I knew, of course, that Daniil Kharms was a victim of Stalin’s Purge. Knew, too, that that the members of the [creative avant-garde collective] OBERIU and the editorial staff of children’s magazines The Siskin (Chizh) and The Hedgehog (Yozh) met an awful fate. But the word “repressed” is just that—a word. Like other words, its meaning fades when it’s used too often.
“Kharms was arrested in the autumn of 1941; it was said that his [building] caretaker asked him to come into the courtyard for a moment and that he went down in just his slippers. Accused of spreading ‘defeatist propaganda,’ he was committed to the Leningrad prison Kresty, where he died in [the psychiatric ward of] the internal medical hospital.”
For some time, I could not rid myself of those slippers: here’s Kharms leaving the house, popping out for a minute, without having put on his shoes. And the caretaker that called him (yelled up to the window? knocked at the door?), distances himself, steps back. Two (three?) businesslike messengers from Hell approach Kharms, show him the paper, twist his arms behind his back, push him into the voronok An automobile for transporting detainees. This term has strong negative connotations, and is associated with Stalin’s Purge, when many innocent people were arrested, and taken from their homes to labor camps, prison, or execution. . It all happens quickly and roughly. The caretaker stands and watches. Then he reaches for his broom and starts to sweep. And he sweeps away the footprints of Kharms’s slippers.
It’s 1941–the beginning of the Leningrad blockade. Kharms is put away on charges of ‘propaganda.’ A year later he dies in the prison’s psycho ward....
Kharms—as a poet—was absent from my childhood, because by the time I learned to read, the Thaw Period of Soviet history from the death of Joseph Stalin (in 1953) until the mid-1960s, under the leadership of Nikita Khrushchev. Associated with the denunciation of Stalin’s cult of personality and his repressions, along with a weakening in totalitarianism and an expansion in free speech. had already ended. It was only when perestroika rolled around that his name resurfaced. Suddenly, books appeared, starting with the thin ones. Kharms very quickly became fashionable, a new infatuation for the intelligentsia. A play was staged based on his poems and a record was produced. On it, [actor Sergey] Yurskiy brilliantly read Kharms’s works for children: “From the house came a man with a rope and a bag...and from that moment disappeared.” On the back of the record sleeve, it said: “...the mysterious poem about a person who left the house turned out to be a reflection of the poet’s tragic fate….”
But Kharms’s fate was not tragic. In the word “tragic,” there is too much of the aesthetically high-minded, something related to the words “perished” or “sacrificed himself.” The words “tragic fate” call to mind the heroes of Greek myths struggling against their Fates. The house slippers don’t fit with such lofty battles. When so many people are killed by the state, by the powers of the state—first tortured, then killed—it’s no longer a tragedy; it’s something different. A new, modern Hell emerges with recognizable characteristics and its own in-house accounting.
The excerpt describing Kharms’s arrest is from Fairy Tales and True Stories: The History of Russian Literature for Children and Young People English edition:
Ben Hellman. Fairy Tales and True Stories: The History of Russian Literature for Children and Young People (1574 - 2010). Series: Russian History and culture; 13. Leiden: Brill, 2013. 588 pages. ISBN 978-90-04-25637-8. , written by the Finnish scholar of literature Ben Hellman and put out [in Russian] by publishing house The New Literary Observer in 2016. Hellman’s History is a sequential narrative composed of names and events, starting with Ivan Fyodorov’s first Azbuka (ABC) [published in 1578] and up through 2008. I don’t want to debate the “controversial” interpretations of particular works. They are there, no doubt, in his study of the literature. It may well be quite interesting to consider what we should interpret and how. But that was not what I found significant. What was most important for me, personally, was that for the first time the history of our country’s literature for children was presented in its fullness.
And that fullness is horrifying.
For every nation’s literature, we could find a symbol, an image to reflect the essence of a particular moment in its history. Our literature, then, throughout nearly the entire Soviet period, would be a wounded bird. Just barely full-fledged, it starts to fly—and is dashed to the ground. It falls, trailing blood….
“Of the pre-revolutionary ‘stock’ of writers and books, as many as three quarters were effectively replaced in the 1920s. What was accepted from the old literature was mainly works that could be read as criticism of life under the Tsars.”
It seems to me there is nothing to be proud of here. This is no stylistic break, no “stylistic conflict” with the previous era, as Andrey Sinyavsky called it, no philosophical valuation of how far we’ve come, no meaningful choice of a new direction. This is a physical break, a physical expulsion and destruction of our forebears, and all they managed to create, save, and make sense of at the turn of the century.
Today, we are rediscovering for ourselves the writers and illustrators of the children’s books of the 1920s. We organize exhibitions and we say that these writers and illustrators “conquered the world” and that “we had it all even then.” It was “we,” who, it turns out, invented picturebooks…. All right, maybe we didn’t invent them, exactly, but we did give the genre a big push.
And where did all this go? It didn’t even get the chance to change out of its slippers and into shoes.
