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Yuri Druzhnikov, Russian American Author

Brief Biography

      Druzhnikov, Yuri (Born April 17, 1933, Moscow) — Russian writer and historian of literature, is one of the most respected contemporary Russian emigre writers. He was born to an artist's family and raised around a group of artists and intellectuals many of whom he saw disappear during Stalin's Great Terror. At Druzhnikov's high school graduation in 1951, he was denied the silver medal for “underestimating the role of comrade Stalin in the Russian Civil War” which paved the way for his rejection to every university to which he applied. Druzhnikov later studied at a Latvian university for two years where he became attracted to the stage and worked as an actor in a Russian Drama Theatre. In the fall of 1953, Druzhnikov returned to his studies in Moscow. He supported himself by working as a photographer, journalist, and as an internist in a government archive building where he took it upon himself to track down the labor records of rehabilitated prisoners which were used to determine pensions. He graduated from a Moscow pedagogical institute in 1955 with a history/philology major. Through 1964 to 1971, Druzhnikov taught Russian literature for two years in Kazakhstan, served as the headmaster of a high school, and then returned to Moscow to work as a book editor, a traveling correspondent, and an editor for the newspaper, The Moscovsky Komsomolets. He was accepted to the Writer's Union of the USSR in 1971.

      Druzhnikov's first book of prose, the anthology, Never Ever Goes My Way, published in 1971, told the stories of a chronic failure whose life contrasts the idea of optimal efficiency. In the story, My Favorite Wall, an everyday Moscow family happily comes to inhabit a former barracks building, in front of which stands a dirty old wall remaining from a torn-down structure that blocks out all of the light to the barracks. However, the authorities won't tear down the dirty wall. The story ends with a comma instead of a period because before printing the government censors cut the remainder of last sentence which contained ominous black clouds. The chronic failure character was seen as overly autobiographical.
      In 1974, Druzhnikov published two books about adolescent upbringing, Boredom Prohibited and Never Stop Asking Questions, Boys. Meanwhile, magazine editors and book publishers rejected his prose. Alexander Tvardovsky, the editor of Novy Mir, decided to publish two of Druzhnikov's shorter novels, Valedictory and February the Thirtieth, but later Tvardovsky changed his mind giving Druzhnikov the excuse that the magazine's quota for social criticism allowed by the authorities was filled by Alexander Solzhenitsyn's short stories and that no room was left for Druzhnikov's writing.
      An excerpt from Druzhnikov's story, Money Goes 'Round, was published in the magazine, Rabotnitsa (“Working woman”), albeit with a large number of omissions. The newspaper, Izvestiya, Aug. 16, 1974, accused Druzhnikov of slandering the Soviet people, “Isn't it odd that Druzhnikov lines up quite a rogue's gallery of characters in his books? [It's a travesty that] Money Goes 'Round was published alongside real magazine articles about the true Soviet heroes of our day: the many spiritually rich, morally clean workers who are living through their Motherland's labors and worries.”
      Druzhnikov's literary search never followed the official Soviet lines on literature. While investigating the role of ideology in Soviet literature and culture, Druzhnikov touched upon a number of politically controversial topics, which led to an abrupt halt of his official literary activity. In 1976, Druzhnikov's first and last novel was published in the USSR, Wait till Sweet Sixteen. To be more accurate, half of the novel was published with the censor-substituted title To Sacrifice This Very Bird, a biblical passage title. His comedy play, Teacher in Love, was removed from the stage, and his other play, Father for an Hour, had only just been accepted when it was forbidden from production. In 1977 Druzhnikov was officially removed from the Writer's Union of the USSR and declared “a traitor to the motherland” for participating in the Samizdat underground publishing movement and for other “illegal” activities.
