Slot:       30A-3          Dec. 30, 8:00 a.m. – 10:00 a.m.                                                

Panel:     Hero, History and Story

Chair:     Sharon Lubkemann Allen, State University of New York-Brockport


Title:       Conflicting Identities: The Soviet Historical Novel in the 1960-1980s

Author:   Volodymyr Chumachenko, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

One recent study characterizes the historical novel as a “literary dimension of nationalism” (Sethi, 1). Historical fiction actively participates in the process of shaping national and cultural identities representing the past through various ideological, political, and cultural perspectives. Although the problem of the relationship between literature and individual or group identities may seem more a sociological than a literary question, the unique literary dimension of the historical novel makes it an important element in the process of identity construction. This is especially true about Soviet literature and ideology. My analysis of the Soviet (Russian and Ukrainian) historical novel from 1960 to 1980 will help to answer one important question: why Soviet literature as a particular aesthetic and ideological system failed to fulfill its self-assigned historical task in helping to create a new type of a man – a man of the “communist future.”

Benedict Anderson emphasizes the role of the novel and the newspaper as “the technical means for ‘re-presenting’ the kind of imagined community that is the nation” (Anderson, 25). Slightly modifying this statement one can see the nation as “the kind of imagined community” with an “imagined past.” According to Anderson, “fiction seeps quietly and continuously into reality, creating that remarkable confidence of community in anonymity which is the hallmark of modern nations” (Anderson, 36).

The specificity of Soviet totalitarian society requires special attention to the political and ideological implications with regard to the function of cultural production and particularly, literature in that society. Eric Hobsbawm’s emphasis on the danger of historians’ involvement as myth-makers in identity politics may also be well applied to writers of historical fiction (Hobsbawm, 10).

One of the major reasons why the Soviet system ultimately collapsed was a complete failure of communist ideology and cultural policies in dealing with the past of the Soviet multi-ethnic society. As a result of this failure, national literatures (in our case – Russian and Ukrainian) were portraying the pre-revolutionary past relying on the traditions of national historiographies – imperialistic and nationalistic respectively. Novels by Dmitry Balashov, Valentin Pikul, Roman Ivanychuk, Raisa Ivanchenko can serve here as convincing examples. In spite of significant efforts by the political regime to erase cultural differences among the Soviet nationalities, national literatures in the Soviet Union were creating alternative discourses that undermined the rhetoric of “socialist internationalism.”  Official policy in support of the myth about “friendship and cooperation” could not prevent the creation of literary “mirages” – a problem “raised by the distorted view which one national group obtains of another through the influence of writers” (Escarpit, 5). National literatures in the Soviet Union ultimately succeeded in the creation of their “imagined communities” with “imagined pasts” within the tradition of “socialist realism.”



Anderson, Benedict. Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism. London and New York: 1991.

Escarpit, Robert. Sociology of Literature. Translated by Ernest Pick. Painesville, Ohio: 1965.

Hobsbawm, Eric. On History. London: 1998

Sethi, Rumina. Myths of the Nation: National Identity and Literary Representation. Oxford: 1999.


Title:       Ne boltai!: Gossip and History in the Works of Liudmila Ulitskaia

Author:   Jenne Powers, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

The works of Liudmila Ulitskaia (b.1943) are characterized by a light tone and gentle treatment of their subject matter. This tone is created by a closeness – but not identity – between narrator and character. Her narrators present themselves as all knowing, possessing a particular kind of non-objective omniscience and typical human unreliability of judgment characteristic of a neighborhood gossip. Gossip becomes a vehicle for writing history by identifying the vicissitudes of an individual’s life to the bigger picture of national upheavals and the spreading of unsubstantiated rumor to the writing of history.

