Overleaf: Anna Akhmatova at the Fountain House
Akhmatova arrived at the Fountain House, the former palace of the Sheremetevs, when she went to live there with her second husband, Vladimir Shileiko, in 1918. The house remained as it had always been, a sanctuary from the destruction of the war and revolution that had transformed Petersburg in the four years since it had been renamed Petrograd;* but, like the city (which had lost its status as the capital), the beauty of the palace was a retrospective one. Its last owner, Count Sergei, the grandson of Praskovya and Nikolai Petrovich, had preserved the house as a family museum. He himself had written several books on the history of the Sheremetev clan. During the February Revolution of 1917, when crowds came to the house and demanded arms to help them in their struggle against the Tsar’s last loyalist troops, the count had opened the collection cabinets of Field Marshal Boris Petrovich, the founder of the palace, and handed out to them some picks and axes from the sixteenth century.1 To save his home from the violence of the mob, he turned it over to the state, signing an agreement with the newly installed Soviet government to preserve the house as a museum, before fleeing with his family abroad. The old Sheremetev servants were kept on, and Shileiko, a brilliant young scholar of Middle Eastern archaeology who had been a tutor to the last count’s grandsons and a close friend of the family, was allowed to keep his apartment in the northern wing. Akhmatova had known Shileiko since before the war, when he was a minor poet in her bohemian circle at the ‘Stray Dog’ club with Mandelstam and her previous husband, the poet Nikolai Gumilev. The Fountain House was more than just the scene of her romance with Shileiko - it drew her to him in a spiritual way. The Sheremetev motto, ‘Deus conservat omnia’ (‘God preserves all’), inscribed on the coat of arms at the Fountain House, where she would live for over thirty years,
* After the outbreak of the First World War the German-sounding name of St Petersburg was changed to the more Slavic Petrograd to appease patriotic sentiment. The city kept that name until 1924, when, after Lenin’s death, it was renamed Leningrad.
became the guiding redemptive principle of Ahkmatova’s life and art. Although she was only twenty-nine when she moved to the Shereme-tev palace, Akhmatova, like her new home, was from a vanished world. Born in 1889, she had gone to school at Tsarskoe Selo, where, like Pushkin, she imbibed the spirit of French poetry. In 1911 she went to Paris, where she became friends with the painter Amedeo Modigliani, whose drawing of her, one of many, hung in her apartment at the Fountain House until 1952. Her early poetry was influenced by the Symbolists. But in 1913 she joined Gumilev and Mandelstam in a new literary group, the Acmeists, who rejected the mysticism of the Symbolists and returned to the classical poetic principles of clarity, concision and the precise expression of emotional experience. She won immense acclaim for her love poetry in Evening (1912), and then Rosary (1914): the accessibility and simplicity of her verse style made her poetry easy to commit to memory; and its female voice and sensibility, at that time a novelty in Russia, made it hugely popular with women in particular. Akhmatova had many female imitators of her early style - a fact she would deplore in later years. As she wrote in ‘Epigram’ (1958):
I taught women to speak…
But Lord, how to make them cease!2
On the eve of the First World War, Akhmatova was at the height of her success. Tall and astonishingly beautiful, she was surrounded by friends, lovers and admirers. Freedom, merriment and a bohemian spirit filled these years. She and Mandelstam would make each other laugh ‘so much that we fell down on the divan, which sang with all its springs’.3 And then, at once, with the outbreak of the war, ‘we aged a hundred years’, as she put it in her poem ‘In Memoriam, 19 July, 1914’ (1916):
We aged a hundred years, and this Happened in a single hour: The short summer had already died, The body of the ploughed plains smoked.
Suddenly the quiet road burst into colour, A lament flew up, ringing, silver… Covering my face, I implored God Before the first battle to strike me dead.
Like a burden henceforth unnecessary, The shadows of passion and songs vanished from my memory. The Most High ordered it - emptied -To become a grim book of calamity.4
After all the horrors of the First World War and the Russian Revolution, Akhmatova’s intimate and lyrical style of poetry seemed to come from a different world. It appeared old-fashioned, from another century.
The February Revolution had swept away, not just the monarchy, but an entire civilization. The liberals and moderate socialists like Alexander Kerensky, who formed the Provisional Government to steer the country through to the end of the First World War and the election of a Constituent Assembly, had assumed that the Revolution could be confined to the political sphere. But almost overnight all the institutions of authority collapsed - the Church, the legal system, the power of the gentry on the land, the authority of the officers in the army and the navy, deference for senior figures - so that the only real power in the country passed into the hands of the local revolutionary committees (that is, the Soviets) of the workers, peasants and soldiers. It was in their name that Lenin’s Bolsheviks seized power in October 1917 and instituted their Dictatorship of the Proletariat. They consolidated their dictatorship by leaving the war and buying peace with Germany. The cost of the treaty of Brest-Litovsk, signed in March 1918, was one-third of the Russian Empire’s agricultural land and more than half its industrial base, as Poland, the Baltic territories and most of the Ukraine were given nominal independence under German protection. Soviet Russia, as a European power, was reduced to a status comparable to that of seventeenth-century Muscovy. From the remnants of the Imperial army, the Bolsheviks established the Red Army to fight against the Whites (a motley collection of monarchists, democrats and socialists opposed to the Soviet regime) and the interventionary forces of Britain, France, Japan, the USA and a dozen other western powers which supported them in the civil war of 1918-21.
Popularly seen as a war against all privilege, the practical ideology of the Russian Revolution owed less to Marx - whose works were hardly known by the semi-literate masses - than to the egalitarian customs and Utopian yearnings of the peasantry. Long before it was written down by Marx, the Russian people had lived by the idea that surplus wealth was immoral, all property was theft, and that manual labour was the only true source of value. In the Russian peasant mind there was Christian virtue in being poor - a fact the Bolsheviks exploited brilliantly when they called their newspaper The Peasant Poor (Krestianskaia bednota). It was this striving for pravda, for truth and social justice, that gave the Revolution its quasi-religious status in the popular consciousness: the war on private wealth was a bloody purgatory on the way to a heaven on earth.
By giving institutional form to this crusade, the Bolsheviks were able to draw on the revolutionary energies of those numerous elements among the poor who derived satisfaction from seeing the rich and mighty destroyed, regardless of whether such destruction brought about any improvement in their own lot. They licensed the Red Guards and other self-appointed groups of armed workers to raid the houses of ‘the rich’ and confiscate their property. They rounded up the leisured classes and forced them to do jobs such as clearing snow or rubbish from the streets. Akhmatova was ordered to clean the streets around the Fountain House.5 House Committees (usually made up of former porters and domestic servants) were instructed to move the urban poor into the apartments of the old privileged elites. Palaces like the Fountain House were sub-divided and made into apartment blocks. Soon after their seizure of power, the Bolsheviks unleashed a campaign of mass terror, encouraging the workers and the peasants to denounce their neighbours to Revolutionary Tribunals and the local Cheka, or political police. Almost anything could be construed as ‘counterrevolutionary’ - hiding property, being late for work, drunkenness or hooligan behaviour - and the prisons were soon filled. Most of those arrested by the Cheka in the early years of the Bolshevik regime had been denounced by their neighbours - often as a result of some vendetta. In this climate of mass terror no private space was left untouched. People lived under constant scrutiny, watched all the time by the House Committees, and always fearful of arrest. This was not a time for lyric poetry.
Akhmatova was dismissed as a figure from the past. Left-wing critics said her private poetry was incompatible with the new collectivist order. Other poets of her generation, such as Pasternak, were able to adapt to the new conditions of the Revolution. Or, like Mayakovsky, they were made for it. But Akhmatova was rooted in a classical tradition that had been thrown out in 1917, and she found it hard to come to terms - as did Mandelstam - with her new Soviet environment. She wrote very little in the early Soviet years. Her energy was consumed by the struggle to survive the harsh conditions of the civil war in Petrograd, where chronic shortages of food and fuel reduced the population by more than half, as people died or fled the hungry city for the countryside. Trees and wooden houses were chopped down for firewood; horses lay dead in the middle of the road; the waters of the Moika and Fontanka were filled with rubbish; vermin and diseases spread; and the daily life of the Tsars’ capital appeared to return to the prehistoric age, as desperate people scavenged for a piece of bread to eat or a stick of wood to burn.6
And confined to this savage capital,
We have forgotten forever
The lakes, the steppes, the towns,
And the dawns of our great native land.
Day and night in the bloody circle
A brutal languor overcomes us…
No one wants to help us
Because we stayed home,
Because, loving our city
And not winged freedom,
We preserved for ourselves
Its palaces, its fire and water.
A different time is drawing near,
The wind of death already chills the heart,
But the holy city of Peter
Will be our unintended monument.7
For the old intelligentsia conditions were particularly harsh. In the Dictatorship of the Proletariat they were put to the bottom of the social pile. Although most were conscripted by the state for labour teams, few had jobs. Even if they received food from the state, it was the beggarly third-class ration, ‘just enough bread so as not to forget the smell of it’, in the words of Zinoviev, the Party boss of Petrograd.8 Gorky took up the defence of the starving Petrograd intelligentsia, pleading with the Bolsheviks, among whom he was highly valued for his left-wing commitment before 1917, for special rations and better flats. He established a writers’ refuge, followed later by a House of Artists, and set up his own publishing house, called World Literature, to publish cheap editions of the classics for the masses. World Literature provided work for a vast number of writers, artists and musicians as translators and copy editors. Indeed, many of the greatest names of twentieth-century literature (Zamyatin, Babel, Chukovsky, Khodasev-ich, Mandelstam, Piast’, Zoshchenko and Blok and Gumilev) owed their survival of these hungry years to Gorky’s patronage.
