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Beatniks And Bolsheviks

Rebels without (and with) a cause.

In the stream of insults that Nikita Khrushchev brought down upon us in the winter of 1963, the American word "beatnik" constantly popped up. It's not out of the question that this word attracted the leader's attention because of its somewhat Russian sound. It would be difficult to imagine the leader of progressive mankind insulting young writers and artists with the word "existentialist." Much more likely that he would choose "beatnik"; with a little imagination, it could be construed as an abbreviation of bitiy chaynik, or "dented teapot."

I quote myself from The Burn, not out of vanity or impudence, but because I haven't been able to imagine the general secretary's perspective more clearly since then:

The distinguishing marks of a wicked beatnik, "pidarast and apstractionist," were well known to the Boss from descriptions provided by his officials. The wicked beatnik always wore a sweater and glasses, had a little beard, loved noisy "jast music," and laughed at Stalinists. . . . Thus the wicked beatnik will get to our culture, too, and will undermine the very foundations of our culture with his venomous sarcasm. . . . Here he is, the dangerous subversive, the perfidious word spinner who had unlocked the hearts of Soviet youth with the skeleton key of decadence, the leader of the beatnik horde, who had caused clouds to gather over the Socialist Motherland! They must be given a kick in the teeth before it was too late, they must be rooted out; there was already a whiff of smoke in the air that had an uncomfortably Hungarian smell to it.

That is how the Boss envisioned the army of beatnik-revisionists.

Where did this word come from? Who were these beatniks? In 1963 we, meaning those branded with this label, didn't understand it very clearly. It's not inconceivable that Khrushchev knew better who the beatniks were: he had an entire staff of researchers who had access to Western literature. We didn't have a clue. Information gleaned from Soviet magazines was fragmented, although it was carefully amassed, as was everything Western. In the magazine Foreign Literature somebody wrote something about James Dean and his movie Rebel Without A Cause, to the effect that he was rebelling against bourgeois morality. In the same magazine, or maybe it was in In Defense of Peace, mention was made of certain coffeehouses in San Francisco where youngsters in denim (the word "jeans" didn't exist yet) would get together, listen to jazz, read scandalous poetry.

Strangely enough, such news caused me to look not to the West but to the East, to my own hometown in the not-so-distant past. In 1952 a youth commune had come into being in Kazan. Without any idea that beatniks existed elsewhere, we went to Komsomol meetings in deliberately torn sweaters. We met in lairlike apartments, listened to jazz, read scandalous poetry (imitations of the futurists and other "slappers in the face of public taste"). About 15 years later we learned that we had been on the brink of arrest. As the ringleader and the son of famous "enemies of the people," I was especially suspect. The Kazan secret police had collected evidence; we would have tumbled head over heels into the interrogation rooms if Svetlana Alliluyeva's daddy hadn't kicked the bucket.

By the beginning of the '60s, again from articles by various Soviet "Americanists and internationalists," we already knew the names of the San Francisco ringleaders: Allen Ginsberg, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Jack Kerouac, Gregory Corso. Their names sounded like pure silver to Westernizing Russian ears. In fact these writers really didn't have to write anything at all to go over big in Eastern Europe. I remember the girls of Bratislava in 1965 rolling their eyes and tossing their teased hairdos and sighing, "Oh, Gregory Corso." Little did they know that Gregory wasn't into girls.

Generally the American beatniks were older than us by a decade. They were closer to those Soviet writers who were called the "front-line soldiers": Bondarev, Baklanov, Vinokurov, Fozhenyan. As far as I know, however, none of these American writers took part in the war; and so, when Ginsberg was in Moscow in 1964, he sought the company not of the front-line soldiers, but of our gang. He found it. We gladly hung out with him, because we were interested in finding out who exactly he was.

The sleeve of Ginsberg's jacket was intentionally ripped, just as ours had been when we were teenagers in Kazan. Yet for us he wasn't (and never became) an indisputable apostle of sin and nonconformity. The manner of this 40-year old struck us as a strange manifestation of infantilism. His revelations (extravagant and constantly inebriated) seemed even more infantile, particulariy when he began to attack his own CIA. Still, everybody liked him, maybe even because of his childishness, his gabbing about drugs, his Indian chants. In short, he didn't make an outstanding impression on anyone, and was overshadowed by the "giant" Yevtushenko. We were quite surprised to learn of his incredible success in Prague, where crowds of youngsters trailed him and he was chosen king of the spring holiday.

