Why are Russians so good at vexing American minds? Vladimir Putin’s bewitchment of President Trump continues to frustrate intelligence officials and at times hard-liners in his own administration, while pro- and anti-Russia journalists trade insults as enthusiastically as they did during the 1950s Rosenberg spy trial.
Beneath this lurks the uneasy feeling that our longtime superpower adversary remains our secret twin, matching us in audacity and ambition, just as it did all those years ago. “Listen now,” an NBC radio announcer declared in October 1957, “for the sound which forever more separates the old from the new.” The sound was the beep-beep of the radio signal emitted by Sputnik, the first satellite sent into space, as it streaked on its elliptical path at a surreal velocity of 18,000 miles per hour. The Russians’ early conquest of space came as a shock — “perhaps the darkest hour of the Cold War,” one historian has written — but it was also an exciting communal moment: Americans stumbled out of bed to watch “the sunlit speck sweep across the predawn sky,” Time reported, “as steady in its orbit as the made-by-nature moon.”
The “space race” was a competition, but with only two rivals — “us” and “them.” And this odd partnership, or dance, spilled over into realms of the imagination, particularly the novel. In the aftermath of Sputnik three towering and best-selling works of fiction by dissident Russians — “Atlas Shrugged,” “Lolita” and “Doctor Zhivago” — were published in quick succession, crowded into an 11-month span, from October 1957 to September 1958. Today, all three still live on, each a universe in itself, read and discussed — and fought over — as if written not in prose but in hieroglyphics or code.
Published less than a week after the Sputnik launch, “Atlas Shrugged” was the crowning work of Ayn Rand, a Jewish émigré from St. Petersburg (born Alissa Rosenbaum) who had gone to Hollywood in the 1920s, taking with her scenarios even Cecil B. DeMille’s story department deemed far-fetched. It was there that she developed an almost militant faith in capitalism. Her novel “The Fountainhead,” published in 1943, though panned by reviewers, became a word-of-mouth sales triumph and then a film starring Gary Cooper as a visionary architect modeled on Frank Lloyd Wright.
Since then Rand had carefully tended her own growing legend. The immense “Atlas Shrugged” (1,168 pages) was famous even before it was published — the fruit of 13 years of intense work — with amphetamine-driven live readings for her entranced circle, or cult, of young acolytes, who gathered at her apartment in Manhattan.
Devotees of “Atlas Shrugged,” then and now, thrill to its über-size heroes — the inventor-genius Hank Rearden, the svelte, steely Dagny Taggart, who talk at exhausting length about the holiness of the profit-motive — “money demands of you the highest virtues” — and then clang together in steamy sex scenes (“He held the length of her body pressed to his, as if their bodies were two currents rising upward together, each to a single point, each carrying the whole of their consciousness to the meeting of their lips”). Rand’s libertarian followers exulted in her rogues’ gallery of evil statists, who are dragging America into a condition of primitive decline: greedy labor bosses, “modern college-infected parasites who assumed a sickening air of moral self-righteousness,” conformist “watchdogs” at the “Bureau of Economic Planning and National Resources,” “State Science Institute” and “Consumers’ Protection,” who have created a permanent proletariat of “moochers and looters,” “loafers” and “bums.”
To many in the late 1950s this sounded crazily off-key. These were peak years of the “affluent society” and a golden age for entrepreneurs. President Eisenhower had stocked his cabinet with captains of industry like Charles Wilson, brought in from General Motors to run the Defense Department. The Cold War battle for the heavens soon yielded a billion-dollar-a-year “space industry,” with lucrative government contracts showered on businesses large and small — from giant aircraft companies like Lockheed to Waste King, a maker of garbage disposals.