Akhmatova also turned to Gorky for help, asking him to find her work and get her a ration. She was sharing Shileiko’s tiny food allowance, which he received as an assistant in the Department of Antiquities at the Hermitage. They had no fuel to burn, dysentery was rife among the inhabitants of the Fountain House, and, extravagant though it may appear, they had a St Bernard dog to feed which Shileiko had found abandoned and which, in the spirit of the Sheremetev motto, they had decided to keep. Gorky told Akhmatova that she would only get the most beggarly of rations for doing office work of some kind, and then he took her to see his valuable collection of oriental rugs. According to Nadezhda Mandelstam, ‘Akhmatova looked at Gorky’s carpets, said how nice they were, and went away empty-handed. As a result of this, I believe, she took a permanent dislike to carpets. They smelled too much of dust and a kind of prosperity strange in a city that was dying so catastrophically. Perhaps Gorky was afraid to help
Akhmatova; perhaps he disliked her and her poetry. But in 1920 she did at last find work as a librarian in the Petrograd Agronomic Institute, and perhaps Gorky helped.
In August 1921, Akhmatova’s former husband Nikolai Gumilev was arrested by the Petrograd Cheka, jailed for a few days, and then shot without trial on charges, which were almost certainly false, of belonging to a monarchist conspiracy. Gumilev was the first great poet to be executed by the Bolsheviks, although many more would soon follow. With his death, there was a feeling in the educated classes that a boundary had been crossed: their civilization had passed away. The moving poems of Akhmatova’s collection Anno Domini MCMXXI (In the Year of Our Lord 1921) were like a prayer, a requiem, for her ex-husband and the values of his age.
The tear-stained autumn, like a widow
In black weeds, clouds every heart…
Recalling her husband’s words,
She sobs without ceasing.
And thus it will be, until the most quiet snow
Takes pity on the sorrowful and weary one…
Oblivion of pain and oblivion of bliss -
To give up life for this is no small thing.10
Akhmatova had no hopes for the Revolution - she had only fears. Yet she made it clear that she thought it was a sin for poets to leave Russia after 1917:
I am not with those who abandoned their land To the lacerations of the enemy. I am deaf to their coarse flattery, I won’t give them my songs.
But to me the exile is forever pitiful,
Like a prisoner, like someone ill.
Dark is your road, wanderer,
Like wormwood smells the bread of strangers.
But here, in the blinding smoke of the conflagration Destroying what’s left of youth, We have not deflected from ourselves One single stroke.
And we know that in the final accounting, Each hour will be justified… But there is no people on earth more tearless, More simple and more full of pride.11
Like all of Russia’s greatest poets, Akhmatova felt the moral obligation to be her country’s ‘voice of memory’.12 But her sense of duty transcended the national; she felt a Christian imperative to remain in Russia and to suffer with the people in their destiny. As did many poets of her generation, she considered the Revolution as a punishment for sin, and believed it was her calling to atone for Russia’s transgressions through the prayer of poetry. Akhmatova was a poet of redemption, the ‘last great poet of Orthodoxy’, according to Chukov-sky, and the theme of sacrifice, of suffering for Russia, appears throughout her work.13
Give me bitter years of sickness,
Suffocation, insomnia, fever,
Take my child and my lover,
And my mysterious gift of song -
This I pray at your liturgy
After so many tormented days,
So that the stormcloud over darkened Russia
Might become a cloud of glorious rays.14
The fountain House had a special place in Akhmatova’s universe. She saw it as a blessed place, the spiritual kernel of St Petersburg, which became the Ideal City of her poetry. In several of her poems she compared St Petersburg (‘the holy city of Peter’) to Kitezh, the legend-ary city which had preserved its sacred values from the Mongol infidels by vanishing beneath lake Svetloyar to a spiritual realm.15 The Fountain House was another world enclosed by water. Its inner sanctum represented the European civilization, the vanished universal culture for which Akhmatova nostalgically yearned.* Akhmatova was drawn to the history of the house. She saw herself as its guardian. In her first autumn there she managed to establish that the oak trees in the garden were older than St Petersburg itself. They were longer lasting than any government.16 She researched the history of the Sheremetev clan, and in particular she felt a close attachment to Praskovya, who shared her ‘gift of song’ and lived, like her, persona non grata, in the Fountain House.
What are you muttering, midnight?
In any case, Parasha is dead,
The young mistress of the palace.17
The cultural history of the palace was a true inspiration to Akhmatova. She sensed the presence of the great Russian poets who had been connected with the house: Tiutchev (a friend of Count Sergei); Viazem-sky, who had visited the house (though Akhmatova was mistaken in her belief that he had died in the room where she lived);+ and Pushkin, above all, the poet she adored, who was a friend of Praskovya’s son, Dmitry Sheremetev, the father of the last owner of the house. Rejected by Soviet publishers because they found her verse too esoteric, Akhmatova was drawn even closer to Pushkin from the middle of the1920s. He, too, had been censored, albeit by the Tsar one hundred years earlier, and her identification with him gave a unique edge to her scholarship on Pushkin, the subject of some of her best writing from this period. As a
* During his famous meeting with the poet at the Fountain House in 1945, the philosopher Isaiah Berlin asked Akhmatova whether the Renaissance was a real historical past to her, inhabited by imperfect human beings, or an idealized image of an imaginary world. ‘She replied that it was of course the latter; all poetry and art, to her, was - here she used an expression once used by Mandelstam - a form of nostalgia, a longing for a universal culture, as Goethe and Schlegel had conceived it, of what had been transmuted into art and thought…’ (I. Berlin, ‘Meetings with Russian Writers in 1945 and 1956’, in Personal Impressions (Oxford, 1982), p. 198). + The room contained a desk with the name Prince Viazemsky written on it, but it belonged to the poet’s son, who had died in that room in 1888. The poet died in Baden-Baden ten years earlier (N. I. Popova and O. E. Rubinchauk, Anna Akhmatova i fontanny dom (St Petersburg, iooo), pp. 36-8),
27. Akhmatova and Punin in the courtyard of the Fountain House, 1927
fellow poet, she could draw attention to the way he had defied the authorities by writing about politics and other moral issues in disguised literary forms - much as she was doing in her writing on Pushkin.
Akhmatova and Shileiko were divorced in 1926. He had been a jealous husband, jealous not just of her other lovers but of her talent, too (once in anger he had even burned her poetry). Akhmatova moved out of the Fountain House, but soon returned to live there with her new lover, Nikolai Punin, and his wife (from whom he was separated) in their apartment in its southern wing. Punin was an art critic, a leading figure in the Futurist movement, but, unlike many of the Futurists, he knew the cultural value of the poets of the past. In one courageous article, in 1922, he had even spoken out against Trotsky, who had written an attack in Pravda against the poetry of Akhmatova and Tsvetaeva (‘internal and external emigrees’) as ‘literature irrelevant to October’.18 It was a warning of the terror to come.* ‘What’, asked Punin, ‘if Akhmatova put on a leather jacket and a Red Army star, would she then be relevant to October?’ If Akhmatova was to be rejected, ‘why allow the works of Bach?’19
Despite his commitment to the Futurist group of left-wing artists, Punin’s apartment in the Fountain House retained the atmosphere of pre-revolutionary Petersburg. There were always visitors, late night talks around the kitchen table, people sleeping on the floor. Apart from Punin’s former wife, her mother and daughter and a houseworker called Annushka, there were always people staying in the tiny four-roomed flat. By Soviet standards this was far more cubic space than the Punins were entitled to, and in 1931 Annushka’s son and his new wife, an illiterate peasant girl who had come to Petrograd as a factory worker, were moved in by the Housing Committee, and the flat was reassigned as a communal one.20 Cramped conditions and the crippling poverty of living on Punin’s meagre wages (for Akhmatova herself was earning nothing in the 1930s) imposed a strain on their relationship. There were frequent arguments over food and money which would often spill into the corridor so that neighbours overheard.21 Lydia Chukovskaya describes visiting Akhmatova at the Fountain House in 1938, just before she broke up with Punin:
I climbed the tricky back staircase that belonged to another century, each step as deep as three. There was still some connection between the staircase and her, but then! When I rang the bell a woman opened the door, wiping soap suds from her hands. Those suds and the shabby entrance hall, with its scraps
* Trotsky’s two articles were published just a fortnight after the expulsion from the country of several hundred leading intellectuals (accused of being ‘counterrevolutionaries’) in September 1921.
of peeling wallpaper, were somehow quite unexpected. The woman walked ahead of me. The kitchen; washing on lines, its wetness slapping one’s face. The wet washing was just like the ending of a nasty story, like something out of Dostoevsky, perhaps. Beyond the kitchen, a little corridor, and to the left, a door leading to her room.22
The Fountain House was only one of many former palaces to be converted into communal apartments after 1917. The Volkonsky mansion in Moscow, where Princess Zinaida Volkonsky had held her famous salon in the 1820s, was similarly turned into workers’ flats. The Soviet writer Nikolai Ostrovsky lived in one of them in the last years of his life, from 1935 to 1936, after the success of his Socialist Realist novel, How the Steel Was Tempered (1932), which sold more than 2 million copies in its first three years and in 1935 earned its author the highest Soviet honour, the Order of Lenin.23 Meanwhile, Zinaida’s great-nephew, Prince S. M. Volkonsky, the grandson of the Decembrist, lived in a workers’ communal apartment in the suburbs of Moscow between 1918 and 1921.24
Nothing better illustrates the everyday reality of the Revolution than this transformation of domestic space. The provincial gentry were deprived of their estates, their manor houses burned or confiscated by the peasant communes or the local Soviet, and the rich were forced to share their large apartments with the urban poor or to give up rooms to their old domestic servants and their families. This Soviet ‘war against the palaces’ was a war on privilege and the cultural symbols of the Tsarist past. But it was also part of a crusade to engineer a more collective way of life which lay at the heart of the cultural revolution in the Soviet Union. By forcing people to share communal flats, the Bolsheviks believed that they could make them communistic in their basic thinking and behaviour. Private space and property would disappear, the patriarchal (‘bourgeois’) family would be replaced by communist fraternity and organization, and the life of the individual would become immersed in the community.
