The Writers' Union, for all the bombast of Prokhanov's talk, should not be written off yet. The Union has about 10,000 members across the USSR, and the control by the government over the means of distribution, of printing presses and the supply of paper is still very great as is its control of other media of communication. Thus between them the Union and different levels of government can effectively stifle the production of work considered to be unsuitable. Novy Mir, for example, in January 1991, had been waiting since March 1990 for paper supplies to enable it to print Solzhenitsyn's First Circle. But, clearly, many things have changed, inside the Union and outside it. A large number of previously unpublished works are now available, including writings by Isaac Babel, Alexander Tvardovsky, Mikhail Bulgakov, Anna Akhmatova, Boris Pasternak, Solzhenitsyn, Mikhail Bakhtin, though, as yet, no Mandelstam or Trotsky. Soviet Literature, has recently produced special issues on Bulgakov, Akhmatova and Pasternak, which, if rather late in history, are at least welcome. In general, the magazine has committed itself to having a full debate on all aspects of literature and art.
These changes in the apparent ideological position of the Union in many senses mirror that in the Party itself. It is an authoritarian liberalism (repressive tolerance, in Marcuse's phrase) that Prokhanov advocates, as much as Gorbachev: an opening out to discourse as long as power is held on to. Or, as the Russian Marxist thinker Boris Kagarlitsky has commented, in discussing the Party's conversion to notions of a market economy: "They consider that, in practice, the sole means of implementing a liberal economic reform is the creation of a strong, authoritarian regime capable of effectively suppressing the resistance of the masses." It is, of course, a solution which owes nothing to Marxism, except in rhetoric, and as a claim to legitimacy. The major change from the old Bolshevik position is merely one of the nature of the economic model to be used. To quote Kagarlitsky again, "If the Bolsheviks viewd the economy as one big factory then, according to the new liberals, society and economy should be run as one big supermarket." Soviet Literature operates as the supermarket of Russian culture, though within a framework that is classically Soviet paternalistic.
The opposition to this view of culture is fragmented, incoherent, despairing. At this moment, the intellectuals in the Soviet Union are engaged in an act of retrieval and regrouping. The traditional sense of the intelligentsia was that of being the collective moral conscience of the society and it was a tradition that was carried on, underground, by poets and short story writers throughout the 1960s and 1970s, writing, reading into audio casettes (paper was always scarce), and trying to get published anywhere. Much of this literature, composed in elevators, boiler rooms, kitchens and waiting lobbies disappeared though some of it appeared in Samizdat or, now, twenty years later in newspapers and magazines. It was an ongoing resistance to the policies of the government and of the Writers' Union. The oppositional intelligentsia, however, was, more or less killed off by the remorseless fear of them by Stalin and the bureacrats of the Party system. But it was inevitable that the idea of the intelligentsia would be reborn when the conditions were ripe. But this intelligentsia was one which had links to its immediate community and, for some, to the West, but ultimately none to the matrix of the culture of the society in which it lived, those links having been effectively sundered by the purges of the 1930s and the slow emasculation of talent in the 1940s and 1950s. The rebirth of intellectual life therefore was bounded by the polarities of `community' and `Western-ness', both of them highly problematical concepts, and particularily because the middle ground was occupied by the nomenklatura of the Writers' Union and the upper reaches of the Party. Thus the intelligentsia did not really exist anymore. It did not have a life or a series of connecting links of its own: "Life", as Milan Kundera remarked, "is elsewhere." Neither professional in the Western sense, nor truly Communal in the Czech, it began to operate in no-man's-land.
This sense of lack of purpose and of intellectual blockage was marked by all the writers, playwrights, directors, critics, cultural activists that I met in the USSR. Serially, I will list my impressions.
* Svetlana Vragova, 38, Director of the Theatre on Spartakus Square (housed in an old Stock Exchange), passionately argued for a theatre which would be apocalyptic, exposing the iniquities of the present system, but knowing that it would get no-one anywhere. Theatre had to display the realities of the present, while being conscious of the Stanislavsky heritage (see Svobodin, below). Her plays have been performed in Chicago, San Francisco as well as Moscow.
*Israel Metter, 80, Jewish novelist, short story writer from Leningrad, whose novel, Five Corners, written 30 years ago about an agricultural community on the Russian-Finnish border, and now published in Russian, English and German, said that nothing of any consequence was being written now. Everyone was busy reading the material that had suddenly become available and lining up for food.
