Junk and Underwear: Fabrication and Factography in the Soviet Union

Wendi Bootes examines the contradictory nature of facts through an assessment of Soviet factography, in an excerpt from LARB Quarterly no. 41, “Truth.”

Junk and Underwear: Fabrication and Factography in the Soviet Union

This is a preview of the LARB Quarterly, no. 41: TruthBecome a member to get this issue plus the next four issues of the LARB Quarterly.


NOTHING IS MORE reliable and less vulnerable to emotional bias than cold, hard facts. This notion—that facts are the bulwark against partiality—is such an unquestioned commonplace that it appears to hardly merit mention. Indeed, our trust in their absolute authority leads historian of science Lorraine Daston to liken our modern understanding of facts to rocks, those “angular,” obstinate, brutish things. Loyal to no one, they are the “mercenary soldiers of argument.” One can, by this line of reasoning, enlist a stony fact to combat the distortions of bias and subjectivity, or hurl its sturdy matter at the stuff of mere opinion and watch the fragile glass of illusion shatter.

Yet the idea that facts are as durable and ubiquitous as geological formations is ironically a strikingly recent one. The current reputation of facts as trusty stewards of objectivity has not always been so assured: the reality is that facts have their own history, language, and development. It might be helpful to recall the etymology of the word—from the Latin factum, meaning an act—which will likely come as a bit of a shock to those accustomed to viewing facts as the stable anchors of our world.

In excavating the historical bedrock of factuality, we find useful—if perhaps unexpected—companions among writers, artists, and theorists of the early Soviet Union, for whom the vitality and contingency of facts was acutely felt. Such considerations animated a vibrant and lesser-known moment in early Soviet culture: an experimental movement known as factography, or “literatura fakta,” which emerged out of the heady atmosphere of political and aesthetic debates over postrevolutionary representation. The 1920s were a hotbed of innovation in documentation, as experiments in film, photography, radio, and newspaper reporting accompanied a veritable eruption in novel media technologies. Artists—ranging from writers to photographers and filmmakers—sought to portray the lived effects of rapid industrialization, agricultural collectivization, and the attempted spread of socialist revolution: in short, the building of the new Soviet state.

Montage, one of the most notable documentary practices to come out of this era, embraced techniques that demonstrated a keen attunement to the oscillating dynamic between the deconstruction of documentary materials (such as newsreel footage) and their reconstruction as intentionally formed objects. As Elizabeth Papazian notes, the “desire for concrete facts” remained a persistent, if also evolving, fixation throughout the first decade of the USSR. Indeed, Lenin himself explicitly voiced this impulse in an early Pravda article from 1918 on the Soviet press, in which he demands, in no uncertain terms, “more documentation” (proverka). Echoing this sentiment, prominent documentary filmmaker Dziga Vertov proffered the vivid phrase “fabrika faktov” (factory of facts) to describe his cinematic work. His eponymous manifesto includes some delightfully illustrative phrasing: “Fists made of facts. Lightning bolts of facts! Mountains of facts. Hurricanes of facts. And separate little factlets.” Facts, in short, were suddenly everywhere.

An avant-garde movement, factography hatched out of this broader documentary culture. But at the same time, some factographic practitioners (known as faktoviki), including the polymathic Sergei Tretiakov, cast a critical eye at the promise and possibility of authentic, purely “objective” documentation. They questioned the constructed nature of the concept of objectivity, as an idea historically defined by the ruling classes and so purportedly aligned with a bourgeois perspective—one certainly not comprising working or colonized peoples. “Literature of fact” challenged claims to singular objectivity by emphasizing the communal process of production, incorporating a combination of journalistic reportage, interviews, and storytelling. Gone was the lone perspective of the “genius” artist; for Tretiakov, the collectively authored newspaper was the new epic. The Tolstoys of the world were rendered obsolete when faced with what he called the “collective brain of the revolution.”

To be sure, “literature of fact” proved more of a tendency or praxis than a fixed genre, which for its practitioners functioned to connect art and life. This praxis aimed not only for mass accessibility but also for mass political transformation via the provision of reported facts. It emphasized exterior, tangible data in place of interior, psychological details, which were seen as obsolete relics of earlier bourgeois literary forms. As the faktoviki organized brigades of writers to observe and depict proletarian sites such as kolkhozes and factories, they insisted that selectively chosen descriptions from the recently industrialized environment—presented alongside an array of new media, including photography and the cinema—could actively intervene in social life, and foment socialist consciousness, by expressing certain material qualities of social and historical reality. In this way, description could prove politically transformative. And so, even as factographic works were invested in a kind of representation, their primary emphasis remained on dynamic creation—a mediated kind of authenticity—rather than “mere” reflection. Not objectivity, exactly, but a concept Tretiakov termed “operativnost’” (operativity).

