The Silence Barrier: A Conversation with Roberto Echavarren about ‘Russian Nights: Autocracy and Testimony’ (2023)

In Russian Nights: Autocracy and Testimony (Vernon Press, 2023), Uruguayan poet, narrator, and essayist Roberto Echavarren reconstructs, through a mosaic of heartbreaking testimonies, a panoramic view of the terror lived under Lenin and Stalin. These testimonies, collected between 2001 and 2005, lends a voice to the experience of survivors during four decades of Soviet terror (1917-1956), from the moment Lenin took power to the Second World War.

Only a poet like Roberto Echavarren, with a unique voice and an absolute ear for the voice of others, could have conceived this project to rescue and preserve these personal stories, allowing us to experience firsthand the real impact that politics can have on the personal. Russian Nights can be read as an intimate encyclopedia of injustice, pain, and redemption; and yet, it manages to granularly trace the entire historical arc underpinning these testimonies. This book constitutes the second installment of an investigative trilogy that Echavarren began with a book about Lenin (One Against All: Lenin and His Legacy, Washington-London, Académica, 2022) and will conclude with a final book on the poetry, theater, and philosophy of the Silver Age as it was annihilated by the Bolshevik order (The Silver Age and After, forthcoming).

The voices recaptured in Russian Nights must be included alongside the testimonies of Aleksander Solzhenitsyn, Nadezhda Mandelstam, or Svetlana Alexievich as unique records of the suffering and the human cost imposed by Soviet totalitarianism. But also, now that we have seen the forces of autocracy gaining power once again (from Russia to the United States, from China and Hungary to Brazil, Austria, and now Argentina), this book is not only timely but also an urgent call. With these testimonies, Echavarren reveals how fragile democracy can be and how far reaching and real is the ever-present threat of autocracy.

Pitted against the gravity of the suffering expressed in these testimonies, exploring the relationship between power and writing, or more specifically between power and poetry, might seem like a gratuitous academic exercise, but the complexity of that relationship emerges as one of the lines of concern in Russian Nights. On that particular theme, we engaged in a brief dialogue with Roberto Echavarren.

Still from ‘Revue’, Sergei Loznitsa dir. 2008

Pablo Baler: I’ll start there, Roberto. The first thing that caught my attention in this book, something I never thought would come from the pen of a poet like you, is the following: speaking of these testimonies, you say, “They moved more fibers in me than what is commonly understood by literature.” From a purely poetic standpoint, this seemed to me the most intriguing and the most outrageous line in the entire book. Have you found a type of writing able to move you more than literature does?

Roberto Echavarren: As I pointed out in the Prologue of Russian Nights, testimony is a type of discourse hard to place; somewhere between literature and journalism. The quality of testimony gives it literary value. But it is neither fiction nor journalistic reportage. It is an instrument to make us understand terror. According to Adorno, some literary works, instead of dealing with politics, make politics emigrate into literature. They transcend power, because they become an alternative to power. Through their poetic force, they deconstruct the false reality created by propaganda. In a broader sense, we may assume that literature, within its fictional structure, deals with truth. Testimony, on the other hand, is directly engaged with truth. It shows the reality that the discourse of power obliterates. It counters power by its facticity. Concreteness is its weapon, an order to counteract lies and propagandistic generalities.

Referring to Anna Akhmatova, you also write, “These are writings of individuals confronted with a power before which one had to maintain silence even in the face of death.” I wonder then, to what extent these texts, born from the confrontation with silence, with death, with total oppression, could constitute one of the possibilities of poetry? And therefore, to what extent is their ability to approach the ineffable tinged by the sublime experience of horror?

