Copyright (c) David A. Goldfarb, 1990

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The Soviet Novel and the Western

David A. Goldfarb

CCACC, Rutgers University, 30 November 1990

Many scholars have, in passing, intuitively juxtaposed the Soviet Socialist Realist novel with the formulaic American Western or popular novel.1 These genres share themes, stylistic characteristics, and parallel evolutions. Their most direct models, Maxim Gorky's Mother and Owen Wister's The Virginian were published at about the same time--1907 and 1902, respectively. The era of Socialist Realism ran from about 1929, when the term was coined, to the Thaw of 1956; Geoffrey O'Brien (1981, 137-142) places the golden age of the paperback between 1929 and 1958. The coincidence of so many features of these two "Establishment" genres, suggests that their similarity deserves more than passing reference, especially when they claim to serve such apparently ideologically divergent establishments as those of the United States and the Soviet Union. Though there are important differences between the genres, I will argue, considering the examples of Mikhail Sholokhov's Virgin Soil Upturned and Louis L'Amour's Hondo, that their commonalities are based in the socio-economic conditions which gave rise to them and in the "master narratives" which they emulate, suggesting that U.S. and Soviet state ideologies and mythologies are not at their centers2 as different as one might suspect.

The political nature of the Socialist Realist novel is uncontroversial. Its aims are defined by state institutions as didactic and propagandistic. It is not obvious, however, that the Western, which was not generally subject to state censorship, is political. Rather, we commonly see American popular fiction as entertainment--adventure tales, romance, etc. That the Western, particularly, is canonically political becomes clear in its chief 20th century model3, The Virginian.

Wister dedicated the work to his close friend, President Theodore Roosevelt as such: "Some of these pages you have seen, some you have praised, one stands new-written because you blamed it; and all, my dear critic, beg leave to remind you of their author's changeless admiration" (Wister 1925, v.). Had this passage appeared on the first page of a Sholokhov novel, we could easily believe it to be a panegyric to his close friend and critic, Joseph Stalin.

Wister often digresses on the politics of his day, favoring TR's expansionist policies. In his 1911 introduction, Wister (1925, vii) calls the novel "an expression of American faith" in "Democracy," establishing the endorsement of the Liberal tradition as a standard feature of the Western in its invocation of the themes of "natural man" and conflict between "the Law" and the outlaw (Moeller 1988, 26-27, 21, 33). Wister elaborates his understanding of "Democracy" in numerous discussions on his distinction between the "quality and the equality," or the natural "aristocrats" and the rabble.4 The true nature of this argument becomes apparent in his non-fictional writing where he claimed that the aristocratic right of the cowboy derived from his Anglo-Saxon heritage (Wister 1895, 603, 604, 608). As Wister's sometime friend, artist Frederic Remington noted, though, most real cowboys and their traditions were of Latino origin (Samuels 1982, 218). Nonetheless, Wister's false theory, rife with Lamarckian and Social Darwinist notions, gained extroardinary popularity, because it meshed with the dominant vision of American "Manifest Destiny"--which entailed the subjection of Native Americans and Mexicans to White "justice"--and with the Turner Safety Valve theory, which claimed that national progress required an exploitable frontier.

The climate of expansionism gave rise to the master narrative of the modern Western: the tale of the domestication of the wild, i.e. the settling of the frontier which is replicated in the domestication of the hero. Wister's hero starts out as a young, drinking, gambling, womanizing upstart, and the story is that of his transformation. The culmination of Wister's novel is the traditional shootout, where he settles his last youthful account, but wins the undying love of the schoolmarm and passes into domesticity. This plot is joined with the master narrative born of the Turner Theory when hero and heroine consummate their marriage in unexplored mountains west of the settled range. This narrative is reflected in Louis L'Amour's (1989, 136) own understanding of his novels. "My stories," he writes,

are . . . concerned with . . . entering, passing through, or settling wild country. I am concerned with people building a nation, learning to live together, with establishing towns, homes, and bridges to the future.
All of these plot elements are characteristic of the Western, and though the emphasis of particular Westerns may bend with the politics of the day,5 they all ritually recount the same basic story.6

