How the Steel Was Tempered by author Nikolai Ostrovsky: The Making of an Unbreakable Bolshevik Spirit!


Published in 1934, Nikolai Ostrovsky’s novel “How the Steel Was Tempered” remains one of the most iconic works of Soviet socialist realism. Set against the backdrop of the Russian Civil War and early Soviet society, it chronicles the coming-of-age of protagonist Pavel Korchagin as he transforms from a directionless youth into a dedicated Bolshevik revolutionary. Nearly a century after its debut, Ostrovsky’s epic saga continues to captivate readers with its sweeping depiction of a turbulent time in Russian history and its stirring message about finding meaning and purpose through selfless devotion to a cause greater than oneself.

You can find How the Steel Was Tempered by author Nikolai Ostrovsky on your favorite bookstore, including, part 1, and part 2 and Amazon UK, part 1 and part 2.

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About author Nikolai Ostrovsky

Author Nikolai Ostrovsky

Nikolai Ostrovsky was a Soviet author and political activist best known for his novel How the Steel Was Tempered, first published in 1932-1934. Ostrovsky’s life was one of constant struggle in the face of adversity, much like the protagonists of his books.

Born in the village of Viliya in 1904 in what is now Ukraine, Ostrovsky trained as a lawyer but soon became involved in the Bolshevik revolutionary movement. He joined the Red Army in 1919 during the civil war and served as a junior political officer. In 1926 he was demobilized due to ill health after having contracted typhus which left him partially paralyzed.

Undaunted, Ostrovsky began his literary career, joining the Union of Soviet Writers in 1929. His first novel, How the Steel Was Tempered, fictionalizes his own challenging upbringing and early revolutionary activities. It tells the inspirational story of the Bolshevik Pavka Korchagin who overcomes his humble beginnings and physical disability through perseverance and commitment to the Communist cause.

The novel was an immediate success, appealing through its simple and optimistic tone to the Soviet public. By 1934 it had been translated into over 30 languages with more than 15 million copies printed. It became a seminal work that influenced generations of Soviet youth with its promotion of collectivism, self-discipline, vigorous optimism and loyalty to the Communist Party.

Ostrovsky continued to be actively engaged in Soviet literary circles despite being almost completely paralyzed from his illness and blindness. He dictated his later works including Born of the Storm and Rage of the Seas to his sister or wife who acted as his secretary.

Though his literary output was limited by his health conditions, Nikolai Ostrovsky left an indelible mark on Soviet literature and society more broadly. His novels embodied socialist realism, the officially sanctioned creative method in the USSR, portraying idealized individuals who demonstrated commitment to the Communist Party and Soviet state.

Ostrovsky died in 1936 at a sanatorium in Sochi aged just 32. He was revered as an exemplary Soviet writer, with numerous cities, streets, libraries, ships and collectives named in his honor across the USSR. The inspirational optimism that permeated his novels continued to motivate generations of Soviet citizens to devote themselves to their political cause. Despite its inherently propagandistic nature, Nikolai Ostrovsky’s work stands as an insight into the early revolutionary idealism that shaped Soviet society.

An Epic Bildungsroman Spanning the Russian Revolution and Civil War

At its core, “How the Steel Was Tempered” is a bildungsroman – a story recounting the moral, psychological, and intellectual development of its protagonist from youth to maturity. The novel traces Pavel Korchagin’s journey from his aimless adolescence in a small provincial town to his emergence as a staunch Bolshevik revolutionary on the front lines of the Civil War. Along the way, he endures countless hardships and trials that ultimately steel his will and cement his devotion to Communism.

Spanning over a decade from Pavel’s childhood in the years before World War I to his militant young adulthood amidst the tumult of revolution and civil war, the novel provides an intimate window into the making of a true-believer Bolshevik. It’s as much the chronicle of an individual’s inner transformation as it is a sweeping panorama of Russian history from Tsarism’s twilight through the rise of Soviet power.

A Protagonist Forged Through Hardship and Sacrifice

The steel in the novel’s title refers not to the metal, but to the strength of character and unbending revolutionary resolve that Pavel hones through adversity and suffering. The novel tracks his evolution from a sickly, withdrawn boy plagued by self-doubt into a man of iron-like determination willing to give his all for the Communist cause.

