ON DEMOCRACY, MORALITY AND CONSCIENCE. FAZIL ISKANDER TALKS TO BENEDICT SARNOV
Fazil Iskander will be soon turning 75. Benedict Sarnov, a literary critic who’s known Fazil Iskander for years, had a meeting with the writer on the eve of his anniversary. They repeatedly discussed the issues relating to literature and society in the past. Now
Izvestia has the opportunity of publishing a transcription of their latest talk.
B. S.: Fazil, we seem to have known everything about each other in the past. These days we don’t get together on a regular basis. Do you feel any changes with respect to your views on life?
F. I.: I don’t think that any substantial changes have taken place, as far as my views are concerned. They’re mostly the same. I began feeling my old age, that was a new sensation to experience. And there’s also a lack of certainty and direction seen in the workings of the government. I still don’t understand the objectives set out by the government, I can’t see a well-defined policy. Instead, I can see a horrendous tyranny of the police and legal system. I can see larceny and bribe-taking on a nation-wide level. I have a feeling that these developments aren’t going to stop shortly, though the authorities keep promising that things will change for the better. Almost nothing has been changing so far. Judging by reports in the press, the people who live in the provinces, the Russian Far East and the Northern parts of the country, are in dire straits. The news like that can’t enhance your optimism. Russia’s economic infrastructure was disrupted in a more severe way when Vladimir Lenin was introducing a New Economic Policy in the 1920s, yet he eventually succeeded in carrying it out, and that really strikes me as odd. There must have been certain people back then who were able to take advantage of the situation. Those people managed to effectively handle the problems and put the country back on the track by providing food and normal living conditions in just two or three years. I just don’t understand why the reforms have stalled this time. The transitory period may have come to an end, and an absolute freedom is impossible, it can only lead to anarchy. An economic freedom coupled with an overall dictatorship may be a good combination for a few years to come. On the other hand, under the Soviet rule we used to import grain from the West, now we export it. It means that our knowledge of the current developments in the agriculture is rather poor. It means that the peasants are doing a good job somewhere out there. I believe that democracy has good chances of taking roots in a country whose people have a tradition of imposing the voluntary self-restrictions upon themselves. On the contrary, this country had a tradition of self-restrictions imposed through violence. Then all of a sudden a total freedom came around after the lengthy and terrible period of violent restrictions featured, for example, during the Soviet era, and thousands turned into thugs, thieves, even killers. It seems to me that our people should have been given more time for fighting their vicious instincts so that they might realize they could end up in prison. I’m not talking about resisting evil for some higher purposes. You just shouldn’t let a starving person eat from a table laden with sumptuous meals and delicacies. Regrettably, the message that “everything is permitted” was spread wide and large. Cultural and religious restraints were all forsaken. And now there’s a feeling that those without conscience have struck their Eldorado. Everything is permitted when conscience doesn’t tell you where to stop. Say, you’re a terrorist and blow up a bomb. And an honest investigator starts pursuing you. That honest cop reports to a corrupt prosecutor. You give a payoff to the corrupt prosecutor and he gives your case to a corrupt investigator who will never catch you. Some cases which were finally brought before the court make you wonder what kind of justice it is. A 10-year probationary prison term what kind of punishment is that? Things like that surely set examples to the public. That’s why I have a feeling that our youth was very much impressed with the criminal reality they live in. So some are planning to escape while the others are trying to fit in.
