In Western universities a lecture lasts 45 minutes, with a 15-minute break between lectures. In the Soviet Union a lecture lasts 50 minutes, with only a five-minute break. If the lecture hall is on a different floor, there is no point in leaving it during the interval since there is time only to go downstairs and come back up. When the bell stops ringing you need to be back in the hall. One of my university colleagues, a Russian, once said that professors are pozvonochniye zhivotniye – literally, vertebrate animals. The pun consisted in the fact that pozvonochniye can equally derived from pozvonok – vertebra – and from po zvonku, by the bell. We were animals moving to the sound of the bell. Although actually a complete characterisation of the Soviet scholar would more precisely term him an invertebrate, a spineless beast. It may have occurred to us, but nobody said so out loud: that would have constituted a political act.
One way or another, from the mid-1930s onwards lecturers at Soviet institutes of higher learning had become animals in both senses of the word. It was calculated that the one-bell system, announcing the start of the lecture, was inappropriate, since on each occasion it robbed the working people’s state of a few seconds, which multiplied by the number of lectures and all the higher education institutes in the USSR, and then by the number of students, it created a huge unproductive loss of working hours. In the course of those lost hours one could have trained tens of thousands of skilled experts, so vital to the state; thus the system was not just harmful – it could be defined as downright ‘sabotage’. It was therefore decided that the start of every lecture was to be signalled by two bells: during the first, the students should be seated in their place, while the professors make their towards the hall; at the sounding of the second bell, the door opens, the professor enters and begins lecturing.
This is not common knowledge: it sounds like a joke, but that is the reality. By its very nature it gives rise to the question: was this procedure instituted in all seriousness, as a time-saving measure, or was it intended to have a psychological effect – to carry out such an extreme regulation of every detail of university life that people would constantly feel they were mere cogs in the machine? I would go for the first option, however absurd it may seem. The rulers of the Soviet union, with Stalin at their head, are totally devoid of a sense of humour. Therein lies their strength, though at a certain point it can also be their weakness. It is something that people in the West have been unable to grasp and use to their advantage. Admittedly, in fighting systems and people without that sense of humour they begin to lose their own. One example: the demand of unconditional surrender put to the Germans in 1945. But that goes beyond the subject that concerns us here.
The system of two bells – or, if you prefer, the symbolism of two bells – extended to university life the entire swathe of pan-Soviet measures aimed at tightening discipline at work. It was exactly then that decrees were issued making malingers and latecomers in factories and workplaces accountable to courts of law, and also tying employees to one given workplace. The same directives were applied to places of higher education. The peculiarity was that each lecture was treated as a formally defined whole, thus giving rise to the double-bell arrangement.
The essence of the Soviet system is that everything is broadened to include everybody. A resolution concerning ideological deviations in music must be discussed not only by all musicians – that would be understandable – but also by chemists and physicists, because everything that emanates from central headquarters must apply to everybody. After the publication of Stalin’s articles on linguistics, periodicals specialising in all subjects contained introductory editorials: Archeology and Comrade Stalin’s address on linguistics, Geology and Comrade Stalin’s address on linguistics, Medicine and Comrade Stalin’s address on linguistics. To find this surprising means not to understand the essence of the Soviet system. In other words, to look at it through the eyes of Orwell.
Orwell’s 1984 narrates the story of the arrest and ‘penitence’ of Winston Smith, who psychologically rebelled against the rule of Big Brother. It all depends on a total incomprehension of the Soviet system. First, Smith is accused of being part of an anti-government plot. Totally improbable. To be arrested you do not need to read forbidden books or record into a hidden phonograph your oaths to fight the system in every possible way. Then, in the dungeons and prison cells of the NKVD – the Ministry of Love – Smith is reduced to repentance and inner bankruptcy by the application of individual methods. Totally improbable. The NKVD’s methods are never individual. The only point is whether the individual will give in and at which stage of the torture process this will happen. But the sequence of tortures and even the type of accusations are always the same. The most dreaded element of Orwell’s Ministry of Love is Room 101. It is empty, containing no fixtures. A method of one sort or another is applied depending on the character of the individual. But in every case it is the worst thing available. ‘The worst thing in the world’, philosophises the theoretician and master of converting heretics, O’Brien, ‘always looks different, always depending on the person. It could be being buried alive, burnt, drowned, impaled or fifty other types of death. There are cases where such a death is something quite natural, not terrible at all’.
