Every society has had periods of totalitarianism and terror in one form or another. Russia is not exceptional in this respect. Whether the Russian brand of totalitarianism was worse or better than, say, the Inquisition in Spain, the slave trade in America, Nazism in Germany, or today's Islamic fundamentalisms is hard to say. It would be interesting to attempt a comparative analysis.
In the initial decades of Soviet rule the working class and the peasantry were forcibly driven into labour camps under various pretexts, because the dislocated country needed slave labour to realize its ambitious construction projects. The freedom loving intelligentsia was imprisoned in camps and lunatic asylums, so as to intimidate and exterminate then by apparently legal methods. Gradually the whole nation divided into plainclothes informers and alarmed citizens trying hard to be law-abiding but still ending up in the labour camps accused of treason, espionage, cosmopolitanism, and a host of other imaginary crimes. They rarely survived to the end of their sentences in the arctic temperatures of Siberia or the Polar regions. Who can estimate how many potential scientists, writers, and artists of genius were lost to mankind in the inhuman conditions of the Soviet prison camps?
It is no wonder that those decades of totalitarian rule affected people's minds so deeply that, even after several years of democracy, people in their sixties and seventies are afraid to discuss politics over the telephone for fear it might be bugged.
The 1960s, the time of the positive new changes in the West, saw the first political "thaw" in Russia, following revelations about the Stalinist regime by Khruschev at the twentieth Congress of the Communist Party in 1956.
The generation of intellectuals who reached their prime in the 1960s, and retained their sincere belief in "socialism with a human face", is known in Russia as the "shestidesyatniks", or sixties generation. Some of them fought for human rights and suffered repression in their turn, while others lay low, only daring to discuss politics or read samizdat poetry in a very narrow circle of friends (those famous gatherings in the kitchen, which was considered less likely to be bugged).
The sixties generation are still very active in politics and public life today, and are the target of hostility from both the right and left of political spectrum. The sharpest criticism comes from the younger generation who, happily, have never experienced the kind of pressure their elders were subjected to, and who have also never been so thoroughly indoctrinated.
Westerners used to ask why we put up with bureaucratic oppression, food shortages and queues, violations of human rights, and so on. Why don't we protest? The two works we offer you in this issue of Glas convey the atmosphere of the invisible oppression and the all-pervading fear in which the sixties generation grew up. Boris Yampolsky's The Old Arbat is set in Moscow in the 1950s with flashbacks into the 1930s and 40s, and Vasil Bykov's The Manhunt is set in the country in the 1930s. In both stories innocent people are persecuted in a way which precludes effective resistance.
Vasil Bykov, a major Belorussian author writing in Russian as well as Belorussian, celebrated his 70th birthday in June 1994. In June 1941, as a seventeen year-old boy, he abandoned his studies at the Vitebsk art college to volunteer for the front line of the Second World War which became the dominant theme of his writing in the subsequent decades.
His best known works include Obelisk, To Live Till Dawn, The Dead Feel No Pain, Sotnikov, His Battalion, to name but a few. Amidst the flow of bombastic paeans to war heroism he was the first in Russian literature to look at the unheroic aspects of the war and to investigate the problem of moral choice and personal safety in the war.
More recently Bykov turned to Russia's post-revolutionary history, marked by the dispossession of well-to-do peasants (kulaks) and the Cheka's ruthless repressions of innocent people when, moreover, victims and executioners often changed places.
This theme figures in The Manhunt, published here, as well as in The Cold, nominated for the Booker Russian Novel Prize in 1994.
Whatever his theme, Bykov invariably touches on the subject of betrayal. "Betrayal has always been a fascinating theme for literature and art," says Bykov. It is well known that on Nazi-occupied territory the local police was recruited from voluntary collaborators among the local population. The history of the Civil War in Russia abounds in cases when children denounced their parents, and vice versa, to the Cheka, when close relatives were fighting on opposite sides, and when on the strength of neighbours' or colleagues' denunciations whole families were dispossessed and exiled to Siberia to die of cold, hunger and back-breaking toil.
Bykov has always been preoccupied with the problem of retaining humanity in inhuman conditions. Among his characters there is always one who, faced with a moral choice, prefers death to infamy.
Boris Yampolsky (1912-1972) was a prolific novelist and journalist in the late 1950s and 1960s, but his major novel, The Old Arbat (Moskovskaya Ulitsa), written in the 1960s, was banned by the censor. It was kept safe by writer friends, and published with the coming of perestroika in the literary monthly Znamya.
The Old Arbat examines the inner state of a hunted man, his fears and his loneliness. In this respect it recalls Raskolnikov's tortured wandering around St Petersburg in Dostoevsky's Crime and Punishment. Unlike Raskolnikov, however, who really was guilty of murder, Yampolsky's hero is innocent and only wishes he knew what his supposed guilt is all about. At the same time he is not at all surprised to find himself being followed and hence, no doubt, doomed to eventual arrest. He has seen it happen to other, equally innocent people, each of whom was sure his own case was a mistake, that he would be released shortly, and that all the others in his position really were "enemies of the people". Yampolsky's hero has no such illusions. He knows what awaits him once the KGB get him in their clutches.
When he reads in the newspapers about the Jewish "Doctors' Plot" he knows that his days too are numbered. First there are strange telephone calls whose purpose is obviously to soften him up. He is openly followed wherever he goes. Next his friends abandon him, and he is left completely alone with his thoughts and fears. Like Yampolsky himself the hero saw action in the Second World War and was fearless, but now, in the Stalinist atmosphere of witch-hunting and political intolerance, he is paralyzed by uncontrollable terror. It is impossible simply to disappear, there is nowhere to flee to, and no one to turn to for help.
Yet at some point his hopelessness produces an inner freedom which gives the hunted man strength to resist. Yampolsky's anatomy of fear evolves into a description of how to overcome fear.
For reasons of space the novel has been considerably abridged for this edition leaving out flashbacks into the hero's past: the revolutionary enthusiasm of the 1930s and the difficult but heroic war years. Also deleted for this edition are most of the scenes in the communal apartment and the portraits of its residents that reflect, like a drop in the ocean, the whole society in the grips of totalitarianism. The whole novel is 300 pages long.