“Flood, deluge, mass psychosis.” How the Soviet Union fell for Erich Maria Remarque

“Flood, deluge, mass psychosis.” How the Soviet Union fell for Erich Maria Remarque
Soviet readers selecting books, courtesy of Harvard University Press

Historian Eleonory Gilburd’s new book, To See Paris and Die, published by Harvard University Press, is a beautifully crafted study of how and why some aspects of Western culture became popular in the Soviet Union in the years after Stalin’s death. In this extract, which has been adapted from the original, Gilburd looks at Erich Maria Remarque, the German author whose books were a hit in the late 1950s and early 1960s. Not only would millions of copies of Remarque’s “unbearably sad” novels be published, but people even began to imitate Remarque’s fictional characters in their own lives

28 January 2019
Text: Eleonory Gilburd

Perhaps the biggest cultural hit of Khrushchev’s Thaw was the 1959 collection of Erich Maria Remarque’s novels, All Quiet on the Western Front, The Road Back, and Three Comrades. The first two had appeared in Russian in the late 1920s and 1930s but made little impression. In the mid-1950s, however, translators and literary critics were determined to save Three Comrades from the same fate. And they did: even before the famous anthology was published, a separate 1958 edition of Three Comrades gained enormous popularity. Art historian Mikhail German, who was then a 25-year-old reader, calls it a roman pokoleniya, which translates as both “the novel of a generation,” and “a generation’s love affair.” What was it about Three Comrades, a maudlin story set in Berlin in 1928, that was so contagious in the Soviet Union of 1958?

The Three Musketeers for the 20th century, Three Comrades is about male friendship and romantic love on the brink of a catastrophe. Robert, Otto, and Gottfried are the comrades, whose bitter, self-sacrificial friendship is cemented by irrepressible memories of war, abundant drink, and a cherished car named Karl. The general catastrophe of Germany’s inflation, unemployment, homelessness, and fascist street violence merges with a personal catastrophe when the friends discover that nothing can save Robert’s love, the tubercular Patrice, from death. The end is predictably tragic: Gottfried is killed by a Nazi Stormtrooper, the car repair shop the friends ran together bankrupts, and Patrice dies in a Swiss sanatorium.

Screenshot from a 2012 Russian adapatation of Three Comrades directed by Tigran Keosayan

These protagonists proved infinitely attractive for a Soviet audience, largely because they were (mis)taken for real. And, in no time, Remarque’s heroes began to lounge about in the recently opened Soviet cafes and scuffle in Soviet streets. As readers took to modelling their own actions, conversations, and relationships on the book, it acquired a life of its own. All drinks tasted like Calvados (the beverage of choice in another of Remarque’s novels, Arch of Triumph), all girls looked like Patrice. Screenwriter Gennady Shpalikov stole his copy of Three Comrades from a credulous friend, who lived by the book, “drink[ing] like those dashing motorcar enthusiasts and wandering in the fog along the Frunzenskaya Embankment with a girlfriend who also took everything as if it were for real.” Writer Andrei Bitov recalls how readers styled their loves upon those of Remarqueian characters: “After Remarque, we were no longer embarrassed to give [girls] flowers, especially stolen ones. I met my future wife as I was picking lilacs at night in a garden — white lilacs during a white night… We picked the lilacs, hopped into somebody’s else car, and raced out of the city. A car, lilacs… but it is Remarque who married us!” The author does not tell us how two Soviet youngsters got a car in Leningrad in 1958; that is not important. What matters is that Remarque’s name was synonymous with the thrill of speed and romance; what matters, as well, was that some people remembered their love as an incarnation of the book.

Remarque distinguished the private world of elemental human bonds from the public domain with its official slogans and rituals. To be sure, poverty, unemployment, inflation, fascism, arrests, charred corpses, and concentration camps repeatedly intrude into, and ultimately destroy, the havens/heavens of his protagonists. But Remarque retained a miraculous possibility of driving away at incredible speed, hanging a groundsheet, drawing a curtain, making the world invisible, and thus becoming invisible to the world.

