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Russian Art & Anti-Semitism: Yevtushenko vs. Khrushchev; A Speech by Mikhail Romm

Russian Art & Anti-Semitism

Two Documents
Yevtushenko vs. Khrushchev
A Speech by Mikhail Romm

Exactly one year ago, on December 1, 1962, Nikita S. Khrushchev paid an unexpected visit to the Manezh gallery in Moscow, to inspect a special exhibit of abstract and semi-abstract paintings by a group of young Soviet artists. His angry reaction, couched in expletives and obscenities, immediately became the sensation of Moscow, and the events of the succeeding six months revealed more clearly than ever before the nature of the ferment that has been agitating major segments of the Soviet intelligentsia in the last few years. They supplied evidence of three truly sensational developments (of which close students in the West had been increasingly aware but of which the general public was largely ignorant) : that the younger generation of intellectuals and creative artists, supported by a considerable number of middle-aged and even a handful of elderly established literary figures, were making an effort to expand the area of their freedom to write, paint, and sculpt; that this effort was being combatted by many Stalinist artists and officials of the artistic unions and enterprises; and that the Communist Party leadership, divided in its counsels on how to cope with the phenomenon of a rebellious young intelligentsia, was exerting some pressures, clamping down on certain “excesses,” exacting some grudging and ambiguous self-criticism from a few—but was settling for now into an indecisive muddle.

A good deal of the foregoing came to light as a result of the publicity surrounding the extraordinary meetings between Khrushchev and his Party colleagues and several hundred leading Soviet intellectuals on three occasions during the past year: on December 17, 1962, and on March 8 and June 18, 1963. Though Khrushchev’s speeches on the latter two occasions were widely published in the Soviet press, neither his speech of December 17 nor his spontaneous exchanges with the intellectuals on any of the three occasions have appeared in print. For months now, however, typed manuscripts—purporting to give the texts of who said what, to whom, where, and when—have passed from hand to hand, and have been read by many thousands in Moscow, Leningrad, and elsewhere.

One of these typescripts—brought out of the USSR in various versions by Western visitors—appears below, together with the text of a speech by Mikhail Romm that has circulated in similar fashion. The challenge to publication of such documents in the West is twofold: to obviate any danger to the authors, since their real names are used; and to authenticate the texts.

Both conditions can now be essentially satisfied. By this point, the positions of both Mikhail Romm and Yevgeny Yevtushenko are clearly known to Khrushchev and the Party leadership, to scores of thousands of intelligentsia and university youth and their supporters on the peripheries of the intellectual and academic community—and, not least, to the West. The Soviet authorities are fully aware of their views, of the fact that such manuscripts have circulated widely, and that they have also found their way into the hands of Western visitors and observers. Their publication can therefore come as no shock to the authorities.

As for the problem of authentication, it has been, for obvious reasons, a technically difficult one. As indicated, these texts emerged from the USSR in various versions, and each posed a different kind of problem. The versions of the Romm text differed so little from one another that in time and after a meticulous process of inquiry and counter-checking, it became very easy to determine its genuineness. (The speech was delivered at a public meeting of cinema and theater workers during November-December 1962.) The Yevtushenko text is more complicated. The same kind of investigative process, coupled with everything else Yevtushenko has published at home and abroad, has made it clear that the remarks attributed to him here are genuine both in substance and spirit. What may be in question is whether he made all these remarks on the same occasion. It seems entirely possible that the two sections of his “speech” were delivered on two separate occasions—the part on abstract art, in the course of a running debate with Khrushchev at the Manezh ; and the part on anti-Semitism, at the December 17 meeting. But their authenticity—as of Khrushchev’s interjections—is no longer disputable.

Yevtushenko needs no introduction to Western readers. He burst into national and world renown after September 19, 1961, when his poem, “Babi Yar,” appeared in Literaturnaya Gazeta (“Literary Gazette”), the organ of the Soviet Writers Union. He remains today a significant, if erratic and somewhat ambiguous, spokesman of the younger Soviet intelligentsia.

