Book Review

Andrei Sinyavsky: Strolls with Pushkin

The republication of Andrei Sinyavsky’s Strolls with Pushkin[1] could not be more timely. In a recent article in the New York Review of Books,[2] Masha Gessen wrote:

The writer Andrei Sinyavsky, perhaps the first person to become known as a Soviet dissident, once quipped that his “differences with the Soviet regime were primarily aesthetic.” Buried in a dense autobiographical essay and qualified as a joke, the line nonetheless was and remains one of the most-repeated sentences among the differently minded in the Soviet Union and in Putin’s Russia . . .

More than half a century after Sinyavsky came up with the phrase, Americans who witnessed Donald Trump’s inaugural weekend can now fully grasp its meaning.

Strolls with Pushkin was written while Sinyavsky was serving a seven-year term for anti-Soviet activity—specifically for writing what were deemed “anti-Soviet” works and publishing them abroad—in the Dubrovlag forced labor camp in Mordovia. Prisoners were not allowed to write books in the camp, of course, but they were allowed to write letters twice a month to their immediate family, and no limit was set to the length of the letters. In this way, during the nearly six years that he served (1966–1971) before his early release, Sinyavsky managed to write two books as letters to his wife, Marya Rozanova: A Voice from the Chorus, a wide-ranging collection of notes and reflections; and Strolls with Pushkin. He also began his book In Gogol’s Shadow. Two years after his release, Sinyavsky was allowed to emigrate with his wife and their son Iegor, and they settled in Fontenay-aux-Roses, near Paris. By 1975, the two books written in the camp had been published, as well as the book on Gogol.[3]

The timeliness for us of Sinyavsky’s reappearance was foreshadowed in observations he made back in 1979, in an interview with Olga Andreyeva Carlisle.[4] They are worth quoting at some length. Carlisle began by posing a question: “Nationalism can be regarded as a natural reaction to the uniformity of modern life. But right now it appears that Russian nationalism is taking on a new, ominous political significance. I would like to have your thoughts on this subject.” Sinyavsky replied, in part:

. . . the Russian sense of self is becoming very assertive, very insistent. It takes on a chauvinistic cast. There is a lot of hostility toward the rest of the world . . .

Within the dissident ranks new passions are being born—intolerance, a renewed yearning for isolationism—that go with a vision of Russia as a theocratic state. I find such sentiments disqui­eting, even when they are expressed in very high-minded terms, as when Alexander Solzhenitsyn speaks.

. . . this view of the world excludes any degree of freedom. Personally I find it unacceptable regardless of who will win in the end. The Soviet camp may eventually win, or the West, or no one, but what does it matter? Only people matter, their feelings, the manifestations of human thought, the entire spectrum of human affairs. These are an end in themselves and should not be sacrificed to some abstract cause. Extremist ideas have dominated us too long, they have made too many victims already—our literature, our culture, not to mention the millions killed. That extremist ideas might gain popularity in dissident circles would have been hard to imagine only a few years ago. But here they are, growing rapidly among émigrés, and in the Soviet Union too.

Sinyavsky personally experienced the nationalistic reaction of Russians, both in the Soviet Union and among the dissidents of the emigration, when Strolls with Pushkin was first published in 1973. “‘Russophobe!’ they shout. ‘Russophobe! He didn’t pay respect to Pushkin!’” he recalled some fifteen years later in “A Journey to the River Black.” Russian critics on both sides of the still-hanging Iron Curtain were outraged by Sinyavsky’s playful, irreverent spirit. How dared he say: “Pushkin ran into great poetry on thin erotic legs . . .”! After all, he’s our national poet! The embodiment of our Russian identity! His name is sacred!

Andrei Sinyavsky was born in Moscow in 1925. He served in the army during the war and in 1945 entered Moscow University, where he studied Russian and more specifically Soviet literature. Later he taught there and also joined the Gorky Intitute of World Literature as a researcher. He was a rather loyal Soviet citizen until his father, a non-Bolshevik revolutionary, was arrested in one of Stalin’s purges in 1951. Sinyavsky was devoted to his father, and the shock of the arrest caused a profound change in his inner life. Then came the revelation of Stalin’s crimes in Khrushchev’s famous “secret speech” to the Twentieth Party Congress in February 1956. Sinyavsky continued his scholarly work in the later fifties and early sixties, but under the pseudonym of Abram Tertz he also began to write works of a very different sort: the essay On Socialist Realism and a short novel, The Trial Begins, both written in 1956 (published in 1959–1960); a collection of five Fantastic Stories, published in 1961; the novel Lyubimov (entitled The Makepeace Experiment in English), finished in 1962 and published in 1965; as well as a collection of Thoughts Unaware, also published in 1965. These works were all smuggled to the West and published both in Russian and, very soon, in multiple translations.

