Max Hayward and the liberation of Soviet Jewry

The outstanding Russian scholar of his generation in England, Hayward was a master of 15 languages and a brilliant translator.

April 4, 2015 22:49
4 minute read.
PEOPLE CARRY a poster with a portrait of late Soviet dictator Josef Stalin

PEOPLE CARRY a poster with a portrait of late Soviet dictator Josef Stalin. (photo credit: REUTERS)

 Max Hayward is an unsung hero in the story of Jews and all people of good will helping to free the Jews of Russia from the shackles of Soviet Communism. Hayward’s mission to make dissident Russian writers known in the West ushered in the movement to liberate Soviet Jewry.

The outstanding Russian scholar of his generation in England, Hayward was a master of 15 languages and a brilliant translator. His translations of Pasternak, Akhmatova and Sinyavsky – and many other writers in Soviet Russia who would not adhere to Stalin’s attempt to straightjacket literary creativity in a government-mandated “Socialist Realism” – remain the gold standard in the introduction of these writers to the world.

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Professor Hayward was visionary in discovering genuine voices in Soviet society at a time when most academics were lauding the USSR as a model society. Hayward, in contrast, was appalled at the abuses of Stalinism and Communism and was not afraid to voice that opinion. He had no patience for defenders of Stalin, Khrushchev and dictatorship. He often compared the Gulag to Nazi concentration camps in response to those who denied the abuses and horror of Stalinism.

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Patricia Blake, a longtime friend of Hayward and a collaborator with him in translation, describes his experiences in the USSR when he served at the British Embassy in Moscow in the late 1940s, at the height of Stalinist repression of any dissent in Soviet society. Hayward bore witness not only to the dictator’s destruction of the biological sciences in the Soviet Union but also the regime’s attempts to destroy Jewish culture and life in Russia. The mass arrest of Jewish writers, the closing of the Jewish State Theater and almost all Jewish publishing houses, periodicals and newspapers – all of these took place while a young Hayward was in the USSR.

Stalin’s anti-Semitic campaign of condemning Jews as disloyal to Russia and for being “rootless cosmopolitans” shaped the scholar’s understanding of Jews and Judaism throughout his academic life and career at Oxford. In her detailed introduction to Hayward’s collected writings, Blake relates the belief of one of the scholar’s colleagues that “For a long time I thought that Jews in the Soviet Union were Max’s major interest in life.” It is no coincidence that among the writers that Hayward introduce to the West were Jews or those with Jewish ancestry.

Professor Hayward also was entranced by Israel. In the last decade of his life, while living for extended periods in Greece, he visited Israel twice, first in 1975 and then in 1977. While spending three months at a retreat for writers in Israel’s capital, Hayward wrote that “Jerusalem is unbelievably fascinating.” Hayward’s letters to Blake from Israel were “ecstatic.”

He toured the country, from Sinai to the Golan Heights and was awestruck.

He flourished in the Jewish state, made many friends, and was approached by Soviet émigrés who “pressed manuscripts on him.”

While Hayward was concerned with the course of Israeli politics and the survival of the state, he once told an Israeli colleague: “If Israel disappears we are all done for.”

In his last days in 1979, before dying of cancer in a life cut short, Max Hayward was still concerned with the fate of Jews in the USSR, even working with a colleague to write an article on Soviet Jewry.

Patricia Blake’s collection of Hayward’s writings, entitled Writers in Russia: 1917-1978, was published a decade before the fall of Soviet Communism. I first read the collection as an undergraduate at Columbia University. I have always had interest in Russian literature and enrolled in courses on the works of Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky and the dissident literature of the Soviet period. Stalinist “Socialist Realism” shackled art to totalitarian politics and proved disastrous to Soviet society and literature.

At the time, I was involved in protests to end the Communist suppression of Jewish life and learning and to allow Soviet Jews to make aliya to Israel. Max Hayward’s mission of introducing dissident Russian writers to the world was an integral part of a much larger movement to liberate Soviet Jewry. He had the insight – even before the creation of groups such as the Student Struggle for Soviet Jewry – that cultural creativity and independence were critical to the fate of Russia and its Jews. Hayward spoke the truth at a time when ideology and politics trumped human freedom and human rights. Stalin’s crimes were being dismissed but this scholar had the vision to oppose apologists for the USSR. Hayward’s promotion of cultural independence played a key role in the Soviet Union’s eventual downfall and his concern for Jews in Russia presaged the mass immigration of our people to Israel and ultimate freedom.

The author is a rabbi and teacher living in Boca Raton, Florida.

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