Currents of nationalism, dissent beneath crust of communist conformity
Moscow — Between gilt mirrors and the glowing colors of priceless icons hung painting after oil painting of the czars: Catherine II looking like a latter-day Queen Victoria, beshawled and plump . . . a stern Alexander I in resplendent uniform . . . Paul I, Catherine's son, whose sensitive, wide-eyed look belied a passion for precise military drill by his Army . . . Empress Elizabeth, daughter of Peter the Great. . . .
Down they stared from ornate frames topped by imperial crowns at a scene that itself looked like the painting: the drawing room of a Russian nobleman of the 19th century, perhaps, rich, disheveled, emotionally charged.
The room was crowded with French empire-style furniture fashioned in mottled birchwood from Karelia, on the Finnish border, embossed and decorated in brass. Antiques stood everywhere, from tall-legged occasional tables to massive sideboards.
There was hardly room for four people, let alone the eight squeezed around the circular table dominating the center of the room; the table was supported by a single pedestal adorned with Egyptian-like goddesses with brass wings.
Death masks of two Russian herois -- Gogol and Pushkins -- hung like icons. A life-size marble bust of pushkin stood on an inlaidd chest. Across the room was an oil painting of his predecessor, Gavrila Romanovich Derzhavin, Russian's greatest 18th-century poet, who wept when hearing the younger man's verse for the first time. Candelabra glittered. MEtal icons in gold and silver reflected their light in a hundred facets. Bronze eagles, frozen in the moment of landing , spread their wings on the armrests of a huge empire couch.
All the room needed to complete the sense of Russian history and tradition was a black-robed Russian Orthodox priest . . . and no, in he came, his wife dressed in black a few paces behind. His name: Fr. Giorgy, from a city in the Urals. His robe, his long beard and shoulder- length gray hair, the heavy metal-and-glass cross dangling from his neck, blended into the outpouring of Russian cultural identity around him.
To a Western like me, to sit at that table, to listen to the priest expound on his family tree (he claimed to trace it back through 600 years of Russian nobility to Prince Dmitri Donskoi in the 14th century), to watch the owner of the apartment, the nonstop and controversially successful painter. Ilya Sergeyevich Glazunov, hurry in and out as he juggled three separate groups of guests in different rooms -- all this was to feel that Russians, Slavic history and tradition still lived amid the atheism and totalitarianism of the Soviet Union today.
Glazunov sees himself, his art, his supporters in and out of the Communist Party, and men like Alexander Solzhenitsyn who share his messianic belief in Russian, as opposed to Soviet ideals, as cutting edges of a revival of Slav patriotism and culture.
"Millions think as I do, and I speak for them," he says. While he may be exaggerating, he does seem to represent a growing phenomenon in the Soviet Union as it has evolved 63 years after the revolution of 1917: a search by Russians for Russian roots - a search that rejects the cold, angular brand of materialism represented by the Communist Party.
His own carrier is full of twists and turns, of both acceptance and rejection by the party, of valleys of despair and peaks of triumph. It is a nonstop roller coaster of tension, travel, and hard work. It mirrors the challenge he and his ideas pose to the ruling party Politburo, which is torn between its own pride in Russianness (10 of its 14 members are Russian nationals) and its rccognition that the powerful emotions unloosed by the pre-1917 past must be strictly controlled if they are not to lead to an undermining of the party and its monopoly on political, economic, and military power.
The Politburo moves first this way, then that, as it tries to harness pride in the Russian past to its own strategems. Its aim is to use the pride as a way of conferring legitimacy on itself to present the party and its sterile ideology as the heir to all that was good and progressive in the past.
It is a tricky business; Glazunov's brand of Russianness inextricably links nationalism with religion. "Dostoevsky once said that if a man is not Russian Orthodox, he is not Russian," Glazunov has told me, "and I believe that."
The Russian search for prerevolutionary roots stands out as one of a number of intellectual and emotional currents in the Soviet Union today, circulating beneath the frozen surface of Communist conformity.
From abroad, this vast country looks like a monolith, forbidding, austere, primitive. From up close, the monolithic features are also evident -- but so is the life that teems below. It is repressed, politically powerless, but vital nonetheless.
