“Enemies of the People”:

Poetry and Politics in the Time of Stalin


David Morse


Into the distance go the mounds of people’s heads.

I am growing smaller here—no one notices me any more,

but in caressing books and children’s games

I will rise from the dead to say the sun is shining.

—Osip Mandelshtam, 19371


In 1946, a ruling of the Central Committee of the All-Union Communist Party of the Soviet Union attacked the Russian poet Anna Akhmatova by stating,

Such is Akhmatova with her petty, narrow personal life, trivial emotions and religious-mystical eroticism. . . . What has this poetry in common with the interests of our people and our state? Exactly nothing.2

Excluded from the all-important Union of Soviet Writers, Akhmatova (1889-1966) was forced to live on a meager pension, finding some work translating. Authorities were under constant pains to intimidate her, if not into compliance at least into silence, through an intentionally conspicuous surveillance. As her friend Nadezhda Mandelshtam later described it:

[T]hey stood there without the least pretense at disguise . . . By their whole behavior they seemed to be saying: ‘You have nowhere to hide.’3

Finally—with her first husband, poet Nikolai Gumilev, having long since been put to death for “counter-revolutionary activities,” and their son Lev Gumilev (a noted historian) and her third husband (art critic Nikolai Punin) imprisoned—Akhmatova acquiesced. After having published only a handful of poems in the previous twenty-five years, she ended her silence in 1952 with several poems in praise of Stalin, including a tribute to him on his birthday:


Let the world remember this day forever,

Let this hour be bequeathed to eternity.


Where Stalin is, there is

Peace, and grandeur of the earth!4


Akhmatova was only one of many writers the Party attacked. At stake was the role of literature in Soviet society—whether writers should be servants of the political ideology of the State. The 1946 ruling gave a clear answer: “Any preaching of ideological emptiness, of an apolitical attitude, of ‘art for art’s sake,’ is foreign to Soviet literature, (and) harmful to the interests of the Soviet people and State.”5 This sentiment was not new; the Party had long been increasing its control over writers—especially during the Purges of the late 1930s—and this effort took on renewed energy during the beginning years of the Cold War.

Taking a longer view, the role of the intelligentsia (intellectual class) in relation to the state was a central issue for writers in tsarist Russia. Debate over the question dates from the mid-nineteenth century, when literary critic Vissarion Belinsky propounded the view that writers—and other members of the intelligentsia—held a moral imperative to question authority and transform society.

Of course, questions about the purpose and function (if any) of art do not arise only in totalitarian societies—although there the consequences that flow from them are likely to be more harsh. The United States acted to suppress dissent after both great wars of the twentieth century—and especially during the era of McCarthyism that followed World War II. Moreover, in our current debates over banned books in schools, rap lyrics in the music industry, and Hollywood “values,” what is ultimately at stake if not how much freedom a society allows to the artist? For this reason, examining the role—and the contro#151;of writers in Stalinist Russia may help to illuminate the issues that revolve around intellectual freedom in societies seemingly far removed in place or time.


Literary Precedents in Tsarist Russia

Far more than the literary canon of the West, Russian literature has traditionally been intertwined with politics, and often marked by a hostility toward authority and strong sympathy for the common people. A century before the Bolshevik Revolution, Russian intellectuals were already establishing themselves as activists, believing that “literature and art . . . had a primary responsibility to society.”6 A minority of intellectuals led Russia’s revolutionary revolt on December 14, 1825. These Decembrists, former officers influenced by Western European ideas during their service in the Napoleonic Wars, demanded the abolition of the monarchy and the establishment of a representative democracy. While the insurrection itself was poorly organized and short-lived, its effects were profound, for the “Russian intelligentsia finally crystallized,” and with it, the “movement of political and social dissent associated with it.”7 The revolt also established a fear among the rulers of what the intellectuals might do, a fear that persisted into the twentieth century, even when the radicals themselves became the ruling party.

