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Free love in the USSR

February 23, 2012

Oleg Proskurin:

Dear young admirers of the Soviet Union (if there are any among my readers). You think socialism is justice, plenty for everyone, a social safety net, plus free love? I don’t know, maybe somewhere in Sweden it really is. But Soviet socialism, even in its most vegetarian varieties, is revolting shit like this.

That’s the end of this story: there was a plan to reissue P. E. Shchegolev’s Pushkin’s Duel and Death (1916) for the 1987 Pushkin jubilee. An intimidating bunch of cultural figures signed a joint letter criticizing the decision to publish it. Vadim Vatsuro, the driving force behind the republication, wrote his own letters in response. It looked like the book might not come out, and the careers of those involved with it might suffer. But then it was allowed to be published, and before long a piece by Nabokov about Pushkin appeared in print in the USSR, distracting everyone from Shchegolev. Finally, Nikolai Skatov, who signed the joint letter critical of Shchegolev’s book, was appointed head of Pushkin House, which meant that Vatsuro and others who stood up for the book would have to report to him. Click over and read it all.

What stands out to me is “free love” in the list of what young people wrongly expect from socialism, in combination with Skatov et al.’s actual objections to Shchegolev. The problem was that Shchegolev had the nerve to wound Pushkin’s family honor, apparently by suggesting his wife was unfaithful. Pushkin had said in a poem that his wife was the greatest thing ever, and therefore future scholars were obliged to respectfully refrain from making untoward suggestions.

Kollontai's grave (CC image by Quir)

Part of this, as Proskurin says in another post, is just an odd tendency to treat Pushkin as sacred. But why does a Marxist like Skatov have such strong feelings about a prerevolutionary noblewoman breaking the promises she made in an Orthodox church restricting her sexual behavior? It’s proof of the failure of free love ideology to take hold in the Soviet Union.

My primitive understanding is that the triumphant communist intelligentsia imposed a linguistic style in which sex could be discussed, but on substance the mores of the ascendant workers and peasants overwhelmed those parts of the intelligentsia that believed in free love. And so things didn’t go well for communist feminists like Aleksandra Kollontai, and soon a man claiming to love his wife though sleeping with another woman was “как-то очень по-французски.” Eventually Vatsuro et al., reissuing old books about Pushkin, nearly had to ask, as if dealing with the tsarist censor, “Но ведь это против брака, — Не нажить бы нам хлопот?”

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