Well, reasoning in this way constitutes the greatest implausibility of all. Not only is there no Room 101 of that description – it is impossible for one to exist. The essence of the system both in the USSR and – in a much less perfect form – earlier in Russia is precisely that there is no individual approach: everyone is treated mechanically, as an indifferent being lacking in personality. If we were to seek a literary depiction of that system we would find its fullest expression in Taras Shevchenko’s poem The Dream. It is a sui generis relay of pass-it-on punching initiated at the top and moving downwards.
I look: the tsar goes to the oldest
and hits him hard
in the face. And the poor fellow
licks his wounds and thumps
the younger man in the gut,
making him jump.
So he in turn head-butts the next guy
between the eyes.
Who then whacks the smaller fellow,
he then picks on the shorter one;
the short guy thumps those even smaller …
These are all general remarks, and literary analogies may seem redundant; but they lead us straight to our main subject, which is Soviet policy towards scholarship and scholars. It may be a paradox, but one corresponding exactly to reality: there is no such policy. There is only the mechanical implementation of a general all-purpose political line applied to life in all its aspects. If there is a certain specificity when it comes to the field of scholarship it stems not from some customised plan but from a general political orientation coming into contact with human material, which after all has its peculiarities.
It is not always easy to apply a one-size-fits-all approach to academic life. What about, for instance, socialist competition? In factories, workshops or collective farms its meaning is clear. The worker is to increase production, take care of quality and conserve the equipment. But at a university? What is a professor to understand by the term ‘maximum production’? The larger or smaller number of students and skilled graduates does not depend on him. What is good quality? What should be the specific criteria for assessing the level of teaching? ‘Conserve the equipment’? Should he strive to reduce the consumption of chalk or to maintain a smooth surface on the blackboard? But each semester every lecturer, professor or reader has to put his signature to a personal commitment to socialist competition with one of his colleagues.
Soviet workers loathe ‘socialist competition’ because it imposes an excessive strain on their efforts. Academic employees loathe it because in their context it makes no sense, and they often have to rack their brains to think of something to write on a piece of paper that does not look like mockery. But the system is humourless and every semester the whole farce begins anew with all the trappings of seriousness, the professional body announces to a standing ovation that one hundred per cent of lecturers are taking part in a socialist race in the workplace, after which the relevant data make their way to regional reports, and from there to the capitals of the republics and to Moscow. The only practical result is the feeling that one has been spitting at oneself, because after all even in the USSR doing nonsensical things with the simultaneous awareness of their nonsensicality amounts to spitting in one’s own face. And anyway, does the effect produced by the system of two bells not lead to the same thing? Life by two bells – that is the USSR. That is the secret of the real Room 101.
The same applies not only to those professors who remain at liberty, or rather, my apologies, who have not yet been arrested. Identical principles underpin the treatment of those already under arrest… A professor of Ukrainian philology told me that during an interrogation by the NKVD he was told: ‘We know that you are a Ukrainian nationalist. We know, for example, that you have ignored the revolutionary-democratic work of Shevchenko, but have spoken positively about the bourgeois-nationalist writings of Panek Kulish…’ The professor had to confess. The irony was that he had never lectured either on Shevchenko or on Kulish. Maybe the interrogating office mixed up the order of charges prepared for professors of literature and philology. What is most likely, however, is that it was assumed a priori that all those teaching Ukrainian disciplines must have been nationalists, and that all nationalists by definition praised Kulish and sidelined Shevchenko, following in the footsteps of Khvylovy.
Both in this instance and in all others the interrogator was not at all concerned to know the individual characteristics of the person he was questioning. His only aim was to fit him into one of the broad categories supplied by central HQ. Then the man was placed in the ‘pass-it-on’ pecking order of punches and all was fine.
