Howling in Unison
A new book detailing the psychic conflicts in the Soviet Writers' Union is a cautionary tale as much as a remarkable history.
The Soviet Writers’ Union and Its Leaders: Identity and Authority Under Stalin, by Carol Any (Northwestern University Press: October 2020), 336 pages.
“In my district, there are 154 registered members of the Writers’ Union,” boasted a Soviet Writers’ Union official, “whereas in the backward 19th century there was only one writer!” To be sure, the official concedes, that one writer was Leo Tolstoy. As this well-known anecdote suggests, to be a Soviet writer one was not required to produce readable literary works, but one did have to belong to the Union. When future Nobel laureate Joseph Brodsky was charged with the crime of “parasitism”—not being employed—the judge refused to accept his self-description as “poet” because he had no union card.
What exactly was the Soviet Writers’ Union? Like all unions in the USSR, it existed not to pressure authorities on behalf of its members but, quite the contrary, to transmit party orders. If writers obeyed, they earned material rewards out of the reach of ordinary citizens; but if they did not, they would be humiliated or worse. Proclaimed in 1932, the union began with 2,200 members. By the time Stalin died in 1953, 2,000 had been arrested, three-quarters of whom were executed or perished in labor camps. The dead included Isaac Babel, Boris Pilniak, Osip Mandelstam, and many other significant talents. While Stalin was alive, the union did not publish a directory because, as Carol Any points out in the present study, “directories would have served as reminders of those who had been erased.”
The purpose of state-supported literature, Any explains, was a literature-supported state. No country has ever valued literature more than Russia, and so it was almost inevitable that the party would enlist these “engineers of human souls,” as Stalin called them, to write fiction or drama conveying the party line. As the late Russian literature specialist Victor Erlich used to remark, writers were expected to grind out “boy meets tractor” novels.
Just as Stalin demanded industrialization at break-neck “tempo” (a favorite word), so writers were called upon to produce an increasing volume of fiction and drama. Writing to Stalin, the director of the Bolshoi Theater, Mikhail Arkadyev, assured the Leader that “the work on these plays is proceeding at full tempo and is nearly complete. We shall have, instead of the usual one play every two years, four plays in one year.” As with industrial goods, quality was, at best, secondary.
Writers, like other professionals, were “cadres,” a word with no precise English equivalent. A “cadre” was more than a mere functionary, and “cadres” (in the plural) were more than human resources: the term carried numerous implications, such as dedication to communism, membership in an honor group, pride in being entrusted with important work, and a lifelong mission. “Cadres decided everything,” Stalin once proclaimed, a slogan that meant that individuals decide nothing.
Writers, like all cadres, were expected to be permeated by the spirit of “partiinost,” party-mindedness, which meant that, ideally, their will coincided entirely with that of the party. There was no room for the private or personal, and frivolous literary forms like love poetry or pessimistic ones like tragedy were frowned upon. Artistry was, at best, secondary to ideological correctness. Cultivating individual talent earned one reproof for “Mozartism” (ever more pejorative “-isms” were always being discovered). Literary critics, who wrote scathing attacks on works that deviated ever so slightly, lorded it over creative talents.
As in the Communist Party itself, absolute unity was required. Nevertheless, there were always some writers who argued that literature should be, first of all, literature rather than propaganda, and who demanded a degree of freedom for self-expression. When the Writers’ Union was first established, the great poet Anna Akhmatova, for whom creative freedom remained paramount, did not apply for membership. “Don’t howl,” Boris Pasternak once implored a group of rabid literary critics, “and if you do howl, don’t howl in unison.” For some reason, Stalin protected Pasternak while murdering many other writers.
“Socialist Realism,” the regime’s official aesthetic, entailed the doctrine of “two truths.” When Vasily Grossman wrote to Maxim Gorky—a sort of patron saint of Soviet literature—for help in publishing a novel, he argued that it portrayed Soviet life “truthfully.” Gorky replied that beyond mere empirical truth, there was a higher truth, the essential nature of things according to Marxism-Leninism. Bourgeois writers see only what is before their eyes; Soviet writers must detect the seeds of the glorious Communist future.
To represent the higher truth, one needed a “positive hero,” free of all blemishes. The true Communist has overcome complex psychology, a product of the capitalist past. He knows that he must rely not on his own judgment, however pure, but on party guidance. Representing a hero acting on his own initiative constituted a serious infraction.
Solzhenitsyn referred to Socialist Realism as “a solemn pledge to abstain from truth,” and gifted writers sought ways around it. With a commitment to artistic quality, and a dedication to the role of literature as Tolstoy and Dostoevsky had understood it, writers trying to fulfill party directives suffered inner division. How they negotiated that division is the focus of Any’s book. Drawing on newly opened archives, which contain not only previously concealed minutes of Writers’ Union meetings but also remarkably frank letters and diaries, she uses her talent as a literary critic steeped in the Russian classics to probe writers’ psychic conflicts over their behavior and mission. In many cases, success, or even survival, depended on denouncing other writers, which often resulted in their execution. “Am I ‘walking on corpses’?” the writer Olga Berggolts asked herself. “No, I am saying what the Party commands. My conscience is basically clear.” She protested too much.
