Can Europe Make It?

Living in truth

A conversation with the Lithuanian writer about being a young artist and activist exiled by the Soviet Authorities during the Cold War, together with more recent challenges from Putin’s Russia.

Tomas Venclova Jens-Martin Eriksen
27 November 2018
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Josef Brodsky, teaching at the University of Michigan, 1972-3. Wikicommons/Michiganensian yearbook. Some rights reserved.

Jens-Martin Eriksen (J-M.E.): As a student in the late 1970's, I worked in solidarity with Polish students and intellectuals who were building a parallel educational network to counter communist propaganda. It was a unique political education for me to meet these people and read the literature of Eastern European intellectuals. I remember a catchphrase from that period: 'Living in Truth'.  Can you tell me something about living in a system where there is no realistic hope for the end of it? Western politicians at that time, across the political spectrum, would have told you to stop dreaming dreams about liberating the people of Eastern Europe.

Tomas Venclova (TV): The catchphrase you mention – “zhit’ ne po lzhi” – was coined by Alexander Solzhenitsyn in 1974, just before his exile to the West. It might be translated as “living in truth” – or, more precisely, as “living not by lies.” At that time, such way of life was already a significant social phenomenon, crying out to be summarized in such a formula.

At the start, communism as a social experiment might have looked promising after all the woes of untamed capitalism and especially after World War I. Indeed, it was welcomed as a meaningful alternative to bourgeois capitalist society by many eastern – and western – intellectuals. Still, in the 1930s it became obvious that the experiment had failed. I will not dwell on the causes of the failure which were numerous and complicated. But the failure could not be admitted since that would be mortally dangerous for the leaders (to be precise, to the Leader). Instead, this was covered up by a web of blatant lies – and those who did not lie faced ostracism at the very least (a much more common result being imprisonment, death, or both).

In time, imprisonment and death (but not ostracism) became less common, if only for the reason that the new ruling class longed for a safe life – and repression, when it starts, has a tendency to become all-embracing. The society I was brought up in was logocentric: which means to say that virtually nobody believed in communist dogma, but one was expected to repeat its mantras ad nauseam just to secure a relatively adequate life for him- or herself (and, of course, for one’s family). Virtually everybody accepted this as the “rules of the game” which simply could not be circumvented. Many thought the rules were not so harmful, after all. Still, these rules prolonged a miserable state of affairs indefinitely.

My friends used to say that there were 250 million political prisoners in the Soviet Union, including the leaders themselves – and 250 million dissidents, since nobody was happy with the status quo (once more, including the leaders themselves). The only way to break the web was by non-participation. At least, this made a small hole in the web, and the hole had some potential to grow. In the words of one dissident, it deprived the authorities of 1/250,000,000 part of their power. And power which is non-total soon starts to teeter.

Such things happened even in Stalin’s times (Boris Pasternak did not join the chorus demanding execution of the “enemies of the people,” though very many writers, including some of the best ones, did join). After Stalin, it became a pattern of behaviour for more than one person. It was even more pronounced in satellite countries where the ostracism was less severe.

I was a “truly believing” member of Komsomol until 1956 (rather rare in Lithuania where people joined Komsomol and the party just for career reasons). In the course of one day – November 4, 1956 – when the Hungarian uprising was crushed, I understood that the system was wrong, inhuman and merited its overthrow (the crushing of the Prague Spring in 1968 made a lesser impression on me since I was already mentally prepared for it).

I obviously could not destroy the system single-handed but I could non-participate in its wrongdoings. For a philologist, this meant for example, a translator’s job (one could survive by translating Stendhal or Hans Christian Andersen who were not expressly banned, even if Borges and Kierkegaard were). For an actor, it meant not accepting theatrical roles promoting untruth (Hamlet is OK, someone announcing that “Breakfast is ready!” is OK, but playing a heroic member of the party nomenklatura is not). And so on. Publishing one’s own writings – or, say, teaching – was a little more precarious since one could easily become involved in lies gradually, almost imperceptibly. But in the later stages of the Soviet system it was also not totally impossible, though it required permanent vigilance and a readiness to take risks. For a worker or a peasant, “living in truth” was even easier – one just had to avoid voting for official candidates, participating in political meetings, etc. It made a person suspect and ruled out any type of official career – but, to quote Solzhenitsyn, it did not prevent “brown bread and clean water from being available to your family.”

