Reference Guide to Russian Literature

By Neil Cornwell; Nicole Christian | Go to book overview

in terms of style and theme. Notable works include Nikolai Narokov 's Mnimye velichiny ( The Chains of Fear) 1952, Sergei Maksimov 's Denis Bushuev ( 1949), the novels of Leonid Rzhevskii (editor of the journal Granii), and the poetry of Ivan Elagin from the early 1950s until his death in 1987.

With the onset of glasnost in 1987 all the various strands of Russian literature — Soviet literature, socialist realism, the literature of the emigration, tamizdat and samizdat came together, enabling the whole of 20th-century Russian literature to be studied as an integrated whole, regardless of where a particular writer lived. Nevertheless, if in the Soviet Union émigré literature was always regarded as self-enclosed and inward‐ looking, émigrés themselves always emphasized the unity of Russian literature. The words of the critic Vladimir Weidlé here are characteristic: "There were Stalin and Lenin Prizes, there was Soviet rubbish, but on our side there was also rubbish. But there did not exist two literatures, there has always been only one Russian literature in the zoth century."

BORIS LANIN
translated by David Gillespie


Socialist Realism in Soviet Literature

Socialist realism was the official literary "method" or "theory" of Soviet literature virtually until the breakup of the Union in 1991. After Stalin died, however, in 1953, writers began to dismantle the tradition, pushing the limits of the possible. This process continued until, by the late decade or so of Soviet rule, most literary practice had strayed a long way from what, in the 1930s and 1940s, might have been accepted as socialist realism. Yet, at the same time, the conventions of socialist realism had become so ingrained as habits of composition that in the first decades of the post-Stalin period even dissident writers rarely broke out of its formal, as distinct from ideological, mould (the legacy of socialist realism can be found, for example, in the early novels of Solzhenitsyn). This essay, however, will discuss socialist realism only in its most classical, Stalinist version and will not treat the successive layers of complexity that accrued to the tradition in the post-Stalin years.

Not all Soviet literature is socialist realist. Not even all Stalinist, non-dissident literature is socialist realist. When discussing Soviet literature, one has to draw a distinction between at least three categories of works: those that exemplify socialist realism, those that are read as non- or anti-Soviet but which happen to have been published in the Soviet Union, and a third category, those that are representative of Soviet literature but not specifically socialist realist. Many in the latter category are (or were) even officially promoted (in, for example, the Writers' Union's "Golden List" of around 100 classics of Soviet literature).

Socialist realism as such did not exist until the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917 was almost 15 years old, or more precisely until after a decree as promulgated in April 1932 abolishing all independent writers' organizations and forming the single Union of Soviet Writers. The term itself was not presented to the Soviet public until 17 May 1932, in a speech made by Gronskii, the president of the new Writers' Union's Organizational Committee (legend has it that the term "socialist realism" had been thought of by Stalin in a meeting in Maksim Gor'kii's study).

Having coined the term, those in power in Soviet literature had to decide what it meant. Gor'kii (the First Secretary of the Writers' Union) and other authoritative figures began to clarify this in articles and speeches of 1932-34 and the First Plenum of the Organizational Committee, held in October 1932, was devoted to the topic. It was not, however, until August 1934, when the First Congress of the Writers' Union was held, that socialist realism acquired a canonical formulation in two keynote addresses to the Congress, one by Gor'kii, and the other by Andrei Zhdanov, the chief representative of the Party's Central Committee. Thereafter, these two speeches functioned as the canonical source for the definition, together with Lenin's 1905 article "Party Organization and Party Literature" (see below) and Gor'kii's articles in the book O literature [ On Literature], published in 1933 (and in later redactions of the same book).

These sources identify a number of features that socialist realism should contain. Many of the stipulations are in effect taboos which, in that they have been fairly rigorously enforced over the decades, have ensured that socialist realism has, both aesthetically and thematically, been a conservative and even somewhat puritanical literature. For example, writers were enjoined to expunge from their work any trace of bald "physiologism" (read mention of sex and other such bodily functions). They were also to avoid all approaches and language that might not be accessible to the masses. This injunction has meant that socialist realism is not highbrow, but lowbrow, or at best middlebrow. Effectively, it also put an end to the literary experimentalism and modernist trends that had flowered in the I920s.

The language to be used in socialist realism was circumscribed. There were to be no sub-standard locutions, no dialecticisms, no scatology, and no abstruse or long-winded expressions — let alone the neologisms and trans-sense language that had been favoured by the Russian avant-garde. In consequence, most socialist realist writers used only a somewhat comme il faut version of standard Russian, resulting often in stilted dialogue (this was one of the trends that was reversed in the post-Stalin era, starting from the late 1950s).

Other proscriptions were more ideological in nature. For example, there was to be no "obscurantism" — no infusion of religious or mystical sentiment, no positive account of the occult. Needless to say, a socialist realist work was not to espouse the

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Reference Guide to Russian Literature
Table of contents

Table of contents

  • Reference Guide to Russian Literature *
  • Contents *
  • Editor's Note vii
  • Advisers xi
  • Contributors xi
  • Alphabetical List of Writers and Works xiii
  • Alphabetical List of Works xix
  • Chronological List of Writers xxiii
  • General Reading List xxvii
  • Chronology xxxv
  • Glossary xxxix
  • Introductory Essays *
  • Old Russian Literature 3
  • Pre-Revolutionary Russian Theatre 9
  • Russian Literature in the I8th Century 13
  • Aleksandr Pushkin: from Byron to Shakespeare 18
  • The Classic Russian Novel 25
  • The Superfluous Man in Russian Literature 29
  • Women's Writing in Russia 35
  • Russian Literary Theory: from the Formalists to Lotman 40
  • Post-Revolutionary Russian Theatre 45
  • Experiment and Emigration: Russian Literature, 1917-1953 49
  • Socialist Realism in Soviet Literature 55
  • Thaws, Freezes, and Wakes: Russian Literature, 1953-1991 59
  • Russian Literature in the Post-Soviet Period 64
  • Writers and Works *
  • A 73
  • B 127
  • C 213
  • D 237
  • E 271
  • F 297
  • G 311
  • H 379
  • I 389
  • K 413
  • L 485
  • M 521
  • N 559
  • O 585
  • P 611
  • R 685
  • S 707
  • T 789
  • U 859
  • V 861
  • Y 897
  • Z 899
  • Title Index 933
  • Notes on Advisers and Contributors 963
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