The Part to the Whole: Nikolaj Ostrovskij’s (Non) Autobiographical Novel

Lilya Kaganovsky, College of William and Mary

The original publication from 1932 to 1934 of Nikolaj Ostrovskij’s How the Steel Was Tempered in the journal Molodaja gvardija received very little notice. Lost on its way to the publisher in 1928, the novel had to be re-written from memory (Ostrovskij had made only one copy of the manuscript), and was rejected three years later on the basis of the “unreality” of its characters. Only when it was re-submitted yet another time to a different editor, did the novel finally come to print, the publication of Part 1, in fragmented form, taking almost the whole of 1932. Still, this “model” socialist realist text remained in critical obscurity until 1934, when two things happened simultaneously: the concept of socialist realism was proclaimed as the dominant model for all artistic production; and one of the Soviet Union’s most prominent journalists, Mixail Kol′cov, writing a biographical sketch about the author, discovered the “mummy” that was Nikolaj Ostrovskij.

Quoting from the article, Lev Anninskij writes that Kol′cov’s “essay produced the impression of an explosion.” “Nikolaj Ostrovskij is lying prone, flat on his back, absolutely still,” wrote Kol’cov, “the blanket is wrapped around the long, thin, straight column of his body, like an eternal, non-removable case. A mummy. But inside this mummy something is alive. Yes. The thin hands—just the hands—move slightly. They are damp to the touch … . The face, too, is alive. Suffering has dried its contours, erased its colors, sharpened its edges … . The voice is calm, and even though it is quiet, it only sometimes shakes from exhaustion.”

Curiously, this image of Ostrovskij, as a barely moving, barely living mummy, gave the author and his novel the fame that would remain unchallenged until the end of Soviet rule. Ostrovskij spent the last fourteen months of his life in a house built for him by the government on the Black Sea coast, where he lived “like a living legend on the street named after himself,” his house being a “site of countless pilgrimages and an object of the greatest interest for foreign journalists.” The novel’s great “fame,” therefore, was based first and foremost on the journalist Kol′cov finding its author, Nikolaj Ostrovskij “lying prone, flat on his back … like a mummy.” Ostrovskij’s paralyzed body—the destruction of which he described in his novel—made the story that he told in Steel “real”: that is to say, there seemed to be an actual physical body that had been sacrificed for the “greatest happiness of mankind”—the Soviet regime.

What followed, however, was an intentional confusion on the part of everyone (including Ostrovskij’s wife) of Nikolaj Ostrovskij (the author, real, physical) and Pavka Korčagin (the fictional character and Ostrovskij’s invention), so that every incident of Korčagin’s life (Ostrovskij never claimed he was writing an autobiographical novel) was attributed back to the author. Thus, it was no longer possible to distinguish between the two, and some did not try: Ostrovskij’s wife, in her biography, instead of telling the story of her marriage with Nikolaj, quotes a passage directly from the novel instead—for her, the fictional narrative comes closer to representing the truth than her own words.

It seems, then, that the case of Ostrovskij/Korčagin underscores the particular difficulties involved in socialist realist negotiations of fiction and reality. Most skeptical Russians, raised on Steel and trips to Ostrovskij’s house, believe that it was Maksim Gor′kij and not Nikolaj Ostrovskij who wrote How the Steel Was Tempered; that Ostrovskij was nothing more than a body (broken, paralyzed, displaying the signs of its commitment to the socialist realist dream) picked as a perfect representation of a “new Soviet author”—someone who looked like he had “actually lived” through the experiences he described. Thus the text (Steel) and the body (Ostrovskij), which seemed at first to be linked by synecdoche (one is the product, “the part to the whole” of the other), were instead linked only metonymically (by association, but not through any actual connection). The negotiation of author, persona, and character suggests a process of literary mystification that has repercussions for the notion of individual authorship and collective production; and raises questions about the place of the author (body in the world) in relation to the final product (both text and authorial image).