Maria Chagdoeva (art critic), 1993

Mariya Andreevna Chagodaeva, literary critic (1993?)
Interviewer: Julia Kalinina

Everywhere in the world there are people who oppose the government, people who criticize, demand radical changes etc. Practically always they get into trouble. In the tzarist Russia the opposition was put in jail, repressed. Under totalitarian regimes it acquires great importance — it’s understandable, as a fight is a fight. In the USSR in 60-70s absolutely everything was politics. A person believed in God — it was politics, an artist or a musician was keen on progressive avantgarde tendencies — it was also politics. This demand to be orthodox penetrated into everything — even how to feed your baby. Though intelligentsia didn’t have any intention to be involved in political activities the system forced them to do so even by means of blackmail. For example a pupil graduated from a school and wants to enter the University — in that case he must get recommendation from his school Komsomol League Committee. If he isn’t of the Komsomol, whole spheres of social life are closed to him. If he is a member of the Komsomol — he must be orthodox. He can’t baptize his child. Person who was not a member of CPSU couldn’t get a number of certain positions — any director, any executive, commander — either you are a member of the Party or you wouldn’t have any career at all. Certainly most of the people joined the Party and became the slaves immediately.

If the Party bureau made a decision its member is obliged to fulfil it, to blame people like Pasternak. If he wouldn’t do it he would be repressed himself. Everyone had to decide whether to be a dissident or a slave. An artist exhibited a still-life that was painted in the cubist style — he was considered to be a dissident. I’m a historian, I write what I think only truth, nothing else, but it’s a certain protest already.

Q. I’d like to know how you managed to cope with this?

A. I was writing a book on the history of literature in the Soviet period, I mentioned the decrees on Akhmatova, Zocshenko, Prokofiev, Shostokovich, only mentioned without any accents — it was crossed out by the editor. The only possible thing was not to do anything— not to lie, not to write, not to take themes where it was impossible to write without lie. But if you still want to write the truth it wouldn’t be published. But on the other hand samizdat existed — for example one of my manuscripts was typed and copied several times and people were reading it. I wrote an article about Glazunov, truth about him — no word about politics but art but it couldn’t be published because Glazunov was an official artist for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. The same was Shilov — his wife is a daughter of Furtseva (ex-minister of culture), so it was impossible to criticize him. If somebody wanted to be honest, not to blame the regime but to fulfil honestly his job — he couldn’t tell the truth but he was able not to lie. They were not dissidents because the dissidents were either abroad or in prison. They were people like Okudzhava, Brodsky, Trilimov, Ahramov, Abuladze, Danelya, Rjazanov, Yubimov, painters, artists. Some of them were forced to leave the country later but most stayed. Their articles, movies and paintings were forbidden, cut, tossed out but anyway something (hints, spirit) reached the readers and spectators. For example Vysotsky couldn’t obtain a permission to give a concert in a big concert-hall but he could do it in a little club. The same about movies and art exhibitions.

Q. I heard from somebody that Vysotsky was poisoned?

A. No, it’s not true, he was drinking too much. One can say he was killed morally.

Q. Somebody explained me that everything that [evoked a] free mind was dangerous, does it concern the art also?

A. Yes, everything was dangerous: another style, another emotions, when a person was writing about something tragic or sad. Not only political issues. The power was afraid that would be themselves, differ from each other. Even private tragedies contradicted with the cheerful image of a Soviet citizen. For example the movie “Scarecrow” about the children’s persecution of a non-pretty unordinary girl — that movie was cut several times, forbidden, not allowed, though it’s a real life story. One can come across the same thing in Canada.

Q. Did the artists want to contribute somehow in the changes of mentality of people or did they just wanted to do their job honestly.

A. Any artist wants to tell about things that touch him — they don’t think that’s a protest. But very often turned out to be a protest. Tarkovsky wanted to shoot a movie about Andrei Rublev (famous icon painter) — it’s an ancient Russian history of the 14th century but he didn’t show it in “a proper way”.

Sometimes now we can’t understand what was wrong in this or that movie or book.

