The Man Who Loved Historical Novels

For Pablo Pacheco

As Frederick Engels assured Miss Harkness in his famous letter, he had learned more about 19th century European capitalism reading Balzac “than in all the books by professional historians, economists and statisticians of the time put together.” I like to repeat this phrase, especially in front of economists and statisticians, or of those scientists who tread into the unknown guided by numbers, graphs and charts, and lay aside the arts to the rather contemplative task of enjoying beauty.

Engels was right. However, can you imagine that to understand European society of the first half of the 19th Century the only sources available would have been the novels of The Human Comedy? That to assess the footprint of the post-revolutionary Restoration in France, or to measure the strength of capital on the ideals of freedom, equality, etc.., we could only resort to the misfortunes of the young Sorel in The Rouge and the Noir [The Red and the Black] or the learnings of Lucien de Rubempré in Lost Illusions? Or instead of The Class Struggles in France to understand the 1848 Revolution, we had to limit ourselves to the transfixed gaze of Flaubert’s Sentimental Education? Well, in Cuba, many have learned about the role of Trotsky and the significance of Stalin for 20th Century socialism, of the Spanish Civil War and its complexities, and its traces on the thinking and practices of the Left in the world, through The Man Who Loved Dogs by Leonardo Padura.

Naturally, neither this historical novel, nor any other on the subject, have the least responsibility for this unjustifiable lack of information about the Russian Revolution, the history of the USSR and its protagonists, and socialism in the 20th Century, which has prevailed in Cuba; and which can only be explained by a reluctance to undertake a reckoning with Soviet socialism. Quite the contrary, we should thank the creators -storytellers, playwrights, filmmakers, and visual-artists- who have brought to light problems like these and those of our own contemporary, history -present or past- before the social sciences; even in times preceding the Special Period.

Sharing this assessment, however, does not imply ascribing to this novel -or any other literary or artistic work- the master key to guide us along the hidden path of the Russian Revolution, or its huge resonances in the 20th century; some still most vibrant. Such an inference carries the risk of making us jump -as often happens- from ignorance to over-simplification.


What do we know in Cuba about the Russian Revolution and the history of the USSR? Despite more than three decades of intense exposure to the Soviet country, its culture, and very special way of thinking and practicing socialism; the fact that over 300 thousand Cubans (just counting civilians who attended universities) studied there, and the fact that we may be among the countries with more speakers of Russian per capita; the Russian and Soviet history that most Cubans know was written by a single author: the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU). Not because of the fact that we have not published the History of the Russian Revolution by Trotsky, or that the only edition of Isaac Deutscher’s Stalin was limited –to put it mildly. The thing is that more than twenty years after the end of the USSR, Cuban readers have at their disposal less of its history, and can access less analyses based on documented studies of the Bolsheviks or Perestroika than other readers almost anywhere else in the world.

Between the 70’s and 80’s, of course, we published dozens of Russian and Soviet authors -including some who held peculiar theses on the revolutions in Cuba and Latin America. But we failed to release classics of the October Revolution such as the diaries of Isaac Babel and Victor Shklovsky; Victor Serge’s and Pitirim Sorokim’s memoirs; the testimonies of the anarchists who fought the revolution like Kropotkin or Makhno. We have not had access (I mean the Cubans who frequent bookstores) to works by Bolsheviks like Bukharin (whose Manual of Political Economy was debated by Gramsci), and just one by Preobrazhensky (translated in Cuba with the dubious title of La nueva económica [New Economics]).

Naturally, we don’t know much about the works of the long list of post-Soviet historians –Roy Medvedev, Nikrich, Andreev Khomyakov – or of the scholars who studied documents declassified in the early years of the dismantling of the USSR (Yakovlev, Sevostianov, Khlevniuk, Bugai, Kozlov). But our ignorance is not only of professional historians, but of documents and testimonies of protagonists, many of whom were never dissidents. This is, for example, the case of Anastas Mikoyan, or of Georgi Arbatov, senior leaders or consultants since the Second World War and until the final years of the system; ex-members of the Politburo like Grishin; former heads of the KGB like Semichastnyi; or ex-diplomats such as the perennial Soviet ambassador to Washington (and participant in the October Crisis), Anatoly Dobrynin.

