The independent publisher Glagoslav has featured many times on the Ramblings; they publish a fascinating range of translated works, and I’ve enjoyed many different authors and books (most recently the wonderful “The Investigator” by Margarita Khemlin). Today, however, I want to share my thoughts on a recent publication from them which isn’t a translation – it’s “Sergei Tretyakov: A Revolutionary Writer in Stalin’s Russia” by Robert Leach, and it explores the life, work and thought of a revolutionary artist you might not have heard of…

Tretyakov was a pioneer of many art forms; a playwright, poet and journalist, amongst other things, he lived through dramatic and changing times in Russia, witnessing the Russian Revolution and searching for new forms of life and art. His work is often defined as Constructivist, and he was behind the journals Lef and Novy Lef with his friend Vladimir Mayakovsky. However, his name is not as widely known as his fellows from that era and so Leach’s book sets out to remedy that – which it does, quite brilliantly.

Born in 1892, Treyakov’s farther was Russian and his mother a Baltic German; and after studying law at Moscow University he threw himself into the avant garde world of the time, embracing the changes which Russia was undergoing. His plays were experimental and challenging, directed by such luminaries as Meyerhold and Eistenstein; and one play “Gas Masks” was even staged in the Moscow Gas Works to add realism

However, there was much more to Tretyakov than his writing, as Leach’s meticulously researched and written book makes clear. Tretyakov travelled widely, spending much time in China teaching; he also made repeated visits to a collective farm, researching the way the place worked as well as teaching the workers. He believed strongly in the Revolutionary future and was happy to lend his hand to any kind of propaganda and educational work. Tretyakov also travelled to Germany, Denmark, and Austria, befriending other creatives like Bertolt Brecht, whom he translated into Russian; there seems to have been a symbiotic relationship between the two, and Tretyakov most definitely had internationist ideals.

Treyakov’s wife Olga Viktorovna was his constant companion, and Sergei became like a real father to her daughter Tatyana; and this is where Leach’s book moves into even more interesting territory, as he knew and worked with Tretyakova (prior to her death in 1996) and draws on memories of her life with her adoptive father. This adds a fascinating element to the story, and that link back to Tretyakov through his daugher is a reminder that those times are not so far away. “ST…” is, as I mentioned, meticulously researched, and Leach explores Tretyakov’s life from his young days through his activitist years and on to the 1930s. As well as the life story, he also discusses Tretyakov’s beliefs and artistic theories and these were particularly fascinating.

Striding through the backdrop of the story is, of course, the larger than life figure of Vladimir Mayakovsky. The book opens with the latter’s suicide in 1930, and his friendship with Tretyakov is a constant touchstone in the narrative. As for ST himself, things began to go downhill in the dreaded Stalinist 1930s; not only did his health deteriorate, but he also began to fall foul of the authorities, suffering censorship and denunciation in the press. The end, when it comes, comes quickly, both in Tretyakov’s life and in the book. The 1930s were a bitter and dangerous time for artists in Soviet Russia and ST was arrested in 1937 and supposedly ‘confessed’ to spying, amongst other things. Apparently executed at the time, according to Leach he actually took his fate in his own hands and threw himself to his death from a fourth floor landing down the stairwell at Butyrka prison – a tragic end for an innovative artist.

“ST…” was a fascinating read from start to finish, and it comes with 27 illustrations. useful notes and a moving coda in the form of “Dustprints”, a poetic tribute by Leach himself. It makes a poignant end to the story of an artist who believed strongly that art should be involved in improving the world and very much put his money where his mouth was. Sergei Tretyakov was an inspirational innovator and his name should be much more widely known; Leach’s excellent book shines a welcome light on an under-appreciated member of Russia’s revolutionary intelligentsia and will hopefully go some way to helping with that! 😀

(Review copy kindly provided by the publisher for which many thanks!)