The appearance of the literary almanac Metropol in January, 1979, represented a major development in the continuous struggle between the Soviet literary establishment and writers seeking to loosen the state’s strict censorship policies. The contributors to this anthology tried to circumvent the official censorship system by releasing their volume at a public reception in a Moscow café, but the authorities anticipated the event and closed the café for sanitary purposes on the scheduled reception day. Nevertheless, two copies of the almanac were smuggled to the West, and other copies circulated in manuscript form throughout intellectual circles in the Soviet Union. The significance of this collection stems from the fact that it was meant to be an open publication, not merely one more in a long series of guarded samizdat works circulated secretly among Soviet dissidents. As such, it posed a challenge to the tightly controlled channels of the official Soviet press.
Among the contributors were several writers who had achieved a certain reputation in the literary establishment itself, including Vasily Aksyonov, Fazil Iskander, and Andrei Voznesensky. The Soviet authorities were thus faced with a difficult decision: how to reprimand the contributors without provoking an open breach in the Writers Union, to which several of the contributors belonged. After months of pressure, the authorities achieved their purpose: Some of the contributors have emigrated to the West, others have had publishing projects held up, and two—Viktor Yerofeyev and Yevgeny Popov—lost their membership in the Writers Union.
The collection itself survives, however, and it stands as a testament to the creative vitality and diversity of literature in the Soviet Union today. Short stories, poems, literary essays, drawings, and a theatrical piece all appear in the anthology, and all have been included in the Norton edition, with the exception of an excerpt from John Updike’s novel The Coup (1978) which was translated into Russian in the original volume. The Russian editors emphasize that the participants were independent figures, not bound by any specific political or aesthetic ideology. What united them was their recognition that certain types of literature have been homeless in the Soviet Union. They therefore sought in the Metropol anthology “a convenient shelter, a hunter’s cabin in the capital, situated above the best ’metro’ in the world.” This characterization, with its pun on the word “metro,” alludes subtly to the existence of a Soviet literary “underground,” and the title Metropol further evokes both the metropolis of Moscow—a center of progressive cultural life in the Soviet Union—and the hotel Metropole—a favorite meeting place for cultural figures in Moscow.
While the contributors do not subscribe to a common ideology, certain recurring concerns crop up in their work. Most fundamental is a shared concern for the basic well-being of the individual in a society that places enormous emphasis on the collective. Vasily Aksyonov’s contribution, “The Four Temperaments: A Comedy in Ten Tableaux,” illustrates this concern in allegorical terms. The gifted author of the novels Ostrov Krym (1981; The Island of Crimea, 1983) and The Burn (1984) has here chosen a theatrical format to convey his apprehension concerning the suppression of individual human emotions for the sake of a grand ideal. Introducing four characters with such names as “Chol Erik” and “Melan Cholik,” Aksyonov depicts how the four are enlisted to participate in a vague but lofty experiment promising to usher in “the future of mankind with its unlimited possibilities.” As it turns out, this “Great Experiment” endeavors to transform fallible human beings into cyber people without cares, dreams, or desires. The dehumanizing experiment founders, however, when a woman enters the laboratory and captivates all the men, including the cyber machine overseeing the experiment. The breakdown in the planned experiment is mirrored by the total collapse of the set on which the drama is enacted. This in turn may be an ironic commentary on a system which strives to project a certain image to the world but which often finds its illusions undermined by the lack of such simple materials as the nuts and bolts meant to hold the set together. Aksyonov’s stylized work reminds the reader of Samuel Beckett’s plays, and it reflects his continuing search for innovative forms of expression.
Very different in tone, but similarly rich in emotion is Viktor Yerofeyev’s story “A Creation in Three Chapters.” Primarily known in the West for his surrealistic novel of an alcoholic’s delirium, Moskva-Petushki (1977; Moscow to the End of the Line, 1980), Yerofeyev takes a more traditional approach in the present work, which illuminates the conflict faced by a young professor torn between his desire to further his career through political intrigues at the university and his impulse to pursue an affair with a female student. Yerofeyev skillfully conveys the role of influence in Soviet society: “Pull can make money into mere paper if it pleases, open any door, force people to smile, to bow, and to fear . . . it turns all ’prohibitions’ into ’permission granted,’ any ’forbidden’ into ’go right ahead.’” Igor, the...
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