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Russian Literature in the 20th Century (1)

Written by eastern writer on Monday, January 04, 2010

Here in America, we are granted in the First Amendment to the Constitution the right to freedom of speech and press, something our country has enjoyed since its founding. However, other countries have not been as fortunate as America in their governments allowing that freedom. The governments have changed hands several times in a short period of time and a good way for a government to put out its agenda is through the press. Hence, we find countries where authors and editors are restricted in what they can write, print and publish. Russian literature in particular went through a tumultuous period in the twentieth century. In the first five decades, through the Revolution, World War II and Stalin's regime, the literary world had decidedly less freedom than the two following.

Russian literature was decaying at the outset of the Revolution. There had been two major types of writing prominent in Russia in the early twentieth century, realism and symbolism. The realism style was a carry-over of the great Russian novels by authors like Tolsty and Dostoyevsky. The novels written in the decade following the Revolution were historical in theory, dealing with oppressed commoners who catered to a revolution to improve their situation.[1] It was old and worn out. Symbolism emerged from the modernist movement of art and literature that was taking place in Europe. At the beginning of the 1900s, it played a very important role in the cultural changes that took place in Russia. Symbolism is credited with rejuvenating literature and raising the bar on writing techniques. [2]

After Lenin's rise to power, he took over immediate control of the literary world. Based off Marxist ideals that literature should be geared towards the social and ethical problems of the country, he put into practice what he stated in an article in 1905, that "the literature must become Party literature," and "must become a part of the proletarian cause."[3] The article outlined a plan in which party supervision of literary procedures, including publishing companies, libraries and newspapers; all accountable to the Party. Lenin felt that the liberties "bourgeois writer" had were simply an excuse for how they earned their money. By 1924, there were no companies in the literary world that were independent of the government's influence and supervision. It was made clear there was no place for any author whose views differed from the Party.[4]

Under Lenin, a new period of literature emerged. I would not say it was all beneficial to the country, but book printing did increase. With the current authors slowly disappearing in their individual ways, a new group of writers faithful to the government emerged from the commoners and Party members. War Communism was the theme for a majority of the works published during the 1920s, forcing authors to face grisly situations with apathy and indifference. For a time, the government was kind and encouraging to non-Communist writers, but it did not last long.

Works written after the Revolution and before World War II, from 1917-1941, were marked by the transition of government from the tsarist rule to the Bolshevik regime. The government was very strict in what they permitted authors to discuss and publish in their writings. Shortly after the Revolution, writers had a decision to make; conform to the new government and their requirements for literature or not, very few chose to follow the new rules in the beginning. Many prominent writers chose to forgo their writings rather than "collaborate with usurpers of power.[5]Some decided to mingle with the common people and lived as peasants in the country until the end of the civil war. Then they returned to the cities as educated workers, such as librarians, teachers, technicians and the like. Others chose to leave the country altogether and go settle in Western Europe or America as political émigrés. The literary salons that had been in Russia now opened up in the areas where authors had moved.[6]

For the writers who did not leave the country, switch professions or conform to the Communist style of writing; they wrote underground literature, which meant that their works were not published legally. No distinct line between what was considered "underground" or "aboveground" literature existed. There are a few categories for why books were in the underground circulation. First, books were underground books because editors rejected them for publication based on the book's lack of literary merit. Second, the books were from authors who had been pulled from the shelves. Third, if the government suddenly made a switch in its literary policy, an author who had been in line with government regulations would run into censorship difficulties. The final category for underground books consisted of those authors who simply chose not to submit their works for publication. The method of government censorship is the main reason for the underground book movement.[7] In order to get published at all, writers had to been forced to become dishonest or phony.[8]

The underground literature had no coordination or organization; it just happened. The handwritten or typed carbon copy books circulated in a newspaper form. Those who participated in the movement, author or printer, lived a difficult, grueling and uneasy lifestyle. While the literature did not violate any edicts and technically was not illegal, the government was very adamant about quenching the movement. They went to great lengths to prove that the underground books were supported by anti-Soviet groups and foreign associations, arresting anyone found connected to the underground organization.[9]

The magazines that printed the underground works were known of abroad by word of mouth. Many of the manuscripts made their way to foreign nations where they were published and sometimes sent back to Russia where they were circulated in book form through the underground. While it was not illegal for authors to send their works abroad for publication, the government was also set on squelching that practice as well by pressuring authors and threatening criminal examinations of anti-Soviet propaganda. The topics were never totally anti-Communist in nature or directed against the government, but protested about the way the government held the domineered over the literary world in the Soviet Union. The magazines carried outlandish titles, such as Boomerang, Cocktail, and Sphinexes.[10]

Two prominent newspapers emerged under the Communists and were well known around the world, the Pravda (Truth) and Izvestia (News). Pravda was the best known Soviet paper; it was established in 1912 under the Bolsheviks. During World War I under the tsarist rule publication was forbidden. Printings resumed in February of 1917 at the outset of the Revolution under the editorship of a man named Joseph Stalin. Pravda was the chief paper for the Communist Party from the Revolution all the way until August of 1991 when the editor made the mistake of supporting the attempted coup against Mikhail Gorbachev. It was shut down, but is now a private independent paper.[11] Izvestia was a government run newspaper before the Revolution and the Communists took over. While not as prominent as Pravda, Izvestia was still a top publication that the Party used to put out its agenda.[12] While both papers were used by the Communists, Pravda was used by the Party as a whole and Izvestia was a government publication.

Since the Cultural Revolution, there have been three distinct periods of Russian literature: war time writings (from 1941-1945), post war literature (1945 to the mid 1950s), and the 1950s until the present. War time works, better know as propaganda, were used to mobilize the Russian people against the Nazis. The common theme among writers was portraying the Russian soldiers as the heroes and they emphasized the horrors and atrocities committed by the German soldiers against their enemies.[13] Germans were described as being "barbarian SS, sergeant-majors fat with beer and arrogant foreigners" forcing "the intelligentsia to disappear."[14]Several writers who had been silenced and viewed with distrust during the 1930s where permitted to work again as they were contributing to the war effort.[15]

Throughout World War II, writers expressed optimism about the development of literature in the Soviet Union after the war. They hoped that there would be less government influence and they would be able to have more freedom in their creativity. Their hopes were dashed. In August and September of 1946, several decrees were made in reference to the Soviet Literature and what was expected. Two main points were set forth as follows:

The task of the Soviet literature is to aid the state to educate the youth correctly and to meet their demands, to rear a new generation strong and vigourous...Consequently, any preaching of Ideological neutrality, of political neutrality, of "art for art's sake" is alien to Soviet literature and harmful to the interests of the Soviet people...Such preaching has no place in our journals.[16] In short, all literature that was to be published for the public had to be related in some way or another to the Party, their leaders and policy. [part 2] [part 3]

this article written by Rebbeca Wickert published at Read the completed article here

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