      During the decade of the 80's up to the end of 1991, Druzhnikov's name was removed from all publications in the Soviet Union. In 1979, Druzhnikov wrote the memoirs, The Cancellation of Writer ¹8552, describing this process, published in The Washington Post. Nearly all of Druzhnikov's prose was secretly written then read by his coconspirators and smuggled to the West for publication. In the 1980's, Druzhnikov, by that time removed from the literary process, became heavily involved in the Samizdat movement. He was forwarding the works of forbidden authors to Western publishers, organizing an underground workshop for young writers, and later jointly with the film star, Savely Kramarov, establishing the underground theatre DK (Druzhnikov-Kramarov) which was promptly burnt down in 1991 by the KGB. During this same period Druzhnikov tried unsuccessfully to establish an independent writer's union and a private publishing company, “The Golden Cockerel.” For his efforts, Druzhnikov often received threats and underwent interrogation by the authorities. In 1985, the KGB gave Druzhnikov a choice “because he lived in a free country [the USSR],” to either be banished to a prison camp or put away in a psychiatric ward for the insane. Only the extensive efforts and protests of Western writers such as Bernard Malamud, Kurt Vonnegut, Arthur Miller, Elie Wiesel, Western human rights organizations, the intervention of the United States Congress and his honorary membership in the International PEN-Club, saved Druzhnikov from arrest. After an international scandal caused by the opening of his illegal 1987 exhibition in Moscow entitled, “The Ten Years of a Non-Writer,” Druzhnikov was banished from the USSR.
      Druzhnikov lived for a short while in Vienna, later making his way to the United States in 1988, where he began to teach writing courses at the University of Texas at Austin, worked for Radio Liberty in New York, and eventually settled in the university town of Davis in California. It was here that Druzhnikov starred in the film, “Prisoner of time,” (director M. Levinson) in the role of Daniel, a writer.
      Informer 001or The Myth of Pavlik Morozov, the book secretly written and researched during the years of 1980 through 1984 in Moscow, became a widely popular work in the underground Samizdat press and later brought Druzhnikov fame. This work was the first independent research investigating what the Soviets called “the murder of the century,” the death of a pioneer-hero who later became a tragic symbol of Soviet ideology. Pavlik Morozov, the barely grown hero-youth, turned his father into the NKVD secret police for treason and, according to Soviet propaganda was killed by kulaks, wealthy peasants, in 1932. For these actions, the Soviets recognized Morozov as the first honorable member of the Pioneers, a Soviet youth organization somewhat like the Boy Scouts, and was later held up as a model of behavior and class morals for millions of Soviet-era youth.
      Dozens of books, plays, songs, and even an opera were written by Soviet writers about this young informer. Over fifty years these publications became the basis for the foundation of myths about who Pavlik Morozov really was. Druzhnikov upheld that the majority of media about Pavlik Morozov was fabrication or simply lies. Unable to find archival materials, Druzhnikov visited thirteen cities, searching for evidence of “the murder of the century.” He spoke with the remaining witnesses, including Pavlik's brother who was accused of espionage and sent to labor camp for ten years, his classmates, fellow villagers, participants in Morozov's murder trial, Chekists, and even managed to find Morozov's mother.
      In this sensational book, Druzhnikov makes an excellent case determining that the young would-be hero turned his father into the NKVD not from any particular dedication to the cause of communism, but rather, at the insistence of his mother who wanted revenge against Pavlik's father for leaving her for another woman. Furthermore, Druzhnikov makes a case that Morozov was very likely developmentally impaired and wouldn't even have been able to understand Leninism let alone believe in it. Druzhnikov doesn't think that the kulaks killed Pavlik but rather the NKVD who were looking for any reason to incriminate the kulaks as a societal class even if that meant fabricating a cause. At the height of the terror in 1937, the Soviets made numerous demands on the citizenry to turn in traitors, criminals, and other enemies of the state. One of the most interesting of Druzhnikov's findings was that Pavlik Morozov was never a pioneer during his lifetime; the government appears to have made Morozov a pioneer long after his death. The second half of Informer 001 deals with the creation of the Pavlik Morozov myth from his creation as a Soviet literary hero at the First Congress of Soviet Writers in 1934 and the subsequent monument dedicated to Morozov on Red Square to the still perceptible consequences of the Morozov myth today.
