Reference Guide to Russian Literature

By Neil Cornwell; Nicole Christian | Go to book overview

socialist realist canon (which had been less strictly enforced during the war years). Consequently, there was less modification of the socialist realist code during that period than one might otherwise have expected. However, given the stress on adherence to the conventions of socialist realism, writers, in their anxiety to prove their dedication, tended to overdo their obeisance to the masterplot. Most of its standard functions do not just occur, but are proliferated throughout a given novel. For example, a typical novel of the I940s has not just one mentor figure as its main character, but many. Functions lost their logic and their ideological purpose in the novel's overall design and became yet another pattern of whorls in some superabundant decoration.

The two functions used with greatest extravagance in 1940s novels were the mentor's "last testament" and the scene in which he symbolically "passes the baton" to the hero. Most novels do not rest with one such scene, but contrive to introduce at least two or three. Perhaps the novel that outdoes them all in this respect is the 1951 rewritten, canonical version of Valentin Kataev 's Za vlast' sovetov [ For the Power of the Soviets], whose protagonist, Pet'ia, receives so many "batons" from older, Party and partisan stalwarts (many of them entrusted as they are dying, or even posthumously) that one begins to suspect his primary function is to receive batons.

The effect of such superabundance in I940s novels is not to reinforce the masterplot but rather to undermine it. The result is the main weakness of these novels — incongruity. Indeed, in novels published after Zhdanov's "signal" lecture the mode was tilted so far away from the "realistic" in favour of the "romantic" (the glossy or larger-than-life) that even before Stalin died (as early as 1951) critics began to complain that there was too much "varnishing of reality" (lakirovka deistvitel'nosti), a charge that was heard more loudly and insistently once Stalin had died in 1953.

After Stalin's death, there was a return to more realistic, less bombastic — or simply improbable — depiction of Soviet reality. Yet one should not assume that writers were merely "strait‐ jacketed" in the Stalin years, mere afflati of the official position. After all, many of them were serious intellectuals. Since the clichés of socialist realism effectively formed a code, they could be used not only to establish a given writer's political loyalty, but to hint at meanings that he might not be able to make explicit.

If a Soviet writer wanted to be sure his novel would be published, he had to use the proper language (epithets, catch phrases, stock images, and so on) and syntax (to order the events of the novel in accordance with the de facto masterplot). To do so was effectively a ritual act of affirmation of loyalty to the State. Once the writer had accomplished this, his novel could be called "party-minded". But he had room for some play in the ideas these standard features expressed because of the variety of potential meanings for each of the clichés. The system of signs was, simultaneously, the components of a ritual of affirmation and a surrogate for the Aesopian language to which writers resorted in tsarist times when they wanted to outwit censors. Thus, paradoxically, the very rigidity of socialist realism's formations permitted freer expression than would have been possible (given the watchful eye of the censor) if the novel had been less formulaic.


Thaws, Freezes, and Wakes: Russian Literature, 1953-1991

If the 1930s and 1940s saw the dominance of socialist realism in all areas of Soviet cultural endeavour, the years following Stalin's death saw its inexorable decline and eventual death. Indeed, it was no longer the "basic method" by as early as 1962, because a plurality of voices and styles had by then fatally subverted its monolithic hold on culture. Still, in the minds of Party ideologues socialist realism remained a valid cultural concept, and even as late as 1984 the Party General Secretary Konstantin Chernenko was calling for writers to return to the "positive hero" as an inspiration for society. By then, however, such appeals were too late.

After Stalin's death writers did not need long to voice doubts and concerns over the Party's control of literature, and in the 1950s and early 1960s there were several Thaws, with writers at the forefront of liberal enquiry, and Freezes as the Party and its advocates took fright at the increasing demands for intellectual freedom and tolerance being voiced in the media. Thus, the first Thaw of 1953-54 was marked by the publication of critical articles in leading literary "thick" journals. The period got its name from the title of a fortuitously published novel by Il'ia Erenburg, but it was criticism and publicism that then, just as 30 years later during Gorbachev's Thaw, were the quickest to react to changes in the political environment. Fedor Abramov's 1954 article "Liudi kolkhoznoi derevni v poslevoennoi proze" [ People of the Collectivized Village in Post-War Soviet Literature] attacked the falsity of literary conventions in the depiction of rural Russia since the war, singling out for special criticism some of the most celebrated socialist realist novels (by Stalin Prize‐ winners Semen Babaevskii and Galina Nikolaeva, among others). Vladimir Pomerantsev's "Ob iskrennosti v literature" [ "On Sincerity in Literature"] denied the ideological prerogative of literature, and insisted on the writer's own personal intuition as the true mark of authenticity in a given work. Both articles were mercilessly lambasted in the conservative and Party press. As a consequence of publishing these articles, Aleksandr Tvardovskii was removed as editor-in-chief of Novyi mir, replaced by the loyal conservative Konstantin Simonov.

Another Thaw occurred in 1956, marked this time with the appearance of literary works. The publication of Vladimir Dudintsev 's novel Ne khlebom edinym ( Not by Bread Alone) and


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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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