Subsequent radical endeavors were galvanized by men of letters, most notably Belinsky (1811-1848), who believed that literature should reflect reality while transforming society:

Socialism, socialism—or death! That is my motto. What do I care if genius on earth live in heaven when the crowd is wallowing in the dirt?8

Belinsky’s famous “Letter to Gogo#148; (1847) criticized the popular novelist Nikolai Gogol for defending the ruling authorities and betraying the common good. Although the letter was banned from print, it was widely distributed and became the manifesto of many intellectuals. Fyodor Dostoyevsky (1821-1881), a member of the liberal Petrashevsky circle, was arrested in 1848 during a reading of the letter. Fearing another insurrection like that of the Decembrists, Tsar Nicholas I sentenced Dostoyevsky and other leading Petrashevists to penal servitude in Siberia.

But despite official repression, the role of the Russian writer as social critic and activist became entrenched, one having “as much practical significance as the politician or populist leader.”9 Established writers, including Leo Tolstoy and Ivan Turgenev as well as Dostoyevsky, described social problems as well as liberal or radical responses to them in their novels. And, even as tsarist officials sentenced some literary leaders to death or servitude, their banned letters and texts passed hand to hand among members of the intelligentsia. In 1861, Tsar Alexander II responded to increasing protests against serfdom by abolishing it; but many intellectuals remained unappeased. The poet Nekrasov (1821-1877) wrote,

Do not rejoice too soon! Tis time to march ahead. Forget your exultation. The people have been freed. But are the people happy?10

Revolutionary activity in Russia increased during the closing decades of the nineteenth century. In March 1881, the Narodnaya Volya, or “People’s Will,” assassinated Alexander II, but failed in a similar attempt on Alexander III six years later. The year 1905 saw the advent of widespread riots and strikes in Russia. Already humiliated by the debacle of the Russo-Japanese War, Tsar Nicholas II and his advisors lost patience, and on January 22, 1905, ordered the massacre of a crowd of peaceful demonstrators in St. Petersburg’s Palace Square.


The Creation of the Gulag

After the Bolsheviks gained power in 1917, it was not long before these radicals—the original anti-oppressors—became the oppressors themselves. Stalin came to power in 1924, soon proving as susceptible to his own personal weaknesses as had the tsars before him. In the late 1920s, the Gulag system of forced labor camps was established and, less than a decade later, at the height of Stalin’s Purges, held over five million prisoners.

Although Stalin’s death in 1953 spelled the beginning of the end for the Gulag, this did not occur before an estimated 15 to 30 million people had died there. Its inmates included kulaks (richer peasants), purged Party members seen as a threat to Stalin’s authority, prisoners of war (both enemy soldiers and returned Soviet soldiers suspected of having been influenced by Western ideas), members of ethnic groups, actual criminals, and members of the intelligentsia.

Stalin well understood the influence of literature on the Russian people; consequently, the heaviest toll among the intelligentsia during the Purges was among the writers. As Nadezhda Mandelshtam put it:

Mandelshtam always said that they always knew what they were doing: the aim was to destroy not only people, but the intellect itself.11

By 1954, only 50 writers remained of the 700 who had met at the First Congress of the Union of Soviet Writers twenty years earlier. Estimates suggest that “some 2000 literary figures were repressed, of whom about 1500 met their deaths in prison or camp.”12 And, while some were persecuted because they condemned the Party openly, more were targeted because they remained apolitical. These writers were heirs to another Russian literary tradition best represented by Anton Chekhov (1860-1904). At odds with Belinsky’s concept of literature as servant of the cause, writers like Chekhov sympathized strongly with the fate of Russia and its people, yet refused to attach political or philosophical ideologies to their work.

As seen in Akhmatova’s example, such refusal during the Stalinist years could be costly. And, although Akhmatova was “rehabilitated” after the death of Stalin and, to some degree, readmitted into the Soviet literary community, her poem-cycle Requiem was long in appearing in the Soviet Union. Written as a monument to the victims of the Purges, and first published in Munich in 1963, Requiem did not appear in Russia until twenty-four years later. In it, the poet expressed a common plaint about the fate of Russia’s intellectuals:


No foreign sky protected me,

no stranger’s wing shielded my face.

