The Free Word in Unfree Circumstances: the Correspondence of Natalia Roskina (Moscow) and Efim Etkind (Paris) 1977-1987

Alexandra Raskina, Independent Scholar

The name of Professor Efim Etkind (1918-1999), the well-known literary scholar who was forced to emigrate from the USSR in 1974 under pressure from the KGB, and who became a professor in the Sorbonne, needs no special introduction here. The name of Natal'a Roskina [1927-1989], a Russian literary historian, may not be quite so widely known. The author of many philological works, in particular, about Gercen, Chexov, and Suvorin, she had a wonderful command of the language together with an unusually sensitive appreciation of literature. Roskina was a friend and confidante of many outstanding Russian writers of her time. The poet Nikolaj Zabolockij dedicated a cycle of poems entitled "Last Love" to her.

In 1977 Roskina secretly sent the manuscript of her book (memoirs of Axmatova, Zabolockij, Vasilij Grossman and the literary historian N. Ja. Berkovskij) to France and asked Etkind to help her get it published. The book that resulted, entitled Chetyre glavy (Four Chapters), was published by the YMCA Press in Paris in 1980.

The correspondence that is the subject of this paper revolves, on the whole, around the publication of this book: Roskina grants permission to publish, then asks that publication be halted, then grants permission once again; she sends corrections to the text. Etkind reports on his conversations with the publisher and publication deadlines. They discuss the title of the book and individual chapters and the provision of author's copies. Let's recall that this entire correspondence is carried on either openly through the mail or through foreigners visiting Moscow. Publishing abroad without permission usually led the authorities to deprive a writer of the opportunity to publish within the USSR, but the consequences could be more serious. The very fact of corresponding with an ÈmigrÈ (even more so a political ÈmigrÈ) was an act of enormous courage. All letters abroad and from abroad sent by post were opened and inspected, and those sent with foreigners could be confiscated at customs. Naturally, in these circumstances it was essential to discuss all questions connected with the book's publication indirectly, using Aesopian language. But amazingly, despite all this pressure, the correspondence is not forced, but light and easy. Having exchanged considerations concerning practical matters, Roskina and Etkind freely discuss the problems of literature, of the literary life, of language, and literary translation. The letters are filled with cultural associations and sprinkled with a multitude of literary citations that flow as part of a natural stream of speech. The authors are actively involved in the literary process, and not only the contemporary one, but in one that is uninterrupted, with its roots stretching backward into the past.

The heirs of Etkind and Roskina are currently preparing their correspondence for publication, and they have asked me to serve as one of the commentators on it. They have given me permission to cite the letters in my paper. The correspondence makes a powerful expression: two people who cannot imagine their lives outside of literature manage to achieve a free, unrestrained, and brilliant exchange of opinions despite the severe restriction on the normal freedom of discourse. Both the correspondence itself and the circumstances in which it came into existence speak volumes about the dilemmas and context of Russian culture in the post-Stalin period. The paper analyzes this fascinating correspondence with an eye to illuminating the larger cultural context as well.