There are few like the great Russian masters. Perhaps its the harsh winters that encourage contemplation; maybe its the beauty of the Russian language itself, with its depth of tenses and tremendous descriptive power that encourages people to put ideas, feelings into words. Maybe its the dreary light, with bursts of tremendous beauty along the basin of the Don or the Kuban or into the Caucasus where valleys meet vicious gorges through which march the darkened forests of the past that beckon to the writer to pull out a pen or a plume or a rickety old typewriter and try to find a way to express what they are feeling. Whatever it is, it just works.
The Soviet period was no exception. Artists are naturally utopian, seeing beyond the next hill at what could be and attempting to find a way through the malaise of the humdrum to show others their bright vision. The Soviet Union, utopian by design, was a natural home for artists (until Stalin had them all murdered). But they did return, the dreamers proud of their silent seas and their tragic millenarian story, holding their homeland in the center of their imaginations – painting and poetry and prose as a natural response to their love of the land.
We in the west have a fascination with Russia. Communism and our epic fight against that vast slave empire. We who are flailing about in the desperate hunt for victims to give meaning to our opulence might well look east, to the greatest gulag in history and its two-hundred million victims. But that would require certain admissions that the utopians in our own midst would rather not recognize. But I digress.
The Soviet Union encouraged people to write – as long as their writing was not an act of resistance. To a certain extent, this made their literature much better. Unburdened by (in fact forbidden from) using their tremendous talent in the partisan political search for point-scoring, they were ‘free’ (or unfree, as it were) to explore the issues which have occupied the great Russian writers from time imemorial – love and land in times of tribulation. And this is where the Russians excel. Of course, I use the term “Russian” interchangeably with “Soviet” for the western reader, and for that I must be forgiven. Because to forget the Ingushetian theologians; the Armenian poets; the Georgian mythologists; and the great Ukrainian novelists – to lump them all together, is almost a crime.
Soviet Short Stories is a magazine published by the dictatorship as part of their efforts of making the case that their utopia was coming along nicely; and giving people something else to do to take their minds off their bondage. That does not take from its power, it only adds to it – for great art comes from great tribulation. And there has been no greater tribulation than communism.