Out of step
Index on Censorship 3/86 USSR
Igor Pomerantsev, a writer who left the USSR in 1978, discusses the situation of the younger generation of poets, the successors of Yevtushenko and Brodsky
Igor Pomerantsev is a Russian poet and writer of short stories who now lives in London. Born in 1948, he spent his childhood in Siberia, later moving with his family to Ukraine. After graduating in English from the University of Chernovyts, he worked as a teacher and technical translator, and occasionally had his poetry published in official Soviet journals. In the late 1970s, he came under pressure from the KGB, for 'spreading anti-Soviet literature' — 'which in human terms', he says, 'meant that I gave a few of my friends' copies of The Gulag Archipelago and Nabokov's Invitation to a Beheading. Had he been Ukrainian, he might very well have been imprisoned for this offence; as a Russian, however, he was treated somewhat more leniently and had the option of emigrating. This he did in 1978, going first to West Germany and later coming to Britain. Igor Pomerantsev's work has appeared widely in emigre journals such as Sintaksis (Paris) and Vremya i My (New York and Jerusalem). This year a volume of his short stories was published by RR Press, a publishing co-operative in London. Translations of his work have appeared in German, Ukrainian and English. The Boston journal Partisan Review has published some of his work, and BBC's Radio 3 regularly broadcasts his short stories. He was interviewed for Index on Censorship 3/86 USSR Sally Laird
What has happened to the younger generation of poets in the Soviet Union? Where are the successors to the well-known names of the fifties and sixties, such as Yevtushenko and Brodsky?
I'd like to start by talking about that generation: the one you've defined as Yevtushenko's or Brodsky's. This was the period of de-Stalinisation, with all its complications and consequences. The word 'Stalinism' doesn't mean just a trend in state politics, it means a whole complex of life — our fears, our joys, our sympathies. And it included its own aesthetics: because every state idea needs its aesthetic and literary facade. The Stalinist facade was one of pseudo-classicism, a cyclopic-monumental facade in the imperial style. And the main point of this style was to get rid completely of the individual, the personality.
So de-Stalinisation, the Khrushchev era, meant not just political change — it meant the creation of a new facade, a new culture, a new aesthetics. That's why there was a kind of mobilisation of new people into art...
Do you mean that Yevtushenko, for example, was in some sense a creation of that new era — or that he recognised an opportunity that hadn't been there before?
If we're speaking about Yevtushenko then, yes, one could say both that the time discovered Yevtushenko and that he discovered the time. When Khrushchev took power he needed to create a 'Khrushchevian' culture around himself — and there were various people who recognised this and saw a space for themselves...
But if we look back now at that generation, the main feature is that theirs was a literature that had only two dimensions — the social and the political. They didn't perceive poetry as, simply, words of beauty that can make you enjoy language, life, the word, the line — instead, poetry was taken as a kind of ersatz freedom — a kind of substitute for freedom. One wanted poetry, one went to poetry readings just to get a sort of injection, a drug in place of freedom. I went to these readings myself — but now when one looks back everything that was done in that era seems somehow to be a veneer, or made of paper .... Of course, there were exceptions. You mentioned Brodsky, who was an exceptional talent. He was the most uncontrollable of that generation (and anyway he didn't fully belong to it — he was on the verge of the next one). But insofar as he was uncontrollable, they got rid of him...
You talk disparagingly of poetry being taken as a substitute for freedom — but after all, wasn't it a kind of progress to discover, or rediscover, that poetry could be that?
Of course, it would be distasteful to take the prosecutor's role and simply look at that generation to judge or to accuse. That isn't my point of view. And, of course, that generation played its part, though it was social rather than literary. For example, they introduced the idea that one could write as one spoke; people like Aksyonov, say, or Yevtushenko brought in the language of the street...
And that was what appealed to Yevtushenko's audience?
