A review of The Individual after Stalin: Fedor Abramov, Russian Intellectuals, and the Revitalization of Soviet Socialism, 1953-1962 by Anatoly Pinsky.
Anatoly Pinsky’s dissertation outlines the contours of Soviet subjectivity in the fifteen years after Stalin’s death in 1953 through a biographical and literary perspective. The main goal is to reflect on and measure Russian writers’ efforts to affirm Soviet socialism’s humanistic and liberal dimensions. Although Pinsky’s manuscript features a number of notable Soviet literati — such as Aleksandr Iashin (1913-1968), Valentin Ovechkin (1904-1968), and Aleksandr Tvardovskii (1910-1971) — his focus rests on Fedor Abramov (1920-1983). The decision to concentrate on this figure proves fortuitous because of the writer’s idiosyncratic views and philosophy. As a passionate believer in the Soviet cause who simultaneously advanced Russian nationalist feeling and harbored anti-Semitic views, Abramov embodies both the paradoxical outcomes of de-Stalinization and, more broadly, the particular contradictions of post-Stalinist Soviet subjectivity. A man of rural extraction, Abramov made use of his connection to the countryside to reshape and reconstitute public views of Soviet authority through examining the situation in Soviet agriculture. The rural themes that preoccupy Abramov in both his personal writing and published prose allowed him to identify and delve deeper into the moral problems plaguing the Soviet system.
The sources Anatoly Pinsky utilizes are ideally suited for this task. Through rare access to Abramov’s diaries and personal notes, Pinsky is uniquely positioned to reveal the diary as both a historical source from which to extract meaning about the writer’s prose and the period more generally. More importantly, Pinsky conceptualizes the diary as a historical artifact and literary form in much the way his subjects did: a tool for reforming the post-Stalinist sociopolitical project. Although Abramov knew his diary, “which he only partly in jest called ‘his notebook of heresies’,” would not be published in the immediate future, he “held fast to the notion that his diary was socially significant” (p. 222, p. 9). Pinsky gracefully resolves this apparent paradox when he states: “Yet the notion that one’s personal diary could become literature captures a feature of the Thaw-era behavioral imperative: optimism that change was not far off and thus that, at some point in the future, one would be able to place one’s personal diary and its contents in the public realm” (p. 112). Rather than emphasizing wide-scale political and social reform as the center of de-Stalinization, Pinsky identifies personal transformation as the primary imperative of Khrushchev’s de-Stalinization. Pinsky thus construes personal transformation as a catalyst of sociopolitical reform more broadly. The shift in focus from the collective (leadership) to the individual played a central role in democratizing the understanding of historical agency. Making “ordinary” citizens, rather than superhuman specimens (such as Stalin) agents and protagonist of dialectical historical processes, post-Stalinist authors essentially aimed to democratize the field of political action and activity.
The first chapter establishes Fedor Abramov’s Stalin-era biography, explaining how the writer’s early youth and adulthood shaped his personality. Outlining the subjectivity of this celebrated “village prose” author is difficult due to a dearth of sources for this early period; Pinsky, however, adeptly makes use of Abramov’s diary entries, memoirs of Abramov’s classmates, and archival information from Abramov’s native district. By all available accounts, it seems that Abramov “embraced many elements of Communist morality as it existed in the mid- and late 1930s” (p. 31). That Abramov identified so strongly with the Stalinist regime is all the more surprising considering that he and his family experienced first-hand the uncompromising brutality of Stalin-era collectivization and social engineering. Perhaps a most revealing moment in judging the extent to which Abramov identified with the Stalinist agenda was his post-WWII deliberations about whether to join the Soviet secret police (NKVD), or pursue a career as a writer and educator. But as Pinsky points out, this seemingly incongruous pairing made sense in that both professions shared a common goal: “to penetrate the individual soul and discover what secrets might be hidden inside” (p. 49). Equally as indicative was Abramov’s decision to write his dissertation on a canonical text of Socialist Realism about collectivization in a Don Cossack village: Mikhail Sholokhov’s 1932 novel Virgin Soil Upturned. Abramov’s final analysis, which affirmed that “Sholokhov had seen the world through a Socialist Realist lens,” served the young author as a basis for defining his own authorial voice (p. 53). As a committed Stalinist subject, Abramov was dedicated to the idea of penning a novel about a Russian village during wartime with the aim of effecting progress toward a communist utopia as laid out by the Communist Party. Though the idealism followed Abramov into the post-Stalinist era, the framework, as chapter two explains, changed Abramov’s approach to achieving utopia.
