Let me begin with a quote: “Based on my own experience and others’, and looking back on the many thoughts, explorations, worries, and calculations, this is my word to you: Woe betide him who overlooks politics. I never said I loved it. I hate and despise it. I’m not pleading with you to love or respect it. I’m only asking you never to overlook it.”
These are the words of the writer Anatoly V. Kuznetsov, whose name once resounded throughout the boundless expanses of the Soviet Union. In the 1960s he was touted as one of the country’s most brilliant, talented, and progressive writers, the founding father of so- called confessional prose. His novella, “The Mime Actor,” published in a 1968 issue of the magazine Novy Mir [New World], was equated with Gogol’s “The Overcoat” and Dostoyevsky’s Poor Folk. Kuznetsov’s books had huge press runs; they were translated into many languages and adapted for theater and television.
All this ended abruptly when politics, which Kuznetsov hated so much, intruded into his life. His decision not to return from abroad for political considerations was the main reason why he never returned to the literary space of contemporary Russia. Unfortunately, few remember Kuznetsov in modern-day Ukraine. The 75th anniversary of his birth and 25 years since his death passed unnoticed last year. But let me start at the beginning.
FROM BABYN YAR TO TULA
Born in Kyiv on August 18, 1929, Anatoly Kuznetsov grew up in the district of Kurenivka, “a stone’s throw from a vast ravine, whose name [in Ukrainian], Babyn Yar, was once known only to locals,” he recalled later. Kuznetsov had a Russian father and a Ukrainian mother, and his passport stated that he was of Russian nationality. This apparent trifle eventually proved to be tremendously significant.
Kuznetsov spent his early teens in Nazi-occupied Kyiv and witnessed the massacre in Babyn Yar, i.e., the mass execution of Kyiv’s Jews and people of other ethnic groups — Russians, Ukrainians, and Gypsies. “It was a huge, even vast, ravine — deep and wide as a mountain gorge. Words shouted from one side of the ravine could hardly be heard on the other side. It lay in the middle of three Kyiv districts, Lukyanivka, Kurenivka, and Syrets, and was surrounded by cemeteries, groves, and gardens. A very beautiful, unspoiled creek ran at the bottom,” Kuznetsov recalled.
Wading through this “beautiful and pristine creek” one day, Kuznetsov stumbled upon a piece of charred human bone and later discovered a layer of cinder. Some boys he didn’t know were digging through it in search of molten gold rings and tooth caps. Kuznetsov picked up a lump of cinder and took it with him. He recalled: “This is cinder from many people; everything has been mixed together in this international cinder, so to speak. Then I decided that all of this had to be recorded from the very beginning, how it really happened, without omitting or adding anything.”
At age fourteen, Kuznetsov began recording everything he saw and heard about Babyn Yar in a thick makeshift notebook. One day his mother discovered it and read his notes. She cried and advised him to save them for a book he might write someday. The boy grew up to become a writer and wrote a book.
Before that, after the war, Kuznetsov “studied ballet and acting, tried painting and music, worked as a carpenter, road builder, concrete worker, helped build the Kakhovka hydroelectric power plant on the Dnipro, and worked on the Irkutsk and Bratsk hydroelectric power plants in Siberia.”
Eventually, Kuznetsov began “studying to become a writer.” He enrolled at the Moscow Gorky Literary Institute and graduated in 1960. Before that, in 1955, he joined the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, and gained renown while still a student. In 1957 the magazine Yunost [Youth] featured his novella entitled “Continuation of a Legend,” which earned the aspiring writer union-wide fame, while literary critics coined the term “confessional prose” to describe his genre. His novella is in fact a confession of a young man who is entering real adult life.
Some critics have pointed out that this genre was not unique to Kuznetsov. One year earlier a certain Anatoly Gladilin published a novella entitled “Chronicles of the Times of Viktor Podgursky,” in Yunost, and 1960 saw the release of the novella “Star Ticket” by the no less celebrated writer Vasili Aksyonov. I won’t go into the details of literary criticism, though. One way or another, Kuznetsov enjoyed tremendous popularity.
