Mikhail A. Sholokhov

Comrade delegates: As you have already been informed by our secretary, Comrade Surkov (Aleksei Surkov, poet and General Secretary of the Writers Union--Tr.), Soviet literature does not have its own plan for the Sixth Five Year Plan. To this can only be added that if such a plan did exist, I assure you, it would, all the same, not be fulfilled, both because our work is highly specialized and because, to speak the truth, in our country, there is no more disorganized group of people than we writers.

In the Union of Soviet Writers, there are 3,247 members and 526 candidates--in all, 3,773 people armed with pens and possessing, to a greater or lesser degree, literary mastery. In appearance, a not insignificant force. But be neither frightened nor gladdened by our numbers, for this is only "in appearance", while in fact, a significant portion of the list of writers is made up of "dead souls"

It's just too bad that there are no Chichikovs in our time; if there were, Surkov, despite all his commercial inexperience, could make a fortune for the Writers' Union with a single grand trade operation.

I am now obligated to look my beloved Party straight in the eye and speak the truth about literature, albeit a bitter truth. My Party duty demands this of me; a duty of conscience and honor as a Party member and as a writer.

Comrade Surkov spoke here rather vaguely about the achievements of Soviet literature in recent years and, by way of illustration, referred to the growing number of books issued by the Soviet Writer Publishing House in 1953, 1954, and 1955. You know what they call this in Russian? "Casting shadows on the fence." (i.e., 'Obscuring, hiding, or confusing something."--Tr.)

Can the growth of literature really be measured by the quantity of books published? Surkov should rather speak about the fact that in the last twenty years we have published few good, intelligent books and more than enough of the mediocre! In the last 20 years, from the pens of thousands of writers came only about ten good books. What do you think--is this not too few? This is what comrade Surkov should speak about, although you already know it quite well yourselves.

Now--when the working hands of Soviet people are creating the world's greatest hydroelectric stations--it would be strange if our propagandists kept repeating to the people, "But in 1932 we built Dneprogas!"

We writers have built ourselves a type of "Dneprogas" literary dam from works written twenty or thirty years ago; and if you put just the slightest pressure on our brother writers, we quickly hide behind this dam and, not without aplomb, shout out from behind it: "What do you mean there are no books? What do you mean we're not writing? And The Life of Klim Samgin? The novels of Sergeev-Tsensky? Serafimovich's Iron Flood? Gladkov's Cement? Fadeev's The Rout? The novels of Leonov and Fedin? Furmanov's Chapaev? Panferov's Bruski?" And without pausing for a breath we list another ten works which have been acknowledged by readers and tempered by time. For how long will we continue to sit under the beneficent protection of this all-saving dam?

Since the 1930s, the multinational Soviet literature has grown full with new names of exceptional masters of prose, poetry, and dramaturgy. So there is no question that during its lifetime our literature has created much of value and has rightfully become the world's leading literature. But with hand on heart we must say straight out that it has become the leading literature not because it has reached heights of artistic perfection hitherto unattainable by writers, but because all of us, each to the best of his ability, mining the depths of artistic method, with heartfelt, creative language, propagate the all-conquering ideas of Communism, the greatest hope of mankind. Therein lies the secret of our success! If in our time a writer were to pen a work from the position of anti-Communism, the name of that writer would be consigned to scornful oblivion and his books, unread, would grow moldy on the shelves. So, as you see, the laurels belong not so much to those who have written as to that which inspired the creation of the great works--our own Communist Party. And we writers, honestly and with all our heart, are glad about this, and we are ready henceforth, to our last breath, to serve with our words the Party of Lenin and to keep holy, both in life and in literature, its noble interests.

If in recent years our prose has found itself in a ruinous breakdown, the situation is no better as regards drama. Few--very few--good plays have been written; the heroic efforts of Korneichuk and several other dramatists cannot save our theater from a sharp repertory hunger. Korneichuk is a healthy fellow, but any Ukrainian, even Taras Bulba, would soon find himself in the grave if forced to do the work of twenty.

What is the problem? Why is our literature lagging?

It is well known that Leo Tolstoy understood the soul of the Russian peasant better than any of us contemporary writers do; Gorky traveled through all of Russian on foot; Leskov drove through it on a post-chaise with rented horses; Chekhov, even though he was very ill, found the strength within himself and, moved by his great love for people as well as his genuine professional writer's curiosity, traveled to Sakhalin. But many of today's writers--particularly, many of the Muscovites--live in an enchanted triangle: Moscow-dacha-resort; and again: resort-Moscow-dacha. Really, is it not shameful to be wasting life and talents in this empty way?!

