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International Socialist Review, Summer 1964


George Saunders

Revolt Against Stalinism


From International Socialist Review, Vol.24 No.3, Summer 1964, pp.92-93.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


The Story of a Life
by Konstantin Paustovsky
trans. Joseph Barnes
Pantheon Books, New York, 1964. 661 pp. $10.00

This is a big book with many facets. On one level, it is a fascinating and moving account of the life of an extremely observant, perceptive and thoughtful individual. At the same time, this life serves as a parable of our tempestuous century – era of wars, colonial uprisings and social revolution. We see the epoch-making paroxysms which seized Russia in the first decades of our century through the eyes of a “little man,” one of the millions of molecules forming the human waves of those years. Yet such a life – full of dislocations – has relevance for every country, where world-wide war and revolution may touch.

Besides these things, the book offers a description of life in Russia that a sociologist might value. It is peppered with commentary on art and literature. A gallery of portraits of human characters, famous and obscure hangs between its covers. And the whole thing breathes with a deep, creative sympathy with nature and love of human beings. This last feature is no accident. An emphatic concern with humanist values is the hall mark of anti-Stalinist intellectuals throughout the Soviet bloc today.

Fortunately, Paustovksy is a writer of skill and charm and these qualities come through adequately in the translation. So, despite its length, this is not a boring book to read.

For the purposes of this review, I will concentrate on what this book has to say about the Russian intelligentsia both at the time of the revolution and today.

The whole style and approach of the work is colored by the period in which it appeared – that is, the post-Stalin period of anti-bureaucratic ferment among Soviet intellectuals.

The Soviet reading public, especially the young people, are extremely interested in the literature of memoirs. This is part of the process of restoring the truth of their past, which was “re-written,” falsified and buried under a mountain of lies by the Stalinist bureaucracy.

That bureaucracy, of course, has not disappeared, though it has had to partially retreat from the total coercion of Stalin’s day. The struggle for the truth about Soviet history remains an uphill fight.

It is the writers – rather than the historians or political leaders – who are delving most deeply into the truth of the past. That is why memoirs like those of Ehrenburg and Yevtushenko become explosive and are denounced by the bureaucratic leaders. To be sure, truth is brought out in a literary way, incompletely, inadequately. Still, the dozens of autobiographical works of recent years have helped inform the new generation about the past and correct the official version of the “glorious building of socialism in one country.”

The honest writers and intellectuals today are reflecting the anti-bureaucratic moods and pressures of the mass of Soviet working people. They are starting to fill the gap created by the purges of the 30s. Those purges wiped out a whole generation of political activists who had consciously and clearly articulated the need for struggle against the bureaucracy. In the absence of any such group now, history is using an imperfect mouthpiece. Certain artists, remained able to sense and express the popular mood and to identify with the mass of people rather than the managers, officials, and cops who assumed the benefits of the revolution for themselves. They now have become the nearest thing to popular spokesmen.

Paustovsky has certain qualities which suit him for this role. He is one of those rare things among survivors of the Stalin era – a simple, honest, humane individual. He is a quiet writer. Perhaps that is why he was not noticed and rooted out by the fearful Stalinist officialdom, jealous of any independent spirit. In the thirties he concentrated on themes of nature and provincial life, avoiding dangerous topics of the contemporary political scene. [1]

Yet even at a time when parrotting of the party line was obligatory for all writers, the sharp eye of Trotsky was able to discern special qualities in this writer. In his Diary in Exile, of 1935, Trotsky recorded his impressions of a short novel by Paustovsky which he happened to read.

“A gifted man,” he wrote, “technically superior to the so-called ‘proletarian writers.’ He paints nature well; you can discern the sharp eye of a seaman. At times, in his description of Soviet life (in the Transcaucasus) he reminds one of a good gymnast with his elbows tied. But there are some stirring pictures of work, sacrifice and enthusiasm.”

These qualities have endeared Paustovsky to Soviet readers. His works are bought up immediately. For example, a recent anthology edited by him appeared in an edition of 75,000 and sold out in two days.

His popularity has grown in the post-Stalin era as he has become one of the active spokesmen of the anti-bureaucratic section of writers. He has especially gained note for his defense of young, nonconformist writers against the “neo-Stalinist” official critics. [2]

In a recent article for example, he wrote:

“The youth are accused of falling easily into so-called ‘deviations.’ There’s nothing frightening in that. I cannot imagine a young man who never protested or got upset about things. Our own entire youth was spent in such a state of restlessness.”

Undoubtedly, one of his main considerations in writing this autobiography is to tell the generation of the fifties and sixties what these days of “restless youth” were really like. He explains some of the difficulties he went through in finding his way to a clear perspective, in support of the revolution. And he emphasizes honesty and devotion to the people as the key to finding one’s way.

Reflecting on his youth up to the First World War he comments,

“I remember those quite recent times as if they were long, long ago, shrouded in the mists of the distant past. It is as if a thundering, stormy century lay between two eras of history ...

“I had come from the middle-class intelligentsia ... From my earliest childhood I heard from my father and his friends generous-spirited words about freedom, the inevitability of revolution, and the misfortunes of the people ...

“Naive childish conceptions and my passionate attraction to literature explain why, until the February Revolution, I knew nothing useful about the revolutionary movement among the workers ...

