Vibrant and heterogeneous

The Soviet literary scape had a variety of literature from the officially feted to the critical to the dissident; even under the official canon of socialist realism, many different styles, including that of an “adapted” modernism, flourished and great literary works were produced within the Soviet Union.

Published : Dec 06, 2017 12:30 IST

Soviet literary classics, including Anton Chekhov's "The Cherry Orchard" (extreme left) and Mikhail Sholokhov's "And Quiet Flows the Don" (extreme right), on display at a Bookvoed (Eater of Letters) bookstore in St. Petersburg.

Soviet literary classics, including Anton Chekhov's "The Cherry Orchard" (extreme left) and Mikhail Sholokhov's "And Quiet Flows the Don" (extreme right), on display at a Bookvoed (Eater of Letters) bookstore in St. Petersburg.

THE 19th century saw the rise of realism in Russia that in the course of a few decades produced works whose authors were considered masters the world over: Gogol, Tolstoy, Turgenev, Dostoevsky, Chekhov, to name a few. In fact, the transition from Romanticism to Realism in Russia happened during the short life of Alexander Pushkin (1799–1837), who wrote several short stories and the long prose poem Eugene Onegin , before his death at the age of 37. Vissarion Belinsky (1811–1848) was the critic who steered the ship of Russian literature decisively towards Realism as a mode of representation. An uncompromising critic of serfdom, Belinsky inspired a whole generation of writers to present the truth of social conditions that prevailed among the common people, the narod , a social category of the disempowered, as against the German concept of the volk with its Romantic connotations of race and nation.

The revolutionary democrats Chernyshevsky and Dobrolyubov followed in his footsteps, and the Russian literary tradition remains unique for the way in which it was guided and moulded by literary criticism that engaged with the sociopolitical views and issues of the time. A broad spectrum of realist writing developed in “fast-forward mode” in the course of just a few decades. The great literary types of the “small man”, the “superfluous man” and the “underground man” were born and explored by a series of authors in their path-breaking realist works. Literature as conscience-keeper of the people was deeply ingrained in the Russian cultural tradition, giving rise to the belief that the “poet in Russia is always more than a poet”. This was why the state, too, took its poets very seriously, viewing them as threats and persecuting them cruelly. Only this can explain why Dostoevsky could be arrested and almost executed for reading aloud Belinsky’s 1847 Letter to Gogol , where he chastises him for the publication of Selected Passages from Correspondence with Friends , to the radical Petrashevsky Circle. Such was the power of this tradition of critique and realism that the searing criticisms of the Church and the state in the literary works of Tolstoy and Dostoevsky often ran contrary to their own stated political and ideological views!

The roaring twenties

The 1920s were an exciting period for the arts. This was the time of the consolidation of the Revolution that had occurred in 1917, the Civil War and the New Economic Policy, and in the literary field, the time of the literary front of various groups and fellow travellers. When the October Revolution took place, realism was being infused with revolutionary romanticism as in the early works of Maxim Gorky (such as The Flaming Heart of Danko ). Modernist movements were the flavour of the season: two generations of Symbolists, the Acmeists, the Futurists, the Oberiu and the Serapion Brothers, to mention a few, with debates between the modernists themselves on the nature of the poetic image. The Futurists were quite different in their agenda from their Italian namesake in that they supported the revolutionary government and were progressive in their outlook. The period from the 1890s to the early 1920s is referred to as the Silver Age of Russian Poetry, with all its modernist movements, including the Symbolists (the first generation such as Innokenty Annensky, Valery Bryusov and Konstantin Balmont and the second generation with Alexander Blok and Andrey Bely), the Acmeists and the Futurists. Apart from the many modernist groups in literature, there were also a range of proletarian writer groups that debated the nature of proletarian culture: VAPP (All Soviet Association of Proletarian Writers), RAPP (Russian Association of Proletarian Writers), MAPP (Moscow Association of Proletarian Writers) and Proletcult. Members of all these groups often changed their allegiances, and groups split and new groups were formed, so the associations, despite their declarations and manifestos, were of a fluid nature. Vladimir Mayakovsky, generally acknowledged as the poet of the revolution, for instance, moved from the Futurists to RAPP, making a detour through the LEF and New LEF journals (both journals of the Left Front of the Arts). There were also many literary criticism groups at this time: the Formalists, the LEF, the New LEF and the Bakhtin Circle. Some of the debates between these groups were on the nature of revolutionary art and proletarian culture. Not all writers in the 1920s were part of groups. Marina Tsvetaeva was one of those who kept away from literary groupings.

