Main FI Index | Main Newspaper Index

Encyclopedia of Trotskyism | Marxists’ Internet Archive

Fourth International, July 1941


L. Yakovlev

The Blind Alley of Soviet Literature


From Fourth International, Vol.2 No.6, July 1941, pp.188-190.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


The press of the Kremlin is again sounding the alarm. A terrible situation prevails on the literary and dramatic fronts. Every possible variation is now being played on the following theme: Soviet literature has failed to provide in the recent period any models of strong personalities capable of arousing either love or the desire for emulation and capable of serving as examples for the youth to follow. The outstanding Soviet writers – Michael Sholokhov, A. Tolstoy, A. Fadeyev, Valentin Katayev, K. Fedin, Marietta Shaginyan, Lidya Seifulina, L. Leonov and others “seem to sense failure on the soil of modern subjects and shy away from depicting the new individual. They undertake journeys into the past, into the Seventeenth or Eighteenth centuries, they spend years on topics dealing with the Civil War of which they were contemporaries [1], but they are incapable of portraying the modern Red warrior, the modern patriot, the modern hero.” (Literaturnaya Gazetta, No.6, February 9, 1941).

The flight of Soviet writers from current subjects has assumed truly catastrophic proportions during the last three years. From among the vast quantity of books published in the USSR for that period, it was hard to compile a list of fifty volumes devoted to current and vital themes. And even among these books, a major portion – twenty – are devoted wholly or in part to the Northern areas, the conquest of the North, and the life of the peoples of the North. “Were some future historian to decide to restore the history of our times from the artistic literature, from the prose writings of the last three years, he would find himself obliged to say that the chief concern of the country in those years was – the conquest of the North,” P. Pavlenko and F. Levin declared, not without irony, in their report, The Soviet Man as Portrayed in Contemporary Prose, which was delivered before a special meeting of the party organization, the Union of Soviet Writers (Literaturnaya Gazetta, Feb. 4 and Feb. 9, 1941).

Works devoted to the conquest of the North and to historical topics allow the writer a little elbow room. To be sure, even here he must pick his way very cautiously to avoid dangerous submarine reefs. But here at least he can choose a topic to his own liking and give free play to his imagination in describing human conflict. It is otherwise with contemporary subjects. After all, what kind of conflicts dare the authors write about in a society which is officially without classes and where socialism has already been achieved?

What Authors Are Urged to Describe

But there are conflicts to write about, the authors are now assured. “Among us there is even taking shape a special theory of non-conflict, of a life as easy as breathing, and of conflicts being something outdated. A view is unfolding that conflicts belong to past epochs and to previous periods; that in the classless society, which we have created, conflicts disappear and are replaced by accidental or ephemeral misunderstandings, easily to be explained away by the author, involving no great hardships either for the writer or his characters, and, let us confess, without any interest at all for the reader…It seems ages since we have read about an individual involved in genuine living conflicts,” avow Levin and Pavlenko.

These reporters declare the supply of conflicts in Soviet reality is more than ample. Conflicts are to be encountered at every step: in factories, “in connection with the development of the Stakhanovist movement there have appeared new forms of opposition to it”; and in the collectivized village, where “the problem of wealth and poverty has assumed a different form…these conflicts in the day-to-day struggle of the Soviet village for socialism are as plentiful as you please.” In the day-to-day life, in the family and outside, everywhere and always there are conflicts – with the sole exception of Soviet literature in which no reflection of them is to be found.

“The peculiar little theory” that acute social conflict is neither necessary nor possible in contemporary Soviet society, and that sharp conflicts can only harm the country and tend to distort reality has led to a literature depicting Soviet society only from the positive and “constructive” aspects, thus rendering it lifeless, unreal and excruciatingly boring. Soviet heroes, insofar as they too can only be constructive and positive, are schematic and hollow. When it comes to the portrayal of party secretaries, the situation becomes intolerable. These are not human beings but some sort of automatons, mechanized virtue. They are incapable of living through any emotions or experiences, they know everything, they appear at the most difficult moments and always, like good fairies, save the situation.

“What is the reason,” demand the reporters, “for the fact that during the last three years in which our country has been living in an extraordinarily complex environment and has achieved grandiose successes in all spheres of the construction of socialism, there is not to be found in our books the people who created all this, the people who could be called the true heroes of our time? Why do most books deal with the so-called border topics, and touch only by indirection and by hints on the basic and paramount questions of our life? Why are there no strong passions, no deep sweep of human activity in conditions of a cruel struggle for the building of a communist society? Why are there no sincere human feelings, no tears, no laughter, no genuine human suffering? Why do all the difficulties of growth become transformed into a mirage, something abstract, something lifeless and completely impalpable?” keep asking reporters Levin and Pavlenko.