      While this book is written in the dry language of fact (Druzhnikov often says the book was written with “the cool reason of a historian”), Informer 001 goes far beyond the conventions of literary or historical investigation. Druzhnikov concludes that one of the greatest tragedies of growing up in a Socialist nation was that the Morozov myth, essentially a story of treachery, was used as an example of virtuous honesty and piety. When Informer 001 was published in London in 1987, Alexander Solzhenitsyn wrote: “Yuri Druzhnikov should be given every respect for writing this much-needed book. It's through books such as his that many Soviet lies will eventually be revealed.” The book was immediately banned in the former Soviet Union (The first Russian edition was published in Moscow in 1995), yet Informer 001 was known in the Soviet Union because Druzhnikov read it aloud on radio stations “Liberty” and “The Voice of America.” The book was later translated into a number of languages and two films were based on it.
      The title of Druzhnikov's most critically acclaimed novel, Angels on the Head of a Pin, written from 1969 to 1976 in Moscow, is ironically derived from the scholastic formula: “The number of angels found on the tip of a needle are equal to the square root of two,” a paradigm during the Soviet era for the uncounted number of dissenters ready to actively revolt. The novel revolves around a newspaper, Trudovaya Pravda (The Working People Truth), which relates the story of Prague Spring, the revolt in Czechoslovakia in 1968 during which the Soviet Politburo sent tanks to Prague to enforce their influence there, effectively causing an era already known for stagnation to become even more stagnant.
      Druzhnikov's former journalistic experience supplied the raw material for him to weave a rich tapestry of the lives, both public and clandestine, of the men and women working at the Trudovaya Pravda. Druzhnikov captures the lifespan of the newspaper, Trudovaya Pravda, with journalistic accuracy: 67 days, from the February 23 to April 30, 1969, from the heart attack of the chief editor, Makartsev, a member of the Communist party Central Committee, who found a forbidden Samizdat manuscript in his office, to his removal and death on the April 30 1969.
      The famous French diplomat and traveler, the Marquis de Custine, published a scathing account of Russia during the reign of Nicholas the First, Russia in 1839, banned until very recently in Russia and about which Alexander Herzen, the Russian author and literary historian, wrote “without doubt, the most remarkable and clever book ever written about Russia by a foreigner.” Custine, according to the Druzhnikov's novel, mystically appears to Makartsev. Makartsev, along with de Custine, is drawn further and further into the “Prague, or now Moscow, Spring.” The novel features an all-star cast of the people of the former Soviet Union ranging from typists, journalists, KGB personnel, censors, former zeks (Soviet gulag prisoners), Chekists, an obvious caricature of the KGB chief Kegelbanov (in reality Andropov), “the man with thick eyebrows (Soviet leader Brezhnev),” and his family. The apotheosis of polemic absurdity is captured in Druzhnikov's descriptions of former zek and Brezhnev's personal urologist, Sisyphus Sagaidak, the “General Impotentologist,” who secretly manipulates the gerentocracy of the Brezhnev era. The novel ends with the arrest of the journalist, an “angel,” who translated into Russian Marquis de Custine's book, Russia in 1839, and planted the forbidden manuscript in Makartsev's office.
      One of Druzhnikov's most clever innovations has been the natural use of bureaucratic paperwork in his books; applications, character references, secret meeting protocols, and other forms using overly bureaucratic language become clever devices employed to show character motivation and give clues to the subtext of his novels. These “bureaucratisms” serve to bring Druzhnikov's novels out of harsh reality to fantasy by way of Kafkian hyperbole. Angels on the Head of a Pin makes particularly rich use of this Druzhnikovian innovation.
      During the Soviet era, the manuscript of the novel Angels on the Head of a Pin was seized in a search and did not come out. However, microfilm of the novel was smuggled out of Russia in a pack of cigarettes and was later published in New York. It included on the University of Warsaw list “The best ten Russian novels of the twentieth century.” Attempts to publish Angels on the Head of a Pin and Informer 001 – The Myth of Pavel Morozov during the Glasnost and Perestroika period were regularly blocked. The first Russian edition of Angels on the Head of a Pin was published after the infamous Moscow coup of 1991. The English edition was encluded into the List of best contemporary novels in translation by UNESCO.
