“NIGHTMARE OF CIVILIZATION”: EROSION OF THE NONPOLITICAL IN AKSYONOV’S GENERATIONS

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Nina Gradov – young scion of the Russo-Georgian Gradov clan of Moscow intellectuals, heir to an endangered Soviet intelligentsia – is violently courted by the Soviet party-state in an episode early in Vassily Aksyonov’s historical novel Generations of Winter (Service 239). A sanctioned assault at the hands of a Communist Party leader, Nina’s bodily violation forges a poignant crucible between the personal and the political: that between the instruments of state-party coercion and the most private of spaces – those of the individual, the familial. Like a forgotten Helen, Nina yields to her suitor, “imagining herself, as always, as a victim of proletarian rape, a trophy brought back by the triumphant class” (Service 245; Aksyonov 81).

Though brief, Nina’s hailing – her rape-by-state, so to speak – is an auspice. Spanning decades of Soviet life under the thumb and jackboot of Joseph Stalin, Generations of Winter’s semi-fictional history lays bare a very real time and space, one defined by the coerced politicization of body, speech, and space. Through its deliberate promotion of a “prophylactic” orthodoxy, its targeting and purging of non-Soviet identity, and its prerogative of bio-power, the Soviet party-state apparat, under the authority of Stalin, sought to erase the very boundaries between private and public life, between the personal and the political (Service 215).

Well before Stalin’s rise to power in the years following Lenin’s death in 1924, predating even the formation of the Soviet Union itself in 1922, the Bolshevik faction, immediate predecessor to the Communist Party, made something of a tradition vis-à-vis an aesthetic of intraparty unity, a performance of ideological orthodoxy, an ethic enshrined in Party-founder Vladimir Lenin’s principle of democratic centralism (Malin; Siegelbaum, “Party Building”). Democratic centralism – a seemingly syncretic, quaintly Bolshevik method of political organization stressing ideological discipline and strict order in association – became, under Stalin, an effective pretext for organizational pressure and ideological invocation, two of his most powerful instruments of party-state power (Trotsky; Service 244).

Aimed at “the total penetration of society”, Stalin’s central authorities attempted to destroy or otherwise delegitimize any association perceived to compete with the Soviet party-state for popularity and authority (Service 244). It was the objective of the party-state authorities that “no unit of social life […] be left free of their control” (Service 245). This extended not solely to the nation, tribe or clan, to the Church and other religious bodies, but indeed even to the family. No sphere of life, association, institution, and space, whether personal or political in disposition, was exempt from suspicion. “No recreational or cultural club was permitted to exist unless it was run by the state”, Russian historian Robert Service writes. “…Harmless groups [as disparate as] philatelists, Esperantists and ornithologists were broken up by the arrest of their members.” (244, 245)

In the novel, the Gradov family are slowly and surely deprived of any independent association or space – social, vocational, recreational, politically unorthodox, religious or spiritual, ethnic or otherwise – through a “paternal” hailing on the part of an increasingly omnipotent Soviet party-state: Nina Gradov, an adolescent komsomolet (i.e. member of the All-Union Leninist Young Communist League) and element of the short-lived revolutionary theatrical avant-garde, is driven into exile in Tiflis, Georgia SSR when her Trotskyist-aligned troupe is infiltrated by a Joint-State Political Directorate (OGPU) informant (Meisel and Kozera; Nukhrat). Later, her older brother Nikita Borisovich is purged of his position as a Red Army corps commander when his association with the disgraced Marshal Vasily Konstantinovich Blücher – “enemy of the people and the Party” – is uncovered by the People’s Commissariat for Internal Affairs (NKVD), the successor agency to the OGPU (Aksyonov 195; Kalinin and Enukidze). He is condemned to the temporary purgatory of Stalin’s gulag, where he is duly stripped of identity and orientation, becoming zek L-148395.

