Listen to the Revolution
The Impact of the Russian Revolution on Art and Culture
First published 2017 by Culture Matters, an imprint of Manifesto Press. Culture Matters aims to promote progressive art and culture, as part of the cultural struggle for socialism. See www.culturematters.org.uk Copyright ÂŠ The contributors Cover image: The Bolshevik, by Boris Kustodiev,1920 Edited by Chris Guiton and Mike Quille ISBN: 978-1-907464-33-1
With all your body, all your heart and all your mind, listen to the Revolution. - Alexander Blok, in 1918
Acknowledgements Thanks to all the authors for their contributions, and to the creators of the images, which are all licensed for usage for non-commercial purposes. 2
Foreword The central mission of Culture Matters is to bring out the politically liberating power of artistic and cultural activities, and highlight the way in which they can help both express and advance the struggle for a better world – for socialism. By far the greatest historical example of the way in which artistic imagination and cultural creativity strengthen political liberation, and are indeed essentially part of it, occurred in the years after 1917, in an explosion of creative energy unleashed by the Russian Revolution. The ‘cosmic background radiation’ which resulted has shaped human culture globally for the last hundred years. To mark the centenary year of 2017 we appealed for articles on the subject of the influence of the Revolution on art and culture, not only in Russia itself but across the world. Given our wide definition of culture, which includes not only all the arts – poetry, theatre, cinema, music etc. – but also other cultural activities such as science, sport, eating and drinking etc., and given our limited budget, it was not clear that we would be able to present an adequate account of these momentous events. However, we received a large number of excellent contributions on many aspects of the subject, which we posted on the website through the course of the year. We have now edited them into this ebook, and are pleased to offer this as a modest contribution to the ongoing debate about the continued significance of the Russian Revolution. As noted by Anatoly Lunacharsky, the first Soviet Commissar of Education and Enlightenment, ‘culture is not a luxury’. Cultural transformation, based on a commitment by artists, scientists, sportspeople and others to serve the people, not the elites, and help create broad participation by the people in cultural activities, was considered to be an essential part of the revolutionary programme to create a new society. We hope you enjoy reading the articles, and that they stimulate critical discussion about the cultural and political significance of the Revolution. We also hope you are inspired to continue the age-old human practice, which received a massive boost in 1917, of engaging in the cultural struggle – of taking part in artistic and cultural activities which help liberate us mentally and physically from oppressive and exploitative political and economic systems. Listen to the Revolution – culture matters. Chris Guiton and Mike Quille Co-Editors, Culture Matters, December 2017. 3
Beat the whites with the red wedge, El Lissitzky, 1920
Contents Introduction by Mike Quille……..……………………………………………..7 A wave of creativity: music and the Revolution by Sabby Sagall…………..21 The art of the Revolution by Jenny Farrell………..…………………….….. 29 Framing the Revolution by Dennis Broe………………………………..……37 Education, literacy and the Russian Revolution by Megan Behrent…..…...45 Revolution and Science under the Bolsheviks by Andy Byford………...…...56 Sport and the Russian Revolution by Gareth Edwards……………….……..69 The Russian Revolution and Avant-Garde Architecture by Jean Turner....73 Maxim Gorky: witness to the Revolution by John Ellison………………….77 ‘The most important of the arts’: film and the Revolution by John Green..85 'Culture is not a luxury!’: the Proletkult in Russia by Lynn Mally………...99 'We want art back, the new art of architecture' by Nick Wright……….…105 ‘Black night, white snow’: Alexander Blok's The Twelve by John Ellison.109 Dancing up a storm: ballet and the Revolution by Carolyn Pouncy…...….119 Great art, shame about the curating: the Royal Academy exhibition by Christine Lindey………………………………………………………………125 October 1917: the spark for great art by Christine Lindey……...…….......131 Spotlights and searchlights: theatre and the Revolution by Amy Skinner..137 Contributors……………………………….………………….……………..143 Culture Matters Mission Statement………………………………………..145
Three Figures, Varvara Stepanova, 1921
Introduction Mike Quille outlines some of the ways the Russian Revolution has influenced art and culture across the world in the last 100 years. The Bolshevik Revolution in October 1917 was the world’s first attempt to create a socialist society. It was based on the active support of the majority of the population, workers and peasants alike, and apart from ending Russia’s disastrous involvement in the First World War, it liberated and enfranchised the Russian population politically, socially and economically. It was radically progressive in its social policies – for example towards women and children – and in particular in its truly comprehensive education policies, as outlined in an article by Megan Behrent on page 45. What about its impact on culture? Unquestionably, the Revolution gave a massive boost to creativity and imagination and led to an explicit recognition, by artists and Bolsheviks alike, that art could serve the general population rather than elites, and were thus integral to the progressive, democratising aims of the Revolution. The natural links between artistic creativity and emancipatory politics were made – not for the first time in human history, but in the strongest way to date. The articles in this ebook document this explosion of cultural creativity in the visual arts, film, theatre, poetry, ballet, children’s literature, music and many more popular cultural pursuits including sport and science.
Children's literature from the 1920s 7
Hardly any area of cultural activity was untouched by the Revolution. And complementing the energy and political focus of cultural workers like artists and poets â€“ see John Ellison's article on Alexander Blok on page 109 â€“ came a qualitative and quantitative change in the reception and appreciation of culture. There was a huge improvement in the ability and willingness of the mass of working people to engage with and enjoy the arts and other cultural activities, thanks to the governmentâ€™s progressive educational policies and bold, imaginative attempts to connect the masses to culture. Take, for example, the the agit-trains and agit-boats that carried the political art of Mayakovsky, Lissitzky and Malevich to hundreds of thousands of workers and peasants.
Agit-train; Agit-boat with theatre on board 8
These kind of bold, ambitious and democratic initiatives to take art to the masses, developed in a relatively poor and backward country a century ago, make a telling contrast to Arts Council Englandâ€™s timid attempts to encourage 'community engagement'. State policy towards the arts in this country still reflects the elitist mission of subsidising the interests of the richer segments of metropolitan populations, and thus facilitating political domination and economic exploitation, just as it was in Tsarist Russia. What is often less discussed is the cultural impact of the Revolution across the world. It was a massive influence at the time, and has been for the last hundred years. Indeed, the purposes, meanings and effects of the Revolution on culture are still being played out today, as a kind of 'cosmic background radiation', as Andrew Murray vividly describes it. This brief survey will sketch out three kinds of influences, with a few examples. The revolutionary impact on cultural workers Firstly, there was the direct and worldwide influence of the Revolution on cultural activities such as art, literature, music and sport. This was a dynamic and dialectical relationship, as politics informed art, which, in turn, informed politics. The constructivist movement in the visual arts and in architecture, for example, was possibly the most influential global artistic movement in the twentieth century - see Jean Turner's article on page 73.
Tatlin's Tower; socialist architecture 9
As Owen Hatherley and others have pointed out, abstraction, pop art, minimalism, abstract expressionism, the graphic style of punk and post-punk, and architectural brutalism, postmodernism, hi-tech and deconstructivism are all heavily indebted to the constructivism which sprang from the Russian Revolution. Constructivism combined a radical new approach to technology and engineering with an explicitly communist social purpose. Malevich, Tatlin, Rodchenko and Stepanova all represented different strands of the constructivist movement, and their influence can be seen in buildings across the world in the twentieth century. Numerous examples could also be drawn from the literary arts. In poetry and literature generally, the â€˜turn to the peopleâ€™ that the Revolution represented, the replacement of an elite perspective with a focus on the lives and concerns of ordinary people, took a massive step forward, particularly in developing and increasingly anti-colonial countries, such as India.
Diego Rivera at work on The Uprising; agrarian leader Emiliano Zapata The kind of mutuality and affinities which the Revolution sparked in Indian literature and Asia can also be traced in African and South American art and culture, in the work of Diego Rivera and others. Up until the Revolution, the global dissemination of art and culture had always had an imperialistic dimension. It expressed and was firmly integrated into the global capitalist exploitative project, as a means of imposing metropolitan 10
cultural values on other peoples, securing legitimacy and consent for Empire. After 1917, just as the Revolution strengthened radical political opposition across the world, so it enabled indigenous cultural and artistic traditions to flower and make international connections, on a scale not seen before in human history. Another example of this international effect was the leftist poetry movement in 1930s Britain led by Auden, Macneice, Spender and others. They were inspired by the Revolution to create a more overtly political, even didactic literature. In both form and content they aimed to connect more closely with the mass of the population. And there’s no doubt of the huge influence of the Revolution on many other writers like George Bernard Shaw, H.G. Wells and Virginia Woolf.
W.H.Auden and Benjamin Britten In turn, this literary movement influenced musicians and composers like Alan Bush, and Auden’s friend Benjamin Britten, who was also independently attracted to Communist and specifically Russian culture. It also spread to documentary film-makers like the GPO Film Unit and its successors, who started a fine tradition of compassionate and sometimes overtly socialist documentaries on the living conditions of the British people, before, during and after the Second World War. It is a tradition which was continued in the theatre by the ‘kitchen-sink’ dramas of the fifties, in television programmes such as the Wednesday Play and Play for 11
Today, and in social realist films, for example the work of Ken Loach right up to the present day. The wider world was if anything even more influenced by the Revolution than Britain. In literature, art, and music the list is virtually endless. It is striking how left wing political perspectives were so common across all the arts in the twentieth century, due to the influence of the Revolution on global culture.
Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin In cinema, the innovative techniques of Sergei Eisenstein, using ‘oppositional’ montage to create a new cinematic language, and Dziga Vertov, capturing ‘film truth’ in a radically new type of documentary, laid the foundations of world cinema – see John Green's comprehensive and authoritative survey of Soviet cinema on page 85. It is widely recognised that John Ford, Orson Welles, the Italian neo-realists, Carol Reed, Hitchcock, Coppola, Scorsese, and many others were heavily influenced by these Russian pioneers.
Poster for Vertov's Kino-Glaz, produced by Alexander Rodchenko The revolutionary impact on appreciation and enjoyment Secondly, there is another kind of influence, which is the impact of the Revolution not only on production but on consumption â€“ on ways of accessing, experiencing and enjoying cultural activities.
The People's Theatre, Newcastle 13
For example, there was the establishment of workers’ film societies in Britain, which brought quality cinema closer to working class people. Amy Skinner (page 137) outlines the pioneering theatre of Meyerhold and others, which had a massive worldwide influence. In Britain, for example, the people’s theatre movement grew very strongly in the 1920s, encouraged by G.B. Shaw, a strong and active sympathiser with the aims of the Revolution. They were taken forward by Joan Littlewood and Ewan MacColl into both popular theatre and folk music clubs, before and after the Second World War. Both artists were heavily monitored by MI5 – what better evidence can there be of Bolshevik influence? Elsewhere, radical workers’ theatre in Europe and the United States was massively stimulated and energised by the democratising, anti-elitist influence of the Revolution, and there was even a workers’ radio movement in Europe. The revolutionary nature of art The third kind of positive influence of the Revolution on art and culture was deeper and more general. It is an influence shared with other progressive revolutions in history. As William Blake and others have recognised, artistic and cultural activities like poetry, art and music are fundamentally social and communal activities. That is why they evolved in human history. They are essentially acts of powerful, rousing and empathic communication, which develop and deepen human sympathy and solidarity. The arts, and other cultural activities such as sport and religion, can overcome and break down all kinds of barriers between humans. Cultural activities can help dissolve, in reality as well as in our imaginations, the fundamental class divisions in human societies based on unequal shares of private property that have existed since ancient times. The challenge to class-divided society which the Revolution represented empowered artists, writers, musicians and their publics across the world to make, understand and enjoy art which was critical, challenging and oppositional to the status quo. These countercultural strands can be traced in all the arts. This was not something peculiar to the Russian Revolution, or totally new – evidence of 14
artistic opposition to injustice, inequality and hierarchical oppression can be traced back through human history, as can the insistence of artists on the liberating power of creativity. But the Revolution strengthened that liberating, oppositional strand which is always, everywhere present in human cultural activities, identified as 'counter-hegemonic' forces by Antonio Gramsci.
Guernica, Pablo Picasso Without the Revolution, there might well have been artistic protests against war and imperialist aggression. There might have been progressive religious movements, museums and art galleries, and cultural education for more people. But would there have been Guernica? Liberation theology? Peopleâ€™s museums? Comprehensive arts and sports education? Across the world, the Revolution enabled a more confident, collectivist and communal challenge to elite forms of art â€“ not only its themes and content, but its mode of production, distribution, accessibility, reception and criticism. Inspiring art and progressive politics have always been natural allies, which is one of the reasons why conservatives and many liberals try to keep them apart. The Russian Revolution firmly connected them, and all the debates about art and politics since then have been influenced by it. The very idea of art and other cultural activities being obliged to respond to the needs of the mass of the population and not just serve ruling elites was given an enormous boost, and this has influenced arts and culture policies across the world ever since. Those agit-trains agitated the world.
The revolutionary impact through resistance and reaction All these positive influences of the Russian Revolution on art and culture have also been resisted, undermined and often beaten back, in ‘cultural wars’ which continue today. This takes us to a fourth, very mixed legacy of the Revolution in world culture today, which is a consequence of the deep and long-lasting opposition of the capitalist powers to it. From the beginning there was diplomatic, economic and military opposition from the United States, Britain and other European powers to the anti-capitalist nature of the 1917 Revolution. This was temporarily replaced by an anti-fascist alliance in the Second World War, but thereafter quickly degenerated into various open and proxy conflicts across the globe, during the Cold War. This failure by Western elites to accept – let alone support – the fundamentally democratic advances made in Russia after the overthrow of Tsarist autocracy caused tremendous suffering in 1920s and 1930s Soviet Union, directly and indirectly. Enforced political isolation, economic sanctions, and the crushing of attempts to spread the radical impulse internationally, were tragic, missed opportunities for what could have been an international flowering of human life, materially and culturally. Western elites, through acts of commission and omission, carry most of the responsibility for the sufferings of peoples across the world in the twentieth century. In the Soviet Union, the defensive reaction to capitalist reaction and aggression led to the submersion and disappearance of some of the positive aspects of revolutionary culture. The pluralism of cultural policy under Lenin and Lunacharsky, and the bold ambition of the Proletkult (see article by Lynn Mally on page 99) was eroded into a much narrower approach to the arts and culture generally. Although the early Soviet state was always far more directly supportive of the arts and culture than capitalist democracies – particularly regarding literacy, cultural education and general access for the masses, for example – it also developed heavy-handed censorship arrangements, and intolerance of artistic and musical dissent and nonconformity, as Sabby Sagall (page 21) notes in his survey of the effect of the Revolution on classical music.
The cultural expression of anti-communist hostility of the West was also expressed within capitalist countries. It took â€“ and takes â€“ many forms. Just to take one country, the United States, for example, there was the blatant, careerthreatening persecution and blacklisting of left-leaning screenwriters, actors and directors in the film industry and other creative industries, which emerged after World War Two as domestic political repression increased during the Cold War.
American postcard, 1930s Notoriously, the CIA covertly funded certain art forms such as abstract expressionism in the 1950s and 60s, and put pressure on various cultural institutions, in order to counter the left-leaning realist traditions in the visual arts (photography as well as painting) which had developed in Thirties America. This anti-communism is still current, and the ongoing attempts to ignore or deny the cultural aspirations of the 1917 Revolution are a testament to the epochal break it represented with capitalism. The elites of Western powers have not forgotten or forgiven the power of artists to advance progressive and revolutionary political agendas. It is evident in the continuing prejudice of the American and British film industries against genres such as social realism and other cinematic attempts to tell the truth about capitalist exploitation and 17
oppression. Instead, individualistic and sexist themes which are congruent with capitalist culture, such as lone brave violent males supported by emotionally caring females, dominate our screens. Because films generally are made for quick profit rather than for quality of insight and enlightenment, they rely overwhelmingly on superficial values including melodrama, sentiment, spectacle, glamour and celebrity, over real insight, intellectual depth and social relevance.
Poster, Go to the Stadiums! Sport provides another instructive example. As Gareth Edwards relates in his article on page 69, the Revolution opened up the possibility of more grassrootsdriven, widely-practised and co-operative forms of sport, which do not rely solely on the excitement generated by individual competition. The remarkably progressive approach to womenâ€™s rights in the polity and economy was paralleled by advances in the access of women to sport and physical pursuits, for example in the growth of womensâ€™ athletic organisations. This caused a hardening of elite attitudes in the West, and was partly responsible, for example, for the crushing of womenâ€™s football by the FA in 1921, and other attempts to maintain the cultural dominance of white males. The Cold War and the triumph of neoliberal capitalism, with its accompanying culture of competitiveness, elite celebrity and individual excellence, has also tended to corrupt sporting ideals. The Olympics, instead of being a celebration of human sporting ability, was turned into another proxy ideological and 18
nationalistic battle between capitalism and socialism, and has still not fully recovered. Recent and ongoing drugs scandals across swathes of sporting activity bear witness to the insidious pressures of commercialism, individual achievement through winner/loser competitiveness, and celebrity culture. This anti-communism was also evident throughout 2017, in various TV programmes and exhibitions. The exhibition of post-revolutionary Russian art at the Royal Academy, for example (see Christine Lindey’s review on page 125) was strikingly reactionary. Funded by the Blavatnik Foundation, a beneficiary of the sell-off of state-owned assets when the USSR collapsed in 1991, the exhibition abandoned the usual liberal approach of trying to provide a balanced historical account of the political background and art of the Revolution. Instead, it promoted an openly hostile perspective, which downplayed, denied and derided links between the progressive politics of the Revolution and the marvellously energetic and powerful art that it inspired. Dennis Broe (page 37) criticises other examples of this institutional prejudice. In general, mainstream media coverage of the centenary has been predictably hostile, uncomprehending, tepid, or plainly mistaken – exactly the same problems that have characterised its coverage of Corbynism, and for exactly the same reasons. The revolutionary influence today In complex and interwoven strands across all of human cultural activity in the last hundred years, the Revolution has had a massive effect. Its power and influence can still be detected in debates about the links between politics and economics on the one hand and art, sport and religion on the other. It has left us with some tremendous and enduring examples of excellence in all forms of artistic and cultural activities, across all the world and across the hundred years since 1917. And mostly because of the resistance of ruling elites, it has also led to a polarisation of debates and of practices. Ever since 1917, there has been debate about the detailed legacy of the Revolution for art and culture. But one thing we can surely all agree about is the way it strengthened the capacity and confidence of art and artists to creatively imagine difference, improvement, and radical alternatives to current reality, to what is – see Christine Lindey’s article on page 131. 19
This influence is relevant today. We face increasing struggles against the incursions of capitalism into human culture these days. There are all kinds of different barriers and pressures which tend to twist and corrupt human culture. Naturally healthy and developmental cultural activities such as art, sport, religion, eating and drinking, in all their myriad forms, are facing pressures to become corralled into expensive, inaccessible, privatised and patrolled enclaves for the rich and powerful.
In the current struggles that we face to democratise culture, to make it accessible, relevant and affordable to the mass of working-class people, the example of the Russian Revolution is a beacon of inspiration. It shows us that things donâ€™t have to be the way they are, that tomorrow may not be the same â€“ and that we can achieve and enjoy a better life in a better world. The team at Culture Matters hope that this ebook gives you some sense of the power and range of global cultural influences which sprang from the Russian Revolution, and we hope you enjoy reading about the daring and imaginative acts of cultural creativity. But perhaps the most enduring influence of the Revolution lies in the way it still stimulates and motivates us to act now to fulfil its promise â€“ by replacing the culture, politics and economics of capitalism with a better, socialist alternative.
A wave of creativity: music and the Russian Revolution
Sergei Prokofiev, Dmitri Shostakovich and Aram Khachaturian Sabby Sagall describes the wave of creativity unleashed by the Russian Revolution, altering the course of twentieth century classical music. The carnage and brutality of World War One had punctured the balloon of late nineteenth-century optimism and established that the industrial and scientific progress of capitalism had not led to a world based on justice and reason but to unimaginable horror. Industrial cities had created unprecedented wealth but also poverty and alienation hitherto unknown. The Russian revolution offered a beacon of hope. The spectacle of ordinary workers and peasants grasping the reins of society, creating their own revolutionary state through elected councils or soviets, inspired an entire generation in a world grown weary of internecine war. Of course, the western capitalist ruling classes weren't going to take this unprecedented challenge to their wealth and power lying down, and unleashed a bloody civil war with the aim of destroying the fledging workers' state. Musically, the extremes of these social contradictions could no longer be adequately expressed in the traditional form of the classical symphony that had expressed the confidence of the eighteenth century bourgeoisie as they overthrew the old order. 21
In the early days of the revolution, the Bolsheviks adopted a civilising mission intended to cultivate new socialist attitudes and habits in the masses, but also new cultural forms that would both reflect the new way of life and also have broad appeal. One aspect of this was the attempt to create a 'socialist' musical culture involving the overcoming of the divide between elite and popular culture, both by democratising the 'high' culture of the pre-revolutionary elite, making it more accessible to the masses, and by cultivating new forms of artistic expression. However, after the Bolshevik seizure of power in October 1917, the central task of the revolution was survival in the face of international right-wing forces that moved in to attempt to destroy it. With the regime's survival at stake, cultural matters had a relatively low priority. Where music was concerned, the Bolsheviks' primary task was to establish control over the 'commanding heights', by nationalising the conservatories, publishing houses, and theatres, as well as confiscating valuable musical instruments from private collections and their aristocratic owners trying to flee the country. The Bolsheviks moved quickly to achieve administrative and economic control over musicians and musical life, but had little time or interest in formulating music policy itself. As part of the effort to mobilise support for the revolution among Russia's toiling masses, and extend the revolution to the cultural sphere, the government funded a host of programmes administered by the Red Army and the Commissariat of Enlightenment (Nakrompros) as well as a vast network of Proletarian Culture (Proletkult) organisations. These programmes offered musicians, writers and artists employment and the opportunity to continue prerevolutionary activities, albeit under very different conditions. In music, as in other areas, a main objective of the Commissariat of Enlightenment led by Anatoly Lunacharsky was to cultivate old 'specialists' and enlist their support for the revolutionary project. With some notable exceptions, musicians found in early years that they had considerable latitude in their affairs. They not only facilitated but largely defined the terms under which musical institutions made their transition to Soviet power and the way musical life responded to the revolution. For most Russians, the years of revolution, civil war and Western intervention to attempt to crush Soviet power were haunted by hunger and terrible material hardship. Survival was the key priority while musicians began to formulate their creative responses to the challenges raised by the revolution. A few pursued radical creative agendas in an effort to link artistic and revolutionary iconoclasm - smashing the previous social and ideological order. Some tried to enlist music directly in the revolutionary struggle and the effort to win the Civil War. But for 22
most, there were strong threads of continuity that linked them to the prerevolutionary period, and these dominated their creative activities and attitudes towards Soviet power. The October revolution had given fresh impetus to cultural life, with a great flowering of the arts. But it also created difficulties. The problem was that the chief moving force of the revolution was an oppressed, property-less, and necessarily uneducated working class. This was contrary to the bourgeois revolution in England or France where the revolutionary class was an educated, cultured class of property owners. The weakness of the Russian bourgeoisie and the general lack of confidence in its capacity to produce social and political change meant that Russian culture, including music, could not express their interests. True, the Bolshevik leaders were mostly men of the intelligentsia, some possessing a deep cultural understanding of the world. But the cadres consisted mostly of self-educated workers and half-educated people of petty bourgeois background. The party had trained them in politics, organisation and sometimes in Marxist philosophy. But often their approach to cultural affairs showed that a little knowledge could be worse than complete ignorance. Most intellectuals were hostile to the revolution. Many emigrated. But many also served the new regime as 'specialists'. A few even became enthusiastically converted to the revolution. But most of the intelligentsia were either too conservative in habits or else too intimidated or mediocre to exercise fruitful cultural influence. They reacted badly when placed under the orders of semieducated or self-educated commissars. On the other hand, many commissars lacked confidence, but tried to cover up their inner uncertainty with bluff and bluster. They believed that Marxism, in which they were not fully educated, provided the master key to all problems of society. Trotsky and the other Bolshevik leaders tried to bridge the gulf. But after the devastation of the civil war, the party hierarchy began to free itself from public, workers' control and began to impose its dictates on the scientist, the writer and musician. The slogans of 'proletarian art' and 'proletarian culture' were coined and became popular. The theory arose that just as there had been feudal and capitalist epochs in the history of civilisation, accompanied by their respective cultures, so the proletarian dictatorship would inaugurate its own specific culture permeated by Marxism, internationalism, etc. This idea appealed to some Bolshevik intellectuals and young workers in whom the revolution had awakened a desire for education but also iconoclastic instincts. Many peasants, too, displayed anarchic hostility towards everything to do with the gentry's way of life, including its 'cultural values'. When the peasant 23
set fire to the landlord's mansion, he often let go up in flames the library and paintings. Trotsky argued it was harmful to reject the cultural heritage of the bourgeois era: the working class had, on the contrary, to take possession of it and protect it, while viewing it critically. But the working class, as an oppressed, exploited and uneducated class, could not create its own culture: it emerges from bourgeois rule in a condition of cultural pauperism. And insofar as the working class creates a classless, socialist society, so it abolishes itself and sets about creating a truly universal, classless human culture. In the late 19th and early 20th century, European music was transformed by two strands of modernism: the atonal music developed by Arnold Schoenberg and his two leading followers, Anton Webern and Alban Berg, and the revolutionary music of Russian composer Igor Stravinsky. Atonality is music that lacks a tonal centre, that does not depend on the 'diatonic' system of major and minor keys which had been the basis, and had provided the coherence, of European art music since the late 17th century.