In the first years of the Revolution the plan entailed the socialization of the existing housing stock: families were assigned to a single room, and sometimes even less, in the old apartment blocks, sharing kitchens and bathrooms with other families. But from the 1920s, new types of housing were designed to bring about this transformation in mentality. The most radical Soviet architects, like the Constructivists in the Union of Contemporary Architects, proposed the complete obliteration of the private sphere by building commune houses (dom kommuny) where all property, including even clothes and underwear, would be shared by the inhabitants, where domestic tasks like cooking and childcare would be assigned to teams on a rotating basis, and where everybody would sleep in one big dormitory, divided by gender, with private rooms set aside for sexual liaisons.25
Few houses of this sort were ever built, although they loomed large in the Utopian imagination and futuristic novels such as Zamyatin’s We (1920). Most of the projects which did materialize, like the Narkomfin (Ministry of Finance) house, designed by the Constructivist Moisei Ginzburg and built in Moscow between 1928 and 1930, tended to stop short of the full communal form, with private living spaces and communalized blocks for laundries and bath houses, dining rooms and kitchens, nurseries and schools.26But the aim remained to marshal architecture in a way that would induce the individual to move away from private (‘bourgeois’) forms of domesticity to a more collective way of life. Architects envisaged a Utopia where everybody lived in huge communal houses, stretching high into the sky, with large green open spaces surrounding them (much like those conceived by Le Cor-busier or the garden city movement in Europe at that time), and everything provided on a social basis, from entertainment to electricity. They conceived of the city as a vast laboratory for organizing the behaviour and the psyche of the masses, as a totally controlled environment where the egotistic impulses of individual people could be remoulded rationally to operate as one collective body or machine.27
It had always been the aim of the Bolsheviks to create a new type of human being. As Marxists, they believed that human nature was a product of historical development, and could thus be transformed by a revolution in the way that people lived. Lenin was deeply influenced by the ideas of the physiologist Ivan Sechenov, who maintained that the brain was an electromechanical device responding to external stimuli. Sechenov’s materialism was the starting point for I. P. Pavlov’s research on the conditioned reflexes of the brain (dogs’ brains in particular), which was heavily supported by the Soviet government despite Pavlov’s well-known anti-Soviet views. This was where science and socialism met. Lenin spoke of Pavlov’s work as ‘hugely significant for our revolution’.28 Trotsky waxed lyrical on the ‘real scientific possibility’ of reconstructing man:
What is man? He is by no means a finished or harmonious being. No, he is still a highly awkward creature. Man, as an animal, has not evolved by plan but spontaneously, and has accumulated many contradictions. The question of how to educate and regulate, of how to improve and complete the physical and spiritual construction of man, is a colossal problem which can only be understood on the basis of socialism. We can construct a railway across the Sahara, we can build the Eiffel Tower and talk directly with New York, but surely we cannot improve on man. Yes we can! To produce a new, ‘improved version’ of man - that is the future task of communism. And for that we first have to find out everything about man, his anatomy, his physiology and that part of his physiology which is called his psychology. Man must look at himself and see himself as a raw material, or at best as a semi-manufactured product, and say: ‘At last, my dear homo sapiens, I will work on you.’29
The artist also had a central role to play in the construction of Soviet man. It was Stalin who first used the famous phrase, in 1932, about the artist as the ‘engineer of the human soul’. But the concept of the artist as engineer was central to the whole of the Soviet avant-garde (not just those artists who toed the Party line), and it applied to many of the left-wing and experimental groups which dedicated their art to the building of a New World after 1917: the Constructivists, the Futurists, the artists aligned to Proletkult and the Left Front (LEF), Vsevolod Meyerhold in the theatre, or the Kinok group and Eisenstein in cinema all broadly shared the communist ideal. All these artists were involved in their own revolutions against ‘bourgeois’ art, and they were convinced that they could train the human mind to see the world in a more socialistic way through new art forms. They viewed the brain as a complex piece of machinery which they could recondition through reflexes provoked by their mechanistic art (cinematic montage, biomechanics in the theatre, industrial art, etc.). Since they believed that consciousness was shaped by the environment, they focused on forms of art, like architecture and documentary film, photomontage and poster art, designs for clothes and fabrics, household objects and furniture, which had a direct impact on people’s daily lives.
The Constructivists were in the forefront of this movement to bring art into union with life. In their founding manifestos, written during 1921, they detached themselves from the history of art, rejecting easel painting and other such artistic modes as individualistic and irrelevant to the new society; as ‘constructors’ and ‘technicians’, they declared their commitment, by contrast, to the design and production of practical objects which they believed could transform social life.30 To this end, Varvara Stepanova and Vladimir Tatlin designed workers’ clothes and uniforms. Stepanova’s designs, which were strongly geometric and impersonal, broke down the divisions between male and female clothes. Tatlin’s designs subordinated the artistic element to functionality. A man’s spring coat, for example, was designed to be light yet retain heat, but it was made out of undyed material and lacked decorative design.31 Alexander Rodchenko and Gustav Klutsis used photomontage to smuggle agitation into commercial advertisements and even packaging. El Lissitzky (a late convert to the production art of the Constructivists) designed simple, lightweight furniture capable of being mass produced for standard use. It was versatile and movable, as necessitated by the ever-changing circumstances of the communal house. His folding bed was a good example of the Constructivist philosophy. It was highly practical, a real space-saver in the cramped Soviet apartments, and at the same time, insofar as it enabled the single person to change his sleeping place and sleeping partner, it was designed to be instrumental in the communistic movement to break down the conjugal relations of the bourgeois family.32
The Proletkult (Proletarian Culture) movement was equally committed to the idea of the artist fostering new forms of social life. ‘A new science, art, literature, and morality’, wrote one of its founders, Pavel Lebedev-Poliansky, in 1918, ‘is preparing a new human being with a new system of emotions and beliefs.’33 The roots of the movement went back to the 1900s when the Forward (Vperedist) group of the Social Democrats (Gorky, Bogdanov and Anatoly Lunacharsky) had set up schools in Italy for workers smuggled out of Russia. The object was to educate a tier of ‘conscious proletarian socialists’, a sort of working-class intelligentsia, who would then spread their knowledge to other workers and thereby ensure that the revolutionary movement created its own cultural revolution. In the Vperedists’ view the organic development of a working-class culture was an essential prerequisite for the success of a socialist and democratic revolution, because knowledge was the key to power and, until the masses controlled it, they would be dependent on the bourgeoisie. The Vperedists clashed bitterly with Lenin, who was dismissive of the workers’ potential as an independent cultural force, but after 1917, when the leading Bolsheviks were preoccupied with the more pressing matter of the civil war, cultural policy was left largely in their hands. Lunacharsky became the evocatively titled Commissar of Enlightenment, while Bogdanov assumed the leadership of the Proletkult movement. At its peak, in 1920, Proletkult claimed over 400,000 members in its factory clubs and theatres, artists’ workshops and creative writing groups, brass bands and choirs, organized into some 300 branches spread across the Soviet territory. There was even a Proletarian University in Moscow and a Socialist Encyclopaedia, whose publication was seen by Bogdanov as a preparation for the future proletarian civilization, just as, in his view, Diderot’s Encyclopedic had been an attempt by the rising bourgeoisie of eighteenth-century France to prepare its own cultural revolution.34 As one might expect in such a broad movement, there was a great diversity of views on the proper content of this revolutionary culture. The main ideological division concerned the relationship between the new and old, the Soviet and the Russian, in the proletarian civilization. On the extreme left wing of Proletkult there was a strong iconoclastic trend that revelled in the destruction of the old world. ‘It’s time for bullets to pepper museums’, declared Mayakovsky, the founder of LEF, a loose association of Futurists and Constructivists which sought to link the avant-garde with Proletkult and the Soviet state. He dismissed the classics as ‘old aesthetic junk’ and punned that Rastrelli, the great palace-builder of St Petersburg, should be put against the wall (rasstreliat’ in Russian means to execute). Much of this was intellectual swagger, like these lines from the poem ‘We’ by Vladimir Kirillov, the Proletkult poet:
In the name of our tomorrow we will burn Raphael, Destroy the museum, and trample over Art.35
Yet there was also the Utopian faith that a new culture would be built on the rubble of the old. The most committed members of the Proletkult were serious believers in the idea of a purely Soviet civilization that was entirely purged of historical and national elements. This ‘Soviet culture’ would be internationalist, collectivist and proletarian. There would be a proletarian philosophy, proletarian science and proletarian arts. Under the influence of such ideas, experimental forms of art appeared. There were films without professional actors (using ‘types’ selected from the streets), orchestras without conductors and ‘concerts in the factory’, with sirens, whistles, hooters, spoons and washboards as the instruments. Shostakovich (perhaps with tongue in cheek) introduced the sound of factory whistles in the climax of his Second Symphony (‘To October’) in 1927.
