Conference reports The Russian writer: empire builder and rebel

This fall, it was Helsinki’s turn to host this year's Yuri Lotman Symposium, whose theme was “The Writer and Power.” About forty Slavists from seven countries – Finland, Estonia, Russia, Sweden, Germany, the United States, and Israel – met over the space of three days to discuss this utterly inexhaustible topic. A number of fascinating cross-pollinations were among the most interesting outcomes.

Published on on October 19, 2011

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Once upon a time, Yuri Lotman made Tartu into an intellectual center of the Soviet Union. His sign-based, semiotic cultural perspective became a perilous challenge to Marxist dogmas, one that drew scholarly brilliance from all over the country to this place where they had room to breathe.

The study of Russian literature is still vibrant in the once-Swedish city as manifest in regular scholarly exchange between Tartu and Helsinki. The Russian studies departments of the two universities take turns arranging biennial literature symposia on a set theme (which later results in books). This fall, it was Helsinki’s turn to host the event, whose theme was “The Writer and Power.” About forty Slavists from seven countries – Finland, Estonia, Russia, Sweden, Germany, the United States, and Israel – met over the space of three days to discuss this utterly inexhaustible topic. A number of fascinating cross-pollinations were among the most interesting outcomes.

While the long-exiled Pushkin, the poet laureate himself, was a carefully watched fomenter of rebellion, he was also – towards the end of his life – an ardent Imperialist. And he was certainly not alone. The Russian writer is often Janus-faced. Dostoyevsky was the revolutionary who in the end kissed the feet of the Tsar. When Russian writers stormed the barricades in 1905, the young Mikhail Bulgakov, of all people, professed himself a monarchist. Andrei Bely dreamt of enrolling in the Terror and suddenly became – for a time – a cheering patriot. One might have expected better from Pushkin, but in a famous poem of 1830, he celebrated the suppression of the Polish rebellion. He went so far in his indignation at the brother country’s resistance that he began to rave – as Aleksandr Ospovat related here – that the Poles probably needed to be exterminated.

Pushkin’s friends and poetic inspirations Vasily Zhukovsky and Pyotr Vyazemsky have gained good posthumous reputations as literary liberals. That – as Timur Guzairov and Tatyana Stepanisheva showed – did not stop either from presenting themselves from time to time as passionate Great Russians. Zhukovsky – who instilled a reformist spirit in Alexander, son of the dreaded Nicholas I – could not in the revolutionary year of 1848 resist heaping praise on “Nicholas with the stick” for his unselfish European policy and “knightly honor.” Vyazemsky, meanwhile, proclaimed in the poem “The Holy Rus” that it was Russia that had saved Europe from oppression in 1812 and thus had things continued.

Edward Waysband analyzed Vladislav Khodasevich’s identity confusion. Vladimir Nabokov’s favorite poet, Khodasevich has now been plucked from the oblivion of exile to significant posthumous attention in his native country. He carries within an almost insoluble conflict. On his father’s side, he was a Russian aristocrat, while his maternal heritage was dual, Polish Catholic and Jewish. To top it off, his Jewish grandfather Jakov Brafman was identical to the self-hating anti-Semite who in the late 19th century had preached that the Jews were conspiring in plans for world domination – the idea later further concretized in the police forgery, “The Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion,” with devastating historical consequences.

When victorious Russian troops on the advance in the early days of the First World War drove Jews out of the front areas on a massive scale, with Polish assistance, Khodasevich reacted with a poem in which he exhorted Poland to reconsider, to think about their kinship with the Jews: once deported from the map, Poles must join together with the ghettoized Jews, protect the rights of both peoples to self-realization under the scepter of the Tsar. As infinitely naïve as this might seem, it was the poet’s desperate attempt to come to terms with his fourfold legacy of Russian nobility, Polish religiosity, Jewish vulnerability, and – militant anti-Semitism.

After this splintered personality, the time had come for the most egocentric of Russian poets: the Ego-Futurist Konstantin Olimpov. Like his fellow poet and rather well-known father, his real name was Konstantin Fofanov. He thought of himself as godlike and Olympian, which he wanted his name to reflect. There is actually a connection between this Olimpov and our own Edith Södergran. He influenced his friend and colleague Igor Severyanin, whom Södergran held in the highest esteem.

Aleksandr Kobrinsky talked about Olimpov. We learned that he commenced his career in 1911 with his own publishing house, Ego. In the usual manner, he soon issued a verbose manifesto which decreed that poetry must ally itself with the cult of ego and defiant madness. Olimpov was affected by Velimir Khlebnikov’s transmental language; he coined neologisms and directed his gaze outwards to the Universe. It was time to supersede Christianity with a new faith, “Olympianism.” He identified  with the “creator of the universe.” In the “poetries” (his word for poems), his two equal tasks were to extol his own greatness and that of the cosmos. Mayakovsky urged him to think more about the earth than the heavens, which made a certain impression. When the Bolsheviks took power, the ego tripper changed his tune and proclaimed himself the cantor of the people. Nevertheless, for his part, it all ended with arrest and the camps. And so the Ego-Futurist also conformed to the Russian pattern: both mutineer and instrument of power – until it all came to naught and the Gulag took over.

It is an appalling fact that Communism put to death 1,500 Soviet writers of diverse nationalities. They were shot like culled cattle if they did not simply waste away and die in the camps. Olimpov is perhaps the exception that proves the rule. He actually developed schizophrenia in captivity and, absurdly enough, his diagnosis allowed him, in the midst of the Terror, to walk out of hell a free man.