1. Igor Stravinsky(1882-1971) Stravinsky's music remains within the tradition of modern tonal or diatonic harmony. But he transformed music through his revolutionary approach to rhythm and his use of dissonant harmonies. In Paris in 1913, the dynamic, rhythmic innovation of his ballet The Rite of Spring was evident. At its first performance, the music provoked derisive laughter which quickly developed into an uproar among the well-heeled French bourgeois audience. Like Schoenberg, Stravinsky had discovered that increasing chromaticism was loosening the power of diatonic harmony to sustain the movement of music. (Chromaticism is a compositional technique interspersing diatonic notes and 24
chords of the traditional tonal scale with notes of the chromatic scale, consisting, as it does, of semitones. Chromaticism is in contrast or addition to tonality or diatonicism - the conventional major and minor scales. It became more widely used in the second half of the nineteenth century). Stravinsky's answer to the problem was different. The Rite of Spring, composed as music to accompany scenes of earthly joy and celestial triumph as understood by the Slavs, showed with almost savage force that rhythm could be a new motivating impetus. The point here is that in European music since the Renaissance, rhythm had been subservient to melody and harmony. In contrast, in The Rite of Spring, especially in the final Sacrificial Dance, it is rhythm that drives the music, with harmony of secondary importance. Stravinsky's earlier career had revealed the influence of his teacher Rimsky-Korsakov, composer of the symphonic suite Scheherezade. This was notably shown in Stravinsky's ballet suite The Firebird (1909-10), a brilliant and exotic fairy tale. But his style matures in his second ballet Petrushka where rhythm is becoming the most important structural and expressive element. Petrushka uses a significant number of Russian folk tunes; it also reveals fantastic harmonies associated with the puppets which are based on traditional techniques that produced sharp dissonant combinations (eg, the so-called Petrushka chord). Again, these dissonances express the intensifying contradictions and dislocation of a society in which advanced capitalist relations prevailed in the urban industrial areas – Petrograd's Putilov engineering factory boasted the most highly developed technology in Europe – alongside semi-feudal relations in the countryside and an absolute monarchy. And, importantly, by the time Firebird and Petrushka were produced, Russia had already experienced the 1905 revolution, the 'dress-rehearsal' for the 1917 revolution. So, while Stravinsky's music cannot strictly be described as 'music of the Russian revolution' – he himself was hostile to the revolution, left Russia in 1914 and didn't return until 1962 – yet it is music whose dissonances and rhythmic innovations express the dislocation and contradictions of society in the throes of the deepening crisis that were the backdrop to World War One and the revolution itself.
2. Serge Prokoviev (1891-1953) Prokofiev's life and musical styles fall into three periods: the first being his formative years in Russia, the second (1920-1933) his years in Paris, and the third in which he returned to his homeland. The music of Prokofiev's first period is mostly of the primitive style brought about by the onslaught of Stravinsky's The Rite of Spring. Prokofiev's music of this period utilises driving rhythms and dissonant harmonies, and includes his first three piano concertos and the ballet Ala and Lolly. Also from this period comes the delightful "Classical" Symphony no. 1 in D major, written to convince his critics that he could, when he wanted, compose in the refined style of Mozart. Prokofiev's second period resulted in such works as the Symphonies Two, Three and Four, two more piano concertos, the satirical opera The Love for Three Oranges (from which comes the famous and jaunty March) and two more ballets. Many of Prokofiev's most famous compositions were written after he had returned to Russia in 1933. These include the children's story for orchestra and narrator, Peter and the Wolf, several film scores, Romeo and Juliet, one of the most popular ballets of the twentieth century, and his greatest symphony, the Symphony No. 5. In keeping with government dictates of the Stalin Regime, this music is more tonal, less dissonant, and conforms to classical styles, making them generally accessible to the public. Even so, Prokofiev was denounced in 1948 by the government as being "too modern" and he composed no more music for the remainder of his life. Prokofiev had composed the gigantic Cantata for the 20th Anniversary of the October Revolution, originally intended for performance during the anniversary year but effectively blocked by Platon Kerzhentsev, head of the culture and science department of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, who demanded less 'incomprehensible music'. The Cantata had to wait until 5th April 1966 for a partial premiere, just over 13 years after the composer's death. 26
3. Dmitri Shostakovich (1906-1975) Unlike his countrymen Stravinsky and Prokofiev, Shostakovich opted to remain in Russia throughout his life. Stylistically, this meant that the composer was constantly bowing to the decrees of the Stalinist regime, stunting his natural growth in efforts to please the government. Although his vast output is variable in quality, Shostakovich was nevertheless able to compose some powerful and lasting works. He is known primarily for his fifteen symphonies and string quartets, as these are the works that contain much of his most original thought and expression. The symphonies, in particular, remain his best-known works. Although many of them, in attempts to conform to the decrees of the government, contain pages of inflated heroism and bombast, one or two stand out as perhaps the composer's finest achievements. The Symphony No. 5, Op. 47 for example, shows what the composer could do to please Stalin, while at the same time may have been expressing his true feelings about the difficulties of artistic life in Russia at the time. In the later Symphony No. 10, Shostakovich's irony and anger at the losses the Russian people suffered during World War II is given voice in a relentless, motor-driven scherzo. However, in the experimental atmosphere of post-revolutionary Russia, the young Shostakovich absorbed features from all the various movements into his music, forging early on his own individual, highly original style which remained with him throughout his life. This style combined rhythmic vitality, a menacing, at times violent atmosphere and frequent satirical allusions, suggesting challenges to the Stalinist regime.
His striking, powerful music won him widespread popularity. But his willingness to experiment was less popular with the Stalinism that was firmly entrenched by the late 1920s. From then until his death in 1975, Shostakovich's relations with the Stalinist authorities was a tense one, in which he struggled to maintain his artistic and political integrity. In this sense, he arguably remained a composer of the revolution. In 1934, 'socialist realism' became state policy. According to Stalin's representative Zhdanov, its purpose was to limit popular culture to creative expression that promoted Soviet ideals. Because the present and the future were constantly idealised, socialist realism had a sense of forced optimism. The trigger for the great crisis in Shostakovich's career was his 1934 opera Lady Macbeth of Mtensk. The opera was performed in Leningrad and Moscow to great critical and popular success. It tells the story of a 19th century provincial woman driven to murder by the oppression and boredom of her life. It is a gripping drama, with raucous music which is audaciously modern. It was performed over a hundred times in two years, after which Stalin went to see it. A month later, a savage attack on Lady Macbeth and Shostakovich's music in general appeared: he was accused of being a 'formalist', more interested in playing with musical form and structure than in conveying a clear and simple meaning. The cultural experimentation of the previous decade had given way to the conservatism of socialist realism, according to which art had to serve the interests of the new regime. Nonetheless, the Russian Revolution gave rise to a huge wave of creativity across all the arts, and wrote a new chapter in the history of modern music.
The Art of Revolution
Jenny Farrell celebrates the democratising power of Revolutionary art. With the Russian Revolution of 1917, the dispossessed took control over their destiny, for the first time in history. How did artists respond to this liberation? Artists from all artistic movements worked with Soviet power. The revolution offered the state and the arts a real opportunity to merge their programmatic ideas. Lenin saw social and cultural revolution as inseparable and the artistic avant-garde embraced the new opportunities. The arts were to be democratised, artistic production transferred from the private to the public sphere, and â€˜the streets to be turned into a celebration of art for allâ€™. The 1918 May Day celebrations were a first impressive manifestation of this.
The next major assignment was the decoration of Moscow and Petrograd for the 1918 October celebrations. Over 170 artists participated, exhibiting an immense range of artistic expression. Alongside images of workers, soldiers and peasants, there were ambitious modernist projects, such as Altman’s transformation of the Alexander column on Petrograd’s Palace Square into a ‘Flame of the Revolution’ devouring the symbols of tsarism. Altman fused geometric structures in shades of red to create a dynamic composition, which attracted international attention.
Nathan Altman, sketch of the Palace Square monument (1918) Great artistic variety marked the time immediately after the revolution. From the early 1900s, there was a significant Russian avant-garde. Many of these artists engaged with the challenges of a new society. The constructivists, for example, criticised bourgeois ‘embellishments’, demanding a truly new era in art beginning with ‘the new houses, the new streets, the new commodities’ created by the proletariat. Art was not to be a ‘sacred temple’. The new starting point was to be labour, the factory, producing art objects for all. This innovative art was inspired by left-wing futurism. Meyerhold pursued a similarly original approach in the theatre, and the modern medium of film with Eisenstein and 30
Pudovkin’s outstanding productions took its triumphant course. A mass audience turned the art of the avant-garde into a broad movement. The ‘poster and meeting period’ Lenin was keenly aware that the revolution depended on overcoming the cultural backwardness of the vast country, with a small working class and millions of largely illiterate peasants; education was a primary cultural task. Some ethnic minorities had no modern script. Lunacharsky became commissioner of Education and Culture. Lunacharsky oversaw the early ‘poster and meeting period,’ in which experimental artists pursued revolutionary innovation of various art forms, aiming to enhance the political possibilities of art. Poster art blossomed, exhibiting a whole range of design principles - Dmitry Moor’s world famous ‘Have you enlisted?’ and his poster ‘Help’, occasioned by the famine on the Volga, are composed in concise, expressive pictorial language. The ROSTA windows In an effort to respond quickly to current affairs, Mikhail Cheremnych put a hand-painted poster in the window of the Russian telegraph agency (Rosta) in Moscow in 1920. This initiated the satirical Rosta windows, of which painter and poet Vladimir Mayakovsky became the chief representative. Over a hundred assistants reproduced the hand-painted Moscow posters using templates, often making 300 copies. Stencils were sent to other cities. In the days before radio, these windows announced news faster than newspapers.
Agitation and propaganda poster by Vladimir Mayakovsky In over two years, more than 1,600 posters were produced; Mayakovsky supplied the texts for almost all of them. This work necessitated direct communication at the centre of his art, reaching out to the new reader. A new “language” combined word and image. Over-dimensional characters dominated and images accentuated words. Mayakovsky’s rhythmic language and appeal influenced the entire collective of Rosta artists.
Vladimir Lebedev: Work needs the rifle beside you. Petrograd Rosta window 1920 In his poetry, Mayakovsky also revolutionised language, infusing the energy, confidence and stride of the revolution and displaying this on the page: My most respected comrades of posterity! Rummaging among these daysâ€™ petrified crap, exploring the twilight of our times, you, possibly, will inquire about me too. And, possibly, your scholars will declare, with their erudition overwhelming a swarm of problems; once there lived a certain champion of boiled water, and inveterate enemy of raw water. 33
Professor, take off your bicycle glasses! I myself will expound those times and myself. I, a latrine cleaner and water carrier, by the revolution mobilized and drafted, went off to the front from the aristocratic gardens of poetry. Mayakovsky invested enormous energy in touring the USSR with his verse and reciting it to large audiences. Imagery and tradition Given an 80 per cent rural and up to 75 per cent illiterate population, visual imagery was paramount. Motifs came from Russian fairy-tales, folk art paintings and even Russian orthodox icons. The ‘new masters’ were symbolically represented as giant figures, wrapped in red tunics or shirts, clearly surpassing the ‘old days’. They were especially popular. Art had to take effect among the people, as Mayakovsky stated: ‘The streets are our brushes, the places our pallets. To work, futurists!’ Proletkult (proletarian culture) aspired to a revolutionary working class art, inspired by the building of a modern industrial society in backward, rural Russia. In October 1917, Bogdanov founded a cultural organisation of the proletariat, encouraging workers to write, furthering proletarian culture.
Obelisk to the Revolutionaries When the revolution suffered foreign military intervention (from February 1918), Lenin initiated ‘monumental propaganda’, to communicate the ideas of the revolution through monuments. Among the first assignments was to redesign the tsarist Romanov Obelisk in Moscow to commemorate great revolutionaries, inscribing on it Marx, Engels, More, Winstanley, Stepan Razin, Owens, Saint-Simon, Bakunin, and many more. This declared the international character of the proletarian revolution. (The obelisk recently reverted to its prerevolutionary form.) Revolutionary tableware Agitation porcelain holds a special place within ‘agitation and mass art’. Petrograd artists discovered in 1918, in the imperial porcelain manufactory, large quantities of unpainted white plates, which they designed with slogans and original ornaments. These china objects took on an indoor poster function reflecting the artistic nature of the outdoor posters. This revolutionary tableware still conveys the spirit of those years. The variety of these works of art is overwhelming. Avant-garde artists decorated traditional Delph stone, while
constructivist and suprematist artists, such as Malevich, Kandinsky and Suetin designed cups and jugs of the future.
Chekhonin: Red Ribbon (1919) A new aesthetics arose from artists identifying with revolutionary transformation. It represented individuals not as separate but as part of their societies, depicting them as torchbearers of a new humanity. This was a singular achievement of the revolution. Never before had the dispossessed been presented in art as the decisive factor in historic change, and never before had they been made artistically worthy on such a scale. In this sense, the art of revolution began with some new forms, and above all with a new central character.
The Bolshevik â€“ Boris Kustodiev, 1920
Framing the Russian Revolution
Fantasy, by Kuzma Petrov-Vodkin, 1925 Dennis Broe criticises Western cultural institutions and critics to task for their failure to properly convey the revolutionary energy of Soviet art and politics after 1917. This month marks the 100th Anniversary of the Russian Revolution, October 25th on the Russian Calendar at that time which was November 7th in the West. The Centennial is being celebrated and/or denigrated with various events, exhibitions, and interpretations here in Europe. What is now emerging as the dominant interpretation is a picture of the event in which the February 1917 overthrow of the Czar in Saint Petersburg is now celebrated as the beginning of a democracy that was brutally extinguished with the October Revolution, in which Vladimir Lenin and the Bolsheviks conspiratorially seized power and which led inevitably to the foundation of an undemocratic regime in the guise of a dictatorship of the proletariat.
Likewise, the art of the period immediately before and after the Bolshevik Revolution, a flourishing of all the arts including photography, graphics, painting, theatre, cinema and music, is now for the first time being branded as the murderous expression of a totalitarian regime, and this in the heroic period of 1917 to 1932. All kinds of former truths are being challenged, with the French magazine Telerama now referring to the “myth” of Franco-English imperialism ready to aggress Russia as an excuse for the Bolshevik takeover and with the supposedly left-wing daily Liberation choosing on the week of the centennial to run instead of a consideration of that event an extensive book review of the political camps, with the caveat that before marking the revolution it is first necessary to read the book The Goulag. The most prominent anti-revolutionary book though is Berkeley professor Yuri Slezine’s The House of Government which essentially presents the Soviet leadership as a cult that lived in the same state-owned building. The book sees the revolution itself as a secular form of fanaticism and the Soviets as fanatics who took the religious version of the final days and the apocalypse and reinterpreted it as the inevitable coming of a global revolution that would redeem humanity. To this liberal onslaught must be added the attack by the British newspaper The Guardian’s art critic Jonathan Jones on a monumental exhibition on the “Art of the Revolution” at the Royal Academy claiming that the celebration of one of the most fertile periods in the history of art instead “sentimentalises” a “murderous chapter in human history” and comparing the Bolsheviks in this early period of the Revolution to the Nazis.
Alexander Deineka, the Defence of Petrograd, from the RA exhibition The review appeared before the exhibition opened and functioned as British liberals replaying Churchillâ€™s dictum about the Soviets that he would strangle the baby in its cradle, here strangling the exhibition before it could be seen. It is worth noting that the attack is largely being waged by the liberal press, coinciding with a new McCarthyism being led in the U.S. by the Democrats, in which everything Russian is and now must be demonized. No doubt the failures of the October Revolution were numerous, including famine and starvation in the Ukraine and a rapid installation of camps for political prisoners, but so were the triumphs. Lenin seized power with the support of the army and the workers on one burning question, an end to the war which was decimating the working classes of Europe. He was nearly the only person to urge what he called â€œRevolutionary Defeatism,â€? claiming that a defeat for the capitalist nationalists in the war meant a victory and a halt to the slaughtering of working people by each other in the trenches and by new technologies of increasingly deadly and remote killing machines. It is very easy to make the claim that it was the Soviet takeover and the actual threat of international revolution that ended World War I since the Western powers recognized they no longer had the luxury of slaughtering each other since there was now a real threat to their existence and they, the U.S., France and Britain most prominently, at the time of signing the armistice, sent expeditionary forces to destroy the Soviet state.
Soviet Poster, 1920.The inscriptions on the buildings read "library", "kindergarten", "school for grown-ups", etc. To this may be added that it was yet again the Soviet “cult” and the Russian people that two decades later halted the next form of Western capitalist barbarity in the guise of the Nazi conquest of Europe. At the height of the Civil War, 1918-22, while battling for their survival, Lenin’s Bolsheviks pursued a policy of combatting illiteracy, teaching reading and writing in the various republics in 40 different languages and dialects and refusing to impose Russian Cyrillic. In 1919, at the worst moment of being attacked and under siege, the Soviets boasted 1200 reading clubs and 6200 political, scientific and agricultural circles and by the end of the war 5 million children were in schools, reversing the Czar’s policy of education only for the elite under which only one child in five was educated. Along with this new literacy, during the war and after, until the end of the first five year plan in 1932, went a flourishing and democratising of especially the visual and more crucially the graphic arts, particularly posters with elaborate and splashy typography and image and photo collages which appeared in trams, on factory walls and throughout the cities in places where crowds passed. This was a kind of embracing of popular media which in the West would simply be absorbed into the advertising industry. Theatre began to incorporate popular elements of the circus as Meyerhold countered Stanislavski’s psychological realism with a biomechanical method stressing collective and machine-like movement. Constructivism, likewise an incorporation of the power of the 41
machine into painting and cinema, took the pre-war dynamism of Italian Futurism at a moment when that form was embracing a fascist militarism and instead reinterpreted the machine as a source for good in the service of the people and not as simply a killing machine. Soviet avant-garde art, the currents of which began before the war and was let loose by the earlier Revolution of 1905, greatly influenced the West in the theatrical experimentation and de-psychologizing of Brecht, in the bringing of abstract notions of design to mass production in the Weimar Bauhaus School, and in the ways Eisenstein’s montage in the films Strike and Battleship Potemkin were incorporated into the cinema of Hitchcock. The period also featured a rethinking of the purpose of the museum, opposing the collector instinct of museums in the West as being dead archives or conversely as simply presenting art as utterly separated from life and only related to its own history. To counter this, the Soviets proposed open air museums integrated into the community, and a broader definition of what constituted art to include folk art and street design. These innovations are now official policy - uncredited to the Revolution of course - of many museums such as the Chicago Museum of Contemporary Art whose director boasts their incorporation. The Revolution though in the year of its centenary has in many ways been sidelined. The Royal Academy exhibit was Europe’s most extensive. Paris’s Pompidou on the other hand chose instead to highlight Russian dissident art in its exhibit Kollektsia, which traced extensively the decades from the 1950s to the 1970s, an uninspired period which broke down into Sots Art which was the Russian equivalent of Pop Art and various returns to the Constructivism. Elsewhere, there is a current exhibit at the library of the Museum of the Army titled “And 1917 Becomes Revolution” with examples of this flourishing of the arts alongside Western figurative paintings of the pope blessing and sanctioning the slaughter of the troops. There is also a recounting of how two French members, out of a delegation of four, sent to convince the Soviets to stay in the war instead “went native” and converted to their side in favour of the revolution. It’s a nice exhibit but very difficult even to find in the museum and overshadowed by the current Army blockbuster about the everyday life of a soldier, an exhibit more in favour of war. And indeed World War I over the last three years is everyday honoured in its centennial while the event that halted the war is slighted. 42
By far the most interesting European exhibit was in Venice at the Palazzo Zatere which has been taken over by the V-A-C Foundation, a joint Moscow-Venice group that staged “Space, Force, Construction” which attempted to update the radical thrust of the arts in this period with contemporary art with a political bent over the last three decades.
Here was: Lissitzky’s “Beat the Whites With the Red Wedge,” a geometrical description of the Soviets outnumbered and surrounded but surviving by ingenuity….
......and a recreation of Tatlin’s Monumental “Tower of the Future” which was an attempt to address the mistakes of the Tower of Babel.....
........and Rodchenko’s design for a worker’s lunchroom/study centre, where eating and acquiring of knowledge go on simultaneously.
