The Magazine


Sep 29, 1997, Vol. 3, No. 03 • By ARNOLD BEICHMAN
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Thomas Lahusen


How Life Writes the Book

Real Socialism and Socialist Realism in Stalin's Russia


Cornell, 256 pp., $ 29.95

Is it not strange that a half-century after the end of World War II, there should be a best-selling book about the Holocaust called Hitler's Willing Executioners but no equivalent about the Soviet Union --a Stalin's Willing Executioners? True, there are documentary classics about Stalinism like The Gulag Archipelago or Robert Conquest's The Great Terror, but there is no popular, let alone academic, concentration on the criminality and inhumanity of Soviet history as there is about the dark German past. No Nuremberg trials for the Soviet killers and torturers, who are probably all receiving their pensions and, with their connections, receiving them on time. As for Lenin, he still lies in state in his Red Square tomb, and Stalin is interred in the Kremlin wall.

One of the areas of Soviet history still to be explored is how the Kremlin and its gauleiter intellectuals, particularly during the 1937-38 period of high Stalinism and later, in 1946, during what came to be known as the Zhdanovshchina, annexed the printed word -- fiction, nonfiction, plays, essays, short stories, children's literature, textbooks, journalism, everything -- to the Party apparat. Writers, some enthusiastically, some fearfully, became servile functionaries of the state, or "artists in uniform" -- thereby producing what Lionel Trilling called "the monolithic conformity of the intellectual life of Russia."

The Marxist-Leninist dictatorship successfully liquidated a literary tradition -- Chekhov, Dostoevsky, Gogol, Lermontov, Pushkin, Tolstoy, Turgenev, and others -- that had flourished for a century despite Czarist censorship. Under Stalin's dispensation, being a writer was no guarantee of a long and serene existence. (Of the 700 writers, average age 39 years, who in 1934 attended the First Writers' Congress, only 50 survived to attend the second in 1954.) Osip Mandelstam, his widow recalled, said to her, "Only here [USSR] do they really respect poetry -- they kill because of it. More people die for poetry here than anywhere else." Mandelstam was one of those who died for his poetry -- in a psychiatric ward near the Magadan forced labor camp -- in 1938.

The end of Russian literature and the formal beginning of Soviet literature came with the 1925 Central Committee resolution, "On Party Policy in Literature," which in brief stated that in a class society art cannot be neutral. "By the early 1930s," said the official Great Soviet Encyclopedia in 1973, "the majority of Soviet writers were actively engaged in socialist construction." They were fulfilling their role, as Stalin put it, as "engineers of human souls."

As in pornographic literature, so with "socialist realism" -- the plot was always predictable. This quasi-literature was dominated by a special language (what Arthur Koestler named "Djugashvilese," in tribute to Stalin's family name). This language had a remarkable vocabulary, remarkable not of course in that it was taken seriously in the Soviet Union but in that it was taken seriously in Communist and fellow-traveling literary circles the world over. In the world of socialist realism, historical necessity, democratic centralism, revolutionary consciousness, workers of brain, and workers of brawn were all good; while hostile ideological tendencies, social fascism, deviationism, bourgeois philistine individualism, rootless cosmopolitanism, esthetic hooliganism were all bad.