Writers faced what Any calls “Mayakovsky’s Choice.” Vladimir Mayakovsky, an exuberant, bohemian, experimental, self-dramatizing Communist, found that the revolution had in fact brought an oppressive bureaucracy, which regarded his forthright individualism as unacceptably bourgeois. Forced to conform, he eventually committed suicide, leaving a note rich in irony and containing one of his greatest poems. His example haunted writers in subsequent decades.
The book traces the lives and careers of a few writers and critics, the most important of whom, Alexander Fadeyev, also committed suicide. A talented novelist forced into constant compromises, he was made the head of the Writers’ Union in order to serve as “the respectable face of a coercive and destructive literary policy.” The position gave him no power to set literary policy, which was handed down from above. Rather, it allowed him to distribute highly desirable perks, while making him endorse policies he did not favor and sign off on the arrest and execution of other writers, including his friends.
Any also traces Fadeyev’s struggles with his conscience. Following Stalin’s order to attack Andrey Platonov, the author of experimental works now regarded as minor literary classics, Fadeyev wrote what he did not believe and so, as Any explains, “he had to find a way to believe it.” Any’s study towers over other accounts because of its subtle tracing of the dramas of self-justification: excuses that do not really excuse, self-deceptions that leave a sense of lying, and appeals to half-believed ideology as transcending ordinary right and wrong. Fadeyev constantly tells himself that doubt itself is counter-revolutionary, that class morality has superseded old-fashioned bourgeois standards, and that Goethe was wrong to say that choices are rarely all black and white. He recalls Dante’s description of those who did not take sides and so were not even worthy of hell.
With each step Fadeyev became morally worse, a decline all the more striking for “having roots in social idealism and personal bravery.” Beset by what he called “an incredibly sharp mental contradiction,” he found himself unable to write. When Stalin died, his successors declared an amnesty for a million political prisoners, and so surviving writers with mangled bodies and terrorized psyches reappeared. Like other Russian writers before him, Fadeyev took to binge drinking and needed to be hospitalized. When Nikita Khrushchev delivered his “secret speech” (which was not at all secret) condemning Stalin’s crimes, “the final straw that Fadeyev had reached for to prop up the teetering image of his honor group had collapsed.” Any’s gripping story concludes with an analysis of Fadeyev’s suicide note, which blames the party for having destroyed “the holy of holies,” Soviet literature, and for saddling him with bureaucratic work too burdensome for writing the masterpieces he had in mind. The one person he does not blame is himself, but in a letter to the writer Kornei Chukovsky, known for his probity, Fadeyev confessed: “I am a scoundrel.”
Any brilliantly untangles the logic of Soviet shame culture, which is also the logic of other political movements. In shame culture, an individual’s sense of self-worth comes entirely from the group. There is no other personal identity to fall back on. To lose one’s party card is to lose one’s very self.
The party perfected public humiliation, during which the target was expected to apologize abjectly in a ritual called “self-criticism.” Theoretically, one castigated oneself so as to learn from one’s errors, but in fact the point was “to erode the self. The party did its utmost to control not only what you wrote but who you were.” Such humiliation could happen to anyone at any moment, and so complete arbitrariness magnified the party’s power.
Since the party line often shifted, one could find oneself accused of errors that, at the time they were made, were not errors at all. The party constantly invented new mistakes, whether in ideas, practices, or phrases, so that one could never free oneself from the risk of humiliation. One sign of this sort of shame culture is the constant creation of new offenses, usually applied retroactively. No matter how many times the cadre manages to overcome his, he must always overcome them yet again.
At the height of his fame, when he had long directed the Writers’ Union and had won Stalin prizes, Fadeyev was summoned to a conference with Stalin, whom he found reading Chekhov. “You, Comrade Fadeyev, who are you?” Stalin demanded. When Fadeyev replied that he was a writer, Stalin answered: “You’re shit, Comrade Fadeyev, not a writer. Now, Chekhov, he was a writer.” It seemed that the plot of Fadeyev’s Stalin prize-winning novel The Young Guard had not assigned a large enough role to the party. To show he understood his errors, Fadeyev spent three years rewriting the book.
Did Fadeyev realize that “the point was not in correcting errors but in being shamed?” Any asks. “Nothing he did could ward off future shaming. There would always be another pretext.” Americans almost always fail to grasp the dynamics of such situations and so are likely to find themselves at a loss if faced with one.
A moral appeal as well as a history, The Soviet Writers’ Union and Its Leaders concludes with a reminder that what matters most is “taking ownership of one’s conscience, resolving never to delegate it to anyone, whether a leader, an honor group, or a cherished cause. More than politics, more even than love, conscience is the deepest part of our identity.” The more cherished causes and moralistic ideologies increase in power, and the more routinely humiliating confessions are demanded, the more pertinent the lessons of Soviet literary history become.
Gary Saul Morson is Lawrence B. Dumas Professor of the Arts and Humanities at Northwestern University.