100 Years of Russian Revolution – II: How Communism Killed Freedom of Expression
In 2015, one and a half years after Narendra Modi led NDA came to rule the Centre with a thumping majority, a horde of so-called artists, authors and intellectuals started returning their awards in the protest of ‘increasing intolerance’ in India. Their allegation was that the Modi-led NDA government at the centre was a right wing government, which did not tolerate any dissent and allowed intellectuals to pursue only its own ideological persuasion. In this process, it was killing the space for ‘freedom of expression’.
Though their appeal did not echo with the majority of the population in India, they did manage to give bad press to India worldwide. Politically all of these intellectuals were aligned to the Left or left-of-centre.  The reason for their ‘dissent’ was ‘increasing intolerance’ and ‘decreasing space for freedom of expression in India’. Whether this is really the case or not has been elaborately dealt with in other articles. The question which remains to be asked is: do the leftists allow any freedom of expression? Does communism have any space for dissent?
Soviet Union – No Country for Intellectuals
Even a quick look at history of Soviet Union, the first communist state in the world tells us that this was not the case. The Communist Party of the Soviet Union espoused an extremely intolerant ideology called Marxism-Leninism. It brooked no dissent, tolerated no difference of opinion. Lenin himself was generally accepted by historians to be an intolerant tyrant who hated any other opinion other than his own. 
Lenin and the Communist Party of the Soviet Union were extremely intolerant of any dissent from the official ideology of Marxism-Leninism and persecuted any kind of freedom of expression. The writers toed the officially sanctioned communist line and wrote literature which was congenial to the supreme leader. Communists believed that the leader of the Communist Party had infinite social wisdom and thus should guide all the artists and authors in their craft. This anti-democratic and totalitarian idea is summarized in the following comment of Nikita Khrushchev, the leader of the Soviet Union who succeeded Stalin:
“The development of literature and art in a socialist society proceeds as directed by the Party.” 
Over the years, the communists built an elaborate system of suppressing every kind of freedom of expression, evolving different strategies to deal with different individuals and situations. Many Russian intellectuals, authors, artists and scientists also developed different responses to a repressive communist regime like Soviet Union. It would be well to go into the most famous cases one by one. The space does not allow covering even the most famous of all cases. The effort here is to tell the story of most representative cases of their type.
Those who were bought
Maxim Gorky, the greatest living Russian author and intellectual of his time was a dedicated communist at the time of the Russian Revolution. He came from the poorest class of Russia and created literature which reflected life on the streets. He was a hero of the poor and the downtrodden, a symbol of the ‘proletariat’ and its struggles. He believed that the demise of Tsarism was a necessary step towards the betterment of Russia.
But he was soon disillusioned by Lenin and the Bolshevik Party. The intolerant, one-party, anti-democratic State and regime that the Communist Party inflicted upon Russia after 1917 made him bitter towards the ‘Revolution’. He was particularly critical of Lenin’s dictatorship and his intolerance of freedom of expression. He openly remarked that Lenin was not tolerant of others’ views. “He could not abide his (Lenin’s) hooligan tone.”  He also thought that Lenin was too violent in nature and wished to settle every dispute by violence, saying that he was “too ready to deploy the Cheka and the Red Army”. 
Gorky was not wrong. The new communist regime was extremely intolerant of intellectuals as Vladislav Zubok writes:
“As the Bolshevik rulers moved to consolidate the new order in Russia, they began to destroy the most essential components of Pasternak’s milieu: freedom for individual creativity, sources of non-state support for intellectual and artistic undertakings, and opportunities for civic solidarity and intellectual dissent. The Bolsheviks arrested, murdered and forced into exile thousands of nobles, clergy, bourgeois, and educated professionals – the groups from which the intelligentsia had emerged. Even more than the tsarist government, Lenin and his associates regarded the intelligentsia as a social class and as a dangerous political opposition movement. The early Bolshevik years, marked as they were by terror, civil war, and rampant violence at every level of society, took a terrible toll on Russia’s intellectuals and artists. From 1921 to 1923 Lenin’s government, apprehensive about the intelligentsia’s capacity to generate anti-Bolshevik sentiment, expelled a sizable number of intellectuals, university professors, philosophers, economists, writers, and journalists from Soviet Russia.” 