Few people are aware, however, that this popularity came at a price. This is how Kuznetsov described his first experience with publishers: “I wrote the novella ‘Continuation of a Legend’ and offered it to Yunost magazine. It tells the story of a young man, who came to work in Siberia with a solid youthful belief in something better, in some ultimate good, despite all the hardships and poverty. The Yunost editors liked the novella very much but said they couldn’t publish it: the censors wouldn’t allow it, the magazine would be closed, and I would be arrested or, in the worst case, barred from literature for life. Above all, Western propagandists might pick up this story and run with it: ‘See, this is proof of how terrible life in the Soviet Union really is!’ Experienced writers told me that the novella could be saved, that at least a part of it must be brought to the readers’ attention, that they would know what came from the heart and what I had to write for form’s sake, and that I should add some optimistic episodes. For a long time my novella gathered dust without any hope of being published, but eventually I forced myself to add some optimistic episodes, which contrasted so sharply with the overall style and were so outrageously cheerful that no reader would take them seriously.”
Not surprisingly, the novella was turned down. It should be noted that the very style of confessional prose, with the author striving for candor, not imitation, made it impossible for Kuznetsov to show his political and ideological preferences as required by the Soviet system. Nevertheless, it was eventually published. However, somebody blue-penciled the novella without the author’s knowledge. He had to fight tears when he saw what had become of it, but it was this version of his “Continuation of a Legend” that made him famous. It brought him fame; mind you, it didn’t change him.
In the meantime, Kuznetsov graduated from the literary institute. He was admitted to the Writers’ Union and, by extension, to the State Literary Fund. The young writer married Iryna Marchenko and was preparing to become a father. He decided not to return to Kyiv, where his mother still lived. He tried to put down roots in Moscow, where he had already made some connections, but fate decreed otherwise. The Central Committee of the Communist Party decided to infuse new blood into provincial writers’ organizations, and Kuznetsov was offered several towns to choose from. So he and his pregnant wife moved to Tula.
Why Tula? According to Kuznetsov, there were two reasons. First, Tula was a short ride from Moscow: three and a half hours on a commuter train that arrives at Kursk rail terminal. Second, Tula was home to Leo Tolstoy’s Yasnaya Poliana estate. Tolstoy’s works played a key role in Kuznetsov’s spiritual life. From then on, until his departure from the USSR Kuznetsov was a native of Tula.
That same year, 1960, he met the writer Igor Minutko. This is how Kuznetsov described their meeting: “I was introduced to a young, but very famous writer aged 31. I was nervous. His handshake was firm and energetic, his hand warm. He was short and thickset, with a broad, prominent forehead with a receding hairline, tightly pressed and tender (or sensual?) lips, and attentive and piercing gray eyes behind thick lenses (minus seven diopters).”
Perhaps this is how Kuznetsov looked out at me from page seven of Yunost magazine, issue No. 8, 1966, when I, then a high school student, began to read his documentary novel, Babiy Yar. That issue had a press run of two million. Then the Molodaya Gvardiya [Young Guard] publishing house released the novel with a press run of 150,000. Translations of this book were then published abroad.
Yunost magazine published Babiy Yar together with breathtaking illustrations by the artist Sava Brodsky. They created an indelible impression and exuded an unfamiliar and forbidden truth about the war, not the kind of official truth proposed by other publications about wartime events.
In the foreword Kuznetsov wrote: “Everything in this book is true. When I recounted episodes of this story to different people, they all said I had to write the book. The word ‘document’ in the subtitle of this novel means that I have provided only actual facts and documents without the slightest literary conjecture as to how things could or must have happened.”
In effect, this is the main strength of the novel, which is not merely a work of literature but also a source that can and must be used if we want to understand what happened in the wartime years. Without a doubt, Kuznetsov paid dearly for this understanding. It’s not only what he experienced in Nazi-occupied Kyiv. When he began collecting additional materials for the book, he met with many Kyivans who witnessed the executions in Babyn Yar. Only a few people survived by pulling themselves out from underneath piles of corpses. What they told him was so horrible that Kuznetsov could not sleep. “For a whole month in Kyiv I had nightmares, which wore me out so much that I had to leave without finishing my work and temporarily switch to other tasks in order to regain my senses,” Kuznetsov recalled.
Kuznetsov’s surviving letters to the Israeli journalist, writer, and translator Shlomo Even-Shoshan were recently published. In a letter dated May 17, 1965, Kuznetsov commented on the Babyn Yar tragedy: “Before September 29, 1941, Jews were slowly being murdered in camps behind a veneer of legitimacy. Treblinka, Auschwitz, etc. came later. Since Babyn Yar murder became commonplace. I trust you know how they did this. They published an order for all the Jews in the city to gather in the vicinity of the freight yard with their belongings and valuables. Then they surrounded them and began shooting them. Countless Russians, Ukrainians, and other people, who had come to see their relatives and friends “off to the train,” died in the swarm. They didn’t shoot children but buried them alive, and didn’t finish off the wounded. The fresh earth over the mass graves was alive with movement. In the two years that followed, Russians, Ukrainians, Gypsies, and people of all nationalities were executed in Babyn Yar. The belief that Babyn Yar is an exclusively Jewish grave is wrong, and Yevtushenko portrayed only one aspect of Babyn Yar in his poem. It is an international grave. Nobody will ever determine how many and what nationalities are buried there, because 90% of the corpses were burned, their ashes scattered in ravines and fields.”
