This Soviet World

Anna Louise Strong


“Heroic people call into being heroic artists.”
Editorial in Soviet Literary Critic.

If science is the instrument of man’s dominance over nature, art is the means of his self-expression. Tens of millions of people from earth’s most backward races have awakened in the Soviet Union from long slumber. They are seeking self expression. They themselves write, sing and paint; they push up from their ranks novelists, poets and dramatists. They love these poets and dramatists; they criticize them and make serious demands from them. Soviet art is not private property, it is the wealth of the nation, and the nation is jealous and proud of its wealth.

When the first All-Union Congress of Soviet writers met in Moscow in August, 1934, thousands of letters poured in from all corners of the union, congratulating, greeting, giving practical suggestions and advice. Workers, collective farmers, students, Young Pioneers, scientists, engineers and artists thus expressed their interest in the Congress. In Moscow alone, more than two hundred factory conferences were held between readers and authors. Delegations representing millions of readers came to speak at the Congress. Each day after the meetings, authors found throngs of workers who had been unable to enter the crowded hall waiting outside to hail their favorite writers with applause. Throughout the country, millions of people concentrated their attention on questions of esthetics, the function of poetry, the form of literature best suiting the present age, subjects reported in detail in the press. Literary work in the land of the Soviets is becoming the affair of all the toilers.

There are no bounds to the desire for every variety of culture. Soviet Russia in its first fifteen years published five billion books, as contrasted with two billion in the last thirty years of tsardom. The number keeps growing. At the end of the first Five-Year Plan, book production in the USSR was greater than that of England, Germany and France together. Especially amazing is the growth of literature among the national minorities whose self-expression was suppressed under tsardom. Every year since 1929 has seen the publication of more books in the Ukrainian language than were published in the whole 118 years before the Revolution. One publishing house alone, the Moscow International Book House, publishes books in eighty-five languages, some of which had formerly no alphabet—novels, textbooks, folk tales, technical works, translations of classics, short stories and dictionaries.

The Soviet world feels itself the heir of the ages. Anniversaries of poets, scientists and artists of all countries are widely celebrated. The ancient Persian poet Firdousi, the English Shakespeare, the German Goethe, the famous French writers, are honored by mass meetings and columns in the press. The best works of Flaubert, Mérimée, Maupassant, Victor Hugo, Mark Twain and Jack London appear by the hundreds of thousands of copies and disappear almost as quickly from the shelves of bookstores which never expect to retain volumes more than a few weeks. Russian classics are even more popular. Lermontov, Nekrassov, Korolenko, Gogol, Turgenev, Chekhov appear in editions of seventy to a hundred thousand. The favorite poet Pushkin has been issued for several years in repeated editions of two hundred thousand copies, and his collected works in six volumes now face a subscription demand of three hundred thousand copies, exclusive of sales to the shops. Tolstoy is the most popular of all; eleven and a half million copies of his works have been sold since the Revolution.

The Soviet reader demands not only the art of the past but the art of today. The most popular novels are those like Sholokhov’s Quiet Don and Soil Upturned, which paint on a wide canvas the personalities, difficulties, struggles and victories of the present. “No artist of the past had such material at his disposal as is given by the earth-shaking events occurring in the USSR in the last eighteen years,” said the Soviet writer Panferov speaking at a Paris congress. “The working class built a dam on the surging Dnieper and made its unruly waters serve man. It transformed the misty Urals into an industrial center, mastered the wild and distant Kuzbas. . . . In remaking the country the working class at the same time remade itself. . . . The outcast dweller of the mountains, the illiterate, solitary Yakut, the northern Nentsi, the wild Bashkir, the Mordvin with his trachoma, the persecuted Kalmyk—tens of millions of peoples in scores of scattered nationalities went into the furnace of civil war and are energetically rebuilding the country, conquering the strongholds of culture, bringing new life to the whole world. . . . Socialist realism was the inevitable phenomenon of the proletarian era—active, cheerful, bold and daring, like the era of the proletarian revolution itself.”

