Rostov on Don, 1932-Berbenno in Imagna Valley, 2017

Professor of Italian Studies at Moscow State University (MGU) and of Russian Language and Literature at several Italian universities, including the Catholic University of Milan, Iurii Mal’tsev was among the first dissidents in the Soviet Union, and among the few who emigrated to Italy, where he lived from 1974 (cf. Mal’tsev 2015; Bartelloni 2018).
In 1968 he signed an appeal in defence of the writers Aleksandr Ginzburg and Iurii Galanskov, who had been arrested and tried for anti-Soviet agitation. In 1969 he founded the first ‘informal’ group for the defence of human rights in Moscow, together with other prominent figures. He was fired from his job, socially ostracized, and interned in a mental asylum (cf. ibid.; Papovian 2004; Rapetti – Codevilla 2017). In 1976, together with a group of friends, including Giovanni Bensi, Giovanni Codevilla, Mario Corti and Sergio Rapetti, he founded the independent publishing cooperative La Casa di Matriona, which over the years published Italian translations of many Russian works. La Casa di Matriona also published Mal’tsev own two most important works: L’altra letteratura (1957-1976). La letteratura del samizdat da Pasternak a Solzhenicyn (The Other Literature (1957-1976) The Literature of the Samizdat from Pasternak to Solzhenitsyn), translated from the original manuscript by Lucio Dal Santo and published in Russian by Possev Verlag in Frankfurt in the same year (cf. Mal’tsev 1976b), and Bunin (1987). He also published some articles in magazines and periodicals such as “Novoe russkoe slovo”, “Russkaia mysl'”, “Grani”, “Kontinent”, “Famiglia cristiana”, “Studi cattolici” and “Nuova Rivista Europea” edited by Giancarlo Vigorelli, who he met in Moscow after the trial of Andrei Siniavskii and Iulii Daniėl’.
He participated in the Venice Biennale in 1977 together with Iosif Brodskii and Efim Ėtkind and took part in the congress “Dissidence and Democracy in the Countries of Eastern Europe”, held at Palazzo Vecchio in Florence in January 1979, whose speakers included Andrei Amal’rik, Zhores Medvedev, Siniavskii, Tat’iana Khodorovich and Vittorio Strada.
The Other Literature (1957-1976). The Literature of the Samizdat from Pasternak to Solzhenitsyn (cf. Mal’tsev 1976b) is the work that most decisively characterizes Mal’tsev’s academic activity as well as his ethical and moral stance. It presents a history of Soviet literature which, alongside famous writers such as Boris Pasternak and Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, includes writers that were largely unknown or considered marginal in European academia, and offers a profound reflection on the aesthetic categories defining Russian culture in general. Mal’tsev starts by examining the phenomenon of samizdat, pointing out that censorship was not exclusive to the 20th century, but had a ‘prehistory’ in 18th century Russia. This ‘prehistory’ saw the publication, for example, of Aleksandr Radishchev’s Journey from St Petersburg to Moscow emblematic of an ‘other’ literature that was not part of the official canon, which at that time was required to exalt the Russian state, national identity and the glorious deeds of tsars and tsarinas. This ‘other’ literature was the champion of transgression, oriented towards violating what was presumed to be ‘true’.
The Soviet Union’s ‘other literature’, which conventionally began with Pasternak’s Doctor Zhivago – itself an heir to a previous tradition – can be traced through the SMOG group and writers whose works were spread by the samizdat such as Iuri Mamleev and Vladimir Maramzin, to contemporary writers such as Siniavskii, Daniėl’ and Solzhenitsyn.
Mal’tsev recognises three key aspects of literature written and circulated underground: subjectivity, the apology of the soul and experimentation of form.
Starting from Pasternak’s Zhivago, an “historical event”, “a poetic hymn to life” (Mal’tsev 1976a: 15, 22), Mal’tsev emphasizes the dichotomy between subjectivity (or ‘personality’, a term already dear to literary critics such as Iurii Tynianov), on the one hand, which is an expression of Russian culture, and individuality, on the other, which, instead, is the child of Western thought. For Mal’tsev, Pasternak’s Zhivago is a paradigmatic character symbolising the typically Russian yearning for another, more spiritual dimension (in Zhivago-Pasternak’s case, Christianity). The subject progressively abandons himself in order to enter into communion with the other (be it a fellow human being or God), renouncing the personalism that is typically transformed by cultures of the Enlightenment into an ideal and universal value. Mal’tsev  criticizes Italo Calvino’s judgment of Zhivago also with some harshness, accusing the Italian intellectual of rejecting everything ‘in the name of a crystalline spiritual purity’ (Mal’cev 2001: web). Calvino is mistaken in placing Zhivago in the gallery of étrangers (cf. ibid.) and in Mal’tsev’s view has failed to understand his generosity, respect, and impulse towards the other, which reflects the centrality of the soul, traceable in all great Russian culture.
Mal’tsev sees experimentation with form as a leitmotif of underground literature, not only since 1957, but also during the 1920s and 1930s. The work of Andrei Platonov occupies a prominent place in his literary analysis. Platonov was one of Mal’tsev’s favourite writers because he was a tireless “seeker of truth” (Mal’tsev 1976a: 172), a radical experimenter of idiom, and a model for many underground writers who, like the author of Chevengur, inevitably fell foul of the censors.

Giuseppina Larocca
[30th June 2021]

Translation by Cecilia Martino


To cite this article:
Giuseppina Larocca, Iurii Mal’tsev, 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