By the end of the 1920s, the groups had started dispersing, and several writers and critics were being exiled. Mikhail Bakhtin, for instance, whose ideas on literature and culture were to be very influential in the last century and the present, was exiled to Kazakhstan. The First Congress of Soviet Writers was held in 1934. It brought together writers and critics not only from Russia but also the Republics, many of them newly formed under the Soviet National Delimitation Policy. The Congress resolved that socialist realism would be the accepted mode of representation and the “toolkit” for literary criticism. The Union of Soviet Writers was henceforth the only association that was granted official status. Maxim Gorky delivered the keynote address at this conference.

The literary landscape

The Soviet literary scape covered a huge territory and included works that were written in languages other than Russian. The small Transcaucasian Republic of Georgia produced many great writers like Chabua Amerijibi, as did the Central Asian Kyrgyz Republic. Chingiz Aitmatov was an iconic writer of not just the republic of his origin but the entire Soviet Union. His works were set in all parts of the Soviet Union and even in the cosmos! Works written in other languages were translated into Russian, and a vital part of the Soviet literary landscape was the huge translation industry that in addition translated works from foreign languages and into foreign languages. Its spectrum of languages went far beyond English and the European languages. As Indians will know and remember, a wide range of Russian/Soviet literature—from classics, to contemporary to children’s literature—was available in the many languages of India at extraordinarily low prices. The Soviet Union had dedicated publishing houses such as “Raduga” for these translations.

Russian literature also included literature written in Russian beyond the borders of the Soviet Union, the literature of exiles, emigres and dissidents. The list of Nobel Prize winners, for instance, includes emigre Russian writers writing in Russian: Ivan Bunin in 1933 (France) and Joseph Brodsky in 1987 (United States). There were four waves of emigration during the Soviet period: the first, in the 1920s, included writers from the intelligentsia and the nobility such as Ivan Bunin; the second, in the 1940s, was of soldiers and army personnel who had fought in the Second World War and did not return; the third wave was in the 1970s in which dissidents such as Alexander Solzhenitsyn, Joseph Brodsky and several of the writers who had contributed to the Metropole Almanac in 1978, among others, emigrated; the fourth wave began in the 1990s, with the loosening of rules and regulations with perestroika and glasnost, and saw many Jews emigrate from the Soviet Union. They included writers such as the Tashkent-born, Moscow-based Dina Rubina who emigrated to Israel in 1990.

Despite socialist realism being the official canon, the Soviet literary scape was a heterogeneous one and included three distinct streams of writing in any given period of its 70-plus years of existence. Apart from the canonised literature that was officially promoted, there was the stream of what I call the literature of the “critical insiders”—those who critiqued the ills of Soviet society within permissible boundaries—and the banned/dissident/self-censored/samizdat (the self-publishing of banned or censored works) literature. The epitome of proletarian literature in the 1920s was Fyodor Gladkov’s Cement (1925). Mikhail Sholokhov wrote his epic four-volume work, And Quiet Flows the Don , from 1926 to 1940. Sholokhov was one writer who remained in the good books of several generations of Soviet officialdom and even won the Nobel Prize in 1965. Others did not have such a smooth career. Even Gorky, author of the 1906 novel Mother , which was considered the model work of socialist realism, had his critical articles on the Revolution— Untimely Thoughts —banned. Yevgeny Zamyatin’s 1920 science fiction dystopian novel, We , that George Orwell acknowledged as an inspiration for his 1984 , was the first literary work to be banned by the young Soviet government. The fate of writers in the three streams that I have outlined above often kept changing, with the writers getting cast from one stream to another. Boris Pilnyak, an important writer who had captured Soviet life sensitively in his early writings like Naked Year (1922) had his The Tale of the Unextinguished Moon (1926) pulled off the shelves after publication in a journal for being perceived as a fictional account of the death of the famous military commander M.V. Frunze. Pilnyak was arrested and executed in 1938 and rehabilitated only in the 1960s.

