Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Isaiah Berlin on Soviet Russia

"[Pasternak] had spoken to his sons. They were prepared to suffer."

Isaiah Berlin seems to have gotten Soviet Russia just right. Although the one-time diplomat and long-time Oxford intellectual historian wrote about Russia at the height of the Cold War, his subtle analysis of Soviet culture balanced a clear-sighted critique of the USSR's illiberal political regime with a deep appreciation for Russia's brilliant and enduring literary and intellectual heritage.

Berlin's richly informative essays are collected in the book, The Soviet Mind: Russian Culture Under Communism, edited by Henry Hardy. The essays were composed at various times and for various purposes. The general theme of the collection is that the Soviet regime of the severely restricted artistic and literary freedom in support of Marxist orthodoxy and Stalinist ideology, although the chastened Russian spirit somehow lived on in the form of Pasternak, Akhmatova, and at least the memory of people like Mandelstam--someone who "compromised less than others."

The Communist system undermined the dignity of the Russian people but in many ways it functioned extremely well. The Party made extraordinary sacrifices but preserved its monopoly on power. At first, Communism didn't seem to be antithetical to artistic excellence. The 1920s were a time of experimentation, vitality, energy, and anti-capitalist aesthetic innovation. In the 1930s this restlessness was quashed. The Soviet leadership, Stalin mainly, institutionalized art. The Party's instrument, the Writers' Union, enforced conformism and orthodoxy. The Russian intelligentsia lost contact with the West. The Great Purge and Terror of 1937-38 almost destroyed what little artistic independence remained.

No comments:

Post a Comment