The official Soviet view of the American beatniks was very amusing. They were sort of OK, on the one hand, as shakers of the foundations of bourgeois society, and as promoters of our cause. On the other hand, they expressed merely a petit bourgeois protest, that is, they didn't promote our cause enough, they even distracted youngsters from the social struggle. In any event, at least some grains of their work began to appear in the Soviet press at the time of the "first thaw" in 1962--first, excerpts from Ginsberg's famous poem "Howl," with a preface about five times the length of the excerpts themselves, then excerpts from Jack Kerouac's novel On the Road.

The Soviet view turns out to be a curious mirror image of an American view, or so I recently learned from an article by the American conservative (excuse me, neoconservative) Norman Podhoretz. It seems that the town council of Lowell, Massachusetts, Jack Kerouac's hometown, decided to create a monument in Kerouac's memory. This decision came as an unpleasant surprise to the neoconservative. Fodhoretz questioned whether Kerouac actually brought any good to his hometown, whether he didn't actually mock the way of life of towns like Lowell, whether he didn't in fact consider life in a place like Lowell a form of spiritual death. According to Podhoretz, Kerouac's principal virtue was that toward the close of his life (which was ended by booze in 1969, when he was 47) he settled down and turned to the right politically. Alas, sighs Podhoretz, he's not remembered for that.

Kerouac is too wild for American neoconservatives and for Soviet commissars. He believed that only people outside the system can be considered alive: the loafers, the cheats, the bag people, the prostitutes, and those who were lucky enough to be born with dark skin. Podhoretz adduces an eloquent passage from On the Road that glorifies the "mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn like fabulous yellow Roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars." But Podhoretz doesn't consider Kerouac a great writer; he couldn't create memorable images or spin gripping stories. This is how the neoconservative estimates literary greatness. Note that if you were to judge literature according to Podhoretz's standard, the number of "great writers" doesn't decrease, it increases.

Of course, Kerouac produced not literary works, strictly speaking, but highly charged, narcissistic monologues of the type that Ginsberg came to call "spontaneous prasods of bop." They were formless and disconnected, and should be judged not from the standpoint of literary merit but socially, as the expression of a rebellious generation. About this Podhoretz is essentially right. He is also right to observe that in a short time the very anti-values that the beatniks raised against the Middle-American Establishment were elevated and accepted as the "orthodox dogma" of the counterculture.

But Podhoretz pays attention only to the destructive nature of the beat movement. He holds Ginsberg's collected poems at arm's length and with two fingers, as if it were a dead iguana, because it may corrupt a new generation. "All in all," he writes, "Kerouac and Ginsberg at one time played a great role in the destruction of a great number of young lives, having influenced youth with their aversion to the norm and to general decency." He begins to speak almost the same language as Khrushchev. Finally the beat finds himself in the middle ground.

There were chronological coincidences and hasty parallels between the Western beat movement and the Soviet "New Wave," as two Danish scholars, Inger Lauridsen and Per Dalgaard, have noted. The '50s, in both the United States and the Soviet Union, were considered boring, materialistic, and conformist, whereas the '60s were the decade of protest. In the '60s, as these scholars explain it, the standard of living in the Soviet Union improved, televisions and telephones were made available to the masses, the growing middle class began to drive around in their little ladas (which are baby zhigulis).

There was freer access to the classics and to Westem literature, and it was easier to travel around the country and even around the bloc. These scholars also note that the subculture of the '50s set the stage for the outburst of a powerful "counterculture" of the '60s, as it did in the West. Taking advantage of the liberal atmosphere of the "thaw," the young subculture in the big cities of the Soviet Union seized the chance to express itself in poetry, prose, music, and the visual arts. All of this became the "New Wave."

Our Danish scholars correlate American beats with their Russian counterparts. Americans: Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, Gregory Corso, William Burroughs, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Gary Snyder, Michael McClure, and so on; Russians: Yevgeny Yevtushenko, Andrey Voznesensky, Bella Akhmadulina, Vassily Aksyonov, Anatoly Gladilin, Bulat Okudzhava, Andrey Bitov, Vladimir Vysotsky, Ernst Neizvestny, Andrey Tarkovsky. Both groups, they say, spoke for the generations that experienced the horrors of war, and of "cold war," generations keenly alive to the possibility of nuclear destruction. Both represented generations that were fed up with manipulation by synonymous capitalist and communist societies, and that yearned for a romantic, anarchic revolt against their societies. Both denied the importance of the state and public institutions, emphasizing instead the importance of inner freedom. These generations. East and West, insisted on the importance of one's own path in life, whatever it may be--drinking, traveling, smoking, jazz, making love, talking about Buddha or Jesus, and so on.

