The Ills of Limitation and the Evils of Disorientation: Perceptions of Post-WWII American Literature in the USSR/Russia

Article excerpt

The title came to me when I was preparing a presentation for the California American Studies Association (CASA) Conference in Santa Barbara. The location of the conference provided a perfect metaphor for the dramatic change in the picture of American culture that had occurred during the last decade in post-communist Russia. Practically nobody in the USSR of the late 1980's would know anything about Santa Barbara or even have heard the name. But by the mid-90's it had become a household name--due to the prime-time soap opera, the first to be shown on Russian national TV--and its personages became something like folk-heroes. In an infamous anecdote, high-school children were asked what US city they would like to visit. "Of course, Santa Barbara," was the unanimous answer. "Why so?" "We just know everyone there!"

The metaphor helps to make the point that the view of US culture in the post-WWII USSR was distorted by the policy of ideological censorship while in post-communist Russia, it is distorted by the prevailing exposure to "mass culture" and "popular literature." American culture played a specific and somewhat ambivalent role in the Soviet Union. On the official level American literature was always looked upon in terms of Cold War ideological struggle and global confrontation. However, for a number of grass-roots Soviet citizens American culture was a powerful magnet and sign of spiritual opposition which provided an alternative to the grim Soviet reality. This attraction accounts for the tremendous popularity of writers such as Ernest Hemingway, J.D. Salinger, and Kurt Vonnegut, musicians Duke Ellington and Louis Armstrong (and later rock music), and movies starting with the post-war "Tarzan" and "Magnificent Seven" in the 1950's. When Muscovites were standing in line for hours to get to the first McDonalds in 1989, it was not for the beef cutlet, but for the glimpse, the taste, the feel of "The Other Life."

Soviet authorities realized the danger of American culture and feared for the "ideological purity" of its common citizens. They made an effort to limit the access of the general public to "dangerous material" or at least attempted to put it "in the right perspective." Even considering the omnipotent state control of all cultural activities in the country, that was a challenging task. Book publication in the USSR was completely controlled by government agencies and looked upon as part of the "national security." The question of what was "acceptable" and what was "unacceptable" was sometimes decided on a very high level. Publications were limited and the process long and painful. Usually the introduction of a new author started with his or her publication in a literary magazine Inostrannaya Literatura (Foreign Literature) and only after that might a book appear. It was vital to get the journal publication first, only then would the writer become "allowed," until he said or did something wrong. Even if a book was later published, that didn't necessarily secure its availability in bookstores. Books were not bought, but "got through a pool" or "exchanged."

With some simplification the Soviet publishing policy in regard to U.S. writers could be summarized as follows:

* to support "progressive forces" within American culture

* to use U.S. literature for the purposes of social criticism against capitalist society

* to show that the USSR was a highly literate society giving its citizen free access to the best world literature. (particularly after the Helsinki Summit of 1975)

The official "Us vs. Them" mentality of the Soviets tended to put everything into binary oppositions. Official literary criticism made a clear-cut division between "good" and "bad" literature but allowing little "neutral ground" between.

Good literature

--politically progressive
--realistic
--moral (non-sexual)
--critical (of capitalism)

Bad literature

--politically reactionary
--modernistic
--immoral(over-sexual)
--pro-establishment

An additional important criterion was whether the writer in question had said something about the USSR and the "socialist system," particularly in regard to the dissident movement in the 1970's and early 80's. …