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Russian Writers, Censors, and Readers


By Vladimir Nabokov

Russian Literature” as a notion, an immediate idea, this notion in the minds of non-Russians is generally limited to the awareness of Russia’s having produced half a dozen great masters of prose between the middle of the nineteenth century and the first decade of the twentieth. This notion is ampler in the minds of Russian readers since it comprises, in addition to the novelists, a number of untranslatable poets ; but even so, the native mind remains focused on the resplendent orb of the nineteenth century. In other words, “Russian literature” is a recent event. It is also a limited event, and the foreigner’s mind tends to regard it as something complete, something finished once and for all. This is mainly due to the bleakness of the typically regional literature produced during the last four decades under the Soviet rule.

I calculated once that the acknowledged best in the way of Russian fiction and poetry which had been produced since the beginning of the last century runs to about 23,000 pages of ordinary print. It is evident that neither French nor English literature can be so compactly handled. They sprawl over many more centuries; the number of masterpieces is formidable.

This brings me to my first point. If we exclude one medieval masterpiece, the beautifully commodious thing about Russian prose is that it is all contained in the amphora of one round century—with an additional little cream jug provided for whatever surplus may have accumulated since. One century, the nineteenth, had been sufficient for a country with practically no literary tradition of its own to create a literature which in artistic worth, in wide-spread influence, in everything except bulk, equals the glorious output of England or France, although their production of permanent masterpieces had begun so much earlier. This miraculous flow of esthetic values in so young a civilization could not have taken place unless in all other ramifications of spiritual growth nineteenth-century Russia had not attained with the same abnormal speed a degree of culture which again matched that of the oldest Western countries. I am aware that the recognition of this past culture of Russia is not an integral part of a foreigner’s notion of Russian history. The question of the evolution of liberal thought in Russia before the Revolution has been completely obscured and distorted abroad by astute Communist propaganda in the twenties and thirties of this century. They usurped the honor of having civilized Russia. But it is also true that in the days of Pushkin or Gogol a large majority of the Russian nation was left out in the cold in a veil of slow snow beyond the amber-bright windows, and this was a tragic result of the fact that a most refined European culture had arrived too fast in a country famous for its misfortunes, famous for the misery of its numberless humble lives—but that is another story.

Or perhaps it is not. In the process of sketching a picture of the history of recent Russian literature, or more precisely in the

process of defining the forces which struggled for the possession of the artist’s soul, I may, if I am lucky, tap the deep

pathos that pertains to all authentic art because of the breach between its eternal values and the sufferings of a muddled world—this world, indeed, can hardly be blamed for regarding literature as a luxury or a toy unless it can be used as an uptodate guidebook.

For an artist one consolation is that in a free country he is not actually forced to produce guidebooks. Now, from this limited point of view, nineteenth-century Russia was oddly enough a free country: books and writers might be banned and banished, censors might be rogues and fools, be-whiskered Tsars might stamp and storm; but that wonderful discovery of Soviet times, the method of making the entire literary corporation write what the state deems fit — this method was unknown in old Russia, although no doubt many a reactionary statesman hoped to find such a tool. A staunch determinist might argue that between a magazine in a democratic country applying financial pressure to its contributors to make them exude what is required by the so-called reading public—between this and the more direct pressure which a police state brings to bear in order to make the author round out his novel with a suitable political message, it may be argued that between the two pressures there is only a difference of degree; but this is not so for the simple reason that there are many different periodicals and philosophies in a free country but only one government in a dictatorship. It is a difference in quality. If I, an American writer, decide to write an unconventional novel about, say, a happy atheist, an independent Bostonian, who marries a beautiful Negro girl, also an atheist, has lots of children, cute little agnostics, and lives a happy, good, and gentle life to the age of 106, when he blissfully dies in his sleep — it is quite possible that despite your brilliant talent, Mr. Nabokov, we feel [in such cases we don't think, we feel] that no American publisher could risk bringing out such a book simply because no bookseller would want to handle it. This is a publisher’s opinion, and everybody has the right to have an opinion. Nobody would exile me to the wilds of Alaska for having my happy atheist published after all by some shady experimental firm; and on the other hand, authors in America are never ordered by the government to produce magnificent novels about the joys of free enterprise and of morning prayers. In Russia before the Soviet rule there did exist restrictions, but no orders were given to artists. They were—those nineteenth-century writers, composers, and painters— quite certain that they lived in a country of oppression and slavery, but they had something that one can appreciate only now, namely, the immense advantage over their grandsons in modern Russia of not being compelled to say that there was no oppression and no slavery.

