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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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Chapter 1 What is Soviet Gothic?


In a neglected annexe of Pushkin House, the Institute of Russian Literature in St Petersburg, there is a shadowy first-f loor landing where literary schol- ars gather to smoke. A large unlabelled plywood box, festooned with spider plants, towers over their ashtrays. Unseen inside the box lingers the bottom half of a plaster cast for a statue of Maksim Gorky, the mentor, godfather, and chief standard-bearer of Soviet Socialist Realism. The reasons behind Gorky’s exile to a box on the stairs are already obscure. The post-Soviet decades were hostile to statues of Soviet icons; and although Gorky, origi- nally commissioned for the Institute’s Literary Museum, remained museum property and could not be discarded, nothing was done to repair or main- tain his cast. First Gorky’s arms crumbled away; next his head disintegrated; and finally, only the legs remained, preserved perhaps by some superior ingredient in the plaster. Since Gorky’s remains, however grotesque, could not be buried, they were boxed up instead and relegated to a semi-spectral afterlife on the landing. Gorky’s artistic inf luence may be defunct, but his legs still invisibly preside over modern scholars of Russian literature, like an ancestral skeleton content to remain in its closet. The aesthetic experiment that was Socialist Realism – a national neoclassicist ideal, designed for an impossible cohort of inef fably perfect citizens – was multiply vulnerable to phantomization. Realism, whether socialist or not, is an ‘impossible aesthetic’; Vinitsky, discussing nineteenth- century Russian realism, proposes the then-fashionable Spiritualist séance as an apposite metaphor...

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