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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Repressive Tolerance

The word was respected in the Soviet Union. This respect was manifested in the endless speeches of government officials and the tireless attention that the secret police paid to each and every writer.

The entire state machine battled against Alexander Solzhenitsyn for several years, an "honor" bestowed on very few Western writers. But Solzhenitsyn was no exception. The state waged unceasing wars against writers, losing most of them as if out of spite.

Mikhail Bulgakov expressed the state's impotence before the word in his famous phrase: "Manuscripts don't burn."

Even Stalin seems to have sensed something of the sort. Having dealt with a huge number of dubious citizens (including no small number of writers and journalists), the "leader and teacher" made a show of unexpected magnanimity with regard to two of the greatest writers of his time, Boris Pasternak and Mikhail Bulgakov. Something in their work forced even the "leader of peoples" to restrain himself. For Stalin to destroy someone was not, of course, a difficult matter. But he clearly wanted to secure a place not only in history, but in literature as well -- and not in the work of literary nine-to-fivers, whose worth he knew all too well.

He wanted Pasternak to immortalize him in a narrative poem, as Vladimir Mayakovsky had done for Lenin. Pasternak never wrote the poem, and he later won the Nobel Prize for "Doctor Zhivago," a novel saturated with hostility toward the Soviet system. The party and the government took offense, berated and threatened Pasternak, but again could do nothing.

Under Leonid Brezhnev -- himself the recipient of the 1979 Lenin Prize for Literature -- the war on the word was even less successful. For a number of years the authorities grappled with the "thick journal" Novy Mir. Despite, or perhaps because of, the party's obvious ill will, the journal was read by the entire country. When they finally brought Novy Mir to heel, samizdat emerged to fill the gap.

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When I was arrested in 1982, the security services were particularly keen to confiscate every last copy of my manuscripts. My texts nevertheless safely reached the West -- after their author had been locked up in Lefortovo Prison -- and were published there. Vasily Grossman's novel "Life and Fate" surfaced in the late Soviet era in even more spectacular fashion. How the authorities had tried to erase all memory of it! But there it is today in the bookstores.

A last skirmish in the war on the word occurred in the early 1990s. Freedom of the press had already been proclaimed, and the reading public had not yet developed the contempt for the printed word that one sees today. The "liberal" elite at that time did all it could to purge the airwaves and major newspapers and periodicals of competing points of view. First and foremost they sought to silence those critics of reform who offered a democratic alternative.

It was drummed into the public consciousness that the only choice in town was between reforms as prescribed by the International Monetary Fund and totalitarianism. The public was never told about other ways to proceed. No censorship was needed. The liberal editors of former Soviet publications proved more than willing to comply. As the editor of one of Russia's biggest newspapers put it in 1996: "We had to put our conscience under lock and key temporarily." This decision was entirely voluntary. Unfortunately, many lost the key somewhere along the way.

The press finally achieved real freedom only in the second half of the 1990s. No one hinders writers any longer. Periodic attempts to put the screws on oppositional publications are not taken seriously. We can write and print whatever we want. Once in a while we even get to say a few words on television. They cut out any really biting criticism, of course, and airtime is limited to a few minutes, or seconds. But how much time do you need to tell the truth?

Unfortunately, all of this freedom became available only after the word had finally lost all value in the eyes of the public.

No one's bothered by books any longer, much less articles. We have entered an era of "repressive tolerance." We can expose bribe-takers and embezzlers. We can write about the horrors of the Chechen war, and tell the grim truth about the men and women who steer the ship of state. In response our helmsmen smile pleasantly and carry on as before. They know that all publicity is good publicity and that every article helps -- unless, of course, it's your obituary.

Boris Kagarlitsky is a Moscow-based sociologist.