Thursday, 30 June 2011

More on Mamin-Sibiriak: Guest Blog with David Ellard

Readers of this previous blog post on Dmitrii Mamin-Sibiriak, the Siberian writer, will be aware that one of my students wrote a very interesting research project on him earlier this year. I asked him if he would be willing to publish a précis of this project here, both to raise awareness of Mamin-Sibiriak's stature and to delight those of you who already admire this neglected author. And here it is. David Ellard, today's guest blogger, is already my former student. He completed a degree in History and Russian at Oxford earlier this month.
The Little Grey Neck (1891)

Dmitry Narkisovich Mamin-Sibiriak can only be considered one of the leading figures in the literary history of Siberia. Despite the great popularity of his works during his own lifetime, Mamin-Sibiriak fell into obscurity during the Soviet period: the attempts of Stalin-era critics to examine their content in a purely revolutionary light could not be reconciled with the author’s devotion to his native Urals. At present only one of his works – the short story Серая шейка (Little Grey Neck) – survives in the Russian school curriculum; many Russians are also familiar with the мультик (or cartoon) inspired by the story. Large numbers of towns in the former Soviet Union were named after this writer, and still bear his name, while two museums devoted to him continue research and display his manuscripts in his native Ekaterinburg.
                Mamin-Sibiriak’s works include Приваловские миллионы, a novel which has been translated as The Privalov Fortune and which I have particularly enjoyed studying; it is among the most daring satires of nineteenth-century Russian life, and I could justify reading it on the basis of its unusual brand of  proto-feminism alone. Mamin-Sibiriak’s gentle writing style led him to become a highly skilled writer of childrens’ fiction; the Аленушкины сказки (Alena’s Fairytales) are the best example of this. This author also produced a large body of short stories with a focus on moral questions; some of the best of them are comparable to Chekhov’s work, but from a different cultural and psychological space.
Для детей младшего школьного возраста
                As such, Mamin-Sibiriak’s works – despite their flaws – present a certain contrast to the works of other, more well-known writers, most of whom lived much closer to St. Petersburg. This contrast is not just a question of the settings used in an author’s fiction. In such a large and diverse territory as the Russian Empire there was scope for “provincial” literary movements to develop, and for scholars to subsequently ignore this diversity inevitably distorts our picture of Russian literature. Mamin-Sibiriak himself was an author not just of fiction, but of radical journalism; he aligned himself with a tendency known as областничество (oblastnichestvo), a proto-secessionist worldview seeing Siberia as a separate entity from European Russia. His works are therefore of genuine importance to historians, while reminding the general reader of the fundamental diversity of Russian literature.
                Works of politically- or socially-inspired fiction can give us an understanding not just of their authors, but also of their readers. I have already mentioned Mamin-Sibiriak’s popularity in his lifetime; in his diaries Chekhov records his surprise to discover on his way to Sakhalin that in the Urals Mamin-Sibiriak had eclipsed even Tolstoy. Mamin-Sibiriak’s concern for the peasantry, his interest in the moral aspects of industrial development in the Urals, and his interest in personal spiritual redemption tell us not only about the author’s own attitudes. They can also illuminate the attitudes of his readers; in this sense, the creation of literature should not be seen as a linear process of an author passing meaning on to his readers. Literature can only be circular, as there is a constant mutual exchange of material between author and reader.
                Why is it necessary to continue research into such writers? If a writer has fallen into shadow, why should scholars attempt to resuscitate them? This is a complicated question and could be answered at much greater length, so this article will not attempt to resolve it completely. It is clear that students of History or Literature should find a balance between analysing material which is already available, and finding and presenting hitherto lost or forgotten material. We can compare knowledge to a body of water – in a pond, with no streams flowing into or out of it, the water becomes stagnant and opaque, yet in a fast-flowing river the water will be more clear. Therefore even today there is good reason for scholars of Russian literature to search-out little-studied or forgotten writers.
                Finally, I would suggest that this moment is an appropriate time to carry out such an activity. Authors such as Mamin-Sibiriak, who were examined by Soviet and modern Russian critics and literary historians, have been ignored in the West largely because of the restrictions on information exchange between the Soviet Union and the English-speaking world. In the municipal library of the city where I carried out my research a two-inch thick stack of index cards catalogues works devoted to Mamin-Sibiriak; in a year spent researching this author in the UK I was unable to find a single journal article discussing his works. There can be no doubt that there are many other Russian authors who show such an imbalance; if we are serious about studying Russian literature, this is something we should strive to correct.

                                                     David Ellard, June 2011

Friday, 17 June 2011

The Soviet Man Meets The Velveteen Rabbit

"When you are Real you don't mind being hurt." 

I am finishing up a lecture course called Introduction to Socialist Realism - in which I have feebly attempted, over four lectures, to convey the basics of the infamous Production Novel and Master Plot, the eternal battle between Spontaneity and Consciousness, and the iniquities of the 1934 Congress of Soviet Writers, to an audience of mildly puzzled second years who wonder why anyone would write (let alone read) a book called 'Cement'. Today's lecture tried to bridge Nikolai Ostrovsky's How The Steel Was Tempered (Как закалялась сталь, 1932) and Boris Polevoi's A Story About A Real Man (Повесть о настоящем человеке, 1946) by discussing how Socialist Realist writers depict war. This brought us onto heroism, and the construction of manhood in the Soviet novel - territory already insightfully and entertainingly explored by Lilya Kaganovsky in How The Soviet Man Was Unmade (although I do feel she can be over-imaginative: her suggestion that Gleb Chumalov of Cement may have been castrated strikes me as below the belt, to say the least). In turn, this stimulated strange resonances inside my head. I found myself remembering one of my favourite children's stories - Margery Williams's The Velveteen Rabbit (1922). Before I explain this connection, allow me to recapitulate the Soviet hero archetype.

