A fascinating passage from Katerina Clark’s Petersburg: Crucible of Cultural Revolution (pages 285-86):

Gorky and Panfyorov were, at this critical moment, arguing about language, or more specifically about whether the extensive use of substandard folk language in literature (a characteristic of Panfyorov’s Bruski) represents, as Gorky termed it, “language pollution,” and as such should be excluded from Soviet literature. Panfyorov was supported in this argument by the Old Bolshevik author A.S. Serafimovich and several other prominent writers. The issue was laid to rest when M.P. Yudin, the nonliterary, Party-appointed head of the Writers Union‘s Organizational Committee and the other spokesman on literature at the Seventeenth Party Congress, supported Gorky at the Committee’s plenum in March 1934.

A debate about language is never innocent. It is no wonder this one was put to an end by statements from on high. Starting from such earlier disputes as that between Lomonosov and Tredyakovsky in the eighteenth century, or the series involving Admiral Shishkov, Karamzin, Pushkin, and others that heralded the emergence of modern Russian literature early in the nineteenth, debates on language have tended to mark interstitial times in Russian cultural history. In the Soviet period, the impact of such debates became decidedly more political. Consider Stalin’s famous essays on linguistics of 1950 that reversed the base / superstructure model in this sphere and ended the sway of Marr‘s school in linguistics; in so doing, they set in motion, or were a sign of, a major reorientation in Soviet culture that was intensified during the thaws under Khrushchev.

Arguments about language are often arguments about authority and system. As was said in a Literary Gazette editorial when the canonical theory of socialist realism was being worked out: “The struggle for cultured language [kul’tura yazyka] is at the same time a struggle for the language of socialist culture and even more broadly a struggle for socialist culture in general.” A similar position was taken by the Party spokesman at the First Writers Congress, A.A. Zhdanov, who in his speech to the Congress (a canonical source for the theory of socialist realism) stated: “In order to be an engineer of human souls one must struggle actively for cultured language [kul’tura yazyka]. . . .” Thus “cultured language” was a cornerstone of socialist realism, together with “Party-mindedness” (partiynost’) and the “positive hero.”

I referred briefly to the first-mentioned debate in the third paragraph of this post.


  1. rootlesscosmo says

    Somewhere in “Materialism and Empirio-Criticism” Lenin uses a word which is translated (in the Foreign Languages Publishing House edition–no specific translator is credited) as “pollution,” but which from context seems to mean something like “masturbation.” (I think he’s abusing Bogdanov, though it might be someone else.) I don’t know what Russian word Lenin used; I wonder if it was the same one Gorky used.

  2. I find it eternally fascinating that the workers’ and peasants’ state would turn out to have such bourgeois and elitist tendencies, such as the attempt to exclude “extensive use of substandard folk language in literature”. Does anyone else find this completely hypocritical?

  3. No, not at all hypocritical; the idea that “folk language” is “substandard” is so widely and unquestioningly believed at all levels of society that dedicated reformers can think that the lower classes’ lack of access to cultured language is one of their social deprivations that reform needs to remedy, a poverty that can be alleviated.

  4. Slightly off-topic, but the subject reminds me of this: Is there a Soviet equivalent to what we’d call “pulp fiction” (e.g., mass-market, non-literary genre fiction), and if I wanted to learn more about it, what would I look up?

  5. Gorky was particularly concerned about the “corrupting influences” of peasant’s language. The political thought of the time insisted that even the most loyal and friendly peasants had to be ideologically micromanaged. And no, his “pollution” didn’t mean ejaculation, he really did write about impure or garbage-strewn language (although of course many of Gorky’s examples of such a soiled language are indeed about genitalia and sex in general).
    Cited from “Литературные забавы”
    Панферов всё ещё продолжает спорить против людей, “рабски преданных классическому прошлому” и якобы утверждающих, что “нам нужно учиться только у классиков”. Вот это и есть та самая “болтопня”, против которой высказался Панферов в своей беспомощной статейке, именно такие малограмотные статейки и свели спор о языке до газетной “болтовни”.
    А в результате этой болтовни молодые авторы относятся к языку небрежно, неряшливо, хватают бытовые словечки, смысл которых самим авторам не ясен, и “Правда” отмечает в “Заметках читателя” 28 декабря 1934 года постыдные примеры засорения языка бессмысленными, безобразными словами.

  6. I don’t know what Russian word Lenin used
    поллюцию. He’s quoting Feuerbach.

  7. here.

  8. поллюцию – which simply means wet dream.
    pulp fiction
    is usually translated as чтиво (chtivo, literally read as noun), often accompanied by бульварное (boulevard) which suggests it is a build-on of бульварный роман (boulevard novel) associated with the Russian name of the genre pioneered by Eugène Sue.
    The film Pulp Fiction is translated in Russian as “Криминальное чтиво” (lit. criminal read).
    The word trash (треш or трэш) entered Russian in the early noughties and is used for pulp-fiction, but has quickly acquired a broader meaning.