Of the two forces that simultaneously struggled for the possession of the artist’s soul, of the two critics who judged his work, the first was the government. Throughout the last century the government remained aware that anything outstanding and original in the way of creative thought was a jarring note and a stride toward Revolution. The government’s vigilance in its purest form was perfectly expressed by Tsar Nicholas I in the thirties and forties. His chilly personality pervaded the scene much more thoroughly than did the philistinism of the next sovereigns, and his attachment to literature would have been touching had it really come from the heart. With striking perseverance he tried to be everything in relation to Russian writers of his time—a father, a godfather, a nurse, a wetnurse, a prison warden, and a literary critic all rolled up in one. Whatever qualities he may have shown in his own kingly profession, it must be admitted that in his dealing with the Russian Muse he was at the worst a vicious bully, at the best a clown. The system of censorship that he evolved lasted till the 1860s, was eased by the great reforms of the sixties, stiffened again in the last decades of the century, broke down for a short spell in the first decade of this century, and then had a most sensational and formidable comeback after the Revolution under the Soviets.

In the first half of the last century, meddlesome officials, heads of police who thought that Byron was an Italian revolutionary, smug old censors, certain journalists in the government’s pay, the quiet but touchy and wary church, this combination of monarchism, bigotry, and cringing administration hampered the author to a considerable degree but also afforded him the keen pleasure of pin-pricking and deriding the government in a thousand subtle, delightfully subversive ways with which governmental stupidity was quite unable to cope. A fool may be a dangerous customer, but the fact of his having such a vulnerable top-end turns danger into a first-rate sport; and whatever defects the old administration in Russia had, it must be conceded that it possessed one outstanding virtue—a lack of brains. In a certain sense, the censor’s task was made more difficult by his having to disentangle abstruse political allusions instead of simply cracking down upon obvious obscenity. True, under Tsar Nicholas I a Russian poet had to be careful, and Pushkin’s imitations of naughty French models, of Parny, of Voltaire, were easily crushed by censorship. But prose was virtuous. Russian literature had no Renaissance tradition of vigorous outspokenness as other literatures had, and up to this day the Russian novel remains on the whole the most chaste of all novels. And, of course, Russian literature of the Soviet period is purity itself. One cannot imagine a Russian writing, for example, Lady Chatterley’s Lover.

So the first force fighting the artist was the government. The second force tackling the nineteenth-century Russian author was the anti-governmental, social-minded utilitarian criticism, the political, civic, radical thinkers of the day. It must be stressed that these men in general culture, honesty, aspirations, mental activity, and human virtue were immeasurably superior to the rogues in the government’s pay or to the muddled old reactionaries that clustered around the shivering throne. The radical critic was concerned exclusively with the welfare of the people and regarded everything—literature, science, philosophy —as only a means to improve the social and economic situation of the underdog and to alter the political structure of his country. He was incorruptible, heroic, indifferent to the privations of exile, but also indifferent to the niceties of art. These men who fought despotism—the fiery Belinski of the forties, the stubborn Chernyshevski and Dobrolyubov of the fifties and sixties, Mihaylovski, the well-meaning bore, and dozens of other honest obstinate men—all may be grouped under one heading: political radicalism affiliated to the old French social thinkers and to German materialists, foreshadowing the revolutionary socialism and stolid communism of recent years, and not to be confused with Russian Liberalism in its true sense, which was absolutely the same as cultured democracy elsewhere in Western Europe and America. In looking through old periodicals of the sixties and seventies, one is astounded to find what violent ideas these men were able to express in a country ruled by an absolute monarch. But with all their virtues, these radical critics were as great a nuisance in regard to art as was the government. Government and revolution, the Tsar and the Radicals, were both philistines in art. The radical critics fought despotism, but they evolved a despotism of their own. The claims, the promptings, the theories that they tried to enforce were in themselves just as irrelevant to art as was the conventionalism of the administration. What they demanded of an author was a social message and no nonsense, and from their point of view a book was good only insofar as it was of practical use to the welfare of the people. There was a disastrous flaw in their fervor. Sincerely and boldly they advocated freedom and equality but they contradicted their own creed by wishing to subjugate the arts to current politics. If in the opinion of the Tsars authors were to be the servants of the state, in the opinion of the radical critics writers were to be the servants of the masses. The two lines of thought were bound to meet and join forces when at last, in our times, a new kind of regime, the synthesis of a Hegelian triad, combined the idea of the masses with the idea of the state.

