''I fought with young people who were telling me how great it was in Soviet times''

A literary historian Natalia Gromova about ''Soviet ethos'' in each of us, the reviving Imperial syndrome and the Russian desire to give up everything and live the dream

''I fought with young people who were telling me how great it was in Soviet times''

Neither demonization of the Soviet past popular after perestroika nor awakened later sympathy for the Soviet Union and Stalin are, according to historians, the beginning of a real reflection, comprehension of the experience of those times. Why it is impossible just to take and erase the Soviet past and how the experience of repression and censorship affects the minds of Russians — about this and many other things read in the interview to Realnoe Vremya of the famous writer, literary historian Natalia Gromova.

''I saw how they were crashed and broken, how they turned from worthy into unworthy''

Natalia Aleksandrovna, all your books are one way or another connected with the post-revolutionary fate of writers, poets, people who related to the literary process in the Soviet Russia. The transformation of an outstanding individual in the Soviet society — it is the topic that goes through all your work. What are you so attracted to this topic, why you go back to it again and again?

I have the detailed answer to this question in my books and novels. In particular, in the book The Key I tell about how I approached this theme. I'll tell the story in a nutshell. I graduated from the philosophy department, it was the 1990s, I studied and loved Dostoevsky, I had a crazy idea to open a publishing house, I was working as a teacher, was published in the newspaper 1 September. My first husband was a grandson of a poet Vladimir Lugovskoy, that time I was little interested in him. But when we broke up with my husband and we were in good friendly relations, and when old people began to die, my mother-in-law, the daughter of Lugovskoy, who treated me very well and knew that I once worked in an encyclopedia and knew something about the archives, she invited me to study the archives of her father.

It was the beginning of the way. Then something amazing opened in front of me: I suddenly realized that there are official drum sonorous Soviet poets, who had a second and even a third, hidden life. First, I read the correspondence from evacuation during the war, it is the whole layer of history… What is the Tashkent evacuation? It is Chukovsky, Anna Akhmatova, Nadezhda Mandelstam. This topic was very poorly studied. In my hands I had interesting correspondence, including Lugovskoy's with Elena Sergeevna Bulgakova (the third wife of Mikhail Bulgakov, the prototype of Margarita in the novel The Master and Margaritaeditor's note), he was her cohabitating partner, which already was curious for me. I am by nature a researcher and I love to unravel novels, history. I began to ask questions, to search…

''Then something amazing opened in front of me: I suddenly realized that there are official drum sonorous Soviet poets, who had a second and even a third, hidden life.'' Photo: au.ru

I needed to figure out who was leaving Moscow on 14 October 1941 — it was a stunning train. There were Eisenstein, Lyubov Orlova, all academics, scientists, Zoshchenko. The train was full of ''gold reserves'' of the country. In the train, among others, there was Tatyana Lugovskaya, Lugovskoy's sister, who fled from the war, and he was announced almost a coward. Also, there was the woman, whose book we all knew by heart in the late 1980s, it was called The Crossing of Fates. Her name was Maria Iosifovna Belkina, she wrote, in my opinion, the best book about Tsvetaeva, with whom she was acquainted.

I was studying the archive of Lugovskoy in the writers' house in Lavrushinsky lane. Then I was introduced to 88-year-old Maria Iosifovna. It all started probably from this. She was a tough person, the story of our complicated relationship I described in the novel The Key, it was translated into English with a different name — Moscow of the 1930s.

With Maria Iosifovna, first we talked about the war. About Tsvetaeva we started talking after a while because I was interested in what nobody knew (about Tsvetaeva we probably knew everything). As her husband, Anatoly Kuzmich Tarasenkov, was a literary critic and bibliophile, who collected a large collection of Russian poetry of the first half of the twentieth century, she was very well versed in the literary process. She told me lots of stories that I put down. First, I wrote the book But they look in someone else's window, then Far Chistopol on the Kama River, and then The Node. These books she saw. Our relationship became closer, and at some point she said she needed to finish one important job — to write a book about her husband, about his tragedy, his duality, about how he loved the poetry and how he betrayed it, wrote terrible articles about Pasternak whom he adored. But she failed to do it, she was late. She gave me all the archival preparatory material before, on which I was working for several years in anguish and horror because she was already dead, but it was difficult to feel much love to her husband.

So I was involved in the circle of these topics. I went to the state literary archive. I went to Lydia Lebedinskaya, Leonid Agranovich, Elena Chukovskaya and many other old people. They absolutely frankly told me about their time. It was not only the 1930s and the 1940s, but also the 1950s-70s, I have a lot of material about Tvardovsky and others. But I have no enough strength to write about this so far.

Maria Belkina, correspondent of the Soviet Information Bureau, and Mikhail Matusovsky. Germany, April 1945. Photo: sovsekretno.ru

I started to study it in the early 2000s, that time everybody was interested only in the Silver Age. Wherever I came, they were saying, ''Who needs it — your materials on Soviet life and Soviet writers?'' As it turned out, I had to wait ten years, after it became incredibly popular — both in a positive and in a negative way: one began to try on the Soviet suits, others began to realize that with this all our troubles started.