  9. language pollution
    I’m taking the word out of its context, but it’s funny that pollution was used as a metaphor for something bad, when the Soviets had no problem with polluting nature.

  10. It’s not clear from the passage, what sort of ‘major reorientation’of cultural policy Clark refers to? I don’t know the book, but the quote seems to me important.
    The language element is often overlooked in critical references to socialist realism, I think. Here the suggestion is that the policy was mostly aimed at folksisms and regional dialects. But of course it equally affected the ‘high-end’ in literature and art and effectively ended the avant-garde of 1920s and generally discouraged experimentation. Part of Mandelshtam’s problems was that his language was rich in classical (antique) imagery, Pasternak in mid-30s retreated into translation, Akhmatova – into academic research, wonderful absurdists like Kharms and Vvedensky – into children’s literature. Platonov, who has enjoyed an amazing comeback among Russia’s reading public in the past 20-30 years and thanks to new translations in the West too, is one of the best examples of what the new policy did to literature, because he blends folk speech with techno speak and with ‘cultured’ language of official Soviet press of the period. His was a double fault.
    And I think it’s worth noting that while official policy was to root our ‘bad language’ it has survived and was worn, in informal situations, as a badge of resistance by intelligentsia itself. Some professors and scientists would swear like cobblers as a mark of defiance.

  11. As Orwell said, only socialists could have such contempt for the common people.
    “I find it eternally fascinating that the workers’ and peasants’ state would turn out to have such bourgeois and elitist tendencies,…”
    Well those tendencies are inherent in a vanguard party dawn from the bourgeois elites of the old society. Mao Zedong identified the same problem, but the difference in China’s case was that he tried to counter-act the tendency and deal with the problem. Millions died.

  12. I find it eternally fascinating that the workers’ and peasants’ state would turn out to have such bourgeois and elitist tendencies, such as the attempt to exclude “extensive use of substandard folk language in literature”. Does anyone else find this completely hypocritical?

    The members of RAPP and other anti-elitist groups certainly did, until they were crushed by the Stalinist steamroller.

    Is there a Soviet equivalent to what we’d call “pulp fiction” (e.g., mass-market, non-literary genre fiction), and if I wanted to learn more about it, what would I look up?

    Yes, although it existed both before and after the Soviets; the classic work on the prerevolutionary period is When Russia Learned to Read: Literacy and Popular Literature, 1861-1917, by Jeffrey Brooks (see this LH post), usefully supplemented by Entertaining Tsarist Russia: Tales, Songs, Plays, Movies, Jokes, Ads, and Images from Russian Urban Life 1779-1917 (see this post). For the Soviet period, there’s the companion volume to the latter, Mass Culture in Soviet Russia: Tales, Poems, Songs, Movies, Plays, and Folklore, 1917-1953, edited by James Von Geldern and Richard Stites, and doubtless other books I don’t know about.

  13. Whereas Stalin went with the tendency rather than counteracting it, and… millions died!

  14. From Tom Stoppard’s Travesties:
    [Tristan] TZARA: […] As a Dadaist I’m a natural ally of the political left, but the paradox is the further left you go politically, the more bourgeois they like their art.
    CARR: There’s nothing odd about that. Revolution in art is in no way connected with class revolution. Artists are members of a privileged class. Art is absurdly overrated by artists, which is understandable, but what is strange is that it is absurdly overrated by everyone else.
    TZARA: Because man cannot live by bread alone.
    CARR: Yes, he can. It’s art he can’t live on. When I was at school, on certain afternoons we all had to do what was called Labour – weeding, sweeping, sawing logs for the boiler-room, that kind of thing; but if you had a chit from Matron you were let off to spend the afternoon messing about in the Art Room. Labour or Art. And you’ve got a chit for life? (Passionately) Where did you get it? What is an artist? For every thousand people there’s nine hundred doing the work, ninety doing well, nine doing good, and one lucky bastard who’s the artist.
    TZARA (Hard): Yes, by Christ! – and when you see the drawings he made on the walls of the cave, and the fingernail patterns he one day pressed into the clay of the cooking pot, then you say, My God, I am of these people! It’s not the hunters and the warriors that put you on the first rung of the ladder to consecutive thought and a rather unusual flair in your poncey trousers.
    CARR: Oh yes it was. The hunter decorated the pot, the warrior scrawled the antelope on the wall, the artist came home with the kill. All of a piece. The idea of the artist as a special kind of human being is art’s greatest achievement, and it’s a fake!
    TZARA: My God, you bloody English philistine — you ignorant smart-arse bogus bourgeois Anglo-Saxon prick! When the strongest began to fight for the tribe, and the fastest to hunt, it was the artist who became the priest-guardian of the magic that conjured the intelligence out of the appetites. Without him, man would be a coffee-mill. Eat — grind — shit. Hunt — eat — fight — grind — saw the logs — shit. The difference between being a man and being a coffee-mill is art. But that difference has become smaller and smaller and smaller. Art created patrons and was corrupted. It began to celebrate the ambitions and acquisitions of the pay-master. The artist has negated himself: paint — eat — sculpt — grind — write — shit. (A light change.) Without art man was a coffee-mill: but with art, man — is a coffee-mill! That is the message of Dada. — dada dada dada dada dada dada dada dada dada dada dada dada dada dada …

