Flesh to Metal: Soviet Literature and the Alchemy of Revolution

Article excerpt

Rolf Hellebust. Flesh to Metal: Soviet Literature and the Alchemy of Revolution. Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 2003. x, 221 pp. Notes. Bibliography. Index. 15 b&w illustrations. USD $18.95, paperback.

"With an iron hand we shall drive humanity to happiness." This Bolshevik slogan from 1918 encapsulates the ironies and contradictions of the Soviet project and of the literature which emerged from that project. The goal? Human happiness. The means? Violent technological force. The result? Neither good literature nor a country teeming with joyful masses.

Early Soviet literature abounds with metal imagery. Most of us can name a few obvious examples off the tops of our heads, from Nikolai Ostrovsky's How the Steel was Tempered to Aksyonov's "The Steel Bird." Rolf Hellebust explores these examples and many more, including obscure or forgotten ones, in his Flesh to Metal: Soviet Literature and the Alchemy of Revolution. His thesis is that the myth of the "metallization of the human body" can be read as a "metaphor for the creation of the communist New Man" (p. 3). Hellebust promises to explore both the "artistic and political symbolism of Soviet metal imagery" (p. 4), and he fulfills that promise brilliantly. His treatment of the subject incredibly thorough and thoughtful, insightful and erudite, detailed and wide-ranging - is a pleasure to read and contemplate. Upon picking it up, I thought that this would be a good book. In fact, it is a great book.

In a sense, this book is an expanded version of Hellebust's article "Aleksei Gastevand the Metallization of the Revolutionary Body" (Slavic Review [Fall 1997]: 500-18). We should thank the author for his discovery and recovery of Gastev as an important poetic and administrative figure of the early Soviet era. According to Hellebust, Gastev's major collection, Poetry of the Worker's Blow, 1918 (reprinted five times) was immensely influential. Indeed, his poem "We Grow Out of Iron" serves as the missing link between the Symbolist treatment of metal imagery and the proletarian poets' vision of workers steeled to their tasks, united through heavy labor. Throughout the book Hellebust demonstrates Gastev's influence in early Soviet literary life and matters of industrial policy (Gastev founded the Central Institute of Labor in 1920 and worked toward the organization of industrial work on a scientific basis for 18 years, until his arrest in the Great Terror in 1938). (For Gastev's biography and an analysis of his poetry and its reception see especially pp. 45-62.)

But Gastev is only part of the story. In the book Hellebust identifies the basic features of the flesh-to-metal story, which include 1) comparisons to metal and machinery; 2) invocation of the mass-man; and 3) intimations of immortality. He traces the use of metal imagery in pre-revolutionary times, beginning with Pushkin's Bronze Horseman through Belyi's Bronze Guest in Petersburg. …