Lev Kuleshov's By the Law Probably the continent’s most thrilling exhibit of Soviet art though is the currently ongoing French Cinematheque series “The USSR of Cineastes” which covers the period of the 1920s through the end of World War II. Beyond Eisenstein’s Strike and Potemkin, the series contains screenings of the anti-petit bourgeois House on Trubnaya Street, a comedy by Boris Barnet about the maltreatment of a peasant woman by the building’s small business elite; Lev Kuleshov’s By the Law, a montage experiment and adaptation of a Jack London short story about how the greed of an international mining expedition in Alaska 44
turns deadly; and The Yellow Ticket, Feodor Ostepâ€™s portrait of a wet nurse, abused by her baronial employer and then cast out into prostitution.
Feodor Osteps, The Yellow Ticket Why the downgrading of the Revolution? Is it not because in these times which due to increasing income disparity in the West, the brutalisation of the world by industrial climate change, and the ever disappearing support of the state for any form of worker aid or comfort, Revolution is certainly on the table and discomforting to an increasingly shrinking cadre of elites? Yet the dissatisfaction in whole deindustrialized areas left for dead in France, the US, and Britain is being channelled into pro-nationalist, anti-immigrant sentiment that is the opposite of Leninâ€™s call for an international joining of the workers across the West and the world to rise up. Instead the Russian Revolution, which twice halted capitalist barbarity on a global scale, is characterized as merely barbarous itself. At the moment when the world is most in need of it, Western elites have been very careful in this year of the centenary to ignore or deny the energy that inspired one of the great hopes of humanity in the twentieth century.
Education, literacy, and the Russian Revolution By Megan Behrent
Megan Behrent considers what we can learn from the great strides made in education in revolutionary Russia. "All Russia was learning to read, and reading - politics, economics, history because the people wanted to know. . . . In every city, in most towns, along the Front, each political faction had its newspaper - sometimes several. Hundreds of thousands of pamphlets were distributed by thousands of organisations, and poured into the armies, the villages, the factories, the streets. The thirst for education, so long thwarted, burst with the Revolution into a frenzy of expression. From Smolny Institute alone, the first six months, went out every day tons, car-loads, train-loads of literature, saturating the land. Russia absorbed reading matter like hot sand drinks water, insatiable. And it was not fables, falsified history, diluted religion, and the cheap fiction that corruptsâ€” but social and economic theories, philosophy, the works of Tolstoy, Gogol, and Gorky." John Reed, Ten Days That Shook the World There is no greater school than a revolution. It is therefore not surprising that some of the most innovative, radical, and successful literacy campaigns are those that are born out of revolutions - when, on a mass scale, people fight for a better society. In revolutionary periods, ideas matter as never before, and literacy needs no motivation as it becomes a truly liberatory endeavor. Thus, from the trenches of the US Civil War and the Russian front to the battle lines of El Salvador, there are innumerable stories of soldiers teaching each other to read 46
newspapers in the midst of war and famine. One of the most inspiring examples of the revolutionary transformation of literacy and education is the Russian Revolution of 1917. The Russian Revolution was a watershed historical moment. That workers and peasants were able to overthrow tsarism and create a new society based on workersâ€™ power was an inspiration to millions of oppressed and exploited people around the world. At the time of the revolution, the vast majority of Russians were peasants toiling under the yoke of big landowners and eking out a meager existence. More than 60 percent of the population was illiterate. At the same time, however, Russia was home to some of the largest and most advanced factories in the world, with a highly concentrated working class. By October 1917, the Bolshevik Party had won the support of the majority of workers and established political rule based on a system of soviets, or councils, of workers, peasants, and soldiers. The revolution itself, occurring in two major stages in February and October, took place in conditions of extreme scarcity. In addition to the long-standing privation of Russiaâ€™s peasants, the First World War caused further food shortages and disease. No sooner had the revolution succeeded than the young Soviet government was forced to fight on two military fronts: a civil war against the old powers just overthrown, and a battle against some dozen countries that sent their troops to defeat the revolution. As the Bolsheviks had long argued, the longevity and success of the Russian revolution depended in large part on the spread of revolution to advanced capitalist countries, in particular to Germany. Despite five years of revolutionary upheaval in Germany, the revolution there failed. The young revolutionary society was thus left isolated and under attack. Despite these conditions, however, the Russian Revolution led not only to a radical transformation of school itself but also of the way people conceived of learning and the relationship between cognition and language. Indeed, the early years of the Russian Revolution offer stunning examples of what education looked like in a society in which working-class people democratically made decisions and organized society in their own interest. In the immediate aftermath of the revolution, education was massively overhauled with a tenfold increase in the expenditure on popular education. Free and universal access to education was mandated for all children from the ages of three to sixteen years old, and the number of schools at least doubled within the first two years of the revolution. Coeducation was immediately implemented as a means of combating sex discrimination, and for the first time schools were created for students with learning and other disabilities. 47
Developing mass literacy was seen as crucial to the success of the revolution. Lenin argued: “As long as there is such a thing in the country as illiteracy it is hard to talk about political education.” As a result, and despite the grim conditions, literacy campaigns were launched nationally among toddlers, soldiers, adolescents, workers, and peasants. The same was true of universal education. The Bolsheviks understood that the guarantee of free, public education was essential both to the education of a new generation of workers who would be prepared to run society in their own interests and as a means of freeing women from the drudgery of housework. Thus, there were attempts to provide universal crèches and preschools.
What the October Revolution gave to the female worker and peasant, 1920 Soviet propaganda poster. (The inscriptions on the buildings read "library", "kindergarten", "school for grown-ups", etc.) None of these initiatives was easy to accomplish given the economic conditions surrounding the young revolution. Victor Serge, a journalist and anarchist who later joined the Russian Communist Party, describes the staggering odds facing educators and miserable conditions that existed in the wake of the civil war: “Hungry children in rags would gather in winter-time around a small stove planted in the middle of the classroom, whose furniture often went for fuel to give some tiny relief from the freezing cold; they had one pencil between four 48
of them and their schoolmistress was hungry.” One historian describes the level of scarcity: “In 1920 Narkompros [the People’s Commissariat for Education] received the following six-month allotment: one pencil per sixty pupils; one pen per twenty-two pupils; one notebook for every two pupils…. One village found a supply of wrappers for caramel candies and expropriated them for writing paper for the local school.” (Ben Eklof, Russian Literacy Campaigns,1861– 1939 in Robert F. Arnove and Harvey J. Graff, eds., National Literacy Campaigns and Movements: Historical and Comparative Perspectives)The situation was so dire that “in 1921, the literacy Cheka prepared a brochure for short-term literacy courses including a chapter entitled ‘How to get by without paper, pencils, or pens." Nonetheless, as Serge explains, “in spite of this grotesque misery, a prodigious impulse was given to public education. Such a thirst for knowledge sprang up all over the country that new schools, adult courses, universities and Workers’ Faculties were formed everywhere.” (Victor Serge, Year One) Historian Lisa Kirschenbaum describes the incredible gap between the conditions imposed by famine and what kindergartens were able to accomplish. On the one hand, these schools had to provide food each day for students and teachers in the midst of a famine simply to prevent starvation. And yet, as Kirschenbaum writes, “even with these constraints, local administrations managed to set up some institutions. In 1918, Moscow guberniia [province] led the way with twenty-three kindergartens, eight day cares (ochagi) and thirteen summer playgrounds. A year later it boasted a total of 279 institutions…. Petrograd had no preschool department in 1918, but a year later it reported 106 institutions in the city and 180 in the guberniia outside the city. Other areas reported slower, but still remarkable, increases.” (Lisa A. Kirschenbaum, Small Comrades: Revolutionizing Childhood in Soviet Russia, 1917–1932) Within these preschools, teachers experimented with radical pedagogy, particularly the notion of “free upbringing,” as “teachers insisted that freedom in the classroom was part and parcel of the Revolution’s transformation of social life.” Kirschenbaum elaborates: “By allowing, as one teacher expressed it, the ‘free development of [children’s] inherent capabilities and developing independence, creative initiative, and social feeling,’ svobodnoe vospitanie [free upbringing] played a ‘very important role in the construction of a new life.’” A central aspect of expanding literacy in revolutionary Russia was deciding in which language, or languages, literacy should be developed. Before the revolution, tsarist colonialism had forged a multinational empire in which ethnic Russians comprised only 43 percent of the population. A central political 49
question for the Bolsheviks—the majority of whom were Russian - was how to combat the legacy of Russian chauvinism while also winning non-Russian nationalities to the project of the revolution. A full discussion of this history is beyond the scope of this chapter. But it is important to underscore how progressive Bolshevik politics were with respect to native language education. Already in October 1918, the general policy was established to provide for native language education in any school where twenty-five or more pupils in each age group spoke the same language. Implementing the policy depended on a number of factors. For example, within Russia proper, where some national minorities such as Ukrainians and Byelorussians were already assimilated, few native-language programs were set up. Within Ukraine itself, however, the extent of native-language education was reflected in the rapid demand for Ukrainian language teachers and Ukrainian-language textbooks in the years following the revolution. Nativizing language and literacy education for populations in the Caucasus and Central Asian regions of the old empire was a more complicated task. In part, the difficulty stemmed from efforts under tsarism to use differences in dialect to divide native peoples in these regions. In addition, in some cases the languages most widely spoken had not yet developed a writing system. Thus, part of nativizing education meant deciding which language should be used in school, and which system (for example, Cyrillic, Roman, or Arabic script, or something different altogether) should be used to write it. Despite these practical challenges, native language education became the rule rather than the exception. Again, a key indication is the number of languages in which textbooks were published, which grew from twenty-five in 1924 to thirty-four in 1925 to fortyfour in 1927. As British socialist Dave Crouch summarizes: “By 1927 native language education for national minorities outside their own republic or region was widespread, while in their own republic it was almost total.” (Dave Crouch, “The Seeds of National Liberation”, International Socialism Journal 94) At the same time universities were opened up to workers as preliminary exams were abolished to allow them to attend lectures. The lectures themselves were free, art was made public, and the number of libraries was dramatically increased. There was an incredible hunger for learning in a society in which people were making democratic decisions about their lives and their society. One writer describes: “One course, for example, is attended by a thousand men in spite of the appalling cold of the lecture rooms. The hands of the science
professors . . . are frostbitten from touching the icy metal of their instruments during demonstrations.” A whole new educational system was created in which traditional education was thrown out and new, innovative techniques were implemented that emphasized self-activity, collectivism, and choice, and that drew on students’ prior experience, knowledge, and interaction with the real world. Anna-Louise Strong, an American journalist who traveled extensively in Russia after the revolution, wrote about her experiences and recounts a conversation with one teacher: “We call it the Work School,” said a teacher to me. “We base all study on the child’s play and his relation to productive work. We begin with the life around him. How do the people in the village get their living? What do they produce? What tools do they use to produce it? Do they eat it all or exchange some of it? For what do they exchange it? What are horses and their use to man? What are pigs and what makes them fat? What are families and how do they support each other, and what is a village that organizes and cares for the families?” “This is interesting nature study and sociology,” I replied, “but how do you teach mathematics?” He looked at me in surprise. “By real problems about real situations,” he answered. “Can we use a textbook in which a lord has ten thousand rubles and puts five thousand out at interest and the children are asked what his profit is? The old mathematics is full of problems the children never see now, of situations and money values which no longer exist, of transactions which we do not wish to encourage. Also it was always purely formal, divorced from existence. We have simple problems in addition, to find out how many cows there are in the village, by adding the number in each family. Simple problems of division of food, to know how much the village can export. Problems of proportion,—if our village has three hundred families and the next has one thousand, how many red soldiers must each give to the army, how many delegates is each entitled to in the township soviet? The older children work out the food-tax for their families; that really begins to interest the parents in our schools.” (Anna-Louise Strong, The First Time in History) Within schools, student governments were set up - even at the elementary school level - in which elected student representatives worked with teachers and other school workers to run the schools. In so doing, schools became places where students learned “collective action” and began to put the principles of the revolution in practice. As Strong described: “We have our self-governed school 51
community, in which teachers, children and janitors all have equal voice. It decides everything, what shall be done with the school funds, what shall be planted in the school garden, what shall be taught. If the children decide against some necessary subject, it is the teacher’s job to show them through their play and life together that the subject is needed.” She continues by describing a school for orphans and homeless children where basic needs such as food, clothing, and hygiene had to be met before any real learning could begin. Additionally, the students spoke more than a dozen different dialects, making the shared development of a common language one of the school’s first goals. But, as the writer describes, “those were famine conditions. Yet the children in this school, just learning to speak to each other, had their School Council for self-government which received a gift of chocolate I sent them, duly electing a representative to come and get it and furnishing her with proper papers of authorization. They divided the chocolate fairly.” A more skeptical writer, William Chamberlin, a journalist with the Christian Science Monitor who passed on information to US intelligence, described a school in which students in the higher grades “receive tasks in each subject, requiring from a week to a month for completion. They are then left free to carry out these tasks as they see fit.” (William Henry Chamberlin, “The Revolution in Education and Culture” in Soviet Russia: A Living Record and a History). He continued: "Visiting a school where this system was in operation I found the pupils at work in various classrooms, studying and writing out their problems in composition, algebra, and elemental chemistry. Sometimes the teacher was in the room, sometimes not, but the students were left almost entirely to their own resources. The teacher seemed to function largely in an advisory capacity, giving help only when asked. If the students preferred talk or games to study, the teacher usually overlooked it. Each student was free to choose the subject or subjects on which he would work on any particular day. This absence of external restriction is a very marked characteristic of the Soviet school. The maintenance of discipline is in the hands of organizations elected by the students themselves, and while one seldom witnesses actual rowdyism in the classroom, one is also unlikely to find the strict order that usually prevails in the schools of other countries." Chamberlin questioned Lunacharsky, the commissar for education, about whether such a model provided sufficient education in basic skills such as grammar and spelling. Lunacharsky replied: “Frankly, we don’t attach so much 52
importance to the formal school discipline of reading and writing and spelling as to the development of the child’s mind and personality. Once a pupil begins to think for himself he will master such tools of formal knowledge as he may need. And if he doesn’t learn to think for himself no amount of correctly added sums or correctly spelled words will do him much good.” But, Chamberlin explained, it was hard to provide hard data on the success of the program, as “marks are proverbially an unreliable gauge of students’ ability; and Russia has no grading system.” Examinations were also largely abolished, including those that had previously been necessary to gain entrance into institutions of higher education. Why? Because “it was believed that no one would willingly listen to lectures that were of no use to him.”
Anatoly Lunacharsky The revolution inspired a wide range of innovative thinkers in education and psychology. Lev Vygotsky, known as the “Mozart of psychology,” created a legacy of influential work in child and adolescent psychology and cognition, despite being stymied and all but silenced under Stalinism. He began with a Marxist method and analyzed the way in which social relations are at the heart of children’s learning process. He wrote that he intended to develop a new scientific psychology not by quoting Marxist texts but rather “having learned the whole of Marx’s method” and applying it to the study of consciousness and culture, using psychology as his tool of investigation. Vygotsky used this method to investigate the creation of “higher mental processes,” as opposed to more “natural” mental functions, which are biologically endowed. These higher mental processes are mediated by humanmade psychological tools (for example, language), and include voluntary attention, active perception, and intentional memory. He also traced the dialectical development and interaction of thought and language, which results 53
in the internalization of language, verbalized thought, and conceptual thinking. He argued that mental development is a sociohistorical process both for the human species and for individuals as they develop, becoming “humanized” from birth. Personality begins forming at birth in a dialectical manner, with the child an active agent in appropriating elements from her environment (not always consciously) in line with her internal psychological structure and unique individual social activity. For Vygotsky, education plays a decisive role in “not only the development of the individual’s potential, but in the expression and growth of the human culture from which man springs,” and which is transmitted to succeeding generations. Through applied research in interdisciplinary educational psychology, Vygotsky developed concepts such as the zone of proximal development, in which joint social activity and instruction “marches ahead of development and leads it; it must be aimed not so much at the ripe as the ripening functions.” (L. S. Vygotsky, Thought and Language) This view clashed with Piaget’s insistence on the necessity of passively waiting for a level of biological and developmental maturity prior to instruction. Vygotsky devoted himself to the education of mentally and physically handicapped children; he founded and directed the Institute for the Study of Handicapped Children, which focused on the social development of higher mental processes among children with disabilities. He also discovered characteristics of “preconceptual” forms of thinking associated with schizophrenia and other psychopathologies. Vygotsky saw as the historical task of his time the creation of an integrated scientific psychology on a dialectical, material, historical foundation that would help the practical transformation of society. As he argued, “it is practice which poses the tasks and is the supreme judge of theory.” Although this task was incomplete upon his death, and both his work and the revolution itself were derailed by Stalinism (his work was banned under Stalin for twenty years after his death), he made great headway in this process, and laid a foundation for others who have been inspired to further elaborate upon and develop his ideas. The immense poverty and scarcity of material resources after the Russian Revolution and the subsequent Stalinist counterrevolution distorted the revolutionary promise of education reform in the early years. Nonetheless, the Russian Revolution provides important examples of the possibilities for the creativity and radical reform that could be unleashed by revolutionary transformation of society at large - even amid the worst conditions. While the adult literacy campaign’s accomplishments were thus limited, and much of the data is hotly contested as a result of Stalinist distortions, it had 54
important successes. In its first year of existence, the campaign reached five million people, â€œabout half of whom learned to read and write.â€? While literacy statistics are hard to find, it is worth noting that the number of rural mailboxes increased from 2,800 in 1913 to 64,000 in 1926 as newspaper subscriptions and the exchange of written communications substantially increasedâ€”a notable corollary of increased literacy. In unions, literacy programs were quite successful. To give one example, a campaign among railway workers led to a 99 percent literacy rate by 1924. Similarly, in the Red Army, where literacy and education were deemed crucial to ensure that soldiers were politically engaged with its project, illiteracy rates decreased from 50 percent to only 14 percent three years later, and 8 percent one year after that. On its seventh anniversary, the army achieved a 100 percent literacy rate, an immense accomplishment, even if short-lived, as new conscripts made continual education necessary. Perhaps more important than any of the data, however, are the plethora of stories of innovation and radically restructured ideas of schooling, teaching, and learning as students at all levels took control of their own learning, imbued with a thirst for knowledge in a world which was theirs to create and run in their own interests.
Conclusion The complete transformation of education and literacy during the Russian Revolution exposes the lies at the heart of American education - that competition drives innovation, that punishments and rewards are the only motivations for learning, and that schools are the great levelers that provide every child with an equal opportunity to succeed. If we have anything to learn from the revolutionary literacy campaigns of Russia, it is that genuine learning triumphs in revolutionary situations that provide people with real opportunities for collective and cooperative inquiry and research; that literacy is always political; and that radical pedagogy is most successful when it actively engages people in the transformation of their own worlds - not simply in the world of ideas, but by transforming the material conditions in which reading, writing, and learning take place. Compare that to rote memorization of disconnected bits of information, bubble tests, and scripted, skill-based curricula that suck the love of learning out of children in our schools. Radical educators should draw on these lessons wherever possible to fight for an educational system that is liberatory rather than stultifying, sees students as thinkers and actors rather than empty containers to be filled, and recognizes that 55
collaboration and collective action are far more useful for our students than individualism and meritocracy. But for most teachers, the opportunities to implement the lessons of these struggles are extremely limited as curricula are standardized and stripped of any political meaning, testing triumphs over critical thinking, and our jobs are increasingly contingent on how much “value” we’ve added to a test score. It is no coincidence that the best examples of radical pedagogy come from revolutionary periods of struggle, as newly radicalized students and teachers put forward new visions of education and reshape pedagogy. As teachers, we know that students can’t just ignore the many inequalities they face outside of the school building and overcome these through acts of sheer will. Genuine literacy that emphasizes critical thinking, political consciousness, and self-emancipation cannot happen in a vacuum. The creation of a liberatory pedagogy and literacy goes hand in hand with the self-emancipation of working people through revolutionary transformations of society as a whole. Under capitalism, education will always be a means of maintaining class divisions rather than eradicating them. To imagine an educational system that is truly liberatory, we need to talk about fighting for a different kind of society - a socialist society in which, as Marx described, “the free development of each is the precondition for the free development of all.” It is only by transforming our society to eradicate poverty, prisons, oppression, and exploitation in all its forms that we can fully unleash human potential and creativity. Imagine a society in which teachers and students democratically decided what learning should look like and where learning was freed from the confines of a classroom. Imagine what true lifelong learning could look like in a world in which we were free to develop our own courses of study and unlock the creative potential of humanity. If we can learn anything from the history of education and literacy, it is that such a revolutionary transformation of society is both possible and urgently needed. This article first appeared in Issue #82 of International Socialist Review (ISR Issue #82) and is an excerpt from the chapter “Literacy and Revolution” in the new Haymarket book, Education and Capitalism.
The New Planet â€“ Konstantin Yuon, 1921
Revolution and Science under the Bolsheviks
Let Us Unite All the Forces of Science with the Creative Energy of the Working Class – A. A. Kokorekin, 1932 Andy Byford explains how science became one of the centrepieces of the Bolshevik revolutionary imagination. In Russia, 1917 was a year of two very different revolutions. The downfall of tsarism in February was a point of historic rupture – an overturn of history, a momentous departure from the past. The Bolshevik coup in October was a shock takeover – a defiant challenge to history, with eyes set firmly on the future. Science played an important part in the meaning and purpose that the latter, Communist, revolution had forged for itself. If the Bolsheviks grabbed the reins of history to enable the oppressed portion of humanity to finally take charge of its own destiny, then science, through which humanity mastered the production and reproduction of the material basis of life, was crucial to keeping a firm hold on these reins. This was how science became one of the centrepieces of the Bolshevik revolutionary imagination.
Fig. 1 The Soviets and Electrification are the Foundation of the New World (A. N. Samokhvalov, 1924) It was the Russian autocracy that had, since Peter the Great, institutionalised science in Russia, building it expressly as an instrument of the might of the imperial state. However, the campaign for Russia’s modernisation that Peter triggered so uncompromisingly at the start of the eighteenth century, and in which the development of Russian science and technology was key, is itself commonly interpreted as a ‘revolution from above’. In contrast, Russian revolutionaries had been claiming science as a force of revolution ‘from below’ since at least the 1860s. Key scientists of the day – especially those whose work was embedded in a radically materialist worldview and who emblematised the ability of Man to manipulate the forces of life – were turned into veritable heroes of the struggle for a better society.
Fig. 2 Ivan Mikhailovich Sechenov (1829-1905), ‘the father of Russian physiology’, served as role model to the young Nihilists of the 1860s. The Russian empire’s scientific profession – which had, by the turn of the twentieth century, grown to a respectable size and made a definitive mark on the international stage – was, in its turn, a staunch defender of the autonomy of science. Its members, for the most part liberal progressives, saw science as vital to improving the lot of humanity and bringing enlightenment to a still backward Russia. They consistently argued that putting Russia on a path of progress required far more investment in science and far greater freedom for science than the tsarist regime seemed prepared to concede. But they also maintained that the logic and values of science were above the fray of politics as such: that science was intrinsically independent of the vagaries of ideology or political will. Which is not to say that they were apolitical. Their sense of civic responsibility, their understanding of themselves as a prominent part of the nation’s social and intellectual vanguard, made them always ready to engage with the burning issues of the day, even when the unfolding political events were out of their control.
