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Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Fyodor Gladkov, Cement

In December 1999 I was in New York visiting my two half-sisters Jill and Pola and their mother Marjorie. We were to meet one evening for a dinner: an Indian restaurant some place in East Village. They all adored Indian cuisine, for me it was the first time. I met with Marjorie one hour earlier in front of a gas station on Houston Street and she suggested to enter a bookstore nearby. It was a huge shop, with all kind of old editions impossible to find in other place. Not only books in English, other languages were also present. In a pile of books in Russian I noticed a novel that I had read years ago in a Romanian translation. Here was the Soviet edition: Цемент by Fyodor Gladkov.

I had heard about this novel long before reading it. By that time I was already kind of familiarized with the universe of Soviet books published in the thirties / forties / fifties, when the control of the regime over the country was unquestioned. I was very curious to see something written when everything was still fluid, in the immediate aftermath of the Russian Civil War.

Cement (Цемент) was firstly published in 1925. During the years that followed, the author came back several times on the text: as the official culture of the Soviets was following the windings of the political line of the Party, Cement had to be kept in sync. And despite all these patches, the original spirit of the book is still there.

Far from being a standard for the Socialist Realist writing (as it was vaunted), Cement breathes the artistic vanguard of the 1920's. Gladkov plays here in Cement in the same team with the Constructivists, with Tatlin and Vertov, with Rusakov and Klucis. This book could be likened to Tatlin Tower, the grandiose project never accomplished, in no case to the Stalinist sky-scrappers erected in Moscow during the 1930's. Or, if it calls something in mind, it's not some ballet performance at the Bolshoy Theatre with Ulanova on the stage and Stalin in attendance, followed by champagne. No, it calls rather the last scene from Man with a Camera, imagining the destruction of Bolshoy, to make place for the new world.

Because it's about imagining the new world here in Cement: a small town somewhere in Russia in the early twenties, torn down by the war, and in the midst of all daily miseries and shortages people are trying to live the Communist values. Gladkov, like the other Constructivists, believed firmly in Communism and he created in Cement a universe resembling his convictions. Only it's the Communism as imagined by Constructivists, a place of Revolutionary spontaneity where censorship has not yet been invented, and Stalin is still together with Trotzky and all the other guys. The heroes of Gladkov question passionately the institution of family, seen as outdated and useless (it seems Communists of those times were still reading Engels and his Origin of the Family). These heroes of Gladkov are very direct when it comes to sex, they send their children to be raised outside the parental nest (to get rid of any family chain), because nothing matters but production, everything is subdued to make the cement factory work. Not many years will pass and from all this it will be the cement factory the only remaining concern, nothing else. The primacy of production as an absolute value. But here in the universe of the book all cards are still on the table, it is an intense feeling of freedom. Let's be clear on this, it's the freedom felt by those fighting to impose their own sense of freedom, their understating of freedom as understood necessity, however it's intense. And it makes the artistic value of Cement.

I mentioned above Tatlin Tower. It was an amazing project and it was definitory for the spirit animating the Soviet artists of that epoch, the years of the Russian Civil War. It remained just a project: the necessary quantity of steel would have exceeded all available resources in Russia of those years.

Gladkov's Cement came some years later: meanwhile the Soviets had learned that development of mass production was the condition of survival. In just a few years all dreams of Gladkov's heroes would be seen just as childish utopias, while the cement factory would remain the number one concern of society.

And mass production would lead also to the fall of the Soviets, decades later. Zygmunt Bauman gave an explanation for this paradox (Intimations of postmodernity, 1992):

In its practical implementation, communism was a system one-sidedly adapted to the task of mobilizing social and natural resources in the name of modernization: the nineteenth-century, steam and iron ideal of modern plenty. It could - at least in its own conviction - compete with capitalists, but solely with capitalists engaged in the same pursuits. What it could not do and did not brace itself to do was to match the performance of the capitalist, market-centered society once that society abandoned its steel mills and coal mines and moved into the postmodern age (once it passed over, in Jean Baudrillard's apt aphorism, from metallurgy to semiurgy; stuck at its metallurgical stage, Soviet communism, as if to cast out devils, spent its energy on fighting wide trousers, long hair, rock music and any other manifestations of semiurgical initiative).

(Жизнь в Kнигах)

(Zygmunt Bauman)



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