Chekhov’s political mettle runs through his works. Politics emigrates to literature, from The Seagull to his investigation and reportage about one the Tsar’s main prisons, in the island of Sakhalin, on the Pacific coast. He went through the entire territory of Russia before railways, survived the trip and came back to report. It would be inconceivable for a Russian journalist to go investigate the GULAG and come back. Most likely his ticket was one way only. I took advantage of Putin’s early years in power, when Yeltsin’s democratic halo was still floating around. In that way, I could interview a number of people. I confess that the task seemed to me more interesting, even more necessary, than reading a five-hundred-page novel. Testimony has the fortune of not being literature yet. It appears in order to become literature and overcome untruth. It reveals what is hidden, what had been censored, covered by propaganda and disinformation. The ones who give testimony say what couldn’t be said, or couldn’t even be thought, covered by the fabrications of power. They testify in order that truth be known. Some of them explicitly say they want the real situation to be known, be it by Communist intellectuals, or by sympathizers, in Russia and outside Russia, so that these people can’t invoke innocence, or ignorance, as they support a criminal regime built over a pyramid of corpses. Let them know the true circumstances of the abuse, the everyday manner in which power corrupted all relationships, the quality of humiliation, the suppression of people’s opinions, the compulsion to glorify a regime that prevented the citizens to act and express their views according to human rights, according to legality, understood in a Western democratic way. We should remember that, until October 1917, Russia was a quasi-European parliamentary monarchy, with a fast-growing economy. Lenin’s government dismantled the institutions of the State of law, dismantled the nascent liberal State that was developing in Russia. Terror crushed each and every aspect of civilized life. People were crammed into houses previous to 1917; in the living space occupied previously by a single family, five or more families were huddled together. The citizens had no civil rights. Justice was at the service of government. The judges were the police itself. Lenin dismantled the State. He created a single Party placed above the government and the citizens, beyond their control.

Out of all these testimonies, is there a specific moment where you felt more clearly that, as you say, something stirred more fibers in you than what we commonly understand by literature could have?

If I had to name a testimony that moved me in particular, it would be the heroic deed of Andrei Andreievich Vlasov, a Stalin general who, having become a German prisoner, attempted to organize a Russian Liberation Army. He attempted to create a new democratic Russia in the middle of the war between Germany and the Soviet Union. I imagine him playing with his pistol, wondering whether to commit suicide or to undertake an impossible task.

Uruguayan poet, narrator, and essayist Roberto Echavarren

Going back to the more abstract question regarding the relationship between power and writing: To what extent and why does this intersection with power undermine our relationship with writing, with our categorizations of writing?

To write down an oral statement makes it into something else, something to be heard through the writing. It becomes a clear, sharp and defined text. It contains concrete anecdotes that bind it to the earth, preventing it from becoming a generalizing discourse. It confronts us with terror in its everyday dimension. As such, it’s alien to scholarly disciplines (history, anthropology, and so on). These might consider it later. A testimony does not need to pass a university exam to impress us with its immediate unforeseen substance.

Adorno’s most repeated statement, “there can be no poetry after Auschwitz,” has often been misinterpreted as an indictment of any attempt to represent, artistically, the experience of the Holocaust. The phrase, however, in the original German –from his essay “Cultural Criticism and Society,”– should be translated as “To write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric.” Adorno’s idea is not that one cannot, or even worse, should not write poetry after Auschwitz, but that language itself becomes corrupted, tainted by that sublime experience of horror. Beyond the plain and crystalline language that characterizes these testimonies, Roberto, what barbarisms have you encountered in these attempts to approach, through language, the ineffability of horror?

Concerning Adorno’s and Horkheimer’s interpretation of modernity as barbarism… I think there are many modernities, some worst, some better. To me, modernity means, above all, Kant. I find a bit of exaggeration in Adorno’s totalizing interpretation of modernity. In the nineteenth century, Chekhov could present his fictional characters without deciding who was good and who was bad. In the twentieth century, in Russia, one couldn’t be neutral and understanding. The scale of crime was of a different scope. It confronted the neutrality of the artist. How can one maintain neutrality before terror? The artist must acknowledge it, inscribe it in a collective memory, bring it forth, denounce it. Shostakovich thought that Chekhov was the supreme artist but, living under Soviet rule, as he did, he couldn’t share Chekhov’s impartiality. If Soviet crimes were not investigated and punished, Shostakovich said, life wouldn’t be worth living. The crimes were not punished. But memory is another kind of punishment.

