A Novelist's 1930s Assessment of the `Russian Miracle'

BOOKS

RUSSIA: A CHRONICLE OF THREE JOURNEYS IN THE AFTERMATH OF THE REVOLUTION by Nikos Kazantzakis, Translated by Michael Antonakes, and Thanasis Maskaleris, Berkeley, Calif.: Creative Arts Book Co., 271 pp., $18.95. IT'S hard to imagine the author of ``The Last Temptation of Christ'' writing a quaint book. But Nikos Kazantzakis's ``Russia'' is just that. Curiously charming, pleasantly old-fashioned, it has been so hopelessly overtaken by events as to seem almost naive.

Kazantzakis, of course, never meant it that way. During his three long journeys to Russia between 1925 and 1929, he saw himself as probing for the essence of the Bolshevik Revolution. The resulting book, smoothly translated by two American professors, is an engaging and well-written potpourri of travelogue, interviews, analysis, political philosophy, and personal apologia. It ranges from deft characterizations of fallen noblemen and passing descriptions of closed churches to an extended dialogue with Soviet playwright Maxim Gorki and a fully realized scene-setting of the Nov. 7 anniversary celebration of the revolution. It is written throughout with passion and commitment. Russia, for Kazantzakis, was a deeply felt presence. ``A gigantic, epic undertaking,'' he called the Soviet experiment, ``which history will someday characterize as the `Russian miracle.'''

His assessment of that ``miracle'' is generally favorable, qualified only by some deep reservations about the more fanatical Russians he met, and by his concern that the Marxist idea was being betrayed by those who wanted to imitate rather than destroy the West. His positive appraisal is not surprising: It simply reflects the dominant literary ethos of his age.

Kazantzakis's book is part of a genre - good in its kind, but full of the shells of discernments from which the pith has long since rotted or been violently dislodged. World War II, the repressions of Hungary and Czechoslovakia, the shoe-pounding of Khrushchev, the invasion of Afghanistan, the Brezhnev doctrine, glasnost and perestroika - all this and more has clarified the Soviet experiment in ways Kazantzakis could never have foreseen. His vision of a ``flaming center in Russia that awakens and enlightens the masses of the entire earth'' has now been put to the test and found gravely flawed.

How, then, is one to read this book? Largely as history - relevant as a kind of reminder of how much, in its initial fascination, Leninism once hypnotized its audiences. Seen this way, it's a revealing book - not so much about Soviet life today as about the forces within Western culture that still urge rebellious writers to seek alternatives.

Kazantzakis found three things particularly distressing about the West: money, sex, and rationality. ``Russia is the only place in the world,'' he wrote, ``where the talk of men does not revolve monotonously and painfully around the subject of money.'' Also absent, he found, was the ``nauseating eroticism'' of everyday conversation. And ``unlike the rational European,'' he noted, ``the Russian places the soul above all else.''

Kazantzakis's Russia was that magic kingdom long sought by artists through the ages: a place of deep feeling without debilitating drives. Seen that way, the obvious blemishes in its institutions appeared small, and even the aggressive anti-individualism he recorded seemed forgivable.

Or seemed so at the time. In a letter to his friend Michael Anastasiou reprinted at the end of this volume, comes what he calls his ``rather frightening conclusion.'' Communism, he wrote, ``is the end, not the beginning. It has all the symptoms of finality: unadulterated materialism, excessive logic, deadly analysis of every faith that transcends the senses, deification of practical goals.'' That assessment, at least, seems to have stood the test of time.

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