I would like to thank the Los Angeles Chapter of the Women’s National Book Association for naming Breaking Stalin’s Nose an honor book of Judy Lopez Memorial Awards.
Breaking Stalin’s Nose is a book about a young boy’s discovery of truth, his loss of idealism, and his subsequent decision to walk away from the system he trusted. The boy’s transformation mirrors my own. I also discovered truth about the system I trusted and I also walked away from it.
But tonight I would like to speak not about the book I wrote but rather about books written by other people — books that brought me to the life-altering decision of leaving behind the country of my birth.
Reading books in a police state is a very different activity than reading books in a free society. In a police state, reading books can place your life in danger, but could also change your life for the better. By glimpsing truth from the books, truth that government does not want you to know, you might be moved to alter the course of your life predetermined for you by the state. And that is exactly what happened to me.
Where I came from – I was born, raised, and educated in the former Soviet Union -- books were taken very seriously. To quote a widow of the greatest Russian poet of the last century Osip Mandelstam who perished in Gulag on Stalin’s orders, “Books in Russia are taken so seriously,” she said, “the government kills the writers.”
And indeed, the list of the Russian writers that were silenced by murder, exile, hard labor camps or sheer neglect is long. What were it then that moved Russian writers and poets to confront their government for nearly two hundred years? For the answer let’s turn to another Russian poet Joseph Brodsky who incidentally had died in exile. “As long as the state permits itself to interfere with the affairs of literature,” he said. “Literature has the right to interfere with the affairs of the state.” No wonder then that with attitude such as this not only writers but also censors and readers took books seriously in Russia.
Books were taken very seriously in my family. We lived in what was then called Leningrad, now St. Petersburg, in a communal apartment where four other families besides ours shared one kitchen, one toilet, and one cold-water tap. Five of us, my mother and father, my grandmother, my brother and I, lived in one small room. My parents considered themselves lucky as only three other families lived in our apartment, bringing the total number of tenants to fewer than twenty. Many of their friends lived in the apartments with forty, fifty, sixty, often close to a hundred strangers sharing one kitchen and one bathroom. So dense were these quarters that the government was compelled to install at least one informer for the secret police in each communal apartment. Hastily installed walls between the rooms were thin and they had ears. To this day I am not quite sure which one of our neighbors was the informer.
My father was a devoted Communist, a true believer in the Communist ideals. The material possessions meant nothing to him. He was ready to give his life for the Communist party, or, at the very least, to share his last piece of bread with a fellow Communist. However one thing my father was quite possessive about was his library. The walls of our small room were lined with books. All Russian classics of the 19th and the beginning of the 20th centuries were present. By average Soviet standard, my father’s library was priceless. The books never left the room, but were read and re-read by the members of my family. On occasion, when we had visitors, one or two of them would get lost in a book they couldn’t find elsewhere. No one would bother them.
Back then in Russia, books were hard to come by. One could not walk into a bookstore and choose a book one wanted to buy unless of course it was a work of Soviet propaganda. The real books, the classics, were available by the government subscription only. In order to subscribe to, say a complete set of works by Pushkin, Tolstoy or Dostoevsky, Chekov or Turgenev or Gogol, one had to spend untold hours waiting in line, often at night under a heavy snowfall. In all likelihood, it took my father the same amount of time to read a book as it took him to stand in line in order to subscribe to it. Which tells us he was not an exception.
The hold that books had on us during the Soviet period is hard to comprehend today. I often wonder about it, pondering the reason other than their short supply why books were so important and so valuable.
Undoubtedly, most of the present here today could recall a moment in their lives when while reading a book we would come upon a passage that precisely describes our innermost feeling, something we thought was unique to us only. At times the discovery is subtle, slowly penetrating our mind. At other times, truth hits us like a thunderbolt. In either case, we always know when the author is telling the truth.
In addition to many pleasures that reading of a good book offers, discovery of truth is the most essential. This is what Leo Tolstoy said about his novel Anna Karenina, “The hero of my tale—whom I love with all the power of my soul, whom I have tried to portray in all its beauty, who has been, is, and always will be beautiful—is Truth.”
At its core, Russian classic literature is humanistic literature. Search for truth in Russian books is search for what it means to be human.
No wonder then that in a country such as Soviet Union, where for seventy long years the government consistently and skillfully concealed truth from its people, reading classic books acquired such enormous value. What classic books had done for us, or specifically what they had done for me, they compelled me to create my own life from within rather then submit to one from without. In other words, during the breakdown of humanity that occurred under the Soviet Communism, reading humanistic literature helped me to become human.