I stand as witness to the common lot,

survivor of that time, that place.13

“Enemies of the People”

When searching for answers about the nature of “that time, that place,” the writings of three survivors of the Purges prove particularly instructive. Eugenia Ginzburg, Nadezhda Mandelshtam, and Varlam Shalamov each wrote with insight about the persecution they endured, exploring both its causes and the methods of their oppressors. Eugenia Ginzburg (1896-1977), a writer and member of the Communist Party, was arrested in 1937 on charges of “terrorism” and labeled an “enemy of the people.” She was imprisoned in the Gulag camp at Kolyma for the next eighteen years. Her two-volume memoirs were published in Italy in 1967 and 1979, and in the United States as Journey into the Whirlwind (1967) and Within the Whirlwind (1981). They remained unpublished in the Soviet Union until Mikhail Gorbachev, general secretary of the Communist Party, initiated the period of glasnost (openness) in the late 1980s.

Varlam Shalamov (1907-1982), a successful writer and journalist, was also arrested in 1937, allegedly for his support of Russian emigre writer Ivan Bunin. Shalamov was imprisoned for seventeen years—like Ginzburg, in the labor camp at Kolyma. After his release, he was allowed to publish some of his poetry in Russia, but most of his work was published abroad. Destitute near the end of his life, he was forced by the Writers’ Union to renounce this work. Shalamov’s Kolymskiye rasskazy (Kolyma Stories), a collection of short stories about prison camp life, was published in Russian in England in 1978. Selected stories were then published in English in two volumes, Kolyma Tales (1980) and Graphite (1981). Shalamov’s complete works were not released in Russia until 1992.

Nadezhda Mandelshtam (1899-1980) published two memoirs in the early 1970s about the persecution that she and her husband, poet Osip Mandelshtam, endured: Hope Against Hope and Hope Abandoned (“Nadezhda” means “hope” in Russian). Osip was exiled to the city of Voronezh in 1934 for his description of Stalin:


And every killing is a treat

For the broad-chested Ossete.14


Nadezhda followed her husband to Voronezh, but lost him four years later, when he was sentenced to five years of hard labor. He died somewhere in transit in December 1938. Osip’s poems remained relatively obscure until the 1970s, when their publication in both the Soviet Union and the West began to win him acclaim.

An analysis of the writings of these three authors reveals a number of recurring patterns in the methods used by Stalin and the Party to gain absolute power. Stalin’s central preoccupation seems to have been to undermine people’s critical faculties and replace them with a simplistic faith in the Party and its leaders.


A New Historical Narrative

One of the Party’s methods was a revision of Russia’s history, the creation of a new narrative for its people. In Vessels of Evil: American Slavery and the Holocaust, philosopher and historian Laurence Thomas describes narrative as “essentia#148; to any culture, for it “defines values and positive goals and fixes points of historical significance and ennobling rituals.”15 Writers are perhaps most in tune with this narrative, for their task is one of preserving and creating the stories of their people.

Recognizing this relationship, the Party was quick to proscribe historical writing, seeking to de-emphasize the pre-revolutionary tsarist era, which had been rife with class inequality. History textbooks were rewritten to reflect Party dogma only, historical dramas eliminated from the repertories of leading theaters, and plans for the publication of historical fiction scrapped by literary periodicals.16

In history’s stead, the Party called attention to the heroics of the Soviet struggle, creating a new hero for its people—the “New Soviet Man” or the “Hero of Labor”—and dictating that all art should conform to the ideology of “socialist realism.” Russian farmers and workers were urged to meet the production goals of the nation’s Five-Year Plans by following the supposed example of coal miner Aleksei Stakhanov and becoming “Stakhanovites.” Writers accordingly were expected to create characters who would

rouse the people to feats of labor, combat their moods of apathy or self-complacency, improve discipline and morale, and increase interest in communal warfare.17

The resulting narrative was one void of inner conflict, evil, morbidity, or even bad weather. The Hero of Labor was a hero lacking any genuinely human characteristics.

Nadezhda Mandelshtam asserts that once the people’s history began to be altered, many of the values it represented were diminished or even forgotten. “The usual line,” she states, “was to denounce history as such: it had always been the same, mankind had never known anything but violence and tyranny.”18 The Party stressed a new day and a new set of values, with the Hero of Labor as its crusader. Writes Mandelshtam,

The proponents of surrender attacked all old concepts just because they were old . . . Everything was dismissed as fiction. Freedom? There’s no such thing and never was! . . . Terms such as ‘honor’ and ‘conscience’ went out of use at this time —concepts like these were easily discredited.19

The result, according to Mandelshtam, was an unraveling of the fabric of Russian culture and a reversion of its people to something akin to savagery.