Romm, in his own way, is no less fascinating a figure. He is perhaps the most distinguished living Soviet film director. He began his career as one of a band of experimenters in the silent screen of the early 1920’s, established himself a decade later as a leading director of orthodox films, and then re-emerged in the post-Stalin period as both an avant-gardist and a public exponent of greater liberality in Soviet art and society.

For Romm, as for the young intellectuals whose champion he is and for whom he symbolizes the Golden Age of the 1920’s, there is a connection between the struggle against anti-Semitism and the struggle against repression of freedom in the arts. Romm (who is Jewish) and Yevtushenko (who is not) reflect the feelings of the entire dissenting generation of young intelligentsia, sons who are turning away from their fathers of the 1930’s, 1940’s, and 1950’s and turning back to their grandfathers of the 1920’s—a period when there was experimentation in the arts and when anti-Semitism was officially regarded as a disease and was openly fought. In fighting it openly now, the young intellectuals are simultaneously fighting those forces in Soviet society which stand in the way of greater freedom of expression in general.

Moshe Decter



* * *

Yevtushenko vs. Khrushchev

Yevtushenko: First of all I want to thank the leaders of the Party and the government for kindly making it possible for me to speak here. Permit me to begin my speech with a verse which I wrote not so long ago which I consider very timely. [Recites the two last lines of the poem, “Babi Yar.”]

Comrade Khrushchev: Comrade Yevtushenko, this poem has no place here.

Yevtushenko: Respected Nikita Sergeevich, I especially selected this poem and with the following purpose in mind. We all know that no one has done more than you in the liquidation of the negative consequences of the Stalin cult of personality and we are all very grateful to you for this. However, one problem yet remains which is also a negative consequence of those times, but which today has not yet been resolved. This is the problem of anti-Semitism.

Comrade Khrushchev: That is not a problem.

Yevtushenko: It is a problem, Nikita Sergeevich. It cannot be denied and it cannot be suppressed. It is necessary to come to grips with it time and again. It has a place. I myself was a witness to such things. Moreover, it came from people who occupy official posts, and thus it assumed an official character. We cannot go forward to Communism with such a heavy load as Judophobia. And here there can be neither silence nor denial. The problem must be resolved and we hope that it will be resolved. The whole progressive world is watching us and the resolution of this problem will even more greatly enhance the authority of our country. By resolution of the problem I mean the cessation of anti-Semitism—[not clear], along with instituting criminal proceedings against the anti-Semites. This positive measure will give many people of Jewish nationality the opportunity to take heart and will lead us to even greater success in all areas of Communist construction.

I would like to say a few words about abstract painting and our artists. I think that our young artists have acted incorrectly in organizing the “underground exhibition” and inviting foreign correspondents to it.1 This was done without forethought and deserves widespread censure. We also cannot permit our artists to sell their works abroad. This can only be a blow to our prestige and to our art. But I want to say that we must have great patience with this abstract trend in our art and not rush to suppress it, for the result may be the opposite. I know the artists in question, I know their work, and I can emphasize that side by side with the abstract aspect, they are attracted to the realistic manner of expression. I am convinced that several formalistic tendencies in their work will be straightened out in time.

Comrade Khrushchev: The grave straightens out the hump-backed.

Yevtushenko: Nikita Sergeevich, we have come a long way since the time when only the grave straightened out hump-backs. Really, there are other ways. I think that the best way is to display patience and tact and give examples of how to work at our art. I think that we should permit the existence of various schools in painting and let art, our Soviet art, progress in the arguments among them. Artists, like writers and musicians, are most sensitive to any pressure. Therefore, it is best not to resort to it. Everything will remain in its place.

Comrade Khrushchev: I don’t believe that you personally like abstract art.