Yes — I think at that time the audience was equal to Yevtushenko and Yevtushenko was equal to the audience — or they were products of each other. In one of his most recent poems, Yevtushenko addresses his audience or readership and says (in a kind of self-justification): 'I am your collective portrait — You wrote yourself with my pen.' And he was partly right. But his colossal public success should surely be analysed first of all not from the point of view of aesthetics or poetry, but as a social-political phenomenon. The very fact that we can speak about 'generations' in the way we've been doing is unique. If I can generalise a bit: in totalitarian countries, it's cataclysms that dictate, that give birth to generations. They make it obligatory to think in terms of generations...
Isn't that true elsewhere as well—can't one talk of different generations in 'non-totalitarian' states being radically divided by historical events? Or are you saying that the relationship between culture and history is quite different in the Soviet Union?
Well, for example, in England, one might talk in terms of fashions... people nowadays dye their hair in different colours, but as far as what's going on inside is concerned, there's a real succession. I mean the culture isn't broken, the language isn't broken, and if it moves in new directions that's because of something quite organic, quite natural. But in the Soviet case — and one sees something similar, for example, in the case of Nazi Germany — we have a quite deliberate perversion, a deliberate breaking of culture — with the conscious aim of producing a single ruling ideology and culture. To the extent that people forget even their language — not to mention their history or cultural tradition. Orwell's situation, actually — but in real life and, therefore, with more dimensions and more complexity. It would be wrong to paint a picture of total death — there's always some touch of life, even in the cemetery.
But you're arguing that it's because of being severed, in this way, from history and culture that, say, Yevtushenko's generation couldn't do more than produce what you called a sort of veneer... ?
I would prefer to call it the 'thaw generation', or the '20th Party Congress generation'. However enthusiastic it was, I'm afraid that the result, in literary or aesthetic terms, was very poor. As I said before, Brodsky's was the exceptional case — he wasn't just an indicator of time and mood, but a real poet writing real poetry. So one might say that, looking back, the drama of the thaw generation was that on the whole they weren't sufficiently talented to use an opportunity. But it was more that Russian Soviet culture and Soviet literature generally was artificial and hollow — and this was a consequence of the repression that had taken place earlier, Stalin's repression. One can't start from a cultural and literary and linguistic zero.
So even the apparent flowering of culture that briefly appeared then was illusory? But, to return to my original question, what has happened since then?
I think, first, that the regime has learned certain lessons. During the thaw period, they had had to rehabilitate hundreds of writers who had been killed, physically eliminated. I think they learned a lesson — that it was better not to let writers 'in' in the first place, not to let them become writers. And then we're talking about Brezhnev's era, which was a period of complete timelessness, twenty years of it. A sclerosis in the whole life of the Soviet Union.
What do you mean when you say they decided not to let writers in'? You mean that it was impossible for anyone new or original to get published? What about yourself?
I was first published in 1972, in the Moscow magazine Smena. This was in the Brezhnev era, and it was becoming increasingly difficult to get anything published, especially if your poetry was more or less intimate and individual. But I had got my poems published in Smena, which has a circulation of a million, and I had a recommendation to the publishing house 'Sovetsky Pisatel' from a talented and influential poet. With his recommendation, I went to see an editor who had the reputation of being a great liberal, and in his office at 'Sovetsky Pisatel' he spoke to me quite openly. He told me, in a familiar way, as if we were friends: 'My dear Igor, you know if young Andrei or Bella were to come and see me now, we wouldn't publish them — it's already impossible.' He was referring to Andrei Voznesensky and Bella Akhmadulina. So I was told officially that the time had been locked, that it was already too late to start.
That was just my personal story. But I could give many other examples. One curious one. In the late 1960s, in one of the last issues of Novy Mir that he edited, Tvardovsky published poems by a young poet, then in his late twenties. His name was Aleksandr Velichansky. Now Tvardovsky wasn't exactly generous towards poets — he had a kind of peasant complex towards some of them, I think. But now, in the Indian summer of Novy Mir, he didn't just give this young poet a bit of space — he published, I think, 20 of his poems! As if he wanted to attract readers' attention to the fact that someone was writing good poetry. And indeed, this Velichansky looked to me to be a very promising poet. But what happened to him? He simply disappeared. Only once afterwards did I ever see a poem of his — in a Moscow youth magazine.
