Blesok no. 103-104, December, 2015
The Power of the Story
from chapter: Narrative and Power
Can a novel start a war, free serfs, break up marriages, drive readers to suicide, close factories, bring about a law change, swing an election, or serve as a weapon in a national or international struggle? These are some of the large-scale, direct, social and political effects which have been ascribed to certain exceptional novels and other works of narrative fiction over the last two hundred years or so.1F How seriously should we take such claims?
In their crudest form, assertions of this kind are obviously naïve, oversimplifying the complex ways in which literary texts can be said to “work in the world” and oversimplifying, too, the causal processes required to account for a major social or political change. But is it possible to modify or refine such claims in the light of contemporary theory and historical research so that the mechanisms by which each text has engaged with the political forces of the time are adequately described? This book explores that general question through the close examination of five works, from several different countries and periods, for which remarkable direct political effects of one kind or another have been claimed. It is an inquiry both at the level of theory (in what sense, and by what mechanisms, might literary works conceivably be said to start wars, swing national opinion, and so on?) and at the level of history (what evidence can be gathered on the influence which a particular fictional narrative has had in a given place and at a given time?).
The first two works studied, Ivan Turgenev’s A Sportsman’s Notebook and Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin (both published in volume form in 1852), are probably the pieces of narrative fiction for which the most spectacular claims have been made. It was Turgenev’s boast, echoed later by many historians and literary critics, that his A Sportsman’s Notebook, a collection of short stories and sketches rather than a novel, was directly responsible for convincing Tsar Alexander II to abolish serfdom in Russia. And it was Abraham Lincoln, no less, who addressed Harriet Beecher Stowe, when they met in late 1862, with the words: “So this is the little lady who made this great war” (the American Civil War). Although Lincoln probably did not mean his words to be taken at face value, many politicians and historians in the years that followed independently attributed to Uncle Tom’s Cabin a major role in bringing about the war and thereby hastening the abolition of slavery.
Ignazio Silone’s novel Fontamara (1933), the third work studied, is remarkable not only for the fact that it is claimed to have played a significant role in turning around the broadly favorable opinion of Mussolini’s Fascism still held by large numbers of political commentators in the United States and Europe in the early 1930s, but for having achieved several more, distinct, politically significant receptions since its first publication, including in Italy during the Second World War and in the Third World countries in the postwar period.
In the case of Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich (1962), whose publication Khrushchev personally authorized to further his discrediting of Stalin, it is not a question of the novel’s having achieved a specific reform (as Solzhenitsyn complained, the labor camps continued to operate fairly much unchanged) but of its having engaged in an extraordinarily dramatic way with the mechanisms of power of a relatively closed political system.
from chapter: Alexander Solzhenitsyn:
One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich (1962)
“There are three atom bombs in the world,” declared Veniamin Teush, a friend of Solzhenitsyn, after reading the typescript of his One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich a year before its publication in the Soviet Union. “Kennedy has one, Khrushchev has another, and you have the third.” If it were ever published, he predicted, Soviet life, indeed the world, would never be the same again. And when, in November 1962, One Day was published in the Soviet Union, the depth of the public response and, most importantly, the reviews carried by most Soviet newspapers suggested that, with its publication, a new era had, in fact, begun. With headlines such as “Thus It Was But Will Never Be Again” and “This Must Not Happen Again,” they declared that the revelations that it contained about the labor camps and the absurd judicial processes which had condemned innocent people to live in them for years, and in many cases to die in them, would ensure that such things could never recur. Changes were taking place in the Soviet Union, they agreed, which would be irreversible. An indication of the unprecedented public interest in Solzhenitsyn’s story can be gained from the eloquent letter he received in mid-1963 from a reader in the Ukraine, Mark Ivanovich Kononenko: “In Khrakov I have seen all kinds of queues – for the film Tarzan, butter, women’s drawers, chicken giblets and horse-meat sausage. But I cannot remember a queue as long as the one for your book in the libraries… I waited six months and to no avail. By chance I got hold of it for forty-eight hours.” One Day reached every region and very nearly every social group in the Soviet Union. Its reception may well have outstripped even that of Uncle Tom’s Cabin in the United States of the 1850s in terms of the proportion of the country’s population who knew of its existence.
