What should we call the literary age of Vasily Grossman, who wrote Life and Fate, the greatest Russian novel of the twentieth century? There was the "Golden Age," from Turgenev and Goncharov to Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, and Chekhov. The "Silver Age," interrupted by the Revolution of 1917, had Blok, Gumilev, the young Mandelstam, Pasternak, Tsvetaeva, Akhmatova, Khodasevich, Mayakovsky, Bely, and the future Nobelist Bunin. But for what followed we have no name.
Yet has there ever been, anywhere, a pleiad as richly talented, and as thoroughly decimated, and as cruelly tormented, as the generation of Russian writers born around the end of the nineteenth century or, like Grossman, in the first few years of the twentieth? On Trilling's "bloody crossroads" of politics and literature, has bloodier politics ever met finer literature? They wrote in the shadows of Lubyanka and the watchtowers of the Gulag, the pre-dawn shots in the back of the heads of their marshals and prime ministers, colleagues and professors, neighbors and friends, ringing in their ears. Yuri Olesha and Boris Pil'nyak, Isaac Babel and Mikhail Bulgakov, Yevgeny Zamyatin and Yuri Dombrovsky, Varlam Shalamov and Andrei Platonov. Gumilev, Pil'nyak, and Babel were shot. Mandelstam died in his first months in the Gulag, most likely driven mad and starved to death. Tsvetaeva hanged herself. Mayakovsky shot himself in the heart. Dombrovsky and Shalamov each spent nearly two decades in the Gulag.
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Leon Aron is a resident scholar and director of Russian studies at AEI.