A Russian Play
Among Soviet dramas of the early cold war, Konstantin Simonov’s play The Russian Question (Russkii vopros) merits a chapter to itself. It was probably unique in confining its dramatis personae to American characters—not a Russian in sight. The Russian Question was the cold war play par excellence, promoted and disseminated with Stalin’s approval in thirty Soviet theatres. In Germany the Soviet-zone première followed within a month of the opening night in Moscow, despite a storm of American protests, by which time German-language translations were already on sale at Berlin kiosks. Two weeks later the Soviet Embassy in London put out an English translation; news of a Stalin Prize soon followed. Production plans for Mikhail Romm’s film of the play were announced almost immediately. At the end of the year, with the play still running, Stalin, Molotov, and Voroshilov appeared in the ‘royal box’ at the Moscow Art Theatre, the ultimate seal of approval.
The subject of The Russian Question was mounting American media hostility towards the USSR. Western ‘slander’ (kleveta) became as routine a component of the Soviet polemical vocabulary as the self-description of Soviet morality and Soviet man as ‘lofty’ (vozvyshennyi). Simonov’s play was accompanied by a concerted campaign in the Soviet press against Western lies and distortions.
Only 30 years old when he visited the United States in February 1946, Konstantin Mikhailovich Simonov was already famous as a war reporter and novelist, like his more senior and cosmopolitan travelling companion Ilya Ehrenburg, friend of Picasso and acquaintance of the French surrealists. Simonov had achieved popularity during the war with his dispatches from the front, patriotic poems, and novel on the siege of Stalingrad, Days and Nights (1945). The Old Vic had presented his play The Russians in 1942, when he was only 26. His poem ‘Wait for Me’ (Zhdi menia) was recited like a prayer