Language and Metaphors of the Russian Revolution

Monday, Jan 25, 2021

In his new book, Language and Metaphors of the Russian Revolution: Sow the Wind, Reap the Storm, Lonny Harrison, associate professor of Russian, 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. Harrison spoke with Christopher Conway, professor of Spanish, about Soviet suppression of literature and art; the development of a coded language to advance and then combat the revolution; and the flexibility of meaning behind recurring storm, flood, and harvest metaphors.

Christopher Conway: Congratulations on the publication of Language and Metaphors of the Russian Revolution: Sow the Wind, Reap the Storm, recently published by Lexington Books. Your book makes it clear that Russian literary traditions are central to an understanding of the Bolshevik Revolution and its outcomes, including Stalinism. In what ways does the study of metaphors of revolution speak directly to the intellectual and cultural history of Russian Communism?

Lonny Harrison: Metaphors of revolution are revealing because they tell us how people conceived of the Russian Revolution and allow us to compare those conceptions during its build-up, in nearly a century of dissent and social upheaval before the tsar finally abidicated in February 1917, and during the colossal transformations to the culture and society after the Bolsheviks seized power in October of that year. It might be difficult for us as readers in a democratic society to imagine the degree of censorship in the arts and the repression writers and artists suffered both before and after the Revolution. Writers in the nineteenth century who resisted tsarist tyranny had to be careful how they put things and often used what came to be known as Aesopian language, or carefully coded formulas that appeared innocuous on the surface but could be read as allusions to forbidden topics, like revolutionary change. Imagery of storms and floods, as well as reaping and sowing, were some of the ways of signaling the inevitable tide of revolution. After 1917, the regime adopted these metaphors to speak of the Revolution's triumph; but some writers, on the other hand, used them as counter-narratives to resist the repressive culture of Soviet authoritarianism.

I was struck by the dramatic continuities between nineteenth-century and twentieth-century Russian literature vis-a-vis the persistence of nature metaphors related to storms, such as flooding. You make it clear that a critical tradition of storm symbols begins to take root a century before the Russian Revolution, through writers like Alexander Pushkin, Alexander Herzen, and Maxim Gorky, whose works explore the contradictions and injustices of Tsarist Russia. How did writers like these make use of the metaphors you examine, and what made their work unique?

Each of the writers you mentioned resisted tsarist tyranny but took a very different approach to it in the way they used the imagery of storms and floods. The Soviets' use of floods and other nature symbols was different still. Part of the argument of my book relates to how flexible these metaphors and symbols are. In different hands, they can mean different things, depending on the political perspective of the writer, and the era when they are writing. For Pushkin, the flood is an ambiguous allegory of both repression and revenge. The “little hero” of his epic poem The Bronze Horseman loses his betrothed in the historic St. Petersburg flood of 1824 and shakes his fist at a famous equestrian statue of Peter the Great, who had built the city on a swamp . . . but then the statue comes crashing down from its pedestal and chases the hapless hero to his death. Tsarist tyranny still ruled the day, but the hero’s defiance signals the coming of a “new day” when the people would rise up against it—which they did nearly a century later. Alexander Herzen used storms as an extended metaphor in a collection of essays called From the Other Shore, which he wrote while living in exile in Europe after witnessing the upheavals of 1848. The reader is on the old shore, the dark and bloody ground of his native land, but the writer is aboard a ship, heading into the storm, moving through it toward the progressive society of the future. The ship itself is an interesting motif, a kind of ark which often accompanied the storm and flood symbols. For the poet Fyodor Tyutchev, a conservative, the ark is the ship of state, carrying Russia safely aloft, over the flood of revolution happening across Europe in 1848. Contrast that with Vladimir Mayakovsky’s mock epic Mystery Bouffe, from 1918, in which a pseudo-Noah’s Ark delivers the proletariat to the working-class paradise after they throw the bourgeoisie overboard. Gorky used the image of a stormy petrel, a seabird that heralds the storm. The image became a symbol of the pre-October revolutionary struggle, and Stormy Petrel became a nom de guerre of sorts for Gorky himself. Gorky is an ambivalent figure in the Russian Revolution and its aftermath. He worked closely with both Lenin and Stalin, and was one of the chief architects of Socialist Realism. But he was also critical of both men and their repressive policies. He intervened on numerous occasions to save other writers from hardship and persecution. When it came to storm imagery, the official story saw the Russian people as an elemental force that needed to be tempered—that is, educated in an ideologically correct understanding of Marxism-Leninism and the inevitable march of history toward the triumph of the workers’ paradise under Communism. Yet, even while recognizing the people’s anarchy as a just, elemental force, Gorky had seen the socialist revolution as a cultural transformation with the distinct purpose of building a humanist civilization based on ideals of democracy and the development of people’s moral, spiritual, and intellectual faculties. Critical of the Bolsheviks’ policy of state domination of the new revolutionary culture, he lived in exile for many years but returned during some of the worst repression under Stalin in the mid-1930s. His role has been fiercely criticized, but on the other hand, he might have thought he could mitigate the excesses of Stalinism—an attempt which may have cost him his life, given that the circumstances surrounding his death, and that of his son, are murky.  

One of my favorite chapters in the book is Chapter 5: Bolshevik Weaponization of Language and Culture, in which you explain how the Bolsheviks sought to reshape political discourse, everyday life, and personal subjectivity through an all-encompassing radicalization of language, imagery, and symbols. At one point you draw a parallel between the place of Russian Orthodox iconography in Russian life and this new, sacralized vision of revolution. In what ways did the new revolutionary propaganda echo the role of religious icons in people's lives?

