"Only in Russia is poetry respected — it gets people killed. Is there anywhere else where poetry is so common a motive for murder?" — Osip Mandelstam
We've gotten a couple of emails telling us that we're too harsh on Russia — and on the Soviet Union in particular — in our various profiles. That the USSR wasn't as terrible as we make it out to be. That various artists, writers, etc, were still able to express themselves under the communist regime.
To these emailers, we have a one-word answer: No.
No. Simply no. Yes, the Soviet Union did produce its share (more than its share!) of brilliant, talented people. But so many of these were despite the system, not because of it. Take poet Osip Mandelstam, for instance. He was born Jewish but was forced to convert to Christianity (a token conversion; he didn't practice) so he could attend college (this was pre-Soviet Russia, but still... that's Russia!).
In 1933, Mandelstam wrote a poem, known as the "Kremlin Highlander". The poem tore into Joseph Stalin, comparing him to a cockroach, berating his entourage, and calling him a murderer. All that in 16 lines. It might as well have been a suicide note.
So what did the benevolent and all powerful leader of the Soviet Union, the father of all its children, Joseph Stalin, do? He arrested the poet, tortured, and exiled him. Mandelstam died soon after.
So much for the ability to express oneself. And they say WE'RE harsh.