Interview with poet Dmitrii Iul’evich Strotsev (Minsk, 1963)
by G. De Florio e F. Iocca
The situation in Belarus during and after World War II
Soviet Minsk in the second half of the 20th century was very different from Leningrad, Moscow or Kiev. In these cities, despite the various repressions and purges, there was still a link between the generations, a message was passed on. Minsk, on the other hand, had to start from the beginning after the Second World War, with different people, because after the liberation there were only 40,000 inhabitants left, while by the mid-1970s there were one and a half million.
The war had played out with complexity in Minsk: on Belarusian territory there were a number of autonomous partisan groups, two Polish armies (one pro-USSR and the other ‘bourgeois’), Jewish partisans and Belarusian groups who were autonomous or linked to Soviet Russia. This chaotic situation has yet to be fully understood as not all documents are accessible.
In post-war Belarus there were non-conformist circles, but they were often not in contact with each other, perhaps because they did not know or trust each other; some groups, however, were in contact with Moscow and Leningrad. In Minsk, therefore, there was no single space for non-conformist forms of expression.
The Belarusian intelligencija first and foremost gathered around the idea of safeguarding their language and establishing themselves as defendants of their national identity.
The Russians had arrived from all parts of the Soviet Union in scientific and industrial Minsk, a city undergoing rapid economic development and expansion. Like my parents, for example. They didn’t know anyone from Minsk, they had a vague idea of Belarusian culture but they didn’t understand the language. Their friends were their work colleagues.
Minsk also presented itself as a privileged place for prominent Soviet pensioners. Former military personnel, party officials and KGB agents were sent into retirement here. Minsk and all of Belarus acquired, so to speak, a new social reality.
The first encounter with ‘another world’ and samizdat
I was born in 1963. I grew up in a Soviet family, my father and mother were engineers. Of course, I looked at the Party and the Komsomol in my own way, with a certain scepticism and irony, but my ideas were one hundred percent Soviet. I didn’t want the war in Afghanistan, it’s true, but my criticism of the regime remained within the limits of Soviet self-consciousness. But as soon as I enrolled in university in 1980, I was taken to Kim Khadeev’s house, not because I wanted to meet a dissident, but because I had started to take an interest in literature and that group paid a lot of attention to the subject. For this reason, a poet I knew, a man my age, took me there. I arrived and it was a shock for me. They took me to a large barracks, built in the centre of the city immediately after the war by German prisoners, on Kiselev Street. Khadeev lived in a one-room apartment and when I crossed the threshold of his house I entered another world, where people seemed to speak in another language: they used obscene and scurrilous words, saying everything they thought about Soviet power. Secondly, there was samizdat and tamizdat literature.
There were original books, published in Europe and the US, there were copies prepared by photo reproduction or rotary press: Solzhenitsyn, Erofeev, Sokolov, Russian religious philosophy, Berdiaev, there was everything. The books arrived and we read them in turn. But there could be no publishing system. Khadeev was too watched, he could never have gone into publishing. It was an article of the penal code. When the stranglehold loosened a bit, in the mid-1980s, books by Tsvetaeva, Bulgakov, etc., printed on a rotary press, began to arrive; we cut them up, bound them, and made books out of them.
Kim Khadeev as a central figure of that time
Kim Khadeev came from a family of Party officials. His father was an important trade executive in Minsk. He was not a native of the city. During the war his mother had been linked to Party organs, if not to the secret police. Later she became a Russian teacher. According to legend, Khadeev’s parents had been opponents of the regime, Trockists.
Kim was a child prodigy, finishing school as a private scholar and being admitted to the Faculty of Arts at 15 or so. In his third year, two months after Michoėls assassination, during a Komsomol meeting, he controversially suggested killing Stalin and staging a coup. It was madness, of course. They did not arrest him immediately, but began to keep an eye on him to see who he was hanging around with. As is the splendid Soviet custom, everyone immediately kept their distance, only two or three people continued to shake his hand when they met him. In the end, thanks to his father, the matter was hushed up a bit, Kim was not shot, but they gave him his first sentence; they put him in prison, releasing him soon after Stalin’s death.
When he got out, he went back to university quite quickly, although life was difficult and he was very lonely. The Nobel Prize winner Zhores Ivanovich Alfërov, a former schoolmate of Kim’s, had arrived in Leningrad in the meantime and met Kim on the street and rushed towards him, embracing him with affection. Kim bitterly confessed to his schoolmate that he was the first of his acquaintances who had not crossed the street on seeing him.
Already in the early 1960s, however, in Minsk, a large group of young intellectuals gathered around Kim because he was an incredibly charismatic person. He was in contact with dissidents in Moscow and Leningrad, and in 1962 the second Kim-related trial took place, again at the university. It was a mock trial against the so-called ‘Khadeev group’. But there was a difference: while in the first case, in the 1940s, there were many documents or articles in the student and local newspapers which, while not openly saying that Khadeev had suggested killing Stalin, nevertheless portrayed him as an anti-Soviet and as an enemy of the Soviet people, in the 1960s all this was done covertly: large defamatory meetings were held, but less directly written about.
