not help forgiving them, and why
was there sadness in my love for them; why could I not love them without
hating them? They listened to me, and I saw that they could not
comprehend what I was telling them, but I was not sorry I had told them
for I knew that they appreciated to the full the great yearning I felt
for the ones I had left behind. When they turned their dear, loving
gaze on me, when I felt that with them my heart became as innocent and
truthful as theirs, it sufficed me, and I was not sorry I did not
understand them. I was speechless with the fullness of life, and could
only worship them in silence.
Oh, everyone laughs in my face now and says that one could never
dream of all those details I am narrating now, that in my dream I could
have seen and felt nothing but a mere sensation of something conceived
by my own heart in delirium, and as for the details I must have made
them up on awakening. And when I admitted to them that it may really
have been so -- oh Lord, the way they laughed in my face, the fun they
had at my expense! Yes, of course, I was overcome by the mere sensation
of my dream, and that alone survived in my wounded, bleeding heart: as
for the actual images and shapes, that is, those I had really seen in my
dream, they were so perfect in their harmony, charm and beauty and were
so true, that our feeble words naturally failed me to describe them on
awakening, and they were bound to become blurred in my mind. Therefore,
I may indeed have been compelled to make up the details afterwards
though unconsciously, distorting them of course, especially since I was
so impatient and eager to give them some sort of expression. But then
how can I doubt that it all was like this? It was a thousand times
better perhaps, brighter and happier than I am telling it. Granted it
was a dream, but all of this was, it had to be. Do you know, I shall
tell you a secret: it may not have been a dream at all! Because
something happened next, something so horribly true that it could never
come to one even in a dream. Granted my heart conceived that dream, but
could my heart alone have been able to conceive that appalling reality
which befell me next? How could I have made it up by myself, how could
my heart prompt that dream? Surely my shallow heart and my whimsical,
wretched mind could not have been elevated to such revelations of the
truth? Oh, judge for yourselves: I concealed it until now, but now I
shall disclose this truth as well. The fact is that I ... I corrupted
Yes, yes, it ended in my corrupting them all! I do not know how it
could have happened, but I remember perfectly that it did. My dream
sped across thousands of years and left with me only an impression of it
as a whole. I only know that it was I who caused their downfall. Like
a malignant trichina, an atom of the plague afflicting whole kingdoms,
so I spread contamination through all that happy earth, sinless before I
came to it. They learned to lie and came to love lying, appreciating
the beauty of lies. Oh, it may have begun quite innocently, with
laughter, coquetry, playful love, or it really may have been the atom of
lying seeping into their hearts and appealing to them. Soon after,
sensuality was born, sensuality conceived jealousy, and jealousy
conceived cruelty ... Oh, I don't know, I can't remember, but soon, very
soon blood was shed for the first time: they were astounded and
horrified, and began to separate and go different ways. They formed
unions, but the unions were inimical to one another. Reproaches and
recriminations began. They came to know shame and made a virtue of it.
They learned the meaning of honour, and each union flew its own colours.
They became cruel to their beasts who retreated from them into the
forests and turned hostile. A struggle ensued for division, for
sovereignty, for personal prominence, for thine and mine. They now
spoke different tongues. They tasted of sorrow and came to love sorrow,
they thirsted for sufferings and said that only through suffering could
Truth be attained. And then science was introduced. When they grew
evil, they began to talk of fraternity and humanity and understood these
precepts. When they grew criminal they invented the idea of justice and
in order to maintain it prescribed for themselves voluminous codes of
law, and to add security to these codes they erected a guillotine. They
had but a vague memory of what they had lost, and even refused to
believe that once they had been innocent and happy. The very thought
that they could have once been so happy made them laugh, and they called
it a dream. They could not even envisage it in images and shapes, but
strangely and miraculously, though they had lost all faith in their
former happiness, calling it a fairy-tale, they so wanted to become
innocent and happy again that they succumbed to their heartfelt wish
like children and, deifying this wish, they put up numerous temples and
began to pray to their own idea, or rather their "wish", knowing full
well that it could never come true or be granted to them, but adoring
and worshipping it in tears nonetheless. And yet, if it had been
possible to restore them to the innocent and happy realm they had lost,
or if someone could have given them a glimpse of it again and asked them
whether they would like to come back to it, they would have probably
refused. They told me: "Let us be deceitful, evil and unjust, but we
know it, we weep over it, and torment ourselves for it, and the
punishment we inflict upon ourselves is even harsher perhaps than that
which will be meted out to us by the merciful judge who will sit in
judgement over us and whose name we do not know. We possess science,
and through it we shall seek and find the Truth once again, and this
time we shall apprehend it consciously. Knowledge is superior to
feeling, consciousness of life is superior to life. Science will give
us wisdom, wisdom will determine the laws, and knowledge of the laws of
happiness is superior to happiness." This is what they said to me, and
after saying it each one loved himself above all others, nor could he
have done differently. Each one protected his ego so jealously, that he
directed all his strivings towards humiliating and belittling the ego of
others: and this became his life's work. Next came slavery, there was
voluntary slavery as well: the weak willingly submitted to the strong
only so they should help them to crush those even weaker than
themselves. There were the righteous who came to these people and in
tears spoke to them of their arrogance, of their loss of all sense of
measure and harmony, all shame. But the righteous were mocked and
stoned. Holy blood stained the thresholds of temples. Men appeared in
their stead who began to contrive how best to unite everyone once again
but in such a manner that each should continue loving himself above all
others and yet should not stand in the others' way, so that all could
once more live together in apparently good agreement. Great wars were
fought because of this idea. Though engaged in warfare, the fighters
firmly believed that science, wisdom and the instinct of self-
preservation would eventually force mankind to unite into a society that
was concordant and sensible, and in the meantime in order to speed
matters up, the "wise" tried to exterminate the unbelievers in their
idea and the "unwise" as quickly as possible so they should not impede
the idea's triumph. But the instinct of self-preservation soon began to
weaken, and men pandering to their arrogance or sensuality demanded
outright: all or nothing. To acquire all they resorted to crime and if
that failed -- to suicide. Religions were next introduced with a cult
of non-existence and self-destruction for the sake of eternal peace in
nonentity. The people were at last worn out with their senseless toil,
and suffering shadowed their faces: and they proclaimed that suffering
was beauty, for in suffering alone lay thought. They extolled suffering
in their songs. I walked among them, wringing my hands and weeping over
them; my love for them was even greater perhaps than before when their
faces showed no suffering and they were innocent and so beautiful. I
came to love the earth defiled by them even more than I did when it was
a paradise, solely because grief had come to it. Alas, I have always
loved sorrow and grief, but for my own self, for myself alone, while
over them I wept in pity. I held my arms out to them in despair,
accusing, cursing and despising myself. I told them that I had done it
all, I alone; that it was I who brought them this germ of corruption,
iniquity and deceit. I implored them to crucify me, I taught them how
to make the cross. I could not, I had not the strength to kill myself,
but I wanted to suffer at their hands, I longed for suffering, longed
for my blood to be drained drop by drop in these sufferings. But they
just laughed at me and finally came to regard me as a saintly fool.
They made excuses for me, saying that they had received only what they
ad been asking for, that what they had now could not have been
otherwise. At last they declared that I was becoming a danger to them,
and that they would lock me up in the madhouse if I did not keep quiet.
At this, sorrow gripped my heart so fiercely that I could not breathe, I
felt that I was dying, and then ... that was when I woke up.
It was already day, or rather day had not yet dawned but it was
after five. I awoke in my armchair; my candle had burnt out, the
captain's room was locked in sleep, and a silence unusual for our house
reigned about me. I instantly leapt to my feet in amazement: nothing
even remotely like this had ever happened to me before, not any of the
trifling details that did not really matter such as falling asleep in my
chair, for instance. And suddenly, as I stood there recovering my
senses, I saw my revolver lying all ready and loaded before me. With a
quick thrust I pushed it away. No, give me life now, life! I raised my
arms and invoked the eternal Truth, or rather wept, for all my being was
roused to exultation, immeasurable exultation. Yes, I wanted to live
and spread the Word. My resolution to preach came on the instant, to
preach now and for ever, of course! I shall preach, I must preach what?
Truth. For I have seen it, seen it with my own eyes, seen it in all its
And so I have been spreading the Word ever since. What is more, the
ones who laugh at me are dearer to me now than all the others. Why it
is so I do not know nor can explain, but let it be so. They say that I
am floundering already, that is, if I am floundering so badly now how do
I expect to go on? It's perfectly true, I am floundering and it may
become even worse as I go on. There is no doubt that I will indeed
flounder and lose my way more than once before I learn how best to
preach, that is with what words and by what deeds, for it is a very
difficult mission. It's all as clear as day to me even now, you know;
but, listen, who of us does not flounder? And yet everyone is going
towards the same thing, at least all strive for the same thing, all --
from the wise man to the meanest wretch -- only all follow different
paths. It's an old truth but here's something new: I cannot flounder
too badly, you know. Because I have seen the Truth, I have seen it and
I know that people can be beautiful and happy without losing their
ability to dwell on this earth. I cannot and will not believe that evil
is man's natural state. And yet it's just this conviction of mine that
makes them all laugh at me. How could I help believing it, though: I
have seen the Truth, it was not a figment of my imagination or my mind,
I have seen it, seen it, and its _living_image_ has taken hold of my
soul for ever. I have seen it in such consummate wholeness that I
refuse to believe that it cannot live among men. And so, how could I
lose my way? I shall stray once or twice of course, I shall perhaps
even use the words of others sometimes, but not for long: the living
image of what I have seen will remain with me always, it will always
correct me and put me straight. I am full of vigour and strength. I
shall go and preach, be it for a thousand years. Do you know, I first
wanted to conceal the fact that I had corrupted them all, but that would
have been a mistake -- a mistake already, you see! Truth whispered in
my ear that I was _lying_. Truth saved me and showed me the way. But I
do not know how to build a paradise on earth, for I do not know how to
put it in words. I lost the words on awakening. At least all the most
important words, the most essential. Never mind; I shall go on my way
and preach tirelessly, because I have seen it with my own eyes, even
though I cannot describe what I have seen. That is something the
mockers fail to understand. They say: "It was just a dream, ravings and
hallucinations." Oh dear! Is that clever? And they are so proud of
themselves, too. A dream, they say. But what is a dream? Isn't our
life a dream? I shall go further: let it never, never come true, let
paradise never be (after all, I do realise that!), I shall anyway go and
spread the Word. And yet it could be done so simply: in a single day,
in a single _hour_ everything would be settled! One should love others
as one loves oneself, that is that main thing, that is all, nothing
else, absolutely nothing else is needed, and then one would instantly
know how to go about it. It's nothing but an old truth, repeated and
read billions of times, and yet it has not taken root. "Consciousness
of life is superior to life, knowledge of the laws of happiness is
superior to happiness" -- this is what we must fight against. And I
shall. If only everyone wanted it, it could be all done at once.
As for that little girl, I have found her... I shall go on my way!
Yes, I shall go!
from 'The Diary of a Writer'
Shostakovich and Stalin
by Solomon Volkov
If you don't count the mythic Greek singer Orpheus, probably no one
suffered more for his music than the Soviet composer Dmitri
Shostakovich. He was branded an 'anti-people' musician, and his work
was dismissed as 'an intentionally discordant, muddled flow of sound.'
For many years, Shostakovich and his family balanced precariously on the
edge of catastrophe, under constant threat of arrest, exile, or worse.
This was because the abuse came directly from the Supreme Leader of
his homeland -- Joseph Stalin himself. To be sure, it was also
accompanied by state prizes and carefully doled-out encouragement.
Unfortunately, one never knew when lightning would strike. This made
Shostakovich's life a living hell for many years.
These were unimaginably cruel times, when Shostakovich's friends,
patrons, and family members suddenly disappeared, drawn into the
maelstrom of Stalinist repression. How, under these circumstances,
Shostakovich managed not only to keep his sanity, but also to write some
of the most enduring, almost shockingly expressive, and at the same time
touchingly humane music of the twentieth century constitutes the story
of this book. It gives the fullest account yet of the arguably
unprecedented duel between the composer and Joseph Stalin, the country's
Communist tsar and Shostakovich's personal tormentor. In fact, it is
the first such book-length account in any language.
After my arrival in the US in 1976, I heard Shostakovich's work
performed countless times in Western concert halls, and I often
wondered: Why this rapt attention from the public? Why does palpable
tension envelop audiences who know little or nothing about the
conditions under which these tormented and tormenting sounds were
We in the USSR grew up with Shostakovich's music practically under
our skin. Its gloomy melodies, trampling rhythms, and bellowing
orchestral writing perfectly suited our moods and inner thoughts, which
we tried to conceal from the watchful eyes and sharp ears of the Soviet
But here in the democratic West, Shostakovich's music could easily
be dismissed as importunate, primitive, and bombastic. And in fact,
many professionals -- composers and musicologists especially --
expressed these disparaging views of Shostakovich, castigating him for
his apparent squareness. It was primarily the performers and listeners
who ultimately saved the composer's reputation. Audiences flocked to
performances of Shostakovich's works, clearly finding in them some
vitally needed emotional sustenance.
A perceptive explanation for their reaction was recently offered by
the American writer Lawrence Hansen. Shostakovich's music tapped 'into
our most fundamental, primal fear: the destruction of the self by
outside forces, the fear of life being pointless and meaningless, the
sheer evil that may be found in one's fellow man.' He added that
Shostakovich 'offers a terrifying yet cathartic emotional roller-coaster
And yet the man behind this powerfully direct oeuvre remained an
enigma, just a fuzzy image of an artist disappearing into the Stalinist
landscape, an image that could morph, in the spirit of American science
fiction, into the likeness of the observer. Especially handicapping in
this respect was the absence of a firm factual backdrop, integrated into
a broader political and cultural picture of the times.
I am presenting the most detailed reconstruction to date of the two
pivotal events that connected Shostakovich and Stalin: Stalin's
denunciation of Shostakovich's great opera 'Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk' in
1936 and the Communist Party resolution of 1948 censuring Shostakovich
and other leading Soviet composers. Particularly close attention is
given to the 1936 affair, which in the annals of the twentieth century,
came to symbolize the extent to which an oppressive state can manipulate
I also make the case for Stalin's writing or dictating the infamous
1936 Pravda editorial 'Muddle Instead of Music,' which attacked
Shostakovich savagely, and I attribute, for the first time, other
important unsigned texts to him. I cannot underscore enough how
personal and sometimes obsessive was Stalin's involvement in
micromanaging Soviet culture in general and Shostakovich in particular.
All this is important because the prevailing contemporary thinking
is uncomfortable assigning too much credit to any one personality and
tends to overrate the influence of a faceless bureaucracy in matters
political and cultural. Yet the notion of the cult of personality is
not without foundation.
I had no plans for the present book, having for many years turned
down offers to write Shostakovich's biography. What finally persuaded
me was the distortion of Shostakovich's image that started to take hold
after Stalin's abuse of him was relegated to the proverbial 'dustbin of
It was in United States academic circles, of all places, that
Shostakovich was proclaimed (allegedly ironically) to be 'perhaps Soviet
Russia's most loyal musical son,' and his opera 'Lady Macbeth of
Mtsensk' denounced (decidedly without a trace of irony) as 'a profoundly
inhumane work of art,' with the damning conclusion that 'its technique
of dehumanizing victims is the perennial method of those who would
perpetrate and justify genocide ... if ever an opera deserved to be
banned, it was this one.'
After this resolutely expressed but somewhat belated solidarity with
the Stalinist views of Shostakovich as the ultimate 'anti-people'
composer, other learned voices describing him merely as a 'wuss,'
'cowardly,' and 'a mediocre human being, and bemoaning his 'moral
impotence and servile complicity' could be perceived as almost harmless.
Yet I felt they all sounded equally false. This picture of
Shostakovich, pretending to be objective and therefore relying heavily
on his official declarations, looked to me and many of my compatriot
musicians as crooked as any of the Soviet concoctions about the
composer. This was not a portrait of the Shostakovich we knew, but an
ideologically biased contraption which little resembled the seemingly
fragile and unassuming man who nevertheless cut a complex and
contradictory but ultimately courageous figure and whose music
electrified and terrified audiences worldwide: not a victim but, rather,
a victor, though definitely scarred for life by his ordeal.
Debates around Shostakovich's image and his oeuvre are no less
intense now than in his lifetime. This is no quirk of fate. We live in
highly politicized times. Confrontations about Shostakovich continue to
start over aesthetic issues but quickly cut to the political bone.
It was often noted that the composer's 'profession de foi' was
confrontation with evil and the defense of man. (The same could be said
about Dostoevsky, also a highly politicized figure.) When I came to the
West more than a quarter-century ago, such a creative motto sounded
hopelessly passe and was frowned upon. Not any more.
Looking at our troubled horizon today, we could use the dark glass
of Shostakovich's music and swim with him in overwhelming waves of
torment, grief, and unrelieved angst. But with him we also experience
revulsion in the face of evil, deep sorrow for its victims, and the
strengthening resolve to overcome it. Therein lies at least one of the
reasons that will keep Shostakovich's music center stage in contemporary
culture. It will serve for a long time to come as a prime example of
politically engaged art of the highest order.
It was my privilege to observe Shostakovich closely in the last
several years of his life, while collaborating with him on his memoirs,
'Testimony'. During this time I started to formulate an overall
description of him that seemed to fit the extreme polarities of his
personality and to encompass the multitudes it contained (as in Walt
Whitman's oft-quoted self-description).
This was a paradigm of the 'yurodivy', or holy fool -- a peculiarly
Russian figure, present on the historical scene from the eleventh
century to the end of the eighteenth. As scholars point out,
'yurodivye' were the people's 'conscience personified,' boldly speaking
out as the oppressed masses suffered in silence and daring to confront
even the feared Russian tyrants like Ivan the Terrible. Their diatribes
against the rulers were strange and unpredictable, but powerful and
I elaborated on how Shostakovich was a present-day yurodivy in the
introduction to 'Testimony' (published in 1979) and in an essay about
Shostakovich and Dostoevsky published in 1980. 'Testimony' aroused
controversy that still has not abated, and has forced me over the years
to define the yurodivy idea more precisely. I concluded that in all
probability Shostakovich was influenced not by a real-life yurodivy, but
followed the fictional model first presented by Alexander Pushkin in his
tragedy 'Boris Godunov' (1824) and then magnified in the opera of the
same title (after Pushkin) by Modest Mussorgsky (1869-1872).
As I show in this book, both Pushkin and Mussorgsky treated the
character of the yurodivy in their work as the thinly disguised, largely
autobiographical embodiment of the figure of the artist, who -- in the
name of the downtrodden people -- speaks dangerous but necessary truths
to the face of the tsar. This was the role that Shostakovich assumed as
his life model, which also included two other fictional 'masks' from
'Boris Godunov': those of the Chronicler and the Pretender. In
adopting, as they suited him, all three masks and juggling them for many
years, Shostakovich placed himself as a true successor to Pushkin's and
Mussorgsky's Russian tradition of artistic dialogue and confrontation
with the tsar.
So this interpretation of Shostakovich's tortured and difficult
personality seems to me more all-encompassing and, at the same time,
more nuanced than the one I offered in the introduction to 'Testimony'.
It is presented here for the first time.
Over the years, Shostakovich's views, as I faithfully recorded them
in 'Testimony', became confused -- intentionally by some, out of
sloppiness by others -- with my own views and positions. For example,
Shostakovich's scornful descriptions of Stalin as a total ignoramus in
all matters cultural were sometimes ascribed to me. As the reader of
the present book will see, I don't share the composer's somewhat
immoderate (albeit understandable) opinions on this and some other
matters. On the other hand, I've personally heard a music commentator
declaring jovially on National Public Radio that 'Shostakovich all his
life called himself a yurodivy.' Hardly.
In an effort to clarify this confusion and to draw a distinguishing
line between 'Testimony' and this book, I've kept quotes from
'Testimony' and from my personal conversations with Shostakovich to a
minimum. But of course, everything in the present work is informed by
these conversations and by the insight they afforded me into the
composer's psyche, his worldview, and his way of being.
This is why as a motto to this book I've adopted the humble but
still proud words of the widow of poet Osip Mandelstam, Nadezhda, a
contemporary of Shostakovich: 'A person with inner freedom, memory, and
fear is that reed, that twig that changes the direction of a rushing
river.' This observation will always remind me of why Shostakovich's
life and work became of such burning importance to so many of his
This is a book of cultural history. Therefore, I do not engage in
analysis of Shostakovich's music, concentrating instead on the political
and cultural circumstances of the Stalin era and the dictator's
relationship with the leading creative figures of the day, an area that
is still insufficiently researched and understood. I describe this
relationship as a shifting, mutable one, not fixed and frozen. Besides
Shostakovich himself, many distinguished personalities helped me in my
efforts to shed light on this period. For understanding the workings of
Stalin's cultural politics and navigating the maze of published
pronouncements and documents, conversations with Anna Akhmatova, Lili
Brik, Sergei Yutkevich, Viktor Shklovsky, Anatoli Rybakov, and Maya
Plisetskaya were of immense value. Russian archives of Stalin's era are
still far from open, but I made full use of some recent important
publications of previously classified materials.
Some rare insights into Shostakovich's patterns and inclinations
were generously given to me by Berthe Malko, Gabriel Glikman, and
Yevgeny Yevtushenko and by musicians who premiered some of his greatest
works -- David Oistrakh, Kirill Kondrashin, Mstislav Rostropovich,
Rudolf Barshai, and Yvgeny Nesterenko. I am also grateful to Kurt
Sanderling, Lazar Gosman, Vladimir Ashkenazy, Yuri Temirkanov, Valery
Gergiev, Mariss Jansons, Vladimir Spivakov, and Gidon Kremer for
discussing with me some important aspects of the Shostakovich
phenomenon. Of special significance were the opinions of composers:
Georgy Sviridov, Rodion Shchedrin, Alfred Schnittke, Giya Kancheli,
Alexandre Rabinovitch, and Peteris Vasks.
