Art as the Cognition of Life

Ten Years of October and Soviet Literature

The Russian working class, having inherited the low level of culture from a country just barely out of its feudal stages, and struggling against the devastation of both World War I and the Civil War against the white imperialists and their international backers, nevertheless made relentless strides in the building of the foundations of a modern culture. To combat the highest illiteracy rates in the world, likpunkty, “illiteracy liquidation points”, were established across the Soviet Union, with an attendance of 8.2 million; the Public Library in Leningrad broke the world record possessing 4,250,000 books. The Soviet Union saw an enormous output of new, original literature trying to honestly record and embody the revolution.

1927, ten years after the Russian Revolution, marked a turning in the internal life of the Communist Party. That was the year the Stalin leadership directed the second Chinese Revolution into defeat, binding the Chinese Communist Party in a treacherous and fatal alliance with the Chinese bourgeois forces of Chiang Kai-shek and ordering them to disarm, leaving leftwing workers and peasants defenceless against the machine gun slaughter of Kai-shek’s armies in Shanghai and other major cities. In Russia, the Stalin leadership responded to the economic crisis of the NEP (New Economic Policy), rising discontent, and political opposition to its betrayals of the international working class by criminalising membership in the Left Opposition and expelling Trotsky and other Left Oppositionists. Voronsky himself spent 17 years incarcerated after participating in a Left Opposition demonstration that year.


Voronsky on the contradictory yet valuable insights of the poet Aleksandr Blok, in the immediate aftermath of the October Revolution. Blok was one of a handful of poets writing fiction during the heady first days of the Revolution. His most notable poem was ‘Twelve’, a story about twelve ragged Bolshevik soldiers (likened to the Twelve Apostles) marching through the streets of Petrograd to hail the new society. The Christian references in the work led some atheists to condemn them for mysticism, the brutality of the soldiers led to accusations of defamation of the revolution, and of course his sympathetic portrayal of the Bolsheviks led to the disownment by right-wing admirers. (p.300):

“Despite the pan-Slavism, Scythianism, and the mystical figure of Christ, Blok was able to listen to the turbulence of those years, catching the readiness to reckon once and for all ‘with the bourgeois’; the atheism; the mad and daring recklessness and willingness to sacrifice of the ‘Twelve’; the boundlessness of their hopes; and the chaotic elementalism. There is a profound sinciety and bitter pathos in the warning which he issued to the ancient culture of the West in ‘The Scythians’. …[Sergei] Esenin, like Blok, sensed and valued the elementalism of the revolution and, like Blok, retreated when the new, and what seemed to both poets, boring, everyday time came for directives, organisation, and ‘petty matters’; when the strong hand of the Communist Party bridled the elements.”

Voronsky on the merits and problems of futurism. In its rush to construct the new, the futurists tended to abandon all previous artistic conventions as “obsolete relics”, be they literary or architectural. (p.302):

“As opposed to rural themes they proclaimed urbanism, and tried to break up the slickness and ‘fluiditiy’ of older verse-forms by introducing new rhymes. Futurism did indeed achieve some results; concerns with ‘things’ in art proved to be in line to some degree with an epoch which set as its primary goal the satisfaction of the most elementary needs of labouring humanity. …The dynamism of the new times demanded more dynamic verse. [Vladimir] Mayakovsky’s broken lines, the sharpness and freshness of his rhymes, and the attempt to adapt his verse not to the refine salons of aesthetes, but to the tribune, city square, and meeting place—were later adopted by [Alexander] Bezymensky, [Iosif] Utkin, and a considerable number of other poets of the revolution. But futurism inherently contained qualities and characteristics that with time began to ever increasingly to hamper its own development. Its ‘thingism’ proved to be too naïve and primitive. Mayakovsky’s socialism is not our Marxist socialism, it is rather the socialism of literary Bohemianism; it is more the socialism of the consumer rather than the producer. Futurism did not and does not understand that socialist society is the rule of new social relations, and not the appropriation of ‘things’ by a collection of isolated individuals. A mocking and irreverent attitude to the ‘spiritual’ cultural values acquired and won by mankind in the past has endowed and continued to endow futurism with a dubious nihilism and a tendency towards oversimplification… it has elevated the modern city into something of an absolute, forgetting that the task of socialism is not to destroy the village, but to bring the village and city together.”

