Irma Ratiani                                                                                                                                                                             # 10

 Models of Literary Discourse in Conditions of Soviet Totalitarianism


Abstract: The paper aims at analyzing the structural models of literary discourse in conditions of Soviet totalitarianism. The primary feature of totalitarianism as enforced rule is creation of ideological dictatorship, forming of clichés and their implementation. This obviously restricts considerably the frame of literary freedom. Under the circumstances, from the standpoint of literary-critical analysis, significance attaches not only to the assessment of   conceptual or motivational models but to the demonstration of the reaction of literary discourse to intellectual terror, systematization of those structural models offered by fairly extensive literary material.


 Key words: totalitarianism, literary discourse, Georgian literature.


Literature constitutes a conceptual reflection on actual processes. The context in which a literary text takes shape always finds reflection in the conceptual or expressive layers of this text. If we bear in mind the inherent aspiration of literature to intellectual and representative freedom, we may form a clear idea of the contradiction that arises in conditions of a totalitarian regime between the artistic text and the actual context. The primary feature of totalitarianism as enforced rule is creation of ideological dictatorship, forming of clichés and their implementation. This obviously restricts considerably the frame of literary freedom. This is clearly exemplified by the 1920s, when the modernist trends established in Georgian literature found themselves in conceptual antagonism with the ideological principles of Soviet dictatorship. By destroying spiritual values, the cited political course came into antagonism with the literary process informed with inner spiritual quest which, for its part reflected precisely the crisis of the times – the common skepticism and nihilism that existed in a society oppressed by intellectual terror. The opposition between totalitarian regime and artistic-literary thought accounted for decades of painful experience, creating a major stage of the history of Georgian culture.

Under the circumstances, from the standpoint of literary-critical analysis, significance attaches not only to the assessment of   conceptual or motivational models but to the demonstration of the reaction of literary discourse to intellectual terror, systematization of those structural models offered by fairly extensive literary material; at the same time it is important to ascertain the relation between the conceptual-motivational models and structural models of literary discourse – conceptualization of how close or, on the contrary, fragile this relationship is. The more so that the process is symptomatic, involving a fairly broad cultural area.

For decades the Soviet Union was the symbol of historical and cultural eclecticism, though the incongruencies were successfully masked by the smooth work of the hypertrophied state mechanism and the principle of centralization of power: what is needed by one person is needed by all, what is a rule for one is a rule for all, as one lives so must all others live; the centre took an individual decision; nationality, history, tradition, thinking, aspiration are only unimportant details against the backdrop of the large-scale Soviet marker.

Is the interior of this artificial system as naïve as the façade? Clearly, it is not.

The brave revolutionaries have long since developed as cynicists and fanatics, while the notion of leader assumed ambivalent and equivocal character. In the first place, the leader is not the one who merits it (at least by any token), but he who desires leadership more than others and strives for it by all means. Whereas, under normal circumstances achievement of leadership is linked to definite characteristics – the person’s wit, competence, merit or heredity for that matter – in the Soviet structure it is subject to one principle alone: aggressive desire. A kind of governing ideology takes shape – an irrational structure that at its own will assumes a demiurgic or constructive function, implying the “creation” of a new social model and “remaking” of human beings according to the corresponding pattern. The process of “creating” and “remaking” takes the course of definite regression: the leader creates a new social model or implements a utopia concept, but in his quest for organized good and happiness, relying on force, he alters the life of humans, which gradually develops into chaos and war and finally assumes the form of organized evil (Ratiani 2005: 59 – 130). Transformation of the leader is inevitable: his constructive functions transforms into a punitive and destructive function. C. Z. Frank notes: “Utopian movements are always launched by dedicated persons, filled with love for the people, ready to give their lives for their neighbor. Such persons not only resemble saints but from a definite point of view, have something of holiness. However, gradually – because of the approach of the practical implementation of the goal set – they themselves either transform into persons possessed of the power of satanic evil, or yield the authority as their successors to corrupt and heartless seekers of power. Such is the paradoxical development of all revolutions, the attempt to transform all utopian conceptions into a way of life” (Frank 1991: 54). The leader turns into a personified embodiment of evil, a monster that is the object of the artificial-pathetic admiration of the people or the subdued mass.

What can the effect of such a political system be on culture, art, in particular, literature.