The other currents include the human-rights, religious, and nationalist-dissidence that sprang into prominence worlwide with the Daniel-Sinyavsky trial in the late 1960s, gained new impetus from the Helsinki Final Act 1975, and has been ruthlessly attacked and put down by the Kremlin since then. Among their witnesses:
* Dr. Andrei Sakharov, winner of the 1975 Nobel Peace Prize, exiled from Moscow to a drab apartment hundreds of miles east in Gorky, a KGB official stationed at his door to watch all comers, his shortwave radio jammed so that he is forced to walk with his wife in a nearby park to catch static-filled snatches of the outside world.
* Anatoly Shcharansky, jailed amid worlwide headlines in the summer of 1978, and the founder of the dissidents' Helsinki human- rights group, Dr. Yuri Orlov, still in prison cells.
* Burly Estonian Mart Niklus, just sentenced to between eight and 10 years in labor camps followed by five years' exile in Siberia. A lifelong nationalist, he has already served eight years for sending photographs of Estonian slums to the West.
* Fellow Estonian Dr. Yuri Kukk, quiet, intense, and soft-spoken, who resigned from the Communisty Party in the university city of Tartu after spending a year in Paris and seeing how the people in the West live. He was tried with Niklus and sentenced to two years in labor camps after doctors had failed to show he was mentally unbalanced.
* Russian Orthodox priest Gleb Yakunin, sentenced in August 1980 to five years in a labor camp Yakunin, sentenced in August 1980 to five years in a labor camp and five more in internal exile for founding the Christian Committee for the Defense of Believers' Rights.
* The brave, dogged Pentecostalists known as the "Siberian Seven," who dashed into the US Embassy 2 1/2 years ago past Soviet guards in a desperate attempt to win the right to emigrate to freedom of worship in the United States. Pyotr and Augustine Vashchenko and their three adult daughters, and Maria Chymkhalova and her teen-age son Timofei, live, eat, study, crochet, hope, and pray in one small room whose barred window looks out at the street inches from the stout black boots of the guards outside on round-the-clock duty.
* Writers Yuri Grimm and Valery Ambramkin, in jail for three years for daring to edit an underground journal called Poiski (Searches).
These are inheritors of a tradition of Western ideas that goes back to the Decembrist uprising of Army officers in 1825, and, indirectly, even further back to the time when Peter the Great seized books full of Western concepts and imposed them on rural, backward, mostly Asian landmass and dragged it by the ears into a more modern world.
They are justly celebrated in the West and at the Madrid Confererence on European Cooperation and Security for opposing the oppressive central government here. Best known among them tend to be Jewish activits who have organized skillful and influential Jews abroad to help them.
All of them are, however, but a fragment of the population as a whole. True, Jews argue that almost 230,000 of their number left the Soviet Union between 1968 and 1978, and 370,000 others have sought invitations from Israel -- a total of almost 20 percent of the present Jewish population of the USSR.
Pentecostal believers say tens of thousands among their congregations would leave if they could.Armenians, Germans, and others are all going in small numbers.
The forces of religion and freedom and nationalism are still potent, and the party has had to adapt to them.
Yet the Sakharovs and the Shcharanskys and the others are essentially using outside, non-Russians ideas either to change the Soviet system (with little success) or to gain the right for themselves and others to emigrate. The significance of men like Glazunov, and his supporters in the party and the intellectual elite, is that they work here, within the system, refusing emigration.
They stand for an alternative, no matter how remote from power it might seem at the moment. Their influence is limited. Their currents remain under the surface, the ice above them unbroken. But they also symbolize another basic issue: how anym change in the current frozen system might emerge.
Since Peter the Great at the end of the 17th century, two conflicting groups have clashed in Russian history: the pro-Westerners, who laim that outside ideas must be engrafted on Russian society; and Slavophiles, who say the genius of the Russian people is what counts, a mystic messianic blend of autocracy and Orthodox church.
Today the party rules in the name of a Westerner (Karl Marx) and of a Russian intellectual who imported his ideas and molded them to local conditions (Lenin). Marxism-Leninism is alien to the old Russia of peasants, piety, and imperial panoply. Dissidents like Sakharov and Shcharansky are fired with the more englightened Western tradition of individual rights.
