Shaginian, Marietta (1888–1982)

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Shaginian, Marietta (1888–1982)

Russian poet, author, dramatist, and literary critic who was one of the most prolific, versatile and best-known women authors of the Soviet era. Name variations: Marietta Shaginyan; Marietta Sergeyevna Shaginyan; Mariètta Sergeevna Shaginián; (pseudonym) Jim [Dzhim] Dollar; "Re." Born Marietta Sergeevna Shaginian in Moscow, Russia, on March 21, 1888; died in Moscow on her 94th birthday on March 21, 1982; daughter of a physician; educated in Moscow and Germany; married Y.S. Khachatryants (Ia. S. Khachatriants); children: one daughter.

Selected writings:

Orientalia (1913); Two Moralities (1914); Journey to Weimar (1914); Svoya sudva (One's Own Fate, 1923); Peremena (The Change, 1923); Adventures of a Society Lady (1923); Mess-Mend, ili Ianki v Petrograde (Mess-Mend, Yankees in Petrograd, 1925); KiK: Roman-kompleks (KiK: Novel-complex, 1929); Gidrotsentral (Hydrocentral, 1931); Chelovek i vremia (Man and Time, 1980). Wrote about 70 other books, including biographical studies of William Blake, Vladimir Lenin, Goethe, Sergei Rachmaninoff, and Taras Shevchenko; awarded the Lenin Prize (1972).

One of the most prolific women writers in Russian literary history, Marietta Shaginian was born in 1888 and grew up in Moscow under privileged circumstances. Both her parents were of Armenian ancestry, but they were Russified intellectuals who played an active part in the cultural life of Moscow and an influential role in her life. Her father, a prominent physician who lectured at Moscow University, was a convinced atheist and ardent admirer of classic Russian authors, particularly Alexander Pushkin, as well as of the great German writer Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. From her gifted mother, she acquired what would be a lifelong appreciation of music. An alert, inquisitive student, Shaginian attended Moscow's Rzhevskaia Gimnazia and was an omnivorous reader from her earliest years.

The death of Shaginian's father in 1902 was a profound blow. Left financially destitute, the family was forced to return to live with maternal relatives in the town of Nakhichevan, near Rostov on the Don. At age 15, Shaginian, although suffering from the effects of progressive congenital otosclerosis which would eventually lead to a state of profound deafness, returned to Moscow intent on supporting herself by tutoring and selling her writings. Life was a struggle for Marietta and her younger sister Lina , as they lived together in a windowless room. But Marietta soon became a regular contributor on Moscow's artistic and literary life to both the Moscow press and a number of newspapers in the provinces, Priazovskii krai (The Azov Region), Kavkaskoe slovo (The Caucasian Word) and Baku (Baku). She also published her first poem in 1903. Inspired by the cultural thaw that followed the failed Revolution of 1905, Shaginian began to probe into contemporary issues of social justice, as in her "Song of the Worker," which appeared in the newly established weekly Artisan Voice in May 1906.

During the years just before 1914, Shaginian was at the center of the remarkably creative intellectual life of the Russian Empire during the Romanov dynasty's last years. Successfully combining her career as a journalist and poet with academic studies, she enrolled in 1908 as a student of history and philosophy in the Gere Advanced Courses for Women, a pre-revolutionary idea of a women's college, graduating with a degree in 1912. At the same time, she continued writing. In 1909, Shaginian self-published her first collection of poems, Pervye vstrechi (First Encounters). Although the book was stylistically derivative and attracted scant critical interest, it contained finely crafted short lyrics that reflected her confidence in her own and her nation's future.

A compulsive letter writer, Shaginian initiated correspondence with the Symbolist poets Andrei Belyi and Zinaida Gippius . In his memoirs, Belyi described Shaginian as one of the many young "truth seekers" who were drawn to him and his circle. Gippius too was impressed by Shaginian, complimenting her initial letter for being "so intelligent and sober. You know, it's very important that it's sober. That's so rare nowadays." While moving in literary circles, Shaginian also became acquainted with the work of pictorial artists, including Kuzma Petrov-Vodkin, whose art was strongly influenced by the traditions of Russian icons, and about whose work Shaginian would write an essay in 1923.

