history, literature

Strange Freedom

Boris Slutsky ( Бори́с Абра́мович Слу́цкий) was a Russian Jewish Soviet author, principally a poet. He was born in 1919 in Slavyansk in the Donbass, where today Russia, Ukraine, the people of the Donbass and NATO are fighting over the future of the world. Indeed, Slavyansk is where Alexander Zhuchkovsky centres his story, 85 Days in Slavyansk, of the eight years civil war that became a war between states in February 2022.

But to return to Slutsky… He wrote a little poetry, against the protestations of his practical father when young, but in 1941 Germany attacked the Soviet Union. Slutsky then served in the war as a political instructor, as a loyal member of the Communist Party. He probably ordered wavering soldiers to stand and fight despite their fears. He was badly wounded in the Great Patriotic War, and suffered with recurrent headaches, insomnia and other ailments for the rest of his life.

He returned as a veteran and became a member of the Soviet Writers Union. But he encountered late Stalinism including some of its vindictive anti-semitic strains. He had doubts. He had criticisms but he worked within the limitations of the regime he found. He resumed publishing poetry from the 1950s. He made criticisms of Stalin and aspects of the regime, but did not choose the path of samizdat. He was an official writer.

His poetry was in a plain style, but plaintive about the suffering and heroism of daily life. He also wrote about the war, the Shoah, and Jewish experience. One work of documentary prose, Notes About the War (2000), was published after his death, and contains frank horrors of the experience and the wrongs of all sides that he did not, could not, would not publish in his lifetime, Perhaps to protect the meories of his fallen comrades. He even denounced Pasternak for publishing Doctor Zhivago abroad; so quite a contrast to the prophetic dissident tradition.

His wife died of cancer in 1977. This brought a deep depression down on Slutsky and silenced his poetry. The silence lasted nine years till his death in 1986. His life began after, and ended before that of the Soviet Union.

I read his poem, “Strange Things” this morning. It was written in the late 1960s, after the thaws of the 1960s, perhaps after the Prague Spring and crackdown. It was written amidst a post-totalitarian society, no longer shadowed heavily by Stalin, better supplied with consumer goods, recovering slowly from the great traumas of the war, and yet knowing the West was richer and winning the information war.

In the first and last stanzas, Slutsky speaks of the strange freedom of post-totalitarian or late Soviet life. They were the liberators of Europe, and yet lived in a controlled society with meagre rewards for the heroes of the victory. They freed Slutsky’s fellow Jews from the camps of Eastern Europe, and then blamed American arrogance on the Jews at home. They were free to enjoy anything in a more consumption-oriented society, but they were led down a single, correct path of thought. This paradox haunted Slutsky’s choices.

“Such a strange sort of freedom!/ Across the border we broke the prisons open/ and blew them up. From the rubble/ we built prisons of our own.”

Boris Slutsky, “Strange Things” Penguin Book of Russian Poetry, pp. 458

These strange things spoke of the poisoned chalice that all war victors drink from. They also spoke to me of the strange freedom we have in our own post-democratic societies. Have we not built our own prisons from the rubble created by our liberation of ourselves from tradition? We say, like Slutsky, that we can:

do everything you want, say and write and publish

everything you want.

But to want the thing you want

this was impossible.

Boris Slutsky, “Strange Things” Penguin Book of Russian Poetry, pp. 457

From this traumatised, divided old Russian Soviet poet, we learn about our own strange freedom.

Image source https://prabook.com/web/boris.slutsky/952261#gallery

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