Such comparisons, however, provoke this member of one of the groups. The comparisons work only if you don't take into account events such as the Hungarian counterrevolution and the workers riot in Novocherkassk in 1960--that is, if you overlook the fact that by the beginning of that happy decade of the '60s the liberation movement in the Soviet bloc was already history. The point is, we're talking about different types of freedom.

What kind of horrors of war did the American beatniks experience if none of them served in the army, if none took part in military action against Germany and Japan? The majority of those listed in the Russian group also did not participate in any military action, with the exception of Okudzhava and Neizvestny. But we did experience bombings, evacuations, starvation. I doubt that the American beatniks experienced even an interruption in their supply of Coca-Cola. One more point about the war: despite its horrors, it was a source of great inspiration for Russians. The war brought a feeling of spiritual community to Soviet people for the first time, an understanding that people could unite not only out of common fear but also in a struggle for human dignity.

The real horror that our generation experienced came not in the form of the war, but in the form of Stalinism. Parents or close relatives of all the above-mentioned Russians went through torture chambers, prisons, or camps. Overcoming that terror is what fundamentally distinguishes us from our American counterparts. They were fortunate not to have known such things; but as long as we're on the subject, it's not out of place to remind those who bring up McCarthyism that the senator's committee didn't destroy a hundredth of the number of lives that our "organs" put away in a single day.

As for the "cold war," you could also say that the two groups had different psychological approaches. The Westem rebels thought that their government created all kinds of NATO-like organizations out of purely militaristic motives, or to undermine the trust between nations. It was obvious to the majority in our group (and maybe even to all, in the depth of the soul) that the issue was really one of opposition to total perfidy, or, if you please, to the "class approach." The "cold war" not only brought an end to the "hot war"; it also codified a conception of democracy.

Capitalist and communist societies didn't look nearly so synonymous to us. And we were less anarchistic than our hirsute and often tunic-clad Western brothers. We drank more, they smoked more, and none of our group happened to be gay (or as we say, joined the ranks of the "blue division"). As for jeans: the beatniks started to wear them as a symbol of rejection of Western society, but we wore them for exactly the opposite reason, to demonstrate our allegiance to Western society. Anyway we were less into fashion. We took talk about Christ more seriously; we were also very interested in books by emigre Russian religious philosophers, which suddenly were made available to us. The American beatniks were not exposed to the same level of repression that we were; some of us, myself included, were forced out of our own country.

We felt a certain closeness to these people who had given their establishment the finger, because we wanted to do the same to our establishment. But just as their establishment was different from ours, so was our giving it the finger. The problems that the American beatniks grappled with in the 1950s had been addressed by the young geniuses of Russia's Silver Age in the 1910s. The Americans' search for open forms was a forward movement, but for us that search was in many ways a backward movement, to the smothered but not completely annihilated Russian avant-garde.

At the end of the '50s and the beginning of the '60s, we opened the literary warehouse that the Stalinist bastards had nailed shut. We extracted Khlebnikov, Mandelstam, Bely, Platonov, Oberiuti... there was no end to the treasures of our recent past. The influence of this rediscovered avant-garde, this art of yesterday (sometimes we even thought of these people as our older brothers), was much stronger than any Western influences, even Hemingway. The American beatniks had a revolutionary position and tried to break a specific tie. Although our "wave" did break with socialist realism, we did it with such disdain that we didn't consider it much of a break; our main concern, the pathos of our movement, was the restoration of a tie, the attempt to mend the broken chain of our avant-garde tradition.

The deliberate departure from politically significant themes: that is what finally distinguished our development from the beatniks'. Needless to say, all Western types of liberation struck us as whimsy; but we shunned our own democratic movement too, which gave rise to talk about our own conformity. Only later, when the repression gained strength, was there a schism among us: some of the New Wave joined the domestic rights campaign, others supported Western pacifism and blamed the West for the neutron bomb. (Imagine the courage required for that!)

As the great Bella Akhmadulina has said:

I believe that a poet cannot be political--not in the literal sense. But a poet doesn't exist in a vacuum. Events do concern you; you are a part of them anyway. There comes a time when you have to say yes or no. That can be very hard. You have to heed your conscience, which at some point may say: "I can't go on like this" or "I fear God's grace will be taken from me." Talent--that is, the grace of God--is connected, alas, with the grace of external circumstances. Often those poets who are most favored by God are least favored by circumstances. The longer I live, the better I understand that I had to head in my own direction, that I had to leave the group. I'm glad that we were once a group, and glad that we now exist individually, each on his own path. God grant us all success.

By Vassily Aksyonov