On June 21, 1936, André Gide was invited to deliver a eulogy in Moscow’s Red Square, that day filled with mourners. Stalin presided over the ceremony in honor of Russian writer Maxim Gorky, who had died three days earlier. The French novelist, then 66 and yet to win the Nobel Prize, was a prominent figure on the international pro-communist left, especially after publishing “Voyages au Congo” a decade earlier. The book, full of human observation and vigorous denunciation of European colonialism in Africa, opens with a line from Keats: “Better to be careless furniture than careful fixtures.
One sentence stands out from the Red Square speech: “The fate of culture is linked in our minds with the fate of the Soviet Union. We will defend it. But Gide, one of the great travel writers of the 20th century, continued to explore the country after the solemn ceremony in Moscow. He began his tour ready to applaud the political and social transformations of the Soviet Union, but also hoping to see for himself what his own situation was hiding. Convinced that something positive, which would concern us all for years to come, was being forged in this vast territory, Gide, not wanting to snub his hosts, tried to escape the role of Stalinist propagandist. Figures around the world would soon assume this role, continuing to promote the regimes of Castro’s Cuba and Mao’s China.
Gide carried with him a diary, which later became the little book “Retour d’URSS”, printed in France later that year. In the preliminary note, the author writes that “The Soviet Union is ‘in the making’; we cannot say too much. And it is from this that the extraordinary interest of a stay in this immense country today in work is due; we feel that we are contemplating the birth of the future. However, the future that Gide foresees is not always pleasant. The writer is aware of a forced homogenization of Soviet citizens, which begins with uniform ways of dressing, but also affects uniformities of the soul. “Every morning Pravda teaches them exactly what they need to know, think and believe. […] So every time you talk to a Russian, you feel like you’re talking to all of them. Not exactly that everyone obeys a watchword; but everything is so arranged that no one can differ from anyone else. In another passage, he maintains that “the happiness of all is obtained only by the deindividuation of each one”, to which he adds, with devastating sarcasm, “to be happy, conform”.
Gide’s non-conformism was poorly received by most of the progressive intelligentsia. After the publication of his book, Gide’s invitation to the 2nd International Congress of Writers for the Defense of Culture in Valence was withdrawn. At the beginning of “Retour d’URSS”, Gide had already foreseen the negative reactions: “It happens too often that the friends of the Soviet Union refuse to see the bad side, or, in any case, refuse to admit the bad side ; so that too often what is true of the USSR is said with enmity, and what is false with love. After being expelled from the aforementioned conference, he responded firmly, “I always thought it was an honor to receive insults from the fascist camp. Those I received from my comrades yesterday could have been extremely painful for me (those from José Bergamín, in particular) […] Is it necessary to clarify that these insults will not change my feelings or make me an enemy, no matter how hard they try? »
A parallel can be drawn between the Russia of today and the Stalinist Russia that André Gide observed so well, which blinded so many well-meaning and short-sighted artists. A complex ethnic, religious, linguistic and territorial knot binds post-Soviet Russia to Ukraine and a plethora of other small republics, either pampered for collaborating with the Kremlin or condemned for their rebellion against a czarist and colonial empire. . The recent book by Jil Silberstein, published in France under the title “Voyages en Russie absolutiste”, deals with these “Russian tyrannies”. The writer draws a historical and cultural map of two centuries of insubordination, embodying them in four real protagonists: Mikhail Lermontov, the great romantic author of “A Hero of Our Time”; the courageous anarchist writer Victor Serge, so admired by Susan Sontag; and two tireless fighters, Tan Bogoraz and Anatoly Marchenko, both of whom died in the Siberian gulags.
We find a contrasting picture in “Le Peuple de Poutine”, a recent book by journalist Catherine Belton. The works painfully complement each other: Silberstein’s stories of bitterness and tragic deaths, Belton’s exploration of Moscow’s eccentric wealth. “Putin’s People” transforms our post-war anti-Republican legend into a very current sitcom of poolside pimps, yachts and a host of oligarchs who support the hierarchy in exchange for favors: autocracy against kleptocracy.
In June 1937, as the preparations for the historic Congress of Writers mentioned above were coming to an end in Valence, Gide returned to his habits with his “Retouches de mon retour d’URSS”. A year had passed since he had uttered those flattering words alongside the dictator. In “Retouches”, they are metamorphosed: “Stalin only supports approval. The adversaries are, for him, all those who do not applaud. It frequently happens that it adopts certain reform proposals itself; however, if he appropriates the idea, so that it becomes his own, he begins by suppressing the person proposing it. It’s his way of being right.” “Repression” meant execution, the fate of thousands of Communist leaders accused of Trotskyist plotting between August 1936 and March 1938 in the so-called Moscow Trials. Once again, Gide is quick but precise in his criticism. But he lies to us to be right in the face of lies and to defend without hatred the love of justice. When and where will Putin and his acolytes be judged?