Yuri Krotkov Essay - Critical Essays

Krotkov, Yuri


Krotkov, Yuri 1917–

Krotkov is a Russian novelist, dramatist, autobiographer, and screenwriter who defected to the West in 1963. He has utilized several literary genres to describe life in Russia: the documentary, as in The Angry Exile; the burlesque novel, as in The Red Monarch; and, most recently and most controversially, the documentary novel, as in The Nobel Prize. This last work tells the story of Boris Pasternak, fictionalizing the real events concerning the Nobel Prize he won, but was not permitted to accept. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vol. 102.)

The Times Literary Supplement

In September, 1963, Mr. Krotkov, one of a visiting delegation of Soviet film-workers, walked out of his hotel and down the Bayswater Road wearing his three shirts and two suits one on top of the other and asked for political asylum in Britain. [The Angry Exile] is an attempt to record the thoughts and experiences that brought him to this decision and at the same time to expose to the English-reading public the Soviet myth.

There is no doubting that Mr. Krotkov is a sincere man, and an angry man, as he reiterates. He was also a brave man…. But these qualities are not enough in themselves to make for a convincing denunciation of Soviet society…. Sometimes Mr. Krotkov is willing to repeat hearsay when his book's chief claim on our attention is that it is a record of direct experience; at other times he falls back on extremely vague general notions of what human nature needs but is denied by the Soviet system.

All this is a great pity, because in his experience there is the material for a very telling denunciation, had it been organized by a colder and more discriminating eye. Where he describes the endless and unpredictable procedures for obtaining an exit visa—in no way overdone—comment is not needed, and once or twice he touches, almost without realizing it, on the gravest of all criticisms of the present Soviet regime: many hardships can be justified if there is equality of sacrifice; but where a privileged class drive about in cars to buy special consignments of foreign goods and where truck-drivers call them bourgeois and parasites, what is left except power to justify the Communist Party of the Soviet Union? Mr. Krotkov's lack of insistence on these incidents, while it in a way confirms their authenticity, also reflects the sad truth that fifty years of communist slogans too often produce in the dissident intelligentsia a total and undiscriminating reaction rather than an attempt to re-endow the slogans with meaning.

"Over the Wall," in The Times Literary Supplement (© Times Newspapers Ltd. (London) 1967; reproduced from The Times Literary Supplement by permission), No. 3408, June 22, 1967, p. 554.

Oscar Handlin

[I Am From Moscow] presents a simple, lucid, and convincing account of life in the Khrushchev era. (p. 138)

Much of the book deals with the petty concerns of daily life, commuting, shopping, negotiating with the bureaucracy. These themes once provided material for the satires of Zoschenko and of Ilf and Petrov, but in recent decades have been considered too serious for laughter. Krotkov deals with these subjects in incisive personal terms and also writes with complete frankness about the problems of sex and family life usually concealed by the "hypocritical puritanism" of the Communists. Thanks to a lively sense of humor he can present the funny as well as the sad aspects of his experience in the Soviet Union. (p. 139)

Oscar Handlin, "Life & Letters: 'I Am from Moscow'," in The Atlantic Monthly (copyright © 1967, by The Atlantic Monthly Company, Boston, Mass.; reprinted with permission), Vol. 220, No. 5, November, 1967, pp. 138-39.

D. Keith Mano

The Red Monarch is … a very funny book. Certain givens have been attributed to dissenting Soviet humor. First: that it must be, by chemistry, satiric. Second: (the direct corollary of Given #1) that it must be risky: therefore (sub-corollary) at least half-serious in intent. A monolith like Stalin attracts satire because any decent monolith will ascribe all truth to itself. But humor can't stand absolute truth: it revels in difference and not just the difference of dialectic. It has a Panurgic spirit. Every part of the Hegelian formula—thesis, antithesis, synthesis, and around again—is subject to its corrupting influence. Given #3: that, underpinning Soviet satire, there will be some kind of self-mockery: a bitterness or at least a dull resignation: Our government is ludicrous but still we put up with it and that's not so amusing. You can sense this uneasiness throughout Gulag. Every Russian satirist his own butt at last.

Not Krotkov. His "scenes" are lucid farce: the Josip and Lavrenti act will bust you up: Groucho and Harpo running a banana-peel republic. No wonder Stalin conned the Russians: they were expecting someone from a Chekhov play. The Stalin-Mao interview and the interview between Stalin and Stalin's double are pure totalitarian slapstick. I don't deny Krotkov his moments of poignance or shredding cynicism, but these are—unfortunately—familiar in dissident fiction. The joyous burlesque was new to me. Krotkov … understands what farce is: the exact negative print of terror. Both annihilate reason and order: anything can happen: no guarantees are left for the cornea-frail human psyche to nurse itself on.

Krotkov doesn't impute evil. In that he is probably wise. Stalin the Monster would have been predictable; much less frightening than Stalin the Georgian—a passionate, primitive, unstable, clever lunatic in charge of 200 million inmates. Laughter might seem indecent here; yet The Red Monarch is useful, refreshing: more accurate, in spirit, than whatever lame documentation we have on file. (pp. 688, 690)

D. Keith Mano, "Fiction: Even-Stefan," in National Review (© National Review, Inc., 1979; 150 East 35th St., New York, NY 10016), Vol. XXXI, No. 21, May 25, 1979, pp. 688, 690.