But Rand sensed something else. America’s great industrialists were becoming clients of the state. The advance guard of Cold War planners, space and weapons theorists like J. Robert Oppenheimer, John von Neumann and James R. Killian, the president of M.I.T., chosen by Eisenhower to oversee the creation of NASA, were administrators rather than doers, unlike the executives at New York Central Railroad and Kaiser Steel whom Rand had interviewed while writing “Atlas Shrugged.” The Promethean Hank Rearden is a throwback, a metal engineer who helps develop “a motor that would draw static electricity from the atmosphere, convert it and create its own power,” making possible a “brand-new locomotive half the size of a single Diesel unit, and with 10 times the power.” In the emerging era of the R-7 missile and the multistage rocket, this seemed archaic — a “Swiftian device,” The New Yorker’s critic wrote. “I am speaking, of course, of Tom Swift,” the young inventor in the series of books for boys.
But that was exactly what Rand meant to do, to reawaken respect for what one character calls “the highest type of human being — the self-made man — the American industrialist.” And Rand’s readers were intensely grateful. “For 25 years I’ve been yelling my head off about the little realized fact that eggheads, socialists, Communists, professors and so-called liberals do not understand how goods are produced,” wrote one, the owner of the Standard Slag Company in Youngstown, Ohio.
And if those useful goods weren’t produced, hard times would come. Rand’s dystopian picture feels prescient — “the slovenly dilapidation of slum hovels,” the “command” economy that overwhelms ordinary citizens “who never looked beyond the span of one week,” and were pacified by the “large new television set in the lighted room of a house with a sagging roof and cracking walls.” Rand’s prevision of American carnage drew on memories of her Russian girlhood, first of the Bolshevik Revolution and then of the “transition period under Lenin from a primitive capitalism to a brutal Communism,” Anne C. Heller writes in “Ayn Rand and the World She Made.”
Americans, Rand suggested, were listening for the wrong signals — seduced by the metal orb speeding across the sky, and the organized miracle of the Soviet “Virgin Lands” program and its otherworldly grain yields. Rand’s novel called attention to very different facts of life in the Soviet empire: chronic meat shortages, inadequate housing, oppressed populations in revolt (including the recent Hungarian uprising, quashed by Soviet tanks). “Atlas Shrugged” is a nightmare picture not of America as it was in 1957, but of the ersatz Soviet Union it might become.
But to many, Rand’s philosophy of “rational selfishness” seemed as harsh and limited as the Russians’ materialism. It reinforced the suspicion that the two superpowers, locked in their global and now interplanetary competition, had both misplaced their souls. Redemption came in another of the post-Sputnik Russian epics, Boris Pasternak’s “Doctor Zhivago,” which tells the story of the Russian Revolution as Tolstoy might have done it — not as an ideological tract or political commentary, but as a multilayered narrative. Zhivago and his lover, Lara — together with five dozen other characters sprawling over three generations — struggle and suffer through the critical period in Russian history, from the 1905 revolution into the Bolshevik Revolution and World War I, and the subsequent civil war, at first inspired but ultimately disillusioned by the new Soviet regime.
Never was so conventional a novel so rapturously received, at least in the West, especially after the Russians refused to publish it, and then, when smuggled translations began selling in vast numbers abroad, heaped abuse on Pasternak and made him turn down the 1958 Nobel Prize. The “traitor Boris Pasternak” was officially urged to “become a real emigrant” — instead of an internal one — “and go to his capitalist paradise.” In a country where nearly 1,500 writers had either been killed or had died in labor camps, this was not a subtle hint. But Pasternak, a revered poet and a courageous one, didn’t give in. He stubbornly stayed in Russia, in a bungalow outside Moscow, though he would have been welcome as a hero anywhere in the West. At an anti-Communist rally in Vienna sponsored by Roman Catholic student and youth organizations, a montage of photos “made him appear to be standing behind barbed wire,” The Times reported. “From a distance he seemed to be wearing a crown of thorns.” By this time sales of his novel in the United States alone had reached 850,000 copies.
