Writers did a lot of shouting during the establishment of the Soviet Union. The literary salons being empty, they had to harangue the people, be heard over the crowd, and, as Katerina Clark wryly points out in Eurasia Without Borders, they had to shout because their public could not always understand the language they spoke.
The lack of a common language and literary tradition frustrated the bold internationalists of the 1920s and 30s who dreamed to liberate Marx and Lenin from the bounds of the German and Russian languages, and to lead the toiling masses forward into international culture free of bourgeois or feudal traditions. Since language itself is a social construct, shaped by the ruling classes, this effort, like the Five-Year Plans, faced serious challenges.
Against the background of titanic world events, the Russian Revolution itself, the failed Shanghai Workers Revolt of 1927, the Spanish Civil War, the Japan-China War and finally the Second World War, a generation of progressive writers read one another’s works, met at conferences in Baku, Kharkov, Berlin, or Paris, and strove to reflect the powerful currents of the 20th century in their works.
Should they follow Moscow’s line, rejecting modernism and formalism, and essentially continue the classical Russian tradition of the realistic novel with social themes? Or did revolution free the artist from bourgeois expectations, and allow him or her to invent a new language, a new experiential reality or even a new spirituality? Ambiguity dogged the Soviets themselves, and they frequently changed directions. In the early 20s they led the avant-garde, with writers like Khlebnikov who experimented with new languages. Later the Soviets feared such experiments were too intellectual for the toiling masses, who needed to be educated. They were understandably reluctant to throw the baby out with the bathwater, so they inculcated the Great Russian Novel on the Soviet peoples of Asia. At the same time, they insisted that each of the Soviet Republics have a classical opera. The Soviets’ culture policies suffered from the lack of experts who could actually read Persian, Turkish or Chinese. They relied on translations from French and English and absorbed a lot of their knowledge of Asia from “imperialist” sources. Surprisingly, they liked Kipling. Their own boundless and excusable admiration for Pushkin and Gogol, made their attempted literary guidance to Asians, seem a lot like cultural imperialism.
It’s difficult to summarize the reaction of the Asian writers to the Revolution, since each writer took a different starting point. The Turkish poet Nazim Hikmah absorbed the zeitgeist of the Revolution most directly, living in the Soviet Union and befriending many Soviet authors. Yet Rimbaud may have had more influence on Hikmet, who grew up in a French-speaking household in highly westernized Salonika. Abdolqasem Lahuti offers a contrasting example. He grew up in a traditional Iranian family and wrote classical Persian poetry his entire life. His national hymn for the Tajikistan SSR is no exception.
Chinese writers struggled with how to connect with the masses. Should they abandon their ideograms and write Chinese in Latin characters? This revolution was cut short by Mao Zedong, who pointed to the healthy acceptance of the vernacular novel in Chinese, like the Monkey King: Journey to the West. Mao’s later minister of culture Mao Dun crafted the first long, realistic novels in Chinese, innovating with vernacular language.
Finally, the Indian novelist MR Anand struggled with the fact that his novels were in English, and could not be read by the masses whose mobilization he dearly wished for. There are then, as many destinies as there were literary traditions, a far cry from the dreamed-of Eurasian ecumene.
Fellow travelers, French like André Malraux, Germans like Anna Seghers or English like WH Auden also tried to connect with the toiling masses of the east, but found it difficult to overcome their prejudices or even their preconceptions about Asia. In Clark’s narrative Malraux comes across as perhaps the most effective of these voices. He was both deeply engagé, a showman, and more dedicated to his art than to political schools. As a result, his Man’s Fate and The Conquerors are more readable today than some contemporary works.
Clark’s judgments about the ups and downs experienced by these interlocking literary circles are solidly grounded. Here is an example of her analysis: she points out that in the 1930s, the University of the Toiling Workers of the East was located in Central Moscow, while its successor, the Patrice Lumumba university was built in the distant suburbs. In the 30s, many Asian writers flocked to Moscow to have their books published. In the 1970s, they may have gone to Moscow to pick up their literary prizes, but they visited their publishers in Paris. This is how Clark shows us that the passionate dream of a common Eurasian destiny for the toilers of the East faded into a polite, transactional relationship.
This book is a challenging read. The subject covered is expansive both in geography and personalities. The euphoria and ebullition of the time bubbles over into Clark’s narrative, where Wassily Kandinsky, Peter Fleming and Blavatsky enter and exit in a breathless rush. Her insights into dynamics of Soviet Culture are fine, as are her critiques of the fellow travelers. Like her western subjects, she’s limited in her analysis of the Asian writers because she cannot read them in their language. Even today, in a world much more connected than the Comintern could ever have imagined, the dream of a common literary ecumene is still utopian.