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Russia: A Longing for Truth

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The thaw (the real one, that is) was at its height in Moscow last week. Ice floes were in full flight down the river. At last the Kremlin’s onion domes were bare of snow. In Sokolniki Park, small boys whooped after model planes and grownups silently drank up the sun. It was the time when, Chekhov wrote, “spring is ready to enter the soul.”

Ten snows have melted since Joseph Stalin’s death in March 1953. In the political and social thaw that has followed the tyrant’s end, regimentation persists but the cruder kinds of terror have vanished almost as completely as the snow. To the 100 million Russians who are under 25 today, and who make up nearly a half of the Soviet Union’s entire population, Stalinism is little more than a bad childhood memory. They have not been broken by the fear that haunts their fathers nor infected with the blind faith that guided some of their Bolshevik grandfathers. These youngsters have been called a lost generation. They could more fairly be called a seeking generation.

Soviet Russia is still a Sparta, not an Athens. It has no freedom in the Western sense, but dissatisfaction is becoming overt in a way that it never dared be before.

Engineers of Souls. Though incomparably better off than their elders, young Russians today ask far more of their life and are more critical of its shortcomings than any previous generation. Youth is reaching out beyond Mother Russia for its styles and slang. “Decadent” tastes that were taboo under Stalin are now status symbols. Young educated Russians are hungry for abstract art, passionately addicted to jazz, universally smitten with Ernest Hemingway and J. D. Salinger (they can read these authors in translation, but see no newspapers except Communist ones). Soviet movies such as The Cranes Are Flying sympathetically explore their conflicts and misgivings. Even the Communist Party’s official youth publications discuss sins and shortcomings of the system; this would have been heresy ten years ago.

The new generation’s doughtiest champions have been authors and poets, the very types who were the most closely indentured servants of Stalinism. Perhaps no other tyrant in history has ever imposed so rigorous a system of thought control as that of Joseph Stalin; his most powerful and systematic weapon was the doctrine called “socialist realism,” by which artists became “engineers of souls.” whose only function was to mass-produce Communist propaganda. Literature started up again soon after Stalin’s death. In the six years since Nikita Khrushchev demolished Stalin’s godhead at the 20th Party Congress, Soviet writers have proclaimed, even if they have not always been free to practice, a new “literature of truth.”

Siberian Roots. Poets in particular have won greater latitude than they have enjoyed since the early, heady days of the Revolution. From medieval times, when illiterate peasants listened spellbound to wandering “reciters,” the intellectual Russians have always revered poets above potentates. Among them—from Pushkin, who died “invoking freedom in an age of fear,” to Pasternak, who, at the cost of much personal bravery, was almost the only writer of his generation to deride Stalin’s shibboleths—have been Russia’s most impassioned foes of injustice. Evgeny Evtushenko, the most famed and gifted young poet in Russia today, follows in their footsteps.

“Zhenya,” as handsome, 28-year-old Evtushenko is invariably called, started out where many another Russan poet has ended—in Siberia. The blond, beanpole-tall (6 ft. 3 in.) poet comes of Ukrainian, Tartar and Latvian stock that has never, he grins, “been collectivized.” Though he likes to be taken for a country boy, he is a Muscovite by upbringing and accent, and his background rubs off on his sophisticated, often colloquial poetic style. His deep appeal lies in a rare faculty for sensing—and transmitting—the doubts and yearnings of a generation that has lost its illusions and is beginning to find its voice. Evtushenko is this generation’s flag-bearer, a daring young man, but not to the point of martyrdom.

Noiseless Verse. Poets of protest such as Evgeny Evtushenko (pronounced Yevgainy Yeftooshenko) have, in the past, been isolated from the vast, unlettered mass of Russian society. Today, through far-ranging recital tours and huge editions of their verse, they are reaching the widest, best-educated public in Russian history. The result has been a remarkable poetic revival. In theaters and student hostels from White Russia to Central Asia, overflow crowds listen to poets with almost religious fervor. On Sunday nights in summer, city squares echo to the liquid, incantatory cadences of Pushkin. Lermontov and. often. Zhenya Evtushenko. One good reason for poetry’s popularity: scraps of “noiseless verse,” as Russian writers call work that is too avant-garde or radical for publication, can easily be mimeographed and surreptitiously distributed from one group of youths to another. Though several underground poetry sheets have drawn official condemnation, not a single editor has lost his head.