I am also immensely indebted to Maxim Shostakovich for sharing with
me his unique knowledge of his father.
The twentieth century could be dubbed the propaganda century.
Published and broadcast cultural content was wielded as a potent
political weapon; words became political currency; and the gap between
what was proclaimed in public and spoken in private grew greater than
Because of that, the interpretation of official Soviet documents and
press is an especially intricate and delicate craft, an example of which
for me was the book by Lazar Fleishman, 'Boris Pasternak v tridtsatye
gody' [Boris Pasternak in the Thirties] (Jerusalem, 1984). To Professor
Fleishman, who also happens to be a childhood friend, I owe gratitude
for additional advice and help, as I do to Professor Timothy L. Jackson,
Professor Allan B. Ho, Dmitry Feofanov, the late Ian MacDonald, Dr
Vladimir Zak, and Andrei Bitov.
Many aspects of the present book were first discussed with my dear
friends Grisha and Alexandra Bruskin. And my heartfelt thanks go to my
wife, Marianna, who recorded and transcribed many interviews for this
book. I am also very grateful to my translator, Antonina W. Bouis, with
whom collaborating is always a pleasure, and to my formidable editor at
Knopf, Ashbel Green, and his assistant, Luba Ostashevsky, for their
unflagging support and informed help with the manuscript.
from the preface to
'Shostakovich and Stalin'
by Solomon Volkov, 2004
Translated from the Russian by Antonina W Bouis
Little, Brown (Time Warner Book Group UK)
ISBN 0 316 86141 3
As, to behold desert a beggar born,
And needy nothing trimmed in jollity,
And purest faith unhappily foresworn,
And guilded honour shamefully misplaced,
And maiden virtue rudely strumpeted,
And right perfection wrongfully disgraced,
And strength by limping sway disabl-ed,
And art made tongue-tied by authority,
And folly, doctor-like, controlling skill,
And simple truth miscalled simplicity,
And captive good attending captain ill.
Tired with all these, from these would I be gone,
Save that to die I leave my love alone.
William Shakespeare, 1564-1616
The world is dusk, expectant of its doom.
Foulness is rampant; purity is dumb;
Despair stalks terrible. But I am come,
God-nurtured, in the void abyss of gloom;
The Spirit of my God is set on me;
He hath annointed me to preach glad news
Unto the meek; the broken heart to loose,
To utter to the captive liberty,
The prison's opening to all the bound,
And unto all men to proclaim aloud
The year acceptable before the Lord.
Therefore He fills my voice with silvery sound,
And by His spirit, a pillar of fire and cloud,
My eyes are lightning, and my tongue a sword.
Aleister Crowley, 1875-1947
('Isaiah, a sonnet')
"The Works of Aleister Crowley, Volume 1"
Reprinted by Yogi Publication Society,
Des Plaines, Illinois,
Shostakovich and Stalin
by Solomon Volkov
FINAL CONVULSIONS AND DEATH OF THE TSAR
A joke became popular in the late 1940s among Soviet intellectuals.
Armenian Radio is asked: 'Is World War III imminent?' The radio
replies: 'There will be no war, but the struggle for peace will leave
Shostakovich had to have thought of this anecdote when in March
1949, Minister of Foreign Affairs Vyacheslav Molotov, then considered
second in rank in the USSR, summoned him. He suggested the composer
join a high-ranking delegation to New York for the Cultural and
Scientific Conference for World Peace and so take an active part in the
'Struggle for peace.' Shostakovich refused, even though he had long
wanted to visit America. He explained to Molotov that he was in poor
health (which was true).
On 16 March, Shostakovich's phone rang and he was told to hold on
for Comrade Stalin. At first, the composer thought it was a prank. But
then he realized no one would dare pull a stunt like that. And the
voice he remembered from their personal meeting (in 1943 at the Bolshoi
Theater during the discussion of the new state anthem) came on the line,
asking why Shostakovich was refusing such a responsible assignment.
Shostakovich had already proven that he could handle himself in a
dialogue with the ruler. He did not lose his presence of mind this
time, either (he must have prepared himself for this), and replied that
he would not go to America because his music and that of his colleagues
had not been performed for more than a year; it was effectively banned
in the Soviet Union.
And something unheard of occurred: Stalin, who had intended to
corner the composer, lost his presence of mind. He pretended ignorance
and extreme surprise: 'What do you mean, they don't play it? Why don't
they play it? For what reason don't they play it?'
Shostakovich explained that there was an order from Glavrepertkom --
that is, the censors. And here, Stalin made the first concession. 'No,
we did not give such an order. I'll have to correct the comrades from
Glavrepertkom.' And he changed the subject: 'And what's this about your
Shostakovich told the pure truth. 'I'm nauseated.' This was a
second surprise for Stalin. We must assume that he was taken aback, but
he gave no sign, preferring to take Shostakovich's words literally
rather than metaphorically. 'Why are you nauseated? From what? You
will have an examination.'
An entire medical brigade was called from the 'Kremlevka,' the
special hospital for the government and Soviet elite. The Kremlin
doctors confirmed that he was indeed not well. Shostakovich called
about that to Stalin's secretary Poskrebyshev. But the secretary must
have had his orders from the Boss: Poskrebyshev told the composer that
he would tell Stalin nothing. He had to go to America, and he had to
write a letter of thanks to the ruler -- there was no point in arguing.
The dictator had already amply demonstrated his benevolence: the order
from Glavrepertkom banning the performance of an entire series of works
by 'formalist' composers -- Shostakovich, Prokofiev, Khachaturian,
Shebalin, Myaskovsky, and others -- had been rescinded.
This story, which was first revealed by Shostakovich in his memoirs,
was corroborated by documents published recently. And these documents
attest that Stalin's reaction was lightning-fast. Right after his
conversation with Shostakovich, that same day, the memorandum from the
deputy chairman of the Committee on the Arts under the aegis of the
Council of Ministers of the USSR was on his desk, as requested. In it,
the terrified functionary, with no idea of which way the wind was
suddenly blowing, gave a complete list of Shostakovich's banned works,
adding, just in case, that 'his best works: the Piano Quintet, First,
Fifth, Seventh Symphonies, and music for film and songs are performed in
He had labored in vain. The messenger is always punished. The very
next day the bureaucrats were slammed by the following directive of the
Council of Ministers of the USSR: 'Moscow, Kremlin. 1. Recognize as
illegal order No. 17 of Glavrepertkom Committee on the Arts under the
aegis of the Council of Ministers USSR of 14 February 1948 banning the
performance of and removing from the repertoire several works by Soviet
composers and rescind it. 2. Reprimand Glavrepertkom for publishing
illegal order.' It was signed: 'Chairman of the Council of Ministers of
the USSR J. Stalin.'
Compare this story with Stalin's telephone calls to Bulgakov (1930)
and Pasternak (1934). The honesty, courage, and inner strength of
Bulgakov and Pasternak are not in question. They both have a much
stronger 'anti-Stalinist' image in our time than Shostakovich, for
Bulgakov and Pasternak were never laureates of the Stalin Prize. But
for them the telephone conversation with the ruler, however brief,
became an event of enormous importance, and they returned to the
dialogue with Stalin over and over, year after year. For Bulgakov and
Pasternak (who called Stalin a 'giant of the pre-Christian era'), the
ruler was a larger-than-life figure.
Nothing of the sort happened with Shostakovich, even though Stalin
must have hoped for that effect. Shostakovich harbored no romantic
illusions about the ruler. It's quite possible that the perceptive
Stalin was aware of it.
Shostakovich also, unlike Bulgakov and Pasternak, was not a natural
interlocutor. The two writers -- each in his own way -- were born bards
and talkers. Shostakovich, on the contrary, was often so withdrawn in
dealing with people (especially ones he knew little), so isolated and
nervous, that it made him 'a man hard for others to bear," in Yevgeny
Marietta Shaginyan, who knew the composer well, observed that
Shostakovich sometimes resembled a space alien with 'some kind of
electrical charge, giving up a lot of bioenergy from his entire being.
He always spoke with great tension and effort. The first time he came
to my room, which was divided in half by a large and solid screen, very
steady, no sooner had he crossed the threshold when that steady screen
fell down as if it had been blown by the wind. My whole family was as
nervous as I was. It was always hard to start talking to him. And you
had to understand how to start correctly in order to make the
conversation work.' That was always my impression of Shostakovich, too.
Stalin's main psychological weapon in conversation was his
enigmatic, laconic style. But in Shostakovich he found someone who
could be even more laconic and enigmatic.
Shostakovich liked to tell a story about his meeting with Vladimir
Mayakovsky in 1929. Upon greeting the budding composer, the eminent
poet condescendingly extended only two fingers for him to shake.
Shostakovich, staying calm, extended only one in response. 'And so our
Something similar occurred in the conversation between Shostakovich
and Stalin. Despite the fact that the positions of the two sides were
clearly unequal (as the writer Viktor Shklovsky said of a comparable
situation, 'On their side is the army and the navy, on mine, only my
writing pen'), the dialogue between the ruler and the composer ended in
a mutual compromise. Stalin had to rescind the order he had inspired,
which he did very rarely and with extreme reluctance. In turn,
Shostakovich had to go to New York to the peace conference.
At the time, Stalin saw the conference as an important foreign
policy action. On his orders, 'the struggle for peace' was made the
leading slogan; consequently, the priority became the formation of a
viable peace movement. Much money and effort went into it.
The idea of a struggle for peace looked completely honorable; as one
of the more active participants, Ilya Ehrenburg, recalled, 'The cause
was pure: try to persuade everyone that a third world war would destroy
civilization.' Ehrenburg, of course, was prevaricating: politics is
rarely -- if ever -- that 'pure.'
The New York conference confirmed this. It took place on 25-27
March at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel and was therefore dubbed the Waldorf
Conference. Almost three thousand delegates attended, primarily
Americans of liberal and left-wing orientation, supporters of the former
vice-president and presidential candidate in the 1948 elections, Henry
The Soviet delegation included the writers Alexander Fadeyev and
Petr Pavlenko and the filmmakers Sergei Gerasimov and Mikhail Chiaureli
-- all Stalin laureates. But no one knew them in the United States; for
Americans the only star was Shostakovich, who was met at the airport in
New York by a huge crowd of fans.
This is another case where a parallel can be made with Pasternak.
In 1935, Stalin forced Pasternak to go to Paris for the antifascist
International Congress of Writers in Defense of Culture. The poet
refused, pleading ill health (like Shostakovich). But Stalin (via
Poskrebyshev) let him know that this was an order that had to be
Like Shostakovich, Pasternak obeyed, even though he felt profoundly
humiliated. At the Paris congress he was presented to the audience by
Andre Malraux as 'one of the greatest poets of our times,' and he made a
brief and very muddled speech, but he was greeted with a long ovation.
In the opinion of Ehrenburg, who was in charge of the Soviet delegation,
the French, who knew almost nothing about Pasternak's work, were amazed
by his appearance, so appropriate for the image of a romantic poet.
Shostakovich, populist at heart, still could make an impression of
eliteness, especially on strangers. But his work, unlike Pasternak's,
by then was well known to American intellectuals. Additionally,
Shostakovich had been lucky in America -- which was also important -- in
terms of his political reputation.
The attitude toward the Soviet Union had changed several times in
the United States. In the 1930s it was rather hostile, and so when
Shostakovich was attacked by 'Pravda' in 1936, the fame of the composer,
already known in the West, only increased. The sharp turnaround during
the Second World War, when the Soviet Union became an ally of the
Western democracies, made his reputation legendary. And then, the
postwar turn toward the Cold War, when everything Soviet was once again
regarded with suspicion in the United States, at first did not affect
Shostakovich because of the 'antiformalist' Party resolution of 1948.
But in 1949, America's love affair with Shostakovich came to a
sudden and brutal end. The cause was the composer's participation in
the Waldorf Conference, which was a signal cultural event of the early
The conference gave Stalin the opportunity to directly test the
attitude of Americans toward the Soviet Union. The suspicious ruler did
not trust the reports of professional diplomats, paradoxically
preferring to hear the impressions of creative people, who had a broader
worldview and greater psychological insight. In 1946 he had sent Ilya
Ehrenburg and Konstantin Simonov to America on a similar assignment. At
the Waldorf Conference, the informants were Fadeyev and Pavlenko, also
writers, but more active politically. Stalin listened to their opinions
attentively. (We now know that Pavlenko's denunciation of Mandelstam in
1938 played a fatal role in the poet's life.)
Shostakovich (like Pasternak in 1935) was included in the delegation
as a bolster of its respectability. But it was the composer, finding
himself the center of attention, who paid the greatest price.
Many well-known leftist Americans took part in the conference --
Arthur Miller, Norman Mailer, Lillian Hellman, Dashiell Hammett, and
Clifford Odets. The music panel included Leonard Bernstein and its
chairman was Olin Downes, music critic of the 'New York Times'. But
their ideological opponents were not sleeping. A small group of anti-
Communist American liberals formed an ad hoc committee called Americans
for Intellectual Freedom, supported by the CIA, to disrupt the
The leader of the anti-Soviet group, which included Mary McCarthy,
Dwight Macdonald, Arthur Schlesinger, and other New York intellectuals,
was the philosopher Sidney Hook. The counterattack on the musical front
was organized by Nicolas Nabokov, cousin of the great writer, a composer
with good official connections.
Nabokov went to the music panel, where Shostakovich, feeling like a
fish out of water, began reading in a nervous, trembling voice a
Kremlin-written ritual condemnation of the 'clique of war mongers'
planning aggression against the Soviet Union. When Shostakovich's
speech was finished for him by his American translator, Nabokov jumped
up to ask a question. 'Is Shostakovich personally in agreement with the
attacks that appeared in 'Pravda' on the music of Western composers
Stravinsky, Schoenberg, and Hindemith?"
Shostikovich rose to reply, he was handed a microphone, and with his
eyes lowered, burning with shame, he muttered that yes, he fully agreed
with 'Pravda'. Nabokov, as he remembered it, was thrilled. 'I knew in
advance what his reply would have to be, and I also knew that his reply
would expose him as being not a free agent... Yet this was in my opinion
the only legitimate way to expose the internal mores of Russian
What a sad sight: two Russians, two composers, brought together by
the Cold War in a ruthless duel. We can understand the miserable
Shostakovich, shoved into this ring by Stalin's orders. We can
understand Nabokov, too, in his desire to strike a blow at Communist
ideology, hitting hard at the closest target, not even thinking that the
target was a great composer. In addition, it was Nabokov, his
compatriot, who understood just how humiliating his ambivalent role at
the Waldorf Conference was for Shostakovich. We can also remember that
at that moment only one of them was under real pressure, with his life
in danger, and that was Shostakovich. [* To the end of his life
Shostakovich remembered those excruciating days in New York with
revulsion and fear. Interestingly, in 1967 he told Nabokov about
Stalin's order and that the text he read in New York had been written
for him by 'competent organs.']
The attacks by Nabokov and his friends pretty much torpedoed the
Waldorf Conference and with it Shostakovich's American reputation. From
that moment, regardless of his true emotions and convictions, he was
increasingly perceived in the West as a mouthpiece of Communist ideology
and his music as Soviet propaganda. This was the inexorable logic of
the Cold War. The hostile reaction to Shostakovich's music prevailed,
with small fluctuations, for thirty years.
The year 1949 was tense: the Cold War threatened to turn into a hot
one. Mainland China became Communist; Communists fought in Greece and
Vietnam. Even though the foundations of NATO were laid, Italy and
France were shaken by powerful anti-American demonstrations.
Stalin, who had given up on actively influencing American public
opinion after the failure of the Waldorf Conference, still planned to
tear Western Europe away from the United States; his hope was that 'the
struggle for peace in some countries will develop into the struggle for
socialism.' The French newspaper 'Le Monde' wrote that in 'the struggle
for peace' the Communists had 'found a slogan everyone could
understand.' The so-called Stockholm Declaration to ban the atom bomb,
initiated by the Communists, collected hundreds of millions of
signatures all over the world. Many prominent Western figures joined
the movement: the Dean of Canterbury, Hewlett Johnson; Queen Elisabeth
of Belgium; Nobel laureate Frederic Joliot-Curie. One of the most
prominent peaceniks was Pablo Picasso, whose lithograph of a dove became
the symbol of the movement and one of the cultural-political icons of
the twentieth century.
This aspect of Picasso's life is still treated in the West as if it
were a bit of inexplicable eccentricity on the part of the genius.
Nevertheless, the majority of memoirists confirm that Picasso took his
duties in the peace movement seriously. As Ehrenburg wrote, Picasso
readily participated in congresses and conferences, never refused to
appear, attentively listened to orators (wearing earphones for
synchronous interpretation) praising Stalin and denouncing American
imperialism. He once explained to Ehrenburg, 'Communism for me is
tightly related to my entire life as an artist.'
Compare this with Shostakovich's behavior. The composer also took
part in Stalin's 'struggle for peace,' but, unlike Picasso, he did it
under the unrelenting pressure of the Soviet authorities and with great
According to Ehrenburg, at a session of the Second World Congress
for Peace in Warsaw in 1959, an angry-looking Shostakovich complained to
him about having to listen to all that nonsense. The composer cheered
up when he found a way out of his predicament -- he unplugged his
earphones. 'Now I can't hear anything. It's wonderful!' Ehrenburg
recalled that Shostakovich resembled a child who had outsmarted his
mentors. [* In 1964, When Shostakovich was still alive, Ehrenburg
submitted these reminiscences to the most liberal Soviet magazine of the
time, 'Novyi Mir', and even there, the deputy editor-in-chief ws shocked
by the description of the composer's behavior. 'Shostakovich looks so
indifferent to the work of peace that he turns off the earphones during
the congress!' This episode was not published then.]
It is not surprising that Shostakovich was disgusted by the Western
supporters of Stalin and Stalinism, speaking with particular disdain of
Picasso (in a private conversation with Flora Litvinova): 'You
understand that I'm in a prison and that I fear for my children and
myself, but he -- he's free, lie doesn't have to lie!' And he
continued, 'Who's forcing him to speak? All of them, Hewlett Johnson,
Joliot-Curie, Picasso, they're vipers. They live in a world where maybe
it's not so easy to live, but you can tell the truth and work and do
what you think best. And he does that peace dove!'
The reason for this outburst is clear. Picasso got away with
everything -- receiving the International Stalin Prize 'for
strengthening peace' (in the artist's biographies today it is cravenly
called the Lenin Prize) in 1950, and drawing the idealized portrait of
Stalin that appeared after his death in the memorial issue of the French
Communist newspaper 'Lettres francaises'. James Lord, a young officer
with anti-Communist sentiments in the US military intelligence in
France, was present when Picasso demanded from the poet Paul Eluard, a
big shot in the peace movement, that the Stalin Prize go to him, since
he deserved it more than anyone else. In his memoirs, Lord explained
that he did not understand then why the artist wanted the Communist
award. But what is telling is that Lord, as he recalls it, was not in
the least put off by Picasso trying to get a prize from Stalin: for
Lord, Picasso was a modernist god.
In the middle of the twentieth century, modernism was the reigning
orthodoxy. Its influential supporters found numerous arguments to
justify Picasso's Stalinism and Ezra Pound's fascism. Shostakovich was
working in a more conservative idiom then, and therefore he could not
count on such protection. This is one of the explanations of why his
compromise compositions of the late 1940s and early 1950s have been so
furiously derided (to this day) -- such works as the oratorio 'Song of
the Forests' and the cantata 'The Sun Shines Over Our Motherland', and
his music for films praising Stalin, like 'The Fall of Berlin' and
These works had no more severe critic than their composer. For
instance, Shostakovich openly said that he considered 'Song of the
Forests' a shameful work. [* This can he compared again with Picasso,
who never disavowed his anti-American work 'Massacre in Korea' (1951),
which, even in the opinion of his admirers, was pure propaganda.] For
'Song of the Forests' and the music for 'The Fall of Berlin' the
composer received his fourth Stalin Prize, and the new leadership of the
Composers' Union got the opportunity to note with approval, 'In praising
the heroic labor of the Soviet people, D. Shostakovich in the oratorio
'Song of the Forests' glorifies Comrade Stalin, the genius creator of
the great plan to transform nature.'
In fact, Shostakovich's opus least of all 'glorified Comrade Stalin'
-- in complete accordance with its title, it deals with reforestation.
The fierce battles of the Second World War deforested huge tracts of the
Soviet Union, and the concern for increasing forest land was a major
issue. 'Let's dress the homeland in forests!' This appeal is the
central musical idea of the oratorio, and Stalin only gets a few pro-
forma phrases. Their complete superfluousness was demonstrated when
after the ruler's death 'Song of the Forests' continued to be performed
successfully with the lines relating to Stalin removed.
Before the premiere of 'Song of the Forests' in 1949 a friend of
Shostakovich's said to him, 'It would be so good if instead of Stalin
you had, say, the queen of the Netherlands -- she's a big fan of
reforestation, I hear.' The composer cried out, 'That would be
wonderful! I take responsibility for the music, but as for the
In essence, that is what happened. 'Song of the Forests', while
neither one of the best nor one of the most popular of Shostakovich's
works, continues to be performed and recorded even in our day --
primarily as an attractive musical pastiche, with reminiscences of
Glinka, Tchaikovsky (the boys' chorus from 'Queen of Spades'), and even
Shostakovich's beloved Mussorgsky. There is also a direct influence
(for some reason not noted before) of Gustav Mahler's 'Das Lied von der
Erde' ['Song of the Earth'], particularly its contemplative third and
fourth movements. Shostakovich hints at it in the obvious resemblance
of titles. The propaganda aspect of 'Song of the Forests' is rather
superficial. But it satisfied the authorities.
