Several years ago I wrote briefly about “the Russian craze a century ago for Nat Pinkerton novels and stories,” adding that “there’s almost nothing online about Pinkerton.” Ever since then I’ve been wanting to know more; little did I know that Pinkerton would come to me rather than my having to seek him out. Earlier this year translator and poet Boris Dralyuk wrote me out of the blue (he hadn’t seen that 2008 post) to say how much he appreciated “the work you and your contributors have done to shed light on the little mysteries of my trade(s) — for instance, the fine points of portvein [see this thread] and the roots of Montigomo [see this one]”… and he mentioned that he was a “researcher of obscure haunts and byways of Russian literary culture (namely, Pinkertonovshchina).” It would be a considerable understatement to say I was intrigued; after telling him I knew his name from the impressive translations of Polina Barskova’s poems he did with David Stromberg (The Zoo in Winter: Selected Poems; see here for an account of my encountering Barskova’s wonderful poems in person), I asked if he had written anything about Pinkerton, and he allowed as how he had a book forthcoming from Brill. Well, the book, Western Crime Fiction Goes East: The Russian Pinkerton Craze 1907-1934, has come forth (priced at a forbidding $133.00, but you can get it for only $99.75 at The Book Depository!), and since Boris was kind enough to send me a copy, I can report that it’s one of the best things I’ve read on Soviet literature in a long time.

One of the strange things about that endlessly strange entity the Soviet Union was its official attitude toward the arts. You might think that a country created by a revolution ostensibly of workers and peasants and run ostensibly in their name would support their favorite leisure activities and prefer detective stories, comedies, and adventure movies to the highfaluting novels, symphonies, and classical paintings of the old regime. There were, in fact, many revolutionaries who felt that way; as the Wikipedia article on Proletkult, their official organization, says, “Under a workers’ state, some Marxist theoreticians believed, the new proletarian ruling class would develop its own distinct class culture to supplant the former culture of the old ruling order.” But the people who counted, Lenin and the other top members of the hierarchy, did not feel that way at all. They liked highfaluting novels, symphonies, and classical paintings, and as soon as the Civil War was over and they had time to deal with minor issues like aesthetics, they began promoting them—with new, improved, socialist content of course, but the idea was to bring the formerly oppressed masses up to the level of High Culture, not to destroy that culture and build something new in its place. After the confused, vibrant mid-1920s (the USSR’s “Hundred Flowers” period, if you will), Stalin took over and cracked down in his inimitable fashion. But until then there was genuine debate, and one of the debaters was the ill-fated Nikolai Bukharin, who in 1921 called for the creation of a “communist Pinkerton” to inspire young communists.

What, you ask, is a Pinkerton? Ah, therein lies Dralyuk’s tale. To quote Valentin Kataev, who includes in his memoirs a description of his youthful fondness for them (I presume the translation is Dralyuk’s, although Moira Budberg and Gordon Latta translated the memoirs in 1976 as A Mosaic of Life):

Nat Pinkerton was a famous American detective, whose adventures drove us all crazy. These were small—about the size of a school notebook—so-called “installments” [vypuski], each with a new picture on the cover and a color portrait of the famous detective in a red circle. In this crudely lithographed portrait, Nat Pinkerton’s head was depicted in profile. His clean-shaven, flabby face, with a protruding chin and a somewhat meaty nose, a sharp line between his nostrils and the edge of his tightly pressed lips, his piercing eyes (or rather, only one eye), even the sideways part of his slightly graying brown hair and colorful American tie, all spoke to the fact that this was the twentieth century’s greatest criminologist, an experienced and fearless man, with an iron will, the scourge of the American criminal world, who’d uncovered hundreds and hundreds of bloody crimes, and sent more than one villain to the electric chair of New York’s Sing Sing prison.

That should give an idea of both the style and the appeal of the thrillers, which began to appear in 1907 and were wildly popular. Not only Kataev but other Soviet cultural figures, like the director Eisenstein and the playwright Viktor Rozov, recalled their youthful love of the cheap and gaudy Pinkertons. Sergei Esenin wrote, in his 1923 poem Папиросники [Cigarette Peddlers], “Снуют по всем притонам/ И, улучив досуг,/ Читают Пинкертона/ За кружкой пива вслух.” [Dralyuk: “They dash to all the barrooms/ And, with some time to spare,/ They pore over Pinkerton/ Out loud over a beer.”] Bukharin, when he repeated his appeal in 1922, said:

“Pinkerton” enjoys tremendous success[. . . .] Marx, as is generally known, read crime novels with great enthusiasm. What’s the point here? The point is that the mind requires a light, entertaining, interesting plot [fabula] and unfolding of events—and this is true of the youth ten times more so than of adults. The bourgeoisie knows and understands this . . . We do not yet have this, and this must be overcome. We have material that we have not used to any extent, material that, in terms of the entertaining quality of the unfolding of events, could outdo any “Pinkerton.” This is the area of military battles, the adventures of our underground work, the Civil War, the various adventures of our comrades . . . If we give one specific description of one of our revolutionary fighters’ lives—that will be a thousand times more interesting than anything. And it will be of the greatest educational value—more than many of our posters, discussions, etc.