Fig. 3 Ivan Petrovich Pavlov (1849-1936) was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1904 for his contributions to the physiology of digestion; Ilya Ilych Mechnikov (1845-1916) was awarded the same prize in 1908 for his work on immunity. In the months following the abdication of tsar Nicholas II in February 1917, many members of the Russian scientific profession assumed active roles in the makeshift revolutionary regime that formed around the Provisional Government. They saw their expertise, and the wisdom that came from their dedication to science, as vitally needed if the country’s temporary leadership was to succeed in steering the former empire out of its constitutional crisis. Yet the unexpected seizure of power by the Bolsheviks in October 1917, soon to be followed by a brutal civil war, produced an unprecedented political situation in which pursuing ‘normal science’ could no longer be maintained. In the conditions that overtook the country, science had no choice but to become ‘revolutionary’. The political leadership of what in 1922 became the Soviet Union seized on science as an essential tool of revolutionary change – an instrument whose power and legitimacy was wielded as decisive to the stream of radical transformations into which the country was imminently thrown. Science was framed as one of the principal means of achieving the grand vision of a new world, and it was also vaunted as a major feature of this promised future.
Fig. 4 Konstantin Yuon, The New Planet (1921) Like all parts of a revolutionary society, science was mobilised for the purposes of doing the work of the revolution itself: first, dealing with the emergencies of revolutionary upheaval; second, combating the pernicious remnants of the old order (not least â€˜religious superstitionâ€™); third, building a radically new economic and social infrastructure (with particular focus on supporting industrial labour); and fourth, both materially and symbolically enacting revolutionary advancement as such.
Fig. 5 Aleksei Kapitonovich Gastev (1882-1939), pioneer of the Soviet science of labour. 62
The expectation was that, in conditions of revolution, science was going to be practiced as it had never been practiced before. A revolutionary science was science whose powers were (at last) released from the fetters which had been holding it back for so long - namely, the vested interests of the reactionary autocratic state, retrograde feudal nobility, obscurantist clergy and selfish bourgeoisie. Revolutionary science was now free to transcend established institutional boundaries and soar into uncharted waters: old disciplines were jettisoned from the ship of an emergent socialist modernity as new fields of knowledge, with new ideas and methodologies, took their place.
Fig. 6 Vladimir Ivanovich Vernadsky (1863-1945) conceptualised the â€˜noosphereâ€™ as the latest phase in the development of the Earth â€“ the phase in which human cognition radically and durably transforms the geo- and biosphere. Blue-sky thinking and transdisciplinarity were the order of the day, as innovations that promised the most radical transformations on the largest of scales and in the quickest of time were welcomed with particular excitement. Experiments that bordered on miracle-making were accorded the highest prominence in the public arena.
Fig. 7 Sergei Briukhonenko (1890-1960) developed the heart-and-lung machine in widely publicised experiments in which the life functions of a dogâ€™s severed head were temporarily preserved. This was no cynical use of science for revolutionary propaganda â€“ the Bolshevik leadership was itself keen to believe in the possibility of impossible feats: scientific miracles served as the decisive confirmation of the rightness of the revolutionary act itself. The utopian heights that science was expected to reach became a direct inversion of the depths of deprivation and devastation out of which the Soviet Union needed to rise in the wake of the revolutionary civil war.
Fig. 8 Konstantin Tsiolkovsky (1857-1935), the pioneer of Russian rocket science, inspired the beginnings of Soviet cosmonautics and fed into the boom of Russian science fiction (e.g. by authors such as Alexander Belyaev). In a revolutionary society, imaginaries of science fused with scientific imaginaries: the flourishing of science fiction and popular science became inseparable from the scientists’ own ventures into zones where humanity’s power over life, time and space was constantly being tested. Science was framed as capable of revealing unthinkable truths and curing incurable ills; of bending nature to human will and remaking the human to its own design. In order to master nature definitively, taboos had to be broken and ethical doubts set aside. For humanity as a whole to benefit, ‘human material’ could not be sacred.
Fig. 9 In the 1920s, disciples of I. P. Pavlov, N. I. Krasnogorskii and A. A. Iushchenko, carried out experiments on homeless and sick children in the same way as Pavlov had originally done on dogs. Other researchers, such as V. N. Osipova at V. M. Bekhterev’s Brain Institute in Leningrad, studied the role of reflexes in learning through experiments in which children were exposed to small electroshocks. The faith built around the powers of science in general came, however, with an important set of specific expectations and demands. The new regime’s support for science was always based on the assumption that science was being harnessed in order to realise the revolution’s primary objective – the construction of a radiant socialist society on the ashes of a dead empire. Indeed, venerated as they were in their own right, the powers of science were legitimate only if poured into the much greater powers of those who had taken it upon themselves to lead the revolution - those who possessed the ultimate truths by virtue of their mastery over History itself. While revolutionary science was the key part of the arsenal with which the Bolsheviks sought to conquer History, science was not considered immune to History’s own laws. And History’s unfolding was – according to Bolshevik dogma adapted from Marxist theory – determined, ultimately, by the history of class struggle. Indeed, for all their veneration of Science, the Bolsheviks were bound, by ideological commitment, to maintain a systematic suspicion of the
scientists – specifically the ‘bourgeois specialists’ who dominated the scientific institutions which the new state had inherited from the preceding social order. And yet, if the Bolsheviks were to meet the exceptional challenges that they had so brazenly taken on in October 1917, they had little choice but to both support and trust the expertise of the group whose loyalties, based on its members’ presumed class allegiances, they did not think they could fully rely on. There was no contradiction in this apparent compromise of co-opting a scientific community which they considered to be on the wrong side of History: on the contrary, it was exemplary of both the dialectics and the tactics of the Bolshevik revolution. Despite the exceptional upheaval that the country was going through, the scientists were strategically protected from the worst of the deprivations of the early 1920s. Significant investment in and infrastructural expansion of scientific facilities (now funded strictly from state coffers) allowed scientific work to develop apace and flourish against the odds. Many of the more important scientists established close links with key figures in the new political establishment. They lobbied for funding across different, often rival, state departments and were invited to take part in the proliferating policymaking committees of an expanding bureaucracy. Although many scientists were wary of the political agendas of those who now wielded power over the state (and thereby over their own work), the profession took the deal that was on the table. Most had little alternative but to cooperate and were ready to adapt for the sake of continuing with their research. Many spied new opportunities in the Bolsheviks’ enthusiasm for science-based interventionism, and some were flattered to be involved in influencing state policy as related to their specialism. The majority would, in fact, have shared the Bolsheviks’ conviction that science had the power, the right and the duty to transform the world, including what it meant to be human, for the ‘better’. And even though many would have had reservations about the imposed ideological framework, the actual undertaking laid before them was aligned with their own sense of duty to advance their country through their science. Scientists, therefore, actively partook in and contributed to the revolutionary spirit of the 1920s. But in a revolutionary society science itself had to be revolutionised. This, crucially, entailed that the merely transitional cohort of ‘bourgeois specialists’ would soon ‘wither away’ to be replaced by a new generation of scientific labourers who would come from the ranks of the proletariat. A ‘new model army’ of ideologically literate scientific youth were to be trained in a parallel 67
new network of Communist institutions of higher learning that the Bolsheviks started to build over the course of the 1920s. These establishments were designed to produce those who could embody science as labour in a way which was inseparable from the interests of the proletarian class, to which the future ultimately belonged.
Fig. 10 Let Us Unite All the Forces of Science with the Creative Energy of the Working Class (A. A. Kokorekin, 1932). It was in these institutions that science was framed most explicitly as an ideological weapon of revolutionary struggle. It was here that ‘science’ became split into good (‘Marxist’) and bad (‘bourgeois’), the two pitted against each other in ritualised performances of the battle between ‘materialism’ and ‘idealism’ (or alternatively, between ‘dialectical materialism’ and some other, vulgar or aberrant, materialist worldview). Aside from prompting, towards the end of the 1920s, a wholesale shift in the rhetorical articulation of the sciences in the Soviet Union, this development transformed science from a weapon of revolutionary struggle into a target of a revolutionary ‘siege’. From this perspective, if the proletarian class was to maintain its grip on History, science as a social institution had to be not co-opted, but subjugated. This, however, belongs to the next chapter in the story of Soviet science – the cultural revolution and the Stalinisation of science which began at the turn of the 1930s. 68
Sports Games of the Soviet Peoples â€“ Vlasov, 1928
Sport and the Russian Revolution
Farmer, be an athlete Gareth Edwards considers the changing attitudes to sport that resulted from the Russian Revolution. 70
In 1917 the Russian Revolution turned the world upside down, inspiring millions of people with its vision of a society built on solidarity and the fulfilment of human need. In the process it unleashed an explosion of creativity in art, music, poetry and literature. It touched every area of people’s lives, including the games they played. Sport, however, was far from being a priority. The Bolsheviks, who had led the revolution, were confronted with civil war, invading armies, widespread famine and a typhus epidemic. Survival, not leisure, was the order of the day. It would be easy to characterise the Bolsheviks as being anti-sports. Leading members of the party, such as Leon Trotsky and Anotoli Lunacharsky, were close to those most critical of sport during the physical culture debates that took place in the early 1920s. In addition, the party’s attitude to the Olympics is normally given as evidence to support this anti-sport claim. The Bolsheviks boycotted the Games on the grounds they would “deflect workers from the class struggle and train them for imperialist wars”. Yet in reality the Bolshevik’s attitudes towards sport were somewhat more complicated. In the aftermath of the revolution, sport would, unsurprisingly, play a political role for the Bolsheviks. Facing internal and external threats which would decimate the working class, they saw sport as a means by which the health and fitness of the population could be improved. As early as 1918 they issued a decree, On Compulsory Instruction in the Military Art, introducing physical training to the education system. The position of women in society had already been greatly improved through the legalisation of abortion and divorce, but sport could also play a role by increasingly bringing women into public life. “It is our urgent task to draw women into sport,” said Lenin. “If we can achieve that and get them to make full use of the sun, water and fresh air for fortifying themselves, we shall bring an entire revolution in the Russian way of life.”
Youth – to the stadiums! – Golovanov, 1947 And sport became another way of conveying the ideals of the revolution to the working classes of Europe. The worker-sport movement stretched across the continent and millions of workers were members of sports clubs run mainly by reformist organisations. The Red Sports International (RSI) was formed in 1921 with the express intention of connecting with these workers. Through the following decade the RSI (and the reformist Socialist Worker Sports International) held a number of Spartakiads and Worker Olympics in opposition to the official Olympic Games. Just as important was that participation in the new physical culture could be a life-affirming activity, allowing people to experience the freedom and movement of their own bodies. Lenin was convinced that recreation and exercise were integral parts of a well-rounded life. “Young people especially need to have a zest for life and be in good spirits. Healthy sport – gymnastics, swimming, hiking all manner of physical exercise – should be combined as much as possible with a variety of intellectual interests, study, analysis and investigation… Healthy bodies, healthy minds!” But the Bolsheviks were never overly prescriptive in their analysis of what physical culture should look like. It was not for the party to decide what constituted the best system of sports or produce the correct line for the working class to follow. Rather it was for the mass of people to discuss and debate, experiment and innovate, and in that process, create their own sports and games. Nobody could foresee exactly what the play of a future socialist society would be like, but equally no one could doubt that the need to play would assert itself. As Trotsky said, “The longing for amusement, distraction, sight-seeing and laughter is the most legitimate of human nature.” 72
The Bolsheviks’ approach was just one strand in the wider physical culture debate, which also included the hygienists and the Proletkultists. The hygienists, as the name implies, were a collection of doctors and health care professionals whose attitudes were informed by their medical knowledge. Generally speaking, they were critical of sport, concerned that its emphasis on competition placed participants at risk of injury. They were equally disdainful of the West’s preoccupation with running faster, throwing further or jumping higher than ever before. “It is completely unnecessary and unimportant,” said A.A. Zikmund, head of the Physical Culture Institute in Moscow, “that anyone set a new world or Russian record.” Instead the hygienists advocated non-competitive physical pursuits - like gymnastics and swimming -as ways for people to stay healthy and relax. For a time, the hygienists influenced Soviet policy on questions of physical culture. It was on their advice that certain sports were prohibited, and football, boxing and weight-lifting were all omitted from the programme of events at the First Trade Union Games in 1925. However, the hygienists were far from unanimous in their condemnation of sport. V.V. Gorinevsky, for example, was an advocate of playing tennis, which he saw as being an ideal physical exercise. Nikolai Semashko, a doctor and the People’s Commissar for Health, went much further arguing that sport was “the open gate to physical culture” which “develops the sort of will-power, strength and skill that should distinguish Soviet people.” In contrast to the hygienists the Proletkult movement was unequivocal in its rejection of ‘bourgeois’ sport. Indeed, they denounced anything that smacked of the old society, be it in art, literature or music. They saw the ideology of capitalism woven into the fabric of sport. Its competitiveness set workers against each other, dividing people by tribal and national identities, while the physicality of the games put unnatural strains on the bodies of the players. In place of sport Proletkultists argued for new, proletarian forms of play, founded on the principles of mass participation and cooperation. Often these new games were huge theatrical displays looking more like carnivals or parades than the sports we see today. Contests were shunned on the basis that they were ideologically incompatible with the new socialist society. Participation replaced spectating, and each event contained a distinct political message, as is apparent from some of their names: Rescue from the Imperialists; Smuggling Revolutionary Literature Across the Frontier; and Helping the Proletarians. The hopes of the revolution died, alongside thousands of old Bolsheviks, with the rise of Josef Stalin. The collectivist ideals of 1917 were buried, replaced by 73
exploitation and brutal repression. Internationalism was jettisoned in favour of “socialism in one country”. As the values and imperatives of the society changed so too did the character of the country’s physical culture. By 1925 the Bolsheviks had already turned towards a more elitist model of sport. Around this time Stalin is reported to have said: “We compete with the bourgeoisie economically, politically, and not without success. We compete everywhere possible. Why not compete in sport?” Team sports reappeared, complete with capitalist style league and cup structures. Successful sportspeople were held up as heroes in the Soviet Union and the quest for records resumed. Many of the hygienists and Proletkultists who had dared to dream of new forms of physical culture perished in the purges. Eventually sport became a proxy for the Cold War. In 1952 the Soviet Union was re-integrated into the Olympic movement, ensuring that the relative strength of East and West was measured at each Games in gold, silver and bronze. As the country was inexorably compelled into economic, political and military competition on the international stage, so it also found itself drawn into sporting competition with the West. Just as it would be a mistake to judge the ideals of the Russian Revolution by the horrors of Stalinism, so we should not allow the latter days of Soviet sport to obscure those remarkable early experiments in physical culture. Today, sport is a plaything of oil sheiks and states, corporations and oligarchs. Corruption, controversy and doping are all rife. Sports fans are increasingly priced out of the games they love to watch and play; workers building the stadiums for global mega-events are, tragically, paying a much higher price. The need for a critique of the contemporary sports world is, if anything, even more urgent than it was 100 years ago.
The Russian Revolution and Avant-Garde Architecture
The People's House – Il'ia Golosov, 1924 Jean Turner looks at the dramatic changes that took place in architecture following the Bolshevik Revolution. In the nineteenth century, as in all the other arts, Russians were examining new forms of expression in architecture, following a backlash against Peter the Great’s import of classical architecture to Russia and the rejection of Catherine the Great’s Age of Enlightenment. Designers returned to interpreting traditional Russian forms of building and decoration. This took place in a fervour of intellectual debate on the correct principles of building. In her book Russian Avant-Garde Catherine Cooke describes the different centres of architectural theory: “[…] the Architecture School of the Imperial Academy of Arts in St Petersburg was a bastion of Classicism but it had two more radical rivals, the architecture department of the St Petersburg Building College and the Royal College in Moscow. In the 1850s and ‘60s it was teachers in these two schools, Apollinari Krasovsky in Petersburg and Mikhail Bykovsky in Moscow, who laid the foundations in Russia for a Rationalist view of architecture rooted in new technologies and social tasks.” After the assassination of Alexander III by People’s Will (Narodnaya Volya), an authoritarian social order was imposed. However, a new class of industrialist and banking dynasties had arisen from among the freed serfs with strong nationalist and cultural prejudices based on peasant and mercantile values. Their chosen form of design emerged as Moderne, or Art Nouveau, personified by the work of Fyodor Shekhtel. As in other countries at this time, women were demanding entry to universities to receive architecture training. Since all the colleges were involved in radical
unrest against tsarist authoritarianism, it was feared that women, often being supporters of radical workers’ demands, would bring trouble to the universities. Among five women at the Congress of Russian Architects in 1911, two - Elena Bagaeva and Luisi Molas - ran their own architectural school, using the Academy curriculum and professors from the College of Civil Engineering. In 1902 women’s construction classes were pioneered in Moscow by Ivan Fomin, William Walcot and others, and held at Shekhtel’s office premises. By 1917 women had their own polytechnics in Moscow and Petersburg with full fiveyear courses in architecture, structural engineering, chemistry and electromechanics, and had by decree achieved “the right to erect buildings”. However, the decree was only implemented, along with many other practical and educational freedoms, after the Bolshevik Revolution of October 1917. The first two decrees of the new Bolshevik Government were the Decree on Peace, which took Russia out of World War I, and the Decree on Land, which nationalised all land and real estate, laying a new and unique foundation for Soviet architecture and planning. Lenin handed Anatoly Lunacharsky control of the Commissariat of Enlightenment (Narkompros). This shaped a policy of public education, including a planned appropriation of the heritage of the old world alongside the new forms that had emerged in the arts and architecture. This view was later challenged in 1920 by Alexander Bogdanov’s Proletkult which argued that the proletarians themselves would create new forms of culture ab initio. In November 1917 the Bolshevik Party called a meeting at the Smolny Institute of Petrograd’s progressive younger painters, writers and designers to discuss their potential collaboration with Soviet power. With equal speed, the new Commissariat harnessed the support of the more establishment artists such as Boris Kustodiev, Kuzma Petrov-Vodkin and Alexander Benois, charging them with the preservation of art works in public buildings and with creating a preservation policy for historic buildings. Rebels such as Vladimir Mayakovsky, Alexander Rodchenko and Lyubov Popova, originally on the fringe of the respectable world of academia, began teaching in art schools and research institutions. The Higher Art and Technical Workshops (VKhUTEMAS) in Moscow produced the artistic movements of Rationalism and Constructivism. The Rationalists focused on aesthetic rationality and form; the Constructivists on technical rationality and science. The Suprematists Ivan Leonidov and Iakov Chernikov favoured individual buildings of an abstract geometric quality on open sites. Classicism was not 76
totally rejected but took new forms, for example in the work of Ivan and Igor Fomin, and Vladimir Shchuko and Vladimir Gelfreikh who designed the Lenin Library. Much of their first work was theoretical because the five years of civil war and foreign intervention had destroyed the economy. Traditional building industry materials were virtually unobtainable. Models of proposed public buildings and monuments, for example Vladimir Tatlin’s 1919 Monument to the Third Communist International, were produced in the materials available but without any possibility of construction. According to John Milner, Tatlin’s Tower was intended to span the River Neva.
Rusakov Workers' Club, Konstantin Melnikov, 1927-28 During the civil war period, artists, actors and designers were at liberty to create propaganda productions for the new Soviet state. In the words of Alexei Gan, “the whole city would be the stage and the entire proletarian masses of Moscow the performers”. These productions became a focus of revolutionary design. Petrograd held an enormous festival for the first anniversary of the October Revolution that involved eighty-five separate design projects across the city by famous artists and designers, including Nathan Altman who decorated Palace Square with a temporary architectural sculpture. No major reconstruction could begin until the problem of rapid production of building materials had been resolved. However, these propaganda projects and models were to form the basis of the now famous avant-garde buildings built between 1923 and the 1930s when Soviet architecture influenced the West, rather than vice versa. All were designed by Soviet architects, with the exception of a few by Le Corbusier and Erich Mendelsohn.
The emphasis was on the rapid building of communal housing and services, workers’ clubs, palaces of culture and department stores. These were intended to improve the education and living conditions of the working class and relieve women from domestic work, allowing them to take a full part in industrial production. In the First Five Year Plan (1928–32) top priority was given to building construction to support rapid development in the electrical, iron, steel and transport industries.
Narkonfin, Moisei Ginzburg and Ignaty Milinis, 1930 Many of these iconic buildings are still standing, albeit some in a poor state of repair. However, they remain a tribute to the power of the Marxist-Leninist ideology that produced the world’s first workers’ and peasants’ socialist state, a state that became the patron of modern art and architecture for over seven decades. This article was first printed in the SCRSS Digest, issue 3, autumn 2017: www.scrss.org.uk/publications.
