Russian Literature During the Soviet Period Part 1

By | February 25, 2022

The years after the Revolution

According to Countryvv, the Revolution of October 1917 marks a radical turning point in literature as well as in Russian history. A rift is immediately created between the intellectuals: some old revolutionaries and many young people are enthusiastic, a large part of the old intelligentsia clearly hostile., while another part, intolerant of the old autocratic regime, is looking for its own place. Many established writers emigrate immediately, others stall, try to fit into the new cultural life. The Proletkul´t, a cultural organization formed before the revolution, carries out a feverish activity; the futurists immediately took sides to the left, arguing that the revolution in literature must start from a radical renewal of form. ● In the first period, poetry prevails. The best proletarian writers are able to express with sincere enthusiasm their faith in progress, in the world revolution, in the function of the workers: thus A. Gastev in Poezija rabočego udara (“Poetry of the proletarian impulse”, 1918); so V. Kirillov in Železnyj messija (“The Iron Messiah”, 1918). To give the poetic imprint to the revolutionary period are the great poets: Blok, with Dvenadcat  ´ (“The Twelve”, 1918), who links a group of beggar revolutionaries to the image of the twelve apostles led by Christ, and with Skify (” Gli Sciti », 1918), where he shows the ‘Asian’ face of the revolutionary Russia; Belyj, who also projects his mystical vision on the events of the revolution in Christos voskres (“Christ is risen”, 1918); S. Esenin, who sees the Bolshevik revolution as a revenge of the countryside and describes his peasant paradise in the poem Inonija (“Other land”, 1918). All these works are born under the impulse of the Scythism of Ivanov-Razumnik (pseudonym of Russia Ivanov). ● Also in 1918 Mayakovsky wrote for the Misterija-Buff theater (“Funny Mystery”), in which a group of ‘pure’ (the bourgeois) and one of ‘impure’ (the proletarians) tried to save themselves from the universal deluge and to reach the promised land. Mayakovsky, like almost all futurists, is totally committed to the realization of a revolutionary art and does not disdain any form, from the high lyric of Pro eto (“Of this”, 1923) to the billboards, without ever being able to make people accept the innovative power of his poetry. ● The problems of the poetic word and language are at the center of the research of the Moscow Linguistic Circle and of the Petrogradese Opojaz, which bring together brilliant scholars, creators of Russian formalism. The end of the civil war and the advent of the NEP favor the rebirth of prose. Gor´kij, who in his Nesvoevremennye mysli (“Untimely Thoughts”, 1917-18) had expressed strong reservations about the revolution, becomes the protector of young writers, not only on the literary level: he helps them to find accommodation, clothes, food in a moment of extreme famine, he created the publishing house Vsemirnaja literatura (“Universal Literature”) which provided work for many of them. TO Petrograd the group of the Brothers of Serapion is formed; their very young theorist, L. Lunc, advocates an art that is not politically aligned, capable of constructing compelling and dynamic plots like those of Western adventure novels. The group brings together very different writers, such as the ‘orientalist’ V. Ivanov, the ‘westernist’ V. Kaverin (pseudonym of V. Zil´berg), the brilliant humorist M. Zoščenko, K. Fedin, the poet N. Tikhonov, who learn the technique of prose and the use of the skaz from Zamyatin, who will emigrate to France when it becomes impossible for him to publish his works in Russia, including the famous anti-utopian novel My (“We”, 1922). ● A romantic vision of the revolution, understood as an elementary and purifying force, is found in the work of A. Vesëlyj (pseudonym of N. Kočkurov), A. Malyškin, V. Ivanov, V. Šiškov, in the ballads of Tikhonov. Very different female voices emerge, such as those of L. Sejfullina, O. Forš, M. Šaginjan. Some of the most original writers, grouped under the name of ‘fellow travelers’, are among the collaborators of the magazine Krasnaja nov  ´ (“Red Novale”), directed (1921-27) by the critic AK Voronskij; among them I. Babel´, author of the dazzling prose of Konarmija («The army on horseback», 1926) and of the Odesskie rasskazy («Tales of Odessa », 1931); B. Pil´njak (pseudonym of B. Vogau), which stands out for the audacious experimentalism of Golyj god (“The naked year”, 1921); the first L. Leonov. Remarkable poetic qualities are revealed by N. Aseev, E. Bagrickij (pseudonym of E. Dzjubin), I. Sel´vinskij, peasant poets N. Kljuev and S. Klyčkov (pseudonym of S. Lešenkov), to whom Esenin is initially linked. ● The novel by M. Bulgakov Belaja gvardija (“The White Guard”, 1925) is dedicated to the civil war seen from the ‘white’ side, while his other works of the same year D  ´ javoljada (” Diavoleide “) and Rokovye jajca (“Fatal Eggs”) are satirical tales written in the manner of the fantastic grotesque. Zavist´ («Invidia», 1927) by J. Oleša, very original for the type of writing, is an acute analysis of the state of mind of the intellectual, torn between attraction and rejection for the revolution; J. Tynjanov, literary theorist and critic, wrote two historical-literary novels between 1925 and 1927, Kjuchlja and Smert  ´ Vazir Muchtara («The death of Vazir Muchtar»). A cheerful and pungent satirical line, less ferocious than the Bulgakovian one, enjoys the favor of the public and the tolerance of censorship, represented by I. Il´f (pseudonym of I. Fainzil´berg) and E. Petrov (pseudonym of E. Kataev), which together wrote Dvenadcat  ´ stul  ´ ev (“The twelve chairs”, 1928) and Zolotoj telënok(“The golden calf”, 1931), and by V. Kataev with Rasstratčiki (“The dissipators”, 1927). A. Tolstoj, having returned to Russia after a short period of emigration, begins to publish the trilogy Choždenie po mukam (“The path of torments”, 1920-41); M. Šolochov composes his much appreciated and contested Tichij Don (“The Placid Don”, 1928-40), one of the most complex works of Soviet fiction. ● After 1925 the presentation of the revolutionary event changes: the primacy passes from the spontaneity of the masses to organization and political consciousness; revolution and civil war are no longer the predominant themes; the figure of the hero of work, reconstructing the country, appears in Cement («Cemento», 1925) by F. Gladkov, founder of a rich literature on the same subject. The theater makes use of the work of great directors, from Stanislavskij to V. Mejerchol´d, from A. Tairov (pseudonym of A. Kornbliet) to E. Vachtangov, who stage plays by Mayakovsky, Bulgakov, N. Erdman, and works by classical authors. The 1920s, on the whole, are characterized, despite sharp contrasts, by creative vivacity, by the variety of experiments, by theoretical passion. Mayakovsky’s suicide (1930) tragically marks the transition to the next decade.