I knew many persons who followed these simple precepts. Of course that was the first, necessary but not sufficient stage in the building of an alternative society.

Jens-Martin Eriksen (J-M.E.): I understand how legal ‘ostracism’ can create a social and existential abyss for intellectuals and writer, a ‘social death’ or professional exclusion that sometimes extended to expulsion from informal circles of people. In nearby Poland, the Catholic Church stood as a bulwark and unofficial representative for the Polish Nation and some intellectuals, thanks to a parallel education system that shared literary and historical issues of interest. Was this essential and spiritual survival possible in the much more severe Soviet Union and a colonised Lithuania, where repression was of paramount impact?

Tomas Venclova (TV): Of course in Poland (though not in Romania, Bulgaria and post-1968 Czechoslovakia) the situation was better than that in the Soviet Union. Still, Soviet republics also differed in that regard. After Stalin’s death, Baltic countries were hardly the worst nook of the country. Repression was markedly more pronounced in Ukraine, since Ukrainian separatism (not without reason) was considered the most dangerous for the survival of the empire. Everyday life was definitely more cheerful in Georgia and Armenia than in Russia, and cultural mores were also freer there: one could, at least sometimes, publish texts in Tbilisi or Erevan which would not pass the censor in Moscow. Baltic countries were thought to be the “most westernized” and therefore liberal part of the USSR. Lithuania, for example, had links with Poland and with the Lithuanian diaspora, which were controlled yet not totally devoid of meaning. And so on. Incidentally, the situation in Leningrad was much more constrained than in Moscow (or in the Baltic countries, for that matter). Joseph Brodsky was sentenced to five years’ internal exile by a Leningrad court, which might not necessarily have occurred in Moscow, Tallinn or Vilnius.

Therefore, ostracism in the last stages of the Soviet regime did not always (and not everywhere) amount to ‘social death’. My own personal experience may serve as an example. Because of my dissident views, which I rarely tried to conceal, I could not join the Writers’ Union. My application was rejected twice, though I was quite active (and rather successful) as a translator. A well-known Lithuanian Soviet writer said reportedly: “This person falls short of the requirements of Paragraph One of our Union’s statute” (that is, does not contribute to the communist goals). Someone retorted: “He is just a translator.” “Well, as a translator he falls short of these requirements as well.” (It was true since I translated Akhmatova, T. S. Eliot, W. H. Auden, etc., but not Louis Aragon and not Maxim Gorky). All that put me in a precarious position, since everybody in the USSR had to have a “socially useful” job. Brodsky had been proclaimed to be a “parasite” and brought to trial just because he survived as a translator and did not belong to the Writers’ Union.

Well, I found a minor position in a provincial theatre, one not at variance with my convictions. In Leningrad or Ukraine it might have ended much worse. I did not lose my friends (at least the friends closest to me), or the means of a modest survival. It goes without saying that any significant career was closed to me, and trips abroad (even to Poland) were excluded. But I could manage without this. Some writers and thinkers in the USSR worked as library clerks, night guards, stokers, and so on (but still had a readership in the so-called samizdat).  Therefore my fate was by no means the worst one. There were also certain informal networks of mutual help (which I didn’t need), maintained, among others, by the Catholic Church. The Church in Lithuania was not as powerful as in Poland, yet its influence was not negligible. The Church in Lithuania was not as powerful as in Poland, yet its influence was not negligible.

Jens-Martin Eriksen (J-M.E.): Let’s move some decades ahead and take a look at the state of freedom of expression in Russia now. We witness in Putin’s regime the political murders of journalists, assassinations of political opponents in broad daylight, harrassment of LGBT people and other cultural minorities by thugs – but every involvement is denied by the authorities. This unofficial policy of repression may be much more poisonous and dangerous than that of the Soviet Union? Reading Putin’s spin doctors – Vladislav Surkov and Alexander Dugin – you get the impression of an arcane politics that is an integral part of a ‘managed democracy’? How do you evaluate this state of affairs?

Tomas Venclova (TV): Victor Shenderovich, a brilliant Russian journalist active in the oppositionist milieu, once said: “Life in today’s Russia is very interesting and amusing, as long as they do not assassinate you.”  