Witness to the Revolution
John Ellison sketches out the life of Maxim Gorky, the ‘righteous, relentless witness of the revolution’ who evoked the wretchedness and terror of living under Tsarist violence. The life of Maxim Gorky, author of three unforgettable volumes of autobiography covering his first two decades (‘Childhood’, ‘My Apprenticeship’, and ‘My Universities’), of an unforgettable play (‘The Lower Depths’) and of much else, reached the age of 49 less than a fortnight after Tsarist rule crashed out of history in March 1917. His life and work cannot be separated from the revolutionary movement in Russia, before, during and after the events of 1917. He grew up detesting the inhuman conditions of life for most people (gross poverty, mass illiteracy, ignorance and superstition, the crudest of criminal justice arrangements, all blessed by a near-medieval system of government) and the correspondingly inhuman social behaviour these conditions spawned. He hated war. He came to live and breathe socialist convictions which stayed with him. Gorky’s writing had made him famous in Russia before the end of the 1890s, and just as his name cannot be divorced from his role in the cause of revolution, so his life is in his works, fact and fiction alike. His work reveals his gift for close observation, his large repertoire of rich language (derived at least as much from life as from libraries), his astonishing memory, his hatred of cruel and abusive behaviour, and his passion for truth and social justice. 79
‘The first thing that struck one about him,’ wrote French biographer Henri Troyat, ‘was an air of unsophisticated goodness.’ Gorky was initially hostile to Bolshevik rule. On November 20 1917 he wrote in his own newspaper ‘New Life’, with reference to the Lenin-Trotsky government now in power: ‘Sensible democratic elements must decide if they want to go on travelling along this road with plotters and anarchists.’ In the same article, and in others in the months to follow he fulminated against the suppression of freedom of speech, and (also associating these with the Bolshevik regime), terror and pogroms. Yet ‘New Life’ survived until its suppression in July 1918, and within months after that Gorky re-associated himself with the Bolsheviks for good. He had been born with the surname of ‘Peshkov’, which in Russian means ‘pawn’ and only became ‘Gorky’ (which means ‘bitter’ – he aimed to tell ‘the bitter truth’) with his first published story in 1892. His birth on March 28 (new style) 1868 had been in Nizhny Novgorod. His first arrest was in 1889 and was on suspicion of participation in illegal printing. He was arrested again, two years later, as a result of attendance in the Crimea at a funeral service for hanged rebels. In 1898 he was detained for two weeks in Tiflis but, prosecution evidence being water-weak, the upshot was constant police surveillance. Arrested once more in 1901 (over his financial support for student radicals in Kiev), he was ordered into exile, finding a home in the Crimea. In early 1905 he was detained again (for his public appeal for struggle against the regime). By then he was closely associated with Lenin’s Bolshevik party. Three years earlier, in 1902, Gorky’s great play, ‘The Lower Depths’, had been first staged in Moscow, and was accompanied by directions from the authorities that it must not be performed in working class theatres, and must anyway be performed only with the censor’s deletions. It was staged in London to critical admiration as recently as this year – uncensored. Before the end of 1905 – the year of uprising and the defeat of revolutionary hopes – he was on his way to Europe, escaping arrest, having distributed weapons during the rising. He then made his home in Capri, returning to live in Russia in late 1913, with Tsarist censorship somewhat relaxed, and his first memoir volume ‘Childhood’ about to be published. ‘Childhood’ is unique for its recreation, in terrifying detail, of an upbringing in the author’s maternal grandparents’ household, following the death of his father, when the young Maxim was just four years old. The narrative steers away from
dates and ages, but not from the horrors from which he carried scarring memories. It opens, so it seems to the reader, with hammer-blows. He is in a room with his mother, while his mother combs the long hair of his father, who is lying dead on the floor with copper coins on his eyes and his kind face livid. The maternal grandmother is holding Maxim’s little hand. More swiftly happens – severe labour pains for his mother, followed by the birth, death and burial of his new brother. Later days for the young Maxim were not especially joyful. In the home of his grandparents he received from his grandmother much love, many folk tales and religious precepts. But she – and Maxim’s mother – felt powerless to protect him from his grandfather’s ferocious revenge discipline. The grandfather, having risen in the world from pulling barges in his youth, owned a thriving dye-shop which was to decline in the years to come. Lacking much respect for education or for adherence to humane standards of behaviour, he could be described as a self-made, rough-edged, middle class man. From him Maxim received many floggings for minor infractions. The first of these was savage enough to produce unconsciousness and several days’ convalescence. There was much quarrelling between Maxim’s grandfather and his two resident sons, Maxim’s uncles, and between these uncles themselves – one of whom had, the year before Maxim’s arrival in the household, beaten his wife to death. The young Gorky witnessed his grandfather beating his grandmother, while his mother first withdrew from his own care and from the household, and then remarried. The remarriage introduced a new step-grandmother visitor to the home, a woman addicted to wearing green outfits. Gorky remarks: ‘Often the green woman would join us for dinner or tea or supper, sitting like a rotten post in an old fence.’ His mother died when Maxim was eleven, by which time the dye-shop – suffering from severe competition from rivals using more advanced technology – was on its knees. Put out into the working world, beginning in a shoe shop and taking one wretchedly paid job after another, Maxim witnessed endemic theft and violence, and, especially distressing, violence towards, and humiliation of, women. He never had toys, and was jealous of boys who did. Though he had formal schooling only until aged ten, interrupted by exclusions for mischiefmaking, he still managed to learn to read and write, and at the age of thirteen he read Balzac’s ‘Eugenie Grandet’, which was a revelation to him. Novels by Turgenev and Dickens were also to enchant him in his mid-teens. 81
‘Childhood’, as a memoir, is distinctive in the way the young Gorky’s savage experiences are offset by his irrepressible humanity and his desire to learn. Far into the narrative he muses: I might liken myself as a child to a beehive to which various simple, ordinary people brought the honey of their knowledge and views of life, each of them making his own rich contribution to the development of my character. Often the honey was dirty and bitter, but it was knowledge, and so honey for all that. The second volume, ‘My Apprenticeship’, in scene after scene puts on show ‘the hard, half-starved life that people had to lead and the crippling work they had to do’. Gorky wrote elsewhere in this volume of his childhood dream of how things could be changed: …I thought how marvellous it would be to…steal from the greedy and the rich and to hand the money over to the poor; if only everyone were well-fed, cheerful and not envious of one another – perhaps they might stop howling at each other like wild dogs. He was also drawn into sharing in the anger and violence around him. Yet, however grim his situation, Maxim had a child’s sensitivity to the world around him. ‘Black frying pans on the shelves reminded me of faces without eyes.’ His grandmother’s charitable disposition was a major influence. Hardly prosperous herself by this time, she took Maxim out at night, ‘creeping up to some small houses, very cautiously, cross herself three times, leave a fivekopeck piece and three biscuits on the window-sill and cross herself again…’ He also remembered ‘her squatting in front of the stove and muttering: “Kind house-goblin, please get rid of the cockroaches…” ’ During one summer Maxim became a freelance catcher and vendor of songbirds, trapping finches, tits and other birds, then caging and selling them profitably. Recalling this episode – in much circumstantial detail – he wrote of how as a boy he had loved the sun and its rays which ‘I tried to catch…when they jumped like a ball through a hole in the fence or among the branches.’ Through reading popular French novelists translated into Russian, Gorky was able to see, early in his teens, that things in France were different from things in Russia. 'It was clear to me that the Parisian cabdrivers, workmen and soldiers and all the ‘common rabble’ were not the same as in Nizhny, Kazan and Perm. They spoke more boldly to their masters and their relationships with them were much more easy-going…I particularly noticed that when they were describing wicked, 82
greedy or loathsome people those authors did not portray the inexplicable cruelty which was so familiar to me and which I had seen so often.' Later in the book he remarks on the shortness of many lives: ‘…nowhere else did people wear out so terribly quickly, for no reason at all, as in Russia.’ The third volume of memoirs, ‘My Universities’, begins with Gorky as a seventeen-year-old and with a new life begun, away from his grandparents, in and around university city Kazan. He realizes that in his situation entering the university is unrealistic, and finds he can earn a few kopecks humping things around on the wharves of the Volga river, and he gets acquainted with ‘stevedores, tramps and thieves’. The cellar of a house long ruined by fire, and the refuge of stray dogs and cats, becomes ‘one of my universities’. He is searching for a purpose in his life. Before very long a cousin’s letter tells him of his grandmother’s death. She had been begging alms in the church porch, had fallen and broken her leg which, untreated, had become gangrenous and led to her death. He is mostly the observer, not the subject of observation. But his feelings are embedded in his descriptions. He observes of a river locality: ‘A plaintive song floated over the water – somebody’s soul, gently smouldering.’ He is invited to join a small study circle, where discussion of the work of John Stuart Mill does not especially engage him, and at another time he is introduced to a ‘library’ in a room at the back of a grocer’s shop, where handwritten copies of books such as Chernychevsky’s ‘What is to be done’ are stored. Here, furious arguments between students from the University and others from the Theological Academy can be witnessed. Meanwhile, in the bakery where Gorky is working, the men regularly visit brothels on pay day, ‘spitting disgustedly’ when they speak of the prostitutes. This behaviour attracted hatred from Gorky, while he behaved with circumspection when questioned by a police officer, hovering around ‘like a hungry bird of prey’, and demanding to know if he had read the dangerous author Tolstoy. Gorky’s search for a purpose in life abruptly became confused, for at the age of nineteen he attempted suicide, shooting himself in the chest. This caused lung damage which was to trouble him increasingly in later life, and Gorky felt ashamed, even to be alive. The need to have a purpose was confirmed. He moved to a village some thirty miles from Kazan, invited there to help in a shop by a returned political exile, but before long the shop was burned down by 83
agents of hostile better-off peasants. Both the exile, whom Gorky admired, and Gorky himself, had to move on. His recollections as a whole were painted, as it were, in primary colours. Gorky was not a writer famous for the subtle, delicate touches characteristic of Chekhov’s work, or for the complex meditations or insights notable in both Chekhov and Dostoevsky. Chekhov told him ‘that in my opinion you have no restraint’, and some readers may consider some lengthy passages in, especially, ‘My Apprenticeship’, could have benefited from more succinct presentation. The three volumes as a whole are ‘extreme’ biography in the sense that they go far beyond ordinary recall. They are imaginative reconstructions, carrying vast amounts of dialogue and often moment-by-moment descriptions. Still, the memoirs are formidable, both as a collection of revelations about Gorky’s early life and about pre-revolutionary Mother Russia. They end with the beginning of his adult life, when he travels south, reaching the shores of the Caspian. His first arrest in 1889 was followed by his first entry into the professional world, as a lawyer’s clerk. He returned to this work after travel to the Crimea and his second arrest. But large demand for the stories he had begun to publish led to well-paid work for newspapers and then to his marriage in 1896 and to the birth of a son, another Maxim, the following year. In 1898 two volumes of Gorky’s short stories appeared, and his first novel soon after, which was in essence an attack on the greed of capitalists. He was becoming wealthy and famous, and got to know Tolstoy well in the early years of the new century when living near to each other in the Crimea, to which Gorky was then exiled. He failed to convert Tolstoy to Marxism, just as Tolstoy failed to convert him to Christianity. The 1902 play, ‘The Lower Depths’ features more than a dozen characters living cheek by jowl in a doss house run by a landlord and his wife who are also thieves, who have the protection of the wife’s uncle, who is a police officer. The wife has been having an affair with a jailbird lodger, who rejects her in favour of the wife’s sister. Meanwhile a female lodger is dying, but before she dies blames her illness on beatings from her unfeeling husband, who also lives in the house. Another lodger, a widow, says about marriage that ‘it’s like jumping through a hole in the ice for us poor women’. Yet another character is an educated man who has come down in the world, but was once privileged enough ‘to have drunk coffee in bed with cream in it’, while another is an alcoholic actor.
Dark and depressing as the plot is – including three deaths – the play has enormous vitality, and there is a low-key but crucial upside, mainly because of one character. A man of sixty, a Tolstoyan Christian humanist and teacher, declares: ‘Prison doesn’t teach a man to be good, no more than does Siberia. Only another poor soul can do that. It’s true. One soul can teach good to another soul.’ He also speaks of an ideal country, ‘a virtuous land’, believed in as real by somebody he had met, but which he himself seems to acknowledge did not actually exist. It seems to be a metaphor for a socialism of the future. Before the play ends this moral figure has travelled on, but a lodger with fewer ethical credentials says: ‘Man is born – for something better.’ Later, after his participation in the 1905 rising, and having settled in Capri, came Gorky’s ‘class struggle novel’. This was ‘Mother’, completed in 1906, and banned in Russia after heavily censored publication of the first part. But it was published in Russian and in translation abroad. Lenin called it ‘an instrument of revolution’, which it was. Its worker heroes are sentenced to exile for what would in democratic conditions be regarded as legal anti-government activity, such as distributing leaflets and marching. The mother of one of them is then herself caught in a railway station waiting room with a cache of leaflets, and speaks out loudly at the point of arrest: ‘Poverty, hunger and disease – that’s what people get for their work! Everything is against us – all of our lives, day after day, we give our last ounce of strength to our work, always dirty, always fooled, while others reap all the joy and benefits, holding us in ignorance like dogs on a chain – we don’t know anything, holding us in fear – we’re afraid of everything! Our lives are just one long, dark night!’ The book ends with the mother being savagely beaten and choked by a policeman. Propaganda? Yes, but it is propaganda accompanied by passion and a powerful connection with the real world in which Russian factory workers lived and laboured. From 1906 Gorky lived in Capri, until his return to Russia in late 1913. When the 1914 war arrived, he quickly decided to oppose it. In 1915 he wrote in his newly founded magazine ‘The Chronicle’: The press must keep repeating to people that any war – except the war against stupidity is a disaster comparable to cholera. In 1919, after his rapprochement with the Bolsheviks the previous autumn, he made a strong impression on the much younger fellow-writer and socialist Victor Serge: 85
His whole being expressed hunger for knowledge and human understanding, determination to probe all human beings to their depths, never stopping at mere appearances, never tolerating any lies told to him, and never lying to himself. I saw him immediately as the supreme, the righteous, the relentless witness of the Revolution… Gorky was to return to live in Europe in 1921. He became concerned at the increasing censorship of literature in the Soviet Union, though in 1925 declared he could see no other possible regime for the Russian people. He returned to his homeland in 1928, identifying himself closely with the Stalin-led government, becoming, his biographer Henri Troyat wrote: ‘a kind of literary functionary’. Increasingly ill and lonely (his son died in 1934), his creative days were in the past. He had summarized his own limitations as a writer in a letter to anti-war French author Romain Rolland of November 1923. He wrote: I am overloaded with real impressions. I am afflicted with an overdeveloped need to become acquainted with things, I am easily fascinated by their external characteristics. That makes me more of a story-teller than an investigator of the human soul and the enigmas of life. Gorky’s great achievement lay in evoking in depth, with astonishing realist particularity, the wretchedness and violence inherent in the conditions of living in Tsarist times, and in doing so never to overlook the capacity of humankind for showing compassion and support for others, or the belief that another world was possible.
'The most important of the arts': film after the Russian Revolution
Kino eye two – Dzigha Vertov John Green outlines the role of film in the Bolshevik Revolution, and the profound and lasting influence of Russian revolutionary film-makers on cinema not only in the Soviet Union but across the world. According to the Bolshevik government’s first Commissar for Education, Anatoly Lunacharsky, Lenin remarked that, ‘Film for us is the most important of the arts’. What is particularly significant in this position is that Lenin not only clearly recognised film as an art at a time when many still considered it merely a form of cheap entertainment, but that he also recognised, even at this early stage in its development that it would have a huge and influential future. The young Soviet Union was faced with a large population made up of many nations and ethnicities. Overwhelming numbers were illiterate and the means of communication in the country were undeveloped. The Bolshevik leaders were faced with the daunting task of explaining the revolution to the people and galvanising their latent energies, but they didn’t have the luxury of time or tranquil conditions in order to do so. The promise of the new medium of film – at that time still only a silent medium and used as a fairground entertainment only – was recognized immediately by those with imagination and vision.
The possibilities of cinema as a propaganda, agitational and educational tool intrigued the Soviet leaders. Their fascination with new technology in general as a means of transforming a backward society probably contributed as well. Lenin dictated this note to the Commissariat of Education, which was responsible for the cinema, with a request that it draw up a programme of action based on his directives. In an early conversation that Lunacharsky, the first Commissar for Education, had with Lenin, he recalls that Lenin uttered his oft quoted statement ‘that of all the arts the most important for us is the cinema.’ A declaration was issued by the People’s Commissariat for Education on the organisation of film showings. A definite proportion should be fixed for every film-showing programme. And while it recognised that film is very much a medium of entertainment, in programming it insisted that there must be a strong educational and propaganda component. The Commissariat for Education also stressed that films ‘From the life of peoples of all countries,’ should be screened in order that film-makers should have an incentive for producing new pictures. ‘Special attention should be given to organising film showings in the villages and in the East, where they are novelties and where our propaganda, therefore, will be all the more effective.’ (First published in Kinonedelia No. 4, 1925). The new young Turks like Sergei Eisenstein, Dziga Vertov, Vsevolod, Pudovkin and Alexander Dovzhenko took up Lenin’s challenge with alacrity. The young film medium, based as it was on mechanical proficiency and industrial expertise, captured the interest of the new generation of communist artists who realised that the new society they wished to construct could only be built on the basis of rapid industrial development and technological innovation. These pioneers grasped this new ‘entertainment medium’ with both hands and transformed it into a powerful means of communication. These directors were inspired by Marxist theory and saw that they could apply Marxist ideas to the making of films, but each film-maker did so in their own individual way. Eisenstein was, though, the only one to elaborate an all-embracing Marxist theory of film-making. He put this into practice in his own film-making, in terms of selection of camera angle, juxtaposition of images during the editing process, movement within the frame and later in terms of sound and music also. For the first time the ideas of Marx and Marxist theory were applied to filmmaking. Eisenstein
Eisenstein was undoubtedly the most influential of the new young Soviet filmmakers – a trained architect, he took to film like a duck to water. Seeing far beyond the idea of moving pictures, he developed a whole new science of filmmaking based on Marxist dialectics. Eisenstein was a pioneer in the use of montage, a specific technique for film editing. He, alongside his colleague and contemporary, Lev Kuleshov, were two of the earliest film theorists to argue that montage was the very essence of cinema, and, used effectively, could enable us to see and comprehend a deeper reality. Eisenstein’s essays and books – particularly Film Form and The Film Sense – explain his theories of montage in detail and provide a theoretical grounding for future film-makers. By using a unique form of montage i.e. how the individual celluloid takes were spliced together, he demonstrated that meaning could be created by juxtaposing images rather than, as had been done up till then, splicing them in simple chronological sequence. By placing one image (in Marxist terminology, the thesis) immediately next to a very different or ‘opposing’ image (the antithesis), a new concept (the synthesis) is created. He saw editing as the key to a film’s impact. Film was for him much more than just a useful tool in expounding a scene through a linkage of related images. He felt the ‘collision’ of shots could be used to influence the emotions and consciousness of an audience and that film could achieve a metaphorical dimension. While making films, he developed a comprehensive theory that he termed, ‘methods of montage’. His iconic film Battleship Potemkin is probably the most famous example of this approach, but Strike (1924) was his first film. It depicts life at a factory complex in Tsarist Russia and the conditions under which the workers laboured. The plot is centred on the workers organising a strike which in response to repression escalates into a full-blown occupation. Such a blunt depiction of ruling class repression had never before been visualised in this way. But what makes this and Eisenstein’s other films so special is that the audience is not allowed for a minute to remain passive, but is drawn into the struggle and becomes almost part of it. It is difficult to imagine today when you look at old grainy prints of Battleship Potemkin, that audiences were so stirred by its imagery that they swarmed out of the cinema determined to make their own revolution. The ruling classes were so frightened of it that its public showing was banned for many years almost everywhere outside the Soviet Union.
After the success of Strike (1924), Eisenstein was commissioned by the Soviet government to make a film commemorating the unsuccessful revolution of 1905. He chose to focus on the crew of the battleship Potemkin. Fed up with the extreme cruelties of their officers and their maggot-ridden meat rations, the sailors mutiny. This, in turn, sparks an abortive citizens' revolt on the mainland against the Tsarist regime. The film's centrepiece is the classic massacre on the Odessa Steps, in which the Tsar's Cossacks methodically shoot down innocent citizens. The image of a dying mother who lets go of the pram she is pushing, leaving it to career down the steps with the baby still in it, has become one of the most iconic and moving shots in the history of cinema. He was the first cinematographer to develop a proper film language, one appropriate to the challenges facing the new Soviet republic. His best known films, Strike, Battleship Potemkin, October, Alexander Nevsky and Ivan the Terrible all bear testament to his contribution and the power of his imagery. Many of his plans were, sadly never brought to fruition. During his unsuccessful sojourn in the USA, he proposed making a film of Bernard Shawâ€™s Arms and the Man and of Sutterâ€™s Gold by Jack London but the ideas failed to impress Hollywood producers at the time and were vehemently opposed by anticommunist elements in the Hollywood hierarchy. The same happened with his proposal to film Theodor Dreiserâ€™s American Tragedy.While there, though, he developed cordial relations with Charlie Chaplin who introduced him to the socialist writer Upton Sinclair. Their subsequent attempt to jointly produce a film in Mexico was also, in the end, unsuccessful although the footage they were able to shoot was later, posthumously, edited into the film, Que Viva Mexico. 90
With all this wasted effort, Eisenstein was getting itchy feet to return home, as the Soviet Film industry was, in the meantime, already experimenting with soundtracks on film. Also, in the wake of an increasing Stalinisation of the arts, his techniques and theories were coming under attack for ostensibly ‘ideological’ reasons and he was being accused of ‘formalism’ and he wished to counter such criticisms.
Back in the Soviet Union he embarked on his epic Alexander Nevsky with a musical soundtrack composed by Sergei Prokoviev. Unfortunately he died at the age of 50 so was unable to realise his mature potential. It is a moot point whether his specific cinematic language could have been adapted to a postrevolutionary period, and in a different historical context. But there is no doubt that his work has influenced numerous film-makers down the ages and still does. Soviet film-makers and their use of film inspired film-makers and cultural workers throughout the world. What characterised them, in contrast to their many colleagues in the West, was that they viewed film, in the first instance, as an educational medium. They were more interested in the use of film in its educational, propaganda and informative roles than as pure entertainment. and saw the medium primarily as a means of promoting human betterment and the promoting of socialist values. The influence of Soviet cinema The influence of Russian film-makers can be seen throughout the succeeding history of film. US classics like Orson Welles’s Citizen Kane, with its adventurous camera angles, framing and editing would have been unthinkable without Russian cinema. The Italian Neo-realist wave leant heavily on its Russian forerunners. Directors like de Sica, Rossellini, Visconti and Rosi had all 91
studied the way in which Soviet film-makers had been able to capture life on screen in a totally new, gripping and realistic way that superseded its former theatrical straitjacket. The films of the Hollywood greats like Billy Wilder, Charlie Chaplin, Alfred Hitchcock, John Ford, William Wyler, Howard Hawks and so on all reveal the seminal influence of these early Soviet film-makers. Early Soviet cinema ‘led the world, and laid much of the groundwork for the practice and theory of film for the 20th century,’ according to Annette Michelson, Professor of Cinema Studies at New York University. At a lecture she gave in December 2003, she and Naum Kleiman, Director of the Moscow Cinema Museum, discussed the ways in which Soviet and Russian film have interacted with the American film industry. Kleiman pointed out that Russian émigrés like choreographer George Balanchine and actor Michael Chekhov, in addition to their influential roles in the world of dance and theatre, were active in Hollywood. As Michelson pointed out, Eisenstein never made a film in the US, after Paramount Pictures invited him to Hollywood in 1935, but the then never took on any of his projects. Nevertheless, she argues that Eisenstein's use of montage influenced American film, and is visible, she says, in such well-known scenes as the shower sequence in Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho. Hitchcock and other American directors re-interpreted montage usage. According to Michelson, ‘In the hands of those Americans who admired Eisenstein's work, [montage] became a kind of tried-and-true conventional, visual, rhetorical device for indicating the passage of time, or the passage from one country to another.’ Kleiman underlined that many US filmmakers in the 1920s and 30s had seen and admired Eisenstein's films. He noted that in the 1970s, Francis Ford Coppola had told him that he had found artistic inspiration in October and Ivan the Terrible. Both Kleiman and Michelson felt that Eisenstein's influence was even more noticeable in movies made outside Hollywood. Michelson argued that montage was an important intellectual and artistic device in independent films produced after the Second World War, such as those by Maya Deren. Kleiman also noted the influence of other Russian artists, such as émigré actress and producer Alla Nazimova. In his opinion, Nazimova's film Salome clearly reflected traditions of Russian literature, theatre and set design. This movie, along with other movies featuring Russian actors and directors, was seen by American filmmakers and influenced their future work in many subtle ways.
