Books have their own fate
Text and photos by Tobie Mathew
“Poetry is taken so seriously in Russia that people are even shot for it.” This quip, uttered by the great poet Osip Mandelshtam, may have been meant ironically but it still contains more than a kernel of truth. Since the earliest days of ancient Rus, the written word has been granted near mythic status in the country; worshipped by its citizens as the source of ultimate knowledge, but desecrated by rulers in fear of its power.
Russian governments throughout history have sought in vain to control the shape and flow of printed matter, unilaterally imposing their views on the literary world and silencing all other dissident voices. In the minds of the country’s leaders, writers were alluring but dangerous creatures who all too often needed to be separated from the masses by the black bars of the censor’s pen. And when this failed the threat of the hangman’s rope was never far away.
Those in power had good reason to be fearful, for writers were uniquely placed to work against government, using their creations as vehicles for spreading subversive opinion. As the Soviet leaders later found out to their cost, books were often far more effective than ballot papers in giving a largely disfranchised population a democratic voice. The state tried hard to combat this, but while it succeeded in subjugating the vast majority, there was always someone who, in Tolstoy’s words, “could not stay silent”; a novelist or poet who was prepared to risk their all to present an alternative narrative to the people.
Both tsarist autocrats and Soviet commissars were highly alert to this threat and between them they succeeded in staining the history of Russian literature with the blood of many of its finest writers. One name however stands out from all the rest: Stalin, who took this dubious tradition to a new extreme, murdering a slew of writers, poets and intellectuals in an effort to shut down forever what the political thinker Alexander Herzen called, “Russia’s second government”.
In Stalin’s world there was no freedom of thought, let alone freedom of speech. Writers who did not bend to the will of the state sooner or later found themselves at its mercy. As his brutal dictatorship slowly clamped its jaws around the literary milieu, all aspects of creative thought were stifled. Isaac Babel noted wryly at the time that a man could speak freely, “only with his wife, at night and with the blanket pulled over his head.”
Babel and Mandelshtam both paid the ultimate price for their inability to conform, a fate shared by countless others during Stalin’s reign of terror. “I would like to recall them all name by name but the list has been taken out, it is nowhere to be found,” wrote the poetess Anna Akhmatova. Most of the victims, including Babel and Mandelshtam, were buried in unmarked graves, their final resting places lost forever. But while nothing carnal remains of these two writers, their literary and spiritual legacy survives almost untouched, for this Stalin could never destroy.
Today, almost every Russian knows the quotation, “Manuscripts do not burn”, from Mikhail Bulgakov’s anti-Stalinist satire, The Master and Margarita. The novel in part tells the story of a young writer who torches his life’s work, only to have it restored to him later by the devil. Bulgakov wrote the story, ‘for the desk drawer’, knowing that it was highly unlikely it would ever see the light of day. Unbeknown to Bulgakov however, his words were to prove surprisingly prophetic. In 1967, more than twentyfive years after the author’s death, the novel was finally published.
This salutary lesson is by no means unique. Many of Russia’s greatest twentieth century works of literature were written in secret and only published openly at a far later date. Through handwritten copies and samizdat or self-publishing, the work of writers passed over by the regime was kept alive for future generations.
It is not only the texts of suppressed works that have lasted to the present day; even the banned books themselves still exist. One amongst many is Anna Akhmatova’s, Selected Poems 1910-46, which provides an excellent example of how these works survived, and moreover what they came up against in the process.
It is said that throughout her life Akhmatova shared the fate of Russia itself. If this is true for the poet then it is certainly also true of her books, and in particular Selected Poems, whose entire print run was destroyed by the Soviet Government. The book itself is not what one might call pretty. It was cheaply produced, and ostensibly differs little from hundreds of thousands of others produced at the time. The importance of this secular relic however, lies not so much in its looks or even in its poems as in the reflection it carries of the literary and physical deprivations of Stalinist Russia.
