Dmitri N. Shalin

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The roots of Soviet literary culture extend beyond the establishment of the Soviet state itself. Maxim Gorky's Mother written, ironically, some years before the Bolshevik Revolution in the United States (the country, it might be noted, that also contributed to the cause of the tradition of May Day observances) is one hallmark of that culture avant la lettre. Nikolai Chernyshevsky's What Is to Be Done, a novel often cited in Communist hagiographies as the inspiration of generations of nineteenth-century Russian revolutionaries (including, significantly, the founder of Soviet state himself, as well as his martyred brother) is another. And yet, we submit, Soviet literary culture, properly speaking, came into being only in 1932, with the formation of the single Union of Soviet Writers and the proclamation of Socialist Realism as its sole literary creed. It is not only that during the 1920s non-Communist writers' organizations and their journals continued to function (their members and contributors were, indeed, the decade's most prominent authors) and independently operated publishing houses attempted to supply the public with books for which there was genuine demand. Other considerations argue for this periodization as well. Prior to 1932 the Party refused to endorse even those literary groupings that enthusiastically and sincerely tried to advance the Communist cause, such as the Proletcult or the Russian Association of Proletarian Writers (RAPP). They attempted to accomplish this by painstaking extrapolation from the zigzags of Party dogma and shifting policy priorities of implications for writers of prose, dramatists and poets. The Party's reluctance to recognize any of the eagerly Bolshevik literary organizations as its authorized spokesmen was simply an expression of distrust. As enunciated before the Revolution by such theoreticians as Georgi Plekhanov (particularly in Art and Society, 1912-13) and Lenin himself (in his essay "On Party Organization and Party Literature," 1905), Russian Marxists, themselves strongly influenced by such native strains of the radical tradition as the so-called revolutionary democrats, attached great importance to literature's political potential. (That this view reflected conditions peculiar to Russia, a country where, in the absence of freedom of the press, parliamentary institutions and even a socially activist church, literature served as a sublimation for all of these, is another matter.) Not unexpectedly, therefore, the decision was made that the issue was far too vital to be delegated to poets and novelists, however well-intentioned. It was the Communist Party itself, and the Party alone, that was to decide on the ways and means of implementation in literature of its objectives and tactics. Not that the Party failed to appreciate the usefulness of Soviet writing that was created prior to the establishment of the Writer's Union . Dmitri Furmanov's Chapayev (1923), a semi-documentary account of the taming of an undisciplined Civil War hero by a sober Bolshevik commissar, was one such novel; Fedor Gladkov's Cement (1925), the first important fictional portrayal of industrialization and of the formation of the new Soviet woman, was another; Alexander Fadeyev's The Rout (1927), a Tolstoyan tale of a band of Red guerrillas in the Far East, was a third. Together with Vladimir Mayakovsky's impassioned modernistic verse and Mikhail Sholokhov's two novels, The Silent Don, an epic canvas of the bloody fratricidal war that preceded the establishment of Soviet rule in the Cossack region, and his Virgin Soil Upturned which recounted the brutal collectivization of agriculture in the same area, all were to be retroactively -- if anachronistically -- claimed for Socialist Realism. Indeed, they were to be listed matter-of-factly among the masterpieces that Socialist Realism begot, as was the poetry of Mayakovsky as well as Furmanov's, Gladkov's and Fadeyev's novels, notwithstanding also the fact the Silent Don violates a number of the doctrine's central tenets as does also Mayakovksy's drama and verse. But then, inconsistency and compromises mark many features of Soviet literary culture which over the years was often forced to adjust its rigidly enunciated theoretical principles and their enforcement to realities imposed by the book market. An old American saying comes to mind, "you can lead a horse to water but you cannot make him drink." Try as they may, Soviet librarians could not, in the final analysis force the public to actually read the books they offered to it. It was this reader's veto power that accounts over the years of Soviet literary culture's many retreats from its cherished ideological goals. More often than not, however, in conditions that were established in 1932, individual authors intent on seeing their works in print would fashion their writings to what they perceived (or were actually told) were the desires of editors of literary journals or publishing houses. One such incident is described in a 1933 satirical story of Ilya Ilf and Evgenii Petrov. "How Soviet Robinson Crusoe Was Created" describes the process whereby a close replica of the children's classic is transformed into a run-of-the-mill Socialist Realist potboiler. The import, though unstated, of the story is that the circumstances created by the monopolistic nature of Soviet publishing deprived the hapless writer of the alternative available to writers elsewhere. Submitting his manuscript to another journal offered little hope, because the original editor's demands were not a reflection of his subjective tastes, but of political directives from above that left him with little latitude. That is attested by the remarkable degree of ideological, thematic and even artistic uniformity of the bulk of Soviet writing beginning with the early 1930s.


Communism and literature; Soviet literature – History and criticism


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