Fedor Gladkov’s Cement was on the reading list in my college days, forty years ago, and my memory was that it was nearly unreadable, a dreary mass of Socialist Realist rhetoric and cardboard characters. I’m glad I’ve taken the opportunity to reread it (a copy having been practically forced on me by a bookstore owner who saw me fingering it reminiscently), because I’ve revised my opinion. Not that I think it’s a good novel—it’s terrible, from an esthetic point of view. But it’s a fascinating depiction of the initial period of the New Economic Policy and its effect on loyal Party members (like the author) who hadn’t fought the Civil War so that a bunch of “blackguards and vampires should again enjoy all the good things of life, and get fat by robbery” (Mandelshtam, though neither a fighter nor a Bolshevik, felt pretty much the same way); it’s set in the period from February through November, 1921. (There’s a slight problem with chronology in that characters are talking about the NEP before the Tenth Party Congress, held March 8-16, at which it was announced.) It also has a genuinely moving depiction of the relationship of its main protagonists, Gleb and his wife Dasha; the novel opens with Gleb’s return, after three years of fighting, to find his wife completely changed; she is unemotional, refuses his advances, and seems uninterested in anything but Party work. Furthermore, she has put their daughter Nyurka into a children’s home and only sees her on occasion; she says Nyurka is no better than other children and should get the same treatment.
So far, so formulaic (the Party trumps sex every time, and individual happiness means nothing beside the work of reconstruction, comrade!), but Gladkov shows a real concern for the situation of women caught between the demands of family life and those of the Revolution, and in a powerful chapter later in the book he has Dasha reveal how she was tortured and raped by the Whites and how torn she feels about Nyurka. And it is not only the enemy who are portrayed as capable of such behavior: the Party chairman, Badin, is a serial rapist, and one of his victims, Polya Mekhova, tells Gleb: “There’s something frightful in men. It seems to me now that there’s a Badin in everyone of you.” (I quote the translation by Arthur and Ashleigh; I haven’t found a Russian text online, which probably is an indication of how the novel has fallen from popularity since its heyday in the Stalin era—it was a favorite of Uncle Joe’s, and reprinted often, with emendations by the author, who was happy to follow the twists and turns of the Party line.) In the opening scene Dasha is seen reading Bebel‘s Woman and Socialism, with its insistence on the equality of women, and it’s a real pleasure to see feminist principles upheld in a Russian novel of the masculinist 1920s, when far greater writers like Babel and Platonov basically saw women as distractions from the manly, important things in life. [I am reminded by a commenter that I have neglected to explain the title: the plot of the novel is driven by Gleb’s attempt to get the cement factory he used to work at in operation again, despite opposition by Party bureaucrats and attacks by bandits.]
As for matters of linguistic interest, Gladkov was criticized by Gorky for overuse of dialect, and after the first edition “Gladkov replaced the regionalisms of Novorossiysk (a southern Russian port near Krasnodar) with standard-literary language” (Thomas Lahusen in V. Y. Mudimbe, ed., Nations, Identities, Cultures, p. 131). And this sardonic early passage could almost come straight out of Platonov:

They had carried all the books from the houses of the vanished officials into the director’s library. They were beautiful books, with shining gilt covers, but mysterious: they were written in German.
Gromada was elected club manager, and when he was reporting on the library, at a meeting of the workers, he said, “Comrades, we have a wonderful library, whose books have been confiscated and nationalised from the bourgeoisie and the capitalists — but they’re all of German origin. Now, according to proletarian discipline we must read them, because we must remember that, as workers, we belong to the international masses and therefore, must command every language.”

There are some excerpts from the translation here, and if you’re wondering what it’s like in Russian you can get a pretty good idea from the parody by A. G. Arkhangelsky (1889-1938), which you can read here (scroll down a bit). Here’s the first section:

  Ф. Гладков
  Как и тогда булькотело и дышало нутряными вздохами море, голубели заводские трубы, в недрах дымились горы, но не грохотали цилиндры печей, не барахолили бремсберги и в каменоломнях и железобетонных корпусах шлендрали свиньи, куры, козы и прочая мелкобуржуазная живность.
  Глеб Чумалов вернулся к своему опустевшему гнезду, на приступочках которого стояла жена Даша и шкарабала себя книгой “Женщина и социализм” сочинения Августа Бебеля.
  У Глеба задрожали поджилки и сердце застукотело дизелем. Рванулся к ней.
  — Даша! Жена моя!
  Обхватил могучей обхваткой так, что у нее хрустнули позвонки, и с изумлением воскликнул:
  — Дашок! Шмара я красноголовая! Да ты никак дышишь не той ноздрей?
  Ответила строго, организованно:
  — Да, товарищ Глеб. Ты же видишь, я — раскрепощенная женщина-работница и завтра чуть свет командируюсь лицом к деревне по женской части. Успокой свои нервы. Не тачай горячку. Заткнись.
  Глеб вздохнул тяжелым нутряным вздохом. Натужливо хмыкнул от удивления.
  — Шуганула ты меня, Дашок, на высокий градус, так, что и крыть нечем. Ну что ж, займусь восстановлением завода на полный ход.