There was even an amusing episode: at one of these meetings, one of the accusers intervened and said that the delinquents of the ‘Khadeev group’ should be sent to the factory for re-education, meaning factory as a place of punishment. Among those present was Semen Buchkin, then in his first year of studies and later a famous Belarusian publicist, who had come from the factory and had managed to get into the journalism faculty by working in a small factory newspaper. After hearing these accusations, he took the floor and said that the factory was not a dump, but the best place for any worthy Soviet citizen. Later they investigated him as well, but thanks to that episode he heard the name Kim Khadeev for the first time. This example shows how little people understood what was going on around them, even when they took an active part in it.
Repression and defamation
The group was eventually suppressed, Kim was arrested because they found samizdat material: Pavel Ulitin’s prose. It was enough to mount a case. They sent him to prison for the second time, together with the actor Goriachii. Other young men were expelled from schools and universities and were unable to fulfil themselves professionally for the rest of their lives. Many futures were ruined, some died of alcoholism, others committed suicide. And the rumor was spread that Khadeev had framed these boys. It was said that he was a secret collaborator of the KGB. Even today there are those think this. It is curious, however, that Khadeev lived like a pariah, he could not publish his work, he could not find a job, while it was the people who spread these rumours, who in the end had brilliant Soviet careers.
In prison, Kim Khadeev met Aleksandr Asarkan and Jurij Aikhenval’d, both brilliant intellectuals and dissidents. They became Khadeev’s closest Moscow circle. One of Kim Khadeev’s pupils, the theatre director and pedagogue Vladimir Rudov, married one of Aikhenval’d’s daughters, Aleksandra; the two met because Rudov entered the circle thanks to Khadeev. This shows how close the contacts were.
Another and even more interesting fact is that Khadeev was regularly summoned and interrogated in Minsk. At one point they even started to say to him: ‘Kim Ivanovich, go to Leningrad, there are dozens of people like you there. You’ll be fine, you’ll mix with others. But here you’re alone, and that’s a big problem, and we won’t give you peace. In polished and shiny Minsk he was too conspicuous, yet he was not afraid of anything, he said what he wanted, thought what he wanted and behaved in a totally non-conformist manner.
Minsk intelligentsiia and its relationship with Khadeev
At that time, the intelligentsiia was divided into two categories: those who had crossed the threshold of Kim’s house and those who had not. The former were no better or worse than the latter, but they had made specific choices: in the house they had entered, everyone knew there were informers, but those who were afraid of them practically stopped living and breathing. The authorities tolerated that flat because everyone was in plain sight: the scholars, the literati, the artists.
There is also a kind of ingratitude typical of Minsk. When there was a creative problem, if there was a need for brainstorming, the leading figures in Belarusian culture always turned to Kim, and he answered every time, putting his own agenda aside. For some reason, however, none of those whom Khadeev had helped and rescued left any worthy testimonies or memories.
The director of the Russian Theatre, Boris Lutsenko, or the most important director of the Belarusian Theatre, Valerii Mazynskii, would visit him. Suppose they had a play, which no one liked, which risked never being put on stage: Kim would assemble a team and review the material. The poet Grigorii Trestman, the writer Viktor Genkin, the playwright and translator Nikolai Zakharenko, the composer Arkadii Gurov and others would participate. They would shut themselves in Khadeev’s house for a few days, Kim would structure and correct the work in his ingenious way. Usually, the material they came up with was clear and comprehensible.
Khadeev was a friend of composers, he talked to them about the theory of composition. With philosophers he philosophised. With poets he corrected poems. He wrote his doctoral thesis with the psychiatrist Viktor Kruglianskii. He co-wrote articles on film and literary criticism with four or five other people. At home he gave lectures on contemporary pedagogy. When a book by Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, a Catholic monk and thinker, appeared, once a week a large group of people began to gather at Kim’s to listen to his lectures and discuss it.
And since Khadeev was in contact with virtually the entire artistic elite, no one was investigated afterwards. They visited him to ask questions about their professional field. The authorities did not interfere, because there were no anti-Soviet elements in these subjects, and banning everything would have been impossible.
When perestroika started and the Belarusian national revival movement gained momentum, the dissident thinker Kim Khadeev, the non-conformist poet Andrei Zhdanov and most of the Russian-speaking Jewish poets once again found themselves out of place, invisible. The Belarusian cultural community was clearly polarised on the basis of language; only now is there a perceptible rapprochement.
These were years of mutual cooling, of common loss. In reality, the local ‘Russian speakers’ had never detached themselves from Belarusian culture: Andrei Zhdanov translated the poems of Ales’ Riazanov; Veniamin Blazhennyi, those of Maksim Tank; Khadeev wrote articles on Bogdanovich.
And then there was the universal drama of clandestine culture. The underground was born as a reaction to a pathological condition in society, and it inevitably carried a stigma: for the common man, anyone who had connections with the underground was a strange figure.
Translation by Noemi Albanese
- Strotsev D., Terra sorella, ed. and transl. by G. De Florio, Valigie Rosse, Firenze 2020.
To cite this article:
Dmitrii Strotsev, Kim Khadeev and Belarusian non-conformism. Interview by G. De Florio and F. Iocca, 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-, <vocilibereurss.fupress.net>.
© 2021 Author(s)
Content license: CC BY 4.0