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As is evident in several of the photos here, the poet Alexei Surkov (1899-1983) has sort of been pushed into the dark corners of Russian literary history. It’s possible that the kiosk standing almost in front of the plaque proclaiming that Surkov lived in this building across from Pushkin Square has now been removed. I took these photos about nine months ago and many Moscow kiosks have been removed in that time. All of this, however, suits the little I have to say today – back and forth, into and out of the shadows.
Surkov was – to put it lightly – a controversial figure. Having served as the First Secretary of the Soviet Writers Union from 1953 to 1959, he couldn’t help it. It’s true that he came in just as Stalin died and, thus, was part of the Thaw era changes, but, still, his post was a nasty one. He was one of the leading “proletarian” writers from the ’20s through the ’50s, rarely being far from the ruling parties that took great care to marginalize, at best, the most important writers of the time.
Thus, when last year I came upon Surkov’s plaque pushed back into a dark corner I found in that some sense of moral justice. And if, indeed, it has been freed and is out in the open again, that would be something of a sign of the times, too.
You see, the art of the “artistic denunciation,” so popular in Surkov’s time, has again become a part of Russian life. We have seen this repeatedly over the last year or two – ideological purehearts unload their bile on artists who dare to step outside the bounds of normalcy in their work. Politicians climb on the bandwagon, corrupt journalists do the same. It’s a disgusting and infuriating turn of events. Some of you may know about the case against theater director Timofei Kulyabin, which was, mercifully, thrown out of court. But in just the last few days we again have witnessed another of these “artistic battles.” In this one the once controversial music video-maker Yury Grymov publicly attacked the director Alexander Ogaryov for having an actress pee on stage in a humorous scene in Nilo Cruz’s Anna in the Tropics at the new Stanislavsky Electrotheater. Ogaryov responded in kind, expressing amazement that the former bad-boy Grymov could be so offended by such a harmless theatrical incident.
We can thank people like Surkov for the revival of these nasty cultural habits. They sit deeply ingrained in the Russian consciousness.
Surkov was a much-honored man in his time. He was loaded down with government awards – two Stalin Prizes, a Hero of Socialist Labor award, four Lenin Orders and on down the line. He was extremely active in Soviet literary life – serving on committees and in groups, while writing his poetry, editing major publications (Literary Gazette, Ogonyok), writing criticism and running the Literary Institute. In 1947 he penned the article “On the Poetry of Pasternak,” attacking the great writer, and he was one of the signatories of an open letter sent to Izvestia newspaper in 1973 attacking Alexander Solzhenitsyn and Andrei Sakharov. The great Soviet-era translator Lilliana Lungina (translator of the eternally popular Pippi Longstocking, and mother of famed film director Pavel Lungin, who, coincidentally, has just premiered on Russian Channel One a multi-part TV mini-series devoted to the KGB!) had this to say about Surkov: “He was a malicious, sly, dangerous man; a typical apparatchik.”
Surkov was the author of some 40 books, including several collected works. He translated the poetry of Mao Zedong. Very little of his work has been republished since his death.
Surkov’s archive was rediscovered a few years ago in a used bookstore by the bibliophile Mikhail Seslavinsky. Shortly thereafter he donated it to the Literary Museum in Moscow. Our Heritage magazine (2013, No. 108) described the archive as consisting of “hundreds of documents carefully preserved by Surkov, including personal correspondence with colleagues, Party and Soviet leaders, denunciations sent to the leadership of the Writers Union with the purpose of upholding Party vigilance and exposing class enemies…”
One such document, a denunciation from the writer Konstantin Konichev, is printed with the article in Our Heritage. It bears the notation, “Urgent. For Comrade Surkov.” The letter slanders the writer Pyotr Semynin, stating he has recently applied for membership in the Writers Union and that he “should be investigated.” Among other things, the letter claims that Semynin, while living in Novosibirsk (where the Kulyabin court case took place, by the way), “conducted anti-Party affairs in literature…”
How many steps is it from Konichev to Grymov? From Surkov to those who demanded that Kulyabin be sent to prison for “insulting Christian believers”?
Surkov lived in the building pictured here at 19 Tverskaya Street from 1949 until death presumably took him to a better place in 1983.