The master narrative of the Western bears a striking resemblance to that which Katrina Clark (1981, 16) ascribes to the Socialist Realist novel.7 In the typical Soviet novel, the life of the positive hero replicates the ideal expressed by the application of Lenin's Principle of Reflection to history. The positive hero progresses from "spontaneity" toward "consciousness," just as society progresses toward "consciousness" in its march toward Communism. What is interesting, here, is that the path which the Socialist Realist hero takes toward "consciousness," follows steps similar to the path which the hero of the Western takes toward "domesticity."

Both master narratives reflect state mythology. Since we will concentrate on Virgin Soil Upturned, I will consider this pattern particularly in the context of collectivization. The Five-Year Plan era was an age of infatuation with a mechanized "industrial utopia," certainly different from Wister's or L'Amour's, but with a similar socio-political function.

Until recently, no one got to be a well paid administrator in a big Soviet industry without good Party connections. Conversely, Party power was conferred as a reward for good work in industry. Collectivization, by changing the mode of production from the manual farming of small patches to the mechanical farming of large tracks of land, created a market for industrial products.

This would not likely have happened under the then existing system. As Zalygin (1965, 84) notes in his story, "By the Irtysh", landowners were not rich enough to buy machines. Collectivization entailed the development of farms so large that the peasants could not possibly farm without tractors. They would, therefore, require tractors whether the collectives were financially successful or not. If the farm were profitable, it could buy tractors; if not, then the state would have to provide them, in essence giving a state subsidy to the state tractor industry.

Collectivization, therefore, was not merely the product of Stalin's sadism nor the outgrowth of monolithic dogma, but a means for those in power to gain more power, much like our own military-industrial complex. If the government were only advocating collectivization for ideological purposes, a small ox-driven collective farm should have been as good as a large tractor-run one. Literature was one of the more advanced tools of propaganda available to the Party at the time. To sell the Five-Year Plan through literature, however, was to sell more than marxist-leninist dogma. It was to sell tractors, steel, coal, and oil.

Sholokhov and L'Amour both satisfied state propoganda requirements, and became widely published, mainstream writers. Sholokhov was (Ermolaev 1982, 5)

A member of the Supreme Soviet since 1937, a delegate to all congresses of the Soviet Communist Party since 1939, a member of the Party's Central Committee since 1961, a member of the Presidium at the Twenty-Third through Twenty-Sixth Party Congresses (1966-1981), a Hero of Socialist Labor (1967, 1980), Winner of Stalin and Lenin Prizes for literature (1941, 1960), Nobel Prize laureate (1965), a member of the Soviet Academy of Sciences (1939), recipient of honorary doctoral degrees from Saint Andrew's University in Scotland (1962) and from the Universities of Rostov and Leipzig (1965).
L'Amour, published 105 books in over 200 million copies, is the only American novelist to have received both the Congressional Gold Medal and Presidential Medal of Freedom, and was similarly close to members of the American politico-intellectual establishment, such as the former Librarian of Congress, Daniel J. Boorstin and Ronald Reagan. Despite their own prominence as intellectuals, Sholokhov, L'Amour and Wister all had a reputation of anti-intellectualism which was embodied in their heroes.8

