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Revolutionary literature

The immediate aftermath of 1917 saw a huge creative upswing in Russia – writers inspired by the revolution produced work of unprecedented brilliance. However, this was very temporary, the Bolsheviks being no connoisseurs of culture and not appreciating literature unless it was directly supporting
the communist movement.

While some brilliant writers such as Mayakovsky managed to write within the system, penning some excellent poetry and plays in the 1920s, most writers found little success in the prevailing climate of Philistinism and art ‘serving the people’.
Under Stalin, who made Lenin look like a cultured renaissance man, Maxim Gorky, one of the less talented writers of his generation, was promoted to unofficial laureate of the revolution, with Mayakovsky bringing up the rear.

Maxim Gorky

Maxim Gorky


At the same time superbly talented contemporaries such as Boris Pilnyak, Yury Olesha, Yevgeny Zamyatin and Osip Mandelshtam found themselves faced with silence, exile or death, refusing as they did to produce the kind of work that Stalin demanded of Soviet writers. Stalin announced that writers were ‘engineers of the human soul’ and as such had a responsibility to write in a partisan direction. Ultimately Stalin’s ceaseless demands for propaganda got too much for some – Mayakovsky shot himself in 1930.

The clampdown on diverse literary styles culminated in the late 1930s with the creation of socialist realism, a literary form created by communist functionaries to promote the needs of the state, praise industrialisation and demonise social misfits and anyone else deemed unsupportive of the revolution. The long-established tradition of underground writing flourished under the communists, and while Stalin’s propaganda machine was
churning out novels with titles such as How the Steel Was Tempered and Cement, St Petersburg’s writing community were secretly writing about life under the great tyrant.

Anna Akhmatova

Anna Akhmatova


No literary figure, though, is as inextricably linked to the fate of St Petersburg-Petrograd-Leningrad as Anna Akhmatova (1889-1966), the long-suffering poet whose work contains bittersweet depictions of the city she so loved. Akhmatova’s life was filled with sorrow and loss – her family was imprisoned and killed, her friends exiled, tortured and arrested, her colleagues were constantly hounded – but she refused to leave her beloved city and died there in 1966. Her work depicts the city with realism and monumentalism, painted with Russian as well as personal history. Her major work is Poem Without a Hero. While the Communist Party’s condemnation of her work (in a denunciation in August 1946) as ‘the poetry of a crazed lady, chasing back and forth between boudoir and chapel’ may not have been fair, her love for her city was unconditional but
unblinking: ‘The capital on the Neva; Having forgotten its greatness; Like a drunken whore; Did not know who was taking her’.

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