Russian philanthropists have heeded the cautionary tale of Mikhail Khodorkovsky…
The Sinyavsky–Daniel trial, February 1966
From The Nation:
American writers are familiar with the manifest injustices of the literary marketplace. They are also accustomed to feeling outrage on behalf of censored writers abroad, signing petitions from Amnesty International or PEN. But Sinyavsky’s story addresses some of the aspects of state control of literature that we consider less often. Censorship could spare writers the humiliation of failure in the open market, notorious for its fickleness and questionable taste. And the coded language of censored literature, combined with the extraordinarily high stakes, encouraged a kind of patient, attentive reading that becomes rare when books are just another entertainment, long-winded narratives in a world of memes.
Repressed Soviet writers had the chance to become political heroes, even when (as in the case of Joseph Brodsky, for instance) their writing was not explicitly political. Every “unofficial” story or poem became an act of bravery, of protest. Illicit literature was circulated among friends and smuggled abroad; the sheer effort devoted to reading and sharing samizdat texts was a testament to their significance. America has its share of homegrown graphomaniacs, hellbent on becoming the next John Grisham or Jonathan Franzen, but it’s just not the same.
Though Soviet-era writers often suffered terribly, they could take comfort in the central position of literature in society. Remarking on what his wife called the “boundless, almost superstitious respect for poetry” among his country’s leaders, the poet Osip Mandelstam remarked, “Why do you complain?… Poetry is respected only in this country—people are killed for it. There’s no place where more people are killed for it.” Nearly half a century later, after emigrating to New York City, Eduard Limonov (who was a dissident poet, then a novelist and then, back in Russia, leader of the banned National Bolshevik Party) wrote: “Here a poet is shit, which is why even Joseph Brodsky is miserable in your country…. The best place for a poet is Russia. There, even the authorities fear our kind.”
Soviet authorities didn’t just fear and censor writers; they also subsidized their careers. State financial support saved many writers from having to find other work to support themselves. Though this support was contingent on political conformity, the Soviet Union offered writers generous subsidies as well as jobs that allowed plenty of time and energy for creative efforts. Writing also paid better: a Soviet novelist who published a novel in 1985 with a state publisher could expect an average of four years’ salary for it. By 2000, a novel commanded an average payment of just $1,000. And in a society in which time was not money, readers had more time to read, and writers had more time to write.
No one dies for poetry anymore, not even in Russia, and no one is afraid of poets—unless, like Limonov, they have a personal army of uniformed thugs. Olga Slavnikova, a successful novelist and the director of the Debut Prize, told me that in the early 1990s, she became convinced that no one needed literature anymore. She mourned the days when a book was the best present you could give, when a book could be used to pay a bribe. Few people long for a return to censorship, but many miss the sanctified position of literature in Soviet society.