But was it possible to construct a new culture without learning from the old? How could one have a ‘proletarian culture’, or a ‘proletarian intelligentsia’, unless the proletariat was first educated in the arts and sciences of the old civilization? And if they were so educated, would they, or their culture, still be proletarian? The more moderate members of the Proletkult were forced to recognize that they could not expect to build their new culture entirely from scratch and that, however Utopian their plans, much of their work would consist of educating workers in the old culture. After 1921, once the Bolshevik victory in the civil war was assured, official policy encouraged something of a rapprochement with the ‘petty-bourgeois’ (that is, peasant and small-trading) sector and what remained of the intelligentsia, through the New Economic Policy (NEP).
Lenin, a conservative in artistic matters, had always been appalled by the cultural nihilism of the avant-garde. He once confessed to Klara Zetkin, the German communist, that he could not understand or derive any pleasure from works of modern art. His cultural politics were firmly based on the Enlightenment ideals of the nineteenth-century intelligentsia, and he took the view that the Revolution’s task was to raise the working class to the level of the old elite culture. As he put it to Zetkin, ‘We must preserve the beautiful, take it as a model, use it as a starting point, even if it is “old”. Why must we turn away from the truly beautiful just because it is “old”? Why must we bow low in front of the new, as if it were God, only because it is “new”?’36
But pressure on the Proletkult came from below as well as above. Most of the workers who visited its clubs wanted to learn French, or how to dance in pairs; they wanted to become, as they put it, more ‘kul’turny’ (‘cultured’), by which they understood more ‘refined’. In their habits and artistic taste, the Russian masses appeared to be resistant to the experiments of the avant-garde. There was little real enthusiasm for communal housing, which never escaped its associations with grim necessity. Even the inhabitants of commune houses rarely used their social space: they would take their meals from the canteen to their beds rather than eat them in the communal dining room.37 In the Moscow Soviet’s model commune house, built in 1930, the residents put up icons and calendars of saints on the dormitory walls.38 The unlifelike images of the avant-garde were just as alien to a people whose limited acquaintance with the visual arts was based on the icon. Having decorated the streets of Vitebsk for the first anniversary of the October Revolution, Chagall was asked by local officials: ‘Why is the cow green and why is the house flying through the sky, why? What’s the connection with Marx and Engels?’39 Surveys of popular reading habits in the 192Os show that the workers continued to prefer the adventure stories of the sort they had read before 1917, and even the nineteenth-century classics, to the ‘proletarian poetry’ of the avant-garde.40Just as unsuccessful was the new music. At one ‘concert in the factory’ there was such a cacophonous din from all the sirens and the hooters that even the workers failed to recognize the tune of what was meant to be the anthem of their proletarian civilization: it was the Internationale.41
’For us the most important of all the arts is cinema,’ Lenin is reported to have said.42 He valued film above all for its propaganda role. In a country such as Russia, where in 1920 only two out of every five adults could read,43 the moving picture was a vital weapon in the battle to extend the Party’s reach to the remote countryside, where makeshift cinemas were established in requisitioned churches and village halls. Trotsky said the cinema would compete with the tavern and the church: it would appeal to a young society, whose character was formed, like a child’s, through play.44 The fact that in the early 1920s nearly half the audience in Soviet cinemas was aged between ten and fifteen years (the age when political ideas start to form in a person’s mind) was one of the medium’s greatest virtues as far as its patrons in the Kremlin were concerned.45 Here was the art form of the new socialist society -it was technologically more advanced, more democratic, and more ‘true to life’ than any of the arts of the old world.
’The theatre is a game. The cinema is life’, wrote one Soviet critic in 1927.46 It was the realism of the photographic image that made film the ‘art of the future’ in the Soviet Union.47 Other art forms represented life; but only cinema could capture life and reorganize it as a new reality. This was the premise of the Kinok group, formed in 1922 by the brilliant director Dziga Vertov, his wife, the cine newsreel editor Elizaveta Svilova, and his brother, Mikhail Kaufman, a daring cameraman who had been with the Red Army in the civil war. All three were involved in making propaganda films for Soviet agitprop. Travelling by special ‘agit-trains’ around the front-line regions in the civil war, they had noticed how the villagers to whom they showed their films were free from expectations of a narrative. Most of them had never seen a film or play before. ‘I was the manager of the cinema carriage on one of the agit-trains’, Vertov later wrote. ‘The audience was made up of illiterate or semi-literate peasants. They could not even read the subtitles. These unspoiled viewers could not understand the theatrical conventions.’48 From this discovery, the Kinok group became convinced that the future of the cinema in Soviet Russia was to be found in non-fiction films. The basic idea of the group was signalled by its name. The word Kinok was an amalgam of kino (cinema) and oko (eye) - and the kinoki, or ‘cine-eyes’, were engaged in a battle over sight. The group declared war on the fiction films of the studios, the ‘factory of dreams’ which had enslaved the masses to the bourgeoisie, and took their camera out on to the streets to make films whose purpose was to ‘catch life as it is’ - or rather, insofar as their aim was ‘to see and show the world in the name of the proletarian revolution’, to catch life as it ought to be.49
This manipulative element was the fundamental difference between the kinoki and what would become known as cinema verite in the Western cinematic tradition: cinema verite aspired to a relatively objective naturalism, whereas (their claims to the contrary notwithstanding) the kinoki arranged their real-life images in a symbolic way. Perhaps it was because their visual approach was rooted in the iconic tradition of Russia. The Kinok group’s most famous film, The Man with a Movie Camera (1929), is a sort of symphony of images from one day in the ideal Soviet metropolis, starting with early morning scenes of different types of work and moving through to evening sports and recreations. It ends with a visit to the cinema where The Man with a Movie Camera is on the screen. The film is full of such visual jokes and tricks, designed to debunk the fantasies of fiction film. Yet what emerges from this playful irony, even if it takes several viewings to decode, is a brilliant intellectual discourse about seeing and reality. What do we see when we look at a film? Life ‘as it is’ or as it is acted for the cameras? Is the camera a window on to life or does it make its own reality?
Vertov, like all the Soviet avant-garde directors, wanted cinema to change the way its viewers saw the world. To engineer the Soviet consciousness, they hit upon a new technique - montage. By intercutting shots to create shocking contrasts and associations, montage aimed to manipulate the audience’s reactions, directing them to the ideas the director wanted them to reach. Lev Kuleshov was the first director to use montage in the cinema - long before it was adopted in the West. He came to the technique by accident, when the chronic shortages of film stock in the civil war led him to experiment with making new movies by cutting up and rearranging bits of old ones. The scarcity of film compelled all the early Soviet directors to plan out scenes on paper first (storyboarding). This had the effect of reinforcing the intellectual composition of their films as a sequence of symbolic movements and gestures. Kuleshov believed that the visual meaning of the film was best communicated by the arrangement (montage) of the frames, and not by the content of the individual shots, as practised in the silent films and even in the early montage experiments of D. W. Griffith in America. According to Kuleshov, it was through the mon-tage of contrasting images that cinema could create meaning and emotions in the audience. To demonstrate his theory he intercut a single neutral close-up of the actor Ivan Mozzukhin with three different visual sequences: a bowl of steaming soup, a women’s body laid out in a coffin, and a child at play. It turned out that the audience interpreted the meaning of the close-up according to the context in which it was placed, seeing hunger in Mozzukhin’s face in the first sequence, grief in the second, and joy in the third, although the three shots of him were identical.50 All the other great Soviet film directors of the 1920s used montage: Dziga Vertov, Vsevolod Pudovkin, Boris Barnet and, in its most intellectualized form, Sergei Eisenstein. Montage was so central to the visual effect of Soviet experimental cinema that its exponents were afraid that their medium would be destroyed by the arrival of film sound. The essence of film art, as these directors saw it, lay in the orchestration of the visual images and the use of movement and of mimicry to suggest emotions and ideas. The introduction of a verbal element was bound to reduce film to a cheap surrogate for the theatre. With the advent of sound, Eisenstein and Pudovkin proposed to use it ‘contrapuntally’, contrasting sound with images as an added element of the montage.51
Montage required a different kind of acting, capable of conveying the meaning of the film quickly and economically. Much of the theory behind this new acting was derived from the work of Francois Delsarte and Emile Jacques Dalcroze, who had developed systems of mime, dance and rhythmic gymnastics (eurhythmies). The system was based on the idea that combinations of movements and gestures could be used to signal ideas and emotions to the audience, and this same idea was applied by Kuleshov to both the training of the actors and the montage editing for cinema.
