The publication in 2019 of Sergei Tretyakov’s I Want a Baby and Other Plays made available to English language readers some of the most daring and innovative works of Soviet drama. These plays had largely disappeared from view in the wake of Tretyakov’s arrest and death in the midst of the Terror of 1937 leaving their author’s name arguably better known on account of his more famous friends and associates – among them Vladimir Mayakovsky, Boris Pasternak, and Alexander Rodchenko – than for his own works. Thanks to the translations of Robert Leach and Stephen Holland, however, it was possible once again to get a sense of Tretyakov’s ‘agitational’ theatre, which pushed the boundaries not only of subject matter but of form and performance.
Dr Leach has now followed the collection of plays with a new biography of Tretyakov, Sergei Tretyakov: A Revolutionary Writer in Stalin’s Russia, and earlier this month I had the pleasure of talking with him about the book, and the fascinating life of its subject.
Peter Lowe: At the beginning of the book you talk about ‘excavating’ Tretyakov’s reputation. Do you feel that he is something of an under-represented figure in relation to some of those with whom he associated, and who have arguably become more celebrated in recent years?
Robert Leach: Yes, I feel that quite strongly. When I was researching the field of Soviet drama in the 1970s I began looking at Meyerhold’s ideas and came across references to Tretyakov and also Bertholt Brecht’s poem ‘My Teacher, Tretyakov’ and I didn’t know who this man was, or what he had done. And then I got very interested in Sergei Eisenstein’s theatre work and found that almost everything that Eisenstein had done on the stage had been written by Tretyakov, and that they had indeed worked together. Later I found, too, that Tretyakov had worked with Meyerhold on ‘biomechanics’. So, wherever you looked, Tretyakov was there, but nobody would say who or what he was, or what he had done.
From the drama point of view, he was obviously more important than was recognised. Then, later, I began to find out about other things that he done: his editorship at Novyi LEF, for example, and his writing from the Kolkhoz (Collective Farm) during the collectivisation of agriculture. I also discovered his films, and that he was also a photographer and journalist. And I felt that his life needed to be better known than it is, because he was generally regarded around 1930, say, as a better photographer than Rodchenko, so I tried to follow that through.
It was also on account of the fact that in 1988 I gave a paper on Eisenstein’s theatre work at a conference at Keble College in Oxford on ‘Eisenstein at 90’. Ian Christie, from the British Film Institute, directed me to Tretyakov’s daughter, Tanya, and in the years that followed I got to know her very well. She asked me to help make her father “better known than he is”. She was a very interesting lady, and I felt I had a debt to her, which was the other part of my motivation.
Peter Lowe: It’s interesting that you mention the photography, because until I read the biography I knew nothing of Tretyakov as a photographer, while Rodchenko’s images are a regular feature of books and exhibitions about the period.
Robert Leach:Part of the reason for this is that Tretyakov’s archive of photographs, several thousand in all, were destroyed when they searched his rooms after his arrest. So we don’t have many of his photographs left, whereas Rodchenko’s works still exist.
Peter Lowe: That’s a fascinating reminder of how a life can come in and out of focus, out of the public view. And, of course, you have yourself been instrumental in reviving many of Tretyakov’s plays. This biography is a nice companion to the volume of those plays published in 2019. By reviving those plays do you feel that you have got a larger understanding of Tretyakov’s thought and world-view?
Robert Leach: I think so. I would have liked to have done more than I did, but things didn’t seem to happen that way. I’m proud, though, to have produced the first English translation of The World Upside Down, and also the text of A Wise Man which has never been published, and which Tanya gave me as a typescript and helped me to translate. So I feel as though I’ve done some work towards excavating what Tretyakov did.
Peter Lowe: And the production that sticks in my mind, reading your account of it, was the 1924 production of Gas Masks, which took place in the Kursk Station Gasworks in Moscow.
Robert Leach: That’s a very interesting production, because when Eisenstein and Tretyakov put the idea to the Manager of the Works he was very keen on it, but after one or two performances he realised how disruptive it was and told them they couldn’t do it any more!
It’s certainly interesting, though, because it is really a measure of Tretyakov as a pioneer of site-specific theatre before there was such a thing. And he is also one of the pioneers of the use of a screen at the back of the stage, with the actors on stage in a dialectical interplay with what’s going on on the screen and on the stage. It’s something that Brecht used as well, and I think he might have got it from Tretyakov.
Peter Lowe: When you mention Brecht, it reminds us that the other aspect of Tretyakov’s career is its very international dimension. And the book explores that, not just in terms of Tretyakov’s time in China but also his network of friendships in Germany.
Robert Leach: I think it was important that, as the family was growing up in the Baltic region, Tretyakov’s mother spoke German, and made the children speak the language too. He was always good at the language and could respond so well to the country’s intellectuals at the time.
Peter Lowe: And the wealth of contacts that he was able to build in other countries…
Robert Leach: He knew so many of these people. That’s why he needs to be restored to people’s attention. To be found again.
It is an example of how, when you were declared an ‘enemy of the people’ your works were removed from view and destroyed. When I met her Tanya had already spent decades trying to make his work available again.
Peter Lowe: As the book reaches its conclusion that is certainly one of the very difficult things to recognise about Tretyakov and, indeed, many of his generation – the sense of knowing that you have to be seen to be compromising, to be fitting in with what the state wants.
