Border Crossing: The West and Russian Identity in Soviet Literature 1917-1934 by Carol Avlns; University of California Press; Berkeley.
Poems by Anna Akhmatova, Selected and translated by Lyn Coffin; W. W. Norton; New York.
In Border Crossings Carol Avins, associate professor of Slavic language at Northwestern University, grapples with a question that has long aggravated Russian minds: Where does that land which links Europe to Asia geographically stand in its cultural relationship to them, and especially to Europe? Virtually all of Russia’s serious intellects have addressed this problem at least since the time of Peter the Great, and there is little likelihood that it will be resolved in the near future. The communist revolution of 1917 added an entirely new dimension to this old question. Economically backward Russia, in defiance of all Marxist tenets, established the first state based on the doctrines of that very European ideology oriented toward the industrial proletariat; it then provided the base from which that ideology, soon well armed, threatened the Europe which gave it birth, engendering a historical crisis whose outcome no one can yet foresee.
The modern communist state is peculiar in that its establishment in a particular country motivates emigration on a scale unknown in previous centuries, as ordinary people discard their earthly possessions, their native society, to es cape an intolerable regime. The phenomenon of mass emigration appeared initially in Russia, the first victim of communist revolution. Communist authorities had to deal both with that exodus and with the extreme ideological hostility exacerbating the ever-present divi sions between Russia and the West during the early years of Soviet literature, which Avins here investigates.
If a book is to handle a cultural problem of such complexity successfully, it must be properly constructed. Unfortunately, Avins has failed to organize her study in such a way as to bring her major points out clearly. She starts fairly promisingly by dividing her book into four major segments. The first considers, somewhat abstractedly, the transformation of the relationship between Russia and the West after 1917; the second treats the question of emigration to the West; the third discusses travel by Soviet writers abroad; and the fourth deals with the influence of Westerners who came to the Soviet Union for ideological or other reasons. However, within these divisions Avins offers chapters treating individual writers—including Mandelstarn, Mayakovski, Pilniak, Bulgakov, Fedin, and Olesha and their works. Since most of these works are relatively worthwhile, they are rife with literary ambiguities and individual idiosyncrasies. And that makes it impossible for Avins to develop consistently any particular ideas, themes, or attitudes. She writes sensibly and has positioned many useful building blocks, but the book is disjointed and difficult to follow.
At one point Avins quotes Gertrude Stein claiming that a writer can be truly free only outside his own culture: “It was not what France gave you but what it did not take away from you that was important.” One may wonder how much relevance that formulation had to American writers generally; certainly, it would not apply to very many Russians. One of the greatest 19th-century Russian semi-expatriates, Ivan Turgenev, would furiously deny writing any major literary works in a language other than Russian (although he was quite capable of doing so); he always believed he could draw his literary material only from his native culture. Even today, among the Russian writers, artists, and intellectuals now residing in the West, there are many who did not leave voluntarily and who wish eventually to return to the Soviet Union. For them, as for Turgenev, the writer needs deep linguistic and cultural link ages with his people and the land of his birth.
Still, as Avins remarks, Soviet doctrine necessitated a substantial modification of the concept of citizenship in the Soviet state. Soviet society lives by the lie, as Solzhenitsyn has made plain, but Soviet ideologists do not share his revulsion at that thought. As a Western character in Boris Pilniak’s “The Third Capital” puts it: “Russia lives by the will to wish and the will not to see; this lie I consider a deeply positive phenomenon, unique in the world.” Society as a whole must live by faith in doctrine, must believe things which for the time being at least are untrue; that is a condition of Soviet citizenship. Even a nonnative could be come a Soviet citizen if he accepted the regime’s ideological premises. So “the new Russia,” Avins writes, “with adherence to ideology a requisite of citizen ship, has a troubling foreign presence at its center.” Marxism, after all, is an inter nationalist movement; thus it is fundamentally opposed to the idea of a true national culture.
The Russian writer, separated by the revolution from his cultural moorings, faced several choices. Some, like Ivan Bunin, emigrated immediately and for ever remained implacable opponents of the Soviet regime. Others, such as Alexei Tolstoy and Marina Tsvetaeva, emigrated and then returned to the Soviet Union. Mikhail Bulgakov and many more tried to emigrate later, but were refused per mission. There were those like Boris Pasternak who would not travel abroad at all because they feared they might be prevented from returning. Some—Solzhenitsyn, for instance—were expelled from the country against their volition. But nearly all truly creative figures during the Soviet Russian period—I exclude those who placed themselves whole heartedly at the service of the regime as its cultural mainstays, for most of them had little talent—have thought seriously about emigrating to the West, and so have been forced to define their own attitudes toward Soviet Russian culture.