The 1930s and 1940s

The 1930s witnessed collectivisation, the consolidation of Soviet power, the preparation for war with Hitler’s Germany and the Great Purge. Stalin’s contradictory personality is evident in that while the Soviet state was exiling, sending to concentration camps and executing leaders of the Bolshevik revolution, and a generation of intelligentsia, it carried out a massive evacuation of film-makers, writers and other personnel of the cultural industries, along with art production and objects, into the interiors of the Soviet Union, to Central Asia, to save them from the imminent war with Hitler’s fascist forces. This is a fact that is little spoken about when the 1930s in the Soviet Union is discussed. This evacuation was to leave its imprint on the cultural life of the Republics, the “hosts”, as well as on the artists who sojourned there. The film-makers who worked in Kazakhstan during the evacuation years gave a boost to the Kazakh film industry, which emerged as one of the strong film industries in the Central Asian region. Sergei Eisenstein shot his Ivan the Terrible in Almaty, the capital of Kazakhstan, and Anna Akhmatova wrote several poems on Tashkent where she had been evacuated to. The iconic literary work of this period was Nikolai Ostrovsky’s How the Steel Was Tempered (1936). The most important work on the purge was Lydia Chukovskaya’s Sofia Petrovna , written almost as it was happening in 1937. It was published abroad in the 1960s and published in the Soviet Union only in 1988. Anna Akhmatova, whose son Lev Gumilev had been arrested, began writing Requiem in 1935, a long poem, a wail of rage, on the victims of Stalinist repression, composed over several years. She self-censored it, having got her closest friends to memorise the stanzas she wrote, leaving no evidence of its being written.

Alexander Fadeev’s Young Guard (1946/1951) on young partisans and their contribution and sacrifices during the Second World War and Boris Polevoi’s Story of A True Man (1947) were the canonised works of the 1940s. With the prevailing war with fascism and the fear of Stalinist repression, there was an understandable lack of “critical insiders” in these two decades. Writers either fell into the first category or willingly put their talent to the use of the “war effort” or were simply not published. Anna Akhmatova, for instance, despite her own difficult relationship with the Soviet government, gave her all to the cause of keeping the morale of the soldiers and citizens high, as did the poetess Olga Berggolts, dedicating poetry to their beloved city Leningrad when it was under siege by Hitler’s army for 872 days in which thousands of people died. Among the banned literature of this period were the satirist Mikhail Zoschenko’s Before Sunrise (1943) and Adventures of a Monkey (1945).

The Thaw

The end of the Second World War, the victorious Soviet Army, the recognition of the status of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) as a superpower, the start of the Cold War, the reconstruction after the devastation of war, Stalin’s death and Nikita Khrushchev’s denunciation of his “cult of personality” at the Twentieth Congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU), were the events leading up to the period known as the “Thaw”. Ilya Ehrenburg’s novel Thaw (1954) ushered in this period, which also saw the return, in a big way, of “critical insider” literature. The most important work to be published during these years was Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich (1960) on life in the concentration camp for an ordinary Soviet citizen who tries to live it out with dignity. Vladimir Dudintsev’s Not By Bread Alone (1956), Yuri Dombrovsky’s Keeper of Antiquities (1964) and Chingiz Aitmatov’s White Steamboat (1970) were other important works that raised issues of bureaucratism, party and state control, the freedom of initiative of the individual and the need for socialism with a human face in the context of immense loss and deprivation. Despite the greater freedom in the literary sphere and the publication of works that were critical of the ills within Soviet society, there were other works that went beyond the freedom of expression that the period of the Thaw offered. Boris Pasternak was expelled from the Writers’ Union because of he was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1958 for Doctor Zhivago that had been rejected for publication in the Soviet Union but was published abroad. Solzhenitsyn’s later works like Gulag Archipelago were not published. Samizdat began in the USSR in the 1950s. One of the first works to circulate in samizdat was Doctor Zhivago.

