What if Russia's Cultural Elite Went on Strike?

It was just a dream. Who knows whether it will come true? It's probably best not even to think about it. Russia is such an unpredictable place that anything might happen -- even a strike by members of the intelligentsia

The gloomy winter light wakes me up. I can't help but pinch myself; everything in my dream was so beautiful. There was the scent of wild, California roses. I was sitting on a veranda in front of a flowering pear tree, pecking out something on an antediluvian Russian typewriter, brought over in the 1920s during the first wave of the emigration.

But not all dreams are so pleasant, are they? Consider, for example, the following dream, which I had the other day. And which doesn't seem so very far removed from reality.

The telephone rings. "Hello," I say, still not completely awake.

"This is the Writers' Union. You must be at a meeting at 10 A.M. sharp. We'll be discussing an important resolution."

"But I'm still in bed. Besides, I have to be at work."

"Listen, it's in your interest to be there." Click.

Russian winters always depress me. The streets are full of expensive cars, splashing slush on passersby. You see fewer and fewer intelligent faces. Many have left for Israel; others are typing poems in California; still others are teaching in Hamburg. The former Moscow poet Pyotr Begin sends his poems to Russian magazines from Los Angeles. Alexander Mezhirov, who also used to be a Muscovite, has become a fervent American. During the war, he wrote the well-known poem, "Communists -- Forward!" Now he's ahead of them all in New York. For every returning Solzhenitsyn, hundreds of writers and musicians have left, edged out of their native land by kiosks and politicians.

Anyhow, the writers met over coffee at the writers' club, the first general gathering in recent years. "Comrades," the most active member opened the meeting. "This can't go on any longer! No one respects us anymore; no one asks our advice; they didn't even invite any of us into the president's adminstration. I propose a strike: Beginning tomorrow, we will stop printing our old books. We will try not to write any more novels or stories. We must keep them from exploiting our good names."

An approving rumble passed through the hall. "We must let the president know that ignoring our problems deprives society of its spiritual potential. I am authorized to tell you that other creative unions are prepared to join our strike: theater workers, musicians, composers and architects!"

"What about the filmmakers? Where do they stand?" a young poet shouts in a high voice.

"Don't worry, comrade! The workers of the cinema are with us too!"

And that's how it began, the country's first strike of intellectuals. Writers and musicians stood sullenly in their apartments, leaning their large, talented heads against the cold glass of their windows and looking out into the wintry hush. How would the people live without them? Writers, after all, are used to answering for their public, to worrying about them.

But no one even noticed the strike. People kept going to see the new American action films. On the way to work each morning, pushing up against one another in the metro, they read Stephen King -- shuddering in unison, each one turning the same page at the same moment. On the weekends, they took their families to McDonald's for hot apple pies.

A few of the president's advisers were a little surprised that for a couple of weeks in a row no writers had pushed their way through the security to request some state money to publish a new novel glorifying the beautiful future just ahead. The advisers were surprised and immediately authorized a bonus for the chief of security, naturally assuming that he had been working harder of late.

So the cultural world's strike continued. Of course, they reported what they were doing to the "proper authorities." After all, the cultural elite had worked so closely with the "proper authorities" for so long that many of them had actually begun to work for the "proper authorities," and many of the "proper authorities" had become cultural figures. But now the authorities were preoccupied with more serious problems -- unrest in the Caucasus, tension with the Baltic States, building summer homes in Miami Beach ...

Eventually, though, the time came when the New Government Leader needed to hear the Voice of the People, needed to hear from the peasants, the workers and the intellectuals. Immediately, Rostropovich flew in from Paris and performed a rousing tune. Mikhail Shemyakin rushed in from New York to paint a portrait of the New Leader. Academic Likhachyov sent a telegram of support.

But what about the rest of the cultural masses? You see, they had never lived in emigration, so they hadn't learned how to react independently to political changes as their Western colleagues had. So they sat back and waited for instructions. But this was the Russia of capitalism and democracy: They should have come up with their own instructions.

"Are you going to come or not?" They had called again from the Writers' Union.

"Yes, I'll be there."

But, of course, I was late and so I was only able to read through the State Directive posted on the door. It read simply that since the intelligentsia had reacted to the accession of the New Leader so passively, it would no longer be considered a class or even a social strata, effective immediately. Developed bourgeois society did not need them.

Therefore, those who wanted to remain in the country had to sign a statement saying that they had taken work with the Turkish firm that was working on the new parliament building. Everyone else had to leave the country within three days. "I told you to be at the meeting. I said that it was in your interest," the secretary said sympathetically.

Three days later, I was awakened by the sound of leather boots kicking my door. Too bad. I had been dreaming that I was sitting in a garden in California, typing love poems on an antique typewriter.


In the fall of 1922, Lenin ordered that a large group of intellectuals whose ideas did not conform to the new regime's ideology be expelled from the country. In all, about 200 people were ordered to leave, told that they would be shot if they refused or if they ever tried to return. Among those who left in 1922 were Nikolai Berdayev, Sergei Bulgakov, Semyon Frank, Vladimir Lossky, Lev Karsavin, Nikolay Alekseyev, Ivan Ilin ...

In the first issue of the radical newspaper Limonka which came out in December, writer Eduard Limonov calls for the resettlement of the intelligentsia on a special reservation and for their extermination as a class.

Alexander Shatalov is a poet, journalist and editor in chief of the publishing house Glagol. He contributed this article to The Moscow Times.