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"In our country it’s possible to make a hero out of anybody" - Soviet ideology in the works of Vera Panova

Hausarbeit (Hauptseminar) 2011 18 Seiten


Table of contents

1. Introduction

2. Vera Panova & Soviet Socialist Realism

3. “The fellow travelers”

4. “I‟ve been a child long enough”

5. Conclusion

6. Bibliography

1. Introduction

During the “Great Patriotic War”, poetry and literature expressed to many Soviets the idea of hope and optimism when fear and death were very near. Fighting a war against Nazi Ger- many demanded everything from the Soviet people, but the fascist enemy welded the people together. Cooperation and an iron will became the ideal of the heroic Soviet citizen. As one of the most famous and celebrated writers in Soviet literature of the post-World War Two pe- riod, Vera Panova deals in her works exactly with this brave and non-surrendering type of Soviet citizen. In the tradition of other Soviet Realist novels, hope and optimism are the recur- rent themes in Vera Panova‟s works on World War Two. It is her credo that restoring the country is challenging, but doable.

Using the historiographical method of a cultural and political interpretation, this paper will analyze the works of one of the most read authors of post-World War Two Soviet Socialist Realism. This paper will concentrate on Panovas‟ writings dealing directly with events during World War Two. This is predominantly Sputniki (1946, The Train, literally translated “the fellow travelers”), in which she describes how Soviets from different backgrounds work to- gether at the front. They are inspired by their mission for the motherland, which needs every helping hand. Another focus will lay on her two short plays Valya and Volodya (1959), in which the lives of two children from Leningrad are described. Both dedicate everything to reconstruction, both the country and their families. Richard Overy‟s Russia’s War and Cathe- rine Merridale‟s Ivan’s War will be used as two important aides in the interpretation of and as the main reference to the history of the Soviet Union during World War Two.

The main agenda of this paper will be to identify the role Soviet ideology played in the three analyzed works. As typical for Soviet literature on World War Two, the predominant topics are morality, hope, faith, and solidarity. Recurring descriptions of exhaustless patriot- ism emphasize the bravery of the Soviet people and thus glorify the Soviet war effort. Addi- tionally, the infusion of Socialist Realism with humanity can be located everywhere in her works. But this paper will also reveal that Panova did not write one of the very propagandistic and schematic books that were so massively written in the post-war years. The analysis will begin with a short introduction on Panova‟s background as a writer and a brief introduction to Soviet Socialist realism. In the following, by depicting the story first of Sputniki, and then of Valya and Volodya, Panova‟s work on World War Two will be closely examined and ana- lyzed.

2. Vera Panova & Soviet Socialist Realism

Vera Panova was born in Rostov-on-Don on March 20, 1905 and died in Leningrad on March 3, 1973. Because she lacked a formal education, due to her poor family background as well as the chaos around the revolution of 1917 and its aftermath, Panova educated herself mainly through extensive reading. By the age of nine, she had already begun to write poetry and prose. Between 1922 and 1946, she worked predominantly as a journalist and correspon- dent at different locations. With the eve of World War Two, she began to express her observa- tions and thoughts through stories and characters in fiction novels.1 Like most Soviets of her time, the Soviet system and the war affected Vera Panova‟s life directly. Both the Stalin re- gime (her second husband was killed in a Gulag) and World War Two (her time in captivity in a German camp) had a big influence on her own life. She presents the reader with many lifelike images of the war, but her own experiences of Stalin‟s terror and other Soviet state violence do not find a place in her works.2