These tens of millions of people are not only the subjects for art, they are also the artists, readers and audience. They show a wide interest in all forms of artistic expression. Theaters are constantly crowded; art museums are packed with visitors; popular exhibitions sometimes have lines before the museum entrances waiting until there is room to go in. Nor are the factory workers and collective farmers at all backward in expressing their opinion on the products of brush and pen. Are they not all also writers, artists, musicians and actors, if and when the mood seizes them? They are not only consumers of art, millions of them are amateur producers of it.

More than one hundred thousand “circles for self-expression” have grown up in the past two years in the USSR. The drama circles alone have 1,200,000 members, while the total number in the singing, music, dancing and graphic art circles exceeds five million. Writers, cartoonists and photographers for the local press or wall newspapers are probably as many more. A chief characteristic of the new type of person now emerging in the Soviet Union is his dynamic energy in self-expression, usually in some collective form.

The first and most direct self-expression of large numbers takes the form of participation in the press. They write their opinions about corrupt officials or inefficient farm management for the hand-lettered sheet posted on a factory wall or a village tree-trunk; more important communications they send, often with several signatures, to the great metropolitan Pravda or Izvestia with their million and a half subscribers. Two million letters a year pour into the office of the Peasents’ Gazette in Moscow, reflecting the life and problems of the farm; only part of them can be published but all of them are answered, filed, and carefully studied as material for novels, for history, and for the lawmaking of the state.

In a northern township, fifty miles from the railroad, where before the Revolution only six people subscribed to any newspaper at all, I visited a congress of some two hundred rural press correspondents preparing for a sowing campaign. These were only part of the energetic writers of this township. Its collective farms had 470 field brigades, every one of which during the sowing campaign posted up a wall newspaper. One picturesque seventeen-year-old boy in a vivid shirt of old rose sateen under a black jacket proudly reported the overthrow of the corrupt management of his collective farm by his articles and editorials. “We got out nine numbers,” he explained to the meeting, “then we stopped for want of paper. But we had already aroused the farmers, and the general meeting removed the president and two members of the management.”

Nine single sheets of crude newsprint stuck in successive weeks on a tree, protected from the rain by an overhanging board, had deposed the management of a farm, shamed idlers, carried the sowing through to success, finished the hoeing and brought the brigade on record time to the haying season. The number of these collective farm wall-newspapers throughout the country is estimated by the Peasants’ Gazette as half a million, with at least ten village correspondents for each. There are more than three thousand factory newspapers; these range from weeklies of a few hundred copies to dailies with a circulation of twenty thousand and more in the larger plants. These newspapers are both an organizing center for factory and farm life and a training school for young writers. With such a writing and reading public, it is not surprising that there are more than eleven thousand printed newspapers in the Soviet Union with a circulation of more than thirty-six million copies—thirteen times as great as before the Revolution.

An ever-growing stream of writers enters literature through the gateway of the factory and farm newspapers, which make modest but insistent demands on the humblest worker able to use a pen. Literary groups arise in centers like the Urals and the Donetz basin, or around some tractor station which serves the nearby villages. Many of the Donbas group of writers embarked on their literary careers when through with their day’s work of furnishing coal. Their magazine Literary Donbas has produced a noteworthy crop of stories and poems widely popular among miners.

The literary society of collective farmers at the machine tractor station in Voronovo village had as members two stablemen, a blacksmith, a reaper, a tractor-driver, a bookkeeper, a warehouseman, four day-nursery attendants, three teachers, two presidents of collective farms, one village president, three editors of field newspapers and sixteen farm women. In one year the members published through their own printshop two books of verses, the play Miscalculated, and 2 book of character sketches, Bolsheviks of the Politodels. They announced for the following year a play, According to Merit, a novel Quiet Subversion, The Diary of a Tractor Driver, and The History of the Machine Tractor Station.

