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.

On the wildly popular 1957 World Youth Festival (about which I knew nothing, and which I learn was the source of the popularity of the song “Moscow Nights” [Подмосковные вечера]):

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.


  1. Sounds like a book I’d enjoy. The stilyagi had been largely off my radar until I saw the Russian film Stilyagi earlier this year…fluff, but very entertaining fluff, imho. I especially enjoyed the sly nod to a later generation of Soviet counterculture by making all the musical numbers reworkings of well known songs from the 1980s.

  2. Since you mention the 1957 World Youth Festival as a landmark event in Russian history about which you didn’t know anything, I’d like to add three other:
    – 20th Congress of the communist party, 1956, when Khrushev denounced ‘the cult of personality’ (культ личности – it had been known until Gorbachev’s glasnost just like that, without Stalin’s name). In the late 70-s my university professors were still refering to it as the most important cultural milestone after WWII.
    – 1959 American exhibition in Moscow, with the famous ‘kitchen debate’ between Khrushev and Nixon, but also with demonstrations of rock’n’roll, art and books.
    – 1958 Chaikovsky piano competition in Moscow won by van Cliburn. When in the 80-s Gorbachev visited Washington van Cliburn played Moscow Nights at the White House with Gorbachev and Raisa singing along. They were MGU students in the late 50-s.
    That was a heady mix, exciting time, I know it from my parents, also ‘Zhivago’s children’, but I prefer calling that generation ‘дети фестиваля’ (children of the festival). Pity the impact of that event is not widely known in the West. Another term often used in Russia is ‘children of the thaw’. But ‘Zhivago’ to me is like an ‘exonym’. The BBC Radio 4 did a play about the events surrounding the novel to commemorate 50 years since its publication (I blogged about it): in the final scene Khrushev, in his office, beats up poet Surkov who masterminded the campaign against Pasternak, shouting at him: ‘It’s just a novel – and what did you turn it into!’
    May I also recommend the book ‘Everything was forever, until it was no more: the last Soviet generation’ by Alexei Yurchak thoughtfully reviewed by Sheila Fitzpatrick (Normal People). I think Yurchak’s complements Zubok’s book.
    – and a happy New Year.

  3. going back to the post about coffee: what is intelligentsia that they are raving about in Chicago?

  4. I’d like to add three other
    Those I was already familiar with, but Zubok has a lot to say about them, of course; he also discusses a pre-Cliburn visit I hadn’t been aware of, the Dec. 15, 1956 appearance of Yves Montand at the newly opened Luzhniki Arena:

    Montand’s concert was the first occasion of mass hysteria produced by a Western pop star. Soviet fans, especially young women, behaved like their Western counterparts at the concerts of Elvis Presley: they tore buttons off the singer’s coats, wept with joy, and danced in rapture. “This was not enthusiasm — it was something wild,” recalled one Komsomol official indignantly. Montand’s songs and appearance “generated immense anxiety among us people for a beautiful life” outside the boundaries of the Soviet Union, recalled a Leningrad art student.

  5. going back to the post about coffee: what is intelligentsia that they are raving about in Chicago?
    Eh? I don’t see any Chicago intelligentsia in that post.

  6. Sounds like a great book, and would make a nice complement to Ozhog by Aksyonov.
    If the book is as good as you say, I find it ironic, and profoundly depressing, that it was written in English. The Russian speaking intellegentsia seems to be fading away this century. The ambitious minds in Russia, as in the rest of Europe, seem to be turning to English in ever increasing numbers.

  7. Not in western Europe they aren’t.

  8. There is an Intelligentsia in Chicago right next to this breathtaking building (Chicago’s first library, now the Cultural Center), video of coffeeshop here, but I find it claustrophobic and obscenely expensive, even more so than Starbucks. I stopped in there once for a cup to go with family visiting from out of town. How was the coffee? I don’t remember. So I guess the coffee was “not memorable”. I’m not sure I should admit doing this, but for a quarter of the price, you can go around the corner to McDonalds. If you’re downtown and want upscale coffee that is also Fair Trade, the coffee shop on the second floor of Borders book store on Michigan Avenue is a favorite of the NaNoWriMo people. Sadly, Chicago does not seem to have any of the small atmospheric coffeeshops with wifi where you can linger with your laptop that are so basic in Minneapolis and even small towns like Decorah.

