Russian Poetry and Glasnost: A Case Study

Mark Hutcheson
During the four years since Mikhail Gorbachev became leader of the Soviet Union, introduced glasnost to the Communist regime and initiated a wide-ranging perestroika, there have been signs that the greatest change of the Soviet political climate since the 1917 revolution is having effect also in the literary world. One ~oes not have to rummage deep in the history of Russian lIterature from its beginnings in the late 18th century until the p~e~en.t day to uncover too many instances of poets being vlctlmlsed by the authorities. Was Pushkin's killing arranged by the !:sar's cour.t? Why did Lermontov long to flee "the eyes and ears of RUSSia? Who shot Gumilyov in 1921? In what circu~.sta~ces did Mandelshtam die? What drove Tsvetayeva to SUICide. ~~y were Pas.ternak and Akhmatova for so long silen~ed and. vIlIfied? The lIst goes on and on, leaving one with the ImpreSSIOn that poetry is a very powerful medium in Tsarist Russian or the Soviet Union, so powerful in fact that its practitioners can be edging themselves towards a cliff-edge.
~evertheless, the political thaw taking place in the Soviet Umon to~ay seems to be redressing the balance. Pasternak's Doctor Zhzvago, originally banned in the fifties has now been fullYp'ublis~e? in ~ovy Mir. Mandelshtam and Akhmatova have been rehabilItated : work that was previously suppressed such as. Mandel.shtam's pris~n 'poems or Akhmatova's Requz;mJ is be10g pubhshed by offiCial Journals. Open discussion about them has become perfectly safe, at least in the pages of Lueraturnaya Gazyeta. To CIte a poet still alive, Joseph Brodsky, sentenced to a labo~r ca~p and ~ubseq.ue~tly exiled, has had more of his poetry publIshed 10 SOVIet penodlcals during the last eighteen months tha~ ever before. There are even reports that official Soviet bodies are attempting to woo him back to the Motherland (Od~ly en~ugh, his personal New York telephone number wa~ publIshed 10 an interview last year by Ogonyok. One wonders why.) The Motherland herself is becoming so tolerant of poetry that poets reciting their work on the streets of Moscow are quite a common sight. and literary clubs are flourishing. In all this movement there IS one rehabilitation of particular interest which
serves, moreover, as a good example of the present trend and a possible outcome.
Yuli Daniel is a poet-translator who in February 1966 was tried and convicted by a Soviet court of criminal treason against the Soviet Union. He and another writer, Andrei Sinyavsky, had despaired of every being able to publish work in their country and had sent it out to the west where they published it under the respective pseudonyms Nikolai Arzhak and Abram Tertz. When in November 1965 the true identity of Arzhad and Tertz came to light, Daniel and Sinyavsky were arrested,and remanded for trial. As in the Stalinist show trials of the late thirties or as Joseph Brodsky's trial in 1964, the prosecution had so rigged the proceedings that conviction was inevitable. The two were sentenced to hard labour from which Daniel emerged five years later saying only "I'm exhausted. Exhausted." He then faded from view.
Unique to the Sinyavsky-Daniel affair was that the two were accused and convicted for what they wrote rather than for, say, as in Brodsky's case, a civil offence of allegedly sponging off society. The prosecution maintained that it was criminal of Daniel, firstly, to write stories attacking the Soviet system, a felony which was exacerbated, secondly, by publishing these stories abroad and thus detracting from the Soviet Union's prestige in the eyes of capitalist countries. Yet, as Daniel pointed out in his final plea and as others, including Sinyavsky, corroborated, it is totally perverse to conclude from his stories that he denigrated his country. Reading through them today (This is Moscow Speaking and Other Stories, Collins and Harvill, 1968) confirms the truth of this twenty-three years on. Indeed, it is quite apparent from the unauthorised transcript of the in camera trial (published in On Trial: The Case of Sinyavsky (Tertz) and Daniel (Arzhak) edited by Leopold Labedz and Max Hayward, Collins and Harvill, 1967) that only deliberate misinterpretation and decontextualised quotations could lend their accusers the leanest support. There is no doubt that the whole business was grossly unjust as writers around the world continuously protested at the time.
Yuli Daniel was a man whose greatest aspiration from preadolescence on was to work with poetry. He first translated verse as a child and this firmly decided his ambition for later life. The war against Hitler, however, interrupted his education even
before he finished school and left him badly wounded (a cause of further suffering in the labour camp). Afterwards he did manage to study literature in Kharkov and Moscow, then earn his crust by teaching. All along he had written poetry and so developed his taknt that in 1957 he realised he would be much closer to realising his ambition and well able to support himself if he resigned as a schoolmaster and began work in verse transla~ion instead. Between then and his arrest, he poured out translations of poetry from Ukrainian, Armenian, Balkar and Yiddish. He became one of the most outstanding verse translators in "the country. Daniel also in 1957 committed himself to writing prose and hence the stories from Moscow Speaking which, unwanted in the Soviet Union, but published in Germany, led to defamation
and prison.
