Andrei Zhdanov: On the principles underlying Soviet literature and art

Part one of a biography of an extraordinary servant of the proletariat.

In honour of the 70th anniversary of the death of Andrei Zhdanov (26 February 1896-31 August 1948), one of the great Bolshevik leaders and outstanding Marxist Leninist, a great working-class theoretician and an expert in the field of art, literature and music.

31 August 2018 marks seventy years since the Soviet people lost the great Marxist-Leninist statesman and Bolshevik propagandist Andrei Zhdanov.

Zhdanov was a close comrade-in-arms of JV Stalin. Along with Maxim Gorky, he helped to lay the foundations for socialist realism; he served on the central committee of the Bolshevik party, headed its secretariat, replaced Sergei Kirov as Leningrad party chief, and guided the city through the Siege of Leningrad during the Great Patriotic War (WW2).

After the war, in the years leading up to his untimely death, Comrade Zhdanov led an ideological assault on bourgeois deviationists.

We take this opportunity to pay homage by way of a brief biography of this extraordinary servant of the proletariat.

Early years

Andrei Zhdanov was born 26 February 1896 in Mariupol, Ukraine, the youngest child of the family and the only boy, having three sisters. His father and grandfather had reputedly been priests and theologians, though Zhdanov rejected religion and embraced Marxism.

His father died when he was young, and the family, having moved from Mariupol to Tver, sent Zhdanov to a secondary school for his education. It was whilst at school that Zhdanov first made contact with revolutionary groups opposed to the tsar, and he was active in the distribution of revolutionary literature for the Bolsheviks along with Pyotr Pospelov (a fellow student and future editor of Pravda) and AF Gorkin (who was elected a member of the central committee of the CPSU(B) at the 18th party congress in 1939).

In 1915, having enrolled at the Moscow College of Agriculture, Andrei Zhdanov was called up to undertake military service as an officer. Despatched to Georgia, he completed his training and took up his post in the 10th Company of the 139th Reserve Regiment in Shadrinsk.

After the February Revolution of 1917, the provisional government, under pressure from the masses, decreed that soldiers’ councils were to be legally set up in the former tsarist army. Zhdanov was one of many future Bolsheviks to enter into these soldiers’ committees, and he became a deputy.

With the Bolshevik-led October Revolution, Zhdanov found himself a regional commissar for agriculture, implementing the Soviet decree on land, which read in part:

“1. Landed proprietorship is abolished forthwith without any compensation.

“2. The landed estates, as also all crown, monastery, and church lands, with all their livestock, implements, buildings and everything pertaining thereto, shall be placed at the disposal of the volost land committees and the uyezd Soviets of Peasants’ Deputies pending the convocation of the Constituent Assembly.

“3. All damage to confiscated property, which henceforth belongs to the whole people, is proclaimed a grave crime to be punished by the revolutionary courts. The uyezd Soviets of Peasants’ Deputies shall take all necessary measures to assure the observance of the strictest order during the confiscation of the landed estates, to determine the size of estates, and the particular estates subject to confiscation, to draw up exact inventories of all property confiscated and to protect in the strictest revolutionary way all agricultural enterprises transferred to the people, with all buildings, implements , livestock, stocks of produce, etc.”

In such circumstances, Zhdanov found himself engaged in the distribution of land amongst the peasants, and in the war on the landowners. This activity was interrupted by the outbreak of the civil war, and in particular the uprising of the Czech Corps (a unit of the tsarist army that gathered together PoWs prepared to fight the Austro-Hungarian empire).

The Urals and Siberia were an important battlefield in the civil war, and Zhdanov lived through this period of Soviet history rubbing shoulders its legendary heroes.

With the defeat of the counter-revolutionary White armies, Zhdanov’s party career took him from Tver to Gorky (Nizhny Novgorod), and he became an effective Bolshevik propagandist. The memoirs of a Soviet border guard named Arykin remember Zhdanov thus: “He had a gift of winning people’s hearts. You couldn’t help liking him … he was a great propagandist.”

Zhdanov’s effectiveness as a propagandist and his abilities as a Marxist Leninist saw Zhdanov on the right side of all the controversies of the early period of Soviet rule. By 1934, he was brought to Moscow as a secretary of the central committee.

Writers’ congress – proletarian ethics

Zhdanov had a close friendship with Maxim Gorky, with whom he arranged and presided over the first congress of Soviet writers in 1934. Gorky would later write to the Bolshevik Shcherbakov that socialist realism was “a method and technique of literary creativity and … the aesthetics and ethics of Soviet art”.

Socialist realism truly announced its arrival at the first congress of Soviet writers in both the speech made by Maxim Gorky and the address of AA Zhdanov. The name of Andrei Zhdanov will be forever associated with the flowering of socialist art and culture, with the promotion of a revolutionary literature, and with a form of literary critique placed as a weapon in the hands of the proletariat.

In his talk entitled Soviet Literature – the richest in ideas, the most advanced literature, Zhdanov said: “Your congress is convening at a time when under the leadership of the Communist Party, under the guiding genius of our great leader and teacher, Comrade Stalin, the socialist system has finally and irrevocably triumphed in our country.

“Consistently advancing from one stage to the next, from victory to victory, from the inferno of the Civil War to the period of restoration and from the period of restoration to the socialist reconstruction of the entire national economy, our party has led the country to victory over the capitalist elements, ousting them from all spheres of economic life …

“At the seventeenth congress of our party, Comrade Stalin gave a masterful, unsurpassed analysis of our victories and of the factors conditioning them, of our position at the present time and of the programme for further work in completing the building of a classless socialist society.

