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.


  1. Thanks for this post, Russian Dinosaur! I've always enjoyed the archetypes of socialist realism and sentimentalism. That cult of suffering (and, yikes, mutilation) is very strong.

  2. Thanks for a very interesting post!

    As you probably know, Pelevin in "Amun Ra" has taken this to the next level by having a grotesque pseudo-soviet state reshape reality according to this archetype; thus, future pilots have to have their legs amputated to resemble Meresiev, future commissars have to be operated to put them in a wheel-chair like Korchagin, and one can only guess what is happening in the Matrosov officer school as one hears the machine gun firing behind the fence... (Matrosov, one would remember, had been the hero that had thrown himself on the embrasure of a German pillbox)

  3. Thank tou both for your interesting comments.
    @Lisa: I'm intrigued that you mention Sentimentalism; I know some critics are working on Sentimentalism in the Soviet and even post-Soviet context. Are you au fait with this?
    @Maxim: Yes, I am indeed familiar with Omon Ra and its status as an ironic summary of Soviet heroism - but it's a few years since I read it, so I'm glad you mention the details here. I'm not a fan of Pelevin but I did enjoy this book.

  4. "... wonder why anyone would write (let alone read) a book called 'Cement'..." Oh, RD: I was once assigned to *translate* it (and I did). But that was in another country, and besides, the wench is dead.