IN THE SNACK BAR of the prestigious House of Writers, an elegant building on Herzen Street which serves as a private club for those fortunate enough to be members of the Soviet Writers' Union, a critic for a well-known Moscow literary journal with a large circulation drank his cognac and muttered meaningfully that things were about to get interesting, really interesting, and that this spring, mark his words, was the start of a new epoch. His potentially ambiguous remark reflects the mood of hesitant optimism that has infected many members of the Writers' Union and the Soviet intellectual elite as they wait for Mikhail Gorbachev to set the tone of his administration.
What is going to happen to Soviet Russian literature now that the interregnum is over and it is time to get down to the serious business of building communism? This has become a topic of intense speculation among many Muscovites for whom literature and literary pursuits are a passion as well as a job. I say speculation, because at this point there has been little official indication of the direction that things might take. Any kremlinologist will tell you that it is difficult to pin down concrete indicators of change in the Soviet Union. Specific policy statements, especially in the cultural sphere, are rare; the country literally runs on rumor. During this brief interim wait-and-see period, we can best get an idea of where things might be going by taking a look at what literary Moscow is talking about and reading.
All of Moscow is talking about S. Esin's story in the February issue of Novy Mir (or New World, one of Moscow's oldest and most popular literary monthlies, published under the auspices of the Writers' Union). After two lean and boring years under V.V. Karpov's editorship, Novy Mir has published "The Imitator," a well-written, caustic indictment of life in the fast lane of the Soviet artistic establishment. Esin's cynical narrative, told in the first person by a smug and successful careerist, is a catalogue of Soviet sins: professional jealousy, intellectual rapacity, delusions of grandeur, the hypocritical covering-up of personal shortcomings, mediocrity passing itself off as genius. This is heady stuff after the blandness of recent issues. For many Russian readers such a talented but obviously controversial work (a Soviet Notes from Underground, suggested one Russian reader) serves as a sort of touchstone; they see its publication in a widely-read official journal by a conservative, Party-line editor as a minor, but definite, change in the literary weather. The weather- watchers are now waiting for official reactions and reviews, if any. (In Soviet literary politics, what is not said is often as important as what is.)
ANOTHER INDICATOR of a potential change in the weather is the premiMere, at long last, of Lyudmila Petrushevskaya's controversial new play, Three Girls in Blue. The play was finally staged at the Lenin Komsomol Theater after being held up in production for five long years. Probably the Soviet Union's finest female playwright, Petrushevskaya has had difficulty in getting her plays accepted for performance at official theaters. Up to now, her work has been performed primarily in avant-garde experimental studios and closed private performances. Three Girls in Blue, about three cousins who spend the summer together in the country with their children, is a frequently funny play about the petty concerns of everyday life. An element of fantasy intrudes into the life of these three women caught in the daily grind; fantasy generates a dialogue with the past and injects a poetic note that enables the characters to rise above the prosac details of day- to-day existence. A play without ideology, a play about purely private lives, Three Girls in Blue was enthusiastically reviewed in the pages of the Literary Gazette, the official newspaper of the Soviet Writers' Union. Petrushevskaya's play promises to be the dramatic event of the spring season; already it is impossible to get tickets.
Another item that has come up repeatedly in discussions about the direction of Russian literature over the last month or so is Vinogradov's recently-completed documentary film about writers, My Contemporaries. The film crystallizes and contrasts two periods in the history of contemporary Russian literature: the optimistic, exuberant, broad sweep of the 1960s, when Bulat Okudzhava's career as a poet-singer of modern ballads was making him the idol of the young, when Bella Akhmadullina, Andrei Voznesensky, and Yevgeny Yevtushenko were packing enormous halls with SRO crowds who came to hear them read their poetry, when Tabakov's avant-garde direction made the Contemporary the leading theater in Moscow; and the 1980s, "an epoch without crises," when the literary stars of the 1960s, now aging and paunchy, have lost contact with their audience and withdrawn from the public arena to the privacy of their dachas in the country. My Contemporaries exudes a mood of general disillusionment with literary life as it has become, and generates a certain nostalgia for the freedom, the optimism, and the anticipation of the 1960s.
Can the vital and energetic spirit of the '60s recalled by Vinogradov's film be recaptured? Will the new political situation have a positive influence on the renewal of Russian literature? Some Moscow weather-watchers claim that the recent high points we have just been discussing constitute a slight warming breeze in a period of traditional calm. Their point of view would seem to be supported by recent "warming" trends in the parallel worlds of art and music. Other weather-watchers, while ready to express optimism (everyone is anxious for spring to arrive after this year's particularly long, harsh winter), are careful to qualify their optimism. "It's true, I feel optimistic," said a writer friend as we were sitting in his kitchen over cups of strong, black Georgian tea; "but I don't know if my optimism is real or if it's just a reaction to the past few years, a sort of anti-pessimism. I have great hope. Our literature has such immense possibilities, and it's time we started to realize them."