Panova, Vera (1905–1973)

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Panova, Vera (1905–1973)

Soviet Russian novelist, short-story writer and dramatist who was one of the most beloved writers in the USSR starting in the mid-1940s. Name variations: Vera Fyodorovna (or Feodorovna or Fëdorovna) Panova; (pseudonyms) Vera Veltman; V. V-an; V.V.; V. Starosel'skaiia; V.S. Born Vera Fedorovna Panova on March 20, 1905, in Rostov-on-Don, Russia; died in Leningrad on March 3, 1973; daughter of a bank clerk; married Arseny Staroselsky, in 1925 (divorced); married Boris Vakhtin (died); married David Yakovlevich Rivkin (a writer under the pseudonym David Dar); children: one daughter, two sons.

Selected writings:

Ilya Kosgor (play, 1939); V staroi Moskve (In Old Moscow, 1940); Sputniki (The Train or The Travelling Companions, 1946); Kruzhilikha (The Factory, 1947); Iasnyi bereg (The Clear Shore, 1949); Vremena goda (Seasons of the Year, 1953, translated by Vera Traill as Span of the Year); Serezha (1955); Seryozha (1955); Metelitsa (play, The Blizzard, 1957); Sentimental'nyi roman (A Sentimental Novel, 1958); Evdokia (1959).

The life of Russian writer Vera Panova, like that of millions of her Soviet compatriots, was one filled with struggle and tragedy. Living and working through the Stalinest era, she won the Stalin Prize three times but nevertheless maintained her artistic integrity in writings that did not bend to the dictates of political expediency. Despite her travails, she was able to survive and prevail, mostly by creating books that presented honest portrayals of ordinary, flawed humans, books that became bestsellers. Particularly beloved were the novels Sputniki, set in World War II, and Seryozha, which has become a world classic in the literature about children.

Panova was born in 1905 in Rostov-on-Don, a colorful city with an ethnically mixed population and streets crammed with bazaars and shops. Her father was a poorly paid bank employee who was nevertheless highly cultured. Proficient in three languages, he loved books. Vera was only five when he accidently drowned in the Don River in 1910 and the family was left destitute. Her mother had to take work in an office, and Vera attended to all of the household chores, including cooking and laundering. Largely relying on her father's excellent library, she educated herself and had a particular fascination with history. Panova also began to write, both in verse and prose. Still a child, she made up her mind to one day become a famous, successful author. By the time she was ten, her first poem appeared in print after a relative submitted it without her knowledge to a magazine. After only two years of high school, she had to drop out because of the family's financial predicament, and she began to support herself by the age of 14.

By 1917, a year of two revolutions in Russia, the young Panova had become an oft-published writer, with a number of her pieces appearing in Rostov's student journal Iunaia mysl' (Young Ideas). Over the next few years, she continued to publish in various journals. In 1922, she took a job as a journalist with a Rostov newspaper, Trudovoi Don (The Working Don). By the late 1920s, Panova had made considerable advances in her career and was employed by the newspaper Sovetskii iug (The Soviet South). Here she was in charge of the feuilleton section (devoted to literature and light writing on various topics), and over the next years her sketches and stories appeared under the pseudonym "Vera Veltman." Although she was interested in many aspects of contemporary intellectual and political life, Panova did not commit herself to any of the literary groups that dotted the Soviet literary landscape during the 1920s and early 1930s. Instead, she concentrated on perfecting her craft as a journalist and making a name for herself in local children's magazines and newspapers. By 1933, she had found enough confidence to begin writing plays. Many years later, in 1958, she would publish an evocative and largely autobiographical work, Sentimental'nyi Roman (A Sentimental Novel), based on these years.

In 1925, she married Arseny Staroselsky. They divorced after only two years, and soon after Panova married Boris Vakhtin. This union was more successful, but in 1937, during the height of Stalin's Great Purge, Vakhtin was falsely denounced and arrested. He would perish in the Gulag. Alone and forced to support herself and her three children, Panova worked harder than ever, both as a journalist and as a creative writer. Two of her plays from this period—Ilya Kosgor (1939) and V staroi Moskve (In Old Moscow, 1940)—won prizes. The latter was staged successfully in Moscow in 1941 and was being prepared for its Leningrad premiere when Nazi Germany attacked the Soviet Union in June 1941.

