Andrei Siniavskii was born on October 8, 1925 in Moscow. His father Donat Evgeniyevych Siniavskii was a former noble turned professional revolutionary and left SR. Donat Evgeniyevych also had a talent for writing poems, plays, stories and novels. He was arrested in 1924 and again in 1950, like many others he was pardoned and rehabilitated after Stalin's death in 1953.
Andrei Siniavskii came of age during the Second World War and the last years of Josef Stalin’s rule. Shortly after the outbreak of the war, Siniavskii was evacuated with his mother to Syzran. He was drafted into the army in 1943 at the age of 17, undergoing a year and a half of training at the Moscow Aviation School, which had also been relocated to Syzran. Siniavskii returned to Moscow when the aviation school was moved back to the capital, serving as a radio technician at an airfield outside Moscow during the last year of the war. After demobilization, Siniavskii enrolled in Moscow University to study literature during the heyday of Socialist Realism, experiencing firsthand the cultural crackdown initiated by Andrei Zhdanov in 1946.
As a student of literature at Moscow University, Siniavskii became acquainted with Hélène Peltier-Zamoyska. whose father was a French Naval attaché. Beginning in 1956, Zamoyska brought the first works written under the pseudonym Abram Tertz out of the Soviet Union and arranged for their publication abroad. De-Stalinization under Nikita Khrushchev's leadership had a significant impact on Siniavskii and other writers of his generation. Siniavskii, in particular, believed Soviet society could return to the creative rigor initially unleashed by the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917, which had been stymied by the introduction of Socialist Realism in 1934. Siniavski’s On Socialist Realism criticized the very foundations of this doctrine, which attempted to apply the artistic and literary styles of 19th Century Russian realism in order to propagate the ideology and political and social aims of the Soviet Union’s ruling party. Russian realism was inward looking, full of skepticism, doubt and irony. As Max Hayward wrote in his introduction to the transcripts of the trial of Siniavskii and Yuli Daniel from 1966, “the great realist writers—who the socialist realists of the Soviet Union were supposed to emulate—had no sense of purpose, but were engaged rather in an anguished quest for the answer to apparently unanswerable ontological questions—not to speak of the more mundane social and political ones.” As such, socialist realism was a literary vehicle entirely unsuited for the Soviet Union, a teleological polity driven by revolutionary purpose.
Siniavskii’s early works written under the pseudonym of Abram Terts—On Socialist Realism and its companion piece The Trial Begins—challenged the hegemony of Socialist Realism by exposing this "formal incoherence." Tertz repudiates the basic idea that art and literature should be handmaidens of social activism, by denying literature’s ability, and vocation, to define reality or transform it. Catherine Nepomnyashchy notes that these texts were "the writer's declaration of independence, his escape from the Soviet canon." In both texts, Siniavskii/Tertz subverts the conventions of Socialist Realism "by calling into question the existence of a single defining center and this the authority of authorial voice."
Siniavskii insisted that his quarrel with the regime was never political, but aesthetic. Nonetheless, he and his fellow artists and writers fell out of favor soon after Nikita Khrushchev’s ouster as General Secretary in 1964. He was arrested in 1965 for the dissemination of anti-Soviet propaganda in 1965 and was imprisoned in the Lubianka and Lefortovo prisons. His 1966 trial highlighted the faulty premises of his conflict with the authorities. He was charged with Article 70 of the Russian Criminal Code, or “the dissemination of slanderous fabrication which defame the Soviet government and social system for the purposes if undermining or weakening Soviet power.” Throughout the trial Siniavskii maintained that it was impossible to conduct a legal investigation of an artistic text as one could not “define the meaning of an artistic work juridically and unequivocally.” Even so, Siniavskii was sentenced to seven years of hard labor. He served part of that sentence in Potma (Mordovia) labor camps, but was released early, returning to Moscow in 1973 and emigrating shortly thereafter to Paris, France.
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