It was as if the Russian intellectual movement was assassinated by the communists. All the prominent authors who dared oppose the communist government were imprisoned, exiled or killed. Freedom of expression was not just curbed, it was entirely destroyed. Dissent was unthinkable.
In protest, Maxim Gorky left communist Soviet Union and settled in Sorrento in Italy. Though he did manage to work in peace in Italy, his financial difficulties kept forcing him to rethink his decision of leaving the Soviet Union where he was still treated as a hero by Russians.
Meanwhile things took an even uglier turn when Stalin took over the reins of the Party and the Soviet Union after Lenin fell ill and died in 1924. Stalin was as shrewd as he was ruthless and he had a carefully chalked out plan for the intellectuals of Russia. He knew that he could not suppress every intellectual, especially those who were living abroad. Lenin had exiled many such intellectuals; and a host of others had emigrated of their own choice, fearing imprisonment and execution at the hands of the communists in Soviet Union. They chose the safety and freedom of the West.
Stalin lured these intellectuals back to Soviet Union by a combination of threats and favors: smothering them with state favors; providing them immense financial grants and travel allowances to various countries; awarding them with prestigious titles and prizes and a place of pride among the new world of Soviet intellectuals. The plan was to buy all intellectuals who could be bought and oppress the others into silence.
Maxim Gorky, for all his literary might, turned out to be an intellectual who could be bought.
“In 1931, he (Gorky) returned to become Stalin’s literary ornament, granted a large allowance as well as the millions he made from his books. He lived in the mansion in Moscow that had belonged to the tycoon Ryabushinsky, a large dacha outside the capital and a palatial villa in the Crimea along with numerous staff, all GPU agents.” 
Stalin knew how to assuage the mountain egos of intellectuals like Gorky. By smothering them with privileges and favors, by making their name synonymous with the communist power, Stalin made intellectuals like Gorky partners in crime: “In 1932, Stalin ordered the celebration of Gorky’s forty literary years. His home town, Nizhny Novgorod, was renamed after him. So was Moscow’ main street, Tverskaya.” 
Once these intellectuals were as deep in guilt as were the communist rulers of the country, Stalin could make them do whatever he wanted. While Lenin was alive, Gorky had expressed his disapproval of the communist violence in Russia. However in his last years, he was no more than a propagandist for the Communist Party. Stalin, himself admitted to this: “Gorky’s a vain man. We must bind him with cables to the Party.” 
Favors from the Communist Party were not the only thing that worked on Gorky. He also faced threats. Stalin’s NKVD frequently threatened its victims’ families. Gorky’s son is suspected to have been killed by Stalin’s secret service. In his last years, starting from 1934, Gorky was virtually under house arrest. He died of sudden pneumonia, but a great number of scholars suspect that he was poisoned. 
Socialist Realism – Subverting Art to Communism
Gorky’s opposition to the regime was too little too late. Whatever words of opposition he managed to murmur were drowned in the propagandist din that he himself helped create to legitimize the totalitarian rule of the Communist Party. Probably his greatest sin was to create the new movement in literature and arts called ‘socialist realism’. In Socialist Realism, an artist depicts ‘reality’ as it would be in a perfect communist state of future and not as it is. In other words, a socialist realist falsifies history and creates propaganda which glorifies communist values and way of life.  According to a government guideline of 1934, a work of socialist realism must be:
- Proletarian: art relevant to the workers and understandable to them.
- Typical: scenes of everyday life of the people.
- Realistic: in the representational sense.
- Partisan: supportive of the aims of the State and the Party. 
As a result of the fourth injunction that the artists must be ‘supportive of the aims of the State and the Party’, socialist realism churned out artists and authors who were thoroughly mediocre, sycophantic and who functioned like the court scribes of the Communist Party. Their job was to falsify reality and legitimize the totalitarian rule of the Communist Party. Maxim Gorky’s much publicized Mother (1906) is retrospectively considered to be the first novel in this genre. In the novel, the protagonist is a mother to all the workers of the country and not just to her son.
