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Diversity in the Stacks: Literature from Soviet Russia's Borders

Posted on by Rebecca A. Stuhr

Diversity in the Stacks aims to build library collections that represent and reflect the University’s diverse population.

Twenty-first century Russia covers a mind-boggling stretch of land. From St. Petersburg on its western edge, it extends east across two continents to Uelen, a city that sits right across the Bering Straits from Alaska. Vladivostok, a bit further south, is just east of the Chinese and North Korean borders. Russia has a long history of tension between its Asian heritage, often symbolized by its ancient capital, Moscow, and its historical relationship with Europe, symbolized by its western-most capital, St. Petersburg.  Wikipedia lists more than 100 languages currently spoken to some extent across Russian territory. The most common after Russian and English are, in descending order, Tartar, Chuvash, Bashkir, Chechen, and Ukrainian.  

In the 18th and 19th centuries, Russia grew as an imperial power. But the leaders of the 1917 Bolshevik revolution rejected this imperial past and embraced internationalism instead, both as a repudiation of perceived oppression and as a way to achieve their dream of a socialist world. The Soviet Union was made up of 15 republics, including Russia, and multiple autonomous regions, each with distinct histories, languages, cultures, and identities. In the early stages of the revolution, the Bolsheviks embraced and supported this ethnic and language diversity, decentering Russian linguistic and ethnic hegemony. The era of Stalin’s leadership eventually reversed this, and Soviet initiatives to elevate non-Russian languages and cultures through education and the development of regional literatures lost favor. Stalin disrupted the early advances through purges and the dislocations of entire populations. 

With the demise of the Soviet Union, its republics and satellite countries became independent and sought to reinvigorate national cultures and literatures. In the years since the redrawing of Russia’s borders and the evolution of subject peoples into independent nations, scholars have begun debating how to best categorize the literature of these countries. Should they be read through the lens of the postcolonial, or are they better recognized as post-occupied? The Soviet Union’s paradoxical image as liberator and occupier, promoter of internationalism and imposer of ideological conformity, makes these arguments complex but also fascinating. 

Former Soviet bloc countries are not the only ones with complex and dynamic relationships with Russian language, literature, and culture. In From Internationalism to Postcolonialism, Rossen Djagalov writes about early Soviet internationalist initiatives, including the short-lived Communist University for Toilers of the East, often known as KUTV. This Moscow-based school, founded in 1921 and graduating students into the mid to late 1930s, had two programs. One was intended for students from Russia’s autonomous republics like  Kyrgyz, Chechnya, Tuva, Bashkortostan, and Turkmenistan--called the “Soviet east”--and the other for students from countries in Latin America, Asia, and Africa--the “foreign east.” Newly decolonized or unaligned with Western powers, early Soviets perceived these countries as obvious potential allies.  

These programs sought to provide an education steeped in the values of Soviet Russia. The students embraced the Russian language, the Russian belief in the power of literature, and its new socialist ideology. These students often developed as writers--journalists, essayists, novelists, and poets--and as political thinkers who went on to lead revolutions and head newly decolonized countries. Many went on to translate seminal Russian language works into their own languages, helping to disseminate Russian culture and ideas throughout the world. 

Djagalov writes that KUTV alumni, “became major figures in their own right but also served as their national literature’s main liaisons with the world of Soviet letters.” These writers came from both within and beyond the borders of the Soviet Union. They included Turkey, China, Iran, Palestine, Viet Nam, Egypt, Syria, Soviet Asia, South Africa, Kenya, Tanzania, Mexico, China, and Japan. Early graduates include Kazakh folklorist, children's author, and novelist Utebai Turmanzhanov; Kyrgyz playwright Tokobaev Moldogazy; Chechen novelist Magomet Mamakaev; Nenets novelist and co-author of the Russian-Nenets dictionary Anton Petrovič Pyrerka; and Tuvan dramatist and dramaturg Victor Kok-ool. (Unfortunately, works by these writers are sparsely held in libraries and not available in the Penn Libraries.) 

The desire to simultaneously and successively embrace and break away from this complex Soviet identification with liberation and tyranny has been the inspiration for a vibrant literary culture that crosses languages, regions, and national borders. The writers inspired by the political promise of Soviet literature represented geographical regions with varying relationships to Russia--some were more clearly and closely tied to the country, while others had connections that were more tenuous. Yet they shared the Russian faith in the centrality of literature and its power to foment change, building on these beliefs to create important literary traditions in their own languages. These new traditions would in turn serve to forge paths to independence. 