The first similarity we encounter in Virgin Soil Upturned and Hondo is in the sweep of their landscapes. The inhabitants these landscapes have the reputation of being wild and boisterous horsemen. D. H. Stewart (1967, 2-3) describes the Cossak of Russian legend as

either a dashing primitive or a monstrous barbarian. . . . Originally similar in some ways to the men who took the American West, they were self-reliant, hence equalitarian and libertarian, banding together solely for the purpose of protection. . . .
Sholokhov's are not the virgin landscapes of the Western, but they are earthy and potent, filled with "the powerful and ancient odour of the earth" (V.S., I-17);9 thus, the land, though cultivated, is still taken as pre-civilized. L'Amour's landscape varies in accord with the master narrative. The novel begins with a description of the hero, an elite cavalry scout, hardened by the elements of the desert (H., 5-6). The novel ends as the hero takes leave of his company to return with his newfound wife to his farm in California and
a long meadow fresh with new-cut hay, a house where smoke would soon again rise from the chimney, and where shadows would gather in the darkness under the trees, quiet shadows. And beside him a woman held in her arms a sleeping child . . . a woman who would be there with him, in that house, before that hearth (H., 159).
The composite of landscape and people form an image of "natural man," living by the law of the wilderness in which the strongest survive. Clark notes (1981, 110) that the Leninist concept of "spontaneity," or stixijnost' in Russian, is closely related to the idea of stixija, "the elements," or wilderness. The aim of the hero in both of these stories is to tame that wilderness: For Sholokhov's hero, Semyon Davidov10 to forge a sustainable collective, and for Hondo Lane to liquidate the Natives and rustlers, making the territory safe for "law-abiding citizens." Yet both stories paradoxically idealize the wild elements which the heroes must subdue: Sholokhov's novel is rich with Cossak folk tales. Hondo is "part Indian"--a common Western motif--and lived among the natives, learning their customs of life in the wild.11

Both Davidov and Hondo begin their heroic careers12 as rash free-spirits. Davidov arrives from the city, delayed by illness, with no farm experience, but immediately berates the fat local District Party Secretary for taking a soft stance on the dispossession of the kulaks (V.S., 22-7).13 Davidov also regretfully possesses an "obscene tattoo"--a souvenir of his wild Navy days. Hondo shows a similar spirit of independence, symbolized by his dog, Sam, which he never feeds or pets, arguing, "Sam's independent. He doesn't need anybody. I want him to stay that way. It's a good way" (H., 15).

The passage of both heroes, as that of the Virginian, demands acquiescence to a "respectable" woman. In Virgin Soil Upturned Davidov must give up the coquettish Lushka for the innocent and submissive Varya Kharlamova. All of Sholokhov's independent-minded women are grotesques: Lushka is sexually voracious, Marina is inhumanly strong, and Darya Kupriyanovna is enormously fat and has outlived three husbands. The ideal women are devoted and passive, such as Razmyotin's unnamed mother--her identity entirely bound up in her son. Hondo, written at a peak of American prudishness, has no room for a "loose" woman, but we still watch the hero draw closer to Angie Lowe who is strong but pliant in Hondo's hands, and settle by the hearth from his errant state.

Both heroes speak in a straightforward, matter-of-fact style. Davidov punctuates his speech ad nauseum with "Fact!" or "And that's a fact!" suggesting that he makes no statements not grounded in concrete reality. Hondo thinks clearly, never revealing more than he has to. He is able to deduce, for example, from the condition of Angie's ranch that there has been no man around for a long time, though she tells him otherwise (H., 16-24). L'Amour derives this trait from the Virginian14 who, in his political and moral discussions, always takes a deductive approach with numbered "points" (Wister 1925, 270). Dissident critic Andrei Sinyavsky (1959, 172-3) describes this directness as the most important characteristic of the Socialist Realist positive hero:

He firmly knows what is right and what is wrong; he says plainly "yes" or "no" and does not confuse black with white. . . . Faced with the most complex of tasks, he easily finds the solution--by taking the shortest and most direct route to the Purpose.

Competence is frequently demonstrated by the hero's mastery of nature. Hondo has inherited his powers of observation and deduction from the Indians. Ironically, he uses these abilities to detect and kill two Apache in the opening of the novel. Davidov achieves similar mastery by learning to plough, proving not only his power over the soil, but also demonstrating the ideal of "socialist competition," mastering undisciplined workers (V.S., I-ch. 36).

