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Socialist Realism from Giotto to Warhol

In the 1960’s, a fashionable subject of conversation among the Russian intelligentsia was Mikhail Sholokhov’s plagiarism.  Sholokhov, it was alleged, had found the manuscript of And Quiet Flows the Don among the personal effects of a certain Cossack, published it as his own, and eventually pocketed the 1965 Nobel Prize for Literature.  Just look at that amazing novel, our sleuths were saying, and compare it with the stuff the man really wrote, propagandist rubbish like Virgin Soil.

Yet Sholokhov had began publishing his tales of Cossack life in the early 1920’s, and his epic of the River Don belonged to the epoch.  The rubbish he started writing in the 1930’s, and continued publishing until his death in 1984, belonged to the Union of Soviet Writers, together with all the rubbish that everyone else in Stalin’s Russia, including the supposedly irrepressible and otherworldly Pasternak, had begun to write.  So, in accusing him of dishonesty, our sleuths were missing the point completely, rather like a person who would assert that the ancient Maya had plagiarized their temples ’cos just look at dem injuns now, they ain’t building that kind of crazy stuff no more in Guatemala.

The fact was that, like Sholokhov’s generation and the still earlier generation of Pasternak, our sleuths—that is to say, the intelligentsia of...

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