Soviet Writers Congress 1934
Speech: delivered in August 1934;
Source: Gorky, Radek, Bukharin, Zhdanov and others “Soviet Writers’ Congress 1934”, page 261-271, Lawrence & Wishart, 1977;
Online Version: Marxists Internet Archive (marxists.org) 2004;
Transcribed by: Jose Braz for the Marxists Internet Archive.
THE CONGRESS of Soviet Writers is proceeding with marked success. It has become the centre of great attention in our country.
Only a few months back there were still people to be met with who doubted whether this unusual congress should be convened at all, whether anything would come of it. Such talk was even to be heard on the very eve of the congress.
Well, the congress has opened. It has got under way. It has gathered momentum at tremendous speed. We have now reached the thirteenth day of this congress, and neither our esteemed chairman, nor that phlegmatic member of the presidium, Comrade Demyan Bedny, nor the careworn Boris Pasternak - no one, in fact, now knows how to stop the congress, such a multitude of literary questions has it raised, such creative energy has it unfolded in its course.
Without doubt the congress will prove and is already proving today to be a great event in our literature. All of us, writers in particular, feel that after the congress literature will somehow become different, that it will rise to a new plane. And the literary historian of the future will, of course, treat the first Congress of Soviet Writers as an event marking the beginning of a new era in the history of literature.
Comrades, this congress is being attended by the writers of all peoples inhabiting the Soviet Union. They have come here, to this congress, with all the problems that are engrossing their attention. Both in Maxim Gorky’s report at this congress and in the reports delivered by the representatives of the various republics of the U.S.S.R., we have been given a vivid idea of all the vast wealth of experience, all the rich cultural heritage that our republics possess. This congress has practically demonstrated that this fraternal family of ours includes people who can trace back the history of their culture for hundreds and thousands of years. Without doubt we shall go away from this congress enriched.
Prior to the congress much work had already been done in studying the literature of the peoples inhabiting the Soviet Union. But judging from what we have heard at the congress itself, we may say that we are only at the beginning of this great work of making the writers of the Soviet Union more closely acquainted with one another, of making our writers acquainted with all that manifold wealth of culture which the peoples of our Soviet country possess and which has been presented in such breadth and clarity at this first Congress of Soviet Writers.
Representatives of almost all nations inhabiting the Soviet Union, representatives of different literary tendencies, have spoken here. They have all raised literary problems in their own way, in their own literary clef. But one thing united all of them: all their speeches turned on the one thing for which our country is fighting - the cause of socialism.
We have every right to say that this congress, at which representatives of the best part of the Soviet Union’s intelligentsia have gathered, possesses, apart from its literary importance, a tremendous political importance as well, since this congress ratifies and sets the seal, as it were, on the process, begun long ago, by which the intelligentsia of the peoples inhabiting the Soviet Union have united under the flag of the Soviets, under the flag of socialism.
The congress has been marked by animated discussion. All questions of literary creation have been touched on here. Herein lies the radical difference from those days when the literary world of our country was being directed by the RAPP. You will recall that the RAPP had its own “general line,” its own “general secretary,” its own “general platform,” which it tried to force upon all writers. You will likewise recall the embittered disputes which raged round every period and every comma of this platform.
The decision of the Central Committee of the C.P.S.U. of April 23, 1932, “On the Reconstruction of Literary and Artistic Organizations,” put an end to the RAPP, which had become an obstacle to the further development of Soviet literature; it laid the foundation for the Union of Soviet Writers and paved the way for that upsurge of political and creative enthusiasm to which the Congress of Soviet Writers bears such striking testimony.
The first Congress of Soviet Writers is marked by free, creative discussion of all literary problems. It is not passing any resolutions on literary questions that are binding on all writers.
When the congress’s program of work was being discussed and persons were being nominated to deliver reports at this congress, it need hardly be said that the organizational committee consulted with our Party before making its decisions. I think this is no secret to anyone. But this does not mean at all that every report is some kind of canon, some kind of platform, in which every word and every comma is fixed and unalterable, in which everything must be carried out to the letter. This is not so, comrades. This would mean cramping creative initiative.
Nor have our Party and government passed any decisions to give individual writers official testimonials or appraisals of their talent, to present prose writers and poets with any special kind of “decorations,” marks of distinction, marks of approval or marks of blame and censure in varying degrees. I do not know of any decisions of our Party and government regarding the “canonization” of Mayakovsky. Mayakovsky is a mighty poet, a poet of the revolution, but we have not passed any decisions to the effect that all our Soviet poetry must take Mayakovsky as its sole model. And if Comrade Bukharinin his report gave an appraisal of individual poems and the work of individual poets, he did so, once again, by way of raising literary problems for discussion. This does not mean at all that every poet at this congress has received from the Party or the government a mark of distinction which he must take along with him in leaving this congress. Such a thing would denote bureaucracy of the worst kind, and you know that there is no more irreconcilable foe of bureaucracy than our Party.