Nikolai Ostrovsky’s How the Steel was Tempered (1932) depicts how personal concerns, even love has to sacrificed for the cause of building socialism. Mikhail Sholokhov’s Virgin Soil Upturned (1935) depicts how Soviet collective farms have created a Heaven on Earth, while in reality they were living hells in which millions of Soviet peasants perished of hunger and terror. Yury Krymov’s novel Tanker “Derbent” (1938) depicted how socialist ideals have created a heaven for workers of Soviet Union, while in reality most of them were dying of sheer starvation and were stuffed in forced labor camps.
Socialist Realism was followed by painters, sculptors and film makers too. They depicted how Soviet Union was a Heaven on Earth with endless flowing fields ready for harvest, happy workers and peasants, happy children and a prosperous Soviet Union. Socialist Realism became the only officially allowed school of art to follow in Soviet Union. Gradually all other schools were eliminated and those who did not follow the socialist realist line enthusiastically, paid for it dearly. So let us look into the lives of a few who did not follow the official line.
Those who were killed
Gorky was too big a literary name to be just killed off and thus other methods were employed to pacify him. But other, less influential authors were not so lucky. Those who could not be bought were exterminated like vermin. Osip Mandelstam (1891-1938) was a Russian poet who was critical of the Communist Party and of the leadership of Stalin. He wrote a poem called Stalin Epigram, criticizing his personality and the dictatorship that he had ushered in Soviet Union. The poem harshly but truthfully caricatured Stalin. 
For just writing a poem, Osip Mandelstam was arrested and sent to forced labor in a concentration camp in Siberia. After a few years he was released on the petition of his friends, but then arrested again in 1938 and sent to a harsher labor camp in which he died within a year.
Many such poets were executed and killed by the Communist Party of the Soviet Union for their dissent against the official ideology of communism. Osip’s story is better known because his wife Nadhezda Mandelstam was also a literary figure who immortalized his and her own sufferings in two books Hope Against Hope  and Hope Abandoned. 
Boris Pilniak another novelist and short story writer, had dared to write a short story in which he had implied that it was Stalin who got his fellow communist and Defense Commissar Frunze killed through poisoning, later to become the favorite mode of assassination in Soviet Russia. He was executed in April 1938 for his sin of criticizing the supreme communist leader. 
Even those who worked for the communist regime were not entirely safe from the communist terror. Isaac Babel, one of the greatest prose writers of Russia in 20th century,  was an ally of the communist party. However, he did criticize the regime mildly on some occasions. He was arrested in 1939 by the communist regime on fake charges. After running a ‘show trial’ where he was forced to confess to ridiculous crimes he never committed like ‘being a Trotskyist, terrorist and foreign spy’, he was executed in 1940. 
Nikolai Gumilyov, another famous poet of Russia, and founder of the Acmeist Movement was arrested on absurd charges of conspiring against the Communist Party and executed by the communist secret police, Cheka, in 1921.
Those who were threatened into Silence
Anna Akhmatova was one of the most significant Russian poets of the 20th century. She wrote an elegy Requiem (1935-40) criticizing the Communist regime. For this she was persecuted her entire life. She refused to leave Russia. Stalin chose to torture her by killing and torturing her loved ones. She was the wife of Nikolai Gumilyov, who had already been executed in 1921. Her second husband Nikolai Punin was also sent to forced labor in concentration camps called Gulags, where he perished. Her son was also imprisoned and sent to labor camps for long periods of time. Many of her friends were tortured and executed, including many great poets and literary figures. Even though she refused to relent and kept up her criticism of the regime. 
Boris Pasternak, perhaps the most famous Russian novelist of 20th century, could neither be bought, nor did he migrate. He also did not keep silent and kept criticizing the Communist Party, though in a very mild and literary tone. He kept petitioning the Party requesting clemency for various authors and artists who were arrested by the regime. In 1957 he published abroad his masterpiece Dr. Zhivago, chronicling the assassination of intellectual life and freedom of expression in Soviet Union under communism.  The novel became an instant bestseller across the world, particularly in the United States. He was awarded Nobel Prize for Literature in 1958.
Pasternak was vilified and attacked by communist controlled literary organizations and individuals without respite. The party presidium called the novel “a tool of international reaction”. Pravda, the state newspaper denounced Pasternak as “literary weed in the service of international reaction”.  He was called various other names including being “worse than a pig”. 
The literary community in the payroll of the Communist Party vilified Pasternak so much so that he had to reject the Nobel Prize under tremendous pressure. A letter was forged by the communist sponsored intellectuals containing his ‘apology’ to the Soviet state for writing a novel which was critical of the communist regime.
