GULAG as a “positive hero”

Seventy-five years ago Moscow hosted the First Congress of Soviet Writers (Aug. 17 – Sept. 1, 1934). It turned out to be a singular event in terms of its scope, duration, and guests from abroad.

We can visualize the 1930s in two dimensions: on the one hand, the first five-year plans that essentially changed the USSR, transforming it from an importer into a producer of industrial equipment. On the other hand, there were all those unimaginable sufferings that befell the residents of that country. For one thing, how can anyone explain the enthusiasm and conscious self-denial that thousands of people displayed and the fact that these things peacefully coexisted with the Great Terror that caused millions to suffer? Normally, plans can be carried out using human resources, but every Soviet five-year plan demanded a superhuman effort based on both enthusiastic work and fear, servility and communist consciousness, terror and love for the Soviet Fatherland.


The state and the Bolshevik party strove to keep under control not only the nascent industries but also agriculture in the form of collective farms. The Soviet leadership was well aware that people who performed such “feats of labor” in this new epoch had to be eulogized in songs, poems, and prose writings; their images were to be immortalized as monuments, as heroes in movies and plays, so that they would be easily identifiable for the masses and could be further cloned.

That was why the Central Committee of the VKP(b) adopted a resolution on April 23, 1932, enforcing a reform of the existing literary-artistic organizations. From now on literature and the arts were to take orders from “upstairs,” considering that Lenin’s feeble task of re-educating writers remained unfulfilled. This task was replaced by the directive to force men of letters to write as dictated by the political system. This party resolution liquidated the Russian Association of Proletarian Writers (RAPP) and proposed to replace it with the Union of Soviet Writers that would unite the litt rateurs in all Soviet republics. Along with the RAPP, several remaining nonaffiliated organizations were “voluntarily” closed, including Pereval, the Congress of Peasant Writers, and other association of proletarian authors.

It was decided to start the future literary association by a short pleasure trip. (It was common knowledge that lots of issues could be resolved during an outing, outside the capital, in the lap of nature, with food and drink.) The Party and the OGPU (United State Political Directorate) made the arrangements, so that in the famine-stricken year of 1933 a group of 120 writers boarded a comfortable riverboat and sailed down the White Sea–Baltic Sea Canal (BBK) named after Stalin, then still under construction.

“As soon as the Cheka officers started playing host, we felt we were living under Communism. We ate and drank as much as we wished, without having to pay for anything. There were smoked sausages, cheeses, caviar, fruit, wines, chocolates, and cognac,” recalled one of the invited writers. Let the reader be reminded that this was three years prior to the cancellation of the ration card system for grain, cereals, potatoes, sugar, and textiles.

In 1934, some of those who were on board the pleasure boat, namely Aleksei Tolstoy, Valentin Katayev, M. Kozakov, Ilya Ilf and Yevgeny Petrov, V. Ivanov, Vera Inber, Viktor Shklovsky (his brother was among the BBK inmates), and Mikhail Zoshchenko, combined their efforts to publish a book on BBK construction. Instead of describing the slave-like toil of the construction workers tasked with building a 227-kilometer-long canal, 100,000 deaths within 20 months caused by colds, undernourishment, and unreasonable digging quotas for those equipped with only the most primitive tools, the book praised this approach as “the best method and the world’s first experience of reforming habitual criminals and political enemies by means of manual labor.”

Paradoxically, the writers used their talent to produce a strikingly true-to-life picture of the workers’ enthusiasm, their incredible tolerance and eyes shining with zeal, their willingness to sacrifice their lives for the victory of worldwide socialist revolution—rather than their emaciation, the cynicism of the overseers, the freezing barracks, the primitive tools, the unyielding Karelian granite, the thin prison gruel, and the lice bites.

That was actually the reason behind the project to create the Union of Soviet Writers.


Every BBK worker was referred to as a “Canal Army prisoner,” abbreviated in Russian as z/k. Soviet writers who gathered in Moscow to attend the first congress of the Writers’ Union were also in bondage. Those who had sailed down the BBK were in the limelight, treated almost like the Chelyuskin heroes. In the huge Hall of Columns of the Palace of Unions, Maxim Gorky coughed and mumbled something from the rostrum, but few in the audience caught his words. The atmosphere livened up somewhat when delegates from workers, collective farmers, the Red Army, Young Pioneers, and other “social strata” took the floor to convey their greetings on the occasion.