One of the best examples of the clash between the artist and his critics in the twenties and thirties of the nineteenth century is the case of Pushkin, Russia’s first great writer. Officialdom headed by Tsar Nicholas himself was madly irritated by this man who instead of being a good servant of the state in the rank and file of the administration and extolling conventional virtues in his vocational writings (if write he must), composed extremely arrogant and extremely independent and extremely wicked verse in which a dangerous freedom of thought was evident in the novelty of his versification, in the audacity of his sensual fancy, and in his propensity for making fun of major and minor tyrants. The church deplored his levity. Police officers, high officials, critics in the pay of the government dubbed him a shallow versificator; and because he emphatically refused to use his pen for copying humdrum acts in a governmental office, Pushkin, one of the best educated Europeans of his day, was called an ignoramus by Count Thingamabob and a dunce by General Donner-wetter. The methods which the state employed in its attempts to throttle Pushkin’s genius were banishment, fierce censorship, constant pestering, fatherly admonishment, and finally a favorable attitude toward the local scoundrels who eventually drove Pushkin to fight his fatal duel with a wretched adventurer from royalist France.

Now, on the other hand, the immensely influential radical critics, who in spite of absolute monarchy managed to voice their revolutionary opinions and hopes in widely read periodicals—these radical critics who blossomed forth in the last years of Pushkin’s short life, were also madly irritated by this man who instead of being a good servant of the people and of social endeavor wrote extremely subtle and extremely independent and extremely imaginative verse about all things on earth, the very variety of his interests somehow lessening the value of revolutionary intention that might be discerned in his casual, too casual, pokes at minor or major tyrants. The audacity of his versification was deplored as being an aristocratic adornment; his artistic aloofness was pronounced a social crime; mediocre writers but sound political thinkers dubbed Pushkin a shallow versificator. In the sixties and seventies famous critics, the idols of public opinion, called Pushkin a dunce, and emphatically proclaimed that a good pair of boots was far more important for the Russian people than all the Pushkins and Shakespeares in the world. In comparing the exact epithets used by the extreme radicals with those used by the extreme monarchists in regard to Russia’s greatest poet, one is struck by their awful similarity.

Gogol’s case in the late thirties and forties was somewhat different. First let me say that his play The Government Inspector and his novel Dead Souls are products of Gogol’s own fancy, his private nightmares peopled with his own incomparable goblins. They are not and could not be a picture of the Russia of his time since, apart from other reasons, he hardly knew Russia; and indeed his failure to write a continuation of Dead Souls was due to his not possessing sufficient data and to the impossibility of using the little people of his fancy for a realistic work that would improve the morals of his country. But the radical critics perceived in the play and in the novel an indictment of bribery, of coarse living, of governmental iniquity, of slavery. A revolutionary intention was read into Gogol’s works and he, a timorous law-abiding citizen with many influential friends in the conservative party, was so appalled at the things that had been found in his works that in his subsequent writings he endeavored to prove that the play and the novel, far from being revolutionary, had really conformed to religious tradition and to the mysticism which he later evolved. Dostoevski was banished and almost executed by the government in his youth for some indulgence in juvenile politics; but when afterwards he extolled in his writings the virtues of humility, submission, and suffering, he was murdered in print by the radical critics. And these same critics fiercely attacked Tolstoy for depicting what they called the romantic romps of titled ladies and gentlemen, while the church excommunicated him for his daring to evolve a faith of his own making.