It is often believed – including by Orwell – that there is no freedom of thought in the Soviet Union. In Orwell’s novel the interrogator O’Brien demands of the arrested man not just that he should accept that Big Brother and his system are in the right: he must actually believe it. It is hard to find a greater absurdity. In reality no-one in the USSR gives a hoot about what someone thinks, and nobody intends to try and convince him of anything. The system which is at the root of Soviet propaganda will remain incomprehensible if one assumes that within the confines of its own country it wishes to persuade, to suggest anything. The point is to teach the person what he is to say and how to say it. Only that is important. For the person not to stay silent, and to say what is expected of him. What he might be thinking is his private business and nobody else’s. That is precisely why, when the streets are strewn with corpses of those who have starved to death, the radio blares out news about a happy, prosperous life. And why when the German army stands six kilometres from Kyiv, communiqués from the Chief of Staff talk of fierce fighting ‘in the Zviakhelsky (Novogrod Volhynsky) region’. From your own window you see swollen cadavers on the street, but at the same time you have to talk of a content and prosperous life. You might hear in your Kyiv apartment the crack of rifle fire but you must tell an acquaintance who has dropped in for a moment that, thank God, the Red Army is holding the Germans ‘in the Zviakhelsky region’ and no German soldier will ever set foot in Kyiv. But you can think what you like. Thinking is free.
Somewhere, though, a question might arise: can one permanently live under the burden of a double system? Can a person’s thinking be kept permanently and at any given moment – awake or asleep – detached from his words and conduct? Because it would be bad if such thinking were to disclose itself in words or actions. Such feral thinking. And while concealing one’s thoughts is difficult enough, it is equally hard to protect them from the influence of one’s own words and actions. It is here and only here that Soviet propaganda impinges on a person’s soul: it does not persuade the person but it splits him in half; later, despite his best will, the two halves begin to fight it out with each other. The practice of interrogating Soviet prisoners has given rise to a characteristic idiom: razkalolsya – he has been broken. Meaning that he has admitted to everything that the interrogator demanded of him, irrespective of whether it bore any relation to the truth. This distinctive turn of phrase reaches further than might initially appear: it can refer not only to prisoners, but ‘free’ citizens too.
But it is particularly applicable to academics, for the simple reason that their work needs to be manifested in words. What is demanded of a labourer or collective farmer is primarily manual, physical work. They too need to speak, but only at meetings, rallies or political education sessions – of which there are a fair number, but after all during their eight hours of work they can stay silent, as also in the course of their eight hours of sleep. The length of time for which an academic has to speak is far greater, as is the responsibility. Hence the larger number of the ‘broken’. But I recall a certain elderly professor, who reached his prime even before the revolution, telling me: ‘If you train a hare sufficiently well, he’ll even learn to light matches’. The history of the Soviet scholar in the years 1917-1937 is the history of such training of hares. It was particularly onerous outside Russia, because for instance in Ukraine the programme demanded renunciation of oneself not only as a person, but as a member of a nation, something no-one demanded in Moscow or Leningrad. What was mocked by Turgenev – ‘Some heroes have even invented Russian science: with us, they say, two times two is also four, but it somehow comes out with greater style’ – had to be expressed all the more vociferously by representatives of non-Russian and anti-Russian nations. The fact remained, however: all present-day scholars underwent a course of hare studies. They all learnt to strike matches, if that was what their trainers required.
No, I do not intend to cast stones at them. I shall leave that to those who are without sin. The pun about the pozvonochniye zhivotniye contains a double truth: not just about the drill accompanied by the ringing of the bell, but about zhivotniye – animals. It is nothing less than the transformation of the human into a beast, a total deindividualization. But to be a beast that thinks, and so knows that it is a beast, but at the same time is aware that it cannot help being a beast!... Oh yes, it is easy to cast a stone, but it is worth giving some thought before so doing…
The history of the hare studies of academics in Soviet Ukraine is a subject for a whole book. The curriculum was divided into several stages, several classes. Initially, the people themselves did not realise they had been placed at the classroom desk; they thought they were still free.
