Little `openness' for Soviets in West. Glasnost and 'emigr'e writers
ALONG with eager optimism in the West about the policies of glasnost (openness) and perestroika (restructuring), a great deal of criticism has been leveled against them. Much of it has come from Soviet 'emigr'es. Recently, seven 'emigr'e writers spoke to the Monitor about glasnost. The interviews were conducted individually, by telephone; the writers spoke mostly from their homes. Joseph Brodsky, Yuz Aleshkovsky, Sergei Dovlatov, and Vassily Aksyonov live in the United States, Vladimir Voinovich makes his home in West Germany, and Edward Limonov and Dimitry Savitsky are in Paris.
The circumstances of their coming to the West differ as much as their degree of notoriety as writers. Wide gulfs separate them in style and subject matter as writers.
But they have one basic similarity: They have all left their homeland - usually under unfavorable, even scandalous circumstances - to start new lives as ideologically free writers.
In speaking, these writers were quick to point out that they feel that something very significant is happening in the Soviet Union today. Many, though, cite censorship and strict adherence to ideology as impediments to total openness. Their reactions to the subject ranged from apathy to concern, from humor to disgust. Their own prospects for publication and acceptance in their homeland, they see as dim. They are actively writing in the West, for their audiences here. Glasnost, so far, is not for 'emigr'es.
Widely recognized in the United States and in his native Russia as a leading modern poet, Joseph Brodsky commented that glasnost derives from the word golos, meaning voice. It literally means an announcement or publicity. Indeed, much fanfare has accompanied the publication of once-forbidden works. But about this excitement, Brodsky says, ``This literature belongs to the nation. It belongs to the people, and it was stolen. So the thief returns it. Why should I be grateful to the thief?''
In the Soviet Union, glasnost has meant the ``rehabilitation'' of dead writers and poets. They include Nabokov, Tsvetayeva, Khodasevich, Gumilyov, and Platonov. There is also the appearance in fiction of rarely seen themes such as corruption and social alienation. The recent publication of Rybakov's ``Children of the Arbat,'' about Stalin's terror, after many years was a breakthrough.
Why not, then, publish Solzhenitsyn's ``Gulag Archipelago''? Or does he have any chance of being published because he is in the West?
I put this question to Sergei Dovlatov, author of several novels, including ``The Compromise'' and a soon-to-be published collection of short stories about his family called ``Nashi.'' Dovlatov wasn't sure about Solzhenitsyn's chances. ``I think,'' he said, ``that maybe they might publish Solzhenitsyn. For propaganda.''
DOVLATOV feels that prospects in general for 'emigr'e writers are not that good. Though he agrees that glasnost is significant - writers in the Soviet Union are enjoying some creative liberties - he explained that 'emigr'es living in the West are the enemy, a threatening and potentially dangerous symbol of the West. To publish them is not a risk the Soviets are ready to take.
Dovlatov believes that as long as the Soviet Union is a one-party state, with official censorship, total glasnost is impossible. ``Gorbachev thinks Stalin was a bad censor and that he is a better one,'' Dovlatov said. ``But the whole idea of a censor is criminal and against culture. I hate all of them.'' Dovlatov's dream is that one day he will be published in the Soviet Union. He is 55 and never has been.
Nor has Dimitry Savitsky, who was an underground poet in Moscow and has written four books since he went to Paris in 1979. (His first book in English translation, tentatively titled ``From Nowhere with Love,'' is forthcoming from Grove Press.)
He, too, wants his books to circulate in the Soviet Union, because he feels it is important for a writer to be understood in his own language. But he doubts that this is likely; he admits his writings are ``strongly anti-Soviet.'' Yet he insists that there is no reason not to publish living 'emigr'e writers.
``What's the big deal in publishing Pasternak?'' Savitsky asked. ``If you want to talk freedom, let's publish Sinyavsky! Let's publish Limonov! Brodsky! This will not hurt them [the Soviets].''
Though Savitsky does perceive a new determination in those fighting for change, he notes that the state propaganda machinery is still pushing ideology and slogans. This suggests a paradox about the new people in power, the new establishment. Though they talk about reform - and many of them, even the former old guard, do talk about it - ``They are still talking from the position of people who monopolize the truth,'' he said.
ALTHOUGH Vladimir Voinovich, author of the recent satire ``Moscow 2042,'' notes that some significant changes have occurred in literature, he points out that vast amounts of it remain suppressed. He said, ``I hope they understand that it is impossible to have perestroika without the rehabilitation of all writers. If there are any forbidden names, there is not complete glasnost.''
Perhaps if there is too much glasnost, he says, literature will be subject to real market competition, where the reader's opinion is what sells a book.