At the time, Panova and her daughter, who lived near Leningrad in the town of Pushkin, were unable to escape from the rapidly advancing German forces. For a period of months, they lived under Nazi occupation. Neither would be molested, but Panova became a virtual slave laborer, helping the local peasants when they were ordered by the Germans to work in the fields. One of Panova's jobs for the hated occupiers was to type records on an ancient typewriter. Despite the obvious risks, she used that same typewriter to secretly write the first chapters of a play which would later be staged as Metelitsa (The Blizzard). She hid the typescript in a stack of firewood, where she had also secreted notes for a projected work to be called Ostland. Unfortunately, the Ostland materials would later be lost.

Determined to be free from the nightmare of living under the Nazi New Order, in late 1943 Panova and her daughter escaped from Pushkin by trekking on foot for several hundred miles in order to join her sons and aged mother in Shishaki. Here, Panova continued to write, using a thick accountant's ledger because of the severe paper shortage during the war. In 1944, she settled in the city of Perm, supporting herself, her three children, her mother, and an orphan child by working long hours writing scripts for the local radio station and newspapers. In her little spare time, she continued to write and that same year published her first long story, Sem'ja Pirozhkovykh (The Pirozhkov Family); this would later be reworked and reprinted in 1959 under the title Evdokia. Panova also began to collect materials for a study of people's lives in a factory in the Urals, which would eventually emerge as the novel Kruzhilikha (The Factory, 1947).

In late 1944, Panova accepted an unusual journalistic assignment from the Perm branch of the Soviet Writers' Union: to write a brochure about the work carried out on a military hospital train. She spent several months on Hospital Train No. 312 and published the pamphlet. Panova then greatly expanded on her impressions of life on the train in Sputniki (The Train also seen as The Travelling Companions, 1946), a novel that turned her into a major star in the Soviet literary firmament. Sputniki was an innovative work for Soviet literature, which had been confined for more than a decade in the intellectual straitjacket of Socialist Realism. The doctrine of Socialist Realism, which reflected Stalin's political and intellectual agenda, centered around the dogma that art and literature were duty-bound to present only a positive picture of Soviet life and in a style that was accessible to even the most unsophisticated citizen.

While Sputniki did not criticize the Soviet system, neither did it create false heroes. In fact, it depicted the staff of the hospital train as decent sorts who were not exceptional. In their imperfections, none of these workers resembled the stereotypical "New Soviet Man or Woman." Their strengths and weaknesses were average and their lives little more than run-of-the-mill. With sympathy, Panova chronicled the staff's basic humanity which enabled them to contribute to the final Soviet victory simply because they did their duty as best they could, almost always under difficult conditions. They contributed not by fighting in battles—there are no battle scenes in Sputniki—but by laboring day in and day out in quite ordinary and even seemingly trivial situations. The book quickly became a bestseller, won the author a coveted Stalin Prize (the first of three she would receive during the dictator's lifetime), and was to retain its reputation as one of the best Soviet works on what is known in Russia as the Great Patriotic War. As a result of Sputniki's success, Panova won a coveted membership in the Soviet Writers' Union.

Nothing that compromises artistic truth can be tolerated in art.

—Vera Panova

Despite Cold War tensions, Sputniki even received a favorable response from critics in the West. Writing in The Saturday Review of Literature in 1949, John Woodburn called the novel:

almost unique in that it presents neither the highly moralistic tone which pervaded the [pre-revolutionary] Russian novel … nor the intense … chauvinism and propagandism which has characterized so much of Soviet literature…. [Panova's book] is simply a warm, humanistic, occasionally sentimental montage of the lives of a group of ordinary people which could, without a great deal of transposition, have been set in almost any other country during a time of war.

Panova's next novel Kruzhilikha (The Factory, 1947) was based on her wartime observations of life and labor in a Urals factory. Although it was equally successful with the Soviet reading public, this work failed to please a number of literary critics because of its deviations from the party line of Socialist Realism. The book's main character—the factory director Listopad who displays many less-than-ideal character traits—was declared by the critics to be a "negative hero," and the book received additional criticism for not sufficiently contrasting "good" with "bad" personality traits. In a series of character sketches, Panova shows how the stresses of work in the factory erode the lives of its director and workers (or is used by them to escape their own personal problems). Somewhat puzzlingly, this book too won the author a Stalin Prize.