One who was always spiritually estranged from Soviet society but who would never have consented to leave her homeland was Anna Akhmatova (1889-1966), the greatest woman poet of 20th-century Russia and one of Russia’s finest poets of any era. Poems is a brief selection of works drawn from her entire creative life, offered in new translations by Lyn Coffin, with a poet’s foreword by Joseph Brodsky, one of Akhmatova’s proteges in the 1960’s who is now living in the United States. Coffin’s translations, competently though not brilliantly done, provide a good introduction to this extraordinary woman for the English speaking reader.
Akhmatova had published lyric poetry and made her literary mark well before the revolution of 1917. Her verse of the time was intensely emotional, simultaneously personal and impersonal, centered in the theme of unhappy love, and had an unusual sense of the specific and the concrete. A good example of her early work is a poem of three stanzas dating from 1911:
I pressed my hands together under cover
Of my veil. ‘Why are you so pale today?’
—Because I intoxicated my lover
With numbing anguish, and drove him away.
How could I forget? He went out, reeling.
His mouth dreadful—twisted, grim …
I ran down the stairs, not touching the railing,
At the gate I caught up with him.
I shouted hoarsely—’It was just a joke.
You mustn’t leave me—I’d rather be dead.’
He smiled calmly, terribly, then bespoke:
‘Don’t stand out here in the wind,’ he said.
When the revolutionary terror swept across Russia, Akhmatova had as much reason as most to emigrate. She had no sympathy with the ideology of the new regime, which, moreover, executed her husband, also a first-rate poet, on charges of counterrevolutionary activity in 1921. But evidently she decided—as Carol Avins writes in discussing a woman character in a play by Yuri Olesha, who occupied a literary position much like Akhmatova’s in the 1920’s—”that personal happiness cannot be legitimately pursued by a Soviet citizen in her time.” One should not emigrate in order to find personal fulfillment, even if that personal fulfillment consists of enjoying the freedom to write. The writer as writer must accept suffering imposed by the inability to publish, or else suffer by writing as the authorities. require in moments of extreme necessity, as Akhmatova herself did in the terrible postwar Stalin years; and the writer as a person must experience the same tragedies as the most ordinary individual. More than that, Akhmatova apparently believed that the poet has an obligation to give voice to the grief which the ordinary person was incapable of expressing. That idea emerges with dreadful poignancy in a short prose foreword to Akhmatova’s unusual and difficult poem ”Requiem,” parts of which are included in the Coffin anthology.
In the awful years of Yezhovian horror [1936-38], I spent seventeen months standing in line in front of various prisons in Leningrad [her son had been arrested]. One day someone ‘recognized’ me. Then a woman with blue lips, who was standing behind me, and who, of course, had never heard my name, came out of the stupor which typified all of us, and whispered into my ear (everyone there spoke only in whispers):
—Can you describe this?
And I said:
Then something like a fleeting smile passed over what once had been her face.
Sustained by her strong religious conviction (she died an Orthodox Christian, and was buried with the full honors of the Church) and by the memory of that “fleeting smile” on the face of a woman who knew of her only that she was a poet, Akhmatova in “Requiem” gave voice to the anguish of those who survived the great purge, of those whose loved ones were taken from them by night, often never to return. That poem stands as one of the great works of 20th-century Russian literature. On a personal level, Akhmatova maintained contact with some of the finest writers among her contemporaries—including Mandelstam, Bulgakov, and Pasternak. They, like her, because of their literary independence, were persecuted by the regime even to death. She saw herself very much as one who stood in the great tradition of Russian poetry, in which the poet shares the suffering of his people.
Though infrequently published, Akhmatova was immensely popular among the intelligentsia: in his embittered memoirs, Shostakovich recalls that when she entered the hall to give a poetry reading in Moscow the entire audience spontaneously rose to its feet in a sign of respect which could only arouse paranoia among the authorities. At the close of World War II (during which she spent some time in blockaded Leningrad ), the regime allowed a selection of her works to be printed. Before it could be distributed, however, Stalin’s cultural henchman Andrei Zhdanov initiated a crack down on cultural liberalization by denouncing her as a “cross between a nun and a whore.” The edition of her poems was pulped, and she fell silent for many years.
In February 1959, as an exchange graduate student at Leningrad University, utilizing entirely unofficial channels, I became, I believe, the first Westerner to meet and talk with her since Zhdanov had laid the ban upon her. At the time the controversy over Pasternak’s Dr. Zhivago—which had just been published abroad and which implicitly questioned the October Revolution—was at its height. Akhmatova’s attitude toward the situation was characteristic of her. She never adopted a stance of vociferously public opposition: the whole controversy, she said, would merely lead to “grief for him and grief for us.” But she was pre pared to accept that grief, judging it to be necessary, and when Pasternak died the following year she paid the tribute of poetry to him:
That singular voice has stopped: silence is complete,
And the one who spoke with forests has left us behind.
He turned himself into a life-giving stalk of wheat
Or the fine rain his songs can call to mind.
And all the flowers that hold this world in debt
Have come into bloom, come for ward to meet this death.
But everything stood still on the planet
Which bears the unassuming name . . . the Earth.