Varlam Shalamov makes a similar point in Graphite: “Everything valued is ground into dust while civilization and culture drop . . . within weeks.”20 The author consistently describes his characters—fellow prisoners at Kolyma—as no longer human but savage, while editor John Glad writes of the stories that “one is shocked by . . . ‘man’s inhumanity to man.’”21 Shalamov and Mandelshtam understood that the “stuff of history is ideas,”22 and that a people without a past becomes a people without thoughts or culture.


The Manipulation of Hope

Understanding the people’s need for a future to replace its past, the Party offered a vision of a utopian Communist society to which the people could aspire. Nadezhda Mandelshtam, discussing the manipulation of hope by the Party, notes how Stalin presented himself to the people as one like a God, promising “to organize heaven on earth, whatever it might cost.”23 The intent was to replace people’s critical faculties with a “scientific” belief system (Marxism-Leninism-Stalinism) in which they could place their blind, absolute faith. The Russian people, as Stalin saw them, had “a craving for an all-embracing idea which would explain everything in the world and bring about universal harmony at one go.”24

Mandelshtam’s view of Stalin’s methods resembles that of sociologist Zygmunt Bauman, who draws comparisons between the ways in which Hitler and Stalin manipulated their people:

Stalin’s and Hitler’s victims were . . . eliminated so that an objectively better human world . . . could be established. A Communist world. Or a racially pure, Aryan world. In both cases, a harmonious world, conflict-free, docile in the hands of their rulers, controlled.25

Mandelshtam differs with Bauman in viewing Stalin as manipulating these ideals for his own political ends, whereas Bauman seems to believe that Stalin shared these dreams himself.

According to Mandelshtam, what followed was a process of indoctrination in which the people were drilled in the Party creed as if it were religious dogma itself. Eventually, the people willingly closed their eyes and followed their leader, not allowing themselves to compare words with deeds, or to weigh the consequences of their actions.26

For Mandelshtam, the religious symbolism is fitting, for the Russian people in their new faith even began drawing parallels “with the victory of Christianity, [thinking] this new religion would also last a thousand years.”27

Eugenia Ginzburg describes the need for hope in those condemned to exile in the Gulag. As she writes in Journey Into the Whirlwind, though Kolyma “terrified everyone in the outside world, not only did [it] not frighten us but was a source of hope.”28 Ginzburg recalls the situation of prisoners (herself among them) being transported across the Soviet Union—a long, hot journey in a crowded train with little sustenance. She tells of how they fell victim to the fantasies of a young “trusty”—a convict deemed trustworthy by the guards and allowed special privileges—known among the prisoners as “Vasek the Thief.” To each of the prisoners’ concerns, Vasek exclaims, “Don’t you worry, girls—in Kolyma there’s space, food, and clothing for everyone!”29 Writes Ginzburg,

[Vasek’s] description of the promised land was absorbed . . . like a delicious poison. More and more often our feverish nights were interrupted not only by groans and gnashing of teeth but by the cry, ‘Why don’t they send us to Kolyma?’30

The prisoners did eventually reach Kolyma, only to discover the emptiness of Vasek’s tales.

Shalamov’s Graphite also explores the deleterious effects of hope combined with ideology. In “The Life of Engineer Kipreev,” the title character, imprisoned in Kolyma, has been trying to earn release by inventing various devices useful to camp authorities. Having already invented a recycling plan for light bulbs, Kipreev has now created an X-ray machine out of odds and ends. He presents his machine to administrators along with a petition for release, and the story finds him waiting in hope for his freedom. But, the narrator observes,

Hope always shackles the convict. Hope is slavery. A man who hopes for something alters his conduct and is more frequently dishonest than a man who has ceased to hope.31

The true nobility of the engineer’s soul does not emerge until after all his machinations fail, leaving him with nothing left to hope for. Only in this state—hopeless—does Kipreev perform an unselfish act. Recovering from an operation, he insists that more critically ill patients should receive his “special diet,” not only passing up good food and rest but also transferring himself from the comfortable hospital back to the forced labor camp.