These examples will I think suffice. It can be said without much exaggeration that almost all the great Russian writers of the nineteenth century went through this strange double purgatory.

Then the marvelous nineteenth century came to a close. Chekhov died in 1904, Tolstoy in 1910. There arose a new generation of writers, a final sunburst, a hectic flurry of talent. In these two decades just before the Revolution, modernism in prose, poetry, and painting flourished brilliantly. Andrey Bely, a precursor of James Joyce, Aleksandr Blok, the symbolist, and several other avant-garde poets appeared on the lighted stage. When, less than a year after the Liberal Revolution, the Bolshevik leaders overturned the Democratic regime of Kerenski and inaugurated their reign of terror, most Russian writers went abroad; some, as for example the futurist poet Mayakovski, remained. Foreign observers confused advanced literature with advanced politics, and this confusion was eagerly pounced upon, and promoted, and kept alive by Soviet propaganda abroad. Actually Lenin was in art a philistine, a bourgeois, and from the very start the Soviet government was laying the grounds for a primitive, regional, political, police-controlled, utterly conservative and conventional literature. The Soviet government, with admirable frankness very different from the sheepish, half-hearted, muddled attempts of the old administration, proclaimed that literature was a tool of the state; and for the last forty years this happy agreement between the poet and the policeman has been carried on most intelligently. Its result is the so-called Soviet literature, a literature conventionally bourgeois in its style and hopelessly monotonous in its meek interpretation of this or that governmental idea.

It is interesting to ponder the fact that there is no real difference between what the Western Fascists wanted of literature and what the Bolsheviks want. Let me quote: “The personality of the artist should develop freely and without restraint. One thing, however, we demand: acknowledgement of our creed.” Thus spoke one of the big Nazis, Dr. Rosenberg, Minister of Culture in Hitler’s Germany. Another quotation: “Every artist has the right to create freely; but we, Communists, must guide him according to plan.” Thus spoke Lenin. Both of these are textual quotations, and their similitude would have been highly diverting had not the whole thing been so very sad.

“We guide your pens”—this, then, was the fundamental law laid down by the Communist party, and this was expected to produce “vital” literature. The round body of the law had delicate dialectical tentacles: the next step was to plan the writer’s work as thoroughly as the economic system of the country, and this promised the writer what Communist officials called with a simper “an endless variety of themes” because every turn of the economic and political path implied a turn in literature: one day the lesson would be “factories”; the next, “farms”; then, “sabotage”; then, “the Red Army,” and so on (what variety!); with the Soviet novelist puffing and panting and dashing about from model hospital to model mine or dam, always in mortal fear that if he were not nimble enough he might praise a Soviet decree or a Soviet hero that would both be abolished on the publication day of his book.

In the course of forty years of absolute domination the Soviet government has never once lost control of the arts. Every now and then the screw is eased for a moment, to see what will happen, and some mild concession toward individual selfexpression is accorded; and foreign optimists acclaim the new book as a political protest, no matter how mediocre it is. We all know those bulky best-sellers All Quiet on the Don, Not by Bread Possessed, and Zed’s Cabin —mountains of triteness, plateaus of platitudes, which are called “powerful” and “compelling” by foreign reviewers. But, alas, even if the Soviet writer does reach a level of literary art worthy of, say, an Upton Lewis—not to name any names—even so the dreary fact remains that the Soviet government, the most philistine organization on earth, cannot permit the individual quest, the creative courage, the new, the original, the difficult, the strange, to exist. And let us not be fooled by the natural extinction of elderly dictators. Not a jot changed in the philosophy of the state when Lenin was replaced by Stalin, and not a jot has changed now, with the rise of Krushchev, or Hrushchyov, or whatever his name is. Let me quote Hrushchyov on literature at a recent party reunion (June 1957). This is what he said: “Creative activity in the domain of literature and art must be penetrated with the spirit of struggle for communism, must imbue hearts with buoyancy, with the strength of convictions, must develop socialistic consciousness and group discipline.” I love this group style, these rhetorical intonations, these didactic clauses, this snowballing journalese.

