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Beyond the Master Plot: Exceptional Literature in Stalin’s USSR

By Colin Breen

From the author,

I went into this paper with the intention of getting in over my head a bit. My initial topic was simply socialist realist literature, which forced me to involve myself in a whole genre of reading that I was not incredibly familiar with at the time. After involving myself in that world for a bit, I started instinctively guiding myself toward works that broke from tradition and presented deviations from an otherwise strongly controlled literary landscape. What I wound up with was a paper focusing on often unheralded works of literary transgression. It's a topic that I'm still learning about today, about five months after I handed in my final copy of "Beyond the Master Plot" and which deserves a great deal more research and attention than either my own amateur attempts or the academic world at large has thus far given it.

After spending last semester studying in the former Soviet state of Kyrgyzstan, something that's come to my attention is just how incredibly varied Soviet art often was in Stalin's time, even more so than I might have given it credit for here, even if that variation often existed below the surface. Speaking with a Kyrgyz filmmaker who began work in the 50's, I was told that, to him, filmmaking was more interesting when the state controlled the media. According to him this kind of official barrier presented an artist with a challenge to his intentions, forcing him to abstract and reinvent his ideas in new ways. It's an environment that, while often capable of stifling artists, also often bred a new type of artist who was both incredibly creative and incredibly resilient, both of which were necessary if one hoped to function as an auteur within the state mechanism. This conversation greatly reinforced my belief in my thesis well after I'd handed it in, and was in part responsible for really pushing me to submit my paper to Verge in the first place.

As a whole, this essay is something that I'm very proud of, but which was also responsible for getting me so interested in its topic that I really can't help but see the results therein as a kind of work in progress. Still, I hope that this essay represents an interesting look at a subject that I believe often gets written off or filed away under a single header.

Read: Introduction: Defining the Exceptional

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