After being banned for 50 years, Nikolai Erdman's anti-Stalinist political comedy "The Suicide" is appearing to full houses in a Moscow theater.
The lifting of the ban, which was imposed by Stalin in 1932 and continued by his successors, has caused a sensation in Moscow's cultural world. It was immediately linked to the death in January of Mikhail Suslov, the guardian of Kremlin orthodoxy for the past three decades.
"The Suicide" has made a hit in Western Europe and the United States in past seasons, including a long run last year at Washington's Arena Stage. But until now, Stalin's judgment that the play was "empty and even harmful" had been maintained by the Kremlin's ideological watchdogs.
There was speculation in intellectual circles here that Suslov's successor, the former KGB chief Yuri Andropov, may have endorsed Erdman's play as a signal of a more relaxed approach to cultural affairs. There have been no other obvious signs of significant relaxation, however.
Andropov is said to be a sophisticated man. His daughter is married to a Moscow stage actor, and Andropov's links to the cultural world are said to be stronger than those of most of his colleagues.
The premiere of "The Suicide" was held quietly Friday at the Satiri theater. It was impossible to obtain tickets for subsequent performances. Those who managed to see the play said Erdman's text had been shorn of lines of strong political and social criticism but nevertheless was described as powerful.
By Soviet standards, the play is controversial, to put it mildly. Instead of providing an uplifting vision of Soviet life, it combines surrealistic wit and a Kafkaesque description of Stalin's Russia in what can only be understood as scathing criticism of totalitarianism. In Stalin's Moscow, one of the characters says, "Only the dead can say what the living are thinking."
The plot revolves around the hero Senya, a despairing, unemployed Russian worker who is badgered by his family and ignored by society until he announces that he intends to shoot himself.
The act of political protest--Senya blames "the leaders in the Kremlin" for his miserable life--suddenly brings fame and friendship. His tenement apartment is besieged by artists, women, tradesmen and thinkers, all begging him to announce that his planned desperate action is intended to support their particular grievances against the Soviet state.
The comedy turns into a moving drama when Senya unexpectedly discovers his will to live. Neither the world nor his life has changed.
In the final moments of the play, Senya confronts a chilling darkness and despair possibly as terrifying as the death he escaped. The last line reports that a neighbor of his, Fedya, had been so moved by Senya's earlier arguments about the need to end life's miseries that Fedya actually killed himself.
The fate of Erdman and his play in many respects symbolizes the transition from a brief period of Russian awakening in the 1920s that was to end with the harsh period of Stalinism.
At age 23, Erdman burst onto the scene with "The Mandate," an instant success. He attracted such supporters as the famed directors Meyerhold and Stanislavsky. The writer Maxim Gorky described Erdman as "our new Gogol" and the first truly Soviet playwright.
But by the time Stanislavsky was rehearsing "The Suicide" in 1932, the Soviet artistic upsurge was under assault. Fearing that Erdman's bold political criticism would be banned by censors, Stanislavsky sent the play directly to Stalin--who banned it.
A year later, Erdman was sent to Siberian exile for a short story that irritated the dictator. He never wrote another play. Forgotten in exile, he survived while many of his colleagues committed suicide, died or, as in the case of Meyerhold, were murdered.
After World War II, Erdman emerged from exile and wrote screenplays for Soviet movies including "Volga, Volga," for which he was awarded the 1954 Stalin Prize. The dictator was dead by then.
As it happened, Erdman and his wife celebrated the world premier of "The Suicide" at my Moscow apartment in 1969. The play had made its debut in the Swedish city of Malmo. Erdman lived in a massive building across from the U.S. Embassy here and was generous in sharing his observations about Moscow's cultural life with me.
Why the play came to be performed in Malmo was a mystery for Erdman. But we received the first review with the help of the Swedish telegraph agency's Moscow bureau. A Norwegian colleague, Per Egil Hegge, was doing the translations.
When Hegge first read one headline from a Swedish newspaper saying Erdman may be the greatest satirist of the century, the playwright, then 67, rose to the occasion: "After that, you don't have to read anymore," he deadpanned, adding, "Let's all have a drink now."
Later that evening, when all the reviews were translated and when their praise lifted our spirits, Erdman for an instant turned philosophical. There he was, he said, completely forgotten, his life as an artist ended long ago. He had not sought to peddle his manuscript around. Indeed, he suspected that the copy of it had reached the West via a Czechoslovak scholar who, before the 1968 Soviet invasion of his homeland, had visited while doing a dissertation on the Soviet satire of the 1920s.
Looking at the reviews on our dining table, Erdman said, "This probably will not change my life at all, but my fate as a playwright apparently had already changed." He died the next year of natural causes.