Voinovich, famous for his satires on the Soviet system, concluded, ``If they publish too many banned writers, many Soviet writers will be unemployed. Who will want to read them?''
Vassily Aksyonov, who recently published ``In Search of Melancholy Baby,'' recounted his own recent publication in the Soviet Union. Moscow News ran a letter from several 'emigr'es, Aksyonov among them. This was proclaimed as an act of great openness. He says, though, that the Soviets used it to their profit, launching a ``hysterical campaign against the authors, denouncing them as enemies, made in a flat-out Stalinist fashion.''
Though he would not be surprised if 'emigr'es and other different voices were published in the future, for the time being, Askyonov says it's impossible. He adds, ``For me, glasnost doesn't mean openness, it means loquaciousness. They are simply more talkative.''
Brodsky is well known in the US for his poetry and for ``Less Than One,'' a collection of essays published last year (a new book of poems called ``To Urania'' is in press). Brodsky admits to a hope that there is a grand design behind these new policies.
He calls Gorbachev a ``kind of Rousseavian dream come true,'' an enlightened despot with the ``machinery at his disposal to make life more substantial - even create a new order of civilization - in the midst of a doomed system.'' Perhaps through literature, Gorbachev can enlighten the people. Gorbachev might believe that people will fare better if they've read everything he has read, Brodsky explains.
Brodsky's poetry is also well known in the Soviet Union without being officially published.
For the moment, Brodsky is not terribly concerned about being published there. ``Real freedom,'' he says, ``is when a publisher publishes what will be good and profitable.''
As for profit, Edward Limonov thinks that if his novel ``It's Me, Eddie'' were to come out in the Soviet Union, it would indeed be profitable. He points out that the USSR is, after all, a country of 275 million potential book buyers. ``It would sell millions of copies! I have no doubt that it would be a threat.''
A THREAT, that is, to the writing establishment. Limonov says that he is a very ideologically free writer, and that if he were to be published, not only would it be significant, culturally, but also he would be ``the happiest man in the world.'' For now, he doubts it will happen, but he hopes he is mistaken.
Limonov believes political reasons alone do not prevent some works from seeing the light of day. He cites a certain cultural provincialism.
``I think they're behind on many subjects. They are enormously puritanical and have many taboos. You can't publish `dirty words.' Is that freedom of the press?''
Author of ``Kangaroo'' and the forthcoming ``The Hand,'' Yuz Aleshkovsky thinks of his life as not in emigration, but in freedom. He says he can be neither an optimist nor a pessimist about the current happenings in the Soviet Union. He simply believes in what he calls ``the self-corrective process of life.'' The party leaders realize they are ``standing on the threshold of chaos and the deterioration of national life,'' he says.
ALESHKOVSKY says that since 1917, the Soviets have been devaluing the function of literature. He says that literature is supposed to ``strive toward the secrets of heaven while firmly grounded in reality.'' Socialist realism went against this in that it was forced to describe an idealized reality, something that did not exist.
Though he says that readers and leaders will be flooded with themes of perestroika in economic and social relations, more grave themes are not forthcoming. He says, ``We won't soon see or hear about the bankruptcy of communist ideology, rights, cultural suicide, etc.'' He believes that the party is far from repenting and exposing all.
Many of the writers say that nothing can intrinsically change in the Soviet Union as long as socialist ideology - under party control - remains the sine qua non of all facets of Soviet life.
Most of the writers interviewed did not feel particularly qualified to speculate about their literary futures within the Soviet Union. For whatever reason, they have left the country. Many were victims of systematic ostracism. Perhaps publishing them in the Soviet Union would be tantamount to forgiving and forgetting - something nobody, especially the Soviet government, is too eager to do. There is no other clear reason why Brodsky, a revered Russian poet, would not be published in his homeland.
Recent and coming from 'emigr'e authors
Joseph Brodsky - recently published book of essays called ``Less Than One''; book of poems, ``To Urania,'' coming out this winter from Farrar, Straus, & Giroux.
Edward Limonov - author of ``It's Me, Eddie''; recently published ``His Butler's Story,'' Grove Press.
Vassily Aksyonov - recently published ``In Search of Melancholy Baby''; also author of ``The Burn,'' Random House.
Yuz Aleshkovsky - author of ``Kangaroo''; another novel, ``The Hand,'' forthcoming from Farrar, Straus, & Giroux.
Sergei Dovlatov - author of ``The Compromise'' and ``The Zone''; has book of short stories about his family called ``Nashi'' (Russian for ``our'') forthcoming from Harcourt Brace Jovanovich.
Vladimir Voinovich - recently published ``Moscow 2042,'' Harcourt Brace Jovanovich.
Dimitry Savitsky - author of four novels; his first English translation, tentatively titled ``From Nowhere with Love,'' forthcoming from Grove Press.