Books are sustenance, and some readers will risk everything to preserve their reliable supply of reading matter. Andrei Sinyavsky (1925-1997) wrote under a pseudonym he borrowed from the legendary Russian-Jewish gangster, Abram Tertz. The genesis of the dissident movement in the Soviet Union can be traced to the 1966 trial of Sinyavsky and Yuli Daniel, who were found guilty of smuggling anti-Soviet manuscripts out of the country. Sinyavsky was sentenced to seven years in a forced labor camp; Daniel, five. One of the masterpieces of literature inadvertently produced by Soviet injustice is A Voice from the Chorus (trans. Kyril Fitzlyon and Max Hayward, 1976), a volume based on the two letters per month the Soviets permitted Sinyavsky to send to his wife. During his six years in the camp, he was not otherwise permitted to write.
I thought I had read most of Sinyavsky’s books available in English until I happened on Ivan the Fool: Russian Folk Belief, a Cultural History (trans. Joanne Turnbull and Nikolai Formozov, Glas Publishers, 2007). The book is based on a course he taught at the Sorbonne in the late nineteen-seventies, after his release from the labor camp in 1971 and his emigration to France in 1973. Sinyavsky’s working thesis is that Russian folk beliefs and folklore ran parallel to Holy Scripture and sustained the Russian people – “a delicate and flexible balance between various aspects of the human soul and life—knowledge and intuition, truth and dream, memory of the past and the actual reality.”
In the labor camp the Bible was forbidden, but prisoners smuggled in Scripture and, by hand, make copies to pass among the prisoners. Shortly after his arrival, another inmate asks Sinyavsky if he wished to hear a reading of the Apocalypse. They went to the camp’s boiler room, “where it was easier to escape the notice of informers and camp authorities.” Expecting to see someone pull out a Bible and begin reading, Sinyavsky was surprised when a prisoner began reciting the Apocalypse from memory. When he finished, another prisoner resumed the text from the point where the previous reader left off. The next section was skipped because “the man who knew the chapters after that had gone to work the night shift.” Sinyavsky writes:
“It was then that I realized that the main texts from the Holy Scripture had been divided up among these prisoners, simple men who had been sentenced to 10, 15, 20 years in camp. They knew these texts by heart and recited them from time to time, at these secret meetings, so as not to forget them.”
Inevitably, Sinyavsky is reminded of Fahrenheit 451. He recalls that characters in that novel memorize texts and introduce themselves by saying “I’m Shakespeare” or “I’m Dante.” More than just moving, Sinyavsky finds the practice philosophically profound:
“. . . this was culture in its continuity, in its primordial essence, continuing to exist at the lowest, most primitive, underground level. From one person to the next. From one generation to the next. From one camp to the next. But this was culture in perhaps one of its purest and noblest forms. If not for people and traditions like that, man’s life on earth would lose all meaning.”