For a period of several years, Shaginian was an informal member of the neo-Christian circle led by Gippius and her husband Dmitrii Merezhkovskii. She continued to write and publish poetry, often with nature as a subject, displaying a firm technique and a clarity unusual among her fellow Symbolist writers. In her second published volume of poems, Orientalia (1912), she found the literary renown she had been seeking. Orientalia went through six editions, the last in 1922, and brought delight to its readers, even though some critics noted clichés about the Mysterious East. Shaginian argued that her "racial consciousness," as an ethnic Armenian with a rich cultural heritage from the world of the Caucasus, gave her a unique ability to interpret these exotic regions to Russians. "After the sexless and incorporeal treatment of love by the Symbolists, [mine is] a lyric poetry of flesh and blood." Orientalia relied on images both exotic and erotic:

Whoever you may be—come in, stranger.
Gloomy is the evening, sweet is the scent of spikenard
The couch, laid with a golden leopard skin,
Has long awaited you.

Shaginian's search for truth made her explore various ideas based on religious revolution. She was briefly a member of the Novosyolovtsi (New Settlers) group, but soon left it. Then, she found meaning in the doctrines advocated by Gippius and Merezhkovskii, but these ideals too proved to be unsatisfying for her. Gippius served as a role model for Shaginian for a time, and Marietta's daily letters to Zinaida, written in 1910 while her "preceptress" was living in Paris, are evidence of a strong emotional dependency on the older poet. But the relationship ended abruptly after Shaginian wrote a scathing review of Gippius' novel Chortova kukla (The Devil's Doll). Zinaida regarded the review, entitled "Theater of Marionettes," as tantamount to treason and ceased communicating. Despite the rupture, Shaginian continued to respect much of Gippius' work and published an analysis and defense of Gippius' poetry, O blazhenstve imushchego (On the Bliss of the Prosperous Man, 1912), as well as Dve Morali (Two Moralities, 1914), a polemical pamphlet on the "woman question" that echoed many of Gippius' thoughts.

On the eve of World War I, Shaginian's love of music brought her into contact with two of Russia's most brilliant musicians. The first was Nikolai Medtner, a composer and pianist with whose family she lived on and off during the years 1912–14. She also regarded Nikolai's brother Emilii as a philosophical mentor. Both musically and philosophically, she shared much with Nikolai. They both adored Goethe, and were convinced that musical modernism was an abomination that had to be combated. The other musician was the composer and piano virtuoso Sergei Rachmaninoff. Shaginian wrote an article on Rachmaninoff for Nikolai Medtner's journal Trudy i dni (Works and Days), and, using the pseudonym "Re" (the note D), she began writing Rachmaninoff in February 1912. From the start of their letter exchange, Rachmaninoff revealed more of himself to Shaginian than he would to any of his other correspondents. In his second letter (March 15, 1912), he asked her to send him texts for songs and found a number of her poems to his liking. These would be published as part of the set entitled Fourteen Songs, Op. 34 (the last of these would be the famous Vocalise). Their correspondence would end only as a result of Rachmaninoff's self-imposed exile from Russia soon after the Bolshevik revolution.

The fateful summer of 1914 found Shaginian in Weimar, Germany, where she planned to carry out research for a major study of Goethe. World War I broke out in early August of that year, and the Russian Empire and the German Reich became enemies. Her notes eventually became Puteshestvie v Veimar (Journey to Weimar), which because of war and revolution would not be published until 1923. Though Shaginian was interned for some time, she was released in neutral Switzerland. There, she first encountered Russian political exiles, members of the radical Bolshevik faction, who remained true to Marxist internationalism while the Social Democratic leadership in the combatant states embraced a policy of patriotic national defense. Once back in Russia, Shaginian returned to her various activities with undiminished energies. In 1917, she married a philologist of Armenian origins, Y.S. Khachatryants, and in the following year gave birth to her only child, a daughter. Despite motherhood, she remained remarkably productive, producing that same year a dramatic cycle of nine short plays "not for the theater" somewhat paradoxically entitled Teatr (Theater).