Such readings were shaped by the Russian translation of Three Comrades and by the Soviet translators who created it. The final version was the work of translator Isaak Shraiber and deputy editor of the State Publishing House Boris Suchkov. Shraiber captured that special camaraderie of the novel’s title; best of all, his translation conveyed stoicism and machismo. Suchkov conceded male friendships, but saw the most important feature of the work as “the atmosphere enveloping the narrative, the mood that permeates it.” That mood was one of unbounded sadness. It did not originate in unemployment and other “vices of capitalist society” — or at least Suchkov did not mention these conventions of Soviet criticism. Rather, it was about “the evils of life” in general. This interpretation hinged on “a lyrical subtext,” which was “virtually elusive,” but, Suchkov insisted, meaningful silence would have to be communicated in Russian if the novel were not to be “received as a banal account of misfortune.”

And indeed, for one contemporary, what mattered was not only what Remarque said but how he said it: “Everything is important here, everything demands attention: a barely detectable gesture that betrays a movement of the soul, a sudden change of tone, an accidental word.” Students from a transportation institute wrote that Remarque was “a consoler” of “lost, devastated souls”. Others felt an affinity for his characters. So persuasive were his protagonists that readers singled out Remarque for possessing a special psychological acumen: he seemed uniquely capable of understanding the depth of loss and despair. One reader, in an unpublished letter asking for Remarque’s counsel and portrait, wrote: “In his works, I encounter my thoughts . . . For me, he is a kindred soul . . . His life is probably sad. Maybe I cannot understand a merry, happy life that is like a fairy tale.”

In no time, Remarque’s heroes began to lounge about in the recently opened Soviet cafes and scuffle in Soviet streets. As readers took to modelling their own actions, conversations, and relationships on the book, it acquired a life of its own

Three Comrades traveled around the country: from Nevsky Prospekt in Leningrad and Gorky Street in Moscow the novel went to Kiev, Minsk, Saratov, Ashkhabad, Tashkent, Batumi, and Riga. Between 1958 and 1960, Remarque’s books were printed 16 times in 3,500,000 copies. Yet more were planned. But even as Three Comrades traveled around the country and readers lined up at bookstores or wrote letters soliciting Remarque’s address, officials in the Writers’ Union, the Ministry of Culture, and the Cultural Department of the CPSU Central Committee were becoming increasingly apprehensive. They were taken aback by Remarque’s extraordinary popularity, which, they felt, was incompatible with his literary standing and inappropriate for Soviet youths. In confusion, they “spoke of a Remarquesque flood, deluge, mass psychosis.”

In late fall of 1959, critic Vladimir Kirpotin shaped the public face of the debate. “Remarquism,” he argued in a signature article, “smothers activism and breeds passivity, transforming righteous anger into stupefied, alcoholic despair.” Kirpotin’s article presented a synopsis of everything unacceptable about Remarque, above all, a universal morality grounded in “the only true constants” of “friendship, love, beauty, pleasures.” Kirpotin connected profligate love, universal morality, and apolitical stance. Love in Remarque, he harangued, was a drug that numbed political consciousness, hence the disregard for class-based convictions and descent into universalism. For the next several years, everyone writing about Remarque had to reckon with Kirpotin. Remarqueian love gained ever more noxious connotations: debauchery, vulgarity, sickness, the “fumes and smells” of “the Parisian abyss.” It turned out that Remarque’s prose was not lyrical, but cheaply sentimental, not manly but crude, not “critical realism,” but banality through and through. Kirpotin’s was not yet the official position, but it was fast snowballing into an anti-Remarque campaign. A month after Kirpotin’s piece, in December 1959, the Secretariat of the Writers’ Union formulated its own judgment: “We’ve had enough of Remarque.”

Presidents Nikita Khrushchev and John F. Kennedy shaking hands during the Thaw. Image: Stanley Tretick under a CC License

Finally, in March 1960, the Central Committee circulated a memo, “On the deficiencies and mistakes in publishing and reviewing foreign literature.” Remarque was not the only focus of this document, but he was in the spotlight: there were too many editions in too many copies, misleading reviews (excessively admiring or excessively censuring), “unnecessary commotion,” and “sensationalism” bound to disorient readers about an author who blatantly challenged class morality. By the early 1960s Remarque’s novels were no longer published in the capital and his works appeared only occasionally in provincial journals.

Remarque had been something of a problematic author from the start, but hardly anybody saw trouble until readers began to live by his books. The critical articles and proscriptive resolutions were a rejoinder, mainly to Soviet readers and only secondarily to Remarque. And it was for this reason — for the way he was read, rather than the way he wrote — that the 1958 editions of Three Comrades have joined other prominent symbols of the Thaw.

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