By Ahmed Latif
Cement, the 1925 Russian novel by Soviet writer Fyodor Gladkov is a powerful amalgamation of raw emotion and disconsolate intelligence. It brings to light the human cost of an ideological revolution. The story tells of a young Red Army soldier returning to his home following the Bolshevik revolution against the Tsar’s White Army loyalists. Gleb finds that life has changed in every way and not necessarily for the better. He must deal with his new job at a cement factory, his post-traumatic stress disorder, a crumbling social order, and the changes the revolution brought to his relationships with his wife, daughter, and friends.
This young and once optimistic revolutionary fighter finds his new life gloomy. The revolution has been commandeered by the opportunistic rather than the altruistic. Gleb, in defiant heroism, chooses to remain ever-loyal to the beliefs that led him to fight for the Red Army. Ultimately, he is alone in loyalty, as the hard-fought gains of the revolution fall prey to a new self-serving dictatorial regime.
Gladkov wrote with poignant awareness of how the people felt abandoned by the revolution. In a display of masterful literary talent Gladkov relates the story using his visceral language and potent ideals. He unearths emotions as painfully as exposed nerves during dental surgery. And just like teeth-pulling the promise is that this pain will lead to a better — and hopefully more enlightened — state.
In his defining work Fyodor Gladkov studies the nature of revolution. He acknowledges that the fundamental societal transformations taking place in a revolution require more than just singular-minded optimism. As the story grows gloomier for the main characters we see the price of social divisions take its heaviest toll on families. He paints a profound picture of revolution, not just as political or regime change, but a quintessential re-imagining of the country. This inevitably means that the old social fiber that held all our interactions and relationships together will fade away. If it is not replaced with a new cohesive social understanding that can empower a lasting revolution, then the social fabric begins to crumble, and the sense of hope dissipates along with the revolution.
Gladkov’s novel may not be required reading around the world but it was the first prominent work in literature that adheres to the characteristics of Socialist Realism. A mode of art that depicts the very real lives, and even realer struggle, of the impoverished. This art movement was more than propaganda. It was a way for artists to question the direction and progress of their Socialist revolution, much like Gladkov did in Cement. Socialist Realism was critically acclaimed, it was also decried as baseless propaganda. The Socialist Realism literary tradition included many greats such as its founder Maxim Gorky, 1965 Nobel Laureate for Literature Mikhail Sholokhov, Martin Andersen Nexø of Denmark, Louis Aragon of France, and 1971 Nobel Laureate for Literature Chilean Pablo Neruda. Gladkov’s novel leaves you with the immeasurable understanding of what a true revolution means. Imperative to the success of any revolution is that the people act as a cement and hold together the individual threads that make up the tapestry of society, or the whole thing may come undone.