It’s likely clear by now that several stubborn tensions reside at the heart of factography’s ambitions, ones that reflect the contradictory status of facts as obdurate, stable givens and the pliable creations of human beings. Even as these practices dismiss fictional narratives in favor of referentially truthful material, they aim to rouse the reader’s (or viewer’s) political consciousness by way of a thoughtful reconstruction of factual elements, a process that necessarily involves the effortful construction of “truth.” For factography, and documentary practices more broadly, our faculties of perception are both our primary means of access to the world and an errant guide. Simultaneously a tool of empowerment and deeply vulnerable to manipulation, perception is the fickle basis by which documentary materials are assembled and consumed. And within this economy of artistic production, not all facts or fragments are equally valuable, nor are they transparently accessible to the untrained eye. The “factlets” in question, to borrow Vertov’s cheeky coinage, possess an edifying, consciousness-raising value, leveraged to an end at odds with an ostensibly passive presentation of the world.

How to yoke together these two apparently contradictory impulses? How can one construct an organic and unified collection of facts without imposing an artificial narrative, that format almost universally associated with fiction? One through line that emerges in factographic works is the importance of vantage point or perspective (tochka zreniya). Or rather, perspectives plural: different points of view, amassed from the “collective brain of the revolution,” offer a more comprehensive and authentic accounting when toeing the fragile line between “straight” facts and “narrative.” It is an aspirational objectivity that relies, rather paradoxically, on an accumulation of subjective experiences.


It was into this turbulent literary and artistic landscape that a provocative collection of sketches emerged depicting the Polish-Soviet war of 1919–21, a conflict spinning out of the Russian Revolution that is largely forgotten today. The author was the multi-hyphenate Russian-Ukrainian-Jewish-Soviet Isaac Babel, and his stories, published sporadically in leftist journals starting in 1923, were eventually compiled in 1926 under the title Konarmiia (Red Cavalry). Babel’s sketches were received by some as nothing short of scandalous, owing to the fact that they were initially purported to be “news” from the front lines (Babel was indeed a war correspondent for the Red Cavalry, and did travel into combat). One of the most seething attacks was issued by the military commander of the Red Cavalry himself, Semyon Budyonny, who fumed that Babel had fabricated “irresponsible fairy tales” (bezotvetstvennyye nebylitsy) that focused only on “junk and underwear” (barakhle-bel’ye) instead of the main, heroic actions of the First Cavalry Army.

It’s true that Babel’s stories comprise a curious blend of testimony and fiction. Many of Babel’s contemporaries and early readers—including Budyonny—understood the stories to be earnestly autobiographical, and so open to charges of libel. The sketches are largely based on material from Babel’s wartime diaries, and they do feature actual historical figures, battles, quotes from newspapers and political speeches, and references to historical details of the Soviet offensive in Poland. The early promotion of their factual status might be less troublesome if it were merely a question of misplaced emphasis—depicting the mess at the rear rather than the “true” action at the front, in Budyonny’s framing. But—and this is where things get even trickier—the collection also incorporates blatant falsehoods. Liutov, Babel’s primary narrator (a bespectacled Jewish intellectual who bears an uncanny resemblance to the author), reroutes rivers, scrambles dates, and shuffles villages. This troubled relationship to the historical record, in addition to the sketches’ often ornate interludes, unreliable narrators, and penchant for exaggerated metaphorizing, has contributed to a volte-face in regard to their accepted generic status. In vivid contrast to the early reception of Red Cavalry, criticism of the last few decades almost exclusively refers to the cycle as fictional.

Coming down firmly on one side or the other, however, is beside the point. What if, instead, we see Babel’s work as an invitation to confront the uncomfortable coexistence of facts and fictions, to acknowledge the manufactured and often selective nature of factuality? Mining his stories for factual representations is an exercise in futility—they wouldn’t pass muster with any fact-checker—because their interest lies beyond the idea of singular truth. But if facts are, at least in some sense, made, then the sketches are indeed a chronicle of the often contradictory “facts” of everyday experience, the softer stuff of perceptions and misperceptions, jumbled together in the chaos and confusion of war. In one story, simply titled “Pis’mo” (“A Letter”), the dictated correspondence from a young soldier to his mother vacillates between describing the “grand style” of life in the cavalry and desperate pleas for provisions. It’s a case study in contrast, as the young man switches rapidly between dialect and bureaucratese, formal and informal modes of address, and conflicting accounts of the cavalry’s exploits. The culminating event of the letter, the execution of his father, is notably omitted: “Semyon Timofeyich sent me out of the yard so I can’t describe to you, dearest Mama Evdokia Fyodorovna, how they finished Papa.”

