Turncoats and Slanderers

Yurii Belov: A Worker-Inventor, 1957 Source Ivanov, S. V.: The Leningrad School, 1930-90. 1999.

With the death of Stalin in March 1953 and the soon-to-follow process of de-Stalinization under Khrushchev, socialist realism as a movement finally begins its slow succumb to scrutiny… but not without a lot of mixed signals and zig-zags from the Soviet leadership.  Seventeen Moments has a wealth of information already on Boris Pasternak, so I thought I’d look for other authors/sources.

As we read in Ben’s post last week on the Zhdanov Doctrine, while controls on expression were temporarily relaxed during WW2, the screws were tightened once again in 1946.  In February 1952, during deliberations on the candidates for the Stalin Prize in Drama, Stalin says:

“[Playwright] Sofronov has talked about such a theory, that one can’t write good plays: there’s no conflicts.  How can you write plays without conflict?  But we have conflict. (…) These conflicts should be reflected in dramaturgy — otherwise there’s not going to be dramaturgy.” (1Russian site, quote and source #189, translation my own)

Knowing Stalin, the last line of the quote almost reads like a threat.  In any case, an editorial in Pravda appears in April later that year, in which the author, following Comrade Stalin’s lead, rejects these “pseudo-nonsense-theories” on conflict, but bemoans the lag in Soviet drama and the absence of satire.  The article begins: “Wanted: New Gogols to Write Searing Plays.” (2)  The fact that the writer chose Gogol in particular is interesting, which I’ll come to in a minute.

The “No-Conflict” theory (teoriya beskonfliktnosti) mentioned above segues now to V. Pomerantsev’s December 1953 essay “On Sincerity in Literature.”  Pomerantsev brings a new term to the polemics: the “varnishing of reality” (lakirovka dejstvitel’nosti), namely the obfuscation of problems, or insincerity, and the need for sincere truth, so absent in works of socialist realism. In December 1954, the All-Union Congress of Soviet Writers discusses the abovementioned problems and rejects them as “foreign marxism” and ultimately a poor understanding of Marx in general.  (3, Russian site)

Andrei Sinyavsky, 1975, becomes professor of Russian Literature in France at Sorbonne University, image from Wikipedia

In 1959, Andrei Sinyavsky, writing under the pseudonym Abram Tertz, secretly sends two works to be published in a French magazine (tamizdat, compare: samizdat): one is a critical essay (“On Socialist Realism”) of the development and problems inherent to socialist realism, while the other is a short novella (The Trial Begins), presumably an attempt by the author to employ his new ideas.  To briefly summarize the essay, the term socialist realism itself is really a paradox.  In realism, an author tries to describe her surroundings, emotions, and individual experiences truthfully and honestly, whereas in socialism (and ultimately communism), we’re speaking of the path to utopia, an ideal world without conflict, a reality which doesn’t even exist yet.  Sinyavsky finds that Soviet literature is ultimately closer to 18th century Russian classicism than the 19th century’s realism and romanticism (pg. 195): late Mayakovsky is closer to Homer’s Iliad–socialist realism emphasizes adherence to form with clear-cut heroes and villains.  19th century literature, on the other hand, suffered from an excess of individualism, giving us authors like Dostoevsky, who in one work manages to perplex the reader with the nihilism of Nietzsche and his own brand of Russian Orthodoxy.  Instead, Sinyavsky hopes to return to Gogol: to laughter, irony, the grotesque, phantasmagorical descriptions of reality, which he himself attempts in The Trial Begins.  

Naturally, publishing harsh criticism abroad didn’t go over well with the Soviet authorities.  In 1966, Sinyavsky-Tertz and another writer Daniel’ (pseudonym: Arzhak) are found out and sentenced to 7 and 5 years respectively at a hard labor camp.  Many, many articles covering the closed trial viciously attack the two (4); 30’s style rhetoric even makes a comeback, with terms like “renegade,” “turncoat,” “werewolves and blood-suckers.”  All in all, the trial is a unique episode marking the end of Khrushchev’s liberalism and eagerness to denounce Stalin.


Freeze, Russia: A History, Chpt. 13: Cultural Thaw and De-stalinization

Seventeen Moments, 1956: Literary Life at a Crossroads

Tertz, On Socialist Realism. U. of California Press, Berkley. 1960. pps. 147-219.





В очередной издании этот пост, вместе с постами других студентов, занимал видное место на “Углу товарищей”.

3 thoughts on “Turncoats and Slanderers

  1. This is a really interesting post that highlights the differences between Stalin and writers of the time. I particularly enjoyed the analysis of realism and socialism, and the apparent paradox of combining the two in the form of literature/plays.

  2. Mixed signals and zigzags indeed! Intellectual efforts to come to terms Socialist Realism can provoke a headache quite quickly! And while the highlights of the literary Thaw get lots of press, you rightly point out that the debates about drama and the doctrine of “бесконфликтность” are essential to understanding how deep the forces of conservatism and reaction ran. Sinyavsky and Daniel’s big crime was publishing abroad.
    What is this source: http://m.litread.in/read/160625/164000-165000?page=289? A dictionary of literary terms? concordance? or? Fascinating!

    • So, it’s a 2006 edition (Constantine Dushenko) of a dictionary of modern quotes “for journalists and historians” with dates, context, etc. Pretty neat.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.