While Tertz was sending his work abroad, Sinyavsky went on publish­ing essays and articles in the Soviet Union, some of them rather pointed attacks on party-line writers, but also fine appreciations of Anna Akhmatova, Boris Pasternak, and even Robert Frost, among many others.[5]

In 1965 Sinyavsky and his friend, the poet Yuli Daniel, who published abroad under the name of Nikolai Arzhak, were exposed and arrested. Their trial in February 1966 became the founding moment of the Russian dissident movement. It was a closed trial, but sympathizers with the accused managed to sit in on the four days of hearings and published accounts of them in samizdat (“self-publishing”), the alternative press of the dissidents. Protests against the trial were also held—appropriately enough!—in Pushkin Square in Moscow. But they had no effect on the outcome.

Sinyavsky was certainly a dissident in Soviet Russia, but not a specifically political dissident. His “differences with the Soviet regime were primarily aesthetic.” At the end of the first work signed by Abram Tertz, On Socialist Realism, he wrote: “Right now I put my hope in a phantasmagorical art, with hypotheses instead of a Purpose, an art in which the grotesque will replace realistic descriptions of ordinary life. Such an art would best correspond to the spirit of our time.”[6] As his remarks in the interview with Olga Carlisle imply, he was not so much against the Soviet regime as for something else.

And so we come to Strolls with Pushkin, where that “something else” is fully explored. For Sinyavsky, Pushkin is the embodiment of poetic freedom and of a more essential human freedom. The book was published under the name of Abram Tertz, as was the essay “A Journey to the River Black,” written in 1989, which was in fact the last work signed by Tertz. Sinyavsky borrowed the name from a legendary Jewish gangster from Odessa, but the personage is entirely Sinyavsky’s crea­tion. In her memorial tribute on the occasion of Sinyavsky’s death in 1997, Catherine Nepomnyashchy, one of the translators of Strolls, described Sinyavsky turning into Tertz before her eyes:

Sometimes, after a glass of wine or two, Andrei Donatovich would do an imitation of Tertz. The transformation was as striking and comical as it was instantaneous. Slouching his shoulders, letting his perennial cigarette droop from his lips at a rakish angle, shoving his hands into his pockets, and scuffing his feet, Tertz—a wickedly mischievous glint in his eyes—would appear where only a moment before had stood the dignified, kindly, in later years white-bearded figure of Professor Sinyavsky.[7]

A book written by Tertz, and in the conditions of a forced labor camp, could hardly be an ordinary work of literary history or literary criticism. But then what is it? The author addresses the conundrum himself in “A Journey to the River Black”:

. . . “history of literature,” “literary criticism.” Both are fed by and live on literature. It sounds very prestigious: “of literature,” “literary.” As though they were married to it. But if it is so, then kindly be on equal terms. Yes, on equal terms with the very literature about which you write. Well, like Pushkin—with regard to courage. Don’t be afraid to take a risk! But no, they vacillate—it’s too dangerous. They prefer to serve as freeloaders. As gravediggers. To become, if they are lucky, graveyard watchmen.

. . . I can imagine myself at night in a cemetery, at the spacious Elysian Fields of the history of general literature—as a light shadow. What would I do? Lament? Well, they’ve been mourned over for a hundred years. No, I’d run from one monument to another and whisper into their ears. To each separately—Wake up! Your time has come! . . .

Strolls is the result of that light shadow’s whispering into Pushkin’s ear. It records the inner experience of communing with the poet’s work, musing over it, living with it, living through it. The trouble with Pushkin, as he says in the opening lines of the book, “lies in the fact that he is absolutely accessible and at the same time inscrutable . . .” That mystery is what holds the light shadow’s attention, it is what fascinates Abram Tertz.