By this time in her career, Panova had more to lose. In 1945, she had married David Rivkin, a fellow writer who appeared in print under the pseudonym David Dar. The marriage would last until Panova's death. Panova and her family resettled with David and his two children (from a previous marriage) in Leningrad. In 1949, she published her third novel, Iasnyi bereg (The Clear Shore), about life on a Soviet collective farm in the period immediately after the war. Here, Panova took no risks, instead praising Stalin on many occasions and generally writing obediently within the confines of the Socialist Realist doctrine. Although she won her third Stalin Prize for this book, Panova was frank in later years in acknowledging that it was in fact a very weak work of art. Among its propagandistic pages there are nonetheless some sensitively written fragments, particularly those devoted to the five-year-old boy Seryozha. In 1955, after Stalin's death, Panova would return to Seryozha to write a novella of that name, a work that is generally acknowledged to be of high artistic quality.

Within weeks of Stalin's death in March 1953, a "thaw" began to be observed in many facets of Soviet life. In the intellectual sphere, writers and other artists opened their desk drawers to bring long-hidden works to the public's attention. Panova sent to her publisher a book manuscript that would first appear in print starting in November 1953, in the journal Novyi mir, as Vremena goda (Seasons of the Year, translated by Vera Traill as Span of the Year). In this daring novel that would never have seen the light of day under Stalin's regime, Panova took an unblinking look at the realities of Soviet life.

Set in "a typical Russian town which we shall call Ensk," Vremena goda looks at two families, the Bortasheviches and the Kuprianovs. The book's most vivid character, Stepan Bortashevich, has achieved a position of power and responsibility. He is essentially a weak man who, led astray in part because of his wife Nadezhda, becomes involved in financial corruption. As the militia arrives to arrest him, Stepan commits suicide. The novel's major female character, Dorofeya Kuprianova, is an exemplary Communist who is active in party affairs and successful in her own career in industry. Whereas her daughter, a student, is also an exemplary Soviet citizen, Dorofeya's son Gennadi is very much a black sheep, and he is deeply enmeshed in the rackets run by Stepan Bortashevich.

Vremena goda became a storm-center of controversy. Panova had presented to the reading public characters who were not only far from perfect but also unheroic to the point of being largely obsessed with obtaining ever more creature comforts, particularly better housing. A number of critics—and her ever-loyal reading audience—rapturously praised the book. Articles in Izvestia, the Literary Gazette, and other journals welcomed the novel as a change from the unconvincing Socialist Realist works of the last years of Stalin's rule, and some hailed it as possibly even marking a genuine turning point in the history of Soviet literature. Conservative forces mounted a counterattack in the Soviet Communist Party newspaper Pravda (May 27, 1954). Entitled "What Sort of Seasons are These?," the article took Panova to task and admonished the highest bureaucrats for their laxity in allowing such unwelcome tendencies in Soviet cultural life to remain unchallenged.

Despite her powerful critics, Panova seemed to have mastered the art of survival in a totalitarian state. After 1953, she was able to maintain a secure place in the top ranks of Soviet writers. By this time, she was well known not only in the USSR, but also in many foreign countries where her novels had appeared in translation. In 1954 and again in 1959, she was a major personality at the Writers' Congresses that elected her a member of the Presidium of the Union of Soviet Writers. In 1955, she was awarded the Order of the Red Banner of Labor, an honor that would be repeated in 1965. Because of her national and international reputation, she received permission to travel to the West, including Italy and the United Kingdom. In 1960, Panova made a five-week trip to the United States along with a group of other Soviet writers. Although most of her published observations on American life are well within the range of Soviet orthodoxy, she was clearly an observant tourist, noting above all else the extraordinary material abundance to be found in the United States. Her travels in America resulted in an increased awareness of new literary trends in the West which is clearly reflected in the epilogue she wrote for the Russian edition of J.D. Salinger's The Catcher in the Rye. Here, she praised Salinger's work as "this novel about a loafer, a petty liar, a swaggering dandy, a strange, unlucky young creature, a novel outwardly so simple, but so complex in its inner structure, [that it] creates a whirlwind of feelings and thoughts…. This is the hallmark of a really important book."

