Just Modernity Things

Blog Post 9/13/2016

Carl Marquis-Olson

We Grow Out of Iron and The Ion Messiah

              Gastev’s poem and his background represent a modernizing Russia. Gastev was a factory work, a member of the proletariat which was the fastest growing class of people and the new face of Russia in the early 20th century. He was a peasant who became literate and politically active. His profession and class play an increasingly important role in Russian society and according to Marxists, his class occupies the most politically crucial role in the new socialist order. After all Gastev is a socialist.

How do poems, specifically his poem, represent characteristics of modernity? The poem focuses largely on the material world. He describes the tools of industry: “workbenches, hammers, furnaces” etc. and the factory they are found in. He personifies the factory, growing taller and stronger as “fresh iron blood pours into my veins”. The very fact that he describes a factory, a productive enterprise made to produce materials, is evidence enough of this theme of materialism and in this way represents this characteristic of modernity. The poem concerns itself solely within the realm of man and machine. It captures the idea of progress and the changing world, it’s inevitability as the factory shouts “Victory shall be ours!”

Kirillov’s poem and Kirillov’s orgins are similar to Gastev’s. However, instead of celebrating the factory he celebrates the proletariat with his poem. He equates the common factory worker to god. He says “There he is – the savior, the lord of the earth. / The master of titanic forces… We thought he would appear in a sunlight stole, / With a nimbus of divine mystery,” His atheistic ode to humankind’s central place in the universe represents the humanism, secularism and scientific thought of modernity. He portrays the working man as the prophet, drawing a parallel with Christ’s central role in deliverance and the saving of humanity. Instead of god saving mankind it is man who will free and deliver the people of the world. This theme of nihilism and humankind’s supreme preeminence relates to this very secular aspect of modernity.


Mass Culture in Soviet Russia

Art and culture seems to have been parallel with the greatest of the political philosophy Russia was seeing at the time. Russia had already begun to emerge a little bit on the international stage, but not enough. These artists wanted to explode this emergence and make the Russian art known throughout the world. This puts an emphasis on each individual in their part of the whole. Revolutionaries wanted to remake the world and believed that they could this new world into one in which things are unified. The poems “We Grow out of Iron”, “The War of Kings”, “The Iron Messiah”, and “We” all abound with metal imagery. This can be interpreted as symbolic of the development (or creation) of the new communist man. The symbolism of “Soviet metal” explores both the political and artistic revolutions that were taking place, as well as their common sentiment and objective of unification. The imagery of metal gives the reader a sense of how much the mass industrialization taking place at the time influenced the attitude of hope and power felt by both artistic and political revolutionaries. The workers were the revolutionaries; they were hardened (or “steeled”) to the heavy metal and machinery of their trades, and unified via this harsh labor. Aleksei Gastev in fact, author of “We Grow Out of Iron”, worked in Russian and European factories and his experiences as a laborer steered him toward Marxism. Revolution for Gastev endeavored to enable workers by sanctioning them power over day-to-day work related practices. Gastev was also involved in the efforts of the Petersburg Union of Metal Workers. His poetry powerfully exults in industrialization; declaring it an era of an innovative form of man, qualified by the total modernization of his routine existence as a laborer.

A Russia of Iron & Gastev

Gastev’s poem “We Grow out of Iron” is a short, but powerful poem about the rise of a new Russia, one made of iron.  Utilizing iron as a motif, Gastev evokes that the new Russia is unlike anything in its history.

Iron has long been a symbol of strength, power, and industry in a variety of art forms and Gastev utilizes all three of these themes to create an image of the new Soviet Union.  Beginning with the aspect of strength, Gastev incorporates height, writing about beams that rise “to a height of seventy feet” (Gastev).  No other building material in use at the time could achieve the same heights that iron can.  Gastev uses this fact to show how the Soviet Union is rising anything that was in place before it, which could only be built from brick, wood, or stone.

Gastev also uses iron to show the sheer power that only metal can provide.  Gastev’s narrator declares that he is “growing shoulders of steel and arms immeasurably strong” (Gastev).  Gastev uses this to evoke the newly found strength of the Soviet Union and its unbreakable will to continue to progress.

Gastev, most importantly, uses iron as a symbol for industry in the Soviet Union.  No longer is Russia an agricultural state, but is now a nation of factories, furnaces, and forges. With constant references to metal architecture, the Soviet Union is not a country of small wooden huts, but of massive iron mills.

