Monday, June 23, 2008

Not for all times

This past week I read the Soviet novel Not by Bread Alone by Vladimir Dudintsev. The book was published in 1956, after the death and denouncement of Stalin's terror. The front cover claims, "The novel that rocked the Soviet Union." I certainly see why it rocked the Soviet Union. Let's start with a little history.

Due to the totalitarianism of the Party of the Soviet Union (most people didn't realize that the Party ran everything, the government just fulfilled the Party's wishes), most people assumed that the State was the most important entity in the Soviet Union. However, this is totally against Party ideology. Society, the collective, the group, was the most important and it was the job if the Party to protect society, the collective, the group from bad stuff, most notably, the individualistic desires of the capitalistic bourgeoisie. Unfortunately, this "job" became institutionalized and bureaucratized to the point of detriment. This is the topic of Not by Bread Alone.

The main character, Lopatkin, starts as a school teacher, but he soon realizes that the local pipe factory is using a wasteful method of casting pipes. Yet, it is this same method that all pipe casting machines are using throughout the USSR. He quickly comes up with a better method, however, the local factory cannot attempt it without the approval of the Moscow Ministry of whoever casts pipes. However, this ministry is dominated by an older inventor, who is also looking for a better way, and thus, Lopatkin is silenced. He refuses to give up though, and over the next 8 years he continues improving his machine and continues writing letters and meets people and moves to Moscow. He also "steals" the wife of his chief bureaucrat who is holding him up, because this person too is working with a group making pipes from a similar design as Lopatkin. Actually, they stole it from him.

Why don't they want Lopatkin's pipe casting machine if it will save time and money? Quite simply, he is an individual who worked on his machine with maybe one or two people, while they are an organization, who had tens, if not hundreds, of people working on their machine (which still failed). In the end, Lopatkin succeeds and everyone else fails. Why? Because Lopatkin, although an individual, is working for the greater good of society, while all the bureaucrats are only working for the greater good of themselves and their retirement checks. So although he is not a collective, because he is the only one truly working for the collective, he wins.

I understand why this would have rocked the USSR. Here is a writer pointing out how the ideology had been turned on its head, how the Party had become the individual and how a non-party individual had wanted something for the collective. However, a wonderfully written novel for all times, it is not. It's too technical. Pages and pages of notes about pipe casting and iron quality and where to put valves and equations. Pages and pages of letter writing and complaining and inventing. And the Soviet Union has collapsed now. Why? Because we know that the Party did win, not the individual, and finally society realized the Party didn't have their best interest in mind, and got rid of it. Do I think this book should be disposed of as well? HELL NO!!!!

This book would make a great read in a graduate level course, perhaps as a companion piece to The Ghost of the Executed Engineer by Loren R. Graham. Graham's work is very short and a pretty easy read. The book discusses the fate of technology in the Soviet Union, starting with the Bolshevik Revolution and the difficulty of creating a new, industrially advanced society using engineers trained in a capitalistic society. Graham shows how the decisions of the first decade really affected the technology of the entire Soviet Union. I think these two books would work really well together and together give students a feel for the state of technology in the Soviet Union.

While I don't think Not by Bread Alone is a spectacular novel, written for any audience, I do think it is an amazing book. I applaud Vladimir Dudintsev's courage for writing such a book (it would have been published during the thaw, but even in the USSR, these things were short and one never knew when the current would turn). The book helped me more fully understand the process of bureaucratization in the Soviet Union and the struggles of those individuals who wanted what was best for society.

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