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Whither Soviet books?

Once popular in India, literature of the former USSR has been forgotten. Roshen Dalal looks at the reasons.

books Updated: Feb 23, 2004 19:31 IST

"In everything I want to reach
The innermost kernel
In work, in life's constant quest
In the heart's trouble;"
(Boris Pasternak)

Literature of the former Soviet Union was once popular in India, but has now largely been forgotten. Though 'Soviet literature' is perhaps too wide a term, the great writers of the USSR, had something in common - like Boris Pasternak in his poem above, their writing had a certain intensity, reflecting that 'constant quest' to reach 'the innermost kernel' of everything. Their greatness was recognised in the West, and some of them - Boris Pasternak, Alexander Solzhenitsyn, Josef Brodsky- were Nobel Prize winners.Other brilliant writers included Andrei Voznesensky, Yevgeny Yevtushenko, AndreiSinyavsky, and many more.

Several of the Soviet writers were imprisoned or faced problems of some kind with the authorities in their country. Boris Pasternak, famous for his book Dr Zhivago, was not allowed to accept the Nobel, awarded to him in 1958. He found a champion in Jawaharlal Nehru, who not only wrote to Khrushchev about him, but remembered his birthday, and sent him the gift of a clock!

Solzhenitsyn, who received the Nobel Prize in 1970, spent long years in labour camps, and among his books, One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovitch, and The First Circle are fictionalised accounts of his life there. The Gulag Archipelago, is a comprehensive record of the Soviet prison system. Cancer Ward, and other books and short stories, reflect some of the absurdities of life in the USSR, but also record the lives of ordinary people. His most recent work is Two Hundred Years Together, the story of Russia's Jewish minority.

Brodsky, Nobel Prize winner in 1987, was exiled from the USSR after eighteen months in a labour camp, and went to the US. He is well known for his sensitive poetry. In his poem The Fly, he watches, records and philosophies on the life of one fly, who had hovered around his cell for months, and finally faltered and died. It begins with the lines:
"While you were singing, fall arrived.
A splinter set the stove alight.
While you were singing, while you flew,
The cold wind blew.
And now you crawl the flat expanse
Of my greasy stovetop, never glancing
Back to whence you arrived last April
Slow, barely able…."

Voznesensky has been called Russia's first modern poet, and was inspired by Pasternak. His poems are often philosophical and detached, yet sometimes passionate and intense. One can compare his Autumn in Sigulda, which has the gentle lines, "I know that we will live again, As friends, girlfriends or blades of grass… ," with Sketch for a Poem:
"Forgive me dearest, it happened this way:
The deadend seemed deader
Than ever today
The deepest sadness, sadder.
I know the end will come
In the dark shaft where I lie
Where those who love, love not enough
And no one hears you scream…."

Khrushchev called him a 'bourgeois formalist', but later his work was accepted in Russia, and he received the State Prize for Poetry in 1979.

Sinyavsky, another protégé of Pasternak, wrote novels, short stories, and poems on life under Stalin, initially under the name Abram Tertz. In 1965 he was arrested and spent six years in a labour camp. Finally he was allowed to leave the USSR for France.Though his work is varied and often allegorical, his despair in prison is reflected in this poem:
" For spring my child you'll wait, it will not come
You'll call out for the sun to rise, it will not rise
And when you begin to cry, your cries will sink like lead
Then be content with life today
Stiller than water, lower than grass…".

Yevtushenko wrote long poems, and is best known for Babi Yar, condemning anti-semitism, and the autobiographicalZima Junction,the place in Siberia where he was born:
"And the voice of Zima Junction spoke to me
And this is what it said
'I live quietly and crack nuts.
I gently steam with engines.
But not without reflection on these times, these modern times…"

Of course there were many other writers, both despairing and hopeful, philosophical and amusing - Mayakovsky, Anna Akhmatova, Zabolotsky, Tarkovsky, Gorbanevskaya, Kazakov, Turbin, Shukshin, Ginzburg, who was one of the first to start samizdat or underground publishing - the list is long, and they are all worth reading. Perhaps one will find their work at the Book Fair, though as Voznesensky wrote:
"It is rare in our polluted skies
To hear the crane's lonely cries
While every bookstore's lined with stacks
Of monolithic published hacks."

First Published: Feb 23, 2004 19:31 IST