Fiction, Ethnography and the Politics of Voice in Early Soviet Russia

Michael Gorham, University of Florida

Among the more troubling conclusions of Jakov Shafir's 1924 study of the reception of Bolshevik newspapers in the countryside was that, for the most part, peasants were not reading the papers at all. A combination of factors--low literacy levels and problems in production and distribution, in particular--led rural populations to depend on other, oral sources for information about the "outside world." These sources, Shafir wrote, assumed the form of "talk, rumor and gossip" and were almost completely dominated by "counter-revolutionary" forces--"popes, sorceresses, [...] nepmen, former landowners and various other white-guard fellows." In the tales about Lenin as the antichrist, anti-Soviet miracles, wonder-working icons and apocalyptic rumors of war, taxes, UFOs, meteorites and the end of the world itself, Shafir detected a degree of consistency and overlap that suggested organized campaigns against the Bolsheviks and urged in his report that, particularly in those regions where the paper was little read, more attention be directed to these spheres of what he called ustnaja slovesnost'.

Shafir's observations address two points relevant to my discussion in this paper: first, that the Bolsheviks faced a formidable communication gap between center and periphery--particular the rural peasantry--and, secondly, that cultural leaders recognized both the problem and the importance of oral narratives in the representation of their ideas. Predicated as it was on slogans that called for "all power to the people" and the formation of a "worker-peasant state," the emerging Soviet state had an enormous stake in the nurturing of a new "voice" among the peasantry, a verbal indication that the new ideas and language of state were becoming "naturalized" among the rural population. In this paper I discuss several examples how the oral production of the masses was filtered through the lens of contemporary fiction writers, folklorists and ethnographers. I do so in order to show how verbal portraits of the narod, in all their various permutations, came to function as didactic tools for the legitimation of the new Soviet state and the discursive shaping of its citizens. In the course of my analysis of pseudo-ethnographic civil war reminiscences, I pay particular attention both to the ambiguous distinctions between ethnography and fiction and to the power of language and narrative in battles over collective memory and identity formation.

I focus on two case studies of pseudo-ethnographic collections: Sof'ja Fedorchenko's Narod na vojne, published in various forms between 1917 and 1927, and the 1931 collection of oral narratives entitled Revoljucija: Ustnye rasskazy ural'skix rabochix o grazhdanskoj vojne, edited by the ethnographers Semen Mirer and Vasilij Borovik. My reasons for selecting these over the scores of like publications that appeared in the first fifteen years of Bolshevik rule are threefold: both address the politically and culturally potent theme of the civil war--one of the most important sources of state legitimation and myth-making of the time; both received considerable public attention when they first appeared; and both make some conscious effort to blur the boundaries between fiction and fact (hence, my use of the hyphenated prefix "pseudo-"ethnography). At the same time, their starkly different representations of the glas naroda highlight the shift in the relative currency of competing discourses during the 1920s.