Critical Context

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The last years of Stalin were a nightmare of paranoid despotism. Millions were in labor camps, and the arts had been degraded to the level of primitive propaganda under the banner of “Socialist Realism.” With Stalin’s death, the first of a series of “thaws” began. A moribund literature began to revive but was impeded by recurrent “freezes.” Socialist Realism continued to be the only approved form of literature. Many feared a return of Stalinism. A young literary scholar and friend of Boris Pasternak (whose publication in the West of Doctor Zhivago in 1957, with its English translation in 1958, had brought him both a Nobel Prize for Literature and government vilification), Andrei Sinyavsky decided to risk sending his work abroad. Using the pseudonym Abram Tertz, Sinyavsky smuggled out two works: a theoretical essay, On Socialist Realism (1960), decrying the sterility of Socialist Realism and calling for a new “phantasmagoric” literature; and a novella, The Trial Begins, which illustrated his literary argument and was a powerful indictment of Stalinism. Sinyavsky’s works created a sensation and endless speculation about the identify of their author. The author’s double life continued until he was betrayed and sentenced to a labor camp. After serving his sentence, Sinyavsky was permitted to emigrate to France, where he has lived since 1973. The story of his life as Abram Tertz and of his prison camp years is told in involute, ornate form in his stunning 1984 novel-memoir Spokoinoi nochi (good night). Sinyavsky’s The Trial Begins is one of the foundation works in the post-Stalin rebirth of Russian literature.

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