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International Socialist Review, January-February 1969


George Saunders

Fifty Years of Soviet Literature


From International Socialist Review, Vol.30 No.1, January-February 1969, pp.32-40.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


What is the status and role of Russian literature fifty years after the establishment of Soviet power, in the light of Rosa Luxemburg’s analysis of its pre-revolutionary development?

Luxemburg traced the oppositional spirit of literature under czarism back to the extreme social contradictions which pervaded Russian life in the nineteenth century. These contradictions were generated by the semi-Asiatic backwardness of a nation which had been thrust into the midst of the modern imperialist era, saddled with the curse of an enormous and highly developed (“Westernized”) autocratic state apparatus.

Today the Russian revolution and its consequences have completely overturned the fundamental property relations and institutions of the czarist era. The state rests upon nationalized property and planned economy, and the power of the old landlords and capitalists has been smashed, never to return.

Yet certain features of the territory’s age-old heritage remain to plague the Soviet people. Despite its eminence as the second military-industrial power in the world, the Soviet Union still suffers from serious economic difficulties and shortages, especially in the domains of agricultural and consumers’ goods, where it falls considerably short of the productive capacities of the most advanced capitalist countries.

The persistent scarcities in means of personal consumption resulted in a scramble for the available necessities and amenities of life by different sectors of the population. The need for an all-powerful regulator of the unequally distributed goods gave rise, on the new socio-economic foundation, to the unwelcome return of one of the detestable forces of the old Russia: a swollen, haughty, uncontrolled bureaucracy – with more power at its disposal than its predecessor of czarist times.

However, Soviet Russia is a land of startling contrasts. Thus, alongside this regenerated bureaucracy, there have survived into the new era some of the best literary and cultural traditions of the nineteenth-century enlightenment. These are coming into the open nowadays with increasing vigor and giving battle to the all-too-familiar evils of the past: official and unofficial brutality, backwardness, indifference, cruelty,

conformism. This heritage has been reanimated after the black night of Stalin’s totalitarianism – an era in which the nation’s culture seemed to retreat into the “cryptlike silence” of “darkness and barbarism,” to use Luxemburg’s description of pre-nineteenth-century Russian culture. The recent revitalization of cultural life under the impetus of the de-Stalinization process has likewise revived the original liberating ideas of the Bolshevik October and the vital innovations of the first and freest period of Soviet power.

During the half century of the Soviet Republic its literature has passed through five roughly distinguishable phases: 1918-1927; 1927-1941; 1941-1945; 1945-1953; and 1953 to the present. Let me briefly delineate the chief characteristics of these successive periods.

The October revolution and the civil war leveled the archaic social structure and thoroughly ploughed up the Russian soil. The ground, saturated with the blood and sweat of workers and peasants, was prepared to receive the seedlings of the new order and its cultural life. However, in its first appearance postrevolutionary literature largely remained the product of diverse elements among the intelligentsia, the artistic expressions of their efforts to come to terms or come to grips with the new social and political reality.

As Trotsky, the foremost literary critic as well as military leader of the time, observed in Literature and Revolution (1925), the attempts to grasp the immense transformation in the lives of the masses across the vast reaches of the country and to find adequate and felicitous expressions of these changes in artistic images had largely begun in the twenties. “We have hardly now passed through the stage of preparing the preparation [for the art of the socialist future.],” Trotsky warned those overzealous souls who spoke of attaining a new plateau of cultural creation overnight (“Proletarian Culture,” or Proletkult for short).

The cultural lag in the postrevolutionary period reversed the role that literature had played in the time of czarism’s decline. Literature had then foreshadowed the turn of socialevents and run ahead of them* Now literature fell far behind the pace of historical developments primarily because of the nature of the intelligentsia.

Before the outbreak of thefirstworld war the bulk of the intelligentsia had become hobbled by a thousand unconscious ties to the leisure classes, especially the newly risen and half-baked bourgeoisie, whose control of wealth made of it the actual subsoil of artistic and cultural developments. The revolution, cut away this social base of the old art, leaving the intelligentsia in midair. Many who felt that “culture” as such had been totally destroyed turned against the revolution. Those who rallied to the revolution, and even more, those who decided to travel along with it, had great difficulties in reorienting themselves and gaining a new equilibrium.