In many respects, the present Russian authorities are more brazen than their Soviet predecessors. They deny unblinkingly their misdeeds which are obvious enough (vide the murder of Boris Nemcov, the downing of the Malaysian plane, the poisoning of Skripal family, etc., to say nothing about the annexation of Crimea which is pictured as “the free expression of the population’s will”). For internal use, they promote the idea that every country and every politician is immersed in lying and disinformation as a cover-up to egoistic interests. Therefore Russia is not an exception, just more successful in the game than anybody else (well, Krieg ist Krieg). Probably Putin believes sincerely in that image of world affairs.

On the other hand, Putin is more flexible (and cleverer) than Brezhnev or Andropov, since he allows a modicum of opposition which serves him as a safety valve. The above-mentioned Shenderovich, as well as many others, move in and out of Russia unrestrictedly and express their strong opinions to the press and on the internet (with some hindrance, but still relatively freely). In Soviet times, he would have been imprisoned without inappropriate delay. Therefore, when seven persons in 1968 demonstrated against the invasion of Czechoslovakia in Red Square, it was an immense challenge to the authorities and changed the entire atmosphere in the country (notwithstanding the fact – and probably because of it – that the seven were severely punished). Now, several thousand may demonstrate (some of them are punished, not necessarily severely), and that changes nothing. The situation might indeed be considered more hopeless than in 1968.

Why is Putin successful? I believe there are several causes for this. First, he opts for nationalism. In this respect, Russia is undergoing a sort of “Weimar syndrome.” It lost the Cold War, satellites and a large part of its territory and population without losing a battle, just as Germany did in 1918.

Such situations are conducive to revanchist moods which Putin fosters adroitly. Incidentally, he is far from alone: populism and nationalism are on the rise in eastern (and not only eastern) Europe and America, though for different reasons. Secondly, thanks to the conditions in the oil and gas market, he was able, at least for some time, to increase the well-being of his subjects.

Even though Russia is still poor and full of blatant social inequality, a large part of its people never had it so good before. Therefore, they do not see much reason to protest. Thirdly, there is a sustained effort of brainwashing in the official media (done in more cunning and professional ways than Soviet propaganda which was boring and inept). All that may change (and will probably change), but hardly during Putin’s tenure.  At present, it amounts to a great danger.

I like to say that I’m a historical optimist. That means: “All will end well, but I’ll not be around to see it.”  Once in my lifetime, in 1990-1991, I saw my wildest dreams coming true. A friend of mine put it this way: “I used to pray: Lord, prolong my life and let me see free Lithuania. The Lord, in his infinite wisdom, did something more sensible. He did not prolong my life, but He increased the tempo of history.” Let’s hope it may happen once again, even if now the course of history does not look very promising.

Jens-Martin Eriksen (J-M.E.): Did extra-judicial killings also take place during the Brezhnev and Andropov periods? Or did the special Soviet laws against "defamation of The Soviet Union" take care of the opposition, using imprisonment, fake psyciatric diagnosis and enforced medical treatment as in e.g. The Serbskij institute?  

Tomas Venclova (TV): Extra-judicial killings were practiced by the Soviets in Stalin’s era. The most notorious case of course was Leo Trotsky, but one can mention many other examples, e. g. Ignatii Reiss (Sergei Efron, the husband of the great female poet Marina Tsvetaeva, was involved in his murder), or Yevhen Konovalets, a Ukrainian nationalist leader. Such killings were rarely if ever practiced inside the country, since care could be taken of the ”enemies of the people” in a simpler way.

During the Brezhnev and Andropov periods, as far as I know, only defectors who had earlier served in the KGB could be executed outside the USSR (there was – and perhaps still is – an unpublished law condemning such persons to death). Oppositionists were put in prison or in a psychiatric hospital (or exiled to the west, where they were generally safe). Nemtsov’s assasination is something new, since he was neither an employee of the KGB nor a defector but just a famous oppositionist.

The case of Sergei Skripal is also a new development, since he was not a defector but a person exchanged in a spy swap (such persons had previously been left alone by the KGB).

Jens-Martin Eriksen (J-M.E.): What about the laws that targeted “anti-social behavior”, designed to criminalize non-conformism in art and social life? And can you say more about the procedures for indictment and prosecution when it came to criminalizing explicit political criticism of the Soviet system?