The literature on emigration

At the same time, the emigration literature develops abroad. Its main centers are Berlin first, Paris then, and only after World War II, the USA. Established writers such as Andreev, M. Arcybašev, A. Averčenko, Bunin, Z. Gippius, Merežkovskij, A. Kuprin, I. Šmelëv, Zajcev, M. Aldanov (pseudonym of M. Landau), P. Muratov emigrate immediately after the revolution, and a little later Bal´mont, the young Tsvetaeva, Remizov, Chodasevič with N. Berberova; someone else will later obtain permission to leave the country (Zamyatin), and still others will be expelled. In the Berlin period (1921-23) relations with the Russia are not completely interrupted; many writers who will then return to their homeland frequent the circles of emigration. Belyj in Berlin writes with prodigious fecundity and publishes his own magazine, Epopeja ; so does I. Erenburg, who directs with El Lissitzky (pseudonym of E. Lisickij) the magazine Vešč  ´ (“The Thing”) and wrote his first novel, full of irony and skepticism, Neobyčajnye pochoždenija Chulio Churenito i ego učenikov (“The extraordinary adventures of Julio Jurenito and his disciples”, 1922). The daily Nakanune (“On the eve”, 1922-24) expresses the moods of that part of the emigration which is thinking of a forthcoming return to Russia. ● Magazines, almanacs and newspapers are centers of coordination and meeting of political parties and groups, of literary tendencies, in Berlin as then in Paris. Among the well-known writers who successfully continue to work in emigration we can remember Bunin, recognized master of style, who will be awarded the Nobel Prize in 1933, and Remizov, who handles the language of folklore and ancient documents with extraordinary skill, finding in it a refuge from the anguish of exile. Conversely, Chodasevič is silent as a poet after the verses of Evropejskaja noč  ´ (“The European night”, 1927). Cvetaeva, a little younger, reaches full maturity just abroad, expressing a profound tragic sentiment and an orphic vision of poetry in a sonorous and powerful verse. V. Nabokov, who later became an English-language writer, was trained abroad. The generation of those who emigrated in childhood or adolescence generally continue to write in Russian; interesting poet and prose writer is B. Poplavskij, who died in Paris from a heroin overdose.

Russian Literature During the Soviet Period 1