We have public opinion, we have criticism, we have readers who have greatly developed during recent years and who are themselves perfectly well able to judge which work is valuable, worthy of praise, and which work deserves censure.
But if there is free creative competition in our literature, if there is animated discussion of literary questions, that does not by any means signify that we do not have any guiding line in literature. No, comrades, we do have a guiding line in literature, and this fact has been brought out in almost all the speeches delivered here. This fact was brought out both in Maxim Gorky’s report and in the speech of Comrade Zhdanov, secretary of the Central Committee of the C.P.S.U. Our guiding line is that of socialist realism.
You yourselves have said in your resolution that you want to create works imbued with the spirit of socialism.
Such is the guiding line of Soviet literature. And in everything else - free, creative competition.
Many of us try to be too clever about socialist realism. Socialist realism is not some set of tools that are handed out to the writer for him to make a work of art with. Some writers demand that they be given a theory of socialist realism complete in all its details.
You represent the best part of the intelligentsia. “To whom much is given, from him shall much be exacted.” And when we are told that we must show socialist realism, there is only one answer which we can give here, at this congress of writers: socialist realism can best be shown in those works of art which Soviet writers produce.
A distinguishing feature of the Congress of Soviet Writers is the eager attention with which it is surrounded by the whole population of our country. It has often been said that in the Land of Soviets the barriers which once separated the artist from the people have fallen. But I think that many of our writers have not felt this in its full force until now, at the Congress of Soviet Writers. Many of you have not felt until now with what love and attention our people surrounds its Soviet intelligentsia, with what solicitude it regards them.
You see how the whole country follows the work of the congress, how sensitively it reacts to every writer’s speech. This has been vividly shown here, at the congress, in the speeches of numerous delegations - workers, collective farmers, representatives of the Red Army and Fleet, the youth, workers in other fields of art.
We saw this, too, in the Moscow Park of Culture and Rest, in the Green Theatre, where tens of thousands of Moscow proletarians gathered to give a warm welcome to the Congress of Soviet Writers. And when the writers who were attending this festival saw the tens of thousands of spectators, the vast amphitheatre under the open sky, the moon above this amphitheatre (and the writers could not help asking whether this moon, too, had not been hung there by the director of the park), before many of them involuntarily arose the unforgettable picture of ancient Greece, where art was indissolubly linked with the people. “It would be good to produce CEdipus on this stage,” exclaimed Alexey Tolstoy then. “Or to have a contest of poets and singers,” added someone else.
Does it not seem to you, comrades, that now, at another stage of historical development, in the age of electricity, of wireless telegraphy, in the age of socialism and of Soviet power in our country, we are now witnessing the best days of art, when the people and the artist form one whole? Those literary snobs who shut themselves up in drawing rooms and deafen one another with verbose tirades are gradually disappearing from among us. In our country the people knows its writers; it discusses every new work in factories and collective farms, in the houses and clubs of the Red Army. Every good song instantly wings it way over the whole of our country-from White Russia to the shores of the Pacifico
And it is no accident that here, at the congress, both in Maxim Gorky’s report and in the speeches delivered by writers, so much should have been said about people’s art. Yes, in our country the people is once again producing its singers, its artists. Every year sees the rising up of fresh forces, of new writers, who come from the midst of the workers and collective farmers and who sometimes become well known to the whole country with their very first work.
Comrade Stavsky has told us today about these young writers, who, as our culture grows, are every year becoming more numerous. On the other hand, even those artists who were formerly isolated, have now come to the proletariat, have accepted the platform of the Soviet power, and have become near and dear to our people.
The representatives of the workers and collective farmers who spoke here told us: Portray our growth, our struggle for socialism.
Every person who has greeted the congress from this rostrum - beginning with the woman collective farmer from the Moscow Region, who spoke in such splendidly graphic language, and ending with the foreman from the Stalin Plant has been created by the revolution, has grown hardened in stubborn struggle for the triumph of socialism.
I recall certain sapient sayings of our critics, who sometimes evade some of the basic principles by which our writers are guided and try by the judgments they pass to rob these principles of all meaning. We all know Engels’ principle that an artist should depict typical characters in typical circumstances. And if we take as an example the characters of those representatives of the workers, collective farmers, and Red Army men who have appeared here on this rostrum, no one so strikingly bears out the truth of this principle as they do. For these characters were created in the titanic class struggle which has been raging in our country through out all these years.
There are some who argue as follows: Well, we can agree with the first part of Engels’ principle - that about typical characters. As regards the second part - that about typical circumstances - that is really no use to us at all. This, in my opinion, is a big mistake. We cannot understand and we cannot portray a single character without showing how this man struggled - with what obstacles, with what enemies and how he grew hardened in this struggle.