I will return later to the poet Yevheny Yevtushenko, Kuznetsov’s friend and fellow student. Meanwhile, I must repeat that the novel cost Kuznetsov dearly. In a letter written in June 1965 he mentioned his ill health: he suffered so much emotional strain in Kyiv, taking to heart everything he had come across while collecting materials for his Babiy Yar, that he was undergoing intensive treatment and couldn’t work: “I didn’t expect that nightmares from the past could still be so staggering after twenty-odd years. I have been prescribed one month of therapy to restore my nervous system. I’m taking powerful medicine, which dulls my senses, and my brain functions are low. Even typing is difficult.”
Put simply, the book conceived twenty years earlier had a difficult birth. Perhaps this is why it belongs in the company of books that every normal person must read at least once in his or her lifetime. It is a book for all times. “I receive so many letters from readers that I hardly have the time to write back a few lines. The novel has deeply moved people, and I consider this the biggest reward for all those sleepless nights and days I spent writing it,” Kuznetsov wrote in a letter to Even-Shoshan in January 1967.
But Kuznetsov did not just receive words of gratitude. He began receiving accusations of two extreme kinds. On the one hand, there were those who shamelessly told him, “You glorify Jews; you are a secret Jew yourself!” On the other, he was accused of dividing Babyn Yar, which allegedly “belonged” to the Jews. Kuznetsov recalled once traveling with a Jew, who considered Babyn Yar “an essentially Jewish national grave and that more Jews are buried there than anybody else, even in arithmetical terms.”
To this Kuznetsov retorted: “If we are to speak about arithmetic — which I don’t like, but let us do so — 50,000 Jews were murdered in Babyn Yar compared to 150,000 people of other nationalities, most of them Ukrainians and Russians. I’m not dividing or deciding anything. In my book I’m simply telling the actual facts, the historical truth that is more important to me than any established opinions. I am simply recounting how it happened. My book is a document, and I’m prepared to vouch for every word under oath in the strictest legal sense.”
Now is the time to recall Yevtushenko. He conceived his famous poem, which begins with the line “There is no monument above Babiy Yar,” when he and Kuznetsov were in Kyiv together. Standing on the edge of the ravine, Kuznetsov told him where and how the people were herded, how the creek later turned up human bones, and how they struggled to have a monument built there, which never materialized. It was then that Yevtushenko wrote the beginning of his soon-to-be-famous poem for which he was practically dubbed a Zionist in the USSR.
Kuznetsov would soon face similar accusations, and not just that.
FROM TULA TO LONDON
After reading Babiy Yar, I was on the lookout for Kuznetsov’s works in Yunost, which was then a very popular magazine. But all of a sudden he disappeared. His publications stopped, as though there had never been any such writer.
Then some odd rumors began circulating. Some people said that in the summer of 1969 Kuznetsov went to England to collect materials for a new book to commemorate the centennial of Lenin’s birth and decided to remain in London. The more daring ones added, whispering, that the punishing sword had gotten this traitor and defector. Whose sword? Well, you know whose.
After many years we can finally sort out the motives and consequences of Kuznetsov’s departure. But to do so, we must mention the fact that the text of “Babiy Yar,” which astonished many people, had been castrated, blue-penciled, and cut down to a quarter of its original length.
Outraged, Kuznetsov came to Yunost editor-in-chief, the venerable Soviet writer Boris Polevoi, and demanded the return of his manuscript: “This is my work, my manuscript, my paper, after all! Give it back; I don’t want to publish it!” They had a quarrel in front of the magazine editors. Polevoi said: “To publish or not to publish is not for you to decide. And nobody will return your manuscript to you. And we will publish it as we see fit.”
A real battle followed. Kuznetsov snatched the manuscript and tore it to pieces. But the editors had another copy, and Babiy Yar was published. Why? It turns out the Central Committee of the Communist Party viewed it as a refutation of Yevtushenko’s “infamous” poem. Of course, Kuznetsov did not refute anything, nor did he intend to.