Since a definite limit is set to an author’s imagination and to free will, every proletarian novel must end happily, with the Soviets triumphing, and thus the author is faced with the dreadul task of having to weave an interesting plot when the outcome is in advance officially known to the reader. In an Anglo-Saxon thriller, the villain is generally punished, and the strong silent man generally wins the weak babbling girl, but there is no governmental law in Western countries to ban a story that does not comply with a fond tradition, so that we always hope that the wicked but romantic fellow will escape scot-free and the good but dull chap will be finally snubbed by the moody heroine.

But in the case of the Soviet author there is no such freedom. His epilogue is fixed by law, and the reader knows it as well as the writer does. How, then, can he manage to keep his audience in suspense ? Well, a few ways have been found. First of all, since the idea of a happy end really refers not to the characters but to the police state, and since it is the Soviet state that is the real protagonist of every Soviet novel, we can have a few minor characters—fairly good Bolsheviks though they be—die a violent death provided the idea of the Perfect State triumphs in the end; in fact, some cunning authors have been known to arrange things in such a way that on the very last page the death of the Communist hero is the triumph of the happy Communist idea : I die so that the Soviet Union may live. This is one way—but it is a dangerous way, for the author may be accused of killing the symbol together with the man, the boy on the burning deck together with the whole Navy. If he is cautious and shrewd, he will endow the Communist who comes to grief with some little weakness, some slight—oh, so slight!—political deviation or streak of bourgeois eclecticism, which, without affecting the pathos of his deeds and death, will lawfully suffice to justify his personal disaster.

An able Soviet author proceeds to collect a number of characters involved in the creation of this factory or that farm much in the same way as a mystery story writer collects a number of people in a country house or a railway train where a murder is about to occur. In the Soviet story the crime idea will take the form of some secret enemy tampering with the work and plans of the Soviet undertaking in question. And just as in an ordinary mystery story, the various characters will be shown in such a way that the reader is not quite sure whether the harsh and gloomy fellow is really bad, and whether the smoothtongued, cheerful mixer is really good. Our detective is represented there by the elderly worker who lost one eye in the Russian Civil War, or a splendidly healthy young woman who has been sent from Headquarters to investigate why the production of some stuff is falling in such an alarming way. The characters — say, the factory workers—are so selected as to show all the shades of state-consciousness, some being staunch and honest realists, others nursing romantic memories of the first years of the Revolution, others again with no learning or experience but with a lot of sound Bolshevik intuition. The reader notes the action and dialogue, notes also this or that hint, and tries to discover who among them is sincere, and who has a dark secret to hide. The plot thickens and when the climax is reached and the villain is unmasked by the strong silent girl, we find out what we had perhaps suspected—that the man who was wrecking the factory is not the ugly little old workman with a trick of mispronouncing Marxist definitions, bless his little well-meaning soul, but the slick, easygoing fellow well versed in Marxian lore; and his dark secret is that his stepmother’s cousin was the nephew of a capitalist. I have seen Nazi novels doing the same thing on racial lines. Apart from this structural resemblance to the tritest kind of crimethriller, we must note here the “pseudo-religious” side. The little old workman who proves to be the better man is a kind of obscene parody of the poor-in-wits but strong in spirit and faith, inheriting the Kingdom of Heaven, while the brilliant pharisee goes to the other place. Especially amusing in these circumstances is the romantic theme in Soviet novels. I have here two examples culled at random. First, a passage from The Big Heart, a novel by Antonov, published serially in 1957: Olga was silent.

“Ah,” cried Vladimir, “Why can’t you love me as I love you.”

“I love my country,” she said.

“So do I,” he exclaimed.

“And there is something I love even more strongly,” Olga continued, disengaging herself from the young man’s embrace.

“And that is?” he queried.

Olga let her limpid blue eyes rest on him, and answered quickly: “It is the Party.”

My other example is from a novel by Gladkov, Energiya : The young worker Ivan grasped the drill. As soon as he felt the surface of metal, he became agitated, and an excited shiver ran through his body. The deafening roar of the drill hurled Sonia away from him. Then she placed her hand on his shoulder and tickled the hair on his ear. . . .

Then she looked at him, and the little cap perched on her curls mocked and provoked him. It was as though an electric discharge had pierced both the young people at one and the same moment. He gave a deep sigh and clutched the apparatus more firmly.