Tomas Venclova (TV): To be precise, you are most likely referring to a directive of the Supreme Soviet promulgated in 1961 and applied to so-called “social parasites,” that is, people who attempted to make their living outside of the state employment system. Many of these were anti-conformist artists trying “to live in truth.” The directive was accompanied by a powerful propaganda campaign stigmatizing such people as criminals (or hooligans, at best). They could be sentenced, but not necessarily by the court. A “workers’ collective” could forbid them to live in a city and send them into exile, with an explicit order to take menial jobs. That happened to 37, 000 Soviet citizens (Brodsky’s case was just the most notorious one). After 1965, exile was no longer the chosen tool, but a mandatory menial job in one’s home town was still the rule. Of course explicit criticism of the Soviet system was considered a heinous crime and punished according to paragraph 58 of the Criminal Code (“the creation and distribution of knowingly false information about Soviet economics and politics,” or something like that). Any information without a positive hue, such as “our freedom is limited,” was classified as “knowingly false” automatically, since everybody was supposed to know, from the cradle to the grave, that it was unlimited.

Today, such laws and directives are no more in official use, even if Putin (or, say, Lukashenko in Belarus) attempt to apply them in roundabout ways. One may, for example, state that such and such anti-conformist behavior offends the sensibilities of religious believers, which is punishable (take the case of “Pussy Riot”). In short, there has been more than enough persecution of people on spurious grounds, denounced and confronted with varying degree of success by human rights organizations.

Jens-Martin Eriksen (J-M.E.): During the Cold War there was a popular trope that portrayed the Soviet system or Soviet type of socialism as ’in competition’ with capitalism and liberal democracy. Yet almost nobody supported the Soviet system in the west, at least outside France and Italy. There was an opposition in the west to some of the policies throughout Europe that were an effect of the geopolitical conflict with the Soviet Union, particularly US support for undemocratic and repressive regimes because they were anti-communist ( e.g. South Vietnam, Chile, Portugal, South Africa).

But today we have a right wing movement – or populist movement – supporting Putin’s nationalism against the West. This nationalist policy has its most prominent and aggressive expression in the annexation of a part of Ukraine, and Russian interference in the US elections. Another possible act of interference was in the Brexit referendum. More generally, a widespread campaign against the EU takes the form of  fake news operations on a daily basis. Maybe the trope about a real competion between Russia and the West has finally come true today, with the support to Russia from a new right wing in Europe? How dangerous is this? How might this play out?

Tomas Venclova (TV): Yes, Putin’s nationalism has its counterparts in right-wing movements elsewhere. Yet there is some ambivalence involved, since, for example, right-wing populism in Poland is anti-Russian (as well as anti-German), and therefore can hardly take Putin’s side – it would go against the grain of a very old and powerful tradition.

It is the same situation in the Baltic states and, perhaps even more so, in Ukraine. On the other hand, I have heard opinions in Lithuania such as, ”Of course Russia is our former occupier and mortal enemy, but one must concede the Russians are right in their rejection of western pseudo-values, such as religious scepticism, genderism, anti-patriotism, acceptance of migrants, and so on.” Jaroslaw Kaczynski, notwithstanding his anti-Russian rhetoric, is creating a system quite similar to Putin’s system. The anti-Russian stance is much less pronounced in, say, Orban’s Hungary or Erdogan’s Turkey, to say nothing  about the western right-wingers. There is a very simple rule – if a country is far away from Russia, it has experienced less clashes with it and therefore feels less historical enmity to it (or no enmity at all).

It is only natural that Putin attempts to utilize nationalist, xenophobic and isolationist movements in Europe and America. You are correct in saying that now we see a genuine competition between traditional western democracy and ”managed” or ”sovereign” democracy in Putin’s style (according to Austrian social democrat, Bruno Pitterman, the difference between them amounts to that ”between a jacket and a straitjacket”). 

And it is more onerous than the clash of the West and the former USSR, just for the reason that it is genuine. All ”euroscepticism” (Brexit and so on) plays into Putin’s hands, in the final calculation. It is a classic example of divide et impera. Putin’s ideologues such as Alexander Dugin speak quite openly about inciting Polish-Lithuanian or Polish-Ukrainian hatred, and they are rather successful in that respect (hence the settling of old scores concerning the Wolyn massacres, etc.).  Nationalists of the world cannot unite by definition, therefore they cannot unite around Putin either. But they may generate a lot of bad things in the meantime.

