More than two decades ago, in the heady days of glasnost, Soviet writers and artists and western arts journalists rushed into each other’s arms. It was a wholly mutual embrace.
We – the arts journos – constantly need to find something new to write about, and the culture in the late ’80′s, as Reaganism and Thatcherism were winding down, was pretty abysmal. They – the Soviet writers and artists – were desperate to get their names known in the West. When the crackdown after the thaw came, they hoped a bit of profile outside the Soviet Union might help them avoid a trip to the Gulag.
There was a great flowering of expression. From the false bottoms of desk drawers came manuscripts written years before: poetry, prose and plays that had no hope of being produced so long as Communist Party censorship continued. Now this writing was being published and it was a revelation. It offered a particular window on people born after the war. Their lives had been lived in post-Stalinist stagnation. The old order was effectively dead but nothing was ready to replace it. The older generation at least had their heroic memories of the Great Patriotic War against the Nazis to bring some joy to their lives. This new generation did not have that. The Gulag was not the threat it once was, but bureaucratic inertia meant that new work was stifled.
Then Gorbachev and Glasnost and suddenly a generation of writers and artists entering middle age could now express themselves. My particular journalistic interest at this time was theatre and Moscow and Leningrad (as it was still called) became the hottest places to go. Amazing new work was magicked out of nowhere. I became a hanger-on for a couple of fantastic theatre companies, writing articles about their work, and accepting free trips to Russia to watch them rehearse.
I wrote about a play called Cerceau performed by the theatre company of Anatoly Vasiliev, a mad monk of a genius. His actors reached the perfection of the techniques I had learned studying acting with Stella Adler, although not without suffering regular browbeatings from Vasiliev.
Cerceau was a play about a group of friends born just after World War II, one of whom inherits a ruined dacha. The friends go out to the dacha to fix it up. They drink, argue, flirt, fall in love, fall out of love. That’s the whole story. Very Russian. It was a picture of their despair at being trapped in the aspic of the system, with not even the heroism of defeating the Nazis to warm them as they grew older.
I spoke with Cerceau’s author, Victor Slavkin, and remember asking him how he had written the play so quickly – Glasnost hadn’t been in effect for very long – and he let me in on a secret. He had written Cerceau ten years previously, shown it to a couple of friends and then put it away. The play would never get past the censors, they told him, Slavkin would call unwanted attention to himself for even showing it to them. Cerceau existed, that would have to be enough.
“There were many plays, written for desk drawers,” he laughed. The explosion of new work I was seeing, well, the work wasn’t so new.
I was filled with admiration for Slavkin’s courage. A lot of writing begins as compulsion. Authors often feel they have no choice but to start writing a particular story or poem or essay. Those moments of beginning are the closest we come to perfect freedom. But finishing a work is not so easy, especially when there is no hope of publication or production, and prison is not out of the question if your manuscript is discovered.
Although by this time in Soviet history the Gulag was less likely to be your punishment than withdrawal of membership in the union of writers or theater workers. If that happened you would have no job. You would exist in reality but not officially. That was another thing I admired about Soviet theatrical life. The state paid for it. The director Vasiliev could take a year or two working on a production and he and his actors and design team would get paid regardless of whether the piece was ever performed.
That oddly circumscribed freedom to work at a piece with no commercial pressure was a powerful reason to write for the desk drawer. Slavkin and other writers and artists made their bargain: unlike their counterparts in the west they did not have to have commercial success to earn a living as authors, they were in the union and would be paid regardless. They had to turn out officially approved dross but, so what? They could write for their desk drawers and show the work to friends. What was the alternative? What happened to Vaclav Havel in Czechoslovakia? He wrote and produced stuff that challenged the censors and they forced him to be a janitor.
Freedom is not just about the choices you make but the choices available to you. The writers who came of age in the suffocating era of Brezhnev had a limited number of choices about how to live their lives – but within that set of choices they were free to fight the system or work around it – and write for their desk drawers.
During this time I went back to America to visit family, and do some work, and I had to get from downtown Manhattan to La Guardia airport. I jumped into a cab and from the driver’s accent I knew immediately he was Russian. I had taken some Russian lessons to help me out in Moscow and Leningrad and tried out some of my stuff on the driver. My vocabulary was quickly exhausted and we switched to English when he asked me how I learned my Russian. I told him about my recent trips and how interesting glasnost was.
