The Thaw

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Subject essay: James von Geldern

The biggest literary event of 1954 was the publication of Il’ia Ehrenburg’s THE THAW in the spring issue of Novyi mir. The novel chronicled the working lives of three very different Soviet types. The industrial manager Ivan Vasilievich Zhuravlev is the requisite protagonist of the Soviet novel, but here he is also a philistine and despot. Vladimir Andreevich Pukhov, is the son of an honest schoolteacher and himself a cynical artist who paints large canvases (“Feast on a Collective Farm”) for the government. The one sad note in his life is his envy for his colleague Saburov, who enjoys no professional success but follows the lonely path of true art.

Ehrenburg had broken with several of the canons of socialist realism enforced under Stalin. In the novel, justice does not immediately triumph, although it does in the end, and Communists are not the best part of society. Loyal servants of the Soviet system are shown to be self-serving sycophants. Ehrenburg had a tangled record as a reformer and Soviet loyalist. He lived in Paris for many years before and after the October Revolution, serving as a foreign editor of Soviet newspapers, returning at intervals to the USSR. Although many of his friends disappeared in the purges, he managed to survive, returning to Moscow in 1941 and working as a war correspondent. He received the Stalin Price in 1942 and 1948, and the Lenin Peace Prize in 1952. He even served as a Deputy to the Supreme Soviet from 1950. In retrospect, THAW tends to honor the tenets of Stalinist culture more than it defies them.

The Thaw of 1954 was timid and short lived. The term is much more appropriate for the cultural shifts that took place in 1956, 1959, and 1961, as liberals and conservatives struggled over the fate of Soviet culture. Other documents of the time include Vera Panova’s Four Seasons, a novel of 1953; Leonid Zorin’s Guests, a play of 1954. Critical statements that seemed daring at the time included Olga Berggolts’ “Discussion of Lyric Poetry,” where she insisted on the emotive power of literature, noting that even a bulldozer-driver has a personal life apart from the collective; and Vladimir Pomerantsev’s “On Sincerity in Literature” in the December 1953 issue of Novyi mir, in which he argued that Soviet literature was bad because writers didn’t believe what they were saying. Such statements were daring enough to cost Aleksandr Tvardovskii, editor of the liberal journal, his job, which he soon recovered. Honor of the first crack in the ice signaling the Thaw belongs to a young film student, Olga Shmarova, who in May 1953, three months after Stalin’s death, complained about the absence of love interests in films, and noted ironically that in Soviet films, lovers talk about bulldozers and tractors.

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