The following reading list highlights literature from the Russian borders, as well as literature emerging from the “postcolonial” countries and republics.
 

Soviet Russia and the Decolonizing World 

  • Touraj Atabaki and John O’Kane, editors. Post-Soviet Central Asia. European Seminar on Central Asian Studies.  Tauris Academic Studies and the International Institute for Asian Studies, 1998. 
    Atabaki and O’Kane explore literature as a tool for nation building and re-building. 
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  • Ben Conisbee Baer. Indigenous Vanguards: Education, National Liberation, and the Limits of Modernism. Columbia University Press, 2019
    Baer looks at the movement to educate populations across a spectrum of socio-economic and class statuses. Influenced by the Bolshevik revolution, the purpose of this movement was to prepare the underclasses for living in a decolonized world. Supporting the development of literary voices in formerly suppressed languages and cultures was an important feature of the movement. 
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  • V. D. Chopra, editor. The Third World, New Perception of the Soviet Union. New Delhi: Patriot Publishers, 1991. 
    Chopra writes sympathetically about the USSR’s influence on and contributions to the “Third World,” and its expressed advocacy for world peace. The book includes a chapter by Mikhail Gorbachev. 
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  • Edith Clowes. Russia on the Edge: Imagined Geographies and Post-Soviet Identity. Cornell University Press, 2011. 
    In Russia on the Edge, Clowes provides an in-depth view of the current cross-border, multicultural Russian literary landscape. She examines the controversial and confrontational work of Aleksandr Dugin, the founder of neo-Eurasianism. 
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  • Francine Hirsch. Empire of Nations: Ethnographic Knowledge and the Making of the Soveit Union. Cornell University Press, 2014. 
    This work examines the tension between  the Soviet Union’s early anti-imperialistic, idealistic support for the diversity of nations and peoples with  its need to sustain ideological control through occupation and appropriation. 
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  • Andreas Kappeler. The Russian Empire : A Multi-Ethnic History. Taylor & Francis Group, 2001. 
    This historical survey covers Russia’s medieval period through its Imperial era and into its Soviet years, with a particular focus on the Soviet Union’s incorporation of new territories and their ultimate development of nationalism. 
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  • Viatcheslav Morozov. Russia's Postcolonial Identity: A Subaltern Empire in a Eurocentric World. Palgrave Macmillan, 2015. 
    Morozov considers Russian and Soviet history through the lens of postcolonialism.
     

