Evicted From His Own Head: On Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky
The story is dated 1929, by which time Krzhizhanovsky, along with most other writers, would have had intimations of the unprecedented brutality and philistinism of Stalin's reign, even if the show trials and terror were still to come. Until the end of the 1920s there was a good deal of literary ferment among writers on the left. These writers could still openly argue with one another over how--if at all--they should be serving the socialist state, and they debated both how to write (realism? fantasy? abstraction?) and how to live (like a regimented factory worker or a nineteenth-century bohemian?). But at the end of the decade new party directives swiftly changed literary culture. The range of permissible art forms narrowed to the kind of conservative, ideologically driven parables that would later be called socialist realism; the great Modernist experiments of the revolutionary era came to an end. The militant writers' union RAPP (Russian Association of Proletarian Writers) harassed, fired and censored anyone whose writing was experimental or satirical or frank about Soviet society. In 1929 RAPP declared the new Five Year Plan the only acceptable subject for writers.
Krzhizhanovsky's stories are full of metaphorical reminders of the silence imposed on writers and artists. Shterer is befriended by a writer in his building who persuades him to write a memoir about his time travels to earn money for the materials he needs to rebuild the machine. But an astounded publisher tells Shterer he can't possibly publish this dark vision--it would at the very least cost him his job. Nonetheless, the manuscript takes on a life of its own, secretly copied and circulated, presumably with the assistance of the publisher himself. People start whispering about it; it has admirers but also, apparently, critics. Not long after the meeting with the publisher, Shterer disappears. His neighbor goes to look for him one morning only to find that Shterer's tiny apartment--which had been made out of a closet--has been put to another purpose: "the entire under-stairs closet, right up to the ceiling, was stacked with sticks of stovewood; pressed snugly together, their flat ends protruded from the throat of the cage like a tight damp gag."
Krzhizhanovsky knew his stories and his associations with prominent Moscow writers put him in a precarious position; he hid his work at the houses of friends during the terror in the hope of preserving it should he get arrested. Some of his acquaintances were arrested and killed. Like some of the characters in his stories, he worried that he would come home to find the secret police in his apartment. The worry did not, however, keep him from writing through the 1930s. Perhaps he had a prescient sense of the arbitrary nature of the purges. If loyal Bolsheviks could get arrested and killed for no apparent reason, why not write critically about Soviet conditions? He stopped writing fiction in the early 1940s, possibly because he was drinking heavily and in poor health, though he continued to make a modest living from literary criticism and lectures until he died in 1950.
The fascination of Krzhizhanovsky's work today is also its limitation: the blatant criticism of the Soviet regime that makes itself felt, in different ways, in every one of the stories. Each is about a man and his private reckoning with the political, economic and social conditions of post-revolutionary Russia. There seems to be no room for any kind of struggle but the one between citizen and state. For Krzhizhanovsky's characters this struggle is silent and inward rather than confrontational, and the need for secrecy creates an atmosphere of intense loneliness and isolation. There is a kind of aridity in these stories when it comes to human relations. The family drama, friendship, love, marriage--none play any significant role. Sex is a little joke well out on the margins of life. As for the pointless humiliations of existence and the baser human impulses, these are, for Krzhizhanovsky, bound up with the new regime and culture, which, of course, offers no shortage of examples.
Turnbull writes in the introduction that a Soviet editor dismissed Krzhizhanovsky's work as "untimely," a common shorthand for fiction that was not politically correct. But of course Krzhizhanovsky's stories are exactly and deliberately timely: they observe the follies and cruelties of early Soviet life. Even knowing that they would not be published, Krzhizhanovsky continued to write his stories for the drawer (as the Soviet saying about dissident writing goes), hoping, presumably, that one day someone other than his friends and family would read them. From that drawer Krzhizhanovsky's work mutely skewered and censured the regime for fifty-some years. His stories are full of insight into official Soviet culture--insight that proved both prescient and useless. By the time his work was finally published in 1989, the millions who would be killed were already dead, and his countrymen needed no convincing about the corruption and violence of the Soviet state.