“Comrade Stalin gave an exhaustive analysis of the backward sectors in our work and of the difficulties which our party and, under its leadership, the million-strong masses of the working class and collective farm peasantry, are waging a tireless, day-to-day struggle to overcome …

“Comrade Stalin laid bare the very roots of our difficulties and shortcomings. They result from the fact that our practical organisational work does not come up to the level which is required by the political line of the party, to the demands with which the carrying out of the second five-year plan confronts us.

“That is why the seventeenth party congress set us the urgent task of raising our organisational work to the level of those tremendous political tasks with which we are faced. Under the leadership of Comrade Stalin, the party is organising the masses for a struggle for the final liquidation of capitalist elements, for overcoming the survivals of capitalism in economic life and in the consciousness of people, for completing the technical reconstruction of the national economy.

“Overcoming the survivals of capitalism in the consciousness of people means fighting against all relics of bourgeois influence over the proletariat, against laxity, against loafing, against idling, against petty-bourgeois dissoluteness and individualism, against an attitude of graft and dishonesty towards public property.

“We have in our hands a sure weapon for the overcoming of all difficulties that stand on our way. This weapon is the great and invincible doctrine of Marx, Engels, Lenin and Stalin, embodied in life by our party and soviets …

“The key to the success of Soviet literature is to be sought for in the success of socialist construction. Its growth is an expression of the successes and achievements of our socialist system.

Our literature is the youngest of all literatures of all peoples and countries. And at the same time it is the richest in ideas, the most advanced and the most revolutionary literature. Never before has there been a literature which has organised the toilers and oppressed for the struggle to abolish once and for all every kind of exploitation and the yoke of wage slavery.

Never before has there been a literature which has based the subject matter of its works on the life of the working class and peasantry and their fight for socialism. Nowhere, in no country in the world, has there been a literature which has defended and upheld the principle of equal rights for the toilers of all nations, the principle of equal rights for women.

There is not, there cannot be in bourgeois countries a literature which consistently smashes every kind of obscurantism, every kind of mysticism, priesthood and superstition, as our literature is doing. [Our emphasis throughout]

“Only Soviet literature, which is of one flesh and blood with socialist construction, could become, and has indeed become, such a literature – so rich in ideas, so advanced and revolutionary.

“Soviet authors have already created not a few outstanding works, which correctly and truthfully depict the life of our Soviet country. Already there are several names of which we can be justly proud. Under the leadership of the party, with the thoughtful and daily guidance of the central committee and the untiring support and help of Comrade Stalin, a whole army of Soviet writers has rallied around the Soviet power and the party.

“And in the light of our Soviet literature’s successes, we see standing out in yet sharper relief the full contrast between our system, the system of victorious socialism – and the system of dying, mouldering capitalism.

“Of what can the bourgeois author write, of what can he dream, what source of inspiration can he find, whence can he borrow this inspiration, if the worker in capitalist countries is uncertain of the morrow, if he does not know whether he will have work the next day, if the peasant does not know whether he will work on his plot of ground tomorrow or whether his life will be ruined by the capitalist crisis, if the brain worker has no work today and does not know whether he will receive any tomorrow?

“What can the bourgeois author write about, what source of inspiration can there be for him, when the world is being precipitated once more – if not today, then tomorrow – into the abyss of a new imperialist war?

The present state of bourgeois literature is such that it is no longer able to create great works of art. The decadence and disintegration of bourgeois literature, resulting from the collapse and decay of the capitalist system, represent a characteristic trait, a characteristic peculiarity of the state of bourgeois culture and bourgeois literature at the present time.

Gone, never to return, are the times when bourgeois literature, reflecting the victory of the bourgeois system over feudalism, was able to create great works of the period when capitalism was flourishing. Everything now is growing stunted – themes, talents, authors, heroes.

“In deathly terror of the proletarian revolution, fascism is wreaking its vengeance on civilisation, turning people back to the most hideous and savage periods of human history, burning on the bonfire and barbarously destroying the works of humanity’s best minds.

Characteristic of the decadence and decay of bourgeois culture are the orgies of mysticism and superstition, the passion for pornography. The ‘illustrious persons’ of bourgeois literature – of that bourgeois literature which has sold its pen to capital – are now thieves, police sleuths, prostitutes, hooligans.

“All this is characteristic of that section of literature which is trying to conceal the decay of the bourgeois system, which is vainly trying to prove that nothing has happened, that all is well in the ‘state of Denmark’ [the reference is to Shakespeare’s Hamlet], that there is nothing rotten as yet in the system of capitalism.

“Those representatives of bourgeois literature who feel the state of things more acutely are absorbed in pessimism, doubt in the morrow, eulogy of darkness, extolment of pessimism as the theory and practice of art. And only a small section – the most honest and far-sighted writers – are trying to find a way out along other paths, in other directions, to link their destiny with the proletariat and its revolutionary struggle.

“The proletariat of capitalist countries is already forging the army of its writers, of its artists – the revolutionary writers whose representatives we are glad to welcome here today at the first congress of Soviet writers. The detachment of revolutionary writers in capitalist countries is not large as yet, but it is growing and will continue to grow every day, as the class struggle becomes more intense, as the forces of the world proletarian revolution grow stronger.

“We firmly believe that these few dozens of foreign comrades who are here today represent the nucleus, the core of a mighty army of proletarian writers which will be created by the world proletarian revolution in capitalist countries.

“That is how matters stand in capitalist countries. Not so with us. Our Soviet writer derives the material for his works of art, his subject-matter, images, artistic language and speech, from the life and experience of the men and women of Dnieprostroy, of Magnitostroy.

