Aleksei Simonov: "It's important to shout out loud enough that the emperor has no clothes, so that both emperor and crowd can hear"

posted 21 Oct 2015, 09:07 by Rights in Russia   [ updated 21 Oct 2015, 14:12 ]
8 October 2015

Source: Moscow Helsinki Group

Original Source: Strana Kaliningrad [Kaliningrad Country]

A seminar has been held in Kaliningrad in the framework of the project Living Classics, entitled: “Konstantin Simonov: Close up and from afar.” The seminar took place with the participation of his son Aleksei Simonov, also a writer, film director, president of the Glasnost Defence Foundation, member of the Moscow Helsinki Group, and member of the executive board of the Russian PEN Centre. Marina Obrevko from the journal Strana Kaliningrad [Kaliningrad Country] spoke with Aleksei Simonov.

A tortoise crawling towards freedom of speech

Aleksei Kirillovich, what made you take up the role of head of the Glasnost Defence Foundation?

From the start the initiator of the Foundation was the USSR Film Makers’ Union. The first board of the Foundation was full of stars, I was not a member. These were the true giants of contemporary thought: Egor Yakovlev, Igor Golembiovsky, at the time editor of Izvestiya, the TV broadcaster Vladimir Molchanov and three film directors – Aleksei German, Elem Klimov and Georgy Daneliya. But as a rule star quality is not the same thing as being businesslike, and that’s why the board's support, or shoulder, was me, at that time I was chair of the Oversight and Legal Commission of the Film Makers’ Union. In October 1991 Egor went off to manage Gosteleradio, and I took over the reins from him, and since then I’ve been ploughing the same field.

Can you give the names of those in support of whom the Foundation has spoken out?

There are quite a number of specific names. They include the journalist from Radio Svoboda, Andrei Babitsky, the military correspondent Grigory Pasko, the photo journalist from APN, Vardan Oganesyan and so on. Vardan was our first “godchild”, whom they “rounded up” in Gandja at the time of the events in Karabakh. He ended up in a prison in Azerbaijan and we fished the lad out of there. We are working with the Pen Centre primarily on emergency issues. And the Pen Centre works very commendably as a human rights organisation.

How realistic is a concept like glasnost today?

Glasnost is a very real thing, but we have problems with its audibility. It's important not just to shout out from the crowd that the emperor has no clothes, it's important that both the emperor and the crowd can hear.

As far as I know you are the owner of a fantastic collection of tortoises. Does this have anything to do with the slogan of the Foundation: “Glasnost is a tortoise crawling towards freedom of speech”?

Initially we had another slogan: “The chance to shout out from the crowd that the emperor has no clothes is glasnost, but the chance to say this to the emperor before he goes out into the public – that is freedom of speech.” But then people began being paid for shouting out that the emperor has no clothes, and that was a serious blow to what we had in mind. Therefore we decided to change the slogan. But what I like about the tortoise is that it cannot go backwards.

The motto: “Never fear!”

Is this an ability that you also have?

Yes, I think so. Whenever you work in any creative field you cannot be afraid. If you are afraid, they can do whatever they like with you. And, in keeping with this reasoning, I have lived my whole life in line with the motto: “Never fear!” And so I wouldn’t shy away from trouble even when this threatened my career. I told myself once and for all – in the most extreme case I’ll go and become a baker! Do you know that my grandma had the title “Mother-Piemaker” and I have inherited from her a wonderful ability in baking.

But I can tell you how it was in real life. When I wanted to start studying at VGIK (the Russian State Institute of Filmmakers) I wrote a composition, and a lady on the entry commission asked me, “Why didn’t you write that Sholokhov was an outstanding master of socialist realism?” I looked at her and asked, “But do you know what socialist realism is? I don’t know and Sholokhov doesn’t know.” So I ended up walking out of VGIK with the words, “I will only come back here to teach.”

Did you keep your promise?

Yes, as I threatened, 20 years down the road I went back there to teach.

But didn’t your family connection help you through life?

It’s hard to answer this one way or the other. Sometimes it was a help, sometimes a hindrance. When I was 17 I wanted to go off on an expedition but they were only taking 18-year-olds. My father helped me and for a year and a half I was on an expedition  located about 240 kilometres from the nearest inhabited place. This was not sweetest option but if it hadn’t been for the Simonov family name I would never have found myself there.

But it was a hindrance when I entered Moscow University in the Faculty of Oriental Languages. I was the only one of hundreds of entrants who racked up 25 points out of a possible 25. And they all said, “Get a load of that! His dad is Simonov – no way would they have kept him out!” It was all very offensive. As an individual I am perfectly self-reliant enough for me to be seen as Aleksei Simonov, and not the son of Simonov.