In general, those years saw a growing number of ideological events
in the Soviet Union being conducted pro forma. For new generations, the
Communist ideology was turning into a collection of slogans memorized to
show loyalty to the regime. Even Stalin realized it. According to
Dmitri Shepilov, Stalin once said to him in irritation, 'We studied 'Das
Kapital'. Memorized Lenin. We took notes, made summaries ... And the
young cadres? They don't even know Marx and Lenin. They study from
crib sheets and quotations.'
Stalin was particularly angered in this regard by the
intelligentsia. So he ordered a new mandatory brainwashing of writers,
actors, musicians, and others all over the country. Everyone, even
those with high titles and awards, was forced to study, like
schoolchildren, the ABCs of Marxism-Leninism and the works of Comrade
Stalin, to make summaries and pass tests.
But even this, despite Stalin's intentions, turned into empty
formality. For many years afterward, people laughed as they recalled
those tests on Marxism-Leninism. Mark Reizen, the renowned bass of the
Bolshoi Opera and a Stalin favorite, was asked by the examining
instructor to explain the difference between bourgeois and socialist
revolution. He replied, after a pause for thought, this way: 'That one
I know ... Ask me another one.'
For his Marxist-Leninist education, Shostakovich had a special tutor
come to his house. That must have been sanctioned at the top and done,
we assume, out of Stalin's increased interest in the indoctrination of
music's leading 'formalist.' Obviously Stalin thought that without a
profound mastery of Communist wisdom the stubborn composer would not be
re-educated properly. The personal instructor discovered an important
and unusual lapse on the part of his student the first time he entered
Shostakovich's study: the obligatory and ubiquitous portrait of Stalin
was absent from the walls and desk. Shostakovich was chided; like a
good student, he promised to correct the error of his ways. But a
portrait of Stalin never did appear in his apartment.
Shostakovich told his friend Lev Lebedinsky about another
conversation with the instructor. The latter started asking about
Stalin's telephone call in 1949, noting, 'Just think who talked to you!
The master of half the world! Of course, you too are a famous man, but
compared to him, who are you?'
'A worm,' replied Shostakovich.
'Exactly, a worm!' the instructor agreed.
Not a musician, he did not get the caustic sarcasm of Shostakovich's
response, with its allusion to the satirical song by Alexander
Dargomyzhsky, 'The Worm,' to the poem by Pierre-Jean de Beranger, and
For I am but a worm compared to him,
Compared to him, such a man,
As Lebedinsky recalled it, Shostakovich told him the story without
smiling, as if deep in thought about something unpleasant. 'What are
you thinking about?' Lebedinsky asked.
'About how ninety percent of our country's population is made up of
fools like him.'
For a lifelong populist, this was a tragic conclusion, born, we must
assume, of incredible exhaustion and enervation from the never-ending
pressure. [* Comparable emotions oppressed Pushkin in 1828, a dreary
year for him, when he addressed the 'mob' surrounding him and exclaimed
in disgust and anger: The voice of the lyre will nor animate you! / You
disgust my soul like coffins.]
Yet at that time the composer had 'in the desk drawer' one of his
most populist works, written in 1948 -- the song cycle 'From Jewish Folk
The fate and the place of this opus in Shostakovich's creative
legacy are extraordinary. The Jewish cycle is one of the most important
ways that Shostakovich addressed the theme of the 'little man,' central
in Russian classical culture, in Gogol, Dostoevsky, Mussorgsky. None of
these three could be called philo-Semites by any means, and therefore
Shostakovich's decision to create such a populist composition based on
Jewish material seems particularly daring. This unusual choice
inevitably put Shostakovich on a collision course with the growing
government-sanctioned anti-Semitism in the Soviet Union.
The relations between Jews, subjects of the tsarist empire, and the
government were always more or less problematic. The majority were
required to live in the 'pale of settlement,' that is, in small towns
and villages. There were quotas for Jews in higher educational
institutions. From time to time waves of bloody pogroms rolled over the
country, which led to the emigration of over two million Jews to the
United States in the late 1800s.
The situation changed when the Bolsheviks came to power in 1917:
Jews were given equal rights with the rest of the population, anti-
Semitism was officially forbidden, and even though Zionist activity was
prohibited, Yiddish literature arid theater were supported. There were
quite a few Jews among the original Bolshevik leaders -- including
Trotsky, Zinoviev, and Kamenev. But by 1926 Stalin 'freed them of their
responsibilities as members of the Politburo,' which led to the popular
joke: 'What is the difference between Stalin and Moses? Moses led the
Jews out of Egypt, and Stalin led them out of the Politburo.' Lazar
Kaganovich was brought in as the government's token Jew.
Historians are still debating whether Stalin was a convinced anti-
Semite, and if so, from what point: childhood (as some maintain) or
later -- at the seminary or even during the years of underground Marxist
work. I tend to agree with the opinion of those who point out the
pragmatic and opportunistic character of Stalin's views in this area.
For instance, in 1936, 'Pravda' printed Stalin's article 'On Anti-
Semitism' (his reply to a question from a Jewish journalist from the
United States): 'National and racial chauvinism is a relic of human-
hating mores characteristic of the cannibalistic period. Anti-Semitism,
as the extreme form of racial chauvinism, is the most dangerous relic of
cannibalism.' It is hard to imagine Hitler or any other ideological
anti-Semite signing such a statement.
On the other hand, when in the late 1930s Stalin started to renew
his ideological arsenal and began inculcating a more nationalistic state
policy, it produced a return of popular anti-Semitism. (This was
immediately reported to the dictator by Nadezhda Krupskaya, Lenin's
widow, who was very sensitive to this sort of thing. 'The kids have a
new swear word -- "kike."')
During the war with Hitler, a new wave of chauvinism and anti-
Semitism was gathering strength. While still covert, it was manifested
in various apparat games, especially in the fields of ideology and
culture. In 1942, a secret memorandum appeared written by the
Directorate of Propaganda and Agitation of the Party Central Committee
'On the Selection and Promotion of Cadres in Art,' which expressed
anxiety over the fact that in culture, the trendsetters were 'non-
Russian people (primarily Jews).' A special stress was made on the
situation in music -- at the Bolshoi Theater and the Leningrad and
Moscow Conservatories, where, according to the Party functionaries,
everything 'is almost completely in the hands of non-Russian people.'
Undoubtedly this document reflected the views of the Party
leadership; many job dismissals followed soon after. Among those who
signed petitions to support fired Jewish musicians was Shostakovich.
In intelligentsia families, like Shostakovich's, anti-Semitism was
never approved. But when he was young, anti-Semitic remarks were easy
to hear in his circle. I remember the shock I felt when I was going
through the archive of the late Leningrad musicologist and composer
Valerian Bogdanov-Berezovsky, whom I had known as the perfect gentleman,
and came across diary entries of the early 1920s mentioning a
conversation with young Shostakovich on the topic of the 'Jewish
takeover' in the arts. (These notes have been subsequently published in
It is impossible to suspect the mature Shostakovich of anti-Jewish
sentiments; there are numerous accounts of his implacable attitude
toward anti-Semitism. As Lebedinsky recalled, for Shostakovich the term
'anti-Semite' was equivalent to a swear word or the definition of
The earliest date for Shostakovich's public defense of Jews would
probably be 27 November 1938, the day he spoke at a rally at the
Leningrad Philharmonic, protesting against Jewish pogroms in Germany.
But it is important as well that in 1933, Shostakovich included a Jewish
musical theme in his First Piano Concerto. The coincidence in time with
the rise to power in Germany of Hitler with his anti-Jewish program is
unlikely to be accidental.
Since then, the number of fundamental works in which Shostakovich
used Jewish motifs grew, especially in the war years. Take the Second
Piano Trio or the Second String Quartet. No non-Jewish composer of
Shostakovich's rank before or after him was as taken by Jewish images.
Professor Timothy Jackson speaks of Shostakovich's identification with
Jews that went far beyond traditional philo-Semitism.
For Shostakovich, the Jew, always persecuted, turned into a symbolic
figure that personified alienation. Regarding the fate of Jews,
Shostakovich saw in it a bit of his own and of many other Russian
cultural figures. He could have signed under Marina Tsvetayeva's lines
in 'Poem of the End,' written in 1924 in exile in Czechoslovakia:
In this most Christian of worlds
Poets are kikes!
This sense of rejection and the perception of his own life as a Via
Dolorosa that came to Shostakovich with the first round of Stalin's
persecution in 1936 grew much stronger during the period of the Zhdanov
pogrom of 1948 -- that was one of the sources of the 'bloody freilekhs'
in the finale of the First Violin Concerto, which he was composing then.
And from here also came an impetus for the vocal cycle 'From Jewish Folk
Poetry', which Shostakovich began soon afterward.
But besides that, a dramatic event that took place on 12 January
1948 hung over both these Jewish works. On that day in Minsk, the great
Jewish actor Solomon Mikhoels, who had come to the capital of Belorussia
on business for the Stalin Prize Committee, of which he headed the
theater section, was killed by a heavy truck. The hit, which occurred
without witnesses and was pronounced an accident by the authorities, was
in fact a killing planned by and executed on Stalin's orders, as is now
known. Despite the official funeral with pomp and circumstance
(comparable to Gorky's funeral in 1936), the emotional graveside
speeches and lengthy obituaries, some of the titans of culture under
Stalin's vigilant eye felt a chill run up their spines. Returning from
Mikhoels's funeral, Eisenstein whispered to a friend, 'I'm next.'
We can imagine the thoughts that tormented Shostakovich then. He
learned of Mikhoels's death on 13 January and that same day went to the
deceased's apartment to express his condolences to the family (Mikhoels
was among Shostakovich's ardent admirers). He arrived there after an
exhausting and humiliating day spent at the Zhdanov Conference at the
Central Committee: it was on 13 January that Zhdanov in his concluding
speech put Shostakovich at the top of the black list of 'anti-people,
At the Mikhoels's apartment Shostakovich embraced the actor's
daughter and then said, 'I envy him. At that moment, instant death
seemed a release.
In Zhdanov's speech there was a threat directed at so-called
cosmopolites, the code word for 'Jews'. The intellectuals repeated a
sarcastic ditty at the time:
If you don't want to be known as an anti-Semite
Be sure to call a kike 'cosmopolite.'
The murder of Mikhoels marked the start of a much more active
campaign to marginalize Jews in the Soviet Union, which grew inexorably
right up to Stalin's death in March 1953. The campaign kept moving into
new areas -- Jewish theaters and publications were shut down and all
kinds of Jewish organizations and associations were disbanded. These
actions were accompanied by arrests among the various circles of the
Today it is sometimes mistakenly thought that Stalin's policy met no
resistance inside the Soviet Union. In fact, many members of the Soviet
cultural elite protested this anti-Semitic turn. For example, the
renowned microbiologist, laureate of the Stalin Prize, ninety-year-old
Nikolai Gamaleia (Ukrainian by birth) wrote a letter to Stalin
protesting that 'something bad is happening in our country at the
present time toward Jews.' Gamaleia boldly wrote, 'Judging by
absolutely indisputable and obvious signs, the reappearance of anti-
Semitism is coming not from below, not from the masses, among whom there
is no hostility toward the Jewish people, but it is being directed from
above by someone's invisible hand. Anti-Semitism is coming from some
high-placed persons who have taken up posts in the leading Party
Naturally, this letter to Stalin did not get a response.
Shostakovich, unlike Gamaleia, had no doubts about who was behind the
anti-Semitic campaign. 'Cosmopolites, Jews, they're all to blame for
the fact that we are slaves,' he said with bitter irony to Flora
Litvinova. 'Anti-Semitism is a struggle against culture and reason.'
He did riot bother writing letters to Stalin; instead he wrote his
This work was Shostakovich's guerilla attack in defense of the
persecuted, even though it was impossible to have it performed then.
(The premiere took place only in 1955, after Stalin's death.) It is
full of warm compassion for the Jewish lot in the past and the present.
This music carries not only pain and despair, but real tenderness -- an
emotion riot so often found in Shostakovich's works.
The first three songs of the cycle (with vivid echoes of Mahler's
songs from 'Des Knaben Wunderhorn') are lullabies; this was impossible
to imagine in Shostakovich before. And they are so different: 'Cry for
a Dead Infant' is a graveside wail ('Moishele is in the grave, the
grave'); then a tender and touching scene, 'Fussing Mother and Aunt';
and finally, the resignation of a mother by her child's bed in the face
of triumphant brute force ('Your father is in chains in Siberia ... I
bear the need').
The theme of poverty and need is very strong in the Jewish cycle.
Here, we can presume, are reflected the author's own worries: it was at
this time that Shostakovich was fired from work at the Moscow and
Leningrad Conservatories and the list of his permitted works was sharply
reduced. The fear of ending up without a piece of bread was something
he had felt since his youth, and it erupted in the Jewish cycle in 'Song
About Need': 'Oy, wife, borrow a piece of hard bread for the children.'
And the culmination of the opus, the song 'Winter,' is about the final
despair where there is no strength left to resist the blows of ruthless
The cold and the wind are back,
There is no strength to bear it in silence.
Shout then, weep then, children,
The winter is back again.
This is also profoundly personal: the composer's constant fear for his
family -- his wife, Nina, daughter, Galina, and son, Maxim -- if he were
unable to feed them or if something even worse happened to him and he
ended up in chains in Siberia. This was a possibility to take
seriously, for the tragic end of Mikhoels served as a terrible warning.
After all, Mikhoels belonged to the golden circle of Soviet cultural
figures: he was awarded the title of People's Artist of the USSR and in
1946 received the Stalin Prize. Most importantly, Stalin had promoted
him to an important political position -- in 1941, after the start of
the war with Nazi Germany, Mikhoels was made chairman of the Jewish
Anti-Fascist Committee. One of its goals was to get support from the
Western Jewish community for the Soviet Union and to raise money in the
United States for the Soviet war effort. For that, Mikhoels was sent to
America in 1943, where he met with Albert Einstein, his old friend Marc
Chagall, and Charlie Chaplin, among other luminaries, and spoke at
rallies and conferences in support of the Soviet Union's role in the war
against the Nazis. On that trip, Mikhoels raised millions of dollars
for his country.
But the word 'gratitude' did not exist in Stalin's political
vocabulary. In Stalin's eyes, a person's value was measured only in his
usefulness that minute. After the victorious end of the war, there was
no more need for the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee, and Stalin became
very suspicious of the connections with Western Jews that Mikhoels and
his colleagues had developed. He saw in them proof of a conspiracy of
world Jewry against the Soviet Union. Mikhoels was the first prominent
victim of this paranoia.
There are various, often contradictory, testimonies about Stalin's
physical and psychological state in the final period of his life. Most
agree that the ruler's health was beginning to give out: he was feeling
his age and the major strain of the war years. This must have
frightened Stalin: he realized that he was not immortal. In impotent
fury the ruler sought someone to blame for his deterioration, and found
them: his doctors, many of whom were Jewish.
Stalin always prided himself on his perceptiveness, his ability to
find the hidden springs of events. He put two and two together: his
failing health and the imagined 'international Zionist conspiracy'
against the Soviet Union. Thus was born the case of the Saboteur
Doctors, whose arrest was announced to the country on 13 January 1953.
With dread, the intelligentsia recognized Stalin's style and
vocabulary behind the special report in the newspapers: 'It has been
established that these killer doctors, having become monsters of the
human race, having trampled upon the sacred banner of science and
defiled the honor of practitioners, were hired agents of foreign
A new wave of anti-Semitism rolled across the country, but this time
not only Jews felt threatened. Long experience prompted many to think
that the country was on the brink of a mass purge that would be similar
to the Great Terror before the war.
As in the era of the Great Terror, no former contributions or medals
guaranteed security. This meant everyone from the top down. Stalin
accused his closest top aides; one he called a British spy, another, an
American spy. In culture, even the once prestigious title of laureate
of the Stalin Prize offered no protection. This had been demonstrated
by the murder of Mikhoels. Another signal was the unprecedented
resolution of the Politburo annulling the Stalin Prize once given to
composer Gherman Zhukovsky: his opera, 'From the Heart', for unknown
reasons, upset the ailing ruler. That meant this punishment could be
meted out to any laureate, with the resultant consequences.
How would this growing tension and anticipation have ended if Stalin
had lived another year or two? Any answer has to be hypothetical. Fate
intervened. In late February 1953, Stalin had a stroke, and on 5 March
(according to the official communique, even though not all historians
accept this date), he died. He was seventy-three.
Ehrenburg recalled the shock of the news. 'We had long ago
forgotten that Stalin was a man. He had become an omnipotent and
mysterious god. And now the god had died of a hemorrhage in the brain.
It seemed incredible.' This reaction is very reminiscent of the
emotions contemporaries felt upon the death of Nicholas I, almost a
hundred years earlier, in February 1855; as one of them wrote in a
diary: 'I always thought, and I was not alone, this Emperor Nicholas
would outlive us, and our children, and probably our grandchildren.'
The feeling of horror that enveloped many intellectuals in those days is
captured in the diary entry of avant-garde artist Nadezhda Udaltsova on
6 March 1953: 'There are no words. There is nothing.' Understandably,
panic hit the political elite; Shepilov recalled feeling 'as if
something had broken in the main mechanism of the giant machine of the
state.' Apocalyptic feelings spread among the people.
But not everyone reacted that way. The poet Joseph Brodsky told me
how, when he was twelve, the students were gathered in the auditorium of
his school in Leningrad on 6 March and the teacher gave them an
emotional speech. 'She climbed up onto the stage and started talking,
but at a certain point she broke off and shrieked in a heart-rending
voice: "On your knees! On your knees!" Then all hell broke loose! All
around me everyone was howling, and I was supposed to be howling, too,
apparently, but -- at the time to my shame, but now, I think, to my
credit -- I wasn't. It all seemed so barbaric to me. Everyone around
me was standing there sniffing. Some were even sobbing, and a few were
really seriously weeping. They let us go home early that day, and
again, strangely, my parents were waiting for me at home. My mother was
in the kitchen. We lived in a communal apartment. In the kitchen, the
pots, the neighbor women -- and everyone weeping. Even my mother was
weeping. I went back to our room some
There is no doubt that Shostakovich, upon hearing of Stalin's death,
felt an instant sense of profound relief, but there was no euphoria --
this is confirmed by reminiscences of the composer's friends and
children. Shostakovich, like many other Soviet intellectuals, had
reason to think that the screws would be tightened even more, as a
preventive measure. An additional blow came with the news of
Prokofiev's death, the same day as Stalin's, also from a brain
hemorrhage, just a month short of his sixty-second birthday.
Shostakovich and Prokofiev of course had a complex, sometimes strained
relationship. Yet the 'antiformalist' campaign of 1948, with both
composers as its victims, had brought them closer together again and
they had made peace. Shostakovich felt that they were in the same boat.
In the last years of Stalin's life Prokofiev and Shostakovich
received new rewards from the dictator: Prokofiev in 1951 got his sixth
Stalin Prize, for the oratorio 'On Guard for Peace', and Shostakovich in
1952 got his fifth, for a cycle of choruses about the Revolution of
1905. But both knew by now that these prizes were not guarantees of
safety and Stalin could send a new bolt of lightning at them at any
That is why Prokofiev was so tense when he heard the official
bulletins about the dictator's fatal illness. Anticipation of Stalin's
end is considered to have hastened Prokofiev's death. Paradoxically,
the anniversary of the death of the tyrant and the death of the composer
would be marked together, a constant reminder of the bizarre,
intertwining, mutual influence and mutual repulsion of politics and art.
At Prokofiev's bier, in the shabby semi-basement of the House of
Composers, Shostakovich was more humble and respectful than ever. He
kissed the deceased's hand and said, 'I am proud that I had the fortune
to live and work next to such a great musician as Sergei Sergeyevich
Prokofiev.' There were not many flowers at Prokofiev's coffin -- they
were all taken for the Hall of Columns in the House of Unions, for the
bier holding Stalin's corpse.
On 7 March, a cold and gloomy day, the funeral procession with
Prokofiev's body started for the cemetery, and in the small group was
Shostakovich. They went down almost empty streets, going around the
huge rivers of people struggling in the opposite direction to pay their
respects to the ruler. I doubt that the obvious symbolism escaped
Shostakovich. What was he thinking in those hours? He must have been
torn by contradictory emotions.
Shostakovich realized that Prokofiev's life had concluded on a sad
note; he died a humiliated and broken man, who thought, perhaps
unjustly, that his battle with Stalin had ended in compromise that
bordered on defeat. That feeling, without any doubt, was familiar to
Shostakovich. But he was still not old (he was forty-six), was
comparatively healthy, and despite everything, filled with musical ideas
and a desire to work. And now, with Stalin's death, fate had given
Shostakovich a chance at revenge.
Chapter VII: 'Final Convulsions and Death of the Tsar'
The Peasant Marey
by Fyodor Dostoyevsky
It was Easter Monday. The air was warm, the sky blue, the sun high,
"warm" and bright, but I was plunged in gloom. I wandered aimlessly
behind the barracks in the prison yard, looked at the palings of the
strong prison fence, counting them mechanically, though I did not
particularly want to count them, but doing it more out of habit than
It was the second day of "holidays" in prison. The convicts were
not taken out to work, lots of them were drunk, cursing and quarreling
broke out every minute in different corners of the prison. Disgusting,
coarse songs; groups of convicts playing cards under the bunks; several
convicts who had run amok and had been dealt with summarily by their own
comrades, were lying half dead on the bunks, covered with sheepskins,
until they should recover consciousness; the knives that had already
been drawn several times -- all this had so harrowing an effect on me
during the two days of holidays that it made me ill. I could never bear
without disgust the wild orgies of the common people, and here in this
place, this was specially true.