Her books were widely read, several of them were even transformed into films. Most of them are translated into numerous languages. She received remarkably good critiques; win- ning three Stalin Book prizes for literature among others (Sputniki, 1946; Kruzhilikha, 1947; IasnyjBereg, 1949).3 It is important to note that she wrote a number of other widely read books and short plays, dealing predominantly with personal fulfillment and the importance of the family, both topics set in the pre-war and post-war Soviet society.4 The novels dealt with in this paper are so interesting for an historical analysis because her characters and themes depict, as usual for Soviet Socialist Realism, the everyday life of ordinary Soviet citizens dur- ing the war. The plots are not complex, but plain-spoken, descriptive, and relatively riskless; that is the typical simplistic canon of Socialist Realism.5 Panova‟s work goes partly along with Katerina Clark‟s definition of Soviet Socialist Realism “as a canonical doctrine defined by its patristic texts.”6 As imposed by the party, “art is the reflection of reality, therefore real- ism is its essence.”7 Many aspects of Socialist Realism can be found in her works analyzed in this paper, e.g. the emphasis on the workingman and the strong support for the state. On the other hand, other aspects are missing, e.g. the openly expressed Soviet ideology in the form of the party‟s guidance for the protagonists or the adaptation of the Soviet “master plot”.8

In Western Slavic scholarship, Soviet Socialist Realism still has a bad standing. It is widely connected to state influenced literature that fails to be intellectually demanding and exciting. Additionally, it is blamed to be part of a tradition, in which intellectual autonomy, freedom and sincerity were disengaged. Referring to this critique, Katerina Clark argues that Soviet Socialist Realism is, as Russian literature has always been, simply very strange to Western aesthetics. The Soviet Realist novel has the purpose to depict popular topics, and was thus consequentially, like most varieties of popular literature, formulaic. Aesthetic functions in the text are less important than politics and ideology. Sputniki as well as Valya and Volodya are a good example for this kind of writing style. Clark concludes that this is the reason why only very few Western scholars have written on Soviet Socialist Realism.9

3. “The fellow travelers”

With World War Two, Panova depicts in her famous novel Sputniki exactly one of the most popular topics of Soviet Socialist Realism. Interestingly, Panova found out the impacts of the war first-hand. Embedded as a journalist in a hospital train at the front-line, she record- ed her experiences on the war in this book. In December 1944, while working for a newspaper in Perm, Panova agreed to join the crew of a hospital train at the front-line. Her order was to write a booklet about their work, thus providing “an exchange of experiences” to the reader.10 During her time on the train, she collected material for her first novel Sputniki while meeting the crew and the wounded soldiers. She wrote the book promptly after her time on the train,

when her impressions from “those wonderful people” were still fresh.11 Today, Sputniki is considered to be one of the classics of Soviet literature on World War Two.12

The work deals with a military hospital train that picks up wounded soldiers from the front and brings them to safe hospitals at the rear. The crew is comprised of ordinary Soviet citizens, who heroically carry out their duty on the train. The reader gets to know the emo- tions and thoughts of four protagonists: Commissar Vanya Danilov, the almost ideal captain of the train; Lena Ogorodnikova, a young, brave nurse; Doctor Nikolai Belov, the old train commandant; and Julia Dmitriyevna, the spinster assistant doctor. The story starts about two weeks after “Hitler [had] launched his treacherous attack, [with] his motorized troops […] racing along Russian roads, his aircraft […] flying over Russian towns.”13 The plot is lacking a real climax, but it is nonetheless a humorous and, regarding the context, an almost airily written story. It is a story about love and morale, about happy life with the family, and the optimism in everyday life. Within the story-line, six main analytical topics can be pointed out: pre-war happiness in the Soviet Union, the belief in final victory, Soviet heroism, the will of sacrifices for the motherland, Soviet comradeship, and the general war suffering. Along these rubrics, which are very representative for Socialist Realism, the reader can gain insight of how positive Panova‟s views and assumptions on the Soviet war effort in Sputniki are.

Pre-war happiness in the Soviet Union:

The pre-war life of the protagonists is an essential part of the book. Their past is de- scribed as a joyful time, in which the crew members have something to identify with during the hard times of the war. Their former everyday life creates a counterpart to the war-time reality. Danilov emphasizes that he was happy with his pre-war life, “I‟d live another hundred of the same kind [of years] and not weary of them.”14 Lena, despite remembering a rather hard childhood with a non-loving mother, thinks a lot of her happy marriage with her husband Danya, who serves in the Red Army.15 Even her relationship to the state is described almost as a “love story”. During her childhood, nothing else existed for Lena than the state.

