Toxic Voices: The Villain from Early Soviet Literature to Socialist Realism


Satire and the fantastic, vital literary genres in the 1920s, are often thought to have fallen victim to the official adoption of socialist realism. Eric Laursen contends that these subversive genres did not just vanish or move underground. Instead, key strategies of each survive to sustain the villain of socialist realism. Laursen argues that the judgment of satire and the hesitation associated with the fantastic produce a narrative obsession with controlling the villain?s influence. In identifying a crucial ...

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Satire and the fantastic, vital literary genres in the 1920s, are often thought to have fallen victim to the official adoption of socialist realism. Eric Laursen contends that these subversive genres did not just vanish or move underground. Instead, key strategies of each survive to sustain the villain of socialist realism. Laursen argues that the judgment of satire and the hesitation associated with the fantastic produce a narrative obsession with controlling the villain’s influence. In identifying a crucial connection between the questioning, subversive literature of the 1920s and the socialist realists, Laursen produces an insightful revision of Soviet literary history.

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780810128651
  • Publisher: Northwestern University Press
  • Publication date: 1/30/2013
  • Series: SRLT Series
  • Pages: 186
  • Product dimensions: 6.20 (w) x 9.30 (h) x 0.70 (d)

Meet the Author

Eric Laursen is an associate professor in the Department of Languages and Literature at the University of Utah.

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Toxic Voices

By Eric Laursen


Copyright © 2013 Northwestern University Press
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-8101-2865-1

Chapter One

Writing a Precarious Balance

Our friend Robinson ... having rescued a watch, ledger, and pen and ink from the wreck, commences, like a true-born Briton, to keep a set of books. —Karl Marx, Capital, volume 1 (1867)

IN ILYA ILF AND EVGENY PETROV'S "How Rob in son Was Created" ("Kak sozdavalsia Robinson," 1933), a writer is assigned the task of composing a "Soviet Robinson Crusoe." He obediently drafts the story of a sole shipwreck survivor, fighting the elements and bravely battling a hostile environment with only his wit and resourcefulness to aid him in the struggle. Remarkably, his manuscript is rejected on the basis that there is nothing Soviet about the Soviet Robinson. The editor then suggests a series of changes to make it Soviet: now, among the things that must wash up on shore with the hero are a committee to conduct party meetings, a woman activist to collect dues, a safe for the dues, a meeting table, and a pitcher of water, a bottle of ink, and a bell to call meetings to order. Conscious of the writer's fragile ego, the editor concludes his detailed directives with the caveat: "The tablecloth can be of any kind—red, green. I'm not one to interfere with the work of the creative artist." The table washed up on the shore of Robinson's island is intended to draw a laugh, but countless such tables were quite seriously described in later socialist realist novels, each representing the link of the individual collective to the overarching universal consciousness. Robinson's table is analogous to Mircea Eliade's "axis mundi," the symbolic place at religious sites where heaven and earth meet. It may be decorated with a tablecloth of the author's choosing, but, underneath, the table is the same in each work of Soviet literature; it is the collective consciousness informing the individual writer's creative imagination. Under socialist realism, no writer is a creative island; he or she is linked to the mainland by such a table and by an editor who ensures that a bottle of ink and a set of stock symbols are placed upon it. By sitting at the collective table and obeying the instructions of the collective editor, the writer will transform the individualist Robinsons of the past into collectively conscious Robinsons.

The comical changes suggested by the editor in Ilf and Petrov's 1933 story provide an outline of the all-too-serious requirements that would soon exist when socialist realism was officially adopted in 1934. First of all, the editor forbids a romance, "cheap vulgarity and unwholesome eroticism," between Robinson and the female activist: the beast must be harnessed and desire controlled. Second, the editor suggests that the wave wash up "the masses, the broad strata of the laboring people," and that the island be changed to a peninsula: the alien must be directed away from his individual imagination and linked with the collective imagination. The Soviet Robinson therefore exists in a precarious balance. He must be a heroic leader yet not at all separate from the masses. And he must be passionate yet in control of his passions. These editorial commands rule out traditional conflicts found in Western literature—the hero in conflict with society and the hero in conflict with himself. And the editor's final command reveals that the Soviet Robinson must be written entirely without Robinson: "Throw him out altogether. A preposterous, totally indefensible figure of a whining pessimist." The editor's dismissal of the novel's main character and central conflict points to a problem that lies at the heart of Soviet literature: the writer must create a hero as intriguing as the Onegins, Pechorins, and Levins of prerevolutionary Russian literature, but the Soviet novel must be emptied of the conflicted "whining pessimists" at the heart of literary history.

