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Kritika: Explorations in Russian and Eurasian History 4.4 (2003) 816-848

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Reconstructing the (Authentic Proletarian) Reader
Mikhail Zoshchenko's Changing Model of Authorship, 1924-34

Elizabeth A. Papazian

I, too, am for reconstruction. Only I am in favor of the reconstruction of the reader, and not of literary characters.

In his 1934 essay, "The Author as Producer," Walter Benjamin discusses the fraught relationship between ideology and aesthetics—between "tendency" and "quality" in literature—and asserts that there is a direct correlation between "politically correct tendency" and "literary quality." 1 According to Benjamin, an author must recognize that his or her work serves "certain class interests"; the "more advanced type of writer" recognizes this choice and chooses to side with the proletariat (768). But it is not enough to pass through a "revolutionary development" in one's attitude toward contemporary relations of production: the author must become a producer—who rethinks his own work, his relation to the literary means of production, in a "really revolutionary way" (772). His mission, like that of the Soviet writer and photographer Sergei Mikhailovich Tretiakov, is not merely "to report, but to struggle; not to play the spectator but to intervene actively" (770). Quoting Brecht, Benjamin explains that such an author should no longer focus on individual experience, [End Page 816] but should work toward the transformation of institutions and of the "productive apparatus" of literature (774). In fact, this cultural transformation was already well underway at the time: as Benjamin writes, "we are in the midst of a mighty recasting of literary forms, a melting down in which many of the opposites in which we have been used to think may lose their force" (771). Citing examples from journalism, photography, music, and theater, Benjamin traces the current, ongoing evolution of new, hybrid genres, cast from the "molten mass" of traditional forms and a concordant "literarization" of life. 2 One desired outcome of this evolution is the revision of the relationship between author and reader.

In Soviet Russia, the crucible for this "recasting" is the newspaper: in the Soviet press, "the conventional distinction between author and public, which is upheld by the bourgeois press, begins ... to disappear. For the reader is at all times ready to become a writer" (771). Unlike the newspaper in Western Europe (which "still belongs to capital"), in which the indiscriminate assimilation of the reader's "questions, opinions, protests" has resulted in a decline in literary quality, in the Soviet press, the reader becomes "an expert—even if not on a subject but only on the post that he occupies," and thus "gains access to authorship" (771-72).

This changing relationship between author and reader, detailed by Benjamin in April 1934 in a speech to the Institute for the Study of Fascism in Paris (apparently as a humanistic argument about the defeat of fascism on the cultural front), 3 provides an interesting lens through which to view Soviet culture of the interwar period. In particular, the concept of the author as a "producer," who takes an active role in the social changes of his/her time as well as in the transformation of literature itself, and the connection of this model of the author to a general, ongoing "recasting" of literary forms, can provide an evolutionary model for the cultural/aesthetic system of the early Soviet period. This model will in turn be used to shed light on a major Stalinist literary monument, the 1934 Stalin White Sea-Baltic Canal: History of the Construction (henceforth referred to as Belomorkanal).

The fact that Benjamin chooses as his example a Soviet writer, S. M. Tretiakov, cannot be seen as coincidental. In fact, Benjamin's radical reconception of the role of the writer was inspired in part by Tretiakov's [End Page 817] concept of the "operative" (operativnyi) writer, 4 who, according to Tretiakov, does not simply "enumerate occurring facts," but rather "sees these facts in their development and demands immediate intervention in occurring events." 5 The "operative" writer visited factories, construction...


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