On such days, even the officials never looked into the prison,
carried out no searches, did not look for drinks, realizing that once a
year even these outcasts had to be given a chance of enjoying themselves
and that otherwise things would be much worse. At last, blind fury
blazed up in my heart. I met the Pole, Miretski, one of the political
prisoners. He gave me a black look, with flashing eyes and trembling
"Je hais ces brigands!" he hissed at me in an undertone and walked
past me. I went back to the barracks, although I had rushed out of them
like a madman only a quarter of an hour before, when six strong peasants
had hurled themselves on the drunken Tartar Gazin in an attempt to
quieten him and had begun beating him. The beat him senseless -- a
camel might have been killed by such blows. But they knew that it was
not easy to kill this Hercules, and they beat him therefore without any
Now, on my return, I noticed Gazin laying unconscious and without
any sign of life on a bunk in a corner at the other end of the barracks;
he lay covered with a sheepskin, and they all passed by him in silence,
knowing very well that if the man was unlucky he might die from a
beating like that. I made my way to my place opposite the window with
the iron bars and lay on my back with my eyes closed and my hands behind
my head. I liked to lay like that: no one would bother a sleeping man,
and meanwhile, one could dream and think. But I found it difficult to
dream: my heart was beating uneasily and Miretski's words were still
echoing in my ears: "Je hais ces brigands!"
However, why dwell on these scenes; I sometimes even now dream of
those times at night, and none of my dreams is more agonizing. Perhaps
it will be noticed that to this day I have hardly ever spoken in print
of my life in prison; The House of the Dead I wrote fifteen years ago in
the person of a fictitious character who was supposed to have killed his
wife. I may add, incidentally, just as an interesting detail, that many
people have thought and have been maintaining ever since the publication
of that book of mine, that I was sent to Siberia for the murder of my
By and by, I did forget my surroundings and became imperceptibly
lost in memories. During the four years of my imprisonment, I was
continually recalling my past and seemed in my memories to live my
former life all over again. These memories cropped up by themselves; I
seldom evoked them consciously. It would begin from some point, some
imperceptible feature, which then grew little by little into a complete
picture, into some clear-cut and vivid impression. I used to analyze
those impressions, adding new touches to an event that had happened long
ago, and, above all, correcting it incessantly, and that constituted my
chief amusement. This time I for some reason suddenly remembered one
fleeting instant in my early childhood when I was only nine years old --
an instant I seemed to have completely forgotten; but at that time, I
was particularly fond of memories of my early childhood. I remembered
an August day in our village; a dry, bright day, though rather cloudy
and windy; Summer was drawing to a close, and we should soon have to
leave for Moscow and again have to spend all winter over the boring
French lessons, and I was so sorry to leave the country.
I walked past the threshing floors and, going down a ravine, climbed
up into the dense thicket of bushes which stretched from the other side
of the ravine to the wood. I got among the bushes, and I could hear not
very far away, about thirty yards perhaps, a peasant plowing by himself
on a clearing. I knew he was plowing up the steep slope of a hill. The
horse must have found it very hard going, for from time to time I hear
the peasant's call from a distance: "Gee up! Gee up!" I knew almost
all our peasants, but I did not know which of them was plowing now, nor
did it really matter to me who it was because I was occupied with my own
affairs -- I too was busy, breaking off a switch from a hazel-tree to
strike frogs with; hazel twigs are very lovely, but they are also very
brittle, much more brittle than birch twigs. I was also interested in
beetles and other insects, and I was collecting them; some of them were
very beautiful. I also liked the small quick red and yellow lizards
with black spots, but I was afraid of snakes. However, there were many
fewer snakes than lizards. There were not many mushrooms there; to get
mushrooms one had to go to the birch wood, and I was about to go there.
And there was nothing in the world I loved so much as the woods with
its mushrooms and wild berries, its beetles and its birds, its hedgehogs
and squirrels, and its damp smell of rotted leaves. And even as I write
this, I can smell the fragrance of our birch wood: these impressions
remain with you for your whole life.
Suddenly amid the dead silence I heard clearly and distinctly the
shout, "Wolf! Wolf!" I uttered a shriek and, panic-stricken, screamed
at the top of my voice and rushed out to the clearing straight to the
It was our peasant Marey. I do not know if there is such a name,
but everybody called him Marey. He was a peasant of about fifty, thick-
set, and over medium height, with a large, grizzled, dark-brown beard.
I knew him, but till that day I had scarcely ever spoken to him. When
he heard my cry, he even stopped his old mare, and when, unable to stop
myself I clutched at his wooden plow with one hand and at his sleeve
with the other, he saw how terrified I was.
"There's a wolf there!" I cried, breathless.
He threw up his head and looked round involuntarily, for a moment
almost believing me.
"Where's the wolf?"
"Someone shouted -- shouted just now 'Wolf! Wolf!'" I stammered.
"There, there! There are no wolves hereabouts," he murmured, trying
to calm me. "You've been dreaming, sonny. Whoever heard of wolves in
But I was trembling all over and I was clutching at his smock, and I
suppose I must have been very pale. He looked at me with a worried
smile, evidently anxious and troubled about me.
"Dear, dear, how frightened you are," he said, shaking his head.
"Don't be frightened, sonny. Oh, you poor thing, you! There, there."
He stretched out his hand and suddenly stroked my cheek.
"There now! Christ be with you, cross yourself, there's a good
But I did not cross myself; the corners of my mouth were still
twitching, and that seemed to strike him particularly. He quietly
stretched out his thick finger with its black nail, smeared with earth,
and gently touched my trembling lips.
"Dear, oh dear," he smiled at me with a slow motherly sort of smile,
"Lord, how frightened he is, the poor lad!"
I realized at last that there was no wolf and that I had imagined
the shout, "Wolf! Wolf!" The shout, though, was very clear and
distinct, but such shouts (and not only about wolves) I had imagined
once or twice before, and I knew it. (I grew out of these
hallucinations a few years later).
"Well, I'll go now," I said, looking up at him, questioningly and
"Run along, run along, son, I'll be awatching you," he said, adding,
"Don't you worry, I shan't let the wolf get you!" and he smiled at me
with the same motherly smile. "Well, Christ be with you. Run along,
run along, sonny," and he made the sign of the cross over me, and then
crossed himself too.
I walked away, looking back anxiously every few yards. While I was
walking away, Marey stood still with his mare and looked after me,
nodding his head at me every time I looked round. As a matter of fact,
I was a little ashamed of myself for having let him see how frightened I
was, but I was still very much afraid of the wolf as I was walking away
till I climbed up the steep side of the ravine and came to the first
threshing barn. There my terror left me completely, and our watchdog
Volchok suddenly appeared and rushed at me. With Volchok at my side, I
completely recovered my spirits and turned round to Marey for the last
time. I could no longer see his face clearly, but I felt that he was
still nodding and smiling tenderly at me. I waved at him and he waved
back to me and started his mare.
"Gee up!" I heard his call in the distance again, and the mare
pulled at the wooden plow once more.
All this came back to me all at once, I don't know why, but with
amazing accuracy and detail. I suddenly came to and sat up on my bunk,
and, I remember, I could still feel the gentle smile of memory on my
lips. For another minute I went on recalling that incident from my
When I returned home from Marey that day I did not tell anybody
about my "adventure". It was not much of an adventure anyway. And,
besides, I soon forgot all about Marey. Whenever I happened to come
across him now and then, I never spoke to him either about the wolf or
anything else, and now twenty years later in Siberia I suddenly
remembered this meeting so distinctly that not a single detail of it was
lost, which means of course that it must have been hidden in my mind
without my knowing it, of itself and without any effort on my part, and
came back to me suddenly when it was wanted. I remembered the tender,
motherly smile of that serf, the way he made the sign of the cross over
me and crossed himself, the way he nodded at me. "Lord, how afeered he
is, the poor lad!" and particularly that thick finger of his, smeared
with earth, with which he touched my twitching lips so gently and with
such shy tenderness. No doubt, anyone would have done his best to calm
a child, but something quite different seemed to have happened during
that solitary meeting; and if I had been his own son he could not have
looked at me with eyes shining with brighter love. And who compelled
him to look like that? He was one of our serfs, a peasant who was our
property, and after all I was the son of his master. No one would have
known that he had been so good to me, and no one would have rewarded him
for it. Did he really love little children as much as that? There are
such people, no doubt. Our meeting took place in a secluded spot, in a
deserted field, and only God perhaps saw from above with what profound
and enlightened human feeling, and with what delicate, almost womanly,
tenderness the heart of a coarse, savagely ignorant Russian serf was
filled, a serf who at the time neither expected nor dreamt of his
Tell me, was not this what Konstantin Akaskov perhaps meant when he
spoke of the high degree of culture of our people?
And so when I got off the bunk and looked round, I suddenly felt, I
remember, that I could look at these unhappy creatures with quite
different eyes, and that suddenly by some miracle all hatred and anger
had vanished from my heart. I walked round the prison peering into the
faces I came across. That rascal of a peasant with his head shaven and
branded face, yelling his hoarse drunken song at the top of his voice --
why, he, too, may be the same sort of peasant as Marey: I cannot
possibly look into his heart, can I? That evening I again met Miretski.
Poor man! He could have no memories about Marey or peasants like him
and could have no other opinions of these people except: "Je hais ces
brigands!" Yes, it was much harder for those Poles than for us!
from "The Diary of a Writer"
Dostoyevsky's monthly editorial column in
"The Citizen" Magazine, February 1876
(translated by ?Olga Shartze??)
by Will and Ariel Durant
The revolution first inspired Russian poets, then conscripted them
to propaganda, and then drove some to disillusionment as they saw the
nature of man overriding his aspirations. [I too (for I was once a
poet!) wrote an ecstatic alleluia -- "Holy Russia" -- in 1919.] The new
rulers, like the watchdogs of the czars, thought it necessary to control
literature in order to maintain their power; and in the compulsion to
orthodoxy some potential Miltons may have remained inglorious or mute.
Nevertheless hundreds of poets have strummed the Russian lyre since
1917. I know them only scantily and superficially, since their language
and literary art are closed to me; and my little knowledge has been made
more dangerous by the natural tendency of the West to pay more attention
to the disillusioned singers than to the rest. We shall pay our
respects to the memory of two who killed themselves in youth, and then
surrender ourselves to the still exuberant Yevtushenko.
Sergei Yesenin began as a peasant in love with horses, green fields,
and waving Wheat. He went to Moscow at eighteen (1913), and worked with
his father in a butcher shop; there is hope for all of us. He moved to
St. Petersburg, and published poems full of cows and harvests and
religious piety. He welcomed the overthrow of Czar and Duma, and joined
joyously in the overthrow of God. He read his poems to enthusiastic
revolutionary gatherings. Isadora Duncan, coming to Russia, was
fascinated by his verses, he by her legs. They were married in 1922, he
aged twenty-seven, she forty-four. She took him with her to the United
States, where he denounced capitalism and challenged the Americans to
join in the march to Communism. Singer and dancer were soon divorced.
Returning to Russia, Yesenin began an epic on Pugachev, who had led a
peasant revolt against Catherine the Great; he never finished the poem,
and never quite adjusted his rural heritage to the dictatorship of the
proletariat. He laughed at the claim of the Revolution that it would
bring equality to all men, and concluded that power had merely changed
its personnel. He began to long for his adolescent days of farming and
I am ashamed that I believed in God;
I bitterly regret that I don't believe today.
He took to drink and tarts, wrote "Verses of a Brawler" and "Songs of a
Drunk"; and in 1925, age thirty, physically and spiritually exhausted,
probably insane, alone in a hotel room, he hanged himself.
V1adimir Mayakovski had a different origin (1893) and followed
another route to the same end. Son of a minor nobleman, he demanded,
even before the Revolution, a revolution in both politics and art. He
studied Karl Marx at twelve, but preferred the colorful and romantic
Ferdinand Lassalle. He relished Poe, Whitman, Jack London, Villon,
Verlaine, and Rimbaud. At Moscow he enrolled in that same School of
Painting, Sculpture, and Architecture where Pasternak's father was
teaching. He welcomed Cubism and Futurism, dressed his lusty torso in a
bright-yellow blazer, insulted opponents readily, and knocked them down
with pleasure; he was as proud of his fists as of his verses. He hailed
the Revolution ecstatically, and took up with delight the vocabulary of
the proletariat. Those same well-to-do graces of word and life that
Pasternak wished to preserve, those rustic simplicities and pieties that
Yesenin longingly recalled, were condemned by Mayakovski as cultural
treason and political immaturity; he celebrated the cities, the
industries, and the battles that were sickening uprooted souls. He
rejected all classic literary forms and rules, and thought that Pushkin
had deserved a firing squad. All literature, he thought, should be
judged by its service to the new state; his own verses, he vowed, should
be bullets shot for the Revolution. He joined the propaganda agencies
of the government, and gladly helped to prepare posters, slogans, and
appeals for support of the Soviet armies. He visited the factories and
stirred the workers with his readings. In an epic-satiric poem called
'250 Millions' (1920) he pictured so many Ivans invading America and
winning it to Communism. Leaders and masses acclaimed him as the poet
of the Revolution. Soon his excesses of fervor and speech wore him out;
he became weary of versifying propaganda; he dared to criticize the
rising bureaucracy and secret police; he offended the Communists by not
joining the party. He traveled abroad, relaxed in Paris, was
"entranced" by New York, and returned with some dents in his ideology.
Worse yet, he allowed a love affair to dominate him, to make him forget,
in his longing for a woman, that the Revolution and the Soviets claimed
his supreme devotion. The lady rejected him; he sank into despondency;
one day all Moscow was shocked to hear that Mayakovski had shot himself
(1930) at the age of thirty-six. He left behind him an appeal to the
Have pity on my mother,
Take care of my lily sister.
In the desk there are two thousand;
Let the tax collector take his due.
And I shall quietly die.
- - -
In 1963 Yevgeni Yevtushenko published in a Paris weekly 'A
Precocious Autobiography'; he was only thirty, but the amiable little
book showed that he could write prose as well as poetry. At fifteen, he
recalls, he quarreled with his mother, and "traveled on the roof of a
train all the way" from his birthplace at Winter Station (in the Irkutsk
Region) to Kazakhstan in Central Asia. There he worked as a day
laborer; but he found time to read Pushkin, Dostoevski, Tolstoi,
Chekhov, Hemingway, Faulkner, Joyce, Freud, Proust, Thomas Mann ... He
returned to his mother, worked hard; with his savings and hers he bought
a typewriter. So armed, he made his way to Moscow, bubbling with
poetry. His first published verses appeared in the magazine 'Soviet
Sport' (1949); its subject was soccer, in which he was a "star."
"Well," sighed his mother, "there's no hope for you now." In 1952 he
found a publisher for his "collected poems." "I went home, reread my
book, and suddenly realized with the utmost clarity that it was of no
use to anyone." His mother took hope.
But he persisted, and now he resolved to describe things as he saw
them, instead of hugging the party line. The death of Stalin (1953)
freed the youth's pen; the rise of Khrushchev gave him courage; and
though he was expelled from the Literary Institute and then from the
Komsomol, he rose to the defense of Pasternak, and visited him at
Peredelkino when it was dangerous to be Pasternak's friend. He
recognized that a new class was forming. "It was with the vigilance of
a revolutionary that I watched the erection in Moscow of blocks of tall
apartment houses destined for the bureaucratic elite, while thousands of
Muscovites lived in tiny, wretched, overcrowded rooms"; he had still to
learn that inequality is as natural as greed. "It was strange and
unaccountable to me that even people with party cards in their pockets
would love money so much."
He denounced not only the brutal decrees that had sullied Stalin's
decaying years but also, in "Stalin's Heirs," the men who were trying to
maintain the rigor of that rule. He mourned "the many poets who died in
Stalin's camps," and recalled with revulsion Stalin's dying attack upon
the Jewish doctors. Later he wrote: "Now that ten years have gone by, I
realize that Stalin's greatest crime was not the arrests and the
shootings he ordered. His greatest crime was the corruption of the
human spirit.... He did not in theory preach careerism, servility,
spying, cruelty, bigotry, and hypocrisy, but these were implicit in his
practice." He admitted the achievements of Stalin in peace and war, but
he begged that the guard over the ogre's tomb be doubled and trebled "so
that Stalin should not rise, and with Stalin, the past." Magazine
editors did not dare publish "Stalin's Heirs," but 'Pravda' printed it
at Khrushchev's command.
Probably under Khrushchev's protection Yevtushenko was allowed to
visit Western Europe and the United States in the summer of 1961. The
poet, still but twenty-eight yet already famous in and beyond Russia,
proved to be a welcome emissary of the new Soviet regime. Returning to
Moscow, he raised fresh commotion by publishing (September 19, 1961) an
outstanding poem entitled 'Babi Yar." This was the name of a ravine, on
the outskirts of Kiev, where Hitler's invading army, in two days of
September, 1941, massacred and buried 34,000 Jews. Yevtushenko wanted
to know why the Soviet authorities had not raised some monument to keep
this crime in human memory, and he implied that this neglect was one of
many signs that the Russian state -- and perhaps the Russian people --
secretly preserved the anti-Semitism that had flourished under the czar.
I am indebted to Herbert Marshall and his publishers for permission
to quote here his magnificent translation of this remarkable poem.
There are no memorials over Babi Yar.
Only an abrupt bank like a crude epitaph rears.
I stand terror-stricken.
Today I'm as ancient in years
as the Jewish people themselves are.
It seems to me at this moment --
I am an Israelite.
Now I'm wandering over Ancient Egypt in captivity.
And now on the cross I perish, crucified,
and to this day the marks of the nails are on me.
I am Dreyfus now,
inside my mind.
My informer and judge
I am behind bars.
I was trapped in the roundup.
And ladies with flounces of Brussels' lace
shriekingly poke parasol points in my face.
It seems to me --
I'm a boy in Bialystok.
Blood flows over the floor, red-running.
Outrages are committed by bullies of vodka shops,
stinking of drink and raw onions.
I lie helpless, by jackboots kicked about.
I plead to the pogromites in vain.
"Beat the Yids! Save Russia!"
My mother by shopkeeper is beaten and flayed.
Oh, my Russian people!
you are international
But often with unclean hands, such creatures
besmirch your own clean name.
The goodness of my native land I know.
How foul it is, that --
without turning a hair --
anti-Semites a title self-pompously bestowed:
"We're 'The Union of the Russian People,'" they declared.
I am Anna Frank
it seems to me,
as frail as a twig
in April weather.
And I love.
And for empty phrases have no need.
just that we should see each other.
Yet how little one can see
We're forbidden the leaves,
forbidden the sky as well.
But we can still do so much --
embrace each other in the darkness of the room.
Don't be afraid -- that is the din
of oncoming Spring itself --
Come to me.
Give me your lips quickly.
They're breaking down the door?
No, that's Spring -- ice-breaking
Over Babi Yar only rustling wild grasses move.
The trees watch sternly,
like judges arrayed.
Here silence itself cries aloud --
my hat I remove,
I am gradually going gray.
And I myself
am like an endless soundless cry,
over these thousands and thousands of buried ones.
of these murdered old men am I.
I am each of their murdered
Nothing will ever forget this
Let the "International"
thunder its might
when will be buried for eternity the earth's last anti-Semite.
No Jewish blood my veins runs through,
but I am hated with an encrusted passion,
by all anti-Semites, as if I
were a Jew,
and because of that
I'm a genuine Russian!
[From 'Yevtuskenko Poems' by Yevgeni Yevtushenko,
translated by Herbert Marshall. Copyright (c) 1966 by
E.P. Dutton & Co., Inc.]
When Yevtushenko read this poem at the Polytechnical Institute, the
audience applauded for twenty minutes. When the 'Literary Gazette',
after much hesitation, printed it, twenty thousand letters came to the
magazine -- thirty or forty hostile, the rest acclaiming 'Babi Yar" as
one of the finest Russian poems of the century. Shostakovich chose it
as one of four poems to accompany his Thirteenth Symphony. [* Anatoli
Kuznetsov expanded the grim tale of Babi Yar in a documentary novel
(1966). Discouraged by the censorship that distorted this and others of
his works, Kuwetsov, age thirty-nine, defected to Great Britain in 1969.
He has repudiated all Russian editions of his books, and has changed his
name to A. Anatol.]
I like this young Lochinvar rising in the East, singing of love and
justice and the zest of life. A healthy body and a warm heart have
tuned this lyre.
I like to laugh
into the faces of my foes
and carrying a woman over a stream.
To gnaw into books,
carry logs for stoves...
I can sing and drink,
no thought of death at all;
throwing out my hands,
onto the grass I fall,
and if in this wide world I die,
then I'll die through joy that I am alive.
He can write the usual love poems, but he can write even better about
"Uncle Vassya" -- an old man who finds his greatest happiness in helping
others. "For me," he tells us, "the aristocrats of the spirit are not
those who can quote from books for hours on end, starting with Plato and
ending with Kafka and Joyce. For me the aristocrats of the spirit are
those whose hearts are open to others." He praises his fellow poets,
and especially celebrates Mayakovski, though finding him so different in
mood and manner from himself. He names "the three greatest Russians":
Pushkin, Tolstoi, and Lenin. He forgives the faults of his countrymen
because "throughout the many centuries of their history the Russians
have suffered perhaps more than any other people on earth." He loves
them because "they have never become cynical, they have never lost their
faith in the original purity of the revolutionary idea, in spite of all
the filth that has since desecrated it."
In his most ambitious poem, 'Bratski G.E.S.', he renewed his attack
upon the "filthy," and reaffirmed his faith. G.E.S. is the State
Hydroelectric Station -- a symbol of the industrialization which he
accepted as indispensable to Russia's self-preservation. The poem is
epic in length but popular in form, even conversational in tone. It
begins with the usual prayer for inspiration -- not to celestial gods
but to Pushkin, Lermontov, Yesenin, and Mayakovski. He apologizes for
having written so much trivial poetry, and assures his critics that
their censures were "really kind compared to my own self-condemnation."
