Russia's protest literature studied; A History of Post-War Soviet Writing: The Literature of Moral Opposition, by Grigori Svirski. Translated and edited by Robert Dessaix and Michael Ulman. Ann Arbor: Ardis Publishers. $25 in hardcover, $9.50 in paperback.; Samizdat Register 2: Voices of Socialist Opposition in the Soviet Union, edited by Roy Medvedev. New York: W.W. Norton & Co. $24.95.
The plight of Russian literature at the moment might be compared to that of a condemned criminal serving out a life term in prison. As the years go by, he begins to forget that life in the world is not like life behind bars, that his primary daily concerns -- what time dinner is served, the appearance of a new guard in his cellblock -- are not those of free people. After a while, as a result of his enforced isolation, he can no longer understand that what is important to him may not be important to a man who can choosem how to spend his days.
Such, at least, is the impression left by these two recent volumes. The "Samizdat Register II," edited by Roy Medvedev, is a collection of rather arcane articles, written by various Soviet dissidents and translated into English, on aspects of socialist theory and Soviet history.Svirski's "a History of Post-War Soviet Writting" is an insider's view of the minute fluctuations in official Soviet attitudes toward literature and writers since 1945, written by a onetime member of the Soviet Writers' Union who was witness to -- and even participant in -- the events he so painstakingly describes.
While the contents of these two books are rather different -- Medvedev's anthology is mostly concerned with politics and economics, except for one article by Medvedev himself on Solzhenitsyn -- they share an eagerness to shock the reader with the overwhelming immorality, brutality, and inhumanity of the Soviet regime. The evidence produced is, indeed, overwhelming, but by now it is -- unfortunately -- hardly news that the Soviet government systematically persecutes its most talented artists and suppresses all information that would portray Soviet life as other than rosy and communal.
This is not to belittle the tragic fate of so many of Russia's greatest 20 th-century citizens -- Trotsky, Pasternak, Zoshchenko, Tsvetaeva, Solzhenitsyn -- or to ignore the enormous suffering endured by the frightfully submissive Russian people under Stalin and his successors. IT does seem, however, that we are now beyond the point (thanks, in large part, to the heroic documentary efforts of Solzhenitsyn) where it is enough to simply tell one more time how horrible it all was.
In the long run, literature survives on purely artistic merits, not on the circumstances out of which it took form. In the case of Solzhenitsyn, for example, so much emphasis has been placed -- by both Soviet emigre and Western critics -- on the author's political tribulations that the actual artistic worth of his creation has been obscured. A book like Svirski's, a chronicle of when a certain writer got into trouble with the higher-ups, and why, virtually ignoring any serious consideration of the purely literary results, is not going to clarify the picture.
IT is disappointing -- but not untypical -- that Svirski writes with an almost total lack of distance from his subject. the book, divided into short chapters, most of which are devoted to single writers rather than movements or trends, never steps back to give an overview. "A History of Post-War Soviet Writing" is, in fact, good example of the peculiar situation that prevails in literature about Soviet literature. Soviet scholars (including emigres) are so bound up in the web they are describing that the result is frequently tendentious and ultimaltely unreliable. Western writers, on the other hand, lost in a culture so alien from their own, often produce works of cold and bloodless analysis. But then Russian literature has always been a literature of extremes.
Roy Medvedev is not however, an extremist; indeed, he has been one of the few consistent spokesmen for reason and moderation to emerge in the Soviet Union in the last few decades. He is a noble anomaly in his touchingly steadfast belief in the possibilities of democratic socialism. There is even a joke circulating in Moscow these days that Medvedev is the last Russian alive who still believes in socialism.
Medvedev's moderate line is evident in the articles collected in "Samizdat Register II." MAny of them are concerned with the retelling of postrevolutionary Russian history, since the writing of history in the Soviet Union today, like the writing of fiction, has been distorted to comply with the views of the Communist Party leadership. The most interesting article, "Commodity Number One ," by A. Krasikov, who spent much of his life in Soviet labor camps, describes the official fudging of statistics on the production and consumption of alcoholic beverages in order to hide the enormous extent of alcoholism in the soviet Union. "In a situation where man's personality counts for nothing, alcohol gives him an illusion of his own importance," Krasikov concludes.
IT seems unlikely that any who do not already know the depressing world that these rather specialized books describe will read them; it seems even more unlikely that long-suffering Russian literature will soon be released from its imprisonment.