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Stalin’s Ghosts

Gothic Themes in Early Soviet Literature


Muireann Maguire

Stalin’s Ghosts examines the impact of the Gothic-fantastic on Russian literature in the period 1920-1940. It shows how early Soviet-era authors, from well-known names including Fedor Gladkov, Mikhail Bulgakov, Andrei Platonov and Evgenii Zamiatin, to niche figures such as Sigizmund Krzhizhanovskii and Aleksandr Beliaev, exploited traditional archetypes of this genre: the haunted castle, the deformed body, vampires, villains, madness and unnatural death. Complementing recent studies of Soviet culture by Eric Naiman and Lilya Kaganovsky, this book argues that Gothic-fantastic tropes functioned variously as a response to the traumas produced by revolution and civil war, as a vehicle for propaganda, and as a subtle mode of unwriting the cultural monolith of Socialist Realism.


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In Andrei Siniavskii’s fictionalized memoir Spokoinoi nochi [Goodnight!] (1984), the ghost of Joseph Stalin, newly-deceased General Secretary of the Soviet Communist Party, appears on a March night in 1953 to Alla, a female prisoner in Siberia’s notorious Vorkuta camp. Stalin manifests himself as an archetypal spectre, an ice-cold, transparent phantom: Ни тени от него не падало, не слышалось дуновения, и само похолодание не бежало по комнате, хотя средоточие холода было рукой подать, притронься – и отмерзнет […]. Как будто он замкнулся в замороженном своем одиночестве.1 [He cast no shadow, no breathing could be heard, and the coldness did not even spread through the room, though […] it was so concentrated that if you touched it, it would freeze your hand of f. He seemed locked in his frozen solitude.]2 So far, so Gothic: Siniavskii’s plot features a solitary and vulnerable heroine and a midnight visitation from a terrifying ghost. In most Gothic tales, ghostly visitors either demand, or perform, some type of service. Stalin has come with a demand: if he can force or trick Alla into forgiving him on behalf of all the political prisoners sentenced by him, his spirit will be set free. But at this point, Siniavskii reverses the usual scenario. His ghost story unexpectedly gives Alla, a victim of Stalin’s summary justice, the opportunity to exact retributive justice of her own. She orders the ghost to undertake a futile quest for redemption by finding and apologizing to every individual he ever sinned against during his lifetime. The Sisyphean hopelessness of such a task is perhaps fitting for crimes such as Stalin’s, 1 Abram Terts (pseudonym of Andrei Siniavskii), Spokoinoi nochi (Paris: Syntaxis, 1984), p. 278. 2 Abram Tertz (Andrei Sinyavsky)...

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