Then, in rollicking cantos, he commemorates the Cossack revolt (1670)
under Stenka Razin, the "Decembrist" conspiracy of 1825, and the Winter
Palace holocaust of 1905. Part IX supplies the "ABC of Revolution," and
Part XVIII mourns Mayakovski's suicide. Part XI, "The Bolshevik,"
describes one of the engineers who built the dams that feed electric
power to Russia's industries; how this sturdy worker was shocked by the
"purge" trials under Stalin, but remained firm in his Bolshevism; how he
was arrested and tortured by the secret police to make him sign false
When those swine tortured and abused me,
my face they beat, my arms they broke --
and did such things and so misused me --
to explain I can't force this tongue of mine! --
they tried to bribe me: "How about a drink?"
and thrust lying statements for me to sign;
but one thing I cried hoarsely: "I'm a Bolshevik!'
They replied with a grin: "All right!"
pushed me on a chair: in my eyes they flashed a lamp,
yes, they flayed me and beat me with electric light.
That you must never forget, my lad:
changing shifts, in front of Lenin's portrait,
those bastards tortured me with electric light
which I had produced for the happiness of men!
To that portrait I whispered in a frenzy:
"Do forgive us, forgive us, Comrade Lenin,
that such scoundrels your name involve.
Let it be bad for us, let worse be on the way --
but we'll never betray, Comrade Lenin, our souls,
and Communism we'll never betray!
This is Yevtushenko today, critical of the Soviet state, but loving
his people and their dream. He assures us that
the first mistake made by Western students of the
Russian Revolution is to judge the revolutionary idea
not by those who are genuinely loyal to it, but by those
who betray it. Their other mistake is that they still
regard the idea of Communism as something imposed by
force upon the Russian people, without realizing that by
now it is a part of the Russian people's flesh and
We cannot say how much of this is protective coloration, and how
much is sincerity. But it may be wise for us of the West to assume that
the spirit of Russia today is voiced not by the tender longings of
Pasternak, nor by the bitter memories of Solzhenitsyn, but by the ardor
and courage of Yevtushenko. "I want to believe," he writes, "that
everything is still ahead of me, as it is for my people." Let us
heartily wish them well in their internal affairs despite their sins and
ours. Perhaps their experiments and their sufferings will bring some
costly but precious increment to the frail intelligence of mankind.
"Interprtetations of Life"
(A Survey of Contemporary Literature
The Lives and Opinions
of Some Major Authors of Our Time:
Faulkner, Hemingway, Steinbeck, Sinclair, O'Neill,
Jeffers, Pound, Joyce, Eliot, Maugham, Proust, Gide,
Wittgenstein, Kierkegaard, Husserl, Heidegger, Sartre,
de Beauvoir, Camus, Mann, Kafka, Kazantzakis,
Sholokhov, Pasternak, Solzhenitsyn, and Yevtushenko)
Chapter 17, Literature Under the Soviets
by Will and Ariel Durant
Simon and Schuster
by Will and Ariel Durant
The Western world, obsessed with Khrushchev's shoe, hardly noticed
that, while seeking to arm Cuba against the United States, he was
resolutely leading a movement for the liberalization of Soviet life and
thought. Except for him Pasternak might have suffered Siberian exile;
it was he who protected Yevtushenko against "Stalin's heirs", it was he
whom the editor of 'Novy Mir' named as his authorization for publishing,
in the issue of November, 1962, a story by a new and venturesome author,
describing life in a Russian prison camp. "It is our duty," Khrushchev
had said to the Twenty-second Congress of Soviets, "to go carefully into
all aspects connected with the abuse of power.... We must tell the
truth to the Party and the people.... This must be done to prevent such
things from happening in the future." Yevtushenko has testified that
'One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich' "was published through the
direct help of Khrushchev."
Its author was born in 1918, into a Cossack family of some cultural
attainments. From his studies and degree at the University of Rostov-
on-Don his specialty and destiny seemed to be in science; and his books
impress us by their knowledge of mathematics, physics, and medicine; but
he longed to be a writer. World War II snatched him into a life of
action; he earned two decorations, and rose to the rank of an artillery
captain. However, in one of his letters from the front he allowed
himself the luxury of criticizing the military errors of "the man with
the mustache" -- Stalin. He was sentenced to eight years in a prison
camp, and then he was condemned to three years more. Under Khrushchev's
rule he was released (1956), and he settled down as a teacher of
mathematics in Ryazan (120 miles southeast of Moscow). He resumed his
writing, and found his forte in a new kind of realism -- one that
neither darkened nor polished the facts but tried to be just to the evil
and the good that have come down in our blood from a million years of
hungry, bloody hunting and a brief dozen millenniums of family love in
He wrote of a prison camp in Siberia in the year 1951. The story is
told as if by one of the prisoners, and in language customary to men
driven down to elemental life and common speech; the reader must prepare
himself for most of the four-letter words now sprinkled over much
American fiction. The convicts are hardened by time and cold; their
terms are seldom less than twenty years; they work in the open air even
in temperatures sixteen degrees below zero Fahrenheit; their clothing is
"rags tied with bits of string." They risk their lives to smuggle into
their barracks a bit of wood to keep alive the one stove that gives them
a little heat; the food allowed them is stale and scanty; and at any
deviation from routine or command they may be shot. However, they have
a rare privilege: they are allowed to write to their families once a
year. Some of the guards can be bribed to yield a cigarette; some of
the work managers are occasionally humane. Strange to say, it is the
work they must do that comforts these condemned men; when they are
building walls they fall into an exciting rivalry, and rejoice in the
skill and product of their hands. Ivan Denisovich gets so accustomed to
the prison and its routine -- free from all necessity of thought -- that
he is not sure he wishes to be freed; besides, he hears no inspiring
news about any freedoms left in the outside world.
All this is put down without resentment or prejudice. Even so it
startled its millions of readers, for there was hardly a family in
Russia that had not had a member in a concentration camp; stories about
them had come secretly and fearfully from the survivors, and now it was
a relief that someone could dare to speak the truth, and that it had
been published with the explicit "approval of the Central Committee of
the Communist Party of the Soviet Union." "This stark tale," said the
editor of 'Novy Mir', "shows once again that there is no aspect of our
life that cannot be dealt with and faithfully described."
The fate of Solzhenitsyn's 'The First Circle' darkened this dream.
It is dated on its last page "1955-1964"; the work had been in progress
for ten years. No Russian publisher would print it, but the author
allowed some friends to make copies of the manuscript; these were handed
from one reader to another; a copy reached New York, and Harper and Row
shocked the Soviets by issuing it in an excellent translation in 1968.
Solzhenitsyn claimed that this copy had been sent out of Russia over his
protest. So far as we know, no harm has come to him.
The title refers to the first circle in Dante's 'Inferno' (Canto IV)
as the limbo (or vestibule to hell) to which the poet assigned Virgil,
Aristotle, and other presentable pagans who could no longer be allowed
to suffer the tortures of those who had had the advantages of a
Christian rearing. In like manner some victims of Stalin were confined
not in prison labor camps, but in 'sharashkas' or special barracks,
where they would be more mercifully treated in return for placing their
scientific or other skills at the service of the state. The scene of
the book, then, is a 'sharashka' at Mavrino, a suburb of Moscow. The
time is toward the end of 1949. The prisoners, though educated, have
been toughened and coarsened in revolution and war; Russia, we are told,
is "a land where every second person had gone through [concentration]
camp or front-line schools of cursing, where foul oaths are commonly
used not only by drunks in the presence of children (and by children in
children's games), ... but sometimes even in heart-to-heart
conversation." "Ruska and his whole generation had been taught to
believe that 'pity' was a shameful feeling, that 'goodness' was to be
laughed at, that 'conscience' was priestly jargon. At the same time
they were taught that informing was a patriotic duty."
The 280 prisoners are assigned various tasks severely limited in
permitted time, and culminating in an order from Stalin to design
electronic devices both to disguise telephone messages by transforming
words into noises and to decode noises into words. If they remain on
good behavior they are allowed decent food and bedding, and periods of
amusement or conversation. However, they are under constant watch by
armed guards and unidentifiable spies; their reading is restricted; they
have no privacy, and no access to women; they may meet their wives and
relatives only a half hour in each year, in a public room with a guard
at their elbow listening to every word. This lack of sexual
companionship becomes a major misery. The imprisoned men worry about
their wives' fidelity and their children's development; it is part of
their genteel torture to feel that during their ten or twenty years'
confinement they will be forgotten, in face and soul, almost in name, by
those they loved. Gleb Nerzhin, who carries the thread of the
labyrinthine tale, has been separated from his wife first by the war and
then by imprisonment; he fears that by the time he is freed she will be
too old to bear healthy offspring; Stalin, he feels, "has robbed him and
Nadya of children." Now, facing a long term, he writes to her:
My darling! You waited for me through four years of
war -- don't be angry at having waited in vain. Now it
will be ten years more. All my life I will remember,
like a sun, our short happiness. But now be free from
this day on. There is no need for your life to be
Nearly all the prisoners are victims of Stalin's purges, suspicions,
or dislikes. The guards and spies obey his orders literally, fearing
him even more than the convicts do. Some of these forgive him, saying
that though he has erred in their cases he has provided the steel
discipline needed to bring order out of revolution, and victory out of
war. But Nerzhin (Solzhenitsyn) hates and despises him as a monster of
vanity, treachery, cruelty, and lust for omnipotence, and can never
forget the murderous "purges."
Then the same Old Bolsheviks who had made the entire
Revolution, and whose life it had been, began by the
dozens and the hundreds to drift into nonexistence.
Some, not waiting to be arrested, swallowed poison in
their apartments; others hanged themselves ... But most
let themselves be arrested, and appeared in court and
unaccountably confessed, loudly condemned themselves
with the worst vilifications, and admitted serving in
all the foreign intelligence agencies in the world. It
was so overdone, so crude, so excessive, that only a
stone ear could fail to hear the lie.
"Stalin," Nerzhin concludes, "enjoyed killing."
Solzhenitsyn's occasional pictures of life under Stalin leave the
impression that all Russia was a concentration camp. The peasant,
barring an acre or two, had to abandon his century-long dream of owning
the land he tilled; technology compelled large-scale agriculture in
Russia as in America; farming became an industry controlled by private
capitalists in America, and in Russia by one inescapable omnipresent,
omnipotent capitalist called the state. Technology, in both countries,
turned the craftsman, with some exceptions, into an industrial machine.
One 'sharashka' inmate asks of another:
"Do you remember how, long ago, we used to read that
the Ford assembly line turned the worker into a machine
-- that the assembly line is the most inhuman aspect of
capitalist exploitation? But fifteen years have passed,
and now we acclaim that assembly line, renamed the 'flow
line,' as the best and newest form of production."
In Russia, as elsewhere, the man with the lesser ability, or
adaptability, sinks to the bottom, and the man with skill,
aggressiveness, or conformability rises toward the top, like diverse
particles finding different levels in a moving load. A new upper class
is forming after the victory of the "class war," and it is not the
proletariat, it is the technicians, the managers, the bureaucrats, the
successful politicians. There are three classes not only on the
railroads but in every town in Russia; privilege is restored, and gets
its way; there are special cars, stores, clinics, vacation resorts, for
the successful and their wives; "you can't go a step without pull, you
can't get anywhere without greasing a palm; we grow crafty and clever";
a "chasm" exists "between starving poverty and the insolence of
fattening wealth." To prisoner Ruska it seems unbearable hypocrisy to
call all this the workers' paradise. What shameful dishonesty the
intellectuals of Russia committed in lauding this state capitalism under
Stalin! "Russian writers who dared trace their spiritual inheritance
from Pushkin and Tolstoi wrote sickly-sweet eulogies of the tyrant.
Russian composers ... laid their servile hymns at his pedestal."
Worst of all, in that Russia as Solzhenitsyn saw it, was the
constant fear of arrest -- not for crime but for the slightest criticism
of the regime, the slightest doubt that the ogre in the Kremlin was the
greatest blessing that Russia had ever had. Take Innokenty Volodin, who
by faithful work and speech has brought his family to some modest
comfort; he has won a place in the diplomatic service; his wife and
children are proud of him. But he has to watch every word he utters,
even in the privacy of his home. He is as innocent as his name, but he
has been for some time a friend of a man who has just been arrested; how
long will it be before he is taken away on a charge of guilt, if only by
association? Too late he reads in a book of philosophy that "Epicurus
influenced his pupils against participating in public affairs." He
dares not accept invitations for fear of speaking a friendly word with
someone who may have been marked as suspect by the secret police. He
creeps into a shell of humility and silence. He is arrested
nevertheless. In the Lubyanka Prison he learns the ways whereby a
prisoner's will and pride are broken till he will sign any statement
placed before him. At times he is left naked and shivering in a damp,
unheated cell. He must urinate on schedule or not at all. Soon he
disappears from the world.
'The First Circle' is a powerful book. Doubtless, like all books,
it is one-sided and prejudiced; even Stalin must have had some good
points; and only a private citizen like Edison or Ford can make a
revolution without cracking skulls. Solzhenitsyn, born a year after the
Revolution, had no personal memories of the czarist regime. In
describing the 'sharashka', as we have noted, he tried to be fair; and
he laid some stress on the fact that several of the prisoners still kept
their belief in Communism as a bright hope if not yet an amiable
reality. Apparently all the inmates of this intellectual jail were
freed soon after Stalin's fall.
I came to his third book, 'The Cancer Ward', deceived by the general
opinion that it fell short of its predecessor in excellence. Now, after
having read it almost verbatim, I should rank it as Solzhenitsyn's best.
Again he wrote -- not so bitterly as before -- from his own
experience. While a prisoner in a Siberian labor camp he developed a
cancerous tumor; he was operated upon, apparently with success; but the
evil recurred, and he was sent to a clinic in Tashkent (capital of the
Uzbek Soviet Republic). There he received better treatment, and was
released to both health and freedom. In his short story "The Right
Hand" (published in Prague but not yet in Russia) Solzhenitsyn described
Tashkent as seen by a former prisoner in a labor camp but now a patient
in a hospital. It is another picture of life under Stalin: starving
veterans and pretty girls -- history marching on through misery and
The last page of 'The Cancer Ward' dates its composition "1963-67."
The story is timed to some eight weeks early in 1955; the place is a
hospital in a large city resembling Tashkent; the theme is men
approaching death. Cancer Ward No. 13, for men, has nine patients,
nearly all of them in exile. The hospital is reasonably well equipped
with instruments and medicines, but is short of personnel; altogether it
seems a credit to the Soviet government that even to its exiles it
offered such careful treatment. Solzhenitsyn's method, as in 'The First
Circle', is to go from person to person among the inmates and the
officials, revealing each one's history and character, until, by adding
bit to bit, he offers us a crowded living picture, and the reader
becomes concerned with each body and soul.
The first figure is the portly pompous Rusanov, who, as manager of a
local industrial plant, has risen to a good income and a "spotless
apartment unstintingly furnished"; he worries whether his son will marry
below his class, or will smash the new car. As a very important person,
he expects special attention to the swelling tumor on his neck; but he
gets no favors, and slowly adjusts himself to the leveling that comes to
unequal men before a common fate. As he lies on his cot he thinks, with
more fear than remorse, of the men who were condemned to demotion or
imprisonment because of his bearing false witness against them to please
his superior and gain his own advancement.
His nearest bed neighbor is Oleg Kostoglotov, from a distant Uzbek
village; tough in body, tender in heart, sensitive to every touch of a
woman's hand. Rusanov tries to take a superior tone with him, but
Kostoglotov soon brings him down to reality. He has no delusions about
his condition, or about Communism, or about medicine. Oleg wonders why
the doctors or nurses daily puncture him with injections. "Must every
medicine be administered through an injection? Where do you see such a
thing in nature? ... In a hundred years this will be laughed at as
savage." He learns, too late, that the female hormones shot into him
will weaken or destroy his sexual potency, and he wonders, is not the
cure worse than the disease? Dr. Leonidovich tries to console him:
"Women are not the only attraction in life"; Kostoglotov rises in
protest: "There is nothing else serious left in my life." All the more
so since he is daily falling more deeply in love with the kind and
lovely woman physician Vera Gangart.
The hidden grief of the younger victims is that even if they are
discharged as "cured" the fear of recurrence will almost bar them from
marriage. Demka, a handsome youth, devoted to scientific studies, has
had his cancerous leg amputated; amid the pains that he feels in his
absent toes he mourns that he will be doubly handicapped in the pursuit
of love. However, one night when the lights are dimmed, there comes to
him from the women's cancer ward his boyhood girl friend Asya,
seventeen, to tell him that the doctors have decided to remove her right
breast. She wets his cot with her tears. "Who," she whispers, "wants a
woman with one breast?" Equating a missing breast with a missing leg,
Demka asks her to marry him. She bends over him, opens her hospital
robe, lowers her condemned breast to his face, and begs him to kiss it.
"Demka, you're the last one who can still see it and kiss it. No one,
nobody else, will ever kiss it! ... Kiss it, at least you!" He kisses
it again and again, and takes the nipple between his lips. "She did not
remove it ... His lips quietly did what her future baby would never be
able to do at this breast.... He went on kissing the marvel that hung
above him. Today a marvel, tomorrow in the basket."
Three of the women doctors, still subject to sexual tremors, give
the grim story, now and then, a romantic glow. Zoya brings life into
the ward with her pretty face, her youthful confidence, her cheerful
talk. Vera Kormlyevna Gangart stirs some of the sick men with her
slender legs and shapely ankles, but her heart is not as light as her
tread. Her betrothed was sent to the front in 1941, and soon killed;
Vera felt so bound to his image that she offered no lure to marriageable
men; now she is fourteen years older. She is part of a larger tragedy:
There were so many single women in the country
[Russia] that one was almost tempted to count one's
friends to see if there were more single women than
married ones. These single women were all of an age,
... contemporaries of the men who died in the war. The
war had been merciful to the men, it had taken them.
The women were left to live out their agony.
To add to her grief, she knows that Kostoglotov is in love with her,
while her duty requires her to give him, as cure for his cancer,
injections that are destroying his sexual power.
Head of the women physicians is Lyudmila Afanasyevna Dontsova. She
is devoted to her patients, and works overtime day after day, while her
superiors warn her that she is approaching exhaustion. She too attracts
Kostoglotov; of course she knows it, and as the years mount over her she
wonders should she go with him to his Uzbek village, when he is
provisionally cured, and surrender all the attractions of a city for the
consolations, however spiritual, of a husband and a child. But she
feels a constant pain in her left side. Can it be that she, the
specialist in cancer, has cancer?
She goes to the oldest and most trusted doctor in the hospital,
Dormitont Tikhonovich Oreshchenkov. Since the death of his wife he has
lived in semi-monastic poverty, except that he accumulates more books
every year. Lyudmila asks him to examine her and tell her the truth.
After putting her through all the tests, he can only tell her that a
cure is still possible. She makes the bitter transition from doctor to
patient. She bids herself forget marriage and motherhood.
Solzhenitsyn feels that these secret concerns of the individual soul
touch life more deeply and constantly than the replacement of capitalism
with Communism in the relations of masters and men. He observes how,
day after day, the mores of the people in the Soviet Union (even in the
larger cities of Central Asia) come closer and closer to those of
Western Europe and the United States. In Siberia, as in America,
corruption and bribery are common; plumbers will not do good work unless
a private bonus is added to their state-regulated pay; the plumber might
put a dead rat in your drainpipe if you don't "come across." The radio
is becoming a nuisance through its uninvited emergence from almost every
public wall. Young men, in Tashkent as in New York, laugh at marriage
as bondage, use a girl and pass on; and many lasses fall in with the new
fashion of free fornication. "The earlier, the more fun," says Atya;
"why put it off? It's the atomic age!" Solzhenitsyn can forgive all
this, since he knows that morals and manners change with the economic
structure and technical equipment of a society. But he still hates, as
in 'The First Circle', the governmental censorship of literature, the
hypocritical press, the sudden arrests, the incommunicado imprisonment,
the forced confessions, the political assassinations, the attack on the
Jewish doctors (1952) and their deportation to Siberia in freight cars;
and he remembers with pleasure how the prisoners in a labor camp,
commanded to remove their caps at the announcement of Stalin's death,
not only removed them but threw them in the air. He lets Shulubin,
usually a silent patient, break out in a slashing rejection of the whole
Communist regime under Stalin; Shulubin sums it up in four lines from
In this, our age of infamy,
Man's choice is but to be
A tyrant, traitor, prisoner;
No other choice has be.
Despite all, Solzhenitsyn holds fast to socialism. The same irate
Shulubin says, "Don't conclude just because of your sufferings and those
hard years, that socialism was to blame ... No matter how you feel,
history has nevertheless rejected capitalism forever." But the mistake
was, "we thought it would be enough to change the mode of production,
and people would change [not only their mores but their nature]
immediately. Not a bit of it! They didn't change at all. Man is a
biological species; it takes thousands of years to change him." Well,
then, what else is needed besides socialism? Shulubin answers, "For
Russia, ... with Dostoevski, Tolstoi, and Kropotkin, there is only one
true socialism: moral socialism." We must cease to hate and learn to
This sounds like an echo of Christianity -- which, in Soviet Russia,
would be one of the seven deadly sins. Yet Solzhenitsyn, like
Pasternak, dares to sympathize with religion. He notes the patience it
taught many women and some men with the burdens and griefs of life, the
nobility some reached through the spiritualization of their flesh, the
comfort they derived from its myths and rituals, the consolations they
received in the hour of death. What could science give to the dying, or
to those fated to be beaten in the struggle for existence -- inevitable
under any economic or political system? "Ah, sacred science," cries
Kostoglotov, "if it were all so unquestionable it wouldn't have to be
revised every ten years." The religion of Communism had upheld a
generation, but Stalin had damaged that faith as Torquemada had damaged
Christianity. And what if the bright vision of Communism should fade
into a monster of a state spreading its claws into its neighbors, and
censoring every book, every thought?
Dr. Oreshchenkov concludes that "modern man is helpless in the face
of death; ... he seems utterly unarmed to meet it." As for himself, he
falls back upon philosophy, and speaks almost in Spinoza's terms.
