In the annals of Russian and Soviet literature and drama, Sergei Tretyakov is not perhaps the first name on the list. He remains, says Robert Leach, “curiously elusive”. Yet he was “absolutely at the heart of avant-garde modernism”, collaborating closely with Sergei Eisenstein, “one of the poet Vladimir Mayakovsky’s most intimate associates” and an influence on Bertolt Brecht. This new and accessible literary biography brings the man and his work to life, and reinstates him at the center of some of the 20th-century’s most important cultural developments, a dynamic life cut short when in 1937 he, like so many others, fell foul of Josef Stalin.
But what interests us here is Tretyakov’s extensive experience in and relationship with China. Tretyakov graduated from University in 1916, an apparent supporter of the Social Revolutionaries, a revolutionary but by the standard of what soon came later, a relatively moderate group. 1917, of course, brought turmoil.
Sergei’s attitude to the revolution at this moment in its stormy history is difficult to gauge, but it is clear that he was not much in sympathy with it.
He left Moscow for Nikolayevsk (or Pugachyov) in 1918, in part because his mother was in failing health. He found himself in Vladivostok in Russia’s Far East in late 1919, exactly how or why seems difficult to determine. While there, he joined the Red Partisans. More importantly, perhaps, Tretyakov was introduced to “Futurism” and
enthusiastically joined the Vladivostok Futurist group ‘Creation’ (‘Tvorchestvo’) which had been established in 1918 by David Burlyuk – who gained a certain notoriety here by wearing trousers with legs of different colours – along with others who found themselves in the city at the time …
all in the middle of a civil war. He also met Olga Viktorovna Gomolitskaya, the twenty-three year old daughter of Viktor Petrovich Gomolitsky, who worked for the Chinese Eastern Railway, who was to become his wife. He began
writing for the Bolshevik paper, The Red Banner, as well as non-Bolshevik papers such as Far Eastern Review, Far Eastern Telegraph and others, often using pseudonyms such as ‘Zhen-Shen’ (ginseng) and ‘Tyutyun’.
But by 1920, with Vladivostok under Japanese occupation
Tretyakov was a marked man. Less than a month previously he had published in The Red Banner (under his pseudonym Tyutyun) a poem, ‘The Tank’, which employed Japanese poetic forms to ridicule the Japanese occupiers.
Tretyakov (and Olga) escaped by ship to Tianjin. In 1921, they went to Beijing and then to Harbin, where Olga’s father lived, and from there, back into Russia via Chita, capital of the then Far Easter Republic, where he met up again with the Futurists. By 1922, he was back in Moscow.
Tretyakov’s time in Moscow was hugely productive, but measured in months rather than years, for by mid-1924, he was back in Beijing on official appointment by the Soviet Government to lecture on Russian literature at the National University, where he also collaborated with Lu Xun on translations of Russian poetry. He dove right in, becoming a “regular” at Chinese opera, where
he even got to know the star performer, Mei Lan-fang, who played female parts with extraordinary grace, subtlety and not a little irony.
1924 also saw the “Wanhsien incident”, in which an American businessman drowned following an argument and altercation with a local boatman. The captain of the British gunboat Cockchafer, which happened to be in the area, demanded that when the ferryman could not be found and executed, two other men be executed instead or he would bombard the town. Tretyakov found in this the material for his 1926 play Roar, China!, which had what seems today like an extraordinary degree of success and acceptance for a piece of Russian revolutionary theatre about China no less: in the 1930s, the play was produced around the world, including New York, China, Poland and Japan.
Even Stalin attended a performance, and to increase its immediacy, up-to-the-minute despatches from China were sometimes read out from the stage. Roar, China! became Tretyakov’s – indeed probably revolutionary Russia’s – most performed play … when the Chinese Communist Party took power in 1949, their victory was celebrated in Shanghai with a new production of Roar, China!.
In 1927, Tretyakov published Chzhungo, allergy a collection of previously published articles. Expanded and republished in 1930,
the work adds up to a series of snapshots of the evolving Chinese revolution, an examination of the historical process as it unfolds, with sharp insights into seemingly arbitrarily chosen details of its subject, failures and problems as well as successes and opportunities.
This was followed by a sort of directed biography Den Shi-hua, about Tretyakov’s former Beijing student who had transferred to Sun Yat-sen University, “a Soviet institution dedicated to training future Chinese Communist leaders”. The narrative ends when Den Shi-hua returned to China in 1927; after which he is lost to history. Film projects on China unfortunately never saw the light of day.
One cannot help but be struck by the pace of things. Tretyakov, also a respected photographer, was soon off in the Caucasus, Angara in Siberia, Austria and Germany, on a kolkhoz (a collective farm), writing articles, essays and books all the time. It was in Germany where he struck up a relationship with Bertolt Brecht: “Brecht was to refer to Tretyakov in 1939 as ‘my teacher’.”
But by 1935, dark clouds were gathering:
People no longer felt safe. The most terrifying aspect of the gathering storm for ordinary Russians, especially for those with less than a totally clear conscience, was waiting for the police to arrive at their home.
But Tretyakov hosted Paul Robeson and his wife at his flat, and managed a visit of the Chinese Opera, which included Mei Lan-fang playing the female roles.
Particularly appreciated by Russian audiences was The Fisherman’s Revenge in which a fisherman and his daughter (played by Mei Lan-fang) overthrow the despotic ruler, though whether this signifies a proletarian revolution may be doubted.
Brecht was there:
a short time after this, Bertolt Brecht began work on his most noteworthy ‘Chinese’ play, The Good Person of Szechuan, the protagonist of which is a strange blending of male and female.
Tretyakov’s health was beginning to fail him and it was from the Kremlin Hospital in mid-1937 that the “NKVD dragged him out of bed, threw him into their ‘black raven’ and drove off.” He had, among other things, been working on a new book about China.
Leach is an enthusiastic and empathetic biographer, much informed by his friendship with Tatyana, Olga’s daughter from a previous marriage, and adopted by Tretyakov. We live at a time when things are purported to move at unprecedented speeds, but Tretyakov packed an amazing amount of work and history into a productive life that was less than 20 years.