Communist Literature

I find myself very interested by literature produced in the Eastern bloc under Communism. What are people’s favourite works of ‘Communist’ literature?

Most works that have been translated into English are generally anti-Communist, or at least satirical:

The usual classic cited is Bulgakov’s ‘The Master and Margarita’, which I enjoyed, but felt like I needed a study guide to get the references (luckily the edition I read had a great notes section).

Probably my favourite book that I’ve read in the last 10 years is Vasily Grossman’s ‘Life and Fate’. Grossman’s relationship to Communism and the powers that be was a bit complex. I’m always recommending this book to people with the warning that it is really long and often very depressing, but it is an incredible work. Grossman’s reportage (he was a journalist) on the concentration camps was some of the earliest, and is incredibly devastating, as is his imagining of the battle of Stalingrad.

I am also a fan of the work of Josef Skvorecky. His light-hearted style is refreshing, even when the subject matter is serious. I particularly enjoy his early detective stories (‘The Mournful Demeanor of Lt. Boruvka’ and ‘Sins for Father Knox’ are great). Much of his later work was written in Canada, but is about Life under Communism. His depiction of working for a state-controlled publishing house is fascinating.

What are your favourite works of Communist Literature, either about life in the Eastern Bloc, or from within it? Any kind of literature would be worth mentioning. I’m particular keen to read something (available in English) which is not from a whole-hearted critic of the regime(s). Did the pro-Communist side ever produce a work of great literature?

I like some of Stanislaw Lem. Probably The Cyberiad was my favorite. His SF works are not overtly political, though.

You might like We, by Yevgeny Zamyatin. Its setting is similar to Orwell’s 1984–a totalitarian state where every aspect of life is controlled and obiedience to the state is required–but it makes 1984 seem pleasant in comparison.

On the pro-Communist side, you might want to try Time, Forward! by Valentin Kataev. Wikipedia sums up the plot thusly:

It wasn’t one of my favorites, but it’s one I remember.

On the pro-Communist side:

Many years ago, I read an anthology of Soviet science fiction stories. The only one that really stuck in my mind was called (I think) Sigma Draconis. It is about a starship that is sent out to explore the galaxy from Earth, which is, by now, a communist paradise. The crew makes the first contact with intelligent alien life, which lives on a planet of the star Sigma Draconis. Rather to the crew’s surprise, the aliens turn out to look almost exactly like humans (maybe they are purple or something, I am not sure), even though their biochemistry is completely different (they breathe fluorine, IIRC). What is more, they live in a peaceful, prosperous, planet-wide communist society, just like the one the Earth starship has come from. The crew realizes that they should have expected this. It follows from the inexorable Marxist laws of history: all societies of intelligent beings will inevitably evolve towards communism. (And, I guess, by the same token, all biological evolution inevitably leads to human-like beings. I very much doubt whether Marx, or any other significant Communist thinker, ever explicitly claimed anything like this, but it may well be possible to extrapolate such a conclusion from some of the ideas to be found in Engels’ Dialectics of Nature.)

Unfortunately, I can’t remember the name of the author, or of the book or it’s editor. (The book may have just been called Soviet Science Fiction, but I am far from sure. I am not even 100% sure of the story title.) Google is not much help. Its results are clogged with information about the star Sigma Draconis itself, or about Star Trek episodes, or other science fiction. If anyone else remembers this story and anything more about it, I would be very interested to hear.

Ha! What is worse, i find that the Star Trek episode set at Sigma Draconis was the infamous “Spock’s Brain”.

May I add: the story I recall was obviously not “great literature” by any stretch of the imagination, and a bit lacking in drama even for cheap entertainment, but I found it quite readable, and it stuck in my mind as something very different from the mostly American science fiction I was used to (and which I think most of the other stories in the anthology were probably trying to imitate). It was also interesting to see how they managed to produce a decent, if somewhat dull, story, while cleaving so closely to what (I presume) was official government orthodoxy.

Thanks for these, guys. It’s interesting about the prevalence of (pro-)Soviet science fiction – I’m not surprised by it, for some reason. It seems like a ‘safer’ genre for literature in a SSR context.

I’ve been meaning to check out ‘We’.

Keep 'em coming!