I have now described with less sorrow I hope than contempt, the forces that fought for the artist’s soul in the nineteenth century and the final oppression which art underwent in the Soviet police state. In the nineteenth century genius not only survived, but flourished, because public opinion was stronger than any Tsar and because, on the other hand, the good reader refused to be controlled by the utilitarian ideas of progressive critics. In the present era when public opinion in Russia is completely crushed by the government, the good reader may perhaps still exist there, somewhere in Tomsk or Atomsk, but his voice is not heard, his diet is supervised, his mind divorced from the minds of his brothers abroad. His brothers—that is the point: for just as the universal family of gifted writers transcends national barriers, so is the gifted reader a universal figure, not subject to spatial or temporal laws. It is he—the good, the excellent reader—who has saved the artist again and again from being destroyed by emperors, dictators, priests, puritans, philistines, political moralists, policemen, postmasters, and prigs. Let me define this admirable reader. He does not belong to any specific nation or class.

No director of conscience and no book club can manage his soul. His approach to a work of fiction is not governed by those juvenile emotions that make the mediocre reader identify himself with this or that character and “skip descriptions.” The good, the admirable reader identifies himself not with the boy or the girl in the book, but with the mind that conceived and composed that book. The admirable reader does not seek information about Russia in a Russian novel, for he knows that the Russia of Tolstoy or Chekhov is not the average Russia of history but a specific world imagined and created by individual genius. The admirable reader is not concerned with general ideas: he is interested in the particular vision. He likes the novel not because it helps him to get along with the group (to use a diabolical progressive-school cliche); he likes the novel because he imbibes and understands every detail of the text, enjoys what the author meant to be enjoyed, beams inwardly and all over, is thrilled by the magic imageries of the master-forger, the fancy-forger, the conjuror, the artist. Indeed, of all the characters that a great artist creates, his readers are the best.

In sentimental retrospect, the Russian reader of the past seems to me to be as much of a model for readers as Russian writers were models for writers in other tongues. He would start on his charmed career at a most tender age and lose his heart to Tolstoy or Chekhov when still in the nursery and nurse would try to take away Anna Karenin and would say: Oh, come, let me tell it to you in my own words (Day-ka, ya tebe rasskazhu svoimi slovami [slovo-word]). That is how the good reader learned to beware of translators of condensed masterpieces, of idiotic movies about the brothers Karenins, and of all other ways of toadying to the lazy and of quartering the great.

And to sum up, I would like to stress once more, Let us not look for the soul of Russia in the Russian novel: let us look for the individual genius. Look at the masterpiece, and not at the frame—and not at the faces of other people looking at the frame.

The Russian reader in old cultured Russia was certainly proud of Pushkin and of Gogol, but he was just as proud of Shakespeare or Dante, of Baudelaire or of Edgar Allan Poe, of Flaubert or of Homer, and this was the Russian reader’s strength. I have a certain personal interest in the question, for if my fathers had not been good readers, I would hardly be here today, speaking of these matters in this tongue. I am aware of many things being quite as important as good writing and good reading; but in all things it is wiser to go directly to the quiddity, to the text, to the source, to the essence—and only then evolve whatever theories may tempt the philosopher, or the historian, or merely please the spirit of the day. Readers are born free and ought to remain free; and the following little poem by Pushkin, with which I shall close my talk, applies not only to poets, but also to those who love the poets.

I value little those much vaunted rights that have for some the lure of dizzy heights; I do not fret because the gods refuse to let me wrangle over revenues, or thwart the wars of kings; and ’tis to me of no concern whether the press be free to dupe poor oafs or whether censors cramp the current fancies of some scribbling scamp. These things are words, words, words. My spirit fights for deeper Liberty, for better rights. Whom shall we serve—the people or the State? The poet does not care—so let them wait. To give account to none, to be one’s own vassal and lord, to please oneself alone, to bend neither one’s neck, nor inner schemes, nor conscience to obtain some thing that seems power but is a flunkey’s coat; to stroll in one’s own wake, admiring the divine beauties of Nature and to feel one’s soul melt in the glow of man’s inspired design —that is the blessing, those are the rights!

[Translated by V. Nabokov]