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Did true Soviet literature exist?

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Hamid Ismailov Hamid Ismailov | 16:05 UK time, Thursday, 10 November 2011

When I meet my readers, many of them ask: why are your novels so multi-national, does this reflect the reality of your own life?

In response, I ponder the lives of those around me - my wife, my daughter and my sister and come out with: 'No, actually, such was life in the Soviet Union.'

As I recall my kindergarten years, my school, my military service in the army and my studies at university - I recall I was surrounded by friends of from all backgrounds and creeds - of all colours: Uzbeks and Russians, Ukrainians and Tatars, Kazakhs and Jews, Koreans and Greeks - you name it.

One sleepless night coming back from Moscow to Tashkent I started to reminisce about my neighbourhood, which I used to consider Uzbek.

But as I doodled my memories of the village layout, house by house, all of a sudden I discovered that hardly any Uzbeks lived in our street. There were Mordvas and Chuvashs, Tajiks and Uighurs, Gypsies and Kyrgyzs apart from those whom I already named above.

Such was the reality of our life.

Interestingly, whenever you read Soviet novels - be it in Russian, Uzbek, or any other language - even the most famous ones scarcely mention the richness of this ethnic diversity.

Maxim Gorkiy's novel Mother was considered by the Soviets as the cornerstone of Soviet literature, the founding piece of 'socialist realism' and all characters in it apart from an odd Ukrainian are Russians.

The latest hit, which recently has been serialised by Radio 4 - Vassily Grossman's 'Life and Fate' is the epic telling of the Second World War, or rather the 'Great Patriotic War' as it was known in the Soviet Union. In it the overwhelming majority of the characters are Russians with the exception of several Jews, who are not Orthodox Jews but Russian Jews.

When you look at the statistics of those killed in the 'Great Patriotic War'; for every 100 Soviet people killed in the war, 66 were Russians, 16 Ukrainians, 3 Belorussians, 2 Tatars, 2 Jews, 3 Kazakhs and Uzbeks, and so on.

So the war and those who fought in it were quite international. Still, you can't glean this fact from the best of the Soviet literature.

Alexander Solzhenitsyn's famous novel 'The Cancer Ward' happens immediately after the war and is set in Tashkent - capital of Uzbekistan. In it, you fail to meet any Uzbeks, let alone other local ethnicities. All the characters are Russians, again with the exception of several Jews.

And it's not just the Russian Soviet literature which was largely mono-national.

It's the same in any other 'national' Soviet literature.

'Jamilya' by Chingiz Aytmatov nearly became a worldwide bestseller.

It's a Kyrgyz love story set in war time. Even though it takes place in a Kyrgyz village, there is still no mention of ethnicities - although even in the most remote villages I used to meet Turks and Greeks, Kurds and Germans, as well as Russians and Ukrainians.

Kazakh writer Abdijamil Nurpeisov wrote a novel called 'Night and Day' about the ecologic tragedy of the Aral Sea, which started to dry out. Though different people live around the Aral Sea and the tragedy caused them all to suffer, all the characters of the novel are Kazakhs.

The Georgians Soviet novels consist exclusively of Georgians, the Uzbek ones of Uzbeks, Armenians - of Armenians and so on.

How can we explain this major discrepancy between the Soviet reality and the mono-national literary depiction of it?

Since nobody looked at it methodically, there are no answers, all one can suggest are just working assumptions.

The Soviet ideology declared the formula for the Soviet art: 'socialist by content, national by form'. Was it taken and applied too literally?

Not just literature, but also music and cinema followed the same mono-national rules.

Sometimes it reached purely absurd extent, like creating symphony orchestras in the national republics, consisting of reconstructed national musical instruments.

So the Dutar - a two-stringed long-necked Uzbek lute was reconstructed in different versions - the Bass-Dutar, the Solo-Dutar - and those orchestras performed both Mozart and national composers.

The system of representative quotas had been created at the time in every stream of life, ranging from having national representatives in the Supreme Soviet assembly, to the quotas of students sent to study in Moscow.

Another explanation may lie with the Georgian origin of Stalin, who, as the Absolute Soviet Ruler or Dictator, was hiding his national roots for the sake of his Great Sovietness.

Bitter experience of repressions both for nationalism in the 1930s and cosmopolitanism in the 1940s might have also played its role in streamlining or narrowing the Soviet literature as well as other kinds of art.

The story of Bolshevism falling apart with the Third International might have also affected the Soviet national ideology.

The Soviet Empire broke up 20 years ago.

But even in the modern post-Soviet literature the same tendency of mono-national approach to the poly-ethnic reality still prevails as if some black-and-white glasses prevent writers to see the colourfulness of life around them.

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