Before the October Revolution Akhmatova had been a popular and celebrated poet, but her fortunes changed after the Bolsheviks took power. To some degree this was because of her perceived sympathy for the old regime, but it was mainly due to the content and style of her work. Poetry that gave precedence to honest emotions and experience above the output of cement factories was always destined to struggle in a literary world that became dominated by the doctrine of Socialist Realism.
After her poetry stopped being printed in the early 1920s, Akhmatova survived largely through translation work. She continued to write poetry, but it was not until 1940, after a gap of nearly eighteen years, that a new collection was finally published. It was said that Stalin only allowed From Six Books to be published as a present to his daughter, Svetlana, who was a great admirer of Akhmatova’s work. If this is true, the gift was short-lived. A few weeks after going on sale, Stalin ordered the book to be withdrawn, ostensibly because it contained a poem that denigrated him. The fact that the verse was written long before he was on the political scene was apparently not considered important.
Following the Soviet Union’s victory in the so-called Great War of the Fatherland, Akhmatova had some cause to hope for a better future. In 1946 she was given a standing ovation at the Writer’s Union in Moscow and further to this, preparations were being started on the publication of two books of her poetry. The second of these, Selected Poems 1910-46, was not intended to be a new work as such but a cheap collected edition designed for mass consumption. It would effectively signal official acceptance for the popularisation of her work.
As the publication date neared however it became apparent that the war-time relaxation of rules governing civil society had only been a temporary interlude. For Akhmatova, the realisation of this was sudden and ominous: the announcement of an official investigation into the recent publication of several of her poems and a subsequent denunciation by Party Secretary, Andrei Zhdanov.
The report into Akhmatova’s work claimed that her poems were, “full of pessimism and disappointment in life”. “Akhmatova has a sympathy and leaning towards the past,” it added, echoing earlier accusations against her. Following this report Zhdanov, Stalin’s Minister of Culture, was quick to condemn her. “How could the work of this half-nun, half-whore ever have seen the light of day,” he furiously demanded.
By this stage both of Akhmatova’s books had already been printed, but an order was immediately sent out to pulp them. With only a very few exceptions this demand was carried through, and today surviving examples are extremely scarce. According to Professor Natalia Kraineva from the State Library in St. Petersburg there are thought to be only around seven copies of Selected Poems still extant, the majority of which are in institutions. Some of these were taken by print workers at the time of publication and one copy was even saved by a secret policeman, who years later donated it to the Akhmatova Museum in St. Petersburg.
From a literary point of view the total disappearance of Selected Poems would not have been a major loss. The poems would all have survived in other forms. This is not so much a book, therefore, as a memorial, both to Russian writers and to the power of their work. Its yellowed pages and the words they carry are the physical manifestation of literature’s enduring triumph over earthly power. “Habent sua fata libellii” or “books have their own fate,” as Akhmatova was fond of saying.
Akhmatova was fortunate in that it was not only her books that escaped the purges; so did she, though hardly unscathed. Her former husband Nikolai Gumilyov was shot in 1921 for alleged counter-revolutionary activity, and her son Lev spent years in the Gulag, a hardship for which he never fully forgave his mother.
Akhmatova’s highly personal response to the mass killings and deportations was the epic, Requiem, which first appeared in Munich, a few years before her death. The full text was not printed in the Soviet Union until 1987, but today the poem is a far better known and more celebrated reflection of life in Stalin’s Russia than all of his own grandiose and self-serving monuments put together.
A few months before Requiem was published the children’s writer and literary critic Kornei Chukovsky made a short entry in his diary. “Stalin’s police thugs have come a cropper,” he wrote, “and it is all Akhmatova’s doing. The man in the street may think it’s a miracle but we don’t find it in the least bit surprising; we know that’s how it always is.” Intriguingly it appears that Stalin himself should also have been aware of this. Many years earlier the dictator’s fellow revolutionary Nikolai Bukharin warned him about literature’s indomitable nature, saying that, “poets are always right, for history is on their side.”