Proletarian Writers

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Subject essay: James von Geldern

The rich literary heterodoxy of the 1920s was brought to an end in 1929, when the Party granted the Russian Association of Proletarian Writers (RAPP) hegemony over the lettered world. Publishing houses and literary journals were placed in the hands of self-proclaimed worker-writers, many of whom had little experience writing or running institutions. They did have experience sloganeering: “For the Hegemony of Proletarian Literature! Liquidate Backwardness!” What these imperatives meant was hard to fathom; their consequences, which included the silencing of the most gifted voices of the era, soon became apparent. The compromises of the 1920s were swept aside with the same vigor that introduced Five-Year Plans and shock workers into the industrial world. Literature no longer had autonomous value; its utilitarian tasks were to reflect the “unvarnished” reality of the working class and optimistically describe its new world. Literature was not to create, but to respond to “social demand” (zakaz). Observers who noted contradictions were hounded out of the literary world.

Undisputed king of RAPP was Leopol’d Averbakh (1905-1937), critic and chief editor of On Literary Guard (Na literaturnom postu). Averbakh is often branded as the executioner of Soviet-Russian literature. The chief villains, though, were Stalin and Central Committee, which used RAPP to place literature and the other arts (excepting, for the time being, music) under Party control. Averbakh’s notion that content rather than form was primary in literature was hardly new to Russian culture, and his ardor for building a new culture accessible to all social classes was not unique. But when combined with the power of the state, the dictums of RAPP become odious and destructive.

The proletarians in literature, and their comrades in the other arts, had two objectives: to root out class-alien culture, and to create new art forms in its place. The first, at least, was achieved: former aristocrats, unsympathetic intellectuals, nonconformist artists and other dangerous elements were denied access to presses, theaters, and museums. Not only were “fellow travelers” (the contemptuous tag used to condemn non-Party writers) such as Mikhail Bulgakov and Aleksei Tolstoi attacked, but also revolutionists such as Maksim Gorky and Vladimir Maiakovskii. Cultural intolerance ruled. Popular culture came under attack: urban balladeers could find no song-sheet publishers; detective stories and science-fiction novels were condemned. Imports from the bourgeois West were automatically suspect. Even folk ensembles such as the Piatnitsky Folk Chorus and the Andreev Balalaika Orchestra were banned. The campaign reached absurdity when dancing bears were banished from the streets of Moscow.

Many writers who were members of RAPP were not without talent. The novelists Mikhail Sholokhov(Quiet Flows the Don), Dmitrii Furmanov (Chapaev), Aleksandr Fadeev (The Rout), and Iurii Libedinskii (Birth of a Hero) produced work that fell within RAPP canons and can still be read with pleasure. Yet the era is remembered more for its clumsy initiatives, such as “collective” literature–represented by the shock-workers’ journal of a trip abroad.

The Cultural Revolution, not the Revolution of 1917, altered the face of mass culture once and for all. Industrialization and collectivization almost destroyed folk and popular culture. The intelligentsia surrendered its independence; the peasantry and its culture almost ceased to exist; the urban audience was transformed. Centralized institutions replaced local cultural production. Cities, towns and villages in the center and the provinces heard and saw approximately the same thing, aided by new expanse-shrinking technologies–foremost the radio. Soviet citizens had few unsupervised channels of communication, and none that could link more than several people at a time; and they had almost no contact with the creators of their culture.

When the Central Committee issued a decree “On Restructuring Literary-Artistic Organizations” (April 23, 1932), in which RAPP was dissolved and the new Writers’ Union was created, open to writers of all literary creeds (except those deemed to be anti-Soviet), many writers rejoiced. What they failed to notice was that RAPP had served its purpose, subordinating literary life to political control, and that the union replacing it would play an even more dominant role in their lives. Most RAPP members were allowed to join the union; Averbakh did too, although he would become an early victim of the purges in 1937.

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