For a new art to develop it was first necessary for a new generation of intellectuals, of educated people, writers, artists, of different social origins to grow up, for whom the revolution, workers’ power, and the perspectives of world socialism would be an integral part of their upbringing and experience, accepted facts of everyday life. Those who understood the mainsprings of the revolution and wholeheartedly participated in its national and international development would, if they had the talent, be best equipped to blaze new trails for art to follow and to introduce new techniques and modes of expression. All this required time, among other things. Meanwhile other, more pressing, tasks had to have priority, such as the defense of the revolution, the stabilization of its regime, the reconstruction of the economy, and the creation of new institutions and habits of social existence. These would provide the preconditions for the practice of any art, let alone the creation of a new one.

“Culture feeds on the sap of economics, and a material surplus is necessary, so that culture may grow, develop and become subtle ... The proletariat will be able to prepare the formation of a new, that is, a Socialist culture and literature, not by the laboratory method on the basis of our present-day poverty, want and illiteracy, but by large social, economic and cultural means. Art needs comfort, even abundance. Furnaces have to be hotter, wheels have to turn faster, looms have to turn more quickly, schools have to work better.” (Literature and Revolution)

The notion that a socialist art must evolve through the organic growth of a new society and that forced feeding and hothouse breeding can produce nothing viable has not been confined to Trotsky among Marxist writers on this subject. In Socialism and Man Che Guevara expressed the same line of thought:

“New generations will come who will be free of the original sin. The probabilities that great artists will appear will be greater to the degree that the field of culture and the possibilities for expression are broadened ... This is a process which takes time.”

Flexibility and permissiveness still marked the 1925 Soviet Communist Party central committee resolution on art and literature. Let the various schools explore and contend, it held. The party might encourage certain currents and oppose others through ideas and arguments, but administrative interference, either through preferential subsidies or repression, was excluded – so long as the artist did not oppose the revolution in action.

Thus, in the early years of the Soviet Union, albeit with many deformations and deficiencies, a new literary intelligentsia began slowly but surely to form itself. The “preparation of a preparation” was visible in the experimentation and originality of many productions of that period.

This hopeful trend was negated by the recession of the revolution and the Thermidorian reaction that grew out of it. This was evidenced politically by the defeat and suppression of the Leninist Left Opposition accomplished by the Stalin faction by 1927 and by the consolidation of a privileged bureaucracy in both the party and government.

In the ensuing 1927-1941 period the development, or rather the degeneration, of literature was wholly determined by the prevailing political counterrevolution. The centralization of power in the Stalinized

bureaucracy was accompanied by increasing interference in literary affairs, the establishment of officially patronized and protected groups, and the growth of the Stalin cult with its obligatory glorification of the omnipotent head of state. This led to the abolition of all contending literary circles and their forced merger into a single Union of Soviet Writers which dispensed all emoluments.

The founding conference of the Writers Union in 1934, the year of the fateful Kirov assassination, was marked by the proclamation of “socialist realism.” This regimental uniform designed by Stalin and recommended to the writers by his court minstrel, Maxim Gorky, was to become the obligatory “method” for all Soviet art as long as Stalin lived – and even beyond. The professional artist or writer had to adhere to this dogma for personal safety, for the necessities of life and the pursuit of his craft, and – not least – for the privileges that would come his way if the job was done to the satisfaction of the masters. High rewards for “correct” art became institutionalized in the form of Stalin prizes.

Under Stalin’s reign the primitive Russian curse of an overdeveloped state apparatus, with its complementary attitudes of arrogance and submissiveness, reasserted itself with a vengeance. Before the new literature was given a chance to take root and put forth its first shoots, this backward shift cut off its room for growth. Under the slogan of an undefined and undefinable “socialist realism,”literature was again seized by the throat, as under the autocracy, and commanded to do service and make obeisance to the state power.

The strong sense of civic concern in the older Russian literature arose voluntarily out of the artist’s “spirit of opposition” and fidelity to his highest ideals. In the Stalin era, ideynost and narodnost (concern with ideology and loyalty to “the people”) were imposed by external authority upon the writer. If he cared to survive, let alone prosper, he had to comply with the regime’s arbitrary standards in a spirit of “realism” that was more self-preservative than socialist.

