Wednesday, 6 May 2015

Freedom of Speech in the USSR

In the afterword to the excellent Soviet era science fiction novel Hard To Be A God, co-author Boris Strugatsky reflects on the political turmoil during the years of the book's production. Boris and his brother were planning a swash-buckling adventure when the leader of the Soviet Union, Nikita Khrushchev threw a strop in an art gallery. 

The 'thaw' in Soviet attitudes towards art - which was a response to the years of Stalinist censorship - looked as if it was freezing over, and even the science fiction and adventure section of the Moscow Writers' Organisation got shirty with the bros Strugatsky. 

After some drinking and negotiation, Hard To Be A God was published and was even held up as an example of politically correct writing by the authorities. The good guys won out, the world got a novel that can stand with the greats due to a resonance that goes beyond its time. It provides a critique of deterministic ideas about historical progress while retaining dynamic story-telling that pays respect to the inspiration of The Three Musketeers. 

Strugatsky's brief summary of the situation, however, is a reminder of how regimes are rather keen on controlling their artists. Khrushchev's eggy tantrum, while hilarious (he stomped about shouting at the paintings), reveals how easily repression can start, and illustrates the dangers of allowing the state to define the value of art. Once politicians are accepted as having any say in the function of, say, science fiction, it can easily become a tool of oppression, ensuring that only safe ideas are expressed. 

On the other hand, Hard To Be A Good is an example of how talented writers can get around the problems. 

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