Ilf and Petrov's satire on the Soviet writer seems prophetic. It was published in the year between the founding of the Soviet Writers' Union and its First Congress, when Soviet writers were given their one and only assignment: change readers into New People with the written word. "How Robinson Was Created" can in this context be read as a disturbing prophecy of the literary future, where no writer's hero would be safe from revision. It can also be seen as a final comment on the tumultuous early Soviet period, on the long journey to expel the whining pessimists from Soviet literature. It is the thesis of this book, however, that whining pessimists did not simply disappear beneath the tsunami of positive heroes that inundated the socialist realist peninsula. They remained, but even when seated at the standard, albeit sandy, meeting table, the Soviet Robinson can be seen only as a villain.


Immediately after the revolution, the Proletkult (Proletarian Cultural and Educational Organization) promoted the production of cultural products that would not only reflect the ideas of the ruling class—now the proletariat— but also cure the person viewing or reading them of the crippling infection of bourgeois ideology. Proletkult was founded by Aleksandr Bogdanov, the Bolshevik physician, philosopher, and science fiction writer, who returned to Russia in 1917 with plans to build a new proletarian culture. Bogdanov calls for an art that would appeal not only to the intellect but also to feelings: "By means of living images art organizes social experience, not only in the sphere of cognition but also in the sphere of feelings and desires. Therefore, it is the mightiest weapon in the organization of collective forces, in a class society of class forces." Affecting the extra-conscious, "the sphere of feelings and desires," would be vitally important to creating the organized psyche of the Soviet New Person. Heart and mind would need to be coordinated into a single organized entity and individual organized psyches brought together into a single worldwide collective. Bogdanov argues that any remaining aesthetic value from past art, music, and literature lies in the human being's instinctual response to this organizing power—the Venus de Milo served to organize the religious community of the ancient world, and modern viewers appreciate its beauty because something of that power draws them to the statue. Art not only reflects the "ruling ideas of the ruling class," but also unites people in action—or inaction—according to the dictates of its ideals. Accordingly, religious art draws people into "submission, humility, and blind faith," and bourgeois art nurtures "individualism." In Bogdanov's view, proletarian art would for the first time nourish something completely positive: "deep solidarity, comradely cooperation, a close brotherhood of warriors and builders, united by a common ideal."

Bogdanov gives little instruction on the literary strategies that would produce this "deep solidarity," but his own creative writing, which had a profound impact on literature of the 1920s, provides insight. After the Bolshevik Revolution, his science fiction novel Red Star: Novel-Utopia (Krasnaia zvezda: Roman-utopiia, 1908) had a second life. New editions of this highly influential book came out in 1918, 1922, and again after Bogdanov's death in 1928, and it was produced as a play by the Proletkult in 1920. In Red Star the Earthling Leonid visits a futuristic communist society on the planet Mars, goes insane, and returns to Earth, where he regains sanity by writing about his experiences (the novel is in the form of Leonid's journal). The first half of this chapter examines Bogdanov's literary prescription for organizing the human psyche as presented in Red Star. The second half turns to Evgeny Zamyatin's We (My, 1920), which was written at the height of the Proletkult and which engages critically with Bogdanov's novel and with his cure for the fractured psyche. Zamyatin's response to Bogdanov's utopia is a dystopian vision of a communist future often held up as an anti-Soviet anthem of individuality and protest. As Phillip E. Wegner notes, however, reading the novel primarily as an anti-Soviet anti-utopia limits our understanding of the book, because Zamyatin, like the Bolsheviks, argued for "total transformation of both society and the subjects that inhabit it." Indeed, a comparison with Bogdanov's novel reveals that We is not so much anti-Soviet as anti-Proletkult. Zamyatin's criticism of Bogdanov and the Proletkult is not an uncommon one, especially among "fellow travelers" (poputchiki), Leon Trotsky's term for those writers who were not Communists but who more or less supported the revolution. Comparing the first Bolshevik utopia and the first banned novel reveals a key divide in early Soviet debates over the transformation of heroes into villains, and, more important, over the dedication of literature to transforming Soviet readers.