Revolutionary Works: Words that stir the populous’ blood

Wherever there is revolution, there are artists and intellectuals working behind the scenes to rouse the people into action. In colonial America, it was “Common Sense” by Thomas Paine and “Concord Hymn” by Emerson. In revolutionary Russia, Dmitry Furmanov was responsible for creating the call to action in his novel “Chapaev.” Typical of the World War I era, it glorifies battle and celebrates the power of youth. Furmanov depicts “courageous” young men “indissolubly linked together,” motivating Russia’s youth to respond to a higher calling ((Dmitry Furmanov, Chapev, (1923)). Chapaev is unique in Russia’s class-based society as it calls to everyone; the misfits, the poor, the hungry, the handsome, and the well-to-do are all welcome under Chapeau’s watchful eye. Furmanov creates a romanticized story where even the peasants can find food and happiness – appealing to the many who had nothing under the current regime and inspiring even more to rise up and fight.
Similarly, the poem “We Grow Out of Iron,” by Aleksei Gastev, also uses powerful language and wording to create images of the weak becoming powerful and overthrowing their oppressors. Gastev, himself a factory worker, manipulates the vision of the poem by choosing a relatively low level of syntax, while still planting the idea of revolution in a manner that relates to the audience. His word choice, particularly in the fourteenth line, when he says “I too am growing shoulders of steel and arms immeasurably strong,” empowers the people ((Aleksel Gastev, We Grow Out or Iron, (1914)). “I too” has a twofold meaning – not only is he participating in the revolution, just like the commoners, the sailors, and the peasants, but he is struggling, yet overcoming, setting the expectation that others will too. Authors like Furmanov and Gastev were the driving force behind the revolution – not the revolution of the intellectuals, who tended to plan without action, but the revolution of the people, who stirred at the calling of freedom and the end of tyranny.

Blood and Iron: Gastev’s Socialist Message

Aleksei Gastev takes values of strength and perseverance to new heights with his factory-oriented socialist poem, We Grow Out of Iron.” A laborer himself, Gastev knew full well the hardships found on the factory floor, and took advantage of his experiences to maximize the relatability of his poetic works. Drawing on the iron aesthetic of the workspace, Gastev’s verses support the rhythm of the piece exactly as the cross-beams he references support the factory. Between the beam’s demands for greater strength and the pouring iron blood of the workers, Gastev makes it clear that there is no strength without sacrifice.

In the latter half of the poem, the narrator of the work transcends mortal bounds, becoming one of the mighty beams supporting the factory and, through it, the industriousness of the Russian people.

The metaphor, while not particularly subtle, serves well to represent the blunt strength with which many viewed the socialist movement. Despite the difficulties, both social and economic, faced by Russia in the early twentieth century the industry workers were a powerful force for change once organized. The obvious fervor Gastev holds for his cause makes his ultimate death in Stalin’s labor camps all the more ironic.

“Chapaev” and “We Grow Out of Iron”: Industrialization and Revolutionary Thoughts

In both “Chapaev” and “We Grow Out of Iron”, the authors are teaching the audience about industrialism and revolutionary thoughts. After the revolution in 1917, new thoughts on modernity emerged.

In Gastev’s poem, “We Grow Out of Iron”, symbols of factories and iron structures elude to society changes, both literal and metaphorically. Gastev describes the buildings are very large and indestructible. The author also describes them as ever-growing structures. After the revolution of 1917, new definitions of modernity emerged. Technology and industrialization became much more ominous. Gatev hints at this in the poem, “they demand yet greater strength”. Not only are the building actually growing taller, they are growing more powerful.

The poem also mentions the factory workers’ role in this emerging industrialization. As the factories grow stronger, so do the workers. They are taking on more tasks and their importance in industry is ever growing. With greater responsibility comes the workers’ feeling of inhumanity. The poem says, “My feet remain on the ground, but my head is above the building.” The author is teaching the audience the importance of factory workers in industry and modernity. The works have become “one with the building’s iron.” The revolution, as illustrated in “Chapaev”, is all about the congregation and rise of the working class.

The Russian Working Class

Both “We Grow out of Iron” by Gastev and “Chapaev” by Furmanov dealt with the feelings of the working class during the Soviet takeover of Russia.

“We Grow out of Iron” is a propaganda poem glorifying hard work, an idea that was spread throughout the Soviet Union.  While this poem could be dismissed as a piece of propaganda, it is more than that.  Gastev was from the poor, working class.  Without the breaking down of the class system, he would most likely have never been able to write his poetry.  It makes sense that Gastev would love and support the Soviet Union because communism gave him a chance to be more than just a worker.  Unfortunately, during Stalin’s perversion of communist ideology, Gastev was killed.  But under idealistic communism, Gastev flourished.

In “Chapaev,” the main character, Fyodor, is a member of the working class, just like the author, Furmanov.  As an urban worker, Fyodor is skeptical of Chapaev because he is a peasant.  While Fyodor admires Chapaev, he is unsure of the peasants’ commitment to the Soviet cause.  He believes peasants are more likely to switch sides spontaneously than the urban workers.  Furmanov highlights the distinctions between the rural peasants and urban workers even more when it is revealed that the middle-aged Chapaev only recently learned to read.  The story deals with many stereotypes held by the urban workers about the peasants, such as peasants are backwards and uncontrollable.

