Exiled poet Joseph Brodsky won the Nobel Prize for Literature yesterday, just days after the official theoretical journal of the Soviet Communist Party renounced its "cowardly, mistrustful" treatment of creative artists for the past 50 years.
Though only 47, Brodsky has been considered a master of the Russian language and a poet of the highest rank since he was a young man in Leningrad. In 1963, Soviet authorities sent him to a work camp in the Arctic Circle for the crime of "parasitism" and then exiled him to the West in 1972. Brodsky, who has been a citizen of the United States since 1977, lives in New York and teaches at Mount Holyoke College.
While Brodsky was having lunch yesterday with spy novelist John le Carre at a Chinese restaurant in London, a friend burst in to tell the poet that the Swedish Academy had given him the $340,000 award.
Brodsky ordered a whiskey.
"I'm delighted and slightly bewildered," he said in a telephone interview. "I don't really know how it will play in Moscow. Though I must tell you, I think they can survive it."
The reaction in Moscow was divided. Soviet Foreign Ministry spokesman Gennadi Gerasimov said it was "a good thing" that the award would focus attention on 20th-century Russian verse, but as for Brodsky himself, Gerasimov said, "The tastes of the Nobel committee are strange sometimes."
Andrei Sakharov, who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1975, called the award "a very good sign," and novelist Fazil Iskander said Brodsky "is a truly great poet who made a great step forward in Russian literature."
Some artists were more reticent. Poet Andrei Voznesensky, who has returned to official favor in recent times, said, "I had better say nothing" about the award.
Future official reaction may reveal more about the course of glasnost. This week, Kommunist, the party's theoretical journal, published an unsigned editorial saying, "The mightier the Soviet state became, the more cowardly, mistrustful and often suspicious were the departments and official organs in charge of culture."
Of the editorial, Brodsky laughed and said, "It's about time."
The academy cited Brodsky for his "all-embracing authorship, imbued with clarity of thought and poetic intensity." For his own part, Brodsky said he had hoped the prize would go to Trinidadian-born novelist V.S. Naipaul.
Brodsky's work has long appeared in underground publications -- or samizdat -- but the Soviet government has not, until now, allowed his poetry to appear in the official journals. However, Brodsky said the journal Novy Mir will print some of his poems in December.
Brodsky is the fifth Russian-born author to win the Nobel Prize, following Ivan Bunin in 1933, Boris Pasternak in 1958, Mikhail Sholokhov in 1965 and Alexander Solzhenitsyn in 1970.
Soviet officials did not permit Pasternak to accept the Nobel Prize and did not allow the publication of his novel "Doctor Zhivago." The novel will be published soon. Solzhenitsyn accepted the award, but officials did not allow publication of his "literary investigation" into the Soviet prison camps, "The Gulag Archipelago," and he was exiled to the West.
"The strangeness of that group is pretty typical of the course of what happens to literature from where I come from," Brodsky said.
Brodsky said he hoped his award would draw attention to the Russian poets he admires most, including friends such as Yevgeny Rein, who lives in Leningrad, and poets of the past such as such as Osip Mandelstam, Marina Tsvetaeva and Anna Akhmatova.
"I don't want to appear modest," he said, "but this award should be looked on as a prize for the true poets of this century." He said his only regret was that some of the great writers of the century -- James Joyce and Marcel Proust among them -- have been overlooked by the academy.
Asked by reporters in London what he would do with the prize money, Brodsky made one of his rare grammatical errors in English. "To spend," he said.
Moscow correspondent Celestine Bohlen contributed to this report.