The Delsarte-Dalcroze system had been brought to Russia by Prince Sergei Volkonsky in the early 1910s. The grandson of the Decembrist had been Director of the Imperial Theatre between 1899 and 1901, but was sacked after falling out with the prima ballerina (and mistress of the Tsar) Mathilde Kshesinskaya. The cause of his dismissal was a farthingale. Kshesinskaya had refused to wear one in the ballet Kam-argo and, when Volkonsky had fined her, she persuaded the Tsar to dismiss him from his post. Volkonsky might have saved his career by rescinding the fine, but, like his grandfather, he was not the type to be diverted from what he saw as his professional duty by an order from the court.52 The one real legacy of Volkonsky’s brief tenure was the discovery of Diaghilev, whom he promoted to his first position in the theatre world as the editor and publisher of the Imperial Theatre’s annual review.* After 1901 Volkonsky became one of Russia’s most important art and theatre critics. So when he began to propagandize the Delsarte-Dalcroze system, even setting up his own school of rhythmic gymnastics in Petersburg, he drew many converts from the Russian theatre, including Diaghilev and his Ballets Russes. The essence of Volkonsky’s teaching was the conception of the human body as a dynamo whose rhythmic movements can be trained subconsciously to express the emotions required by a work of art.+ Volkonsky conceived of the human body as a machine which obeys ‘the general laws of mechanics’, but which is ‘oiled and set in motion by feeling’.53 After 1917, this idea was taken up in Soviet film and theatre circles, where similar theories of ‘biomechanics’ were championed by the great avant-garde director Meyerhold. In 1919 Volkonsky set up a Rhythmic Institute in Moscow. Until he was forced to flee from Soviet Russia in 1921, he also taught his theories at the First State School of Cinema, where Kuleshov was one of the directors to be influenced by them. In Kuleshov’s own workshop, established in Moscow in 1920, actors were trained in a lexicon of movements and gestures based on the rhythmic principles of Volkonsky.54
Many of the most important Soviet directors of the avant-garde graduated from the Kuleshov workshop, among them Pudovkin, Barnet and Eisenstein. Born in Riga in 1898, Sergei Eisenstein was the son of a famous style moderne architect of Russian-German-Jewish
* Diaghilev was dismissed when Volkonsky left the Imperial Theatre. Diaghilev’s dismissal meant he was ruled out for any future job in the Imperial Theatre, so in a sense it could be said that Volkonsky had a hand in the foundation of the Ballets Russes.
+ The theory was not dissimilar to Gordon Craig’s conception of the actor as a ‘supermarionette’, with the one important distinction that the movements of Craig’s actor were choreographed by the director, whereas Volkonsky’s actor was supposed in internalize these rhythmic impulses to the point where they became entirely uncon-scious. See further M. Yampolsky,’Kuleshov’s Experiments and the New Anthropology of the Actor’, in R. Taylor and I.Christie, Inside the Film Factory: New Approaches to Russian and Soviet Cinema (London, 1991), pp. 32-3.
ancestry. In 1915 he went to Petrograd to study to become a civil engineer. It was there in 1917 that, as a 19-year-old student, he became caught up in the revolutionary crowds which were to become the subject of his history films. In the first week of July Eisenstein took part in the Bolshevik demonstrations against the Provisional Government, and he found himself in the middle of the crowd when police snipers hidden on the roofs above the Nevsky Prospekt opened fire on the demonstrators. People scattered everywhere. ‘I saw people quite unfit, even poorly built for running, in headlong flight’, he recalled.
Watches on chains were jolted out of waistcoat pockets. Cigarette cases flew out of side pockets. And canes. Canes. Canes. Panama hats… My legs carried me out of range of the machine guns. But it was not at all frightening… These days went down in history. History for which I so thirsted, which I so wanted to lay my hands on!55
Eisenstein would use these images in his own cinematic re-creation of the scene in October (19Z8), sometimes known as Ten Days That Shook the World.
Enthused by the Bolshevik seizure of power, Eisenstein joined the Red Army as an engineer on the northern front, near Petrograd. He was involved in the civil war against the White Army of General Yudenich which reached the city’s gates in the autumn of 1919. Eisen-stein’s own father was serving with the Whites as an engineer. Looking back on these events through his films, Eisenstein saw the Revolution as a struggle of the young against the old. His films are imbued with the spirit of a young proletariat rising up against the patriarchal discipline of the capitalist order. The bourgeois characters in all his films, from the factory bosses in his first film Strike (1924) to the well-groomed figure of the Premier Kerensky in October, bear a close resemblance to his own father. ‘Papa had 40 pairs of patent leather shoes’, Eisenstein recalled. ‘He did not acknowledge any other sort. And he had a huge collection of them “for every occasion”. He even listed them in a register, with any distinguishing feature indicated: “new”, “old”, “a scratch”. From time to time he held an inspection and roll-call.’56 Eisenstein once wrote that the reason he came to support the Revolution ‘had little to do with the real miseries of social injustice… but directly and completely with what is surely the prototype of every social tyranny - the father’s despotism in a family’.57 But his commitment to the Revolution was equally connected with his own artistic vision of a new society. In a chapter of his memoirs, ‘Why I Became a Director’, he locates the source of his artistic inspiration in the collective movement of the Red Army engineers building a bridge near Petrograd:
An ant hill of raw fresh-faced recruits moved along measured-out paths with precision and discipline and worked in harmony to build a steadily growing bridge which reached across the river. Somewhere in this ant hill I moved as well. Square pads of leather on my shoulders supporting a plank, resting edgeways. Like the parts of a clockwork contraption, the figures moved quickly, driving up to the pontoons and throwing girders and handrails festooned with cabling to one another - it was an easy and harmonious model of perpetuum mobile, reaching out from the bank in an ever-lengthening road to the constantly receding edge of the bridge… All this fused into a marvellous, orchestral, polyphonic experience of something being done… Hell, it was good!… No: it was not patterns from classical productions, nor recordings of outstanding performances, nor complex orchestral scores, nor elaborate evolutions of the corps de ballet in which I first experienced that rapture, the delight in the movement of bodies racing at different speeds and in different directions across the graph of an open expanse: it was in the play of intersecting orbits, the ever-changing dynamic form that the combination of these paths took and their collisions in momentary patterns of intricacy, before flying apart for ever. The pontoon bridge… opened my eyes for the first time to the delight of this fascination that was never to leave me.58
Eisenstein would try to re-create this sense of poetry in the crowd scenes which dominate his films, from Strike to October.
In 1920, on his return to Moscow, Eisenstein joined Proletkult as a theatre director and became involved in the Kuleshov workshop. Both led him to the idea of typage - the use of untrained actors or ‘real types’ taken (sometimes literally) from the street. The technique was used by Kuleshov in The Extraordinary Adventures of Mr West in the Land of the Bolsheviks (1923) and, most famously, by Eisenstein himself in The Battleship Potemkin (1925) and October. Proletkult would exert a lasting influence on Eisenstein, particularly on his treatment of the masses in his history films. But the biggest influence on Eisenstein was the director Meyerhold, whose theatre school he joined in 1921.
Vsevolod Meyerhold was a central figure in the Russian avant-garde. Born in 1874 to a theatre-loving family in the provincial city of Penza, Meyerhold had started as an actor in the Moscow Arts Theatre. In the 1900s he began directing his own experimental productions under the influence of Symbolist ideas. He saw the theatre as a highly stylized, even abstract, form of art, not the imitation of reality, and emphasized the use of mime and gesture to communicate ideas to the audience. He developed these ideas from the traditions of the Italian commedia dell’arte and the Japanese kabuki theatre, which were not that different from the practices of Delsarte and Dalcroze. Meyerhold staged a number of brilliant productions in Petrograd between 1915 and 1917 and he was one of the few artistic figures to support the Bolsheviks when they nationalized the theatres in November 1917. He even joined the Party in the following year. In 1920 Meyerhold was placed in charge of the theatre department in the Commissariat of Enlightenment, the main Soviet authority in education and the arts. Under the slogan ‘October in the Theatre’ he began a revolution against the old naturalist conventions of the drama house. In 1921 he established the State School for Stage Direction to train the new directors who would take his revolutionary theatre out on to the streets. Eisenstein was one of Meyerhold’s first students. He credited Meyerhold’s plays with inspiring him to ‘abandon engineering and “give myself” to art’.59 Through Meyerhold, Eisenstein came to the idea of the mass spectacle - to a theatre of real life that would break down the conventions and illusions of the stage. He learned to train the actor as an athlete, expressing emotions and ideas through movements and gestures; and, like Meyerhold, he brought farce and pantomime, gymnastics and circus tricks, strong visual symbols and montage to his art.
