On June 21, 1936, André Gide was invited to deliver a eulogy in Moscow’s Red Square, that day full of mourners. Stalin was presiding over the ceremony in honor of the Russian writer Maxim Gorky, who had died three days earlier. The French novelist, who was then 66 years old and had not yet won the Nobel Prize, was an eminent figure among the international pro-communist left, particularly after having published “Travels in the Congo” a decade earlier. The book, full of human observation and vigorous denunciation of European colonialism in Africa, opens with a line by Keats: “Better be imprudent moveables than prudent fixtures.”
One sentence stands out from the speech on Red Square: “The fate of culture is bound up in our minds with the destiny of the Soviet Union. We will defend it.” But Gide, one of the great travel writers of the 20th century, continued to explore the country after the solemn Moscow ceremony. He began his tour prepared to applaud the Soviet Union’s political and social transformations, but also hoping to see for himself what his own circumstances hid. Convinced that something positive, which would concern us all for years to come, was being forged in that vast territory, Gide, not wanting to snub his hosts, tried to escape the role of Stalinist propagandist. Figures across the world would soon take on that role, going on to promote the regimes of Castro’s Cuba and Mao’s China.
Gide carried with him a diary, which later became the short book Return from the USSR, printed in France later that year. In the preliminary note, the author writes that “The Soviet Union is ' in the making’; one cannot say it too often. And to that is due the extraordinary interest of a stay in this immense country which is now in labor; one feels that one is contemplating the parturition of the future.” However, the future that Gide foresees is not always pleasant. The writer is aware of a forced homogenization of Soviet citizens, which begins with uniform ways of dressing, but also affects the uniformities of the soul. “Every morning the Pravda teaches them just what they should know and think and believe. [...] So that every time you talk to one Russian you feel as if you were talking to them all. Not exactly that everyone obeys a word of command; but everything is so arranged that nobody can differ from anybody else.” In another passage, he sustains that the “happiness of all is only achieved by the de-individualization of each one,” to which he adds, with devastating sarcasm, “In order to be happy, conform.”
Gide’s nonconformity was poorly received by most of the progressive intelligentsia. After the publication of his book, Gide’s invitation to the Second International Writers Congress in Defense of Culture in Valencia was withdrawn. At the beginning of Return from the USSR, Gide had already foreseen the adverse reactions: “It too often happens that the friends of the Soviet Union refuse to see the bad side, or, at any rate, refuse to admit the bad side; so that too often what is true about the USSR is said with enmity, and what is false with love.” After being expelled from the aforementioned conference, he responded firmly: “I have always believed it an honor to receive the insults coming from the fascist camp. The ones I received from my comrades yesterday could have been extremely painful for me (those from José Bergamín, particularly) [...] Is it necessary to clarify that these insults will not change my feelings or make an enemy out of me, no matter how much they try?”
We can establish a parallel between today’s Russia and the Stalinist Russia that André Gide observed so sharply, which blinded so many well-intentioned and short-sighted artists. An intricate ethnic, religious, linguistic and territorial knot ties post-Soviet Russia to Ukraine and a plethora of other small republics, either pampered for collaborating with the Kremlin or condemned for their rebellion against a tsarist and colonial empire. Jil Silberstein’s recent book, published in France as Voyages en Russie absolutiste, deals with these “Russian tyrannies.” The writer traces a historical and cultural map of two centuries of insubordination, embodying them in four real protagonists: Mikhail Lermontov, the great romantic author of A Hero of Our Time; the courageous anarchist writer Victor Serge, so admired by Susan Sontag; and two tireless fighters, Tan Bogoraz and Anatoli Martchenko, who both died in Siberian gulags.
We find a contrasting tableau in Putin’s People, a recent book by journalist Catherine Belton. The works provide a painful complement to one another: Silberstein’s stories of bitterness and tragic deaths, Belton’s exploration of Moscow’s farcical wealth. Putin’s People turns the anti-republican legend of our post-war period into a very current sitcom of poolside pimps, yachts and a crowd of oligarchs who support the hierarchy in exchange for favors: autocracy for kleptocracy.
In June 1937, when the preparations for the aforementioned historic Writers Congress were finalized in Valencia, Gide returned to his old ways with his Retouchings of my Return from the USSR. A year had passed since he spoke those flattering words at the dictator’s side. In Retouchings, they were transformed: “Stalin can only endure approval. Adversaries are, for him, all those who do not applaud. It happens frequently that he himself adopts certain proposed reforms; however, if he appropriates the idea, so that it becomes his own, he begins by suppressing the one who proposes it. It is his way of being right.” “Suppression” meant execution, the fate of thousands of communist leaders accused of Trotskyist conspiracy between August 1936 and March 1938 in the so-called Moscow trials. Once again, Gide was quick but accurate in his critique. Now it lies with us to be right in the face of lies, and to defend without hatred the love of justice. When and where will Putin and his henchmen be put on trial?