Mr. Glazunov, his friends, and the men he admires -- Solzhenitsyn, dissident mathematician Igor Schafarevich, nationalists Igor Ogurtsov and Vladimir Ossipov (both now in Siberian jails) -- base their dissent on what they perceive to be purely russian ideal. They are opposed by Sakharov, who denounces their "patriarchal romanticism."
Some of their ideas are distasteful to Western ears: running through the anti-Semitism and a mixture of indifference and paternalism toward other minority groups and nations. Many in the West have been disappointed to find the towering moral stature of Solzhenitsyn combined with the author's own Russianness, and his advocacy, not of democracy, but of a kind of benevolent Orthodox theocracy.
The tall, spare, ascetic Sakharov insists that only outside ideas, support, and publicity can change the Soviet Union and liberalize it. A fellow dissident and opponent, Roy Medvedev, ruddy-faced and voluble, says change can come only from within; he stays here, writing history, keeping in touch with his party friends and with Western correspondents as well.
Glazunov sees salvation from modern atheism in a return to Russian ideals alone. From the canvases in his top floor studio on Moscow's Kalashny Pereulok, (sold only in hard- currency shops here), tumble the images if czardon and the church: knights, princes, generals, monasteries, and onion domes.
The party still doesn't quite know how to handle him. He has powerful friends. He also has powerful enemies. The party hierarchy appears divided on how far Russian nationalism can be allowed to go -- and bound up in that issue is yet another: how best to maintain control of the Russian internal empire itself, the 15 Soviet republics, of which the Russian Republic is the largest.
Stalin built his power on the Russian Republic, wiping out the short-lived independence of his native Georgia in the early 1920s. When the Nazis attacked in World War II, he appealed not to Marxism or Leninism in his efforts to arouse the people to resist, but to the "Motherland" -- based on Russia. Today, as then, the party itself is dominated by Russians, not by Ukrainians or Georgians or Armenians. The Russian tongue is the lingua franca, the language of ideology , of technology, of power, of ambition.
Russians hold the real power in the officer corps of the armed forces, in the KGB, in the MVD (internal police). Each Soviet republic is allowed one of its own people as party first secretary; but the key post of second secretary is held by a Russian, and it is he who runs party patronage as well as law and order.
Some Western scholars believe that Khrushchev, by denouncing Stalin in 1956 and ecouraging minority groups, caused a backlash of Russian nationalism that in turn has led to much internal dissent to this day by Ukrainians, Germans, Poles, Moldavians, Georgians, and Armenians, and by the militant Sufi (Muslim) brotherhoods of the Caucasus and Central Asia.
Many minority groups resent the growing stress by Moscow on spreading the Russian language and culture through the country. The stress grows as the percentage of Russians here (52.4 percent in 1979, down from 53.4 percent in 1970) falls slowly toward the 50 percent mark.
Russian birthrates in the crowded, cold, housing-short western areas (where 80 percent of the Soviet population lives) continue to drop; Muslim birthrates in Central Asia, while themselves falling, nonetheless far outstrip Russian ones. The Soviet Muslim population has risen from 24.2 million (11.6 percent of the population) in 1959 to 43.1 million (16.5 percent) in 1979. If current trends continue, Muslims in Central Asea will approach one-third of the population by the year 2000.
Some in the West predict trouble for the Russian Politburo. For example, every third recruit into the armed forces by the year 2000 could well be a Central Asian who speaks imperfect Russian and who may not face the Chinese or other potential enemies as reliably as Russian Slavic soldiers would.
Yet after 4 1/2 years here, and visits to all Central Asian Republics, I see this thinking as more wishful than realistic. Russians will keep on giving the orders, and Central Asians will keep on taking them.Very few Central Asians make top- level decisions. Asian recrutis will keep on being sent for national service thousands of miles away from their homes.
Prolonged food shortages might arouse the people, but in Central Asia, warm weather and local conditions generally mean more food available than in the colder north and west.