Eisenstein’s style of film montage also reveals Meyerhold’s stylized approach. In contrast to the montage of Kuleshov, which was meant to affect the emotions subliminally, Eisenstein’s efforts were explicitly didactic and expository. The juxtaposition of images was intended to engage members of the audience in a conscious way - and draw them towards the correct ideological conclusions. In October, for example, Eisenstein intercuts images of a white horse falling from a bridge into the Neva river with scenes showing Cossack forces suppressing the workers’ demonstrations against the Provisional Government in July 1917. The imagery is very complex. The horse had long been a symbol of apocalypse in the Russian intellectual tradition. Before 1917 it had been used by the Symbolists to represent the Revolution, whose imminence they sensed. (Bely’s Petersburg is haunted by the hoofbeat sound of Mongol horses approaching from the steppe.) The white horse in particular was also, paradoxically, an emblem of the Bonapar-tist tradition. In Bolshevik propaganda the general mounted on a white horse was a standard symbol of the counter-revolution. After the suppression of the July demonstrations, the new premier of the Provisional Government, Alexander Kerensky, had ordered the arrest of the Bolshevik leaders, who had aimed to use the demonstrations to launch their own putsch. Forced into hiding, Lenin denounced Kerensky as a Bonapartist counter-revolutionary, a point reinforced in the sequence of October which intercuts scenes of Kerensky living like an emperor in the Winter Palace with images of Napoleon. According to Lenin, the events of July had transformed the Revolution into a civil war, a military struggle between the Reds and the Whites. He campaigned for the seizure of power by claiming that Kerensky would establish his own Bonapartist dictatorship if the Soviet did not take control. All these ideas are involved in Eisenstein’s image of the falling horse. It was meant to make the audience perceive the suppression of the July demonstrations, as Lenin had described it, as the crucial turning point of 1917.
A similarly conceptual use of montage can be found in the sequence, ironically entitled ‘For God and Country’, which dramatizes the march of the counter-revolutionary Cossack forces led by General Kornilov against Petrograd in August 1917. Eisenstein made a visual deconstruc-tion of the concept of a ‘God’ by bombarding the viewer with a chain of images (icon-axe-icon-sabre-a blessing-blood) which increasingly challenge that idea.60 He also used montage to extend time and increase the tension - as in The Battleship Potemkin (1925), in the famous massacre scene on the steps of Odessa in which the action is slowed down by the intercutting of close-ups of faces in the crowd with repeated images of the soldiers’ descent down the stairs.* The scene, by the way, was entirely fictional: there was no massacre on the Odessa steps in 1905 - although it often appears in the history books.
Nor was this the only time when history was altered by the mythic images in Eisenstein’s films. When he arrived at the Winter Palace to shoot the storming scene for October, he was shown the left (‘October’) staircase where the Bolshevik ascent had taken place. But it was much too small for the mass action he had in mind, so instead he shot the scene on the massive Jordan staircase used for state processions during Tsarist times. The Jordan staircase became fixed in the public mind as the October Revolution’s own triumphant route. Altogether Eisenstein’s October was a much bigger production than the historical reality. He called up 5,000 veterans from the civil war - far more than the few hundred sailors and Red Guards who had taken part in the palace’s assault in 1917. Many of them brought their own guns with live ammunition and fired bullets at the Sevres vases as they climbed the stairs, wounding several people and arguably causing far more casualties than in 1917. After the shooting, Eisenstein recalled being told by an elderly porter who swept up the broken china: ‘Your people were much more careful the first time they took the palace.’61
Meanwhile, Meyerhold was storming barricades with his own revolution in the theatre. It began with his spectacular production of Vladimir Mayakovsky’s Mystery Bouffe (1918; revived in 1921) - a cross between a mystery play and a street theatre comedy which dramatized the conquest of ‘the clean’ (the bourgeois) by ‘the unclean’ (the proletariat). Meyerhold removed the proscenium arch, and instead of a stage constructed a monumental platform projecting deep into the auditorium. At the climax of the spectacle he brought the audience on to the platform to mingle, as if in a city square, with the actors in their costumes, the clowns and acrobats, and to join with them in tearing up the curtain, which was painted with symbols - masks and wigs -of the old theatre.62The war against theatrical illusion was summed up in the prologue to the play: ‘We will show you life that’s real - but
* Usually described as ‘temporal expansion through overlapping editing’. See D. Bordwell and K. Thompson, Film Art, An Introduction, 3rd edn (New York, 1990), p. 217.
28. Liubov Popova: stage design for Meyerhold’s 1922 production of the Magnanimous Cuckold
in this spectacle it will become transformed into something quite extraordinary.’63 Such ideas were far too radical for Meyerhold’s political patrons and in 1921 he was dismissed from his position in the commissariat. But he continued to put on some truly revolutionary productions. In his 1922 production of Belgian playwright Fernand Crommelynck’s Magnanimous Cuckold (1920) the stage (by the Con-structivist artist Liubov Popova) became a kind of ‘multi-purpose scaffolding’; the characters were all in overalls and identified themselves by performing different circus tricks. In Sergei Tretiakov’s 1923 play The Earth Rampant, adapted from La Nuit by Marcel Martinet, a drama about the mutiny of the French troops in the First World War, there were cars and machine-guns, not just on the stage but in the aisles as well. The lighting was provided by huge searchlights at the front of the stage, and actors in real soldiers’ uniforms passed through the audience to collect money for a Red Army plane.64
Some of Meyerhold’s most interesting techniques were close to those of the cinema, in which he also worked as a director (he made two films before 1917) and (thanks to his impact on directors like Eisenstein and Grigory Kozintsev) arguably had his greatest influence.65 In his 1924 production of Ostrovsky’s The Forest, for example, Meyerhold used montage by dividing the five acts into thirty-three small episodes with pantomimic interludes to create contrasts of tempo and mood. In other productions, most notably that of Gogol’s The Government Inspector in 1926, he placed certain actors on a little stage trolley and wheeled it to the front of the main stage to simulate the cinematic idea of a close-up. He was deeply influenced by movie actors such as Buster Keaton and, above all, Charlie Chaplin, whose films were shown in cinemas right across the Soviet Union. Chaplin’s emphasis on mime and gesture made him close to Meyer-hold’s theatrical ideal.66
That ideal was expressed by the system known as ‘biomechanics’, which was not unlike the reflexology and rhythmic gymnastics of the Delsarte-Dalcrozean school, insofar as it approached the actor’s body as a biomechanical device for the physical expression of emotions and ideas. Meyerhold would have his actors trained in the techniques of the acrobatic circus, fencing, boxing, ballet and eurhythmies, gymnastics and modern dance so that they could tell a story through the supple movements of their whole bodies or even just their faces.67 The system was consciously opposed to the Stanislavsky method (in which Meyerhold was trained at the Moscow Arts Theatre between 1898 and 1902), in which the actor was encouraged to identify with the inner thoughts and feelings of his character by recalling moments of intense experience in his own life. In place of such free expressivity, Meyerhold insisted on the actors’ rhythmic regimentation. He was very interested in the Red Army’s programme of physical culture (synchronized gymnastics and all that) and in 1921 he even took command of a special theatre section for physical culture in the Commissariat of Enlightenment, which aimed to use the army’s system of gymnastics for the ‘scientific organization of labour’ in an experimental military settlement.68 This aspect of labour management was the crucial difference between biomechanics and the Delsarte-Dalcrozean school. Meyerhold envisaged the actor as an artist-engineer who organizes the ‘raw material’ of his own body on the scientific principles of time and motion. He saw his system as the theatrical equivalent of ‘scientific management’ in industry. Like all the Bolsheviks, he was particularly influenced by the theories of the American engineer F. W. Taylor, who used ‘time and motion’ studies to divide and automate the labour tasks of industry.
Lenin was a huge fan of Taylorism. Its premise that the worker was the least efficient part of the whole manufacturing process accorded with his view of the Russian working class. He saw Taylorism’s ‘scientific’ methods as a means of discipline that could remould the worker and society along more controllable and regularized lines. All this was of a piece with the modernist belief in the power of machines to transform man and the universe. Meyerhold’s enthusiasm for mechanics was widely shared by the avant-garde. One can see it in the Futurists’ idealization of technology; in the fascination with machines which pervades the films of Eisenstein and Vertov; in the exaltation of factory production in left-wing art; and in the industrialism of the Constructivists. Lenin encouraged the cult of Taylor and of another great American industrialist, Henry Ford, inventor of the egalitarian Model ‘T’, which flourished throughout Russia at this time: even remote villagers knew the name of Henry Ford (some of them believed he was a sort of god who organized the work of Lenin and Trotsky).
The most radical exponent of the Taylorist idea was Aleksei Gastev, the Bolshevik engineer and poet who envisaged the mechanization of virtually every aspect of life in Soviet Russia, from methods of production to the thinking patterns of the common man. A friend of Meyerhold, Gastev may have been the first person to use the term ‘biomechanics’, sometime around 1922.69 As a ‘proletarian poet’ (the ‘Ovid of engineers, miners and metalworkers’, as he was described by fellow poet Nikolai Aseev),70 Gastev conjured up the vision of a future communist society in which man and machine merged. His verse reverberates to the thunderous sounds of the blast furnace and the factory siren. It sings its liturgy to an ‘iron messiah’ who will reveal the brave new world of the fully automated human being.