Vladimir Khazan shed light on an if possible yet more remarkable fate: that of prose writer Andrei  Sobol, who led an incredibly adventurous and eventful life. After leaving home at the age of fourteen, he (like Gorky) wandered Russia, became a revolutionary, and somewhere around 1905 was drawn into terrorist circles. It was not long before he – still a teenager – found himself banished to Siberia, where he was haunted by recurring deep depressions and mental illness. He would never again really regain his balance.

Sobol had acquired unique experiences, notably of treachery and deceit among the revolutionaries. At close hand, he had followed Evno Azef’s unlikely career as terrorist organizer and the highest paid spy working for the Imperialist secret police – at the same time. He knew the Pyotr Rutenberg who in 1906 agreed to kill the priest Georgy Gapon in an isolated house on the shores of the Gulf of Finland. Gapon had led the Bloody Sunday workers’ demonstration and later proved also to be allied with the Tsar’s Okhrana.

Once abroad, after managing to escape from Siberia, Sobol began to write as a way of dealing with his pain. He eventually debuted and was identified as a promising talent. In 1916, he pulled himself together and produced the critically acclaimed novel Dust, which depicts the bleak lives of émigrés in Paris – just before it all turned around and the exiles could return to the maelstrom.

After the October coup, his party, the Socialist Revolutionaries, were soon crushed by Bolshevism. He saw alignment with Soviet terms as his only option, but his prose of the early 1920s breathes desperation and angst and the Siberian nightmares descended upon him once again. In the consummate gesture, he chose to take his own life in 1926. He shot himself in the heart next to the statue of Pushkin in Moscow in deliberate imitation of the great Russian  poet’s death death in a duel under Tsarist pressure. In his memoirs, Victor Serge interprets Sobol’s suicide as virtually emblematic. A new era had arrived which he had long sensed was coming: that of Stalin.

Ben Hellman, one of the conference arrangers, reported a scoop. He recently chance…upon the apparently lost manuscript of the planned debut anthology of the “Serapion Brethren,” intended for publication by a Russian publisher in Helsinki. It had lain for almost ninety years in a box in an attic. This sensational volume will be released soon in St. Petersburg. It adds a new dimension to the works of several significant Soviet writers (Viktor Shklovsky, Mikhail Zoshchenko, Venyamin, Kaverin, Vsevolod Ivanov). It turns out that the constant tendency (an expression of the mood of 1921 in the wake of Trotsky’s brutal suppression of the Kronstadt Rebellion) is anti-Soviet and devoid of all illusion.

In a fine semiotic spirit, Anja Rosenholm demonstrated how everything in Stalin’s 1930s revolved around – water. Stalin was after all depicted in propaganda pictures as the Great Helmsman, the unflappable captain on the bridge. To a great degree, the forced industrialization was concentrated on building power plants, dams, locks, irrigation systems, and canals. Writers were dispatched to report: they were to bear witness to how history was regulated and planned, how technology triumphed, and how, above all, the waters were brought under control. They – like Konstantin Paustovsky, for instance – were true and faithful believers. But there was one exception: Andrei Platonov, himself an engineer, who raised concerns early on about inadequate understanding of the magic of water and the imminent risks to people and nature. And so he became the ingeniously clear-sighted dystopian, dismissed by Stalin as an “idiot” and “trash,” tormented and humiliated, never arrested but instead contracting a deadly infection from his son, who returned from the camps with TB.

This was followed by Oleg Lekmanov’s analysis of  Joseph Brodsky’s poem “To a tyrant”, written as he – then Iosif Brodsky – was being expelled in 1972. Several models for his highly personal portrait of a despot can be discerned. The genocidal murderer is a former café denizen (like Lenin – perhaps with associations to Hitler’s beer halls), and an old theater habitué (like Stalin). An intriguing detail emerged in a complementary lecture on Brodsky by Dmitry Achapkin: the Nobel laureate reported that he actually shared a characteristic with Hitler in his enchantment with Zarah Leander (whom he had seen in “war trophy” films in his youth, never able to get enough of listening to her sing “The Rose of Novgorod”).

Finally, Tatyana Kuzovkina described Yuri Lotman’s troubles during the late Soviet stagnation, supported by extensive KGB files. Lotman had received an invitation from Sweden in 1982. He had never before been outside the Socialist barracks – no more than one early visit to a Schiller conference in the GDR had been granted. Now the whole thing became a matter for the Central Committee. Three grave and well-documented facts were brought forward against Lotman: he maintained relationships with active dissidents, he consorted with Estonian “nationalists,” and in his own department, he had made sure to surround himself with a number of persons who (like himself) were of Jewish origins. This was more than enough cause for denial. Lotman had to wait for perestroika before he could visit Stockholm.

A free-thinker who appears frequently in Lotman’s KGB dossiers was in attendance at the conference: Gabriel Superfin. He enjoyed utterly unique status. In parallel with his advanced semiotics studies in Tartu, he edited the underground “Chronicle of Current Events” that gathered information about arrests, current samizdat literature, and conditions in prisons and political mental hospitals. He spent a few years in the Gulag in the 1970s before he was thrown out of the Soviet Union. He now works in Germany. He confessed: “I have remained a dissident throughout my life – in every context.”

The Russian writer is not always the same kind of permanent rebel as the legendary “Super.” He may consort with bombastic imperialist dreams. Sometimes, he simply wants to conquer the cosmos. Mikhail Lotman, Yuri’s son, pointed out that Stalinism was characterized nearly as much by the mystique of the air as by the magic of water: pilots were the pioneers of the modern age after whom entire cities were sometimes named. Olimpov’s high-flying ego fantasies were suddenly put in a new light. And so could the various lectures sometimes shed light on each other in the most surprising way. Once upon a time, we learned, the Ego poet and Vladimir Lenin lived on the same street. Perhaps they even exchanged a few words.