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This is going to be one of my favorite opening salvos in all the blogs I have written here. I will quote from the tail end of Wolfgang Kasack’s wonderful Dictionary of Russian Literature Since 1917:
“The idealization of work and of the proletariat, of metals and the machine, characterizes the poetry of Kuznitsa members…. Their prose is less uniform than their poetry, but it is also not particularly noteworthy.”
But it is also not particularly noteworthy… How’s that for a backhanded slap?
So much for the writers who, for a relatively short time in the 1920s, comprised the Kuznitsa, or Smithy, group of poets and prose writers. Indeed, who remembers these folks these days? The group officially counted up to 150 members at one time, but of all the names that are regularly trotted out in most sources, really only Fyodor Gladkov rose above the din of the obscure. His novel Cement (1925), often dubbed the first of the so-called production novels, was quite popular when it appeared, and remained a “classic” throughout the Soviet years. Not many people read it these days. When I read it 30, maybe 40, years ago, I found it to be an excellent antidote to insomnia.
For the record, let’s jot down some of the writers who considered themselves members of Smithy at one time or another: Vasily Alexandrovsky, Sergei Obradovich, Vasily Kazin, Vladimir Kirillov, Nikolai Poletaev, Semyon Rodov, Mikhail Volkov, Mikhail Gerasimov, Grigory Sannikov, Alexei Dorogoichenko, Sergei Malashkin, Georgy Nikiforov, Ivan Filippchenko, Alexander Neverov, Nikolai Lyashko, Mikhail Bakhmetyev, Pavel Nizovoi, Alexei Novikov-Priboi and Gladkov. (Rather amazingly, I wrote about Lyashko elsewhere on this site if you’re interested.) Sorry, folks, but it’s not an A-list.
Smithy was founded as the first association of proletarian writers in Moscow in 1920. It began by meeting once a week on Thursdays in buildings located on what was then, and is now again, Tverskaya Street. In March of 1920 these Thursday meetings were shifted to the building you see pictured here today, located at 33 Starokonyushenny Lane, south of the Arbat. It would appear that the group was officially given apartment No. 11 here for the purposes of their civic and literary activity. We also know that at least four of the Smithy writers lived in this communal apartment: Gladkov, Lyashko, Neverov and Novikov-Priboi.
Smithy members were, for the most part, gung-ho Communist Party members who believed in the union of work and art, workers and artists. In fact, when the Soviet government instituted NEP, the New Economic Policy around 1921/22 in order to help rejuvenate the moribund Soviet economy, the members of Smithy were not pleased. They saw the more-or-less capitalist NEP as a dangerous step in the wrong direction.
On the other hand, as a reminder of how mixed up things were in those years, these writers who, in some ways, were purer Communists than the Communists, were also dead-set against politics and politicians messing around with artistic expression. The autonomy of the writer was an important issue for them. For example, in an era when people quickly chose sides and easily became enemies, Smithy welcomed writers from any of the other competing groups at their Thursday get-togethers. You can see the group’s interest in literature as an art form in the document, “Declaration of the Smithy Proletarian Writers.” Four of the first six points in the declaration have to do with aesthetics or freedom of creativity – “The Leap into the Kingdom of Freedom,” “The Dynamic of Form,” “Art as a Special Tool,” and “Style as Quality.” There are 19 points in all. This declaration was published in Pravda in 1923 and was signed by Filippchenko (chairman), Lyashko (deputy chairman), Sannikov (secretary), with G[urgen] Aikuni and Kirillov (executive board members).
In official terms, the height of Smithy’s activity was probably in late 1922, early 1923. According to the book Soviet Culture and Power: A History in Documents, 1917-1953, the Politburo gave the group a grant or budget of 80 million rubles on September 14, 1922. The ruble was in serious flux in 1922, so I don’t know exactly how much that was in real money, but I rather suspect that, outside Italy or Zimbabwe, 80 million of any currency at any time is a relatively useful sum.
Smithy was an active publisher, if also an erratic one. Over the course of its existence (1920 to 1930/31), it put out numerous journals, miscellanies or collections: Smithy (1920-21), Workers’ Journal (1923-25), Journal for Everyone (1928-29), Proletarian Avant-garde (1930), plus four more collections in 1930. It grew out of the Proletkult (proletarian culture) group and was eventually subsumed into RAPP (Russian Association of Proletarian Writers), the notoriously poisonous group that, essentially, put an end to all literary groups that proliferated in the 1920s.