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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Author, Critic, Dissident Sinyavsky Dead at 71

Andrei Sinyavsky, the outstanding literary critic and writer whose arrest and trial in 1966 was widely seen as the start of the Soviet dissident movement, died Tuesday of brain cancer at his home in a Paris suburb. He was 71.


"He is probably the most important Russian writer of the latter half of the 20th century," said Cathy Nepomnyashchy, a Columbia University professor and the English translator of Sinyavsky's best known work, "Strolls with Pushkin."


Sinyavsky's independent position in literature and public affairs earned him widespread criticism from inside and outside Russia, both in the Soviet and the post-Communist eras. Yet he also enjoyed a profound respect from backers and critics alike.


"He was and remains my friend, with whom I disagreed," said one of the pioneers of the Russian human rights movement, Larisa Bogoraz. "He did not care whether his friends or enemies agreed or disagreed with him."


Sinyavsky began teaching at the Linguistics Department of Moscow State University upon graduation there in the early 1950s. Later he became a research associate at IMLI, the Institute of World Literature, considered Moscow's primary intellectual center at the time.


By the late 1950s, Sinyavsky's reputation as a literary critic was already established. But he then began a hidden career as a writer, producing essays under the pseudonym Abram Terts and smuggling them abroad for publication with the help of a former French student.


Right up to the moment of his death, Sinyavsky kept his two personalities separate: Sinyavsky was the serious, scholarly critic and public defender of freedom while the ironic, irreverent Terts attempted to shock.


Between 1959 and 1965, Terts published writings that challenged the official dogma of Socialist Realism -- mocking Soviet attempts to control the country's intellectual life and prompting the KGB to start a search for the author.


Meanwhile, Sinyavsky continued his work at IMLI and appeared to lead a simple peasant's life in the village of Zenkovo, near Moscow, with his wife and life-long associate, Maria Rozanova.


"When he turned in opposition to the Soviet reality, he remained its son and loved Russia," said Georgy Gachev, a Moscow-based philosopher and literary critic who was an old friend and admirer of Sinyavsky.


Gachev said that Sinyavsky once explained: "I have aesthetic differences with the Soviet reality." In 1965, soon after Sinyavsky published a seminal introduction to the first major edition of Boris Pasternak's poetry, Terts' identity was unmasked. Sinyavsky and his friend, Yuly Daniel, who also published his works abroad under a pseudonym, were arrested and subjected in 1966 to a show trial for "anti-Soviet activities."


The trial is widely considered to have marked the beginning of the dissident movement in the Soviet Union. Its critical difference from previous show trials was that the two writers did not plead guilty, preferring to defend their dignity and artistic freedom.


Sinyavsky was subsequently sentenced to seven years of hard labor at the Potma prison camp.


After he was released under pressure from international public opinion, Sinyavsky and his family were allowed to leave the Soviet Union in 1973. He later took up a post as professor of Russian literature at the Sorbonne, in Paris.


From the basement of their house in the Paris suburbs, Sinyavsky and Maria Rozanova published the Sinaksis literary review and books, providing one of the major free intellectual forums for Russians in the late 1970s and 1980s.


In France Sinyavsky published, under the same pseudonym Terts, his best known works: "Strolls with Pushkin" and the autobiographical novel, "Good Night," as well as his recollections from the prison camps, "A Voice from the Choir."


"Strolls with Pushkin" was attacked by Russian emigre critics when it was first published, then again by Soviet critics when it was published here during the glasnost era; Sinyavsky was accused of "Russophobia" for challenging the conventional icon of Pushkin as the national pride of Russia.


Gachev said the essays were written in the "light-hearted, champagne-like, ironic style of Pushkin's first chapter of Yevgeny Onegin."


In recent years, Sinyavsky had been a vocal critic of post-Communist Russia and of Russian intellectuals' support for Boris Yeltsin. He continued to advocate the role of intelligentsia as that of moral opposition to the regime.


He attacked Yeltsin in October 1993 for storming the Russian parliament, and gave his tacit support to Gennady Zyuganov during last year's presidential elections.


"From an aesthetic perspective, he rejected the muzzle of the gangster-type democracy," said Gachev, who believes that Sinyavsky was consistently misconstrued as anti-Soviet when he was merely defending his aesthetic beliefs.