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John G. Wright

Stalin Purges His Playwrights

Writing Plays in Stalin’s Domain
Is Dangerous Occupation

(14 December 1940)

From Socialist Appeal, Vol. 4 No. 50, 14 December 1940, p. 3.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

The new, silent purge is pruning the ranks of the Kremlin’s most pampered and fabulously-paid servants – “the creative artists.” Dramatists and scenario writers have suffered the heaviest casualties.

Apparently the formulas for the 1940 edition of the purge vary depending upon the individuals and circumstances involved. Thus the Komsomol and Trade Union bureaucracies were decimated under the formula of bezdelniki and darmoyedniki (loafers, scoundrels who eat the bread they haven’t earned). But the formula for the intellectuals is: klevetniki (slanderers). Trotsky suggested that the epoch of Soviet Thermidor will go into history of artistic creation pre-eminently as an epoch of mediocrities, laureates and toadies. According to Stalin, the designation should be corrected to read – slanderers.

The slanderer of the month (October) is one S. Kolkov, author of a play entitled, The Kovrov Family. This play was staged by the Gorki State Theatre, the initial performances were greeted with ecstatic, if stereotyped, reviews, scores of other theatres rushed production plans – when suddenly Kolkov’s masterpiece was deflated. On October 13 Pravda indicted his play as Slander Against the Soviet Family, damned the Gorki Theatre for befouling its stage with it, and generally berated all the “responsible” people for approving its production. Not one among them, lamented Pravda, showed “the least sign of political perspicacity, not one saw in this play falsehood and distortion of Soviet reality.”

Pravda dwells in detail on Kolkov’s opus. The main characters in the play are Kovrov, engineer and party member; his wife, Olga Alexandrovna, a party member; their ten year old son, Mitya, whom they both love passionately. The parents squabble all the time, especially over the upbringing of their boy. Mitya, spoiled by his mother, neglects his studies, but father always get glowing reports about his son’s progress in school. A crisis ensues when Kolkov learns on returning from a prolonged stay in the provinces that Mitya has been kept back another year in the same grade. His wife utilizes the opportunity for carrying out a long contemplated plan. Gathering her possessions and Mitya she leaves Kovrov in favor of a mutual friend, the jurist Borovsky, another party member, and this newly constituted family immediately “departs to a summer resort.” Kolkov falls ill from worry about the education of his son. End of Act One.

The next scene takes place in a courtroom. In it Kovrov delivers a very long speech which obviously exasperated Pravda. He “lashes as un-Soviet the educational methods of child raising followed by Olga Alexandrovna, he talks at length about Communist views on the family ... in short, proves his rights to the child.” “Kovrov’s ‘eloquence’,” continues Pravda sarcastically, “fails to sway the court.” The judge interrogates the child. Mitya, it appears, would prefer to live with both his father and mother. Whereupon the court dismisses Kovrov’s plea and rules that the boy must remain with his mother.

In the third act Mitya degenerates completely. He longs for his father, associates with street children, and stops attending school altogether. He becomes ruder and ruder to grownups, acts like a hooligan on the street, and learns to steal. Even his mother begins to worry.

Meanwhile her lover Borovsky gets bored with her worries, and still more with her personally. “It seemed to me,” sums up the jurist, Borovsky, “that I loved her a lot. But once we started living together I suddenly sensed that it wasn’t so. I don’t love her at all.” Mitya decides to run away with a homeless waif who has become his pal and preceptor; but in trying to board a train, he slips, falls under the wheels, and is killed. The lone witness of Mitya’s tragic end is his faithful nurse, who runs after him, calls out to him, but cannot catch him. Curtain.

In writing this problem-play, Kolkov, the author, obviously felt himself a champion of the “Soviet Family,” and must have made sure of adhering rigidly to the line of “Bolshevik self-critiicism” as laid down by Pravda. It is equally unquestionable that the innumerable right-thinking and “responsible” people who passed the script viewed it in. the same highly moral light. Pravda itself not so very long ago featured much more embarrassing family complications and used to write editorials on education from which Kolkov’s hero undoubtedly quoted wholesale. In vain! By the time Kolkov had finished his play, antechambered all the people who mattered, obtained all the indispensable approvals, in short by the time his play reached the stage, life and its problems had altered beyond recognition, at least in Pravda’s eyes.