About 1200 writers live in Moscow. Let's suppose that this is natural: Moscow is the capital, the nation's largest cultural and industrial center. But what's unnatural is that writers living here in the capital contrive to stand apart from life. In heartfelt simplicity I had presumed that my brethren Moscovites, thinking up new works, went to consult with workers at the largest industrial establishments, got interested in the production of this or that factory, with the life, needs, and wants of the workers. No! They live in the forest and can't see the trees.

Who among the writers visits a worker's family, or the family of an engineer, an industrial innovator, or factory Party worker? Only a handful. Otherwise the Zhurbins would have been discovered in Moscow long before Kochetov found them in Leningrad.(Referring to the novel "The Zhurbins" by Vsevolod Kochetov--Tr.)

My brother writers live like strangers apart and alone--like old, landless village peasants. With sadness I learned that there was no writer-friend in the workers collective at the "Hammer and Sickle" factory, nor at the "Stalin" factory, "Dynamo", or "Red Proletariat". I would be happy to be proven wrong, but I think that we will see the same situation at "Frezer", "Three Hills", and "Calibre", the ball-bearing factory, and other establishments in Moscow.

True, writers come to the larger establishments as guests or, more accurately, as touring performers, and, to our common shame, sometimes they are not shy to accept a monetary reward for their appearance from the workers' till. Since when has social work become a paying business? Some writers even receive payment for appearances at military academies. It is time to put an end to this disgrace! It's time to suggest to these literary operators that there should be a difference between a variety show tenor, who earns his daily bread with his voice, and a writer! This is intolerable in general and is it especially intolerable when it is the hand of a writer-Communist reaching into the till of a factory or other establishment.

Why do 1200 writers live in Moscow? Why is it impossible to tear them away from their favorite haunts even with a tractor? It's hard to give an answer to this question. Maybe you yourselves are trying to find a solution to this riddle? I know, however, that such a distribution of creative forces is wrong and in no way justified. Unfortunately, we observe the same situation in Leningrad, Kiev, Minsk, Alma-Ata, and in all oblast and krai centers. Everywhere, writers live in towns, and you almost never see a writer living in a workers settlement or village.

You are expecting new books, comrades? But I ask you, from whom? From those who know nothing about kolkhozniks (i.e., 'collective farm workers'--Tr.) or workers? From those who sit on the fence and lie about in bed? But it has long been known that water does not flow under rocks. In the nearest future there will be no high-quality, full-weight books unless the situation in literature is changed in the most fundamental manner; and this change can be brought about only by the Party. But more about that later.

I would like to say a few words concerning the speech of comrade Gafurov, or rather that portion of his speech in which he touches upon literature. Comrade Gafurov is correct when he talks about the lagging of our literature. But comrade Gafurov is wrong when he explains that the lagging is due to a slump in creative activity. This is not the problem.

A certain lag between literature and life is completely normal because serious literature is not a newsreel and the creation of a grand canvas demands, as Lev Tolstoy said, not only exhausting work, but also a great deal of time.

Does Comrade Gafurov know that Aleksei Tolstoy took 22 years to write his Stations of the Cross and that he was working on his Peter I for 25 years and still didn't manage to finish it?

There are many such examples, and all of this is probably well known to comrade Gafurov. But I'm certain that he isn't aware of the nice but salty Ukrainian proverb: Born quick, born blind. There are many examples of this as well--when a quickly ripened work, born blind or half-blind from the writer's pen, never sees a wide audience of readers.

Our Soviet reader will forgive us tardiness, but will never forgive us for a bad, dull book!

In life, Comrade Gafurov, I, like you, prefer an airplane to an ox-cart. But in literature I prefer something else: it is better to ride in an ox-cart with a heavy load that is of value to the people than to fly in an airplane with a toilet case in your hands, containing nail files, different-sized brushes, and other foppish possessions of personal use. And in speeches on literature topics it is sometimes more useful to tread with a heavy and slow pace than to flit about like a lightweight and light-minded butterfly.

