Nobel laureate in literature talks of glasnost and Soviet society
New York — Early in any conversation with Joseph Brodsky, who has just won the Nobel Prize for literature, the visitor presses for his judgment of glasnost, the current Soviet mood and the Russian word for openness. As a former Siberian labor camp prisoner - in 1964 for what the Soviets called ``parasitism'' - Mr. Brodsky's reply is expectable but illuminating. ``I don't believe it because it is not an opening of society.'' That's the not-surprising note. Then he adds: ``It is just an opening for argument with a closed system. It is saying, `We'll try to make this order of things more efficient.' But I don't believe in qualitative changes within the system. But perhaps I am too jaded.''
We talked some months ago in a tiny office at his publisher's building in Manhattan. His English is largely self-taught (by forced writing in the adopted language) but fluent to the point, at times, of an undammed flood of phrases. As is often the case with complex thoughts in a second language, inspiration threatens to outpace linguistics. He has been an American citizen since 1977.
``What's really bad about Russia, about the political system in the Soviet Union,'' he explains, ``is that it curbs the human potential. The genuine crime there is not the concrete political crime, but the cumulative aspect of it which has a reductive influence upon man's ability to evolve.''
Brodsky shifts in his chair, culling through memories of his Leningrad youth, his friendships with the late Anna Akhmatova, the distinguished Russian poet, his adjustment to life in the US. ``In a sense,'' he continues, ``in the Soviet Union you are more likely not to think the thought that may have crossed your mind precisely because you think that it may be: (a) not applicable, (b) dangerous. As soon as this is realized by an individual, it slows him down, curbs him. When the people realize they must keep themselves, so to speak, down, they restrict their mental processes.''
He sighs: ``This is a long story and I can be easily bogged down with this.''
But the theme is irresistible: ``What people do well under this kind of circumstance is to design all sorts of ways to beat the system through its loopholes. But this results in a profound cynicism which, people think, is the highest possible mental limit. But faith and love are the highest possible level of mental or spiritual intuition. Love yields hope and faith, and it is these that yield great results to the human psyche.
``The cynicism keeps the Russian people where they are. It doesn't allow them to advance in any sort of a profound sense. ... It's terribly sad for me.''
But he also speaks of some ``advantages'' for the Russian people. ``A human being in the Soviet Union has a terrific advantage over anybody else, namely, he knows that his tomorrow is going to be exactly like today, like the day before yesterday. That surprises are going to be fairly few. The government has the appearance of stability. The public thinks that nature itself sort of sponsors this political system. Or on the contrary, perhaps, he thinks that this political system sponsors natural order.''
The Swedish Academy in its announcement Oct. 22, cited Brodsky's writing for its ``great breadth in time and space.'' It called his work ``rich and intensely vital.''
At 47, Brodsky is one of the youngest laureates ever awarded the $340,000 prize. He was among some 150 candidates for the last of the Nobel prizes to be announced this year. (Last year's winner was playwright and novelist Wole Soyinka of Nigeria, Africa's first literature laureate.)
In 1986, Brodsky's collection of essays ``Less Than One'' was awarded the criticism prize of the National Book Critics Circle in 1986.