As bureaucratic backwardness cast its pall over the nation, the time when czars and boyars were glamorized by court poets, painters, and other flatterers reappeared in a new guise. An art with a quasi-feudal odor emerged. More than one critic has noted (though none so pointedly as Sinyavsky, who now sits in jail for his astuteness) the aesthetic link between the art of the Stalin era and that of absolutist classicism. Even the greatest of movie directors, Sergey Eisenstein, had to inject medieval master-worship into that pre-eminently twentieth-century art form, the film, first in Alexander Nevsky and then in Ivan the Terrible, Part II, where he conjured up the feudal past with mixed tones of glorification and satire aimed directly at Stalin.

The straitjacket on literature imposed by “Stalinist realism” resulted in a tremendous impoverishment of the output. This held true even in comparison with the literature of the nineteen-twenties, which had been no more than the inkling of a potential. After Stalin was enthroned, those pioneer years came to look like a golden age of vigor, freedom, and experimentation. And that is how they seem to those Soviet youth today who look back with curiosity and questioning to that pristine period. It is significant that a figure like Sinyavsky devoted an entire volume to the poetry of 1919-1923.

The theoretical constrictions of Stalin-Gorky were soon backed up by the jail cell and the bullet. Many of the finest literary talents perished in the great purges of the nineteen-thirties. These were artists who had gone through the sacrificial years of revolution and economic reconstruction and were seeking to give the sentiments and aspirations of socialism a voice.

The war years from 1941 to 1945 saw a significant change. If the purges decimated the creators of Soviet literature, World War II destroyed a vast amount of the material and human sources of Soviet culture. However, ironically, the war played another and more positive role. It broke the hypnotic trance of the psychology of the “besieged fortress” which had led many to condone the crimes of the regime and even gave a semblance of credibility to the falsifications of the government. When war actually came, the active struggle in which the Soviet masses proved themselves dissolved the dread, broke the paralysis, and imbued them with a new self-confidence.

The prestige and authority of the Stalinist leadership suffered a sharp blow as a result of the early successes of the Nazi war machine. The suddenly revealed lack of Soviet preparation and Stalin’s responsibility for the initial debacle remain touchy, half-taboo issues to this very day in Soviet circles. The masses won through to victory over Hitlerism at the cost of colossal sacrifices, despite the calamitous errors of the supposedly infallible and unquestionable leader. Doubts began to crop up. The thought surely occurred to many that even a rank-and-filer might have led the country as well as or better than the “beloved leader.”

Those doubts have not gone away. They began to affect the spirit of Soviet literature even while the war was going on and have grown strong with passing years.

Such thoughts are implicit in Viktor Nekrasov’s novel In the Trenches of Stalingrad (1946), where leaders are absent, Stalin is hardly mentioned, and the ranks are seen as struggling stubbornly and mainly at their own initiative. Such thoughts are explicit in the semi-autobiographic novels of Konstantin Simonov, The Living and the Dead and Soldiers Are Made Not Born (published 1960-1964), where combat troops and officers are disgruntled and full of doubts about the leadership in the very heat of the war’s enormous battles. Both writers were frontline participants in the war, as was the young writer Grigori Baklanov, whose June 1941 is a bitter polemic against the policies that brought disaster in the early months. Baklanov traces these policies back to Stalin’s purges and gives interesting flashbacks to the political life of the prepurge period, with references to the meetings of the Left Opposition.

Vasil Bykov is another of the generation of prose writers who fought in the war. His story The Dead Feel No Pain (Novy Mir, 1966) was criticized by the Soviet military caste because it showed Soviet officers brutally ordering Soviet soldiers shot rather than letting them be taken prisoners by the Germans (which automatically made one “suspect” under Stalin’s rule). Here is how Bykov described the impact of the war on the thinking of the Soviet masses:

“In the war we not only defeated fascism and defended the future of humanity. We also came to know our own strength and came to understand what we ourselves are capable of. We gave history and ourselves a great lesson in human worth. From the fronts of the world war we brought back not only the consciousness of duty fulfilled, but a spirit of revolutionary love of freedom, of international brotherhood, a spirit strengthened in bitter combat – and a spirit which in one way or another has made itself felt in our subsequent peacetime life and which continues to grow stronger with the years.” (Novy Mir, 1967)

The most famous of the writers who were also soldiers or officers is Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, whose career – he was sent to a forced labor camp for criticizing Stalin’s war policies in a letter – is a symbol of the contradictory upsurge of democratization pressures in the midst of the war.

