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Vera (Fëdorovna) Panova (1905-1973)


Soviet writer and journalist, who followed in her works socialist realism quite faithfully, and empasized kindness and sympathy between people. Vera Panova won three State Prizes and her book were published in more than 50 languages. Several of her best stories were devoted to children and explored the problems of moral upbringing.

"While you're still a kid, you can't imagine what a man's life is like. You think when your Dad's done his seven or eight hours he's finished for the day. Apart from a bit of voluntary work he may have to do, of course, or a meeting. But when you begin to grow up and go on your own, to the left and right of the gate, the you see what a mass of different things men have to occupy their time. Take the motor cyclists, for instance, taking their driving tests every day in Stable Square. There's the examiner, a lieutenant of the militia, watching someone doing figures of eight on his motorbike. And there's a a regular crowd of men, young and old, standing round. Rooted to the spot they are, won't move an inch. Just stand there looking on, criticizing." (in 'The Boys at the Cafe', An Anthology of Soviet Short Stories, translated by Robert Daglish, 1976)

Vera Panova was born in Rostov-on-Don in southern Russia. Panova's mother worked as a bookkeeper. Her father, who was a bank clerk, drowned in a boating accident when she was only six years old. The family fell on hard times. When still a child, Panova was forced to go to work in a laundry. After the revolution of 1917 she could not continue her education at the gymnasium school in Rostov. However, she had a passion of reading. Her self-education Panova continued through the tumultous civil war years.

Panova had started to write poetry and prose at early age, and in 1922 she joined the staff of a small local newspaper, Trudovoi Don (Laborer's Don) She also worked as a correspondent for other newspapers, writing mostly book reviews, and on publications for children. Under the pseudonym "Vera Velt'man" she published humorous pieces and sketches in a number of Rostov papers and journals. In 1925, she married Arsenii Starosel'skii, a journalist. From 1930 to 1935 Panova wrote for a Pioneer magazine. In 1933 she began to compose plays, but, by her own admission, did not succeed well. Her first stage piece, Vesna (Spring) was produced by B. Fatilevich in the Theater of Drama of Rostov-on-the-Don. Il'ia Kosogor (1939), a four-act melodrama, showed the influence of Gorky.

Her first marriage was not happy, and after divorce Panova married Boris Vakhtin, a Pravda journalist and an aspiring writer. They had two sons. Vaktin was arrested in 1935 during the Stalinist purges; he died in the Gulag. The family split apart for a period. To survive, Panova relied on friends.

Facing difficulties finding a new job, and living in a constant fear of being arrested in the middle of the night, Panova left Rostov with her family and settled in Ukraine, in a village called Shishaki. By the beginning of World War II, she lived with her daughter in the town of Pushkin (formerly Tsarskoe Selo). When the town fell to the Nazis, she made her way to the Estonian border town of Narva. Panova was due to be deported to a German concentration camp with other Russian refugees and prisoners of war, but she managed to escape and returned to Ukraine, where she was reunited with her two sons and her mother.

After the liberation of Ukraine, she moved to the city of Perm in the Urals, where she wrote stories for a local newspaper and radio station. The whole family was cramped into one little barracks room. Her' play, Devochi (1945, The Young Girls), won a Committee on the Arts award as the best play for young people on a contemporary theme. In 1944 she was invited to travel from Perm on board a hospital train. Her journey formed the basis for the popular novel Sputniki (1946, The Train), which won a Stalin Prize in literature and opened her doors to the Writers' Union.

Later on the novel was adapted into screen under the title The Charity Train and in 1975 it was turned into a four-part television film. The plotless story, written as a direct assignment from the Writers' Union, was composed of a series of episodes. The war is depicted indirectly, through the stories of the wounded and the train crew, their past and present.

In 1945 Panova married David Iakovlevich Ryvkin, a science-fiction writer and poet, best known by his pen name, David Dar. With him she lived relatively comfortably in Leningrad. During the war years she had began writing the novel Kruzhilikha (1947), set in a factory town in the Urals. Like in The Train, her characters were largely taken from real life. They are not only good or bad citizens. With the portrayal of the egocentric factory director Listopad Panova broke the rules of Socialist Realism: he is a "negative hero" who is treated with sympathy. 

Despite criticism she was given a Stalin prize for Kruzhilikha. Panova's third Stalin Prize was awarded for Yasny bereg (1949, The Bright Shore), in which the major figure, director of a collective farm, was more in tune with the concept of the positive hero in Soviet literature. When later speaking of the novel, Panova did not have much good to say about her character description; it was weak and anemic.

From the early 1950s Panova wrote regularly for the prestigious literary journal Novyi mir. Vremena Goda (1953, Span of the Year) appeared first  in the journal, and was praised in Literaturnaia gazeta, the organ of the Writers' Union. The initial approval was buried under the wrath of conservative literary circles. This time, the cause was the subtly drawn parallel between corruption in the upper level and criminal underworld, the latter personified in the character of Gennadii Kupriianov, a stiliaga, living a life of an antisicial misfit. The main negative character, Stepan Bortashevich, is a scoundler hiding behind a mask of respectability. When he is revealed, he shoots himself, unable to face the public humiliation of a court case. Panova tells that "his life had ended on the day that he reached out his hand for money. He had cut short his own life."

