The Soviet Writers’ Union under Gor′kij and Ščerbakov

From 1934 to 1936, the newly formed Soviet writers’ union was led by the team of Maksim Gor′kij and party ideologue Aleksandr Ščerbakov. The Gor′kij-Ščerbakov partnership embodied two faces of Soviet literary policy. Gor′kij symbolized the regime’s newly extended welcome, following the demise of RAPP and the “proletarianization” of literature, to a wider spectrum of writers, including the old intelligentsia. Ščerbakov, on the other hand, stood for the party’s intention to exert more comprehensive control and oversight of literature by herding writers into a single organization under the centralized control of the Department of Propaganda and ultimately, the party secretary in charge of ideology.

At first Gor′kij and Ščerbakov worked well together, but friction developed between them over whether the writers’ union’s main function was to keep writers informed of socialist achievements or to foster literary creativity. My paper will demonstrate that Gor′kij and other writers tried to harmonize party interests with literary creativity, but that they were frustrated in their efforts by bureaucrats’ unwillingness to entertain any compromise or modifications of policy. This hypothesis will be demonstrated through an examination of the correspondence between Gor′kij and Ščerbakov during this period (Arxiv Gor′kogo pri IMLI, documents from KG and PG series; Rossijskij centr xranenija i izučenija dokumentov novejšej istorii [RcXIDNI], fond 88), as well as in transcripts of meetings of the writers’ union presidium (Rossijskij gosudarstvennyj arxiv literatury i iskusstva [RGALI], fond 631, opisi 1 and 15). Supporting factual information will be drawn from Clark, Fitzpatrick, and Thurston.

What can these documents tell us about relations between writers and the state? The nadir of the relationship between Gor′kij and Ščerbakov occurred in late 1935, when the literary quality of recent works was discovered to have undergone serious deterioration (Arxiv Gor′kogo, PG-rl 55-1-18). The two men also differed over the influx of unqualified “writers” into the literary profession. At meetings of the presidium, Viktor Šklovskij and Boris Pil′njak tried to persuade Ščerbakov that literary journals could be improved if editors took it upon themselves to nurture particular writers (RGALI, fond 631, opis 15, doc. 13). Marietta Šaginjan offered suggestions for bringing literature into line with party policy and warned that party bureaucrats exhibited a contemptuous attitude towards writers (RGALI, fond 631, opis 15, doc. 67). Finally, the paper will examine what happened when the highly visible Šaginjan, submitted a formal declaration of withdrawal from the writers’ union (RGALI, Arxiv Gor′kogo, and Babičenko, Ščast′e literatury, 1997). This case had important consequences for the relationship between writers and the regime.