Yevtushenko: Nikita Sergeevich, there are all kinds of abstractionism. What is important is that it should not be charlatanism. I submit that a situation can occur when it would not be possible to convey the newest trends of our epoch in the old manner of writing. I must openly admit that I do not like our portrait painting although it is realistic. I very much respect those comrades who are depicted in these portraits, but the portraits themselves seem to me to be ordinary color photographs incapable of stirring the viewer. I cannot permit the idea, Nikolai [sic] Sergeevich, that you can like the tastelessly drawn picture, “N. S. Khrushchev among the Workers.” The latest period of my life has been closely linked up with Cuba. I like Cuban abstract art very much. It would be good if we would organize an exhibition of Cuban art. Cuban abstract art is very popular among the Cuban people and their leaders. Fidel Castro is attracted to it. Cuban abstract art is helping the Cuban revolution and is walking in step with it. I think that our art, including the abstractionists, is also going in one straight line of fighters for Communism. I appeal not for appeasement, but I call for self-restraint, for the deepened study of the theory and practice of modern art, and in the final analysis, a consolidation of the forces of literary and artistic workers for the good of our country.

Thank you for your attention.



* * *

A Speech by Mikhail Romm

The subject of the report “Traditions and Innovations” offers an occasion to talk about such serious things. The Voronezh theater director, Comrade Dobrotin, spoke before me very well and with much passion. He vehemently protested against the remnants of Stalinism in the field of consciousness.

He told us the story of those leaders in a province who—after a drunken party—started a fire on the terrace of a sanitarium and imposed disciplinary measures against the person responsible for cultural affairs at the sanitarium because he tried to protest. This is a significant example!

At the same time, however, Comrade Dobrotin advised that Comrade Leonov2 should be called before the CC [Central Committee] and told to write a comedy. And if Comrade Leonov has other wishes? If at the moment he doesn’t feel like working for the theater? In accordance with Dobrotin, if the Party’s CC asks it, Leonov will start writing, obediently, and turn out a good comedy. Are there no other means? You don’t seem to understand, Comrade Dobrotin, that this way of thinking also stems from the old methods, that it resembles a bit starting a fire on a terrace. [Applause.]

During your speech you let yourself go about the modern ballet. You expressed regret that on New Year’s Eve your actor Popov did a Western dance. I have never danced in my life; simply because I can’t dance, be it the waltz, the mazurka or the pas de patineur. But it seems to me that in a small hall it is preferable to do a Western dance rather than the mazurka because for that the hall would be too small.

For many years we tried to invent a real Soviet dance. Finally it was invented. It is called the “Promenade” and requires a lot of room. On putting it on television, the explanations concerning certain steps of this dance took four sessions, but no spectator understood all its finesse. On the other hand Popov learned how to do his dance at once. Evidently it was a simple dance. I should like to know if, performing this on New Year’s Eve, Popov did much harm and what the harm was exactly.

Comrade Dobrotin also let himself go on singers without voices. For myself, contrary to him, I like singers without voices. I prefer Bernes and, in general, those who talk instead of sing, their mouths wide open, emitting trills. Of course, the aria Perdona, Celeste Creatura must be sung by a well-trained voice. On the other hand the song The Little Girl Goes toward the Fields needs other qualities. In the field of art, I like everything that is expressive. [Applause.]

In our country, however, certain methods were imposed against which it is necessary to fight. I’m ready to fight against my own shortcomings still remaining from the past.3 Precisely because of that, before we take up traditions and innovations I should like to clarify the problem of certain traditions which were imposed in our country. There are good ones and there are very bad ones; for example, the one of playing the Overture of Tchaikovsky’s Symphony 1812 twice a year.

Comrades, as I understand it, this Overture expresses a very clear political idea—the idea of the triumph of orthodox religion and autocracy over revolution. It’s a bad piece of music written by Tchaikovsky on command. It’s a thing Peter Ilyitch was himself ashamed of at the end of his life. I’m not a specialist in the history of music, but I am convinced that this Overture was composed for passing reasons, with the very clear aim of pleasing the church and the monarchy.