Those were the 1920s. Ukraine appeared to be Ukrainian; its scholarship moved ahead according to its own laws of development. After its decline in the 18th century, it had risen anew starting in the mid-19th century, bolstered by great individuals. It entered the 20th century on the back of its academic institutes – a determining factor in the existence of scholarship in general. It was in these schools that the accumulated experience of generations and the tradition handed down to the pupils by their teachers ensured the success of rebellions and revolutions instigated by those pupils against the teachers. Let me cite some examples: the history school of V. Antonovych – M. Khrushevsky, the linguistic school of Potebnia, the school of the history of literature of Peretz, Mechnikov in medicine… Thus were created solid foundations for endowing the scholarly movement with a higher form, i.e. a scientific academy. And while political circumstances delayed its creation, the revolution swept away external obstacles, and on 14 November 1918 Kyiv witnessed the inauguration of the Ukrainian Academy of Sciences – an event which, though hastily prepared, was fully justified and appropriate.
The maturity and level of true scholarship is expressed above all through its objectivity and the fact that it develops according to its own momentum, irrespective of the pragmatic or political tasks which the practice of the moment is always seeking to impose on it. The Ukrainian scholarship of that period clearly demonstrated its total sovereignty. Naturally, there were manifestations of provincialism: tilting at windmills was not uncommon, e.g. in seeking to prove that Ukrainians are one nation, or constitute the leading nation in Slavdom, being the only rightful heirs of the Ancient Slavs; or that no Germanic tribes, Goths or Varangians played a role in the history of the Ukrainian nation, or that the world’s most melodious language is Ukrainian, and so on and so forth. A Polish reader has no need of such examples, since he will find analogies in the annals of Polish scholarship. It is worth noting, however, that in those years such displays played a secondary role and did not act as signposts in mapping the direction of genuine learning – the latter was subsumed by the fervent desire to assert national identity through objective recognition of the truth, not through arbitrary illumination of that truth.
I will confine myself to one example – from the field of linguistics. V. Hantsov and O. Kurylo came up with a new thesis on the origins of the Ukrainian language. In contradistinction to old theories about the primordial, Ancient Slavonic roots and total Slavonic purity of Ukrainian, they concluded that it is not primordial, but rather the product of merging two previously discrete dialectal groups, of which one was close to Belarusian and other probably to Polish (interestingly, these views were most hotly contested by the Polish scholar W. Kuraszkiewicz). I am not concerned here with the rights or wrongs of these views – I merely cite them as an example of the independence of Ukrainian scholarship of those years from political-patriotic dogma, and as an illustration of its sovereignty among the higher echelons which at the time set the course as decision-makers.
In terms of subject matter, too, Ukrainian scholarship reaches far beyond strictly Ukrainian issues, covering, mainly in the humanities, both the West (the dedicated series ‘Collections of western research’), and East: Iran, Arabia, Turkey, countries which aroused interest in connection e.g. with the watchwords of Khvylovy, who sought out ‘comrades in a shared predicament’ with a realistic assessment of the threat posed to them by Russia.
The Ukrainian Academy of Sciences was created before the Soviets occupied Ukraine; after that, it never turned to them for assistance. The diaries of the Academy’s employees tell of work in cramped, unheated rooms, of a half-starved existence, of a lack of resources for the most elementary personal and scholarly needs, of a zealous work ethic, of enthusiasm and fire in the eyes, of the creation of huge libraries and museums, and of setting in print hundreds of learned publications in every domain – from Arabism to ophthalmology, from metal resistivity theory to numismatics and ethnography.
The heyday of the Academy’s work occurs in the years 1927-1929, but even then the groundwork for its later pogrom is being laid. In order to wreck the Academy it was necessary first to prepare cadres which could eventually take over the running of the institution. It was not difficult to achieve this final goal, since all that was required was to conduct ‘elections’ of new academics who had little connection with scholarship but were close to the communist party. It was not till later that Marshal Rokossovsky was put to use in Warsaw and the Polish army. Much earlier, the Ukrainian Academy of Sciences had its Rokossovsky, or various Rokossovskys.
