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Useful Notes / The Soviet Twenties

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When the United States had The Roaring '20s, and when Europe had The Golden Twenties, for the young Soviet Union, the 1920s were decidedly not a fun time.

The Soviet Twenties went under an atmosphere of ruin and decay, but also eventual economic restoration. Even though the Whites were defeated and the Reds reunited most of the territory of the former Russian Empire, they were left dealing with the fallout of World War I, the Red October, and the Russian Civil War. At the beginning of the decade, public infrastructure barely worked, and the new authorities, consisting mostly of unsophisticated, poorly-educated worker-peasant councils, had no idea how to run a country.


Under these conditions, the Bolsheviks were forced to allow a partial restoration of capitalist ways. The outright robberies of Military Communism were thus replaced with the NEP (New Economic Policy), where private property and trade were once again allowed to an extent. This was, in effect, the Full-Circle Revolution period of the Russian Revolution, a relatively quiet period between the revolutionary Red Terror and the later purges of Stalinism.

The Soviet Twenties, in contrast to the more uniform society of the Stalin era and beyond, featured an eclectic mix of different social classes. Stock characters of this era include:

  • The last remnants of the old regime: former landlords, Orthodox priests, undercover nobles, and people who integrated with the new ruling class but just happened to be of "improper" birth.
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  • Red Army soldiers and their officers Red Commanders and Commissars. Fresh from the war, adjusting to peace, they favored an unsophisticated, gung-ho approach to problems, as they usually couldn't be bothered to learn the intricacies of law and instead acted according to "revolutionary law-sense", in other words, shooting anyone they didn't like.
  • The intelligentsiya: scientists, doctors, writers and the like. Some of them accepted the new regime with gusto, while others never quite did, instead longing for the more civilized pre-revolution times. At that time, the press still enjoyed some bits of freedom, and even obviously anti-Soviet writers were occasionally published with no repercussions.
    • Artistic freedom was particularly well-explored in the arts grouped together as "design," with the new VKhUTEMAS developing some interesting new ways to create art and architecture with modern materials, cross-pollinating with the more famous Bauhaus in Weimar Germany.
  • New Soviet bureaucrats. Usually of the obstructive variety, they typically came from proletarian backgrounds and were more bothered with acting "ideologically aligned" and decorating their rooms with propaganda posters than actually regulating whatever they were trusted with. Ironically, this only contributed to the ruin that they were, in theory, supposed to combat.
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  • The NEPmen: new merchants and entrepreneurs who rose to prominence under the relatively liberal economic climate of the NEP. They were often stereotyped as greedy and deceitful.
  • The Criminal Youth: orphans or abandoned children who formed street gangs and engaged in petty theft, robbery, and worse. Often addicted to opiates, as they staved off hunger and became widely available after the looting of the country's drugstores during the Civil War. note 

This era, along with the NEP, came to an end in 1928-1929, when Stalin defeated all his political opponents, emerged as the undisputed leader of the Party, and started rapid industrialization and collectivization projects. The interest in satirical literature also waned with the advent of the Stalinist thirties, replaced with the advent of Socialist Realism, as the new powers were more interested in fiction embellishing their imaginary successes than exposing their real flaws.

This period sometimes shows up in Osterns, serving as the Soviet equivalent of Twilight of the Old West. In some regions (Turkestan and the Chinese border) the Red October status quo was preserved much longer, well into the Stalinist 1930s, by various Basmach gangs and White warlords who fled to China, but on most Soviet territory civilization was finally setting up shop.

Works set in this period:

  • The majority of Mikhail Bulgakov's works, including A Theatrical Novel, Heart of a Dog, Ivan Vasilievich Changes Profession, The Fatal Eggsnote , Zoya's Apartment and others. The Master and Margarita, whose writing started in the twenties, is a mix of that era and the thirties.
  • On the opposite end of the spectrum, we have the very pro-Communist Vladimir Mayakovsky. His works in approximately the later half of the period shifted from glorifying the Soviet state to satirizing the survivors of the old regime and the new "philistines" born in the NEP, as seen in his plays The Bedbug (whose focus character is a former worker now marrying the daughter of a "petty bourgeois" family) and The Bathhouse (bureaucracy).
  • The Twelve Chairs. The Little Golden Calf somewhat less so, as it shows the last traces of the NEP vanishing in front of Ostap Bender's eyes, replaced with an almost boringly uniform society.
  • Tintin - Tintin in the Land of the Soviets, published in 1929, the very first adventure of Hergé's iconic comic book hero. It was designed to be a work of anti-Marxist propaganda at the direction of his boss, a conservative Catholic abbot. The plot revolves around the young Belgian reporter and his dog Snowy, who travel, via Berlin, to the Soviet Union, to report back on the policies instituted by the Bolshevik government. However, an agent of the Soviet secret service, the OGPU, attempts to prevent him from doing so, consistently setting traps to get rid of him. Despite this, Tintin is successful in discovering the secrets of the Bolsheviks and how they are stealing the food of the Soviet people, rigging elections and murdering opponents. While the comic was pretty successful, Hergé later wasn't fond of it in the slightest, and it remains his only album that was never redrawn in color. And this while even the psychotically racist and condescending Tintin - Tintin in the Congo, his other Old Shame, was reworked and republished multiple times (though in a significantly edited way).
  • Ayn Rand's We the Living begins in 1922, when the protagonist's formerly wealthy family moves back to Petrograd (not yet renamed Leningrad) after trying to wait out the Revolution in Crimea.
  • Issac Babel's stories tend to be set around this period. The Red Cavalry stories are about fighting between White and Red Russians, and the Odessa Tales are a bit later on, and fit the "temporary free and cosmopolitan atmosphere" idea, and also the social upheaval. There's characters from the old elite who are now poor and conversly, people from a low strata, who become rich (generally through at least partially criminal means).
  • Marguerite Yourcenar's novel Le Coup de Grace is about a story of love and death during the post-WWI war in Courland (Latvia), with German Free Corps and White Russians against Bolsheviks.
  • The third film of The Elusive Avengers, Crown of the Russian Empire. The beginning of this film touches the Ostern roots of the series by showing the Avengers fighting a Basmach gang in Turkestan, and thus demonstrates the Twilight Of The Wild East trope.
  • Mikhail Sholokhov's Quiet River Don and Virgin Soil Upturned are Cossack dramas depicting their transition to peaceful Soviet life. Again, both depict Twilight Of The Wild East, featuring White Cossack remnants who try to readjust and fit in in Quiet River Don and disrupt the Soviet collectivization in Virgin Soil Upturned.


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