Why should the Soviet power humiliate the Marseillaise, the marvelous hymn of the French Revolution, by drowning it out with the noise of church bells? Why should it celebrate the triumph of Czarist ideology, the ideology of the “Black Hundreds”?

But to play this Overture has become a tradition. After the October Revolution, this Overture was played the first time during those years when the expression “cosmopolite without a fatherland” was invented to replace that other expression “dirty Jew.”

Among other things, and in certain instances, the latter expression was even printed. On the cover of the [satirical] magazine Crocodile a cartoon appeared during those years presenting a “cosmopolite without a fatherland” of clearly Jewish type, holding a book in his hands on which one could read in big characters the word “GID.” Not “André Gide” but simply “Gid.”4

Neither the cartoonist nor any of those responsible for this scoundrel’s joke has been condemned by us. We have preferred to keep quiet, to forget all this, as one could forget that dozens of our best theater and movie people were declared “cosmopolites without a fatherland”: for instance, comrades Yutkevic,5 Leonid Trauberg,6 Sutyrki,7 Kovarski,8 Bleiman,9 and others present here. They have been authorized to work again, some in the Party, some in their particular union. But is it really possible to heal the wounds, to forget what one has suffered for many years, when you were trampled on and covered with mud?10

And those who directed this shameful campaign with joy and pleasure, who racked their brains to invent other things and to drag other people into the mire, have they been made to pay for what they did? People don’t even reproach them, holding that this would show lack of tact!

The magazine October, 11 edited by Kocetov,12 has recently become interested in motion pictures. From January to November it published articles smearing all the progress achieved by Soviet films, expressing suspicion toward the critics of the great artists of the older generation and even the new one. These articles were inspired by the same persons who led the campaign of denunciation of “cosmopolites without a fatherland.” It seems to me, however, that we should not forget all that happened.

Today many writers are starting to do scripts for the theater or motion pictures denouncing the Stalinist epoch and the cult of the personality. This is because it has become possible and necessary, while three or four years ago it was still thought that Nikita Sergeevich’s speech at the Twentieth Congress was sufficient. A more or less leading official told me this clearly: “Listen, the Party has shown infinite courage. Study Comrade Khrushchev’s speech, and that’s enough. Why stick your nose into this business?”

Today it has become definitely clear that it was not sufficient, that it is necessary for us to think for ourselves, to speak and write for ourselves.

It is very important to unmask Stalin and Stalinism, but the heritage left by Stalinism is not less important. And it is not less important to look around at what surrounds us and to formulate a judgment on events that occur in the social life of art.

Our meetings are conducted in a calm, tranquil, academic tone. In the meantime a very energetic group of rather bad writers hits out viciously in the magazine October against the new literature and nobody answers them in this arena. On the other hand, the very moment Yevtushenko published his poem “Babi Yar,” this group printed a reply in the journal Literature and Life [Literatura i Zhisn] . 13

Not long ago I happened to be in Italy and America, and I should like to say that what was considered to be a scandal in the West was not Yevtushenko’s poem, but the response to it. The local journalists asked me, “What do you think of the new wave of anti-Semitism in the USSR?”

I asked with perplexity what they were talking about. They mentioned Starikov’s article14 and Markov’s poem.15

That issue of the journal Literature and Life was shameful, as are the latest issues of the magazine October.

Since the articles in October are aimed at me, it is difficult and embarrassing for me to reply. Difficult but necessary.

The attacks against films carried in October began in the January issue with an article on the picture Peace to Him Who Enters, an article written in an absolutely inadmissible tone of political denunciation. The only error in calculation made by the editorial board was that they failed to name anyone specifically in their denunciation. Ten years ago, after such an article, somebody would be put in chains, forbidden to work, sent to faraway regions. But it is a fact that times have changed and that this denunciation probably wasn’t even read. But the denunciation remains!

