Aping communism has blighted the future of literature
The death this week of Alexander Solzhenitsyn reminded me of a young man named George Kundelev who, in 1973, told a group of us why this great novelist could not be allowed to flail the Soviet system through his novels, while he enjoyed what they must have seen as the system's "generosity".
Kundelev, an intensely committed communist, was our guide or chaperone during an eye-popping visit to the Soviet of Leonid Brezhnev.
I will always remember, with a mixture of wonder and sadness, his comments to us on the plight of the novelist who, a year later, would be banished from the country of his birth and exiled for 20 years to the United States.
"We can't allow him to destroy a great system like the Soviet Union," Kundelev said.
All four of us from Africa, guests of the Afro-Asian Writers' Union, which was sponsoring our tour, had asked what unpatriotic crime this man had committed.
Kundelev must have been buffeted, as all citizens of that big country must have been, by the turbulent events that preceded the fall of communism and the end of the Soviet empire.
I have often wondered what happened to him. Did he go into exile, perhaps after his own eyes were at last opened to the reality of what Solzhenitsyn had written about in his novels?
Or did he stick with the likes of the colourless Brezhnev to the end, opposing both Mikhail Gorbachev and Boris Yeltsin as they sought to transform their country from its straitjacket ideology of the dictatorship of the proletariat?
I am also reminded of the state of publishing in Africa, especially of works of creative writing. Gathering dust in my files somewhere is a manuscript of A Scar For Life, which I wrote in the 1980s. It was rejected by the publisher of my second novel in Zimbabwe, Gwebede's Wars, on the amazing grounds that it was "too political" to be published at the time. Could I try again in a few years' time?
I did take up the challenge. So far, they have not responded.
Until communism ended, most countries of the Soviet bloc had many novelists and other so-called dissidents living in exile - only because their works were considered unpatriotic or even treasonous.
A country where any works that criticise the political and social system of the government are banned has to be considered less than entirely democratic.
It is a country in which the government believes that there is a traitor under every bed - everyone must sing the same hymn, unless they want to be expelled from the choir.
In apartheid South Africa, UDI Rhodesia, Angola and Mozambique, no creative writing by citizens who were critical of the regimes could be published. So, most of them had to find foreign publishers.
Unfortunately for Africa, the persecution of creative writers has continued into independence, with South Africa perhaps the only exception.
The years of communism in the Soviet Union must have lumbered that country with a serious backwardness in literature that may never be effectively tackled.
This is the country of Tolstoy and War and Peace and Anna Karenina of Fyodor Dostoyevsky and Crime and Punishment and The Brothers Karamazov.
For Africa, it was the curse of trying to ape communism that blighted the future of literature. The restrictions of real freedom for the creative writer have had a deleterious effect on development all round. And that is not a treasonous statement either.
l Bill Saidi is deputy editor of The Standard in Zimbabwe
Would you like to comment on this article or view other readers' comments? Register (it’s quick and free) or sign in now.
Please read our Comment Policy before commenting.