© RIA Novosti. RIA Novosti
by Mark H. Teeter at 03/06/2010 13:04 Moscow Times
Andrei Voznesenky was a revelation to American students of Russian literature in the 1960s: suddenly here was a cross between the vibrant Mayakovsky and the classic Pasternak, a bright new light among a rising generation of Soviet writers that was pushing the Thaw of the 1950s to new limits – and feeling the consequences.
We watched Voznesensky and the other “60s people” with piqued interest and bated breath. The sparring between the state and its artists over that decade was sometimes invigorating but more often painful: the former could not accommodate independent art, so the latter had to be intimidated – by ear-boxing, arrest, imprisonment and exile. One side raged, the other coped.
The coping fell to Andrei Voznesensky one evening in 1963, in a state-meets-artist confrontation like no other before it or since. In a remarkable demonstration of grace under pressure, Voznesensky showed everyone how a single, targeted individual, alone and vulnerable before a hostile crowd, could fend off about the worst that fate could throw at a man who lived by culture: a national leader, as unpredictable as he was emphatic, directing a furious and malevolent stream of anti-culture directly at him. Yet the poet still found it in himself to… read his poetry.
Recall the larger context. Soviet power had a regrettable habit of accosting Soviet poets over being not Soviet enough. Stalin was sceptical of the good will of Pasternak, Mandelstam, Akhmatova and others towards him and his ignoble state apparatus – and with good reason. The post-Stalin atmosphere, despite the palpable Thaw and the official de-Stalinisation begun in 1956, was still far from encouraging for writers who felt that confirming their calling was their own job rather than the state’s. The prosecutor at Josef Brodsky’s 1964 trial for “parasitism” contemptuously asked the future Nobel Prize winner, “Who enlisted you into the ranks of poets?” – to which the poet famously replied, “No one. Who enlisted me into the ranks of human beings?”
A year earlier Brodsky’s fellow poet Voznesensky, already famous and an idol of his generation at 29 for his poetic daring, had stood before a different kind of court – and was judged as “guilty” as Brodsky before getting out two sentences in his own defence. The dock was the podium at Khrushchev’s “meeting with the intelligentsia” of March 7, 1963. A crowd of some 500 leading figures of the Soviet cultural establishment had been herded together, as it soon became clear, to intimidate the generation of new, stadium-filling, liberty-taking, self-defining writers. The only question pursued by the de facto prosecutor, party chieftain Nikita Khrushchev, was whether this malcontent, this un-comrade, this “liar” Voznesensky would repent the error of his ways.
He would not.
Andrei Voznesensky: Like my favourite poet and teacher, Vladimir Mayakovsky, I am not a member of the Communist Party. But like…
Nikita Khrushchev [interrupting]: That’s no badge of honour! …Why are you advertising that you’re not a party member? I’m proud that I’m a party member, and will die a party member! [stormy applause for five minutes] …‘I’m not a party member.’ We’ll clean that up, all right! If [you] want a fight, let’s fight! We can fight. Our powder’s dry! Are you representing the people or are you shaming the people?
AV: Nikita Sergeyevich, excuse me…
NKh: [interrupting] I can’t just sit here and calmly listen to our enemies’ toadies. I can’t! [applause] …We’ve created a way of life here, but that doesn’t mean we created it to be used for anti-Soviet propaganda! Never!!! Never!!! [applause] …There’s no place here for your kind of liberalism, gospodin Vosznesensky!
[…] Why, you – we’ve turned up another little Pasternak here. We offered Pasternak a passport so he’d leave. Do you want to get a passport tomorrow? Do you?!? Get out of here with it, go straight to the devil with it.
AV: Nikita Sergeyevich...
NKh: [not listening] Go on, leave, go over there!!! [applause] …We’ll give you a passport immediately! Just go!
AV: I’m Russian…
NKh: …They think that just because Stalin’s dead they can do anything they want...!
AV: …Nikita Sergeyevich, what I’ve just heard here is frightening! I repeat: I can’t imagine my life without the Soviet Union. I can’t imagine my life without…
NKh: […] Are you with us or against us? There’s no third way. We want to know who’s with us and who’s against us. [applause] No thaw! It’s either summer or it’s freezing!
AN: …Nikita Sergeyevich, if you’ll allow me, I’ll read some of my poems.
As Voznesensky later summed it up, “He shouted at me for 20 minutes. He had rockets and prison camps backing him up. It really was frightening, but I remained who I was.” Which was no small achievement, clearly. And one that did not remain secret. No doubt millions were encouraged when they heard that the head of government had shouted “Lies, lies!” at a poet, and the poet had answered, “It’s not lies” – and then read his poems.
This famous dialogue was cited again and again around the Russian Internet on Tuesday, the day of Voznesensky’s death – and for obvious reasons. As one commentator put it, comparing the scene to a recent exchange between a Russian leader and a critical artist, “This isn’t Putin saying ‘And who are you?’ – ‘[I’m] Yura Shevchuk.’” Khrushchev had wielded a real axe, a “threat of extinction” – “and Voznesensky stood up there at the podium. He argued back. And he read his poems.”
I met Andrei Voznesenky on a number of occasions; we’d each done scholarly time at Washington’s Kennan Institute, and so came to have more than a few acquaintances in common. He was always engaging and friendly, and maintained a lifelong affection for things American.
It never occurred to me to say something to him like, “That little poetry reading you gave Nikita Sergeyevich and his band of enraged applauders – that was really something.” I wish it had occurred to me to say that. Because it really was.
Mark H. Teeter teaches English and Russian-American relations in Moscow.