Actually an official who was responsible for a particular movie was always afraid that if some higher person wouldn’t like it he himself would get into trouble, would be fired. He prefered not to allow anything that looked suspicious. There were also lots of ungifted artists who used that situation denouncing on their more talented friends. It was a common thing. The most awful was that the huge number of intellectuals’ repression were made not by the hands of the officials but by these ungifted untalented artists, actors, scientists etc.

Q. Tell me about your attitude towards Western critics. How did Western critique react to Soviet kitsch? If Western critics said something about official Russian art did anybody here care?

A. First of all we didn’t know any Western critics here, it wasn’t printed, wasn’t translated, the Western magazines were closed in the libraries. For the professionals who knew about Western views it certainly was a support but only on the private level. Officially it didn’t play any role. For example if an official art exhibition failed somewhere we could get only gossips about it here — in the newspapers there was either nothing about it or only praise. The wider public didn’t know anything because of that censorship.

O. If someone had done something prestigious did most people know that this had happened?

A. You know a Pasternak story: he was awarded the Nobel prize for his “Doctor Zhivago” which made furious his own colleagues. Certainly Khrushchev didn’t read the book but official writers, leaders of the Writers Union, hated him for that prize and they are responsible for that plot, they organized the political accusations and forced him either to leave the country or to reject the Prize. The story was depicted in the newspapers like a fierce enemy suborned the Nobel Committee. They same was with Solzhenitsyn and Brodsky. Then Sholokhov was awarded it, and it was fine because Sholokhov was official writer and the power was satisfied completely.

Q. When did you begin to see changes?

A. In 1986-87. It began at the moment when it became possible to speak loudly about what you think. It was a breakthrough.

Q. I read that the great difference between Khrushchev and Gorbachev reforms was that Khrushchev didn’t respect intellectuals and Gorbachev did.

A. The main difference is not here. Gorbachev is obviously more correct, tolerant, intelligent. Khrushchev didn’t like some paintings and he closed the exhibition. Gorbachev never said “I like it” or “I don’t like it”, no evaluations — only “Thanks, it’s very interesting”. He knew what would be the results, the consequences if he said “I like this but I don’t like that”. His wife sometimes said it was his doing that enabled people to feel free about their personal selves.

A. Considerably so. It’s the greatest happiness. Probably it’s the only real achievement for today.

Q. Can you say how artists and intellectuals tried to expand the will of freedom? Were there efforts, plans to try to push and create more opportunities for freest expression?

A. The fight was going on all the time, but no organized plans, no parties existed — it was spontaneous. There were groups of friends that were trying to resist supporting each other.

Q. Personal friendships were very important in protecting people who were victimized. Is it generally true that people cared about each other in that sense?

A. It’s certainly the truth, we were holding each others’ hands and it might even substitute the political organization. I was trying to support the artist, to attend at the exhibitions, to tell the truth about their paintings. It was impossible to publish the words of appraisal hut at least I could pronounce them. I can bring examples. We were trying to defend each other. At that time the Head of the Soviet Union of the Artists was somebody Shmalinov. One of our art critics signed the letter against the hunting at Solzhenitsyn. Immediately he had to be fired from everywhere. Shmalinov got a directive to arrange a public discussion of the critic’s deed and to fire him. S. didn’t argue, he didn’t say nor “yes” nor “no” but he just hid that letter. Nobody knew about it. He was a honest person but that was a rare case. Sometimes it was a way to protect a person.

Q. Besides this network of intellectuals was there a regular relationship between your community and those of the circle of the political dissidents?

A. It was a matter of private relationships — if your friend turned out to be a dissident you certainly were connected with that circle. I didn’t have such friends. If I had one I certainly would help out as others did. My friends were hired sometimes, had troubles while exhibiting their paintings but none of them were put in jail.

Q. Were there people who didn’t have troubles of that kind?

A. Practically everybody had troubles. It depends on what you consider to be a trouble. Very often people were not allowed to travel abroad — a trouble of course, but one couldn’t compare it with the troubles Pasternak had for example. I wasn’t allowed to travel because I had a pen-friend in Israel. I wasn’t refused directly but my applications were lost, postponed, I couldn’t get an answer for years. Or a person couldn’t defend his postgraduate paper and get a status of a Doctor, or he is not promoted for years — all without any reasonable explanations.