So too are ethnic (i.e. nationalist-regionalist) sentiments liquidated: the Georgian Galaktion Gudiashvili – in a foreboding display of not only Sovietization but of a more fundamental extension of the party-state apparat into the private sphere – is forced to change his patronymic-bearing drug store to the “carelessly-daubed”, party-endorsed Pharmacy No. 18 (Aksyonov 125). The stripping of the family name itself – Gudiashvili being a Georgian name, the Georgians playing barbaroi to the Russian Bolsheviks’ Attica – is indicative of a cynical yet deliberate erasure of both the familial and the ethnic. Galaktion himself is later betrayed by his own kin and country, summarily imprisoned and tortured by his nephew, Nuzgar, a member of Lavrentiy Pavlovich Beria’s OGPU/NKVD.

Beria, one of Stalin’s most loyal acolytes, won plaudits for his general “ruthlessness towards Georgian nationalist dissent”, symptomatic of Stalin’s desire to dissolve any attachment to non-Soviet, particularly national, identity (Service 190, 201). More pointedly, earlier in the novel, Galaktion complains openly of the shortage in goods caused in part by Stalin’s first five-year plan: the “assertiveness of national and ethnic groups” being among the reasons for the abolition of the more quasi-state capitalist, more market-oriented New Economic Policy (NEP), and its replacement by the Five-Year Plan (Service 200). “I never thought my store would run short of belladonna, ipecacuanha, calcium chlorate”, Galaktion mourns (Aksyonov 128).

The omnipresence of the Soviet party-state is further evidenced by a verbal extension of ideology into the private sphere. The ideological factionalism endemic to the Party, the kind Stalin sought to rein in, did not stop at the Kremlin walls – the Soviet party-state’s metonymical city limits – but extended well into the private, home, the seat of the family, as well: family members trade political epithets (“You’re just imitating the Trotskyites!” “Bukharin dances to the tune of the kulaks!”), intellectuals were wary of sharing their thoughts in the kommunalki in case they might be overheard, informants were omnipresent (Aksyonov 42; Service 245). Words in essence became tainted, criminal: casual jokes, muttered invectives: any slight aimed at Stalin, the Party, or the Soviet state was tantamount to the most heinous form of treason (Service 225).

This, again, reinforced by a monopoly to biopower: more specifically, a repressive violence. In the novel, Nikita Gradov falls victim to the Gulag, Galaktion and Pulkovo are detained without trial, Nina is exiled and subject to sexual assault. So too are Kirill and Cecilia witnesses to the violent practice of coerced dekulakization in Gorelovo, as Boris Nikitovich is party to Stalin’s silent assassination of Army Commander Mikhail Frunze. The Soviet party-state under Stalin wielded just as ironclad a hold on the body as it did the body politic: state violence was the inevitable product of Stalin’s wishes and interests (Service 275). At the end of the 1920s, Soviet prisons were already “crammed” by peasants. By 1939, the total population of prisoners within the forced-labor system – including disgraced “politicals” and devastated Red Army officers – had reached nearly three million (Service 179, 224).

Many initial peasant prisoners had resisted dekulakization, a violent function of the compulsory collectivization instituted by Stalin. “Tough young lads”, Service writes, were summoned by the Politburo “to enforce the establishment of collective farms” in countryside villages. They were not “given limits on their use of violence”, nor did the Politburo “mind how [their] targets were hit”. It is estimated that between four and five million died as a result of dekulakization (Service 181).

Perfect central control, however, eluded Stalin. Policies could be “obfuscated, modified, even emasculated”. Choice was still possible and the entire structure of public information, surveillance, and enforcement was itself subject to error. Service writes: “Such a state and society were clearly not totalitarian if the epithet involves totality in practice as well as in intent.” (252).

In 1932, a Soviet peasant youth by the name of Pavlik Morozov was murdered by family members, apparently in response to Pavlik’s public denunciation of his father as a kulak (Service 245; Siegelbaum). While the episode is partly apocryphal, it tells of a real space defined by deadly extension of ideology into the private sphere: a deep-seated politicization of discourse and space unprecedented in any society purporting to be free. Through a three-pronged assault on the people, the Soviet apparat had succeeded in achieving a mostly political compound, one with few privacies, bodily or otherwise, one dependent on the state.

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