Although she considered herself a Christian and did not apply for membership in the Communist Party until 1941, Shaginian greeted the Bolshevik revolution of November 1917 with enthusiasm. In one of her last writings, published in 1981, a year before her death, she spoke of how the takeover "brought me the greatest joy I have ever experienced in my long life. It is hard to describe the feeling of joy that fell to the lot of my generation." At the time, however, the reality of the situation was much more prosaic. For one thing, Shaginian's first novel Svoya sud'ba (One's Own Fate), a sharp critique of the Russian intelligentsia which had been written in 1915–16, could not be brought to the attention of the reading public. The manuscript had been accepted for publication by Vestnik Evropy (Herald of Europe), but only the first few chapters appeared in print before the journal closed in 1918. When it was finally published in 1923, the novel, which originally celebrated Christian values of humility and self-sacrifice, had been drastically revised to emphasize atheist arguments and the importance of membership in the collectivity as a key to a healthy psyche (both versions of the novel are critiques of Sigmund Freud's then-novel concept of psychoanalysis).

In a Russia wracked by civil war and famine, Shaginian did what she could to bring about the social transformation she so ardently believed in, but on a daily basis what mattered most was finding sustenance. Shaginian and a number of other intellectuals were saved from starvation and the cold when they were invited to live in the former Yeliseyev mansion in Petrograd (formerly St. Petersburg), a luxurious 18th-century mansion which had been owned by a wealthy merchant before the revolution. At the initiative of novelist Maxim Gorky, starting in 1919 the mansion became the House of Arts, providing shelter and food not only to Shaginian but to such other noted writers as Nikolai Gumilev, Osip Mandelstam, and Mikhail Zoshchenko. During these difficult years, Shaginian also spent time in Rostov on the Don, where she taught weaving and gave lectures on raising worker productivity. Increasingly drawn to the Armenian homeland of her parents, she also served for a period as an official of the local soviet in the village of Chaltyr.

In the 1920s, Shaginian was energized by the considerable artistic freedom granted to intellectuals who supported the ideals of the Bolshevik

revolution. Experimentation was permitted and even encouraged, the idea being that new artistic genres and approaches would serve the goals of the revolution by making its message more dramatic and easily grasped by the masses, many of whom were only now emerging from centuries of ignorance and illiteracy. Realizing that much of Russian prose was dull, even boring, Shaginian and several of her contemporaries set out to write engaging, ideological adventure novels. In 1923, Bolshevik ideologist Nikolai Bukharin had called on Soviet writers to produce works in the spirit of "Red Pinkertonism," books written in the style of Western detective novels which would entertain but also serve to educate and indoctrinate the masses in the spirit of revolutionary ideals.

For Shaginian, the result of this imperative was the innovative serialized novel Mess-Mend, ili Ianki v Petrograde (Mess-Mend, Yankees in Petrograd), which appeared in ten installments in 1924. Using the pseudonym "Jim Dollar," she created a long, complex narrative which boils down to an ongoing struggle between workers and capitalists. In the novel, the world's richest man, Jack Kressling, plots to destroy the recently established Soviet state by employing a sinister hypnotist and murderer named Grigorio Chiche. Although the enemies of the Soviet republic are rich, powerful, and ruthless, Shaginian more than matches them with Mess-Mend, a secret global organization defending the interests of the proletariat against capitalist machinations. The Mess-Mend network is led by Mike [Mick] Thingsmaster, "the All-American Bolshevik" who never grows tired of reminding his fellow proletarians that they alone are "the masters of life." Says Thingsmaster:

Just think. No one has yet realized that we are the strongest, richest, happiest of men. It is we who make the houses in our cities, the furniture in the houses, the clothes that people wear, bread, books, cars, instruments, utensils, weapons, ships, cannons, sausages, beer, shackles, locomotives, carriages, rails—it is we who make these things and no one else.

With a plot, wrote one critic, that is "deliriously convoluted and ultimately incoherent," Shaginian's novel was entertaining and extremely popular with the Soviet reading public, which followed each installment with increasing involvement as Mike Thingsmaster and his band of enlightened, class-conscious American workers always managed to outsmart the world's evil millionaires and fascists.

Although some Soviet critics called Mess-Mend too unrealistic and frivolous to be of any redeeming social value, it remains a book of more than just historical interest. Literary historian Laura Goering has described it as "Shaginian at her best, where her imagination and storytelling prowess are given free rein, and even the ideological content is treated with a light touch." A decade later, in 1934, Shaginian fondly recalled it as her "happiest book" to date. Capitalizing on her success, in 1925 she published two "agitation-adventure novellas" as sequels to Mess-Mend: Lori Lane, Metallworker and The International Car. The immensely popular Mess-Mend was also successfully adapted for the screen.

