- Cultural Mythologies of the Silver Age
In terms of culture, the perestroika years were marked by a jubilant rediscovery of late 19th- and early 20th-century Russian culture, the period that has come to be known—perhaps erroneously—as the "Silver Age."1 With each new publication, Russian readers marveled at the brilliance of poets and novelists whose work had been hidden from them, who had been forced into silence by emigration or persecution. Editions of Osip Mandel´shtam, Nikolai Gumilev, and Boris Pasternak simply could not be printed quickly enough or in sufficient print runs. On the day it was supposed to appear in stores, the first substantial edition of Vladimir Solov´ev's philosophy sold briskly on the black market for ten times its cover price. Such enthusiasm even carried over [End Page 313] to the normally prosaic United States, where a two-volume bilingual edition of Anna Akhmatova's complete poetry became a surprise bestseller.
Now mired in the Putin era, it is difficult to imagine how "high culture" could ever have created such excitement. Postcommunist Russia has proved to have the same priorities as the once reviled West. The very poets whose works were published (and sold!) in 40,000 copies are no longer even reprinted. Except for a small group of dedicated scholars and poets, no one seems to remember anything they wrote. True, their works now occupy a privileged place in the school curriculum, but that, as Pasternak said of Vladimir Maiakovskii's canonization under Stalin, represents their "second death." The idea that people would read serious poetry as a source of pleasure (or risk their lives to preserve it) is at this point as foreign to most Russians as it is to Americans.2
How did we get from there to here? This is the subject of Galina Rylkova's book, and an interesting subject it is. As her title implies, Rylkova's interest in the "Silver Age" is less aesthetic than archeological. Indeed, "anthropological" might be the most relevant term, since she focuses on the cultural mechanisms that decide what is meaningful in a given society. In her view, the natural development of any culture is along the lines of Harold Bloom's "anxiety of influence" or formalist conceptions of literary evolution. That is to say: great writers come to terms with the achievements of their predecessors by swerving away from them or attacking them directly. According to Rylkova, the Soviet Union distorted this norm by officially mandating aggression toward the previous generation. As the giants of prerevolutionary culture emigrated or died, the Soviet establishment conspired to see that their accomplishments disappeared with them. Even those who survived were marginalized to the point that—as far as the public was concerned—they ceased to exist while alive. (Roman Timenchik  cites a poem by an East German writer who visited the USSR in 1955, which consists only of a long list of contemporary Russian poets interrupted by the refrain "Und lebt die Achmatowa noch?" [And is Akhmatova still alive?]). The distinctiveness of the Soviet period, Rylkova contends, is that a process of forgetting and rediscovery that normally takes generations or centuries occurred in the space of two decades.
Such circumstances created an unusual cultural dynamic. Intellectual outsiders (whether marginalized participants or "dissidents") sought their models in those very writers whose works were accorded official oblivion (or [End Page 314] censure). The survivors of persecution may have suffered official neglect or worse (stiff prison sentences, execution), yet they received a degree of unofficial adulation rarely accorded to any cultural figure. The works of the most unfortunate—those who had perished—came to be regarded ipso facto as a source of inexhaustible wisdom and depth, as the last testament of...