- The Readers of Novyi Mir: Coming to Terms with the Stalinist Past by Denis Kozlov
Studying what people thought and felt inside the Soviet Union remains a challenge for historians. For a long time, opinions of courageous dissidents figured as the only “genuine voices” piercing the blanket of ideological language that covered Soviet society. Today, this society appears to have been more fragmented and complicated than anybody in the West imagined at the time. Sociological studies of mass public consciousness in the USSR during the 1960s gave the first glimpse of this complexity. The façade of conformism concealed sharp differences of opinions and attitudes, stemming from highly diverse experiences. From the time Soviet citizens learned to read, they disagreed passionately with one another. This important book by Denis Kozlov demonstrates that the same also happened when readers in post-Stalin Russia learned how to express their diversity through literature and language.
The language of justice, democracy, and legality, along with state violence and traumatic memory, is the most important theme of Kozlov’s book. His main source consists of more than 500 letters, some very long, in which the readers of Novyi mir [End Page 281] reflected on the novels and essays published in that journal from 1953 to 1968. Long before the age of social network media, this was the closest Soviet citizens came to having a social forum, where people learned again, after the long period of silence, to articulate their opinions independently. Kozlov approaches the role of speech and language not as a “cultural turn” author but as an archival historian, cultural anthropologist, and humanist. He is aware of a panoply of methodologies; but in his view the letters are above all autobiographical documents, reflections of a naïve time when Soviet subjects firmly believed in the transformative magic of the written word. The most remarkable finding of the book is the existence of Novyi mir’s readership in a society that had just begun to emerge from the period of mass violent terror. Kozlov says he “was often amazed at how unafraid” (p. 14) the letter-writers were to speak their mind.
Kozlov explores the process of the “unmaking of Soviet subjectivity” through the dialogues between writers and readers. This process of “unmaking,” according to his research, took around fifteen years, or half the time it took the Soviet regime to create mass subjectivity of a new totalitarian type. The book discusses stages of “unmaking”: the first is the readers’ discussion of an essay “On Sincerity in Literature” by Vladimir Pomerantsev at the end of 1953. At that time, most letter-writers operated within a set of crystal-clear binaries: Truth versus Lie, Authenticity versus Varnishing, Progress versus Reaction, and so on. These binaries were the pillars propping up the temple of Soviet mythology, unified by an official ideology and official discourse. The last phase, analyzed in the book, came in 1968, when Novyi mir was already falling victim to state censorship. Readers had begun to question Soviet mythology and embrace diverse beliefs, from Orthodox Christianity to Western liberalism. Novyi mir, Kozlov explains, became a key incubator of this diversity, of different “autonomous languages of self-expression” (p. 132). This breakthrough happened, to a large degree, because of the leadership of Russian poet Aleksandr Tvardovskii, a conflicted personality with his own painful trajectory of “unmaking” the Soviet self.
Many scholars have written about those who produced Soviet culture, but Kozlov is the first to chronicle the experiences of those who were on the receiving end. Novyi mir’s readers in the 1960s numbered several millions. Is the databank of several hundred letters, selected by Tvardovsii, a sufficient base on which to map out the reactions of these millions? Perhaps not, but Kozlov’s book demonstrates what a skillful cultural historian can extract from the evidence. He is particularly interested in “the victims and perpetrators of state violence” (p. 13) who wrote to the journal. Students of the Cold War and Soviet history will learn much from chapters 6 and...