The audience became noticeably scarce after the first intermission, as quite a few delegates had retired to the excellent buffets where diversified groups formed and were clinking glasses and making toasts; some individuals were sleeping on their dishes of sturgeon after having had one too many. In a word, few men of letters were eager to return to the tedious conference room. They were generously provided for: 40 rubles per diem for each of the 571 delegates (at the time a worker paid 84 kopecks for his lunch, while a dinner at a commercial restaurant cost five to six rubles).

The organizing committee, chaired by I. Gronsky, had a hard time getting the creative intellectuals together to vote for the resolutions. incidentally, all were present, including such noted litt?rateurs as Demian Bedny and Aleksandr Bezimensky and young writers, to hear Nikolai Bukharin’s speech, which was the third and last point on the agenda. Thus ended the congress.

Izvestia’s editorial “Summing Up the Writers’ Congress” (September 2), after ritually referring to Stalin’s “sage leadership,” stressed that “the reader demands struggle against poor quality, slapdash literary writings, and elementary rhymed prose.” No mention was made of the closing banquet that cost the central budget more than 300,000 rubles.

The most important result of the congress was the recognition of the fact that only the members of the newly founded Union of Soviet Writers were recognized as professional Soviet authors. Needless to say, not all of the 400,000 (sic) authors—some of them barely literate, recruited from among factory workers and collective farmers—were admitted to the USW after this purge. Incorporation spelled a higher social status for every USW member with a number of privileges, including the possibility to publish his works, better housing, material support from the trade union, access to health resorts, paid sick leaves, etc. After all, a writer could do no work at all and he would not be condemned as a drone, which was truly unthinkable in the conditions of overall labor enthusiasm.

From then on any complaints against a writer who “did not have a job and burned midnight oil” were disregarded by the local authorities.


Bulgakov’s Woland was right to point out, referring to the residents of Moscow, that “the housing problem has corrupted them…” USW membership implied the possibility of moving into better apartments in downtown Moscow, so quite a few of those rubbing elbows with the USW leadership channeled their more than adequate honorariums into housing projects coupled with letters of reference from influential apparatchiks. All those who had made the boat trip down the BBK, who had sustained the polar mosquito bites and prisoners’ handshakes, were rewarded in the first place. Thus, within a month after the trip, the noted author Mikhail Zoshchenko was elected chairman of the Leningrad branch of the All-Russia Commission on Dramaturgy. On Sept. 1, 1934, he became a member of the of the USW Board, and on October 24 that same year he moved into a spacious apartment in Palace Square in Leningrad.

Anton Makarenko was not left without a rewarded either: he had previously earned a pretty good living as a teacher and writer. Suffice it to say that, on April 2, 1936, he easily afforded to refuse an advance payment of 25,000 rubles offered to him by the Kyiv Cinematographic Factory (known as the Dovzhenko Studios since 1957) for a script, saying he was too busy, although his wife Halyna Makarenko had plans for a suburban home and another housemaid. As an ordinary schoolteacher, Anton Makarenko had been happy to receive his monthly pay of 200 rubles. Makarenko, Katayev, Ilf and Petrov, and other authors effectively invested their honorariums into what would become the Writers’ Building in Lavrushinski Lane in Moscow, a short walk from the Tretyakov Art Gallery. They moved into their new plush apartments before long.

Soviet literature was now stratified, divided between those supporting and opposing the resolutions of the First Congress of the USW. Obviously, the congress served as a contract made between the Soviet state and a group of writers that constituted an influential social stratum. Conferring the highest government awards on writers nominated by the leadership of the USW was now standard practice that encompassed also authors originating from remote ethnic regions.

His fingers are like thick, fat worms,
His words are correct,
like cast-iron weights.
One decree follows the next,
Hitting some between the eyes,
Others in the forehead,
Between the legs,
Or right into the eye.

The lines were written by the Russian poet Osip Mandelshtam about Stalin and earned him an arrest on the night of May 1, 1934. His room in the multifamily residential unit was given to a nephew of the USW Chairman V. Stavsky. The man immediately moved to Moscow from the Far East.

There was a great fuss about the allocation of 80 suburban plots for the writers’ dachas in the elite Peredelkino suburb of Moscow. Writers’ resorts mushroomed, and the Kyiv branch of the USW followed in Moscow’s footsteps, obtaining such plots for Soviet Ukraine’s noted men of letters in the scenic suburbs of Irpin and Vorzel. The litt rateurs’ devotion to the communist party and government grew in direct proportion to the improvements in their personal welfare.

I believe that this process was largely facilitated by the setting up of the Association of Wives of Soviet Writers attached to the USW Board.