Simply put, Russia’s writers are seeking truth. Evtushenko’s verse and his contemporaries’ conversation come back to the word time and again. Their generation has seen truth ripped from maps and histories; their search for facts is an obsession. After Stalin’s death, Evtushenko went back to see. he said, if any kind of truth had survived in his native Siberia; even there he was disappointed. In a poem named for his home town, Zima (literally, Winter), he quoted the adage: “Truth is good but happiness is better,” adding forlornly: “But without truth there is no happiness.”

Doubt’s Dark Seed. To many of his contemporaries, truth means any once perilous indulgence, from a rock ‘n’ roll session to pinning a sardonic verse on a university bulletin board. To most, it symbolizes a degree of freedom that is incompatible with Communism. Nina, a stylish, 21-year-old Moscow University geology student, sees truth as the duty to “speak and act always according to your own beliefs and ideals.” To Marusia, another 21-year-old student, truth is whatever contradicts the party line. Says she: “I don’t believe in God, but I am anti-antireligious. I refuse to be an atheist because propaganda orders me to be one.” Many young Russians openly question what they read in Pravda—which itself means truth. Evtushenko suggests that there is no absolute truth in Russia because there is “no faith, and faith means love, and there is no love.” Doubt’s dark seed is his generation’s suspicion that its fathers were deeply compromised by Stalin’s crimes, that the full story has yet to be revealed. Writes Evtushenko: Behind the speeches Some murky game is being played.

We talk and talk about things we didn’t mention yesterday.

We say nothing about the things we did ourselves.

Soviet youth’s dominant characteristic, and often the best concealed, is this profound skepticism. It may not yet deeply affect those millions of young Russians on farms and assembly lines who know no other possible way of life, but it influences those who have been given an education to prepare them for a technological society. Within well-defined limits, the schooled young have been encouraged somewhat to think for themselves, and inevitably have come to question those limits. The more the propagandists chide Soviet youth for what Khrushchev calls its “unhealthy attitudes,” the more it shies from slogans and ideologies. Like the U.S. housewife who switches off a TV commercial, Evtushenko’s generation is a victim of what Madison Avenue calls “oversell.” Observers consider the generation thoroughly loyal to Russia, and, in general, loyal to the only political system it knows.

It is full of misinformation about the rest of the world, and U.S. tourists in Russia are sometimes startled by the xenophobic assurance with which young Russians, though critical of their regime, in the next breath say they will someday match the Western comforts of cars and housing without embracing capitalism’s corrupting faults.

The questioning of the present regime is most intense among the young educated Russians, who as tomorrow’s intelligentsia will influence their society out of all proportion to their numbers.

“Not, Goddamit, Dull.” To hear them talk, the young crave a more graceful, abundant life, and chafe at the frustrations of Khrushchev’s state. Their “characteristic feature.” says Russian youth’s favorite playwright, Victor Rozov, is “intolerance of everything that is strident, bureaucratic and soulless.” Soviet youth resents the regime’s nagging, niggling demands on its private life. Why, grumbled a correspondent in the youth paper Komsomolskaya Pravda, should “the striving for personal happiness” conflict with the common good? Said he: “We are not building Communism to sleep on nails.”

Some young Russians look back romantically on the ‘205 and the “purity” of a revolutionary creed that has somehow dissolved into the cynical conformity of the society they know. Snorted a character in a short story published in Youth Magazine: “Heroism, self-sacrifice! That’s what the journalists write about. But look around: what everyone’s worrying about is how to grab off more for himself.” The young idolize Fidel Castro, whose revolution in their eyes embodies the authentic ideological fervor that has gone from their own. This vision was heightened by Poet Evtushenko, who visited Cuba last year and in Pravda proclaimed: “Revolution may be grim but not, goddamit, dull.”