As head of the Central Institute of Labour, established in 1920, Gastev carried out experiments to train the workers so that they would end up acting like machines. Hundreds of identically dressed trainees would be marched in columns to their benches, and orders would be given out by buzzes from machines. The workers were trained to hammer correctly, for instance, by holding a hammer attached to and moved by a special machine, so that they internalized its mechanical rhythm. The same process was repeated for chiselling, filing and other basic skills. Gastev’s aim, by his own admission, was to turn the worker into a sort of ‘human robot’ - a word, not coincidentally, derived from the Russian (and Czech) verb ‘to work’: rabotat’. Since Gastev saw machines as superior to human beings, he thought bio-mechanization would represent an improvement in humanity. Indeed, he saw it as the next logical step in human evolution. Gastev envisaged a Utopia where ‘people’ would be replaced by ‘proletarian units’ identified by ciphers such as ‘A, B, C, or 325, 075, o, and so on’. These automatons would be like machines, ‘incapable of individual thought’, and would simply obey their controller. A ‘mechanized collectivism’ would ‘take the place of the individual personality in the psychology of the proletariat’. There would no longer be a need for emotions, and the human soul would no longer be measured ‘by a shout or a smile but by a pressure gauge or a speedometer’.71 This was the Soviet paradise Zamyatin satirized in his novel We, which depicts a futuristic world of rationality and high technology, with robot-like beings who are known by numbers instead of names and whose lives are controlled in every way by the One State and its Big Brother-like ruler, the Benefactor. Zamyatin’s novel was the inspiration of George Orwell’s 1984.72
Thanks to the influence of Meyerhold, two great artists were brought into the orbit of the cinema. One was Dmitry Shostakovich, who worked at Meyerhold’s theatre from 1928 to 1929, during which time, influenced no doubt by its production of The Government Inspector, he composed his Gogolian opera The Nose (1930). In his student days, between 1924 and 1926, Shostakovich had worked as a piano accompanist for silent movies at the Bright Reel cinema on Nevsky Prospekt in Leningrad.73 It set the pattern for his life - composing for the cinema to earn some extra money and keep himself out of trouble (in total he would score the music for over thirty films).74
Writing for the screen had a major influence on Shostakovich’s composing style, as it did on the whole Soviet music school.75 The big film sound of the Soviet orchestra and the need for tuneful melodies to appeal to the masses are obvious enough. No composer in the twentieth century wrote more symphonies than Shostakovich; none wrote better tunes than Prokofiev - in both cases certainly an effect of writing for the cinema. Films using montage, in particular, demanded new techniques of musical composition to reflect their polyphonic dramaturgy. They required a new rhythmic treatment and faster harmonic shifts to deal with their constant cross-cutting between the frames,* the sharp joins between the scenes, and to highlight the associations between themes and visual images. These cinematic qualities are discernible in many of Shostakovich’s works - notably the music for The Nose and his Third (‘May Day’) Symphony (1930), with its fast-paced montage of musical tableaux. Shostakovich once explained that in writing his film music he did not follow the standard Western principle of illustration or accompaniment, but sought rather to connect a series of sequences with one musical idea - so that in this sense it was the music which revealed the ‘essence and the idea of the film’.76 The music was to be an added element of the montage. This ideal was best expressed in Shostakovich’s first film score, for The New Babylon (1929), a cinematic reconstruction of the revolutionary events of the Paris Commune in 1871. As its director Kozintsev explained, the purpose of the music was not just to reflect or illustrate the action but to take an active part in it by communicating to the audience the film’s underlying emotions.77
Meyerhold’s other new recruit to the cinema was the poet Maya-kovsky, who wrote some thirteen film scenarios and (a man of
* Soviet films that used montage had a far higher number of different shots (in October, for example, there were 3,200 shots) compared to the average (around 600) in conventional Hollywood films during the 1920s.
extraordinary looks) starred in several films as well. Meyerhold and Mayakovsky had been close friends since before the war. They shared the same far-left outlook on politics and theatre which found expression in their partnership on Mystery Bouffe. Mayakovsky played the part of the ‘Person of the Future’ - a proletarian deus ex machina who appeared on stage hanging from the ceiling - in the first (1918) production of his play. It was, he said, referring to himself and Meyerhold, ‘our revolution in poetry and theatre. The mystery is the greatness of the action - the bouffe the laughter in it.’78 Mayakovsky spread his talents wide: to his poetry and his work in theatre and the cinema, he added journalism, writing radio songs and satires, drawing cartoons with brief captions for the lubok-like propaganda posters of the Russian Telegraph Agency (ROSTA) and creating advertising jingles for state stores and slogans for the banners which appeared on every street. His poetry was immersed in politics, even his intimate love lyrics to his mistress Lily Brik, and a good deal of his best-known verse, like the allegory 150,000,000 (1921), a Soviet parody of the bylina, which tells the story of the battle between Ivan, the leader of the 150 million Russian workers, and the Western capitalist villain Woodrow Wilson, was agitational. Mayakovsky’s terse, iconoclastic style was tailor-made for political effect in a country such as Russia where the lubok and chastushka (a simple, often bawdy, rhyming song) had real roots in the mass consciousness, and he imitated both these literary forms.
Forward, my country,
move on faster! Get on with it,
sweep away the antiquated junk! Stronger, my commune,
strike at the enemy, Make it die out,
that monster, the old way of life.79
Mayakovsky embraced revolution as a quickening of time. He longed to sweep away the clutter of the past, the ‘petty-bourgeois’ domesticity of the ‘old way of life’ (byt), and to replace it with a higher and more spiritual existence (bytie).* The battle against byt was at the heart of the Russian revolutionary urge to establish a more communistic way of life.80 Mayakovsky hated byt. He hated all routine. He hated all the banal objects in the ‘cosy home’: the samovar, the rubber plant, the portrait of Marx in its little frame, the cat lying on old copies of Izvestiia, the ornamental china on the mantelpiece, the singing canaries.
From the wall Marx watches and watches
Opening his mouth wide,
He starts howling:
The Revolution is tangled up in philistine threads
More terrible than Wrangelf is philistine byt
To tear off the canaries’ heads -
Won’t be struck down by canaries.81
In much of his writing Mayakovsky talked of his desire to escape this humdrum world of material things (‘it will turn us all into philis-tines’) and to fly away, like a figure from Chagall, to a higher spiritual realm. This is the theme of his long poem Pro eto (About This) (1923), written in the form of a love song to Lily Brik, with whom he was living, on and off, in Petersburg and Moscow in a menage a trois with her husband, the left-wing poet and critic Osip Brik. In his autobiography Mayakovsky records that he wrote the poem ‘about our way of life in general but based on personal material’. He said it was a poem ‘about byt, and by this I mean a way of life which has not changed at all and which is our greatest enemy’.82Pro eto chronicles Mayakovsky’s response to a two-month separation imposed by Lily Brik in December 1922. In it, the hero, a poet living all alone in his
* The word byt (‘way of life’) derived from the verb byvat’, meaning to happen or take plat e. But from the nineteenth century, bytie took on the positive idea of ‘meaningful existence’ which became central to the Russian intellectual tradition, while byt became increasingly associated with the negative aspects of the ‘old’ way of life. + Leader of the White armies in southern Russia during the civil war.
29. Alexander Rodchenko: illustration from Mayakovsky’s Pro eto (1923)
tiny room while his lover Lily carries on with her busy social and domestic life, dreams about a poem he wrote before 1917 in which a Christ-like figure, a purer version of his later self, prepares for the coming revolution. The despairing hero threatens to commit suicide by jumping from a bridge into the Neva river: his love for Lily complicates his own crisis of identity, because in his imagination she is tied to the ‘petty-bourgeois’ byt of Russia in the NEP, which has diverted him from the ascetic path of the true revolutionary. This betrayal leads to a dramatic staging of the narrator’s crucifixion, which then gives way to the redemptive vision of a future communist Utopia, where love is no longer personal or bodily in form but a higher form of brotherhood. At the climax of the poem the narrator catapults himself a thousand years into the future, to a world of communal love, where he pleads with a chemist to bring him back to life:
Resurrect me -
I want to live my share! Where love will not be - a servant of marriages,
money. Damning the bed,
arising from the couch, love will stride through the universe.83
In 1930, at the age of thirty-seven, Mayakovsky shot himself in the communal flat in which he had lived, near the Lubianka building in Moscow, when the Briks would not have him. Suicide was a constant theme in Mayakovsky’s poetry. The poem he wrote for his suicide note quotes (with minor alterations) from an untitled and unfinished poem written probably in the summer of 1929:
As they say,
a bungled story. Love’s boat
against existence. And we are quits with life.
