Marietta Šaginjan and the Soviet Production Novel

Mary Nicholas, Lehigh University

In her classic work on Soviet fiction, Katerina Clark identified the production novel as “the most common type of Stalinist novel by far” (Clark, The Soviet Novel, 256). Following Clark, we are accustomed to thinking of the production novel as a fixed and artificial genre, mandated by administrative fiat and produced to order by writers under coercion. The reality is more complicated. Political repression certainly did play a role in the development of the proizvodstvennyj roman, and most of these novels share certain features. Nevertheless, many production novels, particularly the earliest representatives of the genre, which emerged in the late 1920s and flourished in the 1930s, are relatively free of conformist heroes, stereotypical situations, and satisfying endings. These early works mostly avoid the dichotomous literary formulae and set pieces that characterize our stereotype of the genre. Their candor, complexity, and originality suggest the need to re-evaluate notions of the production novel as “the most highly ritualized” in Soviet fiction (Clark, 256).

            One of the most interesting examples of the genre is Marietta Šaginjan’s work Hydrocentral. A fictionalized account of the early stages of construction at a hydroelectric plant in Armenia, the work is now largely forgotten, relegated to the archives as another example of this “genre from above.” Yet Hydrocentral deserves a fresh look. The work, first published separately in 1931, is based on Šaginjan’s extensive personal experiences on site at a hydroelectric project in 1926 and 1927.  Šaginjan, who details her existence on site in both the novel and the autobiographical essay “How I Worked on Hydrocentral,” displays a sincere interest in the topic of construction that pre-dated most official attempts to engage writers in the actual process of building socialism. Her unique point of view – as a woman, a former Symbolist poet, and an Armenian – results in a fascinatingly hybrid text and suggests that the genre of the production novel may be more genuine than suspected.

            Hydrocentral offers an idiosyncratic and relatively frank portrayal of the haste and shortsightedness that characterized much Soviet construction. Early socialist building was a poorly organized and wasteful effort, and the resulting chaos, which leads in the novel to the collapse of a badly built bridge, is an essential, though unexpected topic of the work. The main character, an unemployed German Armenian doctor of philosophy, guarantees an unusual perspective for the work, which owes as much to the mystery novel as it does to official notions of Soviet literature. Šaginjan avoids an easy binary approach to the task of building socialism in her complex treatment of the topic of construction.  The novel suggests an understudied link between the desire to create art, the need to refashion oneself after the revolution, and the imperative, which Šaginjan shared with others at the time, to re-build in the face of destruction. The author's reversal of traditional literary landscapes and her unorthodox use of architectural metaphors throughout the text make Hydrocentral a useful corrective to more formulaic interpretations of the production novel.