The Uses and Abuses of Memory: Samuil Marshak and His Quest for Belonging

Marina Balina, Illinois Wesleyan University

In his autobiographical narrative At Life's Beginning (1961), the celebrated Soviet children's writer Samuil Marshak introduced readers to his childhood in pre-revolutionary Russia. He describes the life of his Jewish family in provincial Russia, his school years and his miraculous introduction to the world of Russian literature that placed him among such figures of Russia's high culture as Vladimir Stasov, Maxim Gorky, Fedor Chaliapin, and Ilya Repin, among others. While recalling his past, the Soviet writer is faced with a difficult task of confirming his belonging to the Soviet literary establishment by conforming his memory of his pre-revolutionary childhood years to the predominant mode of "anti-childhood," first introduced into Russian literature by Maxim Gorky (Wachtel 1990: 131).

In my paper I explore the contradiction within one autobiographical text between two dominant models of childhood narratives known to Russian literature: "the happy, happy time" of Tolstoy's childhood as a gentry boy (Childhood, 1852) and the grim depiction of childhood in Gorky's autobiography (Childhood, 1913). Being faced with the difficult task of fitting his life experience into the dominant Soviet model, Marshak is preoccupied with an attempt to simultaneously construct his self-image that would be congruent with the anti-childhood model and provide legitimacy to his construct. Thus, the real events in the happy life of a little Jewish boy underwent a strict selection process. The focus of the story shifted from everyday recollections toward depictions of the obligatory elements of the anti-childhood narrative such as social inequality, poverty, and the lack of parental care. Each of these obligatory motifs finds its representation in Marshak's real life narrative, at times though, in some distorted form. Thus, the most powerful experience of social inequality - Marshak's experience of anti-Semitism- is downplayed due to its obvious relevance to Soviet life in the 1960s. The lack of parental care (his father is alive and a loving and caring character but lacks proper education) was converted into the absence of intellectual guidance. This makes the urgent need to replace a real father figure with a "spiritual father" (first Stasov and then Gorky) essential to the narrative. In addition, officially prescribed motif of poverty finds little factual support within the text.

I would like to argue that in Marshak's case the process of layering of obligatory mythologies of the anti-childhood model over his personal recollection leads to the creation of palimpsest modality (Genette 1997: 7-11). The two narrative layers exist concurrently; much like medieval manuscripts in which an original text was erased and subsequent writing applied to a parchment, anti-childhood model overwrites but does not destroy the personal recollection layer in Marshak's text. Little details such as memories of the first Hebrew teacher, images of grandparents, single episodes telling about school life constantly surface through the obligatory elements and obvious pressures of the external structure. The act of reading of the text consists of excavating the original experiences and emotions and comparing them to the visible narrative. While remaining structurally subordinated to the dominant Soviet anti-childhood model, At Life's Beginning invites its audience to undertake a reading that highlights the struggle over the ownership for the right of private recollection.


Wachtel, Andrew Baruch. The Battle for Childhood: Creation of a Russian Myth. Stanford, CA: Stanford UP, 1990.