Those who dared disagree with the regime even in the slightest were made absolute outcasts and were excluded from every literary or social institution and organization, making them social pariahs. They were not allowed to work anywhere as all jobs were controlled by the communist party, making it impossible for them to make a living.
Stalin employed secret service agents who ‘befriended’ great authors like Mikhail Zoshchenko, keeping them under strict watch of the Communist Party. Sometimes, they arrested the loved ones of great authors or kept them under strict surveillance ensuring the loyalty of these authors to the communist regime.
Stalin was the ultimate authority who decided which piece of literature would be published. One can imagine the state of literature in a country where an absolute dictator and tyrant decides what should be written. Though Zoshchenko remained loyal to the regime for most of his career, but he could not agree with the Zhdanov Doctrine which characterized the Soviet Union as the crusader of democracy and the rest of the world as evil. Stalin described him in his characteristic style as a “literary low-life”.  He was sidelined after his disagreement and left to die in destitution.
Those Who Wrote ‘Under-the-Table’
Mikhail Bulgakov was one of the greatest modernist novelists of Soviet Union. Though his work belonged to the literary school of ‘magical realism’, and his symbolism criticizing the communist regime was obscure to all but the most discerning of political readers, he was still persecuted by the communists, owing to his veiled opposition of the regime.
His masterwork The Master and the Margarita was never published during his lifetime. Due to the suppression of freedom of expression under the communist regime a new tradition of writing had developed in the Soviet Union: samizdat. Samizdat was the literature which was never published openly, never went to communist controlled press, but was circulated in hand-written manuscripts to a select number of readers. Many great authors of Russia committed their works to samizdat, writing for the secret audience, very well knowing that they would never be published. It was called ‘writing under-the-table’. 
But even writing samizdat was a dangerous thing to do in the communist regime of Soviet Union. Anyone found writing, reading, distributing of even discussing samizdat was liable to be arrested, exiled, tortured or even executed. Even then many authors like Mikhail Bulgakov wrote literature in samizdat and kept up their criticism of communism and the Soviet regime. But they always feared that they would be discovered and more than fearing for their own safety they feared that their works would be discovered and destroyed. One of the last things that Bulgakov did in his life was to check whether his masterpiece was safe or not, as Christopher Andrew writes:
“For any Western author it is almost impossible to understand how a writer could devote all his or her energy and creative talent for many years to secret writing which might never be publicly revealed. Yet… some of the greatest Russian writers of the Soviet era did precisely that. No biography of any Western writer contains any death-bed scene comparable to the description by the widow of Mikhail Bulgakov of how she helped him out of bed for the last time so that he could satisfy himself before he died that his great, unpublished masterpiece, The Master and Margarita, arguably the greatest novel of the twentieth century, was still in its hiding place.” 
Those Who Committed Suicide
Many others like Marina Tsvetaeva, committed suicide. She was one of the greatest Russian poets of her age, rivaling the fame of Anna Akhmatova. She emigrated from Russia in 1922 but lived in extreme penury in various European cities and with a heavy heart returned to Soviet Russia in the hope that she would be able to find a new life there. But she had underestimated the communist terror. The communist regime arrested her husband and her daughter and immediately executed her husband. The secret police, NKVD tried to recruit her as an informer for the communist regime.  Her conscience did not allow her to sell her soul to the communist regime. And she knew that the Communist Party crushed intellectuals who defied it, like vermin. She only had one choice left. She made the ultimate protest in 1941. She committed suicide.
This form of ‘ultimate protest’ was to become very popular with the Russian intellectuals who disagreed with the communist regime. Many in those times took that path. Vladimir Mayakovsky was a poet, playwright and public intellectual who was generally in support of the Communist Party during the Russian Revolution and the Civil War. He helped write propaganda literature for the communist party, however even such great believers of communism as he became disillusioned with the regime.
In 1929, Mayakovsky wrote a play, Bedbugs, which was critical of the regime. For this he was hounded in a state sponsored slander campaign. Unable to take the criticism and having chosen an inhuman ideology like communism he committed suicide in 1930.  However, there are doubts that his “suicide” may actually have been a case of murder by the OGPU, the secret police of Stalin.
