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Kritika: Explorations in Russian and Eurasian History 7.3 (2006) 557-597

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"I Have Not Read, but I Will Say"

Soviet Literary Audiences and Changing Ideas of Social Membership, 1958–66

Institute of Slavic, East European, and Eurasian Studies
University of California, Berkeley
260 Stephens Hall, no. 2304
Berkeley, CA 94720-3230 USA

On 23 October 1958, the Swedish Academy awarded Boris Pasternak the Nobel Prize in Literature. The news provoked a furious response from the Central Committee, even though the authorities in Moscow had long expected this outcome.1 Despite the general formulation of the Nobel Committee, "important achievement both in contemporary lyrical poetry and in the field of the great Russian epic tradition,"2 Soviet officials mainly associated the award with Pasternak's Doctor Zhivago, and it was against the novel that the brunt of the attack was directed. This reaction had as much to do with the unsanctioned publication and acclaim of the book in the West as with the novel's content. Written in 1946–55, Doctor Zhivago was the first major ethical, historical, and philosophical reassessment of the Revolution and the Civil War to come from within Russia. The novel traced the origins of many evils that plagued the country in the 20th century to the bloodshed of the Revolution, thus questioning the foundations of society, which even the 20th Party Congress did not attempt to disturb. [End Page 557]

A campaign of media denunciation, backstage pressure, and blackmail forced Pasternak, despite his dignified resistance, to reject the prize on 29 October. On 27 October, a joint meeting of the three highest administrative bodies in the country's literary establishment had expelled him from the Union of Soviet Writers.3 Pasternak may have narrowly escaped expatriation, and on 14 March 1959 Procurator-General of the USSR Roman Rudenko interrogated him, threatening criminal prosecution.4 Up until his death on 30 May 1960, Pasternak remained persona non grata to the official establishment—a rejection at once provoked and checked by the massive support he received abroad, including a flood of letters from his Western sympathizers.5

In the scope and intensity of literary and political debate it generated, the 1958–59 crusade against Pasternak had a close analogy that did not escape subsequent observers—the 1966 prosecution of the writers Andrei Siniavskii and Iulii Daniel´. Not only were the two campaigns similarly forceful, but also their resonance at home and abroad originated in similar circumstances. Unlike these two writers, Pasternak did not end up in the dock, but he came close to it—unsanctioned publishing in the West led him, as it would later lead Siniavskii and Daniel´, to face charges of anti-Soviet activities verging on treason.6

This article discusses and seeks to compare how Soviet readers of the contemporary press reacted to the Pasternak and the Siniavskii–Daniel´ affairs. Looking at the language and ideas of readers' letters to journal and newspaper editors and to party, Komsomol, and government institutions, I [End Page 558] note some differences between the reactions of 1958 and 1966, as well as the intellectual changes that those differences may suggest.

Few if any of the letter-writers had read either Doctor Zhivago or the pieces by Siniavskii and Daniel´. Responding, technically, not to these literary texts but to their newspaper renditions, and often merely to journalistic portrayals of the accused authors, letters about both affairs were best described by the contemporary Soviet cliché ne chital, no skazhu—"I have not read, but I will say." Arguably, such responses are informative and useful for a historian. They reveal, perhaps better than others, the meanings that letter-writers were anxious to invest in any text, even if unread or read in part, and suggest the origins of these meanings—questions of politics, history, and biography that troubled the letter-writer. The "I have not read, but I will say" responses also show how those questions shaped...


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