Barring a small group of enthusiasts excited (or intoxicated – I.R.) with the idea of “saving the masses”, the establishment of Soviet ideology in the sphere of social thought and life was effected through emotional-psychological influence. Various aspects of influence may be enumerated. In the first place, ideological zombifying of writers and, through terror, putting them in the service of dictatorship, when fear performs the function of a kind of Hermes between the machinery of state and art, while as a result, ideological texts devoid of genuine artistic value are created, as the literary model of Soviet discourse. By classical definition, “Soviet discourse is a socio-cultural phenomenon of linguo-rhetorical nature” (Vorozhbitova 2000: 1). The anthem of course is the sociopsychological key to its mentality. On the one hand, a discourse of “new democracy” and leftist intelligentsia, where the word-fiction dominates over the word-object. On the other hand, it is a “superficial discourse” that has no depth and is devoid of the experience of national individuality. Nothing can be understood in the framework of this discourse, but only simulation, and radical manifestation of simulation in literature is ideologized junk. Proletarian discourse is not only a classical but exaggerated model of Soviet discourse that “normalizes the proletarian psychology” through merging thought with objectification” (Gastev 1919: 10), whose source should be sought in agitation-leaflet (anti) culture of the second half of the 19th century. The proletarian discourse, armed with the slogan: “We shall build our own new world” on what? the ruins of the old? –I. R. in order to implement the core idea supports radical means of social innovation, including vandal ones too – torture, murder, destruction – in general terror as the shortest way to the cultivation of mass character: “In this case, there are no millions of heads, there is only one common head. Subsequently such a tendency leads to the elimination of individual thought, turning into objective psychology as the whole class, manifested in the system of psychological switching on, off and over (Gastev 1919: 10). The conceptual and moral stance of more or less radically disposed authors, voluntarily or forcibly united under the sign of Soviet discourse expresses extremely well the principles of Soviet rhetoric devoid of individuality or nationality (“My address is neither street, nor house, but the Soviet Union”).

However, this process has an opposite side, marked by the struggle of disobedient, fearless nonconformists: the writer opposes the superficial illusion of forced happiness and chooses an attractive form of literary protest, resulting in the shaping of an anti-Soviet discourse. We should probably take modernist writing as the initial model of anti-Soviet discourse with its diverse forms and tributaries, for it was high modernism, characterized by a striving for representational freedom, the artistic tendencies of quest for  truth and establishment of individuality that constituted the main threat to Soviet demagogues. Modernism is an organical part of the overall development of Georgian, as well as of European literature. Accordingly, opposing it is an analogy of not only ideological but of anti-historical and anti-national struggle. Hence, it is not surprising that there are no authorities in this struggle: the notion of “writer” is replaced with “ours” and “enemy”, the former being the marker of Soviet discourse, and the latter of anti-Soviet discourse. Avantgardist art and literature create no less threat. Although avantgardism rejects “the whole system of spiritual problems, existential relations” (Tsipuria 2008: 262), it is actively implemented in experimental models of representational forms: “The essence lies in expressiveness itself…The idea of permanent quest of modernism is here preserved in the quest for artistic expression, turning into the quest for an ever new artistic form of opposition to the accepted form” (Tsipuria 2008: 262). What is non-standard opposes “common sense”, and what opposes “common sense” is anti-Soviet. Let us declare “social disgust” against it”.

If we sum up the foregoing, we shall arrive at the conclusion that the oppositional model of literary discourse: Soviet discourse / anti-Soviet discourse constitutes a differing response to one and the same process, which may be compared only to shock therapy: both forms of literary discourse become maximally active in the 1920s-30s – precisely when communism began to take shape from a utopian dream to an implemented project.

