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The Historical Gadfly: Thawing Into Spring with Polly Jones on Soviet Literature

April 12, 2012

Tell people you’re reading Russian literature and they’ll light up; tell people you’re reading Soviet literature and they’ll think you’re a weirdo. Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina is perhaps my favorite novel, for example, and I’m always delighted to land into a conversation with people who have also read it and debate some of the usually questions: can we appreciate Stiva Oblonsky for his qualities as a friend in spite of his (numerous) transgressions as a husband and a father? What lessons might cold Karenin’s turn to obscurantist psychology and mesmerism in the face of the breakdown of his marriage hold for those of us who like to think of ourselves as perpetually rational animals? Between Dolly, Kitty, and Anna, which female protagonist do we find the most compelling as a guide for how to care for friends, spouses, children, and other loved ones in the face of scandal? These are the kinds of questions drawn from great literature that lend themselves perfectly to conversation over multiple cups of tea, preferably in the leather couches of an Oxford drawing room.

The fact that Keira Knightley is playing the title character in an upcoming production of 'Anna Karenina' has nothing to do, I assure readers, with my love for the novel.

But ask someone their opinion on Yuri Dombrovsky, the characters Kostoglotov or Rusanov (two of the protagonists from Solzhenitsyn’s Cancer War), or, less obscure, Vasilly Grossman  and you’ll often get a blank stare. We’re trained to appreciate 19th century (Gogol, Pushkin, Dostoevsky), and to a much lesser extent, early 20th century (Akhmatova, Tsvetaeva, Babel, Bulgakov) Russian literature as up there among the world classics. But even though the Soviet state sought to cultivate authors and to portray itself as culturally and intellectually superior to either the barbaric Fascist European countries or the crude and materialistic United States many people aren’t as aware of the literature produced in the USSR, particularly after Stalin’s death. This is particularly true for the period known as the ‘Thaw’ –  roughly, the years 1956-1964, after Khrushchëv denounced Stalin and sought (to over-simplify the story) to create a Soviet socialism that could exist and make sense independent of the person who had done the most to make it.

A recent issue of Novy Mir, one of the most famous of the great Russian literary reviews

It’s too bad that more people don’t devote their reading time to this mid-century Soviet literature. Not only do several authors from that period (Voinovich, Konstantin Simonov, Aleksandr Tvardovsky as both editor and author) demand our critical attention as readers; understanding how these authors operated in a publishing and authorial climate radically different from our own today is important to understanding the connections between political history, publishing history, intellectual history, and the kind and quality of fiction that gets produced. Soviet writers producing literature during those years faced unprecedented challenges while operating in a non-market system of journals, publishing houses, and editors foreign to our intuitions about how publishing works. Soviet authors who wrote after Stalin’s death, and in particular after the campaign to remove, or de-emphasize Stalin from everyday iconography, had a number of issues on their hands. They had to find ways to render the multiple tragedies and traumas of the Stalin years: industrialization; collectivization, with millions starved to death; the Terror, with memories of relatives being hauled away at night; and the tens of millions killed during war or evacuated to foreign, grim Soviet Central Asia. How to do justice to these traumas without launching an implicit critique of the Soviet state, or rejecting the possibility that a new Soviet beginning was possible even in spite of these colossal traumas?

Not only that, later the Soviet state and its cultural élites had to face dilemmas of their own: they wanted to encourage Soviet citizens to read biographies of great historical revolutionaries. But to do so meant recruiting talented authors who would not necessarily produce the stale, hyperbolic prose of old Soviet biographies. Both authors as well as state officials faced unique challenges in reinventing ‘socialist literature’ at a time when socialism couldn’t mean Stalin, and had to be re-invented in a way that seemed fresh for the realities of the postwar world.

Polly Jones, cultural historian and my guest for this episode of The Historical Gadfly

These are some of the dilemmas that Polly Jones, the Schrecker-Barbour Fellow at University College at Oxford and a specialist in Russian cultural history, discusses with me on this most recent dispatch of The Historical Gadfly. Polly, whose work I was first acquainted with at a recent conference in Amsterdam, is in the final steps of preparing her book, Myth, Memory, Trauma. The Stalinist Past as Soviet Culture, 1953-70, to be published with Yale University Press in due course (probably out next year). In the talk, we touch on a number of subjects: the impact of postwar British intensive Russian training courses on a generation of scholars and the after-effects of that Cold War Russia boom in the academy; Russian literary archives; and thoughts on forging a career as a female scholar.

Check it out here, or download it from iTunes!

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