Socialist Realism: Background information when reading The Valley of Unknowing

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The Valley of Unknowing

by Philip Sington

The Valley of Unknowing by Philip Sington
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  • Published:
    Dec 2012, 304 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Sarah Sacha Dollacker

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About this Book

Beyond the Book:
Socialist Realism

Print Review

The fictional character of Bruno Krug gained international fame with a literary blockbuster The Orphans of Neustadt, but when we meet him at the beginning of his story, he is busy writing simple stories - called the Factory Gate Fables - about life in Actually Existing Socialism. These stories represent typical literature in the U.S.S.R and Soviet-occupied countries in the mid-20th century that correspond with the theory of Socialist Realism. Socialist Realism extends to other art forms but was officially adopted by the Congress of Soviet Writers in 1934 and codified the state's expectations for writers. Socialist Realism demanded that authors create literature that depicted man's struggle towards socialist progress in pursuit of a better life. Literature was required to serve the proletariat by being realistic, optimistic, heroic, and complimentary of the State. Any experimental writing was discouraged.

Understandably, many writers struggled with these strict rules, and some were punished for continuing to create literature that was considered degenerate, pessimistic, or that did not properly laud the Soviet system. Yevgeny Zamyatin and Victor Serge were able to leave the country, but Vladimir Mayakovsky and Sergei Yesenin committed suicide. Other writers, like Isaac Babel and Boris Plinyak, who refused to conform, were executed.

Writer Alexander Solzhenitsyn Alexander Solzhenitsyn, perhaps the most famous writer of this group, was imprisoned for criticizing Stalin in a letter to a friend. He was sent to a work camp, an experience that prompted him to write the Gulag Archipelago, a series of works that exposed the harshness of the Soviet work camp system and detailed his philosophical transformation from Marxism to Christianity. He was rewarded for his efforts with the Nobel Prize in 1974 for "the ethical force with which he pursued the indispensable traditions of Russian literature."

Socialist Realism began to wane after Stalin's death. Nikita Krushchev obliquely criticized Socialist Realism when he spoke out against Stalin's policies towards writers in 1957 saying, "You can't lay down a furrow and then harness all your artists to make sure they don't deviate from the straight and narrow. If you try to control your artists too tightly, there will be no clashing of opinions, consequently no criticism, and consequently no truth. There will be just a gloomy stereotype, boring and useless." However, old habits die hard, and, as Bruno experiences, state security agents were still keeping tabs on writers and their work in East Germany until the fall of the Berlin Wall.

This article is from the January 23, 2013 issue of BookBrowse Recommends. Click here to go to this issue.

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