When the revolutionary workers of Russia seized state power in 1917, 70 percent of the population were illiterate. Yet the revolution revealed a hunger for knowledge and art, and a cultural debate raged over the soul of the revolution.
Translator Boris Drayluk says the aim of this collection of poetry and prose from 1917 to 1919 is not to describe the revolution, but to “steep the reader in its tumult”, and I think he is successful.
He brings together writers representing different strands of literature: some are well-known; some pieces appear in English for the first time. Some supported the revolution; others were ambivalent or hostile.
I particularly enjoyed the poetry. Readers looking for revolutionary inspiration will mainly find it here, as the prose selection is dominated by writers who opposed the revolution. Several of the poems wonderfully convey the feelings of excitement, dread, hope and longing that so many must have felt in these years.
Poet Mikhail Kuzmin’s words tumble over themselves in the excitement of the revolution: “Remember what you never dreamt would come to pass/ But what had always burnt within your heart!”
Drayluk introduces readers to Trotsky’s superb writing on culture, including his critique of Proletcult, the idea that revolutionary cultural workers should lead the creation of a “proletarian culture”. The Bolsheviks refused to back any one cultural tendency. Trotsky insisted that the socialist culture he looked forward to would grow organically from the struggle to build a socialist society.
Trotsky was a critic of those writers who tried to romanticise the revolution. However, this did not stop him admiring “fellow travellers” such as Alexander Blok, whose great poem The Twelve is reproduced here.
In this spirit, I tutted my way through a rather snide depiction of Lenin, was gripped by a child’s eye view of war and discovered the work of Alexander Grin.
Sadly, Drayluk’s hostility to the Bolsheviks mars the otherwise useful introductions. The Bolsheviks argued that the workers were capable of running society, and fought to raise the cultural level of workers and peasants. Drayluk evidently thinks this was a lost cause.
The revolution is referred to as a misguided coup, and we’re referred to right wing historians such as Orlando Figes. There’s little sense of how Stalin’s bureaucracy was a counter-revolutionary break with the past. Free creative expression was crushed under the iron heel of “socialist realism”.
The early years of the revolution were not good conditions for great literature. Supporters of the revolution knew their first task was to defend it. So it does seem a shame that this collection limits itself only to 1917 to 1919.
However, while sometimes exhilarating and sometimes downright exasperating, this collection is definitely worth a read.