Dear Comrade Gafurov, don't take offense, and forgive me for, perhaps, an excessive polemical temper. But I, like you, am from the south and accustomed to argue vigorously, not to merely trail after an opponent. You spoke about creative ardor. But are you aware that this is not something you can measure with a thermometer? And so my polemical temperament is the same as yours, even though you're a Tadjik and I'm Russian. You are a reader, and I'm a writer. We have already demonstrated how ardently you love me and that I respond in equal measure. You also spoke about the absence of reciprocity between writers and readers. How can it be absent if between you and me even water cannot pass? So I hope we're even now Comrade Gafurov? Good!

Recently there have been no books that could win the hearts of a wide section of the reading masses. Who is at fault for this? Primarily, of course, writers themselves. But Party organizations concerned with cultural matters are also to blame; and readers are not uninvolved in this--rather, they are in the thick of things, in the thick of responsibility for the current state of literature, because, as is well known, literature is not only an internal affair for writers themselves, but it is a national--and primarily a Party--affair.

The Party has more than once corrected the Union of Writers for ideological breakdowns in individual sectors of the literary battle, and we always feel its firm, guiding hand. Thank you for this!

So it is incomprehensible that we all missed the fact that a significant number of writers have long ago abandoned their posts and are living cut off from life. Remember when a few of our 33,000 kolkhoz chairmen and MTS (i.e., '[Machine Tractor Station'--Tr.)ectors tried to live in their old places of work and just visit the kolkhozes and MTS's? Such a campaign was unleashed in the country. Pravda wrote about it several times. All the press was roused up. All of our society sternly condemned those leaders who attempted to live away from their principle place of work. But here writers live in isolation from their literary production for years, for decades, and no one says a word to them--as if that's the way things are supposed to be, as if a reserve position is not a place of temporary deployment for a soldier, but something permanent, a fixed abode.

There must be a complete restructuring of the work of the Union of Writers. Really, could any of us fail to see that, after Gorky's death, there was no writer among us who could stand even as tall as his shoulder? We had, do not have, and possibly never will have the equal of Gorky in terms of the immeasurable love which, during his whole life, because of his creative work, he won from the working class, from the toilers in our country and from far beyond its borders.

And what have we arrived at since Gorky's death? We created a collective leadership in the Union of Writers, under the direction of comrade Fadeev, but still nothing good came out of this. And at the same time, the Union of Writers has gradually been transformed from a creative organization--which it should be--into an administrative organization; and although there have been punctual meetings of the secretariat as well as the sections on prose, poetry, drama, and criticism, although protocols have been written, although the technical apparatus has been working at full capacity and couriers have been dashing about, still there have been no books. A few good books per year in a country such as ours is far too few.

Rather strange--in my view--expressions have come into common use among writers. For example: "A creative business trip." What kind of creative business trip can we be talking about, when a writer is supposed to be in an atmosphere of creativity for his whole life? And even more trenchant: "Such-and-such secretary of the Union has received a year's creative leave." What is this, other than a direct admission of the fact that before the "creative leave" the writer was occupied with the devil knows what, only not creative work! Everything is in commotion. Fadeev turned out to be a rather power-loving general secretary and, in this work, did not want to take into consideration the principle of collegiality. It became impossible for the other secretaries to work with him. Thus 15 years were dawdled away. Through common and friendly efforts, we contrived to steal fifteen years of creative life away from Fadeev, and as a result, we had neither a general secretary nor a writer. Was it really impossible, at that time, to have told Fadeev: "Love of power in the affairs of a writer is a useless thing. The Union of Writers is not a military detachment and certainly not a penal batallion. No writer is going to stand "at attention" in front of you, Comrade Fadeev. You are an intelligent and talented writer. You are drawn to the theme of workers. So sit down and go for a year--for three or four--to Magnitogorsk, Sverdlovsk, Chelyabinsk, or Zaporozhe and write a good book about the working class."

It would not have been a misfortune if, at that time, we lost General Secretary Fadeev; but what great joy it would have been to have found Fadeev the writer, with a new book, possibly equal in significance to The Rout.

With what did Fadeev occupy himself for these fifteen years? Was he directing the Union of Writers ideologically and politically? We have always--and not without good reason--believed and continue to believe that we are led by the Party. For many years, Fadeev took part in creative discussions, delivered speeches, distributed apartments among writers, and wrote nothing. He had no time to spend in "trifles" just as writing books. But in 1944 Fadeev managed to free himself from his secretary duties for a few years, and that was enough for him to create in just a short time an excellent work about the young guard of Krasnodon. Fadeev, like no other prose writer among us, possesses an amazing special ability to write deeply and intensely about youth, and Young Guard reveals this aspect of his great talent in full measure.