Lugovskoy was close to me most of all, even in family sense. He was a man who in Tashkent, while in the doldrums, began to write a huge book of poems The Mid-century similar to Akhmatova's The Poem of the Hero and Doctor Zhivago by Pasternak. It started with the poem The 1937 in which he, a person with a Soviet mentality, starts realising the troubles happened to the country. Then he redid this book because he was afraid. But this layer of his life, which came out, amazed me. When I began to study others, I saw how they were broken, how they were transformed from worthy to unworthy. I began to look for a reason, at what stage this happened, and found the answers. I worked with every character separately, though, I can tell you honestly, this is not very academic approach. Some serious literary critics criticized me for that, but I go my way.

Pasternak wrote poems about Stalin by an inner dictate

What is the reason for their breaking? At what stage did this happen?

Probably the best answer to this is in the book The Node. Poets: friendship and splits. Such books are easier to write when you tell about one person and his environment, but here I tried to take a layer of people, which itself is always very difficult. I tried to look at my characters through the prism of time. When you look at the changes that occurred from 1927 to 1937, the transformations of people become clear. This is especially evident through the friendships and human relations… For example, Boris Leonidovich Pasternak, in the mid 1920s a close friend of Nikolay Tikhonov, a Soviet poet, the future laureate of the Stalin prizes, but at that time still young, passionate poet, a student of Gumilev, promising… Another close friend of Tikhonov — Lugovskoy. And through these relations there opens the tragedy. In the 1920s, people freely united in circles, in communities of futurists, oberiuts, constructivists, and so on. These communities were created not so much by professional as by friendly relations. In 1927, the censorship intensified. By 1929, which we call the year of great turning point, everything had changed. At the same time, people were not aware that they were living in terrible historical moment, when they had to sacrifice everything. To them, it seemed that all the hard and tragic remained in the time of the Civil war.

''Pasternak for me is a person who behaves perfectly in his own way. About him they say a lot of things, but he was honest with himself, honest with everything he did. Even when he wrote poems about Stalin, he did it at the inner dictate, which then was painful for him.'' Photo: culture.ru

From the time of great turning point, the government with ''iron fist'' — by dekulakization, mass arrests and executions — began to impose the Stalinist dictatorship. Then all these communities just broke up. The Russian Association of Proletarian Writers (RAPP) contributed to this, having fulfilled its mission for destruction of free societies, soon it was also dispersed.

In 1934, the Union of writers started to built, a managed anthill, where writers and poets in relation to each other occupy a certain position. For example, Pasternak suddenly found himself in the presidium of the Union of writers, he even was tried to be appointed the First Soviet poet. But for him it became a real drama, and he did everything to avoid this role. Nikolay Tikhonov, on the contrary, gained a foothold in the power and remained here. Lugovskoy tried to live out all of this, he did what was necessary, but he eluded the power, feeling intuitively that it was dangerous and detrimental to creativity.

So every day writers, making one or another choice, moving from step to step in the Soviet literary hierarchy, destroyed friendships, and sometimes human relationships. Meetings, curse of companions, distribution of dachas and apartments. Pasternak, and not only him, often admitted that he couldn't write in this atmosphere. In general, this topic implicitly becomes the subject in the diaries, censored literature. Freedom and power, writer and power, the position of an artist, from which leaves the substance of poetry… This is noted by writers and poets, they all understood it perfectly, they started to have less and less opportunity to write.

Pasternak for me is a person who behaves perfectly in his own way. About him they say a lot of things, but he was honest with himself, honest with everything he did. Even when he wrote poems about Stalin, he did it at the inner dictate, which then was painful for him. First he suffers everything together with the country, unlike some people who just adapted. But then when he took a negative attitude about the arrest of Bukharin or the shooting of the marshals (refusing to sign the group letter of writers) in 1937, Pasternak turns into a plagued person — other writers avoided him.

''One of the main writers who understood and said this many times — Mikhail Bulgakov who wrote in The Master and Margarita and his suicide dramatic draft to what the exchange of talent for daily routine and comfort lead.'' Photo: culture.ru

And all this affected what they wrote. One of the main writers who understood and said this many times — Mikhail Bulgakov who wrote in The Master and Margarita and his suicide dramatic draft to what the exchange of talent for daily routine and comfort lead. This drama is not only of literature, it is the general drama. But in literature it is better seen because poets and writers often recorded the state of duality and crisis. And we, oddly enough, despite the destruction of diaries, letters and so on, have some pieces left for wonderful reason. After Stalin's death, many tried to write something. Out of these stories, memories and sensations I was weaving my fabric.

''It seemed that the Soviet ethos was over, but it was enough to press a little button, and everything waked up again''

You have said that this topic has suddenly become interesting in the early 2010's. Why?