Workers' Film Societies Elsewhere in the West, in response to the dramatic transformation taking place in the young Soviet Union and the new films emerging from the country, progressives grasped the opportunity to use this new potent medium in their own way. Communists here in Britain became centrally involved early on in setting up workers' film societies from the twenties onwards, as a means of creating opportunities for working people to watch Soviet and other progressive films. Ralph Bond, a foundation member of the British Communist Party, published in the Sunday Worker – a forerunner of the Daily Worker – an appeal for interested parties to get in touch to facilitate the setting up of a London Workers’ Film Society, and the response to this appeal surpassed all expectations. The Soviet director, Sergei Eisenstein’s film Battleship Potemkin had an unprecedented impact on audiences everywhere with its revolutionary montage techniques and searing imagery. This was followed by other, equally powerful and iconoclastic films from the Soviet Union. However, these films were banned for public showing in many countries, including the UK, as they were deemed too inflammatory and seen as dangerous communist propaganda. The first workers’ film societies were set up to provide a means of showing such films (and they were also seen as a way of getting around the censor, as such films could be shown in private clubs without a licence). The first, founded in London in 1925, had as its object the ‘showing of films of artistic interest, which could not be seen in ordinary cinemas’. Such societies had already been active on the continent of Europe. However, before the new London film society even got off the ground it was already involved in skirmishes with the London County Council (LCC) over permission to show their selected films, even to members. (The LCC was London’s licensing authority for film screenings under the 1909 Cinematographic Act). In 1928, the LCC banned the showing of Battleship Potemkin, and then also banned a showing of Pudovkin’s The Mother. This led many progressive individuals, including J. M. Keynes, Julian Huxley, Sybil Thorndike, Bertrand Russell and George Bernard Shaw, to protest, but even they failed to have the ban rescinded. When the London Workers’ Film Society’s tried to show two Soviet-made films at the Gaiety Cinema in Tottenham Court Road in November 1929, the cinema owner refused the booking at the last minute after pressure from the London County Council. Such run-ins between the LCC and the LWFS became regular occurrences. While the LCC adhered to its bans on the Soviet films mentioned
above, it relented as far as permitting the LWFS to put on Sunday shows in the West End.
After the setting up of the London society, several others soon appeared around the country, and an attempt was made to create a national federation of film societies to facilitate easier access to films, better distribution and co-ordination. The Federation of Workers’ Film Societies (FOWFS) was founded in the autumn of 1929 and led to the creation of a network of local workers’ film societies all over Britain. The Labour Party itself showed no interest in setting up workers’ film societies but with the success of the London Society, it became highly suspicious of the latter’s activities and denounced the society as being merely a communist propaganda vehicle. The Communist Charles Cooper was a ‘movie enthusiast whose Contemporary Films opened new horizons for British cinema audiences. His early interest in film had led Charles to become, in 1933, secretary of the Kino group, an association of left-wing film enthusiasts who were determined to circumvent Britain's draconian film censorship, which was especially aimed at the new Soviet cinema. Kino organised 16mm screenings of Eisenstein's Battleship Potemkin for trade union and Soviet friendship groups, as well as producing a ‘workers' newsreel’ and agitational films such as Bread, in which a starving, unemployed worker is harshly treated by police and magistrates. Although Eisenstein is undoubtedly the greatest and most innovative of all Soviet film-makers, his contemporaries should in no way be ignored, as they also made innovative and influential contributions to the film medium. Below I take a cursory look at the most significant.
Dovzhenko After returning to the USSR from a prisoner of war camp in Germany, Dovzhenko turned to film in 1926 after landing in Odessa . His second screenplay was Vasya the Reformer which he co-directed. He gained greater success with Zvenigora (1928) which established him as a major filmmaker. His following Ukraine Trilogy(Zvenigora, Arsenal and Earth) established his reputation worldwide. Its graphic realism was impressive and inspiring. After spending several years writing, co-writing and producing films at Mosfilm Studios in Moscow, he turned to writing novels. Over a 20-year career, Dovzhenko only directed 7 films.
Pudovkin A student of engineering at Moscow University, Pudovkin, like Dovzhenko, saw active service during the First World War and was also captured by the Germans. During this time he studied foreign languages and did book illustrations. After the war, he joined the world of cinema, first as a screenwriter, actor and art director, and then as an assistant director to Lev Kuleshov. 95
Pudovkin adopted a very different approach to Eisenstein. While his films are just as revolutionary as the latterâ€™s in terms of the content and their powerful impact, he took a more traditional approach to narrative. A student of engineering at Moscow University, Pudovkin, like Dovzhenko, saw active service during the First World War, also being captured by the Germans. During this time he studied foreign languages and did book illustrations. After the war, he abandoned his professional activity and joined the world of cinema, first as a screenwriter, actor and art director, and then as an assistant director to Lev Kuleshov . His first notable work was a comedy short Chess Fever (1925) co-directed with Nikolai Shpikovski. In 1926 he directed what came to be considered one of the masterpieces of the silent era: Mother. In this he developed several montage theories, but in a different way to Eisenstein. His first feature was followed by The End of St. Petersburg (1927) and Storm over Asia, about the impact of the Bolshevik revolution on what was then seen as a backward region. After an interruption caused by poor health, Pudovkin returned to film-making, with several historical epics: Victory (1938); Minin and Pozharsky (1939) and Suvorov (1941). The last two were often praised as some of the best films based on Russian history, along with the works of his colleague Eisenstein he was awarded a Stalin Prize for both of them in 1941. In 1928, with the advent of sound film, Pudovkin, Eisenstein, and Grigori Alexandrov signed the â€˜Sound Manifestoâ€™, in which the possibilities of sound are analysed, but always understood as a complement to image.
Dzigha Vertov Vertov attempted to do for the documentary what Eisenstein had been doing in the fictional field. He was born in 1896 and is considered one of the ‘greats’ of early Soviet film-making, a director who concentrated on documentaries. He began by making newsreels but also developed his own theories about filmmaking that differed markedly from those of the fictional film-makers mentioned above. His work and writing would be very influential on almost all future documentarists, particularly the British school around John Grierson, Basil Wright, Alberto Cavalcanti and Paul Rotha, but also later on the French Cinéma Verité movement. After the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917, at the age of 22, Vertov began editing for Kino-Nedelya (Кино-Неделя, the Moscow Cinema Committee's weekly film series, and the first Russian newsreel), which first came out in June 1918. While working for Kino-Nedelya he met his future wife, the film director and editor, Elizaveta Svilova , who at the time was working as an editor at Goskino She began collaborating with Vertov, and working as his editor but later his assistant and co-director on subsequent films, such as the iconic Man with a Camera (1929), and Three Songs About Lenin (1934). Vertov worked on the Kino-Nedelya series for three years, helping establish and run a film-car on Mikhail Kalinin’s agit-train during the ongoing ongoing civil war between the Bolsheviks and the white Russian counter-revolutionaries. Some of the cars on the agit-trains were equipped with actors for live performances and printing presses: Vertov's had equipment to shoot, develop, edit, and project film. The trains were taken to battlefronts on agitationpropaganda missions aimed at bolstering the morale of the troops, and to engender revolutionary fervour and commitment. In 1919, he compiled newsreel footage for his documentary Anniversary of the Revolution, and in 1921 he compiled History of the Civil War.
Kino-Pravda In 1922, the year that O’Flaherty’s seminal Nanook of the North was released, Vertov started his Kino Pravda series. It took its title from the Bolshevik government newspaper Pravda. Kino-Pravda (Film Truth) continued Vertov's agit-prop bent. The Kino-Pravda group began its work in a basement in the centre of Moscow. It was, as he himself described it, damp and dark. There was an earthen floor and holes one stumbled into at every turn. He said, ‘This dampness prevented our reels of lovingly edited film from sticking together properly, rusted our scissors and our splicers’. ‘Before dawn damp, cold, teeth chattering I wrap comrade Svilova in a third jacket’. Vertov's driving vision, expounded in his frequent essays, was to capture ‘film truth’—that is, fragments of actuality which, when organised together, contain a deeper truth than can be seen with the naked eye. In the Kino-Pravda series, he focused on everyday experiences, rejecting ‘bourgeois concerns’ to film ordinary people, marketplaces, bars, and schools instead, sometimes with a hidden camera. The episodes of Kino-Pravda did not usually include reenactments or stagings, although he did so on odd occasions. The cinematography is simple and functional. Vertov appeared to be uninterested in traditional ideas of aesthetic beauty or the perceived grandeur of fiction. Vertov clearly intended an active relationship with his audience in his Kino Pravda series, but by the 14th episode the series had become so experimental that some critics dismissed his efforts as ‘insane’. Vertov responded to their criticisms with the assertion that the critics were hacks nipping revolutionary effort in the bud, and concludes his essay with a promise to ‘detonate art's Tower of Babel’. In Vertov's view, ‘art's tower of Babel’ was the subservience of cinematic technique to narrative. 98
With Lenin's admission of limited private enterprise through his New Economic Policy (NEP) of 1921, Russia began receiving fiction films from abroad, a situation that Vertov regarded with suspicion, calling drama a ‘corrupting influence’ on the proletarian sensibility. In this view, he was taking an extreme and, one has to say, very narrow viewpoint. By this time Vertov had been using his newsreel series as a pedestal to vilify dramatic fiction for several years; he continued his criticisms even after the warm reception of Eisenstein’s Potemkin in 1925. By this point in his career, Vertov was clearly and emphatically dissatisfied with narrative tradition, and expressed his hostility towards dramatic fiction of any kind both openly and repeatedly; he regarded drama as another ‘opiate of the masses’ – a rather extreme position. The Man with a Movie Camera In his essay ‘The Man with a Movie Camera’ Vertov wrote that he was fighting ‘for a decisive cleaning up of film-language, for its complete separation from the language of theatre and literature’. By the later segments of Kino-Pravda, Vertov was experimenting heavily, looking to abandon what he considered film clichés (and receiving criticism for it); his experimentation was even more pronounced and dramatic by the time Man with a Camera was filmed in Ukraine. Some have criticised the obvious stagings in this film as being at odds with Vertov's principle of ‘life as it is’ and ‘life caught unawares’, but its sense of realism is overwhelming. The film has become synonymous with the use of specifically cinematic technique, with the use of double exposure, fast and slow motion sequences, freeze-frames, jump cuts, split screens and tracking shots etc. He also uses footage played in reverse and the idea of self-reflexivity. In the British Film Institute's 2012 Sight and Sound poll film critics voted Man with the Camera the 8th greatest film ever made and the work was later named the best documentary of all time in the same magazine. Although in the Soviet Union at the time it also had its staunch critics who called it ‘formalistic’ a criticism aimed at a number of Soviet film-makers and artists, including Eisenstein. Like other Russian filmmakers, he attempted to connect his ideas and techniques to the advancement of the aims of the Soviet Union. Whereas Eisenstein viewed his ‘montage of attractions’ as a creative tool through which audiences would be better able to comprehend complex processes and thus the ideological content of the films, Vertov believed that Kino Eye would have an 99
influence on the actual evolution of mankind, from being a flawed creature into a higher, more precise, form of being. ‘I am an eye. I am a mechanical eye. I, a machine, I am showing you a world, the likes of which only I can see’, he was quoted as saying. There is no doubt that all these pioneering film-makers and theoreticians during the early years of the Soviet Union have had a lasting influence on film-makers worldwide. Despite the fact that many ‘movies’ made today for cinema and television today show all too clearly that their makers should perhaps return to school and learn from these masters, the better film-makers still reveal in their work the seminal influence of those early Soviet pioneers.
'Culture is not a luxury!': the Proletkult in revolutionary Russia
Proletkult banner Lynn Mally tells the story of Proletkult, the experimental Soviet artistic institution which was in the vanguard of Russia's cultural revolution in 1917. Two years after the Bolsheviks took power in Russia, Petrograd, home of the revolution, was a devastated city. Severe food shortages had prompted the exodus of large parts of the population. A general opposing the new regime began an assault on the city, bringing his troops to the suburbs. But this did not stop a respected theater director from holding a lecture series on the history of art in an organization called the Proletkult, even though the audience changed constantly because of military mobilizations. At the same time, the Proletkult theatre was preparing a performance for the second anniversary of the revolution written by a Red Army soldier.
Members of the Petrograd drama studio performing a collective reading of Walt Whitman’s poem, “Europe,” in 1918. Revolutions invariably challenge the cultural foundations of society, whether the participants consciously acknowledge this or not. Many Russian revolutionaries, like their Jacobin predecessors, welcomed the challenge. They were not willing to limit their goals to the establishment of a new political and social order. They hoped to create a new cultural order as well. But how? All the key elements were open to dispute—the meaning of culture, the revolution’s power to change it, and the consequences that such change would have for the new social order taking shape. In the early years of the revolution, the Proletkult (an acronym for Proletarian cultural-educational organizations) stood at the center of these debates. It began just before the October Revolution of 1917, starting as a loose coalition of clubs, factory committees, workers’ theaters, and educational societies. By 1918 it had expanded into a national movement with a much more ambitious purpose: to define a uniquely proletarian culture that would inform and inspire the new society. At its peak in 1920 the national leadership claimed some four hundred thousand members, organized in three hundred groups distributed all across Soviet territory. The Proletkult’s vocal advocates believed that rapid and radical cultural transformation was crucial to the survival of the revolution. The leadership also insisted that the state support independent artist, scientific, and social programs that would express the values and principles of the victorious working class. While skilled artists and intellectuals could help in the process, one of the organization’s core values was autonomous creation. The ideas about art, science, and daily life should emerge from workers themselves. Another 102
bedrock principle was institutional autonomy, a demand that would soon put the organization on a collision course with the Communist Party.
First Presidium of the national Proletkult organization, 1918. The poster in the background says â€œProletkult.â€? Although created by the revolution, the Proletkult drew on preexisting programs designed to educate and inspire the Russian working classes. The most radical was articulated by the Bolshevik intellectual, Alexander Bogdanov, who had been an outspoken opponent of Lenin after the revolution of 1905. He believed that it was essential to educate a proletarian intelligentsia that would be prepared to take over a guiding role once the socialist revolution came. Bogdanov and his allies formed several small exile schools in Western Europe where they trained gifted workers in science and cultural history. Several of these students became national Proletkult leaders after the revolution. Factory committees and unions formed another faction with a large stake in the new organization. Legalized in the wake of the Revolution of 1905, these workersâ€™ groups quickly became involved in cultural activities. They sponsored clubs, lecture series, artistic classes, and small theatres. They also opened up libraries stocked with the Russian classics and socialist literature. Newspapers and fliers came out of this milieu, where aspiring writers published their first poems filled with imagery about life in the factory. Groups like these formed a natural base for the new organization. Participants in adult education classes and open universities also flocked to the Proletkult. Founded by charity groups and educational societies long before the revolution, these groups offered literacy courses and lectures in science and the arts for a broad audience. They were staffed by artists and intellectuals sympathetic to mass educational projects. For them, the Proletkult appeared to be a continuation of their original goals.
Created for the first celebration of the October Revolution, the banner reads “Proletkult—Proletarian Creation Guarantees the World Commune.” The first Soviet Commissar of Enlightenment (or Minister of Culture) was Anatolii Lunacharskii, an ally of Bogdanov. He gave the Proletkult an independent budget to begin work. That money went first to the national organization, which set up a rudimentary bureaucracy and started a journal called Proletarian Culture (Proletarskaia kul’tura). As the new government took over the possessions of the old ruling class, the Proletkult claimed part of the spoils. When the Soviet government moved to Moscow, the central Proletkult took over a large mansion on the city’s main boulevard. This process was repeated in the provinces, where local circles occupied public buildings and manor houses for their operations. During the years of the Russian Civil War, from 1918-1920, the Proletkult expanded in a chaotic fashion across the country. Bolshevik power was tenuous, and the shape of the new state hardly fixed. This contributed to a kind of free-for-all, where local participants decided who would join and what their group would do. Proletkult organizations drew in seasoned workers, peasants, and office employees. Some directed outreach programs to housewives. The Tula organization even opened a short-lived children’s group, led by a teenager, whose stated aim was to free children from the petty-bourgeois family structure. In its early years the Proletkult was more plebeian than proletarian. The organization’s activities were as diverse as the membership. Several circles were simply renamed people’s universities, where the same teachers continued their classes with little interruption. While some art studios made posters to support the Bolshevik cause in the Civil War, others focused on color theory. In many literature workshops, participants tried their hands at worker-centered poems and stories, recounting their experiences in the factory. In others, they 104
learned to recite the Russian classics. While most music groups attempted to put new, revolutionary words to familiar melodies, a Moscow circle became attached to the musical avant-garde and began to experiment with a seventeen note scale. Rather than serving as a catalyst for a new revolutionary culture, the Proletkult was a mirror reflecting the heterogeneous cultural world of the early Soviet years. This period of exuberant expansion came to an end with the conclusion of the Russian Civil War. With the Bolsheviks now firmly in charge, the central government began a sober evaluation of how best to spend its scarce funds. The Proletkult was particularly vulnerable. Associated with an opponent of Lenin, it appeared to have oppositional tendencies. Its initial demand for complete independence underscored that view. Lenin personally took on the organization, denouncing its leadership and its goals. He chose to focus on the very small part of the organizationâ€™s work that tended toward the experimental and avant-garde. All of this was petty bourgeois nonsense, Lenin claimed. The attack on the Proletkult was part of a massive policy shift by the Communist Party. The working class was always a small minority in Russia, and the government now had to find a way to reach out to the peasant majority. The new state program begun in 1921, the New Economic Policy, was designed to do just that. Organizations like the Proletkult that aimed (at least in theory) to serve the proletariat alone were out of step with the changing direction. The government slashed the Proletkultâ€™s budget. Any activities that could be accomplished through regular educational channels disappeared from the curriculum. Groups that operated in areas where there were few or no industrial workers closed. Very quickly the network of hundreds shrunk to a handful. The Proletkult now had to strike a new direction. It turned to work in clubs, and focused especially theatrical work as a way of instilling pro-Soviet messages. Ironically some groups that survived tended towards avant-garde experimentation. That was particularly the case in Moscow, where film director Sergei Eisenstein led theater workshops in Moscow. The group there also took part in musical experiments, like a concert of factory whistles. Art circles gave up easel painting and began designing posters, book jackets, and union emblems. Many other more visible associations claiming to articulate a distinctly proletarian culture sprang up during the 1920s. They used Leninâ€™s critique to elbow the Proletkult to the sidelines. In its reduced form, the Proletkult lasted until 1932. In that year the government disbanded all independent cultural organizations, particularly those that claimed to represent the proletariat. Instead it planned large cultural unions 105
and began to formulate an official Soviet aesthetic, “socialist realism.” The new aesthetic was presented as the expressions of a more advanced state of historical development, a move toward a classless society. The state’s adoption of this new direction turned proletarian culture, supposedly the harbinger of the future, into the culture of the past. Through these new organizations the doctrine of socialist realism would take shape. “Culture is not a luxury” might serve as the motto of the Proletkult organization. Participants’ ideas on cultural creation were expansive and participatory, different from the emerging Soviet state program favoring basic education and labor discipline. The Proletkult embodied the euphoric optimism of the early years of the revolution, an optimism that fostered the belief that any cook could run the state, any union could manage the economy, and any worker could write a sonnet. Currently, the U.S. government is preparing to rescind funding from local theatres, orchestras, and news outlets that are trying to formulate their own paths to cultural participation. In the UK, the Tory government’s policy of austerity economics, combined with the massively unequal funding for arts and culture in the London area compared to the rest of the country, continue to make the arts and culture generally more and more inaccessible to most of the population. In these reactionary times, Proletkult is a brave and shining example of participatory and emancipatory cultural democracy for working people.
'We want art back, the new art of architecture'
Cloud Iron – El Lissitzky 'A model of clear thinking and informed comment' - Nick Wright reviews the Imagine Moscow exhibition at the Design Museum. “The position is this: the ecstatic period of the revolution is over. Now it's the working day — but art is holiday. And we want art back, the new art of architecture,” artist and designer El Lissitzky declared in 1925. This intelligently conceived exhibition revisits that spirit of daring innovation and unbounded optimism which accompanied the accession to state power of Russia’s working class, ushered in by the 1917 Russian revolution. Buried deep in the Design Museum basement, a series of fluid spaces locate each of the designs for six utopian and uncompleted projects in an architectural, social, political and aesthetic context by assemblies of drawings, plans, documents and illustrations of the post-revolution period. In conception, Ivan Leonidov’s 1927 Lenin Institute is simultaneously rooted in the technologies of the time and moulded by extravagantly utopian and untested technique. A preinternet storehouse of knowledge and a radio station, it was to be served by a 107
metropolitan aero-tram system. Its synthesis of architectural and political ambition hint that the global revolution might have progressed differently if the Comintern had had at its disposal both social media and television. El Lissitzkyâ€™s Iron Cloud (1923-1925) reworks, from the early years of the revolution, the model of integrated housing, transport, services and work with a new skyscraper technology which prefigures contemporary big-city style, while Boris Iofanâ€™s winning entry for the Palace of Soviets competition conveys something of the optimism of the time. Designed to be the tallest building in the world, topped by a 100-metre statue of Lenin, it was to sit on the site of Moscow's Cathedral of Christ the Saviour. The project started in 1931, just as Stalin warned that the USSR had a decade to prepare for Western invasion. But, by 1941, political realism allowed its uncompleted structures to be recycled to fortify the city against the nazi invaders. Later, the foundations became a swimming pool and now Russiaâ€™s new bourgeoisie worship in a replica of the cathedral built on the site.
Lenin's statue in the Palace of the Soviets The utopian spirit of these Soviet pioneers is predicated on a sense that transformed social relations produce a new human being. But, as the world revolution faltered, the bourgeoisie weaponised its fascist auxiliaries and, as the problems of building a socialist society demanded answers, new ways of transforming social actions presented themselves. The very magnitude of the 108
problems necessitated prodigious efforts to mobilise the human and material resources of the socialist state. Thus there were over 100 entries for the competition to design a Commissariat of Heavy Industry, with Yakov Chernikhov’s 1933 Architectural Fairytale echoing Lenin’s telling phrase: “Communism is Soviet power plus the electrification of the whole country,” while Konstantin Melnikov’s two 40-story buildings, connected by a futuristic external escalator, were to be decorated with sculptures representing the successes of the first and second Five Year Plans. The idea of communal living was rooted in the appropriation of the spacious dwellings of the bourgeoisie. Those utopian and revolutionary ideals were shaped to advance the liberation of women through their entry into social production more fully and to render domestic labour less oppressive. Communal kitchens, leisure facilities, laundries, nurseries and restaurants were conceived as state-sponsored instruments designed to enhance women’s education and intellectual development. Nikolay Ladovsky’s Communal House transmutes this into utopian form through a spiral structure echoing the dialectical thrust of Vladimir Tatlin's Monument to the Third International. The focus on healthy living for the whole person finds direct expression in Health Factory, Nikolay Sokolov’s plan for a seaside complex designed to restore workers’ productive well-being through structured vacations, recreation, sport and medicine.