It is difficult to conceive of the wide extent of amateur art activities of all kinds. Thousands of short-line popular stanzas known as chastyshki appear in the most distant parts of the Soviet Union celebrating the freedom of woman, the heroism of tractor-drivers, the growing prosperity of collective life. They vary in merit from mere doggerel giving rhymed technical guidance for reapers and cattle herders to verse of real beauty. The Donetz coal region alone reports more than eight hundred brass bands, three hundred orchestras, two hundred and fifty choruses, thousands of dramatic circles and even forty-two ballet schools. Some of the Soviet dancers who attracted attention at a recent London dance festival came from these “self-expression groups.” Amateur circles in drawing and painting also exist all over the country, and give local exhibitions which often unearth talent.

A constant interchange of ideas and personnel goes on between professional and non-professional groups. The Soviet press takes active part in establishing these connections. The newspaper Culture and Sport publishes reproductions of the best art from famous galleries. It encourages would-be artists to correspond and send in their work to be judged by well-known artists; those who show talent are sent to art schools. The magazine Collective Farm Theater every month issues eight or ten special supplements containing plans of caravan theaters, rural pageants and festivals, choral programs, texts of one-act plays. It connects the self-expression groups with the nearest professional theater which can help them in their technique. There are today one hundred rural theaters of professional standing.

One among many movements which swept the farms in the summer of 1935 was a campaign to discover musical talent among children. Hundreds of local musical festivals were held to many of which professors from the Moscow Conservatory came by airplane to act as judges. As a result, 715 of the most talented children are being sent to special musical schools; the twenty-five best ones were brought to a specially created branch in the Moscow Conservatory of Music.

Not only in music but in poetry, drama and dancing, nation-wide “Olympiads were held in the summer of 1935. In Leningrad, for instance, juries of artists visited the factories to select eleven hundred contestants for the district Olympiad from fifteen thousand amateur musicians, singers, dancers, acrobats, orators, accordion players and even jugglers. On a collective farm in Smolensk, an illiterate peasant woman of sixty-four years wrote a play, dictating it to a younger woman; the young folks of the farm produced it at the Olympiad in Smolensk. Besides the Olympiads, many “culture expeditions” of both scholars and composers penetrate the wilderness where live Khirgiz, Buryat-Mongols, Tajiks, Uzbeks, to seek and preserve the music and poems which shed light on early culture. A symphony orchestra recently organized made its first tour, playing old Cossack melodies in modern style, across what not so long ago was the steppe of half-savage nomads. Collective farms sent delegations hundreds of miles to insist that the orchestra visit them.

Out of this artistic ferment in the lives of millions, arises the vigor of Soviet art, which feels itself called upon to find adequate expression for the awakening genius of the people. Soviet writers today, if they would be popular, must not confine themselves to delving in the depths of a single human soul; they must depict the vast variety of changing social relations. They spend much time in deepening their contacts with intimate details of factory or of farm; Sholokhov, for instance, makes his permanent residence in the village whose changing life is the subject of a whole series of novels.

Nor is the artist’s human material passive; the human material talks back. The Vakhtangov Theater invites the audience to discuss plays between the scenes and at the end with the actors; witty and fruitful discussions occur. Meetings between writers and readers have become a popular feature of factory life. Authors like Sholokhov and Tretyakov have long adopted the custom of reading drafts of semi-finished manuscripts to audiences of workers and farmers. Frequently a worker is able to give sound advice on the handling of an industrial character. “Our reader, while a friend, is also a very severe critic,” says the Soviet writer, Vsevolod-Ivanov. “Intercourse with him is the best and most precious school.”

Soviet readers demand simplicity and vividness of writing. They are not interested in complex analysis of burdened souls. Their whole life faces outward. Their interest is in people who do things, who change the relations of society. In the first decade after the Revolution, a typical theme in literature and drama was the hero who died in the moment of victory while the collective achievement marched on. The hero might be a Chapayev shot down before his victorious comrades appear on the scene, or a village organizer killed by a kulak and drawn to his grave in triumphal procession by the newly-arrived tractor which his labor had secured. The victory was collective, attained through the sacrifice of the heroic individual. Thus was the natural expression of the period of revolution and civil war.