Then came the attack on the films The Letter That Wasn’t Sent, 16 When the Storks Take Their Flight, 17 If This Is Love, and Nine Days in a Year.18 The themes of the accusations were not new. For Nine Days the hero wasn’t “positive.” The same thing applied to When the Storks Take Their Flight. In The Letter That Wasn’t Sent, a decadent pessimism is to be found. Reisman’s19 heroes show moral deficiencies and amorality is decadent.

In the past, one was severely punished for such shortcomings. Today denunciations like these haven’t had any consequences, simply because the authorities in charge don’t read them or don’t even exist any more. That is why neither Kilatozov20 nor Reisman nor myself were hunted out of the movies, and the magazine became very angry. In the first and second issues of that magazine some terrible articles were published, containing general accusations against everything and everyone. Only the word “cosmopolite” wasn’t used. For the rest there was a surprising resemblance to articles published fifteen years ago.

The author of the article that appeared in number two of the magazine October writes among other things: “Whereas the Italians themselves recognize that neo-realism is dead, Romm continues to praise it.” (I quote from memory.) In fact neo-realism is dead. It died with the help of the Vatican and the capitalist censorship. The artists of Italian neo-realism created films like Germi’s The Railwaymen, De Sica’s The Bicycle Thief, Two Coins in the Fountain, Rome 11 O’clock in the Morning, and other really great and unforgettable masterpieces.

Never has the film industry under a bourgeois regime created such work before, in any case not as a group and with such unity. All forces were mobilized against Italian neo-realism—the censorship, bribery, threats, sabotage of distribution, violence of all kinds. All this in order to destroy, to break, to crush this group of artists. World reaction as a whole went into action against Italian neo-realism. At that time a single article was published in our country, unfortunately signed by Polevoi,21 a man I respect. In that article, Polevoi also attacked Italian neo-realism. I was ashamed of that article, a reaction common to all of us. That happened six years ago. We didn’t encourage this current, which was very close to the Italian CP. They were strangling neo-realism and we attacked it! And it was only recently that Solovieva22 finally wrote a book on neo-realism. She wrote it when it was necessary to treat the subject on a historical plane.

Three years ago I ventured to intervene in favor of Italian neo-realism. And even today people who insist on the importance of remaining loyal to tradition recall this sin. How did I dare intervene in favor of neo-realism? But in my opinion, neo-realism has had an influence on the youth. It must be admitted. If this influence existed, it did exist! You have to decide then whether this influence was positive or negative. I know our youth. I know the impression created by the Italian films. I can underline that this influence was real!

Why should we bow in all fields to what is called “the first” as we had to do in the past? I am not at all certain that this “first” is always a good thing. Let’s suppose that a lone American genius invented the phonograph and that we developed the invention. Who then should be proud of it? In my opinion we should, because genius wasn’t recognized in America while we developed the phonograph. We, to the contrary, make it appear that we invented everything, the cinema, the phonograph, the electric light, and the telephone while in fact it was the Americans who developed all these good things. There is no reason why we should be proud of this!

We are combing history hunting for someone who invented the locomotive before Stevenson although we know very well that we didn’t build one at that time. We should give ourselves airs because of our lack of efficiency, our backwardness! Those who built the first locomotives, who made the first flight, they were right. We should be proud of being the first to fly into outer space, of having the biggest power stations in the world, and not about what occurred two hundred years ago, about the man who said “E” for the first time, whether it was Dobchinsky or Bobchinsky!

By defending and sometimes inventing this claim to be “the first” at all costs, it’s impossible to say how far you can go. Only ten years ago, we tried to cut ourselves off completely from Western culture—and this, too, was covered by the word “tradition.”

I was very happy today to hear Yutkevic speak about innovations and about spending much time in the West. We have lost the habit of considering that something also exists in the West. And this in Russia, the country in the world where more foreign literature is translated than anywhere else. One of the strong points of the Russian intellectuals was precisely the fact that they read all of world literature, that they stood at the top in knowledge of world culture. This, too, is one of our traditions. An excellent tradition which we needn’t be reminded of today.