It wasn’t just Cold War politics that excited readers. On the contrary, Pasternak’s subjects were faith and redemption, death and resurrection. He discussed Communism as Western ex-Communists did, as the romantic “god that failed.” Zhivago laments how the original Marxist ideal — “young men dying on the barricades, writers racking their brains in an effort to curb the brute insolence of money, to save the human dignity of the poor” — is betrayed by the rigid dogma of the Soviet state and so was flawed all along, as any dream of salvation through politics must be. The only answer, Zhivago realizes, is to escape politics altogether and seek a “new way of living and new form of society, which is born of the heart, and which is called the Kingdom of Heaven,” and rests in the truth of Christ’s timeless parables. “The idea that underlies this,” Zhivago explains, “is that communion between mortals is immortal, and that the whole of life is symbolic because it is meaningful.”
Zhivago and Lara’s “conversations, however casual, were as full of meaning as the dialogues of Plato,” Pasternak writes. Perhaps. But his own homilies read less like Tolstoy than like the mock-Russian hilarities in Woody Allen’s “Love and Death.” At the time, however, astute and august critics were mesmerized. One of them, Edmund Wilson, argued that Pasternak presented a “radical criticism of all our supposedly democratic but more and more centralized societies.” William F. Buckley Jr., praising “Doctor Zhivago” from the right, wrote, “The elaborate edifice of Marxism-Leninism crumbles before the poet’s eye of Boris Pasternak.” The secret genius of “Doctor Zhivago” was that it gave comfort to everyone, even the Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev when he finally got around to reading it. “We shouldn’t have banned it,” he conceded. “There’s nothing anti-Soviet in it.”
This was also the opinion of the author of the third post-Sputnik classic, the ferociously anti-Communist Vladimir Nabokov, though he had a personal reason for disliking “Doctor Zhivago.” It had bumped his novel “Lolita” off the top rung on the Times best-seller list. He had a second reason too. An important incident early in Pasternak’s novel — Lara’s sexual ravishment, at age 16, by a much older man — pre-empted Nabokov’s explicit story of the rape of a 12-year-old by the narrator, Humbert Humbert, who is three times her age. Like the other post-Sputnik novels, “Lolita” had its own pre-publication tumult, in this case an obscenity scandal. American publishers were afraid to release it, so it had come out in Paris, and it was banned there too, becoming prize contraband. But after a large portion of it was serialized in The Anchor Review, it was at last deemed acceptable for American readers.
They were surprised by what they found. Sexual sin was a familiar subject in the late 1950s. The period’s best sellers included “Peyton Place,” “By Love Possessed” and “Anatomy of a Murder.” But these were all conventional middlebrow novels. Nabokov was a highbrow genre-changer, an originator of postmodern techniques: wordplay, stories constructed like puzzles, layers of allusion, tricks of misdirection.
If Rand and Pasternak were fabulists dabbling in realism, Nabokov was the opposite, a literary magician, with a dandy’s lush prose style, whose story was based on a shockingly thorough knowledge of facts on the ground. In her new book, “The Real Lolita,” Sarah Weinman maps the parallels between Humbert’s case and one true-crime episode mentioned in “Lolita,” the abduction of a fifth grader by a 50-year-old pedophile in Camden, N.J., who fled with her on a cross-country spree. But that was just one story among many in what later came to be called the “postwar sex crime panic.” Ordinary readers were well-versed in such stories. They were staples of the so-called family magazines. A cover story in The American Magazine in 1947 — when much of “Lolita” takes place — was “How Safe Is Your Daughter?” Not safe at all, according to the author, the F.B.I. director J. Edgar Hoover. “The most rapidly increasing type of crime is that perpetrated by degenerate sex offenders,” he wrote, going on to offer a selection, complete with lurid details, of a nationwide binge of rape and pedophilia, a “criminal assault every 43 minutes, day and night, across the United States.” There was, for instance, the case of the 17-year-old jailed on a sex charge who “three weeks after his release lured an 11-year-old girl to an open field, where his brutal attacks ended in the murder of the child.” Another family magazine, Collier’s, published a series, “Terror in Our Cities.” And there was more in the daily press — tales of grown men who plied underage girls with “sodas and sundaes,” teenage sex rings involving girls as young as 13 (all “said to be from good families”).