New policies demand new plays. Small wonder, that Kolkov’s play is, as the French say mildly, mal à propos (evil to the purpose.) For instance, the prominent characters are mostly married party members, and at the same time all the families in the play without exception break up. Even Gavrik, the homeless waif, is a by-product of a broken home. His father committed suicide out of “sexual jealousy.” Kolkov surpassed himself in inventing so plausible and yet so original, almost poetic, an explanation for the presence of a homeless waif on a Soviet stage, but even this superb stroke only aided in his downfall. “Let us grant,” Pravda comments cautiously, “that there is such a family, maybe more than one. But when a family of this sort is taken apart from, the entire surrounding reality one obtains a – false – nay, worse than that! – a vicious generalization, a slander against the Soviet family.”

Kolkov’s real sin, however, is not in failing to counterbalance an aborted family with an idyllic couple and a budding Stalin. He made his mistake in centering his play on the educational problem, which Pravda belligerently points out is a “problem of greatest state importance.”

Sons and daughters of workers and peasants had just been driven from the Soviet schools to form an industrial labor reserve. Only the Mityas, i.e., the children of the privileged, can now attend school, because their parents alone can pay the tuition. All the state resources were being mobilized in October to educate the populace to understand the historical significance of this latest victory. The Presidium of the C.C.T.U. convened in solemn session and resolved:

“The trade union organizations must explain to the workers, the state employees, and members of their families the significance of an organized preparation of cadres of new workers from among the urban and kolkhoz youth, and the creation of indispensable labor reserves for industry. In doing this they must pay special attention to carry on the work of explanation among ... the intermediate secondary schools, in the secondary schools, in children’s rooms, and school rooms, at clubs and places of culture.” (Pravda, October 13)

The All-Union Committee in Charge of Highest Education lost no time in issuing instructions to university directors, proposing that “they establish rigid control of tuition payments, and drop from the rolls all students not paid in by the date designated.” (idem) Everybody is busy.

And in the midst of this activity a tired bureaucrat in search of relaxation walks into the Gorki State Theatre and there staring him in the face struts a spoiled and horrid brat, a blurred image of his pet at home, “attended by his nurse, cranky and capricious, issuing insolent orders, yelling (just like papa): ‘Take off my shoes! ... Give me a clean shirt!’ Always referring to his mother. ‘Mama ordered you to keep me in cleanliness ... Mama said you must feed me well.’” Slaps his nurse’s face, and justifies himself, “Mama told you I’m a nervous child and mustn’t be upset.” (Pravda, October 13). The nurse breaks into tears, and Pravda breaks into cold sweat and shrieks in the ears of all “responsible people”: “Art has the capacity of generalizing things!” How true.

Besides, a worker may wander into the theatre. Or maybe a student just dropped from the rolls. Why, anyone in the audience is apt, especially under the impact of art, to start generalizing a few stray ideas.

To crown it all, Kolkov meddles with another issue: hooliganism. Pravda passes it by without comment. But hooliganism has also become a “problem of greatest state importance.” It has penetrated so deeply into Soviet industry and institutions that the authorities are finding it very difficult to differentiate between a hooligan and a worker, i.e., between deliberate resistance to the June laws and an innocent accident.

But from Kolkov’s play one could readily conclude that the families of party members, engineers, jurists and other “responsible people” are the breeding places of – hooliganism!

“Who needs this?” wails Pravda.

In a concentration camp Kolkov may have an opportunity to compare notes with another inadvertent “slanderer,” one Avdeyenko, author of the novel I Love. but really celebrated for breaking all records several years ago in “loving” Stalin. Avdeyenko slapped together in an absent-minded moment a scenario dealing with high-life among the Komsomol bureaucrats. Playwriting, it turns out, is a hazardous occupation “under socialism.”

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