Anatoli Skurikhin[Peasants reading Pravda, 1930's]
Anatoli Skurikhin: Peasants reading Pravda
Welcome back!

A very happy new year to readers, new and old! As you can see my decorating skills aren’t all that great so I’m afraid the aesthetics of the blog are likely to stay the same for a wee while – at least whilst I decide whether to advance the platform to a more professional standard. Instead, I shall make good on my promise for a different approach and today’s post marks the first of a new series in which I try and fuse together a few different interests, signalling where I’d like to move with my research in the next few years.

On occasion I’m asked what type of history I’d be doing if I had gone down a different path and I typically answer, unhesitatingly, and hardly a shock to anyone, Soviet history. Although the more I think about it, I reckon the history of the Soviet Union in the 1950s and 1960s is where my real interests lie rather than the classic eras of Sovietology – the Lenin-Stalin period of the 1920s and 1930s, or the Gorbachev era of the 1980s. Sheila Fitzpatrick’s recent memoir and her latest book on Stalin’s Team provide really fascinating insights into a time of considerable change about which there remains an awful lot to be discovered.

At Oxford I had the good fortune to be taught by Robert Service and whilst we didn’t really agree on our approach to the subject, I never worked as enthusiastically as I did that term. I devoured hundreds of articles and scores of books over those eight weeks and gained a good deal of (admittedly undergraduate level) fluency, albeit a fluency constrained by a total lack of Russian. I was lucky that one of my good friends at Oxford was studying French and Russian and she used to poke Soviet short stories under my door to read. That’s one of the brilliant aspects of Oxford college life – the two of us being wholly alone in our year at Oriel in tackling Soviet material and so able to bond further over comic tales and bizarre socialist realism. It proved a notable antidote to the high politics I was getting in my own history seminars and tutorials.

In fact, I came to think of Soviet society as governed by compromise and adaptation. Peasants who flocked to Moscow or to cities and towns on the industrial frontier, such as Magnetogorks, leant on traditions in order to survive. But clearly traditions do not continue unaltered – hence the compromises and adaptations. This idea was spurred on by reading a work of ethnography – Solovyovo by Margaret Paxson – which I was recommended to read by Ian Forrest, the history tutor at Oriel in my third year, although I think it was grounded historically by Sheila Fitzpatrick’s work and, in the context of the DDR, Mary Fulbrook. I’ll never forget one of the images in Solovyovo, which sums all this up: the placing of portraits of Lenin and Stalin next to the household icon. In the middle of the turmoil of industrialisation, as I say, certain things remained observably constant but symbolically indicative of change. A lesson, I think, that carried over into my work on Wales.

Today’s blog is really inspired by an observation I came across recently, although it was actually made by Hywel Francis during his doctoral research several decades ago. Speaking to the novelist Gwyn Thomas, Hywel explained that Lewis Jones’s novel Cwmardy had recently been published in the DDR and so his legacy was living on in the communist world. Both Hywel and Gwyn, it should be pointed out, had more than a little sympathy with the far left and so both took a particular delight in that fact. Indeed, to someone who idolised Lewis Jones, as Gwyn did, this was extremely exciting news. But as I was reading it, from my twenty-first century perspective, I wanted instantly to know more. What would readers in Dresden, Leipzig, or Berlin, want with a novelisation of events in the Rhondda around the time of the Tonypandy Riots and the First World War? Even by the time Cwmardy was published in English in 1937 such things were already old.

The East German edition came out in 1969, an era of cosmonauts, nuclear power, of Sandman and real men on the Moon: a very different world to the one that Lewis Jones knew and wrote about. And yet, it makes perfect sense. Lewis Jones was a communist and the novel is as close as we really get in Britain to ‘party literature’ that still has genuine literary power and merit. I suppose the East Germans were on to something, too, because within a decade the novel – and its sequel We Live – was back in print in Britain accompanied by a foreword from Dai Smith. Gwyn Thomas, too, took to BBC Radio to declare Lewis Jones the greatest Welshman. Dai’s biography of Lewis soon followed. It was all part of a renaissance in Welsh history, as is well known, but what is rather less appreciated (in fact, I rather think, almost not at all – beyond certain individuals I can name on a single hand) is that elements of that history, as relayed chiefly by novels, were readily appreciated, digested, and discussed, across the communist countries of Central and Eastern Europe.

Authors prominent amongst Welsh critics today – the likes of R.S. Thomas, Raymond Williams, Rhys Davies – had no place in the Communist East. Their work was not made available officially – Raymond’s began to trickle into the Soviet Union in the 1980s – and access to it would have been through imports from the West or through samizdat networks. Even a writer of global renown such as Dylan Thomas did not appear officially in the DDR, Poland, or the Soviet Union until the mid-1970s. The images that were being received – in novel form – were those set down by Lewis Jones, A. J. Cronin, and Gwyn Thomas. Given its prominence before the Second World War, we might also add Richard Llewellyn’s How Green Was My Valley to that list (I’ve written about its reception on the blog previously) but a search of the DDR’s Culture Ministry records suggests that a new edition, produced in the DDR, was never considered. That might seem like a striking omission but it’s hardly a novel that expresses proletarian consciousness. In fact, as Aidan Byrne shows, the very opposite is true.

The novels picked up in the communist countries were those that projected an Edwardian and Victorian image of South Wales and its industrial experience. This was a time of rising class awareness, of course, and it is the period of the ‘making’ of Wales’s industrial proletariat. It is immediately obvious why these works would appeal to censors and ministries of culture desirous of bringing into the public domain western novels that were all about the making of socialism or which took workers and peasants as their theme. Cronin is the outlier here but The Citadel is undoubtedly a coalfield novel. Reading the introductions appended by editors and translators – which had the purpose of framing the novel for the reader – suggests a considerable knowledge of working-class politics in Britain. One Hungarian editor goes into considerable depth about the Chartists and Fergus O’Connor, for instance. This begs many more questions than I have answers to at presents.

I’m at the start of this project so any profound conclusions will have to be held off for a little bit. Clearly there is a lot of research to be done in archives across Eastern Europe – and perhaps in the holdings of publishers like Lawrence and Wishart – but I’m convinced that it will open up a very exciting new perspective on Eastern European absorption of western popular culture, particularly those of the ‘periphery’.