Even on the “Caribbean Crisis,” -as they called it- despite its being a topic regarding the history of Cuba, and the fact that it has generated some intellectual production and attention in our media, it follows that we have not published even selections from Nikita Khrushchev’s Memoirs, which were widespread in the West since before the end of the USSR, and whose revised and expanded edition reached four volumes (Moscow, 1999). About this endless topic of the 1962 October Crisis, dozens of Soviet and Russian texts are waiting for translation into Spanish, including some recent ones like Alexander Fursenko’s  A Hell of a Gamble, which uses declassified Soviet documents; or reflections of Nikita’s senior advisers such as Fyodor Burlatsky.

As for the perspective of the military and their principal leaders, Cuba did publish (or distributed published by Progress Publishing) works of veterans of the Great Patriotic War, such as the eminent Marshal Zhukov (although the Russian “uncensored” edition, published later, is still pending), Rokossovsky and other senior military leaders; not to mention other memoirs of generals, such as Vasilevsky and Gorbatov, or disclosures of illustrious intelligence agents, as Alexander Orlov.

We should know the works of some of those classic Western Kremlinologists –such as the  Polish writer Seweryn Bialer (whom we met when he visited Cuba in the ’80s), Adam Ulam, R.H. McNeal- who despite their anti-communism contributed well-documented analyses on the late period of the USSR. And also of experts such as Georgy Arbatov, advisor to several leaders of the Kremlin (including Gorbachev), whom many Cubans came to know in Moscow as director of the prestigious Institute for U.S.A. and Canadian Studies, with his book The System; more revealing than most testimonies about the gulags and other topics that have plagued historiography, non-fiction and historical novels about the period -including one that was published in Cuba in the 60’s, One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich by Alexandr Solzhenitsyn which was made a symbol of the post-Stalinist thaw by Khrushchev himself.

This avalanche of Russian authors just illustrates the missing elements that I pointed out above. Some of the authors mentioned -Serge, Bukharin, Trotsky, Babel, Shklovsky, Kropotkin, Deutscher (from whose three-volume biography of Trotsky Padura draws for his novel), and naturally Lenin, and Josif Vissarionovich Djugashvili himself- were among youthful readings of some of us in the 1960’s. Others, such as Arbatov or Fursenko, can always come from friends (“Do you want a book, or a bottle of Jack Daniels?”). There are many, however, whose names I only have in a file labeled “Books to Find” in the form of references and reviews of titles I would like to read.

After all, I wonder if it would be so difficult -or expensive- to put together at least compilations or anthologies -if not in paper, perhaps in digital format (as they say now)- to make some of these texts and authors democratically available to the pockets of those readers frequenting the bookstores on Obispo Street (not the Rambla [in Spain]). Such virtual or tangible editions could have prologues that would place them in their context, rather than making them bounce on the trampoline of the meta-history to which I will refer at once.


Cuba is a country whose main publishing event has at its core literature: a territory which broadly includes also the genres of “non-fiction” (testimony, interviews, stories, biographies, etc.). Only one Cuban publishing house produces “science and technology” (including the social sciences), while a dozen are wholly or largely devoted to literature and the arts: Letras Cubanas, Arte y Literatura, Gente Nueva, Unión, most of Casa de las Américas, most of Oriente -the largest outside Havana-, among others. It is a fact that the social sciences publications of the above institutions and the contributions of the Juan Marinello Institute have a much lower figure in the country’s publishing output.

Add to this unbalanced pattern the fact that the degree of freedom of a fiction writer and a social researcher are very different. The hurdles a sociologist must survive to publish a text on, say, the unwanted impacts of tourism (prostitution, drugs, black market, etc.), illegal migration, corruption and crime, are incomparable to those presented before a writer of detective novels or screenplays which deal with exactly the same issues. Not surprisingly then, literature -especially narrative (together with the theater and film) “get ahead” addressing the major problems of Cuban society and the world today, and can offer its interpretation of contemporary history, with an advantage over sociology, political science, anthropology, social psychology, and even history and economics.