Jens-Martin Eriksen (J-M.E.): If from the mid-seventies, the last fifteen years of the Soviet Union, there was no real competition with the west, this was partly due to major works of literature from western writers such as Arthur Koestler onwards, writers such as Albert Camus, and George; and from the east, Czeslaw Milosz, ’The Captive Mind’(1953) and Solzhenitsyn’s ’One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich’ in 1962 (English version 1963) enjoyed a similar paramount impact or maybe even greater.

But another discourse also contributed to disillusion with the Soviet system – the CIA operation behind the Congress for Cultural Freedom which gave financial support to magazines, parties, publishers etc. This was aimed at western intellectuals and sympathizers of the Soviet system among the non-communist leftwing, its purpose to convince them of the reality of the Soviet totalitarianism. In other words; the west has a store of experience from the Cold War it could use in the battle to challenge the Russian power-elites’ aggression against liberal democracy. How best do you think we can defend ourselves and the Open Society today?

Tomas Venclova (TV): Until 1968, when ‘The Prague Spring’ was crushed, quite a few people in the USSR and its satellites believed that “Communism with a human face” was not only desirable, but possible and, in the final account, imminent.

I believe it was also the case of many intellectuals in the west. In my native Lithuania, the political climate was primarily nationalistic (the local Communist party flirted with nationalism, partly out of genuine anti-Russian sentiment, partly according to the well-known rule that “patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel”). In Russia, many persons joined the Communist party who were attempting to work for its liberalization from within. In Lithuania, their main goal was to replace the Russian cadres. It was commonly believed that ”Communism with a Lithuanian face” would be more satisfactory by definition.

The same attitude prevailed in Latvia, Estonia, Ukraine or Georgia. For me (who had changed his views not in 1968 but in 1956) all that amounted to one great illusion. I subscribed to the dictum of my friend, Soviet dissident Alexander Ginzburg: ”Communism with a human face is as inconceivable as a crocodile with a human face.” And Communism with a nationalist tinge, in my opinion, could quite easily degenerate into fascism.

The books you have mentioned were strictly banned in the USSR and, perhaps a bit less strictly, in its satellite countries. Still, they managed to reach our native lands, though not without some difficulty. I read Orwell in the English original, and Koestler in Russian emigré translation. Orwell horrified me, but I could not deny that its analysis of the system (at least in its Stalinist period which, unfortunately, could repeat itself) was more than exact. As for Camus, I was most impressed by ”The Plague,” which taught me that resistance make sense even when it seems to be – and perhaps is – absurd (”The Plague,” as an exception, was officially published in Poland). Milosz’s ”The Captive Mind”  explained a great deal to me about my father’s generation of leftist intellectuals who took the Communist side. There were also books written in the USSR – not only Solzhenitsyn but Pasternak’s ”Doctor Zhivago” as well.

The fact that the CIA financially supported the Congress for Cultural Freedom and similar venues (not necessarily with knowledge of all of their participants) was rather distasteful from the point of view of pure ethics. But I would say that in this particular case Americans performed a job which was in the final account beneficial for humankind. In this particular case Americans performed a job which was in the final account beneficial for humankind.

Today, it is not a Soviet-style totalitarianism but rather an old-fashioned nationalism, populism and xenophobia that are the main dangers (even if totalitarianism always lurks around the corner). The books we have discussed have done their job but I still consider them required reading for anyone interested in politics and morals. I would add to them ”Brave New World” by Aldous Huxley which sometimes looks to me even more prophetic than ”1984” (we probably escaped the communist temptation, but did not escape the temptation of a society controlled by consumerism, primitive cultural fads and populist emotions).

New books are and will undoubtedly be written which will concentrate on the rights of everybody to seek and promote truth and human values in the world of fake or senseless news, egoistic instincts and false loyalties. The open society remains our goal and our only hope. I believe it will prevail, because it is the best-working form of society ever invented. But it demands a constant – one might say, Sisyphean – effort. It requires a lot of work which will be never finished. In particular, one must do one’s best to defend victimized persons or groups, of which there are far too numerous examples nowadays.

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