His point was valid and the adventure stories he wanted to see were written by men like Arkady Gaidar and Venyamin Kaverin, but his framing was unfortunate, because “Pinkerton” represented an individualistic ethos anathema to the official worldview. Marietta Shaginyan (under the name “Jim Dollar”) wrote the most successful of the “red Pinkertons” created in response to Bukharin’s call, Mess-Mend (1923); Dralyuk writes:

The critics’ negative reaction to Shaginian’s novel and its sequels—as well as to the work of her contenders and imitators—was quite clearly conditioned by recalcitrant leftist biases against the Pinkerton genre as a whole. For instance, in his negative review of Mess-Mend the critic L. Fevral’skii trotted out the most commonplace accusations leveled against pre-Revolutionary Pinkertons, namely their visual allure and their corrupting stranglehold on the youth:

This book, for which Gosizdat found a very salable format and for which Rodchenko provided a seductive advertising appearance [soblaznitel’naia reklamnaia vneshnost’], is read ravenously by everyone, including readers of this journal, the Party young, Komsomol members-activists.

The critics were quite correct in their diagnoses. No matter how much Shaginian stressed collectivism and class struggle, the genre demanded floridly individuated characters like Mick Thingsmaster, who stood out like those memorable cameos on the pre-Revolutionary serials’ covers. The genre also demanded clumsy exoticism, even if it was turned on its head by Shaginian’s invention of a foreign author warping the geography of Soviet Russia. It also demanded stark, Manichean conflicts, which precluded nuanced theoretical elaborations. The “red Pinkerton” was most seriously compromised, however, by its ambiguous tone. As Nikolaev writes, “[m]any of the books perceived as responding to Bukharin’s call bore a parodic character; and this parody was not only undisguised, it was underscored.” The fundamental problem was a failure to communicate.

But even though Bukharin and his call for “red Pinkertons” were suppressed, the style left its mark, and in the last chapter of Dralyuk’s book he traces its influence on what would seem to be the polar opposite of Pinkertons, the novels of Socialist Realism:

Pinkertonian pacing—and even some archetypal scenes—worked their way into Socialist Realism. Though these elements were purged of obvious irony and adjusted for the ideology of the Five-Year Plan and of “Socialism in One Country,” they remained recognizable, as evidenced by the opening of Kataev’s Time, Forward!:

The alarm clock rattled like a tin of bonbons.

The alarm clock was cheap, painted, brown, of Soviet manufacture.

Half-past six.

The clock was accurate. But Margulies was not asleep. He rose at six and was ahead of time. There had never been an occasion when the alarm clock had actually awakened him.

[…] As Kataev’s and Shaginian’s work shows, the generically heterogeneous “red Pinkertons” provided a training ground for Soviet writers who would eventually pen model works in officially sanctioned and immensely successful genres: not only the “production novel” (Shaginian, Kataev), but also the historical novel (Aleksei Tolstoi’s Peter the Great [Petr pervyi] [1929–1945], Nikulin’s Russia’s Faithful Sons [Rossii vernye syny] [1950]); communist hagiography (Ivanov’s Parkhomenko [1938–39]); and the memoir (Shaginian, Kataev, Nikulin, Ivanov, Shklovskii, etc.). […]

Although the path from Pinkertonovshchina to Socialist Realism and mainstream Soviet entertainment is full of evolutionary dead-ends, the “red Pinkerton” emerges as a vital “missing link” between pre- and post-Revolutionary popular literature, and the fitful start of a decades-long negotiation between the regime, the author, and the reading masses.

The main line of his argument is a new and much-needed reanalysis of the development of Soviet literary culture, but equally fascinating are the sidelights he keeps tossing in: wrestling culture, competing thrillers (“two popular Russian serials chronicled the adventures of Japanese detectives Oka-Shima (1908) and Kio-Hako (1917), the latter of whom was ‘a pipe-smoking Holmesian figure who speaks many languages and solves cases as far afield as South Africa, Italy, and China'”), library purges (“Soviet censors and librarian-pedagogues sought to limit readers’ access to unsavory material through continuous purges of regional libraries,” and “children’s libraries suffered particularly badly as a result of the removals”)… well, I could go on, but you get the idea. This book is chock-full of good stuff, and you should pester your local library to acquire it.

Meanwhile, a bit of Dralyuk you can read online is The Incomplete Cain, a review essay on the hard-boiled writer Paul Cain, a lively read about an amazing fellow; Cain was not his real name, nor was he “Peter Rurick, a wild Russian writer of free verse,” as Myrna Loy called him in her autobiography (quoted by MMcM at the end of this LH thread). If you have any interest in detective novels, you’ll enjoy it.


