Galich on Pasternak (August 2013)

I’ve been increasingly interested in the transmission of texts and information back into the Soviet Union via radio stations recently. There has been quite a number of books written about this by American and Russian authors who were involved in the day-to-day operations of these stations, yet there has been less analysis of what exactly was broadcast. Obviously this is a huge area of study, but I have been looking to see what is available, and there is a surprising amount to be found on StaroeRadio.
Understandably, I’ve been looking into the transmission of memoirs and memorial texts about dissidents in an effort to appreciate how individuals found out about what going on, and how the routes this information takes affect the nature of this information. I suppose the wider point is about how the memory of dissent is an international phenomenon, which is unsurprising given the ‘transnational’ nature of rights activism as shown by Sarah Snyder in her recent book. (Gal Beckerman’s study of the links between Jewish emigration activists in the Soviet Union and America is another good example.) Coming back to Maurice Halbwachs’ theory of memory based on social groups, the routes of tamizdat publishing and emigration are relevant ways of thinking about how memories of dissent are just as international as national. The social groups involved were, on the whole, the urban intelligentsia on both sides of the Iron Curtain. (The cross-border religious activism strikes me as a much broader phenomenon, however.) Yet this is generally true only of the movements or causes that interested the stations’ management, their operatives and sponsors. Certain Russian nationalists, for example, did not receive the level of exposure to which the rights activists and cultural dissidents were treated.

Click for full-size image

From left tor right: Vladimir Maksimnov, Aleksandr Galich and Vadim Delone in Paris, 1977. Photo from the website dedicated to Delone:vadim-delaunay.org.

One interesting example I found on StaroeRadio was a set of short programmes made by the guitar poet Aleksandr Galich (1918-1977) in 1975. These programmes were dedicated to the history of Galich’s songs, and he tells a short story about how each one was written before performing it. Here is one that seems particularly relevant. It concerns Galich’s visit to Boris Pasternak’s grave on the anniversary of Pasternak’s death on 30th May 1974, just before Galich’s compulsory emigration later that year. It is an interesting story precisely because Galich wrote a song in memory of Pasternak. It recounts the callous way Pasternak was treated by the authorities in life and death.(This performance is particularly fiery.) Indeed, according to Yuly Kim, the unexpected performance of this song at the Novosibirsk Bard Festival in March 1968 led to the scandal that followed. Here then, alongside the oft-quoted fact that Siniavskii and Daniel’ were pall-bearers at Pasternak’s funeral, is another instance of the importance of Pasternak for dissidents.
The May 1975 programme in honour of Pasternak is a moving story of Galich’s last visit to Pasternak’s grave. Despite the fact that Galich got to Peredelkino early, he reports that there were already many people there. But as he moves through the crowd, he spots three KGB agents pretending to eat sandwiches just beyond the cemetery fence. Galich recognises them as being of exactly the same physical make-up of those who had followed Pasternak’s coffin at the funeral in 1960. Even now they are trying to listen to everything that is being said as people talk among themselves before poets, known and unknown, and including Galich, begin to read a mixture of Pasternak’s poetry and their own beside the poet’s grave. Afterwards, a few people went round to Pasternak’s house on Evgenii Pasternak’s invitation. Galich says that everything there is just like it was before he died: the spirit of Pasternak hung in the air.
Galich talks of a photograph given to him by Kornei Chukovskii after Galich read him his verse in memory of Pasternak: it apparently shows Pasternak, smiling craftily in front of the camera, clinking glasses with Chukovskii on the day the Nobel Prize of Literature was awarded to him for Zhivago. Galich retells Chukovskii’s anecdote about how Pasternak, who usually ‘dressed down’, would have to buy evening dress for the ceremony with the King of Sweden. But then it is revealed that this photograph was taken 10 minutes before Dmitrii Polikarpov would send Konstantin Fedin to Pasternak’s dacha in order to bring the poet in for a ‘conversation’. It is a moment in which, according to Galich, Pasternak is still happy, eternally so. But then Galich changes track, he says that every time he looks at this photograph, he remembers something different.
Instead, Galich remembers the moment in his youth when he would read memoirs of Pushkin’s contemporaries. Galich would get to the point just after the duel, when the doctor announced to Pushkin’s friends and family ‘He’s doing better. He might live!’ and then stop. That is what Galich thought about when he looked at that photograph.
The story finishes with a short story about one of the few meetings Galich had with Pasternak in the late 1950s when Galich was staying at the House of Writers at Peredelkino. As they walk through the woods there (is anyone never walking through those woods?), Pasternak turned to Galich and said: ‘A poet either dies in life [pri zhizni] or never dies at all.’ Galich ends by saying the same about Pasternak: he will never die.
P.S. This meticulously researched biography by Mikhail Aronov (pseud.) seems like a long overdue effort to do the same for Galich
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