A fairytale about the sort of rulers intellectuals make has been widely believed since Plato and his philosopher-king: they confer wisdom, justice, and reason to power that no one else can. This fairytale overlooks the fact that intellectuals could cling to rigid myths more fervently than any other group in society, insisting on their imposition at any cost. Ironically, cultural works and intellectuals that refuse to acquiesce to myths, defending their freedom and divergence, become the foremost victims of the rule of intellectuals.
With the exception of Nazism, European culture did not undergo a period as dark as that of Russian culture during the Communist October Revolution and its Stalinist extension. Indeed, this was the case although the regime that arose from it was something of an intellectual dictatorship: 11 of the 15 Commissars in Lenin’s first government were intellectuals. Nevertheless, in the first half of this century, tragedy loomed over the lives of those Russians who had been among the most distinguished cultural figures in the world.
When news of the poet, writer, and playwright Alexander Blok’s “unhappiness” with the new regime leaked in 1921, he and his wife’s request for permission to travel abroad for treatment, which Maxim Gorky intervened to try to help them obtain, was not granted until after his death.
In 1922, the “Philosophers’ Ship” took dozens of prominent intellectuals to their exile, an incident considered to have kicked off the deracination of the public intellectual in Russia. Among them the sociologist Pitirim Sorokin and the philosopher Nikolai Berdyaev, these intellectuals were shipped off for “anti-Soviet” activity and being “ideological slaves of the bourgeoisie.”
Wassily Kandinsky, the painter whose work the October Revolution spurned for its “bourgeois and individualistic spirit and assertions,” moved to Germany, where he lived and taught.
Sergei Yesenin, the romantic and lyrical poet whose poetry mostly revolves around nostalgia for village life, was denounced for not being concerned with the lives of the masses and labeled an anti-semite. He was arrested several times and reportedly committed suicide at the age of thirty in 1925, though there are rumors that the security forces had actually assassinated him. The state honored him with an official funeral, but most of his works were banned.
Vladimir Mayakovsky, who took part in the Communist struggle and was imprisoned on several occasions during the Tsarist era, considered the 1917 Revolution “his revolution.” During the civil war, he made pro-Communist posters, writing their slogans, designing their logos and distributing them, thereby giving rise to a new form of art, poster art. However, the Communist authorities criticized him and directed him towards “the right path” repeatedly, and they also demanded that he not write romantic poetry.
Mayakovsky read his famous poem about Lenin at the Bolshoi Theater after Lenin’s death, then traveled abroad to learn about Western art. While he seemed eager to return to Russia, Mayakovsky returned a hesitant man plagued with doubts. He subsequently began to decry “the transformation of humans into machines” and the state’s interference in culture, while his poetry was accused of being incomprehensible to workers. In 1930, Mayakovsky committed suicide at the age of 37.
The poet Osip Mandelstam and his wife, the writer Nadezhda, were arrested in the early 1930s and sent to one of the USSR’s internal exiles. Then, in 1938, Osip was arrested again and sentenced to five years of hard labor in the Far East. That same year, he died while being transported to a Gulag near Vladivostok.
The playwright Vsevolod Meyerhold, who had previously joined the Bolsheviks, had his theater closed down. In 1939, a year after his wife the actress Zinaida Reich was assassinated, he was arrested, tortured, and executed.
The poet and novelist Boris Pasternak, who had been on the side of the revolution, had his critical poems banned as Stalin consolidated power, which rendered them elicit material. In 1949, his wife Olga was arrested for having some of his old writings in her possession, disappearing without a trace.
The poet Anna Akhmatova was exiled to Tashkent, Uzbekistan. Andrei Zhdanov, the highest cultural official in the country and a “sensitive piano player,” called her work “poetry written by a beautiful lady who swings between the brothel and the church.” Akhmatova was nominated for the Nobel Prize twice, once in 1965 and another time in 1966.
The poet Mikhail Zoshchenko was also exiled, but to Almaty in Kazakhstan. He was condemned by Zhdanov in 1946 and lived the rest of his life in extreme poverty. His pension was not paid until a few months before his death.
Akhamatova and Zoshchenko were deprived of their rations of bread and other basic goods, and when Zoshchenko’s books were removed from libraries, the publication of Akhamatova’s books was also banned.
The writer, journalist, and playwright Isaac Babel was arrested in 1939 on false charges of terrorism and espionage, and he was executed in 1940.
The musician Dmitri Shostakovich was attacked by the press in 1936, and Stalin personally voiced his displeasure with the man’s work. Party circles also accused his art of formalism and claimed that the masses could not comprehend it.
Shostakovich placed his music at the service of the state during World War II. After the war, however, his ‘formalism’ was denounced once again; this charge was also directed at many other artists whose music was considered cosmopolitan and influenced by the “bourgeois West.” Among these were Sergei Prokofiev and Aram Khachaturian, who were made to apologize publicly and had many of their works banned.
Stalin, who was also a theorist of history and language, crowned his crimes on August 12, 1952, with what became known as the “Night of the Murdered Poets:” 13 Jewish poets and writers were executed in the Lubyanka prison on charges of treason and espionage. Most of them were Communists and members of the ‘Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee,’ a lobby that had been established to garner the support of Jews around the world during Moscow’s war with Nazi Germany.
Intellectuals later benefited from the relative laxity seen under Khruchev. However, Stalinism was too robust to just disappear. Shostakovich was forced to join the Communist Party and put himself in the humiliating position of defending the policies of the regime.
Boris Pasternak’s famous novel “Doctor Zhivago” was smuggled out of the country and published in Italy in 1957. A year later, he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature but was made to choose between rejecting it and leaving the country for good. He chose to stay and not accept the award.
The poet Joseph Brodsky was expelled from the Soviet Union in 1972. He lived and taught in the United States and was awarded a Nobel Prize in 1987.
And so it goes, with the names of those who suffered after the intellectuals took power in 1917 continuing to pile up. Today, it is difficult to understand Vladimir Putin and “Wagner” without remembering the cumulative cultural cleansing that was seen in Russia during this period.