It stands to reason that – as usual in these cases – this policy was carried out under the guise of assistance to the Academy. It became an official institution; it was housed in new, first-rate buildings; its budget was increased tenfold. In the USSR terror is intrinsically linked to bribery, every coin has two sides and the old saying about the Greeks bearing gifts is confirmed time and again.
As regards the ‘safe’, communist academic cadres, they too were drawn up more or less towards the end of the 1920s. Their training was in the lecture halls of the former universities, which first bore the name of Free Academies and later of Institutes of People’s Education.
For the new authorities, the old-style universities were an incomprehensible and hostile phenomenon. Theology? Sanskrit? Comparative grammar? What was the use of all that? As for the students – they were simply ‘white gloves’, idlers who shunned physical work. Diplomas and exams were bourgeois ploys designed to cling to power. Let us open the doors of these institutions to all, let the workers and peasants crowd into the quiet auditoria and bring in life – new life, of course, since everything is, or is to be, new. If they fail to understand the professorial lectures, that is not their fault, enough of this babbling about having to be prepared, let the professors adapt to this new auditorium, and if not, well, we have the red terror!
The Free Academies did not last long, a year or two in the romantic period of the revolution. They were so blatantly nonsensical that soon their place was taken by the Institutes of People’s Education, where everything was given over to the practical task of preparing cadres of teachers. And since the professors could not be trusted, lectures were, in practice, abandoned. ‘Laboratory methods’ took over: students received subjects, worked on them in the Institute (never on any account at home) during appointed hours, after which they read out their works at presentation meetings. The professor’s role was limited to answering questions on unclear issues and summarising. The participants underwent a stringent selection along political lines, in accordance with recommendations by the trade unions; candidates for academic positions were nominated by party centres. The professors were a necessary component of the process, but they were not trusted or relied upon.
That in itself was a school for the professors, the introductory class to their maturity studies. In the higher institutes the decision-maker was not the professor but the student. The professor’s fate depended on the attitude of the learners. These, for their part, were in their totality quite different from their predecessors: they did not understand the professors and treated them with suspicion, if not actually with loathing. (The bourgeois intelligentsia – said Lenin – needs to be exploited; meaning, once exploited, discarded.) In private the professors still exchanged anecdotes about the doltishness of their students, but the seeds of fear had been sown in their souls. Admittedly, initially the intimidation and control by unqualified and incompetent people affected only the actual lecturing side of the work. But the new ‘proletarian’ academics were being groomed to eventually have their say also in the area of scholarship and research. The introductory class had to end, and year one had to take over.
And so the ‘proletarian scholars’ were let loose on their older colleagues on the cusp of the 1920s and 1930s. This was the first class of hare studies, and it was under the banner of the purity of Marxist-Leninist ideology in scholarship. The method: set the writing of each scholar side by side with quotations from the classics of Marxism. What was most odious was that no-one dared stay silent. All participants at the ‘meetings dedicated to self-criticism’ had to speak, and that included all friends of the person criticised. Followed by the person himself. It was not enough for him to admit his errors: he had to ‘show their methodological roots’, which meant publicly to denounce himself as an agent of the bourgeoisie in the academic world, an involuntary pest, to declare that all his former work had no scientific value and solemnly swear that he would undergo a ‘transformation’. But the criticism was never sufficient, yesterday’s students continued with their aggressive attacks, the mechanism, once unleashed, refused to wind down. The press published new revelations, the NKVD would visit homes at night, one after the other the academics vanished without trace, their relatives lost their jobs and homes, the criticism went on incessantly. No-one dared stay silent – that would have been worse than openly speaking against the system, or at least no better.
