Leopold Leonidovich Averbakh (1903–1937) was the head of the Russian Association of Proletarian Writers (RAPP) in the 1920s, and the most prominent of a group of communist literary critics who argued that the Bolshevik revolution, carried out in 1917 in the name of Russia's industrial working class, should be followed by a cultural revolution in which 'bourgeois' literature workers' would be supplanted by literature written by and for the proletariat. Averbakh was a powerful figure in Russian cultural circles until Josif Stalin ordered RAPP to cease its activities, in 1932.
Family and early career
Leopold Averbakh was born to Jewish parents in 1903 in Saratov, though most of his family links were in Nizhny Novgorod. His father, Leonid, owned a small steamship on the Volga. Aged only 14 at the time of the Bolshevik revolution, he had exceptionally good family links with the new regime. His mother was the sister of Yakov Sverdlov and of Zinovy Sverdlov, who became the adopted son of Maxim Gorky. He was also related to Vladimir Bonch-Bruyevich. His sister, Ida, married Genrikh Yagoda, future head of the NKVD. He played a prominent role in the Bolshevik youth movement in his teens, and by the age of 19, he was editor of the literary journal Moldaya gvardiya ('Young Guard'), and a leading member of the All-Russian Association of Proletarian Writers (VAPP), the forerunner of RAPP. He was one of three representatives of VAPP who signed an agreement in 1923 with the poet Vladimir Mayakovsky promising that their respective organisations would co-operate to "steadfastly unmask bourgeois-gentry and pseudo-sympathetic literary groups" and to promote "class artistry". . One of the 'bourgeois' writers they targeted was Mikhail Bulgakov, whom Averbakh denounced in September 1924 as a writer "who doesn't pretend to disguise himself as a fellow traveller."
Head of RAPP
Late in 1925, the Soviet communist party's ruling triumvirate of Stalin, Grigory Zinoviev and Lev Kamenev split. Illarion Vardin, effective leader of VAPP, joined the Zinoviev faction. Averbakh and most of VAPP's younger members broke with him and founded RAPP, as a kind of literary wing of the Stalinist faction, though they never sought or received Stalin's formal endorsement. Averbakh was RAPP's unchallenged leader for the whole of its existence. He wrote extensively - "a prolific critic who hoped to apply Karl Marx’s understanding of historical materialism to literary production, Averbakh’s theoretical contribution to Soviet literary scholarship cannot be negated."
Personality and Reputation
Averbakh was the first from the generation who were too young to have taken part in revolutionary activity before 1917 to achieve prominence under communist rule. Some of his contemporaries, such as Mikhail Suslov, still held high office in the 1980s, whereas Averbakh's career peaked 50 years earlier. He was an effective organiser, but had a bad reputation. The French writer, Victor Serge, who knew Averbakh for many years, described him as "a young Soviet careerist possessed of an extraordinary talent for the bureaucratic callings. Less than thirty, he had the hairless head of a young senior official, the verbal fluency of a Congress demagogue, and the dominating, false-sincere eyes of a manipulator of meetings.". According to a fellow member of RAPP, Anna Karavayeva: "Someone once spoke of Leopold Averbakh as a harsh, yet knowledgeable, man. A publicist, an agitator, he wanted to organize everything according to a designated ‘proletarian base,’ as he explained. Correctly acknowledging that there was a class war in literature, Averbakh, in my opinion, presented it very narrowly, not wanting to comprehend the specifics."
His Treatment of Eminent Writers
Averbakh's influence reached its peak in 1929, when he orchestrated the public campaigns against the writers Yevgeny Zamyatin, who was driven into exile, and Boris Pilnyak, and the Old Bolshevik and critic, Aleksandr Voronsky, founder of the literary journal, Krasnaya nov. Reviewing a short story by Andrei Platonov in 1929, Averbakh warned: "There is ambiguity in it...our era does not tolerate any ambiguity." When Nadezhda Mandelstam challenged him to explain how he could denounce her husband's poetry without having read it, he replied "that there is no such thing as art or culture in the abstract, but only 'bourgeois art' and 'proletarian art'." By contrast, Averbakh went to pains to cultivate Russia's most famous living writer, Maxim Gorky, after being introduced to him by Yagoda. He spent the summer of 1931 as a house guest in Gorky's home in Sorrento, on a mission to persuade Gorky to return permanently to Russia. On his return, he reported to Yagoda that he was "proud and happy" to have succeeded.
Dissolution of RAPP
On 23 April 1932, Stalin ordered suddenly and unexpectedly RAPP, and all other literary clubs and movements to disband and merge into the newly formed Soviet Writers' Union. It was immediately understood that this move was intended to destroy Averbakh's power base. When Nadezha Mandlestam visited Herzen House, in Leningrad, the day after the announcement, she found two eminent writers, Nikolai Tikhonov and Pyotr Pavlenko drinking wine to celebrate Averbakh's downfall. When she protested: "I thought you were a friend of Averbakh" - Pavlenko replied: "The war in literature has entered a new phase." Averbakh's fall may have been Stalin's way of striking at his powerful brother-in-law, Yagoda, but also seems to have been brought about by his own over confidence and lack of deference. As early as 1929, Stalin complained in a letter to his deputy, Vyacheslav Molotov, about certain young communists, including Averbakh, who treated the party as a "discussion club" where they could "review policy" instead of awaiting instructions.
Later career and arrest
Most of Averbakh's former colleagues in RAPP, with the notable exception of the playwright Vladimir Kirshon, deserted him after this public humiliation, but he continued to enjoy the protection of Yagoda, and of Maxim Gorky. In 1935, Gorky, Averbakh and the NKVD officer Semyon Firin, the deputy head of Gulag, co-edited a book lauding the construction of the White Sea-Baltic Canal by convict labour. Gorky's death and Yagoda's downfall left him unprotected. He was arrested in April 1937, and shot on 14 August 1937, along with Kirshon, Firin and others.
- Kissova, Emelianova. "The Literary Life of Leopold Averbakh" (PDF). ISEES Berkley. Retrieved 16 February 2018.
- Andy McSmith, Fear and the Muse Kept Watch, The Russian Masters - from Akhmatova and Pasternak to Shostakovich and Eisenstein - Under Stalin (the New Press, New York, 2015) p 45
- McSmith, Fear and the Muse p55
- Victor Serge, Memoirs of a Revolutionary (translated by Peter Sedgwick, Writers' & Readers' Co-operative, London, 1984) p264
- McSmith, Fear and the Muse p48
- Nadezhda Mandelstam Hope Against Hope, A Memoir (Collins & Harvill, London 1971) p 164
- McSmith. Fear and the Muse Kept Watch. p. 88.
- Mandelstam, Nadezhda. Hope Against Hope. p. 233.
- Lars T. Lih, Oleg V. Naumov and Oleg V. Khlevniuk (editors) Stalin's Letters to Molotov (Yale U.P., New Haven 1995) p 162
- Gorky, Maxim, Auerbach L., and Firin S.G. (editors) translated by Amabel Williams-Ellis (1935). The White Sea Canal. London: John Lane The Bodley Head.