Period of stagnation

The years when Leonid Brezhnev, Yuri Andropov and Konstantin Chernenko were Presidents of the Soviet Union (1964–1982) are usually characterised as the period of Stagnation. During this period, however, Soviet literature developed several new registers that dealt with issues facing life in the USSR in many innovative ways. Village prose looked at ecological issues, development that displaces people, dams that flood villages into extinction, generation gaps, negative values of the new “Soviet” man, issues of ethics and morals, the destruction of traditional ways of life, and so on. A new kind of war prose also came into being in which rhetoric was replaced by the actual suffering, conflict and war causes. There was a new perspective on cities in the urban prose. Women’s prose also came to the fore, heralded by Natalya Baranskaya’s A Week Like Any Other (1969). All these new registers within Soviet prose critiqued the ills within the system by focussing on the nitty-gritty of everyday life, without heroism or revolutionary optimism. A new genre, that of the author’s song, became popular from the 1960s onwards.

Bulat Okudzhava and Vladimir Vysotsky were the foremost practitioners of this genre. These bards and poets were performers who attracted large audiences in the way sports stars or rock stars do. Evgeny Evtushenko was one such poet. His Babi Yar (1961/against anti-Semitism) and Stalin’s Heirs (1962/on the continuing presence of Stalinism in Soviet life even after his death) were important for the issues they raised. Evtushenko, Andrei Voznesensky, Bella Akhmadulina (who were called “the generation of the sixties”), Okudzhava, Vysotsky, Vasily Shukshin and many others were not just poets but scriptwriters, editors, actors, directors, writers and musicians. The arts seem to have mingled in the wide-ranging talents of these exceptional artists.

One of the interesting critical works of this period is Fazil Iskander’s Sandro of Chegem (1973). Iskander was from Abkhazia, an autonomous republic within Georgia during Soviet times. The relationship between Abkhazians and Georgians was a tense one, and Iskander presents the tension in a humorous, satirical way. Stalin is one of the characters in the novel whom Uncle Sandro outwits. These encounters are funny also because Sandro is Abkhazian and Stalin was of Georgian origin.

Another work that drew on a broad spectrum of styles from myth and lament to the representation of contemporary life and science fiction was Chingiz Aitmatov’s And the Day Lasts Longer Than a Century (1980). In this novel, Aitmatov uses the duration of a day, in which an old man transports his dead friend to the mountain the friend had asked to be buried at, as a day of rumination about the past they had lived together. The burial ground that had mythic significance was now off-limits as a space station, even as the cosmonauts who have been launched into space make contact with aliens. The book raised the question of cultural amnesia, mankurtism. According to a myth, when the Chinese tribe of Zhuanzhuans took a Kyrgyz prisoner, they shaved off the prisoner’s hair and put on his head a camel-skin cap that was so tight that it would not allow the hair to grow back straight. The hair would grow downwards into the brain, causing amnesia and making the memory-less prisoner the best kind of slave ever.

Dissident movement

The year 1966 witnessed the Sinyavsky-Daniel trial, an open trial where the writers were accused of anti-Soviet propaganda and agitation for publishing their work abroad under pseudonyms. Sinyavsky published The Trial Begins under the name of Abram Tertz and Daniel published This is Moscow Speaking under the name of Nikolai Arzhak. Both writers argued the case on their own and pleaded not guilty. They were sentenced to prison. Their trial marked the beginning of the dissident movement in the Soviet Union. The literature that was rejected from being published in this period included Dombrovsky’s Faculty of Useless Knowledge (1975) and Varlam Shalamov’s Kolyma Tales that comprised short, ruthless stories about concentration camps. This book was published abroad in 1978 and in the USSR in 1989.