Yet the party must, and does, remain alert to all nationalist movements, Central Asian included. It worries that the Muslim nationalist upsurge in Iran and Afghanistan might affect local Soviet Muslims across the border -- though there is almost no sign at all that any such thing has happened. The party stays flexible, suppressing nationalism where it can, accommodating it where it must.
When thousands of Georgiansmarched down the main street of Tbilisi to protest a new draft constitution that retained Russians as an "official" language in Georgia but omitted the Georgian tongue, Moscow gave in quickly. One telephone call from Tbilisi by an armed-forces commander, and Georgians was restored. Local constitutions were also altered to restore Armenian and Azerbaijiani in neighboring republics -- all this after a new countrywide Constitution had been introduced in 1977.
Party control stays solid in the Baltic states on the western frontier. But Russian nationalism requires even more careful handling. And that is what makes Glazunov and the ideas he supports so interesting.
The party permitted Glazunov no exhibitions at all for many years, then let him have one in Moscow in 1978 and another in Leningrad in 1979. Half a million people stood in wind and rain in Moscow during the a three-week period to get in; 600,000 stayed in line up to eight hours to see the Leningrad showing.
Glazunov was allowed to paint a gigantic mural for the UNESCO headquarters in Paris in mid-1980, which was accepted despite the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. He was then bestowed the title of "People's Artist of the USSR."
But the Soviet Academy of Arts still blackballs him, denouncing him in closed party meetings as anti-Soviet, religious, and mystical. When in late 1980 he was presented with an emblem of one of the two Spanish art academies to invite him to membership (at a Moscow reception ostensibly called by the outgoing Spanish ambassador to say farewell to Soviet leaders), academy vice-president Vladimir Semenovich Kemenov and other officials walked out in protest.
Glazunov paints portraits of Western leaders (Indira Gandhi, UN Secretary-General Kurt Waldheim) and travels widely; he could not do so without party friends (reported to include veteran Politburo ideologist Mikhail Suslov and Minister of Culture Pyotr-Demichev).
The party permitted the 600th anniversary of the Russian victory of Prince Dmitri Donskoi over Mongol general Mamay at Kulikovo Field south of Moscow in 1380 amid pomp and an outburst of Russian military pride. The occasion also reminded Russians of the danger lurking in the east -- China. It allowed the making of the first full-length feature film about Fyodor Dostoevsky to celebrate the 100th anniversary of Dostoevsky's death (February 1981). The writer is a hero to modern Slavophiles, a champion of Russian Orthodox. It permits Slavophiles to open Russian museums of folk art, documents, and history in Moscow, Novgorod, Suzdal, and Yaroslavl -- all monuments of Russian antiquity.
Yet the party also cracked down sharply on Russian nationalist dissidents such as Igor Ogurtsov and Vladimir Ossipov, punished after publishing their own journal in the 1960s.
What kind of a ma is Ilya Glazunov? He is a nonstop worker and chain-smoke; a man who wears Western suits and defiantly favors a dark-blue tie with the double-headed eagle of the Romanoff czars on it; a man who seems to be a success within the system he dislikes, but who sees his own life as a constant struggle to use the leverage represented by his successes in the West to extract privilege and freedom in his own country. He refuses to emigrate. "The struggle," he says. "is here."
In a car with me in Leningrad in 1979, driving away from his exhibition, he stared out at some of the 600,000 who attended as they stood patiently in snow and ice outside the hall. "They are my people," he said vehemently, "and I work for them."
Many of my Western friends in Moscow would scoff at such a remark. They see him as a charlatan, a poor painter, a KGB agent ("how else could he travel and mix with Westerners here?"), and an anti-Semite. Indeed, he is a mixture of many qualities.
I found him a man driven by his own cause, trying to appease the party hierarchy by painting in Vietnam and in Siberia, and by painting party leaders and family members. "Opportunism," says his critics. "Buying time to paint what he wants to paint," reply his friends.
Outwardly successful, he was inwardly and constantly worried by the steady refusal of the Arts Academy and the Union of Artists to support him. Friend say he feared what they might do to him. Strongly behind him was the Union of Writers of the Russian Republic, ostensibly for the 250 illustrations he has done for the works of Dostoevsky, Alexander Blok, and many others, but also because he was such a passionate upholde of Russian nationality.