In some respects, Evtushenko and his followers resemble U.S. beatniks. But where U.S. beats glorify unwashedness, shook-up Soviet youth flaunts foppish clothes as the badge of their individualism. Russian youths crave the varied and permissive life that would be their birthright in the West. One of the most revealing, wistful expressions of Russian claustrophobia is a poem written by Evtu-shenko in 1958:

The frontiers oppress me.

I feel it awkward

Not knowing Buenos Aires,

New York.

I want to wander

As much as I like

In London,

To talk, however brokenly,

With everybody . . .

Vladimir Mitty. Unable to travel beyond the Soviet Union, young Russians are extravagantly addicted to Western fads and customs, which themselves are a sort of Vladimir Mitty substitute for first-hand experience of the outside world.

A significant event in their lives was the 1957 World Youth Festival, which brought 15,000 young foreigners into Moscow for a propaganda jamboree aimed at impressing them with the rich, free life under Soviet Communism. Instead, after mingling for the first time with their contemporaries from five continents, many young Russians seemed to be profoundly impressed by the free, privileged life that belongs to youth outside Russia. For three weeks, the visitors sang, drank and talked with open-mouthed Russian youngsters.

Ever since, the Kremlin has backed away from its stubborn resistance to “bourgeois” Western tastes in clothes, jazz and mating rites. The regime has yielded to youth’s demands for its own distinctive styles, is actually manufacturing blue jeans for the first time. For the Jet Set, Moscow’s vast GUM department store has a serviceable facsimile of an inexpensive, tight-trousered Italian man’s suit for $150 ; it also sells spiked heels ($55), which even the best-heeled Muscovite miss often totes to parties in a paper bag.

Local Foreigners. Women’s fashions have progressed from mere shapelessness to the Sack to the painted-on look for the rich and daring; necklines are plunging. At Moscow’s heated open-air swimming pools, which are open year-round, Victorian-style swim suits have yielded to two-piece costumes for girls. “Janes,” as Moscow University jets call their girls (after the heroine in antediluvian Tarzan movies that reached Russia after World War II), are discovering eye shadow, generally paint their nails; they most frequently sport bouffant or Bardot hairdos, though Audrey Hepburn cuts ($1.50) and permanents ($6) are gaining in popularity. Hip guys, or firmennye (literally, foreign firms), go for white shirts and solid ties from France; but hard-to-get button-down shirts and striped ties from the U.S. Ivy League are the most. Bell-bottom trousers, longtime mark of Soviet orthodoxy, are worn only by servicemen, hayseeds, and Nikita Khrushchev.

At the Metropole and National hotel dining rooms, and at the Budapest, one of the top Moscow restaurants, dance orchestras thump out the latest hits almost as fast as they come over the Voice of America’s unjammed “Music U.S.A.” broadcasts, which thousands of Russians record on tape. There are status-conscious college kids who try to impress compatriots by pretending they are tourists, usually Amerivantsy. Some even label themselves “local foreigners,” call other baron (good guys) in their set by secret American names hybridized from Hollywood, e.g., Audrey Monroe, Charlee Taylor. A good many more-sober young Russian intellectuals scorn such fantasies. But they too look to the West, avidly devour the works of top Western authors.

Pelvic Polka. Youth’s greatest malaise is simple Soviet boredom. Endless bitter jokes damn the drabness of life under Communism. Asks one: “Is there life on Mars?” Answer: “No, there isn’t any there either.” Asks another: “Is it possible to build Communism in only one country?” “Certainly, but who wants to live there?” Russia lacks the drugstores, coffee bars or bowling alleys where the young can congregate, although there is a scattering of ice cream parlors. Cinemas are few and crowded; getting tickets to the Bolshoi or Moscow Art Theater takes hours of waiting in line.