“Our writer draws his material from the heroic epic of the Chelyuskin expedition, from the experience of our collective farms, from the creative action that is seething in all corners of our country.

“In our country the main heroes of works of literature are the active builders of a new life – working men and women, men and women collective farmers, party members, business managers, engineers, members of the Young Communist League, pioneers.

“Such are the chief types and the chief heroes of our Soviet literature. Our literature is impregnated with enthusiasm and the spirit of heroic deeds. It is optimistic, but not optimistic in accordance with any ‘inward’, animal instinct. It is optimistic in essence, because it is the literature of the rising class of the proletariat, the only progressive and advanced class.

“Our Soviet literature is strong by virtue of the fact that it is serving a new cause – the cause of socialist construction.

“Comrade Stalin has called our writers engineers of human souls. What does this mean? What duties does the title confer upon you?

“In the first place, it means knowing life so as to be able to depict it truthfully in works of art, not to depict it in a dead, scholastic way, not simply as ‘objective reality’, but to depict reality in its revolutionary development.

“In addition to this, the truthfulness and historical concreteness of the artistic portrayal should be combined with the ideological remoulding and education of the toiling people in the spirit of socialism. This method in belles lettres and literary criticism is what we call the method of socialist realism.

“Our Soviet literature is not afraid of the charge of being ‘tendentious’. Yes, Soviet literature is tendentious, for in an epoch of class struggle there is not and cannot be a literature which is not class literature, not tendentious, or is allegedly non-political.

“And I think that every one of our Soviet writers can say to any dull-witted bourgeois, to any philistine, to any bourgeois writer who may talk about our literature being tendentious: ‘Yes, our Soviet literature is tendentious, and we are proud of this fact, because the aim of our tendency is to liberate the toilers, to free all mankind from the yoke of capitalist slavery.’

“To be an engineer of human souls means standing with both feet firmly planted on the basis of real life. And this in its turn denotes a rupture with romanticism of the old type, which depicted a non-existent life and non-existent heroes, leading the reader away from the antagonisms and oppression of real life into a world of the impossible, into a world of utopian dreams.

Our literature, which stands with both feet firmly planted on a materialist basis, cannot be hostile to romanticism, but it must be a romanticism of a new type, revolutionary romanticism.

“We say that socialist realism is the basic method of Soviet belles lettres and literary criticism, and this presupposes that revolutionary romanticism should enter into literary creation as a component part, for the whole life of our party, the whole life of the working class and its struggle consist in a combination of the most stern and sober practical work with a supreme spirit of heroic deeds and magnificent future prospects.

“Our party has always been strong by virtue of the fact that it has united and continues to unite a thoroughly businesslike and practical spirit with broad vision, with a constant urge forward, with a struggle for the building of communist society.

“Soviet literature should be able to portray our heroes; it should be able to glimpse our tomorrow. This will be no utopian dream, for our tomorrow is already being prepared for today by dint of conscious planned work.

“One cannot be an engineer of human souls without knowing the technique of literary work, and it must be noted that the technique of the writer’s work possesses a large number of specific peculiarities.

“You have many different types of weapons. Soviet literature has every opportunity of employing these types of weapons (genres, styles, forms and methods of literary creation) in their diversity and fullness, selecting all the best that has been created in this sphere by all previous epochs.

“From this point of view, the mastery of the technique of writing, the critical assimilation of the literary heritage of all epochs represents a task which you must fulfil without fail, if you wish to become engineers of human souls.

Comrades, the proletariat, just as in other provinces of material and spiritual culture, is the sole heir of all that is best in the treasury of world literature. The bourgeoisie has squandered its literary heritage; it is our duty to gather it up carefully, to study it and, having critically assimilated it, to advance further.

“To be engineers of human souls means to fight actively for the culture of language, for quality of production. Our literature does not as yet come up to the requirements of our era.

“The weaknesses of our literature are a reflection of the fact that people’s consciousness lags behind economic life – a defect from which even our writers are not, of course, free.

“That is why untiring work directed towards self-education and towards improving their ideological equipment in the spirit of socialism represents an indispensable condition without which Soviet writers cannot remould the mentality of their readers and thereby become engineers of human souls.

“We require a high mastery of artistic production; and in this connection it is impossible to overrate the help that Maxim Gorky is rendering the party and the proletariat in the struggle for quality in literature, for the culture of language.

“And so our Soviet writers have all the conditions necessary for them to produce works which will be, as we say, consonant with our era, works from which the people of our times can learn and which will be the pride of future generations.

“All the necessary conditions have been created to enable Soviet literature to produce works answering to the requirements of the masses, who have grown in culture. Only our literature has the chance to be so closely connected with the readers, with the whole life of the working population, as is the case in the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics.

“The present congress is in itself peculiarly significant. The preparations for the congress were conducted not only by the writers but by the whole country together with them.

“In the course of these preparations one could clearly see the love and attention with which Soviet writers are surrounded by the party, the workers and the collective farm peasantry, the consideration and at the same time the exacting demands which characterise the attitude of our working class and collective farmers to Soviet writers.

“Only in our country is such enhanced importance given to literature and to writers.

“Organise the work of your congress and that of the Union of Soviet Writers in the future in such a way that the creative work of our writers may conform to the victories that socialism has won.

“Create works of high attainment, of high ideological and artistic content.

“Actively help to remould the mentality of people in the spirit of socialism.

“Be in the front ranks of those who are fighting for a classless socialist society.”

Zhdanov and the History of the CPSU(B)

In 1934, in a letter to the editorial board of the Proletarskaya Revolutsia, JV Stalin wrote a piece exposing the fraudulent statements being made by concealed Trotskyists against Leninism.