Not all the people who attended his exhibitions liked his work. Comment books in Moscow and in Leningrad contain entries from hundreds of people who rhapsodized, but also from many who regarded it as anti-Communist.
His large canvas, "The Prodigal Son," arouses a storm of comment; the party tried to stop it being shown in Leningrad but finally backed down, since it had already been on display in Moscow.
In the foreground are the snouts and jaws of huge hogs at a trough; behind them are signs of the debauchery of modern life, from alcoholismto churches being burned; to the left a young man clad only in a pair of jeans (symbol of modernity) kneels at the feet of a Christ-figure (the soul of Russia) while the Glazunov pantheon of Russian heroes looks on: Gogol, Pushkin, Dostoevsky, Tchaikovsky.
Party officials object to it on religious and ideological grounds, suspecting the hogs represent communist materialism. To them he shrugs and says the canvas must be interpreted by each viewer.
His bigger paintin, "Mystery of the Twentieth Century," has never been shown. Some accuse him of painting it only to gain publicity abroad. (It was banned from a planned show in 1977 in Moscow and Glazunov canceled the show in protest.)
It contains figures anathema to current Communist ideology, from Christ Jesus to Pope John XXIII to Stalin on a bier of blood of Solzhenitsyn in Gulag prison clothes.
Some notes from a conversation with him in Leningrad:
The Kremlin is notm an extention of the old Russia under the czars. (This point was also made passionately by Solzhenitsyn, who once told a Stanford University audience, that "the Soviet development . . . is . . .")
Glazunov continued: "Old Russia was based on three principles, the Orthodox Church, the autocracy, and Russian nationhood. The Soviet Union is against religion. It believes in the dictatorship of the proletariat [the party], and it takes an internationalist view, not a nationalist one . . . the Soviet Union is the flowering of the Communist system, not of the Russian people. . . .
"The czar didn't want colonies . . . Russia had enough people and enough wealth . . . the Ukraine asked to join Russia, and the Baltic states as well" (points emphatically refuted by Ukrainian and Baltic nationalists). "Armenia begged to be protected against the Turks . . . Czar Alexander I revived the Finnish language banned by the Swedes. . . .
"Diplomats and foreigners who come here think dissidents are mostly Jewish and that they want to leave. Another kind of dissident wants to stay."
Born in Leningrad, Glazunov spent his early years in Novgorod, capital of medieval Rus, when the Nazis laid siege to his city in World War II. "He is something of a puzzle for us," said an intellectual woman waiting to enter the Leningrad exhibition. "He paints in so many styles. Which is his own? To me his pictures of the blockade [the Nazi siege] are the most interesting. It was a little girl then. . . . His portrait of Dostoevksy has depth. . . . He has a sense of the spectacular of the dramatic. . . . Perhaps he is best suited to theatrical design. . . ."
Even as she spoke, you could hardly move inside the hall because of the crowds. Scalpers were photographing tickets and selling the prints for 5 rubles ($7.50 each) to those willing to take the risk to try to get in.
Yet no Glazunov pictures hung in any Leningrad museum. None were in the Hermitage. A mere two had appeared in the Tretyakov in Moscow, and then only for six months.
In Glazunov's living room, I asked Frd. Giorgy if he could foresee a return to the old days when the church was privileged and a different kind of autocracy ruled.
Oh, yes, he replied at once, his eyes alight. "Oh, yes," He paused. "But we have to wait. It is necessary to wait, you see."
The wait will be a long one. Glazunov once described himself to me as a "heroic pessimist" fighting to retain the collective memory of his own ideals.
"I am also a pessimistic optimist," he added -- a wry comment in a land where , for all his own commitment, and for all the history of the Russian people both good and bad, the prospect of political change any time soon is slight, indeed.
Yet he pushes on, rushing from project to project, never fully secure. He sees no other course. Fr. Giorgy waits. Solzhenitsyn, exiled, thunders his own concept of Russian cultural and religious ideals and unity and strength.
Beneath the ice, the currents flow.
There will be no early thaw, but the currents do not stop. Next: What's ahead for the USSR and what it may mean for the West.