So poets were being shown the corner and they knew they had to survive in that corner...
You mentioned that this was a period in which it was particularly difficult to publish poetry that was 'intimate' or 'individual' — are those words that you would use especially to characterise the work of other young poets, besides yourself, who were trying to get published at that time?
I think that there was an evident shift towards individuality. One was not so concerned with poetry as a substitute for freedom — the idea of artistic individuality was more important. There was a new tone, a new intonation. If you take, for example, what one could call the Kiev 'school' of Ukrainian poetry at that time — very interesting poetry that reflected particularly the influence of Garcia Lorca, of the Japanese poets, of Igor Bohdan Antonych — a genius from Lvov who died before the war. It was very lyrical, very metaphorical, and hermetic in style. But actually, hardly any of the poets from this 'school' were published, although I could name five or six who were very good ....
But let me ask again — what was it about this particular kind of poetry that made it so unpunishable?
I think the fact that this was a faceless time... faces of any kind were out of step with the style of life, and all of these poets had faces. They were treated almost as enemies because they compromised everything that was timeless and faceless.
How did you know the work of these poets — were they circulating in samizdat?
Yes. By this time you were already beginning to see the separation between non-official literature and official publishing. Because, of course, poets and writers sensed the situation, they felt they could no longer keep step with the state.
Did the existence of this 'non-official literature' at least mean that you weren't completely isolated: that you had some sense of community around you, some sense of others writing as you were?
Yes — one did know the others through samizdat — so l can't say there was a feeling of isolation in that sense. It was more that one felt that one was in a kind of cage. If you compare this situation to that of the thirties... the situation of Mandelshtam or Pasternak was incomparably more dangerous, more tragic, but they did have cultural and literary roots in pre-revolutionary Russia. Whereas we had only Soviet roots — we completely lacked this deep support from our national culture. And this sense of being in a cage very much dictated the style of many writers or poets...
About the thirties — how would you compare your situation to that of the previous generation?
I think there was an evident difference between the thaw generation and the next one. Ironically, sarcastically, I could call my generation the "luxury generation", because we were brought up in an atmosphere not of mass repressions but of selective ones. So many of us had, say, the privilege of lying on the sofa, reading poetry and enjoying it without the fear of the sinister knock on the door. There was a huge difference between my generation and those brought up under Stalin — a completely different atmosphere of fear. Actually, we — take 'we' as a figure of speech here — we didn't fear. There were many things that we took for granted which the previous generation couldn't have done — the publication, for example, of many of the best writers in the West.... But we also took for granted the rules of the game—the game that had been imposed on us.
So, as you said, it wasn't just a question of good poets not being 'allowed in' — but also of the atmosphere of the time affecting poets before they got to the stage of being censored ...
Yes — I'm afraid that this notion of censorship is meaningless in the Soviet case. It might have made sense in, say, the twenties, and it can be applied in a case like South Africa, for example. But as far as the Soviet Union is concerned in the last thirty years, it's not a question of censorship but of the overall atmosphere. Everyone knowing the rules of the game — and that's more tragic. If there's a censor outside, you have something to fight against, you can still resist. But it's difficult to fight with yourself, with an integral part of your perception.
Still, you've referred to the existence of a kind of unofficial culture — isn't this the expression of some vitality and opposition?
I think it's important that things shouldn't be put in black and white. You can't just say 'the regime is suppressing wonderful poets'. It's much more dramatic than that. The regime dictates the atmosphere. Poets in their own way react to it. They do resist with counter measures, but one effect of this is that they become arrogant, they start proclaiming themselves geniuses of this circle or that. It isn't just that the regime commits the crime of not giving space to good poets — it's that it doesn't even give potentially good poets the chance of becoming good poets. Psychologically this is very crucial.