At such moments the whole meaning of existence -- of
his own life, ... and his late wife's, ... and
everybody's in general -- seemed to be not in their
chief activity, in which they were constantly engrossed
... It was in the degree by which they were able to keep
unmuddled, unfrozen and undistorted the image of
eternity that sits within each person. Like a silver
moon in a calm pond.
We do not know if Kostoglotov reaches such peace, but he achieves in
his own way an honorable end. When he is discharged as cured 'pro tem',
he wonders where he should spend the night before his train leaves,
early the next morning, for his Uzbek village. Zoya whispers to him
that he would be welcome to stay overnight in her apartment. Vera
secretly makes him a like offer; so hungry are these women for the touch
of an honest man, potent or not. For hours he wanders about the city,
unable to decide which invitation to accept, if any; finally he judges
that it would be a hurt, rather than a blessing, for either of these
women to attach herself to his crippled life. He goes to the depot, and
waits there through the night for his train; when it comes he climbs
into an upper berth of wooden slats, and returns to the place of his
So simply ends this remarkable book. I know it has faults: a style
too breathlessly staccato to reach the heights, a satire sometimes too
severe and unforgiving, a tendency to make simple men talk like
specialists or philosophers. But what tireless observation of human
frailties and generosities, what insights into the secrets of our souls
and the problems that haunt our times! No wonder Yevtushenko calls
Solzhenitsyn "our only living Russian classic."
He has reached this position despite the fact that only his short
stories and 'One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich' have been published
in Russia. His major novels are known to his countrymen only in
manuscripts or in furtive reading of foreign editions. By some
underground route a manuscript copy reaches an emigre publishing house
in Frankfurt am Main, which sells rights of translation into West
European languages. Solzhenitsyn has protected himself by publicly
opposing the unlicensed export of his works; and he still remains a
member of the Union of Soviet Writers. He lives now in relative comfort
in a cottage some fifty miles from Moscow; "I am a country man, a
villager," he told Victor Louis; "I live and breathe real air." He has
grown a beard, and looks like a cheerful chimpanzee.
He is not finished. He is now (1969) only fifty-one, which is the
prime of life for a villager. He has gone through more than the first
circle of hell; he remembers, too, the deeper hell of the prison labor
camp; and this, we are told, is the scene of his new novel, 'Arkhipelag
Gulag'; this "Archipelago of Prison Camps" is circulating in manuscript,
and will soon find a Western publisher. But I hope that before he dies
Solzhenitsyn will write also of his hopes for mankind; that he will tell
us more of the good that lies in us amid our hates and crimes. The
circle will be complete when this new Dante finds some Beatrice to lead
him out of his bitter memories into the peace that comes when
selfishness has burned itself out.
After this last paragraph was sent to the publishers the news came
that Solzhenitsyn had been expelled from the Union of Soviet Writers on
November 6, 1969, for reasons described in the Moscow 'Literary Gazette'
of November 12: "antisocial behavior," and failure to move against the
publication of his works abroad. "Through some of his actions and
declarations he has in essence helped the spreading of an anti-Soviet
hullabaloo around his name." When this expulsion was first voted by the
branch of the Writers' Union in Solzhenitsyn's home town, Ryazan, it has
been reported, he responded defiantly:
"Yes, I am ready to die, not only to be expelled
from the Writers' Union. Vote; you are the majority.
But do not forget that the history of literature will be
interested in today's meeting. One cannot succeed
indefinitely in keeping quiet about Stalin's crimes, for
they were crimes committed against millions of human
beings. To pretend that they did not exist is to
pervert millions of other human beings."
And to the head organization of the union he wrote an open letter which
is being secretly circulated in Russia by his friends:
It is time to remember that we belong first of all
to mankind. Mankind has separated itself from the
animal world by thought and speech. They naturally have
to be free, but if they are suppressed we become again
animals. Free speech -- honest and complete free speech
-- that is the first condition of health in any
society.... He who does not want free speech for the
motherland does not wish to cleanse it of sicknesses,
but to drive them inside, so that they rot there. [Los
Angeles Times, Nov. 13 and 15, 1969]
I am not sure that freedom should ever be complete, nor do I know
just where its limit should be set; but I am certain that any man who
dares defy the Russian state today deserves to be remembered among the
heroes of history.
"Interpretations of Life"
(A Survey of Contemporary Literature
The Lives and Opinions
of Some Major Authors of Our Time:
Faulkner, Hemingway, Steinbeck, Sinclair, O'Neill,
Jeffers, Pound, Joyce, Eliot, Maugham, Proust, Gide,
Wittgenstein, Kierkegaard, Husserl, Heidegger, Sartre,
de Beauvoir, Camus, Mann, Kafka, Kazantzakis,
Sholokhov, Pasternak, Solzhenitsyn, and Yevtushenko)
Chapter 17, Literature Under the Soviets
Shostakovich and Stalin
by Solomon Volkov
of Shostakovich's music and swim with him in overwhelining waves of
from the preface to
'Shostakovich and Stalin'
by Solomon Volkov, 2004
Translated from the Russian by Antonina W Bouis
Little, Brown (Time Warner Book Group UK)
ISBN 0 316 86141 3
Testimony: The Memoirs of Dmitri Shostakovich
as related to and edited by Solomon Volkov
translated from the Russian by Antonina W Bouis
MY personal acquaintance with Shostakovich began in 1960, when I was the
first to review the premiere of his Eighth Quartet in a Leningrad
newspaper. Shostakovich was then fifty-four. I was sixteen. I was his
It is impossible to study music in Russia and not come across the
name Shostakovich in childhood. I remember when, in 1955, my parents
returned in great excitement from a chamber concert: Shostakovich and
several singers had performed his "Jewish Cycle" for the first time. In
a country that had just been lashed by a vicious wave of anti-Semitism,
a prominent composer had dared publicly to present a work that spoke of
the Jews with pity and compassion. This was both a musical and a public
That was how I came to know the name. My acquaintance with the
music came several years later. In September 1958, Yevgeny Mravinsky
conducted Shostakovich's Eleventh Symphony at the Leningrad
Philharmonic. The symphony (written after the 1956 Hungarian uprising)
is about the people, and rulers, and their juxtaposition; the second
movement harshly depicts the execution of defenseless people with
naturalistic authenticity. The poetics of shock. For the first time in
my life, I left a concert thinking about others instead of myself. To
this day, this is the main strength of Shostakovich's music for me.
I threw myself into studying all scores of Shostakovich that I could
get. In the library, furtively, the piano reduction of the opera 'Lady
Macbeth of Mtsensk District' was taken out from under stacks of books.
Special permission was required before I could get the music of the
First Piano Sonata. The early, "left" Shostakovich was still officially
banned. He was still defamed in music history classes and in textbooks.
Young musicians met secretly, in small groups, to study his music.
Every premiere precipitated a struggle -- hidden or overt -- in the
press, in musical circles, in the corridors of power. Shostakovich
would rise and make his awkward way to the stage to respond to the loud
calls from the audience. My idol would walk past me, his small head
with its cowlick held carefully in balance. He looked very helpless, a
misleading impression, as I later learned. I burned to help him in any
way I could.
The opportunity to speak out came after the first performance of the
Eighth Quartet, an extraordinary work and in a sense his musical
autobiography. In October 1960, the newspaper printed my ecstatic
review. Shostakovich read it -- he always read the articles about his
premieres closely. I was introduced to him. He said a few polite
phrases and I was in heaven. Over the next few years I wrote several
other articles about his music. They were all published and they all
played their part, great or small, in the contemporary musical process.
I came to know Shostakovich during the years when he was perhaps
most dissatisfied with himself. One could get the impression that he
was trying to distance himself from his own music. The inner -- not the
external -- tragedy of his situation became clear to me when, in the
spring of 1965, I helped to organize a festival of Shostakovich's music.
It was the first festival of its kind in Leningrad, the composer's
native city; symphonies, choruses, and many chamber works were
performed. I spoke with Shostakovich about festival-related activities
in his rather elaborate hotel room. He was obviously nervous and
avoided questions about his latest works. With a wry grin, he said he
was writing the film score for a biography of Karl Marx. Then he
stopped talking, and drummed his fingers feverishly on a table.
The only concert of the festival that Shostakovich was willing to
approve was the evening devoted to his students' works. He strongly
implied that I should agree with him about its importance. It was
impossible not to obey. I began studying the music of his students,
burrowing deeply into the manuscripts. One of them in particular caught
my eye: Veniamin Fleishman's opera, 'Rothschild's Violin'.
Fleishman had entered Shostakovich's class before the Second World
War. When the front moved up to Leningrad itself, he joined the
Volunteer Brigade. These were condemned men and almost none returned.
Fleishman left behind no grave and no compositions except for
The story of this opera, based on a Chekhov story, is full of
tantalizing loose ends. It is known that Fleishman, at Shostakovich's
suggestion, had begun composing an opera of that name. Before he left
for the front, he allegedly finished the reduction. But the only thing
available to researchers is the score, written from beginning to end in
Shostakovich's characteristic nervous handwriting. Shostakovich
maintained that he had merely orchestrated the work of his late student.
The opera is a marvel, pure and subtle. Chekhov's bittersweet lyricism
is presented in a style that could be described thus: mature
Shostakovich. I decided that 'Rothschild's Violin' had to be staged.
I could not have done it without Shostakovich, of course; he helped
in every possible way. He could not come to Leningrad in April 1968 for
the premiere; his son, Maxim, the conductor, came in his stead. It was
a stormy and rousing success with glorious reviews. A marvelous opera
was born onstage, and with it a new opera theater -- the Experimental
Studio of Chamber Opera. I was the artistic director of the Studio, the
first such group in the Soviet Union. A week before the premiere I had
Then the official administrators of culture accused all of us of
Zionism: poor Chekhov, poor Fleishman. Their resolution read: "The
staging of the opera pours water on the enemy's mill" -- and it meant an
irreversible closing of the production. This was a defeat for
Shostakovich as well as for me. He wrote me in despair: "Let's hope
that Fleishman's 'Violin' will eventually get its due recognition." But
the opera was never staged again.
For Shostakovich 'Rothschild's Violin' represented unhealed guilt,
pity, pride, and anger: neither Fleishman nor his work was to be
resurrected. The defeat brought us closer together. When I began work
on a book on young Leningrad composers, I wrote to Shostakovich with a
request for a preface. He replied at once, "I'll be happy to meet with
you," and suggested a time and place. A leading music publisher agreed
to do the book.
According to my plan, Shostakovich would write about the ties
between the young Leningraders and the Petersburg school of composition.
At our meeting I began talking to him about his own youth, and at first
met with some resistance. He preferred to talk about his students. I
had to resort to trickery: at every convenient point I drew parallels,
awakening associations, reminding him of people and events.
Shostakovich met me more than halfway. What he finally told me
about the old conservatory days was extraordinary. Everything that I
had read and heard previously was like a watercolor faded beyond
recognition. Shostakovich's stories were quick, incisive pencil
sketches -- sharp, clear, and pointed.
Figures familiar to me from textbooks lost their sentimental halos
in his tales. I grew very enthusiastic and so, without realizing it,
did Shostakovich. I had not expected to hear anything like this. After
all, in the Soviet Union the rarest and most valuable thing is memory.
It had been trampled down for decades; people knew better than to keep
diaries or hold on to letters. When the "great terror" began in the
1930s, frightened citizens destroyed their personal archives, and with
them their memory. What was henceforth to be thought of as memory was
defined by each day's newspaper. History was being rewritten with
A man without a memory is a corpse. So many had passed before me,
these living corpses, who remembered only officially sanctioned events
-- and only in the officially sanctioned way.
I used to think that Shostakovich expressed himself frankly only in
his music. We had all come across articles in the official press with
his name at the bottom. [* In many instances Shostakovich had not even
been asked to sign, since such a formality was considered unnecessary.
After all, how could anyone possibly doubt that Shostakovich, like every
other Soviet citizen, adulated the leader and teacher? Thus there
appeared exalted praise for the "wonderful works of Comrade Stalin" in
'Literaturnaya gazeta' (September 30, 1950) over the signature of D.
Shostakovich. He had never even read the passionate panegyric. *] No
musician took these high-flown, empty declarations seriously. People
from a more intimate circle could even tell which "literary adviser" of
the Composers' Union had stitched together which article. An enormous
paper mountain had been erected which almost buried Shostakovich the
man. The official mask sat tight on his face.
That's why I was so stunned when his face peered out from behind the
mask. Cautiously. Suspiciously. Shostakovich had a characteristic way
of speaking -- in short sentences, very simply, often repetitiously.
But these were living words, living scenes. It was clear that the
composer no longer consoled himself with the thought that music could
express everything and did not require verbal commentary. His works now
spoke with mounting power of only one thing: impending death. In the
late 1960s, Shostakovich's articles in the official press were
preventing the audience he most cared about from truly listening to his
music when it was played. When that final door was to close behind him,
would anybody even hear it?
My book on the young Leningrad composers was published in 1971 and
was sold out immediately. (Until I left the Soviet Union in 1976, it
was used throughout the country in the teaching of contemporary Soviet
music.) Shostakovich's preface had been cut severely, and it dealt only
with the present -- there were no reminiscences.
This was the final powerful impetus for him to give the world his
version of the events that had unfolded around him in the course of half
a century. We decided to work on his recollections of these events. "I
must do this, I must," he would say. He wrote me, in one letter: "You
must continue what has been begun." We met and talked more and more
Why did he choose me? First, I was young, and it was before youth,
more than anyone else, that Shostakovich wanted to justify himself. I
was devoted to his music and to him, I didn't tell tales, I didn't boast
about his kindness to me. Shostakovich liked my work and he liked my
book on the young Leningraders; he wrote me about it several times.
His desire to remember, which would arise impulsively, had to be
nurtured constantly. When I spoke with him about his dead friends, he
was amazed to hear me talk about people and events he had forgotten.
"This is the most intelligent man of the new generation" was his final
evaluation of me. I repeat these words here not out of vanity, but
because I want to explain how this complex man came to a difficult
decision. For many years it had seemed to him that the past had
disappeared forever. He had to grow accustomed to the idea that an
unofficial record of events did still exist. "Do you not think that
history is really a whore?" he once asked me. The question reeked of a
hopelessness that I could not comprehend; I was convinced of the
opposite. And this, too, was important to Shostakovich.
This is how we worked. We sat down at a table in his study, and he
offered me a drink (which I always refused). Then I began asking
questions, which he answered briefly and, at first, reluctantly.
Sometimes I had to keep repeating the same question in different forms.
Shostakovich needed time to warm up.
Gradually his pale face would turn pink and he would grow excited.
I would go on with the questioning, taking notes in the shorthand that I
had developed during my years as a journalist. (We discarded the idea
of taping for a variety of reasons, chief among them the fact that
Shostakovich would stiffen before a microphone like a rabbit caught in a
snake's gaze. It was a reflex reaction to his obligatory official radio
I found a successful formula to help Shostakovich speak more freely
than he was accustomed to, even with close friends: "Don't reminisce
about yourself; talk about others." Of course, Shostakovich reminisced
about himself, but he reached himself by talking about others, finding
the reflection of himself in them. This "mirrored style" is typical of
Petersburg, a city on water, shimmering, spectral. It was also a
favorite device of Anna Akhmatova. Shostakovich revered Akhmatova. Her
portrait, a gift from me, hung in his apartment.
At first we met in Shostakovich's cottage near Leningrad, where the
Composers' Union had a resort. Shostakovich went there to rest. It was
not very convenient and dragged out our work, making each resumption
difficult emotionally. The work went smoothly once I moved to Moscow in
1972, taking a position with 'Sovetskaya muzyka', the country's leading
I became a senior editor of 'Sovetskaya muzyka'. The main objective
of my move had been to be closer to Shostakovich, who lived in the
building that housed the journal's offices. And even though
Shostakovich was frequently out of town, we could meet more often. [*
In addition to our main work, I also helped him with many less essential
but burdensome affairs. Shostakovich was a member of the editorial
board of 'Sovetskaya muzyka' and he was expected to give written
evaluations of materials submitted for publication. He was often asked
for his support when there was a conflict over a musical problem. In
such cases I functioned as his assistant, preparing evaluations,
replies, and letters at his request. Thus I became something of an
intermediary between Shostakovich and the journal's editor in chief. *]
Work would begin with a phone call from him -- usually early in the
morning, when the office was still empty -- his jangling, hoarse tenor
voice asking, "Are you free now? Could you come up here?" And the
exhausting hours of cautious exploration would begin.
Shostakovich's manner of responding to questions was highly
stylized. Some phrases had apparently been polished over many years.
He was obviously imitating his literary idol and friend, the writer
Mikhail Zoshchenko, a master of precisely refined ironic narrative
(translations cannot transmit the fine, beadwork subtlety of his
writing). Phrases from Gogol, Dostoevsky, Bulgakov, and Ilf and Petrov
found their way into his conversation. Ironic sentences were spoken
without a trace of a smile. Conversely, when an agitated Shostakovich
began a deeply felt discussion, a nervous smile twitched across his
He often contradicted himself. Then the true meaning of his words
had to be guessed, extracted from a box with three false bottoms. My
persistence waged battle with his crankiness. I would leave, wrung out.
The mound of shorthand notes was growing. I read them over and over,
trying to construct from the penciled scribbles the multifigured
composition that I knew was there.
I divided up the collected material into sustained sections,
combined as seemed appropriate; then I showed these sections to
Shostakovich, who approved my work. What had been created in these
pages clearly had a profound effect on him. Gradually, I shaped this
great array of reminiscence into arbitrary parts and had them typed.
Shostakovich read and signed each part.
It was clear to both of us that this final text could not be
published in the U.S.S.R.; several attempts I made in that direction
ended in failure. I took measures to get the manuscript to the West.
Shostakovich consented. His only insistent desire was that the book be
published posthumously. "After my death, after my death," he said
often. Shostakovich was not prepared to undergo new ordeals; he was too
weak, too worn out by his illness.
In November 1974, Shostakovich invited me to his home. We talked
for a while and then he asked me where the manuscript was. "In the
West," I replied. "Our agreement is in force." Shostakovich said,
"Good." I told him I would prepare a statement to the effect that his
memoirs would appear in print only after his death (and subsequently I
sent him this letter of agreement). At the end of our conversation, he
said he wanted to inscribe a photograph for me. He wrote: "To dear
Solomon Moiseyevich Volkov, in fond remembrance. D. Shostakovich. 13
XI 1974." Then, just as I was about to leave, he said, "Wait. Give me
the photo." And he added: "A reminder of our conversations about
Glazunov, Zoshchenko, Meyerhold. D.S." And he said, "This will help
Soon thereafter, I applied to the Soviet authorities for permission
to leave for the West. In August 1975 Shostakovich died. In June 1976
I came to New York, determined to have this book published. My thanks
go to the courageous people (some of whose names I do not even know) who
helped bring the manuscript here safely and intact. I have been
supported since my arrival by the Russian Institute at Columbia
University, where I became a Research Associate in 1976; contact with my
colleagues there has been both beneficial and rewarding. Ann Harris and
Erwin Glikes of Harper & Row were immediately responsive to the
manuscript, and I am grateful to them for their advice and
attentiveness. Harry Torczyner, my attorney, gave me invaluable help.
And finally, I thank you, my distant friend who must remain nameless
-- without your constant involvement and encouragement, this book would
New York, June 1979
from the preface to
'Testimony: The Memoirs of Dmitri Shostakovich'
by Solomon Volkov, 1979
Translated from the Russian by Antonina W Bouis
ISBN 0 571 11829 1
Life is Wonderful
by Anton Chekhov
Life is quite an unpleasant business, but it is not so very hard to make
it wonderful. For which purpose it is not enough that you should win
200,000 roubles in a lottery, or receive the order of the White Eagle,
or marry a beautiful woman -- all these blessings are transitory and are
liable to become a habit. But to feel continuously happy, even in
moments of distress and sorrow, the following is needed:
(a) To be satisfied with your present state; and
(b) To rejoice in the knowledge that things might have been much worse.
When your matches suddenly go off in your pocket, rejoice and offer
thanks to heaven that your pocket is not a gunpowder magazine.
When your relations come to pay you a visit during your holiday in
the country, don't turn pale, but exclaim triumphantly: "How very lucky
it is not the police!"
If you get a splinter in your finger, rejoice that it is not in your
If your wife and sister-in-law practises scales on the piano, don't
lose your temper, but be grateful for the joy that you are listening to
music, and not to the howling of jackals, or to a cat's concert.
Rejoice that you are not a tram-horse, nor a Koch bacillus, nor a
trichina, nor a pig, nor an ass, nor a bear lead by a gipsy, nor a bug.
Rejoice that at the moment you are not a prisoner in the dock; that
you are not interviewing your creditors, and that you have not to
arrange the question of fees with Turba, the editor.
If you can live in a place not so remote as Siberia, can't you feel
pleased at the idea, that by mere chance you might have been deported
If you have pain in one tooth, rejoice that it is not all your teeth
that are aching.
Rejoice that you can afford not to read the 'Daily Citizen'; that
you have not to drive a sewage cart, nor to be married to three women
If you are removed to a police cell, jump for joy that it is not the
fiery gehenna that you have been taken to.
If you are flogged with a birch rod, kick your legs in rapture, and
exclaim: "How very happy I am that it is not nettles I am being flogged
If your wife has been unfaithful to you, rejoice that she has
betrayed merely yourself, and not your country.
[* This piece appeared in the original in No. 17 of the humorous paper
'Oskolki' in 1885, when Chekhov, then only twenty-five, was being paid
literally in farthings for his contributions. 'Life is Wonderful' has
not been included in Chekhov's collected works. *]
"Plays and Stories by Anton Tchekhov"
translated by S.S. Koteliansky
Everyman Library #941
J.M. Dent & Sons Ltd, London
Painting of the Year
by Brian Droitcour
Friday 25 May 2007
Bill Gates, Saddam Hussein and Alexander
Litvinenko are among the figures in an epic
collage called "2007."