Six years later, however, in late 1968, it must have seemed all too evident that those early commentators had been overoptimistic and had exaggerated the story’s liberating force. Khrushchev had fallen and, under Brezhnev, Stalinism was reasserting itself, even if in attenuated form. The experiment in democratization of government in Czechoslovakia had just been crushed by Soviet troops. The Soviet labor camps for political prisoners, though they had been greatly reduced in number after Stalin’s death, had continued to exist throughout the Khrushchev years, despite the official acclaim given to One Day, and were again being used extensively. After a very few years of officially sanctioned glory, Solzhenitsyn was being hounded by the KGB, prevented from publishing either Cancer Ward or The First Circle in his own country, and copies of One Day were being withdrawn from libraries or put in their reserve collections. Moreover, within this longer timeframe it could be seen that the publication of One Day had occurred relatively late in the process of de-Stalinization.
Khrushchev had initiated de-Stalinization in 1956 with his “secret speech” to the Twentieth Congress of the Soviet Communist Party denouncing the brutality and injustices of the Stalin years: “Arbitrary behavior by one person encouraged and permitted arbitrariness in others. Mass arrests and deportations of many thousands of people, execution without trial and without normal investigation created conditions of insecurity, fear and even desperation.” While the text of that speech had not been fully publicized in the Soviet Union, it had been widely circulated amongst Party members, setting in motion an authorized critical debate on many aspects of the Stalin era. So, over the years that followed, there had been official attacks on many of Stalin’s policies, defined as consequences of the so-called “cult of personality”: his disastrous agricultural policies, the pact with Hitler and the Soviet Union’s unpreparedness for war with Germany, and some of the kinds of persecution carried out under his rule. This debate had culminated in Khrushchev’s comprehensive public denunciation of Stalin at the Twenty-Second Party Congress in 1961 and the subsequent removal of his remains from the Lenin Mausoleum in Red Square.
Khrushchev personally authorized the publication of One Day in 1962, as part of his struggle with the surviving Stalinists in the Presidium, using it as an instrument to defend himself against their increasing attacks. This and the other tactics he employed more and more desperately throughout 1963 and 1964 failed to save him. So, by the late 1960s, it must have seemed painfully obvious that the publication of One Day had been less a causally contributing factor than a late symptom, a dying gasp, in the relaxation of the oppressive features of the Soviet regime that took place under Khrushchev’s leadership. Solzhenitsyn was looking more and more like a pawn who, having been moved by the losing player in the leadership game, might very soon be permanently removed from the board.
Writing now, thirty years later, the question of his role in political change had a dramatically different aspect. Not only did the Soviet regime under Gorbachev, with the policies of glasnost (more open government) and perestroika (economic reform), discard its most oppressive features, but the Soviet Union itself has been dissolved. Solzhenitsyn, who was forced into exile in the West in 1974, has seen his novels since One Day, which were previously banned in the Soviet Union, finally (May 1989) cleared for publication, Gulag Archipelago awarded (December 1990) the State literature prize, and himself finally invited back to live in Russia. (As of October 1993 he is still talking of returning and of the advisory role he might play, without yet saying when that will be.) Indeed the whole debate about the causes of the collapse of the old Soviet system, unforeseen as it was by most specialists, remains remarkably open. Two of the major questions to be discussed by historians concern the way in which the Khrushchev years are to be written into the longer narrative of the history of the Soviet Union since the death of Stalin, and the role of writers and intellectuals after 1960 in undermining the legitimacy of the regime. These two questions intersect in the case of Solzhenitsyn’s One Day. To state the issue of this chapter simply: is there a sense in which One Day not only engaged significantly with the leadership struggles occurring at the time of its publication, but also entered the nation’s memory as a permanent symbol of mass resistance, thus playing its part in weakening the fabric of the system?
2. Recorded by Ilya Zilberberg, “A Necessary Talk with Solzhenitsyn,” published in Russian in England in 1976, quoted by Michael Scammelll, Solzhenitsyn: A Biography (London, Melbourne, Sydney, Auckland, Johannesburg: Hutchinson, 1985): 400. Scammell’s monumental work is a fundamental source for any study of Solzhenitsyn.
3. Scammell, Solzhenitsyn: 450.
4. Solzhenitsyn: A Documentary Record, ed. Leopold Labedz (London: Allen Lane, 1970): 15-16.
5. David Burg and George Feifer, Solzhenitsyn (New York: Stein and Day, 1972): 218.
6. Quoted in, for instance, Kochan and Abraham, The Making of Modern Russia: 447.