Stretches the definition of “communist”; Zamyatin was on the Imperial side and wrote the book in exile in the UK. It’s also a pretty bad book, and nowadays is only in print because clueless college professors can include something by an author who isn’t American or English.

The OP says that anyone living there is ok, but prefers the more ardent Communists.

Zamyatin was a very committed Bolshevik. For a time. Then became disillusioned, and took off for France.

I’d recommend books by Milan Kundera from that period. I think, in fact, at the time he became a successful writer once he moved to France an then continued producing solid works.

Issac Babel’s Red Cavalry stories were good. Unfortunately, I read them at the same time I’d read Ambrose Bierce’s Civil War stories, which was a tough act to follow.

Babel wasn’t shot for being an independent thinker: he labored mightily to please Stalin; although this was probably not possible without doing at least some time in the Gulag. (Gorky wrote pro-regime work for as long as he could, but when he turned against it, he was too beloved to jail or shoot, so he had to die mysteriously). Simon Sebag-Montefiore writes that the real reason for his being shot was that he’d been the lover of NKVD-chief Yezov. Not that Yezov minded: his after-hours home life was a much-needed orgy to relieve the stress. But when Yezov was liquidated, everyone around him had to go too.

I recall reading some of And Quiet Flows the Don a long time ago, and that it didn’t suck. Not as turgid as you’d expect from a winner of the Stalin Prize.

I’d suggest the collected works of V.I. Lenin…for those nights when you can’t sleep. Fifteen minutes of “Where To Begin” does it for me!

I’d rate And quiet flows the Don several notches higher than ‘it didn’t suck’ personally. Verging on the excellent in my opinion.

*Life and Fate * is on my to read list, so the OPs endorsment might bump it up to be my next purchase. Also high on that list is Francis Spufford’s Red Plenty, which although it doesn’t fit the OPs criteria exactly certainly shares the same spirit. The recent book seminar on it on Crooked Timber has piqued my interest.

While this has pretty much nothing to do with the OP, I feel compelled to share this story with everyone who was interested enough in a thread about Soviet art to open it.

I’ve heard of ‘Quiet flows the Don’ but I admit to being less interested in stories about Cossacks than other aspects of Slavic history due to my great-grandmother being murdered by Cossacks… perhaps I should give it more of a chance though. It seems to be mentioned a lot as the greatest Soviet novel.

I also should give Babel another try; I’ve read a few of his stories and they had a kind of interesting wry humour, but I stopped reading them for some reason and never picked it up.

lisiate, read it! It’s quite an undertaking, but individual chapters are a good size to read in a few minutes going spare. Three chapters of ‘Life and Fate’ are among the greatest passages of literature of all time, IMHO.

What’s ‘Red Plenty’ about?

newcomer, any suggestion on where to start with Kundera? ‘The Unbearable Lightness…’ has never inspired me to pick it up, I must admit.

Anyone have any suggestions for Polish or Hungarian works under Communism?

outlierrn, that looks very interesting indeed! How did you come across this film/museum?

Netflix, sometimes I pick and actor or director and see if there’s anything of there’s I haven’t seen; always looking for the unusual.

For the Communist literary tradition in the West, see Exiles from a Future Time, by Alan M. Wald.

Holy crap! An excuse to recommend one of my favorite books!

Danilov, the Violist

It’s got an interesting premise (concert viola playing half-demon protagonist forced to defend himself or be removed from Terra and the human woman he loves) and excellent biting satirical humor. It’s not a perfect novel, but it is fun and engaging and I like the deeper themes explored, especially knowing the culture the author lived in while he was writing it.

I’ll probably get Life and Fate in the next month or so.

I haven’t read Red Plenty yet, but I think it’s a historical novel set in the post War Soviet Union largely dealing with the central planners attempts to create a socialist replacement for market economics and how it didn’t work out.

Dmitri Bilenkin! I’ve only read the collection The Uncertainty Principle, but lots of good thought-provoking stuff. “Чужие глаза” (“Strangers’ Eyes”) is a perfect example of using speculative fiction to prepare us for the consequences of things we do not yet have the technology to do (and by analogy, things we do have the tech to do).

It involves a space exploration mission that unintentionally blinds the animal life of an entire planet by doing an active sensor scan.

Disturbingly, there are clearly those in the US Navy who have never read Bilenkin, and are about to do that kind of damage knowingly: