Eurasia without Borders:
The Dream of a Leftist Literary Commons, 1919-1943

By Katerina Clark

Reviewed by Xiaolu Ma

MCLC Resource Center Publication (Copyright March, 2022)

Katerina Clark, Eurasia Without Borders: The Dream of a Leftist Literary Commons, 1919–1943 Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2021. 464 pp. ISBN 978-0-674-26110-5

Is it possible to remap world literature from the communist perspective? If so, what possibilities might this approach open? Katerina Clark attempts to answer these questions in Eurasia Without Borders: The Dream of a Leftist Literary Commons, 1919–1943. In place of the current model of world literature, which persistently foregrounds the West, Clark takes as her starting point the historical vision for a Moscow-oriented Eurasian literature that forged connections between writers and languages in ways that continue to challenge how we study literature.

Clark frames her argument around the Communist International, or Comintern, as a political body that enabled leftists worldwide to conceive of Eurasia as a unified geographic and cultural entity. The Comintern worked to promote global communism from its founding in 1919 until it disbanded in 1943. Historical accounts of the Comintern and Comintern-sponsored literary activities usually conclude with its failure to achieve its initial revolutionary ambitions. In line with this narrative, Clark acknowledges that the implementation of the Comintern’s idealist vision encountered difficulties including “budgetary and language limitations, lack of specialists,” and lack of local intermediaries (26). Clark shows, however, that the Comintern’s unrealized ambitions still provided a platform for subsequent cultural interactions between what the organization saw as “oppressed” Asia and “proletarian” Europe.

Clark proposes a rich set of alternatives and may cause us to question orthodox views of both communist literature and world literature. Her exploration of this alternative world literary canon is not limited to a proletarian vision of literature for the masses, but in fact examines a body of literature largely composed by leftist intellectuals. Moreover, Clark emphasizes that the international literary movements that produced this literature cannot be summarized simply as a response to the call for Soviet socialist realism. Instead, the Comintern leads Clark beyond boundaries traditionally drawn in literary scholarship. She is not constrained by emigre Eurasianists’ vision of a great Russian empire nor the Bolsheviks’ treatment of Asia as a single entity, but goes farther to examine how leftist writers across the world endeavored to realize their vision of “a new pan-Eurasian culture in actuality” (5).

The first of the two parts of the book focus on leftist writers’ response to the call for a unified Eurasian cultural space amid the backdrop of geopolitical tension from 1919 to 1930. Clark ranges across Turkey, Persia, Afghanistan, India, and the Far East (especially China). Whereas anti-imperialism and anti-colonialism form consistent themes in Part I, anti-fascism becomes a major issue in Part II, which concentrates on the expansion of the socialist ecumene during the rise of Nazism from 1930 to 1943. This was also the period when the earlier idea of proletarian literature was replaced by socialist advocacy—in particular, socialist realism.

Eurasia without Borders expands both geographically and temporally on the scope of Clark’s previous book Moscow, the Fourth Rome (2011), which delineated multiple cosmopolitanisms that have emerged in the 1930s to make Moscow a “guardian” of world literature and culture. Although figures who are prominent in the earlier book, such as the avant-garde playwright and activist Sergei Tretiakov (1892–1937), reappear here, they are joined by a wider cast of characters from diverse cultural and linguistic backgrounds. Moreover, Clark does not simply offer a model of world literature without the West; rather, the vexed relationship between international politics and transcultural engagements is still at play. Western European writers such as the French internationalist André Malraux (1901–1976) (chapter 5), German communists Friedrich Wolf (1888–1953) and Anna Seghers (1900–1983) (chapter 7), and English writers W. H. Auden (1907–1973) and Christopher Isherwood (1904–1986) (chapter 8) are also included. Clark’s story goes beyond the Soviet and international bloc, including some literary figures who are not communist believers, but more like fellow travelers, such as Boris Pilniak (1894–1938) (chapter 5) and Indian writer Mulk Raj Anand (1905–2004) (chapter 7).