Sygmunt Bauman convincingly argues that these extremes of evil we’ve experienced in the 20th century (let alone the 21st) are not an aberration of the system but the system itself. The thesis is excellently developed in Holocaust and Modernity. So, I read these testimonies from Russian Nights doubly—as testimonies of a specific historical juncture (that of 20th-century Russia) but also as testimonies of that broader horror: the transhistorical horror of despotism, injustice, and evil as systemic to modernity… or worse yet, as systemic to humanity. What are the limits or potential of writing (or more particularly, poetry) as a form of resistance to evil?

Many of the witnesses underwent a terribly rough life. Instead of surrendering to the general degradation and entropy, some found a reason to survive: the imperative to remember, the urgency to testify. Instead of merely accepting, this was the only valid response. It made a remarkable difference. To reach (in due time) someone outside that orbit, to let him know how things were inside it, so that inhumanity could be acknowledged. This is a plea for justice, a plea for legality and human decency.

As Krzysztof Ziarek says, “Art is not an alternative power but an alternative to power.” We can rephrase that idea: “Poetry is not an alternative power but an alternative to power.” These testimonies can be read in that sense. Returning to your comment in the prologue, it seems to me that this distinction encapsulates the strength of these testimonies you’ve compiled—a strength that challenges what is commonly understood as literature.

Poetry is an attempt to broaden the space of our existence, to find a place of one’s own, besides discourses that direct or hold us, a space where one can breathe without giving explanations to anyone. It develops a power, or an alternative to power. Now, in the case of testimony, the perspective is inverted: by listening, one measures the freedom of thought of the informant: his ability to resist; his empowerment.

Front cover of ‘Russian Nights Autocracy and Testimony’ (Vernon Press, 2023) by Roberto Echavarren

It must be admitted that oppression and injustice are not the monopoly of autocracies. Democracies also entertain an autocratic dimension. I always recall Nicanor Parra’s insightful dictum: “United States: the country where Liberty is a statue.” The danger we see emerging in the world today is not only that of autocracies but also that of the consolidations of autocratic tendencies within democracies themselves. There is material there for another type of testimony, a testimony that accounts for those power dynamics, equally cruel but more subtle.

There is an abyss between Soviet modernity and the modernity of democracies. Institutions exist on paper, but it is men who make them work. They are fragile, in danger of being distorted or neutralized. Transparency, if it is possible, should identify the abuses according to republican laws. Marx thought historians had to learn about economy. One could reproach Marx, Foucault thinks, not to have minded the institutions. The institutions of the nascent State of law, the separation of powers, didn’t interest him. He considered them bourgeois, and instruments of the bourgeoisie. Therefore, they were invalid from the point of view of revolution. Revolution would bring direct democracy to the workers, in the manner of French Terror. Consequently, to demolish all the institutions of the State of law, just as Lenin did, was a step in the right direction. Here lies the qualitative difference between democratic and autocratic rule. In the case of autocracy, institutions don’t exist or are ineffective. In the case of democracies, institutions, laws, should warrant individual rights, freedom of expression, and the ability to give testimony. Rights are not abstract. They are always concrete. Some of my literary work deals with Uruguayan and continental issues. They are tasks I have developed in parallel to my Russian research. Fortunately, in Uruguay, as well as in other countries, there have been relevant changes in the law and in public attitudes concerning tolerance toward diversity of race, sexuality, or disability. But our domestic or local tasks shouldn’t make us forget about the last semi-western empire, Putin’s Eternal Russia, with its predatory policies, which we have to oppose in any way possible.

Pablo Baler (b. Buenos Aires, 1967) is a novelist, critic and professor of Latin American literature at California State University, Los Angeles. He is the author of the novels Circa (Galerna, 1999), Chabrancán (Ediciones del Camino, 2020), and Los sentidos de la distorsión (Rialta, 2022) as well as the essay Latin-American Neo-Baroque: Senses of Distortion (Palgrave Macmillan, 2016). Baler has edited the international anthology The Next Thing: Art in the Twenty-First Century (Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 2013). His short story collection La burocracia mandarina was published by Lumme Ed., São Paulo, Brazil (2013, Portuguese translation, 2017). A graduate of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Stanford University and the University of Berkeley, Baler is also an International Research Fellow of the Centre for Fine Art Research at Birmingham City University, United Kingdom.


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