The inability to describe the “main event” is one of the collection’s primary concerns, even as it offers a plentitude of descriptions of “lesser” moments: quarrels over horses, detailed accounts of desecrated churches, and interactions with the local peasantry (muzhiks). The sights, sounds, and smells of the postrevolutionary landscape generate a litany of atomized impressions, and the pages of Red Cavalry are filled with the scorched scent of villages, the cacophony of animals being slaughtered, and the sight of the earth wet with blood. In line with the Soviet documentarian emphasis on new, collective ways of seeing, these impressions come from multiple perspectives. The stories, which rely on a variety of different narrators, ventriloquize a host of peripheral characters through embedded tales and a heavy reliance on a Russian literary tradition called “skaz,” a kind of performed oral speech in narrative form, often of “lower” or more popular registers. Seen in this light, the accumulation of perceptions—imprecise, incomplete, and decisively on the margins—provides the kind of mass, experiential authenticity to which the faktoviki and Soviet documentarians aspired. Refracted through the prism of collective experiences, the “truth” of the Polish-Soviet war becomes a matter not of historical record but of abundant perceptual data. Far from the ideal of official, “hard” fact, these facts are distorted and partial. They come from below, from the sidelines, and from the literal margins of a recently collapsed empire.


For Babel, one of the most famous experimental prose writers of the early Soviet era, the literary avant-garde is necessarily—and paradoxically—located at the rear of the action: an arrière-garde, as it were. His emphasis on the assorted voices at the margins of war reverses the militaristic comparison that equates artistic innovation with the frontline viewpoint of a military vanguard unit. It’s a sustained performance of limited perception that, ultimately, offers a distorted version of facts in the service of a kind of perceptual truth.

The history of factography, and its place in the larger context of early Soviet documentary experimentation, tells us a lot about our expectations regarding truth and fact. The counterintuitive aspiration to objectivity via a mass of subjectivities suggests that these orientations are intimately related to, even dependent upon, one another. Babel’s generically rebellious collection, which depicts the violent aftermath of imperial collapse, compels us to reflect on our expectations of “straight” factuality under conditions of extreme deprivation and sudden political reorganization. What does it mean to be accurate in the context of radical upheaval and constantly shifting political categories (national borders, governments, populations)? What is knowable—and describable—in the face of such catastrophes? Indeed, the unstable and contested borders of Poland, Ukraine, and Russia in the postrevolutionary period suggest that Babel’s own fugitive geography—his tendency to mislabel, misdate, rearrange, and invent—is ironically authentic in conveying an overwhelming sense of terrestrial instability. It’s a volatility that is unfortunately no less relevant today, as the landscape of Eastern Ukraine is once again transformed under the violence of Russian territorial claims contesting the nation’s sovereignty.

Rather than suggesting that factuality is impossible or irrelevant, Babel’s pseudo-documentary practice underscores the malleability of the very category of “fact.” The Russian formalist Boris Eikhenbaum praised the tendency to “exaggerate details and violate the normal proportions of the world” as central to the literary craft of one of Babel’s predecessors, the pioneering writer Nikolai Gogol. Much the same could be said of Babel himself. Yet this elevation of peripheral perspectives and “minor” incidents also invites a recognition of the social and historical conditions that determine how—and which—facts are mobilized in particular moments, and by whom. And it turns out that a collection of partially true, partially false stories penned by an Odessan raconteur a century ago reveals just this historical changeability: the fluctuating fault lines separating ideas of truth, as a kind of authentic empirical experience, from ideals of fact, which rest on mutable assumptions of isolated objectivity. The concluding story in Red Cavalry sees Liutov gathering the scattered belongings of a fellow Jewish revolutionary, noting that “everything was dumped together here”: personal effects mix with revolver cartridges and official Communist leaflets, whose margins are scrawled full of Hebrew verses. In a culminating illustration of incongruity and (literal) marginality, Babel urges us to consider if perhaps “junk and underwear” is precisely the point.

LARB Contributor

Wendi Bootes is a writer, translator, scholar, and educator based in the Bay Area. She teaches at the University of California, Berkeley.


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