Social Realistic Dimension of Hero of Labor and Soviet Deconstruction of Elitism

Literature as a particular reality has always played a special role in social life. The era of Soviet totalitarianism enriches such an experience with a specific attitude towards literature and writers, and with rights and duties assigned to them in order to create new heroes with distinct identities and a different value system. The article will discuss the role of literature, specifically of socialist realism in the formation of a new Soviet elite that based itself upon the award of the Hero of Labor title. By looking at the case of the Rustavi metallurgical plant, we will discuss the place of literature in everyday life of new heroes and the way the everyday routine of workers has developed into literature, and the way socialist realism grew into a particular dimension for new heroes whose field of activity encompassed factories, plants, fields and meadows. The synchronism of Soviet repressions with the introduction of new title as well as the establishment of socialist realism, a unified artistic method has become a cornerstone for new Soviet identities by late 1930s (Gaprindashvili, 2010). By depicting different characters, socialist realism shaped a new type of elite which fundamentally differed from an underlying concept of the given category [Kamushadze, 2015:246]. The first part of the proposed article will be dealing with the specificity of emergence as well as development of the title of the Hero of Socialist Labor and with its possible conceptualization as an elite category. In the main body of the article we will cover the “social realistic” and “real” journey of the Hero of Socialist Labor and its anthropological inquiry, further proposing research findings in the concluding section.

As a successor of the title “Hero of the Soviet Union”, the highest degree of distinction - the title “Hero of Socialist Labor” was introduced by the 1938 decree of the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet. An utterly exceptional and extraordinary nature of this title in the Soviet Union is highlighted by a number of details. An interesting issue would be to know about the first awardee and examine overall statistical data on acceptance / return of or refusal to accept the awards. It took an entire year for those who initiated the award to make a decision about the first awardee.

The first Soviet recipient of the award was Joseph Stalin, awarded on December 20, 1939 to celebrate his 60th birthday, while the last recipient was Bibigul Tuligenova, a Kazakh opera singer. As for the statistics, from the date it was introduced until 1991, two distinct figures 20605 and 21560 have been identified for the entire Soviet Union which certainly emphasizes the exclusive nature of the title. According to the newspaper Pravda (1938), the title of Hero of Socialist Labor has been awarded to individuals to honor their outstanding service to their country through active contribution to national economy, culture, science and the advancement of the Soviet Union. The stories of how the recipients worked their way into the list of Heroes of Socialist Labor differ and are often contradictory. For instance, no workers or farmers were included in this list until 1943.

As far as the creative elite is concerned, their names, among other Heroes of Socialist Labor, started to appear later, in the 1960s. Remarkably, this group included two teenagers who were awarded the title for their overachieved labor plans while still in school. Interestingly, ninety-five individuals were deprived of the title and some of them were re-awarded later on. Sixteen recipients were awarded the title posthumously (Славин, 2009). The situation surrounding the title points to the challenges that used to arise when bringing people together around it. Time and the epoch constitute a significant factor that shaped and transformed tendencies as far as title seekers are concerned. A substantial aspect that distinguishes as well as adds elitism to the title is that it contains the word “hero”. A hero as a distinctive category of human existence, in its traditional sense, relates to the self-sacrifice of an individual and is mostly manifested after the individual’s tragic end in the name of high ideals. In this respect, communists have achieved a certain breakthrough in the public consciousness when they started looking for heroes in factories, fields and vineyards, thus recognizing labor above human values. Labor that had to lay the foundation for heroism became a key word in the title. Labor as the substantiation of a particular value implied also the formation of new identities. It was expected to play a crucial role in the development of the identity of Soviet citizens. [Kamushadze, 2015:170]. The formation of new identities had to serve as the real basis for the development of the relevant elites. In the process of the reorganization of values, a vital role had to be played by literature by employing the relevant method. Writers were expected to identify different examples of the concept of elitism within socialist realism.

The award was equally distributed among politicians, workers, farmers, academics and artists. By means of the given award, the communist system identified a particular elite group, while, at the same time, referring to the potential every citizen had in terms of becoming part of the list. Therefore, the possibility of joining the elite was merit-based rather than ancestry-based. Those from the upper echelons of power appeared in the list of the Heroes of Socialist Labor along with writers, composers and workers.