In 1929, Shaginian published a frankly experimental novel, KiK: Roman-kompleks (KiK: Novel-complex), KiK being an abbreviation for Koldunia i Kommunist (The Witch and the Communist). A type of detective story, KiK is a montage of documents that includes letters, newspaper articles, advertisements, and telephone conversations. Added to this are four sections telling what happened when the protagonist, Comrade Lvov, disappeared, each one being a different account: a Byronic poem, a novella, a melodrama in verse, and the scenario for a documentary film. In the final episode of KiK, Lvov himself appears to give a literary critique of the four versions, all of which turn out to be inaccurate in their depiction of the facts of the case. According to her introduction to a 1956 edition, Shaginian wrote this literary tour de force to protest the "narrow literary specialization" of her contemporaries as well as to "pass a literacy test in all literary genres."

In 1931, Shaginian published Gidrotsentral (Hydrocentral), a "production novel" set in a hydroelectric station in Soviet Armenia. Taking to heart dictator Josef Stalin's exhortation to Soviet artists to participate in the first Five Year Plan, Shaginian lived at the site in Armenia for four years to study firsthand the building of Socialism through the reality of creating a massive hydroelectric power station on the Dzoraget River. When the first shacks of the station were built, Shaginian moved into a tiny room where she could "see the stars at night through the cracks in the walls." From these experiences came a complex, richly detailed novel that is generally recognized as an early form of the Socialist Realism genre which would characterize Soviet literature during the final two decades of Stalin's dictatorship. Shaginian later recalled that the characters in her novel "were based on real people whom I loved and got to know really well." The publication of Gidrotsentral solidified Shaginian's reputation as a reliable supporter of the regime, despite the fact that she had admitted in a 1926 autobiographical sketch that she could not join the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. "I am a believing Christian," she wrote, "and that constitutes not a passing fancy, but the essence of my personality, its roots that I cannot deny." Writing in the early 1920s, Soviet leader and literary critic Leon Trotsky observed that Shaginian viewed reality from a position that was "unrevolutionary, Asiatic, passive, Christian and non-resistant," going on to denounce her work for embodying a spirit of "fatalistic submission [and] fatalistic Christianity [and for being] anti-revolutionary in her very essence."

While remaining as productive as ever in the 1930s, writing mainly journalistic and critical essays, Shaginian also became increasingly involved in several of the important artistic controversies of the day. On several occasions, she took positions that were out of step with the official, orthodox line. In 1934, she argued against the venerated Maxim Gorky in the debate on whether the Russian language should be protected from the "contaminating influences" of other languages or dialects, speaking forcefully in favor of mutually enriching interactions between the literary language and "substandard" forms. In 1935, she was the lone voice of protest at a meeting of the Writers' Union when she disagreed with Stalinist guidelines for book reviewers. Her challenge to the new, rigid criteria used to consign books to oblivion caused considerable embarrassment to the organizers of the session. In 1936, she submitted her resignation from the Writers' Union to protest lack of material support for writers, an act that brought forth a resolution from the union's Presidium condemning her action as being both "deeply antisocial" and a "serious political mistake."

In 1936, after visiting the recently opened Lenin Museum in Moscow, Shaginian decided to investigate in detail how "the boy Volodya Ulyanov had grown into a leader." Soon, she published several articles on this subject, becoming ever more immersed in detailed research into the family origins and early years of Vladimir Ulyanov, who in time became V.I. Lenin, founder of the Soviet Union. Written as a novel but based on accurate and detailed research, including interviews with Lenin's sister Marie Ulyanova and his widow Nadezhda Krupskaya , Shaginian's novel Bilet po istorii, Chast' I: Sem'ia Ul'yanovykh (Ticket to History, Part I: The Ulyanov Family) was published in Moscow in 1938. The book initially received excellent reviews, including one by Dmitri Ulyanov, Lenin's brother, published in Izvestia on March 24, 1938. Soon, however, a devastating assessment of the novel was issued by the Communist Party's Central Committee, which described the book as "a politically harmful, ideologically hostile work" and condemned Krupskaya for encouraging Shaginian to write it. In August 1938, the Politburo banned the publication of all books about Lenin, a ban that was not lifted until October 1956. Having survived the bloody years of Stalinism, Shaginian would then be able to see her massive research project on Lenin appear in print again, first in a journal in 1957, then in book form in 1958. When her epic tetralogy on Lenin and the Ulyanov family was completed, her accomplishments were finally recognized with a Lenin Prize awarded in 1972.

