Semyon and Tatyana Frank stood at the rails of the steamer Haken, holding hands and watching the dark waves of the Baltic, the scene illuminated only by the starry sky. They were departing Russia, never to return. They had been banished.
In June 1922, with the Civil War largely resolved, Vladimir Lenin finally felt safe in beginning to dispose of “threatening” intellectuals. Some were socialists, but not Bolsheviks; a few were survivors of the political right; others were simply religious. But free thought of any kind could not be tolerated by the new regime. Lenin himself devoted considerable time to selecting those who were too influential to shoot, but too dangerous to allow to remain. He feared executing them largely because such an action might alienate Communist sympathizers in the West. So, in conjunction with the Cheka, he decided to exile them for life. The Haken and its fellow “Philosophers’ Ships” carried away over 160 intellectuals. In some respects, theirs was a fortunate fate: according to the most conservative estimate of official Soviet sources, the Soviet secret police shot more than 12,000 political prisoners in 1922 alone.
The philosophers and intellectuals on board the Haken were a motley crew, united only in that they inspired fear in the new communist regime. Most famous among them were Semyon Frank, who wrote extensively on religion and science; Nikolai Berdyaev, a religious-minded conservative philosopher with an international reputation; and Nikolai Lossky, a famous Slavophile and philosopher who had taught—among his many students—a young woman named Ayn Rand. The ship of exiles was just the beginning of an intellectual purge that would sweep through the humanities and social sciences in the 1920s.
But philosophers and those who discussed modes of governance were not the only ones Lenin feared. He wrote to Stalin shortly after the Haken had departed, stating succinctly that “The city [Petrograd] needs a radical cleansing as soon as possible… do something about all those authors and writers…. This is all of supreme importance.” By this, he meant the artists, poets and writers who were then at the heart of Russia’s glorious Silver Age.
Perhaps surprisingly, many of the artists Lenin sought to purge had at first embraced the Revolution. They were hopeful that it would enshrine the liberties guaranteed by the Constituent Assembly, while opening the way for more radical, new approaches to poetry, literature and art. The first to suffer was the most famous of the Russian poetry world, the symbolist poet Alexander Blok. He was initially inspired by the Revolution, writing just after the Bolshevik seizure of power:
Unseen within the blizzard’s swirl
Safe from any bullet’s harm
With gentle step, above the storm,
In the scattered, pearl-like snow
Crowned with a wreath of roses white,
Ahead of them—goes Jesus Christ.
But Blok had grown deeply disillusioned by 1921. In that year, he wrote, “I’m suffocating, suffocating, suffocating!” He found he could no longer write poetry and grew sick—the former from censorship and the latter from a near-starvation diet. The Bolshevik Central Committee considered a plea from writer Maxim Gorky to let Blok go abroad for medical treatment, but only granted permission after Blok had died.
Popular poets and authors Sergei Yesenin and Vladimir Mayakovsky were also among those who found the moment of the revolution one of rapture. But their joy soon turned to ash. By 1925, Yesenin complained that ink was so hard to come by in the Soviet Union that he needed to write with his own blood. He shot himself later that year—though some historians believe the suicide was staged by the secret police. Mayakovsky tried to accommodate himself to the new state by abandoning his avant-garde phase and turning largely to making propaganda for the Bolsheviks. But accommodation brought no solace; the quality of his work declined, and he found himself increasingly criticized by censors. In 1930, he, too, shot himself.
Those who resisted the Bolsheviks from the outset often met their fates more quickly. The gallant Nikolai Gumilev—poet, adventurer, and war hero—stood at the center of the great artistic circle in St. Petersburg; its greatest star was his ex-wife, Anna Akhmatova. Returning to Russia to write in opposition to the regime, Gumilev was arrested for his writings and shot by the Cheka in 1921. Akhmatova, perhaps the greatest of the Silver Age poets, had her works banned by the Bolsheviks in 1925. Her son and second husband both went to the Gulags; almost none of her writing appeared in print until after Stalin’s death some thirty years later.
The 1920s has long been regarded as the “cultural golden age” of the Soviet Union. At first, it is true, artistic horizons were opened wide by the revolution. But then came famine, censorship, and arrest. Compared to what came later, the banishments, suicides, and deaths from starvation would indeed seem a mercy. In the words of historian Robert V. Daniels, 1929—Stalin’s seizure of power—marked the “wholesale destruction of the literary intelligentsia.” The end of the decade would mark the final death of artistic expression in Communist Russia.