Some argue that the boundary between the historical novel and history is very thin; that in the end the former is about stories and meta-narrations that change with the times and norms; that their ideological discourses adopt, and adapt, history to their own patterns, etc. Let us suppose that Gadamer and his local supporters may be somewhat right. However, let us also consider another argument:

As an artistic product, literature is not only (or mainly) “a mirror that strolls through life” -an image that Stendhal used sarcastically. If it were so, nobody would read the Divine Comedy today, because the issue that motivated Dante: the political fight between Guelphs and Ghibellines, no longer interests even the people who live in Florence these days. If a literature lives, it is because it raises problems, ideas, feelings, fantasies, associations and representations that make sense to real people here and now. If the bloody quasi-legendary saga which inspired Shakespeare to write Macbeth happened as he described it or not; and if the Thane of Cawdor killed the king with a dagger or a mountaineer ice pick is of no consequence. His dreams of power, the chilling manipulation by Lady Macbeth, the hesitations of the assassin, his guilty insomnia, his paranoia, his authoritarian and superstitious reflexes, are the deep ferment of a tragedy that still speaks to us today; not the historicity of the events it narrates.

Now, if instead of that free association inherent in the perception of art and literature, a one-way interpretation is induced through codes which attempt to make distant spaces and times similar through common patterns; if the work pretends to be a map guiding readers through real history; then the impulse of knowledge typical of art is replaced by the limited reading of understanding the present as a mere emanation of a certain past. Deciphering a revolutionary period full of extreme situations, such as that in Cuba in the late 60’s, through the code of Stalinism, runs the risk of reducing the idiosyncrasy of the man in charge of vigilance in a CDR [Committee for the Defense of the Revolution] in the neighborhood of Mantilla, in Havana, to that of an operative trained for political assassination by experts under the command of Levrenti Beria in the Moscow of the 1930’s.

As a matter of historical accuracy -not of literary license- phenomena such as UMAP [Unidades Militares de Ayuda a la Produccion/ labor camps]; the eviction of homosexuals, religious persons and those not adhering to socialism from schools and public institutions; the Padilla case and other examples of ideological rigidity occurred at a time alien to Soviet influence. Claiming that the massive nationalization of small businesses during the Revolutionary Offensive responded to a Stalinist matrix reveals ignorance of the specific content of the prevailing politics and ideological context in Cuba in 1968.

Tracing the origin of our peculiar political style that takes criticism as a form of aggression, and disqualifies opponents’ opinions as pointless for the mere fact that they disagree; or attributing the genetic code of our native authoritarianism to the ancestral culture of a Georgian village, are ineffective for understanding the history and culture of Cuba. The inability to recognize our own causes for our own problems may have a lot to do with ideological schematics not at all extinct between us, even among the champions of criticism and the freedom of writers. The dream of that freedom -to paraphrase Goya- often creates its monsters, too.


What is the consequence of all the above for a critical reading of the production of social knowledge in Cuba, and for its dissemination?

The passage from the intellectual trends of the 60’s to those in the 70-80’s was not the political radicalization of thought and artistic production, the adoption of Marxism as the dominant principle of the political discourse and doctrine of institutions (from schools to social organizations), the assessment of the ideological content of art as a fundamental dimension for its interpretation, the characterization of the cultural production of capitalism for its alienating nature, and a critical thinking that –as a widespread practice–disqualified it. It was not the polarity of discourses, their politicization and strict radicalization which had began in the 70s: all of that was already present in the culture of the 60s.

The specific features of the tide started with what we call the Quinquenio Gris [Gray Five-year Period] was the stigmatization of critical perspectives and the idea that debate was a divisive and debilitating practice; the exclusion of any alternative approach to Marxism-Leninism in its most restrictive version because they were considered not only wrong, but also dangerous; and the reduction of authors and works made available to the Cuban reader in the field of social thinking and theory to the parameters of the intellectual production of the socialist countries, especially of the USSR and Eastern Europe.