He was quick to disabuse me about my starry-eyed view of the reforming moment in the Soviet Union. It is still a prison, he assured me. We were cruising along the Grand Central Parkway and as we approached the Bulova Building he began punching the roof of the cab and shouted, “But this is also prison!!”
Furious cascades of heavily accented English followed to the effect that all he did was work, never enough money, in Russia at least you have fucking job and fucking salary and fucking flat and you don’t have to drive fucking taxi 12 hours a day seven days a week to feed your fucking family. “There is no fucking freedom anywhere!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!” the cabbie screamed. By now there was a dent in the ceiling of the cab.
The cab was soaked in the man’s despair. He was Jewish. Part of that small wave of people who had been allowed to leave the Soviet Union … and no doubt he thought American freedom would be as sweet as Soviet tyranny had been bitter. But now he was trapped in the reality of having to work as he never had at a job that he was probably not suited for and this work would go on forever and it would never be enough to provide the things he wanted for his family.
The Russian cabby’s monologue put a pair of impertinent questions in my head. Who was more free, the Soviet writer or the Western writer? Which political/economic system had greater censorship: the soviet state with its dull censors or free market capitalism with its bottom line criteria for who and what gets published?
At the time, they were just fleeting questions. Whatever my own or my friends’ struggles to get our work published or performed we never had the threat of torture or a decade in Kolyma curtailing our freedom to write what we thought. But in the abstract, if you look just at writing, both systems had a very effective built in censorship mechanism. Much good, possibly great, work goes unpublished and unperformed in the free market system. The difference – at least in the late 1980′s – was that in the West an author whose work failed to impress the gatekeepers of the market was forced to do something else to pay rent and bring up a family. In the Soviet Union, the author was paid by the state to be something like a writer.
The questions never really went away. I went to war – as a correspondent – and in every conflict zone met people who wrote for the desk drawer, who published and were tortured for their trouble. I came to realize that freedom of speech is not something guaranteed by a constitution. It is innate. We only require courage to use it.
But censorship is built into all political and economic systems.
In Iraqi Kurdistan in March 2003 I met a man my age who had written and spoken his mind for years in his hometown of Mosul. He had been arrested, tortured and the only reason he had lived long enough for us to meet was that Saddam’s regime loved money more than death. His wife’s family had cash and ransomed his broken body back from the torture chambers several times.
I hired him as my translator and we became friends. By chance, via our connection he met senior Americans running the occupation of Mosul. They gave him money to start a weekly political journal. He wrote in perfect freedom for a few months before he was shot in the back by someone who didn’t like what he was saying.
Anarchy is a political and economic system also, and its form of censorship is assassination.
I wrote the story of his life. It was the least I could do to honor his memory. Twenty publishers turned it down. The one who brought it out was on shaky financial ground. The book was named a New York Times Notable Book. But there was no money to promote the book or take ads to tell the world it existed. A year later the publisher went out of business. Eventually the rights reverted to me. Despite the book’s critical kudos, no publisher has ever re-issued it. It was never published at all in Britain, where I live and have some profile. Why? Because Iraq books don’t sell.
My friend’s greatest fear was that he would die without the world knowing his struggle. I told his story. But the censorship of the free-market has kept his story away from readers as surely and dogmatically as a Soviet bureaucrat might keep a play from finding an audience.
And the power of business to control what is published grows exponentially. I wrote another book. Again, a critical success. Again underpromoted, it failed to earn back its advance. Many of the rejection notices for my next proposal alluded to the fact that my first two books had not made money.
That is the censorship of the market.
I continue to write – for what else can I do? I am a free man so long as I have the courage to put words down.
But I am angry and bitter, not just for myself but for the memory of my friend, whose name, Ahmad Shawkat, should not be forgotten.
In my bitterness, I think of the Russians. I remember the Russian cab driver who first put the questions of the nature of freedom and the nature of censorship in my head.
I read Vassily Grossman’s Life and Fate, if it is not the greatest novel of the 20th Century, it is close. I remember how the Soviet censors told him it would be 200 years before it would be allowed to be published, if then – and how it was smuggled to the West on microfilm, a decade after the author’s death.
I recall the poem written by Osip Mandelstam in his first exile from Moscow before Stalin ultimately disappeared him into the Gulag. It is four lines that sum up everything about what it means to be a writer and to be free.
You took away all the oceans and all the room.
You gave me my shoe-size in earth with bars around it.
Where did it get you? Nowhere.
You left me my lips, and they shape words, even in silence.
translated by Clarence Brown and W. S. Merwin