  9. The ambitious minds in Russia, as in the rest of Europe, seem to be turning to English in ever increasing numbers.
    And can you blame us? Have you seen the drivel that passes for intellectual discourse in Eastern Europe?

  10. This sounds like a good one, Languagehat… I think I’ll have to fit more nonfiction into my reading in 2010! I like Vanya’s idea of reading this book along with Ozhog.

  11. Have you seen the drivel that passes for intellectual discourse in Eastern Europe?
    Yes, bulbul, I agree. But isn’t the low level of intellectual discourse in Eastern Europe due in large part to the fact that many of the best minds in Eastern Europe now operate de facto in English? Clearly it’s a vicious circle that probably won’t be broken for some time.

  12. vanya,
    I really don’t know. But looking at what’s going on in Slovakia, I remain firmly convinced that those who choose to participate only in the Slovak portion of the Great Debate do so mostly for one reason: fear of being challenged. Some – most? – are comfortable with being a big fish in a small pond, especially if they already have a cushy job or tenure. And those with tenure (and the political connections that go with it) make it pretty hard for anybody else to do virtually anything. Sure, there are exceptions, but too few and too far apart.
    Moreover, the bulk of the intellectual discourse, such as it is, seems to be confined to a handful of think-tanks and journals. Those on the right (eg, eg, eg) are your usual well-financed bunch of climate-change-denying, war-mongering, torture-approving assholes whose idea of a debate is organizing a conference titled “France or Socialism – Which Is A Bigger Threat To Europe?” or “Muslims – Kill Them All Or Just Lock ‘Em All Up?” (I’m exaggerating, though not by much). Those on the left (eg, eg) are completely useless and spineless cowards and/or opportunists. With a few exceptions, neither side is willing to meaningfully engage the other and both seem to be content with contending for small pieces of the local (political) pie.
    So it’s no wonder that some people simply choose to avoid all of this and go looking for greener pastures. Even Prague or Warsaw provide a marked contrast to the conditions in Bratislava. Why is that so, well, that’s one for people smarter than me.

  13. I seem to remember that there is a section on Yves Montand’s Moscow performance in Simone Signoret’s autobiography. I only know it from the English version entitled “Nostalgia isn’t what it used to be”.
    Amazon refreshes my memory: ‘The pacifist Montands never joined the Party, yet became entangled in one moral-artistic quandary after another. Biggest decision: should they go through with a Russian tour right after Hungary, 1956? They did, and held a three-hour rap session with Khrushchev – “as warm as Jean Renoir, as malicious as Popov the clown.” ‘

  14. a three-hour rap session with Khrushchev
    Ha, ha, ha. I can just see it.

  15. a three-hour rap session with Khrushchev
    Ha, ha, ha. I can just see it.

  16. “as warm as Jean Renoir, as malicious as Popov the clown.”
    Since google tells me Jean Renoir did a war film and Popov the clown did self-depreciating humor, I take it this is meant to be ironic.

  17. an Intelligentsia in Chicago
    Thanks, Nijma, so it’s a place, not a type of coffee? and why the name?
    I searched ‘intelligentsia’ on twitter to see if anyone else was discussing Zubok’s book, but all I got were references to coffee in Chicago. Hence the question.

  18. appearance of Yves Montand
    yes, him, and also Gilbert Becaud.
    But that’s different from van Cliburn, because he is American.
    French (and Italian) pop music was promoted on Soviet radio and TV to counter the impact of British-American pop. In the early 80s I flew Aeroflot from Moscow to Tokyo listening for hours to Joe Dassin.

  19. Considering the political consequences of pop music (currently it’s to be seen in the Eurovision “song” contest), it’s kind of surprising the CIA didn’t exploit it more successfully.

