Sunday, January 16, 2011

A Soviet Dr. Seuss

Kornei Chukovsky's Diary: 1901- 1969, reveals the best and worst aspects of intellectual life in the Soviet Union. On the one hand, the celebrated children's poet, literary critic, Anglophile, and translator lived a rich, varied, and productive intellectual life during almost every phase of the communist experiment in government. Notwithstanding the work of the censures, most of Chukovsky's books and articles eventually found their way into print even during the age of Stalin. Chukowsky was not working alone. Throughout his long career he came into contact with brilliant and original thinkers and artists. On every page of the diary, one is reminded of the richness and diversity of Soviet poetry, prose, and literary culture. On the other hand, Chukovsky's Diary testifies to the enormous and sometimes violent pressure Soviet intellectuals felt from Bolshevik rulers who sought to implement an aesthetically dry and ideologically bankrupt literature of uniformity. Socialist realism, the creed of the Bolshevik cultural hierarchy, thwarted true artistry at every turn. And of course, the brutality of the state often led directly to the death of leading authors and poets, including Gumilyov, Mayakovsky, Babel, Mandelstam, and others.

Chukowsky established himself as a leading figure in Russian intelligentsia even before the First World War. He knew Ivan Bunin, Maxim Gorky, Anna Akhmatova, Isaac Babel, Alexander Blok, and most other major cultural and intellectual figures in St. Petersburg prior to the outbreak of war and revolution. In the aftermath of this conflict, Chukowsky maintained an awkward but generally collaborative relationship with the new revolutionary regime. But peaceful coexistence with the Communist Party was not an easy proposition and Chukowsky's journal is filled with doubt and anxiety over the artist's role in socialist society. What was his obligation, if any, to the state and its bureaucracy? To the proletariat class? To the exigencies of art, creativity and individual artistic genius? To the traditions of Russian culture, which sometimes ran counter to the interests of the Soviet Union, especially when the Russian diaspora was involved? To humanity as a whole?

Chukowsky tried to be loyal to the historical mission of the Russian intelligentsia, which seemed at first to be tethered to the health of the world's first socialist state, the USSR. Chukowsky adored Stalin and rhapsodized over the Great Leader and his Five Year Plan, although not even a diary--that intimate expression of personal feeling--can help to clarify whether Chukowsky's ideological stance was dictated by true feeling or a spirit of self-preservation in a violent dictatorship. But sometimes--and perhaps the Ukrainian famine was the first example of this--the intelligentsia's liberal mission seemed to be directly at odds with the state's mandate for grand historical change at any cost.

At times, Chukowsky's battle to reconcile his faith in Russian socialism with his humanistic tendencies and personal friendships is heart-wrenching. Take, for example, his description of his friendship with one of the Grand Old Men of Bolshevism, Zinoviev, who had been politically ostracized and was therefore now writing academic treatises on literary matters. One minute Chukowsky was a close friend and admirer of Zinoviev, the next minute he was being asked by state propaganda to believe that his erstwhile friend was a foreign spy who was engaged in a time-consuming plot to overthrown the government. The Diary suggests that Chukowsky, like many of his peers, veered between belief, unbelief, and fear for his own safety in the event that he looked too closely at the matter. Did Chukowsky write his Diary in the belief that the Cheka might oneday read its contents? It seems likely that he did, at least during the late 1930s and 1940s.

Although Chukowsky compromised with political reality on many different occasions, and probably could not have done otherwise if he expected to survive as a published author, the Soviet Union's answer to Doctor Seuss struggled mightily against the forces of repression and obscurantism in communist Russia. Again and again the Diary reveals the obstacles that Chukowsky confronted into order to limit censorship and maintain some level of integrity in the fight to keep faith with humanism, Russian cultural tradition, and literary freedom.

The forces of Soviet immorality waxed and wained. Chukowsky's biggest shock in this regard came as a result of Khrushchev's Secret Speech of 1956. In a moment, country's former ideological idol was overthrown and, at least for some, the dictator quickly became the very open symbol of intolerance, brutality, and ineptitude for the children's author and literary critic. In this new age of relative openness--which was not to last indefinitely--Chukowsky more allied himself more closely with the intelligentsia in opposition to official Soviet culture. While Chukowsky's daughter, Lydia, who lost a husband to Stalin's cruelty, pursued this fight much more aggressively than her father, Chukowsky became increasingly opposed to Soviet artistic strictures as he grew older. With little left to fear, and the state abandoning most of Stalin's worst tools of repression, Chukowsky became an advocate for persecuted artists such as Brodsky, Pasternak, and Solzhenitsyn. And as the children's author became increasingly more skeptical about the government's role in the arts, his Diary becomes increasingly obsessed with the dark corners of Soviet history, including the Gulag, the purges, the deportations, the post-revolutionary famine, War Communism, World War II, and the official literary campaigns against Akhmatova and Zoshchenko.

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