Robert Leach: Yes, and I think it’s difficult for us to realise, I think, how those kinds of people reacted to what was going on. They believed in the Soviet Union. They believed, even when Stalin was at his worst, that the Marxist fundamentals of the state were sound. It was going to be a bumpy road, certainly, but they believed in the idea of it. Although how you then live your day to day life is another matter entirely.
Peter Lowe: And of course you begin the book reminding us of how close Tretyakov was to Mayakovsky, and we have a case study there of a writer who has his own impossible task of reconciling himself to the state, but who is taken up after his death and turned into this mythological figure, while those that were close to him are largely forgotten.
Robert Leach: That’s right, and I think I mention that in Viktor Shklovsky’s book Mayakovsky and His Circle, which was published in 1941, Tretyakov doesn’t appear at all, it was as though he had never existed. So it’s that sort of thing that I’m really trying to get past here.
Peter Lowe: Yes, that sense that someone could be written out so thoroughly. So perhaps we should ask here how it was that the avant-garde, the Novyi LEF generation, became impossible to accommodate in the state of the 1930s.
Robert Leach: That’s a difficult question, isn’t it? It’s often said that Socialist Realism was imposed on the cultural world as a single policy, but actually Socialist Realism was often never fully defined. I think that some of the avant-garde, Tretyakov included, believed that their own work could be regarded as a strand within Socialist Realism. Tretyakov’s writing when he was reporting from the Kolkhoz, was certainly, in his eyes, a kind of Socialist Realist work, and it was only as the 1930s developed, and things became more formalised, that the avant-garde came to understand that they were outside of the state’s ideas after all. And that’s where the problems begin.
I see very clearly in Tretyakov that he compromised a bit, but not a lot. In comparison, another Latvian, Gustav Klutsis, with his portraits of Stalin tried very hard to conform with work that was very different from his work of the 1920s, which is fascinating when set alongside what he did later on.
I think that Tretyakov knew what was going on, and the stress of trying to conform eventually got to him. That’s why his health broke down at the end.
Peter Lowe: And you chart in the book’s final chapter the actions of a man who feels he has tried everything, but just doesn’t feel that he can find what it is that the state wants of him.
Robert Leach: One of the things that I found interesting was that in in the 1930s he stops looking to the future, which had been so important to him, and looks back more on what he had done. I find that very upsetting, actually.
Peter Lowe: Did that inform the book’s title? When you refer to him as a ‘revolutionary writer’ in Stalin’s Russia, is that a title that captures the situation he found himself in: that he is revolutionary, but the country no longer is?
Robert Leach: Yes. I also think that the thing about him is that he was uncompromising. Everyone says, from Pasternak onwards, that the thing about Tretyakov was that he was absolutely determined to take his ideas to their conclusion. That’s why he goes through the various ‘isms’ of the time, and from that point of view his work is very interesting, theoretically.
The other thing about Tretyakov is how far his ideas moved in his lifetime. He was only really at work for 20 or so years, and he is a poet, playwright, journalist, prose writer. It’s as though he gets impatient, and always wants to move on to the next thing, and yet his work and ideas all hang together.
Peter Lowe: It is perhaps the pace of things in the 1920s, when the artists wanted to keep going, and the state wanted to put the brakes on.
Robert Leach: Very few people go through so many genres as Tretyakov did, and excel in all of them. So he needs to be re-evaluated.
Peter Lowe: One thing that amazed me was that he gave radio broadcasts from Red Square every May Day.
Robert Leach: Yes, he did. He is a very early outside broadcaster. Late-1920s onwards, his voice becomes part of everyone’s experience of May Day and Revolution Day because he’s commentating on the parade from a scaffolding rig, or from the windows at GUM. And he did that for nearly ten years, with the last broadcast coming in May 1937, just before his arrest the following July. For many people across Russia, his voice was the one which they associated with the national holidays.
Peter Lowe: That’s a fascinating legacy to have, really. You’ve got a group of artists who want so much to be seen to be speaking for and to the people, and then there’s Tretyakov really doing it.
Robert Leach: I find him very impressive, and the fact that he was underestimated after he had been killed is a reason for fighting for him. And Tanya gave me so many of his writings, including the narrative of Tretyakov’s sister, which supplied many of the personal details. I love the description that she gives of sitting out with him in the evening, watching the stars come out. Those sorts of details are beautiful, and I’m pleased that they are included in the book because they give him a kind of humanity that doesn’t come through if you just talk about his work. Tanya said he was always kind, and although she was adopted she called him ‘Papa’ and loved him.
We actually dedicated the 2019 edition of the plays to Tanya, with the text “You are not dead while those are alive who loved you.”
Peter Lowe: And in that spirit you have produced a fitting tribute to her father’s work.
Robert Leach: I wanted to humanise Tretyakov, and to show that he pursued his ideas and his theories wherever they went. He didn’t compromise, and he never stood still. His ideas were always evolving and moving forward.
Peter Lowe: Thank you.
With the English-language edition of his plays, and now with this biography, Dr Leach has certainly ensured that Tretyakov comes into focus for contemporary readers. He is a figure whose work reflects some of the most fascinating years of Soviet culture, and today we now have excellent means available to restore him to the place he deserves alongside his peers.
Robert Leach’s Sergei Tretyakov: A Revolutionary Writer in Stalin’s Russia is published by Glagoslav (ISBN: 978-1-914337-17-8)