Q. Did the changes happen suddenly or it was a very gradual change and would you say that now it is as it is in Europe or North America?

A. It happened not in one day but very rapidly. Probably in one year between 1985 and 1987. We got used to it also very quickly; once I was watching TV and there was a program about the old CPSU and so on. I was watching at as at a waxworks show though only 20 years had passed since it had been our regular life. Now it seems that we have even too much freedom because when I see people on TV who call for beating Jews – I think that it’s a little bit too much.

Q. What are your relationships now with those who were censors, who use to dominate. Are they still working in your Institute? Are you friendly, do you pretend that all has passed ?

A. I never had any relationships with such writers. I don’t have it now. I’ve just avoided those people.

Q. Did they lose their jobs?

A. Yes, those artists who were painting the portraits of officials or the paintings on an ordered ideological issue — they certainly are in a poor position now; they have no orders. That’s why they are so furious now. The same is true about the writers who were “patriots”, they lost everything. They certainly don’t starve because they are very rich people but they can’t earn as much as they did.

Q. These are things that I didn’t explore very much. How one treats people who were in charge of punishing other people and controlling other people and who are out now. What kind of social relationship generally exists? Is there any sympathy for these people like they did what they had to?

A. It’s possible that one may pity somebody personally, but in general people hated the power and the persons who represented it. People mostly gloat over their misfortunes.

Q. And those, who say “I made mistakes, I shouldn’t have refused your painting to be hung”

A. Lots of them are “ahead of democracy” now. But they’ve forgotten their previous deeds, they don’t apologize, they’ve just thrown away one mask and put on another one — a mask of a democrat. Probably Yeltsin talked more than others about his mistakes. Even the orthodox church; the priests who denounced those who had baptized their kids, didn’t apologize, didn’t confess.

Q. Can you tell me some small examples of successes when you were able to protect somebody or you were able to win a little bit more freedom in 1985 or so?

A. Very often I, as a critic, had to protect the offended artists. For example, there was a remarkable artist Tyshler, he was 80 years at that time. His exhibition was arranged. The general procedure was that before it opened a commission of the Moscow Party Committee should look at the paintings and “accept” it. The Commission consisted of women — obviously uncultured, uneducated, caddish — powerful Party viragos. They pointed at the paintings and said “Take this away, that away, that one can’t be exhibited”. Tyshler was alone there facing them. The Chair of the Commission turned him out of the hall and gave orders to the employee of an exhibition hall to take that or this picture away. The leaders of the Union of the Artists learned about it, scared and didn’t come in the evening to the opening of the exhibition. There were lots of visitors but no representatives of the Union’s governing body. Tyshler was in despair, his temperature even went up. I was a member of the Union’s Bureau and I took the procedure of the opening in my hands, made a speech where I told about the Party Commission, the humiliation and also how beautiful were the pictures exhibited there, she also brought the picture that wes taken away and put it on the floor near the walls. The evening gradually turned out to be a triumph of Tyshler. Afterwards Tyshler told her that her speech practically saved him, he could even die of a stroke or something like that. It happened in 1978.

Q. Did something happen to you later?

A. No, nothing. I was never afraid of anything.

Q. So a whole layer of society was critical and you knew and trust each other.

A. Exactly so. The most bright and talented people were involved in it. I can’t remember anybody who was talented and didn’t participate in it. Those gifted who were outside the circle very soon began to compromise with power and themselves lost the spirit and gift.

Q. How large would you say this all of society or 500 people?

A. Among the intelligentsia the per cent was huge. Though lots of people understood but kept silence.

Among the common people there was a silent protest — people protested by the means of their like, by hard drinking. probably unconsciously people didn’t accept the social system. The August coup showed that there were even more [unacknowledged], protesting people than we suspected.

The Russian Quest for Peace and Democracy, by Metta Spencer, published by Lexington Books