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Engineers of the human soul

Soviet Socialist Realism and beyond (2).

None of the above may seem particularly earth-shattering, and there was certainly no hint of criticism of the Party, communism, or the Soviet state in either the articles or Ehrenberg’s novel. However the implicit message they all contained was clear- and it was a most unpalatable one for those in the political and literary establishment who wanted things to stay exactly as they were. The backlash was swift and severe. The Thaw was heavily criticised in the press and Tvardovsky, the editor-in-chief responsible for publishing the offending works was removed from office and replaced by a Party loyalist. At this point few could have foretold that a second ‘thaw’ lay just over the horizon. But it did. And it arrived in the most unexpected fashion.

The Twentieth Party Congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union held in February 1956 was the usual bland, predictable affair. But then, on the night of February 25, the day after the congress had officially ended, delegates were unexpectedly called back to the Great Hall of the Kremlin for a special closed session that excluded journalists, guests and foreign delegates. What followed was Khrushchev’s infamous ‘Secret Speech’ in which he denounced the worst excesses of Stalinism and even criticised the Great Leader himself. The Secret Speech was probably more about Khrushchev reinforcing his own political position than bringing about real change (he had been an enthusiastic participant in the Stalinist purges himself), but it did, nevertheless, have wide-reaching repercussions. Though not reported in the Soviet press, the text of the speech was circulated to thousands of local Party offices all over the country with instructions that it be read out at the next Party gathering. It was also leaked abroad and published in the Western press.


The view that a new ‘thaw’ might be on the way seemed to be confirmed by the publication that year of Dudinstev’s novel Not by Bread Alone. In a clear departure from standard socialist realist themes, the plot centred on the plight of the talented, well-meaning ‘little man,’ thwarted at every turn by foolish and self-seeking bureaucrats. The implied criticism of the establishment (though of course not the Party itself) was again seen by conservatives as the thin end of a very dangerous wedge. They soon believed their their worst fears were being realised in the shape of the anti-Soviet unrest in Hungary in the autumn of 1956. The violent crackdown on the streets of Budapest  was followed by a sharp

Tvardovsky and Novy mir.

Boris Pasternak


As we saw in the first part of this post the literary reforms of 1934 placed extremely onerous restrictions on both what Soviet writers were allowed to write about and the style and language they could use. The so-called socialist realist ‘master plot’ provided a formulaic plot structure all were meant to follow and the authorities even produced regular lists of ‘exemplary’ works to reinforce the message still further.


If in spite of all this a writer still managed to produce work that somehow fell outside the set parameters, he or she would receive editorial guidance on how to put things right before publication. There were even occasions when a piece of fiction or drama was deemed to be ideologically sound when it was published, only to be redacted or re-written a few years later because the Party line it reflected had changed. But on the whole the Union of Soviet Writers was quite successful in managing the literary output of it members, employing an effective combination of the stick and carrot. Authors who refused to toe the party line were simply not published. Particularly recalcitrant members could be thrown out of the Union altogether and thus denied the opportunity of earning a living. Cooperative members, on the other hand, were rewarded with lucrative commissions, cushy editorial jobs, holidays at Black Sea sanatoria and comfortable dachas (second homes in the country). The result was just what the Party wanted: a production line that churned out a steady stream of safe, uplifting propaganda.


This system was not, however, always applied uniformly and there were periods when the tightest restrictions were eased. After the death of Stalin these periodic (and usually short-lived) relaxations in the control the Party exercised over literary activity came to be known as thaws.²


Thaws and freezes

Perhaps surprisingly, it was the dark days following the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union in 1941 that saw the first noticeable easing of the application of Socialist Realism. There was a recognition that writing should be less bogged down in ideology and more concerned with portraying the courage, endurance and sacrifice of the ordinary Soviet citizen. This gave writers the opportunity to dispense with the stereotypical ‘positive hero’ of the thirties and depict true-to-life characters with real emotional depth. Once the war was over however, the Party was quick to re-establish its control.


On 14 August 1946 the Central Committee of the Communist Party passed a resolution which openly criticised the head of the Union of Soviet Writers as well as a number of literary journals for publishing works by Mikhail Zoshchenko and Anna Akhmatova. Campaigns of vilification in the press followed, along with sackings and expulsions from the Union of Writers, in a wave of repression that extended to film directors, dramatists, even literary theorists and critics. This clampdown is known in Russian as zhdanovshschina, after the man who enforced it - Andrei Zhdanov. Comrade Zhdanov had had been Stalin’s right hand man on cultural matters since the early thirties and was involved in the formulation of Socialst Realism. The zhdanovshchina years were bleak, summarised by one scholar as follows:


   The intellectual atmosphere was so stifling and the margin of safety so narrow that most works of the post-war period

    were no more than timid and tedious exercises in translating the party line into a semblance of fiction or drama.³


When Stalin died in 1953 the time was ripe for change and the first of the ‘thaws’ was not long in coming.


In December 1953 the respected literary journal Novy mir (New World) published an article, ‘On Sincerity in Literature,’ which criticised those writers (i.e. socialist realist hacks) who ‘lacquered’ reality rather than depicting what they knew to be the truth. The following spring Novy mir published another critical article in a similar vein as well as Ilya Ehrenburg’s short novel The Thaw, which subsequently gave the period its name. Ehrenburg’s novel contrasted two artists, the bland, insincere yet successful Pukhov, who knows how to work the system and the honest, genuinely talented Saburov who struggles for official recognition. 