Voronsky, engaged in principled fierce polemics against the Proletcult (Proletarian Culture) movement, comprehended that the ideological roots of that circle lied in the material conditions of the devastated Soviet Union after the Civil War. (p.303):

“During those years, the revolution was… more likely to the destroying, defending, or attacking. The revolution built and created only to the degree that it was necessary for the outcome of the Civil War battles. Because of these circumstances, the slogans of new construction, of organising new society… remained only slogans… What we had was either calls to remove the ‘the head of the snake’, to conquer the enemy, hunger, and devastation, or we witnessed an abstract anticipation of the future nationwide industrialisation, of the new collective and labour consciousness. Hence—an abstract man… an abstract collectivism… in schematic, broad, and overly abstract forms. It could not have done otherwise, for the old life had been shattered, and the new life had been outlined only vaguely.”

End of “I.”


What has been the continued course of the development of Soviet literature in the past decade? The young literature, though immature, has expressed itself with the vitality of new classes coming into being in the artistic scene. These new writers are intensely interested in the burgeoning society around them. (p.305):

“Despite a certain hesitation, despite its shortcomings, our literature over the past five to six years has passed through a period of major and undisputed growth: it has experienced a peculiar form of renaissance, which even our enemies would not now dare to challenge. Of course, it still continued to yield, in its profundity, strength, genius, and scope to the literature of the classics: our classics more fully and completely reflected their epoch than contemporary writers reflect our epoch. But it could not have been otherwise. Our epoch is more complex, our way of life is in a process of formation, the contradictions of our reality are much sharper than the contradictions of the time in which our classical writers lived. …At the same time the revolution called to life and introduced into literature representatives of new classes, such as workers, peasants, and intelligentsia from the lower classes who had been denied the former culture and who were now acquiring it in bits and pieces in great haste…

“Our contemporary literature is saturated with social themes. Unlike the narrow and extreme individualism on the eve of the revolution, our writers, fellow-travelers, and proletarian artists are interested exclusively in themes of a social nature: the village, the partisan movement, the Civil War, communists, restoring the factories, modern-day youth, heated goods vans, committees of the poor, requisition detachments, the transition from civil war to the New Economic Policy, the new village bourgeoisie, our poverty and lack of culture, and our achievements. …Today’s writers… look at the world and their surroundings with voracious eyes.”

Unlike the mechanical, dogmatic, and schematic literature sanctioned by the Stalinist regime, the fresh literature of the new Soviet society was full of blood. Voronsky describes the literary ethos of the time, but warns that narrow fixation on the physiological leaves open a door for anti-communist criticisms of Marxist though as lofty gabber divorced from the matters of real life. (p.306):

“Contemporary literature is realistic not only in its form, but also in its inner core, by virtue of its content. Our writers can rightfully echo Blok’s words when they say about themselves: ‘We love flesh.’ Yes, they love flesh, blood, muscles, health and strength. Joining Ivan Karamazov, they could exclaim: ‘There are still frightfully many centripetal forces on our planet. …I want to live… the sticky leaves which appear in the spring are dear to me, the blue sky is dear to me, another human being is dear to me. …This is not the mind, nor logic, this means to love with one’s inner being, one’s gut, to love one’s first young impulses.’ Even with Esenin this love for the sticky Karamazov leaves, this admiration for ‘the ineffable animalism’ remains central and does not abandon him during the most painful and depressing moments. Modern literature is by no means ‘god-fearing’. It is atheistic and pagan literature; I would say that in painting the Flemish school most closely corresponds to it in spirit.”

Despite the clarity and colour of much of the new literature, the painting of the new modes of living and new, bustling things in the village and city alike, there is very little psychological insight present (p.309):

“Our literature is insufficiently psychological, and its psychology is infrequently too narrowly rationalistic. Soviety writers nearly always remain on the surface when they should show a deeper, more profound understanding of the people and events they are portraying. …We also lack enough major characters and types in literature, and the ability to transform a living phenomenon into ‘a pearl of creation’. …perhaps we should moderate our chase after linguistic innovations and pay more attention, as our classics did, to making a synthesis. The ‘hero of our times’ has yet to be created, and has only been vaguely outlined.”

What was lost with the Stalinist degradation of the Soviet Union? One can argue: a whole generation of artists.

Even now, well over a hundred years after the Russian Revolution and almost a hundred years after the publication of this retrospective, the young literature which the new soviet republic birthed has lost none of its freshness, vigour, and immediacy.

What is the heritage of the Russian Revolution? It is my hope that artists today, who are drawn to the revolution, and to the living masses leading it, will continue the work begun by their forebearers of the 1920s. The future held the potential—and still does—of such brilliant growth. (p.310)

“Our Soviet literature is still very young. The average age of the prose writers who have emerged after October is 28 –32 years, and for the poets it is even less. This is a very young age: our writers have still not reached the point of maturity when talent is in full bloom. But one older, experienced writer was correct when he said the following about our young artists:

‘They have made a better beginning than we did in our time. A great future lies before them.’

“I this that there is no exaggeration in these words.”

End of “II.”