Death of the Old Culture

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Subject essay: James von Geldern

Marxism predicted that the culture of the old era would die with the dawning of a new era, but oh what a glorious death it was. The European war had cut Russia off from popular culture of the world, which allowed native production to boom, exploiting new technologies such as the cinema, gramophone recording, and mass printing techniques. Older forms such as music hall, variety stage (estrada in Russian), and popular literature experienced tremendous innovation. Popular culture became a big business, making millionaires of its entrepreneurs and celebrities of its stars. Although there was tremendous diversity of expression, mass culture avoided politics and the big ideas favored by the intelligentsia, which had dominated Russian culture in the nineteenth century. Mass culture found its great appeal while earning the contempt of intellectuals, a sentiment shared by Bolshevik leaders such as Lenin. Labeling mass culture entrepreneurs pornographers, either outright or because they eschewed big ideas, the new regime confiscated tools of production such as movie cameras and printing presses. Stars, who could get no jobs from the Bolsheviks, quickly ended up in emigration.

There was some injustice in the Bolshevik hatred of pre-revolutionary mass culture, which made a business of transgressing the social boundaries of class, gender and ethnicity, often by violating sexual taboos. Although Bolsheviks often seemed to regard sex, like religion, as an opiate for the masses, it was an effective vehicle for making social disparity visible. Popular literary genres included detective stories and robber tales, in which robbers and police alike could be heroes or villains. Pinkerton stories, featuring the American detective in a wholly Russian format, cast lower-class criminals in an evil light, and featured contempt for other nationalities; but the same readers could thrill to the exploits of “Light-fingered Sonka,” an Odessa Jew, who used her beauty and charm to penetrate the upper-class circles whose diamonds she pilfered. Sexual titillation could often reveal unspoken profiles of class, as when the Countess Actress of the famed Count Amori’s [Ippolit Rapgof] tale slept her way into the upper classes, encountering abusive husbands, ambiguous sexualities and aristocratic orgies along the way. Most famously the heroine of Anastasiia Verbitskaia’s Keys to Happiness went through a string of unhappy love affairs, discovering along the way something new to her non-fictional peers, that a woman can choose her own fate.

These authors, as well as famous singers and actors, constituted an entirely new class of Russians, celebrities. Their faces featured in posters, magazines and newspapers, their love lives recounted breathlessly in the same, these stars emblazoned themselves in the consciousness of their compatriots. The fragile beauty of film star Vera Kholodnaia (Vera the Cold), the deep and storied eyes of actor Ivan Mozzhukhin, the dusky voice and beauty of Vera Panina, singer of the “gypsy” repertoire of melancholy love songs, and the cocaine-tinged piquancies of performer Aleksandr Vertinskii were often the first public mention of trends that would shape twentieth-century life. They coexisted with pious loyalty to the tsar, heartfelt patriotism, deep religiosity, and traditional domesticity in the complex Russian cultural environment; it was only the October Revolution that could not live with them.

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