The period immediately following the Bolshevik Revolution was one of literary experimentation and the emergence of numerous literary groups. Much of the fiction of the 1920s described the Civil War or the struggle between the old and new Russia. But under Stalin, literature felt the same restrictions as the rest of Russia's society. After a group of "proletarian writers" had gained ascendancy in the early 1930s, the communist party Central Committee forced all fiction writers into the Union of Soviet Writers in 1934. The union then established the standard of "socialist realism" for Soviet literature, and many of the writers in Russia fell silent or emigrated. [Source: Library of Congress, July 1996 *]

Approved Soviet-era literature was dominated by Socialist Realism, defined as "concrete representation of reality in its revolutionary development...in accordance with...ideological training of workers on the spirit of Socialism." The authorities went through great length to get writer to the socialist-realist line. Those that did were great rewarded materially with apartments and cars and professionally with huge press runs. Those didn’t conform were ignored. If there work was published at all it was published underground

Writers were at the forefront of fomenting social change. Between 1953 and 1991, Russian literature produced a number of first-rate artists, all still working under the pressure of state censorship and often distributing their work through a sophisticated underground system called samizdat (literally, self-publishing). Another generation of writers responded to the liberalized atmosphere of Gorbachev's glasnost in the second half of the 1980s, openly discussing previously taboo themes: the excesses of the Stalin era, a wide range of previously unrecognized social ills such as corruption, random violence, anti-Semitism, and prostitution, and even the unassailably positive image of Vladimir I. Lenin himself. *

Writers and Publishers in the Communist Era

In the Communist era, writers and intellectuals were endorsed and supported by the government. To gain membership to special unions and organizations they had to study at certain approved schools and create works which fit into parameters set by the government. Without government endorsement they were nobodies. According to Communist theory, the duty of the Communist party was to maintain that there was the correct number of artists and writers for society's needs and follow the party line. Writers were required to submit their work to censors before it was allowed to be presented to the public.

Writers recognized by the government received a salary, supplies, comfortable private homes or apartments, spacious offices or working space, other perks and markets for their works. Unofficial artist had to support themselves by other means. Boiler room supervisory jobs were sought after because they worked 24 hours straight and then had three days off.

Writers that cooperated with the government received dachas, apartments, stipends and cars. The Russian writer Alessandra Stanely wrote in the New York Times, "Obscurity was noble when professional achievement was bound up with political compromise." Poets were sometimes treated like rock stars. Tens of thousands of people used to flock to Moscow's Luzhniki stadium for poetry readings.

Works by Soviet writers were published in "thick journals" Poem collections and and political philosophy books sold well. Many folk tales and classics were given a communist spin. In Hänsel and Gretel, for example, the evil stepmother is replaced by loving mother who helped her woodchopper husband. Pearls and jewels replaced by a big pot of food. The villains were landlords and the theme was problems of capitalism.

Publishers were funded by the government and manuscripts were supplied by Glavit, the censorship board. Press runs for a single could run in the millions compared to the thousands today and almost every home had bookcases filled with books. One publisher told the Los Angeles Times, "In Soviet society, people ha plenty of time and practically no other from of amusement. They got used to thinking that a good book shod be read trough in one evening."

According to the Guinness Book of Records, the most prolific publisher was Progress Publishers (founded in 1931 in the Soviet Union). In 1989, it published 750 titles in 50 languages.

Soviet Era Writers

Soviet period writers basically fell into four categories: 1) those who towed the party line like Gorky; 2) those who condemned the Soviet system and either were repressed in their homeland or lived in exile like Solzhenitsyn and Brodsky; 3) those who wavered between supporting and condemning Communism like Pasternik; and 4) those who lived in exile and wrote about non-Soviet things like Nabakov.

The best prose writers of the 1920s were Isaak Babel', Mikhail Bulgakov, Veniamin Kaverin, Leonid Leonov, Yuriy Olesha, Boris Pil'nyak, Yevgeniy Zamyatin, and Mikhail Zoshchenko. The dominant poets were Akhmatova, Osip Mandel'shtam, Mayakovskiy, Pasternak, Marina Tsvetayeva, and Sergey Yesenin. [Source: Library of Congress, July 1996 *]

In the Stalin era, A few prose writers adapted by describing moral problems in the new Soviet state, but the stage was dominated by formulaic works of minimal literary value such as Nikolay Ostrovskiy's How the Steel Was Tempered and Yuriy Krymov's Tanker Derbent . A unique work of the 1930s was the Civil War novel The Quiet Don , which won its author, Mikhail Sholokhov, the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1965, although Sholokhov's authorship is disputed by some experts. The strict controls of the 1930s continued until the "thaw" following Stalin's death in 1953, although some innovation was allowed in prose works of the World War II period. *

The poet Pasternak's Civil War novel, Doctor Zhivago , created a sensation when published in the West in 1957. The book won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1958, but the Soviet government forced Pasternak to decline the award. Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, whose One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich (1962) also was a watershed work, was the greatest Russian philosophical novelist of the era; he was exiled from the Soviet Union in 1974 and eventually settled in the United States. *