‘freeze’ back in the USSR. In May 1957 Khrushchev addressed a meeting of writers at the Central Committee and openly criticised Dudinstev and other non-conformist elements from the literary world. That year also saw the beginning of the campaign against Boris Pasternak over Doctor Zhivago, which culminated in his being forced to turn down the Nobel Prize. Having been refused publication at home, Pasternak had outraged the authorities by having a copy of his novel smuggled abroad and published in the West.


Strangely enough, this did not herald the end of Khrushchev’s programme of de-Stalinisation, which took another, highly symbolic turn in 1961 when he had Stalin’s body removed from public display in the Red Square mausoleum. The following year saw the beginning of the third and deepest phase of the literary ‘thaw’when Tvardovsky, now reinstated at the helm of Novy mir, appealed directly to Khrushchev in order to secure the publication of a short novel submitted by an unknown provincial school teacher. One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, Solzhenitsyn’s hard-hitting, semi-autographical account of life in the gulags soon became a national, and indeed international, sensation. But this most promising turn of events proved to be something of a false dawn. Even before 

Krushchev was toppled by the arch-conservative Leonid Brezhnev in October 1964 there were signs that the usual retrenchment was gaining momentum.


The arrest and conviction of the young poet Joseph Brodsky for ‘parasitism’ (not having State recognised employment) in March 1964 and the imprisonment of dissident writers Andrei Sinyavsky and Yuly Daniel two years later were symptomatic of the so-called ‘period of stagnation’ that lasted until the more liberal climate of glasnost began to take hold under Mikhail Gorbachev in the mid 1980’s. Gorbachev’s reforms were to lead to the complete break-up of the Soviet Union just a few years later.


Other ways

Although the ‘thaws’ were short-lived and, as we have seen, invariably followed by periods of reaction, one should not underestimate their impact on the development of Soviet literature. For one thing they inspired certain writers to explore still forbidden topics. Knowing their work would invite official censure if they tried to have it published, these writers opted to go down the route of samizdat (literally ‘self-published’) which meant copying their own manuscripts and circulating them amongst friends and sympathisers. Though theoretically not illegal, samizdat was frowned upon by the authorities, particularly when it became a method favoured by political dissidents.


Officially at least, things carried on much as before. Socialist Realism remained the ‘basic artistic method’ and Party loyalists continued to produce the usual turgid, ideologically acceptable fare virtually to the end of the Soviet system. When you consider that as late as 1979 Leonid Brezhnev was awarded the Lenin Prize for Literature (the USSR’s highest literary award) for his reputedly abysmal* (and ghost-written) three-volume autobiographical epic, it would be easy to conclude that nothing had really changed since Stalin’s day.


But things had changed. As well as encouraging the underground samizdat literary movement, the ‘thaws’ brought just enough leeway to allow writers of talent and integrity to work within the system and still produce meaningful work. It is no coincidence that these writers tended to favour the short story: novels were still hidebound by the conventions of the ‘master plot’ and expected incorporate all the elements that made Socialist Realism so sterile. The very brevity of short story, on the other hand, made it an ideal medium for writing suggestively. Writers were able to focus on single, concrete situations and use them to raise questions without having to spell out the answers, leaving it up to the reader to draw their own conclusions. 


A number of the post-war generation of writers had grown up on the collective farm and from the sixties onwards we see a raft of works set in the countryside. ‘Village Prose,’ as it came to be known, treated themes that were hitherto taboo, in particular the excesses and injustices that had occurred during the brutal pre-war programme of collectivisation. Another departure from socialist realist norms we see in Village Prose is the way its writers portrayed the natural world. In traditional Socialist Realism, (especially the ‘production novel’) nature was largely seen as an elemental, sometimes hostile force that needed to be tamed or conquered in order to build communism. The Village Writers had a very different perspective, depicting nature as a thing of beauty, something truly precious that should be cherished and protected.


Another literary trend that gathered momentum in the 1960s was so-called ‘Urban Prose’. As the name implies, Urban Prose was centred around topics familiar to millions of city dwellers- the day-to-day problems associated with work, family life, finding a flat and so on. Stories like Natalya Baranskaya’s A Week like any Other, treated these themes from the viewpoint of women, particularly hard-pressed working mothers. This emphasis on what Russians call byt, the ‘ordeal of everyday life,’ was yet another departure from what we would expect to find in a standard socialist realist novel where such ‘trivialities,’ if they were mentioned at all, would be pushed well into the background and certainly not deflect the positive hero (or the reader!) from his task of creating a better world.


When the Soviet Union finally collapsed in 1991, few were sorry to see the back of a system that had become politically untenable and morally bankrupt. In the years that followed anything associated with the old regime was largely discredited, including offically sanctioned literature. Whilst understandable, such a generalisation overlooks the fact that a great deal of  Soviet literature (particularly after the death of Stalin) had managed to break free of the narrow confines of Socialist Realism and forge along its own path. Post-war writers such as Nagibin, Trifonov, Nekrasov, Shukshin, Rasputin and Tendryakov may have been ‘part of the system,’ but they were also talented authors capable of producing work of genuine literary merit. The fact that they were allowed to do so by the State should not discredit their legacy.



¹ Standard works on the subject include Edward J. Brown’s Russian Literature since the Revolution and Deming Brown’Soviet Russian Literature since Stalin.


² For a succinct treatment of the literary thaws, see David Gillespie, ‘Thaws, freezes and wakes: Russian literature, 1953-1991,’ in The Routledge Companion to Russian Literature (edited by Neil Cornwell) and Geoffrey Hosking, ‘The twentieth century: in search of new ways 1953-80,’ in The Cambridge History of Russian Literature (edited by Charles A. Moser). 


³ Hosking, page 512.


* I have never read this masterpiece. 

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