I finished my book The Collapse. The fate of Soviet Criticism in 2009. There were a lot of reviews, those people began to invite me who at the time did not pay for other books any attention. You know, the Soviet intelligentsia loved exile, loved the Silver Age, loved the 19th century, they all lived on the juices of what was forbidden, secret. In schools and institutions, they were lived on other thing. Of course, the bookshelves were lined with works of the Soviet writers, which took place from Akhmatova, Mandelstam, Pasternak, and many others, erased from memory. So when the Soviet government collapsed, it was necessary to restore the balance. And those people who formed our intellectual cultural elite seemed totally sincere (in fact, as well as to me) that they were not Soviet, that they escaped from this long time ago, and they somehow just belonged to that wonderful pre-revolutionary culture. But soon with sadness and horror we started to discover that the Soviet ethos does not go away by itself. It is a very hard painful work. First, we should realize what happened. We can't just take and cut it out. I thought that the Soviet ethos did not exist anymore. But then I was faced with the fact that it is in the past and in the present. It was the trauma, drama, and it cannot be avoided.

Then very decent people admitted to me, ''We didn't want to see again this Soviet world. It is not like we didn't like what you write, we didn't want to know about it. But thank you so much, this brought us closer to understanding of ourselves.''

''I fought and fought with a large number of young people who were telling me how great it was to live in the Soviet time. And I realized that there was a kind of duality of the history. The vote ''Stalin — favourite character'' is one of the examples.'' Photo: anews.com

There appeared a request for reflection on the past. But then it went somewhere the wrong way. Suddenly the Soviet Imperial syndrome revived, and so on.

Awful. It seemed that the Soviet was over, but it was enough just to press a little button, and everything awaked again. Then there was something that made me perplexed. People sympathetic to the USSR and Stalin, directly speaking, such as Zakhar Prilepin, really liked my books, they found in them their positive, although I wrote the drama, the tragedy. When Prilepin began to write about Lugovskoy and asked me for some help, I bluntly replied him, ''Lugovskoy was a victim, and he knew it, and he died because that was terrified of a return of Stalinism. Khrushchev in the late 50's, after the Hungarian events, attacked intellectuals, and Lugovskoy on this ground had a third heart attack, he was afraid that the old times would return again.''

I fought and fought with a large number of young people who were telling me how great it was to live in the Soviet time. And I realized that there was a kind of duality of the history. The vote ''Stalin — favourite character'' is one of the examples. I don't know where it will lead. I continue my hard work of reflection, endless work on this topic. For me, I have definite priorities. In the books I try never to put labels on people, I understand what these people were bound, I don't judge. They lived in the terrible Soviet history for the first time, and they didn't know how and what was happening. But I condemn those people who have already read Shalamov's and Solzhenitsyn's texts, they have no right to distort the truth. I'm talking primarily about the intelligentsia. I'm not talking about our miserable, mad people who rarely come to mind.

''Russia is a country-teenager''

What is it – Soviet ethos – in what we suddenly found ourselves? Why does it still attract us and affect us?

The first point. Soviet history at the beginning was a powerfully energy-charged. People who refer to it don't know what it is. They appeal to some Soviet myth. And you've got to understand what attracts them: doctoral sausage for 2,20 rubles or the space, or they like the poems and ideological films, which makes things clear as a bell? Each case should be dealt separately. But generally speaking, we must admit that the idea of building a new society and the creation of the new man was a very powerful idea that captured Romain Rolland, Bernard Shaw and all those people who came to the USSR and sincerely perceived everything. No one ever made such experiment over society, it was the first time. The left idea in the twentieth century was extremely popular. And it still continues to emit a powerful glow. What is more, it is strange to me to see its influence not here but when I come into a prosperous Western country and see a kind of ''leftism''… Especially in France, there are Trotskyists, and Marxists, it is extremely popular, they have fathers and mothers no one killed, not imprisoned, so they can have fun.

''One should understand what attracts them: doctoral sausage for 2,20 rubles or space, or they like the poems and ideological films, which makes things clear as a bell?'' Photo: sputniknews.com

Second, there is a disease that is very long treated. It's called the Imperial syndrome. It is overlayed on the Soviet Union, which managed to restart the Russian Empire. This thing is very painful because from England to Spain the idea of Empire continues to haunt the hearts. It feels good to be part of something big, to lean on something great, without thinking about the consequences. About it people do not want to think.

Besides, people in Russia still have an eternal desire not to work everyday, not to love their home, the place where they live, but the desire to jump from today to some suddenly appeared well-being. Or to give their lives for a great idea. Not to feed children but save humanity. Not to clean the dirt around their house but to ''give the land in Grenada to peasants''. This is a general character of the Russian soul. Russian cosmism is based on this, the whole Mayakovsky is built on this. This reluctance of this stupid as they think Protestant work where you are responsible for their work, where there is law, where there is order. No, we do not want it. I know this because I am Russian myself by nature. I know this chaotic beginning in myself. This desire to abandon everything, to quit and live the dream. Unfortunately, it is a sort of thing, which disappears with great difficulty.

To be continued

By Natalia Fedorova