Surrender and Sacrifice

Kipreev’s fate demonstrates how the notion of hope leads to the ideas of surrender and sacrifice, since the creation of a utopia requires the elimination of all ideological aberrations—or, as phrased in the 1946 ruling, any attitudes and behaviors “harmful to the interests of the Soviet people and State.” Mandelshtam and Ginzburg describe the surrender of their intellectual friends to the Party’s demands. Particularly in the early stages of the Purges, many were simply overzealous; however, as the horror sunk in, many more surrendered in order to save themselves or their families. The writer Mikhail Zenkevich, Mandelshtam states,

was one of the first to sink into a hypnotic trance or lethargy. . . . wander[ing] about the ruins of his Rome, trying to persuade himself and others that it was essential to surrender not only one’s body, but one’s mind as well.32

Shalamov describes how “a blow can transform the intellectual into the obedient servant of a petty cook. . . . The intellectual is permanently terrified. His spirit is broken, and he takes this frightened and broken spirit with him back into civilian life.”33

Ginzburg’s memoirs relate how, while in prison under interrogation, she was “confronted” with two former colleagues, members of her literary staff who yielded to the Party’s request for lying witnesses. One of these witnesses was Volodya Dyakonov, a young writer whom Ginzburg had taught and for whom she’d secured a job. She writes

It was frightening to watch Volodya’s face, its handsome features so contorted by a nervous tic that it looked almost hideous. . . . Volodya, looking like a rabbit in front of a boa constrictor, slowly wrote his name in a hand as shaky as though he had had a stroke and quite unlike the bold sweep of the pen with which he signed his articles on the moral code of the new age.34

The other confronting witness, an old friend from Ginzburg’s staff named Nalya Kozlova, presented an opposite picture—one of the naïve intellectual still caught in the Party rhetoric. Nalya confidently denounced her former friend, agreeing to invented accusations against Ginzburg under the assumption that they had to be true. Ginzburg states that Nalya, her “dear, witty, dashing fellow student,” was reduced to a “parrot,” chirping the Party’s condemnations.35


The Stuff of Martyrs and Saints

The labor camps, though they did not execute people en masse, nevertheless reproduced conditions similar in their horror and brutality to those of Auschwitz. Primo Levi, in his memoir titled If This is a Man (published in the United States as Survival in Auschwitz), states that survival under such conditions

without renunciation of any part of one’s own moral world . . . was conceded only to very few superior individuals, made of the stuff of martyrs and saints.36

Eugenia Ginzburg tells of a few such superior individuals, a group of peasant women who had been imprisoned for practicing their religion. While most laborers met their daily quota for fallen trees by stealing logs from a hidden stash, these women filled their norm through hard work. When Easter came, they begged to be excused from work, but the squad leader refused: no religious holidays were recognized.

When the women refused to leave their hut . . . they were driven out with rifle butts. When they got to the forest clearing they made a neat pile of their axes and saws, sat down quietly on the frozen tree stumps, and began to sing hymns. Thereupon the guards . . . ordered them to take off their shoes and stand barefoot in the icy water of one of the forest pools, which was still covered with a thin sheet of ice.37

The women refused to give in, chanting as they stood in the ice. Remarkably, none of them got sick, and the next day they exceeded their wood quota. But Ginzburg and others spent that night wondering, “Would we have had the courage to do likewise?”38 Unfortunately, these women are the only ones she describes who survived punishment unbroken.

Survivors are also rare in Nadezhda Mandelshtam’s memoirs. One was L., “a man who never lost heart . . . and returned [from the labor camps] in 1956 with TB . . . but at least came back sound in mind, and with a better memory than most.”39 While she herself endured—“for almost thirty years, with clenched teeth,”40—Nadezhda’s husband Osip wasn’t born with the same talent for survival.