Thus, the novel appeared in Yunost and was later released by the Molodaya Gvardia publishing house. Translations in various languages appeared soon afterwards. The situation in the USSR then began to change rapidly. In the 1960s writers with a penchant for humor divided Soviet history into periods: an “era of early repressions,” followed by a “period of late rehabilitations,” “Khrushchev’s taming of the shrews,” and “Brezhnev’s boundless optimism.” As the “boundless optimism” expanded, Kuznetsov’s book was becoming more dangerous. An attentive reader could trace in it certain parallels between the Nazi and Bolshevik empires that clashed in a war but pursued a common goal of world domination.
A willing reader could learn far more from this documentary novel. That is why the book ended up being labeled “pro-Jewish,” was banned from libraries and never republished. Here a question is in order: could Kuznetsov have taken all this in stride? Of course, he could. Hadn’t many honest writers’ books or manuscripts been seized? Recall Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, Vasily Grossman, or Aleksandr Bek, to name only a few. Unlike many others, Kuznetsov seemed to be a successful writer, at least on the surface. He worked and published his books, even if they were censored. He wasn’t hounded by the secret police. His story “Yurka from the Pantless Team” was adapted into the film “We Two Men” starring Vasily Shukshin. In 1969 he was appointed to the editorial board of Yunost magazine. All true, but...
His confessional style required utmost honesty, above all toward himself. Notably, none of his books was brought to the readers the way he wrote it and wanted them to see it. So he decided to choose freedom.
In the summer of 1969 he went to London to write a novel on the Second Congress of the Russian Social Democratic Labor Party, which had taken place there. However, his departure was preceded by another revolting episode: he was invited to cooperate with the KGB as a condition of his departure to London. Kuznetsov agreed, because he already had a strategic plan.
He left and requested political asylum. Soon afterward the English newspaper Sunday Telegraph published the famous London journalist David Floyd’s interview with Kuznetsov, who spoke in great detail about his ties with the KGB, how he was recruited, and how he had formally agreed to cooperate in order to be allowed to leave abroad.
But he wasn’t traveling light. Before boarding an Aeroflot flight he wrapped around his body photographic films with the complete text of Babiy Yar (he buried the unabridged manuscript in a forest outside Tula, where it is probably hidden to this day). By 1970 the New York-based publishing house, Posiv, published his novel in its entirety. So in this sense Kuznetsov may be considered a happy man. In the foreword to this edition he wrote: “In the summer of 1969 I escaped from the USSR with photographic films, including films containing the unabridged text of Babiy Yar. I am publishing it as my first book free of all political censorship, and I am asking you to consider this edition of Babiy Yar as the only authentic text. It contains the text published originally, everything that was expurgated by the censors, and what I wrote after the publication, including the final stylistic polish. Finally, this is what I wrote.”
This edition makes for interesting reading. The text published by Yunost in 1966 is in plain font, while the text blue-penciled by the Soviet censors is italicized. Everything that Kuznetsov wrote between 1967 and 1969 is enclosed in square brackets. A comparison of these paragraphs will give you an idea of what the Soviet ideological machine and censorship were all about. But this is a subject for a different, and very fascinating, discussion.
Kuznetsov’s emigre years were not particularly remarkable. He worked for Radio Liberty, traveled a great deal, and didn’t write anything for ten years. He read insatiably, especially Orwell, Kafka, Zamyatin, Berdiayev, and many other authors banned in the USSR. He died of a heart attack on June 14, 1979.
Kuznetsov’s son, Aleksey, noted sadly: “After completing everything he had planned, father suddenly realized that he couldn’t write as well as, say, Joyce. It just wouldn’t come out right. Episodes from his unfinished novel Teich Five were even published, but feedback from his friends, critics, and, most importantly, the author himself was unanimous: weak and formal imitation. But he simply couldn’t write differently. Unable to lie to himself, he made an honest admission to himself: ‘Now that I have read the greats, I understand that I shouldn’t waste paper. And I had thought of myself as a writer’.”
Anatoly Kuznetsov exaggerates. Of course, he was a writer and a very interesting one at that. You don’t believe me? Then read him. Another sad thing is that the Soviet defector Kuznetsov has yet to return to us. His name was hushed up before Gorbachev’s perestroika. Two soirees in his memory were held in 1991: one in Kyiv and the other in Moscow, and that was it. Since then he has disappeared from our memory. Meanwhile, we must remember Kuznetsov, his work and life, not only out of respect for him, but also out of respect for the freedom that he cherished above all else.