The Soviet system offered socialist realism as a new reality to society, with the form of representation significantly exceeding its content. According to Evgeny Dobrenko, “We must stop seeing Socialist Realism only as a happiness factory, only as a laboratory of illusions.  Socialist Realism is also a factory for producing a special kind of reality – socialism”. In his opinion, “the basic function of Socialist Realism is not “lying”, but substitution” [Dobrenko, 2007:158]. Soviet heroes appear to be a specific product of socialism which assumed the role of identifying and representing these heroes.

The proposed article depicts the journey of the Hero of Socialist Labor before and after the award of the title. Conditionally “social realistic” and “real” stories of a particular hero are less contradictory, rather the two may even be mutually complementary. Therefore, when discussing the Soviet reality with real people, the vocabulary and perceptions of socialist realism permeate their speech and thoughts. However, the stories narrated by the hero nevertheless allow us to explore a story of a particular Hero of Labor beyond the socialist realism discourse, identifying separate narratives. Real stories of the hero have been collected through an ethnographic inquiry and rely on the immediate narration of the hero. By referring to the social realistic story of the same hero, we mean a biographical composition written about him, narrating the “real” story of a future hero in the first person, introducing to us his family as well as his environment and personal attitudes concerning both everyday and eternal matters.

Ten Days of a Hot Summer (i.e. A Steelworker’s Diary) authored by Karpe Mumladze presents a narrator, a future Hero of Socialist Labor of the Rustavi metallurgical plant. In connection with this composition, the author recollects his meeting with Giorgi Leonidze, the chairman of the Writers Union, “he thought for a while and then said: one summer in Rustavi will not be enough for any writer. If you intend to do something, you need to live and work there. You are not the only one who needs this, it is similarly vital for Rustavi. “Writers living and working among heroes, that is what is typical of our times[Mumladze 1982:37]. Close proximity of a writer and a laborer, their coexistence, will not only contribute to literary triumphs of the socialist realism, but it would also help reexamine a traditional understanding of elitism in significant ways. On the one hand, we encounter the process that brings writers and poets closer to the factories, and on the other, there is an attempt on the part of the workers to describe and communicate the new reality. In new times, workers and farmers become preferred heroes for writers. A writer’s preference might have attracted the attention of the political elite as well. A good example of this could be our protagonist, who was awarded the title of Hero of Socialist Labor following several editions of this book. One can proceed from the fact that he was initially noticed by the writer and then by the party nomenclature, having first appeared to us as a literary character and then as a real hero. We encounter an interesting reflection on the issue in author’s text: “I was looking for a hero, who had not yet been among the so-called officially selected but I would know beyond doubt that he could become an example for everybody.... Most certainly, a writer’s mission is rather important – to discover a hero and prove his heroism” [Mumladze, 1982:45]. Thus, the author is well-aware of his own role and mission to shape reality into social realism, so that it becomes real. Indirectly, he points to the hero’s potential to to become part of the elite. As perceived from the narrator’s words, the issue of awarding the title of Hero of Socialist Labor remained a subject of consideration for years, and was hampered due to unspecified reasons. Although the writing and publication of the composition might not have played a decisive role in awarding the title, this factor cannot be overlooked.

The stories of awarding a title reflect undisclosed contradictory processes behind the formation of the new elite. In Sachkhere region we heard about such a case concerning the award of the title of Hero of Socialist Labor. He worked in the Chiatura mines. In order to avoid daily travel of workers from other regions, they were given accommodation in Chiatura. There was a man working by his side who was successful in accomplishing labor plans. He was the one who was considered a candidate for the title. However, conditions of his room were deemed unsatisfactory during the visit to his apartment and the preference was given to another man whose room and belongings appeared to be in order [Edelashvili, 2011:5]. In this particular case, it was not labor achievements but compliance with sanitary norms that proved critical for obtaining the status. Therefore, varying interpretations of merit-based principles are encountered.

