Self-Defeating Heroism in Kavaler zolotoi zvezdy

Andrew Hicks, Columbia University

Studies of Socialist Realist prose generally note the uniformity of plot and characterization from novel to novel. As one step in demarcating the room available for individual style and innovation in the late Stalin era, I explore Semën Babaevskii’s Kavaler zolotoi zvezdy, the first of his two Stalin Prize novels. Attacked in Pomerantsev’s seminal Thaw essay “Ob iskrennosti v literature” for a juvenile approach and an obliviousness to the real issues of agricultural reconstruction, Babaevskii nevertheless distinguishes himself via a formal stratagem unusual for the period: by making his protagonist a Hero of the Soviet Union, he moves the generically required “positive hero” onto a metaliterary level, inviting a reading not only of plot events but of the function of the positive hero doctrine in postwar Soviet society. By focusing attention on the differential treatment accorded the protagonist when he wears his Hero medal, Babaevskii eventually calls into the question one of the underpinnings of the positive hero doctrine: how can readers emulate the positive hero if his accomplishments depend as much on his preferential societal status as on classic generic attributes like unusual energy and developing consciousness?

Interwoven with this reading is a brief methodological consideration. Although the specter of self-defeating textual strategies may tempt us to employ a Deconstructive approach, I argue for the greater explanatory force of speech act analysis as practiced by John Austin and John Searle, since the method’s underpinnings in rhetoric and focus on individual utterances prove congenial for a practical analysis of individual creative leeway in a highly straitened system.