With Andrei Sinyavsky, Golomstock co-authored the first book on Picasso to be published in the Soviet Union. He immigrated to England in 1972 and is best known for Totalitarian Art: In the Soviet Union, the Third Reich, Fascist Italy and the People’s Republic of China (Collins Harvill, 1990). Translated into English by Robert Chandler, it serves as a nonfiction complement to Vasily Grossman’s great novel Life and Fate (also translated by Chandler), which details the moral and political parity between the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany. I’m reading Totalitarian Art. The thesis is familiar – tyrants think alike, regardless of ideology -- but Golomstock’s documentation is bold and detailed, with none of the academic gibberish we’ve come to expect from art historians. He makes plain the systematic imposition of high-minded, propagandistic poshlust, to use the Russian word popularized by Nabokov. In the chapter titled “From Word to Action,” Golomstock writes:
“Who knows how many great artists, together with their creations, perished under Stalin without any legal enactments, ratified lists or public spectacles? And on what scales can one compare the burden of crimes of the different hues of totalitarianism? Nadezhda Iakovlevna Mandelstam – the widow of Osip Mandelstam, the great poet who died in one of the camps – passed through many circles of the Soviet Hell and summarized her experience as follows: `One has to live our life in order to learn one truth: while corpses are lying about on the streets and main roads, one can go on living. What is most terrible of all is when you don’t see the corpses.’ It is very possible that inhabitants of Germany who survived Nazism would not agree with this Russian aphorism.”
The Mandelstam passage is drawn from the second volume of her memoirs, Hope Abandoned (trans. Max Hayward, 1973). In Donald Rayfield’s edition of The Garnett Book of Russian Verse: A Treasury of Russian Poets from 1730 to 1996 (2000), he includes a prose translation of an untitled 1931 poem by Mandelstam (who is notoriously difficult, I’m told, to translate):
“Preserve my speech for its aftertaste of unhappiness and smoke, for the pitch of collective patience, for the conscientious tar of labour. Thus water in Novgorod wells has to be black and sweetened so that by Christmas a star’s seven fins are reflected in it.
“And for that, my father, my friend and rough helper, I, an unrecognised brother, a black sheep in the people’s family, promise to make such rough-wood well-timbers for the Tatars to lower princes down them in a bucket.
“As long as these frozen executioner’s blocks loved me – as, aiming to kill, they knock down skittles in an alley, -- for that I’ll spend all my life even in an iron shirt and will find a big axe in the forests for a Petrine execution.”