Andrei Donatovich Sinyavsky (sihn-YOV-skee) was the godfather of the post-Stalin renaissance in Russian literature. Born on October 8, 1925, into the family of an ineffectual radical idealist, Sinyavsky was reared as a true believer in the Communist system. Although well-educated, his parents held menial white-collar jobs. In his late teens Sinyavsky served in the Soviet army. Demobilized, he entered Moscow University in 1947, where he defended his dissertation on Maxim Gorky, the father of Socialist Realism, in 1952. Two friendships of his student years would have enormous consequences for Sinyavsky: Hélène Pelletier, the daughter of the French naval attaché who was permitted to attend Moscow University, and Yuli Daniel, whose bohemian apartment became a center for young intellectuals. Soon after graduation Sinyavsky was married to Mariya Rozanova, a student of art history. Although Sinyavsky had acquired some exposure to Western literature and art, he remained a fervent believer in the moral integrity of the Communist system. The first doubt arose when his father was arrested in 1951 on preposterous charges. In the early 1950’s Sinyavsky worked as a lecturer at Moscow University and then as a researcher at the Institute of World Literature. His articles were bringing him a degree of renown, but he wished to write fiction as well. Sinyavsky’s first story, “At the Circus” (1955), already reflects his love of the phantasmagoric and his persistent identification of the artist with the criminal.
Nikita Khrushchev’s historic 1956 denunciation of Stalin’s twenty-year reign of terror shattered Sinyavsky’s illusions. His new friendship with Boris Pasternak, who had sent his suppressed novel, Doctor Zhivago (1957), abroad, perhaps inspired him to ask Pelletier to smuggle his work abroad for publication. Under the pseudonym Abram Tertz, two long works appeared in France in 1959: a theoretical essay, On Socialist Realism, decrying the sterility of Socialist Realism and calling for a new “phantasmagoric” literature, and a novella, The Trial Begins, which illustrated the essay’s literary thesis and was a powerful indictment of the Stalinist dictum that the end justifies the means. In 1961, his story collection Fantastic Stories appeared in the West, followed two years later by The Makepeace Experiment, an antiutopian political fantasy. Sinyavsky’s reflections on many themes, especially religious ones, appeared in a collection of aphoristic notes entitled Unguarded Thoughts. These Western publications created a sensation and endless speculation about the identity of their author. Sinyavsky/Tertz successfully led his double life for nearly six years. Pressure mounted after the fall of the relatively liberal Khrushchev in 1964. In late 1965, the Soviet government learned the identity of “Tertz,” and Sinyavsky and his fellow writer Yuli Daniel were arrested. Wishing to preserve the appearance of legality in the eyes of Western public opinion, Soviet officials orchestrated a show trial in February, 1966. Although the trial was closed to the Western press, the defendants’ wives smuggled out their own handwritten transcripts, which were published abroad. Sinyavsky was sentenced to seven years.
Sinyavsky was released in June of 1971, and two years later he was permitted to emigrate to France with his wife and child. The camp years had not been wasted. During his sentence he had utilized his bimonthly letters to his wife to pour out his thoughts on many subjects. Once in Paris, these letters, totaling some fifteen hundred pages, became the nuclei of three books. A Voice from the Chorus is a gathering of reflections inspired both by camp life and by the author’s philosophical and artistic interests. The other two volumes, V teni Gogolya (in the shadow of Gogol) and Strolls with Pushkin, are irreverent and highly personal meditations on two giants of Russian literature. Sinyavsky resumed his career as a creative writer with Kroshka Tsores (little Tsores), a brief novella exploring the theme of guilt and the artist. The major work of the emigration is Goodnight!, a long, highly fragmented, phantasmagoric memoir-novel about Sinyavsky’s life as a Soviet intellectual and secret dissident writer, his betrayal, his trial, and his years in a labor camp.
Sinyavsky, who secured a teaching position at the Sorbonne, was widely known and translated into many languages, but his life in emigration was not easy. Just as he found himself in conflict with Soviet society, he also found himself odd man out in émigré circles. Émigré journals at first welcomed Sinyavsky to their pages, where he published penetrating essays on the Soviet scene. His brilliantly eccentric views proved unacceptable to opinionated editors, however, and he soon found himself without an outlet for his writings. Partially in response, Sinyavsky and his wife established their own small journal. Beginning in 1978, Sintaksis served as a forum for the views of Sinyavsky and other émigré writers who urge a “pluralist” outlook in opposition to those who favor more traditional, if not authoritarian approaches to art and society.
Goodnight! is a distillation of Sinyavsky’s approach to fiction. Densely metaphoric and richly allusive, it makes heavy demands on the reader’s knowledge of culture and history (especially Russian), as well as of the author’s own life. Each of the memoir-novel’s five chapters centers on the events of a particular night. The biographic fact serves as a point of departure for numerous seemingly unrelated vignettes that ultimately form a sort of ornate, surrealist mosaic depicting one man’s life during the nightmare of Stalinism.
In spite of the structural and stylistic complexity of Sinyavsky’s writings, his themes are simple: Stalinist tyranny and the nature of art and the artist. Stalinism very nearly destroyed a nation and its culture–all in the name of an ideal, Communism. The means perverted the goal. So bizarre was that world that it could be rendered only by an equally bizarre, phantasmagoric art. Sinyavsky’s other theme was the transcending power of art and the inherently subversive character of the free artist. These two interconnected themes unite Sinyavsky’s oeuvre from The Trial Begins through Goodnight! and his critical and journalistic writings.
Andrei Sinyavsky introduced a fantastic, modernist, aesthetically oriented prose into a literature which had been stifled by a primitive, dogmatic Socialist Realism. Although the realistic strain remains dominant in Russian letters, Sinyavsky’s seminal essay On Socialist Realism and his subsequent fiction blazed a path for the revival of the fantastic. Both Vassily Aksyonov and Sasha Sokolov, the most important younger writers to emerge in the 1960’s and 1970’s (and later both émigrés), heeded Sinyavsky/Tertz’s phantasmagoric imperative.