The Rise of the New Soviet Novel in the Late 1930s

Anna Krylova, University of South Carolina

In the field of Soviet history and Russian and Soviet literature, it is virtually impossible to discuss the "Soviet novel" without invoking Katerina Clark's name. Clark's pioneering 1982 book, The Soviet Novel, did more than introduce Soviet literature as a viable research agenda and define the terms of its analysis for the next twenty years. It also provided an interpretive script through which subsequent cultural historians have read Soviet sources and defined Stalinist culture and identity. In contemporary historical scholarship, Clark's interpretation of the Soviet novel as structured by a conflict between the anarchic nature of the revolutionary masses and the organizing force of the Party--with a near inevitable resolution--has attained axiomatic status. (See, for example, the most recent work on Stalinist culture by Karen Petrone and James McMallan.) Clark's interpretation has entered the canon, and as yet, has gone virtually unchallenged. No other work on Stalinist culture in the post-war period can claim such an impact on the historical profession. To seriously question it is thus tantamount to reconceptualizing the field's core ideas about Stalinist culture and identity.

My project aims to challenge Clark's legacy in two ways. First, I will challenge the applicability of her reading of the Soviet novel to the Stalinist period. Second, I will analyze the rise of a new, distinctly Soviet novel in the late 1930s. This new novel, I argue, was different in form, content, underlying problematics, and guiding conceptual principles from the novels of the 1920s.

I situate the novel analyzed by Clark within the social particularities of pre-Revolutionary Russian society--the economic and cultural challenges it faced and the way they were conceptualized among the late imperial and early Soviet Russian intelligentsia. Far from typical only for Marxist radical intellectuals, the oppositions of anarchy and order and spontaneity and consciousness were prevalent across a broad spectrum of intellectual debates in the early twentieth century and the post-revolutionary period. It was symptomatic of the particular experience of educated and enlightened intellectuals in the midst of Russia's backwardness that was represented, in the first place, by a semi-literate populace. Behind these dichotomies hid the Russian intelligentsia's complex system of anxieties, aspirations, and agendas--claims to leadership, education, and revolutionary agitation of the "masses," and the fear of popular unpredictability, hostility, and rejection. During the 1920s, the spontaneity/consciousness paradigm in several variations guided the works not only of pro-Bolshevik writers, but also of so-called "fellow-travelers." It informed the novels of Dmitrij Furmanov and Aleksandr Fadeev as well as works by Vsevolod Ivanov and Konstantin Fedin. The difference inhered in the degree of optimism regarding the reconciliation of the conflict. The conflict between the masses as history and Russian intellectuals as revolutionaries or victims of the revolution was far from an unconscious problematic. It was a recognized literary trope in the literary criticism of the 1920s. In this regard, I argue that the novel of the 1920s, either "proletarian" or "bourgeois," was one of the literary media through which Russian intellectuals attempted to make sense of the Bolshevik Revolution and their role in it. Its "proletarian" version counterpoised an undisciplined man from the masses against a conscious member of the Bolshevik Party, considered the contradictions, and traced the growth of the man into a conscious fighter for the revolution. A product of the intelligentsia's world, by the late 1920s and early 1930s this narrative infiltrated writings of worker-writers and Komsomol writers. Following their predecessors, the new cohort of writers borrowed the conflict between the old (anarchy) and the new (consciousness) as an organizing principle of their works.

They further reified the literary hero who had to undergo a total transformation to get rid of his or her contradictions on the path to acquiring a solid communist identity.

By the mid 1930s, literary critics began to attack this novel and its heroes as obsolete and unrepresentative of Russia's new socio-cultural situation. The story of the 1920s with its all-too-familiar conflicts, plots, and characters had give way to a new novelistic form that would emplot the social, generational, and cultural changes set in motion during the First Five-Year plan. New anxieties of a new generation of intelligentsia, born and raised in Soviet Russia, informed the Stalinist novel.

The new author--along together with the first post-revolutionary generation to which he or she belonged--occupied a contradictory position in Stalinist society. On the one hand, the "new Soviet intelligent" figured as an embodiment of the revolutionary dream in the new evolving "Soviet" master narrative of the 1930s. Uncontaminated by bourgeois values, he or she personified the "completely new Soviet person" defined by Soviet education and elevated from class origins. On the other hand, in the eyes of the preceding generation--governed by a proletarian master narrative--the classless "new people" were enigmatic and often appeared suspiciously like the old pre-Revolutionary intelligentsia.

The first post-Revolutionary generation, I argue, internalized both the celebratory image of themselves as the embodiment of "Sovietness" and countervailing doubts about their identity. The novel of the 1930s became a medium to reconcile the generational conflict embedded in the two competing perceptions of Stalinist society: "proletarian" and "Soviet." In the new novel, the characters and the plots of the 1920s retreated into the background in order to clear space for new plots and new protagonists. Students, engineers, and specialists moved into the foreground and these new characters did not require total transformation or a proletarian mentor in order to be "Soviet." Their new task was to define their relationship to Soviet society outside the category of "class." Written by the new cohort of Soviet writers in an attempt to answer the pressing question about who they really were, the new novel and its heroes were marked by the internal conflict of the author, the polysemia of the decade, and the ultimate failure to reconcile the generational differences.

In the conclusion, I discuss the implications of my analysis of the new Soviet novel and its author for the field's views on Stalinist society and identity.