Rostov on Don, 1932–Berbenno in Valle Imagna, 2017

Iu. Mal’tsev, 1987. Source: Radio svoboda, Courtesy Photo.

“All right, put me away, but I have to say what I think and I have to stand with my back straight to respect myself” (Mal’tsev-Tolstoi 2010).

Iurii Mal’tsev was born in 1932 in Rostov-on-Don. In 1955, he graduated in philology from Leningrad State University, specialising in Italian studies. Between 1955 and 1965, he translated numerous Italian authors into Russian, including A. Moravia, E. De Filippo and C. Zavattini (cf. Larocca 2019) and published several critical articles on Italian literature, theatre and cinema in Soviet magazines (cf. Kuzovkin-Makarov 2009a).  From 1956 onwards, he taught Italian at the History Department of Moscow State University (MGU), also working as a translator and interpreter for various delegations of prominent Italians in the Soviet Union, until 1964, when, following the petition sent to the Supreme Soviet of the USSR in which he renounced his Soviet citizenship and rejected official ideology, he was dismissed from the University and relieved of his duties. After this, his career as a literary critic and translator was cut short; the editors of official journals stopped publishing his articles and translations (cf. ibid.). Between 1966 and 1967, he sent several requests for expatriation to the Supreme Council, which were denied.
In 1968 he signed an appeal in defence of the writer-activists A. Ginzburg and Iu. Galanskov, denouncing human rights violations in the Soviet Union (cf. Graziosi 2008: 345) and, shortly afterwards, he appealed to the then UN Secretary General U Thant for help with his expatriation, reiterating the reasons which, four years earlier, had prompted him to renounce his Soviet citizenship: “On 15 December 1964 I announced to the Supreme Soviet of the USSR my renunciation of Soviet citizenship and my intention to emigrate from the Soviet Union. I want to leave this country because, as a writer, I am deprived of the opportunity to do my work here. I do not accept the official Soviet ideology, I do not believe in communism […] and, consequently, in a country where the obligatory principle of loyalty to the communist party has been proclaimed in the artistic sphere, I am condemned to spiritual annihilation” (Mal’tsev 1974: 30.)
From 1968 onwards, he signed several appeals, including one against the arrest of the participants in the so-called “demonstration of the seven” (1968) and, the following year, against the arrest of Ivan Iakimovich (cf. Kuzovkin-Makarov 2009a). In 1969 he was among the founding members of the Initiative Group for the Defence of Human Rights in the USSR (Initsiativnaia gruppa po zashchite prav cheloveka v SSSR) and, as such, signed numerous appeals circulated by the group between 1969 and 1970, including a letter addressed to the UN on 20 May 1969 (Pis’mo “V komitet prav cheloveka Ob”edinënnych Nacii” o političeskich presledovaniiach v SSSR), which reads: “We appeal to the UN because we have not received any response to our protests and complaints that have been sent over the years to the highest state and judicial authorities of the Soviet Union. Our hope that our voice will be heard, that the authorities will stop the illegality that we have constantly pointed out has been exhausted” (Kuzovkin-Makarov, 2009b).
Because of his human rights activism, on 17 October of the same year, without any valid medical reason, Mal’tsev was interned for a month in a psychiatric hospital (cf. Kuzovkin-Makarov 2009c). He wrote memoirs about his internment entitled Report from a soul asylum (Reportazh iz sumasshedshego doma, 1969) which, after their circulation in samizdat, were published for the first time in the West in 1974 by the Russian emigration publishing house Izdanie Novogo Zhurnala in New York. In this memoir, Mal’tsev made it clear that his internment was due to political reasons, being one of the many cases of political repression against the activists of the Initiative Group of which he was one of the founding members: “Now everything was clear to me. Only a few weeks ago I was summoned for interrogation by the KGB, where I refused to testify about the Initiative Group for the Defence of Human Rights in the USSR, of which I was a member, and the repression against which began immediately after the publication in the West of the appeal to the UN. I submitted my request to leave the USSR in 1964: for a long time the authorities tried to simply ignore it, but when I started to claim my right to leave more vehemently and insistently, then they started to persecute me as a parasite  […] But when I got a job as a postman, this opportunity to bring me to court as a parasite disappeared. […] The direct pretext for this summons to the psychiatrist was, of course, not my old request [for expatriation], but our recent appeal to the UN” (Mal’tsev 1974: 33).
He also revealed the inhuman conditions in Soviet psychiatric hospitals, particularly the special status penitentiary hospitals (spetspsikhbol’nitsy), intended for the internment of political dissidents: “I had no choice but to obey. I undressed, handed over my watch, fountain pen, money and passport. I put on my hospital pyjamas, comforting myself with the thought that I had ended up in Kashchenko, and not in the special hospital where they usually put political prisoners and whose horrors I had heard about” (ibid. 37).
Summoned by the authorities on the pretext that they would send him abroad as an interpreter, Mal’tsev was then transferred to Moscow’s Kashchenko Hospital for a psychiatric examination, during which he had the courage to reassert the real reasons for his internment:

“- Well, now tell us what you think, why did you come here to us?
– I think, and if you don’t give me another plausible explanation I will continue to think so, that the reasons for my admission to hospital are purely political.
– No, you are wrong. This does not happen.
– I know of many cases where people have been placed in psychiatric hospitals because of statements with political content. For example, I know General Grigorenko well and I know him to be a completely healthy person, yet he spent more than a year in a psychiatric hospital because of a statement against Khrushchev’s policy.
– I don’t know what you are talking about – said Konstantin Maksimovich – but I think such a case is impossible. After all, it is not just one doctor who decides, but a whole commission. And they can’t all work for the KGB, can they? (And why can’t they? – I thought – In fact, not only can they, they must!).
– I don’t know if they have placed any politicians here in Kashchenko, but I am aware of the existence of special hospitals where [medical and health] personnel are selected as needed,’ I told him”.
(ibid.: 42-43).

