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:
1 БРАЧНАЯ НЕУВЯЗКА
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.