*Alla Gerber, 50, film critic, whose son had just produced a film based on one of Babel's Odessa stories, argued that all the new films would be instantly put on the shelf, because the new market economy allowed everyone to catch up on the old Hollywood movies which were cheaper to import. Thus the old Stalinist censorship and the new authoritarian market liberalism amounted to the same thing.
*Alexander Svobodin, Theatre Director and chief archivist/animateur of the Stanislavsky Centre. In a sense the Stanislavsky cult is to theatre what the Writers' Union is to writing, Lunacharsky having come to a deal with Stanislavsky in 1918, to recognize the pre-eminence of the Stanislavsky school in Soviet drama, a deal which has more or less stuck since then. Svobodin, however, reflected the winds of change. To maintain the Stanislavsky heritage, the great man's country home was being restored as a museum and acting school with foreign aid, mainly from the USA and Germany. It was important to maintain standards in the theatre against potential barbaric incursions.
* Alexander Gelman, 50ish, playwright, probably the best known playwright from the USSR in the West (particularily in France and New York, but that is the penality for being avant-garde), saw theatre everywhere as having no place to go apart from exploring the Kafka-esque realities of all the bureaucracies that we live under.
* A group of people from the Writers' Union in Kiev (including Valerij Shevchuck, Igor Rymaruk, Volodymyr Musienko, Mykhailo Hryhoriv, Parlo Hirnyk, and Soloma Pavlychko as well as Ivan Drach, President of Rukh, in a separate encounter). Also attending the second congress of Rukh, evocative of being at a convention of the Parti Quebecois, though without the sense that they know what they are doing, apart from preserving the `national' (i.e. Ukranian) culture. Using the Writers' Union as the agency of a separatist culture might seem bizarre, but what structures are there left? The magazines, newspapers that the Union publishes in Kiev as autonomous Ukranian writing depend on the sponsorship from Moscow. Has anybody figured out what will happen if Moscow cuts off the print-run? Is there a sense of Ukraine which is not based on purely separatist sentiment? The elan of nationalism is exciting, but what if it is only elan? Is there, anywhere, a comaraderie of dissent which has a principle, a theory of dissent except the gut feeling that linguistic community is important and that life is elsewhere?
*Galina Drobot, one of the founders of the April group, out of whose apartment the annual journal April and the general conclaves of the group have emanated. Certainly a group founded on a sense of the `Western' intellectual, whose antennae is tuned to the New York Review of Books, Nouvelle Observateur, the London Review of Books, maybe even Tikkun. And, of course, the real problem is that the Soviet Union does not have a space for Western-style intellectuals. The space that April tries to occupy is precisely that which has been left vacant by the demise of the old intelligentsia. April wants to occupy the moral space, but has not yet been convincing enough to demonstrate that that is not a space whose audience is (because of the form within which the issues are put) is either abroad or dead.
*Tatyana Tolstaya, short story writer, distantly related to Leo Tolstoy, who spends her time alternating between Moscow and the USA. She showed unmitigated hostility to the Writers' Union, which she thought should be closed down, though she also thought that an organization like PEN, as a purely advocacy group, might have a place. She was quite hostile to the idea of the necessity for a women's movement (as was Drobot) seeing it as a feminist equivalent of Proletcult. She argued that writers should be published because they were good, not because they belonged to a Union or were women.
*Valentina Konstantinova, sociologist, deputy director of the Centre for Gender Studies at the Academy of Sciences (whom I met in Prague), who argued strongly for the necessity of a feminist movement, particularily now as the rhetoric of Marxism gave way to that of the market. If women had received some backing under the old regime, now they received absolutely none. It was time to encourage feminist writing.
These interviews represent a cross-section of the positions adopted by some members of the creative intelligentsia. In addition, some background factoids are illuminating in knowing what people think, read, do. Pravda is down from a circulation of two million to 200,000 in one year. The weekly Argumenti i Fakti, a tabloid which crosses between a court circular and an information broadsheet, sells an astounding 32 million copies a week. A wide array of handouts and newsletters dealing with everything from astrology to business forecasts are available at the street corners and in the entrances to the Metro, mainly German tourists line up to be seen eating at MacDonalds, and Rupert Murdoch's Sky TV has a regular slot on Moscow TV producing rock music. George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four, has now sold ten million copies, and, while independent newspaper reporters write and make film right across the the Soviet Union, the amount of this material shown on Soviet TV is very low.