The accusations were most often ludicrously illiterate. ‘Komunist’, the periodical of the Ukraine communist party, charged a philologist with being a Ukrainian nationalist on the premise that he had had the effrontery to write that northern Ukrainian diphthongs have a different origin from those of Ryazan in Russia. How dare Ukraine give rise to something different from Russia? The accusation was risible: every student of philology knows that those diphthongs do in fact have different roots, and a normal person will clearly see that the statement contains not a scintilla of Ukrainian nationalism. That however was more or less the level of all accusations and perhaps the greatest distress of the academics derived from the fact that it was precisely those kinds of accusations that they had to acknowledge to be correct and express their contrition about. People who believed in science began to be taught that there is no objective science, there are only directives from central HQ and they are always right. Today we feel like laughing when we re-read the transcripts of the ‘self-critical’ meetings of that period or works of literature depicting the whole procedure: Cadres by Ivan Mykytenko, a play in which some simpleton criticizes professors from a standpoint of ‘common proletarian sense’, or Afinogenov’s Fear, an aptly titled drama. At the time, however, there was nothing to laugh about and quite a few academics were lost to the world of scholarship, falling prey to psychological illness, alcoholism or schizophrenia. After all, it is bad enough to let yourself be spat at and led to Golgotha – but even worse to spit at yourself and lead to Golgotha your own friends and beloved teachers.
At some point around 1933 the authorities’ work was complete. The young intake of Soviet scholars were in all the key management positions, while those members of the former senior staff who had managed to remain did so in the capacity of advisers, holding on in permanent fear, rarely consulted and even less frequently listened to, being constantly made aware that they were there as a result of some kind of misunderstanding and that of course this would soon end. These were the years of the greatest collapse of academic learning in the USSR. The new cohorts, quickly promoted after graduating from higher education institutes that were now focused only on practical matters, had no real knowledge and pursued facile careers. Scholarship was of no interest to them, they had reached their goal of gaining a place at the top table, and now all they had to do was to make sure that they did not stray from the constraints of orthodoxy.
And mirabile dictu: Soviet literature managed to find a mirror which reflected that situation and those processes. This was Ivan Mykytenko’s play The Flute Solo, the story of a careerist in a scholarly research institute. He does not need to study – he has to seek out the weak strings of a prominent communist on whom his career depends and play on those weak strings himself. Thus is created this ‘flute solo’, existing only for two people and opening wide vistas for the maestro of this musical genre. Due to some misunderstanding the play was even performed in public, causing a great scandal which resulted in its being taken down after a few nights and banned, while the star of the ‘proletarian playwright’ and regular supplier of theatrical pieces on the subject of the latest communist party edicts quickly began to wane. But the play remained as a vivid document of an era in which academics were ruled over by parvenus and careerists.
However, the careerists’ ability to climb the hierarchy ladder was matched by one thing only: their incompetence. It was a state of affairs that could not last for ever. They had to be dealt with, if scholarship was to some degree allowed to thrive, the more so because the hares had already learnt to handle matchsticks. The year 1937 swept almost all of them away. They had performed their task, and now had outlived their usefulness. The Soviet way of operating did not allow for a person to be simply removed from his job: he had to disappear. And so they, too, disappeared, the short-lived Caliphs. And at that point in Ukraine the universities were renovated, trust was allegedly restored in the surviving professorial old guard; they were back in favour, bribed with awards, bonuses, medals, privileges for life. By that time it was no longer necessary to instigate convoluted procedures in order to ensure their meek obeisance. It was sufficient to hold workplace deliberations, in which anyone was free to criticise and expose, to place denunciatory notices in the university press and notice-board bulletins, to have unannounced visits by dean-controllers (deans in the USSR are appointed, not elected), to send short-hand secretaries to take records of lectures, which entailed a subsequent review – was the lecture sufficiently orthodox and did it conform to the programmes (all programmes, it needs to be added, being dictated by Moscow HQ)? Ideological deviations were rare – the scholars were probably even more cowed than the controllers and strictly toed the line. The matchsticks burnt precisely according to programme and plan. Serving the regime, scholarship advanced as required by the plan, out of both fear and conviction. Long live Comrade Stalin, the greatest scientist of the Union of Soviets and the whole world! Long live the great Russian science!
