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Mainstream, Vol XLVI No 47

The Red Vignettes

Tuesday 11 November 2008, by Yevgeny Yevtushenko

Remembering October Revolution on its 91st Anniversary

Seventh November this year marks the 91st anniversary of the historic October Revolution. Although the politico-economic situation in Russia has undergone a sea-change since 1991, the worldwide significance of the Russian Revolution of 1917 has not waned in the least; on the contrary its importance has been heightened in the light of the latest international events capped by the global financial meltdown that has shaken the world capitalist system to its roots. On this occasion we reproduce the following pieces which appeared in Mainstream in the sixties and the seventies to once again bring out the significance of the Revolution.

The following are extracts from distinguished Russian poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko’s A Precocious Autobiography.

The first mistake which many Western ‘specialists on the Russian Revolution’ make is to judge the revolutionary idea itself by its traitors instead of by those who are genuinely loyal to it.

Their other mistake is that they still go on thinking of the idea of Communism as something grated upon the Russians artificially and by force, without realising that it has become a part of the Russian people’s flesh and blood.

Lenin once said that ‘Russia has paid her way to Marxism by her suffering.’ What he had in mind was the Tsarist past. But it was not only by her suffering under the Tsars that Russia paid the price of Marxism; she went on paying it by the errors and the torments of the period of building a socialist society.

I love my fellow countrymen as a Russian, but I also love them as a revolutionary. They are dearer to me because they never became cynics, never lost their faith in the initial purity of the revolutionary idea; by whatever filth it has been desecrated.

I hate the cynics with their lordly view of history, their disrespect for the heroic labours of my countrymen whom they try to represent as a lost flock of sheep; their clever knack of scorning the good together with the bad and their utter impotence to make any constructive suggestion.

But dogmatism, which is one of the most horrible forms of revisionism, is hateful to me just as much… Although there are some dogmatists who are sincere fanatics, many more, as I already realised in my childhood, use it as a cloak for their selfish interests.

Ideas shouldn’t be confused with the unworthy men who use them as weapons in their struggle for survival… And insofar as Communism has grown into the very substance of the Russians, both cynics and dogmatists are traitors to their people as well as to the Revolution.

The Russian people have suffered throughout their history as perhaps no other. Suffering might be expected to blunt and to degrade the human spirit, destroying its capacity for faith in anything. Yet if we look attentively at the history of the nations just the opposite seems to be the truth. It is the prosperous nations of today, those favoured by their geographical position and historical circumstances, which seem to show a grosser spirit and a weaker hold on moral values.

Nor would I call these nations happy, for all the signs of their prosperity. The old Biblical saying, ‘Man does not live by bread alone’, has never had a more convincing ring than it has today.

Some great thinker once said that man is an animal with a capacity for dreaming. Some people’s lives only seem to prove the first part of this proposition. Yet if we look into their hearts we find that, though they have no lofty dreams, they yet dream of dreaming them.

Even a rich man is sad if he has no ideals. He may try to hide his sadness from himself and from others, but his efforts only make him sadder still.

And if even the rich are sad if they have no ideals, to those everlastingly deprived, ideals are a prime necessity. Where bread is plentiful and ideals are short, bread is not a substitute for an ideal. But because such is human nature—because man is a born idealist. And great ideals are born of great suffering.

Why did Marx prove to be wrong in his prediction that the Revolution would begin in the country with a most advanced industrial development? Why was Russia, so backward industrially, the first country to enter upon the revolutionary path of socialism?

Because, though far behind in her industrial production, she was perhaps ahead of all the others where her people’s tears and sorrows were concerned.

You may object that, side by side with its achievements, the Revolution brought new tears and new sorrows to the Russian people.

But here our Russian character must be kept in mind. Suffering is a habit with us. What seems nearly unendurable to others we endure more easily.

Besides, we have paid for our ideal with so much blood that the cost itself has made it all the dearer and more precious to us, as a child born in torment is the dearer and more precious to its mother.

You may say: ‘But doesn’t it occur to you that Communism itself may be a false ideal?’

If the reader believes in God I will ask him: ‘Can you equate the substance of Christianity with the swindlers who made money by selling Indulgences, with the Inquisitors, the priests who got rich at their parishioners’ expense or the parishioners who pray in church and do shady deals outside it?’

Neither can I, a believing Communist, equate the substance of my religion with the crooks who climb on its band-wagon, with its inquisitors, its crafty, avaricious priests or its double-thinking, double-faced parishioners.

These opinions which have since crystallised in me, I already held in childhood.

‘Call him a Communist!’ my mother would say about some liar, sucker-up, careerist or pompous bureaucrat who used his Party card to help him up the social ladder.

And to this day for me a Communist is not merely someone who belongs to the organisation and pays his dues. A Communist is a man who puts the common good above his own interests, but who would never wantonly destroy the lives of others in the name of the common good.

¨

In the autumn of 1941 I was evacuated, like many other Moscow children, to Siberia.

