05 November 2010

The Tablet - Review: Engineers of the Soul

"One evening in 1932, Joseph Stalin summoned dozens of the more biddable Russian writers – that is, without the likes of Pasternak, Bulgakov, Mandelstam or Akhmatova – to a jolly at Maxim Gorky’s place, and made them an offer they couldn’t refuse: to join the Soviet Union’s military-industrial drive. “Our tanks are worthless,” he tells the nervous assembly, “if the souls who must steer them are made of clay. Man is reshaped by life itself, and those of you here must assist in reshaping his soul. And that is why I raise my glass to you, writers, engineers of the soul.” This was no polite big-up, of the sort that might be bandied about at Islington drinks parties by soft London authors in an attempt to shore up their self-importance: it was an order, and signalled an attempt to turn literature into something it had never been before."

So begins an interesting review of The Tablet - Review: Engineers of the Soul:
Frank Westerman’s marvellous and original book traces the catastrophe – spiritual, ecological, social – that that attempt bolstered. A country addicted to political fictions enlisted writers to give literary substance to them, with the result that, disastrously, not only the people but the state itself began to believe those fictions. One of the enduring geographical dreams of the Soviet Union was to divert its Arctic rivers southwards to turn the deserts of central Asia into a flowering paradise. Westerman tracks down an old professor engaged in this vainglory: “We were smothered beneath an avalanche of praise. The dams and pumping stations we designed were invariably spoken of as ‘more monumental than the pyramids of Egypt’. Try keeping a level head then!” The result: “Some of us let it go to our heads. There were those who dreamed of digging canals using controlled nuclear explosions … ”

Hat-tip to Jim Forest. It reminded me of Recent reading: The socialist sixth of the world Khanya. That wwas written by Hewlett Johnson, the "Red Dean" of Canterbury, who sang the praises of Stalin's industrialisation of the Soviet Union, which, according to Johnson, brought peace and plenty, full employment and freedom, at a time when the rest of the world was suffering from the Great Depression. Westerman's book sounds like an interesting counterpoint to that.

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