Reforming Soviet Culture, Retrieving Soviet History

Article excerpt

Reforming Soviet Culture/Retrieving Soviet History

The rapid cultural changes occurringin the Soviet Union today create a confusing picture for the Western reader: maverick film director Elem Klimov, whose 1975 film, Agony, was shelved for a decade because of its sympathetic portrayal of Czar Nicholas II, is elected first secretary of the Union of Cinematographers in May 1986; ballet dancer Mikhail Baryshnikov, who defected in 1974, is invited in January 1987 to dance at the Bolshoi Theater; Boris Pasternak is posthumously reinstated to the Soviet Writers' Union in February 1987.

As those who have strayed from thefold, both geographically and politically, are invited to return to it, daily events in Soviet cultural politics acquire an almost biblical significance: outcast writers are published; groups of emigres are welcomed home; formerly untouchable themes are openly discussed. The effusive support given Mikhail Gorbachev and his reforms by some members of the Moscow intelligentsia is perhaps best characterized by the poet Andrei Voznesensky: "This may be the moment I've been waiting for all my life.'

What is significant in the recent culturalchanges? Although Gorbachev's reforms have been met with qualified support from dissident figures such as Andrei Sakharov and Roy Medvedev, they have also evoked skepticism or outright repudiation from leading figures in the refusenik community, such as Iosif Begun, inside the Soviet Union, and from emigre writers, such as Vasily Aksyonov, outside its borders. Gorbachev's detractors point out that while Klimov may have gained control of the Union of Cinematographers, Kira Muratova's films still await full release; that while Baryshnikov may now choose to return, others may not; that while Dr. Zhivago may be welcomed publicly to Moscow, Lolita and Ivan Denisovich--an unlikely couple--are not eligible for imminent literary parole, or reparole in Ivan's case. As polemics on both sides become increasingly irate one senses that the participants are describing the same old water glass, for some half-empty, for others half-full.

In fact, several important themes arenow cautiously sanctioned as a result of recent cultural changes. Two have attracted considerable attention from the Western press corps: Stalinism in the broad sense--that is, its history and its legacy-- and the fate of the Soviet emigre.

Anatoly Rybakov's novel Children ofthe Arbat is undoubtedly the most momentous breakthrough in this newly permitted literary treatment of Stalin as a cultural object. The novel, tracing the life of its hero, Sasha Pankratov, from student to prisoner under Iosif Stalin's terror, had been slated to appear twice before, first in 1967, then in 1979. Both times publication was prevented. Last March the novel was finally excerpted in the magazine Ogonyok, and the first installment of the full-length version appeared in the journal Druzhba Narodov in April.

The fact that Rybakov's novel hadbeen circulating in manuscript form for the past two decades demonstrates that in the world of Soviet cultural politics "recent' rarely means "just finished.' Another case in point is Aleksei German's film Trial on the Road, depicting a Soviet prisoner of war who engineers his own recapture by partisan compatriots so that he can resume fighting the Nazi occupation forces. German's film, completed in 1971 under the title Operation "Happy New Year,' ran afoul of the official view of P.O.W.'s as traitors to the motherland, and the film was shelved until last year. A third example of "recent' Soviet art is the 1984 film Scarecrow, about schoolchildren's ostracism of one young classmate. Completed and released in the waning months of the Chernenko regime, this controversial film has generated prolonged interest and discussion under Gorbachev because the courage and candor of its director, Rolan Bykov, anticipated the subsequent glasnost campaign, initiated at the Twenty-seventh Party Congress, in February 1986. …