A sample of the activity of a single publisher, Ciencias Sociales, is revealing of these developments, reflecting the ideological and cultural biorhythm characteristic of Cuban socialism. Let us examine three stages:

In the five years between 1967 and 1971, the predominant publishing pattern is characterized by the following features:

1. A wide range of disciplines, not just history, politics and economics; but sociology, anthropology, international relations, philosophy, social and cultural theory, political analysis.

2. A relatively broad political and ideological spectrum. Abundance of speeches by leaders of the Revolution, works of classics of Marxism, and texts of the new Latin American left, of active members of Tri-Continental networks such as OSPAAL, including Africans, Arabs, Vietnamese. But many titles on political issues which were not by Marxist leaders or doctrinaires, but by sociologists and political analysts, belonging to a variety of approaches.

3. In those five years, Ciencias Sociales alone published Marxist and non-Marxist writers such as Italian: Niccola Abagnano, Antonio Gramsci, Antonio Labriola; Americans: Herbert Marcuse, John Kenneth Galbraith, Oscar Lewis, George Thomson, C. Wright Mills, Arthur Schlesinger, Paul Sweezy; French: Jean Paul Sartre, Auguste Cornu, Maurice Godelier, Gerard Walter, André Gorz, Georges Gurvitch; Hungarian: George Lukacs and Bela Balassa; Polish: Isaac Deutscher, Ernest Mandel; Belgian: Paul Bairoch; British: Edward Carr, Gordon Childe, Maurice Dobb; German: Rosa Luxemburg, Max Weber, Werner Jaeger; Austrian: Adolf Kozlik; African: Ben Barka, Ahmed Sekou Toure, Mustafa Lacheraf; Vietnamese: Le Chau; Martinican: Franz Fanon.

With the onset of the 1970’s, the structure of that publishing was transformed dramatically.

1. The diversity of disciplines characteristic of the 1960’s was significantly polarized and concentrated on one field: history. Of the 230 titles published by Editorial Ciencias Sociales from 1972 to 1976, 80 titles (i.e. 35%) were on history, mostly of Cuba, particularly of the colonial period and the first two republics until the 1930’s. Throughout the period, only 14 titles were devoted to sociology and 5 to anthropology.

2. In those five years, apart from the classics of Marxism and speeches of leaders of the Revolution, published titles devoted to contemporary politics were no more than 18. Contemporary social theory was drastically reduced. Most philosophy titles were not of current philosophy thinkers, but classics: Kant, Hegel, Plato, Bacon, Campanella, Thomas More, Feuerbach, Rousseau, Aristotle, and Spinoza.

3. The diversity of authors -a characteristic of the 60’s- was reduced to the common denominator of the Soviet Union, with the philosophical works of Konstantinov, Afanasiev, Illin, Frolov; the economic theory of Fedorenko, Rumyantsev, Mayorov, Aksiohova; the sociology of Zdravomislov and Andreyeva. The handful of texts on politics were those by Krupskaya, Turovtsev, Smernova, Brezhnev, Basmanov, Dimitrov. The list of authors from the “West” (i.e., the rest of the non-socialist world) barely reached ten: Philip Foner, Armand Mattelart, Ariel Dorfman, Felipe Pardiñas, Gunther Radezun, Celso Furtado, Harold Faulkner, James Frazer.

In the beginning of the period 1972-1976, the flagship theoretical journal of the 60s, Pensamiento Critico [Critical Thinking], disappeared. But the narrow-mindedness of publishing criteria did not last more than five years. Unlike what happened in the production and marketing of literature and especially in film, arts, and theater in the late 70s and 80s, in the social sciences the pattern of the 1972-1976 would extend to the following fifteen years. A flattening like this does not compare to any other field of the intellectual and cultural life in the country.