Our entire Party, the Party of Lenin and Stalin, has grown up and become hardened in the struggle of socialism. The working class, too, has become hardened in this struggle.
Our artists should let this be felt and understood in their works. They should sometimes find lesser, slighter traits which set off this basic factor in the coming into being, in the creation of characters in our country.
Otto Yulevich Schmidt has spoken here. He said something quite simple at first glance but in reality highly significant something to which our writers, it seems to me, should pay serious attention. Otto Yulevich said: “In the Arctic, on the ice, in the most difficult, tragic circumstances, people revealed those qualities which had formerly lain concealed in them, but which had been fostered by the Land of Soviets.”
I have before me a book which ought to be distributed among the delegates to this congress - a book which will, I think, attract the attention of all of you. No one, unfortunately, spoke about this book at the congress. It is called How We Saved the “Chelyuskin” Expedition.
The heroes of the Soviet Union were not going to wait for our writers to become inspired and describe their exploits on the ice-fields of the Arctic. They set about doing it themselves, and within two months they had themselves written this book. Here, in simple, unadorned language each of the airmen - Lyapidevsky, Levanevsky, Slepnev, Mololwv, Ramanin, Vodopyanov, Doronin – tells about his life, about how he learned to fly, how he accomplished his heroic feats.
This is a splendid book. It is a bit of real life. It is one of the most interesting books that has appeared in recent times. Its appearance is proof of the fact that our people has produced heroes who not only accomplish feats of heroism but are also able to recount the story both of themselves and of their feats. This is a new phenomenon in our literature.
When you read this book, you will see what sort of men these are. One was born in a village outside Moscow, another near Leningrad, a third in Poltava. Their lives took different courses. Many of them did not meet till Vankarem and Wellen. But, arrived there, they began to act together like a steel detachment of the revolution.
Who created them? Reading this book, you will see that it was the revolution which created these men.
And when our people honoured the “Chelyuskin” heroes, they were not only honouring their personal courage and heroism. Perhaps some writer who will set about describing this exploit will depict it as one more of the many examples of personal heroism, of personal courage. This would be a great mistake. No, each one of these men has his history. And what was done on the ice also has its history. And when our country honoured the heroes of the Arctic, it saw its own image in them; it saw in what took place on the ice an image of the whole land of Soviets, an image of the heroic proletariat. Two qualities which distinguish our toiling masses were displayed there: heroism, which our people revealed under the leadership of the working class when they paved the way for the first time in history to a new future, and supreme organized discipline, without which this heroism would be severed from the earth, would be baseless, without which none of these great deeds could be accomplished.
This is of tremendous significance for the artist, for artistic creation. One classical writer who died long ago, but who has “figured” at the present congress, said that realism which cannot see further than the end of its own nose is worse than the craziest fantasy, because it is blind.
The example of the “Chelyuskin” should teach the artist that he cannot confine himself to mere photography, that he cannot confine himself to a mere chronicling of events. The artist should find such traits as will reveal the connection between phenomena, as will show out of what background a man has grown, whence he has derived those qualities which have enabled him to accomplish marvels of heroism, marvels of organized discipline which have won the admiration of the whole world.
Much has been said here to the effect that our art must have content. This is perfectly true. There are now no longer any open upholders of formalism among us. True, there are still persons to be met with who denounce formalism and at the same time drag it in either in their works or their criticism. Such cases, unfortunately, still occur. But in our struggle against art without content, against art which is a reflection of the rottenness and decay of the bourgeois world, we have already won a decisive victory. And our artist recognizes that his work should be something more than a beautiful bouquet, that it should have content, that it should inspire, challenge and lead onward. It seems to me that an artist is searching when he is creating, when he is fashioning his work, and when he is exerting all his efforts in order that the images of his work - every thought, every feeling, every word - may reach the reader’s heart. And in this respect Maxim Gorky sets us all an example. His works are all so fashioned that the mass reader can understand them excellently. Here every word and every phrase is sharpened, here every image is carefully finished off, and everything is directed towards making the work find an echo in the heart of the reader. This is just what every genuine artist ought to strive for.
Comrades, many representatives of our new readers have spoken here. They came from all ends of our Soviet country. They mounted this rostrum and said: We love you, Soviet writers, and we respect you, but we expect you to give us new songs, new works, in which a flood of new feelings and thoughts may be outpoured. We want you to produce works which will inspire, which will beckon forward, in which all our dazzlingly colourful, manifold, heroic life and work will find their reflection. They came here, to the rostrum of this congress, and to the Congress of Soviet Writers, to the best representatives of the intelligentsia, they addressed their hopes and demands.
There can be only one answer: Yes, we will create a new art, the art of a free people. Yes, we will create the art of socialism.