Dmitry Vrubel and Viktoria Timofeyeva's "2007" is a monumental collage
in oil paints that spans 21 meters on two walls of the Guelman Gallery
at Winzavod. At one end, billionaire Roman Abramovich coquettishly
peeks from behind a birch tree; at the other end sneers a gopnik, or
street thug. In between, President Vladimir Putin wags a pistol, while
kitty-corner from him U.S. President George W. Bush furrows his brow.
Wedged between these massive portraits are scenes from recent
Dissenters' Marches, smaller renditions of politicians ranging from
Mayor Yury Luzhkov to former Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov, and the
work's dealer, Marat Gelman.
"2007" is composed of compelling images that the artists collected
from newspapers and immortalized in the classic technique of oil on
canvas. "We look for a link between documentary and art," Vrubel said
in an interview Wednesday. "Newspapers are disposable, but images made
by hand are meant to last a thousand years."
Vrubel -- who has collaborated with his wife Timofeyeva since 1996
-- is best known for his 1990 painting on the Berlin Wall of Leonid
Brezhnev kissing East German leader Erich Honecker, framed by the text
"Lord! Help me survive amid this fatal love." The image is so iconic
that Vrubel has made it his user picture on LiveJournal.com. "It's good
PR," he said.
In recent years, Vrubel and Timofeyeva have worked on other high-
profile projects that investigate the crux of media and reality. Last
year the artists collaborated with NTV to produce printed 6-by-6 meter
banners with the faces of writer Boris Akunin, boxer Nikolai Valuyev and
politician Vladimir Zhirinovsky; film crews captured the reaction of the
celebrities when they saw their giant faces. In 2004, Vrubel and
Timofeyeva published "The 12 Moods of Putin," a calendar where each
month featured a different facet of the president's public persona.
In February, the artists drew controversy with a painting of
Alexander Litvinenko, based on the widely replicated photograph of the
former KGB officer in his London hospital bed, wasted away from polonium
poisoning. The criticism stemmed not from the choice of the image, but
the text that Vrubel paired with it: "When I have a creative crisis, I
always lie on the couch, I cannot stand up, I feel really awful." While
many were upset by the work's apparent cynicism, Vrubel later said he
was interested in using a media event to date a period when he suffered
Now, a blown-up version of the Litvinenko painting has taken a
prominent position in "2007." His wan face is split in half where the
two long canvases meet in the gallery's corner. "The poisoning of
Litvinenko was a critical moment in Russian history," Vrubel said,
explaining why he and Timofeyeva put the image at the painting's center.
"If the Russian state really did assassinate someone, and the death
happened on live television, that says a lot about who we are and where
the country is going."
Overall, "2007" suggests an unpleasant future. It is sobering to
imagine the clashes or alliances that could arise from connecting the
dots between the painting's characters: Patriarch Alexy II; the skinhead
activist Tesak; Eduard Limonov, founder of the banned National Bolshevik
Party; and participants in Dissenters' Marches. Perhaps more ominously,
Vrubel and Timofeyeva included Saddam Hussein and Brezhnev. "As the
number of dead in the Iraq war approximates the number of people killed
under Hussein, people will start to say, 'We were better off with
Saddam,'" Vrubel said, and compared the potential situation in Iraq to
the nostalgia for the Brezhnev era that he observes in Russia today.
In the gallery, the walls opposite the panoramic canvases are hung
with smaller studies for each of the faces of "2007." This installation
technique invokes another ambitious Russian painting, Alexander Ivanov's
epic 1857 work "The Appearance of Christ to the People" as it is
displayed in the State Tretyakov Gallery. But the flattened, collage-
like structure of "2007" lacks the perspective that leads the viewer's
gaze to the messiah in Ivanov's canvas; moreover, "2007" is painfully
lacking any figure who could be called a savior.
"2007" runs to June 20 at the Guelman Gallery,
located in the Winzavod Center for Contemporary
Art at 14th Syromyatnichesky Pereulok, Bldg. 6.
Metro Kurskaya. Tel. 228-1159.
( The Moscow Times )
The Leningrad of Mikhail Zoshchenko
by Solomon Volkov
(translated by Antonina W. Bouis)
...Besides Zamyatin, another strong influence on the Serapion
Brotherhood came from Shklovsky, who was so attached to his disciples
that he considered himself part of their group. Encouraged by Zamyatin
and Shklovsky, the Serapion Brothers blissfully experimented, especially
in the area of plot, which they tried to make entertaining and fast-
paced in the Western manner. In general, the Serapion Brothers' Western
orientation made them a typical Petersburg group. Gorky wrote of the
Serapions, "They understand that Russia can live normally only in
constant communication with the spirit and genius of the West."
Zamyatin even compared these young writers with the acmeists. Both
groups shared a desire to avoid abstract symbolism, a heightened
awareness of the objects of everyday life, a striving to make each word
meaningful, and a love for vivid psychological detail, often with an
But of course next to the Serapion Brotherhood, the acmeists seemed
like relics from another era. After all, they did not write about the
dens of thieves as did Veniamin Kaverin, or partisans who kill an
infant, like Vsevolod Ivanov, or about soldiers who, crazed by blood,
performed a lynching, like Mikhail Slonimsky. Those were shocking
subjects. But the most daring and also the most famous of the Serapion
Brothers was the satirist Mikhail Zoshchenko. He rejected many
traditions of Russian classical literature. Though all around, demands
were aired for a "red Leo Tolstoy" to hail the revolution in epic
novels, instead Zoshchenko started writing short humorous stories from
the life of urban dwellers, explaining, "Until now we still have the
tradition of the former intelligentsia's literature, in which the main
object of art is the psychological life of the intellectual. We must
break down this tradition, because we can't go on writing as if nothing
had happened in the country." And what had happened was that after the
dislocations of war and revolution, many peasants poured into the
cities, creating a huge new stratum. These new urban dwellers were now
often setting the tone in social and public life. Traditionally
oriented Soviet literature continued cautiously to avoid this type; but
Zoshchenko changed that almost single-handedly.
Not only did he make this triumphant "new man," uneducated and
unsightly, the sole hero of his works, but he began writing in the
persona of that obnoxious Philistine. He created the literary mask of a
dull, angry, greedy, and aggressive human amoeba, insisting that this
amoeba was the true author of his works. Not only the dialogue but the
entire fabric of Zoshchenko's early prose consists of the phantasmagoric
Soviet "newspeak": the grotesque, ridiculous attempts of his narrator
hero to express himself with authority by means of wild neologisms and
meaningless but pompous-sounding word combinations (which make
Zoshchenko's best works practically untranslatable). This real
revolution in Russian literature was all the more effective because
Zoshchenko's stories were stylized with virtuoso panache and polished
with lapidary precision.
Zoshchenko's attitude toward his hero was complex: he hated him,
feared him, and pitied him. The average reader, fooled by the
superficial comedy and simplicity, did not sense this ambivalence in
Zoshchenko's stories. Zoshchenko said sarcastically, "I write very
compactly. My sentences are short. Accessible to the poor. Perhaps
that is why I have so many readers." Hundreds of thousands of these new
"poor" -- financially, morally, emotionally -- readers made Zoshchenko
one of the richest writers in the Soviet Union. His books came out in
dozens of editions, in huge printings, and sold out immediately. He
received thousands of letters. He had only to step into the street to
be surrounded by a crowd, like Chaliapin. Yet unlike Chaliapin,
Zoshchenko was not an impressive sight. Shklovsky described him as "a
man of medium height. He has a yellowish face. Ukrainian eyes. And a
careful tread. He has a very soft voice. The manner of a man who wants
to end a big scandal very politely."
This desire of Zoshchenko's "not to stick out" was noted by
Chukovsky, too. "Zoshchenko is very careful -- I would say, fearful."
Yet Zoshchenko had been a courageous officer in World War I and was
decorated many times. The "table of contents" of his life, which
Zoshchenko compiled in 1922, is telling:
arrested -- 6 times
sentenced to death -- 1 time
wounded -- 3 times
attempted suicide -- 2 times.
Zoshchenko had lofty and even slightly old-fashioned ideas of honor
and dignity, but he wanted to be published and censorship was pervasive.
All the Serapion Brothers had problems with the censors. Chukovsky
recorded a conversation in 1928 with Mikhail Slonimsky, who complained,
"I'm writing one thing now that certainly will not pass censorship --
it's for myself, and it will spend all its time in my desk drawer; and
I'm writing another one for publication, a terrible one." Chukovsky
agreed with him: "We are in the clutches of a censorship worse than any
that had ever been in Russia, that is true. Every publishing house,
every journal has its own censor, and their ideal is propagandistic
cliche elevated to ritual."
In that situation, one had to make accommodations -- both
psychologically and as a purely practical matter. Daily life was
difficult and often disgusting. But blaming the government for that
became riskier every day. In that sense Chukovsky's notation made in
1927 after a walk with Zoshchenko is characteristic. "He cursed
contemporary times, but then we both came to the conclusion that nothing
can be done with the Russians, and that we can't come up with anything
better, and that the fault is not that of communists but of those little
Russian people whom they are trying to remake."
Comparisons were made early on between Zoshchenko and Gogol. Zoshchenko
had studied not only the works but also the biography of Gogol, in which
he found much in common with his own life as a writer: the same lack of
understanding from critics and readers who wanted only "a good laugh";
the same difficulties with the censors; the same desire to "improve the
morals" of society through satire. Both writers ended their lives in
madness. But there was little in common between them in their daily
lives, because conditions had changed so much. Zoshchenko could not,
like Gogol, escape to Italy from the Russia which had become unbearable
to him. Left face to face with his hero, the modern "little man," who
unexpectedly for the intellectuals had taken charge, Zoshchenko regarded
him all the more closely, and that gradually led to a tragic closing of
the gap between the writer and his prose characters. As Kaverin stated
about Zoshchenko, "He was particularly interested in insignificant,
unnoticeable people, with a broken spirit.... And in life he tended to
socialize with people who were mediocre, dullish, and ordinary."
It is interesting to follow this process in Zoshchenko's letters,
which with time came to resemble fragments from his stylized works. And
the same thing happened to him in his contact with others: Zoshchenko
began speaking in the abbreviated, clumsy language of his protagonists.
The author himself confirmed that he had consciously stylized not only
his literary manner but his behavior as well. "I was born into a family
of the intelligentsia. I was not essentially a new man or a new writer.
And my innovation in literature was totally my invention.... the
language that I took and that, at first, seemed funny and intentionally
distorted to the critics was, in fact, extremely simple and natural."
This acceptance of the language of the masses as "simple and
natural" was an important step for Zoshchenko, and not only for him.
Many Petersburg intellectuals, young Shostakovich among them, began to
stylize their everyday speech to match that misapplied bureaucratese
that came to be known as "Zoshchenkoese." Psychologically it eased the
burdens of daily life in an often hostile environment that was,
unfortunately, dominant. At the same time pretending to buy into the
new ideology sent an almost subversive message in a superficially
acceptable political packaging.
This duality becomes particularly clear in the attitude of
Zoshchenko and his followers to the Petersburg mythos. On the one hand,
their work and behavior could be regarded as a last ditch attack on that
mythos, as it had developed in the prerevolutionary era, that should
have satisfied the new regime. On the other hand, the attack was
launched in such an open and absurd manner that it cast doubt on the
sincerity of the "new nihilists" and discredited the revolutionary idea
behind them. In fact, the mythos mocked in such an eccentric way became
The literary and life mask created by Zoshchenko was the result of
virtuoso craftsmanship and careful stylistic polish. Shostakovich
appreciated that. Throughout his life he considered Zoshchenko a great
writer, could recite pages of his work by heart, and sought
opportunities to work with him. After Zoshchenko's death, he made a
pilgrimage to his grave near Leningrad. Zoshchenko used to say that
Shostakovich's understanding of his writing was "very correct, even
faultlessly so. His opinion was always dearer to me than the opinion of
a professional critic."
Zoshchenko's characterization of Shostakovich is very perceptive.
"Hard, caustic, extremely smart, probably strong, despotic, and not
quite kind.... He is made up of enormous contradictions. One cancels
out the other in him. This is conflict in the highest degree. It is
almost a catastrophe."
In adopting Zoshchenko's style as a tool for everyday communication,
Shostakovich (and some of his friends) were making a gesture of
accommodation but not capitulation to the regime. Zoshchenko could
announce, "I am temporarily representing the proletarian writer." But
the very awkwardness and naivete of that statement was, of course,
parodic. There was a game on, in which the border between political
engagement and mocking that engagement becomes blurred. Life under the
Communists was accompanied by constant, ironic self-commentary. This
simultaneously made life easier and also made it unbearable. Very few
people could take that tension, and Zoshchenko broke completely toward
the end. Shostakovich had greater endurance.
"St. Petersburg: A Cultural History"
by Solomon Volkov, 1995
translated by Antonina W. Bouis
Simon & Schuster Inc.
Chapter 5, pages 376-380
An Unpleasant Story
by Mikhail Zoshchenko
(translated by Jeremy Hicks)
This happened long ago. I think it was 1924. In a word, when NEP [New
Economic Policy] had expanded to its full magnificent size.
NEP, you could say, is beside the point. But what I'm going to tell
you is just a funny Moscow story.
The story unfolded out of the fear of certain circumstances. Well,
you'll see what it's all about for yourself.
So, this event occurred in Moscow. In fact it was in Zusev's
apartment, Yegor Mitrofanych Zusev, maybe you know him, this comrade
from Moscow. He works in one of the free professions.
Anyway, he had a party at his place one Saturday. No particular
reason. Just felt like having a bit of a good time.
So of course people gathered. Mostly young, passionate. All with
young, what they call beginners' brains.
And they'd hardly even arrived, really, before energetic arguments
immediately broke out. Conversations. Discussions.
And somehow or other, the conversation soon turned to major
One of the guests said something about Comrade Trotsky's book.
Another supported him. A third said:
'That's sheer trotskyism.'
A fourth said:
'Yes,' he said, 'maybe that is the case, but, maybe it isn't the
case. Anyway,' he said, 'we don't yet know what Trotsky understands by
the word trotskyism.'
Suddenly one of the guests, a woman, Comrade Anna Sidorova, went all
white and said:
'Comrades! You know what, why don't we call Comrade Trotsky. Let's
The guests fell silent. For a moment everyone was looking at the
Comrade Sidorova went even whiter and said:
'Why don't we phone the Kremlin, say... We'll ask for Comrade Lev
Trotsky and ask him. ..'
There was a shouting and mumuring.
'That's right!' they said, 'why not... Good idea!... We'll call and
ask him... We'll say, blah, blah, blah, Lev Davydovich...'
Then one energetic comrade, Mitrokhin, walked confidently over to
the phone and said:
'I'll just get him.'
He picked up the handset and said:
'Please get me... the Kremlin...'
The guests held their breath and stood around the phone in a semi-
circle. Comrade Anna Sidorova turned completely white, like a sheet of
paper, and went to the kitchen to bring herself round.
Tenants gathered in the room from the whole apartment of course.
The landlady also appeared, Darya Vasilyevna Pilatova -- the apartment
was registered in her name. She stopped by the door and watched events
unfold, looking sick with worry.
And events were unfolding with a terrible speed.
Energetic Comrade Mitrokhin said:
'Please get me Comrade Trotsky on the telephone... What?...'
And suddenly the guests saw that Comrade Mitrokhin's face had
changed, he glanced around at all the people who'd gathered, jammed the
handset between his knees so that they wouldn't hear anything at the
other end, and whispered:
'What should I say?... They're asking -- What's it about? Who am I
calling from?... It must be his secretary...'
At this everyone started away from the phone slightly. Someone
'Say you're from the editorial board... from Pravda... Go on, say
it, you stupid bastard...'
'From Pravda,' mumbled Mitrokhin. 'What's that sir? Oh, just about
'Now you've done it. You're really in trouble now. Just wait,
something unpleasant' going to happen.'
The landlady of the apartment, Darya Vasilyevna Pilatova, in whose
noble name the apartment was registered, started swaying from side to
side and said:
'Oh, I feel sick! You've landed me right in it, you bastards.
What's going to happen now? Put the phone down! This is my apartment,
put the phone down! I won't have people talking with leaders in my
Comrade Mitrokhin cast an anguished glance over the whole company
and hung up.
Another awful silence fell over the room.
Some of the guests quietly stood up and made their way home.
Those left sat in complete immobility for five minutes.
Suddenly the phone started ringing.
Zusev, the host, went over to the telephone himself and with gloomy
determination picked up the handset.
He began to listen. And suddenly his eyes grew wide and his
forehead became covered in sweat. And the handset began to tap against
A voice thundered in the handset:
'Who called Comrade Trotsky? What did they want him for?'
'There must be some mistake sir,' said Zusev... 'No one here called
'We haven't made any mistake. Someone called us from your number.'
The guests began to go out into the hall. And trying not to look at
one another, they silently put on their coats and left the apartment.
No one guessed that the call was a hoax.
They only found out about it the next day. One of the guests
confessed. He had left the room straight after the first conversation
and called from a public phone-box.
Comrade Zusev got into an argument with him. He even wanted to
smash his face in.
"The Galosh and other stories"
by Mikhail Zoshchenko
translated from the Russian by Jeremy Hicks
Angel Books, London, 2000
The Introduction to
"The Galosh and Other Stories"
by Jeremy Hicks
To the English-speaking reader, Akhmatova, Bulgakov, Gorky, Mandelstam,
Pasternak, Solzhenitsyn and Tsvetaeva are far more familiar names than
Mikhail Mikhaylovich Zoshchenko (1894-1958). Yet in his lifetime,
Zoshchenko was more popular than any of these writers of the Soviet
period. The English-speaking world's general unfamiliarity with his
work is entirely due to the difficulties of translation and the
distorting influence of the Cold War. The collapse of the Soviet Union
enables us to read Soviet writers in a new way, and removes a huge
obstacle to understanding and translating him.
Little is known of the detail of Zoshchenko's life, even in Russia.
Uncertainty as to the year of his birth caused his centenary to be
celebrated a year late, in 1995. Nevertheless, we know that he was born
in St Petersburg, the son of a Ukrainian painter who died when Mikhail
was still a child. Despite being a poor student, particularly weak at
Russian composition, he completed a /gimnaziya/ education in St
Petersburg in 1913, enrolling at the department of law at St Petersburg
University in the same year. When war broke out in 1914, he was quick
to join up, becoming an officer in a grenadier regiment. He
distinguished himself through his bravery and was decorated. In 1916 he
was gassed. This caused him heart trouble, which remained with him
throughout his life. He nevertheless joined the Red Army, leaving it in
1919, after which he attempted a wide range of jobs from cobbler to
postmaster until his literary debut in 1922 with /The Tales of Nazar
Ilich, Mr Bluebellyov/. This was the culmination of attempts at writing
dating back to at least 1914. Some of the best examples of Zoshchenko's
work of this early period are his elaborate letters to his future wife,
Vera Kerbitskaya, which bear clear signs of his recent reading of
Nietzsche. Zoshchenko married Vera in 1920, and a year later they had a
son, Valery (who died in the early 1990s). However, Zoshchenko seems
always to have been an isolated and lonely figure even in his personal
life, and certainly appears never to have been very much of a family
man, temporarily moving out of the marital flat when his son was an
Zoshchenko made his reputation with short stories published in the
Soviet satirical press from 1923 onwards. The period from 1923 to the
end of the 1920s was an extremely fruitful one for satirical literature.
In 1921 Lenin had introduced the New Economic Policy (NEP) -- a
recognition that the country was in a ruinous state and that before
genuinely redistributive policies could be attempted, there must first
be some wealth to redistribute. It signalled that the Bolsheviks were
willing to put their collectivist vision of economic organization and
even some of their political agenda on hold in order first to rebuild
the country. This meant tolerating private agriculture, private traders
and skilled bourgeois specialists in many spheres, including the
cultural. The initial years of the Revolution and Civil War had led to
a breakdown: what art and literature survived belonged primarily to the
spheres of journalism, performance and the spoken word. Satire in that
period had been highly politicized and aimed at boosting morale by
ridiculing the interventionist powers and White forces fighting the
Soviet government. NEP introduced quite different conditions. It meant
tolerating the literature of so-called 'fellow-travellers', writers
whose works, though not openly anti-Soviet, were not inspired by any
notion of the Bolshevik Party's needs. NEP created an interval of
relative freedom of speech. However, its very relativity must be
stressed, since the Soviet government had already developed the habit of
intolerance towards freedom of expression. Hence NEP also brought with
it the foundation of the institutions of Soviet censorship: in 1922 the
government created a body called the Central Directorate for Matters of
Literature and Publishing (usually abbreviated to Glavlit). Its consent
was a condition for the publication of any printed material. This was a
profoundly contradictory situation: a government committed to
collectivist economics permitted private enterprise; and some freedom of
expression was granted by a government hostile to the very notion of
'liberal' freedoms. These paradoxes typify the ambiguous nature of the
1920s, and it was these inconsistencies that appear to have been so
conducive to the flourishing of satire.
A major figure championing the cause of satire was the poet Vladimir
Mayakovsky, whose illustrated verse posters are amongst the most
accomplished works of satire of the Civil War period. His satirical
verse after 1922 was aimed at exposing the self-seeking, careerist,
bureaucratic, petty-bourgeois practices summed up in the peculiarly
Russian word /meshchanstvo/. This had been the prerevolutionary Russian
intelligentsia's favourite term of abuse, and was appropriated by the
Bolsheviks in the years preceding and following the Revolution to mean
those lacking selfless devotion to the revolutionary cause.