  20. “as warm as Jean Renoir, as malicious as Popov the clown.” – “Since google tells me Jean Renoir did a war film and Popov the clown did self-depreciating humor, I take it this is meant to be ironic.”
    Jean Renoir was a friend of Yves Montand and Simone Signoret and earlier in the book, she recalls having a terrible time working for Georges Clouzot while in the studio next door, everybody was literally having a ball being directed by Renoir in French Cancan, so I don’t think this is irony. Also, I wonder whether in this instance, “malicieux” should not rather have been translated by “mischievous”.
    As to the meeting with Khrushchev, this was actually a proper dinner being attended by nine people, namely Montand, Signoret, their interpreter Nadia, Khrushchev, Bulganin, Molotov, Mikoyan, Malenkov and an unnamed man from the ministry of Culture, although it seems that among the Russians, Khrushchev did most of the talking. In his final toast, he said that Montand and Signoret were “Tchélavek” (her spelling).

  21. and why the name?
    I have no clue, and the Intelligentsia website doesn’t provide any enlightenment either. But being cynical about marketing, I would guess that they think they can charge more if they have a French name than if they just called it “Doug and Emily’s Coffeeshop.” A business with similar success, Au Bon Pain, has in recent years opened many branches in Chicago. They serve overpriced (but very good) soup, sandwiches, and coffee, plus they regularly donate their day-olds for faith-based fundraisers and feed-the-homeless programs. The appeal of the Intelligentsia brand, just guessing, I would say is based on a combination of French exoticness, a subtle reminder of the flirtation with Marxism that many Americans in their 20’s seem to go through, snobbery, and the current infatuation with Shepard Fairey style totalitarian art.
    In all fairness, they might also have good coffee–I haven’t tired the espresso they seem to be known for–but it’s hard to imagine any espresso as good as what can be found in New York City’s Little Italy.
    I’m afraid I have also been spoiled by drinking African and Arabian coffee in its natural habitat, the Ethiopian coffee ritual in people’s homes where they pound the coffee beans with a steel cylinder right in front of you, then spend the rest of the afternoon brewing it, drinking it, and talking endlessly, or the dangerous and irresistable Bedouin coffee ground with cardamom.

  22. it’s hard to imagine any espresso as good as what can be found in New York City’s Little Italy
    How about Europe’s Big Italy?

  23. Nij: the current infatuation with Shepard Fairey style totalitarian art
    You had me worried for a minute; shouldn’t that be “the current infatuation with Shepard Fairey totalitarian style art”.

  24. ?

  25. Europe’s big Italy? Well, the Italians can certainly make a decent cup of coffee, as can the French and the Danes (you notice I left out England and Scotland, and didn’t say anything about Italian so-called pizza), but I wouldn’t call it anything to write home about.
    Art… Maybe I should have written “Shepard Fairey-style totalitarian art” with a dash, but then visually it looks like Shepard Fairey’s first name is out of the equation. A good question to ask an editor. I would say the Shepard Fairey style is quite different from the totalitarian style even when Fairey’s stuff is blatantly based on someone’s earlier Stalin-era work — do I need a dash there? I thought dashes were on their way out — so I don’t think you could call Fairey “totalitarian style” when it’s more of a “totalitarian chic”, if you know what I mean.

  26. Shepard Fairey:
    One picture is worth a thousand words. This is what I’m talking about.

  27. Not dash, hyphen. There is a whole new world of n-dashes and m-dashes that weren’t in any of my English classes. Everybody likes them (or maybe it’s just Ozzies), but nobody can agree on how to use them. From what I can figure out, the dashes are now “in” and the hyphens “out”.

  28. There is a whole new world of n-dashes and m-dashes that weren’t in any of my English classes. Everybody likes them (or maybe it’s just Ozzies), but nobody can agree on how to use them.
    Don’t be silly: they’re not “new,” and everybody who needs to know how to use them (editors and proofreaders, mainly) knows how to use them and has known for centuries. To join a phrase (or name) with another word you use an en dash: Shepard Fairey–style art, pre–World War One culture. You can consult any style manual (Chicago is widely accepted) for details.