The Bolsheviks adapted the iconography of the Russian Orthodox Church in major ways. Revolutionary art overtly borrowed the forms of religious art. One 1918 propaganda poster depicts Trotsky slaying the dragon of counter-revolution in exactly the same pose you would see St. George slaying the dragon. Another image that comes to mind is a moment in a propaganda film of the era when a portrait of Lenin hangs over the entryway to a church where an icon of an Orthodox saint would normally be. So in a society where religious imagery was deeply ingrained in the culture, and the literacy rate was low, iconography was very cleverly used to send the messages of the new regime. The religious symbolism, moreover, is also quite befitting because the revolutionary movement throughout the nineteenth century and the Soviet regime itself had a religious, cult-like quality.

Your discussion of the cultural and political connotation of snow appears repeatedly in your book but is emphasized in your discussion of Mikhail Bulgakov’s White Guard and A Dead Man’s Memoir. You suggest that snow imagery in notable works of Russian literature functions allegorically to represent external sociopolitical forces, such as revolution, or as something more intimate and subjective. Where does Bulgakov fit in relation to the revolutionary and less revolutionary representations of snow?

I liked working on Bulgakov’s snow imagery because he uses it in diverse ways so well. He is one of those who reclaimed the narrative of revolution by making its storm imagery personal rather than a symbol of the inevitable tide of history. One of the key points I wanted to make with the book is that some writers were able to reclaim the narrative of revolution by repurposing its symbols and stories. For me, Bulgakov reclaimed the beauty of a snowstorm, if I can put it that way. In White Guard, while the Civil War is raging, the snow in Kiev has a magical, mythical quality. It is an emblem of fairytale beauty, of peace, and the comforts of home. Yet it also signifies the threatening reality of war and the tribulations to come. Bulgakov gave snow one of its most interesting representations in the notion of black snow, which is an alternative title for White Guard that Bulgakov uses in the semi-autobiographical Dead Man’s Memoir. In the latter, he describes the writing of his novel and his attempts to have it published in the oppressive political environment after the Revolution. The reversal in the title from white to black signifies despair—not only for the dying world depicted in White Guard, but the author’s despair at being prevented from giving sustaining life to his heroes and heroines in art.

One of the tensions in the Soviet literature that you examine is the push and pull between censorship, internalized and external, and the irrepressible power of a writer’s imagination and creativity, which wants to be free and express itself openly. In Chapter 7: Fruits of the Revolution: Three Soviet Novels, you explore Quiet Flows the Don by Mikhail Sholokhov, a major work that illustrates this tension. Although the novel contains the prerequisite Marxist reminders about the inevitability of revolution, its pessimistic vision about violence and human relationships makes the work an outlier in comparison to more propagandistic Soviet novels. Can you tell us more about Sholokhov and his relationship to Soviet politics and culture? Was he as independent as figures like Bulgakov or Pasternak, whose novels ran afoul of the authorities?

Sholokhov was considered a proletarian writer, rather than a fellow traveler, or bourgeois intellectual, as the others were. Most of his works toe the party line. Quiet Don is an exception because it pushes the envelope of what was considered acceptable. You’re right, it was an outlier when it comes to typical Socialist Realist fare. There’s no question that it is regarded as a pinnacle of Soviet literature, and with good reason. An epic tale of the Revolution and Civil War, Quiet Don is most unusual because, in a society which required ideological conformity, the hero is politically uncommitted, and historical events are treated in the novel with an uncommon degree of impartiality. In the book I talk about the controversy surrounding its publication, when Sholokhov was pressured to make his novel’s ideological alignment clearer. But Sholokhov pushed back and was somehow able to gain Stalin’s approval, possibly because the latter hoped that a writer with such a powerful talent could be useful. Stalin recognized the far-reaching impact of great literature and probably hoped Sholokhov might someday glorify his legacy with a War and Peace of his own day.

In your extensive discussion of Pasternak’s Doctor Zhivago, you show how the novel reorients natural and storm imagery away from the political toward the personal. You argue, for example, that sea and water are linked to Lara’s effect on Yuri, and that she is most frequently associated with a form of elementality that is not coded as explicitly political or historical. You describe a similar phenomenon with how Pasternak represents forests, which thrive as an ideal. Is this striving toward universalist values, centered on nature and personal feeling, what ultimately sets this novel apart from other fiction produced in Russia in the 1940s and 1950s, and what condemned it to censorship?

As I write in the book, Doctor Zhivago is not overtly politically, although it does contain some critique of the Bolshevik regime. After his initial enthusiasm for the Revolution wanes, the hero Yuri Zhivago would prefer to stand outside historical events. The important thing, though, is that in Communist Russia, it was not enough to be a neutral bystander. One had to be an enthusiastic supporter of the state or else be considered its enemy. Soviet fiction in the 1940s and 50s was subject to strict ideological controls and had to conform to certain formulas. Usually the hero’s spontaneous energy, sometimes represented in storm imagery, had to be harnessed by an ideological education; that is, he comes to consciousness of the inevitable historical process that led to the triumph of the working class, and defeat of world capitalism. Pasternak is another of those who hijacks the narrative, and storm and flood imagery in his novel represent a different kind of revolution—an inner revolution of personal freedom, which involved the rejection of historical determinism, and embrace, rather, of the ephemeral beauty and fleeting joys of the moment.

Congratulations on this exciting publication. What are you working on next?

Thank you. I really enjoyed writing it. I’m working on another book about literature and revolution, but this time researching the literary representation of Russian revolutionary terrorism. Its working title is The Terror Artist: Personas of the Revolutionary Terrorist in Russian Fiction and Memoirs from Dostoevsky to Savinkov. It is slated for publication by Academic Studies Press in 2022.