The young Soviet system was gaining ground on a broad front on the territories of forcibly united countries; in the space of specific Soviet narrative, side by side with other politicized terms, a place of honour was accorded to the concepts: “Soviet literature”, “socialist realism”, “the Soviet critical school”, which expressed extremely well the priority nature of literature marked under the token of ideology, promising special privileges and honour to the servants of the muse. On the one hand, fear, and on the other guarantee of stable well-being proved a strong stimulus for those who gave little thought to eternal glory. Poems and odes eulogizing the helmsmen of the Soviet country were written; bulky novels were written on the collective work and work heroism of Soviet people, on the life of the people fighting for unity and equality and their relentless fight against the still surviving bourgeois and aristocrats; Soviet criticism praised such literary experiments, and this was not all: it relentlessly distorted the interpretation of the now rare quality literature. Quite a few texts of Georgian writers of landmark significance fell victim to such wrong, unacceptable interpretation. Authors of mediocre talent and capacity sized up well the process under way, though even metres developed cracks. It is hard to name sincere trust of the Soviet ideological course, even less, enthusiasm with it. Predominantly there was fear – ordinary human fear that determined obedience to the leader and state structure. But neither fear had an unequivocal significance: for a certain part of writers it was fear that made them feel the absurdity of the empirical reality, strengthened the experience of protest and played a coordinating role in working out an alternative discourse.

What was the reaction of the authorities to the alternative literary discourse?

The writer was simply declared an “enemy”, and his works – anti-state activity, invariably ending in punishment. A rather long list of Georgian writers punished for this reason can be drawn. But in this case, the tragicalness of the situation is created not only by the ruined fate of individual persons, but by the total break of the whole paradigm of the literary process, which as a rule needs long cultural rehabilitation.

Thus, in conditions of totalitarian regimes, a fairly large space of belles-lettres is filled with “masterpieces” of troubadours of the state system, which are, unfortunately, significant only from the chronological and quantitative standpoints: so many works were written at this time, and yet their themes are almost identical. But belles-lettres cannot be assessed either from the chronological or only quantitative viewpoint. One of the main critera, along with conceptual and artistic innovations, is the degree of intellectual freedom, and the Soviet society suffered unequivocally from its deficit.

 The anti-Soviet literary discourse paved its way by different methods. However, the options were meagre: traditionally, there existed direct and indirect paths of fight: writers put up with sacrifice, for they believed that all other ways were either compromise, which they could not allow, or a wrong mechanism of prolonging one’s existence. Accordingly, quite a few writers revolting against the “ideal type” of slavish society consciously faced execution, exile or even suicide. These three forms of “settling” the problem were identical in content, the difference lying only in the strategy of implementation. The writer himself was a tragic personality who fell victim to his own principles.

Writers learned to use indirect ways when the society began to emerge from the shock state, or began forced adaptation, to the context; the totalitarian political rule was assessed as an inevitable historical reality, and getting out of it a long-term political process. This model of anti-Soviet literary discourse worked under mask effect and conceptually may be assessed as a strategy of “indirectly casting stones”. However, it resembles rather a guerrilla fight, marked by the festina lente principle. Writers fight with all weapons available to them: satire, allegory, irony, the absurd; they fight on their own territory and beyond it – in emigration – openly and underground. All roads are effective to attain one’s end, though in this case the writer himself is not the character of the tragedy, but is only a tragedian who tries to replace the reality with an intense process of mythopoeia.

One circumstance is no doubt interesting. The anti-Soviet literary discourse, stemming from constant quests for representative models, emerges as a generator of the genre diversity of Soviet period literature. For example, such important literary genres as literary anti-utopia, mythorealistic novel or satirical novella may be considered to have been ideal genre models of anti-Soviet discourse. Of course, I do not contend that the origin of these genres is linked to Soviet ideology. However, at this stage of my research, in individual cases, I do not rule out such a conclusion.

How stable or flexible was the literary discourse of the Soviet period?

Obviously, the stability and flexibility of literary discourse is determined by the context. When the process is long, or the totalitarian rule lasts almost a century, it of course involves different periods: more or less radical, relatively radical, inert, or on the contrary, turned active, and other types of period. Although, each of them do a serious damage to the idea of literary freedom, the flexibility of the Soviet period literary discourse is beyond doubt. A clear example of this is first the literature of the period of the “Patriotic War”, and later that of the “period of thaw” in the 50s-60s.

During the Patriotic War soviet publicistic discourse proved to be the most successful functional and stylistic implementation. However, in a discourse of this type we can distinguish different layers: the official press, as a manifestation of the position of Soviet ideologues (radio-reportages, recall for that matter, Levitan’s well-known timbre and dramatic texts); the refined patriotic texts of authoritative writers, expressing sincere support for the overall ethnic problem; finally, the epistolary texts – personal records or correspondence, in which the split was felt between the official stand and the real situation. However, owing to the experience of general physical threats, this is probably the underground period of anti-Soviet discourse, when it acquires relatively fragmentary character. Instead, the generalized Soviet mental correlate of Homo Sovietiucus is successfully formed.