In the 1960s and 1970s, a new generation of satirical and prose writers, such as Fazil' Iskander, Vladimir Voinovich, Yuriy Kazakov, and Vladimir Aksyonov, battled against state restrictions on artistic expression, as did the noted poets Yevgeniy Yevtushenko, Andrey Voznesenskiy, and Joseph Brodsky. Aksyonov and Brodsky emigrated to the United States, where they remained productive. Brodsky won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1987. The most celebrated case of literary repression in the 1960s was that of Andrey Sinyavskiy and Yuliy Daniel, iconoclastic writers of the Soviet "underground" whose 1966 sentence to hard labor for having written anti-Soviet propaganda brought international protest. *

Among the best of from Gorbachev era generation were Andrey Bykov, Mikhail Kurayev, Valeriy Popov, Tat'yana Tolstaya, and Viktor Yerofeyev--writers not necessarily as talented as their predecessors but expressing a new kind of "alternative fiction." The glasnost period also saw the publication of formerly prohibited works by writers such as Bulgakov, Solzhenitsyn, and Zamyatin. *


Maxim Gorki (1868-1936) was a Russian novelist and playwright who wrote The Lower Depths. He is regarded as he father and major exponent of socialist realism literature. To Russian revolutionaries he was hailed as a genius. To some critics he was a stooge of the Communist regime. He wrote about the severe urban poverty, violence and absurdities of his time. More than other writer, Gorky played a major role in the revolutionary movement.

Gorky was regarded as a hero because of his working class authenticism. The son of a lower class upholsterer, Gorky was born Alexi Maximolvich Peshkov in Nizhni Novgorod. Gorky's family was poor and his father died when he was he five. He searched for food as child by ferreting through garbage cans for salvageable materials until his mother married again and he was sent to live with his grandmother, who was reportedly a remarkable storyteller.

Gorky recounted his adventures as a street urchin and juvenile delinquent in stories like Childhood and The Lower Depths. At the age of 19 Gorky tried to commit suicide on Christmas Day distraught over the death of his grandmother died, his failure to get into Kazan University and depression from a failed love affair

Gorky enjoyed literary fame and success and was described as rival of Tolstoy. He spent much of his life in exile in Capri Italy. He had fled to Italy for health reasons. He visited the United States in 1905 and returned to Russia a hero in 1928. In 1932, his hometown of Nizhni Novgorod was renamed Gorky in his honor. Gorky died in 1936 in Moscow. According to rumors he was executed or poisoned on the orders by Stalin.

Gorki was a committed atheist who believed that the "search for God" was a "perfectly useless occupation." He was friend of Lenin. Despite being a favorite of the Communist Party, he opposed the violent tactics. Gorky is regarded as the founder of Socialist Realism, which was embraced by art, music and dance as well as literature. He described jazz as the "music of the gross" and "the music of the fat cats."

Gorky's Works and Literary Career

In 1895, the story Chelkash was published in a well-known St. Petersburg periodical under pseudonym Maxim Gorky. Many more his stories were published over the years. Gorky’s early works were often about the hardships of the poor. His stories were realistic rather than romantic and his central characters were homeless people, prostitutes and thieves.

Gorky described ordinary Russians trying to get on with their lives and endure unhappy marriages and stifling careers. He wrote about everyone from doctors to anarchisst and how they fare in a world going through dramatic changes. The Russian literature critic Jank Lavrin once wrote: "instead of feeding on the rancorous negation of life, he permeated his writing with his strongest urge—the urge to turn the whole existence into something of which human beings need no longer feel ashamed...it was a tonic, potent enough to store up a new will and a new hope."

Gorky most well known work, Lower Depths, was written in 1902. It was a play about men suffering in degraded circumstances but surviving with their humanity intact. His other early novels included Forma Gordeyev, Three, Smug Citizens and the autobiographical My Childhood. His best known poems include The Song of the Falcon, The Poet of the Russian Revolution and The Song of the Stormy Petrel.

The novels in his second period (1902-1913) dealt with revolutionary subjects. His most famous novel from the period, Mother (1906), was made into film by Sergei Eisenstein. Most of works from his third period (1913-1936) were autobiographical. These included Reminiscences, Notes from My Diary and The Life of Klim Samgin.

Boris Pasternak

Russia's most well-known 20th century writer, Boris Pasternak, was awarded the Nobel prize in literature in 1958 primarily for his Dr. Zhivago, a historical novel that portrayed the Bolshevik Revolution in somewhat negative terms. Pasternak was pressured by the Communist government to decline the award. He died in 1960 at the age of 70.

Dr. Zhivago was published abroad in 1957 but was banned in the Soviet Union until 1988. It is great epic novel in the tradition of Tolstoy whose backdrop was the Bolshevik Revolution. It was made into an acclaimed, academy-award-winning film starring Omar Sharif and Julie Christie. Although known mostly for Dr. Zhivago, Pasternak was also an accomplished romantic poet who translated many foreign authors into Russian.

