Simon’s tongue-in-comment on my post about Zamyatin’s “We”, to the effect that he was glad I’d found something Russian to read from 1924, actually led me onto some quite deep thoughts about the state of Russia in the 1920s. The country had been ravaged by years of conflict – the First World War followed by successive revolutions and then a devastating Civil War. The fledgling Soviet state was suffering from famines and shortages, isolated from the rest of the world and trying desperately to keep itself together as an entity. Amazingly enough, in the middle of all this the arts continued to flourish. The visual artists had embraced Constructivism which spread from painting and sculptures into film and theatre. Writers like Mayakovsky used their work for propaganda, slipping into agitprop posters as well as poetry and plays. The initial cultural boom would be crushed by Stalin’s increasing iron grip, but for a while the arts were in the vanguard.
I wondered whether I had any other Russian works on my shelves that would fit into the year we’re following, and hit upon the idea of short stories. I have a number of Russian collections but alas, many don’t give information about the dates of publication. But fortunately one did – “Soviet Short Stories”, edited and introduced by F.D. Reeve. Three of the tales featured in the book appeared in 1924 and so I set about reading them.
The stories are Isaac Babel’s “A Letter”, Alexander Fadeyev’s “About Love” and Mikhail Sholokov’s “A Family Man”, and they’re all short and dramatic pieces. The first and the last are particularly strong, both telling of the harsh aftermath of the Civil War. Babel’s “A Letter” contains just that – a moving missive home from a soldier, revealing the dark extremes of behaviour. Sholokov’s brutal tale, set amongst the Cossacks, shows just how families were torn apart and turned against each other in an ideological war that really did rip the countryside to pieces. Both of these short pieces show the divides within families and how different generations reacted to the conflict and chose sides regardless of familial loyalties. Fadeyev’s “About Love” is a different kind of story, all about the contrariness of human emotions, and how we love someone more when they don’t love us and vice versa,
The war tales in particular made for stark reading – neither author pulls his punches and the visceral events and human impact is powerful. Fadeyev’s story has a bleakness less physical but still ends up making you wonder about the point of life and love. None of these stories was easy reading, but they did serve as a reminder of how different 1924 was depending upon the country in which you lived. Although all of Europe was recovering from conflict in different ways, it could be argued that the Russian people suffered more than most – a timely illustration of the fact that the 1920s were not all glitter and parties and jazz…