Pavel’s journey begins when illness leaves him partially paralyzed and unable to finish school. He overcomes this setback through sheer force of will, teaching himself to walk again. This early triumph foreshadows the steely grit he develops as he experiences war, violence, betrayal, and the deaths of friends and fellow revolutionaries over the course of the novel. Each new hardship further stiffens Pavel’s mettle, until he becomes almost superhumanly resolute and single-minded in his revolutionary zeal. His individual personality is subsumed into the greater Communist cause.

Nikolai Ostrovsky does not shy away from depicting the enormous sacrifices Pavel makes along his journey. He loses family, friends, his health and even, ultimately, his life, all in service of the revolution. Through Pavel, Ostrovsky advances the notion that true Communists must be willing to give up everything for the party and its ideals.

An Idealized Portrait of a Model Bolshevik

Pavel Korchagin represents the embodiment of the “New Soviet Man” – the ideal archetype of humanity that socialist thinkers of the time believed would be formed through the abolition of class and economic inequality under Communism. He is utterly devoted to the revolution, scrupulously honest, fearless in battle, devoid of any personal life or concerns beyond the cause, and willing to sacrifice his all for the party.

To some contemporary readers, Pavel may seem more a socialist caricature than a realistic character. He is almost superhuman in his fearlessness and purity of conviction. Yet to Ostrovsky and his Soviet readers, Pavel’s exaggerated idealism did not undermine his believability as a character. On the contrary, he represented an inspirational model to emulate.

The novel does acknowledge Pavel’s personality flaws and moments of doubt on his journey. But any weaknesses are ultimately overcome through self-discipline and perseverance, driven by his all-consuming dedication to the greater Communist cause. Pavel’s total subsumation of self makes him an exemplar of socialist virtue.

A Snapshot of Tumultuous Russian History

Beyond its central narrative of personal transformation, the novel provides vivid snapshots of the momentous events and upheavals reshaping Russian society in the early 20th century. Ostrovsky participated in the Civil War as a Bolshevik commissar after the October Revolution, lending the novel an authenticity and richness of historical detail that transports readers directly into the chaos of the period.

Through Pavel’s eyes, we witness major historical episodes like the brutality of World War I front lines, the mass uprisings against the Tsar, the pitched street fighting of the 1917 Revolutions, and the grinding violence of the Civil War between Red and White armies. Ostrovsky’s dramatization of these events brings to life the turmoil and promise of the early Soviet years far more viscerally than any history textbook could.

The novel is heavily colored by socialist ideology and Pavels’ unwavering Bolshevik perspective. But its immersive historical storytelling gives readers insight into how the Revolution appeared and felt from the ground to its most fervent adherents.

A Classic of Socialist Realism

“How the Steel Was Tempered” is considered one of the seminal early works of socialist realism, a style of art and literature that emerged in the Soviet Union the 1920s and 1930s. Socialist realism sought to promote socialist ideals through realistic depictions of working class life and heroic revolutionary struggles.

Nikolai Ostrovsky’s novel was held up as a premier example of how socialist realist works could compellingly integrate communist ideology and education with strong narrative and well-developed characters. Pavel’s journey mirrored the larger historical narrative of Russia’s transformation from backward Tsarism to enlightened Bolshevik modernity.

While the novel contains somber and even tragic moments, its overall tone is one of uplifting optimism about Russia’s bright Communist future. The hardships Pavel endures serve to reinforce the justice and inevitability of the Bolshevik cause, giving the story an inspirational, fable-like quality.

Later Soviet critics would deride socialist realism as overly didactic and one-dimensional in its rosy portrayals of Soviet life. But at the time of its release, “How the Steel Was Tempered” was hailed as a compelling artistic embodiment of core socialist values, equally entertaining and enlightening. It remains one of the most canonical works of socialist realist literature.

Enduring Themes That Resonate Through the Generations

While inextricably rooted in the time and place of early 20th century Russia, “How the Steel Was Tempered” tackles a number of universal themes that help explain its enduring appeal over nearly a century since its original publication.

The Transformative Power of Struggle and Sacrifice

A central message conveyed through Pavel’s journey is that struggle and sacrifice have the power to transform individuals in profound ways. Pavel is forged into his idealized self through the crucible of this grueling experiences. His wounds and tragedies refine him into a stronger, purer version of himself.

