As I mentioned here, one of the books I got for Christmas was Zhivago’s Children: The Last Russian Intelligentsia, by Vladislav Zubok, and since AJP and jamessal thoughtfully had Amazon leave it unwrapped so I could get started on it as soon as it arrived, I’ve already finished it, and am as wrung out as if I’d been reading a great, tragic novel.
That may raise doubts about either my judgment (it’s just a book about how some intellectuals dealt with the last decades of Communism in Russia, after all) or the book itself (you don’t usually want a history book to be like a novel), but I stand by it. Zubok has accomplished a near miracle, making an intellectual history both gripping and accurate (every paragraph has several footnotes referencing histories, diaries, and other sources in both Russian and English—the author seems to have read everything available on the period, and talked to some of the participants as well). Every page provides fresh insights; he mentions many people and events I was to some extent familiar with (along with many unknown to me—for instance, he describes the huge MGU dormitory on Stromynka Street where many of the book’s characters lived during their college years), and always puts them in a context that makes me understand them better. Furthermore, dealing with a subject that lends itself to one-sided presentations, his perspective is impeccable—he has a clear-eyed sympathy for all his protagonists, and every time you think you know how to feel about them he provides a view from another angle that makes you think twice, and then think again. Zubok, in his epilogue, sums up his book this way:
It is a story about the struggle of intellectuals and artists to regain autonomy from an autocratic regime seeking to control society and culture. Yet it is also a story about the heavy price they paid for this autonomy, and above all about the slow and painful disappearance of their revolutionary-romantic idealism and optimism, their faith in progress and in the enlightenment of people, beliefs and values inherited from the milieu of the Russian intelligentsia of the nineteenth century.
I would urge anyone with any interest in that story to read this remarkable book. To give some idea of its riches, I’ll quote a few snippets. Here is a surprising result of Stalin’s Great Terror, which in the 1930s wiped out so many Old Bolsheviks:
Most of the survivors of the terror at universities and other cultural institutions were, paradoxically, the professors who did not share the communist idealism. They, who had instead been brought up in the nineteenth-century traditions of liberalism and humanism, could not help passing on to their students their manners, habits, ethical standards, and aesthetic attitudes — while keeping their political views to themselves.
On the stilyagi (whom he calls alternately stiliagi and “style apers”):
From the start, the admirers of American style and jazz, as well as their broader following of imitators, engendered a dual conflict: between children and parents and between them and Soviet institutions, especially the school and the Komsomol. At the same time, identities were not black and white. Most jazz lovers and famous future guitar balladeers, among them Vladimir Vysotsky, Yuri Vizbor, and Alexander Gorodnitsky, had never been style apers, although they absorbed some of their language and manners. And some of the Komsomol oppressors of stiliagi would later become avid advocates of Western-style openness and liberalization. American cultural influences did not lead automatically to anti-Soviet views among the young. Paradoxically, many of them recalled that love of jazz and fashionable clothing coexisted with unquestioning acceptance of the cult of Stalin.
On the first cracks in the Iron Curtain (and it astonished me that most Russians had no contact with Eastern Europe for a decade after WWII):
The first layer of the Iron Curtain that Russians might penetrate, the first boundary to cross, took the form of the border with the “fraternal” countries of the Soviet bloc. After 1955, newspapers from “people’s democracies” were available on some newsstands in Moscow and Leningrad, including on university campuses; those papers provided the first alternative source of information to reports in the Soviet media. At the same time, Soviet tourism to Eastern Europe grew rapidly; in 1957 more than half a million Russians traveled to Poland, Romania, China, East Germany, and other communist countries.
Poland was especially important. One linguist and poet from Moscow recalled that “for a certain part of intelligentsia in the Soviet Union, Poland after 1955-1956 served as a bridge to Europe, to European culture — beginning with the general culture of ideas and ending with political culture.” Some poets and other writers, budding intellectuals, and scholars learned Polish before they learned other foreign languages. Polish newspapers and books on philology, art, philosophy, and sociology were like a secondhand version of the Western original, yet they provided a good start. Some American and European authors, such as William Faulkner, Franz Kafka, and James Joyce, were banned from Russian libraries, yet available in Polish translation.
The festival was a time of revelation and, for a brief moment, liberation for Russian fans of “style,” especially young musicians and artists. In their eagerness to demonstrate the diversity and creativity of “Soviet life,” the party and Komsomol authorities suspended the ban on “Western” and formalist styles in music and pictorial art for a week, and suddenly Moscow was jolted by Scottish bagpipes, Spanish and Hawaiian guitars, and jazz saxophones. On Pushkin Square, in the middle of Gorky Street in the center of the city, bands from different countries played, day and night. Americans and other Western youth taught Russian volunteers how to dance rock-and-roll and boogie-woogie, dances that were forbidden in the USSR and practiced only at the style apers’ private parties. Russian formalist and abstract artists, the persecuted underdogs of the Soviet art world, were able to participate in international art competitions and publicly display their works. The variety of artistic styles contrasted sharply with the customary oppressive monotony of official Soviet art. The traditional Russian-Soviet cultural hierarchy with its top and bottom, the refined and the vulgar, began to erode. The idea of a multiplicity of cultures, and cultural pluralism, which had been excluded by socialist realism, returned.
That’s all from the first half of the book, filled with the illusory optimism of the late ’50s and early ’60s; I don’t have the heart at the moment to go on and transcribe from the second, darker, half, in which the best lose all conviction and the antisemitic nationalists are full of passionate intensity, but I hope I’ve given an idea of what is to be found here.