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This article is taken from PN Review 92, Volume 19 Number 6, July - August 1993.

Stalin, Beria and the Poets Donald Rayfield

THERE IS AN Australian marsupial mouse, the mulgara, that looks like and lives with ordinary mice: the mulgara is a marsupial, not a rodent, and it eats its lodgers. Yet the mice benefit from sharing with their lethal landlord. In the 1930s the same strange symbiosis underlay the association between Joseph Stalin or Lavrenti Beria and their prey, the intelligentsia: the depredations on poets by Stalin and his henchman Beria were much less straightforward than those of a tyrant on dissenters. Like animals in a symbiotic relationship, however stormy, they had common interests; in the case of Stalin even a common culture. Poets and Bolsheviks shared some delusions whose loss shaped the poetry and the cultural politics of the Soviet state.

We can ponder poems; it is harder to interpret the motives of Stalin and Beria. Let us note the fondness that both of them showed for contact with poets and prose writers. Stalin's telephone call to Pasternak after the arrest of Osip Mandelstam in 1934 is the most legendary example of the Leader short-circuiting the flow of information between art and politics. With his famous modesty, - 'I'm a dilettante in these matters' - Stalin could write to Stanislavsky to express diffidence about a play such as Erdman's The Suicide: 'My closest comrades think the play is rather shallow and even harmful.' But appeals to Stalin as supreme dilettante could save a play: the petitioning of Stalin by Mikhail Bulgakov won a guarantee of inviolability: this ...

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