Although the Bolshevik coup d’état of November 1917 (which took place in October according to the old Russian calendar still in use at the time, and is thus sometimes called the October Revolution) is the event most widely meant by the term “Russian Revolution,” the political transformation of Russia from a hereditary monarchy into a Communist state is more accurately perceived as a process that Page 278 | Top of Articlebegan with the failed revolution of 1905 and continued until the establishment of the Soviet Union in 1922. Several important political and literary figures associated with the Bolsheviks’ rise to power were involved with the 1905 revolution. For example, Vladimir Lenin and Leon Trotsky were both involved in the abortive establishment of a soviet in St. Petersburg in that year and both were forced into exile when this attempt failed. Maxim Gorky had helped found New Life, the first Bolshevik newspaper in Russia, and his support of the revolution forced him to flee the country in 1906. Fyodor Gladkov, whose 1925 novel Cement became one of the classics of Soviet Socialist realism , was also punished for his support of the 1905 insurrection.
Although it failed in its attempt to overthrow the tsars, the 1905 revolution did win some liberalizing concessions from the monarchy, including a relaxation of censorship laws. Partly as a result of these reforms, the years between 1905 and 1917 witnessed a flourishing in avant-garde literature in Russia. Young writers like Ilya Ehrenburg, Vladimir Mayakovsky , and Evgeny Zamyatin began producing literature during this period that echoed and expanded on the revolutionary sentiments expressed by such works as Nikolai Chernyshevsky's 1863 novel What Is to Be Done? (the title of which Lenin had appropriated for a political tract in 1902) or Gorky's Mother, which was published in exile in 1907. Symbolists such as Alexander Blok and Andrei Bely (whose 1916 novel Petersburg is set in 1905) and some of the more abstract cubo-futurists such as Velimir Khlebnikov resisted the inherently political ideology of the Bolsheviks but were nevertheless sympathetic to the mood of innovation that swept Russia as a result of the 1905 revolution.
The twin revolutions of 1917 and the civil war that followed set in motion a process of hardening loyalties that laid the groundwork for the rigid and restrictive policies that defined official Soviet literature from the late 1920s onward. The first revolution in early March (late February according to the old calendar) overthrew the tsars and established a liberal “provisional government” under the leadership of Alexander Kerensky. Most Russian intellectuals welcomed the end of the oppressive monarchy that had ruled Russia for centuries. However, divisions quickly arose between Bolsheviks like Lenin and Trotsky (both of whom returned from exile in the spring of 1917), who saw this as only the first step toward a Communist world revolution, and more moderate Mensheviks like Kerensky, who believed that Russia needed a transitional period between monarchy and Communism. The Bolsheviks and Mensheviks were factions that had separated from a single revolutionary party even before the 1905 revolution, and the revolutions of 1917 simply continued the power struggle between them over the nature of the government that would replace the tsars. Led by Lenin and Trotsky, the Bolsheviks seized power from Kerensky's Menshevik government in November and declared a “dic-tatorship of the proletariat.” Civil war quickly broke out between those supporting the Bolsheviks (the “Reds”) and a broad alliance (the “Whites”) of anti-Communist liberals, Mensheviks, anarchists, and even former monarchists, and lasted for four years before the Bolsheviks managed to finally consolidate their power.
Discussing the political affinities of individual writers during this period is made difficult not only by the conflicting revolutionary impulses represented by Page 279 | Top of Articlethe Bolsheviks and the Mensheviks but also by the official pronouncements made by Lenin and Trotsky about the relationship between revolution and the arts. For every writer like Valentin Kataev , Mayakovsky, or Yuri Olesha (each of whom were unambiguously pro-Bolshevik during the civil war), there were many others whose commitment to the revolution was less clear-cut. Lenin was extremely scornful of “soft-headed” intellectuals who supported the Menshevik notion of revolution and even criticized Gorky for wanting to preserve elements of bourgeois literary culture. In his 1923 book Literature and Revolution, Trotsky lambasted the wave of writers and intellectuals who abandoned the country after the Bolshevik Revolution as irrelevant holdovers from a dead age. He condemned most of the literature written between 1905 and 1917 as the product of a “decadent … individualism … [that was] loudly destroyed by” the October revolution. However, Trotsky exempted a number of writers he called “fellow-travelers” from this judgment, claiming that their lack of direct involvement with the Bolshevik cause was offset by the fact that “their literary and spiritual front has been made by the Revolution … and they have all accepted the Revolution, each in his own way.” Trotsky included writers such as Sergei Esenin, Boris Pilnyak, and the avant-garde collective called the Serapion Brothers among this group. Though initially intended as a form of qualified praise, the “fellow-traveler” label became a condemnation, as unquestioned “party spirit” (partiinost’) became a requirement for all literary works under Stalin's rule. After the leaders of the revolution began displaying more authoritarian tendencies, many of Trotsky's fellow-travelers distanced themselves from it. This was especially true of Zamyatin, whose novel We, a founding text of dystopian literature , was published outside the Soviet Union in 1924.
Trotsky explicitly defined revolutionary literature as that “which promotes the consolidation of the workers in their struggle against the exploiters,” and a number of different groups tried to take up this mantle. The Proletkult movement was established in the wake of the first 1917 revolution and quickly garnered 80,000 members, whose goal was to create genuinely proletarian art. Both Lenin and Trotsky felt this was impossible, though, and transformed Proletkult into the party-controlled VAPP (All-Russian Association of Proletarian Writers). During the early 1920s, VAPP and other groups—such as Oktyabr’ (an association of writers who advocated absolute adherence to the party line) and Mayakovsky's avant-gard-ist LEF (Left Front)—vied to define revolutionary literature in their own image. All of these groups were subsumed within RAPP (Russian Association of Proletarian Writers) in 1928, which became the Soviet Writers’ Union—the sole arbiter of official literature—in 1932.
Derek C. Maus
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