Both novels characteristically glorify state power. Sholokhov sloganizes "Soviet Power," portrays GPU agents as martyrs, and depicts Party meetings as the height of civilization. The induction of new Party members (V.S., II-ch. 22-23) has the character of an Easter mass, with the school scrubbed and whitewashed and everyone bathed and dressed in their finest. In Hondo, Darby (1987, 200) notes:

L'Amour celebrates the United States Cavalry in terms familiar to moviegoers. . . . Just as the mounted soldiers of [several popular movies] . . . personify unquestioning loyalty in trying and demeaning circumstances, so L'Amour's cavalrymen put duty before personal safety or gain.
In both novels, it is assumed that the state is benevolent, vigilant, and courageous in looking out for the interests of good.

The causes for the similarities between the Western and Socialist Realist novel are varied. Though these writers probably did not know each other's work, they began from common models of realist prose. Sholokhov admired O. Henry and Hemingway (see Stewart), and part of his inspiration for adventure likely came from Jack London, a favorite author of Lenin who enjoyed great popularity in the Soviet Union (Clark 1981, 102). Similarly, we know that L'Amour read Andreyev, Bunin, Chekhov, Dostoyevsky, Gogol, Gorky, Merezhkovsky, Pilnyak, Tolstoy, and Turgenev in his youth (L'Amour 1989, 213-32). Thus, they began with a frame, describing what realist prose and the adventure tale were about. A frame so broad, however, cannot explain why both writers chose to emphasize certain potential features of realist prose, such as action or black-and-white characters over, say, psychological analysis or naturalistic pessimism.

The fact that both of these novels feature stock characters and formulaic plots is explained in part by their function as mass culture--a product of modern printing technology. The Virginian, is arguably the first offspring of the industrialization of literature. As a crystal of state mythology, the novel sold an unprecedented 100,000 copies in the first five months and went through fourteen printings by the end of the eighth month (Cobbs 1984, 24). Publishers then recognized the profit potential of the modern press and tried to encapsulate formulas which yielded bestsellers as they still do today (Rosenberg 1986, xix).

In the Soviet Union this potential for mass distribution was harnessed for propagandistic aims as a weapon in the class struggle, or as Lenin wrote in 1905 (56), "'a cog and screw' of one single great Social-Democratic mechanism." In the United States, government intervention was unnecessary, as the state's goals coincided with the publishers' business interests.15 The first pocketbooks were seen in 1939 as emblems of democracy--making culture available to everyone (O'Brien 1981, 8). During the war, they turned political as "Weapons in the War of Ideas" (O'Brien 1981, 37-8). That role continued into the Cold War. Darby (1987, 3) characterizes Hondo Lane as a typical Cold War hero: a common man who could "endure lasting tension and perform momentary acts of bravery." At the same time, Darby argues (1987, 203), Hondo's transformation "stamps him as a western hero for the 1950s--one who combines the classical virtues of that character type with a desire for domesticity and conformity," i.e. the ideals of the McCarthy era.

It is the conformity of American popular fiction to the propagandistic requirements of the state which unites it with Socialist Realism. As part of the twentieth-century phenomenon of mass culture, literature becomes the bearer of national myth and ritual. The common master narrative may have different manifestations in the U.S. and U.S.S.R., but they have different manifestations within each country as well, across time.16 The change in focus of the second volume of Virgin Soil Upturned, published in 1960, reflects this phenomenon in the Soviet Union. The characters grow more black and white, and the Communists are more morally pure and austere. Had Sholokhov finished volume II in 1932, he might not have killed off the positive hero. By 1960, though, the "25,000-ers," as they were called, were no longer heroes. Those not purged became bungling bureaucrats (Stewart 1967, 144), as one would expect of factory workers sent to run farms, symbolizing the failure of the First Five-Year Plan. By killing Davidov before the famine, Sholokhov saves him from the fate of incompetence, and thus ritually resolves the dialectic of "spontaneity" and "consciousness" by showing that the struggle for Communism survives on the rational basis of historical necessity, without heroes like Davidov. In both genres, the outward politics may change, but the ritual does not.