Dealing with the immediate aftermath of Nikita Khrushchev’s de-Stalinization campaign, the second chapter considers how the abrupt shift in the party’s ideological course transformed not only Abramov’s literary activities but also his worldview and his subjectivity. Khrushchev’s denunciation of Stalin-era tyranny led to vociferous, if sometimes sporadic, calls for sincerity in literature and public discourse. The exaltation of authenticity, aimed at discrediting the artificial pageantry that distorted art and life under Stalin, expressed itself clearly in the Ovechkin school. Named after the famed prosaist Valentin Ovechkin, this literary trend concerned itself with uncovering the true situation in the Soviet countryside. This moment in Soviet literature was crucial because of its “rejection of false enthusiasm […] and an embrace of sober, critical, and meticulous examination of Soviet countryside” (p. 63). As Abramov accepted the implications of the Secret Speech and as he began writing a diary about the time he spent in his native village, he not only began to evaluate the party’s policies against its own rhetoric but also began to view the individual actor, rather than the party leadership, as the source of truth and agent of change. Many of the Ovechkin school followers turned to the short form — the short story, tale, and especially the sketch — because it precluded the pomp and circumstance of Stalin-era meta-narratives. The sketch proved particularly popular among progressive Soviet writers because it most closely resembled non-fiction and because it “allowed its author to be more critical than he or she might able to be in a genre of more universal pretension” (p. 99).
If the authorities denounced Stalin’s cult of personality as having sapped Soviet citizens of independence and initiative, progressive Soviet authors aimed to restore a sense of agency through their literature. By transforming “cowardly and passive subjects into courageous and active citizens,” these authors aimed to restore sincerity to Soviet discourse. The third chapter locates Abramov “in the variety of discourses of personality found in the published literature of the immediate post-Stalin years” (p. 114). Pinsky outlines four distinct but interrelated models which all embrace sincerity as their watchword but differ in the degree to which they prioritize the role of the party leadership, respect the inviolability of the Soviet state, extol the uniqueness of the Russian national character, and embrace anti-intellectual, anti-elitist, and anti-Semitic views. Through a close examination of Abramov’s diary, Pinsky ably establishes that different dimensions of these models intersected in both Abramov’s personal life and his writing. Abramov’s “particular personality model combined anti-Semitism, suspicion of the intelligentsia, and celebration of the Russian people” with a model of sincerity which demanded that one overcome passivity, cowardice, careerism, or whatever else may have been keeping one from expressing one’s true opinion (p. 123). The privilege of expressing one’s true opinion, however, was, in the eyes of Abramov and his contemporaries, reserved primarily for those who were “Communists at heart and longed to create a Communist utopia” (p. 117).
Abramov’s contention that the party had an obligation to cultivate conscientious and proactive citizens translated directly into the way he conducted his personal affairs and how he approached his duties as a writer. For Abramov “one’s personal life has moral implications for one’s professional life”; therefore “because Abramov used his diary to work on himself as a moral subject, he also used the text to work on himself as a Soviet writer” (p. 23). Pinsky elegantly phrases this connection when he notes that: “The tool of an aspiring writer became the tool of an aspiring human being” (p. 164). Although the diary contained innumerable examples of moments of Abramov’s moral failing, the very fact that Abramov truthfully recorded his shortcomings not only demonstrated that Abramov was, in fact, a morally aware subject but also indicated that the Communist Party successfully inculcated the practice of self-criticism in some of its citizens. Most importantly, the diary represented the most sincere form of literature to Abramov since it reflected the painful facts of reality in a way that his literature never could. “Only that which could not be published — either because of its content or because of its author’s behavior — had the potential to be true literature.” Thus Abramov and his colleagues understood the diary form as bearing witness to “the epistemological and historical agency of ordinary men and women who, despite the seemingly insurmountable obstacles, aimed to live according to a particular personality ideal” (p. 222).
This work will, no doubt, be of interest to Soviet historians since it both provides a nuanced view of the Thaw period and complicates views regarding the uniqueness of the Khrushchev era in relation to Stalinist culture. Methodologically, this manuscript provides a productive way to study any period of the USSR’s history and provides an original take on how to engage with autobiographical sources penned during the Soviet era. Ultimately, Pinsky’s dissertation carries broader implications for how historians, literary scholars, and political scientists conceptualize the idea of individual agency and the evolution of an independent political subject in the Soviet Union or in authoritarian systems more broadly.
Department of History
Western Kentucky University
Personal Archive of Fedor Abramov. Private Collection.
Rossiisskii gosudarstvennyi arkhiv literatury i iskusstva.
Columbia University. 2011. 268 pp. Primary Advisor: Michael Stanislawski.
Image: Fedor Abramov. Barents Culture.