The 1980s

Under Mikhail Gorbachev’s perestroika and glasnost the literary scape, along with economy and politics, underwent restructuring. Banned literature, emigre literature and literature from the period of the Thaw that had gone beyond the permissible limits set by the state (such as Shalamov’s Kolyma Tales ) began to be published. The different compartments that literature in Russian had existed in for decades were now part of one literary scape. Censorship was relaxed.

The three works that were called the “Three Ps of Perestroika” were Pozhar (Fire/1985) by Valentin Rasputin (Siberia); Pechalnyi Detektiv (Sad Detective/1986) by Victor Astafiev (Siberia) and Plakha (Executioner’s Block/1986) by Aitmatov (Kyrgyzstan). That these writers came from the Asiatic regions of the Soviet Union, and not Moscow or Leningrad, and raised issues of vital interest to readers all over the USSR is evidence of the pervasive and deep-rooted spread of the Soviet literary culture throughout the length and breadth of the country.

The Soviet culture industries

Despite the Revolution there is a continuity in the behaviour of the state vis-a-vis the artist from the 19th to the 20th centuries. Traditions of censorship, exile and execution continue to exist. The writer, too, continues the traditions laid down by the revolutionary-democrats of standing by the people and critiquing the ills of society and articulating the aspirations of the people, the narod (that imagined community of the simple, toiling common people), no matter what the consequences. The poet remains more than a poet in the Soviet Union; her agency remains even in times of great repression, through compromise, negotiation, subversion or dissidence. The deep traditions of realism continue with new elements provided by the framework of socialist realism.

The Soviet state, on the other hand, set up cultural industries that did not run on the principle of financial profit but ran on ideological principles enforced by the Party. The scale and breadth of these industries are of the kind not seen in other countries. Literary institutions were set up throughout the Soviet Union and books were printed in hundreds of thousands of copies. Even those whose works were ideologically frowned upon by the state, but were recognised as classics (like Dostoevsky), were printed in editions that might have been less on a comparative scale (than say Tolstoy, for instance), but were nonetheless in several thousands of copies. The issue of scale is very important here. The mammoth translation industry, which is a complementary industry, is a case in point. Cultural products, in this case literary works, that were within the set ideological framework were available at extraordinarily low prices. The distinction and compartmentalisation of art products into high, middle and popular, characteristic of market economies, was not operative under the Soviet system. The classical could also be the popular and mass in ways not envisaged by other economic-cultural systems. The high literacy levels in the Soviet Union guaranteed that. In this system, a poet could recite her poems to sold-out stadiums full of people. Literature was seen as a mobilising force to rouse people to defend their country and was also seen as heritage to be preserved at all costs. These were the many aspects of the patriotism of the Great Patriotic War (the name the Second World War is known by in the Soviet and post-Soviet countries).

The Cold War was fought on many fronts by the West, including the ideological front. The propaganda against the Soviet system usually hinged on the following points: that there was a homogeneous, boring, ideologically controlled literature under the socialist realism; consequently, the “worthwhile” literature was to be found mainly in the dissident literature; that there was no freedom of expression; and that modernist movements were finished off or forced to go underground.

The brief account of the Soviet literary scape given above shows that it was vibrant and heterogenous in more ways than one: it had a variety of literature from the officially feted to the critical to the dissident; even under the official canon of socialist realism, many different kinds of styles, including that of an “adapted” modernism, flourished and great literary works were produced within the Soviet Union.

Rashmi Doraiswamy is a professor at the Academy of International Studies, Jamia Millia Islamia, New Delhi.

Sign in to Unlock member-only benefits!
  • Bookmark stories to read later.
  • Comment on stories to start conversations.
  • Subscribe to our newsletters.
  • Get notified about discounts and offers to our products.
Sign in


Comments have to be in English, and in full sentences. They cannot be abusive or personal. Please abide to our community guidelines for posting your comment