A fierce battle was raging in the Soviet press concerning the history of Leninism and the Bolshevik party. Stalin declared: “It is not the business of the editorial board of Proletarskaya Revolutsia to facilitate the smuggling activities of such ‘historians’ by providing them with a forum for discussion.

“The task of the editorial board is, in my opinion, to raise the questions concerning the history of Bolshevism to the proper level, to put the study of the history of our party on scientific, Bolshevik lines, and to concentrate attention against the Trotskyist and all other falsifiers of the history of our party, systematically tearing off their masks.

“That is all the more necessary since even some of our historians – I am speaking of historians without quotation marks, of Bolshevik historians of our party – are not free from mistakes which bring grist to the mill of the Slutskys and Voloseviches.”

Leninist party leaders like Lavrentiy Beria, Maxim Gorky, Viacheslav Molotov, Klim Voroshilov, Sergey Kirov, JV Stalin and A Zhdanov began work on a number of texts that set the record straight and put the study of the history of the Bolshevik party upon proper Bolshevik lines.

These studies were removed from the Soviet Union, rewritten and defamed at the 20th congress of the CPSU(B) by Nikita Khrushchev, Anastas Mikoyan and other revisionists. Such works include Lavrentiy Beria’s On the History of the Bolshevik Organisations of Transcaucasia, and The History of the Civil War in the USSR. First among them is the History of the CPSU(B) – Short Course.

Andrei Zhdanov, as head of propaganda in the central committee, was instrumental in the writing and publishing of the these documents, and, under the leadership of Zhdanov and Stalin, the central committee passed an important resolution in 1939 entitled On the Organisation of party propaganda in connection with the publication of the History of the CPSU(B) – Short Course.

It declared: “The publication of the History of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (Bolsheviks) – Short Course is an outstanding event in the ideological life of the Bolshevik party. With its appearance, the party has acquired a new and powerful ideological weapon of Bolshevism, an encyclopaedia of fundamental knowledge in the realm of Marxism Leninism.

“The short course is a scientific history of bolshevism. It sets forth and generalises the tremendous experiences of the communist party, an experience unequalled by that of any other party in the world …

“In the compilation of the History of the CPSU(B) – Short Course, the central committee set itself the aim of removing the harmful gap which in the sphere of propaganda has arisen in recent years between Marxism and Leninism and which has resulted in the teaching of Leninism as an independent doctrine separated from Marxism, from dialectical and historical materialism, and from the history of the party, the fact being forgotten that Leninism arose and developed on the basis of Marxism, that Marxism is the foundation of Leninism, and that without a knowledge of this foundation, Leninism cannot be understood.

“In the compilation of the History of the CPSU(B) – Short Course, the central committee set itself the aim of providing a guide to the theory and history of the CPSU(B) which would reunite into one whole the artificially separated component parts of the integral doctrine of Marxism Leninism – dialectical and historical materialism and Leninism – and in which historical materialism and the policy of the party would be connected; a guide which would demonstrate the indissoluble unity, integrity and continuity of the doctrine of Marx and Lenin, the unity of Marxism Leninism, and which would give an account of the new contributions which Lenin and his disciples made to Marxist theory by generalising the new experience of the class struggle of the proletariat in the epoch of imperialism and proletarian revolutions …

“Unlike certain of the old textbooks, whose account of the history of the CPSU(B) was primarily centred around historical personages, and the purpose of which was to educate our forces by the example of personages and their biographies, the Short Course bases its account of the history of the party on an exposition of the fundamental ideas of Marxism Leninism and seeks to educate party members primarily in the ideas of Marxism Leninism …

“Wide currency has been acquired by perversions of the Marxist-Leninist view on the character of wars in the present epoch, the failure to understand the difference between just and unjust wars, and by the false idea that the Bolsheviks are a kind of ‘pacifists’.

“In historical science, anti-Marxist perversions and vulgarisations were until quite latterly connected with the so-called Pokrovsky ‘school’, which interpreted historical facts in a perverted way, treated them, in defiance of historical materialism, from the standpoint of the present day, and not from the standpoint of the conditions in which the historical events took place, and thus distorted historical truth …

“The CC of the CPBSU(B) proceeded from the premise that unless our party members have a knowledge of the theory of Marxism Leninism, unless they master bolshevism and make good their deficiencies in the realm of theory, they will be severely handicapped, for in order that they may properly guide all branches of socialist construction, those practically engaged in the work must master the fundamentals of Marxist-Leninist theory and be able to guide themselves by theory in the solution of practical problems.

“It is a mistake to think that only a narrow circle of people can master theory. Marxist-Leninist theory can be mastered by anybody. Today, with a Soviet system and with the victory of socialism in the USSR, unlimited opportunities have been created enabling our leading cadres to successfully master Marxist-Leninist theory and to study the history of the party and the works of Marx, Engels, Lenin and Stalin.

“To master the theory of Marxism Leninism one has only to desire to do so, and to display persistence and firmness of will in the achievement of this aim. If such sciences as physics, chemistry and biology can be successfully mastered, there is not the slightest ground to doubt that the science of Marxism Leninism can be fully mastered.”

Siege of Leningrad

Space does not permit us here to go into the details of Zhdanov’s transfer to Leningrad, let alone his outstanding role in the winter war with Finland, or the various party and state tasks he fulfilled in connection with the preparations made by the USSR for the war with Hitlerite Germany.

Suffice it to say by way of an explanation that Zhdanov was moved from Moscow to Leningrad following the murder of Sergei Kirov by the Trotskyite-Zinovievite centre.

When war with Germany broke out in 1941, the Soviet Union benefited from the 150km buffer that separated Leningrad from the territories occupied after the war with Finland.

