Intellectual Achievement Falters While Soviet Emphasizes Industry
This is the sixth and final article of a series published in the CRIMSON on the Soviet Union and its satellites.
In the 37 years that the Communist Party has ruled the Soviet Union, Russia has successfully risen to be the second greatest industrial power in the world. But in that same 37 years, this once great literary leader has slipped to an insignificant level in the world of creativity--a decline caused largely by the same factors which brought about the industrial rise.
Where once Russia was noted for the novels of Leo Tolstoy and Fyodor Dostoyevsky; the drama of Anton Chekov; the satires of Michael Saltykov; and the sketches of Gleb Uspensky, Russia today, stifled by the evils of uniformity, has no writer of first rank.
This trend in the Soviet Union has been observed by Michael Karpovich, the Curt Huge Reisinger Professor of Slavic Languages and Literature. "There was considerable variety of thought immediately after the Revolution," Karpovich said, "but now thought is so uniform that it is boring."
After the 1917 Revolution, there was a fervor within Russian intellectual circles for a "new" literature which would express the revolutionary spirit and cast away the worn-out or "decadent" works of the past. One of the first groups which gained prominence was the Futurists. Spreading not only in literature but also in art, Futurism launched an attack on all bonds with the past. It attacked the vocabulary, as well as the long-standing customs of the people.
But the Futurists, composed largely of intellectuals, met with opposition from the so-called "proletariat writers," who denounced the Futurists as being "intellectual-bourgeois," and not fit for the new proletariat society. They felt that literature should be written by the class in power; since Russia was now proletarian, only the proletariats should write. Large "writing schools" were soon established to teach the workers to create poems, novels, etc.
But even though this Proletcult school was doomed to fail, it did succeed in developing a more literate race, more susceptible to books and also, propaganda. In the 1920's, with his country facing an economic breakdown, Lenin instituted a New Economic Policy (NEP), a sort of free enterprise economy. Coinciding with this economic easing of control, there was a new boom in creativity. Russian writers began to experiment with different types of forms, visited other countries, and even wrote books about other countries.
Socialist Realism Dominant
When Stalin instituted his first five-year plan in 1928, calling for a concerted drive to heavy industry, still another type of literature arose--the form which is compulsory in the Soviet Union now; Socialist Realism.
The problem which faced the writers of that industrial period was how to depict problems involved in the rapid transition to industry and yet retain literary standards. As might be expected, in doing the former, the latter suffered. Writers were forced to read their stories to assemblies of workers and writers, for "constructive criticism"; they had to sign time pledges for their books, just as a factory worker did. In writing about this period, the authors were almost always forced to use this Socialist Realism. Socialist Realism, in short, must depict conditions in factories, or farms, but in such a way that there must be an affirmation of the success of the communist system.
Except for the war-period, when the Russians reintroduced folklore into their literature to arouse national patriotism, this basic Socialist Realism, with its tedious patterns of thought, has persisted. The basic philosophy of the Soviet Union is utilitarian--a realistic novel is easiest to read, safest for propaganda, and therefore the best. The Soviet Union is afraid of thinking in contradiction to the regime. A James Joyce or Franz Kafka would be unknown in Russia today--he'd be too hard to read, besides being called "intellectual-bourgeois."
This simple utilitarian principle is carried over into the other arts also. Music should be simple enough so that it may be whistled; painting must be realistic; likewise sculpture and movies. As government controls industry, it also controls the output of books. It makes sure there is no "Ulysses" being published by using a very strict censorship.
The shifts in power last week indicated certain economic changes, but there is no such change indicated toward the arts. Karpovich, disgusted with the present status of Russian literature, says that Russian creativity, instead of progressing, as Marxist theory insists the Russian state will, is actually going backward