Subject essay: James von Geldern
The First Congress of Soviet Writers convened on August 8, 1934, presided over by the once prodigal son and now loyal Soviet writer, Maksim Gorky. The stars of Soviet literature were in attendance, sharing the ornate hall with lesser literary lights. Thousands of letters from workers, collective farmers, students, Young Pioneers and intellectuals poured into the congress with congratulations and advice. Delegations representing millions of readers appeared at the congress, sharing their passions, ideas, and creative aspirations. Writers elected to the presidium chaired by Gorky included Konstantin Fedin, Vsevolod Ivanov, Leonid Leonov, Mikhail Sholokhov, Fedor Panferov, Alexander Serafimovich, Aleksei Tolstoi, Aleksandr Fadeev, and Demian Bednyi. Boris Pasternak, who chaired one of the sessions of the Congress, was elected to the Union Board along with Mikhail Zoshchenko, Boris Pilniak, Mikhail Privshin, and Il’ia Ehrenburg. Isaak Babel and Iurii Olesha were on the Auditing Commission.
These names represented the best and most independent writers in Russia, one of many encouraging signs at the congress. After years of consigning literature to the rule of party hacks and no-talent “worker-writers,” the Soviet state, it seemed, had returned the great tradition of Russian letters to the professionals. The Union of Soviet Writers, sponsor of the event, was formed by the Party Central Committee on 23rd April, 1932. All other literary organizations were dissolved, foremost the hated All-Russian Association of Proletarian Writers. As Gorky told delegates: “The Party and the Government are taking away from us the right to order one another what to do, offering us in return the right to teach one another. To teach, meaning to share with one another our experience.” The Union regularized the business of literature, providing a good and dependable living for its members. A writer who submitted to its authority would enjoy a variety of privileges. It parceled assignments to journalists, controlled which house published which books, and doled out foreign delicacies, high-end clothing, and even the highly-sought country homes (dachas) that were creative havens. To be a non-member meant not to be published. By the time of the congress, control of printing, distribution, publishing, radio, film and theater had been firmly centralized, with the Party Central Committee having absolute power of veto. The Writers’ Union served as model for other cultural unions (Cinematographic Workers, Actors, Artists) that were soon established.
Although historians recognize the congress to be a terrible moment for Soviet culture, signs were at best ambiguous to delegates and observers. Gorky described the “new Soviet man” that literature should portray: “A new type of man is springing up in the Soviet Union. He possesses a faith in the organizing power of reason. … He is conscious of being the builder of a new world, and although his conditions of life are still arduous, he knows that it is his aim and the purpose of his rational will to create different conditions and he has no grounds for pessimism.” Fedin said, “We have found a broad theme that is common to all socialist literatures: the contemporary theme, the theme of the reality around us.” Leonov said that he and his colleagues had the good fortune to live in “the most heroic period of world history.” Yet other voices were heard as well. Viktor Shklovskii, the great Formalist critic who would soon be silenced, noted that if Dostoevskii had attended the Congress, the delegates would naturally have condemned him as a traitor. Babel noted slyly he had “invented a new genre, the genre of silence.” Most chilling of all was the speech of Stalin’s representative at the congress, Andrei Zhdanov, who would preside over Soviet culture for the next fourteen years. Zhdanov emphasized that socialist realism was the official style of Soviet culture, and that the goal of all art was “to depict reality in its revolutionary development.” All artists, he decreed, were to be “engineers of the human soul.”