Anatolii Kuznetsov and Alternative History (July 2012)

One of the famous ‘non-returners’ of the 1960s, Anatolii Kuznetsov spent his early teenage years in occupied Kyiv. He lived with his mother and grandparents in the Kurenovka, the district central to the events of his 1965 novel Babii Iarbecause of its proximity to the execution and camp site. I recently became intrigued by this novel because of a recent collection of Kuznetsov’s broadcasts on Radio Svoboda in the 1970s has been published by Astrel’. I was interested in it anyway, but this finally gave me the push to get on and read the novel.

It is harrowing. Kuznetsov uses his own recollections together with survivors’ tales collected during the 1960s when a few survivors apparently first began gathering at the site to pay tribute to those killed there. He also uses Soviet document books published in the 1960s to add official announcements made to the people of Kyiv by the Reichskommissariat. It becomes a kind of imprint of what Kuznetsov has seen, heard, felt, smelt and remembered at various times.

The edition I read was particularly interesting. It publishes in ordinary type the first text which came out in Iunost’in 1966 together with text cut out by the ‘censor’ at the time in bold, and finally additions made between 1967 and 1969 in brackets. The vagueness of who was responsible for the censorship is quite striking as Kuznetsov states that the original manuscript was returned to him by the editor of Iunost’(the chief editor being Boris Polevoi at the time) with instructions to remove all the antisovetchina. So Kuznetsov removed the material concerning the NKVD blowing up the Kreshchatik, parts of the Pechers’ka Lavra, the mudslide of 1961 and so on. It was then published after it went all the way up the bureaucratic ladder to Mikhail Suslov, and during this process even more material was cut. It was then re-published in Molodaia gvardiia in 1967, which had a considerable print run at the time. Kuznetsov edited it himself in order to get it published, and the novel was then reduced in size again by a censor (presumably at Glavlit, but this is again unclear) before it was published. So the bold text is a mixture of self- and ‘standard’ censorship.

Kuznetsov went on to restore the original manuscript and, apparently from fear of losing it in the ever-increasing searches, photographed it and buried in the ground. It was the photographic film which he later he took with him on a trip to London in 1969, where he claimed political asylum from the Soviet Union.

Given the fact that Kuznetsov’s book draws explicit comparisons between the activities of the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany, it is easy to see why it came in for such heavy ‘editing’. One example that springs to mind is the decisions made regarding evacuations and demolitions in the retreat of 1941: while the NKVD is dynamiting bridges, buildings, historic landmarks etc., Kuznetsov draws attention to the fact that they leave 33 Vladimirs’ka intact for the Gestapo to inhabit once they arrive. Likewise, his mention of the post-war attitudes of figures like Podgornyi to the gravesite implies that the lack of respect to the dead (and the tragic consequences of that felt in 1961) is a crime which approaches the original in its callousness.

But what I’m quickly coming round to is something akin to the sentiment expressed by György Konrád, cited in the introduction to the 1992 edition of Maurice Halbwachs:

Today only the dissidents conserve the sentiment of continuity. The others must eliminate remembrances; they cannot permit themselves to keep the memory… Most people have an interest in losing memory. (p.22)

Konrád is jumping the gun for me a bit here in terms of time-frame. And in any case, while the dissidents as the lone carriers of memory in the 1990s is an attractive picture, and certainly has some ground, I don’t think it does justice to the complexities of survivorhood and or other forms of traumatic memory. Indeed, it is based on a dissident conception of true citizens as those who are speaking out. Silence is nearly always equated with cowardice in dissident circles as it tends to reinforce their views of socialist power as exclusively totalitarian.

What is interesting, however, is the extent to which dissidents and the intelligentsia as a whole was interested in the crimes committed throughout the Soviet period. Solzhenitsyn obviously springs to mind here, but many other writers circulating texts were involved in the documentary-novelisation of the past. In Kyiv, for example, Kuznetsov shared his passionate and firsthand interest in Babii Iar with Viktor Nekrasov and Helii Snegirev (who would later write a novel about the SVU trial of 1929-1930). Rory Finnin has recently written about how the poet Boris Chichibabin was concerned with the deportation of the Crimean Tatars during the Second World War. Vladimir Kormer’s early 1970s novel, Nasledstvo, dealt with the legacy of anti-religious campaigns alongside the tragedy of the civil war emigration.

This alternative history, at which I’m vaguely hinting at with the above, is supposed to come to the fore during glasnost’. I’m going to leave it there because I need to think/read more about perestroika before I can try and begin to figure it out. But this sense of alternative history is something I find intriguing: not only because, as mentioned above, it might provide some sort of horrendously convoluted ‘double-forgetting’ with the state of dissident memory and Soviet crimes, but also because it stretches over the dissolution of Soviet power, remaining a kind of constant at a time of radical change. Particularly if you think about a magazine like Vek XX i Mir.

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