- Zhivago’s Children: The Last Russian Intelligentsia
Vladislav Zubok’s new book is an impressive account of Soviet cultural politics from the death of Iosif Stalin in 1953 to the demise of the Soviet Union in 1991. Zubok, who was born in Moscow in the mid-1950s, grew up witnessing most of the events he describes here. His book helps the reader sense how small the psychic space was between the Soviet rulers and the intellectuals they sought to control. At the same time, his reverence for the Russian intelligentsia and the tradition these intellectuals embodied leads him both to romanticize them and to judge them too harshly.
The “Zhivago’s Children” of his title were born in the 1930s and 1940s. After World War II, they entered universities, where they encountered war veterans born in the 1920s and formed what Zubok calls an “extended historical generation” (p. 21). They were fervent believers in the Bolshevik Revolution, proud of their country’s victory in World War II, and filled with hope for the future. They shared in Boris Pasternak’s struggle for intellectual and artistic emancipation, a struggle embodied by the hero of his novel, Doctor Zhivago, and they viewed themselves as descendants of the cultural and moral tradition Pasternak represented.
Stalin’s death and Nikita Khrushchev’s “secret speech” in 1956 shattered the faith of this generation (a generation known as the shestidesyatniki) by revealing some of Stalin’s crimes and his betrayal of the supposed ideals of the Bolshevik Revolution. All over Moscow, all over the country, students, intellectuals, and others engaged in painful discussions of the revelations and demanded greater freedom to examine how these crimes had come about. Like the poet Evgenii Evtushenko, and like Khrushchev himself, most of the Zhivago generation dealt with their vexation by remaining loyal to the revolution and hoping to restore Soviet Communism to what they saw as its early ideals.
Faced with a torrent of public questioning, the regime at first seemed in doubt about what to do. Then, in October 1956, protests in Budapest by students and intellectuals helped to spark an uprising. The Soviet government fell back on its old reflexes and sent in troops to put down the Hungarian revolution. In Moscow, too, intellectuals quickly felt the effects. Confronted by evidence that intellectual ferment could “spark a conflagration,” Khrushchev and the Committee on State Security (KGB) cracked down (p. 80). Students were expelled from universities and arrested, [End Page 118] the literary almanac Literaturnaya Moskva was closed, and the editors of other journals were fired or forced to recant.
After a while the crackdown abated, and for a few years the latitude afforded to Soviet writers and visual artists expanded or shrank according to Khrushchev’s fortunes and those of his de-Stalinization campaign. The high point came in 1962, just after Khrushchev approved publication of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich. On 20 October of that year, Zubok tells us, Khrushchev received Aleksandr Tvardovskii, editor of Novyi mir, the journal that published the novella, and during their discussion agreed to a request by Tvardovskii that he abolish literary censorship altogether.
Once again, however, disaster struck the cause of liberalization. Halfway around the world, Khrushchev was caught secretly deploying missiles in Cuba and suffered a defeat that later contributed to his downfall. In anger and humiliation, Khrushchev again turned on the Moscow intellectuals who had been allied with him during his bouts of de-Stalinization. He scolded them on three terrifying occasions. At the Manezh on 1 December he singled out the abstract artists, Zubok tells us, “like an aged, ill-tempered peasant father trying to discipline his sophisticated, urbanite children” (p. 210). The artists lost their jobs, and their paintings disappeared.
The second occasion was at a meeting of 400 people on Lenin Hills on 17 December, when Ernst Neizvestnyi was the target. Khrushchev ordered the KGB to find out where the sculptor had “found copper for this trash” (p. 212). If the metal turned out...