Recently, after reading Guatam Bhatia’s review of the Strugatsky Brothers’ Hard To Be A God, I’ve been thinking about the lack of critical literary criticism regarding genre fiction in the former Eastern Bloc. Since I’ve wanted to reread this book after watching the recent movie adaptation, I was interested in its rerelease and review. Unfortunately, it confirmed my suspicions that the vast majority of analysis around science-fiction from that time and context is marred by Cold War ideology, particularly common sense historical and ethical categories that are applied in such a way that books like this are not allowed to be judged on any merit aside from how they are part of some chilling, Orwellian world––how they are primarily criticisms of “Stalinism” and nothing else.
Hence, when I read Bhatia’s review I was reminded of a conversation I once overheard in a cafe, about a year ago, where I was working. A patron was talking about Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita and how it was a critique of Stalin-era Russia. While it is indeed the case that this book was in part a critique of the author’s time (as so many authors everywhere critique their social context), the discourse that reduces the meaning and importance of all literature (and indeed art) in the former Soviet Union to some creepy phallic signifier of “Stalinist” totalitarianism (where literary merit in this context is the work’s critique of “Stalinism”, resistance to armies of Soviet censors) is an uncritical truism that bears little investigation. Hence the patron could actually argue that Bulgakov had not met with reprisal – had not been disappeared or gulaged – because “Stalin wanted him to feel paranoid.” Point being: once it is assumed that all literature that is half-ways critical will face censorship, that the CPSU was suppressing all authors, then those authors who aren’t censored and imprisoned must be explained according to wild speculation. In this case, psychologizing Stalin.
Back to the Strugatsky’s and Bhatia’s review – a review that is not as crude as the Bulgakov example, but demonstrates the same absence of critical reflection. For Bhatia, the significance of Hard To Be A God has to do with “Stalinist totalitarianism’s sacrifice of individual freedom and autonomy to the iron constraints of the march towards an illusory utopia [that] has served as the political backdrop for a number of science-fiction novels.” He then predictably mentions Orwell’s 1984 just as, earlier, he mentioned Arthur Koestler.
First of all, we have a discourse that has been overdetermined by a cold war conception of “totalitarianism” – not a very useful understanding of political history outside of cold war ideology – that was crystallized in and motivated by the work of George Orwell. Elsewhere, on my other blog, I complained about “animal farmism,” where Orwell is treated as some moral authority on actually existing socialism. This is particularly problematic now after it has become quite clear that Orwell was a pro-imperialist snitch who named names of communist supporters and sympathizers, itemizing them as “Jews” and “homosexuals” and even calling Paul Robeson “anti-white” for wanting to fight US white supremacy. Orwell’s pithy moral tales have little to do, in my mind, with the more complex work of the Strugatsky brothers.
Secondly, we have a discourse that homogenizes the complexity of the Soviet Union, as well as the former Eastern Bloc, into that measly and grey-shaded category of “totalitarianism.” Indeed, this understanding does such damage to history that critics such as Bhatia can use the term “Stalinist” to refer to the entire history of the CPSU – from Stalin to Brezhnev – despite the fact that there were significant political differences. Indeed, Bhatia himself seems to indicate that there were indeed such differences when we speaks of the “thaw” of the Khrushchev era, but since following this thread would force him to think of the Strukatskies beyond the “Stalinist” signifier he shies away from this fact. Indeed, Boris and Arkady Strukatsky began to write in the Khrushchev era, so a critique of “Stalinist totalitarianism” should be a meaningless charge. The Khrushchev era was seen, by a large faction of the international communist movement, as revisionist and a chill on world revolution. The entire anti-revisionist Marxist-Leninist movement, following the Sino-Soviet Split (in which the Chinese would argue that the Soviet Union under Khrushchev was “state capitalism”), saw the CPSU under Khrushchev as a horrendous dislocation from socialism. Nor was it clear, as Bhatia blithely assumes, that there was some kind of cultural “thaw” promoted by Khrushchev. Nor is it correct, as Bhatia assumes, that Brezhnev represented a return to the Stalinism that was supposed to not go away in the first place: again, large segments of the international communist movement who were actively upholding – rightly or wrongly – the legacy of Stalin were calling Brezhnev a “Khrushchevite” and “social imperialist.” And these are just the molar distinctions in the CPSU, and very briefly described, which say nothing to the inner complexity that Russia in that long period would have possessed.