Boris Pasternak lived and wrote Dr. Zhivago in a blue house on ulitsa Lenina near the corner of Golgova in the Siberian town of Perm. The town Yuryation in the novel is really Perm.

Boris Pasternak’s Lara: Olga Ivinskaya

The inspiration for the character Lara in Dr. Zhivago was Olga Ivinskaya, a beautiful and talented woman with whom Pasternak was romantically involved with from 1946 until his death in 1960. Ivinskaya's daughter once said that Christie did a good job playing her but that her mother was more beautiful. Ivinskaya was Pasternak's lover and literary assistant. They meet each when he was a 56-years old, married and famous and she was a 34-year-old widow working for a literary magazine. In her memoir A Captive of Time, Ivinskaya described the encounter as " a meeting with God." In a poem Pasternak returned the compliment, writing "Let me lock your beauty in the dark tower of my verse."

Ivinskaya spent eight years doing hard labor in Siberian camp for her association with Pasternak. She spent fours in prison after getting arrested in 1949 and miscarried Pasternak's baby in the camp. She was imprisoned again for four years beginning 1960 for smuggling foreign currency (royalties for Pasternak's work that she collected in the West).

Pasternak continued to work on Dr. Zhivago while Ivinskaya was in prison, an act that certainly didn't help win an early release. According to Pasternak's son Yevgeni, "The relationship ended a few months before she was arrested. By then, they were not close, but she was in prison, and he helped her children."

Between her jail terms Ivinskaya lived in a cottage in the artist colony where Pasternak lived with his wife. She served as his secretary and literary agent. Pasternak, who was never jailed himself, spent his days with Ivinskaya and his nights with his wife. Pasternak and Ivinskaya came close t committing a double suicide in 1958.

In 1997, reports were made that Ivinskaya betrayed Pasternak by informing on him while in prison. In a letter to the Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev, Ivinskaya said that she would cooperate with efforts to repress the author if she was released. Ivinskaya's daughter said the accusations were unfair. "the letter is typical of millions of letters written by people who were in camps. Ivinskaya died in 1995 at the age 83.

Ayn Rand

The novelist and philosopher Ayn Rand (1905-1982) was born Alice Rosenbaum in St. Petersburg. When she 12 the Bolshevik Revolution hit her hometown. She settled in New York as a young women, took up with a younger man late in life and had a dollar sign displayed next to her coffin at her funeral.

A short, stocky women, described by the National Review as "one of he truly impossible people of all time," she was an avid chain smoker and ferocious debater who often left anyone who crossed her “shuddering and shivering.” Her best known books were the epic novels Fountainhead (1943) and Atlas Shrugged (1957).

Rand's philosophy was a reaction to Communism and promotion of self-interest and laissez-faire capitalism. She spoke out against racism and censorship but also attacked religion, government, family life, charity and self-sacrifice. In her ideal world, only the fittest survived, selfishness was good and altruism was evil.

Other Soviet Era Writers

The great satirst Mikhail Bulgakov (1891-1940) is known for anti-Stalinist satires that were banned in his homeland while wer was persecuted. His most famous work, The Master and Margarita, is a comic satirical novel about what happened when the Devil suddenly appears in Moscow and decides to take on the Communist system. The Master and Margarita, a surreal story that revolved around two lovers, was so acerbic in its critique of Stalinist Russia in the 1830s it wasn’t published until 1967, and then only in censored form. The story begins at Patriarch’s Pond (a real place) in Moscow with a visit by the devil and an entourage that included a beautiful witch, naked except for an apron, and fast-talking black cat with a fondness for chess and vodka. They cause mischief in Moscow but bring help and restore the sanity of the victimized lovers.

Mikhail Sholokhov (1905-1984 ) won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1965 and was one of the few good Russian writers approved by the government. His epic novel Quietly Flows the Don described a Cossack who fights for both the Reds and the White in the Russia Civil War. It has been compared with War and Peace. He also wrote the The Don Flows Home.

Ivan Bunin won the Nobel prize for Literature in 1993. He wrote novels and short stories in the tradition of Turgenev Tolstoy and Chekhov. According to one member of the Swedish Academy it was given "to pay off our bad consciences on Chekhov and Tolstoy."

Alexandra Kollantay (1872-1952) was senior party member and a feminist. She commented famously that sex was like scratching yourself—it relieved an itch. She wrote A Great Love, based on Lenin's affair with Inessa Armand, and Love of Worker's Bees. Other writers included Isaac Banel, author of the Red Cavalry masterpieces; Andrei Bely, whose Petersburg was described by James Joyce as one of the best works of modern literature; and Alexei Tolstoy, a Soviet writer a relativel of Leo.

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, U.S. government, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, and various books, websites and other publications.

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© 2008 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated May 2016

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