Katerina Clark, Explorer of Deserted Depths

Design by Anasthasia Shilov

In 1981, Yale’s own Katerina Clark initiated a paradigm shift in Slavic studies. Back then, the field—like the region it studied—was in stagnation. Brezhnev had presided over the Soviet sphere of influence for nearly two decades, and his policy of normalization had alienated just about everyone in the West. Neither the achievement of a classless, stateless communist society dreamed of by the Left nor the dissolution of Soviet power hoped for by the Right seemed possible. Consequently, most of Western academia looked down on the party apparatus. Art aligned with the Soviet state was discredited, while anything ambivalent or opposed to it was valorized—even when it veered toward nationalism or anti-semitism, as in the case of Alexander Solzhenitsyn or Valentin Rapustin. 

Academia strives toward an unbiased perspective, but its very selection of subject matter betrays the cultural assumptions of its time. In the 1980s, no one could care less about the genre of socialist realism, a mode of expression codified under Stalin and representative of everything Western audiences resented about the Soviet state: its propagandistic praise of recent government achievements, its idealized protagonists who represented the perfect Soviet citizenry, and its formulaic plotlines depicting the certainty of communist triumph over any challenge. But all of this changed when Katerina Clark published The Soviet Novel, a careful, critical look into those very works of Soviet literature. As Clark writes wittily in the preface, “[When] I am politely asked what I ‘do,’ I find myself in the unhappy position of having to admit that I work on the Soviet novel… on the Soviet Soviet novel, on those hundreds of unreadable text that serve as examples of Socialist Realism.” In the process, Clark unearths the wide array of overgeneralizations and incorrect assumptions about socialist realism which had long been accepted as common knowledge.

Clark situates socialist realism within overarching trends of Russian literature. The genre’s explicitly Marxist-Leninist values might have been specific to the Soviet epoch, but its borrowing of prominent archetypes and symbols from Russian literature placed it within a larger intellectual discourse, which Katerina Clark calls the “spontaneity/consciousness dialectic.” As she writes in the introduction, the Russian intelligentsia has traditionally been obsessed with the gulf between “the vast, uneducated peasant masses (the spontaneous) and the educated elite (the conscious)… between backward rural Russia (the realm of spontaneity) and modern urban Russia (the realm of consciousness)… between those seething masses, capable of spontaneous uprisings, and the autocratic, heavily bureaucratized, and hierarchical state, which seeks to control these masses and direct them.” Marxism-Leninism represents merely another attempt to resolve this dialectic. 

The spontaneity/consciousness framework allows Clark to follow literary tropes from 19th-century classics, like Chernychevsky’s What Is To Be Done (1863) and Stepnyak-Kravchinsky’s Andrey Kozhukov (1889), through their recurrence in socialist realist novels like Furmanov’s Chapaev (1923) and Ostrovsky’s How the Steel Was Tempered (1934). Socialist realism adopted tropes from literary classics—mentor figures who steer characters toward enlightenment, parallel structures of political organizations and family life, heroes who die for their cause—and turned them into a formula, advertising communism as the reconciliation of “spontaneous” individual desires with “conscious” collective aims. This conclusion of Clark’s isn’t just an insightful bit of analysis. It mounts a challenge to the didacticism with which socialist realism and the Soviet epoch as a whole is often treated, which strictly divides pre- and post-revolutionary epochs into good and evil. (Which is which typically depends on whether you’re talking to a liberal or a communist.) By focusing on consistent lineages rather than strict demarcations, Clark challenges both parties to reconsider this reductive division.

As Clark zooms out from socialist realism to contextualize it within Russian literary traditions, she also zooms in on its varied stages and developments. Not only was the Soviet century a multifaceted period of shifting policies and values, but even the Stalinist period underwent distinct phases, leading to significant transformations in socialist realism. For instance, as the post-war government asserted that the Soviet man had become more sophisticated, the passionate, anarchic protagonist of earlier novels was replaced by a responsible and reliable hero. The valorization of daring feats was replaced with the veneration of knowledge and culture. Elements of folk culture moved in and out of vogue. Nature was initially villainized as an archaic force to overcome through technology, then upheld as a positive symbol; conveying heroism through interaction with wild horses was replaced by emphasizing one’s connection to birch trees; and so on. 

By breaking down the shifting histories of these signs and symbols, Clark not only provides an academic framework for analyzing socialist realism, but also questions the genre’s reputation as a monolith handed down directly from Stalin himself. She uncovers a world of dynamic changes and shifting currents within Soviet literature, revealing continuities within perceived divisions and divisions within perceived continuities. 

Clark makes no political value judgments in The Soviet Novel, nor does she prescribe future directions for academia. But the book’s publication inspired an entirely new movement in Slavic studies, re-examining the rich subtextual layers of official Soviet culture for its dramatic subversions and complex dynamics. I first learned of Clark’s work last year, while interviewing scholars for a narrative podcast project on the complicated history of Soviet Jewry. I had never heard of Clark before, but throughout these interviews, I came to feel she was a veritable celebrity. Upon learning I went to Yale, almost every scholar responded by exclaiming, “Oh, you have to take a class with Katerina Clark!” For many of these academics, engaged in decades-long entanglements with long-forgotten Soviet books and films, Clark had been the first figure who deemed those dusty bookshelves worthy of reconsideration. 

So many texts on Eastern European art and culture suffer from an ironic pitfall: in their oversimplifications, generalizations and moral denunciations of Soviet propaganda, they become propagandistic themselves. Clark’s work does the opposite, taking a microscope to one of literature’s most seemingly simplistic genres and discovering a world of complexity underlying its didacticism.

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