Several years passed and again Fadeev the writer was absent and there appeared Fadeev the literary activist. Yes, such fairy tale transformations do take place! And this land of miracles is not too far away. From here to Vorovsky Street is just a stone's throw.

For administrative-economic work could we really not find in the Party a person of slightly less stature? Concerning the assertion that Fadeev was artistic director of a writers' ensemble, if we can use that expression: that does not correspond with reality. Neither Fedin nor Gladkov nor Leonov--none of the great prose writers--went to Fadeev to learn how to write novels. Each of us has our own manner of writing, our own vision of the world, our own style, and Fadeev could not be and was not for us an unquestionable authority on questions of artistic mastery. We did not go to Fadeev just as today none of the great poets--Yakub Kolas, Rylsky, Tychina, Tvardovsky, Tikhonov, Marshak, Isakovsky, Shchipachev--goes to Surkov to learn how to write poetry. They, and Surkov himself, understand quite well that in an orchestra, besides the drums and cymbals, there are other, nonpercussion instruments. What do they have to learn from Surkov? But poets, prose writers, critics, and dramatists all came to Gorky. If none of their professional colleagues have come, are coming, or intend to come to literary directors such as Fadeev and Surkov, the question arises: why do we need such directors?

Maybe you're thinking if, let's say, Sholokhov or Simonov stood at the head of the leadership the situation would be different? It would be exactly the same. The same soup, just a bit thicker or thinner. Or as writers might put it more simply: "Horseradish doesn't make it sweeter!" (i.e., 'It's six of one, half dozen of the other!'--Tr.) From elementary school everyone knows that reversing the position of the addends doesn't change the sum. This is not the point.

We must relieve our creative literary workers from the superfluous fuss of meetings, from everything that interferes with their creation of books. We have suffered losses because such major artists of the word as Leonov, Tikhonov, Fedin, and others have wasted heaps of valuable time on all sorts of meetings, instead of having the freedom to study life and write books. It's time to put an end to this! Readers are expecting books from us, not speeches at meetings. We must help writers to really get closer to life, we must turn the writers to face the people. For this, no special resolutions are required.

As I see it, we must simply instruct the Union of Writers to address writers' concerns by personal discussions with individual writers. Certainly, they all don't want to live in large cities, never venturing outside. Why don't we help those writers who seriously want to create works on kolkhoz or sovkhoz (i.e., 'state farms'--Tr.) themes by sending them for three or four years to the agricultural district of their choice and build them a house there so they can live and write to their heart's content? Of course such a writer could, at any time, travel to Moscow, Minsk, or Kiev--in a word, back to where he came from--but for most of the time he would live among the heroes of his future book, and this in itself is a guarantee of success in his work. We build houses for engineering and technical workers. Why can't we build them for writers? I say this because a writer's work is, in essence, a home cottage industry. If a writer is not out rummaging around for materials, he is home at his writing desk, and his work cannot be kept within the confines of the typical working day. Therefore, quarters in, let's say, a communal apartment on some sovkhoz is unacceptable. It's one thing when a single primus is hissing in the kitchen and you have at home one wife--even a very talkative one; there it is still possible to imperfectly arrange things and get peace and quiet at least half of the time. It's quite another thing when there are eight primuses hissing in the common kitchen and eight women contending fiercely in a verbal skirmish. Under such circumstances any work is impossible.

The writers must undertake such a trip seriously, for an extended period of time; that is, so to speak, they have to go lock, stock and barrel, with their wives, progeny, and household retainers. This is not a "creative business trip". These writers should be helped with vehicles, so that they can go where they must without having to be standing in the roads hitchhiking and without having to constantly depend upon the director of the sovkhoz or MTS, the secretary of the raikom (i.e., 'regional Party committee'--Tr.) or the chairman of the raion executive committee.

Of course, not all writers have to go to the village. Let those who have a close interest in kolkhoz life go there. But those writers who are considering writing about the working class or the urban intelligentsia will be welcome in any industrial center of our country, in any city.

A Communist writer traveling to a village will join the local Party organization and, of course, find himself a place and tasks which will not interfere with his basic work. A non-Party writer will not refuse social assignments that are within his capabilities. And the living material--there it is, right within the writer's grasp. You just have to interpret what's happening in front of your own eyes. Live the life of the people, suffer with people's sufferings, rejoice in their joys, penetrate fully into their cares and needs--then the writer shall have a real book, exciting the hearts of readers.