It took me close on a month to reach my native Zima Junction, travelling in a train made up of sixteen coaches filled with women and children.

They were sixteen coach loads of grief and tears, slowly moving deep into the Russian hinterland…

And when I came to Zima Junction I witnessed what perhaps was the most terrible thing I have seen in my life—the weddings of 1941.

Young boys called up to the front were handed their papers and given two or three days to get ready. The times were grim. Guderian was looking Moscow over through his field-glasses. These young men, whose bodies were to block his way to Moscow, had hardly any chance of coming back. Many of them were engaged, and their girls chose to be their wives if only for a day and at the cost of being widowed at once. These were the terrible weddings I saw, weddings followed by a single and last night of married life.

I was good at folk-dancing and at the age of eight I was taken to these weddings to dance, and paid for my performance with a piece of bread or a potato. But all this I have described in my poem Weddings.

When today I think about the war and what it meant, it is these weddings that come to my mind first. And this memory affects me much more than all the fine speeches about the need to fight for peace.

The word “peace” can only have a concrete meaning for those who know what war is. If it were possible to be grateful to a war, I would thank the war for giving me an understanding of the word “peace”. And I would also thank the war for helping me to understand the words “my country”.

It was then I realised that ‘my country’ was not a geographical or literary concept—it was a word for living people. I despise nationalism. For me the world contains only two nations, the good and the bad. I am a nationalist of the nation of the good.

But the love of mankind can only be reached through the love of one’s country.

¨

In ’41 Mama took me back to Moscow. There I saw our enemies for the first time. If my memory is right, nearly 20,000 German War prisoners were to be marched in a single column through the streets of Moscow.

The pavements swarmed with onlookers, cordoned off by soldiers and police.

The crowd were mostly women—Russian women with hands roughened by hard work, lips untouched by lipstick and thin hunched shoulders which had borne half the burden of the war. Every one of them must have had a father or a husband, a brother or a son killed by the Germans.

They gazed with hatred in the direction from which the column was to appear.

At last we saw it.

The Generals marched at the head, massive chins stuck out, lips folded disdainfully, their whole demeanour meant to show superiority over their plebeian victors.

“They smell of eau-de-cologne, the bastards,” someone in the crowd said with hatred.

The women were clenching their fists. The soldiers and policemen did all they could do to hold them back.

All at once something happened to them.

They saw German soldiers, thin, unshaven, wearing dirty blood-stained bandages, hobbing on crutches or leaning on the shoulders of their comrades; the soldiers walked with their heads down.

The street became dead silent—the only sound was the shuffling of boots and the thumping of crutches.

Then street became dead silent—the only sound was the shuffling of boots and the thumping of crutches.

Then I saw an elderly woman in broken-down boots push herself forward and touch a policeman’s shoulder, saying “Let me through.” There must have been something about her that made him step aside.

She went up to the column, took from inside her coat something wrapped in a coloured handkerchief and unfolded it. It was a crust of black bread. She pushed it awkwardly into the pocket of a soldier, so exhausted that he was tottering on his feet. And now suddenly from every side women were running towards the soldiers, pushing into their hands bread, cigarettes, whatever they had.

The soldiers were no longer enemies.

They were people.

¨

It goes without saying that the dogmatists used, still use and will go on using every opportunity they can find to arrest the process of democratisation in our society.

I have no rosy illusions about that.

I know equally well that the dogmatists have reared a new crop of young people to replace them. These young people are perhaps our greatest internal danger. But they are all the same in a minority compared with the progressive part of our youth and I do not believe in the possibility of their victory.

I know that we are facing many difficulties in our national economy and in foreign relations. There are complications too in the development of our arts.

I don’t shut my eyes to any of this.

Nevertheless, one would have to be blind not to see the gigantic changes in our country since the death of Stalin. What has been happening since 1953 is a spiritual revolution which demands of us great concentration. We have to tell ourselves very clearly which are the things in our past we mean to carry forward into our future and which are those we shall leave behind.

We are sometimes told that we talk too much about the past. But for us, talking about the past means thinking about the future.

We have made many mistakes. But we were the first to attempt to carry out the ideas of socialism, and perhaps our mistakes were made in order that they should not be repeated by those countries who will follow in our footsteps.

In a café in Paris, a student who did less then credit to his revolutionary forebears said to me:

‘In general I’m for socialism. But I’d prefer to wait until you have a shop like the Galeries Lafayette in Moscow. After that I might consider struggling for socialism…’

I felt ashamed for this senile youth.

What he wants, you see, is to have the future served up to him on a silver platter, nicely cooked, brown outside and pink inside and with a sprig of parsley, then perhaps he will pick at it with his fork. We at least were making the future ourselves, doing without the barest necessities, suffering, making mistakes, but all the same doing it ourselves.

And it makes me proud not to be just an onlooker but to be taking part in my people’s heroic struggle for the future.

And I want to believe that everything is still ahead of me as for my people.

(Mainstream, November 4, 1978)

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