Ivisited Russia last summer on a month’s course for British Teachers of Russian arranged by the British Council in co-operation with the Soviet Ministry of Education. These courses go back to 1958 and form part of the Cultural Convention signed by our two countries. A similar course is arranged at the same time for Russian teachers of English here. Our group was 25 strong, five from the Universities, 20 from schools.
It was my first visit to Russia. Some of my University colleagues had taken part in the 1958 course and their comparisons helped me to take my own bearings. Yet before the comparisons could materialise there was already one very substantial and curious difference about this trip which, I am sure, set it off from all previous ones. This was the journey by Russian steamer. Before it had been done by train. Curious, because for five days or so the frontiers of East and West were lost in an affectionate cosmopolitanism. The crew dashed off to do their shopping in Copenhagen, Stockholm, Helsinki. They provided a three-piece jazzband and smiled as lank Scandinavians danced the Twist. They stood drinks and joked with us until the early hours of the morning. They read our Western newspapers (which with the exception of the Communist press are unavailable in Russia). This was their entertainment as they plied their repetitive journey from Leningrad to Le Havre and back. For us it struck the note of our whole trip. To the question put to us on our return by the British Council, did we suffer from any ideological pressure in Russia, we replied with a unanimous “no”. As one of the group remarked we missed the thrill of leaving the “free world”.
The atmosphere of the boat was maintained on the course in Moscow. Our teachers were young University lecturers doing this job in their vacation. They were extremely open-minded; sometimes our conversation practice would become a free-for-all political discussion. Those who dealt with more “ideological” subjects, such as Soviet literature, were no different. Five years back, I was told, the lecturers had been elderly, stiff, dull, conformist. Now they were talking with you, reassessing the past, recasting their own ideas, so clearly partisans in a struggle against all the rigidities which clung on after Stalin. It was at moments like these that one glimpsed the enormous tensions vibrating through the Soviet Union. One realised
The stuff of these tensions was soon brought home in personal contrasts. My first example—I shall explore this theme more fully later—a conversation with one of the lecturers, a young woman who had talked to us on Soviet theatre, but who actually worked in films. She was in battle with the conservatism and box-office ethics of the Soviet film industry. World cinema was an open book to her. She was ardently pro-Antonioni (on whom we took opposing sides), an enthusiast over Japanese cinema, an admirer of Karel Reisz and Tony Richardson, she had written on Saturday Night and Sunday Morning. Of Wajda she said that he was the most talented director in the Socialist world who had run into a blind alley. She read Sight and Sound and (which for personal reasons delighted me) knew, even acclaimed the piece on nouvelle vague by Gabriel Pearson and Eric Rhode. Her argument in favour of Antonioni had indeed much in common with this article. She traced the disintegration of the old-style “character” or “type” through to Chekhov whom she took as the springboard for the new theatre and film. The very loss of significance in the characters displaced objective responsibility on to their situation. While her analysis made sense of late bourgeois art, I wondered how it applied to Socialist Realism with its active, example-setting heroes. Yet she accepted Socialist Realism as the basis of her aesthetics. The subject of Marxism was to come up in similar ways in other conversations. I shall say more about this later. She had just seen and liked A Taste of Honey, but doubted whether it would get a public showing. Yet she was confident that she and her generation would win through in the end.
This confidence was echoed by members of the older generation who had suffered under the ancien regime. The fearlessness, outspokeneness, open-mindedness of the young bewildered and entranced them. One scholar who had spent many years in a camp and refused to rejoin the Party on his return despite the attractive pension; who bitterly attacked the “military-bureaucratic apparatus” which continued to exist and prevented scholars like himself from getting on with their work in peace, nevertheless pinned his hopes on the young. As I learned from Leningrad students the Komsomols is in a healthy and vigorous condition and sees itself as a spearhead of the struggle against bureaucracy. Another scholar described the generation of the thirties as a lost one. The young intellectuals of the sixties had thrown back a bridge to the experiment and ferment of the twenties. Of Shklovsky, the famous Formalist now a Marxist, one young critic remarked: “In the twenties he was wrong but interesting, now he is right and uninteresting.” On the other hand Trotsky’s Literature and Revolution (also a work of the twenties) was considered “too sociological”. Altogether I found little interest in Trotsky.
What then about Marxism? Before attempting to answer this let me say more about my personal meetings, first because I can only generalise from these, second because they bear individual witness to
Acquaintances snowballed. I was entertained lavishly in the House of Writers where poets leave extempore verse on the restaurant walls. Here I met Boris Slutsky, a twinkling poet in his forties whom the younger generation nevertheless claim as their own. Slutsky sent greetings to all progressive Englishmen and the best among the reactionaries. He was translating Richard III, interested in Housman. Tastes in Western literature were as unexpected as mine in Soviet literature. If Housman attracted interest as a poet, F. L. Lucas did as a critic. Leavis was known but not read. Snow was unknown. More expected was the choice of Grahame Greene as favourite English author while Camus took the laurels for France. I was introduced to a homebred beatnik poet with a surprising knowledge of emigré literature and foreign cinema. He later took me to the studio of Ernst Neizvestny, the sculptor of whom Berger has written in the Observer and whose work has recently been criticised by Ilyichov, head of the Communist Party’s propaganda department. The sculpture was very impressive: broken forms and healing. A cleft head chaliced in protective hands; a phallus resurgent on a fallen body. Neizvestny asked me a strange question a propos of Berger: did I think the move from Freudianism to sociology was a good thing in English art criticism? There were two photographers in the studio, one a very beautiful girl, exquisitely dressed. My colleagues had helped me to judge improvements in dress, window design, etc., considerable but still provincial. However, this girl’s appearance would have caught one’s attention even in Paris. At the other end of the scale a working-class girl I met was embarrassed at the idea of women wearing trousers anywhere other than on the beach.