Look what happened to Vladimir Nabokov. He was very productive from the beginning, first writing poetry, then novel after novel — brilliant novels. But he was recognised only by a very small circle of people in the Russian emigration — wide recognition came only when Graham Greene discovered his Lolita in the late fifties when Nabokov was already a mature writer. But by that time he had become alienated, and he developed a colossal arrogance. If you look at his lectures on nineteenth-century literature — they're brilliant — he's full of taste, full of love of literature, he understands perfectly and judges very fairly. But as soon as it comes to our century, he can't restrain himself, he starts to condemn and to hate. He hated Pasternak, he hated Faulkner. I think this was his personal drama — the result of the fact that recognition came to him so late.
I'm not saying that I see Vladimir Nabokovs all over Kiev and Moscow and Leningrad. I'm talking about the psychological phenomenon. Arrogance prevails — it's very difficult now to speak with these people. So the situation is very bad, not only because the regime destroys good poets, but because it gives birth to an atmosphere in which good poetry can only be an exception.
You talked earlier about Brodsky as a kind of exception in the thaw generation — someone out on his own. But if it's possible to talk in terms of these exceptional talents, doesn't that partly invalidate what you've been saying?
No — I could give you a counterargument. Look for example at the circle of poets around Mandelshtam — the so-called Acmeists. Of these, actually, I think only Mandelshtam was a very good poet. Akhmatova was not a bad poet. Gumilyov was boring. But the others were already of a completely different calibre. Take an average Acmeist poet — Mikhail Zenkevich. He's not very gifted — but he's a good professional. You know, it's good professionals that make the background of literature. They make the standard, the norm — you can follow it or depart from it, but you know the bottom, the limit. But in the modern situation there is no such limit ...
So in the present situation, you're saying, there isn't the opportunity for poets to evaluate themselves against that background?
Yes — or to develop. An example: I have here a copy of Den Poezii — it's a kind of almanac published every year by 'Sovetsky Pisatel'. This issue is from 1983, and at the very end of it, they publish some so-called 'young poets', all of whom are over thirty and some of whom I knew in Russia, before I emigrated in 1978. They've found a strange rubric for them — 'ironical poetry' —as if to justify their inclusion by making a sort of allusion to Pushkin's or N.A.Nekrasov's 'ironic' poetry. Although in fact, I think they had nothing to do with Pushkin, but rather with the Leningrad 'absurd' school (Kharms, Vvedensky, Zablotsky). Their poems are tough, black, absurd... and now, given this tiny corner in Den Poezii 1983 their work looks, to me anyway, just like a pale shadow of, say, Kharms. But the point is that it might have been good at the time it was written — I mean that it might have been able to develop, go further somehow. When a poet sees his poetry at a distance, published, he's already in a position to try something new. But I think that for certain fragile characters the fact of their poetry being published so late could be ruining, decisive...
But what about publication, if you can call it that, in samizdat — or in the West? Is this in any way a kind of substitute for publication in your own country, for a wider audience?
It is — it is a kind of substitute. And, as far as the generation that we've been talking about is concerned — what I've called the 'luxury generation' — there are some hopeful signs, that they have produced something more interesting, from the literary, not just the social point of view. There is an evident shift away from the dictatorship of truth (anti-regime truth, which is no better than any other dictatorship) towards language as the aim of writing, towards sophistication of plot, an elegant irony. I'm referring to prose writers now living in the West — Sasha Sokolov, Zinovy Zinik, Nikolai Bokov, Leonid Girshowich, and also to certain Moscow poets — Vsevolod Nekrasov, Dmitry Prygov. But mostly the climate is sick.
When you say the climate is sick — are you referring again to the kind of arrogance that comes from being isolated — or from not having, if I've understood you, an open space in which your value can be found?
The problem is that the regime imposes a certain style of thinking not only on conformists but on its critics as well. Fighting the regime, one risks becoming its stylistic twin. The Russian classic writers of the nineteenth century could afford to be moralists or even conspirators because they, as aristocrats or nobles, had a culture in their blood and in their fingers. Our only chance is not in countering the regime but in knitting together threads that have been torn apart — the threads by which culture is held. This is what the next couple of generations must work to do.