“Vasily Knyazev (1887-1937) actively published children’s poetry, sometimes with his own illustrations, in magazines like Heartfelt World… [He] created a fairy-tale world with fairies, gnomes...Knyazev had no trouble adapting himself to Soviet cultural politics after 1917. This, however, did not save him from being arrested and perishing in Gulag in 1937.”
“The name of Lev Zilov (1883-1937) comes up repeatedly in children’s magazines of the 1910s. He also wrote two pre-revolutionary children’s books—An ABC About Yura and Valya (Azbuka pro Yuru i Valyu, 1914) and The Adventures of Postage Stamps (Priklyucheniya pochtovykh marok, 1916)... One of the most curious children’s books of the 1920s is his The Clay Dummy (Glinyany bolvan, 1923)... [Its illustrator], the artist Leonid Chernov-Plessky, however, became a victim of the Great Terror in 1938.” (Note that Zilov himself died in 1937.)
“As a writer, Aleksandr Usov took the pen name Aleksandr Cheglok (1871-1942)...Cheglok blended informative passages with vivid narrations of encounters with animals and birds...In the Stalinist era he withdrew to his orchard...In 1936 he was arrested…exiled to the Murmansk region...From there he escaped in 1942 to die in solitude.”
“Nikolay Koretsky (1869-1938), a minor poet and playwright, was the editor of Skylark (Zhavoronok, 1913-1923)...at the peak of the Great Terror, he was arrested and in the next year executed, accused of anti-Soviet propaganda and agitation.”
“The museum [of Children’s Books]...was headed by the pedagogue and poet Yakov Meksin (1886–1943). In the autumn of 1937, he read a paper at a conference...shortly afterwards, he was arrested and the museum was closed down. Meksin died in the Gulag in 1943, while the museum’s collection of around 70,000 books was lost forever….”
“In 1931, [Vvedensky] and Kharms were arrested together with three colleagues, accused of disrupting industrial life with their poetry. [They] were released after six months, but forced to spend another six months in internal exile...arrested for a second time in 1941...died.”
“[Vvedensky] died when the Kharkov prison, where he had been detained, was evacuated as a result of the German frontline offensive.”
“Vladimir Matveev, Raisa Vasileva and Aleksandr Lebedenko were arrested...in Leningrad in 1934…”
(Matveev was executed in 1935, immediately after the interrogations. Raisa Vasileva died in a labor camp in Siberia in 1938. Lebedenko survived twenty years in the camps.)
“In 1937, [Nikolay Oleynikov] was arrested at a committee meeting, at which all those present...voted for his immediate expulsion from the Writers’ Union… accused ...of ‘acts of sabotage on the literary front,’...executed in November 1937.”
“The secretary of the children’s literature section of the Writers’ Union in Leningrad, Abram Serebryannikov (1909–37), had claimed at a meeting that there were no enemies within children’s literature. He was arrested and sentenced to ten years in a camp…”
“David Rakhmilovich-Yuzhin (1892– 1939)... of the magazine The Hedgehog, was arrested in 1936 and died three years later in a labour camp in Norilsk, reportedly having lost his mind…”
“1937 put an end to Sergey Auslender’s (1886–1937) literary career. Author of a popular series of juvenile novels on revolutionary history, but with a past in the White Army, he was executed one-and-a-half months after his arrest…”
“Eight years [after the publication of Respublika Shkid]...one of its authors, Grigory Belykh, was arrested and accused of counter-revolutionary activity; he died of tuberculosis in prison in 1938. Proceedings were also under way against L. Panteleev…”
“Sergey Bezborodov, Tamara Gabbe, and Aleksandra Lyubarskaya were picked up from the Leningrad offices of the publishing house Detskaya literatura in 1937...He was executed, while Tamara Gabbe (1903-60), a children’s author and critic, and Aleksandra Lyubarskaya (1908-2002), who later became known for her translations of Swedish classics, including Topelius’ stories and Selma Lagerlof’s The Wonderful Adventures of Nils, were released after two years…”
“Into a labour camp also went the long-term contributor to The Hedgehog, Nikolay Zabolotsky, who had been arrested in 1938. In all he came to spend a total of eight years in prison camps and exile…”
“The fate of the editor of [the] magazine, The Siskin, George Ditrikh (1906-43), was also to die in a prison camp. He was accused for ‘dissemination of secret information’, a term used when the authorities could not come up with any better accusation.”
“The prose writer Yan Larri (1900-77)...managed to survive his fifteen years in the camps.”
“In the space of a few years, almost one hundred of the delegates at the 1934 Writer’s Congress were arrested.”
The so-called “Great Purge” was over—but the repressions continued.
“In August 1946, a party resolution was published sharply criticising the magazines Leningrad and Zvezda for printing ideologically damaging works by Mikhail Zoshchenko and Anna Akhmatova...Not many Russians had the courage to stand up in defence of the two great writers. One of the few was the future children’s writer Rady Pogodin...The result was a three-year sentence for ‘anti-Soviet agitation.’”