This buffer was sufficient to prevent the German military machine from occupying Leningrad, as was their main aim, but it did not prevent the cutting off of Leningrad from the rest of the USSR by land or the onset of the awful 872-day siege of the city. From then on, the only routes out were by air or across the Lagoda Lake.

Having received more than a quarter of a million Soviet refugees fleeing the Nazis’ Operation Barbarossa, which began in June 1941, the Leningrad authorities under Zhdanov managed to evacuate in total about 700,000 people into the rear of the USSR.

Artillery bombardments of the city by the Germans prevented the further evacuation of civilians that year (although another 500,000 eventually escaped), and by September the city was encircled. In his Directive No 1,601 Hitler ordered: “St Petersburg must be erased from the face of the Earth”, and said: “we have no interest in saving lives of civilian population”.

In such conditions, Andrei Zhdanov played a leading role in the struggle for survival, and in the eventual liberation of the city. Even during the worst days of the siege, Leningrad continued to produce 25 percent of major armaments and, as a leading industrial centre, was producing radio transmitters and artillery.

A great many heroic deeds could be recounted if space permitted us, and an article next year will mark the 75th anniversary of the siege of Leningrad, but we shall limit ourselves here to mentioning briefly just a few typical examples of the ingenuity of the Soviet people under the leadership of the Bolshevik party.

For instance, when the city was cut off by land, the Soviet Red Army opened up a crossing across Lake Lagoda. By November of that year, more than 350 sleighs made up the first caravan across the ice, a route never before undertaken in the history of the city, which had properly begun in 1703.

Such a feat was made possible by work undertaken by Soviet meteorologists on the snow and ice of the lake, a study initiated by Zhdanov and carried out with the assistance of the Baltic fleet.

Barges brought food and bread, but the icy winter soon left Leningrad without heating and water. With the city frozen and supplied with only a month’s-worth of bread, Andrei Zhdanov gathered together the city bakers and other leading civil and military figures.

The city required 100,000 tonnes of flour a month to bake enough bread to feed the starving population, yet there was no water, such was the extent of the ice.

Vladimir Tributs, the Baltic navy admiral attended the meeting called by Zhdanov, and a plan was formulated to use the pumps of two submarines stranded in the frozen ice in an attempt to bring water up from the very depths of the river, below the thick frozen layer. The plan was successful and it is said that the first bread was baked within five hours of this meeting.

This is just one small glimpse of the obstacles that the Soviet people, guided by the Bolshevik party, were able to overcome.

The struggle for proletarian culture and Soviet art

Although he took on many important state and party functions, the struggles waged by Andrei Zhdanov after 1945 have left us with classic texts of Marxism Leninism dealing with philosophical questions, developing the Soviet arts and literature, and by way of criticism of both music and bourgeois influences in Soviet literature.

In his speech on Soviet music at a meeting of the central committee, Zhdanov clearly outlined the communist attitude to the arts – an attitude at odds with the r-r-r-revolutionary teachings of those who desired to throw out the rich cultural heritage left to socialist society by the preceding epochs that were based upon exploitation.

Let these words be read by many of those young people today, who, under the banner of ‘cultural Marxism’ call on us to ‘do away’ with science and reason in the name of ‘dialectics’ and ‘accepting of material reality’. Or, in other words, the acceptance of prevailing bourgeois morality, bourgeois culture, bourgeois decadence.

In the words of Zhdanov: “We Bolsheviks do not reject the cultural heritage. On the contrary, we are critically assimilating the cultural heritage of all nations and all times in order to choose from it all that can inspire the working people of Soviet society to great exploits in labour, science and culture.

We must help the people in this. If you do not set yourself this task, if you do not throw yourself heart and soul into its realisation, devoting to it all your ardour and creative enthusiasm, you will not be performing your historic role …

“At one time, you remember, elementary and secondary schools went in for the ‘laboratory brigade’ method and the ‘Dalton plan’, which reduced the role of the teacher in the schools to a minimum and gave each pupil the right to set the theme of classwork at the beginning of each lesson.

“On arriving in the classroom, the teacher would ask the pupils ‘What shall we study today?’ The pupils would reply: ‘Tell us about the Arctic,’ ’Tell us about the Antarctic’ ‘Tell us about Chapayev,’ ‘Tell us about Dneprostroi.’ The teacher had to follow the lead of these demands. This was called the ‘laboratory brigade method’, but actually it amounted to turning the organisation of schooling completely topsy-turvy.

“The pupils became the directing force, and the teacher followed their lead. Once we had ‘loose-leaf textbooks’, and the five point system of marks was abandoned. All these things were novelties, but I ask you, did these novelties stand for progress?

“The party cancelled all these ‘novelties’, as you know. Why? Because these ‘novelties’, in form very ‘leftish’, were in actual fact extremely reactionary and made for the nullification of the school …

“Or take this example. An Academy of Fine Arts was organised not so long ago. Painting is your sister, one of the muses. At one time, as you know, bourgeois influences were very strong in painting. They cropped up time and again under the most ‘leftist’ flags, giving themselves such tags as futurism, cubism, modernism; ‘stagnant academism’ was ‘overthrown,’ and novelty proclaimed.

“This novelty expressed itself in insane carryings on, as for instance, when a girl was depicted with one head on forty legs, with one eye turned towards us, and the other towards Arzamas.

“How did all this end? In the complete crash of the ‘new trend’. The party fully restored the significance of the classical heritage of Repin, Briullov, Vereshchagin, Vasnetsov and Surikov. Did we do right in reinstating the treasures of classical painting, and routing the liquidators of painting?