Mayakovsky's poems excoriated all such petty-mindedness, so much so that
his poem 'Terminally-in-a-Meeting', which was published in /Izvestiya/
in 1922, was praised by Lenin for its attack on the bureaucratization of
Soviet society. This was an authoritative precedent, which was to be
invoked by satirists and those sympathetic to them to counter critics
who from 1923 onwards argued that the Soviet Union did not need
satirical literature. Satire, argued such critics, was necessary in
prerevolutionary times, when social ills could not be denounced and
fought openly, but only through literary means: but since the Soviet
state had set up the proper legal procedures for uncovering and
eradicating social ills, satirical literature was no longer necessary.
Though such debates continued throughout the 1920s, Soviet readers made
it clear that they wanted satirical literature. In 1922 the magazine
/Krokodil/ was established as a weekly satirical supplement to the
Moscow newspaper /Rabochaya gazeta/ (The Workers' Newspaper). It
outlived this newspaper, and indeed still exists today. It soon gained
wide popularity, and became one of seven satirical magazines in the
years 1922-28 in Moscow and Petrograd/Leningrad which had a combined
print run of over half a million copies. The scale of their popularity
can be seen when one considers that this was the approximate daily
circulation of the officially promoted /Pravda/. In the course of the
decade, more than 200 satirical titles were published, and there were
many more that had satirical sections. One such was the somewhat
populist newspaper /Gudok/ (The Whistle), for which Mikhail Bulgakov was
among the writers employed to write satirical pieces in this period.
Other prominent writers who made reputations writing for the satirical
press at this time were llya Ilf, Yevgeny Petrov, Valentin Katayev,
Pantaleymon Romanov and Vyacheslav Shishkov. However, it was Zoshchenko
whose name became synonymous with this satirical press.
His stories bear the imprint of their semi-journalistic origin in
their highly topical character. For example, 'Economy Measures',
published in 1926, was written in response to a Party-led economy drive.
Other stories were written for specific occasions, such as International
Women's Day ('A Forgotten Slogan' and 'Domestic Bliss'). Their
topicality was probably an important factor in making Zoshchenko's short
stories, like the magazines in which they were published, tremendously
popular. Zoshchenko was read by all levels of society. He became a
star, his stories were memorized and retold, performed at variety shows
and quoted everywhere. Books of his stories sold out almost
immediately. One more substantial collection, /Much-Esteemed Citizens/,
went through ten editions in the two years after its initial publication
in 1926. It is estimated that Zoshchenko sold as many as one hundred
million books. There were even cases of impersonators profiting from
his star status. Zoshchenko made this impact through his seemingly
simple style, his use of colloquial language, his topical subject-matter
and his brevity. These qualities enabled him to reach what he termed
the 'new' reader: the mass of the common people who were wholly or
largely unaware of prerevolutionary literary traditions, many of whom
had only just completed basic literacy courses.
Zoshchenko's stories achieve their most characteristic and powerful
effect through the use of an unsophisticated but highly colourful
language put into the mouths of characters who themselves typically tell
the story; this technique is known as /skaz/. Zoshchenko, who was
perfectly capable of writing standard literary Russian, adopts a mask,
which swears richly and frequently, employs macaronic speech (corrupted
loan-words), distorts other people's speech when reporting it and often
uses the wrong Russian word with grotesque or absurd effect. In
'Pushkin', for example, a character complains that NEP is a 'utopia',
clearly thinking that the word derives from the Russian word /utopit/,
meaning to drown. 'Monkey Language' reports a dialogue between two men
at a meeting, in which they try to outdo each other in employing foreign
loan-words such as 'quorum' and 'plenary', which they have heard at
political meetings but not really understood. Such uses of language are
central to Zoshchenko's art, and are hard to translate.
In part, this language is an object of satire. One of Zoshchenko's
purposes is to portray the confusion of ordinary Russian people at the
rapid influx of a complicated Marxist political vocabulary. But it is
not as simple as that. Zoshchenko's use of such language also has a
sincere, democratizing dimension actually in line with the aims of the
Revolution. In an article published in 1927, he wrote:
The thing is that I'm a proletarian writer. Or rather,
in my stuff I'm parodying the sort of imaginary but
genuine proletarian writer who might exist in the
I'm just parodying. I'm a temporary substitute for
the proletarian writer. That's why the themes of my
stories are so full of a naive philosophy that is at
just the right level for my readers.
Zoshchenko's writing also has a simple and vigorous beauty. It
gathers speed and force through its rhythmic, staccato sentences. Often
they lack a verb. Sometimes they contain a single word, often an
adjective. They may be connected by nothing more than an 'and' or a
'but', and strong logical sequence and subordinate clauses are extremely
rare. The effect is to encourage us to read fast. But we do so at our
peril, because the details in Zoshchenko's stories are telling. If we
fail to notice them we may miss the point.
In the economic and social conditions of Russia in the 1920s
contemporary writers might justifiably have quoted Juvenal's 'It's hard
not to write satire.' Overcrowding and the housing shortage mean a
family live in a bathroom ('The Crisis'), the ubiquity of theft and the
scarcity of consumer goods such as padlocks mean that a cyclist has to
carry his bicycle with him wherever he goes ('Hard Labour'), and poor
organization and a shortage of tubs in Russian steam-baths mean you risk
having your clothes stolen, and worse still, you can't even wash there
('A Bathhouse'). Here and elsewhere Zoshchenko's stories hyperbolically
strain the boundaries of the plausible (in one story a character downs
three litres of vodka and in another a flea is seen bouncing around
someone's apartment). However, they are nearer to the reality of Soviet
life of the period than we might imagine. The housing shortage was an
acute problem in the 1920s. In an attempt to ease the shortage, and at
the same time make a virtue of a necessity, the government divided up
many large apartments so that all the inhabitants shared the kitchen,
toilet and bathroom facilities (if there were any), and each family unit
had a single room to themselves. This arrangement was dubbed 'the
communal apartment'. The conversions were typically rushed and as in
the story 'Casual Work', the walls were often made of plywood and so
thin as to conceal very little. If it exemplified the collective ideal,
the communal apartment embodied some of its worst aspects -- above all,
its self-righteous intrusion into the individual's personal life and the
resulting lack of privacy. It was also a breeding-ground for numerous
petty squabbles, such as the fierce brawl that breaks out over a scourer
in 'Nervous People'.
Moreover, the quality of Soviet-made consumer goods was terrible in
this period. Heavy industry was the government's priority, and there
was simply a shortage of the know-how and quality control procedures
that would raise the quality of such goods. Another factor was the
ubiquity of bribery, theft, embezzlement, creative accounting, and the
abuse of high (or low) position. They seemed to thrive in the uncertain
atmosphere of the times. Revolutions by their nature demand mass law-
breaking. Respect for law and order was soon sacrificed in the
conditions of hyper inflation and the collapse of the money economy,
drastic food and fuel shortages and even famine. Furthermore, the
government itself had dispensed with any notion of the inviolability of
private property. Thus the prevailing atmosphere of the stories, in
which consumer goods are scarce and prone to disintegrate, but
nevertheless so alluring as to drive people to all manner of underhand
practices in their pursuit and to any measures in their defence, has a
substantial basis in historical fact. Indeed, Zoshchenko claimed to
have based thirty to forty per cent of his stories on material he had
gathered from the newspapers, particularly from readers' letters. An
excellent example of this is 'A Bathhouse', which he wrote on the basis
of at least three letters to the Leningrad newspaper /Krasnaya gazeta/
(The Red Newspaper) from readers irate about the terrible conditions
they had had to endure in Soviet bathhouses: one letter objected to the
changing-rooms of a bathhouse being next to a hairdressers', so that the
people who had just washed got covered with hair, and another complained
that wardrobe tokens were easily lost, and thieves were taking advantage
of this to get hold of other people's clothes, details that Zoshchenko
employs or hints at in his story. This elaboration on topical factual
material, which Russians call a /feuilleton/, was a leading genre in
Soviet journalism of the period. Zoshchenko transformed the feuilleton
by employing more sophisticated literary techniques than had previously
been the case, central to which is his creation of a narrative mask
using a raw, accessible idiom.
But although he employs a mask and exaggerates his characters'
language, Zoshchenko does not quite or does not solely laugh at their
expense. That he does so has too often been the assumption of both
Western and Soviet critics. This has similarly influenced translations
of Zoshchenko's short stories. Critics and translators alike have taken
the comic aspect of the narrator's language and the impossibility of his
quest for a quiet and comfortable life to be an indication that he is
the butt of the satirical humour. For Western critics, including the
emigre press for whom he was one of the few acceptable Soviet writers,
Zoshchenko was slyly satirizing a typical Soviet worker, showing him as
he really was rather than as he was portrayed by propaganda. For Soviet
critics, Zoshchenko ridiculed his characters in order to expose and
denounce the /meshchanstvo/ tendency to put self before society.
Though there are partial truths in both of these accounts, to feel
the full bitter-sweet smack of these stories we must also sympathize
with their characters, and perceive a tragic dimension to their
predicament. Zoshchenko received many letters from his readers asking
him for moral guidance. None of them seems to think that Zoshchenko is
ridiculing them. Moreover, for his part, Zoshchenko seems to have
valued this audience, their way of thinking and their way of writing, to
the extent of publishing a collection of such letters (/Letters to a
Writer/) in 1929.
The complex mixture of reactions elicited by his short stories is
clear when they are compared with the /Sentimental Tales/. This is the
name Zoshchenko gave to a group of stories first collected and published
in 1927. These are ten or more times longer than most of his short
stories, and, though still comic, they are far more literary. They
demand a far greater familiarity with Russian literary tradition, which
they parody mercilessly. Their main characters are from the
intelligentsia, and the stories deal with their reactions to the
Revolution. Without exception, these characters' culture and
refinements prove to be a veneer: when confronted by stark and hungry
realities, they abandon all morals. Moreover, they have nothing to
offer the new society. This is presented as their fault rather than
that of the society. Zoshchenko seems to have little sympathy for these
By contrast, Zoshchenko's short stories are aimed at a mass
audience, and demand no familiarity with literary traditions.
Nevertheless, these miniature tragicomedies suggest parallels with the
pathos of Chaplin and the aporias of Beckett. Furthermore, they do draw
significantly on the Russian classics, in particular on the tradition of
moral satire or tragicomic writing in Russia that goes back through
Nadezhda Teffi, who wrote for the prerevolutionary satirical journal
/Satyricon/, through Chekhov and Leskov at least as far as Gogol.
Gogol's prescription for the true comic writer's art, 'laughter through
tears', seems an apt description of the ambivalent tensions at work in
Zoshchenko's short stories. Zoshchenko deliberately sought comparison
with Gogol, despite his general reticence with regard to
prerevolutionary literary traditions. Many of his stories are
variations on Gogol's 'The Overcoat,' in which an introverted clerk
saves up for a new overcoat which will protect him from the elements and
win him social acceptance; but it is stolen shortly after he acquires
it, and after being humiliated by the authorities whose help he requests
in recovering the coat, he dies. The loss of an object, often an item
of clothing, that has a deep psychological or metaphysical importance to
a character is a plot that often recurs in Zoshchenko's stories. 'Love'
and 'Thieves' are just two examples in the present selection, but 'The
Galosh' is perhaps the most interesting rewriting of Gogol's theme.
Here the search for a galosh lost in the rush-hour squeeze leads the
narrator into the labyrinth of Soviet bureaucracy. He eventually
emerges brandishing the lost galosh as tangible proof that the Soviet
system works. The only problem is that he has lost the other one in the
process. Unlike Gogol's clerk, Zoshchenko's narrator is not crushed by
his experiences, though they are every bit as demoralizing. Zoshchenko
extends Gogol by challenging us to find something sympathetic or
admirable in people who are far less deserving of our sympathy or
admiration than Gogol's Akaky Akakiyevich. Moreover, the very
repetition of a similar plot produces a horrific realization that the
same humiliating sequence may never end.
Zoshchenko most explicitly invited comparison with Gogol by
entitling a 1928 collection of his stories 'Who Are You Laughing At?',
an adaption of the mayor's address to the audience at the end of /The
Government Inspector/: 'What are you laughing at? You're laughing at
yourselves!' This critical attitude to laughter was one Zoshchenko
himself expressed by repeatedly stressing the serious side of his work,
at one point even going so far as to claim that the humour of his
stories was unintentional:
People call them [the short stories] humorous. In fact,
that's not quite right. They are not humorous. By
humorous we mean stories that are written so as to make
people laugh. But I did not write to make people laugh;
this occurred despite me, it is a peculiarity of my
Developing the widely held Russian view of humour as trivial
entertainment existing in contrast with satire -- comic art with a moral
mission in the manner of Gogol or Saltykov-Shchedrin, Zoshchenko
stresses that his purpose was high-mindedly didactic rather than simply
to amuse. His stories may look crude, unfinished or simplistic, but
they are none of these things. They possess a polished disorder which
continues a vital and powerful Russian comic tradition.
In recent years critics both Russian and Western have asserted
Zoshchenko's relevance in the post-Soviet era by suggesting that the
enduring value of his stories lies in key psychological motifs, such as
guilt feelings. This approach aims to link Zoshchenko's short stories
of the 1920s with his later work, especially his semi-autobiographical
psychoanalytical narrative /Before Sunrise/. Alexander Zholkovsky, for
example, argues that the fear of crime in stories such as 'Guests'
reveals a deep-seated psychological uncertainty rather than anything
about 1920s Russia. There is an attractive economy to this response to
the challenge of bringing Zoshchenko in from the Cold War. It is
further to be commended for championing the cause of /Before Sunrise/, a
work that the Soviet censorship prevented from being published in full
until 1972, and the first part of which was savagely maligned on
publication in 1943. Yet to accord this work more importance than the
early stories, or to read those stories in the light of the neuroses
revealed in /Before Sunrise/, is to embrace the false notion that a
persecuted work is necessarily a better work than one that the Soviet
censors pass. Such readings assume that the comic is merely trivial,
and that we must look beyond it to find Zoshchenko's content. They fail
adequately to appreciate that Zoshchenko's 'content' is inextricable
from the comic aspect of his stories. After all, we would be reductive
readers of Beckett or Kafka if all we looked for were what the works
reveal about the author's neuroses. Moreover, the psychoanalytical
readings encourage us to extract Zoshchenko from the context of the
Soviet 1920s. Yet as we have seen, his satire is saturated with that
context. He exaggerates it and transforms it, thus making it universal.
He turns the disappointments and let-downs of everyday Soviet life into
a vision of an existence structured in such a way as to humiliate and
destroy the average citizen and to undermine the noble aims proclaimed
by the Bolsheviks.
Zoshchenko's stories dramatize a conflict. They propose a
generalized account of the world typically informed by ideology, and
test it against individual experience. The generalization is often an
optimistic assessment of events, but it can also be a fear generated by
rumour or some other vague notion. These abstractions collide with
characters' actual experience of the world. A good example of this is
Zoshchenko's most famous story, 'A Bathhouse'. After repeating some
gossip he has heard on the merits of American bathhouses, the character-
narrator then claims that 'Soviet bathhouses are fine too. But worse.
You can get washed in them though.' But the character himself fails to
get washed: after waiting for over an hour to get a tub, he steals
someone else's, but then finds himself constantly being splashed with
dirty water by people washing their clothes. He eventually gives up and
decides to finish washing at home. His original statement about Soviet
bathhouses, 'You can get washed in them', is not borne out by his
experience. Does this man trust the experience of others, the claims of
ideology, the generalized account that passes for truth, or does he
insist on the importance of his own lived experience? It would seem
that a major theme of existential thought is lurking in these tiny
stories on ephemeral themes.
The conflict between ideological abstraction and personal experience
is played out repeatedly in Zoshchenko's stories. The characters almost
invariably choose the ideological abstraction rather than dare to trust
their own experience. The reader of course can perceive the disparity
between the two, which is very often the source of the stories' comic
power. It would be wrong to assume that a character's view is ironic,
and is simply to be torn away to arrive at the truth; i.e. that
Zoshchenko is employing a mask to ridicule those who claim that Soviet
bathhouses are all right. The fact of the matter is that there is an
ambivalence towards optimistic assessments, and it is this that makes
the short stories tragicomic rather than simply comic. A character
often expresses an optimism in the face of the evidence, a kind of
Soviet /credo quia absurdum/, which attempts to transform the squalor
into splendour, if not through the power of political reform, then
through the power of imagination and faith. Typical of this tendency is
'The Cross', in which the character-narrator praises the workings of
Soviet officialdom even though his concrete experience of bureaucracy
has driven him to a state of nervous exhaustion. He is not a rebel. He
is a conformist, a herd animal whose experience contradicts his
The period in which Zoshchenko found his audience, the 1920s,
provided ample material for the expression of the tension between the
dulled and discounted individual experience on the one hand and the
general weight of received views on the other. Zoshchenko scaled this
tension down to microscopic dimensions with no loss of intensity and
achieving universal resonance. Other great writers of the time faced
the same conflict tragically as prophets, martyrs and heroes.
Zoshchenko's characters face it comically as cowards, as sheep
experiencing a moral crisis.
Zoshchenko's own fate, however, was tragic. By the end of the 1920s he
had begun to see his life-long depression as linked to the 'irony' of
his stories. This view coincided with political pressures that led to a
tightening of control over the satirical press. By the end of 1930 all
the Leningrad satirical publications had been closed down, and only the
far more politically rigid Moscow-published /Krokodil/ remained. The
few short stories Zoshchenko was able to publish in the 1930s were
mostly published there, but didactic notes began to dominate and they
were generally inferior to his 1920s work, with notable exceptions, some
of which have been included in the present volume. Consequently, during
the 1930s Zoshchenko began to move away from magazine-published
satirical literature towards longer satirical pieces, such as his comic
history of morals, /The Sky-Blue Book/, which includes reworkings of
many of his earlier short stories. He also began to write works of a
more sober tone and children's stories, including a series about Lenin.
Considering that he turned to the genre partly in order to escape
the attentions of the censor, it is an irony that it was a children's
story that led to Zoshchenko's most serious confrontation with the
Soviet authorities. In 1946 'The Adventures of a Monkey', first
published the previous year, was reprinted in the Leningrad literary
journal /Zvezda/. In it a monkey escapes from the zoo, then, having
spent a day observing Soviet life, willingly returns to its cage. The
accident of the story's publication in a serious literary journal made
it seem like a mordant satire. Indeed, this was how the Party's leading
spokesman on cultural affairs at the time, Andrey Zhdanov, read it: as a
satire on Soviet life, suggesting life in a cage was preferable to life
in the Soviet Union. Accordingly, in a notorious Party Resolution of
1946, he condemned the story as slanderous and malicious. Zoshchenko,
along with Anna Akhmatova, was attacked in the most abusive language.
This was part of a general crackdown on the partial relaxation of
ideological control that had been permitted during the war, and was
intended to quash hopes of its extension into the postwar period. There
were rumours that the real reason for the attack on Zoshchenko was that
Stalin wanted revenge on him for ridiculing a man with a moustache in
one of his children's stories about Lenin. Whatever the true
explanation, Zoshchenko was expelled from the Writers' Union and found
it extremely difficult to publish until after Stalin's death in 1953.
In the destalinizing Thaw of 1954 he again found himself the target of
abusive criticism. When asked by visiting English students whether he
agreed with the Party Resolution of 1946 about him, he felt compelled to
reply that he could not. In particular, he objected to the accusation
that he was a coward, which was based on the fact that he was evacuated
out of Leningrad in 1941 at he beginning of the blockade. As a former
soldier, he was intensely hurt by this accusation. When asked to take
back his objections to the Party Resolution he publicly refused,
provoking still more opprobrium, which this time broke him and may have
hastened his death four years later.
Zoshchenko's reputation has been steadily gaining ground since the
1960s. Russians are now able to read his work freely and a number of
monographs on him have appeared. He is increasingly seen as a writer
worth rescuing from the Soviet past. In the West, he has not been
translated for a good many years. The present edition is intended to
overcome that neglect.
The selection concentrates on his comic short stories, most of them
written in the 1920s, because I consider these his greatest achievement.
Their tragicomic view of the world is perpetually relevant. They are
also a social document giving us a picture of everyday life in the
Soviet Union in the 1920s and 1930s, and of the reading tastes of tens
of millions of unsophisticated Soviet readers. The most celebrated
stories are included, and of these, 'A Bathhouse' and 'A Dogged Sense of
Smell' are in their original magazine-published versions which will be
unfamiliar even to specialist readers. Nearly half of the stories
contained in this selection are translated into English for the first
time; I feel these are just as characteristic as those that have been
translated previously. The present volume offers the most extensive
selection of Zoshchenko's short stories so far translated into English.
Concentration on Zoshchenko's best work has meant the exclusion of
much else that is of interest. His first published stories of 1922-23
are not without merit, but generally represent a number of experiments,
opening up other literary paths which Zoshchenko did not take, and fail
to exert the same fascination over the reader as his post-1923 short
stories. Similarly, I have not included any of the /Sentimental Tales/,
in part for reasons of space -- a single one of them would have meant
the sacrifice of ten other stories -- but also because they exemplify a
special aspect of Zoshchenko's work, his attitude to the intelligentsia
and to elite notions of art. The children's stories are not really
comic, and hence do not belong in this collection. All Zoshchenko's
other works, such as /The Story of a Retempering/, /Letters to a
Writer/, /Youth Restored/, /The Sky-Blue Book/ and /Before Sunrise/, are
much longer and would have to be translated separately, although I have
included two short stories that were rewritten for and incorporated in
/The Sky-Blue Book/.
These exclusions make for a consistent selection which affords the
reader a sustained view of Zoshchenko's grotesque and comic world. His
short stories are the greatest expression of one of the greatest feats
of the peoples of the Soviet Union: their gallows humour, their laughter
in the face of absurdity and evil. The tragedy of the Soviet Union has
universal repercussions, and its portrayal as tragicomedy has universal
"The Galosh and other stories"
by Mikhail Zoshchenko
translated from the Russian by Jeremy Hicks
Angel Books, London, 2000