Did you know that the communists invented an entirely new genre for literature? When people talk about ‘Socialist Realism’ they most often think of the paintings of Diego Rivera like “Man at the Crossroads”, the heroic laborer seizing fearlessly the levers of industrial machines – the noble farmer toiling the fields. Tractors of the world unite!!! Scenes of Stalin receiving flowers from a group of ruddy little children from the Ural mountains. Pristine soviet villages sharing milk and honey.
But the soviets also used the written word – socialist realism in novels. Adopted officially in 1934 by the party and ratified by Stalin, this new genre “…demanded that all art must depict some aspect of man’s struggle toward socialist progress for a better life. It stressed the need for the creative artist to serve the proletariat by being realistic, optimistic and heroic.”
“Cement” by Fyodor Vasilievich Gladkov was one of the first and perhaps the blueprint for the genre. The story depicts the struggle of a village post-revolution to restart the cement factory in their midst, which has gone silent after the original managers were killed. In true socialist realism style, it ends on a high note; with a hero and a victory. But nevertheless I was surprised by the story, because it was not a story of nobility and loss and dignity against the odds. It was instead a tale of intrigue, petty infighting of the new communist overlords, exclusion, suffering and sadness. This book was tremendously sad. I suppose the point was to instill the need for sacrifice, to remind people that it would not be easy. To find that delicate balance between an ideology which can never be made to function as a model of government and the hopes that with only a little more work something will go right – though it never does.
One thing did surprise me, “Cement” was extremely well written. I who have read much Russian prose (as I’m sure you have) have accepted the fact that reading Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, Solzhenitsyn, Chernyshevsky is a slog. A dreadful march through pages and pages of dialogue that seem to go nowhere, long-winded descriptions of incidents and places that are tangential to the stories. But not Cement, which was in fact a relatively easy read and in some places exhibited real rhetorical flourish.
“Without understanding why, Gleb felt wings unfolding in his soul. All this, the mountains, the sea, the factory, the town and the boundless distances beyond the horizon – the whole of Russia, we ourselves. All this immensity – the mountains, the factory, the distances – all were singing in their depths the song of our mighty labour. Do not our hands tremble at the thought of our back-breaking task, a task for giants? Will not our hearts burst with the tide of our blood? This is Workers’ Russia; this is us; the new world of which mankind has dreamed throughout the centuries. This is the beginning: the first indrawn breath before the first blow. It is. It will be. The thunder roars.”
It is so sad to see such talent put to the service of such a tremendous evil as was communism. I wonder what an amazing world Gladkov could have helped build, if he’d only been free.