Writers from the Soviet era

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Vladimir Mayakovsky

Like the music and the graphic arts, the literature in the first years of the Soviet regime knew a strong urge to experiment and to search for new forms. Initially, the avant-gardists and the futurists had a major influence, with the poet Vladimir Vladimirovich Mayakovsky (1893-1930) as one of the leading men. Their movement, the Левый фронт искусств (ЛЕФ) [Levy Front Iskusstv] (LEF) or Left Front of Arts was influential with their magazine of the same name.

The end of this period of experimentation in the twenties, with its many movements and groups, was marked by the suicide of Mayakovsky in 1930 and was finally sealed with the establishment of the Союз советских писателей [Soyuz sovietskikh pisateley] or the Union of Soviet Writers in 1932. It was one of many tools with which the Communist Party wanted to influence the creative process from the first moment of artistic inspiration.

Click here to read more about the control mechanisms used in the Soviet Union

Since then, the social realism was the only permitted style. The censorship was rampant. There were roughly three types of writers: those who agreed to the typical Soviet optimism and described the uncritical glorification of the progress made by the Soviets, those who wrote underground literature, and those who emigrated abroad.

Mayakovsky dropped his experimental style, and became a Soviet poet who enjoyed a relatively high degree of freedom. Mikhail Bulgakov, who had a love-hate relationship with Mayakovsky, had denounced him in The Master and Margarita by parodying him as the character Alexander Riukhin. Because Stalin considered him as just a lackey of the regime, Mayakovsky became increasingly frustrated which caused him, along with the pressure of a controversial love triangle, to commit suicide in April 1930.

Read more about the relation between Mayakovsky and Bulgakov

Maksim Gorky

Maksim Gorky (1868-1936) also had a great freedom of movement. First he was a committed socialist and a close friend of Vladimir Ilyich Lenin (1870-1924), but after 1917, he condemned the state terror of the Bolsheviks and emigrated to Italy. After Lenin's death, however, he chaged his opinion again and in 1931, he finally returned to the Soviet Union. He wrote an positive essay on the Solovetsky camp, a precursor to the Gulag camps, and in 1935 he became head of the Union of Soviet Writers. So he was a powerful man and a protégé of Stalin. It was Maksim Gorky who proclaimed the artistic doctrine of social realism in his speech at the First Congress of Soviet Writers in 1935.

Mikhail Sholokhov

Another writer who was very loyal to Stalin was Mikhail Aleksandrovich  Sholokhov (1905-1984), author of the famous novel And Quiet Flows the Don, which won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1965. It was said that Sholokhov had stolen this novel from a Cossack officer who was killed. No one could not believe that such young and unintelligent man as Sholokhov had written a fantastic book. Sholokhov was in every sense an author of Stalin. Stalin had him promoted, and threatened to arrest all those who dared to say bad things about Sholokhov. The authorship of And Quiet Flows the Don was one of the greatest literary mysteries of the century. Many critics, including Alekandr Isaevich  Solshenitsyn (1918-2008), defended the opinion that the true author of the novel was Fyodor Dmitrievich Kryukov (1870-1920) a Cossack and anti-Bolshevik who died of typhoid fever in 1920.

Boris Pasternak

Other writers who loathed the ideas of the Soviets, but who stayed in the USSR nevertheless, like Mikhail Bulgakov, often had difficulties in getting their works published or staged. They wrote, however, some of the major classical literary works of the twentieth century, which were often published much laterd. Besides The Master and Margarita, the most famous example is probably Doctor Zhivago, written by Boris Leonidovich Pasternak (1890-1960). It was published in 1957 in Italy, and one year later it was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. Intimidated by a smear campaign from the Union of Soviet Writers, Pasternak finally allegedly voluntarily refused the Prize.

Ilf and Petrov

The famous writers' team Iehiel-Leyb Arnoldovich Faynzilberg (1897-1937) and Yevgeny Petrovich Kataev (1903-1942), better known as Ilya Ilf and Yevgeny Petrov, met one another at the magazines Gudok and Moryak. They began to write together and became renowned with the entertaining novel The Twelve Chairs (1928) and its sequel, The Golden Calf (1931). In 1936 they made a trip through the United States, which yielded a new book, One-storied America, translated as Little Golden America.