But the real factoids are elsewhere. In Hungary, after the introduction of the free market economy, all the daily papers are owned by Rupert Murdoch or Robert Maxwell and all the local papers by the Springer group. The production of serious literature has declined (the state subsidized Dickens and Zola, while Orwell, Zamyatin and Havel were produced in Samizdat). The soft porn that was encouraged by the State publishing houses in the mid-eighties has now given way to an avalanche of Harlequin romances, Penthouse, and worse). Meanwhile in Poland, most of the publishing houses are going bankrupt under the privatization laws, and even the schools cannot get textbooks. And in the former East Germany, the Kohl anschluss has resulted in all community theatres being closed, because they do not have an adequate (i.e. West German) tax base. The Berliner Ensemble survives because of a potential outburst from the West, and the possible loss of tourist dollars.
The threat of the market therefore hangs over everyone. In a society without values, the valueless dollar imposes itself. (Not for nothing did Gorbachev and Thatcher get on so well: if they shared anything it was a touching faith in old culture as marketable commodity but no faith in the peoples' ability to create culture). There is no evidence that into this vacuum a Prokhanov will not project himself and impose a solution.
When I met Prokhanov, I was struck by the amazing collection of butterflies that were displayed in his apartment in Pushkin Square, above Macdonalds, with a crippled Coka-Cola sign blinking "Coka", "Coka" through the window). The butterflies were framed in glass cases, each containing a particular genus of butterfly: reds to pink in one, navies to light blue in another, bright yellows to cream in another, and so on. Sixteen frames in all. "Where did you get them?" I asked. "Nicaragua, Vietnam, Mozambique, Angola, Cambodia, Cuba, Afghanistan," he replied. "But I did not shoot them, I caught them in a net."
One thinks of the writers under Prokhanov's command, and the ambition to trap them in one "mystic structure." Prokhanov is currently the last in a line that began with Lenin and Lunacharsky, the head of what has been described as the "greatest cultural experiment since the Middle Ages." That experiment owed a lot to men more intelligent than him, who read their Hegel and Marx. Will the experiment die? Will the experiment die as Prokhanov has a shootout in the cultural supermarket? What would he do with more dead butterflies?
The problem, however, is not merely with the curiosities of the gadarene rush to market economies which are a pronounced feature of politics east and west at present, and against which Prokhanov is an eloquent, if somewhat unintelligent spokesman, but with the mirror-image of the market-based media to which those in the east are ineluctably drawn. The critique of that media has been in place for half a century, certainly since the writings of Walter Benjamin, Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer in the 1930s. The time to take their critiques seriously is surely now, when even the most liberating features of the media (the state broadcasting corporations and the university publishing houses) are under siege from market forces in the West and when even the most liberal consequences of Zamisdat publishing are put in jeopardy by the embracement by multinational corporations of the first flowering of a critical and open-minded intelligentsia. The structure of feeling and oppositional culture has never been more commandeered than when the multinational corporations, looking for a fast buck, saw Eastern Europe as a site for appropriation. Milan Kundera and Gunder Grass are right in seeing the West, not as the repository of culture, but as its death-knell, where the Disneyfication of all of our heritages is twisted into a definition of freedom.
In a recent study on The Media and Democracy, John Keane has argued that market-driven competition for control of the media has led to a homogenization of culture in the West to the extent that many people are disenfranchised by what remains of the Fifth Estate. The struggles in Eastern Europe have, in large measure, been concerned as much with freedom of expression as with economic well-being. In all of the Western democracies the most independent-minded media have, paradoxically, been those that have been subsidized by the state with an `arms-length' policy: the BBC in Britain, the CBC in Canada and the PBS in the United States. This is another tradition which we should reach back to if we want to understand what is happening now to Eastern European culture. The tradition of democratic, critical, oppositional culture resisted the Nazis, the Stalinists, the various European imperialisms, and the American multi-nationalists. It is a tradition which criticized the Enlightenment, yet rigourously used the logic of the Enlightenment to expose the inadequacies of the opposition to reason. It is a tradition which has its Eastern European antecedents: Horkheimer and Adorno's Dialectic of Enlightenment, Herbert Marcuse's One Dimensional Man and Soviet Marxism, Mikhail Bakhtin's The Dialogic Imagination, George Konrad's Anti-Politics, Karl Mannheim's Ideology and Utopia, Czeslav Milocz's The Captive Mind. It would be tragic if, just when freedom seems to be dawning, the major institutions of free speech should be surrendered to those whose only conception of freedom is the freedom to make money. The sense of the vertiginous swamp below might seem less traumatic if the equipment accumulated in the hours of darkness might be put to more effective use.
Ioan Davies York University, Toronto August 1991
Published In: Robert H. Reichardt and George Muskens (eds)
Post-Communism, the Market and the Arts: First Sociological Assessments. Frankfurt-am-Main: Verlag Peter Lang, 1992: 85-98.
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