[THE FIRST BOOK ABOUT PEASANT CRITICISM OF RUSSIAN LITERATURE] Krest’yane o Pisatelyakh [i.e. Peasants about Writers]
Moscow; Leningrad: Gos. izd-vo, 1930.
280,  pp.,  ads.,  pp. of plates, portraits. 16x23,9 cm. In original publisher’s photomontage wrappers. Edges slightly worn. Otherwise near fine.
First edition. Scarce. One of 5,000 copies. With the introductory letters by A. Agranovsky and V. Goffenshefer. The photomontage wrappers show peasants and the author of the book.
The first-ever book about peasant criticism of Russian fiction written by the victim of Soviet repressions.
The author of this edition, Adrian Mitrofanovich Toporov (1891-1984), was illegally repressed in 1937 and sent to the labor camps of Gulag (1937-1943). At the trial, this book was used as material evidence of Toporov’s guilt. Later, the edition was included by Glavlit in the Annotated Lists of Politically Harmful Books to be Seized from Libraries and Booksellers for the following reasons: ‘The book is littered with positive references to enemies of the people: Arosev, Pilnyak, Koltsov. On p. 264-266 positive reviews about Oreshin and his work are given’.
In 1920, rural teacher Adrian Toporov became one of the founders of the May Morning commune in a village near Barnaul. From 1920 to 1932, Toporov dedicated himself to acquainting illiterate and semi-literate peasants to foreign and Soviet literature. The readings gradually turned into discussions, and the teacher commenced to write down the opinions of the listeners - first for his own archive and later for print.
In 1927, Adrian began publishing his notes in the newspaper Zvezda Altaya [i.e. Star of Altai] (Biysk) and in the magazine Sibirskiye ogni [i.e. Siberian Lights] (Novosibirsk). In 1930, he published the book Peasants about Writers. This first and at the time the only experience of peasant criticism of fiction received a great response both in the USSR and abroad. Although the publication of the book was positively assessed by a large body of Soviet writers and public figures (Maxim Gorky, Veresaev, V., Zazubrin, V.), still it received a lot of backlash. In 1932, the Siberian Soviet Encyclopedia trumpeted: ‘Toporov’s book Peasants about Writers is an example of unprincipled, anti-Marxist criticism of fiction’.
The main body of the work consists of three sections.
The first section features brief characteristics of 56 peasants who participated in the discussions of the fiction works. The notes include interesting comments by the author: Smart, although she thinks much less of herself (Blinova, T. 40 years); In words he is right-minded, but his words and deeds often differ from each other (Djeikalo F. 25 years); Nervous, irritable, and arrogant woman (Bocharova, P. 25 years); Suffers from a nervous breakdown. In a fit of neurasthenia is unable to control himself (Likhachov, S. 30 years), etc.
The second section features peasants’ comments on the works of various writers and playwrights. This part includes 13 discussions of the writings of the following authors: Isaac Babel (Salt, The Life Story of Pavlichenko), Vladimir Bill-Bilotserkovsky (Calm), Ivan Evdokimov (Horses), Vsevolod Ivanov (Night, Service, Breath of the Desert, God-Matvey, Partisans), Anna Karavaeva (Ginger Revenge), Nikolay Lyashko (Into the Break), Alexander Neverov (Tashkent - the City of Bread), Alexey Novikov-Priboy (Bumps), Yury Olesha (Jealousy), Fyodor Panferov (Whetstones), Semyon Podyachev (By Stages, Ordeals), Lidiya Seifullina (Virineya, Offenders), and Konstantin Trenyov (Lyubov Yarovaya). Among the authors discussed in the book, peasants seem to be least impressed by Isaac Babel: ‘We are surprised by Babel’s great ability to replete short stories with a bunch of lies and confusion’ and Fyodor Panferov: This book is not needed in the village. It’s full of lies. It will do much harm to collective-farm construction and will bring less or no benefits at all’. The participants of the discussion were deeply moved by Konstantin Trenyov: ‘We equate Lyubov Yarovaya with the best plays of old writers - L. Tolstoy, Turgenev, Pisemsky, Ostrovsky, Gorky, L. Andreev, etc. It is the best of all the revolutionary plays of our time’.
The third section of the book features peasants’ discussions of works by the following poets: Alexander Bezymensky (Party Membership Card №224322), Alexander Blok (As the Heavenly Velvet Sparkles), Mikhail Golodnyy (Visions), Sergey Yesenin (Song of the Great Campaign, Mare Ships, Letter from Mother, Response, Song about Evpaty Kolovrat), Vivian Itin (Funeral of my Girl), Vasily Kazin (Sh! How the Heart Bits!), Ivan Molchanov (Winning? - Will Win!), Sergey Obradovich (About Youth), Peter Oreshin (Insomnia), Boris Pasternak (Spektorsky), Ilya Selvinsky (Lynx), Nikolay Tikhonov (Outside the Сity), Iosif Utkin (The Twentieth), and Ivan Filipchenko (Symphony No. 9). Among the poets discussed, the peasants were particularly amazed by Alexander Bezymensky, ‘Honorable place for the Party Membership Card in rural libraries!’ and Peter Oreshin, who was executed during the Great Purge, ‘For sympathy for suffering people, for affectionate words, for a call to life, we accept this verse with immense gratitude to its author’. Interestingly, it was these words that were used against Toporov during his trial. Another important characteristic of this section of the book is the general hostility towards Sergey Esenin (whose anti-campaign was launched from the late-1920s), both from the side of the peasants and the author: ‘Long before discussing Song of the Great Campaign, Yesenin created for himself in the commune the glory of a bad poet. He was the enemy of my audience’ (Toporov); ‘He himself should get married to a sheep for such verses, He is as stupid as a woman’s navel’ (Titov, P.).
Each discussion features, together with the individual comments of peasants, collective opinions of the discussion participants and the author’s notes regarding their reactions. Importantly, the edition preserves the original language of the communers, which makes the text even more engaging. A separate chapter is dedicated to the methodical notes by Toporov.
Overall, an extremely rare, first-of-its-kind book about peasants’ criticism of Russian literature.
Worldcat shows copies of the edition at Harvard University, Columbia University Libraries, New York Public Library System, Yale University Library, Library of Congress, Duke University Libraries, Stanford University, and University of California.
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