  15. What inspired you to post this, John?
    The Russian version of Dada were Nada or Noughtters (nichevoki). I blogged about them here.
    From Veniamin Kaverin’s ‘Hello, Brother, It’s So Hard to Write’:
    ‘Here was the poet Truvor Kanunnikov. He never wrote anything. Not because he couldn’t, but as a matter of principle. He was one of the Noughtters, an extreme one. He proclaimed that the supreme level of poetry was the blank white page.’

  16. marie-lucie says

    I remember a short story in which a painter ends up painting all-white canvases.

  17. The Suprematists started white-on-white and black-on-black painting. Then Robert Rauchenberg did some white paintings, in reaction to Abstract Expressionism. Then Minimalists like Sol LeWitt started, and not only on canvas. By that time, it was as much conceptual as aesthetic.

  18. marie-lucie says

    AJP, weren’t those white paintings textured in some way? there was some detail in spite of the uniform colour, I think.

  19. They were. Some time in the late 80s early 90s there was a huge exhibition of Malevich in Moscow with hundreds of items, including about half a dozen versions of the Black Square (and the Red Square). Some of them weren’t covered with glass or anything like that, you could examine the canvases really close. I was mildly surprised to see how he did texture the black and the white, it’s not one tone at all.

  20. It depends on what the artist was interested in. Malevitch (the first link) was showing different shades of white, that whites have some subtlety. Rauchenberg’s is monochrome, as are some white minimalist works, but others contrast matte & shiny, for example.

  21. Sashura: When I read Bathrobe’s comment, it made me think of this passage, of which the first line has achieved a certain fame.

  22. John, thanks.
    May I add this book to the list on the subject: Uprooting otherness: the literacy campaign in NEP-Era Russia by Charles E Clark. It’s a fascinating study of literacy drive before and after the revolution with a focus on peasantry – the ‘other world’ within Russia. I think it is a good look into why peasants where so suspect.
    Two more points on the original subject.
    When they talked about ‘cultured language’ back then, I think the standard to aspire to was the language of the intelligentsia, not the elite or the bourgoisie, i.e. the language of the educated professional class which was uniformly taught in secondary schools (gymnasiums) before the revolution and used by mainstream realist writers. In broader terms, I think it’s roughly equivalent to what is meant by ‘plain English’, but including rough folk-speak.
    Secondly, Clark is spot on when she says that the debate about language had politics behind it, but I think she is wrong to say that statements from on high ended it. It went on – and is going on – in a more subtle way, including within the ‘on high’ itself. It’s not for nothing that the Politburo discussed Bulgakov about a dozen times in 1930s. In the 19th Century the sides were slavophiles and westernisers, fastforward to 1960s and similar ideas surface in the debate between ‘fiziks’ (physicists – modernisers) and ‘lyriks’ (lyricists – conservatives) and in 1970s in the clash between the ‘gorodskaya’ (city, urban, read: liberal, cosmopolitan, pro-Western) and ‘derevenskaya’ (village, rural, read: folksy, conservative, nationalistic) prose. All behind the seemingly monolithic facade of socialist realism. I had a quick look at what the modern communist party says. Their line of attack includes ‘defence of the Russian language’ against ‘vulgarisation, primitivisation and barbarisation’ (a 2007 document).

  23. Sounds like a book I’ll have to read; unfortunately, Amazon says “5 new from $41.00, 4 used from $26.18” (and it’s no better at, so I guess I’ll look for it at a library.
    Clark is a he, by the way.

  24. You were thinking of Katerina, не так ли?

  25. sorry, I must have muddled up my comment. The first para refers only to Charles E Clark’s book ‘Uprooting otherness’. The link takes you to the cover on Google books, click through, much of the book is there, surprisingly. Yes, it is pricey!
    The rest of the comment is in response to the passage you quote in the post, i.e. Katerina.
    Thanks, for the links to their pages. I found Katerina, but couldn’t find Charles.
    And, to make it clear: when I say ‘including rough folk-speak’, I mean including what’s not acceptable in ‘культурный язык’/’plain English’.

  26. No, it was I who was muddled and didn’t read your comment closely enough—though it’s confusing with two Clarkses running around!

  27. I see, Alan Clark had a castle in Kent, and Clark Kent was the Superman. Is there an etymology that could through some light on the Clarks?
    Katerina and Charles can’t be related, methinks?

  28. shucks, of course, ‘throw’, not ‘through’.
    I should be writing for Grauniad. (

  29. Small typo: it’s Robert Rauschenberg.

  30. apply to Grauniad!

  31. Goodness Bruessel, you have eagle eyes! It is my destiny to spell things wrongly in all languages.

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