“Would not the continued existence of the like ‘schools’ have meant the nullification of painting? Did the central committee act ‘conservatively’, was it under the influence of ‘traditionalism’, of ‘epigonism’ and so on, when it defended the classical heritage in painting? This is sheer nonsense!

“With regard to naturalistic distortions. It was made clear here that the natural, healthy standards of music have been increasingly discarded. Elements of crude naturalism are being used more and more in our music. Here is what Serov wrote ninety years ago, in warning against preoccupation with crude naturalism:

“‘In nature there is a sea of sound of the most diverse kind and quality, but all these sounds, known as noise, thunder, roaring, splitting, splashing, rumbling, droning, pealing, howling, creaking, whistling, murmuring, whispering, rustling, hissing, rippling, and so on, and others not denoted in speech … all these sounds either do not form the material of the musical tongue; or, if they are incorporated in it at all, it is only as exceptions (the ringing of bells, copper cymbals, musical triangles – the sound of drums, timbrels, etc). The proper material of music is sound of a special quality.’

“Is it not true, is it not correct that the sound of cymbals and drums should be the exception in musical composition and not the rule?! Is it not clear that not even natural sound ought to be incorporated in musical compositions?! And yet how much inexcusable indulgence in vulgar naturalism unquestionably betokening retrogression, we find among us!

It must be frankly stated that quite a few works by modern composers are so saturated with naturalistic sounds that they make one think of a drilling machine if you will pardon the unaesthetic comparison, or of a musical murder van. You have got to realise that they are simply impossible to listen to!

“With this music we begin to pass beyond the confines of the rational, beyond the confines not only of normal human emotions but also of normal human reason. True there are fashionable theories nowadays which assert that the pathological state of man is something of a higher state, and that the schizophrenic and the paranoiac can in their hallucinations reach spiritual heights, such as the ordinary man can never reach in the normal state.

“These ‘theories’ are not accidental, of course. They are very characteristic of the epoch of decay and decomposition of bourgeois culture. But let us leave all these ‘refinements’ to the insane. Let us demand that our composers give us normal, human music.”

On the literary front, Andrei Zhdanov ridiculed those Soviet writers who had so dismally failed to assimilate the lessons of the first congress of Soviet writers; who acted as purveyors of bourgeois influence amongst the Soviet people and pointed to all that was rotten and dying away in Soviet society, ignoring that which was good, that which was noble, and that which should be made to flourish.

One such writer, still in print in the west, was Mikhail Zoshchenko. In 1945, Zvezda (a Leningrad journal) published his Adventures of a Monkey, a short story. After this, Zhdanov went on to read this story in full, which we are excluding here for its sheer length, banality and reactionary essence.

The central committee of the Communist Party criticised Zvezda for publishing this story, and here are the reasons for this criticisms, in the words of Zhdanov: “It is clear from the central committee’s decision that Zvezda’s worst mistake has been that of allowing the writings of Zoshchenko and Akhmatova to appear in its pages.

“It is, I think, hardly necessary for me to instance Zoshchenko’s ‘work’, The Adventures of a Monkey. You have certainly all read it and know it better than I do. The point of this ‘work’ of Zoshchenko’s is that in it he portrays Soviet people as lazy, unattractive, stupid and crude. He is in no way concerned with their labour, their efforts, their heroism, their high social and moral qualities. He never so much as mentions these.

“He chooses, like the cheap philistine he is, to scratch about in life’s basenesses and pettinesses. This is no accident. It is intrinsic in all cheap philistine writers, of whom Zoshchenko is one. Gorky often used to speak of this; you will remember how, at the 1934 congress of Soviet writers, he stigmatised the so-called literati who can see no further than the soot on the kitchen range and in the boiler room.

“The Adventures of a Monkey is not a thing apart from the general run of Zoshchenko’s stories. It is merely as the most vivid expression of all the negative qualities in his ‘literary work’ that it has attracted the critics’ attention.

“Since he returned to Leningrad after the evacuation, he has, we know, written several things demonstrating his inability to find anything positive whatever in the life of Soviet people or any positive character among them. He is in the habit of jeering at Soviet life, ways and people, as he does in The Adventures of a Monkey, and of concealing his jeers behind a mask of empty-headed entertainment and pointless humour.

“If you take the trouble to read his Adventures of a Monkey more closely you will find that he makes the monkey act as a supreme judge of our social customs, a dictator of morality to Soviet people. The monkey is depicted as an intelligent creature capable of assessing human behaviour.

“The writer deliberately caricatures the life of Soviet people as unattractive and cheap, so as to have the monkey pass the judgment, filthy, poisonous and anti-Soviet as it is, that living in the zoo is better than being at liberty, that you can draw your breath more freely in a cage than among Soviet people.

“Is it possible to fall morally and politically lower than this? How can the people of Leningrad tolerate such rubbish and vulgarity in the pages of their journals?

“The Leningraders in charge of Zvezda must indeed be lacking in vigilance if a ‘work’ of this sort is offered to the journal’s Soviet readers, if it is found possible to publish works steeped in the venom of bestial enmity towards the Soviet order. Only the scum of the literary world could write such ‘works’, and only the blind, the apolitical could allow them to appear.

“Zoshchenko’s story is said to have gone the rounds of Leningrad’s variety halls. The leadership of educational work in Leningrad must have fallen to a low level indeed for such a thing to be possible.

“Zoshchenko has managed to find a niche for himself in the pages of an important Leningrad journal and to popularise his loathsome ‘moral lessons’ there. And yet Zvezda is a journal purporting to educate our young people.

