Monday, September 1, 2014

How the Soviet elite lived

Getting away from the depressing events of the world, I have been reading about depressing events in the past, in particular the Diaries of Alexander Tvardovsky for 1950 - 1959. Tvardovsky was for years at the heart of the Soviet literary establishment, both as a prolific and well-known poet and, more importantly, as the editor of the monthly journal Novy Mir, which, in the very late fifties and sixties was crucial in the temporary liberalization of the country's cultural atmosphere. They published One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich and a number of other "shocking" works that were suppressed in the seventies. 

Tvardovsky himself escaped arrest but had a good many problems with censorship, political attacks and criticisms and was forced to resign from editorship twice, once in 1954, described in this volume and again in 1970 not long before his death. He has been much honoured post mortem with a stamp, at least one memorial, a planet named after him and a good many other things, which are presumed to have made up for the problems he faced in his life. (Then again, if one looks at the list of monuments to Soviet writers one can find quite a few to people who had been imprisoned, murdered or simply destroyed as artists.)

A fair proportion of Tvardovsky's time was spent in various rest homes and sanatoriums where he could forget about the many party, editorial and political duties and perhaps do some writings. Often these stays were really drying out periods as the man was known to drink heavily (for which one can hardly blame him in those nerve-wrecking circumstances).

A particular episode caught my attention. In March 1955 he was spending some time in the newly opened and not quite completed "Istra" Sanatorium, which still seems to exist as an hotel but was then owned by the Writers' Union - a place for the Soviet cultural elite though few of them managed to rest easily and many required the oblivion provided by vodka. This site says that the hotel sanatorium now belongs to the professional union of nuclear energy industry.

On March 19 he wrote this [my translation]:
This appears ghost-like, a semblance of my conscience everywhere: there you are, hoping to enjoy your rest and enjoy nature and you see young girls trying to excavate ground that is frozen to depth of about one metre or doing other hard, unwomanly labour while you are trying to walk off your 80 kilograms. They are excavating trenches - sewage for the standard dachas meant for Ministry employees. Workers for that project are taken away, it is said, from the building of the sanatorium. The Deputy Minister came down and issued an order: "Those dachas must be ready by April 15."

Yesterday complete strangers said to me: "What utter insolence. Can they really not use the outside lavatories in the summer?" Today, on the other hand, I thought that those dachas are another sign of everything being tied to Moscow. Where else do we see such care for living officials? Houses are desperately needed in many places, such as the "virgin lands" or anywhere else.

The girls earn 10 15 roubles a day and their food is terrible. Today I joked a little as I went past: "Why not wait till spring? It will be easier to dig." A pleasant young girl replied with sad determination: "We have to do it."

How much there is that we prefer not to notice.
It is clear from this excerpt and other entries that many of these elite holiday places did, indeed, have outside lavatories even if they were close to Moscow. At no time did Tvardovsky or anybody else as he described events seemed bothered by that. Nor did he seem anything odd in the fact that there seemed to be no machinery to help the hard labour of digging the frozen ground. These points are just as interesting as those that did bother him: the stupidity of ordering impossible work to be completed by a certain date when that could not be done; the sight of girls doing hard manual labour (the way in which equality between the sexes all too often manifested itself in the Soviet Union) and the appalling lack of thought about those who really needed new housing in places where life and work was very hard.

An interesting vignette of Soviet life, I thought, and one that is not much known in the West among admirers (of which there are far too many still) or among detractors of the late unlamented Soviet Union.

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