I ended my lecture by showing the students a video clip of the famous flight scene from Aleksandr Stolper's 1948 film version of A Story About A Real Man, starring Pavel Kadochnikov as Aleksei Meres'ev, the Soviet fighter pilot whose lower legs were amputated following a crash at the beginning of 1942. (Polevoi's book is based on the exploits of the real-life Aleksei Meres'ev, who really did retrain as a fighter pilot after losing both legs, and the film follows the book quite faithfully). This scene recreates Meres'ev's first flight since his injury; he has ruthlessly trained his body (even re-learning to dance) in order to compensate for his missing feet, and he has successfully achieved a degree of physical sensitivity to his controls that equals the skill of able-bodied pilots. Even better, his confidence and his love of flying have returned. When they land, Meres'ev's flight instructor scolds him for wearing thin boots that won't protect his feet in the frigid air. 'I have no feet', says Meres'ev proudly. The instructor doesn't understand. 'I have no feet, Comrade Lieutenant', Meres'ev replies, with a grin spreading all over his face. After insisting on seeing Meres'ev's prostheses, the instructor embraces Meres'ev and tells him ecstatically, 'You don't realize... the sort of man you are!'
'Of course', I apostrophized as I dived under the projector to wipe down the whiteboard (and as my students dived for the door), 'the moral of the story is that both Meres'ev and the instructor know exactly what kind of man he is. He is a REAL MAN, a Soviet hero. And the irony of the story is that in order to be a REAL MAN, Meres'ev first has to become less than a man'.

I was ad-libbing: Lilya Kaganovsky has already put the same point much better: 'in its attempts to articulate the coming into being of the New Soviet Man, socialist realism [...] produces a mangled or mutilated (male) body as frequently as it produces the hyperbolically healthy and strong Stalinist man' (2008 ed., p. 22). This irony is why Gleb Chumalov is festooned with battle scars; why Pavel Korchagin is blinded and crippled; why Meres'ev's mentor and model, Commissar Vorob'ev, is valiantly expiring from some unnamed but clearly unpleasant disease which bloats and agonizes his body; why Meres'ev loses his limbs (although it must be reiterated that, of these examples, Korchagin and Meres'ev are based on real-life exemplars; Korchagin's damaged body relives the physical decline of his creator, Nikolai Ostrovsky). All these semi-cripples and moribund victims are heroes of a Soviet ideal which vindicates pain by transcending it, and glorifies the body while mutilating it. After the unquenchable Vorob'ev has finally passed away in his hospital bed (while listening to a Soviet propaganda broadcast, appropriately enough), his fellow patients come up with a simple epitaph for him: he was 'a real man... a Bolshevik'. Young Meres'ev is enchanted by this phrase: 'A better description of the Commissar could not have been imagined. And Alexei was filled with a desire to become a real man, like the one who had just been taken on his last journey'.

That phrase set me thinking... of a conversation that takes place in Margery Williams's oddly unsentimental tale of a little stuffed rabbit who wants to be real, so he can play in the meadow with the live rabbits:
'"What is REAL?" asked the Rabbit one day, when they were lying side by side near the nursery fender, before Nana came to tidy the room. "Does it mean having things that buzz inside you and a stick-out handle?"
"Real isn't how you are made," said the Skin Horse. "It's a thing that happens to you. When a child loves you for a long, long time, not just to play with, but REALLY loves you, then you become Real."
"Does it hurt?" asked the Rabbit.
"Sometimes," said the Skin Horse, for he was always truthful. "When you are Real you don't mind being hurt."
"Does it happen all at once, like being wound up," he asked, "or bit by bit?"
"It doesn't happen all at once," said the Skin Horse. "You become. It takes a long time. That's why it doesn't happen often to people who break easily, or have sharp edges, or who have to be carefully kept. Generally, by the time you are Real, most of your hair has been loved off, and your eyes drop out and you get loose in the joints and very shabby. But these things don't matter at all, because once you are Real you can't be ugly, except to people who don't understand."'

The little Rabbit does become Real in the end... but only after he has lost his whiskers, and the lining to his ears, and even his shape until 'he scarcely looked like a rabbit any more', and until, finally, he is unfairly ejected from the nursery and his place beside the Boy that he loves. After he has survived this self-sacrificial rite of passage, the Velveteen Rabbit becomes REAL and plays with the flesh-and-blood rabbits in the meadows. If this isn't a journey from spontaneity to consciousness, what is? I'm not suggesting that Katerina Clark should insert a chapter on 'The Velveteen Rabbit as Master Plot' in her Fourth Edition of The Soviet Novel: History as Ritual (which fans of the genre will recognize as the Ur-text of Socialist Realist criticism). But nonetheless, the Rabbit's apotheosis via trauma pre-enacts Pavel Korchagin's unsparing 'spartanstvo', Meres'ev's single-minded return to the cockpit, and other Socialist Realist Bildungsromans. The Master Plot for all  of these tales is, of course, Gethsemane, Golgotha, and Resurrection. In their quest to become REAL, Socialist Realist heroes grotesquely act out Christ's mutilation and transfiguration. Yet isn't it odd to reflect that the essence of their philosophy was summed up in 1922 in a conversation between a plush rabbit and a stuffed horse?
Pavel Korchagin
Velveteen Rabbit
Aleksei Meres'ev

CREDITS The citations from A Story About A Real Man in this post are taken from J. Fineberg's translation (Moscow, 1952); the text of The Velveteen Rabbit is courtesy of

There is a link to a good translation of How The Steel Was Tempered from this Wikipedia article.