B. S.: I can’t disagree with you on that. More than 70 years of the ghastly regime must have left some deep and ugly marks in the various fields of life. The crisis couldn’t have been solved in an easy way. Besides, we live in a country plagued by grave heredity. It’s not only the hereditary traits passed on from the Soviet time, it stems from the rule of Ivan the Terrible, from times of Nicholas I. Lately I’ve read an interview by Andrei Konchalovsky who was also speaking his mind on a possible marriage of dictatorship and free market, it directly refers to the subject matter of our present discussion. The Russians don’t need freedom, according to Konchalovsky. He believes that any Russian would prefer security to freedom if he or she were to choose the only alternative. When asked about a Russian idea of freedom, Konchalovsky replied: “Being independent from the state.” It’s pretty well-turned, from my point of view. My idea of freedom is mostly the same. You and I have lived in a sociopolitical system where everything was controlled by the state, and the state was in charge of distributing its perks and privileges to everyone on board, there was no other way of getting your staff of life. Getting rid of the state control is a big step forward. I’d like to cite a wonderful joke as if replying to the speculations on freedom as a useless thing for the Russian people who’re allegedly too immature to have it and therefore shouldn’t strive for it. The joke goes like this: somebody asks a patient of a mental asylum ‘How’s it going?’. The patient says: ‘Fine, thank you. There’s a swimming pool on the premises where we have a lot of fun. We swim and dive there. And the doctor has just told the most important thing. They’re going to fill the swimming pool with water if we behave.’ Our swimming pool has been already filled with water. Democracy was won by the outstanding personalities including yourself. You didn’t want to wait until the apparatchiks had licensed the publication of your “Sandro from Chegem” in Novy Mir. There’s only a handful of those who really know that freedom didn’t fall over this country like some manna. It’s about time our people learned some lessons. Our electorate isn’t yet ready for a true democracy, no doubts about it. I looked through the results of a public opinion poll showing that 70% of the voters would go to the poles just because “we always did it in the past and we’re going to do it this time.” What kind of democracy is that? This is ochlocracy. You may have noticed that such democratic institutions as courts of justice with a jury are less dependent on the authorities , and such courts hand out more acquittals. President Putin has virtually buried the idea of the division of powers by making a handy tool out of the Russian parliament. And I don’t like it at all. One can already see the first attempts, cautious though as they may seem, aimed at restricting the freedom of speech in this country. Some are calling for the ban to be imposed on TV broadcasts showing dead and dismembered bodies in the aftermath of terrorist attacks. I’d rather not to see the gory scenes on my TV screen, but what a legal ban has to do with it? The journalists themselves should follow their code of ethics and take into account a sense of proportion. The public too can take certain steps to put pressure on the media. There’re lots of other ways that could be used for keeping filth and violence off the TV screens.
F.I.: The issues like that can be easily resolved in a democratic court of justice. Pornography will vanish from TV if the owners of a TV channel are forced to pay substantial fines exceeding proceeds from a pornographic film. A court of law should impose a respective ban and decide in an open manner what penal actions should be taken. So far we’ve seen the freedom of anarchy in a country ruled by bureaucrats and new criminal bourgeoisie.
B. S.: A large number of people dream secretly of a dictatorship, and it makes me wonder why. They’d be howling and wailing should anybody try and take the wealth which they gained over the last ten years. A few years ago I was riding on a streetcar in a neighborhood I wasn’t familiar with. I asked a man seated next to me how I could get to the nearest subway station. He promised to tell me when to get off and we struck a conversation. Soon he was laying into Yeltsin. I cut him short by asking: “Imagine talking to a perfect stranger like this in the past. You’d keep your mouth shut, wouldn’t you?” He got really confused. I told him before saying goodbye: “I’ve lived most of my life under the Soviet regime. But I like this new life much more.” I was kind of expecting him to smite me for that which could have fallen perfectly into the way he stood his ground. He smiled instead and kept quiet for a few seconds. Then he said: “My wife and I have spoken about this some time ago. We arrived at the conclusion that we’d bought more stuff for ourselves and our apartment over the last few years than we did during all those years before.” Fazil, it’s obvious we’re not going to arrive at any conclusion here since we’re strangers to both economy and politics, to say the least. Let’s talk about literature, about things we deal with as professionals. Back in Soviet times, the ones that we call ‘the stagnation era’ out of habit, the Soviet writers felt the enormous pressure put by censorship and editing staff (an editor acted as censor in many cases). I remember Borya Balter coming up with an idea to write a letter against the censorship. I objected by saying: “What’s the point? Censorship is a horrible thing, it’s understood. But an editor will draw your blood anyway even if the censorship is abolished.” “So what would you like?” “I’d like to send my manuscript to the brothers Sabashnikov for their consideration”. (The chances were close to zero back then). Borya’s comment on my wish was pretty wise: “What on earth are you going to send to those brothers Sobachkin?” Now the time has come when you’re free to go to the brothers Sabashnikov or any other publishers. I thought at the time that new brilliant writers would emerge like mushrooms after the rain once the burden has been gone. I mean those who had been writing ‘for their own pleasure’ during the years of censorship were simply destined to bring out an incredible bloom of the Russian literature, I thought we’d witness the outburst of talents. Now that freedom has arrived, what can we see?