1 Yevtushenko refers to a semi-private exhibit of young artists organized on November 26, 1962, at the studio of Eli Beliutin, an art teacher. A number of Western correspondents were invited to view it, as well as some Soviet cultural officials and a couple of hundred of Soviet citizens. This exhibit was closed after a few hours and then summoned to be hung at the Manezh.

2 Leonid Leonov, with Sholokhov the premier novelist of the USSR. Born 1899, author of numerous novels, stories, and plays. His best work was perhaps done in the 1920’s.

3 Here Romm seems to be referring to the fact that he was a dutiful and well-rewarded director during the 30’s and 40’s, producing some of the most effective adulatory films for Stalin.

4 In Russian the words “Gide”—and “Zhid,” dirty Jew, are pronounced exactly alike.

5 Should read Yutkevich. Sergei Yutkevich, born 1904, originally a painter, became one of a group of experimental artistic designers and directors of films in the 1920’s. Until the late 1940’s, he had achieved enormous success with a long series of films. A 1947 movie, Light Over Russia was banned because of “serious errors.” By 1949, when the cultural purge presided over by Andrei A. Zhdanov was in full swing, he was under attack and his career threatened because he had contributed favorable articles to volumes in honor of D. W. Griffith and Charlie Chaplin.

6 Born 1902, another of that galaxy of silent screen experimenters of the 1920’s and an established director in subsequent decades. Like Romm, Yutkevich, and all the others to be mentioned below—except for Kalatazov—he is a Jew, and came under vicious attack in the late 40’s for, among other things, “spreading and elaborating the false and un-Soviet myth that the American film director D. W. Griffith was the father of world film art.”

7 Should read Sutyrin. Vladimir A. Sutyrin, born 1902, a distinguished film critic and theoretician of the cinema.

8 Nikolai Kovarsky. Also a distinguished film critic.

9 Mikhail Bleiman. Born 1904. Highly successful screen writer until the late 40’s.

10 All the above were attacked at that time as a “group of aestheticizing cosmopolitans in the film industry, . . . miserable tramps of humanity, . . . homeless and nameless cosmopolitans of the cinema . . . base spokesmen of reactionary aestheticism . . . who conducted an organized slander campaign against its [the Soviet film’s] lofty ideology, its truthfulness and its patriotic content.”

11 A major literary monthly, the stronghold of the literary Stalinists.

12 Should read Kochetov. Vsevolod Kochetov. Born 1911. The Party’s favorite Soviet novelist.

13 Now defunct organ of the Writers Union of the Russian Republic, a consistent Stalinist paper.

14 Dmitri Starikov, a well-known Soviet literary critic, who, on September 27, eight days after the publication of “Babi Yar,” published a violent attack on Yevtushenko. He accused him of provocation and of a “monstrous” insult to the Soviet people, and of nurturing chauvinism and fanning the “dying flames of nationalist attitudes.”

15 Alexei Markov, author of a poem which attacked Yevtushenko for defiling the Russian people with “pygmy’s spittle.”

16 Shown here as The Letter That Was Never Sent.

17 Better known here as The Cranes Are Flying.

18 The most recent film, 1961, directed by Romm.

19 Yuli Reisman. Born 1903. Active as a leading screen director since the early 1920’s. Won a Stalin Prize for his 1945 documentary, Berlin. Now again experimenting.

20 Should read Kalatozov. Mikhail Kalatozov. Born 1903, a Georgian. Major film director and administrator. Surrealistic in early 1920’s and up to 1930, then became orthodox. In post-Stalin period, director of The Cranes Are Flying and The Letter That Was Never Sent, the latter of which was considerably revised by censors.

21 Boris Polevoi, famous novelist, also editor of Yunost (“Youth”), a literary journal.

22 Inna Solovieva, film historian, published the volume, Neo-Realism in Italian Movies in 1961 (Moscow).

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