Thirdly, such a conception of literature in the former Soviet Union does great damage to our understanding and appreciation of the literature itself. What is extremely interesting about literature in the former Eastern Bloc is the prevalence of quality science fiction. How could the Strugatskies, along with so many other authors, have emerged in a lifeless and grey-shaded literary world that supposedly imprisoned every creative thinker? How could Stanislaw Lem similarly emerge in Poland? The answer is always too easy: because they were fierce individuals, geniuses devoting to mark out their creative territory in the face of “Stalinist” oppression. Then critics like Bhatia throw out or downplay everything otherwise interesting in these books, searching for metaphors about the ills of totalitarianism that will vindicate the capitalist end of history.
For example, what I find interesting about the Strugatsky brothers’ Noon Universe is not that it is some sort of anti-communist critique – a supposed metaphor for all that is wrong with “Stalinism” – but that it is a series of complex internal critiques of what will happen when a future classless society, that has indeed transcended so many social issues, encounters external contradictions that can only come at some point when the forces of production have been freed from predatory capitalist relations. Indeed, the Noon Universe is a direct precursor to the late Iain M. Banks’ “Culture”, a communist space-faring society. Banks has repeatedly said that the Culture is the best kind of society that could exist, but his books demonstrate his interest to prove that even the best societies can make mistakes, that history does not end, and that passing beyond the communist horizon does not mean a static and boring existence, that drab collectivism that Randroids babble about.
Hard To Be A God (which in many ways is the main inspiration for Banks’ Inversions) is about what happens when people in an advanced communist civilization encounter a planet where the main civilization resembles the most brutal European feudal states. The question, here, is not whether the communist civilization making this encounter is a bad civilization in which to live – in fact it’s quite the opposite: the communist civilization is much better than the brutal feudal world, the tension is whether or not the cosmonauts from communism have any right to intervene in this brutal society: would such an intervention be social imperialism, would not intervening also be unethical. And the fact that Bhatia wants to compare this to the events of Prague Spring is just insulting: this is not about a civilization trying to hold unto a state that is breaking away from its hegemony… if anything it is closer to what would happen in Afghanistan, but even then that doesn’t best represent the conflict. Could it also be read as a critique of Khrushchev’s theory of peaceful coexistence? Perhaps, but again this one-to-one allegorizing is too simple and the very kind of analysis that critics of science fiction try not to level at books produced within capitalist nations.
None of this is to say that there wasn’t a problem of censorship that affected literary production, particularly during the Stalin era, but there are still problems in focusing solely on this detail: i) it’s been done to death, so there are no new insights to literary analysis that it can motivate; ii) its existence is poorly understood, particularly since it partly existed because the siege socialist mentality that was created by the fact that world imperialism wanted to annihilate the Soviet Union the moment it was founded, that the CIA was indeed funding literary journals dedicated to fighting communism; iii) much of the literature that is explained according to “Stalinist” censorship was written when this censorship was greatly relaxed; iv) many of the authors that had to deal with censorship, though rightly critical of this constraint, were far more critical of the capitalist countries.
On the fourth point, let’s take Stanislaw Lem as an example. It’s hard for anyone to try to distort his work to the level of anti-Stalinist allegory when he spent some time trashing US science-fiction writers in general as being ideologues for US capitalism, prompting Philip K. Dick (who by then was suffering from schizophrenia) to claim that Lem wasn’t a person but a soviet bureaucratic collective. And if we combine Lem with the Strugatskies (who were inspired by Lem) we have examples of some very different and extremely literary science fiction that – in many ways superior to what was being produced in the US – was somehow emerging in a context of “totalitarianism” that should have stamped out, if it was really that total, anything creative. But these books were making it past the censors and being published! How can we understand this fact if they were also completely anti-Soviet? By claiming that the censors were all ignorant semi-literates… more ahistorical conjecture, and completely illogical: if a state is indeed “totalitarian” it would have the total control to grant itself literate censors. And indeed, many of the men and women working for the state literary departments were trained in literature.
All in all, what I’m trying to say here is that there needs to be an assessment of Soviet science-fiction that transcends the tired cold-war discourse that only persists to remind us that capitalism is the supposed end of history. Any time a review of classic Soviet science-fiction is written it should steer clear of making pithy historical claims and, if it must (and it should) ground a work within its social context it should spend some effort to understand the actual complexity of this context rather than relying on narratives inherited from hack writers like Orwell and Koestler. Read some of the historical analyses of critical Sovietologists, for crying out loud, if you must! Or maybe try to make sense of this literature according to a Soviet imaginary of space – that wild imaginary that led the space race. Or even look at the universal tropes produced by authors such as the Strugatskies, that continue to influence science-fiction authors now and trace out the ripples of meaning (i.e. Jeff Vandermeer’s Area X trilogy, M. John Harrison’s Nova Swing, Iain M. Banks). Avoid the words “Stalinist” and “totalitarian” which limit thought.
And with this in mind I’m going to watch, in the next few days, German’s adaptation of Hard To Be A God.