25 Sep Banned! — Metropol: Literary Almanac
Metropolʹ : literaturnyĭ alʹmanakh
Ann Arbor, MI: Ardis Press, 1979
PG3227 M47 1979
Change was almost immediate in the Soviet Union after the death of Joseph Stalin in 1953. His passing brought on visions of Spring and what citizens of the USSR called the “thaw.” Within the literary world, the death of Stalin loosened the restrictions of publishing and allowed the Soviet Writers Union (which was now twenty years old) to relax somewhat.
But this “thaw” lasted only a short while. By the end of the 1960s, and under the leadership of Leonid Brezhnev, the Writers Union began insisting that Russian literature conform to the framework of “socialist realism” — a rigid aesthetic aimed at “the ideological transformation and education of workers in the spirit of socialism.” Within a decade, the warmth of the “thaw” was once again a distant memory.
However, the Soviet Union did not exactly censor its writers. In fact, censorship did not even officially exist in the Soviet Union at this time for, in practice, everything that was to be published, broadcast, or filmed went through rigorous screening by the party’s apparatchiks, or officials. This was done to both protect the “reality of a one-party ideology and to humble the artist by forcing submission to the state’s power.”
In order to bypass the strict rules imposed by the Writer’s Union, poets, novelists, and even musicians began to use Aesopian language to air their grievances to the Soviet world. This type of language substituted politically sensitive elements with such that can be found in Aesop’s Fables to make satirical allusions regarding corruption and censorship in society. Once fluent in Aesopian language, many writers of the time felt they had reached an understanding with their censors, and did not want to further compromise what limited creative freedom they had by writing or singing bluntly. Unfortunately, they had internalized censorship and assimilated it into the process of writing.
Such was the environment that created “The Metropol Affair” of 1979 — known as the Soviet Union’s last great literary scandal.
Metropol is said to have been born as a result of a toothache, in that, the idea for a literary almanac came to writers Vasily Aksyonov and Victor Erofeev while they were both at the dentist. But perhaps the toothache comes as a symbol of oppression while living under the authoritarian leadership of Leonid Brezhnev. Along with Aksyonov and Erofeev, there were twenty-one other writers who contributed poems, essays, and stories to the bulky almanac that numbered 760 pages. Some of the most famous included American novelist John Updike, and popular musician Vladimir Vysotsky, whose songs and performances were hugely popular throughout the Soviet Union despite being unable to publish poetry or sell his records officially.
Unlike the innovative Russian Futurists of the early twentieth century, who were bound by their unique aesthetics, the writers who contributed to Metropol were connected through their ethical principles: which was to oppose the totalitarian state of mind, and commit to overcome it. These were writers who were not ardent “socialist realists,” but they neither were they true dissidents. Rather, they inhabited a political gray area that allowed them to be great, publishable writers while at the same time being capable of producing material that was deemed unacceptable by the editors. Their goal was to release that material into the public and introduce the rich variety of Russian literature from above and under ground. The purpose of Metropol was to “open literature within the Soviet Union to a wider range of aesthetic approaches, to create a space in which authors did not have to choose between being Soviet or anti-Soviet, in which they were free to say exactly what they wished without reference to official discourse, requirements, or rituals. They envisioned an unmediated literature, written neither to support nor to reject a political ideology.”
In short, they simply wanted to see their work in print.
Metropol seemed like a solution to the problem. The editors of the almanac had planned to bypass the Writer’s Union and present a printed manuscript to all the official channels, offering them the chance to publish the collection on the condition that it would not be altered in any way. The unedited collection was, unsurprisingly, rejected — although it wasn’t necessarily because of the content of the almanac, but rather the form of protest and disregard of ritual. Of course, there were critics on both sides who regarded the stories and poems within Metropol vulgar, worthless, or incomprehensible, violating “the ethics of Russian literature, its humanitarian nature, and its emphasis on the social and moral value” of writing.
Nevertheless, twelve homemade copies of the almanac were printed… Anything more would have qualified as illegal book production. These “pre-Gutenberg folios… approximately the size of a gravestone” were unwieldy and impossible to hide — rejecting traditional notions of dissident literature which relied on subterfuge and surreptitious copying. Yet it was also a rejection of authority and, to make matters worse, the authors asserted their copyright with a © symbol, establishing publication rights under international law. This small symbol was particularly significant because writers and in the Soviet Union were not allowed to publish or sell their work independently or give permission to produce the work abroad.
But the almanac was quickly passed on to foreign contacts. Aksyonov wrote, “bulky as they were, we nevertheless managed to smuggle two copies out of the country,” to Editions Gallimard in Paris and to Carl Proffer’s Ardis Press, in Michigan. When Ardis published Metropol, it also released a facsimile copy that included typos and other visible signs of transgression so that the importance of the work as a material object, as opposed to being simply literature, was highlighted. For a foreign reader who had no familiarity with Russian, the material qualities of the almanac — the dense type with smudges and handwritten or typed corrections — along with knowledge of the scandal it had provoked, probably held more significance than the content of the stories and poems included in the almanac.
Much like the originals, the facsimile copies were not necessarily made to be read, but to be looked at, touched. The most important thing was their form, their materiality. As Russian writer Alexei Yurchak described, “In post-Stalinist authoritative discourse, form and ritual took precedence over content: what you said was less important than how and where you said it.”
In the aftermath of publication abroad, the contributors to Metropol were punished with varying severity by the powers that be; some for a short period of time and others until after the reformation of the Communist Party in the 1990s, known as perestroika. Vasily Aksyonov, deemed the ringleader and mastermind, was forced to resign from the Writer’s Union, depart from the Soviet Union, and ultimately lose his citizenship. Although the Metropol affair became a minor international literary scandal, it has been largely forgotten in the United States where, at one point, this homeless stratum of literature was renowned for the fight against censorship, and for the ability to assume a third position in a world of binaries
Contributed by Lyuba Basin, Rare Books Curator
Metropol: Literary Almanac (English translation) – PG 3213 M47 1982 (General Collection)