“I saw for a long time the inner meaning of events as something very dim which might have been defined as the ‘struggle for freedom.’ It was with notions like these that I lived right up to the 1914 war. It was only at the start of that war that I began slowly and with difficulty, to become aware of the social forces which were working in Russia.”

Further on he writes about the initial naïveté with which he greeted the February Revolution:

“The idyllic aspect of the first days of the Revolution was disappearing. Whole worlds were shaking and falling to the ground. Most of the intelligentsia lost its head, that great humanist intelligentsia which had been the child of Pushkin, and Herzen, of Tolstoy and Chekhov. It had known how to create high spiritual values, but with only a few exceptions it proved helpless at creating the organization of a state ...

“I had always been convinced that the seeds of good were planted in every man and that all one had to do was to help them grow ... (but) every day hurled hard evidence in my face that men did not change so easily, and that the revolution so far had eliminated neither hate nor mutual distrust ...

“I was more and more often angry. I began to hate the smooth, liberal intelligentsia who were growing stupid so quickly because, in my opinion, of their ill will toward their own people. But this did not mean that I myself was prepared to accept the October Revolution completely. Much of it I took, but other parts I rejected, especially all that seemed to me neglectful of the culture of the past.

“It was my idealist education which kept me from accepting the October Revolution in its entirety. This was why I lived through its first two or three years not as a participant, but as a deeply interested spectator.

“It was only in 1920 that I realized that there was no way other than the one chosen by my people. Then at once my heart felt easier. A time for faith and for big hopes started. From that point on my life developed ... more or less firmly along the path of service to the people in that province ... where I could use my strength most effectively – in literature. I still do not know which road is the better – the road from doubt to understanding, or the road which knows no doubt at all. In any case, a deep devotion to freedom, justice, and humanity, together with an honesty toward oneself, have always seemed to me the essential qualities of a man in our revolutionary times.”

This theme of honesty and identification with the people is a constant thread in the development of his life story. It is also a theme in a speech Paustovsky made at a writers rally in Moscow in 1956 – a speech that, outside of Trotkyist literature, is one of the sharpest all-round condemnations of the Stalinist bureaucracy that I have seen. (I strongly recommend the full text of the speech to readers. It can be found in The Year of Protest, 1956, ed. by H. McLean and W. Vickery, N.Y., Random House, $1.45.)

The rally was called in defense of the anti-bureaucratic “exposé” novel, Not By Bread Alone, by V. Dudintsev, which was then under official attack. Paustovsky used the name of “Drozdov,” – chief villain of the novel, and a venal bureaucrat, – as a symbol of the bureaucracy as a whole.

“The problem,” he said,” is not merely the portrayal in literature of a few careerists ...

“The problem lies in the fact that in our country there exists – unmolested and even to some extent prospering – an entirely new social stratum, a new caste of petite bourgeois.

“This is a new group of acquisitive carnivores, a group which has nothing in common either with the revolution, or with our regimen, or with socialism. They are cynics, black obscurantists, who ..., without any embarrassment or fear, quite openly ... [carry on] anti-Semitic talk worthy of pogrom-makers ...

“Where did all this originate? Where do they come from, these profiteers and bootlickers, these men of intrigue, these traitors, who claim the right to speak in the name of the people – of a people whom they really despise and hate? ...

“Where did these people spring from? They are the result of the cult of personality – a term by the way which I consider extremely euphemistic. This is the fertile soil on which these people have sprung up – from 1937 on ...

“And all this is camouflaged by empty words about the happiness of the people. In their mouths these words are a sacrilege and a crime. These men dare to claim the right to represent the people – without the people’s consent. They dare to dispossess our country of its human and material wealth for their own personal interests – and to dispossess it with no small amount of brazenness.

“But I think that the people, which has now come to feel the dignity of our way of life, will before long firmly sweep away the Drozdovs! We must fight this battle to the end. This is only the beginning!”

This, then, is the man whose life story we are dealing with. The three sections of his autobiography included in this translation make up only the first volume, bringing his story down to 1920. Parts of the second volume have already appeared in Russia, taking him as far as the mid-twenties.

We will await with great interest to see what this courageous figure will have to say – and how much he will be allowed to say – when his story reaches the dark years of the consolidation of Stalinism, the counter-revolutionary ebb tide that drained so much vigor out of the first wave of the world socialist revolution. That vigor is only now slowly being restored. This man and those for whom he writes are doing much to help that restoration.


1. For an excellent description of Paustovsky and his works I strongly recommend the chapter on him in the recent book, A History of Soviet Literature, by Vera Alexandrova, Doubleday, 1963, 369 pp., $5.50. Alexandrova is an excellent critic, although as a Russian Menshevik her politics leave much to be desired. She was a monthly contributor on Soviet literary matters to the now defunct Russian-language Menshevik monthly, Sotsialisticheskii Vestnik. Her book is a high-quality treatment of Soviet literature In the light of Soviet Society, including chapters rn most of the important contributors to that literature.)

2. An example of Paustovsky’s work in helping new, young writers is Pages from Tarusa. This was the anthology that sold out so quickly. Along with his own writings, the book Includes many of the best young writers. The theme of the whole is to give a true, unvarnished picture of life in the small town of Tarusa, free of any pushing of the party line. The book has just been published in English, but with only one third of the original contents, and excluding Paustovsky’s contribution. Publisher is Little, Brown & Co., Boston, $6.75.)

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