Vremena Goda was widely discussed at the Leningrad Writers Conference and in the press. Panova herself did not participate in the dispute. Vsevolod Kochetov, an arch-conservative writer and a  secretary of Leningrad's branch of the Soviet writers' union, criticized the novel for its "naturalism" and distorting the portraits of Communists. "Naturalism can entertain, astound, arouse emotion, but it cannot make profound and true social and artistic generalizations," said Kochetov in Pravda. Kochetov argued that Panova simply described life without passing a judgement. (Soviet Policies Toward Literature After Stalin's Death by Julian Louis Laychuk, 1960, pp. 48-49) Bad reviews did not prevent the book from becoming an immediated success with the reading public. It was also well received in England and the United States. "I really caught it from the critics because of my Gennadii," Panova wrote in her memoirs, "but I didn't renounce him and I will not. I saw him then much too clearly: his dirty, uncut hair, and jerky walk, his impudence and unwillingness to take into consideration anybody or anything and his disproportionate aspirations to personal comforts." ('Vera Panova' by  Ruth Kreuzer, in Russian Women Writers, Volume 2, edited by Christine D. Tomei, 1999, p. 1015) 

"Panova was essentially a Party writer, whose books were considered (on the whole) ideologically sound. Against a generally mediocre socialist realist background, however, she was noted for her vivid descriptions of real-life situations. Furthermore, the reader could identify with her characters who were not portrayed in purely black-and-white terms as either heroes or villains... Her style was warm and vivid and, for an ordinary Soviet reader brought up on stodgy ideologically sound prose, her books represented in comparative terms a "good read"."(Anna Pilkington in Reference Guide to Russian Literature, ed. Neil Cornwell, 1998, p. 613)

Vremena goda is a pathbreaking novel that signaled hopes of change in the Stalinist cultural policy, but it was Ilya Ehrenburg's novelette The Thaw that gave its name to the "de-Stalinization" era of the mid 1950's and early 1960s. Among the most famous works to emerge from this period was Alexander Solzhenitsyn's One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich (1962).

Largely autobiographical Sentimentalnyi Roman (1958, A Sentimental Romance) reflected some of Panova's experiences as a young reporter. The story was adapted to screen by Igor Maslennikov in the 1970s. Serezha (1955, Time Walked / A Summer to Remember) marked the beginning of a new cycle of stories about children. It was a psychological novella, seen through the eyes of a small boy, whose life changes when his widowed mother marries a collective farm director, a kind and understanding man. Serezha was turned into a film in 1960, which received the main prize at the 12th International Film Festival in Karlovy Vary. "Forget political friction for a moment," wrote the film critic Bosley Crowther. "Out of Russia has come a sensitive and charming little picture about the simple psychology of a child that sheds more light upon the nature of the Russian people than all the fierce sky-filling blasts of nuclear bombs." ('A Sensitive Film: 'Summer to Remember,' Soviet Import, Opens' by Bosley Crowther, The New York Times, November 7, 1961).

Panova managed find room for her literary creativity and her liberal views under the pressure of the censorship and the constraints of Socialist Realism. Though she wrote about women's lives, her perspective was not strictly feminist; the term "woman writer" had in Soviet society negative connotations dating from prerevolutionary times. Focus on domestic issues and the private sphere without ideological content was regarded as a serious drawback by censors and critics.

A Leningrad writer Kiril Koscinski characterized Panova as straightforward and sharp in her evaluation of the authorities. On the other hand, she participated with a number of other decent writers in the campaing against Boris Pasternak, regarding the publication of Doctor Zhivago abroad as a provocation against the Soviet intelligentsia. As a part of a delegation of Soviet authors Panova travelled in the United States in 1960 and described her impressions in Iz Amerikanskikh vstrech (From My American Encounter). Panova also wrote plays, film scenarios, memoirs O moei zhizni, knigakh i chitateliakh (1975), and some historical novellas about Russian princes and saints. She wrote the first review of J.D. Salinger's The Catcher in the Rye, translated by Rita Rait-Kovaleva; the novel (especially the use of colloquial language) had a great impact on the writing of the younger generation.

In 1967 Panova suffered a stroke, from which she never fully recovered. Vera Panova died in Leningrad on March 3, 1973; she had a Christian burial. Just before her death, she and her husband divorced. Panova's son Boris Vakhtin (1930-1981) founded the Gorozhane (Urbanists) group, a free literary association operating in Leningrad, which in contrary to the so-called "village prose" advocated more modernist and sophisticated writing.