In the past year, the regime has cautiously permitted the opening of a few attractive clubs, such as Moscow’s Aelita, where young people can sip soft drinks or wine and dance to Dixieland. The snag: Komsomol (Young Communist League) trusties at the door see that only the faithful get in. Young Russians yearn for spring, when they can flee jampacked apartments for the parks. Although Russia is generally a pristine society, on dance floors young couples often lock themselves in a pelvic polka that makes the twist look like a minuet.

Though the official press denounces writers who picture “angry young men” or a “disappointed generation,” it is devoting an ever increasing amount of space to letters, articles and sermons on youth’s problems. There has been a startling increase in alcoholism among the young (but a decline in adult drinking); Mos cow has twelve sobering-up tanks where grim pictures of passed-out repeaters are taken and pinned on the bulletin board at their factory or university.

Red Squares. Most conspicuous symptom of youthful unrest is a bumper crop of hooligans and delinquents. A recent “anti-parasite” law has thinned out the sharply dressed young stilyagi (Teddy boys) who loiter on Brod-vay, as they call Moscow’s Gorky Street. Prosperous “beeznismen” still supply customers with every black market commodity from call girls to non-Red lipstick (Soviet lipstick is seldom available in any shade but dark red). They get their stocks mostly from tourists — often in exchange for “ancient” ikons fresh from the ikon factory — but can get almost any item through a smuggling network centered in Odessa.

Since Nikita Khrushchev substituted peaceful coercion for Stalin’s rule of terror, he has stripped the police of many of their former powers. The Komsomol, which helps keep youth in line, now shares routine police duties with the officious Druzhinniki, the neighborhood civilian deputies, who wear red armbands on patrol. Komsomol zealots break up cafe brawls, keep a sour eye out for stilyagi and other “nonconformists.” Last fall they broke up open-air poetry sessions in Mayakovsky Square, the haunt of Moscow’s poetry buffs, charged that young bards were declaiming “slanderous” verse.

Not even the children of the Soviet rich and powerful can afford to defy the Komsomol. If a student skips its pep talks or evades spare-time labor on farms and construction sites, he risks an unfavorable kharakteristika, a report-card-cum-loyalty-rating, which can lead to his dismissal from a university and, most likely, a disciplinary spell in the unpopular Asian virgin lands. If a Russian gets fired from his job, he is in deep trouble, since he can only be hired by the same employer — the state. Westerners are often perplexed by the abruptness with which young Russians can by turns be warmly outspoken or gruffly uncommunicative, as resentment of regimentation battles with fear of the ever present fist of the government.

Some of Evgeny Evtushenko’s most quoted verses are allegorical thrusts at Komsomol squares. He declares: “I simply laugh at phonies and fakes.” In a 1957 poem called “The Nihilist.” Evtushenko described a tight-trousered student who read Hemingway, preferred Picasso to Stalin’s pet painter Alexander Gerasimov. and was unfairly condemned for his “un-Russian tastes” by narrow-minded parents. After the youth dies while saving a friend’s life, the poem relates, his diaries show that he was no nihilist but “clean and straight.” Evtushenko himself was drummed out of the Komsomol as a nihilist the same year. Though readmitted in 1959, he still draws heavy fire from rabid, right-wing party pundits who react to many of his poems as if they were financed by the CIA.

Pygmy Spittle. Evtushenko’s most provocative poem to date, written last year, is a pointed, poignant outcry against the anti-Semitism that to his generation symbolizes Khrushchev’s most sinister legacy from the czars’ and Stalin’s reigns of terror. Named “Babi Yar,” for the ravine outside Kiev where the Nazis massacred 96.000 Jews, the poem taunts anti-Semites:

I am as hateful to them as a Jew,

And that makes me a real Russian. Conservative critics howled that “Babi Yar” is “pygmy spittle” aimed at the “crewcut Russian lads” who died in World War II. The crew-cut fourth generation thought it was great. In Mayakovsky Square last October, a crowd of more than 5,000 yelled “Babi Yar” until Evtushenko recited the 58-line poem.

Swashbuckling Zhenya Evtushenko is a virile, versatile poet with some of the moral passion of Russia’s 19th century writers and an impish individualism all his own. His verse is by turns idealistic and irreverent, tender, irascible and brash. “I’m of Siberian stock,” brags one of his poems. “I fear nobody’s lip.”