Mal’tsev’s literary testimony provides a great deal of information about the reasons for which dissidents were interned in psychiatric hospitals and the abuse of power by medical and health personnel, as well as about the conditions within the hospitals and the degrading treatments patients were subjected to, with pharmacological treatments often administered arbitrarily: Mal’tsev’s treatment, for example, included tablets of haloperidol, a powerful antipsychotic used to treat schizophrenia (cf. Humanitas). Mal’tsev was also very active in the samizdat circuit: from the late 1960s onwards he was involved in the clandestine transmission of uncensored manuscripts (nepodtsenzurnye rukopisi) beyond the Iron Curtain and documents testifying human rights violations in the USSR (cf. Kuzovkin-Makarov 2009a). Between 1972 and 1974, Mal’tsev was interrogated several times by the KGB in connection with the case of V. Krasin and P. Iakir. Krasin even tried to persuade him to reveal his contacts with Italians and his role in smuggling forbidden texts out of the USSR (cf. Kuzovkin-Makarov 2009a). Nevertheless, Mal’tsev did not cooperate with the authorities and throughout his life, even after he was allowed to emigrate to Italy (1974), he actively spread news about the Soviet democratic movement and dissent, also writing a history of the USSR’s “other literature”.  When he arrived in Italy in 1974, he combined his academic activity as a lecturer in Russian language and literature at several Italian universities, including Milan and Parma, with his publishing activity, founding with friends, including Sergio Rapetti and Giovanni Codevilla, the independent publishing cooperative La Casa di Matriona, which published Italian translations of many of the unofficial Russian-Soviet works that had managed to pass the Iron Curtain and were published abroad (cf. Larocca 2019). Mal’tsev published his two most important works with La Casa di Matriona: L’altra letteratura  (1957-1976). La letteratura del samizdat da Pasternak a Solženicyn (1976) (The Other Literature, The Literature of the samizdat (1957-1976)  from Pasternak to Solženicyn), an Italian translation of the volume Vol’naia russkaia literatura, published in the same year by the Posev publishing house – and Ivan Bunin. Life and Work: 1870-1953 (1987). The scope of Mal’tsev’s studies on the samizdat and his contribution to the study of unofficial Russian-Soviet literature are immense.  In his conclusion to The Other Literature Mal’tsev writes: “This book is inevitably incomplete. Moreover, it could not be exhaustive by virtue of the very nature of its subject matter, which is secret, occult, ‘illegal’ and ‘actionable’. I have tried to gather all the information I could, I have endeavoured to read everything I could get my hands on (and often such reading in Russia has been accompanied by dangers of no small degree; I have already said that such curiosity as mine can be paid for dearly: for example, with a few years in a concentration camp). It may well be that in some place there lie buried works of the first magnitude, jealously guarded in secret for the time being: works which, in the near or distant future, may be counted among the masterpieces of our century […]. But this phenomenon [the samizdat], considered in its entirety, constitutes in its entirety the authentic spiritual life of today’s Russia, of that Russia which secretly simmers under the thin, necrotized skin of official culture. Eliminating this nefarious tumour formation and showing the world the true face of Russia: this is what those who care about the truth ardently aspire to. And if the present endeavour can be of benefit, even if only in a small measure, to their generous efforts, then I shall know at last that it has not been in vain” (Mal’tsev 1976a: 376-77). These words reveal the great spiritual strength that animated Iurii Mal’tsev throughout his life, even in exile, to fight for the defence of human rights in the USSR – first and foremost freedom of expression. He paid dearly for his activism, but always managed to remain true to himself and preserve his dignity as a free man. He died in 2017 in Berbenno in Valle Imagna, where he lived with his wife (cf. Rapetti-Codevilla 2017).

Sara Bambi
[30th June 2021]

Translation by Claudia Pieralli

This article was produced as a result of the seminar “Civil Rights Movement in the USSR”, held by Ilaria Sicari (Course of Russian Literature, Master’s Degree in Euro-American Languages and Literatures, University of Florence, a.y. 2019-2020).


To cite this article:
Sara Bambi, Iurii Mal’tsev and the Dissidence, in Voci libere in URSS. Letteratura, pensiero, arti indipendenti in Unione Sovietica e gli echi in Occidente (1953-1991), a cura di C. Pieralli, M. Sabbatini, Firenze University Press, Firenze 2021-, <>.
eISBN 978-88-5518-463-2
© 2021 Author(s)
Content license: CC BY 4.0