For further reading: V mire geroev Very Panovoi by S. Fradkina (1961); Tvorchestvo Very Panovoi by L.A. Plotkin (1962); Women in Soviet Fiction by Xenia Gasiorowska (1968); 'Panova, Vera (Federovna),' in World Authors 1950-1970, ed. John Wakeman (1975); Soviet Russian Literature since Stalin by Deming Brown (1978); Vera Panova by A. Ninov (1980); Vera Panova: stranitsy zhizni: k biografii pisatel'nitsy by Serafina Iur'eva (1993); 'Vera Federovna Panova 1905-1973' by Anna Pilkington, in Reference Guide to Russian Literature, ed. Neil Cornwell (1998); 'Vera Panova' by  Ruth Kreuzer, in Russian Women Writers, Volume 2, edited by Christine D. Tomei (1999); Sovetskaia literatura:kratkii kurs by Dmitrii Bykov (2012)

Selected works:

  • Il'ia Kosogor, 1939 (play]
  • V staroi Moskve, 1940 (play] [In Old Moscow]
  • Sputniki, 1946 (publ. in Znamia)
    - The Train (translated by Eve Manning and Marie Budberg, 1948) / Sputniki = The Traveling Companions (selected and edited by Galina Stilman, 1965)
    - Matkatoverit (suom. Juhani Konkka, 1951)
  • Kruzhilikha, 1947
    - The Factory (translated by Marie Budberg, 1949) / Looking Ahead (translated by David Skvirsky, 1955)
  • Yasny Bereg, 1949 [The Bright Shore]
    - Selkeä ranta (suom. Tyyne Perttu, 1951)
  • Vremena Goda, 1953
    - Span of the Year (translated by Vera Traill, 1957)
    - Vuodenajat (suom. Juhani Konkka, 1954)
  • Seryozha (in Novyi Mir), 1955
    - Time Walked (tr. 1959, reissued in 1962 as A Summer to Remember / Serezha (in Fifty Years of Russian Prose: From Pasternak To Solzhenitsyn, edited by Krystyna Pomorska, 1971) / Seryozha: A Few Histories from the Life of a Very Small Boy (translated by V. Korotky, 1974)
    - Pikku mies: kertomuksia pienen pojan elämästä (suom. Tyyne Perttu, 1957) / Serjoža (suom. Juhani Konkka, 1958)
  • V staroi Moskve, 1957 (play, publ. in Neva)
  • Metelitsa, 1957 (play, publ. in Priboi)
  • Sentimental'nyi roman, 1958 (in Novyi Mir) [Sentimental Novel]
    - Romanssi (suom. Juhani Konkka, 1959)
  • Evdokia, 1959 (in Leningradskii al'manakh)
    - Yevdokia (translated by Julius Katzer, 1960)
    - Naisen sydän (suom. Vieno Levänen, 1963)
  • Valya, 1959 (in Oktiabr')
    - Valya (tr. 1964)
  • Volodya, 1959 (in Oktioabr')
  • Seryozha, 1960 (screenplay, with Georgi Daneliya & Igor Talankin, prod. Mosfilm, dir. Georgi Daneliya & Igor Talankin, starring Borya Barkhatov, Sergey Bondarchuk, Irina Skobtseva)
  • Provody belykh nochei, 1961 (play, publ. in Novyi Mir) [Sending Off the White Nights]
  • Skolko let, skolko zim!, 1961 (play, publ. in Novyi Mir)
    - It's Been Ages! (translated by F.D. Reeve, in Contemporary Russian Drama, 1968)
  • Kak pozhivaesh' paren'?, 1962 (play, publ. in Teatr) [How Are You, Lad?]
  • Rabochii poselok, 1964 (in Novyi Mir) [The Worker's Settlement]
  • Rano utrom: povesti, 1964 [Early in the Morning]
  • Sasha, 1964 (in Novyi Mir)
  • Konspekt romana, 1965 [Synopsis of a Novel]
  • Liki na zare: istoricheskie povesti, 1966 [Images at Daybreak]
  • Eshche ne vecher, 1967 (play, publ. in Zvezda vostoka) [It's Not Evening Yet]
  • Nadezhda Milovanova, 1967 (play, publ. in Zvezda vostoka)
  • On Faraway Street, 1968
  • Trediakovskii i Volynskii, 1968 (play, publ. in Neva)
  • Sobranie sochinenii, 1969-70 (5 vols.)
  • Iz zapisnikov pamiati, 1971 (a memoir; publ. in Neva)
  • Zametki literatura, 1972 [Notes of a Writer]
  • Izbrannoe, 1972
  • Svadba kak Svadba, 1973 (play, publ. in Teatr) [Wedding Like a Wedding]
  • O moei zhizni, knigakh i chitateliakh, 1975 [About My Life, Books and Readers]
  • Selected Works, 1975 (translated by Olga Shartse and Eve Manning)
  • 'The Boys at the Cafe', 1976 (in An Anthology of Soviet Short Stories)
  • Izbrannye proizvedeniia, 1980 (2 vols.)
  • Kotoryi chas: roman-skazka, 1981 (in Novyi Mir) [What Time Is It?]
  • P'esy, 1985 [Plays]
  • Zhiznʹ Mukhammeda, 1990
  •  Na vsiu ostavshuiusia zhiznʹ-- : povesti, 1995
  • Moe i tolʹko moe: o moeĭ zhizni, knigakh i chitateliakh, 2005
  • Looking Ahead, 2015 (translated From the Russian by David Skvirsky)

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