This notion that suffering can be ennobling cuts across cultures and eras. It lies at the heart of countless heroic journeys and stories of self-actualization across world literature and myth. Through Pavel, Ostrovsky gave this universal theme a distinctly Soviet twist, showing how sacrifice for the Bolshevik cause could elevate one’s consciousness to a higher plane of socialist purpose. But resonates with any reader who has endured their own crucible and come out the other side profoundly changed by the experience.

Discovering Meaning Through Commitment to A Cause

Relatedly, Pavel’s story highlights how dedicating oneself fully to a cause greater than oneself can imbue life with meaning and purpose. Adrift as a youth, Pavel finds his calling by embracing Bolshevism and vowing to fight for the revolution and the liberation of the working classes. Through his commitment to this towering cause, his life gains significance and direction.

This notion of finding purpose through devotion to a political, religious, or social cause has wide appeal across cultures. Whether or not one agrees with Pavel’s particular cause, Ostrovsky compellingly conveys how total commitment to an all-consuming aim can provide an organizing principle that drives personal growth and development. The theme resonates with reformers, activists, true believers, or anyone seeking a purpose to dedicate their lives to.

The Capacity for Transformation and Redemption

Pavel’s dramatic metamorphosis offers an aspirational example of the human capacity for transformation and redemption. As a youth, Pavel recognizes and is tormented by his own weaknesses and failings. But ultimately he proves capable of overcoming flaws in character and rising to a higher moral plane through perseverance and commitment to the Bolshevik cause.

Ostrovsky suggests that even those plagued by doubt, aimlessness, and human frailties have the capacity for growth and redemption – that by drawing strength from a worthy purpose, people can transcend their circumstances and limitations. This uplifting message about human potential for positive change holds eternal appeal. Pavel’s story offers inspiration that where someone begins in life need not dictate where they end up.

Final Thoughts – An Enduring Classic Worth Revisiting

Closing the cover on “How the Steel Was Tempered” leaves one with a singular portrait of a revolutionary era in Russian history, viewed through the fictional lens of a memorable protagonist. The novel’s unique perspective and rousing themes help account for its continuing popularity in the nearly 100 years since its first printing.

For contemporary readers, Pavel’s story resonates across time as an absorbing chronicle of personal growth and redemption. Ostrovsky’s vivid historically backdrops lend the narrative power and resonance. Meanwhile, the book’s social realist aspects – exaggerated characters and rhetoric, didactic subtexts – offer fascinating insights into early Soviet propaganda and values.

Perhaps most intriguingly, “How the Steel Was Tempered” forces deeper reflection on the animating power of belief and struggle for transformation that give Pavel’s journey such inspirational force. Whether or not one sympathizes with his particular ideology, Ostrovsky exposes provocative truths about the universal capacity for change within all individuals.

Today, the book ranks alongside original works like “The Mother” and “Cement” as a canonical pillar of early Soviet literature. But it deserves wider recognition for its timeless and humanistic themes that continue to inspire readers nearly a century later. For those interested Russian history or deeply moving tales of personal growth, “How the Steel Was Tempered” remains powerful, poignant and compulsively readable.

Other notable works of Soviet literature I recommend include:

  • “Doctor Zhivago” by Boris Pasternak – This epic historical novel set during the Russian Revolution tackled forbidden themes of the failures of Bolshevism and the stifling of individual freedom. Pasternak was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1958 but forced by the Soviet government to decline it.
  • “The Master and Margarita” by Mikhail Bulgakov – This wildly inventive satire combined elements of science fiction, fantasy, philosophy and political satire into a rollicking condemnation of Soviet repression. The masterpiece was completed in 1940 but not published until 1966, 26 years after Bulgakov’s death.
  • “One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich” by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn – This short but powerful novel provided a groundbreaking look at life in Stalin’s gulag prison camps, based on Solzhenitsyn’s own eight years spent imprisoned. Its publication in 1962 helped expose the abuses of the gulag system and catalyze opposition to Soviet censorship.
  • “Life and Fate” by Vasily Grossman – This sweeping epic completed in 1959 interwove stories of dozens of characters to create a riveting portrait of the horrors of Stalinism and the calamity of World War II’s Eastern Front. The dissident work was deemed so subversive that the KGB confiscated all copies and Grossman’s original manuscript. It wasn’t published until decades later.