My Life, My Death. Evtushenko’s party enemies have labeled him “pessimist.”‘ “formalist,” “revisionist.” and every other -ist on the list save Communist, which he is, and is careful to show he is. But to Zhenya’s worldly-wise contemporaries, a venomous review in the pravilnye (square) literary journals is the best advertisement of a writer’s integrity. Since his first, ingenuous volume, which delighted the squares, all six of his books have been panned by the right pundits, snapped up, parroted throughout Russia, published abroad in 16 languages. Critic Boris Sarnov, a longtime Zhenyaphobe, conceded that if he appeared in Moscow’s Luzhniki Stadium (capacity: 105,000), “he would fill the place.”

Going to the other extreme, some Western critics have hopefully deduced from his unpopularity with Stalinist critics that Evtushenko is a rebel against the system and a secret ally of the West. In fact, though not a party member, he is permitted exceptional latitude only because he is careful to leave his basic allegiance to country and system in no doubt. “For my death.” In country.” he criticizing writes, its “my life abuses, he and ex my plains, his aim is to improve, not destroy, the Soviet society. Says he: “The banner is undefiled. even though some of its bearers stumbled in the mire.” Evtu shenko and other literary gadflies resemble a loyal opposition, whose foe is the Stalin ist rearguard in Moscow and Peking ; they have been called the New Left. Says an anti-Stalinist Soviet official: “Evtushenko & Co. are not a cancer, just a head cold.” Pancake Poet. And so. in a way. Evtushenko’s courage has not been put to the severest test, as Pasternak’s was. But if a change came in his fortune, Zhenya would not be the first Evtushenko to suffer for his views. In the wave of repression that followed Czar Alexander II’s assassination in 1881, Great-Grandfather Joseph Evtushenko was banished from the Ukraine as a suspected subversive, died on the grueling 3,500-mile trek to eastern Siberia. Joseph’s 18 children settled finally in Zima, a bleak lumber station on the trans-Siberian railroad, where Zhenya was born in 1933. Son of a concert singer and a geologist father. Zhenya spent his early childhood in the old quarter of Moscow. There he lived with his gifted, handsome mother Zinaida and her father, a grizzled artilleryman who was a lieutenant general when he vanished forever during Stalin’s 1938 Red army purge. Shortly after, Zhenya’s father left Zinaida, explained that her father’s “crimes” endangered his career. Zhenya, who adopted his mother’s surname, never forgave him.

His literary flair was there from the first. At ten, he wrote a novel; at twelve, he was jotting down his own verses for folk melodies. One day in 1945 he heard a group of washerwomen singing his lyrics. “That did it.” says he. “From then on I was poetry-struck.” After wartime evacuation to Zima, he made goalkeeper on an all-Moscow schoolboy team and signed up for professional soccer. Day before he was to report for training, Soviet Sport published his first poem to see print, and Zhenya turned his sights on literature’s big league. He started turning out poems “like pancakes.” mostly flat odes to stock Stalinist subjects. (“Very bad.” he admits.) They opened the door to Gorky Literary Institute, where he studied desultorily for years without graduating.

Creative Schizophrenia. Zhenya was 19 when Stalin died. In revulsion from political themes, he sought refuge in love lyrics. The conservative critics who had effusively praised his first, insipid book of verse savaged his second, making the book an overnight hit and Zhenya a national name. Ever since, says Evtushenko. he has suffered from creative schizophrenia ; when he writes love poetry he is attacked for escapism ; when he returns to social themes he is faulted for wasting his lyric talent. The same ambivalence, he grins, marks Pushkin, his idol. His other heroes: Boris Pasternak; Hemingway, “my favorite prose writer by far”; Fidel Castro, whom he quotes gleefully as saying “Art should be free”; and Poet Vladimir Mayakovsky, the explosively original Bolshevik suicide who, like Evtushenko 30 years later, bitterly satirized the smug commissars of his time.

