Culture purged of revolution

Issue: 117

Mike Haynes

Katerina Clark, Evgeny Dobrenko, Andrei Artizov and Oleg Naumov (eds), Soviet Culture and Power: A History in Documents, 19171953 (Yale University, 2007), £35

Big books are fashionable these days. Soviet Culture and Power: A History in Documents, 19171953 comes at around 500 pages but it is only a selection of documents in English from a much larger three-volume Russian collection edited by Andrei Artiozov and Oleg Naumov. Together the three Russian volumes contain a huge mass of material, primarily from the Soviet archives. The Western editors, Katerina Clark and Evgeny Dobrenko, have then made their own selection from the Artizov and Naumov selection. In terms of producing a large number of documents in English they have made us all grateful. Sadly, however, this is as much as can be said, for they have produced this collection in such a tendentious way that it needs a severe health warning.

First, Clark and Dobrenko have selected documents that reflect arguments about the fate of major figures well known in the West. They have therefore missed the opportunity to broaden our understanding of the USSR by looking at some of the less obvious issues.

Second, these documents allegedly deal with the period 1917 to 1953, but the first significant document dates from 1921, after four years of bitter civil war and unbelievable destruction and immiseration. We therefore see nothing of the inspiration of the revolution in the area of culture. We see nothing either of the painful way in which the hopes for a world in which the “cultural front” would be the first front were crushed by military necessity and economic dislocation.

It is, rather, as if we were to create a documentary history of the French Revolution which began in 1794, treating what came before as a minor prologue. In this revolution there would be no Wordsworth to be inspired, no bliss to be alive. And there could be no Shelley to rebuke his inconstancy in the face of difficulties driven from the outside and not least from his own country. On the contrary, English counter-revolution would be presented as doing all artists and writers in France a great favour by seeking to release them from the impending rise of the Napoleon-Stalin figure.

The peculiar lack of a reference point in 1917 is part of a wider strategy, which is to create the idea that there was no revolution to degenerate. What there was instead was incipient totalitarianism. The editors disdain the word, but the concept walks like a ghost through these pages, the commentary and the selection.

The editors (not least Katerina Clark) have written well on Russia before, but here there are unpleasant echoes of the way documentary collections were put together under Stalin to reinforce one particular view. We are invited to accept that Soviet Russia would inevitably become a top-down society, driven by a maniacal leader who strove to keep his finger in every pie.

The crudity of the implicit argument is mitigated only by the occasional gesture towards more trendy postmodernist comments, such as the editors telling us that Stalin’s Russia was marked by “textual anxiety”. This focus is then reinforced by the additional selection principle of keeping every document written by or to Stalin or in which his “vote or participation is recorded”. This is not to deny the centrality of repression or the fact that on many occasions Stalin (and lesser leaders) played a “hands on” role. But this is hardly new. The problem is that we need a proper explanation of how this developed, and here the commentary and selection militate against it.

Chapter one, for example, starts with the prohibition on travel for intellectuals and others at the end of the civil war. For the editors this is part of a deliberate attack on “the intelligentsia”. No attempt is made to reflect the context and the painful choices that had to be made when ordinary Russians were dying of hunger and diseases in their millions in a blockaded country. This is not to say that the documents that follow are not interesting and important but they are framed in such a way as to guide the reader to the interpretation that the editors want. This is history more akin to Fox News. Readers should therefore be invited not so much to ignore the book but, as with Fox News, to read it with the sound turned down, interpreting the pictures themselves and wondering what other pictures there are that they cannot see.

In chapter two the Fox News approach to history becomes even more apparent in documents relating to the debate over the status of the Bolshoi Ballet in 1922 (context not discussed—a wrecked country and a famine in which perhaps five million or more die). Here Lenin argues that subsidising the Bolshoi when money was needed to wipe out illiteracy was “an entirely indecent proposal” made by the commissar of education, Anatoly Lunarcharsky.

In fact Lunarcharsky won the argument, but for the authors it was a sign of things to come that the issue was even posed. They do not explain how the Bolshoi then became the privileged core of the Soviet theatre. Or perhaps they do? In true Fox News style there is an explanation, and it is related to wanting to have sex with ballerinas. Readers will excuse the crudity but the framing is not mine: “It was no secret to anyone…that those involved in its destiny—Lunarcharsky, Kalinin, Yenukidze, and later Voroshilov—were great admirers of the Bolshoi Theatre ballerinas. Stalin took full advantage of this circumstance blackmailing his comrades in arms with the threat of publicity and of being compromised.”

It will then hardly come as a surprise to learn that Leon Trotsky was part of the problem rather than the solution. When he wrote that “the sphere of art is not one where the party is called upon to command. It can and must safeguard, assist and only indirectly guide”, our editors know authoritatively that there is no ambiguity here—textual or otherwise. Trotsky’s words seemingly mean their exact opposite: “This is a revealing statement, since ‘indirectly guide’ meant to define the political course in the cultural sphere.”

This logic inevitably flows into later sections on the periods 1932-41 and 1941-53. We are presented with a partial selection and a partial commentary, which makes it difficult to understand what, other than fear and gestures to nationalism, held the USSR together. Early on the editors ask when Stalin became a Stalinist, but the documents offer fewer clues than we might hope for.

During the Stalin era people lived and loved, watched sport and played it. They sang and danced, listened to the radio, went to the cinema, read books and enjoyed a developing culture in both a narrow and wider sense, even as the gulag was built and a significant minority of the Soviet population were sent there. What is needed is surely some attempt to provide evidence through which this amalgam can be understood.

Clark and Dobrenko stress the repression of those who stepped out of line and the huge material rewards for those who stayed loyal. Both are important, but something more was happening. In terms of mass culture, for example, dream factories were developed in the 1930s in the advanced world but these needed positive nurturing. We see little of this in the documents translated here from Stalin’s Russia. Censorship was only one aspect of this. Another was the privileging of the favoured figures and themes, and yet again the documents chosen throw little light on this. When they do, as in the 1946 instructions of how to remake the film Admiral Nakhimov, Clark and Dobrenko treat this simply as a positive case of “creative censorship”.

Despite these criticisms, in a book of this length there cannot fail to be much of importance. It is safe to say that the documents here will be widely quoted. The plight of many writers and artists is already well known and some documents do little more than pile on the agony. Occasionally we get significantly more. A shorthand report of Stalin’s speech to Ukrainian writers in January 1929, for example, throws considerable light on the emerging logic of “socialism in one country” and how it interacted with nationalism and culture.

Likewise, the comments around the 1934 writers’ congress are invaluable and illuminating. With careful reading much can be teased out about Soviet culture and ideology. The famous phrase from the time is that Soviet intellectuals were expected to be “engineers of the human soul”. To see this simply in terms of manipulation from on high, however, is to miss the extent to which the Soviet leadership themselves both made this world and were trapped within it.