Marietta Shaginian's curiosity prompted her to investigate innumerable areas of literature and culture. One of these was the life and work of the Ukrainian national poet Taras Shevchenko (1814–1861), who was born a serf but was able to educate himself and in time became the prophet of an oppressed nation. Shaginian's book on Shevchenko, published in 1941, was an important contribution to knowledge of the great Ukrainian writer's life and impact, and took issue with a number of traditional interpretations tending to favor Russian versus Ukrainian cultural influences in his career. Not surprisingly, the book's second edition, published in 1946, was full of "corrections" that brought back many of the older prejudices, or eliminated the often bold insights of the first edition. Shaginian's 1944 doctoral dissertation, which concentrates on Shevchenko's aesthetics, remains a major source for scholars studying Shevchenko's thought.

Although she had often chosen to display signs of independence under the Stalinist dictatorship, Shaginian's published work before 1953 supported the Soviet state and its Socialist Realist aesthetic. Because of the immensity of her literary output, its quality varies considerably, and the breadth of her interests guaranteed that some of her writings would contain questionable judgments and factual errors. When an intellectual "thaw" set in after the 1953 death of Stalin, she became an easy target for some reform-minded writers, particularly since she had been awarded a Stalin Prize as recently as 1951. In a 1954 article in the literary journal Novyi Mir (New World), Mikhail Lifshits listed Shaginian's numerous errors and documented many of her more pompous and inane pronouncements. Although the facts presented in the article were correct, the Soviet literary establishment rose in Shaginian's defense and in the final analysis her reputation emerged enhanced rather than diminished.

By the end of the 1950s, Shaginian was universally acknowledged by her promoters and detractors alike as the doyenne of Soviet letters, a venerable women who was not only prolific but versatile and energetic. Shaginian admitted that when writing about a subject, "the worst habit of my life" would often cause her to "jump ahead, compare things, draw parallels, extend all kinds of premature generalizations—and the more easily you succeed in this, the less clear is your conception of the subject." Even at this senior stage of her career, she endured severe criticism from the highest levels of the Communist Party and the Soviet state. During one such inquisition in the 1950s, both Shaginian and the poet Margarita Iosifovna Aliger were the objects of "extravagant attacks" by Nikita Khrushchev, but both artists defended their work "bravely and logically while contradicting [him]."

In 1978, on the occasion of Marietta Shaginian's 90th birthday, she received the highest civilian decoration the Soviet Union could bestow, the title Hero of Socialist Labor. Deaf and now rapidly becoming blind, she continued to work during the 1970s on a final volume of her memoirs. Chelovek i vremia (Man and Time) is a remarkable exercise in recollection written by a handicapped author of advanced age. Covering the first 30 years of her life, the book recreated images of a Russian way of life increasingly remote to the contemporary mind and temperament. Shaginian's Man and Time, which has been described as a major contribution to Russian memoir literature, was written with great effort. When the eighth and last installment was published in Novy Mir in November 1979, on the last page in small type there were the words: "Ninety years and four months. Peredelkino-Moscow." The memoir was published as a book in 1980, and Shaginian died two years later, on her 94th birthday.

Marietta Shaginian was honored on the 100th anniversary of her birth when a 10-kopeck postage stamp was issued on April 2, 1988. In the post-Soviet era, her reputation remains under a cloud, perhaps most of all because of what David Shepherd has called "the compromising taint of sustained official recognition." Yet there are significant signs that this writer is in the first stages of being seriously studied and evaluated by scholars, and perhaps one day will again be enjoyed by a select circle of readers sensitive to the illogic of history. Goering has suggested that in Shaginian's "disarming sincerity" we have the tone of "someone who is invariably in the ecstatic state of a person who has finally found the truth." This might serve to explain how a writer of talent could traverse the entire Soviet era "in a state of myopic oblivion," unaware of the failures and terrors all around her. As far back as 1925, the emigré poet Vladislav Khodasevich offered an explanation of Shaginian's peculiar inability to detect the massive evils that often hid behind a rhetorical screen of human advancement: "[She] had a good heart and, waving her cardboard sword, she was always rushing to defend or defeat someone, and in the end it somehow always turned out that she defeated virtue and defended the villain. But it was always done out of a good heart and with the best intentions."


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