She was a child of that state. It had been her home, her land, her sky. To any person in that land she could say comrade. From anyone she could take bread, and with anybody she would share it. She went without diffidence into any factory or office.16

While thinking of her husband Danya, she asks herself, “[w]hy must all this be-wounds and suffering, these beds, these bedpans, and all this longing, when life was so wonderful, so full of happiness?”17 Dr. Belov‟s happy family life is portrayed in great detail as well. Dr. Belov had a decent marriage with his wife Sonechka. They were not rich, but they helped each other and had plans for the future,18 even though the war changed everything. He had left his family in Leningrad and since then his thoughts were always with them.

Oh, when would it come, that day when all four of them would be sitting together in the small dining room, with the lamp shining on their dear faces under its shade with the torn strings of beads! Would that day ever come?19

Panova combines the suffering during the war with excursuses to the peaceful past.20 The stress on love and family is a typical appearance in novels of the 1940s. Dramas with a larger social impact and an ideological consequence were implemented in terms of “little families”. The protagonists find in their “little families” their personal happiness and their priorities in life. Their pre-war life is highly idealized and depicts a state they ardently want back. Furthermore, the family is the main reference point for the happy life in post-war Soviet Union. It is hope and desire that make them work so courageously on the train.

Belief in final victory:

The return to these happy times is strongly supported by the omnipresent belief in final victory. As prevalent in official Soviet propaganda, the Soviet victory is for all protagonists just a matter of time. There was no question that the happy days would come back. Lena is convinced that the initial retreat, experienced on their first mission to Pskov, is just temporary and that victory would come in the end.

Another town captured-well, it couldn‟t be helped. In the end they‟d be pushed back again. Only let it be soon, so that the old life could return quickly, so that [my husband] Danya could come back.21

The actual chaos, bad organization and demoralization at the front-line during the first weeks, which was responsible for the rapid advance of the German forces,22 is only mentioned indirectly by referring to the Battle at Pskov and the siege of Leningrad.

While the train stands in Leningrad, Dr. Belov meets his wife Sonechka shortly at the sta- tion. She is scared of the Germans, mentioning a man from Vilna who already has witnessed the war. Dr. Belov appeases her and says that this will not happen for long.23 Another exam- ple for the unshakeable faith in success gives a scene, in which the train approaches the front. Dmitriyevna and the army doctor Suprugov recognize Red Army troops in the forest. Supru- gov immediately speaks anxiously of retreating troops. Although it is quite obviously a re- treat, Dmitriyevna answers that he could not prove that they are retreating and “that they might be regrouping. […] We can‟t understand these things.”24 Panova depicts in these scenes, typical for Soviet ideology, the overwhelming faith of the Soviet people. It is clear at all times that the fascist enemy will be beaten. The Soviet war effort will lead to a victorious end.

Soviet heroism:

The belief in final victory is paired with a strong heroism of all leading characters. Pano- va regularly emphasizes that the protagonists are pretty aware of their dangerous duty. Dani- lov says to Suprugov that they are going to a hot spot as anyone else, “[w]hat do you think - why should we be different from anybody else? Of course we shall [head to a hot spot].”25 Although the train carries Red Cross banners on its sides, everybody in the train knows that this would not provide any protection against German shelling or aerial bombardment.26 For Danilov, the job on the train is as dangerous and the discipline is as strict as at the front-line. He even goes further, when talking with the young electrician Nizvetsky, Danilov makes the distinction, that “what‟s permissible in a front-line is impossible for us. We‟ve got to be an- gels. […] We are Red Cross men and women.”27

Arriving for their first deployment in the suburbs of Pskov, bombs caused glass splinters in the train. Immediately there are many wounded men to treat from the nearby battlefield. A coach is catching fire and flames and dust are everywhere. Despite the chaotic circumstances, the whole crew stays calm. All are starting to work very courageously.28 Panova emphasizes their heroism imposingly.