From the beginning of the Bolshevik Revolution, Osip Mandelshtam (1891-1938) was a man whose “personality and poetry was utterly at variance with the stance expected from a writer.”41 Most Soviet writers, even iconoclasts such as Boris Pasternak, “had some points of contact with the traditional world of literature, and consequently with such things as RAPP (Russian Association of Proletarian Writers), whereas M. had none whatsoever. Pasternak wanted to be friendly, while M. turned his back on them.”42 Osip Mandelshtam’s voice was “that of an outsider who knew he was alone and prized his isolation.”43

One might imagine that the poetry Osip composed in exile would be tired and bleak, a replica of his life, yet the “Voronezh Poems” reveal the poet at his most joyous and his verse at its most ennobling. Osip’s mind burned brightly in the early years of his imprisonment, later burning out in Siberia, where
legends abound of his crazed death. What survives is a collection of verse that, while still unpublished long after Stalin’s death, nevertheless found an audience in Russia. As Nadezhda describes it, Osip’s poems “[did] not need Gutenberg’s invention …. more and more people read [his] poetry in the manuscript copies that circulate[d] all over the country.”44 By the power of his verse, Osip Mandelshtam became a true Russian hero, entering his country’s narrative as the antithesis to the Hero of Labor. As his words reminded others,

A people needs poems darkly familiar

to keep them awake forever,

and bathe them with its breathing

in a chestnut wave of flaxen curls.45

Varlam Shalamov believed that escaping the effects of the Purges was impossible for even the strongest of heroes. Shalamov “asserts that real suffering, such as Kolyma imposed on its inmates, can only demoralize and break the human spirit.”46 The hero of Graphite is not someone who escapes the Gulag, but someone who dies there. He is, in fact, Osip Mandelshtam, whose final days are described in a fictional account by Shalamov titled “Cherry Brandy” after one of Osip’s poems. In the story, an unnamed poet realizes on his deathbed that

life had been inspiration, only that: inspiration . . . everything—work, the thud of horses’ hoofs, home, birds, rocks, love, the whole world—could be expressed in verse. All life entered easily into verse and made itself comfortably at home there. And that was the way it should be, for poetry was the Word.47

But a few victims of the Purges did survive. Anna Akhmatova appears to have survived with her faith intact in the written word—a faith so stubbornly at odds with the Party and its creed. Calling for a blind faith in a timeless utopia, the Party had tried to dismiss history, and with it the traditions and values accumulated over centuries by the Russian people. For a time, the Party made use of the Russian literary tradition that saw the writer as a servant of society. But beneath the surface ran underground currents flowing from the same source that urged devotion to the people’s welfare; these currents, appearing in the form of samizdat (self-published works), opposed despotic authority and would not be channeled into support of any one all-encompassing idea.48 Akhmatova spoke for all Russia’s writers in opposition when she wrote:


Our sacred craft has existed

For thousands of years . . .

With it, luminous even in darkness is earth.

But no poet has ever insisted,

Through laughter or tears,

That there is no wisdom, no age, no death.49



1. Osip Mandelshtam, Selected Poems, trans. David McDuff (New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 1973), 133.

2. Avrahm Yarmolinksy, Literature Under Communism (Bloomington: Indiana University, 1957), 23.

3. Nadezhda Mandelshtam, Hope Against Hope, trans. Max Heyward (New York: Atheneum, 1970), 17.

4. Yarmolinsky, 37.

5. Ibid., 31.

6. Boris Kagarlitsky, The Thinking Reed, trans. Brian Pearce (New York: Verso, 1988), 16.

7. Ibid., 14.

8. Found on the web at: www.britannica.com/seo/v/vissarion-grigoryevich-belinsky

9. David McDuff, “Introduction,” in Osip Mandelshtam, Selected Poems, trans. David McDuff (New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 1973), vii.

10. Found on the web at: www.russia.net/~oldrn/history/revolution.html

11. N. Mandelshtam.

12. Robert Conquest, The Great Terror (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1990), 297.

13. Poems of Akhmatova, trans. Stanley Kunitz with Max Heyward (Boston: Little, Brown 1973).

14. Mandelshtam’s term “Ossete” derives from Stalin’s birthplace—Ossetia, a region in north-central Georgia.

15. Laurence Thomas, Vessels of Evil: American Slavery and the Holocaust (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1993), 156.

