the guardian Fri 19 August 2011
In 1932, Maxim Gorky summoned a group of renowned writers to his residence in Moscow. They were not told why, but it was made clear that it would be wise to attend. Once everyone was present, Stalin walked in. Describing the writers as "engineers of the soul", he insisted their role was more vital than that of tanks in developing the Soviet Union and exhorted them to write literature worthy of the revolution by singing the praises of construction. This unusual portrait of what was to become a unique literary genre embarks on two fascinating journeys: one to the bay of Kara Bogaz, once described by Konstantin Paustovksy as a marvel of hydraulic engineering, and the other into the province of Soviet literature. While western studies have tended to focus on books that were clandestine, banned, confiscated, or smuggled out of the USSR, Westerman (once a student of hydraulic engineering) is more interested in the works of converts, hangers-on, backsliders and doubters. Who'd have thought a literary history of hydraulics would be so readable?