Galloping Cavalrymen and Porcelain Shepherds: A Portrait of the Soviet Society in Vasilij Grossman’s Fiction of 1937–1940

Elena Monastireva-Ansdell, Oberlin College

By the late 1930s the topic of the Revolution and the Civil War in Soviet literature was pushed into the background by a new stress on the country’s industrial progress and the struggle with “enemies of the people.” As the country deviated ever further from the original precepts of the Revolution under Stalin’s totalitarian rule, references to the founding period of the Soviet state had to be controlled and manipulated to suit Stalin’s model of socialism. In his drive to consolidate power and to gain complete control over interpretation of the Soviet past, Stalin, in 1935, dissolved The Society of Old Bol′ševiks and the Society of Former Political Prisoners and Exiles. The severe purges of the following years eliminated most of the “old Bol′ševik guard;” thus almost an entire generation of the most experienced and devoted revolutionaries was wiped out of Soviet society.

Writing about contemporary life in a series of short stories from 1937–1940, Vasilij Grossman introduces a number of references to the Civil War and old revolutionaries while addressing the problem of the state of Soviet society in the late 1930s. Even though the stories were not intended or suited for publication in the years of Stalin’s totalitarian rule, Grossman expresses his ideas on the Stalinist regime in the form of fleeting references to the revolutionary period, seemingly insignificant details and symbolic images. Carefully selected and added together, they constitute a systematic and comprehensive outlook on a system which has broken its ties with its revolutionary past.

In this paper, I undertake a selective analysis of Grossman’s two short stories, “The Young One and the Old One” and “A Few Sad Days,” with the goal of recreating Grossman’s vision of his country’s past and present during the years of the most severe Stalinist repressions. Although some perceptive comments have already been made on certain individual symbolic images in both stories (Frank Ellis, John and Carol Garrard), there has been as yet no attempt to conduct a more comprehensive analysis of the image system as a whole, with the inclusion of the most fleeting and obscure but equally important references.

I first discuss Grossman’s concepts of severed connections and of a society which has lost its core, expressed through such images as a heroine’s speedy car ride to her dacha, a deceased engineer’s library, an elaborate collection of pine cones, a bed of yellow lilies planted at a dacha by an old revolutionary, and a stagnant community well. I dwell for a little longer on Grossman’s treatment of the dacha as a repository of cultural and historical memories and as a failing model of the alleged Stalinist “paradise on earth.” Another significant episode, in which a veteran of the Civil War looks through a pile of his old and more recent photographs, takes us to a discussion of a juxtaposition Grossman creates between the contemporary state of Soviet society and the early revolutionary years. A few seemingly harmless details noted by the beholder in the “brighter” pictures of the “resort years” (Grossman), come together to reflect a festive but portentous facade of the Stalinist regime. The exalted Soviet idyll is later figuratively portrayed in a laconic image of a playful cupboard display, featuring “galloping cavalrymen and porcelain shepherds.” I will discuss the symbolism of the image, while speaking of Grossman’s irony over the false continuity which the Stalinist regime forged between the two periods of Soviet history.