"ENEMIES OF THE PEOPLE": Poetry and Politics in the Time of Stalin

Article excerpt

   Into the distance go the mounds of
   people's heads.
   I am growing smaller here--no one
   notices me any more,
   but in caressing books and children's
   games
   I will rise from the dead to say the
   sun is shining.
   --Osip Mandelshtam, 1937(1)

IN 1946, a ruling of the Central Committee of the All-Union Communist Party of the Soviet Union attacked the Russian poet Anna Akhmatova by stating,

   Such is Akhmatova with her petty, narrow personal life, trivial emotions
   and religious-mystical eroticism.... What has this poetry in common with
   the interests of our people and our state? Exactly nothing.(2)

Excluded from the all-important Union of Soviet Writers, Akhmatova (1889-1966) was forced to live on a meager pension, finding some work translating. Authorities were under constant pains to intimidate her, if not into compliance at least into silence, through an intentionally conspicuous surveillance. As her friend Nadezhda Mandelshtam later described it:

   [T]hey stood there without the least pretense at disguise ... By their
   whole behavior they seemed to be saying: `You have nowhere to hide.(3)

Finally-with her first husband, poet Nikolai Gumilev, having long since been put to death for "counter-revolutionary activities," and their son Lev Gumilev (a noted historian) and her third husband (art critic Nikolai Punin) imprisoned--Akhmatova acquiesced. After having published only a handful of poems in the previous twenty-five years, she ended her silence in 1952 with several poems in praise of Stalin, including a tribute to him on his birthday:

   Let the world remember this day
   forever,
   Let this hour be bequeathed to
   eternity.

   Where Stalin is, there is
   freedom,
   Peace, and grandeur of the
   earth.(14)

Akhmatova was only one of many writers the Party attacked. At stake was the role of literature in Soviet society--whether writers should be servants of the political ideology of the State. The 1946 ruling gave a clear answer: "Any preaching of ideological emptiness, of an apolitical attitude, of `art for art's sake,' is foreign to Soviet literature, (and) harmful to the interests of the Soviet people and State."(5) This sentiment was not new; the Party had long been increasing its control over writers--especially during the Purges of the late 1930s--and this effort took on renewed energy during the beginning years

of the Cold War.

Taking a longer view, the role of the intelligentsia (intellectual class) in relation to the state was a central issue for writers in tsarist Russia. Debate over the question dates from the mid-nineteenth century, when literary critic Vissarion Belinsky propounded the view that writers--and other members of the intelligentsia--held a moral imperative to question authority and transform society.

Of course, questions about the purpose and function (if any) of art do not arise only in totalitarian societies--although there the consequences that flow from them are likely to be more harsh. The United States acted to suppress dissent after both great wars of the twentieth century--and especially during the era of McCarthyism that followed World War II. Moreover, in our current debates over banned books in schools, rap lyrics in the music industry, and Hollywood "values," what is ultimately at stake if not how much freedom a society allows to the artist? For this reason, examining the role--and the control--of writers in Stalinist Russia may help to illuminate the issues that revolve around intellectual freedom in societies seemingly far removed in place or time.

Literary Precedents in Tsarist Russia

Far more than the literary canon of the West, Russian literature has traditionally been intertwined with politics, and often marked by a hostility toward authority and strong sympathy for the common people. A century before the Bolshevik Revolution, Russian intellectuals were already establishing themselves as activists, believing that "literature and art . …