Gossip is usually perceived as trivial, and Ulitskaia’s narratives maintain this attitude toward events. Typical is Medeia i ee deti (1997), in which Stalin’s death is overshadowed for the protagonist by the discovery of her late husband’s infidelity. The events themselves, familiar to her readers, take on a new meaning through this unusual parallel between biography and history. Gossip functions as ostranenie in these works. Ulitskaia’s first published volume of stories, Bednye rodstvenniki, may be read as a cycle based on gossip narrated by a neighbor who watches carefully but never gets involved – other than to convey the stories to the reader. One of her most successful povesti, Skvoznaia liniia, actually consists of five short stories united by the theme of women’s lies and the narrative motivation of gossip. Using gossip as narrative motivation creates an ironic commentary on the morality of individuals and the times in which they live. In many cases the divulging of personal information about others amounts to divulging the truth of the past, and in spreading news and rumors which may or may not be substantiated Ulitskaia’s fiction comments on the mixture of truth and lies in the writing of Soviet history.

In Russian criticism, Ulitskaia is consistently treated as a writer of zhenskaia proza and the question of gender dominates her interviews and public conversations. This use of gossip as narrative device may be one of the reasons she is perceived as a woman’s writer, but it is also a tongue in cheek response to that attitude. With the light, trivializing touch of gossip, Ulitskaia writes weighty fiction about the history of the Soviet era with a fresh view that invigorates a familiar topic.


Title:       The End of the Typical Hero: Aleksei Batalov in the films of Iosif Kheifits

Author:   Marina Madorskaya, University of Michigan

In 1954 Soviet film community welcomed a new hero personified by Aleksei Batalov in Iosif Kheifits’ film The Big Family. Batalov’s boy next door offered a fresh alternative to the monumental superman and the schematic everyman of Stalinist cinema. But under the soft exterior the hero retained the steel core of his predecessors – the un-reflexive loyalty to the Soviet cause however it was packaged at the moment. The actor managed to temporarily ease the progressive ailment of Soviet culture diagnosed by Katerina Clark as the modal schizophrenia of Socialist Realism: the necessity to represent life at once as it is and as it ought to be (Clark 2000: 36-45). Batalov gave the country its last typical hero, defined no less paradoxically as someone highly exceptional representing something extremely widespread. My paper will examine the evolution of this hero in six Kheifits films that star Batalov, from The Big Family (1954) to In the Town of S (1966). The paper will situate these films and their protagonist within the broader framework of post-Stalinist cinema, and provide an analysis of the narrative and character structures of Kheifits’ films.

With the gradual reintroduction of private life as a legitimate theme, Thaw filmmakers had to negotiate it within the framework of the dominant theme of social life. The goal was to represent “the big in the small,” the private as a manifestation of the public. To put it broadly, this problem was solved in two major ways. On the one hand, the filmmakers turned to extreme situations, in which the hero had to subjugate the “natural” side of his personality to the “ideological” one. But, as Vitalii Troianovskii convincingly shows in his pioneering essay “The Man of the Thaw: The 1950s,” such films presented their heroes as martyrs. Although such films as Pavel Korchagin or The Forty First may be credited with the introduction of the fatal split within the hero, audiences could not relate to the hero or his problem. The other kind of film, which was much more popular, presented social duty as a natural need of good Soviet people. Kheifits’ films may be situated between these two tendencies. Devoted to contemporary themes, Kheifits did not seek extreme situations. Yet, even though Batalov’s hero in his films always makes the right choice never doubting his faith in the social cause, from film to film this choice is increasingly harder to make, until it is displaced altogether along with the hero who makes it. This peculiarity is largely due to Kheifits’ attempt to follow the latest vogue while firmly holding on to his hero. The increasing complexity of the siuzhet entered into a conflict with the highly conventional fabula of his films. The diachronic progression of Batalov’s hero through Kheifits’ films uncovers some of the practical mechanisms leading to the ultimate replacement of Stalinist typical hero with the “superfluous man,” dominant in Soviet cinema from 1966 to Perestroika.


Stephen Greenblatt, Renaissance Self-fashioning.

Andrei Siniavskii, 127 pisem o liubvi (Vols. 1-3).

Abram Tertz, A Voice From the Chorus, and other works by Sinyavsky and Tertz.