The period of the so-called “thaw” of the ‘50s-‘60s yields quite a different picture. Whereas in the ‘50s, the authors, turned grey-haired in the service of Soviet ideology, feel the need for re-evaluation of their own texts, from the ‘60s – after an interval of almost thirty years – the influence of Western literary trends grows overtly. Against the background of the doomed generation of the Georgian modernists of the ‘20s-‘30s, the writers of the Georgian sixties appear to be in a much more privileged position. This pro-Western model of anti-Soviet discourse is obviously the result of political liberalization: whereas the world seen beyond the iron curtain found its way into the homes of the Soviet leaders in the shape of Marlboros and other “imported” (a soviet term) wares, literature was given the chance of “taking a glance” at Western trends and conceptions. The anti-Soviet liberal discourse invaded the territories of Soviet countries with Hemingway themes and bold neo-realistic experiments, accompanied by romantic dreams of friendship, sincerity, refined relations, even freedom! As soon as the thaw took a dangerous shape, the instinct of banning the unfamiliar awakened in the Soviet leaders. The aggression of Soviet authorities to everything new becomes intensive. On the one hand, this aggression assumes an extremely artificial character, on the other, it disrupts elementary norms of communication. As a result, the writer, as one of the most qualified user of information, suffers from its deficit. The entire paradox of this situation is that in the process of creating an artificial structure anew it was not Soviet discourse that acquired radical character but anti-Soviet discourse, dissident discourse becoming its textual manifestation. Or perhaps this is not a paradox at all but a cultural manifestation of logical movement to the end of the regime?

In the obtaining situation the literary system became inordinately fragmented. The following models took shape: subjectivistic discourse (“differently minded”) thinkers, as an in-depth model of anti-soviet discourse; radical discourse (dissidents), as an exaggerated model of anti-Soviet  discourse; adapted model (conformists), as an attempt at intellectual reconciliation of anti-Soviet and Soviet discourses; neutral model (uninvolved), as a passive model of anti-soviet discourse, internally related to subjectivistic discourse, though differing from it from the viewpoint of position activity; and of course modernized Soviet discourse (foresighted apologists), as a new prop of Soviet power. The basis of such differentiation is already based not only on the ideological antagonism between the discourses, or the qualitative indicators of literary production, for that matter, but the stance of writers as a manifestation of the form of social identification and communication. Despite the outward calm, the coexistence of the discourse models outlined above, I believe, was a hazardous historical experience, with rather undesirable social and cultural prospects. However, fortunately it ended soon for Georgia – on 14 April 1978. If we begin to look for the beginning of the destruction of the Georgian literary discourse of the Soviet period, we shall of course pinpoint 14 April 1978. That was a most eventful day in Georgian history from many points of view, including that of transformation of Georgian literary discourse. It became clear that the civic will of society, if it is mature and motivated, is more powerful than any state mechanism. Since the ‘80s literary discourse, as well as the political regime itself, has   continued to exist under a new status. However, this is a topic of a different essay.

Finally, a writer may always and in all epochs choose slavery, but the main thing is that it must be a voluntary rather than forced choice. Only nonconformists find a way out of totalitarianism, under the historical guarantee that the survival of genuine literary images, even under extreme tyrannical circumstances, are not threatened, for it is time that will save what is valuable rather than the volition of individual persons, no matter how successful dictators they might be.




Gastev 1919: Gastev, A. On the Tendencies of Proletarian Culture // Proletarskaya kultura, 1919, N 9.

Vorozhbitova 2000: Voroxhbitova, A. A. The “Official Soviet Language” of the Period of the Great Patriotic War: Linguorhetoric Interpretation //

Ratiani 2005: Ratiani, I. The Chronotope in the Anti-Utopian Novel. Towards the Interpretation of Eschatological Anti-Utopia, Tbilisi, 2005.

Frank 1992: Frank, S. Z. The Meaning of Life. Minsk. Polifakt, 1992.

Tsipuria 2008: Tsipuria, B. Postmodernism //Theory of Literature. Methodological Conceptions and Trends of the 20th Century. Tbilisi, 2008.



Volume 4, Issue 2


Rustaveli Institute of Georgian Literature

Georgian Electronic Journal of Literature