Utopias of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries often transport a well-educated man to a future society, where humankind lives in perfect harmony, freed from the injustices of the past. The naive time-traveler is taken on a grand tour of utopia, with obligatory stops at egalitarian government institutions, innovative schools, and clean, well-lit workplaces, where fulfilled people create beautiful things with marvelous technology. In this brand of utopian narrative, the traveler's excursion to the future constitutes a brightly lit realization of his own theories about society, religion, and family, filled with shiny, glass-and-metal extrapolations of contemporary science and technology. Bogdanov's "novel-utopia" is no exception; the Bolshevik revolutionary Leonid is brought to Mars and escorted around the hospitals, museums, factories, and schools of his Martian hosts, where he is treated to a wondrous vision of a communist future complete with flying cars and 3D color movies. As the Bolsheviks predicted, archaic institutions such as government and family have withered away, and Leonid is confronted with all his fondly held principles of equality and community come to life, fulfilled in each and every Martian activity, from raising children to piloting spaceships.

There is, however, an undercurrent of dystopia in Bogdanov's utopia. The Bolshevik revolutionary who fights for the communist future is driven insane when he has to live in it, and the Martians who have built the communist future have either lost the will to live or the desire to share their utopia with others. Whether on Earth or Mars the inhabitants of Bogdanov's solar system are unbalanced—Martian men are rational but cold and unfeeling, while Leonid, the novel's earthly hero, is passionate but self-centered and irrational. Both the natives of Mars and their earthly visitor are superfluous men in a communist utopia, who demonstrate that simply intellectualizing the ideas of communism or feeling the solidarity of the collective is not enough. One must be able to combine intellect with feeling in order to achieve the organized psyche that Bogdanov proposed, and literature is the tool that would create and then continually calibrate this equilibrium. Accordingly, after going insane on Mars, Leonid returns to Earth and restores equilibrium by writing about his experiences in utopia. He organizes his own fragmented psyche and thereby becomes a New Person, able to use the passion of the beast for effective action and yet control it with the cool intellect of the alien. Yet the ease with which Leonid transforms himself into a suitable citizen of utopia belies the fragility of the New Person envisioned by Red Star, which only the writer's pen keeps in its precarious balance.

The Superfluous Man as Alien

Ellen Chances, in her study of the "superfluous man" (lishnii chelovek), the ubiquitous hero of nineteenth- century Russian literature, defines this character as one who cannot or will not conform to the status quo. In the communist society of Bogdanov's Mars, nonconformity to the status quo signals a character at odds with the principles of communism. And as Andrey Sinyavsky writes in his underground essay "On Socialist Realism" (1960), such a character occupies an unacceptable gray area in Soviet morality and therefore has no place in a literature of clearly defined heroes and villains: "To the positive hero of the new era he was strange and incomprehensible. The superfluous man seemed to him much more dangerous than the openly negative enemy." Indeed, in Red Star, the coldly calculating men of Mars have become detached from the principle of the "Whole" that supposedly governs their entire society, and in their nonconformity, they are capable of contemplating the liquidation of Earth's entire population. The Martian men Leonid observes have lost the capacity to feel, and therefore they have become superfluous men in a communist utopia, alien to the very world they inhabit.

Bogdanov's Mars is a dying planet, and Martians must colonize either Venus or Earth in order to survive. At the conference to decide Earth's fate, there is a distinct emotional coldness to the Martian men Sterni and Menni, who calmly and rationally discuss liquidating the Earthlings. Sterni speaks in a "mathematical, businesslike tone" which reflects the rational morality that he uses to measure the value of lives quantitatively. Since Mars needs Earth's resources and since there are only a few "embryonic human beings" (116) on Earth (the revolutionaries), he argues that it is justified to exterminate them in favor of the much greater number of fully human Martians. Sterni lacks an organized psyche, which would view the universe as an indivisible whole, where every component is indispensable. His decisionmaking process is cut off from feeling, and therefore he cannot connect with this Whole: "Sterni has a very strong but cold and for the most part analytical mind. He lays out everything inexorably and logically, and his conclusions are often one-sided, sometimes extremely severe, because an analysis of the parts gives you not the whole but less than the whole" (32). Because he is disconnected from his emotions and instincts, Sterni cannot see the value that Earthlings, who operate primarily from the extra-conscious, might have. On the contrary, Sterni fears that the more rational Martians might be infected by Earthlings' negative emotions and instincts, were they to colonize an inhabited Earth: "Little by little, our life would be penetrated by suspicion, mistrust and an egoistic greed for self-preservation and the brutality that comes with it" (112). Contact with Earthlings would cause a degeneration of Martians into primitive pre-socialist beasts.