To reach this new scope, Clark focuses on the idea of a “socialist global ecumene.” Ecumene (Greek: οἰκουμένη‎) literally means “inhabited earth” or “inhabited world.” This geographic term has gained political and religious implications, which are specifically invoked by the modifier “socialist.” “Socialist” leads us to read ecumene within the specific context of an international leftist cultural fraternity. Borrowing Kris Manjapra’s conceptualization, Clark describes the “socialist global ecumene” as an international community of like-minded leftists not defined by the programs, doctrines, or hierarchy of the Comintern, but instead incorporating a range of literary movements that extend beyond communism (22). Although the metropole—Moscow—still played a crucial role in the formation of such an ecumene, Clark emphasizes lateral cultural exchanges that do not fall into the binary categories of center/periphery. Such an ecumene comprises “leftist cosmopolitans” (24), writers not fully committed to communism or any leftist organizations but who shared anti-imperialist and antifascist sentiments. These cosmopolitans are distinct from another category, “the literary international” (23), which was composed of organizations and individuals seeking to establish a Eurasian cultural space of the left who also commonly subscribed to anti-imperial and later antifascist causes. The leftist cosmopolitans and the literary international were two loose groups that participated in the construction of the Eurasian leftist culture Clark lays out, and they were not mutually exclusive. Because of the fluidity and complexity of the populations and entities that identified with certain leftist literary movements and organizations, the term ecumene allows Clark to include writers and associations not necessarily subordinated to Moscow-centered and Marxism-oriented ideology.

The merging of Asian aesthetics with radical politics is a common theme throughout the book. The first two chapters focuses on indigenous Asian writers who faced the challenge of incorporating revolutionary ideology within their respective literary traditions. Writers such as Turkish poet Nâzim Hikmet (1902–1963) produced free-form verse as a manifestation of the revolutionary spirit (chapter 1), while the Persian and Kurdish writer Abolqasem Lahuti (1887–1957) preserved Persianate traditions while blending in nationalist and socialist themes (chapter 2). To strike a balance in this narration of how a new aesthetic tradition was formed, Clark also includes the Russian avant-gardist Velemir Khlebnikov (1885–1922), who appropriated the Persianate literary tradition in his Russian verse (chapter 2). Later, Clark similarly discusses how Soviet poet Georgi Shengeli (1894–1956) composed an ode to acclaimed Indian writer Rabindranath Tagore (1861–1941) (chapter 4).

Although Clark does not examine these writers and incidents through a strictly postcolonial and postimperial lens, she is careful to incorporate different voices when depicting how Soviet and Western European intellectuals discussed Asia. For instance, chapter 3 follows the travels of Fedor Raskolnikov (1832–1939), his wife Larisa Reisner (1895–1926), and Lev Nikulin (1891–1967) to Afghanistan on a soviet mission in 1921; their portrayal of the place draws heavily on Russian imperialist texts. While these three Russian envoys largely ignored contemporary Afghan culture, in chapter 5 we see how Tretiakov and Pilniak from the Soviet Union, together with André Malraux from France, responded to political issues in the far East by elaborating on the story of revolutionary China in the campaign to found a “new Asia.”

In this spirit, Clark seeks out Soviet voices that are distinct from stereotypical western Orientalists. For example, whereas most of the chapters center around key transcultural leftists, chapter 4 offers a unique angle by concentrating on the Soviet linguist Nikolai Marr (1865–1934). By emphasizing the importance of peripheral, preliterate languages, and giving priority to the languages of the Caucasus, Marr provided an anti-imperialist linguistic genealogy. His scholarship challenges the Indo-Europeanism that is closely associated with British imperialism.

In a project that involves such diversity of nations and cultures, language is a theme to which Clark constantly returns. It doesn’t receive its own chapter; rather, Clark engages with facets of this question as they arise. Along with Marr’s alternative linguistics, Clark also discusses topics such as the standardization of script within—and the rivalries between—the Hindi and Bengali traditions (294–295). Elsewhere, Clark compares Chinese Latinization attempts by Xiao San 萧三 (1896–1983) and Qu Qiubai 瞿秋白 (1889–1935) with similar movements in several languages, including Turkic languages in Central Asia (264–265). She also probes Mao Zedong’s promotion of vernacular Chinese and the adoption of yangge performance as effective tools for “massification” (346–351). Clark’s observations prompt the reader to see the Chinese vernacularization movement not simply as a gesture of Westernization but as part of a transnational movement with wider implications.