Some like Alexander Fadeyev who had served as the mouthpieces of the Communist Party and justified all its violence and terror could not take it when Nikita Khrushchev denounced Stalin and accepted that the communist regime had indeed inflicted great violence and terror on unsuspecting population and also on intellectuals. He lost his mental balance and eventually committed suicide.
Those who were forced to Emigrate
As it was no longer possible to exercise any kind of freedom of expression in the Soviet Union, many intellectuals and authors emigrated to the West. Ivan Bunin, first author in Russia to receive Nobel Prize in Literature in 1933, migrated to France in 1920, knowing that the communist regime of terror installed by Lenin would not tolerate free-thinking intellectuals like him. He wrote in the classical styles of Chekhov and Tolstoy and had great respect among the émigré Russian community worldwide. He always maintained an unmitigated hostility to the communist regime. Addressing the Russian émigré community in France in 1924, speaking on “the Mission of Russian Emigration”, Bunin made a scathing critique of Lenin and the Communist Party:
“There was Russia, inhabited by a mighty family, which had been created by the blessed work of countless generations. … What was then done to them? They paid for the deposal of the ruler with the destruction of literally the whole home and with unheard of fratricide. … A bastard, a moral idiot from the birth, Lenin presented to the World at the height of his activities something monstrous, staggering, he discorded the largest country of the Earth and killed millions of people, and in the broad day-light it is being disputed: was he a benefactor of the mankind or not?” 
Yevgeny Zamyatin was a celebrated novelist of Russia when the Russian Revolution happened. He was a committed socialist until Lenin’s coup in November. When he saw the terror that was inflicted upon Russia by Lenin’s Red Army, he turned against the Communist Party. In 1921 he wrote the dystopian novel, We. It described the hell that the communist Russia had become. It became the first work banned by the Communist Party in Soviet Russia. It was subsequently published in the West where it became a literary sensation. The novel was so influential that it is said to have directly inspired George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four,  Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World,  Kurt Vonnegut’s Player Piano, Ayn Rand’s Anthem  and Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Dispossessed. 
Not surprisingly, Zamyatin was isolated and persecuted. Life was made impossible for him in Soviet Russia and as a result he migrated to France in 1931, where he died in extreme poverty in 1937.
Joseph Brodsky, another winner of Nobel Prize in Literature from Russia (1987) also ran afoul of the communist authorities in Soviet Russia and was exiled. His poetry was described by the communists as “pornographic and anti-Soviet” in 1963. He was called a “social parasite” and was exiled soon after.  He settled in the United States but kept up his criticism of the regime. Another Nobel Prize winning victim of the Communist Party was Vladimir Nabokov, who had to flee Russia soon after the coup of Lenin in November 1917. He was a self-proclaimed opponent of the communist regime, calling the Bolsheviks “grey rag-tag people”. 
Those Who Were Exiled
The communists exiled, killed or silenced its dissidents through a variety of methods. One of the greatest Soviet dissidents was Alexander Solzhenitsyn. Solzhenitsyn ran afoul of the communist regime and was sent to a forced labor camp. There he witnessed the inhumanity and the barbarity of the communist regime and how it punished a full one-fourth of its own population by sending them to forced labor camps. He noted the incidents he watched on small pieces of paper and hid them. When he was freed after Stalin’s death, he started recording his experiences into a book called Gulag Archipelago, chronicling the horrible life of the communist forced labor camps in which Soviet dissidents were worked to death. 
Even the Khrushchev era was not free enough for a work, criticizing the communist system as repressive, violent and anti-democratic, to be published. Solzhenitsyn was exiled from Soviet Russia in 1974. He published his great work Gulag Archipelago in the United States which became a worldwide sensation. He was lucky enough to see the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 and he returned to Russia, his mother country where Gulag Archipelago was finally published.
This is far from an exhaustive list of the Russian intellectuals and authors who were suppressed by the Communist Party. They were tortured, exiled, executed or were forced to commit suicide. For every example quoted, there are at least ten which are not. For every case of suppression in the Soviet Union there were at least ten which never saw the light of the day. And Soviet Union was not the only communist country where the intellectual dissidents were suppressed. Every communist country like China, North Korea, FRG, communist Poland, Hungary, and Czechoslovakia etc. suppressed their authors, intellectuals and artists.
