Culture and Revolution

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Subject essay: James von Geldern

What would culture be like under socialism? What was revolutionary culture? What was proletarian culture? The October Revolution made these once theoretical questions vitally important to a new order, faced with creating socialist consciousness in its citizens. Bolsheviks led by Lenin had long ago resolved to seize power before they changed minds, and they had devoted relatively little attention to cultural issues. They left such questions to thinkers who were increasingly marginalized in the party, foremost Aleksandr Bogdanov, whose utopian novel Red Star described a “red” Mars where socialism had long ago triumphed. His longtime friend Anatolii Lunacharskii was Lenin’s Commissar of Enlightenment, head of a sprawling commissariat that controlled education from kindergarten to the university, nationalized cinemas, the old tsarist theaters, as well as agitation, propaganda, and anything else that seemed to fit. He initiated a staggering array of projects that gave Russia a new cultural face. Revolutionary traditions were honored, as when the Internationale replaced the old tsarist hymn as national anthem. Imperial Petrograd and medieval Moscow were given a revolutionary spin when monuments to revolutionaries were placed on their squares. For simple folk whose support the revolution needed there were stark agitation messages, delivered on posters or, for outlying districts, by agitation trains. But Lunacharskii could only wonder how to exploit such complex media as the cinema, which required an investment unlikely during a time of civil war.

The notion so dear to later Soviet governments, that cultural production should be subordinate to the state, was unthinkable to the revolutionaries of October, and the most compelling claims to a cultural revolution were staked by independent artists. Two mutually exclusive camps gave expression to the revolution and battled over limited state funding. The proletarian culture movement, centered around Proletkult, an unofficial organization founded in September 1917, was dedicated to developing a culture that reflected the worldview of the working class, was grounded in production relationships, and was egalitarian. It sponsored clubs throughout Russia that, at their zenith, enlisted tens of thousands of young people. Adamantly autonomous, the obstreperous radicalism of Proletkult eventually brought the wrath of Lenin, whose own tastes were rather conservative. No less distasteful to Lenin was the artistic avant-garde. Pre-revolutionary Russia was home to a vital artistic culture, whose painters, composers, poets, actors and directors led a revolution of their own, away from passive realism into dynamic abstraction. Futurists, Suprematists, Constructivists; many artists of these and other schools saw the revolution as their own, and offered it their creative vision. They made posters and movies, wrote agitation verses, changed everyday life with their clothing and ceramic designs. On new holidays such as May Day and November 7, they decorated the streets with their art; and even, for the third anniversary of the revolution, reenacted the storming of the Winter Palace with ten thousand actors!

Most worrisome for the new regime was the old intelligentsia, the scientists, writers and journalists, scholars and philosophers whose accomplishments had made Russia a world intellectual leader before 1917. Much of the intelligentsia eyed the revolution with suspicion, despite the obvious erudition of leading Bolsheviks. It would be many years before a new generation of “red” intellectuals could be educated; meanwhile, it was Lunacharskii’s job to woo the old ones back to universities, writing tables and labs. His liberal policy was to tolerate all forms of thought, excepting open hostility (allowing that too on occasion), leaving the great talents of Russia to find their own place in the new order. For some, this ended in emigration; others fell into the full embrace of the revolution; most were left with an uneasy ambivalence.

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