The last few years have brought a resurgence of ‘political poetry’ in Russia.footnote1 But what is meant by the term today? Amid the mass depoliticization of the post-Soviet period, the dominant stance among writers was to assume an intrinsic incompatibility between poetry and politics, referring back to the Soviet era as a negative example. In the 1990s, the notion that politics and art should be kept separate was based on the idea that the country was moving irreversibly towards liberal democracy, leaving poets free to concentrate on their art. In the mid-2000s, however, it became clear that the regime was developing in an entirely different direction, prompting a reassessment of the traditions of civic and political poetry in Russia. This has involved, on the one hand, a struggle to redefine ‘political art’ in positive terms, and to dethrone ‘apoliticism’ as a self-evident norm or even virtue; and on the other hand, a broad reconsideration of the Soviet project, in which the deficiencies of earlier, over-simplified and ideologized views have become apparent—as has the need for a new, more complex understanding of it.

In Soviet times, of course, the politicization of literature was expressed in a variety of forms. A 1925 Politburo resolution ‘On Party Policy in the Sphere of Literature’ laid out the Bolsheviks’ position. While committing the Party to ‘identifying the social-class content of literary trends’, the resolution insisted on equidistance from all literary groups: ‘the Party as a whole cannot prematurely tie itself to any one tendency in the area of literary form.’ It would exercise only the most general form of ideological supervision, merely ‘sifting out anti-proletarian and anti-revolutionary elements’. This stance rested above all on the assumption that the formation of a new Soviet literary style—much like the question of new forms of the family and so on—was a matter for the future, which it would be impossible to bring any nearer by decree.

A style appropriate to the epoch will be created, but it will be created by other means, and the solution to this question has still not taken shape . . . Therefore, the Party must declare itself in favour of the free competition among various groups and trends in this given sphere of activity. Any other solution to the question would be an official, bureaucratic pseudo-solution.footnote2

Within Soviet literature of the 1920s, three main ‘class’ tendencies could be identified: ‘peasant’, ‘proletarian’ and ‘intelligentsia’ (‘fellow-travellers’)—though this by no means exhausted the period’s literary diversity. Adherents of almost every current believed that their projects not only possessed aesthetic meaning, but also embodied a political truth, capable of serving as a corner-stone of the new society. As a consequence, they also believed that their project would in the end emerge as the dominant one. Indeed, although the revolutionary years undoubtedly witnessed a politicization of many spheres of life ‘from above’—whether deliberate or spontaneous—in literature the politicizing impulse came principally ‘from below’, from within the literary sphere itself. This was precisely why the Bolshevik leadership, wary of any excessive political claims that literary groups might make, preferred to maintain a certain distance. The ussr’s single, unified political framework presupposed the possibility of almost unlimited aesthetic freedom within its bounds—giving rise to an aesthetic competition that was interwoven with factional struggles in the political sphere, yet without allowing any single tendency to seize hold of the overall cultural agenda.

From the second half of the 1920s onwards, a gradual shift took place. The epoch of industrialization began in 1928, with the advent of the First Five Year Plan, followed by the collectivization of agriculture—projects demanding total mobilization and allowing for no internal disagreements or open discussion. The new proletarian culture, which was supposed to take shape organically in the process of socialist construction, was now to be handed down from above in the form of the Socialist Realist canon. Starting in the late 20s, all the ‘fellow-travellers’, ‘peasant’, ‘proletarian’ and other poets were transformed into a homogeneous ensemble of ‘Soviet’ writers. Any self-willed aesthetic quest was in practice equated with political betrayal. Over the next quarter of a century, the only overt politicization of art that was permitted consisted of artistic renderings of the enthusiasm of the masses.

The ideas of aesthetic competition, formal experimentation and other elements of a ‘liberal’ approach to literature returned with the post-56 Thaw, which reproduced—albeit in more neutral form—many of the features of the avant-garde culture of the 1920s, as Vladimir Paperny has argued.footnote3 Though they took place within certain limits, developments in ‘official’ literature of the 1950s and early 60s nonetheless restored the value of formal experimentation, while also making reference to the revolutionary 1920s on the level of content. The appearance of books by poets who had been barred from publishing in the 1930s and 40s, such as Vladimir Lugovskoi or Leonid Martynov, were major cultural events.footnote4 A new avant-garde also emerged from among philology students in Leningrad, who looked to the poetry of the pre- and post-revolutionary experimentalists; later known as the ‘Philological School’, it included poets such as Sergei Kulle, Vladimir Ufliand, Mikhail Eremin, Lev Lifshits and others.footnote5 These aesthete-philologists were closer to the linguistically creative side of futurism, associated with Velimir Khlebnikov.footnote6 But another strand of futurism—the Mayakovskian line of Soviet civic poetry—also gained fresh impetus during the Thaw, opening up the possibility for poets to take part in the political renewal of society. It was this that gave rise to the phenomenon of the Sixties poets—figures such as Yevgeny Yevtushenko, Andrei Voznesenskii, Bella Akhmadulina and Robert Rozhdestvenskii—whose public readings to large crowds were focal points of the cultural scene during the Thaw.

It is important to note that in the ussr of the late 1950s and early 60s, there was no strict division between official and underground culture: many future participants in the latter published in the official press, or expected to do so. The whole conjuncture bore within it a real political and cultural charge, much as the early 1920s did. Among other things, there was widespread hope that experimentation and freedom of poetic expression would again be legitimized as a political factor, as organic and necessary elements of socialist construction. However, the general crisis of politics under Khrushchev led to a curbing of the Thaw’s enthusiasms. In the cultural sphere, the most striking early symptom of crisis was the General Secretary’s famous outburst against Andrei Voznesenskii at a meeting with the intelligentsia in 1963, when Khrushchev instructed the poet to emigrate and join ‘his masters’.footnote7 The same year, Joseph Brodsky’s work was denounced as ‘pornographic and anti-Soviet’, and months later the author was sentenced to hard labour for ‘parasitism’.footnote8 The 1965 trial of Andrei Siniavskii and Yuli Daniel for publishing ‘anti-Soviet’ material abroad marked a definitive and public end to the Thaw in culture.