Soviet Influence on International Literatures

  • Vitaly Chernetsky, editor. Mapping Postcommunist Cultures: Russia and Ukraine In the Context of Globalization. McGill-Queen's University Press, 2007
  • Of particular interest is the chapter by Mário Artur Machaqueiro, in which he compares Russia and Portugal as countries with “frontier identities”  on the “semi-periphery of the capitalist world-system.”  This book is open access and is open to all readers. 
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  • Rossen Djagalov. From Internationalism to Postcolonialism. McGill-Queens, 2020
  • In his seminal work, Djagalov takes a deep and illuminating look at the role of the Socialist ideology and evangelism in establishing an international interconnectivity of cinema and literature with politics, revolution, and independence.
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  • Ali Igmen. Speaking Soviet with an Accent: Culture and Power in Kyrgyzstan. Central
  • Eurasia in Context Ser. University of Pittsburgh Press, 2012.
  • Igmen provides a case study of cultural policy and cultural assimilation in Kyrgyzstan. 
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  • Aušra Jurgutienė and Dalia Satkauskytė, editors. The Literary Field under Communist Rule. Academic Studies Press, 2019.
  • In his chapter on Soviet multilingual literature,  Evgeny Dobrenko writes, “Each national literature delivered something from its traditions that was required for the formation of Soviet people, and several literatures, for example the literature of Central Asia, were concurrently evolving and participating in the formation of a multinational Soviet literature project.” 
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  • George S. N. Luckyj. Literary Politics In the Soviet Ukraine, 1917-1934. New York: Columbia University Press, 1956.
  • This work, written relatively early in the socialist era, examines Soviet Ukraine’s political and literary history as inextricably connected one to another. Luckyj writes that Ukraine’s literary movement was fueled more by a desire for independence and self-governance than to align with Marxist ideology. 
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  • Irena Makaryk and Virlana Tkacz. Modernism in Kyiv: Jubilant Experimentation 
  • University of Toronto Press, 2017
  • Makaryk provides a more recent and retrospective look at the literature in Ukraine during the Soviet years. Makraryk notes Kiev's own multilingual culture--Russian, Ukrainian, Polish, and Yiddish are all commonly spoken in the city. Essays explore Ukraine's diversity of language and cultures and their direct contribution to its rich literary oeuvre. 
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  • Monica Popescu. At Penpoint: African Literatures, Postcolonial Studies, and the Cold War. Duke University Press, 2020. 
  • Popescu provides a close look at the conflict between the USSR and the United States in Africa. The competition between the two world powers led them to significantly support contested areas in ways that benefited the production of literature and knowledge. 
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  • Harold B. Segel. The Columbia Literary History of Eastern Europe Since 1945. Columbia University Press, 2008.
  • In this comprehensive history, see in particular the chapter, “The Postcolonial Literary Scene in Eastern Europe Since 1991.”
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  • Myroslav Shkandrij. Russia and Ukraine: Literature and the Discourse of Empire from Napoleonic to Postcolonial Times. McGill-Queen's University Press, c2001
  • This work focuses on the Russian-Ukrainian political and cultural relationship as it is reflected in the literature of both countries. 
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  • Ronald Gregor Suny and Terry Martin. A State of Nations: Empire and Nation-Making in the Age of Lenin and Stalin. Oxford University Press, 2001.
  • Suny and Martin look at the conflict between the desire to strengthen national identities and the notion of empire.
     

Individual Writers and Collections of literature from the Russian borders

  • Gennadii Aigi.  Selected Poems, 1954-94
  • Selections. Northwestern University Press, 1997.
    Chuvash poet Gennadi Aigi wrote poetry in Chuvash and Russian. This collection of poetry presents his poetry in both Russian and English.
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  • Chingiz Aitmatov. The Day Lasts More than a Hundred Years. Indiana University Press, 1983.
    In this novel, internationally known Kyrgyz author Aitmatov writes about his father, Torekul Aitmatov, who was a 1925 graduate of KUTV. Throughout his career, Aitmatov wrote in both the Kyrgyz and Russian languages.
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  • Eugene Dubnov. Never Out of Reach: Growing up in Tallinn, Riga, and Moscow.
  • Clemson University Press, 2015. 
    A poet’s memoir of growing up during the Soviet era. 
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  • Vasily Grossman. Life and Fate: A Novel. Collins Harvill, 1985.
    Vaily Grossman was a Jewish Ukrainian writer. Though he was considered of equal stature to Solzhenitsyn and Pasternak, his literary works were not published during his lifetime. See also the recent biography Vasily Grossman and the Soviet Century by Alexandra Popoff. 
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  • Zaharia Stancu. A Gamble with Death: A Novel. Unesco Collection of Contemporary Works. Owen, 1969.
    This Romanian novel is set during the First World War and ends with the promise offered by the Russian Revolution. “Buk-Tag … Buk-Tag ... Special … Extraa … Revolution in Petrograd … Revolution … Revolution.”
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  • D.R. Popescu. The Royal Hunt. Ohio State University Press, c1985.
    Popescu was a prolific Romanian novelist who served as president of the Writers Union and as a member of the Romanian Communist Party. 
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  • George Konrad. The Loser. Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1982.
    Jewish Hungarian dissident writer György Konrád studied abroad in Germany and the United States. He edited the works in translation of many major Russian writers, including Gogol, Turgenev, and Babel. The Loser is a somewhat surrealistic first person prison narrative.
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  • Ivailo Petrov. Wolf Hunt. Archipelago Books, 2017.
    First published in 1986, this book considers the cost of Communist policies on Bulgarian villagers who had to forfeit land and traditional practices to survive. A Bulgarian writer, Petrov’s first novel, Nonka’s Love (1956), is considered a model of socialist realism.
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  • The Uralic and Altaic Series. Indiana University, 1961-
    A series of books for learning Uralic and Altaic languages including Korean, Mongolian, Turkish, Hungarian, Buriat, Chuvash, Estonian, Ostyak, Vogul, and more

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