Along with Evtushenko, almost all the ablest writers of the New Left are preoccupied with the doubts and dreams of Soviet youth. The most notable: Vladimir Tendryakov, a young prose writer whose most memorable story, about an escaped convict who bilks his rescuers, is a horrifying allegory aimed subtly at ex-Convict Joseph Stalin; Victor Rozov, most censured and celebrated for a script about a disturbed youth who cannot understand how his elders could defend evil from political necessity; Vasily Aksenov, whose young jets are pictured as mixed-up idealists; Victor Nekrasov, a psychological novelist with a penchant for the bewildered and inarticulate.

The literature of truth is still highly controversial in Russia. Poets and novelists no longer face firing squads; but a writer who goes too far can be cut off from his royalties, or locked up. One recent victim was Author Michael Naritsa, 53, who suffered exile and imprisonment under Stalin, began asking for trouble again in 1960 when he smuggled his latest novel, The Unsung Song, out of the country by unorthodox means: unable to contact a foreign publisher, he bundled up his manuscript, attached to it a labeled plea in four languages (see cut}, and thrust it into the hands of two surprised West German tourists who were strolling down a Leningrad street. The tourists got it published abroad, and Naritsa got a visitation from the agents of the Committee of State Security (KGB); today he is under detention in a “mental home.” Nikita Khrushchev, who remembers well that writers helped ignite Hungary’s uprising, warned Soviet authors in 1957 that if they went too far, “my hand would not tremble on the trigger.” Bureaucracy still battles stubbornly to control literature, but even Nikita himself concedes that books of “quality” are more important than unreadable platitudes.

Law of Big Numbers. Evtushenko has powerful friends at court, notably Voronov, a member of Pravda’s editorial board, and, through him, Izvestia Editor Alexis Adzhubei, Khrushchev’s son-in-law. Another influential supporter is 71-year-old Novelist Ilya Ehrenburg, whose 1954 novel, The Thaw, gave history’s chapter heading to destalinization. In 1960 Evtushenko rated a passport, has subsequently wandered widely in Western Europe, Africa and elsewhere abroad. On two trips to Cuba he gathered material for a movie scenario, visited the house where Hemingway wrote The Old Man and the Sea.

In the U.S. last year, Zhenya discovered dry martinis at Harvard, Greenwich Village jazz dives, and decided that of all the cities he has visited, “New York, in all honesty, is the best.” Evtushenko has had two wives. The first was beautiful Bella Akhmadulina, who is also one of the generation’s most gifted poets. After two years in cramped quarters (one room)—young Russians’ commonest cause for divorce—they parted in 1959. Since 1960, Zhenya has been married to a poised, handsome brunette named Galya, who is two years his senior and an able translator (Maugham, Salinger).

Their marriage has a double chance of success: they have a two-room apartment of their own in a new apartment building on Moscow’s outskirts. It is stylishly decorated with Scandinavian furniture; the walls are lined with abstract paintings by Zhenya’s friends, and the books he has hauled back from his travels.

Last week Evtushenko was finishing his movie script, which will be filmed in Cuba this spring. Two new volumes of his verse are to be published soon, and he is working on his first novel since childhood. He calls it The Law of Big Numbers, a ten-year project that will “attempt to apply mathematical equations to the new generation of Russian intellectuals.” Strange Days. No simple equation can tell how Russia’s youth will mature, or what kind of society it will inherit.

With Evtushenko, it looks forward to a time when “Posterity will remember/And will burn with shame/ Remembering these strange days/ When common honesty was called courage.” The crowds who turn out to hear the poets’ work are a hopeful portent. When citizens are allowed to judge literature for themselves, when the highest officials wrangle publicly over the fundamental rights and aims of creative artists, they are engaged in the closest thing to a democratic debate that Soviet history has seen. The depth of public response to the new “literature of truth” is itself the strongest deterrent to the party diehards who would choke the debate. Most Russian special ists believe that the regime could not return to the rule of terror without a violent popular upheaval that would shake the nation to its roots. Says an old Russian adage: “If it is written with a pen, you can’t remove it with a hatchet.”

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