  1. rootlesscosmo says:

    I seem to recall (from fifty years ago) only a passage in which a character gazes down at a mass of workers and is exalted by the dissolution of their individual identities in the collective task. I found it pretty repellent then and the memory has kept me from rereading the book ever since.

  2. It sounds like a bit of a mixed bag. What is the cement, the party?

  3. I admire your tenacity, reading ‘Cement’ was like a joke in my student years even though it was on the list. Couldn’t find the text online too, curious isn’t it? Here is a summary in English for those, as the web-site says, who are ‘unable or too lazy to read them in the original’ with what looks like ‘period’ illustrations. From the Russian wiki article on Gladkov I followed a link to the communist party web-site which laments Cement’s falling off the Russians’ book-shelf and hails the American publication you refer to as a recognition of its importance.
    The moral confusion connected to the NEP was a source for many writers. I’ve just reread ‘The Blue Cities’, a 1925 short story by Alexey Tolstoy where a former red army volunteer burns down the whole provincial town, so angry he was with its bourgeois mentality.

  4. I seem to recall (from fifty years ago) only a passage in which a character gazes down at a mass of workers and is exalted by the dissolution of their individual identities in the collective task. I found it pretty repellent
    Yes, that’s the kind of thing I was remembering, but you can just skim over all that crap.
    What is the cement, the party?
    Sorry, I should have mentioned that the main plot element is Gleb’s furious attempt to get the cement factory working again despite the opposition of corrupt Party bureaucrats (he issues lots of threats to paste people in the mug and put people against the wall) and the attacks of Cossacks and bandits. (I was proud of myself for figuring out from my knowledge of Russian history and geography that the unnamed city with the factory must be in the southern Kuban/northern Caucasus region even before Google told me it was Novorossisk, whose first cement factory opened in 1882.)

  5. This is rather peripheral, but Jaroslav Hasek’s “The Red Commissar” is a collection of stories based on his own time in the Red Army (after he deserted from a Czech unit in WWI). He actually seems to have been a pretty good, teetotalling commissar who ended up far in the east in minority regions. He even has a place in Mongolian history as Sukhbataar’s Russian teacher.
    He was back in Czechoslovakia (and off the wagon) by 1920 so his stories really are only relevant to the earliest stages of Communism, during the Civil War. They’re satirical, tongue-in-cheek, and goofy like most of Hasek’s stuff.
    One of the things about Hasek was that his non-fiction has to be regarded as partly fictional, whereas his fiction sometimes can be suspected of being autobiographical. He was already being compared to Mark Twain when he was in high school.

  6. Peripheral too: am just reading Black Sea, which tells us that Novorossisk is the port from which the White armies commanded by General Denikin were evacuated on Saturday, 27 March 1920.

  7. Yes, and the evacuation is mentioned in the novel. (Black Sea is excellent, and I really should reread it one of these days.)

  8. yes, and the cement factory features in another great (really) socrealism classic ‘Iron Flood’ by Alexander Serafimovich.

  9. Incidentally, Hat, have you been following the Figes scandal? Everyone around here is indulging in some well-deserved schadenfreude at his expense.

  10. Oh, you bet! I actually enjoy his books, but what a jerk he is.

  11. How dare you say that! Orlando Figes is the finest scholar of our time. My lawyer will be contacting you.

  12. Oops, I mean his lawyer.

  13. Er, actually my wife wrote those comments. Please ignore them, she’s been under a strain.

  14. Oh come off it, you silly prat. When are you going to learn your lesson?

  15. Please, get counseling, all of you.

  16. no, please, let’s have some more, it’s just unbelievable – best-selling, well-respected and really good books, and then – this. he got a stalin bug.

  17. I wrote a comment about him in the LRB blog and they immediately shut down the comments. Someone had asked why he might have been doing this, and I explained using a few phrases like “hitting your enemies in their pocketbooks”. Even at this stage, they’re worried he might try and sue them. So much for the British legal system, the whole spineless literary community is terrified of one little twitty man and imposes self-censorship rather than risk offending him. I don’t think this could happen in the USA.

  18. Maybe a club can be formed. 1000 people each chip in $100 and proceed to slander Figes (in the British sense of “tell the truth about”). He can’t sue all of them, and the first one he does sue gets the pot.

  19. I’ve also been enjoying the Figes dust up. It makes me all the more curious to see that Rachel Polonsky’s review of Natasha’s Dance.
    And thank you, Sashura, for mentioning the Serafimovich book!

  20. Did someone say “libel“? I thought I heard someone say “libel”.

  21. Emerson’s got the right idea. You can all send your $100 to my blog and I’ll set up some sort of account. Cash would be best. Then everyone should tell ten more people.

  22. Probably a neutral party without goats should hold the money for this pool.

  23. Yeah, we’d all be waiting for the “Sorry, my goats ate the funds” story.

  24. There is a summary of the Polonsky review and some others here.

  25. I’m surprised we haven’t heard from the goats’ lawyers, after the libellous insinuatons that they would allow themselves to be involved in dodgy money laundering.

  26. Laundering is exactly the wrong word for the process of passing something through a goat’s innards.

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