No, in the USSR there was no individual approach to scholars. There was no Room 101, in which everyone received his own punishment and re-education tailored to his character. There was no striving to stop people thinking. There was a blueprint fot methods designed to have people understand what at any given moment they need to say and how they have to behave. It was enough. The whole of the Soviet Union was Room 101, everything was the same for everybody, and it was precisely this that was most frightening.
But what allowed a partial victory over the system – creating the promise that in the future people will abandon the present status quo – was that in the end a total eradication of individuality was not possible. The life of a society is determined not just by absolute values, but by a structure of the reciprocal relations between these values. The system forced scholars to accept its absolute values, but was unable – and no system in the world is able – to impose its attitude to those values. It turned out that the professors could quote Lenin and Stalin and speak exactly as required by Moscow, and yet certain imponderables remain, understood on their own terms, that no transcript of a meeting can reveal and no dean is able to criticise but which will be felt by every student. It transpired that within the confines of a required group of sentences there are certain nuances which defy definition but clearly testify to the honesty or dishonesty of the professor and his individuality or lack of individuality (sliminess). It transpired that students have a subconscious perception of this, and that is how some professors gain in personal authority while others are despised for their slime. On each occasion the nuances are different. One year all that is needed is a quote from Stalin and three sentences against ‘bourgeois nationalists’. If those words are not uttered, suspicions are aroused and the students will not believe the professor – what is more they will think that he is acting this way in order to test their vigilance, that this represents a threat and they need to protect themselves. If he goes over the top it shows that he wants to ingratiate himself, is contemptible and lacks integrity – his students will despise him. But next year the proportions may change. No-one dictates what they should be, nor can anyone define exactly what they are, but they exist, everyone senses them, they are in the air; they are life itself.
These are Goethe’s words:
Es ist doch lange hergebracht,
das in der grossen Welt
man kleine Welte macht.
Those tiny worlds, barricaded against the outside and painted in camouflage colours – that is the salvation of Soviet man. They preserve the national; they preserve the individual. There is nothing strange about that. What is strange is that these self-contained small worlds, having no possibility of coming into contact, communicating with each other, are nonetheless able to have a mutual feeling. They live not only within themselves but in a community, their language is that of the subconscious, and they experience parallel phenomena. There are imponderables which a bystander would not understand – our whole life is built on them, and thanks to them, despite official planning, official discourse and official incentives, privileges and prizes, despite all this Soviet scholarship is making progress, albeit very haltingly, and sometimes from the messy pile of officialdom there emerge flashes of true scientific achievement and discovery. Not just in technology and medicine, but even in the humanities. There are undeniable successes in Soviet archeology, even in Soviet linguistics, notwithstanding the many domains that have been closed to researchers, especially those that are linked to the life of nations of the USSR when the Russians and their true or simulated influence are removed from the equation. A further infuriating obstacle is the prohibition on even mentioning those scholars who have met with repressions – and there are thousands of them! – which precludes continuity and indeed honesty, since like it or not one is sometimes forced to attribute to oneself discoveries made by others.
I do not wish to argue that Soviet scholars exist in their tiny, internal worlds, linked by an intangible but genuine alliance, in conscious and deliberate opposition to the Soviet system. That would be an excessive simplification. The relationship between the two has become too much of a symbiosis. For too long they have studied the art of lighting matches to Moscow’s diktat. Adequately privileged and rewarded, they have been firmly isolated from life. That includes scholarly life in the West: it is doubtful that they would feel at home there, which would require large-scale re-education. Captivity has its rewards, while the universality of the methods of a Room 101 that stretches from the Kuril Islands to the Laba has an appeal precisely because they are so standardised. No, few of the academics and researchers of the USSR are conscious, consistent, programmatic enemies of the system. The decomposition engendered by that system has made deeper inroads into their milieu than into other sectors of the population. More of them are to be found, naturally, among non-Russians, because of their national loyalties, but they are by no means a majority.
