ČŃ: New Times
ÄŇ: April, 2005


Dear editors,

for several months I have been watching attempts to create a big, medium or at least noticeable scandal over the publication of the book A Portrait Against the Background of the Myth. I decided not to join this chorus because I had expressed my opinion on this subject 15 years ago. But the last (?) interview with Voinovich published in your magazine has compelled me to write a reply.

In summer of this year the public was shocked by two cultural events: pseudo-innovatory works of the writer Sorokin were thrown into a dummy lavatory pan and the writer Voinovich attempted to dispel the myth about Solzhenitsyn against the background of a portrait. Scholars came to loggerheads over this right away. Some thought that Voinovich was the portrait and Solzhenitsyn the myth, but others understood the heading of the book differently.

While Jointly Marching fought against Sorokin, the "separately marching" Voinovich decided that the most pressing task of the present time was to debunk the writer Solzhenitsyn. It is not a very easy task, and Voinovich took an unexpected approach to it. In his book, A Portrait Against the Background of the Myth, he did not analyze Solzhenitsyn's works but only noted in passing that he was deeply impressed by Ivan Denisovich. Going over to the GULAG Archipelago, Voinovich made the following remark: "Whatever has been said about the literary merits of this work, its strength lies elsewhere." Going on about the impression GULAG Archipelago made on its readers, Voinovich noted: "It was as if someone had hit them over the head." Here is a more interesting conclusion: "I have not found in this book the literary discoveries its readers mentioned at every step. In my opinion, a great literary discovery can be made only by using imagination. A documentary work can be very clever, passionate and talented for its genre, but the best literature is fiction."

I am unable to argue about such heights of literary theory and will leave this to the scholars. Let me only note that the ability to get into the skin of a character, transform into him and see the world with his eyes also takes imagination. The Archipelago is a striking fusion of personal experience and heartfelt compassion for the suffering of others. It goes into the destinies and feelings of hundreds of people. This book is an iron structure built by a master and described by a writer with great insight. However, we should write about the Archipelago in a different and more detailed way. What is more important, this startling book should be studied in schools. I have no doubt that this will be done in the end. Moreover, attacks on the Archipelago are particularly inappropriate in the country where the day of the chekist is still observed in spite of everything we have experienced, read and heard.

I am sure Voinovich will be unable to put the GULAG Archipelago into the same category as antiquated documents full of, as he writes, factual and emotional information (?!). Nevertheless, he made such an attempt: "As for the GULAG Archipelago, I have doubts about its obvious literary merits. The book has also lost its value as a historical account. Archives have been opened. The author simply could not have known the documents, facts and figures published then. Data confirmed by documents will certainly be of more interest to historians than honest empiric guesses." Thus, instead of the GULAG Archipelago Voinovich offers historians "documents, facts and figures." He does not feel the difference between facts and literature, between a document and the story of an eye-witness, between figures and the thoughts of Archipelago inmates about "the soul and barbed wire." A strange deafness for an unprejudiced writer. Let me note that the GULAG Archipelago is addressed not only and no so much to historians as to people in all parts of the world.

It has been believed till now that "the personality cult" is a term introduced by Khrushchev to describe the crimes of Stalin. It was widely used after the 20th party congress at which he exposed "the personality cult" in his secret report. The ruined fate of millions of people, wars and the ordeals of several generations lie behind this term. Later on, this expression, which was analogous to other party cliches like "who joined them" or "clean hands and a cold heart" was spread to other dictators.

Voinovich is now fighting against the "personality cult" of Solzhenitsyn. Isn't it strange to pin a party label on one of the most known and successful fighters against this cult? It is the deliberate confusion of all notions characteristic of our troubled times.

Voinovich sees the main danger in idol-making. We have learned this from numerous articles published in newspapers and equally numerous television interviews. (Newspapers, press conferences, opening ceremonies in various cities and television talk shows reminded us of this burning issue almost every day.) What was it that caused Voinovich to raise the alarm so loudly and often? It turns out that we are suffering not from thievery, ignorance, cruelty, natural calamities and the wear and tear on equipment at electric power stations, but from idol-making invented by Voinovich. We are suffering from our excessive delight over the talent of Solzhenitsyn, Bashmet or Marilyn Monro. We extol Chopin to the skies and throw too many bunches of flowers on to the stage after a performance given by Rostropovich. But however much Voinovich may fight this evil, people will continue to admire the talent of writers and scientists, singers and composers, painters and actors. If they ever stop admiring them, it means that they have turned into mere animals because there is nothing more beautiful in the human soul than the ability to admire art, perceive its masterpieces and respect those who created them. It is very absurd and, I dare say, harmful to fight against this in our cruel and pragmatic time.

In the interview he gave your magazine, Voinovich mentioned that he was having some problems publishing the book. Two magazines had refused to print his book and, moreover, he had to listen to "the screams and howls" of some of the readers and the "wild cries" of those who support Solzhenitsyn. However, in this book Voinovich cites only two examples of "the screams and howls" – excerpts from my letter and from a letter of my mother's Lydia Chukovskaya. The scream probably came from me and the howl from Lydia Chukovskaya, but perhaps the other way round.

You should also understand us. It is not easy to keep from howling when you read an excerpt like this: "The main exaggeration underlying the myth is the statement that he resisted alone and won". I would like to learn from Voinovich who made this statement. In any case, it was not Solzhenitsyn, who devoted a third of his book The Oak and the Cow to his assistants, thanks to whom he could keep afloat .

Unlike Voinovich, I am sure that our troubles lie not in supposed "idol-making" but in something quite different. Ours is "a society of mutual disrespect". Our main trouble is not "idol-making" but the lack of respect for the individual – whether he be outstanding or ordinary.

In 1911, in a letter to Ilya Repin, my grandfather Kornei Chukovsky expressed his indignation at the attacks of those who wrote the reviews for Mir Iskusstva (The World of Arts) on this painter: "It is the first sign of vandalism or hooliganism. I am talking about disrespect for our great personalities, sniggering at our geniuses, the hooting of those who have made Russia happy and famous, who have always been inspired by grandiose images and titanic tasks. Isn't that vandalism?"

I dare say the same can be said about the author of A Myth Against the Background of a Portrait.

Yelena Chukovskaya

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