The Scared Generation, Issue 9
GLAS, Jan 1, 1995 - Fiction - 229 pages
Every society has had periods of totalitarianism and terror in one form or another. Russia is not exceptional in this respect. Whether the Russian brand of totalitarianism was worse or better than, say, the Inquisition in Spain, the slave trade in America, Nazism in Germany, or today's Islamic fundamentalism is hard to say. It would be interesting to attempt a comparative analysis.
Slavery, or serfdom, was abolished in Russia only in 1862, but Alexander II's decreed could not abolish the mentality of servility overnight. Meek submissiveness of the bulk of the population on one hand, and authoritarian cruelty of the bureaucracy on the other, were to remain a feature of Russian society for a long time afterwards. The third factor in the social equation was the Russian intelligentsia, the bearers of culture in Russia who generated the country's intellectual and artistic values. This independent minded group caused the authorities particular concern and even fear as a constant source of dissidence both before and after the 1917 revolutions.
In the initial decades of Soviet rule the working class and peasantry were forcibly driven into labour camps under various pretexts, because the dislocated country needed slave labour to realize its ambitious construction projects. The freedom loving intelligentsia was imprisoned in camps and lunatic asylums, so as to intimidate and exterminate them by apparently legal methods. Gradually the whole nation divided into civilian informers and alarmed citizens, trying hard to be law-abiding but still ending up in the labour camps accused of treason, espionage, cosmopolitanism, and a host of other imaginary crimes. They rarely survived to the end of their sentences in the arctic temperatures of Siberia and the Polar regions. Who can estimate how many political scientists, writers and artists of genius were lost to mankind in those inhuman conditions of the Soviet prison camps?
It is no wonder that those decades of totalitarian rule affected people's minds so deeply that, even after several years of democracy, people in their sixties and seventies are afraid to discuss politics over the telephone for fear it might be bugged. The 1960's, a time of positive changes in the West, saw the first political "thaw" in Russia, following revelations about the Stalinist regime by Khrushchev at the Twentieth Congress of the Communist Party in 1956. The generation of intellectuals who reached their prime in the 1960's, and who retained a sincere belief in "socialism with a human face", is known in Russia as the "shestidesyatniks", or sixties generation. Some of them fought for human rights and suffered repression in their turn, while others lay low, only daring to discuss politics or read samizdat poetry in a very narrow circle of friends (those famous gatherings in the kitchen, which was considered less likely to be bugged).
The sixties generation are still very active in politics and public life today, and they are the target of hostility from both the right and the left of the political spectrum. The sharpest criticism comes from the younger generation who, happily, have never experienced the kind of pressure their elders were subjected to, and who have also never been thoroughly indoctrinated.
Westerners often ask why we put up with bureaucratic oppression, food shortages and queues, violations of human rights, and so on even now. Why don't we protest? The two works we offer you in this issue of Glas convey the atmosphere of invisible oppression and all-pervading fear in which the sixties generation grew up. Boris Yampolsky's "The Old Arbat" set in Moscow in the 1950's, with flashbacks of the 1930's and 1940's; and Vasil Bykov's "Manhunt" is set in the country in the 1930's. In both stories innocent people are persecuted in a way which precludes effective resistance.
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