  1. Marian Schwartz says

    Leonid Yuzefovich wrote a very successful trilogy based on just this. My translation of the first volume, Harlequin Costume, may be coming out before too long, but in the meantime I recommend the Russian original.

  2. Jeffry House says

    What a very interesting post! A true public service, Mr. Hat!
    However, I must bring it to the attention of Mr. Dralyuk that пролетарии всех стран are unable to buy his book at that price! Asking our local libraries to purchase it will be similar to asking Gosplan to make accomodations in the plan, so peony-lovers, say, feel better about life.
    A cheap paperback is called for!

  3. Oh, yes, very interesting. And so is Dralyuk’s post on Cain. I can’t forgive the publisher for the definite article in The Complete Slayer.

  4. Leonid Yuzefovich wrote a very successful trilogy based on just this. My translation of the first volume, Harlequin Costume, may be coming out before too long, but in the meantime I recommend the Russian original.
    Yes, I remember Lizok mentioning that you had translated it; I hope it does come out soon, and I will add the original to my reading list—it sounds like a lot of fun.
    I must bring it to the attention of Mr. Dralyuk that пролетарии всех стран are unable to buy his book at that price!
    I’m sure he’s aware of that, and as unhappy about it as we are. Academic publishing is a scandal and a ripoff and something should be done about it, but meanwhile everyone suffers except the Brills and Ashgates of the world.
    A cheap paperback is called for!
    Hear hear!

  5. ah, the purges explain it all! All my childhood I was hearing ‘pinkerton’ in metaphorical sense, but have never seen a book about him.
    I wonder if Dralyuk mentions the Petrovka, Moscow CID, super-sleuth Major Pronin, the subject of numerous Soviet/Russian jokes. And the current tremendous success of Boris Akunin’s tsarist super-sleuth Fandorin could, arguably, be traced to Pinkerton.

  6. Trond Engen says

    the current tremendous success of Boris Akunin’s tsarist super-sleuth Fandorin
    I wandered if Fandorin’s servant Masa is related to Oka-Shima and Kia-Hako.

  7. Good point, Trond! Akunin has his own Japanese connection, of course, but I will note that Nick Carter, another “Pinkerton” hero, had a faithful Japanese assistant named Ten-Itsi. Then again, Inspector Clouseau had Cato/Kato. It’s a motif.
    (And thanks for the kind words about the Cain article!)

  8. First, Mr. Hat, thank you for this wonderful post! I’m very flattered. And Sashura, thank you for your question. I left the later generation of Soviet detective (or rather, police procedural) novels — Lev Ovalov, the Vainer Brothers, Yulian Semenov, etc. — out of the book, but I do refer to Akunin, who does indeed hearken back to the pre-Revolutionary model.

  9. By the way, do Russians stress the Pink- or the -ton?

  10. Pin-ker-TON!

  11. Вот так!

  12. J.W. Brewer says

    “Pinkertons” used to be a pejorative term in the discourse of US leftists, because of the prominent role of employees of the Pinkerton Detective Agency on the management side of late 19th century labor disputes (which I believe made “Pinkerton” a generic term for those who played a certain sort of role even if they didn’t work for that particular agency). (“Red Pinkertons” would thus pejoratively imply union-busting thugs under circumstances where the Reds constituted management, as in the original Solidarity strike at the Gdansk shipyard — although that may be an empty set since a totalitarian regime generally would have no need to hire private-sector muscle to supplement its existing public-sector muscle.) I have no idea if Soviet Communists would have learned this pejorative meaning of the word from their American comrades, or if the other less-politically-controversial work of the Pinkerton Agency had something to do with naming the pre-1917 character.

  13. Pre-Revolutionary Marxists were indeed aware of the Pinkerton Agency. As a matter of fact, one of the most forceful exposes of the Pinkertons’ union-busting activities was written by a Russian-Jewish emigre:
    It was promptly translated into Russian. The translators sought to stem the tide of “Nat Pinkerton” stories then washing over Russia; they thought that these stories were little more than capitalist propaganda. But Nat and Allan Pinkerton were different animals…

  14. Nat and Allan Pinkerton were different animals
    Exactly. While Russian Pinkertonphobes were happy to use the original union-busting Pinkertons as ammunition, they really had nothing to do with the “Nat Pinkerton” stories, which (as far as I can make out) took no political position whatever.

  15. Nat and Allan Pinkerton were different animals.

    There is a connection, though, through the Conan Doyle novel The Valley of Fear, whose main hero is not Sherlock Holmes, the nominal hero, but the Pinkerton agent Birdy Edwards (loosely based on James McParland). There is a neat parallelism in the novel between the pseudonymous Porlock, Holmes’s mole in the Moriarty organization, and Jack McMurdo, a mole in the Eminent Order of Freemen (a fictional organization based on the real-life Molly McGuires).

  16. Mess-Mend

    I always wondered what that title meant; I just learned that Shaginyan plucked the words at random from a dictionary.

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