Scholars of modern Chinese literature will be interested to find that China figures prominently in the second half of the book. Chapter 6 explores responses to the 1927 Shanghai debacle from writers, dramatists, and filmmakers in Berlin, Moscow, and Shanghai. In equally compelling terms, chapter 8 centers around the Sino-Japanese War of 1937–1945, when Western and Soviet writers and reporters, including Auden, Isherwood, Edgar Snow (1905–1972), and Roman Karmen (1906–1978), documented war atrocities. It was also the period when Mao Zedong’s Talks at the Yan’an Forum on Literature and Arts—which appropriated Soviet literary and ideological models—marked the continuation of literary internationalism in East Asia after the Comintern’s demise. It is particularly intriguing to see how the second half of the book shifts its center of gravity toward China by closing its discussion about the era of Soviet Comintern culture with Mao’s Yan’an Talks. It makes one wonder if Clark chose to highlight Mao due to his political significance relative to leftists in other regions such as Turkey, Persia, Afghanistan, and India. Clark might have brought in certain key Chinese leftists such as Guo Moruo 郭沫若 (1892–1978) and Hu Feng 胡风 (1902–1985), important figures who represented alternative trajectories from writers like Mao Dun 茅盾 (1896–1981) and Zhou Yang 周扬 (1908–1989), who receive more attention in the book. Such minor gaps, however, do not diminish the book’s contribution to understanding the role of modern China in the formation of international leftist culture.

This magisterial book is indispensable for the study of world literature. Clark’s meticulous close readings, extensive archival research, and personal interviews offer captivating details and discoveries. She draws our attention to many writers and artists who are not generally considered within the traditional narrative of world literature and are therefore only known well in regional studies. The book’s breadth and depth create unique opportunities. It is fascinating to see how Clark compares Qu Qiubai, a communist revolutionary generally known only to Chinese audiences, to three other internationalists: Qu is grouped with Tretiakov and other “hegemonic cosmopolitans,” as opposed to “cosmopolitan leftists” like Malraux and Pilniak (198). It is equally interesting to see how Clark analyzes Mao Dun’s account of Chinese political issues and women’s liberation in his Midnight and Rainbow in juxtaposition with products of the Moscow-Berlin axis such as Wolf’s Tai Yang Awakens and Brecht’s The Measures Taken, as well as works on Chinese issues by other non-Soviet internationalists such as Malraux and Seghers.

This is not a book that provides reassuring answers. Indeed, Clark’s introduction questions the notion of “Eurasia without borders” by adding a question mark at the end of the title of the introductory chapter. Clark explains that she chose to base each chapter on a distinct country, because, despite the efforts of well-intentioned leftist enthusiasts, she is not convinced that a Eurasia without borders can be realized (37). This stance aligns with the failure of the Comintern international project. Nonetheless, Clark also lays out a tremendous amount of information about the operation of transnational institutions and personal encounters between writers of different nations. Moreover, the book’s Epilogue discusses the development of global literary internationalism after the abolition of the Comintern that deserve further attention. In this way, the book may prompt readers to consider how border crossing might be examined by foregrounding transcultural interactions at the personal and institutional level. Certain cities, for instance, served as important contact zones where internationalists from different cultural backgrounds mingled. Specifically, Clark recognizes Tokyo as an intellectual hub in East Asia and Istanbul as another center for leftist culture (26). The book implicitly asks how studying such hubs, which facilitated the deterritorialization of Eurasia, may help us better understand the establishment of the “socialist global ecumene.”

Eurasia without Borders does not present us with a final verdict on global internationalist culture, but instead offers a stimulus for readers to explore this rich yet understudied facet of modern world literature. I very much look forward to reading the future scholarship that Clark’s project will inspire.

Xiaolu Ma
Hong Kong University of Science and Technology