The reflections of the hero in Mumladze’s book serve to reinforce Soviet identities following in the footsteps of socialist realism. A hero, an authority was behind those identities and, therefore, a steelworker hero falls into the category of the “moral elite”.

“For instance, many of my friends work in Gardabani. Instead of alloy steel, they produce cardboard. Cardboard might probably be necessary but… let us not be naïve to consider that light labor and easy living is the aim and task of a man! What satisfaction it is to overcome challenges! You should be a courageous man from birth and remain so until the end... A man should do what he can. If you are capable of doing more and you do less, then you are a coward, a deserter!” [Mumladze, 1977:6].

It should also be noted that the approach to different types of activities is conflicting: on the one hand, all kinds of activities are declared equal but on the other hand, there is a hierarchy of labor where hard physical labor is equivalent to courage and is considered top ranked. Consequently,

light work may be regarded as less honorable and even shameful for a man of superior physical abilities.

In this passage and in the name of his hero, the author discusses labor and how it should be the life purpose for everyone and make every effort to be committed to work. He considers selfless commitment to work as courage, as opposed to the quoted word “deserter”. Maximalism in labor is actually the key criterion that makes the author of these words a candidate for heroism, and allows him to become part of the elite. Obviously, there is a somewhat didactic tone in these specific words, which is also the objective of the selection.

For manifestation of one’s own identity in Georgia, supra (“feast”) was considered to be one of the major places that was generally permeated with the heroic narratives. The supra is a place of gathering where identities are defined and established.

In “A Steelmaker’s Diary”, feasting is depicted in a rather interesting way. When asked to be the tamada, that is the toastmaster who presides over the feast, the main character of the book reacts the following way: “…They say it must be you. As if it is not enough for me to be a supervisor at work, now they want me to preside over the feast! However, they are also right: if you are the head at work, it obliges you to head the feast too”. [Mumladze, 1977:35].

Emphasizing the status of a leader gives him access to the elite status that is subject to consensus. The main character of the book, selected as tamada, recalls the tamada Giorgi Chavchanidze and recites the verses that end with the following strophe:

“Where did you lay your portion of bricks, or erected your stepladder?

Where does your straight road lead, for what was your sweat shed?

Colchis tea, Kakhetian vine, or perhaps a Georgian steel pipe?

Tell us what is Georgian in you?” (Mumladze, 1977:35)

New Soviet markers for the identity of Kartveloba are actually encountered in the above verse.  It is worth noting that struggle and labor directly alternate, therefore, shedding blood for the homeland is substituted by shedding sweat in labor. While the sacrifice of their lives for their country was the privilege of aristocracy, the sacrifice through labor has become the privilege of workers.

This is followed by a number of toasts made by the tamada that traditionally refer to the process of labor and highlight the significance of its outcomes. “Let’s drink to our labor, to our present victory! Let’s drink to the steel casting that welds in the foundation of communism!” [Mumladze, 1977:36].

The hero specifically notes that he drinks only a little wine and does not drink vodka at all and criticizes excessive drinking of wine. Then they make a toast to their ancestors emphasizing that their good habits and traditions should be continued.

“Let’s drink to our forefathers, who were pure-minded and innocent at heart! May their good habits and traditions persist! Let’s drink to our parents!” [Mumladze, 1977:36].

When talking about the high number of his namesakes in the Martin furnace, the character of the book refers to the fact that one of them is a worker poet whose poems are regularly printed and that he knows some of them by heart.

In one of the episodes of the diary, the hero describes a visit of pioneers to the metallurgical plant, recalling the interest with which the youth observed the process of steel casting, some of whom will become poets like Galaktioni and some will follow his path and become steelmakers. The he recalls the visit of Galaktioni to the plant and the meeting with the poet when he called him a real hero. In response to this, the steelmaker claimed that Galaktioni himself was a hero.