“Is that a task to be coped with by a journal that has taken a low un-Soviet writer like Zoshchenko to its heart? Is Zvezda’s editorial board unaware of what he is?

“It is not so long ago – early 1944, in fact – that [the journal] Bolshevik published an article sharply critical of Zoshchenko’s book Before Sunrise, which was written at the height of the Soviet people’s war of liberation against the German invaders.

“In this book Zoshchenko turns his low, cheap little self inside out, and delights to exhibit himself to the public gaze; indeed, he does it with gusto, crying: See what an oaf I am!

“It would be hard to find in our literature anything more revolting than the ‘lesson’ Zoshchenko teaches in this book Before Sunrise, where he portrays himself and others as lewd and repulsive beasts with neither shame nor conscience.

“Such was the ‘lesson’ he offered Soviet readers when our people were shedding their blood in an unprecedentedly bitter war, when the life of the Soviet state hung by a thread, when the Soviet people were making countless sacrifices to defeat the Germans.

“Far in the rear, entrenched in Alma-Ata, Zoshchenko was doing nothing to help. Bolshevik publicly castigated him, and rightly, as a low slanderer having no place in Soviet literature.

“But he snapped his fingers at public opinion. Less than two years later, friend Zoshchenko struts back to Leningrad and starts making free use of the pages of the Leningrad journals. Not only Zvezda but [the journal] Leningrad, too, welcomed his stories. Variety concert halls were rapidly made available.

“Moreover, he was allowed to occupy a leading position in the Leningrad section of the Union of Soviet Writers and to play an active part in the literary affairs of Leningrad.

“What grounds have you for letting him roam at will through the parks and gardens of Leningrad literature? Why have Leningrad’s active party workers and the Leningrad Writers’ Union allowed such shameful things to occur?

“Zoshchenko’s thoroughly rotten and corrupt social, political and literary attitude does not result from any recent transformation. There is nothing accidental about his latest ‘works’. They are simply the continuation of his literary ‘legacy’ dating from the twenties.

“Who was he in the past? He was one of the organisers of the literary group known as the Serapion Brothers. And when the Serapion Brothers group was formed, what was he like socially and politically?

Let me turn to Literaturniye Zapiski (Vol 3, 1922) where the founders of this group expounded their creed. This journal contains, among other things, Zoshchenko’s credo, in an article entitled ‘About myself and a few other things’. Quite unashamed, he publicly exposes himself and states his political and literary ‘views’ with the utmost frankness. Listen to what he says:

“‘It is very difficult to be a writer, on the whole. Take this business of ideology … Writers are expected to have an ideology nowadays … What a bore! How can I have any ‘definite ideology’, tell me, when no party really attracts me? From the party members’ point of view I am not a man of principle. What of it? For my part, I may say: I am not a communist, nor a socialist-revolutionary, nor a monarchist, but merely a Russian and a politically amoral one, at that …

“‘Honest to God, I don’t know to this day what party, well, Guchkov … say, belongs to. Heaven knows what party he’s in; I know he isn’t a Bolshevik, but whether he’s a Socialist-Revolutionary or a Cadet I neither know nor care.’ And so on and so forth.

“What do you make of that sort of ‘ideology’? Twenty-five years have passed since Zoshchenko published this ‘confession’ of his. Has he changed since? Not so that you would notice it. Not only has he neither learned anything nor changed in any way in the last two and a half decades, but with cynical frankness he continues, on the contrary, to remain the apostle of empty-headedness and cheapness, a literary slum-rat, unprincipled and conscienceless.

“That is to say, now as then he cares nothing for Soviet ways, now as then he has no place in Soviet literature and opposes it.

“If he has nevertheless become something approaching a literary star in Leningrad, if his praises are sung on Leningrad’s Parnassus, we can but marvel at the lack of principle, of strictness, of discrimination, in the people who paved the way for him and applauded him.

“Allow me to instance one more illustration of what the Serapion Brothers, so-called, were like. In the same issue of Literaturniye Zapiski, another Serapionist, Lev Lunts, also tried to expound the ideological basis of the harmful trend represented by the Serapion Brothers, which is alien to the spirit of Soviet literature. Lunts wrote:

“‘We gathered together at a time of great political and revolutionary tension. “He who is not with us is against us,” we were told on all hands. “Who are you with, Serapion Brothers,” we were asked, “with the communists or against them, for the revolution or against it?”

“‘And so, who are we with, Serapion Brothers? We are with the hermit Serapion. Officialdom has ruled Russian literature too long and too painfully. We do not want utilitarianism. We do not write for propaganda purposes. Art is real, like life itself, and like life it exists because it must, without purpose or meaning.’

“Such was the role allotted to art by the Serapion Brothers, depriving it of all ideological content or social significance; they proclaimed the non-ideological nature of art, demanding art for art’s sake, without purpose or meaning. This is nothing but a plea for philistinism, superficiality and lack of political belief.

“What conclusion does this lead to? Zoshchenko does not like Soviet ways: so what would you advise us to do? Adapt ourselves to him? It is not for us to change our tastes. It is not for us to alter our life and our order to suit him. Let him change; and if he will not, let him get out of Soviet literature, in which there can be no place for meaningless, cheap, empty-headed works.

“This was the central committee’s starting point in adopting its decisions on [the journals] Zvezda and Leningrad.

“I will now turn to the literary ‘work’ of Anna Akhmatova. Her works have been appearing in the Leningrad journals recently as an example of ‘increased output’.

“This is as surprising and unnatural as it would be if someone were to start issuing new editions of the works of Merezhkovsky, Vyacheslav, Ivanov, Mikhail Kuzmin, Andrei Bely, Zinaida Hippius, Fyodor Sologub, Zinovyeva-Annibal, and so on and so forth; that is, of all the writers whom our advanced public and literary circles have always considered to be representatives of reactionary obscurantism and perfidy in art and politics.