Marina Tsvetaeva

Among the émigrés, the poet Marina Ivanovna Tsvetaeva (1892-1941) deserves a special place. After the civil war in 1922, she moved abroad. After having lived in Prague for three years, she settled in Paris in 1925. Because she felt much sympathy with Mayakovsky and corresponded with him, she got lonely in the West, so they returned to Moscow in 1939. Both her husband Sergey Yakovlevich Efron (1893-1941) and her daughter Ariadna Efron (1912-1975) were arrested in 1941. While in emigration, her husband had been recruited by the NKVD. But when they got back he was arrested and executed. Her daughter was exiled to Siberia. Eventually, Tsvetaeva committed suicide. She was the daughter of professor Ivan Vladimirovich Tsvetaev (1847-1913), who founded the Pushkin museum in Moscow, opened in May 1912.

Vladimir Nabokov

Vladimir Vladimirovich Nabokov (1899-1977) was a friend of Tsvetaeva. He was the son of a wealthy family in St. Petersburg and spoke fluent French and English. After the Bolshevik seizure of power, he emigrated to Britain, and then he went through Berlin and Paris to the United States. His early work was written in Russian, later he began to write in English, and he regarded himself as an American novelist. His most famous work is the notorious novel Lolita from 1955, describing the frenzied love of a forty-intellectual for a young American girl.

Two other Russian emigres won the Nobel Prize for Literature. In 1933, Ivan Alekseevich Bunin (1870-1953) was the first Russian Nobel Prize winner for The Life of Arsenev, a highly autobiographical novel which deals with the lives of the impoverished nobility in Russia around 1900. The poet Iosif Aleksandrovich Brodsky (1940-1996), who received the prize in 1987, was expelled in 1972 and flew from Vienna to the United States, where he spent the rest of his life, separated from his wife and child.

Other writers in the Soviet Union

After the death of Stalin in 1953, during the reign of Nikita Sergeevich  Khrushchev (1894-1971), followed a period of relative thaw in Soviet literature.

One of the first writers who could benefit from it was Grigory Yakovlevich  Baklanov (1923-2009). He was known for his war novel An Inch of Land (1958), translated as The Foothold in 1962, in which he described the Soviet soldier between two fires: the foreign enemy and the internal enemy. Although the Soviet authorities found that he wrote too much in a naturalistic way, he got the State Prize of the USSR for lifetime achievement in 1982. From 1986 to 1993, during the reforms under Mikhail Sergeevich  Gorbachev (°1931), he played an important role as editor of the literary magazine Знамя [Znamya] or The Banner. Znamya had much influence on the glasnost which Gorbachev propagated. The magazine published works which previously fell under communist censorship and made crimes committed under the rule of Stalin, public. In 1993, Znamya was converted into a fund.

Anatoly Rybakov

Anatoly Naumovich Rybakov (1911-1998) was already an acclaimed author in the Stalin period. He won the Stalin Prize in 1948 and 1951 and also enjoyed fame as a writer of children's books. He is best known for a four-part semi-autobiographical, starting with Children of the Arbat. The book was written in the 50s but could only be published in 1987. It describes the first wave of persecutions of the Stalinist period, from 1933 to 1935. It quickly became an icon of Glasnost. The next books in the series were 1935 and Other Years (1989), Fear (1990) and Dust and Ashes (1994).

Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn

One of the most famous writers of the period after Stalin was undoubtedly Aleksandr Isaevich Solzhenitsyn (1918-2008) who received the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1970. Thanks to his monumental work The Gulag Archipelago (published in Paris between 1973 and 1975), the outside world got aware of the Gulag labor camps in the Soviet Union. Previously he had written about the Gulag in A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich. In 2007 he was awarded the State Prize of the Russian Federation. Because of his poor health the prize was was handed over in his home by the then Russian President Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin (°1952), a former officer of the KGB, the organization which had made his life so bitter.

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