In a society that claims to love life more than anything, suicide is common on Mars, and assisted-suicide centers have been set up for those who have lost the will to live. Those who choose suicide seem to do so because they have failed to develop the emotional coldness of Sterni or Menni; they have retained their connection to the extra- conscious, and because of their passion or emotional sensitivity they are unable to continue living in a rational utopia. Letta has an "especially gentle and sensitive nature" (36) and Enno has an "ardent, youthful imagination" (66), and therefore they are unable to thrive on Mars, where the cold, dying planet reflects the passionless intellects of many of their fellow citizens. Letta and Enno postpone their suicide plans only because they have been chosen for the mission to Earth, and reason that duty to the collective calls them; but going to Earth and meeting Leonid awakens within them passion and purpose. The elderly Letta still dies on the journey, but his death now has meaning; he sacrifices himself in order to save Leonid when a wall of the spaceship ruptures. The beautiful Enno abandons her suicide plans when she meets Leonid—she returns to Mars with a renewed desire to live. Leonid is brought to Mars in order to decide whether Earthlings are necessary to the cosmic "whole"; Enno's rebirth and Letta's sacrifice on the journey back proves early in his journey that Mars is sorely in need of the passion found on its more primitive neighbor.

Again at the conference to decide whether to colonize Venus or Earth, Menni speaks at length, but his only argument for settling Venus rather than Earth concerns the ease of finding radioactive fuel there. A life of the mind has weakened his empathy for the Earthlings, among whom he has spent so much time. As a consequence, his wife Enno is not only intellectually attracted to Leonid but also sexually aroused by him, partially because Menni has been unable to satisfy her either mentally or physically: "Menni matured from boy to man too late and began to live the extremely intense life of a scientist and thinker too early. Owing to its extreme development, his brain activity sapped and suppressed his reproductive vitality" (98). Menni's doctor recommends that he focus all energy on intellectual production and therefore advises him to avoid physical activity, including sex. With this modification, Menni's work as a psychologist flourishes. The use he makes of psychology, however, demonstrates what happens to the psyche when it is disconnected from the extra-conscious; Menni uses his professional expertise not to cure the mentally ill but to manipulate the sane; while visiting Earth he starts a series of arguments between Leonid and his Earthling wife so that she leaves him, freeing him to go to Mars.


Excerpted from Toxic Voices by Eric Laursen Copyright © 2013 by Northwestern University Press. Excerpted by permission of NORTHWESTERN UNIVERSITY PRESS. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents


A New Paradigm 2

Recycling Toxic Heroes 5


Organizing the Human Psyche 13

Superfluous Men in Utopia: Aleksandr Bogdanov’s Red Star (1908) 15

An Impossible Equilibrium: Evgeny Zamyatin’s We (1920) 27

Dystopian Fear 38


Hygienic Satire 42

"Bad Words Are Not Allowed": Mikhail Bulgakov’s Heart of a Dog (1925) 43

Monstrous Words 53

Unmasking Satire: Vladimir Mayakovsky’s Bedbug (1929) 55

The Death of Satire? 65


Hygienic Narration 70

Unreliable Narrators: Yury Olesha’s Envy (1927) 73

The Non-toxic Writer 85

Remapping the Alien Imagination: Lev Kassil’s Shvambraniia (1932) 88

An Image Can Kill 106


Constructing a New Voice 113

Translating the Villainous Voice: Fedor Gladkov’s Cement (1925) 115

Party-mindedness & the Socialist-realist Text 126

Rewriting the Writer: Valentin Kataev’s Time Forward (1932) 129

The Writer as Telegraph Operator 142


Really Real Men, or Apologies for the Elephant 148



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