What inspired Nikolai Ostrovsky to write How the Steel Was Tempered?

Ostrovsky was inspired to write How the Steel Was Tempered based on his own personal experiences as a Bolshevik commissar during the Russian Civil War. Having witnessed firsthand the chaos and mass upheaval of early Soviet Russia, he sought to capture this pivotal historical moment through the lens of a fictional character – Pavel Korchagin – who embodied the idealized virtues of the emergent “New Soviet Man.” While Pavel is a fictional construct, the novel’s epic scope and historical detail reflect Ostrovsky’s desire to memorialize the formative experiences of his own generation coming of age during the Revolution and Civil War.

What literary genre does How the Steel Was Tempered fall into?

How the Steel Was Tempered belongs to two major literary genres – the bildungsroman and socialist realism. As a bildungsroman, it’s focused on the moral, psychological, and ideological development of its protagonist from youth to maturity. The novel also exemplifies the early canon of socialist realist literature that dominated Soviet arts and letters in the 1920s and 30s. Socialist realism sought to promulgate socialist values in a realistic setting through depictions of heroic, idealized characters like Pavel Korchagin.

How accurate is the novel’s depiction of historical events?

While fictionalized, the novel strives for an authentic portrayal of the tumultuous events spanning World War I, the 1917 Revolutions, and Russian Civil War. Ostrovsky participated directly in the Civil War and thus could draw from real locations and battles in rendering the novel’s backdrops. However, the narrative events are filtered through the Bolshevik ideological lens of the protagonist. So while gripping and textured in its historical storytelling, the novel does not claim to be a strictly factual, balanced chronicle of the period.

What was the critical reception to How the Steel Was Tempered when it was first published?

Upon its publication in the early 1930s, How the Steel Was Tempered was hailed as a canonical work of Soviet social realism. It received praise for how compellingly it integrated socialist themes and values with strong characterization and dramatic plotting. Critics also noted the novel’s accessibility, making it influential in bringing new generations of readers into the socialist realist fold. While dissenting views were stifled, the few private criticisms focused on the idealized simplicity of characters like Pavel.

Does the novel view the Bolshevik cause uncritically?

Due to state censorship, Ostrovsky could not overtly critique Bolshevik policies or values. The novel overall presents the rise of Soviet communism as an unavoidable, heroic development. However, faint hints of criticism or humanism occasionally pierce through, such as sadness over lives lost in Civil War battles. While constrained in his expressible views, Ostrovsky tries to acknowledge the enormous upheaval and suffering experienced by Russia during this revolutionary period.

How was the novel viewed by later generations of Soviet critics?

As Soviet culture opened up after Stalin’s death, How the Steel Was Tempered came to be viewed more critically as emblematic of the rigid artistic constraints during the socialist realism era. Critics noted its exaggerated idealism and two-dimensional characters used more as ideological mouthpieces than fully realized personas. But even if flawed by didacticism, the novel retained respect as a pioneering work that inspired future generations of readers through its aspirational themes.

Does the novel have redeeming value beyond its socialist agenda?

Absolutely. While on the surface a paean to Bolshevik ideals, the novel grapples profoundly with universal themes of seeking purpose, overcoming adversity, and realizing human potential for redemption. Pavel’s transformational journey speaks to the latent capacity within all people to change their character and find meaning through commitment to a guiding purpose – regardless of whether one agrees with his specific political cause. These inspirational themes give the work lasting value.

Did the novel contribute to the cult of personality around Stalin?

Indirectly, yes. The novel’s exaltation of selfless service to the Communist Party established an idealized moral code that helped enable Stalin’s consolidation of power. While published before Stalin fully dominated Soviet politics, the book helped reinforce notions of subsuming individuality to the collective cause – ideas later taken to extremes under Stalin’s rule. However unintentionally, its communists-above-all message contributed to an environment that facilitated totalitarian control.

Why does How the Steel Was Tempered remain relevant today?

Despite its firm grounding in early 20th century Russia, the novel’s themes – finding purpose through struggle, seeking redemption after adversity, defining oneself through commitment to a cause – remain powerfully resonant in the present day. These timeless motifs help explain why the book continues to captivate readers nearly a century later. While the political context may be outdated, Ostrovsky’s exploration of the human capacity for transformation speaks directly to the contemporary moment.

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