16. Yarmolinsky, 44; for an example of the content of these revised textbooks, see Fordham University’s “Modern History Sourcebook” site on Stalin’s Purges, found at www.fordham.edu/halsall/mod/1936purges.html

17. Ibid., 45.

18. N. Mandelshtam, 44.

19. Ibid., 165-66.

20. Varlam Shalamov, Graphite, trans. John Glad (New York: WW Norton and Co., 1981), 196.

21. John Glad, “Foreword,” in Graphite, by Varlam Shalamov, trans. John Glad (New York: WW Norton and Co., 1981), 14.

22. N. Mandelshtam, 163.

23. Ibid., 147.

24. Ibid., 162.

25. Zygmunt Bauman, Modernity and the Holocaust (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1989), 92-93.

26. N. Mandelshtam, 162.

27. Ibid., 164.

28. Eugenia Ginzburg, Journey Into the Whirlwind, trans. Paul Stevenson and Max Heyward (New York: Harcourt, Brace, and World, Inc., 1967), 349.

29. Ibid.

30. Ibid., 350-51.

31. Shalamov, 135.

32. N. Mandelshtam, 45.

33. Shalamov, 197.

34. Ginzburg, 91-92.

35. Ibid., 94.

36. Primo Levi, Survival in Auschwitz, trans. Stuart Woolf (New York: Collier Books, 1993), 92.

37. Ginzburg, 413.

38. Ibid., 414.

39. N. Mandelshtam, 395.

40. Ibid., 395.

41. McDuff, xi.

42. N. Mandelshtam, 152.

43. Ibid., 178.

44. Ibid., 376.

45. Osip Mandelshtam, Selected Poems, 143.

46. Glad, 15.

47. Shalamov, 265.

48. Samizdat (self-publishers) is a term coined in the post-Stalinist era to parody the official designation of Gosizdat (state publishers). It may also be applied to censored works, in manuscript or print form, circulated hand to hand before and during the Stalin era.

49. Found on the web at: www.kirjasto.sci.fi/aakhma.htm



Reader, Roberta. Anna Akhmatova: Poet and Prophet. (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1994).

Swayze, Harold. Political Control of Literature in the USSR. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Univ. Press, 1962.


David Morse is an editorial assistant in the NCSS publications department.

Russian Literature of the Soviet Period


The following are recommended for students interested in learning more about Soviet Russia through reading literature.


Aksyonov, Vassily (1932—). Generations of Winter. Trans. by John Glad and Christopher Morris. New York: Vintage, 1995. This novel and its sequel, The Winter’s Hero (1996), describe the struggles of the Gradov family to survive the chaotic vicissitudes of life during the Stalin era. The son of writer Eugenia Ginzburg, Aksyonov was a cultural leader of his generation in Russia, but clashes with the government caused him to emigrate to the United States in 1980.


Babel, Isaac (1894-1941). Red Cavalry. London, New York: A. A. Knopf, 1929. Babe#146;s nascent literary career was put on hold when Gorky advised him to gain more experience of life before continuing to write. In 1920, Babel joined Budyonny’s famous Red Cavalry during the Soviet-Polish War, forming experiences on which he based these stories. In the 1930s, he was criticized sharply by Communist critics, and by the end of the decade had been denounced and arrested.


Bulgakov, Mikhail (1891-1940). The Master and Margarita. Trans. by Mirra Ginsburg. New York: Grove Press, 1991. This fiercely hilarious satire of the Writers’ Union and Soviet politics in general was written in the 1930s but not published in the USSR until 1967. Bulgakov’s The White Guard (published in the United States in 1971) is a novel about the Civil War that followed the Bolshevik Revolution.


Bunin, Ivan (1870-1953). Cursed Days: A Diary of the Revolution. Trans. by Thomas G. Marullo. Chicago: Ivan R. Dee, 1998. Although essentially apolitical, Bunin wrote a scathing account of the events of the Bolshevik Revolution. Exiled from Russia in the late 1920s, Bunin was the first Russian to receive the Nobel Prize for Literature (1933).


Gorky, Maxim (1868-1936). Mother. Trans. by Isidore Schneider. Secaucus, NJ: Citadel Press, 1975. Originally published in 1907 and probably the best known Soviet novel of the revolutionary ethos, this is exactly the kind of tripe that the Writers’ Union loved.


Pasternak, Boris (1890-1960). Doctor Zhivago. Trans. by Max Hayward. New York: Pantheon Books, 1991. This famed novel about a poet, dedicated to the personal life although not unsympathetic to the original goals of the Revolution, was a cause celebre when published abroad in 1957. Pasternak won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1958, but was not allowed to leave the country to accept it.