Both Gastev and Furmanov write about the experience of urban workers at the beginning of the Soviet Union.  Both these authors show urban workers at the heart of the political upheaval in Russia as one ideology replaced another.

Gastev’s Soviet Unions

Though the poet Aleksei Gastev was killed during Stalin’s Great Purges, he had been a Communist supporter for much of his life. Though he was distanced from the Party in 1907, when he was in his late twenties, after a disagreement on how to combat the spread of capitalism, he still supported the proletariat in a variety of ways. Gastev’s intention in “We Grow out of Iron” can be better understood if we consider his strong belief in unions, which was the basis of his break from the Party.Cyclogram_Gastev_TSIT

The use of strong “pro-labor” phrasing in this piece could be easily interpreted as contributing to an early piece in the Socialist-realism movement, not fully popular until the 1930s. The way he glorifies progress also seems to allude to his socialist tendencies.

Of particular interest in this piece is Gastev’s use of personal pronouns. The poem separates the narrator form other characters in the piece through its use of “I’ and “They”. One of the conflicts in this poem comes from the narrators interaction with the building, with the “they”. This “iron structure” (ln. 6) is given qualities associated with the early Soviet movement in the USSR– “They are bold, they are strong./ They demand yet greater strength.” (Ln. 7-8). This piece is Gastev’s argument for the future of the Communist state. He believes that through unionization of the proletariat they can organize labor for themselves better than a distanced administration. The unions, Gastev assrets, can “[force] the rafters, the upper beams, the roof…higher.” (ln. 14-19), that they could have propelled the Soviet Union forward. But, the labor would have had to be organized by the workers, by these groups grown out of the population. This is most evidenced by the Gastev’s opening line,  “I stand among workbenches, hammers, furnaces, forges, and among a hundred comrades.”

Revolutionary Thought in Russian Literature

To me, the poem “We Grow Out of Iron” by Aleksei Gastev is about the power of the working class of Russia. The poem begins with the subject constructing a building out of iron, but by the middle lines of the poem the subject realizes that his work makes him strong, too. He grows confident and solid in his actions, surprising himself with his own strength and endurance as he shouts to his comrades “may I have the floor?” This echoes the revolution in the early 20th Century, when the wives and mothers began rioting over lack of food and, backed by their factory-working husbands and children, started a movement that would lead to significant change. What started as a demand for food turned into something stronger, the impact of which no one expected. When the workers all banded together the inertia of their actions was too strong to stop and before they knew it, they had made a real change—victory was theirs.


In contrast, I see in chapter five in Chapaev by Dmitri Furmanov the other approach to revolution that emphasizes educated leaders as the way to reform. Klychkov, the character based off the author Furmanov, is clearly educated, distinguishing himself from the famous Chapaev. Klychkov is also a plotter, carefully detailing how he plans on proving himself worthy to Chapaev and gain his confidence and trust.  He does this because he believes that Chapaev, despite being uneducated, could be a true revolutionary because of his peasant origins, which is where the “spontaneous feelings of rage and protest” grow strong. He recognizes this phenomenon among the peasantry, but at the same time questions, “who can see what spontaneous protest will lead to?” (Furmanov, 63).  He is weary of the efficacy of a wide revolt, wondering if uneducated peasants can actually bring about the change that is so necessary.

The famous Vasily Chapaev of the Russian Civil War.


Gastev and Chapaev

Aleksel Gastev, Vladimir Kirillov, and Mikhail Geraismov all wrote their poetry about the machine’s growing importance and the growth of industry in Russia. All three were proletarians and believed that the revolution and change Russia needed was to be found on factory floors. Gastev’s “We Grow Out of Iron” compares the newly built iron factory to his own new importance and strength. The strength of iron is reflected in the boldness of the revolutionaries and Gastev considers himself one of them. In Kirillov’s “The Iron Messiah”, he describes the changes to Russian society such as mass production as a messiah destroying the prisons of the past and helping Russia progress into modern labor. Gerasimov’s “We” exalts the varied creations of the collective revolutionaries, from artwork to architecture.

Dmitry Furmanov wrote Chapaev in 1923 to recount his own experiences as the political commissioner of the Chapaev division in the Urals during the Civil War and described the political tension, power struggles, and discipline issues within the troop of mostly peasant soldiers and their charismatic leader. Furmanov ruminates on why it is that most of the heroes in war are peasants, concluding that their rage at their poor quality of life is what leads them to succeed at protests and wars. At the end of the excerpt, Furmanov insists that not only boldness but also knowledge are needed to win a war.