On December 30th 1988, the writer and translator, Yuli Daniel died in Moscow at the age of sixty-three. A few days later, Andrei Sinyavsky was allowed to return from self-exile in Paris to pay homage at his graveside at Vagavanskoye cemetery.
For a whole generation, the names of Daniel and Sinyavsky were synonymous with the right to put pen to paper without fear of repression. Their trial in February 1966 was the first indication of an ideological retreat from Krushchev’s reforms. It produced a groundswell of support from an apprehensive intelligentsia, determined to resist any rehabilitation of Stalinism. The trial, however, was remarkable in that both Daniel and Sinyavsky refused to plead guilty and defiantly supported the views expressed in their literary works.
This marked a genuine break with a past littered with the apologies of broken defendants.
Although the victimization of Daniel and Sinyavsky has been characterized as a dissident affair, there was an important Jewish dimension to it. For it symbolized the Russian intelligentsia’s condemnation of governmental antisemitism and its general support for Jewish national and cultural aspirations.
Daniel, of course, was a Jew who wrote under the Russian pseudonym of Nikolai Arzhak. Andrei Sinyavsky was not Jewish but he took a deep interest in the Jewish question in the USSR. Indeed, he published abroad under the pseudonym of Abram Tertz. His book The Trial Begins which could only be published outside the USSR, took as its focus the Doctors’ Plot when a number of Jewish physicians were accused of attempting to poison the Soviet leadership. During his own trial, the prosecution attacked Sinyavsky for his belief that antisemitism was still a widespread phenomenon in the USSR. For Sinyavsky, the treatment of the Jews was an indication of the moral health of Soviet society. After serving nearly seven years in a strict regime labour camp in Mordovia, Sinyavskv emigrated in the company of Soviet Jews in 1973 to take up a post at the Sorbonne. He regarded the mass emigration of Soviet Jews in the early seventies not simply as a migration but “a flight from a reactionary ignorant Russia”. In an essay, written shortly after leaving the USSR, Sinyavsky commented:
Russia, of course, will manage without Jews, just as she has managed without a church, without a nobility, without an intelligentsia, without literature. She has, in the end, the strength and means to make good this latest loss too. It is still an empire, with countless different peoples: Tartars, Chuvash, Greeks and even Assyrians. What will it be like without Jews? It will be boring, monochrome. And who then will be the scapegoat for our familiar sins?
Yuli Daniel, ironically, was less explicit in his identification as a Jew—at least to the outside world. Yet he was the son of a Yiddish writer, Mark Naumovich Daniel Meyerovich, who wrote fiction as M. Donyel. Yuli Daniel not surprisingly began his literary career as a translator from Yiddish. Wounded during the war, he later witnessed the Stalinist terror which destroyed the lives of untold millions. Thus for Daniel, Sinyavsky and their generation, Krushchev’s revelations of Stalin’s misdeeds in 1956 was a watershed. Both men were appalled at the ban on Dr Zhivago—especially Sinyavsky who looked to Boris Pasternak as a literary mentor.
Although Daniel contributed translations to at least fifty Soviet anthologies, his own work was never published in the USSR. He sent a number of powerful satires abroad which were eventually published as Govorit Moskva (This Is Moscow Speaking). These short stories were written during 1960-61 when it appeared to Daniel that Krushchev was in the process of creating a cult of the personality. Ironically, it was Krushchev’s opponents who eventually arrested Daniel and placed him on trial for writing these stories.
During the trial, Daniel referred to the – lack of accountability within Soviet society for Stalin’s crimes. On one occasion, he requested the court to state who had been responsible for the deaths of the Jewish writers. When silence prevailed, he answered his own charge: “I am. You are. All of us are.” Daniel’s fear of a return to the days of mass terror is vividly illustrated in the central story “This Is Moscow Speaking”. It commences with a radio broadcast:
Moscow speaking. Moscow speaking. We will now broadcast a Decree of the Supreme Soviet of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics dated 16th July 1960. In view of the growing prosperity, to meet the wishes of the wide masses of workers, Sunday, August 10th 1960 is declared Public Murder Day. On that day, all citizens of the Soviet Union who have reached the age of sixteen are given the right to exterminate any other citizen with the exception of those listed in the first paragraph of the annex to this decree. The decree will be in force from 6 a.m. Moscow time until midnight. . . . We will now broadcast a concert of light music.
The story is essentially a description of reactions to the announcement and to its numbed acceptance. Although there is a low level of action on Public Murder Day—to the extent that official declarations of “sabotage” are later made—there is significantly no condemnation of the idea by the people themselves. Daniel wrote the satire in order to show the ease with which mass terror could once more be inflicted upon a docile population. In “This Is Moscow Speaking”, there is defiance only from Volodya Margolis—the one Jewish figure in the story.
“Tolya, if there’s a Jewish pogrom on the 10th of August. I’ll fight. It’s not going to be a Babi Yar. I’ll shoot the bastards. Look.”
He opened his jacket and showed me the butt of an officer’s pistol sticking out of his inside pocket; he had kept it since his army days.
“They won’t get me as easily as that.”
When at last he left, I stood for a long time in the middle of the room. Who were “they”?
Yuli Daniel was never in the best of health. Five years in the Gulag did not improve it. On his return from the camps, he assumed a new pseudonym. Unlike the Russian Sinyavsky, the Jew Daniel didn’t believe that he could survive, in a cultural sense, outside his native Russia. Last year, in the full glare of glasnost, his work appeared openly under his own name in the Soviet press. A few months before his death, Moscow News interviewed him and recorded his reminiscences of the trial where his conduct inspired countless others not to capitulate in the face of official intolerance. He told the newspaper: “We wished another sort of literature to have a right to exist too. A free literature without forbidden subjects and problems. . . . I did what I thought I should at that time. The most important thing is, I think, to be absolutely true to your own self” A fitting epitaph for a brave man.
Jewish Quarterly Summer 1989