A war of words: Nobel Prize winners for Russian Literature
16 October, 2017
Ivan Bunin in 1933
“for the strict artistry with which he has carried on the classical Russian traditions in prose writing”.
It was the first time a Nobel Prize had been awarded to someone in exile, in essence honouring the value of literature as a median distinct from politics. Bunin, like may other Russians at the time, was living in France following the advent of the USSR. As immigrants in Europe, they had previously felt at the bottom of the ladder, but then one of their own was recognised with the most prestigious of internationally acclaimed literary awards. Moreover, it was not for mere political grumblings but for real prose. Although it was not Bunin’s wish to become involved in politics, he inadvertently became the poster boy for non-Bolshevik Russian values and traditions and remained a talisman for the Russian class ostracised by the USSR.
Boris Pasternak in 1958
“for his important achievement both in contemporary lyrical poetry and in the field of the great Russian epic tradition”.
The citation, taken from the Nobel Prize website, is in fact rather empty. The gravity of awarding Pasternak the award was immense. Pasternak’s novel Doctor Zhivago was regarded as inherently anti-Soviet; criticising Stalin, the Great Purge and the Gulags. The novel also became a valuable western weapon, both the MI6 and the CIA undertaking a propaganda campaign to spread the novel and allow for a maximisation of ‘free world discussion’. The CIA bought thousands of copies and spread the novel at the World Fair, held in Brussels that year. They even designed a miniature lightweight edition which could be hidden in coat pockets and smuggled back into the Soviet Union.
In response to this, the Soviet Union undertook an anti-Pasternak campaign, which laid bare the ugliest elements of soviet tradition. He was publicly denounced and former friends were forced to speak out against him. Pasternak was brought to the brink of suicide when in a speech in front of 14,000 people, he was compared to a pig who “spat in the face of the people”. Although delivered by Vladimir Semichastny, the words were written by Khrushchev himself. Pasternak was informed that if he travelled to Stockholm to collect the prize he would not be allowed back into the Soviet Union. As a result, Pasternak was forced to decline the award, not wanting to cause greater harm to his family and friends.
Mikhail Sholokhov in 1965
“for the artistic power and integrity with which, in his epic of the Don, he has given expression to a historic phase in the life of the Russian people”
Sholokhov really did ‘give expression to a historic phase in the life of the Russian people’; he was a champion of soviet ideals. At the height of his career he even became the Vice-President of the Association of Soviet Writers. His epic novel And Quiet Flows the Don, became one of the most-read pieces of Soviet fiction and was a prime example of the Socialist Realist genre. A genre which glorified communist values. Sholokhov blended the style of Tolstoy with the ideology of Gorky to produce a work which orientated itself around human destiny amid the turbulent period of war at the beginning of the twentieth century.
Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn in 1970
“for the ethical force with which he has pursued the indispensable traditions of Russian literature”
Solzhenitsyn can certainly be portrayed as an ‘ethical force’ who attempted to hold the Soviet regime to account. Following eight years in Gulags, he was released after Stalin’s death and was able to begin writing in earnest. His work One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich (1963), was heavily critical of the soviet system and even in the less restrictive time of Khrushchev, officials began to clamp down on his writings. Expelled from the Union of Writers, he had to depend on a method of publishing called ‘samizdat’, which involved the copying of works by hand. When he was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1970, he had to decline travelling to Stockholm to receive it, for fear he would be prevented from returning to the Soviet Union. Though, a mere four years later he was expelled anyway for treason. He settled in America and despite his clear anti-communist views also became a prominent critic of America’s incessant materialism.
Joseph Brodsky in 1987
“for an all-embracing authorship, imbued with clarity of thought and poetic intensity”
At the time of his award Brodsky was referred to as the ‘best living Russian writer bar none’. Yet until 1987 all his works were banned in the Soviet Union. Although born in Russia and writing in Russian, he did not live there and his works were not able to be read by Russians. In response to a question on this topic Brodsky responded, ‘I’m Jewish; a Russian poet…and of course, an American citizen”. Although the ‘Swedish Academy’ responsible for awarding the Nobel Prize, maintained that it had no underlining political motives for the award, it nevertheless raised eyebrows in the Soviet Union. In a century characterised by competition between the Soviet Union and the United States a Russian-born Nobel prize winner, who identified as an American, may have been a difficult pill to swallow.
Svetlana Alexievich in 2015
“for her polyphonic writings, a monument to suffering and courage in our time”
Alexievich employed a fascinating technique of blending together interviews in order to trace the emotional history of the Soviet world. She used testimonies of witnesses to more accurately portray the struggles experienced by individuals. Although Belorussian in origin, she writes in Russian as her work centred on Soviet and post-Soviet history. She refers to the period as an ‘eternal dialogue between executioners and victims’ and maintains human suffering to be a collective experience. Hard-hitting and leaving no stoned unturned, she was duly awarded the Nobel Prize for literature and although identifies as an author, was unofficially named the first journalist to win the prize, due to her unorthodox verbatim style.
Differing in origin, residence and ideology; the above writers are united only by their contribution to and inevitably their love for the Russian literature tradition.