What was surprising, in 1958 no less than today, was the indifference of the nation’s most sophisticated readers, its literary critics, to the connection between Humbert’s ensnared “lover” and “the real Lolitas who exist in darkness throughout their lives,” as The New Republic pointed out in an editorial. It was the familiar story of clueless elites, and it rested on intellectual complicity. Advanced midcentury thinking had all but discarded the categories of “normal” and “abnormal” sexual conduct. In his book “Sexual Behavior in the Human Female,” the sexologist and data-accumulator Alfred C. Kinsey wrote that “adult contacts are a source of pleasure to some children, and sometimes may arouse the child erotically (5 percent) and bring it to orgasm (1 percent).” And of the “80 percent of the children who had been emotionally upset or frightened by their contact with adults,” Kinsey, a trained entomologist, concluded, “in most instances the reported fright was nearer the level that children will show when they see insects, spiders or other objects against which they have been adversely conditioned.”
Nabokov was an accomplished butterfly collector, well versed in scientific jargon, real and fake. In a mock foreword to “Lolita,” Humbert’s story is described, in pitch-perfect Kinsey-ese, as the “confession of a White Widowed Male.” His story, the author adds, “should make all of us — parents, social workers, educators — apply ourselves with still greater vigilance and vision to the task of bringing up a better generation in a safer world.” It was easy to feel in on the joke, just as it was easy to share in the snobbery when Nabokov wrote, “Nothing is more exhilarating than philistine vulgarity.” But you could also miss what he was really saying, that America had mass-produced its own version of Old World decadence. The same consumer culture that infantilized adults — with “cute paper napkins and cottage-cheese crested salads” and “‘raid-the-icebox’ midnight snacks” — was also sexualizing their children and making them prey to pedophiles. Grown-ups and “bobby-soxers” alike were in thrall to the “luminous globules of gonadal glow that travel up the opalescent sides of jukeboxes,” and also huddled together in the “dim, impossibly garnet-red light that in Europe years ago went with low haunts, but here meant a bit of atmosphere in a family hotel.” Humbert, posing as Lolita’s father, is a sinister parody of the overprotective “helicopter” parent, rebuked by Lolita’s teachers for being an “old-fashioned Continental father” who forbids his “daughter” to mix with boys her own age. Viktor Komarovsky, the sexual predator in “Doctor Zhivago,” would have had an easy time of it in Nabokov’s America.
Each of these three novels has had a remarkable afterlife. “Lolita” is a virtual guidebook to the abuses exposed by the #MeToo movement — the secret predations of the mentor and teacher who operates in a free zone of “enlightened” complicity. “Doctor Zhivago” endures less as a novel than as a peak episode in the cultural Cold War. Publishers in America and Britain recently paid large advances to a young novelist who has told the story again, drawing on declassified documents on the secret C.I.A. operation that smuggled the manuscript back into Russia. And “Atlas Shrugged” remains a free market Bible on the right. What one of its most scathing early critics, the ex-Communist journalist Whittaker Chambers, identified as Rand’s appetite for “smashing up the house” has become the stated cause of several generations of Republicans and libertarians. The House speaker, Paul Ryan, with his mission to undo the Affordable Care Act and its coddling of “takers,” while slashing taxes on high-income “makers, ” is a devout Randian, as are members of the Trump cabinet. Silicon Valley abounds with Randians, too.
Meanwhile Russian cyberhackers have reportedly begun to disrupt the 2018 midterm elections. More than a quarter-century after the Soviet Union dissolved, Russia remains in many respects our doppelgänger, and the cry is heard, in ever more plaintive tones, “where is the collusion?” The answer — as all three of the great post-Sputnik prophets of the novel tried to tell us — is everywhere.
Sam Tanenhaus, a former editor of the Book Review, is writing a biography of William F. Buckley Jr.
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