Rybakov, Anatoli (1908-1999). Children of the Arbat. Trans. by Harold Shukman. New York: Dell, 1988. This popular novel centers around a young student who becomes unwittingly enmeshed in political intrigue on the brink of the Stalin Purges. It is the first novel in a trilogy that includes Fear (1992) and Dust and Ashes (1996).


Solzhenitsyn, AlexandEr (1918—). One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich. Trans. by H.T. Willetts. New York: Farrar, Straus, Giroux, 1991. This partly autobiographical novel describes the life of a zek (convict) in a Stalinist labor camp. It was published in Novy Mir (New World) in 1962, during a brief thaw in Soviet censorship under Khruschev. The recipient of the 1970 Nobel Prize for Literature, the author published the first volume of The Gulag Archipelago abroad in 1973, and was exiled from the Soviet Union in 1974. He returned to Russia in 1994.


Zamiatin, Yevgeny (1884-1937). We. Trans. by Bernard G. Guerney. London: Jonathan Cape, 1970. This anti-utopian novel was a forerunner to Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World and George Orwel#146;s 1984. Though the book remained unpublished in the Soviet Union, its publication abroad sparked so much criticism from the Soviet literary community that Zamiatin asked to be deported. Through the intercession of Gorky, Stalin granted the request, and Zamiatin lived the remainder of his life in Paris.


For a discussion of the following authors’ lives and works, please refer to the accompanying article.


Anna Akhmatova (1889-1966). The Complete Poems of Anna Akhmatova. Trans. by Judith Hemschemeyer. Ed. Roberta Reader. Somerville, MA: Zephyr Press, 1990. Poems of Akhmatova. Trans. Stanley Kunitz with Max Hayward. Boston: Little, Brown, 1973.


Eugenia Ginzburg (1896-1977). Journey Into the Whirlwind. Trans. by Paul Stevenson and Max Hayward. New York: Harcourt, Brace, and World, Inc., 1967. Within the Whirlwind (sequel). Trans. by Ian Boland. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1981.


Nadezhda Mandelshtam (1899-1980). Hope Against Hope. Trans. by Max Hayward. New York: Atheneum, 1970. Hope Abandoned (sequel). Trans. by Max Hayward. New York: Atheneum, 1974.


Osip Mandelshtam (1891-1938). Osip Mandelshtam Selected Poems. Trans. and Introduction by Clarence Brown and W.S. Merwin. New York: Atheneum Press, 1974. Osip Mandelshtam Selected Poems. Trans. and Introduction by David McDuff. New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 1973. Complete Poetry of Osip Emilevich Mandelshtam. Trans. by Burton Raffel and Alla Burago. Introduction and notes by Sidney Monas. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1973. The Voronezh Notebooks: Poems 1935-1937. Trans. by Richard and Elizabeth McKane. Introduction by Victor Krivulin. Newcastle upon Tyne: Bloodaxe, 1996.


Varlam Shalamov (1907-1982). Kolyma Tales. Trans. by John Glad. New York: WW Norton and Co., 1980. Graphite. Trans. and Foreword by John Glad. New York: WW Norton and Co., 1981.


Two films relevant to the position of the intelligentsia in Soviet Russia are:


Burnt by the Sun (1994, U.S. release 1995). Directed by Nikita Mikhalkov, who also plays the lead role. Running Time: 134 minutes. In Russian with English subtitles. Beautifully evoked tale of how the Stalin Purges bring ruin upon the idyllic life of an aging Bolshevik hero and his family. Winner of the 1994 Cannes Film Festival and an Academy Award for Best Foreign Film. Teachers are advised to preview the film before showing it to a high school audience.


Doctor Zhivago (1965). Directed by David Lean, starring Omar Sharif and Julie Christie. Running Time: 3 hours, 17 minutes. Based on Pasternak’s novel, this film endeavors to capture the spectacle of a nation at war with itself, and Zhivago’s personal struggle as doctor and poet to preserve the lives of others and himself. Winner of five Academy Awards, including Best Cinematography and Best Screenplay. Interesting note: the film was primarily shot in Spain, ruled by General Francisco Franco at the time. During a filming of a protest scene, members of Franco’s secret police hid among the extras to see which individuals knew the words to a revolutionary song being sung. Aware of this, the extras stopped singing and refused to continue.