Staunton, Sept. 23 – Vsevolod Kotchetov’s notorious 1969 novel What Do You Want? is now being republished in Moscow. When it was first released, it was denounced by many in the USSR and the West as anti-Semitic and pro-Stalinist. Now it is being celebrated by some as an important stage in the fight against the West and its foreign agents in Russia.
After the death of Stalin, Kochetov did not de-Stalinize but rather doubled down on what he believed was the correct way to run the country, first as secretary of the Leningrad Writers Organization, then as editor of Literaturnaya Gazeta and finally as editor of Oktyabr, the conservative alternative to Novy Mir.
His chief novel, What Do You Want? was published in three issues of Okryabr in 1969 and became “a sensation,” Igor Gulin writes in Kommersant on the occasion of the release of its first full publication in Russia. At the time, no Moscow publishing house would touch it, and it appeared as a separate book only a year later and only in Belarus (kommersant.ru/doc/4984566).
But according to Kochetov himself, Gulin says, “a large part of this tirage was confiscated and destroyed;” and rumors circulated that Central Committee Secretary Petr Demichev dismissed the book as something fit only to be read in the toilet. Kochetov died in 1973 without rehabilitation. But now times have changed, and his star hour may have come.
The novel is about the arrival in the USSR of a group of Western activists supposedly interested in Russian art but in fact involved with the recruitment of intellectuals to fight against the communist regime. Kochetov hated both these Western agents and the Russian intellectuals who were willing to cooperate with them.
During his lifetime, many Russians assumed that the writer was close to the KGB and that the Soviet secret police had provided him with information on emigres and underground activities. And it is certainly true, Gulin says, that “only in the organs could he find real fellow believers.”
Committed to socialist realism, Kochetov in fact undermined it because he focused not on Tolstoy as the model but on Dostoyevsky and for his most famous novel, on Dostoyevsky’s The Possessed. And for that reason, if not for many others, he did not fit in even among Soviet conservatives.
Most of them were ruralists or even monarchists, and they viewed Stalin as the lesser evil not as the greater good. Kochetov, in contrast, was “an orthodox Marxist-Leninist who believed in the dictatorship of the proletariat and war with world imperialism. He hated Russophiles no less than he did liberals” and that comes through in his writing.
Viewed from the perspective of today, Gulin says, Kochetov’s work stands out. His attitudes are “amazingly similar” to those and “today’s hunt for foreign agents.” It is not something cynical or careerist. Rather it is a matter of belief, even though Kochetov at least appears to have understood that he was fighting a losing battle and defending emptiness.
That fact, the reviewer says, gives his novel “a certain tragicomic dignity,” a turn of phrase one would not use to characterize the attacks on foreign agents by the powers that be of today.