Not that Pushkin was ever asleep! But his official figure in Russian literature was indeed a sleeping monument that was put to various political and social uses in the decades following the poet’s death. Tertz instead calls up the living poet, who was always there in his work. He moves with Pushkin freely and seemingly at random through his early erotic and satirical poems (like The Gabrieliad, which makes fun of the immaculate conception), his first playful narratives (Ruslan and Lyudmila), his novel in verse Evgeny Onegin, written over many years, in which Tertz notes that he took the “moralistic and decorous” novel of his time “and used it as his point of reference while parodying literature with the voice of life.” In it “reality appeared like the devil through a trap door, in the form of a frivolous joke, an audacious exception . . .” He comes finally to Pushkin’s last and greatest narrative poem, The Bronze Horseman, a haunting vision in which “Petersburg the elemental force and Petersburg the capital, Pushkin’s poetry in its two aspects—the wild genius and the marvelous city—are made manifest in a single image as something unified and whole.” So, in its apparent meander­ing, Strolls with Pushkin actually follows the development of Pushkin’s poetry from its entry on “thin erotic legs” to the ambiguous, human-inhuman force of the suddenly animate statue of Peter the Great pointing away from us into the distance beyond the Neva, his horse’s bronze forelegs raised in the air. But it is impossible to summarize the richness of Tertz’s reflections, their playfulness and their profundity. He notes at the end: “In the broad sense Pushkin’s road embodies the mobility and elusiveness of art, which is inclined to shift and therefore is not subject to strict rules with regard to where to go and why. Your way today, ours tomorrow. Art strolls.”

A journey, however, is more purposeful than a stroll, and Tertz’s “Journey to the River Black” is a more unified narrative, though the journey is in fact threefold. The first is the journey Sinyavsky and his wife made to Moscow and then to Petersburg (still Leningrad) at the end of 1988 and early 1989—their only visit to Russia after their emigration—on the occasion of the death of Yuli Daniel, Sinyavsky’s friend and fellow prisoner. The second is an account of the last years of Pushkin’s life, from his marriage to the beautiful young Natalya Goncharova in 1831 to his death in 1837, in a duel beside the River Black (Chernaya Rechka), a five-mile stream then just outside Petersburg. The third is the story of Pyotr Grinyov, the central character of Pushkin’s last and greatest prose work, The Captain’s Daughter (1836), who leaves home as a young man, enters military service in the Belogorsk fortress near Orenburg, some 900 miles southeast of Moscow, is caught up in the bloody events of Pugachev’s rebellion, and finally makes his way to Petersburg and a happy resolution. In the essay, Tertz weaves the accounts together, moves freely and often without warning from one to the other, and resolves all three on the last page.

In an introductory chapter, Tertz warns us: “. . . it would be a grave error for anyone to mistake Pushkin’s genius for the simplicity and naturalness of his writing . . . There is always, it seems, something hiding in it, and you can never get to the bottom of it.” Further along the way, after many other gifts, he gives us an excellent characterization of Pushkin’s art in The Captain’s Daughter:

Pushkin showed us the great reversibility of life, having crowned with The Captain’s Daughter everything he always wrote about the vicissitudes of existence. Things spun under his quill pen, turning to the audience with their funny, then sad, then dark, then light side. That is why in his novel both phrases and even individual words are often ambiguous and eerie, or slyly wink at neighboring words or those standing at a respectful distance, and it is always necessary to bear in mind this entire abyss of meanings in the verbal fencing of Pushkin.

At the very end, Tertz unites in a few lines Grinyov’s story with Pushkin’s duel on the River Black and with his own visit to the scene. He imagines Beaupré, young Grinyov’s French tutor, teaching his pupil swordsmanship:

En garde!” the drunken Beaupré shouted during a fencing lesson. “Battement! Once again, battement! Engage!

Pushkin leaned forward and began to fall slowly.

The place of the duel, marked with a monument, forced us to stop and look around. The monument resembled the famous obelisk at the end of the novel, erected to Count Rumyantsev by Empress Catherine.

Andrei Sinyavsky/Abram Tertz was one of the most gifted Russian writers of the postwar era. Most of his work is now in print in Russia, but most of the English translations seem to have gone out of print. It will be an excellent thing if Strolls with Pushkin leads us back to him. We need his free and welcoming spirit more than ever.
[1] STROLLS WITH PUSHKIN, by Andrei Sinyavsky [Abram Tertz], trans. by Catharine Theimer Nepomnyashchy and Slava I. Yastremski, with the addition of “A Journey to the River Black,” translated by Slava I. Yastremski and Michael M. Naydan with Olha Tytarenko Columbia University Press. $19.95p.

[2] “The Styrofoam Presidency,” The New York Review of Books, January 24, 2017.

[3] The Gogol book has not yet appeared in English, but Columbia University Press promises to publish a translation in the near future as part of the Russian Library series.

[4] “Solzhenitsyn and Russian Nationalism,” The New York Review of Books, November 22, 1979.

[5] A collection of his articles in English translation was published under the title For Freedom of Imagination, trans. by Laszlo Tikos and Murray Peppard (New York, 1971).

[6] On Socialist Realism, trans. by George Dennis, in The Trial Begins and On Socialist Realism (New York, 1965), p. 218.

[7] The Slavic and East European Journal, Vol. 42, No. 3 (1998), pp. 367–368.