This transformation of culture into mass ritual has produced artistic vacuums in the cultural mainstreams of both countries. Many critics see the current work of young Soviet writers as journalistic and artistically inferior (Shneidman 1989, 18-21). The American "200 million sold" approach to literature produces little lasting work inside the mainstream. This feature is inherent in the product--the paperback was invented to be used once and thrown away, but as with styrofoam burger boxes, the by-products are not biodegradable. By flooding the market with such a product, or by excluding alternatives, publishers erode readers' faculty to discriminate between the creative and the formulaic. "Fast food" culture becomes a vehicle for mind control as it closes off ways of thinking, through the cultivation of uniformity.


  1. This suggestion was, perhaps, first made to me concretely in conversation with Polish writer, Jan Jozef Szczepanski. For further reference see, for instance: Clark 1976, 362, Clark 1981, 73, 103, Milosz 1960, 138, or Stewart 1967, 3. [RETURN]
  2. By "ideological center," I do not mean the straightforward philosophical "foundation" of a particular set of ideological views, such as say, the property right in the case of democratic Liberalism or the labor theory of value and dialectical philosophy in the case of Marxism. Rather, I am looking for the aporia, the unconscious and unresolvable blind spot which is at the root of a particular ideological world-view, and which even critics operating within such a historical perspective may fail to recognize.[RETURN]
  3. For claims that The Virginian is a primary model, see Moeller 1988, 19 and Rosenberg 1986, 22.[RETURN]
  4. See, for instance, all of ch. 12, p. 147, p. 275 where the hero tries to convince Shorty of the pleasures of the savings account (which the government was promoting at the time, to provide banks with funds for the support of industrial and agricultural expansion), or the judge's discussion of the "justice" of western vigilantism in ch. 33.[RETURN]
  5. William Darby (1987, 2) provides good example of this phenomenon, comparing five films on the gunfight at the O.K. Corral.[RETURN]
  6. This fact may account for the current lack of popularity of the Western--the mythology of the frontier which was so fundamental to the Western no longer serves corporate political goals. The new industrial "frontier" is the mass of cheap labor in developing countries and the "informalized" sector. The next is likely Eastern Europe. Louis L'Amour (1989, 129-30) attempts to keep alive the mythology and idealism of the frontier by calling for the exploration of space as the way of the future. Popular fiction has picked this up, allowing science fiction to continue where the Western left off.[RETURN]
  7. For further details see Clark 1976, 367 and 1981, 9, 110.[RETURN]
  8. On Sholokhov's anti-intellectualism see Stewart 1967, 19-21, 163-5. The whole ethos of L'Amour's 1989 memoir conveys his love for books chosen at random, without intellectual pretense, for their own sake. For Wister, consult any of the various descriptions of effete easterners in The Virginian or his lampoon of Harvard life, Philosophy 4.[RETURN]
  9. Citations for Virgin Soil Upturned will appear in this format, with roman numeral to indicate the volume number. Citations for Hondo will appear as (H., page number).[RETURN]
  10. One may argue (Stewart 1967, 134) that Virgin Soil Upturned has no single positive hero, but I would claim that of any of the characters, Davidov, more than anyone else fits the traditional mold, and is the most active character throughout the novel.[RETURN]
  11. Note that Westerns almost never speak of Natives who have mastered the White man's ways.[RETURN]
  12. The action of both novels takes place over a period of some few months during which the hero's personality is dramatically transformed. Wister's novel at least takes place over a period of years.[RETURN]
  13. Gleb's first confrontation with Badin in Cement is strikingly similar.[RETURN]
  14. Wister's hero is never named, and is always known by this epithet.[RETURN]
  15. For further exploration of the relation between state and media in the U.S., see Herman and Chomsky, 1988.[RETURN]
  16. See note 6 on the transformation of the Western master narrative in the U.S.[RETURN]

Works Cited


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David A. Goldfarb