  29. Sounds like a great book; I’ll have to check it out. I would also like to second the Yurchak–although the first chapter is overloaded with pomo namedropping and should be skimmed.

  30. Thanks for the punctuation, Hat. I have to say that AJP person is always sniffing around for double meanings.
    But about em and en dashes–obviously I haven’t known how to use them for centuries, although I spent many hours in high school closeted with the Little Brown Handbook which was our ultimate authority. Then when I took English 102 in 1991 or so, the professor introduced a new concept that none of the students had heard of before, using hyphens, or what is now being called the en dash, to set off parenthetical phrases. Also at some point I learned that typing two hyphens will create a typed long dash (em dash), although it doesn’t seem to work in every situation. I only have access to the 15th edition of the Chicago manual if I want to drive an hour and (this is the kicker) put on shoes and go outside, so obviously that’s not practical for blog comments, even though I would like my comments to be prescriptively correct. My version of Fowler’s doesn’t discuss en dashes at all, while Strunk and White prefers making one word to using a hyphenated word. I have read quite a bit of Wikipedia MOS; they use en dashes between words mostly to prevent ambiguity. Given that sections of the wiki MOS are still under dispute, one of these days I should probably break down and spend the money for a dead tree manual. I also wonder a bit from the number of the wiki examples that use “dingoes” or “Sydney” or “Dublin” whether I’m getting advice about the version of English that I actually use.

  31. hyphens, or what is now being called the en dash
    The term “en dash” has been around a long time, and no one professionally concerned with type would ever call it a hyphen. It is not some newfangled term. An en dash is a dash the width of a lower-case letter en. There’s no need for you to run out and buy Chicago, but it may not be a good idea to rely on memories of English 102.

  32. John Emerson says

    Don’t argue with Hat about en/em dashes . Just agree, and then sidle out of the room without turning your back to him.

  33. A friend of mine was phobic about mold. To minimize the risk of seeing it, she used to make her husband go before her in any exploration of old leftovers. She didn’t even like to say its name, so she called it “m—“, pronounced “em-dash”.

  34. Argue with Hat on this? Young Turks might, but he and I went to different schools together, as they used to say. And I feel no need to sidle when I add that I use the word ‘hyphen’ (and the symbol itself) with anyone but typographers (though I’ll politely translate it for the Young Turks).
    And HNY to all!

  35. As I see it, the hyphen is a kind of duct tape, while the dash is more of a fashion accessory.
    As far as I can tell, lay people do not need to know the difference between the function of an en-dash and that of an em-dash. (What I really mean by this is that I don’t know the difference.)

  36. John Emerson says

    I go by what I was told by a typing teacher around 1962: in n-dash for n-dashes, two n-dashes for m-dashes. One is used, except by James Joyce, for certain kinds of compound words, and the other sets off part of the sentence from the rest, rather like parentheses.

  37. if they have a French name
    outrage: do they really think intelligentsia is a French word? It’s the Russians’ greatest contribution to world languages.
    Thanks for coffee tips.

  38. Nij: the current infatuation with Shepard Fairey style totalitarian art
    You had me worried for a minute; shouldn’t that be “the current infatuation with Shepard Fairey totalitarian style art”.
    Ironically in the circumstances, I didn’t add any hyphens because I didn’t want to distract from my point: this isn’t totalitarian art, it is work in the style of totalitarian art (social realism, in this case). Big difference.

  39. … that should be Socialist, not social.
    His work comes out the kind of thing Komar & Melamid were doing in the ‘eighties in New York. They called it “SotsArt” (СоцАрт). Arthur Danto connected it to Pop Art, and Shepard Fairey’s work is obviously even more hooked into Warhol (Fairey went to RISD for god’s sake, not the Moscow School Of Painting).

  40. Sash: do they really think intelligentsia is a French word?

  41. Fairey went to RISD for god’s sake, not the Moscow School Of Painting
    Oh, like there’s a difference.

  42. No. Fairey nuff.

  43. Rhode Island has always been full of troublemakers. They refused to ratify the Constitution until it included the Bill Of Rights.

  44. That sounds sensible.

Speak Your Mind