One of the most courageous aspects of Panova's career was her uncompromising attitude toward Soviet anti-Semitism. Living in a society that boasted of having abolished anti-Semitism from the tsarist past, but still kept it alive in virtually all aspects of its public life, Panova often grappled with this issue in her works. In her play Metelitsa (The Blizzard), she presents characters of Russian and Estonian nationality

who are no less inhuman in their hatred of Jews than are the invading Nazis. Panova makes clear that it was the Jews, along with Soviet politruks (the political commissars attached to Red Army units), who topped the lists as targets for the Wehrmacht and SS Einsatzgruppen to round up and annihilate. Jews are treated with great sympathy in Metelitsa, in which the rabbi's wife represents the voice of conscience. Jakub Blum has noted that the philosophy of Panova's drama derives directly from Dostoevsky's idea that once God, the supreme moral authority in the universe, has ceased to exist everything is permissible. As a play with "an almost prophetic eloquence," Metelitsa views both the Jews' fate and the hatred toward them as part of the modern world's headlong rush toward the self-destruction of humanity. For Panova, anti-Semitism was more than a socially and politically undesirable phenomenon. It was a major component of the contemporary world's degradation of human dignity. Panova suggested to the play's audience that Hitler's mass murder of Jews was facilitated in the occupied Soviet Union by Jew-haters who were part of an anti-Semitic way of life that flourished both before and during the Soviet era.

In July 1967, Panova suffered a stroke which paralyzed the left side of her body. She responded only slowly to medical treatment, and in time it became clear that there was no hope of a complete recovery. Now confined to her bed, chair, and desk, this woman who served as family head, breadwinner, and nationally revered literary figure had to depend on others, including her husband and nurses. With her limited physical energies, deteriorating eyesight, and a life regulated by physicians, she concentrated virtually all of her will power on writing. Encouragement came not only from those closest to her, but from grandchildren, her great-grandson Mitya, and countless readers who had been informed of her situation. Diana Tevekelyan wrote that, during her final years, the ill, frail author remained:

Proud, independent and self-reliant … [and was] … disgusted with her weakness and was unsparing of herself. She spent the whole day propped in a wheelchair at her desk in a large room with a tall window, but with all the lights on. Opposite the desk stood a huge bookcase stuffed with manuscripts and books she needed for her work. Near the window stood another large table covered with a dark checkered woolen cloth. On it were magazines, a stack of writing paper on cardboard, files, books with markers—all that she needed during the day's work…. Panova could never reconcile herself to her illness and resign herself to passivity…. She was a great worker and on the day she died, March 3, 1973, the desk she worked at showed it: a finished text for a radio broadcast, a contract for a new book, the proofs of Of My Life, Books and Readers for Neva magazine, various sheets of paper and notes written in her own hand, and the first pages of a new novel.

By this time, Panova was greatly respected, even revered. Her books were read by millions, and her plays had been seen by millions more on stage, screen, and the new medium of Soviet television.

Because she had requested a church burial, the Soviet press and media failed to announce the death of Vera Panova. In line with this official hostility, Leningrad morgue workers even refused to transport her body to a church for religious services. This harsh response, however, failed to dim the luster of a writer who had risked much to remain true to her ideals, once declaring, "Nothing that compromises artistic truth can be tolerated in art." Even in her own lifetime, discerning critics recognized that her work would be of lasting significance despite its creation under the conditions of a totalitarian state. In 1969, London's Times Literary Supplement noted: "Her great strength [is] a sense of the poetry and glamour of quite ordinary lives at certain moments." In analyzing the memorable female characters she had created (Lena in Sputniki, Dorofeya in Vremena goda, and Valya in a short story of that name), the noted literary historian Xenia Gasiorowska called these and Panova's other female heroes "living, proud, suffering soul[s]."


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John Haag , Associate Professor of History, University of Georgia, Athens, Georgia