“It may so happen that one of these pioneers will glorify the country like Galaktioni! Or become a famous steelmaker. In any case, I do not feel wronged by fate: when labor makes you happy, no matter

how hard, you should score a goal, and especially since you have to show fortitude, you are all the more satisfied!” [Mumladze, 1977: 55]

As evidenced by the conversation between the hero and Galaktioni, they are presented as equals and friends. It is no coincidence that the narrative of the hero ends with the verses of Alio Mirtskhulava:

“Spring, May is coming,

Spreading its fragrance over gardens and fields

Coming with Georgian serenity,

Spring is in my country!” [Mumladze, 1977:90].

While reading the book, we encounter certain discrepancies in terms of the depiction of the hero himself. At a glance, he is an ordinary man, but at the same time he presents himself as a leader and an initiator. The stories depicted in the book do not evoke surprise, rather they are monotonous, leaving the reader with a sense of logical dissatisfaction. It seems that the representation of the hero in such a way is not a mere coincidence or a matter of the writer’s taste. The way the ordinary people were transformed into heroes could be considered as part of the Soviet ideology and even a tool for the formation of the Soviet elite. Anyone who is noticed and singled out may be selected. Yet, he will never change completely; despite having been selected, he will remain an ordinary person. Being part of the great mass of the population makes him the best example to follow for society. The love of poetry and quoting verses by the hero are remarkable. Quoting worker poets and the visits of great poets to the plants serve to the development of the same idea. Availability of a literary circle and Palace of Culture operating within the metallurgical plant from the date of its opening attests to the fact that this process was part of the deliberately planned ideology. That is where a literary journal titled Rustavi Torches was issued, publishing the writings of the workers (Jakhua, 1958). It is worth noting that in real life the character of the book participated in the meetings of the literary circle, however, as he mentions, he could not be persuaded to be a writer and he did not claim to be the one. However, in his real life he was friends with many writers and poets. Thus, the strategy of bringing together writers and workers is another important aspect for the understanding of Soviet elitism.

Providing labor heroes with access to the resources was another aspect of elitism. Heroes of Socialist Labor were given a car and a good apartment in a prestigious district that was not affordable for every family. The story about how the family of our hero received an apartment on the Avenue of Friendship is related to the activities of one of the film crews:  A female director of one of the crews that arrived from Russia went to the city committee and said his family had been suffering for several days already from the lack of space in their small apartment, and that they had planned to screen the film they were producing in France, and it would be a shame to show this.Immediately afterwards, the hero’s family was granted a larger apartment. Because of his Volga car, his relatives frequently asked the Hero of Socialist Labor to accompany them to wedding parties that emphasized his personal and his family’s status.

“To buy a Volga was not at all an easy task in the Soviet Union, if you know what I mean. On the market, buying it off of someone, a GAZ 24 Volga cost 30,000 rubles in those times, while its state-set price was 15,000. To obtain permission to buy a Volga from the Government, you had to fill out declarations and have strings to pull within the Government” [Morchiladze, 2014:171].

A social network, a circle of acquaintances throughout the Soviet Union, was a much more important resource, where his word and his phone call carried a certain weight.

“Of course, the people respected me too. It is no secret that after I became a deputy, even though I did not do much, if someone got arrested, people would call me as if I were the prosecutor general” [Respondent, 2012:6].

The Hero of Socialist Labor[1] recalled two facts in the dialogue: through his mediation a young Georgian man was released from Irkutsk prison and he rescued from prosecution a group of teenagers detained for disorderly conduct in the city. In connection with the Irkutsk case, he also noted how easy it was for him to take a flight to any destination in the Soviet Union: “all he had to do was to arrive at the airport half an hour in advance, and travel with no problem” [Respondent, 2012:7]. The status of Hero of Socialist Labor was followed by the status of the deputy of the Supreme Soviet which formally represented him as part of the political process and a decision-maker. The status of a deputy normally involved various visits at the national level and excursions with representatives of the poitical elite. It is an interesting fact that regardless of this high status he was still listed as a worker and performed the same physical labor as before. Another striking example of the opportunity of becoming part of elite and the deconstruction of this notion is the possibility for a worker to communicate with the highest public official. Our hero was instructed by the party nomenclature of the metallurgical plant to send a letter to Brezhnev in which he would comment on the interview given by him to a French television station. The future hero took the letter written in Russian to the party committee. One woman started to correct mistakes found in the letter and that upset its author. “Hey, I said do not correct the mistakes! It should be felt that the letter was written by a worker, and a Georgian worker at that!” [Respondent, 2012:6]. Then he forgot to mail the letter and a few days later asked his son to drop it in a special mail box. In exactly two days, he was told that he had received a personal letter from Brezhnev.