New themes begin to dominate Soviet literature and drama of recent years. The hero no longer dies; he struggles, achieves, learns, and is himself made over, not by introspection but by the clash of action. He is the optimist—builder type creating a glorious and happy future. What the people demand of writers, they demand also of the graphic arts: an art that is inspired by and in torn inspires the great moods of the day. The workers of Stalingrad sent a famous open letter to the artists: “Don’t give us colored photographs, we are tired of them. We expect from you an art that is stirring and inspiring.”

If the responsive demand of a great new public is a constant stimulus to Soviet artists, a second stimulus is found in co-operation with members of their craft. Writers, actors, painters—all have their organizations. They maintain club houses for social contacts, discussions and exhibitions; they have country retreats to which members withdraw for rest and creative work. They assist beginners with loans and subsidies; they foster high standards; they assist members in the sale of their work. The writers’ organization issues literary journals, organizes courses, consultations and criticisms for new writers and runs a literary university for workers. The actors’ club holds special midnight performances where its members meet famous visiting artists and see the season’s best in music, dance and drama.

Four thousand artists belong to a co—operative which not only handles exhibitions all over the country, but also owns numerous factories producing artists’ supplies, workshops for stone-cutting, metal-casting and frame-making and studios for lithography and engraving. This co-operative has a yearly turnover of forty-two million rubles. It accepts on behalf of its members orders from city soviets, large industries, and workers’ clubs which wish decorations and paintings; some of these orders run over the million-ruble mark. When the ten-year reconstruction plan of Moscow creates a demand for architecture, sculpture, landscaping and monumental art, the artists’ organizations arrange discussions and excursions of sculptors and architects and initiate experimental fresco work on a large scale. Instead of being an isolated craftsman, the Soviet artist is part of a rich and influential organization which connects him with the government planning departments and the organized life of the country.

From this close association of artists with their fellow craftsmen and with their public has arisen a method of collective production which is becoming increasingly popular; it extends to the collective writing of books by a score of writers and even by whole factories. Thirty professional writers combined to produce Belomor, the famous tale of the building of the Baltic-White Sea Canal. “We tried to tell how a canal was built in a far, cold and rocky place and how the chekists made new men out of prisoners,” said Vsevolod-Ivanov. “We were authors entirely different in taste and in age, but we all tried to make that book united, wide-horizoned and mighty. That book is dear to me even today. In writing it, I learned that we writers are really not such individualists as we like to call ourselves.” The Events of the High Mountain, which told the history of an iron mine in the Urals, was written by more than one hundred miners. The miners consulted, wrote and improved it in common, as together they created and improved their mine. The book is a great political and artistic document, energetic, fresh and vital.

The History of the Civil War, the History of Factories and the now projected History of the Russian Village contain whole series of books, each of which compiles the experiences of hundreds or even thousands of people. The characters are not described by others; they describe themselves, each seeking in consultation with the others a significant artistic form. The meeting of two hundred village correspondents which I attended, decided to issue a book giving artistic form to the history of the township. They selected the best writers from each of twenty-five villages to work with two professional authors who had come from Moscow. Each local writer chose with the help of his village some vivid and significant episode or character whose story illumined the changes made by the Revolution. One contrasted the intimate family relations in his father’s household with those in his own Soviet home. Another described the people who had successively looked out of the windows of a certain ancient building—once a school for the daughters of the nobility and now the central club of the collective farm. The result was a book which was lacking in style and finish but vivid and unforgettable with actual life. It was not yet art, but it made part of the rich soil out of which great art may well grow in the next few decades.