Edward Crankshaw

['The Nobel Prize' is about] the 1958 prize for literature bestowed on Boris Pasternak and renounced by him under extreme and vicious pressure from the Soviet authorities, who threatened him with lifelong banishment….

Mr Krotkov has been seized with the idea of turning the story of this conflict into a novel. He knew Pasternak and his family quite well; he had observed Khrushchev at close quarters; he knew something of the political background to the condemnation of 'Dr Zhivago' and the subsequent harrying of its author to a premature death. He knew more than most about the complex relationship between Pasternak, his wife Zinaida, and his mistress, Olga Ivinskaya (who was rushed off to a labour-camp as soon as he was dead).

But all this knowledge is wasted because, presented in novel form, it is mixed up with a great deal of non-knowledge; so that the reader has no idea of what is fact and what is not….

[To] build a whole fiction out of the living and recently dead, appearing in their own characters under their own names, [is] beyond the powers of the most supreme genius. This is what Mr Krotkov has undertaken to do, evidently not understanding that when a novelist introduces real characters and offers what purports to be their secret thoughts and private words and actions, the reader's disbelief can no longer be suspended.

And the reader is right to disbelieve. The novelist...

(The entire section is 431 words.)

Karen Matlaw Steinberg

Important issues are debated by characters throughout ["The Nobel Prize"]. These include the dichotomy between freedom in the West and the crushing power of money, the notion that technology enslaves the individual, the pros and cons of capitalism vs. collectivism, the implications of the old generation giving way to the new, and, most important, the idea that in Soviet society, the individual is forced to compromise his or her integrity and beliefs to survive.

But "The Nobel Prize" is not simply a series of two-dimensional characters arguing pat ideological questions. Perhaps the most laudable quality in this excellent novel is Krotkov's ability to make his literary and historical figures human. Fedin, often portrayed as a literary mouthpiece for the party, is shown as having doubts about his convictions….

Similarly, Nikita Khrushchev, party head, is depicted as a thinking man, a leader with a conscience. Obsessed with dissociating himself from Stalin and a legacy of terror, Khrushchev discovers he is enslaved by his very position. Pasternak's award forces Khrushchev to face crucial issues, and the final picture of the leader is of a man helplessly trapped by his own human frailties and weaknesses.

Pasternak himself, labeled a "salon poet" and a "Narcissus" by the Soviet press because of his "coldness to social issues" and philosophy of individualism, emerges as a heroic figure, yet completely human—a man continually grappling with "unanswerable questions," struggling to express his feelings about life in his art, while never ceasing to condemn himself for his "irredeemable sins."

"The Nobel Prize" is, finally, about a very human Russia—"Russia,… incomparable mother, famed far and wide, martyred, stubborn, extravagant, crazy, irresponsible, adored, Russia with her eternally splendid, disastrous and unpredictable gestures." For however much the political realities of the Soviet Union may oppress (Pasternak tells his son, Lyonya, "I am against the Soviet system because it is inhuman"), the tie to the rodina, or motherland, ultimately emerges in this novel as stronger than all else.

Yuri Krotkov, through his masterful characterizations of Boris Pasternak and the other figures in the novel, Soviet officials and citizens alike, leaves us with an irreconcilable vision of two worlds, both flawed.

Karen Matlaw Steinberg, "Luminous Novel Based on Pasternak," in The Christian Science Monitor (reprinted by permission from The Christian Science Monitor; © 1980 The Christian Science Publishing Society; all rights reserved), September 8, 1980, p. 14.

D. M. Thomas

I am not sure what Yuri Krotkov was trying to achieve in [The Nobel Prize]. Was he paying his own tribute to the memory of a great poet, Boris Pasternak?…

Or perhaps—in fact more probably—Mr Krotkov intended to study the tragic dilemma of Pasternak vis-à-vis the state. The terrible position in which he found himself—knowing that acceptance of the Nobel Prize (and thereby standing up publicly for the freedom of the artist) would mean him being forced to leave his homeland—only brought to a head the struggle which had been going on in his conscience since the beginning of the Bolshevik era. Never had he betrayed his principles or his fellow-man; but … he had striven to see some good...

(The entire section is 519 words.)

Gilberto Perez

Rather than a novel, I wish the author [of The Nobel Prize], Yuri Krotkov, had written a memoir on this subject which he knew at first hand, as a leading literary figure in Soviet Russia at the time and an insider to political circles…. Much of the detail I have no doubt is authentic: the houses and habits of life of Pasternak and Khrushchev, for example, I assume were as Krotkov describes them. Often he clearly departs from what he could have witnessed or reliably learned, but I'm willing to grant him this novelist's prerogative so long as he exercises it to good effect. Sometimes he does, as in the story he tells about the Khrushchevs's reading of Doctor Zhivago. The Soviet premier didn't bother to...

(The entire section is 588 words.)