An interesting letter from Stalin to Stavsky has been preserved in the archives. It reads: “Pay attention to Comrade Sobolev [Soviet writer Leonid Sobolev (1898-1971) who specialized in maritime stories — O.A.]. There is no doubt about his extraordinary literary talent. However, his letter reveals him as a fretful and unbalanced individual (he refuses to recognize the need to toe the line). You shouldn’t make him write about collective farms or Magnitogorsk. Such subjects cannot be described on demand. Let him write what he wants and when he wants. This kind of duty does not come from nothing. Best regards. Joseph Stalin.”

Does this mean that the Soviet dictator was not concerned about what his men of letters wrote and the fact that the USW leadership went too far by manipulating the critics’ pens and the minds of its members, preventing any attempt to deviate from the party line? No, Stalin was playing a subtle game here in which he, as the boss, handed out pardons and shared the freedom of creative endeavor, whereas the USW leadership, headed by Stavsky, was tasked with maintaining order and forced every USW member to toe the line. The fact that after forwarding his letter to Stalin, Sobolev lived the rest of his life in peace and quiet is quite meaningful: the Bolsheviks forgave his whims, but somehow made him pay for this with his works.

The beginning of the year 1937 was marked by the completion of the trial over the so-called Trotskyte Center, involving Pyatakov, Serebryakov, Sokolnikov, Muralov, Drobnis, Shestov, Radek (one of the presenters during the First USW Congress), etc. One of the Soviet literary giants, Aleksei Tolstoy, had to interrupt his work on the novel about Peter the First and, being aware of his duty forced himself to write an account of the trial, although this production was uncharacteristically cheap and shallow: “Radek: When I am asked about how I was treated during the investigation, I testify that I was not tormented by the investigating officer for three months—rather, I tormented him.’” (A.N. Tolstoy, Poslednie slova podsudimykh— The Last Words of the Convicts — Leningradskaya Pravda, Feb. 3, 1937).

On July 15, 1937, Literaturnaya gazeta published Anton Makarenko’s article “A Harmful Story”—a review on the young writer Natalia Girei’s book “The 68th Parallel” carried by two issues of the Leningrad-based journal Literaturny sovremennik. The story was about the construction of a new town in northern Russia and GULAG inmates being “re-educated.” Makarenko had been commissioned to write the review and said that the emphasis was misplaced and the work ran counter to the party line.

“This book is written in such a clumsy manner, with such prevalence of hostile overtones and hostile words, with such camouflaged Soviet horizons, with such dubious comparisons, and with such aloofness on the part of the author that, much I wish to be charitable to the young author, I cannot be charitable.” (Anton Makarenko, Pedagogicheskie sochinenia, M., Pedagogika, 1988, Vol. 7, p. 64.)

Shortly afterward, the Chief State Security Directorate of the NKVD in Leningrad oblast arrested Girei and impounded “all notes and drafts for the story ‘The 68th Parallel.’” She was charged with “anti-Soviet propaganda, dissemination of slanderous information about the leadership fo the VKP(b) and Soviet government on key economic and political issues.” She was sentenced to five years in a corrective labor camp. (FSB Archives, St. Petersburg and Leningrad oblast. File #P-72072, p. 26 — published for the first time. — O.A.)

Quite some review it was!


Dozens of men of letter who took part in the First USW Congress were subsequently destroyed or sent to prison camps, including Boris Pilsniak, Isaac Babel, Boris Kornilov, Titsian Tabidze, Ivan Katayev, Bruno Yasensky, Mikhail Koltsov, A. Senchenko, Ivan Mykytenko, and I. Gronsky — to mention only the best-known victims.

Maxim Gorky died in mid-1936. The idea of socialist realism in literature that envisaged certain rules and obligations, the Soviet writer’s code of ethics, the positive hero dogma, when this hero must be everywhere, even in a lyrical poem, existed for more than half a century after Gorky’s death. Not coincidentally, it went down into history. Therefore, I am inclined to confer the title of the founder of socialist realism on both Stalin and the 66-year-old dying Gorky. The latter simply voiced the Kremlin’s project during the First USW Congress. Squeezed into the Kremlin’s rigid ideological canon, Soviet literature in the 1930s looked like a Russian oven that has swallowed the entire space of the Soviet construction. You have to either get on top of it and enjoy its warmth or keep running into it, pausing to view all those on top with envy or hatred and then trying to push your way inside, coughing and cursing the person who has built it.

However, you would curse him under your breath.

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Oleksandr Abarynov is a Kyiv-based journalist.