My father was younger than I am now when he passed away at the beginning of the 1970s. I am convinced that being a Communist he would have hard time adding to his library a small number of underground books that appeared in Leningrad at that time. These books were not published by the official Soviet presses but by the foreign publishers and smuggled into the country by foreign diplomats or few courageous tourists. Those books were the works of the Russian authors that were banned by the Soviet authorities. The books were very small, no larger than a deck of cards, and printed in minuscule typeface on cigarette paper for easy concealment. I first read Pasternak’s Doctor Zhivago and Bulagakov’s Master and Margarita and dozens of other titles suppressed by the government printed in that clandestine fashion.
These books, and there were a very small number of copies in circulation, were passed on from one trusted person to another for no more than a day or two, and often much less. I remember hurriedly reading One Day In the Life of Ivan Denisovich by Solzhenitsyn overnight, as I had to pass the tiny book to a friend the following morning.
At the same time, the collective body of the banned works left by the Russian writers and poets was so enormous by then that only a small portion of it had leaked to the West. In fact some of our best literature was not even committed to paper. Take poetry for example. Osip Mandelstam, unquestionably the greatest Russian poet of the 20th century, was relentlessly terrorized by the secret police. He was arrested and exiled a number of times and finally sentenced to a hard labor camp he did not survive. During Mandelstam’s short life, the Soviet censors refused to publish his poetry while during police searches all of his papers were routinely confiscated and destroyed. Back then during the height of the Stalinist purges against the Soviet people, anything committed to paper was dangerous. As a result most of Mandelstam’s poetry had to be memorized and the paper on which it was composed burnt. To preserve his poetry, his wife Nadezda, which incidentally means hope in Russian, committed to memory all of his poems. For over twenty years after her husband’s death, Nadezhda kept his poetry alive by repeating his poems over and over to herself. Finally after Stalin’s death, she dictated the poems to be written down, but still the censors would not permit the publication. As a result, Mandelstam’s poetry was copied by hand or on a home typewriter using carbon paper, and the copies secretly passed on to a handful of courageous readers.
I remember how those blurry, wrinkled, loose sheets of paper felt in my hands. We called them SamIzdat, which literally means self-publishing. That was how I first read Mandelstam’s poetry and Isaac Babel’s short stories — another legendary author murdered by Stalin. As a young man reading these precious works, I began to understand the unwritten rules of our lives, the hidden structures of power, and the way not only our government but also we ourselves, Soviet citizens and the readers of these books, contributed to that large totality of domination and oppression we called our home.
The thunderbolt of truth struck in earnest when I finally read Gulag Archipelago by Solzhenitsyn, a book that for the first time revealed all the horrors of the Soviet system and paid tribute to millions of innocent people who lost their lives to Stalin. I have read and re-read that book since, and have a nice edition in English in my library now. But I could never experience again the shock, the horror, and the guilt I felt pouring over the thin hurriedly typewritten pages full of ink smears and typos. While reading, I couldn’t help listening attentively for any unusual sounds from outside of our door. There was always a chance that the person who gave you the book was an informer. One never knew when police could stop by unannounced.
The courage of writers like Solzhenitsyn who were still living in the Soviet Union but published abroad, or were distributed through self-publishing was awe-inspiring. In retrospect, the courage of their readers was no less so. If apprehended by the police with any of the banned books in possession, one would most certainly face a long journey to a Siberian Gulag with a slim chance of a safe return.
Why did we risk our lives for something so conventional in free countries as reading? The answer is simple. We were looking for truth. We were looking for truth about our country and our history. The crimes committed by the Soviet government against its own people are too numerous and too horrendous to dwell upon tonight. It is sufficient to say that these crimes were carried out in absolute secrecy with any evidence classified or destroyed. The generation upon generation of Soviet people either terrified or responsible for the crimes, kept silent.
I could not learn truth about those crimes from my father while he was still alive. I could not learn it from my friends. Truth was not taught at my school or the university I attended. Truth was not available in the newspapers or the magazines. You could not hear truth on the radio or television. I learned truth from the books I risked my life to read. I was in my twenties, and for the first time, I understood quite clearly that knowing what I came to know from reading books and to remain a Soviet citizen would implement me in the crimes of my government. I did everything I could to leave my country.
In a final twist of fate I had to sell my father’s library in order to pay for the exit visa from the Soviet Union. A fair price to pay for truth.