Academic journal article Mosaic (Winnipeg)

Building a Better Metaphor: Architecture and Russian Production Novels

Academic journal article Mosaic (Winnipeg)

Building a Better Metaphor: Architecture and Russian Production Novels

Article excerpt

The Russian production novel, featuring construction of factories, bridges, and socialist skyscrapers, was a Soviet favourite of the late 1920s and 1930s. This essay rejects the binary model commonly applied to the period and argues for a revised theoretical approach to the genre.

Nowhere has architecture played a greater role in literature than in the Soviet Union in the 1920s and 1930s. For nearly two decades, the idea of building was no mere turn of phrase but a call to arms instead, a metaphor that was understood literally as the task that would absorb all of Soviet society. Yet tension and ambiguity marked the metaphor, which touched people's lives in direct and often shocking ways. Theories about the appropriate use of space, for example, became burning questions of practice after the revolution as thousands relocated to expropriated housing and countless buildings were adapted to new uses or abandoned to the elements. According to Milka Bliznakov, over 500,000 workers and their families were resettled in this way between 1918 and 1924 in Moscow alone ("Soviet" 85). "Lack of funds" kept the building largely on paper for most of the 1920s ("Nietzschean" 174), but architectural metaphors--from mundane reminders of the old life destroyed by the revolution to ambitious plans for towe ring Soviet monuments--filled Russian prose and poetry throughout the decade, gaining in importance from 1927 on (Brooks 23).

During the First Five-Year Plan (1928-1932), the process of physically creating a new world intensified. The use of architectural metaphors grew with it. Although still reeling from revolution and civil war, the country was embarking on new construction, and the entire populace became focussed on building. The heart of the First Five-Year Plan was industrialization, and the unique genre of the production novel (proizvodstvennyi roman) emerged to describe and direct this process of constructing a new Soviet citizenry. Writers were encouraged to visit building sites and write about their experiences, and a large and varied literature resulted. Fedor Gladkov's Cement, Marietta Shaginian's Gidrotsentral' (Hydrocentral), Valentin Kataev's Time, Forward!, and Il'ia Ehrenburg's Den' vtoroi (Second Day) are classics of the tradition. They and more unusual examples of the genre--Zavist' (Envy), for example, by Iurii Olesha or Kotlova (The Foundation Pit) by Andrei Platonov--suggest the complexity of both the phenomeno n and the period.

Until recently, a binary framework has characterized reaction to this literature and the Soviet era. Independent-minded authors were thought to have experimented during the 1920s, but the year 1929 became the boundary between this innovative literature and the hackwork--written by artists under duress--that was thought to characterize the decade that followed. Katerina Clark is one of the few to view the production novel as anything other than a "disastrous culmination" (189) of Soviet literary politics. As Igal Halfin and Jochen Hellbeck note, western critiques of the period implicitly assume the existence of a "transhistorical subject with a universal response to external challenges of any sort" (460), an assumption that has only recently been challenged. Anna Krylova points out that this "liberal subject" of western discourse is then made normative, as the "Stalinist subject" becomes the dichotomous "opposite of the liberal self." According to Krylova, an intellectual shift in the west "circumscribed inter pretive possibilities within a set of binary categories: indoctrination/resistance, belief/disbelief, faith/cynicism" (120). These binary oppositions are inadequate to describe Soviet culture of the 1920s and 1930s.

In architecture, Vladimir Papernyi's study Kul'tura Dva (Culture Two) is the most consistently argued application of the binary model. Papernyi describes an open, dynamic, utopian, and horizontal "Culture One" of the 1920s opposing a static, closed, hierarchical "Culture Two" that, according to him, reigned from the 1930s to the 1950s. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.