What is perhaps most significant is that in the Soviet Union the scientist has no right to preserve his integrity: at every moment he must watch out in case one wave of the hand of an illiterate party hack forces him to negate his thesis, in case a command from central HQ forces him to parrot a nonsensical idea announced by Stalin, such as for instance that the literary Russian language evolved from Kursk-Orlov slang when it is common knowledge that its roots are in the patois of Moscow. And so we can find in the works of Soviet scholars the assertion that the affinity between Slavic languages was discovered by none other than… the genius, Stalin. That is not a joke: we can find this statement on page 208 of a book by V. Mavrodin, The Formation of the Russian State, published in 1951 by the Zhdanov Leningrad State University (the name is also a mockery: when did Zhdanov ever have anything to do with scholarship?). If a scholar is deprived of respect for himself, and above all of respect for scholarship – can he be a true scholar?
However, in the universal Room 101 the strongest dissent consists precisely in preserving one’s own small world. It could take the form of some thought, some feeling – even a tiny feeling but one’s own, independent of the system. Here Orwell was right, when he wrote: ‘If you love somebody, you love that person, and if you are unable to offer him anything, give him your love’. Let us transfer this from the personal sphere to the sphere of creativity – since scholarship is, first and foremost, creativity – and we will realise that the preservation of independence in our small world means that one stays human, that one escapes the fate of being totally transformed into a pozvonochnoye beast. Except that there is too much pain in the ban on focusing on so many interesting subjects, the ban on citing ‘enemies of the people’ and now, also, Western scholars.
It is a simple and commonly known truth: there is a never one identical human being. There is no person who is always a hero. Or always a coward. A person is an individual response in time to the voice of life and of one’s surroundings. A human can be changed into a hare. A hare can be taught to strike matches. If that hare retains within itself even the tiniest autonomous human world, and if there exists an irrational connection between these worlds, then one fine day that hare can light his match and set fire to the marvellous Soviet edifice of Room 101. Now will that not be an incredibly spectacular conflagration?
[„Kultura” 1952, nr 5]
 Mykola Khvylovy, prominent Ukrainian writer, towards the end of the 1920s leader of Ukraine’s literary opposition. For the Bolsheviks, his name came to symbolise Ukrainian nationalism. Thus the charge of ‘khvylovism’ was one of the gravest in those years. The writer himself ended up committing suicide. (Translator’s note.)
 [Oleksandr Potebnia (1835-1891) – Ukrainian and Russian linguist, translator, ethnographer, pedagogue, philosopher; one of the most significant exponents of linguistic theory in Russia.]
 [Vladimir Peretz (1870-1935) – philologist, historian of Russian and Ukrainian literature; 1907-1914 founder and director of the seminary of Russian philology at Kyiv University; in the All-Ukrainian Academy of Sciences he directed the Chair and Commission of Old Ukrainian literature; 1921-1933 he founded the Leningrad Society of Ukrainian Language and Literature Scholars.]
 [Ilya Mechnikov (1845-1916) – Russian and French zoologist and microbiologist, Nobel Prize laureate in physiology or medicine in 1908.]
 [Vsevolod Hanttsov (1892-?) – prominent Ukrainian linguist: 1924-1932 co-editor of an academic Ukrainian dictionary; 1930 sentenced to eight years in jail in the trial of the Union of Liberation of Ukraine; later fate not known.]
 [Olena Kurylo (1890-c.1946) – Ukrainian linguist; author of a popular handbook of Ukrainian grammar for children; 1937 arrested, released after some time, settled in northern Russia.]
 [Władysław Kuraszkiewicz (1905-1997) – linguist, Slavonic scholar, writer on the history and dialects of Polish and the inter-relations between Belarusian and Ukrainian vernaculars.]
 [‘Komunist’ – organ of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of Ukraine and of the Kharkiv (subsequently Kyiv) regional committee, published since 1926, initially named ‘Bilshovik Ukrayiny’, from 1952 – ‘Komunist’.]
 [Ivan Mykytenko (1897-1937) – Ukrainian writer, essayist, playwright and social activist; in 1937 arrested and executed.]
 ‘It is an old truth / that in the great world / one can create small worlds.’
 [Vladimir Mavrodin (1908-1987) – Soviet historian.]