While humiliatingly mistreated and deprived in labour camp,
Daniel proceeded in his love of poetry and wrote. One poem, In the Boxing Ring, is particularly engaging, being an account of a mighty thrashing the poet receives in a boxing match where all and everyone is against him. A literally striking parallel with his trial, you might think, as the London Times obituarist did on Jan uary 2nd of this year when recording the death ofYuli Daniel on December 30th of last year. Certainly, it is a valid and highly probable interpretation, but Daniel had to use allegory to cloak his intentions. The poem makes for powerful reading.
I emerged in the ring unpractised at boxing And ieopardising a fortunate lot.
I cried out neither to God or the people And lost the fight before I fought.
The crowd is a thundering precipice. The gloves a couple of grenades.
Punch! I'm crushed, rebuffed, exploding. The rope is burning into my back.
Punch! The judges watch unfeeling
How a naked soul must breathe.
The wayan expert's unhurriedly
Arrived at my, at my stripped down essence.
Clearly, the poet-boxer doesn't stand a chance and the constant batter of fists is well conveyed, as is the helplessness and abandonment of the poet. The poem ends, however, with the
poet admitting he will be defeated, but defiant: "All right, let's fight! Let a knock-out! Decide the tally of the match." The description of solitude, naked pain and danger is powerfully suggestive of the feckless novice Daniel on trial.
In the Boxing Ring and other poems wntten by Daniel during detention, trial and incarceration were smuggled to the west and published in bilingual text by David Burg and Arthur Boyars (Prison Poems, Yuli Daniel, Calder and Boyars, 1971). David Burg absorbingly, but all too briefly records Daniel's development as a poet until in the year of his arrest he was "developing into a mature poet and what he produced was very much better than the majority of what was being published in Russia". Burg modestly adds that, though better than most, Daniel was not . yet at the zenith reached by Pasternak, Zabolotsky and Akhmatova. However, it is self-evident that, being then only forty, there was much more than a likelihood that he would climb to the peak and join them. His trial and imprisonment put paid to that. When released in 1970, he could find work only as a petty bureaucrat, had to leave Moscow and was thrown the sop of a few verse translations published in a provincial literary magazine. He continued to write poetry of his own, but little of it saw daylight. His name had effectively been excluded by prison from the major annals of Russian poets.
Until, that is, last year in the wave of literary revitalisation under Gorbachev. In July 1988 Ogonyok, the influential glossy magazine published by Pravda, filled a whole page with his poems including - right in the centre - In the Boxing Ring. Then in September Moscow News carried an interview with Yuli Daniel and members of his family, the brunt of which was Y. Daniel: "I am guiltless in my own conscience". (Daniel had in fact half given in - as In' the Boxing Ring hints - to his accusers at the trial. Later in prison, he had written to the daily newspaper Izvestia declaring "I have now come to the conclusion that our work (Sinyazsky's also) ought never, in any circumstances, to have been the subject of a criminal prosecution. The verdict is unjust and illegal." Needless to say, the letter was not published.) Moscow News placed their declaration from Daniel firmly in the context of the trial and thus in deafening taciturnity admitted the whole matter was perverse and inhuman, a colossal mistake. Only in Gorbachev's glasnost Russia could this have been thankfully done.
While the case of Y uli Daniel would seem then to be a great victory for the poetic spirit, a few comments should be made by way of caution. Both Ogonyok and Moscow News published photographs of Daniel, but they are the Daniel of the pre-trial photographs in On Trial. The Times published a photograph too which showed how haggard and beaten the man was and On Trial has a photograph of Daniel in prison where he bears comparison with the inmates of Belsen. As in the retouched photographs of the Politburo in Pravda and other official organs, the Soviets are prepared to tell the truth, but not yet the whole truth. Will Soviet people ever be given the full facts of Daniel and Sinyavsky?
It should furthermore be remembered that Gorbachev is not by a long chalk the first Russian reformer nor is the Soviet Union totalitarian since only 1917. One thinks especially of Alexander the First among many of the Tsars who tried to better the lot of their people. And woefully failed. The usual pattern is ten or so years of reform, followed by the reformer's volteface and an even harsher regime afterwards, as with Nicholas the First after Alexander. Ironically, Daniel and Sinyavsky were picked on at a time when the Soviet Union was widely supposed to be going through a great thaw, Stalin had died in 1953. Khrushchev subsequently denounced him and his iron rule, introducing liberalisms. But Khrushchev was quickly eliminated and the Brezhnev stagnation began. There was nothing anti-Soviet in the stories of Daniel and Sinyavsky, but that didn't stop their persecution. More power to Gorbachev's elbow, as they say. Fair dos! But watch your step. Russia is certainly, especially now, a big, huggable, warm-hearted bear. She also has claws and a treacherous left upper hook that could knock you into the middle of next decade.
In the May 1989 issue of Ogonyok Yevgeni Yevteshenko says that Senator Robert Kennedy informed him during his visit to New York in November 1961, that the pseudonyms Arzhak and Tertz had been linked by the C.I.A. to Daniel and Sinyavsky for the K.G.B. Clearly without this information the trial would never have taken place. The Americans' motive was to distract;
attention from their bombing campaign in Vietnam. Other sources s~gges~ Kennedy himself was responsible, hypocritical backs~abbmg gIVen that Kennedy was one of the most vociferous A.mencan det~actors of the Soviet Union during the DanielSmyavsky affaIr.
Page 62, Poetry Ireland Review Issue 26