However, in the 80s, the sectors of science, higher education, culture, foreign relations as well as the various ministries related to the economy (Economics, Labor, Foreign Trade, etc.), the media, and the PCC [Cuban Communist Party], among other sectors, sponsored research centers in the field of social sciences. Despite the devastation of the Special Period, many of these institutions reemerged or were established in the second half of the 90s, reaching at present a number and range well above what existed in the 60s.

As part of the crisis itself, and the revival of public debate, today we live in another context of ideas, very different from those in the 1970s and 1980s. The world of academic, scientific, educational and cultural research, has spread and multiplied; and public space has been enriched in an unusual way. In 2012-2013, the National Register of periodicals listed 153 literary and artistic journals, and 172 of social sciences, both in print and digital formats.

However, the publishing of books in this field shows distressing data. Of the only 185 titles published in the period 2009-2013 by Editorial Nuevo Milenio in the field of social sciences, 44% were devoted to history. Most of the titles which addressed the revolutionary period were just testimonial compilations. Political science and sociology -not to mention social theory and contemporary philosophical trends- were virtually absent. Only 17% (31 titles) were by non-Cuban authors, and most of them characterized by their adherence to the Cuban Revolution.

It is difficult to attribute the poor availability of titles representative of contemporary social science thinking -including the production of Cuban researchers-  to the lack of resources, the need to prioritize other items of intellectual production, the lack of publishing houses in the country, and much less to criteria related to the influence of Soviet ideology. Mainly when, in comparison, there is a substantial presence of other genres, such as poetry, and a massive printings of cookbooks.

Debate on the central problems of Cuban society today is not constrained to the institutional action scope of social sciences. Issues such as racial discrimination and prejudice, sexual orientation, inter-generational differences, and the ideological crisis of moral values, the flow of migrants and their motivations, the views on the capitalist way of life, freedom of expression, civil society and pluralism, and also many other equally complex and sensitive topics are being treated in various areas, including the literature, art, plays, and films made and consumed in Cuba. The work of researchers in the social sciences does not inform this debate, or benefits from it as it should.

The lack of dissemination of the results of thinking and research in social sciences affects social consciousness and ideology, and hampers the development of a socialist culture in keeping with the new times.

Social sciences, like culture in general, can have a more active and effective role in its international exchange. Avoiding this debate -because it takes place in an environment sometimes perceived as unfavorable or adverse- leaves the field free for divergent concepts and approaches. If we fail to exercise our own criticism in an informed and reasoned way, others will fill that space; often in an alien or distorted manner.

Cultural studies are called to deepen on the roots, heritage, values of tradition, reinterpretation of our past -but not limited to the exercise of historical recovery. Changes that affect the real political culture of the population; inequality; changes in social relationships; the presence of new religious trends; the real problems in the functioning of the political system, are central to Cuban culture. The enormous impact of the international reinsertion of the country; the onslaught of external cultural patterns, and in general the transformations of globalization in our society are too important to be the agenda of a single discipline or institution.

Eradicating the vestiges of provincialism, and promoting the updating of our internal debate with the problems and conceptual development of the contemporary world, are essential conditions to deal with the ideological onslaught of globalization from a position other than purely defensive. Without this exchange, confrontation, and learning, there is no possible renewal.

Concepts such as human rights, civil society, pluralism, democracy, transition, and freedom of expression must be claimed in theoretical terms and concrete cultural practices; not given as gifts to anti-socialist and conservative thinkers. The task is to contribute to redefining their meanings, not only for Cuban culture, but for the sake of radical thinking in the contemporary world.

The analyses, arguments, and evidence provided by social sciences for a reasoned appropriation of the cultural values of socialism -especially for younger educated generations- not only contain the power of convincing, but also provide essential approaches and elements of judgment for the recreation of a socialist culture, up to the demands of the 21st Century.

Schools and the media are not more cultured simply because they incorporate scientific and technical means; but because they are able to integrate more advanced, provocative and innovative scientific and humanistic concepts. It is in that culture -not merely in technological renovation- where the foundations of Cuban social and cultural development lie.

 Rafael Hernandez is the editor of the Cuban journal TEMAS, where this essay originally appeared.

A CubaNews translation.  Edited by Walter Lippmann.