Nikolay Ladovsky’s Communal House
The one project which did reach completion in 1930 is Alexey Shchusevâ€™s Lenin Mausoleum, in which the Soviet leader's body lies in a sarcophagus designed by Konstantin Melnikov. Distinctive though the modernist building is, the materialist world view might be better served if successive Soviet leaders had done what Lenin asked and buried him alongside his mother. The contextual material to the exhibition is excellently presented, with useful accounts of debates in which architects and planners, artists and ideologues, futurists and functionaries argued out their competing priorities. While there are examples of cold war and unreflective petit-bourgeois prejudice in the exhibition and the excellent accompanying book, in comparison to other stuff with which we are assailed this anniversary year, Imagine Moscow is a model of clear thinking and informed comment. This review was first published on morningstaronline.co.uk
Black night, white snow: Alexander Blok's The Twelve
Storming the Winter Palace Jury Annenkov John Ellison discusses Alexander Blok's great poem The Twelve, and its links to the Russian Revolution. I came fresh, utterly fresh, to the most famous poem by Alexander Blok - The Twelve - written in January 1918, and the freshest of poetic responses to the November Bolshevik revolution. Before reading it, I knew Blok’s name, but nothing of his work. The Twelve is so striking as to be impossible to drive out of memory. In Russian, it runs to a little over a thousand words and is not ‘revolutionary’ in message in the wildest sense of that word. It carries no imprint of a sudden or superficial craze for radical change, but reflects Blok’s open-eyed rapport with the seizure of power by the Bolsheviks and their commitment to a socialist future. He was born in 1880 in St. Petersburg and died, aged only 40, in the same city in 1921, after a lengthy illness. The Twelve, and a shorter poem in a 111
conventional form - The Scythians - which was written immediately afterwards, are regarded as the last of his significant creative work. He grew up mainly in the households of his mother and of her parents. He was a child of the upper class academic intelligentsia, which did not exclude the ownership of country estates, or involvement with the Orthodox Christian Church. He inherited, besides privileged conditions of living, his mother’s tendency to imbue events with mystical significance and developed early on a heightened sensitivity to the world about him. Though he is often described as of the Russian ‘symbolist’ school, he should not, to judge by The Twelve, be regarded as confined to a particular poetic movement. My picture of Blok as a boy, a man and a poet is extracted in large part from James Forsyth’s Listening to the Wind (1977). This is an engaging study which wears its scholarship lightly and reveals much. One English translation of The Twelve with its own definite character is that by prolific socialist author Jack Lindsay. Introduced by Lindsay, it was published in a slim 1982 Journeyman Press edition. A special feature was its accompaniment, reproduced from the original Russian publication, by the remarkable illustrative line drawings of Yuri Annenkov, which accompany this article. Another popular translation, by English poet Jon Stallworthy and collaborator Peter France, can be found in 20th Century Russian Poetry, edited by a later generation Soviet poet, Yevgeny Yevtushenko, and published in 1993. These translators had previously, in 1970, published their version in The Twelve and other Poems. A third important translation is by Alex Miller. I located this in Soviet Russian Literature 1917-1977, compiled by Yuri Andreyev (1980), but Miller’s translation can also be found in a separate Selected Poems by Blok. One more distinguished English version (more recent – 2010) is that by American academic Maria Carlson.
The Twelve sensationalises the revolutionary moment as much as celebrates it. A street patrol of twelve Red Guards marches in darkness, snow and wind in Petrograd. Their number is also the number, and not by coincidence (as is confirmed in the poemâ€™s final lines), of the disciples of the founder of Christianity. These soldiers on street duty are no role models for rank and file revolutionaries. They are doing their duty according to their own standards, and their standards are not high. They look like jailbirds. During the patrol, one of them, helped by at least one accomplice amongst the others, carries out a murder. His former girl-friend, Katya, a prostitute, passing by at speed in a horse-drawn cab with her current lover Vanka, takes a bullet apparently aimed at Vanka. The patrol carries on marching. At another moment during the patrol, rifle fire is directed at a building on the basis of suspicion only that enemies might be present there.
The Twelve, in my view, could be thought of as a scene in a play or film as much as a poem. It is in twelve parts or ‘cantos’, each distinguishable in style and flavour from the next. Its opening – borrowing Lindsay’s translation here is incontestably atmospheric, dramatic, intense. Black night, White snow. Wind O wind! It knocks you down as you go. Wind O wind – Through God’s world blowing. ‘God’, and indeed ‘Christ’, and ‘holy Russia’, it should be said, are very much part of the poem, highlighting the obvious fact that the revolution just carried out has not detached the minds of Russian people (including Blok) from the world in which they had been previously living. At the end of the poem Christ – or a vision of Christ – leads the patrol. But this is Christ the founder of Christianity, not the Christ of ‘holy Russia’; it is Christ of the new world, not Christ of the old. Or is he better described as Christ of the old world, but resurrected as a torch-bearer of revolution? Is there here an implied unity of Christianity and communism? And is it so certain that the murderer, who is in a rage against both Katya and her lover, actually intended to kill him but not her? An intriguing feature of Blok’s work is its ability to make room for different interpretations, for mystery. Another feature is his view of the natural world as a producer of an eternal music of its own. There is nothing cut-and-dried about Blok’s verse or about Blok himself. Early on in The Twelve, only the title suggests that twelve people might be somewhere about. But the historical moment in which the action takes place is quickly captured through the sighting of a banner strung between buildings. This declares: ‘All Power to the Constituent Assembly’. Viewed, as the patrol moves forward, are an old woman believing the political banner would be better used for children’s clothing and shoes, a bourgeois with nose in his collar (standing, symbolically, at a cross-roads, his cross-roads, Russia’s cross-roads), a mutinous intellectual and an unhappy priest. Then a second mention of the Constituent Assembly is immediately succeeded by interchanges between an ‘Assembly’ of female prostitutes debating and fixing customer prices. Slowly the Bolshevik militia identity of The Twelve emerges from the darkness and the snowstorm. It is announced: ‘Twelve men are walking’. And they have 114
rifles. And one of them is playing over in his head an angry argument with his rival, Vanka, for the transferred affections of Katya. Then soon after, an order is barked out: ‘Keep a revolutionary step!’ (Stallworthy), ‘Keep in step with the revolution’ (Miller), or ‘Hold to the revolutionary pace’ (Carlson). Before long ‘the twelve’ are identified as Red Guards.
The poem – or verse-play – is alive with contrasts. At one moment the group is, metaphorically, firing a bullet at holy Russia. At another there is a call from the marchers to God to bless them as Red Guard revolutionaries. Suddenly the cab appears, carrying Vanka and Katya, canoodling, and from the rejected and jealous Red Guard – now given the name of Petrukha – come memories of Katya and of knifing another envied rival in the past. Soon after, when the same cab with the same passengers comes past again, Petrukha apparently fires at his army officer rival Vanka but kills Katya instead. The other eleven, whether directly complicit in, or untroubled by, the crime, keep marching with Petrukha. And the shout to the Twelve is renewed: ‘Keep a revolutionary step!’ This 115
garish sequence of events comes across as strange, startling, surreal, yet powerfully credible. During the exposition a hungry and flea-bitten dog is picked out, tail between legs, as a symbol for the old world. The image is repeated in a later verse, after the presence of the bourgeois at a cross-roads has again been registered. Alex Miller’s rich translation of this verse reads: The bourgeois stands there. As if hungry, Just stands there like a question mark; The old world, like a starving mongrel, Cowers at his feet, too cold to bark. I should come clean about my limited knowledge of the Russian language, having only a smallish stock of vocabulary in my head, but a lot more in a large Russian-English dictionary to extend it. Furthermore, James B. Woodward’s 1968 edition of Blok’s Selected Poems - in Russian - contains detailed notes in English as to the meaning of some colloquial, dialect and archaic Russian expressions employed. My understanding of Russian grammar is undeveloped. Nevertheless, some knowledge of the language has encouraged me to comment, reliably or not, on the English translations I have studied. Jack Lindsay’s translation of The Twelve seems to me attractive and ingenious, but, while I marvel at the production of so many neat rhymes, at moments there is for my taste too much jingle and bounce. Meaning can be sacrificed or something invented to obtain a rhyme. This subtracts from the darkly volatile spirit of the original. An example is Lindsay’s translation of six words towards the close of the second section, which in the original occupy three lines, each ending with the same vowel sound, summarizing the essence of ‘Holy Russia’: Rough-and-tumble dump, Wood huts in a clump, And a big fat rump. Here Lindsay doubles the number of words in the Russian original (which, in an end-note, is translated literally by Woodward as ‘sturdy Russia with its peasant huts and broad bottom’) and produces a sing-song effect. Stallworthy’s version, on the other hand, has more thrust and economy: Mother Russia With her big, fat arse! Miller, too, certainly cuts to the chase: 116
Solid old Solid old Fat-arsed Russia! My personal preference is for Carlson’s version: …ancient, sturdy, wood-hutted, Fat-assed Russia! Blok’s original, here and elsewhere, comes over as on fire with creative energy. It relies more on echo and assonance – on a succession of sounds in a musical relationship with each other - than on smart rhymes. Forsyth describes The Twelve as ‘a patchwork cantata of…popular poetry and song’, sources which Blok had long been practised in mining and deploying. Miller’s translation appears to me to follow Blok’s own style with imagination and varied vocabulary which includes English slang. That of Stallworthy and France stands equally free, independent and impressive. (Both, incidentally, anglicize the names of the actors, while Lindsay and Carlson do not.) Carlson’s version may be, overall, more literal than the others, but in my view has depth too. Take another example of translation variations from the fifth section. When Katya is first seen with her lover, Miller translates a four-line verse as follows: Katie, have you clean forgotten Him that hadn’t time to bolt From my knife? Or does your rotten Memory need a little jolt? Stallworthy’s translation is comparable, but the message is more savagely dispatched: Do you remember that officer – The knife put to an end to him… Do you remember that, you whore, Or does your memory dim? Thus Stallworthy, keeping the utterance crisp, does not trouble to address Katya by name, as the original does, and translates robustly as ‘you whore’ a word for ‘cholera’, which according to Woodward signifies ‘you curse’. Lindsay’s translation here is liberal too, but perhaps less incisive than the others: 117
That captain of yours, have you forgotten? When he grabbed you, you’d almost swoon. I knifed him, yes, he’s dead and rotten. Don’t tell me you forgot so soon. Lindsay’s second line – ‘When he grabbed you, you’d almost swoon’, has no foundation in the original. It was incorporated, presumably, to add scenery and to ensure a rhyme with ‘soon’. More seriously, his translation in some places in my view departs too much from the raw yet concentrated quality of the original by rendering some utterances too tidily simplistic. But tastes differ. In the sixth section comes Katya’s brutal death, a death for which, a moment later, she is blamed by killer Petrukha. His ethical standards plunge low indeed before he softens: Miller: Well, Katie, happy? Not a word… Then lie there on the snow, you turd!... Stallworthy: Katie, are you satisfied? Lost your tongue? Lie in the snowdrift then, like dung! Lindsay: Happy now, Katya? I’d like to know. Sprawl there, carrion, in the snow. Carlson: Glad now, Kat’ka? ‘What not a peep… Then lie there, carrion, on the snow!... All four versions seem strong to me, and even reach beyond Blok’s actual words, as the original contains no word denoting ‘turd’, ‘dung’ or ‘carrion’, reminding us that mood, as well as actual words, must be reflected when rendering a poem from one language into another. A feature of the Russian language is its inherent greater succinctness than is English. Because it has no ‘a’ or ‘the’, it relies, in putting nouns into singular or plural form, on adjusting their end letters. In relation to the numbers of words used in translating The Twelve, Miller’s is the shortest, though is more than half again as long as the Russian original. Lindsay’s is a fraction longer than that, and Stallworthy’s is longer still. Self-identification with the Bolshevik revolution by Blok had its preamble, a dozen years earlier. In late 1905, during the failed attempt at revolution that year, he carried a red flag at the head of a procession, and in the same year his poem The Well-Fed Ones carried a denunciatory message arrowed at the privileged. The appearance of Halley’s Comet in 1910 encouraged him in expectations of renewed revolution, and by the summer of 1917, after the 118
Provisional government installed itself in the wake of the abdication of Tsar Nicholas, he was keenly in step with the idea of socialist revolution. Blok was ‘a son of the nobility’. Did he, however much sympathising with the Revolution, and however much seeing the world through the eyes of the Red Guards, also look down on them from above as social riff-raff? I have my doubts. If we consider Blok’s own personality and history, we should note, echoing the murderously jealous Petrukha, that he was capable of expressing violent feelings in poetry, and obsessive infatuations in life, the latter to the extent, when he proposed marriage to his future wife in late1902, of threatening suicide as the one alternative to her acceptance. If rough Red Guards had wildness and passion, so did Blok.
It would be absurd, I suggest, to stress-test the poem for socialist purity of outlook. Its special blend of romanticism and realism expresses a personal vision, which has retained its potency for a whole century, and is likely to continue to do so. And the fact that Blok’s profound attachment to the revolution suffered later knocks in his last years, amid civil war, external military interventions, shortages, privations and censorship, cannot detract from his poetic response to it in January 1918. The Twelve evidences the truth of words that had once come from his pen: ‘The greatest thing that lyrical poetry can achieve is to enrich the soul and complicate experience…’ On 8 January, when he began the poem, he wrote this in his diary: 'All day – The Twelve – An 119
inward trembling.' On 29 January, when the poem was finished, its final stanza having delivered the peaceful image of Jesus Christ ahead of the marching men, he recorded: ‘I hear a terrible noise, growing within me and all around me.’ The poem first appeared in early March 1918 in a Bolshevik newspaper. Jack Lindsay wrote in his introduction to his own translation that it had ‘an immediate and vast effect. Phrases from it were endlessly repeated; hoardings and banners all over Russia bore extracts’. It became ‘the folklore of the revolutionary street’. In November 1918 The Twelve was published in its own right in Petrograd, adorned with Yuri Annenkov’s drawings. Forsyth states simply that it ‘became accepted as the essential expression of the Revolution, not only in Russia, where readers were either excited or disgusted by it, but also abroad’. The Twelve, extraordinary as it is, and inseparably connected with the Revolution, will continue to capture and enthuse readers before releasing them, charged with a memory which is not so easily released.
Dancing Up a Storm: the 1917 Revolution and Russian ballet
Pablo Picasso (in the beret) and scene painters working on set design for Leonid Massine’s Parade, staged by Serge Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes in Paris, 1917. Carolyn Pouncy tells the story of how Russian ballet was modernised, democratised and eventually revitalised by the 1917 Russian Revolution. Ask people unfamiliar with dance history where ballet originated, and many will say, “Russia.” Although the wrong answer—ballet originated at the court of Louis XIV, based on formal dance traditions already developed in Italy and brought to France with Catherine de Médicis—the perception reflects the outsized influence of Russian ballet since the arrival of Serge Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes in Paris in 1909. So it probably comes as something of a surprise to learn that ballet in Russia itself almost did not survive the October Revolution of 1917.
Agrippina Vaganova in Esmeralda, St. Petersburg, ca. 1910 The problem was simple: from its debut, ballet existed as an aristocratic art form, supported by courts and, until the early years of the twentieth century, chronicling the adventures of princes and princesses, fauns and fairies, sylphs and spirits of various sorts. Its pirates were romantic corsairs, its peasants and shepherds were light-hearted flute players, its Gypsies were royalty in disguise or lost at birth. Everyone bathed often, and there was not a worker in sight. Imperial autocracy, as a system, exaggerated these problems. The imperial theatres and their schools operated as government departments, intertwined with the tsarâ€™s household in the most intimate fashion. Although the dancers came from lower on the social scaleâ€”and often subscribed to liberal politics, especially during and after the revolution of 1905â€”everything about their daily lives, from the moment they entered the doors of the academy on Rossi Street as 122
children, to the guaranteed pensions they received in retirement twenty years later, separated them from the poverty that afflicted the vast majority of Russiaâ€™s population and linked them to the rarefied world of the aristocracy. When the Bolsheviks completed their coup, the former imperial theatres faced numerous problems. Although the lack of state support for sets, costumes, salaries, and pensions had perhaps the most dramatic impact on the lives of individual dancers, perhaps a bigger loss for Russian ballet as a whole was the mass exodus of personnel before and after Great October. Ballet in the Western world took off at this time, precisely because the fleeing dancers brought their expertise and their training with them. But those who remained behind, for whatever reason, found themselves in dire straits. Almost half of the dancers in the imperial theatres of St. Petersburg emigrated in the late 1910s and early 1920s, meaning that simply mounting a performance of a classic like Swan Lake, Giselle, or The Nutcracker became next to impossible. Scarce food meant that the skilled dancers who remained performed in workersâ€™ clubs that paid in bread. Scarce fuel left dancers bundled in clothes over their skimpy costumes, stripping off the layers in the wings just before they ran on stage and rushing back to cover up as soon as their divertissement finished. Each morning students broke the ice on the water sprinkled over the wooden floors to prevent skidding.
Bolshoi Ballet school in the 1920s. Courtesy of Russia in Photos 123
Perhaps more devastating still was a problem unique to ballet, an art form that from its beginnings until the present day has been passed on by word of mouth from teacher to student. When so many dancers left, they took with them the living memory of steps, how roles were performed, and transferred that oral tradition westward. Those who stayed struggled to preserve what they recalled, even devising the first system of dance notation to record the old ballets. The art itself suffered from the exodus, because the dancers and choreographers and musicians who left tended to be the ones with the best prospects abroad: stars like Anna Pavlova, Tamara Karsavina, Vaslav Nijinsky, and Michel Fokine. Those left behind were not always second-tier, but they had to train an entire new generation of students to replace those who fled. Yet as we all know, ballet in the fledgling Soviet Union did not die. The first change came when Anatoly Lunacharsky, People’s Commissar of Education, convinced Lenin that “gentry culture” could have its place in the new Soviet state. Trends already underway toward more modern, less narrative ballets accelerated in the new cultural climate, finding their ultimate expression in the work of George Balanchine (another émigré) and Fedor Lopukhov, who stayed. The rechristened state theatres continued to struggle, fending off constant accusations of backward-looking tendencies with melodramatic explorations of workers and factories, followed in due course with earnest (but seldom earnest enough) portrayals of national culture. Agrippina Vaganova and Vladimir Ponomarev revitalised the teaching methods at the Choreographic Academy in Leningrad, students such as Galina Ulanova and Marina Semyonova put those methods into practice, and in time the Soviet government of Stalin and its successors realised that ballet offered a ready means to impress foreign visitors, including ambassadors.
The final scene from The Flames of Paris (Plamia Parizha), one of the first "revolutionary" ballets, staged in 1932. Courtesy of Russia in Photos, https://russiainphoto.ru The old ballets were restaged in new, more ideologically acceptable forms, without the archaic nineteenth-century mime. The Bolshoi and the Kirov troupes, carefully selected for political reliability, received permission to travel abroad, and Russian ballet once again became the touchstone of world dance no longer as an aristocratic art form but as an integral part of a state-sponsored attempt to create a socialist society, a 'workersâ€™ paradise'. The democratisation of Russian ballet which was hastened, if not caused, by the Russian Revolution, also had wider ripple effects on the history of ballet in Europe in the twentieth century. Rigid class structures were breaking down anyway, and all the arts - poetry, drama, film - reflected this, but the exodus resulting from the Revolution was a significant stimulus to the modernisation of the sometimes anachronistic art form of ballet, across the world.
Blue Crest (detail) â€” Wassily Kandinsky, 1925
Great art, shame about the curating
Textile Workers – Alexander Deineka, 1927 Christine Lindey reviews the current Royal Academy exhibition, and recommends the art - but not the didactic, vindictive and reactionary curation. In January 1918 the Russian Soviet Republic was the first state in the world to officially support the avant-garde. Fired by the revolution’s socialist ideology, artists rejected the tsarist regime’s fussy forms and fusty techniques, to embrace the latest technology. They incorporated industrial forms into art, design, architecture and film which epitomised and promoted modernity. The avantgarde’s dynamic axes, rapid juxtapositions, startling close-ups and pared-down geometric forms expressed revolutionary dynamism. From Lyubov Popova’s designs to Dziga Vertov’s films, the cogs and wheels of mechanisation, the magic of flying machines and electrification’s bright rays embodied and promised social progress.
Liubov Popova, Space-Force Construction, 1921 It is always a joy to see these works and the Royal Academyâ€™s exhibition Revolution: Russian Art 1917-1932 is no exception. But they are familiar, due to their depoliticisation and incorporation into the Western modernist canon in the early cold war which, by the same token, denigrated socialist realism and ignored Bolshevik pluralist cultural policies. So, to this day, Soviet representational art of the 1920s and 1930s has remained little known in the West and, by displaying the multifaceted Soviet art and design of the interwar years, the exhibition redresses a serious distortion of art history. We encounter history paintings such as Alexander Deinekaâ€™s Defence of Petrograd, in which a stoic militia crunches determinedly through the snow, 128
against a deadly, snow-laden sky. Liberated Bolshevik women soldiers take centre place, in a geometric composition formed by repeated upright bodies, diagonal rifles and the stark industrial bridge overhead. As in his other paintings and posters, Deineka modified modernist simplifications of form and space into a legible but contemporary style.
Alexander Deineka, The Defence of Petrograd, 1928 Many others sought such compromises, albeit in different ways. Aristarkh Lentulov’s Tverskoy Boulevard depicts its people and buildings in kaleidoscopic shapes which marry Parisian cubism with the riotous colours of Russian folk art, conveying the speed of modern Moscow life. Kuzma PetrovVodkin’s measured compositions combine discrete multiple viewpoints and intense primary colour to convey immersive and layered states of mind. In contrast, the academic realism of Issak Brodsky’s Lenin at Smolny has an almost hyperrealist presence, due it’s meticulously uniform rendering of all surfaces, be it an electric socket or the folds on Lenin’s jacket. Unfortunately, instead of explaining these artists’ intentions, their works are framed as the last gasp of artistic freedom by focusing on the contents of a 129
major 1932 exhibition. The Association of Artists for Revolutionary Russia, formed in 1922 to call for a progressive but accessible art, is not mentioned, nor is its influential manifesto. Yet its many members included Deineka, Brodsky, Lentulov, Petrov-Vodkin and Boris Grigoriev.
Pedrov-Vodkin, Self-Portrait, 1918 The exhibitionâ€™s stunning array of art and design is marred by vindictive, antiSoviet curating. Wall texts and captions constantly point to the Revolutionâ€™s cruelties, failures and hardships, with not one word of praise for its achievements. Nor do they explain its difficult conditions, exacerbated by attacks from White Russians and international armies. More worryingly, the works are manipulated to score such curatorial points.