Insistent Legend about the Favourite of the Party

One often reads that Simonov was always in favour with the Party leadership in the USSR. Not to mention the fact that he was himself a big Party boss.

The legend that Simonov was the favourite of the Party and government is in fact not based on fact. Even given the fact that he truly was a big Party boss, and that many of his actions were dubious, including the report he wrote about cosmopolitans in 1948. As a poet, this left its mark on him. After all, half of what he wrote at that time is simply awful to read! I would not wish even my enemy to be in a situation where they face such a moral dilemma. If you take my book of recollections of my father and mother, I describe there what my mother felt about it all: “Kostya has completely changed! He’s become a literary official.”

Stalin’s death was a release for my father. It took him a long time, and it was very difficult for him to overcome all this. To rebuild his own value system was not an easy thing to do. My father was not an opportunist, he was a person of ideas. When he had personally come to terms with the figure of Stalin, with Stalin as a historical figure during the war, he wanted once again to become editor of a journal. He was not allowed to do that. He collected 3,000 pages of recollections by soldiers and about 1,000 pages of recollections by generals. He did this on his own. But they told him: why should we create different versions of the history of the Great Patriotic War when we have one that has been approved by the Party and the government?

And I’m also upset that no one knows about the help he gave, for example, to return the name of Liliya Brik to the full collected works of Mayakovsky. The role he played in the publication of Mikhail Bulgakov’s books is also not widely known.

Do you plan to make up for this injustice in some way?

I mean to compensate not only for this injustice. There is a plan, in particular, to publish a book ‘Simonov and the War’ that will include his memories. My father after all knew the war like few else did. Not only thanks to the people he talked with, but simply because for four years he made about 40 trips to the frontline. We want to put up a memorial to the poem ‘Wait for me’ («Жди меня») at the place where it was written, on Serafimovich Street in Peredelkino in July 1941, to mark 100 years since my father’s birth.

About ‘Wait for me’ [«Жди меня»]

I heard that Valentina Serova, to whom he dedicated the poem, did not love him very much.

There’s no doubt that ‘Wait for me’ grew out of his relationship with Valentina Serova. After all he didn't know that because of this she would bear the responsibility of being faithful to him before the whole country – it’s monstrous. I don't really know at all if she was very happy. I do know that she loved this poem very much. And by the way, my mother did not like this poem at all. Which is not surprising: “Let my son and mother believe that I am no more"! She wrote a whole poem as long as ‘Wait for me’ to ask: why, my dear, don’t you trust your mother? Please note that I was the third one in this company, but I didn’t take offence. After all, I was only two at the time [laughs]. Well, with women it’s necessary to be a diplomat.

And do you succeed in that?

More or less. So the result is that all my former wives, and my current wife, with whom I’ve lived the last 40 years, get on well together. It’s important to have good relations with women. So long as you didn’t betray them, it’s not hard.

Background compiled by Strana Kaliningrad

Aleksei Kirillovich Simonov, journalist, human rights defenders, filmscript writer, film director, translator, was born on 8 August 1939. His father was the writer Konstantin Simonov, his mother was the literary critic Elena Laskina. His father was named Kirill, but decided to call himself Konstantin since he had difficulty pronouncing the letters ‘R’ and ‘L’. Aleksei Simonov was educated at the Institute of Oriental Languages of Moscow State University (Indonesian language and literature) and the Higher Courses in Film Directing. In 1964–1967 he was editor and translator for the publishing house Khudozhestvennaya literature. In 1991–1995 he taught at VGIK (Russian State Institute of Filmmakers). Since 1991 he has headed the Glasnost Defence Foundation. He is a member of the Moscow Helsinki Group. Until 2012 he was a member of the Presidential Human Rights Council. Aleksei Simonov’s films include: Platoon, The Trial, The Ordinary Arctic, My Dearly Loved Detective Story, The World of Ulyanova, Russian Lighthouse Near Cape of Good Hope, Through Life with a Song (Utesov), Goodbye Old Circus, At Nikitskie Vorota – First Attempt, The Military Forties, How the Heart Should Show Itself, and four other films of concerts. His books include: Sunny Banks of the River Summer, Private Collection, Temperature of Glasnost. His translations include works by Arthur Miller, Irwin Shaw, Eugene O’Neil, Carol Oates (US), Olive Schreiner (South Africa), Michael Dei-Anang (Ghana), and Hajji Azwar Abubakar and HR Bandaharo (Indonesia). Aleksei Simonov has a son and two grandchildren. 

Translated by Frances Robson, Simon Cosgrove