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Poet's Protest

December 22, 1985

Mikhail S. Gorbachev has encouraged the impression that the ruling Politburo will loosen the bureaucratic controls that stifle economic and technological progress in the Soviet Union. Last week's remarkable speech by Yevgeny Yevtushenko, the poet who gained fame as a young rebel by Soviet lights during the 1960s, suggests that Soviet writers are hoping that Gorbachev will also loosen the restrictions on writers and artists.

The speech before a writers' congress was an eloquent call for candor and openness in Soviet literature. A heavily censored version was published in the tightly controlled organ of the Writers' Union, Literaturnaya Gazeta.

The degree of freedom allowed Soviet writers waxes and wanes. However, the Kremlin's fundamental view is that writers are free to criticize the shortcomings of Western societies and, within limits, to blow the whistle on lower-level mistakes or corruption in the Soviet system. But writers and other creative people are supposed to turn a blind eye to fundamental failures of Kremlin policy.

Yevtushenko's point was that the suppression of honest criticism has practical consequences. Soviet agricultural problems are in part, he said, the result of the peasants being "crushed underfoot." The relative backwardness of Soviet industry is a natural consequence of the years when cybernetics was dismissed as "bourgeois pseudoscience."

It is hard to believe that Yevtushenko's plea that "non-concealment become the norm of civic behavior" will be heeded by the Kremlin. So far, Gorbachev himself has emphasized a tightening of discipline in Soviet society. Some of his key lieutenants have police backgrounds. Yevtushenko's sharpest criticisms--of Stalin's crimes, for example, and the privileges enjoyed by the Soviet elite--were heavily censored.

The fact that his outburst got into print at all suggests, however, that a final decision on the tolerable parameters of free expression has not yet been made by the new crowd in the Kremlin.

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