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Regine Robin. Socialist Realism: An Impossible Aesthetic. Trans. Catherine Porter. Stanford, Stanford UP, 1992. xxxvii + 345 pp. $45, cloth.

With the Soviet Union gone, we might expect that Socialist Realism would also be a dead letter. Instead, this curious hybrid, proclaimed in 1934 the only acceptable method for Soviet writers, has recently attracted considerable scholarly interest. In Russia, a talented younger generation of "culturologists" is trying to come to grips with their cultural heritage, for while the Soviet Union may be dead, Soviet consciousness is still very much alive. Russia's conceptualist poets have been deconstructing Stalinist culture's verbal mythologies, while practitioners of "Sots art," led by the émigré painters Komar and Melamid, do the same with its visual heritage, often to hilarious effect.

Western critics and theorists also find themselves drawn to the rich opportunities for study offered by the grotesquely overinflated corpse of Socialist Realism. They explore its similarities to Western mass culture and debate whether the term "postmodernism" can be applied to a national culture where the cultural process was artificially cut off and replaced for nearly fifty years by the enforced imposition of Socialist realism. [End Page 197]

Regine Robin's book promises an important contribution to this debate, but, unfortunately, never delivers. Robin, a sociologist rather than a Slavicist by training, explains in an autobiographical preface that she learned Russian in order to read the 700-page stenographic transcript of the 1934 First Congress of Soviet Writers. Her interest in the subject, she confesses, began when, as the young daughter of left-leaning East European emigres in France, she devoured Socialist Realist films and fiction. "Why did this literature prove so effective, so compelling, so strong when I was small, and why did it seem so strange to me 40 years later? . . . I simply wanted to take this literature seriously, to x-ray it, to ask it pertinent questions instead of dismissing it casually. Where does it come from, why the positive hero, and why the obsession with realism?" (xviii).

These are important questions, and Robin has cast her net widely in the effort to answer them. After an opening section which examines the 1934 debate at the First Congress of Soviet Writers, she reviews the criticism and fiction of nineteenth-century Russian realism to reexamine Socialist Realism's undeniable Russian roots. It was not for nothing that Soviet literary theory canonized the nineteenth-century "progressive" critics Belinsky, Dobroliubov, Chemyshevsky, and Pisarev, and, truth be told, Tolstoy bears a considerable burden of blame for the monstrosities constructed by his would-be disciples.

Robin insists that the concept of Socialist Realism emerged gradually from the aesthetic debates of the 1920s, and was not simply imposed from above in 1934 by an all-powerful Stalin. This is indeed an important corrective to Western tendencies to see all of the Stalinist period 1929-1953 as a piece, without realizing that Stalinism's grip on all aspects of social and cultural life developed gradually, and with considerable collusion from below. She is also correct in refocusing attention on Socialist Realism's nineteenth-century genealogy.

But two factors mar what could otherwise have been a valuable book. The first is a historical naiveté that is too willing, even in 1934, to take the statements of Soviet writers and even Party figures at their face value. Take, as one example, her characterization of Stalin's famous article "Dizzy with Success," published in the midst of the suicidally forced collectivization campaign, "in which Stalin stressed the harm done by those excesses and demanded that they be stopped." The subsequent deaths of perhaps millions of "kulaks" testify that Stalin's words had no relation whatsoever to his intentions. Statements such as "This novel [Sholokhov's And Quiet Flows the Don] is a masterpiece surpassing even War andPeace in its construction and its compositional techniques" tend to undermine the reader's faith in Robin's literary judgment.

The book's addiction to theoretical frameworks derived from discourse analysis and elsewhere leads Robin to work with terminology like "discursive complex," "social discourse" "sociogram," "discursive base," "transdiscursivity," and...


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pp. 197-199
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