An example is the room ominously titled The Fate of the Peasants, which is a lachrymose lament for imagined, pre-revolutionary bucolic idylls. It greets us with Grigoriev’s lugubrious Land of the Peasants, which blends expressionism and cubism to convey impoverished peasants’ anger, dismay and oppression — as does his portrait of a careworn, wizened dairy maid. The wall text states that the villagers’ “ancient way of life was wiped out” by collectivisation. Yet even the Times Book of Russia in 1916 described the peasants’ lives as an “existence of privation of everything except vodka. His body was roughly clad. Bare necessities, reduced to a minimum, supported life. His soul steeped in ignorance.” And since both Grigoriev paintings are dated 1917, they indicted tsarist peasant life, not collectivisation. The wall text to the room devoted to “Eternal Russia” informs us that “many” artists “were nostalgic for the beauty and charm of old Russia, rapidly disappearing under the boots of the proletarian masses.” It mourns the influence of the Orthodox religion and displays landscapes and depictions of oniondomed churches as if socialism and the love for one’s native land are mutually exclusive. And it includes Mark Chagall’s Promenade, dated 1917-18, which surely cannot represent nostalgia for tsarist days. That period was not rosy for this Jewish artist, whose tsarist shtetl past was characterised by brutal pogroms and exclusion of Jews from the professions. Chagall’s rose-tinted idealisation expressed the euphoria of being in love and it is this which projected he and his wife to metaphorically soar above shtetl life.
Marc Chagall, Promenade, 1918 In sum, this exhibition is a didactic attack on the Bolshevik revolution, permeated by the sour outlooks of descendants of dispossessed Russian emigres 131
bemoaning their lost jewels, lands and servants. Go for the exhibitionâ€™s marvellous art and design. But arm yourself with scepticism about the curating. This review was first published in the Morning Star, on March 11th. The exhibition runs until April 17.
October 1917: The Spark For Great Art
El Lissitzsky, Beat the Whites with the Red Wedge, 1919 Christine Lindey explains how the 1917 Russian Revolution inspired the transformation of the visual arts into instruments of popular liberation. “In the land of the Soviets every kitchen maid must be able to rule the state,” said Lenin and the arts were an intrinsic part of the Bolshevik revolution’s attempt to achieve this momentous step forward. But it was no mean task. For a population — 80 per cent of whom were illiterate — serfdom, abolished in 1862-4, was still within living memory. And it was by expressing the revolution’s aims through imagination, emotion, humour and joy, that the arts opened the people’s minds and boosted their self-confidence to seize power. How best to do this was hotly debated. Rejecting unique works of art as selfindulgent bourgeois commodities, some artists heeded the poet Vladimir Mayakovsky’s dictum that “the streets are our brushes, the squares our palettes.” Turning to agit-prop — agitation and propaganda — they created ephemeral posters and street pageants and decorations to educate and enthuse support for the revolution. Thus in 1920 artists including Nathan Altman organised the ambitious re-enactment of the storming of the Winter Palace, involving decorated buildings, factory sirens and 2,000 Petrograd proletarians. Perhaps a few kitchen maids were among them. 133
Nathan Altman's proletarian futurism Trains were transformed into â€œmoving posters,â€? with vivid images and slogans painted on them, and were filled with travelling theatre companies, film shows, books and literacy classes to bring socialism to the countryside. Such actions were possible because the worker state became patron of the arts. Recognising the importance of culture, Anatoly Lunacharsky, Minister for Enlightenment, immediately revolutionised cultural institutions.
Anatoly Lunacharsky The arts would now serve the people, not the aristocracy or bourgeoisie.The art market was abolished, museums nationalised and their contents reorganised and reinterpreted from a working class perspective. Two radical artists — washerwoman’s son Alexander Rodchenko and bourgeois ex-lawyer Wassily Kandinsky — jointly founded 22 new museums and purchased contemporary art for the young state. Museums worldwide still envy these collections. The 19th-century progressive intelligentsia had already challenged tsarist Russia’s near mediaeval socio-political conditions and their expression through equally polarised aesthetics. The aristocracy favoured Western academic art as a mark of their superior sophistication, while denigrating their serfs’ woodcut prints (luboks), icons, carvings and embroideries as “crude” and “primitive.” But the early avant garde upturned these aesthetic criteria. Arguing that photography liberated them from academic art’s fussy illusionism, they were inspired by the flat shapes, bold colours and outlines through which folk art succinctly expressed visible and inner worlds.
The Resolute Brothers, by Alexander Apsit, showing the gigantic proletarian clubbing Czar Nicholas II and his allies So lubok-inspired revolutionary posters, illustrations and textiles appeared after 1917, energising peasants and workers by affirming their own, hitherto denigrated, cultural traditions. But artists also embraced the social progress promised by industrialisation and the surge in the recent technological inventions â€” film, recorded sound, telephones, flying machines and motor cars. Their forms and functions symbolised the speed, dynamism and energy of modernity and of the revolution. As art education was reorganised, the Marxist Vladimir Tatlin headed the innovatory VKhUTEMAS, the technical workshops in a Moscow art school which influenced the globally influential German craft and fine art Bauhaus movement from 1919 to 1931 and beyond. Inspired by the machine age, VKhUTEMAS dispensed with traditional art to investigate forms, spatial organisation, materials and processes as a basis for producing cheap massproduced goods, accessible to all. Rejecting the bourgeois concept of the artist as individual male genius, they defined themselves as classless, self-effacing â€œconstructivists,â€? collectively constructing the revolution alongside other workers, regardless of gender. 136
Varvara Stepanova’s textile designs Lyubov Popova’s transportable theatre, Rodchenko’s posters and Varvara Stepanova’s textiles shared the abstracted forms of modernity — the circles of factory cogs and wheels, electricity’s lightning zig-zags or the soaring grace of flying machines. At Vitebsk Art Academy Kazimir Malevich founded UNOVIS, a group in which students and teachers collaborated in explorations of the essence of form and volume to create futuristic architectural models as prototypes to inspire designers, engineers and architects. And they did. Marc Chagall, painter of poetic evocations of Jewish village life and art commissar of his native province, founded the Vitebsk academy during the revolution and Lunacharsky’s pluralist aesthetic policies enabled Malevich, 137
pioneer of geometric abstraction, to teach in the same academy. Similarly Alexander Deineka, who argued for realist paintings to represent the revolution and workers’ lives, taught in the same Moscow institution as Tatlin, renowned for his soaring design for a monument to the Third International (1919-20).
Tatlin's Tower, 1919 During the hardships of war communism (1917-22) artists concentrated on speculative research but some of these reached fruition afterwards. Kitchen maids sported dresses printed with modernist motifs celebrating technology and socialism. Buildings such as Moisei Ginzburg’s Narkomfin Communal House of 1930, incorporated communal facilities such as laundries, dining halls, kitchens and reading rooms. Inspired by UNOVIS, its horizontal banded windows sweep across the facade, providing maximum light and air, behind wide, heated corridors in which tenants could interact. Together with parallel developments in the other arts, the visual arts made real differences to people’s lives. In the coming centenary year of the 1917 revolution, numerous exhibitions will repeat the neoliberal mantra “great art, shame about the politics,” perpetuated since the 1920s. In fact, it was great politics which generated such a blossoming of the arts. This article first appeared in the Morning Star on 31 December 2016. 138
Spotlights and Searchlights: Theatre and the Russian Revolution
In a tribute to Russia’s theatrical experimenters, for whom the Revolution promised a new world of artistic possibilities, Amy Skinner presents a brief history of an art that 'without doubt, changed the world'. On 25th February 1917, Revolution hung in the air of Russia’s capital city. The protests at the Pulitov Steel Works were gaining momentum, and gunshots had already been fired on Petrograd’s streets. Against this backdrop, unlikely though it may seem, the city’s theatres opened that evening as usual. At the Alexandrinsky Imperial Theatre, the audience, dressed in their evening wear, dodged bullets as they ran across Ostrovsky Square. The production that night was a premiere: the opening of director Vsevolod Meyerhold’s version of the Russian classic, Masquerade. Meyerhold had worked on Masquerade for seven years: that the production opened on the same night that the February Revolution broke out was a coincidence; that the audience still braved the streets speaks, perhaps, to the centrality of theatre in Russian culture. From a long history of folk performance to the social conscience of the newly-formed Moscow Art Theatre, by 1917, theatre was emerging as a vital touchstone in Russian culture: an art form that was deeply and profoundly connected to real life. And so came the audience to Masquerade, despite the risks inherent in crossing a city on the verge of uprising. On stage, they witnessed a spectacle of huge 139
sets, elaborate costumes, and a cast of over 200 performers. Critics would scorn Meyerhold’s work for its decadence in the face of Revolution. It was certainly true that, as Meyerhold’s production played on stage that night, the world for which it had been created was disappearing outside the theatre’s doors. Within a matter of months, Russian politics would change beyond recognition and the expectation was that Russian theatre – valued as it was – would need to follow suit. October in the Theatre The new Bolshevik government was emphatic in its pursuit of theatre makers. In a country of Russia’s scale, with a largely illiterate population outside of the cities and poor communication systems, theatre offered the Bolsheviks a vital tool for spreading both news and ideology. It is fair to note, however, that the theatre makers’ initial response to Soviet overtures was not overwhelmingly positive. Many established companies wanted to give the new regime some time before committing their support. Others, particularly at the Imperial theatres, were more hostile: at the Maly, Lev Prozorovsky claimed that many actors ‘found themselves utterly confused. … They did not know and did not wish to know […] the Bolsheviks’ (in Rudnitsky, 2000, p. 47). In November 1917, the theatres were nationalized and Anatoly Lunacharsky, as Commissar for Education, made the Bolshevik pursuit of the arts explicit by inviting 120 leading creative figures to meet for a discussion on the relationship between art and Communism. Only five attended; amongst them – and the only representative of the professional theatre – was Meyerhold. The Bolsheviks’ choices were clearly limited, but Meyerhold was subsequently invited to take up the role of Deputy Head at the Petrograd Branch of TEO, the Commissariat’s Theatre Department. Meyerhold’s aim was the destruction of the old, to create a new theatre which responded to the new world of Soviet Russia, what he called an ‘October in the Theatre’. Writing in 1920 in the journal Vestnik teatr (Theatre Herald), he notes: At the present time, there are two possible types of theatre: 1. The non-professional proletarian theatre, whose roots are in the culture of the new ruling class 2. The so-called professional theatre - in Braun, 2016, p. 205. The former, Meyerhold observes, evidences a ‘craze for theatricalization’ spreading across the country. ‘There are reports’, he concludes, ‘of villages with as many as five theatres’ (in Braun, 2016, p. 205). This multiplication of theatres, and the public appetite for theatre making (amateur and professional), is also reflected in an article in Khodozhestvennaya zhizn (Artistic Life), published in 1919: 140
Everywhere, throughout the length and breadth of the Republic, there is an insatiable thirst for the theatre and for its stirring impressions, and this thirst is not only not diminishing, but is steadily gaining strength. Theatre has become a necessity for everyone - in Rudnitsky, 2000, p. 41. The popularity of theatre soared after 1917, presenting established theatre makers with a challenge: how could Russian theatre meet the needs of the proletariat, and what form should the new, post-Revolutionary theatre take? The Golden Age If one word could be chosen to describe Russian theatre in the early Soviet years, it would undoubtedly have to be ‘diverse’. This diversity was often accompanied by bitter conflict and polemics, as Petr Kogan observed in 1921: In no field of art has the October Revolution provoked such intense struggle as in the sphere of theatre. In crucial moments of this struggle the boundaries which divide the adversaries from each other have been sharply delineated - in Rudnitsky, 2000, p. 41. The range of fiercely-defended theatrical approaches after 1917 was partly a response to necessity: the Bolsheviks were keen to have the support of theatre artists, but less able to offer guidance on the form that Soviet theatre should take. The energy of the theatre makers outstripped the government’s theoretical formulations on the nature of Soviet art, often leaving them playing catch-up as the new regime tried to consolidate its arts policy. The more pressing concern of fighting a Civil War meant that the form of Soviet theatre was, pragmatically, initially left to the theatre makers themselves. The result was a moment of unrivalled experimentation: a ‘Golden Age’ of Russian theatre, in which creative energy, political necessity and artistic experimentation led to the creation of some of the twentieth century’s most innovative theatre practice. For the professional theatres, much innovation emerged from the challenges of negotiating a new audience, often with little theatre-going experience. In Meyerhold’s words: The audience has changed so completely, that we, too, need to revise our opinions […] each spectator represents, as it were, Soviet Russia in microcosm - in Braun, 2016, p. 211. As a result, Meyerhold’s theatre turned towards popular influences, tap dance and American jazz, Civil War battle reports read aloud from the stage, clowning, acrobatics, and games with the audience during the interval. A new approach to 141
training actors, called biomechanics, was developed, rejecting psychologism in favour of physical dexterity.
Anti-illusionist stage from Vsevolod Meyerhold's production of Nikolay Gogol's Revizor (The Government Inspector), Moscow, 1926. Courtesy of the Society for Co-operation in Russian and Soviet Studies Meyerhold’s theatre was not the only experimental hub: at his Kamerny Theatre, Alexander Tairov (Meyerhold’s self-styled nemesis) explored stylized movement based on ballet, cubist designs, and a repertoire influenced by Western playwrights (particularly Eugene O’Neill). The futurist poets, including Vladimir Mayakovsky, experimented with new styles of playwriting. Even the pre-Revolution stalwarts, protected from Meyerhold’s reformative zeal by Lunacharsky, created space for experimentation. Stanislavsky’s Moscow Art Theatre, whose highly-detailed approach to realistic staging had gained world renown, launched a series of smaller studio companies. Here, avant-garde heavyweights were nurtured, including Yevgeny Vakhtangov, whose astonishing Princess Turandot (1922) saw actors in evening wear introduce the play and then transform the stage into a far Eastern fairy-tale setting before the audience’s eyes. Outside the walls of the professional theatres, performance spilled onto the streets. Mass spectacles - huge-scale performance events - took place under searchlights rather than spotlights. Championed by the organization Proletarskaya Kultura (Proletarian Culture, shortened to Proletkult), these 142
spectacles featured participants numbering tens or hundreds of thousands. Nikolai Evreinov’s Storming of the Winter Palace (1921), a re-enactment of the events of October 1917, featured 10,000 performers and 100,000 spectators: significantly more people than were involved in the historical event itself. The Proletkult’s aim was the rejection of all pre-Revolutionary theatre forms in favour of a new Russian culture led entirely by the proletariat. The lines between actor and spectator were to be blurred, with the ultimate goal, as Konstantin Rudnitsky notes, of ‘turning spectators into actors’ (Rudnitsky, 2000, p. 45). In fact, this transgressing of boundaries was not just at the heart of the Proletkult’s philosophy, but central to much early Soviet theatre. The unification of stage and auditorium is one of the most striking and enduring legacies of Russia’s theatrical revolution, framing spectators not as consumers but as contributors to theatrical events. The End of the Golden Age One difference between theatre and other art forms is that censorship is only partially effective in controlling its content. In order for live performance to be censored it must first be viewed, and once it has taken place, that act of viewing cannot be undone. The particularly harsh control seen in Soviet theatre after the Golden Age perhaps reflects the potential danger which the government perceived in that same communicative power which first attracted them to the medium. The Proletkult was disbanded in 1920 by a statement written by Lenin and published in Pravda. The organization’s powerbase was considered too extensive to be allowed to continue. By the late 1920s, the era of experimental freedom was virtually at an end, and a much increased mode of censorship was introduced. In 1934, Socialist Realism was endorsed as the only legitimate style of Soviet art, and the avant-garde experiments of 1920s Moscow and Petrograd were brought to an abrupt end. Meyerhold was arrested and executed for antigovernment activity, Tairov’s theatre was closed, Stanislavsky was suffocated by over-enthusiastic state endorsement. The Golden Age itself, however, remains one of the most vibrant and innovative periods in the history of theatre. The experiments carried out by the artists of the avant-garde would not look out of place in many of today’s performances. Russia’s influence spread throughout the theatre world, with directors from Bertolt Brecht to Katie Mitchell finding inspiration in the Soviet legacy. It seems fitting to give the last word to Meyerhold, the figure at the centre of early Soviet theatre innovation who ultimately paid for his experiments with his life, and whose description of the new Soviet theatre captures some of the energy 143
and passion which characterised the work of this unique and game-changing theatrical moment: Here is our theatrical programme: plenty of light, plenty of high spirits, plenty of grandeur, plenty of infectious enthusiasm, unlaboured creativity, the participation of the audience in the corporate creative act of the performance in Braun, 2016, p. 211. On the occasion of the anniversary of 1917, this article is written in tribute to Russiaâ€™s theatrical experimenters, for whom Revolution promised a new world of artistic possibilities, and whose work has, without a doubt, changed the world. References Braun, Edward. 2016. Meyerhold on Theatre (London and New York: Bloomsbury) Braun, Edward. 1998. Meyerhold: A Revolution in Theatre (London: Methuen) Glenny, Michael. 1981. The Golden Age of Soviet Theatre (Middlesex: Penguin Books) Rudnitsky, Konstantin. 2000. Russian and Early Soviet Theatre: Tradition and the Avant-Garde, trans. R. Permar (London: Thames and Hudson)
Contributors Megan Behrent is a high school English teacher in Brooklyn and a union activist. Dennis Broe is a Sorbonne Professor and author of Hyperindustrialism and Serial TV: The end of leisure and birth of the binge. Andy Byford is Professor of Russian at Durham University in the United Kingdom. He has published on the history of the human sciences in Russia across the late tsarist and early Soviet periods. Gareth Edwards is a socialist based in Portsmouth. He teaches on the Sports Journalism degree course at the University of the Arts in London, and blogs infrequently at https://inside-left.blogspot.co.uk John Ellison is a retired solicitor with a history of 40 years’ specialism in children law. He published a novel in 2016 and writes regularly for the Morning Star. Jenny Farrell was born in Berlin. She has lived in Ireland since 1985, working as a lecturer in the Galway-Mayo Institute of Technology. Her main fields of interest are Irish and English poetry and the work of William Shakespeare. John Green is a journalist and broadcaster. He has authored and edited several books and anthologies on a wide range of subjects including political biographies, labour history, poetry, natural history and environmental affairs. Chris Guiton is a project manager, writer and co-editor of Culture Matters. Christine Lindey is now retired from being an Associate Lecturer in art history at the University of the Arts, London and at Birkbeck College, University of London. She is a visual arts critic for the Morning Star and her fifth book, Art for All: British Socially Committed Art c.193 - c.1962, will be published in the near future. Lynn Mally is Professor Emerita of History at the University of California, Irvine. She has published on Soviet cultural history, US/Soviet cultural exchange, and American culture in the 1930s. Carolyn Pouncy, a historian specialising in Muscovite Russia, writes fiction under the pen name C. P. Lesley. Two of her novels—Desert Flower and Kingdom of the Shades—explore themes from the classical ballets Giselle and La Bayadère. 145
Mike Quille is a writer and co-editor of Culture Matters. Sabby Sagall is a former senior lecturer in Sociology at the University of East London. Amy Skinner is Lecturer in Drama and Theatre Practice, School of Arts, University of Hull. Jean Turner studied at Kingston School of Art and worked for thirty-five years as a local authority housing and schools architect. She was General Secretary, then Honorary Secretary, of the SCR/SCRSS from 1985â€“2013 and is currently Honorary Treasurer. Nick Wright is an editor at Manifesto Press, blogs at 21centurymanifesto and is responsible for the Communist Partyâ€™s media work.
Culture Matters Mission Statement I shall not cease from mental fight Nor shall my sword sleep in my hand Till we have built Jerusalem In England’s green and pleasant land. - William Blake As Raymond Williams said, ‘Culture is everything’, and ‘Culture is ordinary’. Culture for us means not only all of the arts, but most of the activities that human beings engage in for physical and mental exercise, education, and enlightenment, and which give life purpose, meaning and enjoyment. Cultural activities include not just poetry, film, theatre, music etc., but sport, religion, eating and drinking, fashion and clothing, the media and many other popular activities. We believe that culture should be for the many, not the few. Class-based divisions in society constrain, prevent and spoil our enjoyment of all the cultural activities which we need to enjoy life and be fully human. Access to and enjoyment of good quality, meaningful and affordable culture is becoming increasingly difficult for working people. Evidence of this includes large cuts to provision across the country. Libraries, artistic institutions and sports, community and recreation facilities have all been drastically cut back because of the Government’s austerity policies cuts to the arts and humanities in primary and secondary schools and in all forms of adult education. These have lessened the chances of appreciation and enjoyment of culture by most people, either as producers or consumers a huge class-based differential in state subsidy for culture, which generally benefits the better off and the institutions and activities they frequent, particularly in the London area increasing costs of access for consumers of art and culture from the working classes, (eg exorbitant ticket prices for football matches, exhibitions and music festivals) the ongoing appropriation and inversion of religious and spiritual activities by ruling elites to secure consent decreasing chances of access to careers for aspiring artists/performers/musicians from the working class. 147
All these factors impact heavily and disproportionately on the lives of working people, whose ‘social wage’ includes the entertainment, pleasures and satisfactions available through cultural activities. We believe that trade union members, and working people generally, have an equal right to join in and enjoy all kinds of cultural activities. We believe we should all be able to afford them, be near to them, and be able to enjoy them. In addition, artists and leaders of cultural institutions – not only theatres, art galleries, concert halls and poetry publishers, but sports clubs, churches, and broadcasting and media corporations – should seek to reach out and engage with all sections of the community, particularly the least well off. Progressive art and culture help us resist, oppose and overcome alienation and oppression. They promote understanding of the nature of the capitalist system we live in, arouse indignation about the inequality we face on a daily basis, help us envision a better world, and inspire us to struggle for it. A ‘cultural struggle’ – or ‘mental fight’ as Blake called it – is thus essential to our economic and political struggles, to defend and expand the cultural commons for the benefit of the many, not the few. Culture Matters has therefore developed a number of operations to help contribute towards that struggle. They include - a web platform, www.culturematters.org.uk, aimed at a broad audience, which publishes creative and critical material such as articles, poems, essays and images. We hope you visit and enjoy the site, and we welcome your contributions - a book publishing arm which publishes political poetry and other material as booklets and ebooks. If you have good creative or critical material (poems, images, stories, essays etc.), which fits with our mission, please get in touch. - arts awards, which we run in partnership with trade unions. Currently we run a Bread and Roses Poetry Award with Unite, and a Bread and Roses Songwriting and Spoken Word Award with the Communication Workers Union. The purpose of the Awards is to create spaces for grassroots creative expression by working people, and nudge the arts world towards more fairness and relevance for working people - cultural education material. We have developed and delivered educational and training materials for aimed at at trade union members and activists. They cover a range of issues around politics, arts and culture, and can be delivered as standalone sessions or integrated into existing training courses. 148
Please support our mission to build a better world via the promotion of socialist and progressive art, culture and politics. We have limited funding and operate on a not-for-profit basis. You can become a member and help us cover our development and production costs – to purchase shares in the Culture Matters Co-Operative, go to http://www.culturematters.org.uk/index.php/shop-support Please get in touch at email@example.com if you want to know more or want to join us in the ‘mental fight’ for a new Jerusalem – a socialist society not only in England, but across the world.
With all your body, all your heart and all your mind, listen to the Revolution. • Alexander Blok, in 1918
Published on Jan 10, 2018
With all your body, all your heart and all your mind, listen to the Revolution. • Alexander Blok, in 1918