“...in August 1952, [children’s poet Lev] Kvitko was executed, along with 26 other Jewish writers and artists.”
“In his private life, too, [Roman Sef] knew the life of an outcast: his father, a party member, had been executed in 1936, his mother was sent to the Gulag and he himself spent the years 1951 to 1956 in a prison camp. Officially rehabilitated, he created new difficulties for himself by signing a letter of protest in defence of the persecuted writers Andrey Sinyavsky and Yuly Daniel in 1965.”
Felix Shapiro, the literary editor of the magazine Picture fun (Veselye kartinki), in an interview with Papmambook, shared his recollections of the wonderful creative spirit that suffused the magazine’s editorial offices in the early 60s. The material just flowed; the young artists were bursting with ideas and jokes. They were constantly coming up with something new. Only Konstantin Rotov didn’t seem to be coming up with anything. He was much older than the rest and he preferred to just do his job…Naturally, Rotov had done time. In the “labor” camp it seems you were quickly rid of that tendency to burst with new ideas.
In the 70s, children’s literature was again knocked down mid-flight. True, this time the writers weren’t killed; they were simply exiled from their homeland.
“...Rakhil Baumvol moved to Israel in 1971. After the forced emigration, her name and her books were purged from the libraries and pages of Soviet literature.”
“Vladimir Maramzin (born 1934), arrested in 1974 and offered the possibility to leave the country a year later…”
“...Yuz Aleshkovsky (born 1929), who emigrated in 1979, also had a number of books behind [him].”
Books purged, and name crossed out—that was what it meant to leave the country in the 70s.
Rakhil Baumvol is a writer I remember from my childhood. You could say I grew up on her Stories of the Kind Pillow. Then, suddenly, she was “gone.” We had a whole bookshelf of those—people who had “disappeared” in various ways.
I always ask myself if this sort of history of literature affects those who write today. After all, this is relatively recent history. (We’ll leave our first printer, Ivan Fyodorov, who was accused of heresy and fled the country, out of the picture. We won’t worry ourselves with that so many years later.)
What aspects of our history do we choose to carry on and what do we reject?
So many of the “dear Soviet children’s books” are now being republished. The new editions are treated like artifacts of a golden era. Their arrival is thoughtlessly heralded as a happy event, under the banner of blissful “Sovietness.” Kharms so loved to play with children! Let’s also play with our children! Play our kind Soviet games. And let’s be faithful to our classics, which have withstood the test of time!
We gladly reprint:
“And now he loves the letter R,
He sleds down fast, he screams
I am a valiant pioneer!
I will live in the USSR!”
and recommend these “classic poems” to preschoolers and elementary-school students.
This mindless naïveté seems to border on cynicism. Like a holiday banner on the street, calling on the people to celebrate a professional anniversary: “The Russian Office of the Prosecution is 80!,” I find it hard to delight in this particular continuity of tradition.
I’m bothered by the stable Chukovsky-Marshak-Barto Korney Chukovsky, Samuil Marshak, and Agniya Barto were famous Russian children’s poets, considered classics of Soviet children’s literature. formula, which represents the unchanged parental preference in children’s books. Not because I dislike the poetry of Marshak, Chukovsky, or Barto, though certainly some of their work is now impossible to read, outside of a specialized historical curiosity. (I recently took my four-and-a-half-year-old grandson to the [Marshak’s] play Cat’s House and suddenly heard the text, which I know by heart, completely anew: why, it’s an irreconcilable battle with the petty-bourgeoisie and private property!)
But that’s not the issue. Chukovsky-Marshak-Barto is something of a conserved tradition, evidence of our uninterrupted cultural well-being. As though the fact that Chukovsky and Marshak weren’t executed or even jailed (!) isn’t just chance or sheer luck.
“A catchword for the opponents of fantasy literature was ‘chukovskyism’ (chukovshchina), a word that stood for anthropomorphism, apolitical attitudes, escape from the problems of the time, and petty-bourgeois mentality...Marshak also had difficulty publishing...works by both [Chukovsky and Marshak] figured on lists of books ‘not to be recommended’. As a result, Marshak preferred to devote himself to his editing work for a time, while Chukovsky was soon ready to give up writing for children altogether.”
Chukovsky endured more than persecution. His daughter Lidiya Chukovskaya was exiled, while her husband, physicist Matvey Bronshtein, was executed. And Chukovsky “gave up writing for children.”
So what is it that today’s writers “inherit”? After all, we write, as we live, within a particular tradition, whether we want to or not. For some reason we are confident that if we “inherit” something, it must be good. But there exists also a disruptive tradition of silencing within fiction, a tradition of not going deeper, of avoiding risks. Do these traditions, too, impact our writing today, and maybe even our style?
Or should we believe that in the 2000s Russian literature essentially started with a clean slate?
With image by photographer Alexander Rodchenko
Translated from the Russian by Alisa Cherkasova
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