Rescripting History: The History of the Stalin White Sea-Baltic Canal

Cynthia Ruder, Bryn Mawr College

As one of the few extant truly collectively-written works, The History of the Stalin White-Sea Baltic Canal (1934) fuses disparate narrative strategies into an often seamless whole. Although not always successful in its attempt to present a thematically, ideologically, and stylistically unified version of the construction of the Belomor Canal, The History of Construction nevertheless achieves a wholeness that is a function both of the totality of the historical event it sought to immortalize and of the commitment of the volume's editors and writers brigade to produce THE canonical text about the Belomor Canal.

As discussed in Making History for Stalin: The Constuction of the Belomor Canal (University Press of Florida, 1998), The History of Construction was touted as a totally innovative work, the first of its kind to appear in Soviet literature. While this general assertion is true, it fails to consider that the Belomor volume heavily relied on texts that proceeded it. As Greg Carleton (Slavic Review 53, 4 (1994): 992-1009 has argued, narrative elements of the Belomor volume can be traced back to medieval genres that joined ideology and literature to produce forceful arguments for a particular regime or ruler. The Belomor text supports Carleton's view, but this position reveals only part of the picture. In fact, the Belomor volume rescripts, as it were, other literary texts and histories to produce a hybrid work that defies classification as any one genre.

Therefore, this paper will argue that the authors and editors of the Belomor volume rescripted historical and literary narratives to achieve its goal. In a broader sense The History of Construction rewrote Soviet and Russian history as largely as a response to Gorky's plan for a new Soviet literature that accurately reflected the development of the new Soviet state. In critical articles about the function and direction of Soviet literature, Gorky argues for a Marxist reshaping of Soviet history that reinforces and extols the emergence of a worker's state and reinterprets the events that preceded it. This mandate infuses the entire Belomor volume and directs its thematic and narrative direction.

In a narrower sense, individual authors reinterpreted and rewrote narratives that trace their sources to Russian realism, to the literary type of the superfluous man, and to early proto-socialist realist texts. In so doing they mitigate the supposed innovation and originality of the Belomor volume, thereby diluting its claim of being a singularly unique text. This is not to suggest that the Belomor volume's authors consciously strove to reinterpret other texts. On the contrary, this demonstrates that inspite of their best efforts to produce a truly original, inimitable account of the Belomor Canal construction project the volume's authors neither could escape from nor ignore their narrative "roots."

As a result, this double rescripting reveals not only much about how canonical Soviet socialist realist texts were produced. It also demonstrates that the attempt to produce something new and original could not be and was not divorced from the very texts from which it sought to distance itself.