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Nikolai Ostrovsky (no relation to the great playwright Alexander Ostrovsky) has always occupied a place near the end of my list of admired Russian writers. He did not write much (he died at the age of 32) and what he did write – primarily the novel How the Steel was Tempered – is hardly one of my favorite books. It is a “classic of Soviet Socialist Realism,” and so will always have its champions. I found it unreadable when I attempted to get through it several decades ago. I have never come back to it, regardless of what that may say about me.
The novel is a semi-autobiographical tale about a hero named Pavel Korchagin who became one of the most important “positive” mythical characters in the Soviet pantheon. It follows his adventures in the Russian Civil War and after. Over the years (from 1942 to 2000) there were at least four films made of the novel. The best known is Pavel Korchagin (1957), which made the actor Vasily Lanovoi a star. In fact, Ostrovsky wrote only two other works; one was lost in the mail (The Tale of the Kotovsky Brigade, 1927), the other was unfinished at the time of his death (Born by Storm, 1936). Born by Storm, consisting of, at best, one-third of the planned total, was rush-published in order to present copies to those who attended the writer’s funeral.
Ostrovsky (1904-1936) seemingly clings to his place in Russian-Soviet literature by the thinnest of threads. Still, the popularity of his one extant, completed work was quite fantastic. A poll taken in 1986 of literature published between the years of 1918 and 1986 determined that How the Steel was Tempered had been published 536 times. Did anybody really read this book? Well, yes, I’m sure some did. I do not doubt it was of genuine interest at the time of publication (1932-34, in serialized form first). I rather suspect there was a bump in readers when the film with Lanovoi came out. But I also don’t doubt that a lot of those editions were “force published” by the Communist Party and were put on shelves in schools and libraries where they really didn’t attract much attention. War and Peace, I hate to break it to Ostrovsky fans, this was not.
But there is also no doubt that the figure of Ostrovsky continues to attract attention even today. His was a tragic story and it has been told many times over. Each time, unfortunately, new bits of “information” slip in, while other details seem to fall by the wayside. As such, there is plenty of confusion surrounding the true state of Ostrovsky’s affairs.
Primary was the question of his health. For many years the official explanation of his incapacitation and death was that he had an acute form of polyarthritis which led to the ossification of his bones. In later years it became customary to say that he suffered from multiple sclerosis, although bone or spinal tuberculosis has been suspected at times, too. Research now suggests he most likely had ankylosing spondylitis, commonly known in Russia as Bekhterev’s disease. In his last few years Ostrovsky went blind as a result of complications arising from a bout with typhus in 1922. In any case, by that time (1922) Ostrovsky was in very bad health anyway (he was 18). By mid-decade he was increasingly bed-ridden. He underwent an enormous number of consultations, treatments and operations, virtually none of which did anything but increase his pain and discomfort. A website supported by the Tyumen State Medical University hosts an extremely detailed account of virtually all of Ostrovsky’s ailments and treatments. It makes for grim reading. I will limit myself to one short quote from the expansive and highly-detailed report:
“In the Spring of 1927 the Ostrovsky family took him to a ‘natural’ resort, the Hot Springs in the Krasnodar Region. During the six-hour trip over horrible roads Ostrovsky lost consciousness nine times from pain. ‘I can’t describe to you the whole nightmare of the trip to the resort,’ he wrote to his wife. Despite three months of constant treatment (Ostrovsky was lowered into the waters on crutches), the knee which had been operated on still would not bend, while movement in his remaining joints caused cruel pain. ‘The sulphur baths deceived our expectations in the cruelest of ways,’ Ostrovsky wrote to his wife.”
Ostrovsky came from a military family – both his father and grandfather were war heroes – and so it is not surprising that Nikolai would have been inclined to follow in their footsteps. As he became increasingly incapacitated, he was compelled to do work that did not require movement, serving in various official organizations. He was appointed secretary of the regional committee of the Komsomol in Shepetovka, Ukraine, in 1924. But as his illnesses continued to affect him, he increasingly concentrated his efforts on writing. That, too, was no simple deed. He was so incapacitated – movement and sight – that he had to invent a device – usually called a stencil – that allowed him to write legibly. (When sight failed him entirely, he worked with a secretary who took dictation.)
Anna Karavaeva, a writer who befriended Ostrovsky, has left some moving tales of Ostrovsky’s struggles. In a large selection of her memoirs published in English on the Sovlit.net website, Karavaeva describes how difficult it was for Ostrovsky to write.
“By ‘my offensive’ he meant his work on the second part of the novel How the Steel Was Tempered. The difficult and at moments agonizing process which Nikolai called ‘my work’ was in truth an offensive….
I often remember his thin, yellowish hands which always lay on top of the blanket. They were the nervous, acutely sensitive hands of a blind man. He had the power of movement left only in his hands, as arthritis, that dread disease of the joints which was to be one of the causes of his death, had already seized the whole of his poor body.
Once, shortly before he left for Sochi, Nikolai said to me in the mocking tone he usually adopted when speaking of his condition:
‘My shoulders and elbows don’t feel as if they belonged to me at all. It’s the craziest feeling! This is all I have left to me, all I possess!’ Smiling with puckish sadness, he raised his hands a little and moved his fingers. ‘Try and manage with these!’
Although he disliked discussing his illness, he told me on one of my earlier visits that for a time he had been able to write with the help of a cardboard stencil.
‘It wasn’t too convenient, but still it had its uses,’ he said.
At the beginning of August 1932 I received a letter from him from Sochi. He had written it in pencil with the help of his stencil. The too-straight lines and the unnaturally curved letters compelled the imagination to picture the physical strain and the effort of will that went into the writing of that short letter.
Dear Comrade Anna,
I am living with my mother very close to the seashore. I spend the whole day out in the garden, lying under an oak tree and writing, making the best of the lovely weather (the next words were undecipherable)… my head is clear. I am in a hurry to live, Comrade Anna, I do not want to be sorry afterwards that I wasted these days. The offensive, brought to a deadlock by my stupid illness, is developing again, and so wish me victory.”
I do not know much about the bust of Ostrovsky that stands in the Muzeon Park in Moscow. All my attempts to glean any details of interest ended in failure. But I very much like it. It has a striking cleanliness and perfection. It was created by Boris Yedunov sometime in the 1950s and there my knowledge of the piece comes to an end. For the most part Yedunov made a career of sculpting military and political leaders. And, indeed, this bust of Ostrovsky shows him in uniform. The facial expression shows strength, clarity of thought and and a deep knowledge of hardship. I suspect this piece of sculpture does a good job of putting us in touch with the individual it represents.