      Western critics credit Druzhnikov for having created a new genre: micronovels. Druzhnikov has been publishing micronovels since the seventies, and the culmination of this movement led to his book Micronovels, published in New York in 1991. Little-known aspects of Russian and American life, replete with absurdity, aimlessness and lack of hope characterize Druzhnikov's micronovels. Micronovels such as The Death of Tsar Fyoder and Honeymooning at Great-Grandma's differ significantly from the three traditional genres of American literature (the short story, novella, and novel) and Russian literature (the rasskaz, povest', and roman) and cannot be accurately classified as either novel or povest'.
      The contents of micronovels are socially broader and more deeply profound than the novella while retaining the inherent boundaries of the novella. In differentiating a micronovel from the povest', Belinsky, a Russian literary critic, defines the povest' as a “fragmented piece of a novel” or a “chapter torn out of a novel.” In other words, a povest' exists as a part of a novel, or more precisely, as an unfinished, incomplete novel. However, micronovels are finished, complete, although extremely short novels. These miniature novels contain the three plot elements required of traditional European literature: Vorgeschichte (what happens to the protagonist before the story's main action occurs), Zwischengeschichte (what occurs between the beginning and the end), and Nachgeschichte (what remains after the end of the action). Having kept up with our fast-paced and constantly changing times, micronovels have become a compact genre over the years in which plots are densely crammed into narrative, novella-like packages. More succinctly, micronovels consist of “macro-content in micro-form.” Micronovels don't engage in polemics with novels; “Micronovels” and novels are simply different genres.
      Druzhnikov developed his own style of literary analysis following the traditions set by the Russian authors, Yuri Tynianov and Andrei Siniavsky. In his research novel and psychobiography Prisoner of Russia: Alexander Pushkin and Political Uses of Nationalism (Two parts: A Willful Exile and Dossier on a Runaway published in several editions outside of Russia and in post-Soviet Russia), Druzhnikov became the first author to examine Pushkin's motivations and efforts to escape Russia, first in the guise of a diplomat to Europe, and later outright escape attempts from the cities of Kishinev, Odessa, Mikhailovskoye, and Arzrum. Prisoner of Russia has led to a new understanding of Pushkin's relationship to the West, his motivations as a poet, Patria or Libertas, and reinterpretations of several Pushkin's works.
      Contemporary Russian Myths: A Skeptical View of the Literary Past (first published in 1995, New York, in Russian; 1999, in English), is a polemic analyses of the last two centuries of Russian literary development. This collection of essays explores many different controversial topics including the conflict between Pushkin and his wife, the identity of Arina Rodionovna, the underground philosopher, Konstantin Ventzel, who argued with the Communist ideology in the thirties, and the secret lives and deaths of writers such as Velimir Khlebnikov, Alexander Kuprin, and Yuri Trifonov. Contemporary Russian Myths takes a very unexpected approach to the controversy surrounding these myths inspiring discussions of Russian critics and American Slavicists.
      Druzhnikov's memoirs of his difficult times were originally published in The Washington Post under the title, I was Born in a Line, in 1979. Later this book was published in Russian and is an excellent example of the difficult life that Russian writers faced under the censorship of the Soviet government. Particularly, this book describes the destruction of Druzhnikov's novel To Sacrifice This Very Bird, his difficulties in emigrating to Europe, and later the United States, and the process of change now occurring in Russia which is now becoming evident to the American intelligentsia.
      Following the Nabokov tradition, one of the greatest of American authors and Slavicists, Druzhnikov is a professor of Russian literature at the University of California, Davis, near Sacramento where he currently resides. Druzhnikov is still vice-president of the American branch of the International PEN-Club, “Writers in Exile” section. His home is a center of Russian culture and study on the Pacific Coast of the United States. He often hosts literary discussion evenings with guests from all over the world. The return of Druzhnikov and study of his contributions to Russian literature of the XXth and the XXIst centuries has continued.

      Translated by Max Hannan

From Russian Writers of the Twentieth Century
published by the Great Russian Encyclopedia, Moscow.


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