1 Panova, Vera: Foreword. A little about myself and my work, in: Panova, Vera: Selected works, translated by Olga Shartse and Eve Manning, Moscow 1976, pp. 7-12; Goscilo, Helena: Russian and Polish Women‟s fiction, Knoxville 1985, pp. 108-110.

2 Kreuzer, Ruth: Vera Panova, in: Tomei, Christine D. (Ed.): Russian Women Writers, Vol. 2 (= Garland refer- ence library of the humanities, Vol. 1866; Women writers of the world, Vol. 3) New York/ London 1999, pp. 1009-1034, here pp. 1009-1011, p. 1019. In 1935, her second husband Boris Vakhtin was falsely denounced and taken to a Gulag, where he died in the same year. In the immediate years, Panova had difficulties to find work. Nonetheless, she had more and more success as a writer and won nation-wide recognition. She received her first prizes during the 1930s and the early 1940s. While living in Pushkin near Leningrad in 1941, the German troops advanced so quickly that Panova found herself trapped behind the lines. After being detained by the Germans, she eventually managed to flee and evacuate herself and her three children to the city of Perm near the Ural.

3 Additionally, Padova was an elected member of the Presidium of the Union of Soviet Writers and she received the Order of the Red Banner of Labor twice, in 1955 and 1956.

4 Peterson: Panova, pp. 199f. Besides writing various screenplays and playwrights, her main works are: Kruzhilikha (1948, The Factory), which deals with the director of a plant, who dedicated his whole life to the victory in the war, but afterwards cannot deal with his own or his workers emotional needs; Iasnyibereg (1950, Bright Shore), in which Panova depicts, in the typical way of socialist realism, the reconstruction of a destroyed village through collective labor; in Serezha (1955, On Faraway Street), the life of a five-year-old is described, who is preparing himself for his life as a future member of Soviet (1958, Sentimental Novel), a novel largely based on own experiences as a young journalist in Rostov-on-Don.

5 Goscilo, Helena: Russian and Polish Women‟s fiction, Knoxville 1985, p. 111.

6 Clark, Katerina: The Soviet Novel. History as Ritual, Bloomington/ Indianapolis ³2000, p. 3.

7 Slonim, Marc: Soviet Russian Literature. Writers and Problems. 1917-1977, New York ²1977, p. 165.

8 Clark, Katerina: The Soviet Novel, pp. 5f, p. 252.

9 Ibid.: pp. ix-xiii. Topics treated exclusively are for example the political interference on authors, the impact on Soviet attitudes and mores, or the simple question, why Socialist Realism is so bad.

10 Panova, Vera: What prompted me to write “The Train”, in: Soviet Studies in Literature, Vol. 3, No. 1, 1966, pp. 3-16, here p. 4. The order to write about the military hospital train No. 312 came from the Administrative Board of the Hospital Division, while Panova worked as a journalist in Perm.

11 Panova, Vera: Foreword, pp. 7-14, here p. 13.

12 Kreuzer, Ruth: Vera Panova, p. 1011.

13 Panova, Vera: p. 7, p. 64.

14 Ibid.: p. 8.

15 Panova, Vera: The Train, pp. 26-42.

16 Ibid.: p. 35.

17 Panova, Vera: The Train: p. 128.

18 Ibid.: pp. 194-199.

19 Ibid.: pp. 66-71, p. 117.

20 Kasack, Wolfgang: Die russische Literatur 1945-1982. Mit einem Verzeichnis der Übersetzungen ins Deutsche (= Arbeiten und Texte zur Slavistik, Vol. 28) München 1983, p. 14.

21 Panova, Vera: The Train, p. 47.

22 Overy, Richard: Russia‟s War. A History of the Soviet War Effort. 1941-1945, New York 1998, p. 76.

23 Panova, Vera: The Train, pp. 53f.

24 Ibid.: p. 79.

25 Ibid.: p. 4.

26 Ibid.: p. 7.

27 Ibid,: p. 13.

28 Ibid.: pp. 85-89.


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Sozialistischer Realismus Sovietunion Zweiter Weltkrieg



Titel: "In our country it’s possible to make a hero out of anybody" - Soviet ideology in the works of Vera Panova