“Gorky once said that the ten years from 1907 to 1917 might well be called the most shameful, the most barren decade in the history of Russian intellectuals; in this decade, after the 1905 revolution, a great many of the intellectuals spurned the revolution and slid down into a morass of pornography and reactionary mysticism, screening their perfidy with the ‘pretty’ phrase: ‘I too have burned all I revered and have revered what I burned.’

“It was during these ten years that there appeared such perfidious works as Ropshin’s The Pale Horse and the writings of Vinnichenko and other deserters from the camp of revolution to that of reaction, hastening to dethrone the lofty ideals that the best and most progressive representatives of Russian society were fighting for.

“It was then that there rose to the surface symbolists, imagists and decadents of every shape and hue, disowning the people and proclaiming the thesis of ‘Art for Art’s sake’, preaching the meaninglessness of literature and screening their ideological and moral corruption behind a pursuit of beauty of form without content.

“All of them were united in their brutish fear of the coming workers’ revolution. Suffice it to recall that one of the most notable ‘theoreticians’ in these reactionary literary movements was Merezhkovsky, who called the coming workers’ revolution ‘the approaching rabble’ and greeted the October Revolution with bestial malice.

“Anna Akhmatova is one of the representatives of this idea-less reactionary morass in literature. She belongs to the ‘Acmeist’ literary group, who in their day emerged from the ranks of the symbolists and she is one of the standard bearers of the meaningless, empty-headed, aristocratic-salon school of poetry, which has no place whatever in Soviet literature.

“The Acmeists represented an extremely individualistic trend in art. They preached ‘Art for Art’s sake’, ‘Beauty for Beauty’s sake’, and had no wish to know anything about the people and the people’s needs and interests, or about social life.

“This was a bourgeois-aristocratic trend in literature, appearing at a time when the days of the bourgeoisie and of the aristocracy were numbered, when the poets and theoreticians of the ruling classes were trying to hide from harsh reality in the mists and clouds of religious mysticism, in paltry personal experiences and in absorption in their own petty souls.

“The Acmeists, like the symbolists, decadents and other representatives of the disintegrating bourgeois-aristocratic ideology, were preachers of defeatism, pessimism and faith in a hereafter.

“Akhmatova’s subject-matter is individualistic to the core. The range of her poetry is sadly limited; it is the poetry of a spoilt woman-aristocrat, frenziedly vacillating between boudoir and chapel. Her main emphasis is on erotic love-themes interwoven with notes of sadness, longing, death, mysticism, fatality.

“A sense of fatality (quite comprehensible in a dying group), the dismal tones of a deathbed hopelessness, mystical experiences shot with eroticism, make up Akhmatova’s spiritual world; she is a leftover from the world of the old aristocracy now irrevocably past and gone, the world of ‘Catherine’s good old days’.

“It would be hard to say whether she is a nun or a fallen woman; better perhaps say she is a bit of each, her desires and her prayers intertwined.

“‘But I vow by the garden of angels,
‘By the miraculous icon I vow,
‘I vow by the child of our passion …’
– from Anno Domini, by Anna Akhmatova.

“Such is Akhmatova, with her petty, narrow personal life, her paltry experiences, and her religiously mystical eroticism.

“Her poetry is far removed from the people. It is the poetry of the ten thousand members of the elite society of the old aristocratic Russia. whose hour has long since struck and left them with nothing to do but sigh for ‘the good old days’, for the country estates of Catherine’s time, with their avenues of ancient lime trees, their fountains, their statues, their arches, their greenhouses, summerhouses and crumbling coats of arms, for aristocratic St Petersburg, for Tsarskoye Selo, for the railway station in Pavlovsk, and for other relics of the nobility’s culture.

“All of these have vanished into the irredeemable past. The few representatives of this culture, so foreign to the spirit of the people, who have by some miracle lived on into our own times, can do nothing but shut themselves up in themselves and live with chimeras. ‘All has been plundered, betrayed and sold,’ writes Akhmatova.

“Osip Mandelstam, a prominent Acmeist, wrote this, not long before the revolution, on the social, political and literary ideals of this little group: ‘The Acmeists share their love of organism and organisation with the physiologically perfect middle ages …’ ‘The middle ages, with their own peculiar way of estimating a man’s relative weight, felt and recognised it in every individual irrespective of merit …’

“‘Yes, Europe once passed through a labyrinth of filigree-fine culture, when abstract being, personal existence, wholly unadorned, was valued as an outstanding achievement. This gave rise to the aristocratic intimacy binding everybody, so foreign to the spirit of ‘equality and fraternity’ of the great revolution …’ ‘The middle ages are dear to us because they had so highly developed a sense of boundaries and dividing line …’

“‘A noble mixture of rationality and mysticism, and a perception of the world as a living equilibrium, make us feel a kinship with this age and prompt us to draw strength from the works that appeared on Romance soil about the year 1200.’

“These statements of Mandelstam’s contain the Acmeists’ hopes and ideals. ‘Back to the middle ages’ was the social idea of this aristocratic-salon group. ‘Back to the monkey’ choruses Zoshchenko. Incidentally, the Acmeists and the Serapion Brothers are of the same descent. Their common ancestor was Hoffman, one of the founders of aristocratic-salon decadence and mysticism.

“Where was the need to popularise Akhmatova’s poetry all of a sudden? What has she to do with Soviet people? What need is there to offer a literary pulpit to all these defeatist and un-Soviet literary trends?”

To be continued …