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The curious dearth of Stalinist fiction


Like the antebellum South, the Holocaust is curiously one of American fiction’s most beloved historical moments. And while slave narratives and Holocaust stories line the shelves of most major American book stores, all historical tragedies are not created equal, with longer, more messy and complex ones rarely making the rounds. Particularly, writes Saul Austerlitz, what of Stalinist Russia, one of the most long and cruel political reigns in recent history? Read Austerlitz’s text on fiction about Stalinist Russia in partial below, the full version here.

Life under Joseph Stalin was often brutal, dramatic, and short, so it’s curious that the period is still given such short shrift by fiction writers. Hitler’s Germany, by contrast, is very well-trod ground, and even the post-Stalinist era is a more regular fictional backdrop. Yet neither of these periods can match the mixture of paranoia, longevity, and callousness that marked the dictator’s three decades in power.

English-language books set in Stalin’s Soviet Union, or books translated into English, are few and far between. Adventurous readers may have stumbled on fictional classics by Soviet authors on Stalinism’s crimes, like Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s “The First Circle” or Varlam Shalamov’s heartbreaking “Kolyma Tales.” But not many English-speaking writers have chosen to write about Stalin’s years in power the way they have pored over Adolf Hitler’s 12 years as Germany’s chancellor.

“It’s easier sometimes for people to get upset about bad things that happened over a short period of time rather than a long period of time,” said Margaret Ziolkowski, a scholar of Russian culture at Miami University in Ohio. “[With] Stalinism, you’re talking about a period of almost 30 years, whereas Nazism is a much, much shorter period. The terrible things that happened, like the Holocaust, are much more dramatic and much more chronologically contained.”

*Image: Jeff Drew for the Boston Globe