Another research trip completed, another mass of spreadsheets accrued. Last month I was in Moscow to investigate some new sources on one of the groups that interest me. Though socially close to democratic circles during the 1960s, this group moved away into more spiritual and cultural pursuits during the 1970s, and I have been following them precisely because of their complex relationship to dissent.
The opportunity to work with the papers of Anatoly Bakhtyrev (1928-1968), a writer and charismatic figure of the Moscow boheme during the 1960s, shed a new light on this otherwise unknown group. A totemic figure, Bakhtyrev played the role of a worker-poet in this circle of highly-educated camp returnees. Kept at the Marina Tsvetaeva Cultural Centre just off the Novyi Arbat, these papers are fascinating not only in terms of the light they shed on the time, but also on Bakhtyrev’s work itself. Although I’d read several of Bakhtyrev’s short stories before, as well as his published diary excerpts and letters, spending more time with this material finally made me appreciate its value. Preserved by Bakhtyrev’s wife Gedda Shor, an illustrator and graphic designer, these papers give a far more detailed picture of Bakhtyrev’s work. For me, it was particularly striking to see the connections between Bakhtyrev’s short stories, prose-poems and diary, as he worked both on his aesthetics and himself.
Going by the name ‘Kuz’ma’, Bakhtyrev was known as a folk philosopher; a font of earthy truths and profound conversation. Obsessed with Mayakovsky, Bakhtyrev quoted the revolutionary poet constantly. On meeting one eminent folklorist-philologist, for example, he would attempt to impress him by linking Mayakovsky and Ernest Hemingway together. (Translations of Hemingway were popular among students and intelligentsia groups during the late 50s and 60s and, with his modernist tendencies, Bakhtyrev was no exception.) In the account written in his diary, Bakhtyrev stated that ‘Mayakovsky is all ‘Hello, weapons!’ But Hemingway is all ‘Farewell, Arms!” Later, during the 1960s, Bakhtyrev would take the modernist principles of Mayakovsky and reformulate them in his own work, trying to create concise, powerful images. The myth of the poet, though, seemed to get the better of Bakhtyrev, and he would slide deeper and deeper into alcoholism in the late 1960s. Tragically, Bakhtyrev would die in Moscow at the age of 39 in March 1968.
Drawn to Bakhtyrev through his writing and the fascinating portrait of a Sixties bohemian emerging from the archives, I find that Bakhtyrev and his group provide another route into thinking about the fate of 1968. Dissident historiography lays emphasis on direct conflicts between state and individual. It formulates its own chronicle of the late Soviet period, in which the flashes of repression scorch our vision as we try to investigate experiences of late Soviet life. As my project underscores, we should look to how everyday life intertwines with politics in these circumstances, rather than eschewing lived experience in favour of hard politics. Bakhtyrev was far from a dissident, but he did move in their circles, share some of their concerns, and undergo similar experiences. In short, if we are to consider the legacy of dissent, then we have to think about its audience – the intelligentsia, and how that audience’s own lives are bound to shape its reception of late Soviet political and cultural resistance.