Great art movements in the past have followed periods of economic expansion which gave stimulus to new creative life. “We are already in the great epoch; artistic values of permanent worth are already appearing but not yet the great masterpieces. Where else in the world are there even high artistic values?” said a Soviet writer to me. In literature Ostrovski’s How Steel is Welded, Sholokhov’s Quiet Don; in motion pictures, Potemkin, Chapayev, the Youth of Maxim, are among the many lasting contributions which the Soviets have already made to art. The Moscow subway is one of the first significant expressions of the epoch in architecture. As forums and temples expressed the spirit of ancient Rome, cathedrals and castles the Middle Ages, and skyscrapers the power of centralized finance, so this beautiful subway expresses the rhythm of millions of workers in efficient motion. The Lenin library in Moscow and the House of State Industry in Kharkov, and some of the new factories, children’s centers, and sanitoriums, also foreshadow the new architecture.

Are Soviet artists “in uniform?” Only in so far as they lack intelligence to respond to their social environment and the will to fight their way through to expression. Artists whose souls were formed by an old world felt the coming of the new as a thwarting of impulses. They had to find their way about among new publishers and new officials, who were trying more or less intelligently to protect the new order. Often groups of rising artists hogged the Revolution and organized to lord it over their fellows. Thus the RAPP (Association of Revolutionary Writers) succeeded in imposing its narrow standards for a considerable period, till other authors learned the new environment and smashed the RAPP. The social environment also changes; when that excellent play, Days of the Turbines, featured a tsarist officer as hero before post-war audiences where budding capitalists cheered him, Young Communist organizations fresh from fighting those officers protested wrathfully and had the play suppressed. When Nepmen followed the civil war into the past, the play revived to more tolerant audiences.

All authors everywhere adjust themselves to editors, publishers and readers; these are necessary media no less than words or paint. Not even in America could “proletarian authors” come into being, until there were new readers who pushed them up. Soviet society also presses in various ways on artists. We authors deal with publishers who are worried by their paper quota; their criterion is “importance” rather than profit, since any half-good book is sure to sell. They rely in part on “political editors,” officials of the Commissariat of Education, whose function is to give advice on the demands of the educational field and the political significance of the work. My own conversations with these political editors—they dislike the name censors—are singularly like those with publishers’ readers in America. They make suggestions, some extremely valuable, some moderately useful and some of which I protest; they themselves yield to reason and prefer authors who know what they do. Only crude authors take them as enemies; through mutual discussion the product is improved. If differences lie too deep, one seeks another publisher; in the Soviet Union there is also the wider appeal. No one autocrat censors everything. Political editors more and more become highly educated specialists. Important plays are usually previewed by selected audiences of leading critics and persons familiar with their theme, both children and educators previewing a drama or motion picture destined for children. Only on military matters and material likely to injure the Soviets’ international relations is the censor absolute;1 and these matters are hardly the realm of art.

If art survived the censoring by the whims of princelings in the feudal ages, and by the profit-motives of American publishers, why should it not survive the decisions of educational authorities and experienced critics who estimate its importance for a socialist society? To the artist now growing up in a Soviet environment, art is the natural expression of the collective life of millions given significant form by his own special talent or genius. Such an artist feels no repression in this new environment; he feels its great creative urge. Millions of rural journalists, thousands of dramatic clubs, tens of thousands of farm and factory orchestras furnish an alert and appreciative public. The leisure made possible by the social ownership of great modern machines is already widely used in the Soviet Union for pursuits of science and art. The barriers thus begin to wear thin between manual and mental labor; the same person does both. Genius, wherever it arises, finds ready access to widening expression. From such a soil, watered by the artistic strivings of millions, great art must grow. More than great art—a people to whom art becomes man’s natural self-expression, which no longer flames and dies.


1.  The most striking recent example was the suppression of information during the difficult year of 1932, a suppression which turned several American journalists permanently against the Soviets. The Soviets believed with some reason that derailed knowledge of their difficulties would provoke the threatened Japanese invasion.

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