As he admitted during the conversation, his first thought was, “What do I need his letter for?” But when the letter was published in newspapers and he was awarded the title of Hero of Socialist Labor, that such things did not happen by mere chance. Under the circumstances, we deal with the act of demonstration calling attention to the fact that there should exist no barriers to the elitism in the society, and that top officials could be directly accessible, direct access to top officials should be possible, even if only formally and through a prescribed procedure.

As encountered above, the future hero wished it to be understood that the letter sent to the top official was written by a worker, but his worker’s clothes and the corresponding environment made him feel “uncomfortable” in the general public and in the circle of his friends. He recalls one story: “that time they wrote much about me, and some of my friends who studies at the university said, ‘Let’s go and see what Otar is doing and why they write so much about him.’ They came to the workshop. I have to admit that some of us had a sleeve torn off or burnt. When I saw them, the shift was coming to end, I told one of the workers that they were coming to see me in dirty clothes, I would go home, asking him, if he knew where I lived, to bring them to my house” [Respondent, 2014: 8]. The excerpt clearly shows that such a famous man, who was the subject of articles and photos published in newspapers, did not wish to be seen in filthy workwear.

            It is a well-known fact that steelworkers who had performed hard work retired relatively early, at the age of 50 years. That is when the Heroes of Socialist Labor were accepted as part of the “real” elite, being assigned the leadership of various organizations. For instance, Archil Dzamashvili, the first Hero of the Metallurgical plant became the director of the Rustavi movie theater after retirement; Amiran Pantsulia was appointed director of a consumer service center; Vardish Koberidze was first appointed chairman of the professional union and later chairman of the DOSAAF committee. As for our narrator, he became the director of the newly built hotel in Rustavi. Influence gained by the Heros of Socialist Labor and the attitudes towards them in the course of their retirement did not match their status at the metallurgical plant. However, all this lasted only until the collapse of the Soviet Union. “When the new government came, they said I was a communist. I said ‘Ok, if I am a communist, I will leave’” [Respondent, 2012:5].  By that time three of the Heros of Socialist Labor of the metallurgical plant remained alive, and all three of them had to resign. According to the narrator, the other heroes shared his fate as well. The reality in which the understanding and composition of elitism dramatically changes within the society, due to political transformation within a short period of time, seems self-contradictory. All this could highlight the specificities of filling and constructing the socialist elite in Soviet times.

Nevertheless, despite the occurrence of its certain features, no formalized type of elitism is encountered in the Soviet society. The understanding of elitism is generally related to cultural intelligentsia. Even though the Heroes of Socialist Labor had access to resources, the way they were perceived could not adjust to the category of elite, neither in the Soviet nor in the Post-Soviet periods.

While the hero was happy to recall the story of his meeting with his friends, a certain incident still made him feel hurt even after 40 years. The main character in this story was the parent of a pupil. As he remembers, Komsomol members had some of Rustavi city’s schools under their patronage and these schoolchildren regularly visited the plant. I was bringing children from School N 10, when I was approached by a rather arrogant parent, who I am sorry to say looked like a beer vendor, with GAS-21 car.  We traveled to the plant by bus. This man offered a seat in his car. When we entered the territory of the plant, we met metallurgists dressed in a specific manner, not wearing ties of course! When he saw them, he said to his son – “Look at them. You will have to work here, unless you study well!” [Respondent, 2014: 3]. Angry and hurt at these words, the narrator told the man to stop the car and got off, saying he has to meet the group. A successful businessman who, like representatives of the elite has access to certain resources (in this case, an expensive car), threatens his son by sending him to be employed by the metallurgical plant in case of academic underachievement. Socialist reality that had to captivate the youth becomes disrupted by one phrase pronounced by this man. Another interesting fact is that this man did not perceive the Hero of Socialist Labor as part of the metallurgical plant and felt free to express his opinion, implying that physical labor (as opposed to intellectual activities) is shameful.

