Friday, January 14, 2005


While looking around on the Web, I found a very readable account of the lives, work and activity of some of the best-known Soviet dissidents of the 1950s, 1960s and 70s. It's a personal account of a rediscovery of those individuals, for whom politics was a matter not of "interests" and constituencies, but of morality:

Writers who already possessed an international reputation, such as Pasternak, sent their work abroad to be published. Loyal Communards who gently pushed the envelope with their themes - writers such as Yevgeny Yevtushenko and Andrei Voznesensky - walked the tightrope between constructive criticism and artistic heresy. They became a new kind of Soviet writer, the "legal outlaws", by definition rare and ambiguous, tottering on the ledge between a freefall into arrest on one side and an elevation as a sanctioned poet laureate - the first since Mayakovsky - on the other.

Then there were these "young" writers, those who came of age at the end of Stalin's reign or the beginning of Khrushchev's, graduates of the student circles which took advantage of the distraction of the secret pigs to circulate forbidden books by Kafka and Trotsky among themselves. They had no international reputation, and thus could not publish abroad, not least of all because Western audiences then were only interested in Russian literature to the extent that they are interested in Chinese and Iranian cinema today as fugitive works, talismans of persecution. This first generation to grow up since the introduction of "gulag" to humanity's vocabulary needed a place to practise their craft, sharpen their wit and experience something of the freedom - if only within the confines of the manuscript “which the creative mind requires.

And so they borrowed a page from the old political opposition of their fathers' time - the Trotskyists, whose ideas were still very much illegal - and began to publish their works in total freedom amongst themselves. Today, pimpled kids with costume jewelry in their noses protest the closed world of media and call the alternative samizdat. But far from being legal outlaws, these men and women - poets, mostly - who produced samizdat (the word means literally "self-publishers", but was also a pun on Gosizdat, "state publishers") were committing an act of crime the moment they touched pen to paper and the page to the daisy wheel.

The article's author, Cali Ruchala, takes a look at the fates of several dissident writers, including Alexander Ginzburg, Joseph Brodsky, Yuri Galanskov, and others. There is a particularly powerful discussion of Galanskov, who in 1967 was sentenced to seven years in a labour camp in Mordova:

For Yuri Galanskov, it was a question of life and death. It was no surprise that his years of activity and forced labour, threats against himself, his family and his friends, had caused him to develop a severe ulcer. Galanskov had in his first letter from prison described a certain guard who nostalgically recalled the good old days when a prisoner with a temperature of 104 degrees would be handed a shovel and put to work. No doubt anything beneath that threshold was still tolerable in Brezhnev's Russia.

Galanskov refused surgery for his ulcer and demanded to have the operation performed in a civilian or military hospital away from the labour camp. The operation was on-site anyway - by a doctor with no surgical experience. If it was not assassination, it is tantalizingly close. Death on the operating table accomplished the same end. Galanskov died after two weeks of agony from the botched surgery, on 4 November, 1972.

Ruchala continues:
I did not find out about Yuri Galanskov's death until twenty five years later, some years after I first discovered both issues of Phoenix and his poem "The Manifesto of Man". The life stories of Soviet dissidents are in some cases exceptionally depressing. The successful ones like Litvinov teach in foreign countries to a new generation that wasn't alive when the Red Republics swallowed up millions of workers and peasants, soldiers and intellectuals. Most who were exiled abroad have never returned.

Yuri Galanskov was only 33 years old when he died. Most of his adult life had been spent away from poetry and history, defending himself and his friends from a fury he knew awaited them. Thus, what work remains - which aside from the White Book and his letters from prison, consists entirely of his contributions to the two issues of Phoenix - shows more promise than mastery. It was the curse of his generation, the poets that which came of age in the late 1950s: but for Brodsky and Gorbanyevskaya, not a single one of them could claim to have lived up to their genius, or even had the opportunity to attain their considerable potential.

Looking back many years later - and himself writing from a foreign shore, in a language he adopted like his mother tongue - Joseph Brodsky said of his generation, the saints of Lubyanka: "Hopelessly cut off from the rest of the world, they thought at least that the world was like themselves.

"Now they know that it is like others, except better dressed."

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