New book examines literary responses to the Russian Revolution

Tuesday, Dec 15, 2020

Slogans and speeches often ignite the engines behind social and political movements, but it may be a nation’s great works of literature which become the fuel for its revolutions.

In his new book, Language and Metaphors of the Russian Revolution: Sow the Wind, Reap the Storm, Lonny Harrison from the Department of Modern Languages writes an interpretive history of the Russian Revolution and the literary tradition that fostered it, as well as those writers who reacted to and resisted it.

In Language and Metaphors, Harrison, associate professor of Russian, examines the evolution of storm, flood, and harvest metaphors in works by authors such as Maxim Gorky, Mikhail Bulgakov, Boris Pasternak, and others. At the same time, he analyzes the language and ideals of the Russian Revolution, including Bolshevik weaponization of language, and cultural policy that supported the use of terror and social purging.

Interpreting the language, symbols, stories, and imagery of revolution, he presents his findings with a focus on the uses of language as a weapon of class war, and alternatively as a medium of resistance and dissent.

“Sometimes a storm is just a storm,” writes Harrison in the preface, “but more often than not, it is an ambient metaphor accentuating personal turns of fortune, unrestrained political forces, seismic ruptures, or the inexorable tide of change.”

After nearly a century of struggle against tyranny, early 20th century Russians rebelled against 300 years of Romanov rule and demanded a new system of government. Tsar Nicholas II abdicated his throne in early 1917. His surrender marked the long-awaited freedom anticipated in the works of the Russian poets, fiction writers, and philosophers who came to be known as the Russian intelligentsia.

The Bolsheviks, later the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, quickly adopted literature as a medium of state propaganda. Strict censorship of creative works prohibited the publication of any writings deemed dissident to the ideological pillars of Communism.

The writers who nurtured the revolution were now enemies of the state. 

“The intelligentsia occupied a unique position as both instigator and victim in the arc of history that brought the Russian Revolution,” says Harrison. “Several of the featured writers’ lives and works stand out as unique responses to the repression and terror that engulfed the Soviet population in the years following the Bolshevik seizure of power.”

Harrison’s approach is the first collective examination of Russian fiction to consider the resonance of storm, flood, and harvest imagery used by writers whose lives and works powerfully capture the tensions of the age.

"Lonny's work is important because it shows the value of interdisciplinary studies applied to the analysis of literary discourse," says Ignacio Ruiz-Pérez, chair of the Department of Modern Languages. "His scholarship strengthens the profile of Slavic studies in North Texas. Our department is fortunate to have a top-notch researcher like him."

Placing language and culture in the context of authoritarian control, the ultimate aim of the book, Harrison says, is to create a guide to critical reading of both authoritarian discourse and rare examples of counter narratives that thrived in spite of their suppression. In our current political climate, he argues that the lessons learned from Russia’s revolutionary literature are as important today as they were one hundred years ago.

“As we begin to see a global resurgence of authoritarianism in politics today, it behooves us to understand how authoritarian language is used to shape public discourse and mass culture,” says Harrison. “Depending on how they are used and applied, our stories, metaphors, and symbols… can serve the interests of the politics of repression or the power of personal liberty.”