            The narrator’s attitude toward this individual relates to the present day in somewhat interesting manner. He says, the activities carried out by these individuals are referred to as professions. “A speculator has now become a trader, and a anyone wearing a tie – a businessman”. [Respondent, 2014: 2]. It seems that, unlike our narrator and other socialist labor heroes of Rustavi city, this type of “anti-elite” has managed to adapt to a new environment, maintaining access to resources. To illustrate how the economic and subsequently the social status of the narrator’s family has changed, I will be referring to one fact. I first visited him on 29 November 2012. It was a very cold and windy day and the hero was wearing a thick jacket. He had no heating at home and so I did not think of taking off my overcoat. We sat like this and talked for about 3 hours. An 87-year old hero, who still continues to work at Rustavi metallurgical plant appeared the best guide to me in this labyrinth of the Soviet laboratory. This was clearly seen in his living room, with its corner of Soviet glory and the jars of canned fruits and vegetables prepared for winter stood in line under the table. Contradictions caused by the confusion of the Soviet and post-Soviet realities gave rise to further questions: who was this person for that system - a selected hero or a victim?

And finally, I would like to end my narrative of the Heroes of Socialist Labor of Rustavi city by recalling one “surrealistic” story about another Hero of Socialist Labor. “In Surami, in a place called Chumateleti, there is a church, where people celebrate Mariamoba (the name day of Mary, the Blessed Virgin) on 28 August. I was newly wed then, and since my family comes from those areas, I took my wife there. It was an ancient church and there was no light inside it. In one corner, there was a photo like an icon. People would light candles before it, and it was a photo of Archil Dzamashvili with his brigade. I recognized the cover of the magazine Metallurgist. They were wearing bowl-type hats. People believed they were lighting candles to angels. I could recognize the photo, because I had the magazine at home“ [Respondent, 2014:7].

It is difficult to give an in-depth interpretation of this fact, as the photo cannot be fully recovered, leaving space for speculation. However, it rather represents the other vague side of reality created by the system by selecting heroes and offering them to the society.  Like their false icon, heroes once greatly adored have sunk to oblivion, as if they never existed at all.


Identifying the Heroes of Socialist Labor as the category of the elite allows us to examine the policy of formation of socialist identities and the social realism as one of the crucial method in terms of the construction of reality. The newly formed elite represented part of this reality. National narratives permeated with a militaristic spirit were actively used for the construction of socialist identities. Thus, for struggle and sacrifice, a new arena was offered - a labor battlefront. Therefore, the elite was formed by the people who demonstrated heroism by accomplishing their labor plans. On the one hand, various activities were equated and, on the other hand, a labor hierarchy was created with hard work as a top-ranked concept. Social realism and the writers played a crucial role in shaping values and creating examples. They often replaced the reality with socialist realism, thus preparing a new reality. A good example of this could be the writer who selected a worker / hero from the metallurgical plant who later became a distinguished member of the nomenclature, being awarded the title of the Hero of Socialist Labor. By example of the individual stories of the Heroes of Socialist Labor we can observe the contradictions proceeding from the logic of awarding titles. Awarding a title of the Hero of Socialist Labor would become a dividing line in the life of a recipient, who was offered an elite lifestyle on one hand, and had to continue to perform the same job and participate in that routine on the other hand. Despite the fact that these eligible individuals occupied an important position in society owing to their access to material resources, as well as their proximity to the nomenclature, they proved unable to retain it after collapse of the Soviet Union. As it turned out, at the level of values, the elitism of these people was not shared by society and, therefore, they ceased functioning as “heroes” with the coming of new times.


[1] In my research, the main respondent who was Hero of Socialist Labor had an important role in public life. Today, together with his family, he lives in Georgia. Taking into account the ethical principles of anthropological inquiry, I will be referring to him as a narrator rather than identifying his name, since he is the main hero of the proposed article.


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