Why shouldn't, let's say, the Volga native Panferov live for a few years on the banks of the Volga and write a novel so that it would really be for both him and the reader the "Mother Volga", not "Auntie Volga, three times removed"? Paustovsky, a writer with the most subtle powers of observation and splendid mastery of the Russian language, takes yearly trips to the vicinity of the Meshersky lowlands, which were described so picturesquely here by Comrade Larionov. Why don't we help him settle down somewhere on the banks of the Oka? I don't believe that the inveterate fisherman Paustovsky, in the dead hours when the fish aren't biting, would not look around at the kolkhoz life with the hungry eyes of an artist. And when he looks, we will have an honest book. Perhaps it's time, let's say, for Perventsev, who has left Moscow temporarily, to settle down again in his native Kuban. The talented poet Sergei Vasilev paid a short visit to his native Kurgan oblast and wrote some good verses. But if he were to live there for a longer period of time, perhaps there would be a cycle of verse or maybe even a long poem. It also wouldn't hurt the writer Permitin, born in the Altai, to return to his native region; in a few years, there would be another good book as a result. The writer Babaevsky correctly decided that the Cavalier of the Gold Star won't bring him a fourth Stalin Prize, and he has gone off to China for three years, according to rumor. It will be a great joy for all of us if he brings back a good novel about our friends the Chinese peasants.

All writers who take it into their heads to become settlers in new regions of our vast nation where they have not previously lived should receive material assistance, because the impression that all writers have money just laying around is nothing but a philistine myth.

I'm telling you this, comrades, but my soul aches. Listening to my hare-brained schemes right now is Comrade Zverev, our iron Minister of Finance, who probably already views me as his class enemy. How can I placate him? First of all: the distance from this plan to its realization is very great. Secondly: even if only one out of three writer-settlers produces an urgently needed good book, then the expense will have been justified. And to finally win over dear Comrade Zverev I can solemnly promise here that I will never appear in the pages of Pravda on the question of the personal use of sunflowers and fruit trees by kolkhoz workers. After all, what do these gardens have to do with me? Comrade Zverev can understand this matter better than me. He knows when kolkhoz workers should cut down their gardens and when to plant them anew. So I'll leave it in his hands.

I would particularly like to bring your attention to our successors, the young writers. Everything that I have said about writers of the older generation, about the need for some of them to change their circumstances, applies in equal measure to the more talented of the younger writers; the only difference being that we should provide significantly more material aid to the younger writers and treat them with more economy and care. Practically all of them find it impossible to live merely on their literary earnings, and taking leave from their current profession to write their first major work or series of stories will leave them in a helpless financial position. Some of them--for example, teachers--will inevitably have to bid farewell to their former professions, since it is impossible to be simultaneously a teacher and a writer. This is clear to everyone who knows how overburdened the teacher's work day is.

After the first Congress of Soviet Writers, Gorky said: "We must produce an entire army of excellent literary workers--we must!" We must not forget these words of Gorky, comrade delegates! Remember, after the death of Gorky, in the literary ranks stood such writers as Sergeev-Tsensky, Prishvin, Serafimovich, Yakub Kolas, Gladkov, Olga Forsh, Mapietta Shaginyan, Veresaev, Aleksei Tolstoi, Novikov-Priboi, Shishikov, and others. These are the elders. The other writers who are today widely known entered literature later; but even the youngest of these is now past fifty. Our replacements are coming slowly. There are fewer young literary names today than there were in 1936, in the year of Aleksei Maksimovich's death. This places a greater responsibility on us for the preparation and growth of the young replacements. Writers grow slowly, and it is high time to think seriously and deeply about the status of Soviet literature not only in the Sixth Five-Year Plan, but also in twenty or twenty-five years, when hardly any of the current leading writers will be left.

We are all sons of our great Communist Party. Each of us, thinking about the Party, always with a feeling of great internal emotion, mentally says: "Oh, Party, our beloved mother, you raised us, you tempered us, you lead us in life on the one true path." And now I, looking at you, say in conclusion:

Beloved Party! You have a strong and bright collective mind and maternal hands, which know how to be both stern and tender. You will find the necessary way to help your writers, and when they, given wings by your attention and concern, create new works worthy of you, the Party, and the motherland, the grateful Soviet and foreign reader will express heartfelt gratitude, in the first place, to you!


Translated by: Eric Konkol

For more on Sholkhov, visit:
107 Years of Sholokhov
see also:
Biography of Mikhail Sholokhov

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