From Rogue to Reformed: Socialist Realism for Proletarian Inspiration

The History of the Construction of the White Sea-Baltic Canal emerged in 1934 as a collection of personal and historical narratives that create an image of how the construction project to bridge the White and Baltic Seas contributed to the mission of Stalin’s government. The project was led by the Union of Soviet Writers, a collection of accredited Soviet writers whose talents were utilized by the Soviet State. 

White-Baltic Sea Map
A Soviet map of the White-Baltic sea canal. which spans 141 miles to connect these 2 bodies of water.

Chapter 12 of this book, found in Mass Culture in Soviet Russia (pp.190-201), provides a great example of Socialist Realism, a concept which the writer’s union required its content creators to follow. This chapter follows the development of Abram Isaakovich Rothenburg, who hails from Georgia. Prior to the revolution, Rothenburg struggled to find employment, resorting to thievery to make ends meet. After an initial sentence of six months, he was sentenced to eight years hard labor for dodging the draft, and failing to salute a military officer. His sentence ended with the February Revolution, when he and his cellmates liberated themselves. Nine years later, Rothenburg was caught stealing yet again, but this time he was eventually sentenced to 3 years hard labor, a sentence that took him to construction of the canal. He failed to see the need to work, and ended up in a meeting with “reform instructor “Varlamov”.

maxim gorky
Maxim Gorky, editor of History of the Construction of the White Sea-Baltic Canal. A 5-time nominee for the Nobel Prize in Literature, he was a leading Soviet writer and member of the Union of Soviet Writers.

This meeting is a turning point for him, as he begins his transformation into the idealized proletarian. There would no longer be a need to steal, since there are no capitalists or property owners. He worked hard, producing 50% more than what was expected of him. He was nominated as a member of the production committee, and was appointed assistant reform supervisor. Rothenburg, once slave of the bourgeois institutions, was now the leader of a proletarian colony of reforming individuals.

These sorts of stories are emblematic of Socialist Realist writing. An individual struggling with his role within the capitalist world, having an epiphany revealing the superior nature of the commune, and becoming a leader in promoting this vision for the world.  Proletarian protagonists like Rothenburg are useful as icons for those who have doubt about the new government to look up to. The writing ignores the general nature of the work and the casualties of the canal project (more info here), but this writing creates an image for what the average Soviet should aspire to be.

7 thoughts on “From Rogue to Reformed: Socialist Realism for Proletarian Inspiration

  1. Hi there! This is a really interesting post, as this story fits the tradition of using tales of action to inspire others. Similar to that of Pavlik Morozov, these kinds of examples are ideals, especially when the hero is seen as real, tangible, and transformative. Great post!


    1. Thanks Cameron! Inspirational characters are prominent across all cultures, but this one stood out to me due to the actual situation that existed at the work camp


  2. The construction of the canal seems really interesting. I didn’t know that they put these histories together for state construction projects. That makes me wonder if a similar narrative was written on the Dnieper Hydroelectric Station. Because I know the Soviets worshiped that things completion like it was a god.


    1. I couldn’t find anything about the Dnieper Dam. My understanding is that the White-Baltic canal was one of the original projects of the first five year plan, and so it became the subject of this worker’s history to perhaps stimulate these type of camps at other project sites.


  3. Excellent detective work here! Your discussion of Rothenburg has given me a lot to think about. I’m struck by how your post and Rothenburg’s “biography” touches on so many of the contradictory (and often horrendous and tragic) aspects of literature’s role in “socialist construction.” This is a perspective on transformation and redemption that kind of makes your hair stand on end…Thanks!


  4. I really like how you wrote about a construction project during the 1930s! It is fascinating to realize that the USSR was so very determined to catch up and prove themselves to the rest of the world. Even though Stalin’s reign was terrifying, they celebrated humanity during the creation of these industrial projects.


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