The plight of Soviet writers; Russian Writers and Soviet Society, 1917-1978, by Ronald Hingley. New York: Rondom House. $15.00.
Under Stalin, Russian writers learned the meanings of such chilling new words as "detention," "banishment," and "liquidation," and became in effect advertising copywriters for the regime, praising all things Soviet, ending all works optimistically, conforming to a "decorous, featureless" style.
Under Brezhnev, through the most stringent requirements of "Socialist Realism" (e.g., "the insistence on portraying positive Heroes and on purveying ebullient optimism") have been relaxed, other controls, especially in the form of censorship, has become more systematic, more severe than ever.
More precisely a treatment of Soviet history and society as reflected in the lives of Russian writers than a strictly literary critical work, Ronald Hingley's "Russian Writers and Soviet Society, 1917-1978" studies the vexed relationship between the state and the literary community in the Soviet Union since the revolution.
Beginning with the revolution itself, Hingley, an Oxford professor, reports of widespread enthusiasm among writers, a kind of early ebullience about the possibilities associated with the spectacular changes they witnessed in 1917. Far from being sloughed off with the old regime, Russian political dogmatism, in Hingley's account, found new life after the revolution.
Hingley deals directly with the experiences of writers within the bureaucratic web, describing in gripping detail the sudden, stunning end of all independent writing groups in 1932. By party decree, all groups -- Imaginists, Futurists, Fellow Travelers, etc. -- in an instant lost their affiliations and became a single Writers' Union with a mandatory literary method and theory.
Control mechanisms of various sorts have since 1932 kept union members within the fold. Dictating not only "partiynost" (party-mindedness) and "narodnost" (devotion to the common people and patriotism), but also conformity to a conservative method (stylistic experiment and avant-garde devices prohibited), the union has retained absolute control over all the publishing, residential, and medical perquisites available to writers.
Today, says Hingley, writers "considered obstreperous" continue to suffer for thier resistance: "Some offenders have been tried and sentenced to concentration camps, only to be permitted to emigrate later; others have been incarcerated in psychiatric clinics; expelled from the Union of Writers; thrown out of the country. Not a few have been induced by these means, or by the threat of their application, to assume more conformist postures. Others have continued defiant."
That continued defiance emerges finally as an important theme of this valuable book. Hingley demonstrates that, regardless of the severity of governmental penalties, sanctions, and disincentives, at no point have writers in the Soviet Union given up the "politically risque" entirely. Perhaps reminded too often of their political duties, many have remained uncooperatevely political.