The bureaucracy partly relaxed its literary censorship as one of several concessions made to gain popular support and encourage the masses to fight. But when the mortal danger had passed and the need for economic reconstruction again became imperative, coupled with the rise of the cold-war threat from US imperialism, harsher controls than ever were reinstated. The terrible period known as Zhdanovism, named after Stalin’s commissar for cultural affairs, followed. From 1945 to 1953 the antidemocratic features of Stalin’s tyranny reached the zenith of absurdity. An orgy of anti-Semitism, called “anti-cosmopolitanism,” glorification of everything Russian in the most obscene tones of national chauvinism, the cult of the genius of Stalin elevated to sickening heights – these were the hallmarks of a period that culminated in the fabricated “Jewish doctors’ plot.”

In this period, which ended only with Stalin’s death, literature turned pale and lifeless. Its main content was limited to praise of the iconized ruler and his miracles at home and abroad. Its style was perfunctory and mechanical. The supreme achievement of these lackluster years was the “conflictless” novel, the awe-stricken recital of how all obstacles in agriculture or industry were effortlessly overcome. Within the workers’ states, only the aesthetics inspired by the “thought of Chairman Mao” has matched the deformations of the Zhdanov period in Soviet culture.

* * *

The so-called thaw of the post-Stalin period from 1953 to the present has brought about a partial change. The most trenchant Soviet writers are starting to probe and portray the deep conflicts and ulcerous grievances of their society.

To be sure, the unrest reflected in Soviet literature today does not arise from a society divided between property owners and propertyless. But the practices of bureaucratic absolutism in a state that has presumably attained “socialism” and is in the process of “building communism” create crying contradictions in the very heart of the system that cannot but find expression in the work of any sensitive artist if he be given the slightest free rein.

If Russian literature today deliberately takes up serious social issues, it is no longer in obedience to the propagandistic demands of the regime. The social commentary which inspires so much of the contemporary literature has a voluntary character arising from the inner necessities of searching for the truth. It is exploring the roots of personality, the motives of passion, the causes of crime, depravity and, most daring of all, the evils and sources of bureaucratism.

One current in modern Soviet literature seems to have abandoned political themes altogether. On the surface it fixes on the purely individual, as though in revulsion against the “civic concerns” prescribed by the authorities. But deeper inspection discloses the relevance of Rosa Luxemburg’s observation that the attention paid by the creative artist to the victims of society and their derelictions is basically a social and, in its innermost essence, a political concern.

This is the hallmark of the poetess Bella Akhmadullina, the poets Bulat Okudzhava and Yevgeny Vinokurov, and to a large extent, of Yevtushenko and Voznesensky – although the explicitly political or protest poetry of the latter two is better known. It is the forte of such prose writers as Yuri Kazakov, Vasily Aksyonov and Anatoly Gladilin, to name only a few of the younger generation. Representatives of older generations also belong to this current.

Fewer are the writers who make directly critical statements; these jut out like the peaks of a mostly submerged iceberg. To this category belong such works as the late Ilya Ehrenburg’s The Thaw, a critique, even a slick self-critique, of the time-servers who thrived in the Stalin era; and Dudintsev’s Not by Bread Alone, a devastating portrait of the factory bureaucrat Drozdov. (In an unguarded moment, Khrushchev acknowledged there was a great likeness to himself in Drozdov.) Zorin’s Guests brings out the conflict between the young generation, which feels an affinity with the generation of 1917, and that of the middle (Stalinist) years, which abandoned the revolutionary ideals and grew fat. Solzhenitsyn’s works and some by Yevtushenko may also be classified in this genre. Much of the so-called underground material, which circulates widely in manuscript but is not published through official channels, belongs to this category.

The spokesmen for these new currents are quite conscious of the prerevolutionary heritage and its spiritual kinship with their own direction. When Solzhenitsyn issued his open letter at the Writers Union congress in May 1967, it was reportedly endorsed by hundreds of other Soviet writers. (In fact, Czechoslovak literary rebels had it read aloud at their historic June 1967 congress, one of the sparks of their own democratization drive.) In his letter, Solzhenitsyn connected the need for literature to voice the “pains and fears” of society with the historical tradition of great Russian literature which he evaluated in terms close to those of Rosa Luxemburg:

“Literature cannot develop between the categories of ‘permitted’ and ‘not permitted,’ ‘this you can and that you can’t.’ Literature that is not the air of its contemporary society, that dares not pass on to society its pains and fears, that does not warn in time against threatening moral and social dangers, such literature does not deserve the name of literature; it is only a facade. Such literature loses the confidence of its own people, and its published works are used as waste-paper instead of being read.

