Andrei Sinyavsky

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Before his arrest in 1965 for smuggling “anti-Soviet propaganda,” Andrei Sinyavsky was a senior research associate at the Gorky Institute of World Literature in Moscow and had become a well-known literary critic, focusing primarily on modern Russian literature. After emigrating to Paris in 1973, he published more criticism as well as book-length literary essays. The works that led to his arrest, however, were, except for the literary essay Chto takoe sotsialisticheskii realizm (1959; On Socialist Realism, 1960), fiction: two novels and some half-dozen stories. All appeared in the West under the pseudonym Abram Tertz. He also wrote a book of aphorisms, Mysli vrasplokh (1966; Unguarded Thoughts, 1972), and the nonfiction works Soviet Civilization: A Cultural History (1990) and The Russian Intelligentsia (1997).


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Andrei Sinyavsky’s literary efforts served as a daring challenge to the tenets of Socialist Realism, the doctrine that was supposed to guide Soviet authors in their choice of subject matter as well as in their treatment of it. His essay On Socialist Realism, written in 1956, at the height of the post-Stalinist thaw, contained an attack on the very conjunction of the words “socialist” and “realism,” as well as a historical analysis of the manner in which the doctrine had harmed Soviet literature. His own underground fiction was both antisocialist, in his effort to include a religious dimension antithetical to Marxism, and antirealistic with a strong inclination toward the fantastic and the grotesque. The consequences of writing in isolation as well as of determinedly breaking with the dominant tradition sometimes show—he occasionally seems to be trying too hard for effect or to make a point—but Sinyavsky nevertheless stands as a writer who helped undermine the influence of Socialist Realism.

Along with his fellow writer Yuli Daniel he also helped popularize the very notions of samizdat (self-publishing) and tamizdat (publishing “there,” or abroad). Despite the government’s persecution of these two authors, many others throughout the 1960’s and 1970’s came to write outside the permissible norms—sometimes circulating their work privately, sometimes attempting to publish outside the Soviet Union, and sometimes simply writing “for the drawer.” His example did much to help a clandestine Soviet literature flourish during a trying period. In 1978, Sinyavsky received the Bennett Award from the Grolier Club.

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Andrei Sinyavsky (sihn-YAHV-skee) is the author of an important book-length essay, Chto takoe sotsialisticheskii realizm (1959; On Socialist Realism, 1960), published under the pseudonym Abram Tertz, in which he maintains with some humor that realism is not the proper medium for the mythmaking inherent in a communist society. Because he believed that the grandiose neoclassicism inherited from eighteenth century Russian literature had also become inadequate, Sinyavsky proposed that the more appropriate genre would be fantasy, and he himself became a writer of fantasy. His collection Fantasticheskie povesti (1961; Fantastic Stories, 1963; also known as The Icicle, and Other Stories, 1963), including a novella and several short stories, is surrealistic, an excursion into the literature of the absurd. Mysli vrasplokh (1966; as Tertz; Unguarded Thoughts, 1972), a collection of aphorisms, came as a revelation to Sinyavsky’s Western readers, disclosing for the first time his profound faith as a Russian Orthodox believer.

In addition to these works, all of which were signed with the pen name Abram Tertz and published abroad before his arrest, Sinyavsky has published a number of important critical studies, including an introductory essay to Boris Pasternak’s Stikhotvoreniya i poemy (1965, 1976; verses and poems); an analysis of the nineteenth century writer Nikolai Gogol, V teni Gogolya (1975; in the shadow of Gogol); and a book on the poet Alexander Pushkin, Progulki s Pushkinym (1975; walks with Pushkin). Sinyavsky’s

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(1975; walks with Pushkin). Sinyavsky’sGolos iz khora (1973; A Voice from the Chorus, 1976), largely composed of letters that he wrote to his wife during his six years in a labor camp, is in the tradition initiated by Fyodor Dostoevski and continued by such twentieth century writers as Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn. The essay “Literaturnii protess v Rossii” (literary process in Russia), published in the dissident journal Kontinent in 1976, is both a savage analysis of the Soviet mind and an extraordinary literary manifesto that transcends its occasion. Finally, Sinyavsky’s Little Jinx, with the Yiddish word tsores in the original title, serves as a reminder that he identifies with Jews as alienated people outside the normal parameters of Soviet existence.


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The true identity of the elusive writer Abram Tertz (a pen name taken from the hero of an underworld ballad) became known to readers in the Soviet Union and the West only after his arrest in 1965 and subsequent imprisonment. Tertz turned out to be the gifted and sophisticated critic Andrei Sinyavsky. Prior to this catastrophe, Sinyavsky had mastered the extremely difficult task of keeping his two voices, that of the writer Tertz and the critic Sinyavsky, separate. Writing as Tertz, Sinyavsky produced fantastic stories and short novels, as well as the famous essay On Socialist Realism, a devastating critique of officially tolerated literary practice.

So accomplished a writer was Sinyavsky that his achievements were considered far superior to those of his contemporaries, and it was even thought for a time that Tertz might be the brilliant prose writer Yury Olesha, from the 1920’s. Writing during a period when Russian prose had only just begun to emerge from the stultifying limitations of Socialist Realism, Sinyavsky managed to continue the earlier ornamentalist prose tradition of Andrey Bely, Alexey Remizov, and, ultimately, Gogol.