The communist regimes throughout history have been the most intolerant of ideological dissent and criticism. They have most zealously suppressed freedom of expression wherever they have come in power. But with the help of propaganda they have managed to create a narrative where they portray themselves as fighting for the ‘right to dissent’. Looking at the history of communist repression of dissent, we should, at best, be doubtful of their intent and motives.
[This is the second part in a series of articles, titled ‘100 Years of Russian Revolution’.]
Notes and References
- “Meet your Sahitya Akademi Award Returnees”. Opindia.com. Oct 19, 2015.
- Service, Robert. Lenin: A Biography. Pan Macmillan, 2000. p. 140.
- Andrew, Christopher & Mitrokhin, Vasili. The Mitrokhin Archive: The KGB in Europe and the West. Penguin, 2000. p. 5.
- Service, Robert. Lenin: A Biography. Pan Macmillan, 2000. p. 195.
- Ibid. p. 373.
- Zubok, Vladislav. Zhivago’s Children – The Last Russian Intelligentsia. Harvard University Press, 2011. p. 3.
- Montefiore, Simon Sebag. Stalin: The Court of the Red Tsar. Vintage, 2003. p. 94.
- Ibid. p. 95.
- Vaksberg, Arkady. The Murder of Maxim Gorky. A Secret Execution. Enigma Books: New York, 2007.
- Korin, Pavel, “Thoughts on Art”, Socialist Realism in Literature and Art. Progress Publishers, 1971, p. 95.
- Juraga, Dubravka and Booker, Keith M. Socialist Cultures East and West. Praeger, 2002, p.68.
- Forché, Carolyn (ed.). Against Forgetting. W.W. Norton & Co., 1989.
- Mandelstam, Nadezhda. Hope Against Hope: A Memoir. Modern Library, 1999.
- Mandelstam, Nadezhda. Hope Abandoned. Harvill Secker, 2011.
- Montefiore, Simon Sebag. Stalin: The Court of the Red Tsar. Vintage, 2003. p. 99.
- Cohen, Joshua. “Neither and Both: Anthology.” The Jewish Daily Forward, July 6, 2007, p. B2.
- Montefiore, Simon Sebag. Stalin: The Court of the Red Tsar. Vintage, 2003. p. 324.
- Akhmatova, Anna & Anderson, Nancy K. The Word that Causes Death’s Defeat – Poems of Memory (Annals of Communism). Yale University Press, 2012, p. 38.
- Pasternak, Boris. Zhivago. Vintage Classics, 2011.
- “Boris Pasternak I vlast: Dokumenty”, 1956-1960 (Moscow: ROSSPEN, 2001), 144-145.
- Taubman, William. Khrushchev: The Man and his Era. New York: Norton, 2003. p. 385.
- Zubok, Vladislav. Zhivago’s Children – The Last Russian Intelligentsia. Harvard University Press, 2011. p. 3.
- Bukovsky, Vladimir. To Build a Castle: My Life as a Dissenter. Viking Press. 1979, p. 141.
- Andrew, Christopher & Mitrokhin, Vasili. The Mitrokhin Archive: The KGB in Europe and the West. Penguin, 2000. p. xxxv.
- Kudrova, Irma. The Death of a Poet: The Last Days of Marina Tsvetaeva. Woodstock, New York, and London: Overlook Duckworth.
- Barta, Peter I. & Boyay, Katalin. The Fall of the Iron Curtain and the Culture of Europe. Routledge, 2013. p. 93.
- Bowker, Gordon. Inside George Orwell: A Biography. Palgrave Macmillan, 2003. p. 340.
- Blair E. Literary St. Petersburg: A Guide to the City and its Writers. Little Bookroom, 2007. p.75.
- Mayhew R, Milgram S. Essays on Ayn Rand’s Anthem: Anthem in the Context of Related Literary Works. Lexington Books, 2005. p.134
- Le Guin UK. The Language of the Night. Harper Perennial, 1989. p.218
- Remnick, David. “Gulag Lite”. The New Yorker. December 20, 2010.
- Wyllie, Barbara. Vladimir Nabokov, London, 2010. p. 22.
- Solzhenitsyn, Alexander I. Gulag Archipelago. Perennial, 2007.
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