“Our literature has lost the leading role it played at the end of the last century and the beginning of the present one, and the brilliance of experimentation that distinguished it in the nineteen-twenties. To the entire world the literary life of our country now appears as something infinitely poorer, flatter and lower than it actually is, than it would appear if it were not restricted, hemmed in.

“The losers are both our country, in world public opinion, and world literature itself. If the world had access to all the uninhibited fruits of our literature, if it were enriched by our own spiritual experience, the whole artistic evolution of the world would move along in a different way, acquiring a new stability and attaining even a new artistic threshold.”

The de-Stalinization processes have unfolded by zigs and zags as countervailing pressures have shoved them ahead – or pushed them back. Antibureaucratic literature reached a high point in 1956 following Khrushchev’s denunciation of Stalin; it was squelched for a year or two after the crushing of the Hungarian revolt – a revolt heralded by dissident writers.

A new upturn came around 1959 with the third Writers Congress and the appointment of Aleksandr Tvardovsky, the liberalizing editor of Novy Mir, to the central committee of the party. Two “legal” wings of Soviet literature have polarized since that time. The anti-Stalinist, antibureaucratic tendency centers around the journals Novy Mir and Yunost. The other, “neo-Stalinist” and conservative in upholding the status quo, revolves around various organs but mainly around the journal Oktyabr, edited by the sinister V. Kochetov.

The rising new writers, led by Yevtushenko and Voznesensky, came into prominence in the early nineteen-sixties. “Underground” literature began to circulate ever more widely in intellectual circles and among the students. Several such productions were published outside the country, such as those by Sinyavsky and Daniel. Stalin’s removal from the Red Square mausoleum after the twenty-second party congress in late 1961 strengthened the antibureaucratic forces to the point where efforts were made to isolate and purge some of the hacks who had risen under Stalin over the bodies of fellow writers they had denounced.

The publication of One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich and Stalin’s Heirs in late 1962 was the greatest “legal” recognition accorded the liberal current to date. Then began the heavy counter-offensive launched by the diehards in the party hierarchy and their literary camp-followers. This first took the form of a campaign, in 1963, allegedly against abstract art, which was broadened in the following years into a drive against all “bourgeois ideological influences.”

The series of trials of dissident “underground” writers began with the Sinyavsky-Daniel trial in 1965. The conflict between the “neo-Stalinists,” whose position is reinforced by the witch-hunt trials staged by the secret police and judicial authorities, and the “anti-Stalinists,” who have turned protest petitions and open letters into an effective technique of opposition, has grown more intense on either side. Each literary current reflects viewpoints in Soviet society at large, including divergent trends within the party and government bureaucracy itself. Thus, when a so-called poet in the journal Oktyabr praises Stalin (without naming him), he is, regardless of individual motivation, registering and reinforcing the official reaction.

Conversly, when a young writer in the monthly Yunost publishes a story about a Soviet fishing trawler in which the crewmen, talking among themselves, assent to a young worker’s furious criticisms of bureaucratism, while a party notable (named Berezhnoy – a play on Brezhnev?) is painted in the most repulsive terms, much more is involved than individual differences of artistic style or taste.

The anti-bureaucratic sentiments being articulated by Soviet writers could have the same historic importance as the role of the Hungarian intellectuals who constituted the Petofi circle in the Hungarian revolt of 1956 and the Czechoslovak writers who touched off the democratization movement in that country this past year. Their revival of the anti-absolutist cutting edge of Russian literature and the experimental initiatives of the nineteen-twenties are political symptoms of immense importance.

Rosa Luxemburg pointed out that Russian literature remained at its post as a critic of czarism for a century “until it was relieved by the material power of the masses, when the word became flesh.” This is only one of the many parallels between the function of vanguard literature in nineteenth-century Russia and the role it is playing in the Soviet Union and elsewhere in Eastern Europe today.

The progressive, critical-minded Soviet writers of the post-Stalin period are fulfilling a similar function. As the voice of the most articulate elements in Soviet society, they are harbingers of the political awakening of its working people after the long night of Stalinist despotism. They are doing preparatory work tor the antibureaucratic movement and will have to remain at their posts until they, too, will be replaced by the material power of the resurgent Soviet masses. It is the action of that power that will eventually depose the bureaucratic overlords whose pretensions and crimes are being exposed, satirized, and denounced by the literary precursors.

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