Pertinent Questions – But Unanswered

These are pertinent questions. But this struggle against schematism in the portrayal of Soviet reality and the struggle against falsely embellishing this reality, this “struggle” was proclaimed long, long ago. Yet the situation today instead of improving has obviously grown much worse. Serious questions are always posed during periods of great crises when it is impossible to keep silent any longer. But they can be posed only within the limits set by the Soviet authorities. Above all, it is impermissible to give any answers which in the least correspond with the truth.

A few years ago, after the last great Moscow Frameup Trial (the Bukharin-Rykov et al. Trial in 1938), the social atmosphere was so poisoned by interminable arrests, denunciations, slander and permanent purging, that the Stalinist leadership was compelled to sound a retreat. The very same Literaturnaya Gazetta (Literary Gazette) then very pertinently posed in its columns the question of exposing the denunciators and slanderers. The writers were assigned a special task – to drive the slanderers into the open. A few talented writers took this for good coin and responded by writing comedies in which they truthfully and ably portrayed a very tiny corner of Soviet reality.

M. Zoschenko in Dangerous Connections exposed a typical gentleman equipped with a party book and an adequate stock of unscrupulousness to undermine honest people in order to make a career for himself and to satisfy all his personal and rather low needs. Zoschenko, a talented writer, was able to cope with his theme but precisely because of this he aroused dissatisfaction and the play was stigmatized as “a political blunder on the part of the author.” The slightest vestige of truth strikes home too closely. It points too directly to the real source of all slander – the Kremlin itself.

Another talented writer, Nikolai Virta, also wrote a comedy: Slander or The Mad Days of Anton Ivanovich. This comedy also very capably exposed the mechanics of slander as perpetrated by a careerist Propoteyev (what an unearthly name!). This character makes a brilliant career in the course of a single year: from a petty functionary he rises in twelve months to the armchair of a director. He has already slandered twenty people in his department. They were all driven out, “covered with mud and filth.” Propoteyev keeps himself informed of all the affairs and moods of his fellow employes. He keeps a sort of unwritten file. For example, he knows that employee Kainov had hanging in his home in 1923 “for a period of 62 days, a portrait of the most vicious enemy of the people,” he is aware that his colleague Anton Ivanovich who holds a responsible post “wavered on the question of the general line,” etc., etc. Virta succeeds in making Propoteyev and all other characters so real and convincing that the play was immediately recognized as – politically harmful and a “great personal and creative failure for the author.”

The blind alley in which Soviet literature finds itself is expressed most graphically in the major field of plays for the theater. Modern Soviet plays have disappeared from the repertoire. A play of contemporary setting is looked upon as something akin to “a delayed time bomb.”... It is difficult to recognize it immediately, and no one can tell just when and how it will explode: whether the ticket office will remain empty, or whether the play itself will be a failure, or whether the critics will condemn it. And so the general tendency is to-steer clear of all sin and to draw closer not even to classical productions but to plays which are shamefacedly called semi-classical, like Madame Sans Gene, The Ideal Husband, Gentlemen, etc. (Sovietskoye Isskustvo, No.3, 1941.)

And who is in the last analysis responsible for this flight from current themes? Everybody is busy finding explanations. Some writers pound their own breasts and repent of “indifference toward reality.” Others blame the directors who block the road to “young” and “bold” playwrights…The directors, are really to blame for everything…Remove these “snipers” and everything will be remedied, declare many writers. There is even a note to be heard of sincere perplexity.

The matter is of course not so simple. It is not at all a question of directors, or individual writers or any other isolated individuals. It is a question of the system of the degenerated regime which must ruthlessly stifle and gag all talent, all manifestations of original and creative thought and which must encourage sycophants and subservers.

The self-imposed and mass migration of Soviet writers to the regions of the North and to the topics of the past supplies a “literary” gauge of the intensity of the crisis in the Soviet Union.


1. But even this is qualified with the remark that “in works dealing with the civil war there is to be found more the spirit of rationalization rather than that of living and realistic narrative.” After all, it is no simple task to provide a realistic depiction of the civil war without once mentioning the name of Leon Trotsky or other legendary heroes of the Red Army and always portraying Stalin as a genius.

Top of page

Main FI Index | Main Newspaper Index

Encyclopedia of Trotskyism | Marxists’ Internet Archive

Last updated on 16.8.2008