F. I.: The new literature written under conditions of liberty seem to me quite insignificant. Boris Pasternak mentions “the clearness of barriers” in his cycles of poetry on the Caucuses. The clear-cut ideological and censorial barriers used to inspire the writer, they helped him identify the enemy of a free creative process and bypass the dangers so that the truth of life might be told. The gifted ones could make it through the barriers by one way or another. They exploded those barriers in their own way. The fine language of hints and innuendoes or metaphorical prose took shape later, the reader would instantly recognize anything smacking of resistance and love for freedom. Unfortunately, freedom fell down on our heads, otherwise it would have claimed more lives. The writers failed to produce an internal ideology for speaking out under the newly gained freedom. On the one hand, they were greatly tempted to produce some lightweight items that sell like hot cakes and pay off well; on the other hand, they seem to have lost an inner drama ingredient in their way of thinking that stood out in the books of the Soviet era. The people who were fighting for freedom now seem to be in dismay. Freedom became a reality so what else can I commit to paper, so to speak. Though it seems to me that the writer should look for imperfections in any form of freedom and fight them as fervently as we did while fighting against the total lack of freedom. It will take time and experience until one is capable of spotting new forms of oppression so that the ways of resistance may be worked out accordingly. The time hasn’t come yet. Our literature is quite superficial at the moment.
B. S.: Nikolai Chernyshevski once said that he’d quit being a writer to be a deputy in a parliament if Russia had one. Those who began writing in order to reveal something important to society won’t be missed by readers who can tell between the real literature and sensationalism. After all, we live in Russia where one can go on a quest for truth in other areas such as politics or journalism. I can register one good thing that happened to our book market. Sergei Prokofiev arrived in the USSR from France and somebody told him that “it’s a shame because just a few people here heard about your name while everybody is familiar with the works of Pokrass and Dunaevsky and sings their songs”. The composer just smiled and said: “That’s the way it should be. My profession is different.” There’s a divide going between the copies of books by Dontsova, Marinina, and Akunin published in large numbers and the elite literature, as far as I’m concerned. Boris Akunin is the only one from the mentioned above who looks fully set to be viewed as a true writer while being a moneymaker at the same time. The professions are really different. It’s good yet a little depressing to feel the same smell of junk hanging above the works that purportedly belong to the quality writing. I can tell that he’s a talented writer but then again I see the naked private parts flashing in his stories because he has to tailor for the trend. I’m rather upset by the general level of the prose. Maybe we sound like the grouchy old men, don’t you think?
F. I.: No, I don’t think so. I heard the same comments from the younger people. On thing should be made clear in this respect. Russia has always been a country centered on literature. The intelligentsia have been holding out too much hope of literature for it seemed to them the only link to harmony and freedom. Maybe it’s time for them to reconcile with the present standards of it.
B. S.: You know, the lack of writers regarded as the “dominant influences” is a positive thing from my point of view. Someone coined the saying: “The nation that needs its heroes is a wretched nation”. I’d put it like this: “The nation reading books is a wretched country if it needs its dominant influences.” It’s another attempt to worship some guru. We’d better start learning to live on our own and stop waiting for somebody to come out of nowhere and show us the way. Alexander Solzhenitsyn kept reminding us angrily of the Christ for a long time. When asked about the Christ, Alexander Galich said: “Jesus Christ isn’t a human being to some extent.” There’s a remarkable entry in Tolstoy’s diary: “A girl once approached with a question: ‘Please tell me how to live in good conscience.’ I told her: ‘You people want to be guided by somebody else’s conscience, by doing what the Christ or Tolstoy told you to. You’d better ask you own conscience instead.” That’s a very profound observation.
F. I.: Yes, it is. But I’d like to object to your previous assertion. I believe it’s good for a nation to have three or four public figures highly respected for their impeccable moral characters. It somehow makes you feel more secure and shows you where to look for emulation. This problem is universal. I can’t see no writers anywhere in the world who could be hugely influential when it comes to morals of a nation. I hope that the situation is going to change sooner or later. The guiding lights are sure to shine if the world keeps turning.
B. S.: Agreed. People with the highest moral qualities are necessary for setting examples.
F. I.: Then let’s wait.
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