The sophistication of Sinyavsky’s worldview is equal to that of his style, for he presents society with all of its inherent contradictions, limitations, and absurdities, a far cry from the narrow vision peculiar to Socialist Realism and official Soviet ideology. With his stylistic brilliance and metaphysical depth, Sinyavsky has rightly come to be considered one of the finest Russian authors of the post-Stalin period.


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Carrington, Ildiko de Papp. “Demons, Doubles, and Dinosaurs: Life Before Man, the Origins of Consciousness, and ‘The Icicle’.” Essays on Canadian Writing 33 (1986) 68-88. A useful study of Sinyavsky’s story.

Dalton, Margaret. Andrei Siniavskii and Julii Daniel: Two Soviet “Heretical” Writers. Würzburg: Jal-verlag, 1973. Along with a discussion of the other works that Sinyavsky wrote prior to his arrest, this study contains a detailed story-by-story analysis of the six stories from that period. Throughout, Dalton pays special attention to the unusual literary devices that often make the works difficult to interpret. Contains notes and a bibliography.

Durkin, Andrew R. “Narrator, Metaphor, and Theme in Sinjavskij’s Fantastic Tales.” Slavic and East European Journal 24 (1980); 133-144. Durkin divides the six early stories into three pairs for the purposes of analysis, but his goal is to discern the thematic concerns and formal devices that link all the stories. He emphasizes the role of art and of the artist, as well as the theme of escape, or liberation.

Fenander, Sara. “Author and Autocrat: Tertz’s Stalin and the Ruse of Charisma.” The Russian Review 58 (April, 1999): 286-297. Discusses Sinyavsky in his role as both cultural critic and provocateur, Abram Tertz; claims that by turning the discredited Joseph Stalin into a double for himself, Sinyavsky/Tertz reveals both the artistry of Stalinism and the mythical privileged place of the writer in Russian culture.

Frank, Joseph. “The Triumph of Abram Tertz.” The New York Review of Books 38 (June 27, 1991): 35-43. A brief biographical and critical discussion of the events of Sinyavsky’s life and the nature of his fiction. Notes the importance of his trial for having his works published out of the Soviet Union.

Haber, Erika. “In Search of the Fantastic in Tertz’s Fantastic Realism.” Slavic and East European Journal 42 (Summer, 1998): 254-267. Shows how the presence of an eccentric narrator who often plays a double role as both character and narrator, creating a highly self-conscious text is a basic feature of Tertz’s fantastic realism; claims that his narrators at times contradict and even oppose the characters and events they describe, thereby creating a tension between the content of the stories and the manner of their presentation.

Kolonosky, Walter. “Andrei Sinyavsky: Puzzle Maker.” Slavic and East European Journal 42 (Fall, 1998): 385-388. Compares Sinyavsky’s works to puzzles; his pieces are not simply read, but contain historical references, allegorical links, language peculiarities, grotesque allusions, and autobiographical asides that require interpretation.

Kolonosky, Walter. “Inherent and Ulterior Design in Sinyavsky’s ‘Pxenc.’” Slavic and East European Journal 26 (1982): 329-337. Accepting the notion that “Pkhentz” is, on one level, a work of scientific fiction, Kolonosky claims that it is primarily an allegory about faith, and he traces examples of Christian symbolism within the story.

Lourie, Richard. Letters to the Future: An Approach to Sinyavsky-Tertz. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1975. Lourie devotes a separate chapter to the Fantastic Stories; his analyses are distinctive both for his critiques of certain stories (he believes that only “The Icicle” and “Pkhentz” are totally successful) and for his efforts to show their relationship to other works in Russian literature. Includes notes, bibliography, and an index.

Morsberger, Grace Anne. “‘The Icicle’ as Allegory.” Odyssey 42 (1981): 15-18. A short but interesting study of the story.

Nepomnyashchy, Catharine Theimer. “Andrei Donatovich Sinyavsky (1925-1997).” Slavic and East European Journal 42 (Fall, 1998): 367-371. Claims that Sinyavsky’s works have been misunderstood; challenges the characterization of him as a political dissident and argues for a view of his texts as works that engage fantasy and encourage the fanciful.

Peterson, Ronald E. “The Writer as Alien in Sinjavskij’s ‘Pkhens’.” Wiener Slavistischer Almanach 12 (1982): 47-53. Examines the autobiographical element in this stort story.

Pevear, Richard. “Sinyavsky in Two Worlds: Two Brothers Named Chénier.” The Hudson Review 25 (1972): 375-402. Pevear contrasts Sinyavsky and Yevgeny Yevtushenko in an effort to elucidate Sinyavsky’s views about the tasks of the writer. Contains a thoughtful analysis of “The Icicle.”

Theimer Nepomnyashchy, Catherine. “Andrei Sinyavsky’s ‘You and I’: A Modern Day Fantastic Tale.” Ulbandus Review 2, no. 2 (1982): 209-230. Notes Sinyavsky’s flaunting of his literary antecedents (Hoffmann, Gogol, Dostoevski). Prefers to view the story not so much as a study in mental disorder as “a realized metaphor—a literal working out of the vision of the artist as God” and thus as a tale combining both the biblical and the fantastic.

Theimer Nepomnyashchy, Catherine. “Sinyavsky/Tertz: The Evolution of the Writer in Exile.” Humanities in Society 7, no. 314 (1984): 123-142. After providing a brief overview of Sinyavsky’s career during his first decade in the West, the author goes on to detail Sinyavsky’s concerns with the role of the writer in relationship to reality and society at large. Concludes with a discussion of Kroshka Tsores.


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