So why should we idly reproach each other
with pain and insults? To those who remain - I wish happiness.84
The Briks explained his suicide as the ‘unavoidable outcome of Mayakovsky’s hyperbolic attitude to life’.85 His transcendental hopes and expectations had crashed against the realities of life. Recent evidence has led to claims that Mayakovsky did not kill himself. Lily Brik, it has been revealed, was an agent of the NKVD, Stalin’s political police, and informed it of the poet’s private views. In his communal flat there was a concealed entrance through which someone could have entered Mayakovsky’s room, shot the poet and escaped unnoticed by neighbours. Notes discovered in the archives of his close friend Eisenstein reveal that Mayakovsky lived in fear of arrest. ‘He had to be removed - so they got rid of him,’ concluded Eisenstein.86
Suicide or murder, the significance of the poet’s death was clear: there was no longer room in Soviet literature for the individualist. Mayakovsky was too rooted in the pre-revolutionary age, and his tragedy was shared by all the avant-garde who, like him, threw in their lot with the new society. The last works of Mayakovsky had been viciously attacked by the Soviet authorities. The press condemned The Bedbug (1929), a dazzling satire on Soviet manners and the new bureaucracy, with a sparkling score by Shostakovich which added to the montage by having several bands play different types of music (from classical to foxtrot) on and off the stage.87 They said the play had failed to portray the Soviet future in heroic terms. ‘We are brought to the conclusion’, complained one reviewer, ‘that life under socialism will be very dull in 1979’ (it was, it turned out, an accurate portrayal of the Brezhnev years).88 His next play, The Bath House, which opened in Meyerhold’s theatre in Moscow just one month before the poet’s death, was an awful flop, and its hilarious critique of Soviet bureaucrats again roundly condemned in the press. But the final straw was Mayakovsky’s retrospective exhibition of his artwork, which he put on in Moscow in March 1930. The exhibition was consciously avoided by the artistic intelligentsia; the poet Olga Berggolts, who went to visit Mayakovsky there, recalls the sight of the ‘tall man with a sad and austere face, his arms folded behind him, as he paced the empty rooms’.89 At an evening devoted to the exhibition, Mayakovsky said that he could no longer achieve what he had set out do - ‘to laugh at things I consider wrong… and to bring the workers to great poetry, without hack writing or a deliberate lowering of standards’.90
The activities of RAPP (the Russian Association of Proletarian Writers) made life impossible for non-proletarian writers and ‘fellow travellers’ like Mayakovsky, who disbanded LEF, the Left Front, and joined RAPP in a last desperate bid to save himself in the final few weeks of his life. Formed in 1928 as the literary wing of Stalin’s Five-year Plan for industry, RAPP saw itself as the militant vanguard of a cultural revolution against the old intelligentsia. ‘The one and only task of Soviet literature’, its journal declared in 1930, ‘is the depiction of the Five-year Plan and the class war.’91 The Five-year Plan was intended as the start of a new revolution which would transform Russia into an advanced industrialized state and deliver power to the working class. A new wave of terror began against the so-called ‘bourgeois’ managers in industry (that is, those who had held their jobs since 1917), and this was followed by a similar assault on ‘bourgeois specialists’ in the professions and the arts. Supported by the state, RAPP attacked the ‘bourgeois enemies’ of Soviet literature which it claimed were hidden in the left-wing avant-garde. Just five days before his death, Mayakovsky was condemned at a RAPP meeting at which his critics demanded proof that he would still be read in twenty years.92
By the beginning of the 1930s, any writer with an individual voice was deemed politically suspicious. The satirists who flourished in the relatively liberal climate of the 1920s were the first to come under attack. There was Mikhail Zoshchenko, whose moral satires on the empty verbiage of the Soviet bureaucracy and the cramped conditions of communal flats were suddenly considered anti-Soviet in the new political climate of the Five-year Plan, when writers were expected to be positive and the only acceptable subject for satire were the foreign enemies of the Soviet Union. Then there was Mikhail Bulgakov, whose Gogolian satires about censorship (The Crimson Island), daily life in Moscow in the NEP (Adventures of Chichikov), Soviet xenophobia (Fatal Eggs) and his brilliant comic novel The Heart of a Dog (where a Pavlov like experimental scientist transplants the brain and sexual organs of a dog into a human being) were not only banned from publication but forbidden to be read when passed as manuscripts from hand to hand. Finally, there was Andrei Platonov, an engineer and Utopian communist (until he was expelled from the Bolshevik Party in 1926) whose own growing doubts about the human costs of the Soviet experiment were reflected in a series of extraordinary dystopian satires: The Epifan Locks (19Z7), a timely allegory on the grandiose but ultimately disastrous canal-building projects of Peter the Great; Chev-engur (also 1927), a fatal odyssey in search of the true communist society; and The Foundation Pit (1930), a nightmare vision of collectivization in which the foundation pit of a huge communal home for the local proletariat turns out to be a monumental grave for humanity. All three were condemned as ‘counter-revolutionary’ and banned from publication for over sixty years.
RAPP’s ‘class war’ reached fever pitch, however, in 1929 with its organized campaign of vilification against Zamyatin and Pilnyak. Both writers had published works abroad which had been censored in the Soviet Union: Zamyatin’s We appeared in Prague in 1927; and Pilnyak’s Red Mahogany, a bitter commentary on the decline of the revolutionary ideals of the Soviet state, was published in Berlin in 1929. But the attack on them had a significance beyond the condemnation of particular works. Boris Pilnyak, who was chairman of the Board of the All-Russian Writers’ Union and so effectively the Soviet Union’s Writer Number One, was perhaps the widest read and most widely imitated serious prose writer in the country.* His persecution was an advance warning of the strict obedience and conformity which the Soviet state would demand of all its writers from the start of the first Five-year Plan.
For the Five-year Plan was not just a programme of industrialization. It was nothing less than a cultural revolution in which all the arts were called up by the state in a campaign to build a new society. According to the plan, the primary goal of the Soviet writer was to raise the workers’ consciousness, to enlist them in the ‘battle’ for ‘socialist construction’ by writing books with a social content which they could
* Pilnyak’s best-known novels are The Naked Year (192.1), Black Bread (1923) and Machines and Wolves (1924).
understand and relate to as positive ideals. For the militants of RAPP this could only be achieved by writers like Gorky, with his impeccably proletarian background, not by left-wing ‘bourgeois’ writers who were deemed no more than ‘fellow travellers’. Between 1928 and 1931 some 10,000 ‘shock authors’, literary confreres of the ‘shock workers’ who would lead the charge to meet the Plan, were plucked from the shop-floor and trained by RAPP to write workers’ stories for the Soviet press.93
Gorky was hailed as the model for this Soviet literature. In 1921, horrified by the Revolution’s turn to violence and dictatorship, Gorky fled to Europe. But he could not bear the life of an exile: he was disillusioned by the rise of fascism in his adopted homeland of Italy; and he convinced himself that life in Stalin’s Russia would become more bearable once the Five-year Plan had swept aside the peasant backwardness which in his view had been the cause of the Revolution’s failure. From 1928 Gorky began to spend his summers in the Soviet Union and in 1931 Gorky returned home for good. The prodigal son was showered with honours: streets, buildings, farms and schools were named after him; a trilogy of films was made about his life; the Moscow Arts Theatre was renamed the Gorky Theatre; and his native city (Nizhnyi Novgorod) was renamed after him. He was also appointed head of the Writers’ Union, the post previously held by Pilnyak.
Gorky had initially supported the RAPP campaign of promoting worker authors as a temporary experiment, but he quickly realized that the quality of the writing was not good. In April 1932 the Central Committee passed a resolution to abolish RAPP, together with all other independent literary groups, and placed them under the centralized control of the Writers’ Union. Gorky’s influence was instrumental in this sudden change of direction, but things did not quite turn out as he had planned. Gorky’s intention had been two-fold: to halt the destructive ‘class war’ led by RAPP; and to restore to Soviet literature the aesthetic principles established by Tolstoy. In October 1932, a famous meeting attended by Stalin and other Kremlin leaders, as well as fifty writers and other functionaries, took place at Gorky’s Moscow house. It was at this meeting that the doctrine of Socialist Realism was formulated, although at the time it was not clear to Gorky that it would become a regimented orthodoxy for all artists in the
Soviet Union. Gorky’s understanding was that Socialist Realism would unite the critical realist traditions of nineteenth-century literature with the revolutionary romanticism of the Bolshevik tradition. It was to combine the depiction of the humble everyday reality of life in the Soviet Union with a vision of the Revolution’s heroic promise. But in Stalin’s version of the doctrine, as defined at the First Congress of the Writers’ Union in 1934, it meant that the artist was to portray Soviet life, not as it was in reality, but as it should become:
Socialist Realism means not only knowing reality as it is, but knowing where it is moving. It is moving towards socialism, it is moving towards the victory of the international proletariat. And a work of art created by a Socialist Realist is one which shows where that conflict of contradictions is leading which the artist has seen in life and reflected in his work.94
In this formula the artist was to produce a panegyric or iconic form of art which conformed strictly to the Party’s narrative of socialist development.95 Whereas the kinoki and other avant-garde artists of the 1920s had sought to expand their audience’s vision of freedom and possibility, now artists were to fix that vision in ways strictly prescribed by the state. The new Soviet writer was no longer the creator of original works of art, but a chronicler of tales which were already contained in the Party’s own folklore.96 There was a sort of ‘master plot’ which Soviet writers were to use in shaping their own novels and characters. In its classic form, as set out in Gorky’s early novel Mother (1906), the plot was a Bolshevik version of the Bildungsroman: the young worker hero joins the class struggle and through the tutelage of senior Party comrades he arrives at a higher consciousness, a better understanding of the world around him and the tasks ahead for the Revolution, before dying a martyr to the cause. Later novels added elements to this master plot: Dmitry Furmanov’s Chapaev (1923) fixed the model of the civil war hero; while Fedor Gladkov’s Cement (1925) and Ostrovsky’s How the Steel Was Tempered raised the communist production worker to Promethean status, capable of conquering everything before him, even the most untamed forces of the natural world, as long as he allows the Party to direct his energies. But basically the story that the novelist could tell was strictly circumscribed by the
Party’s mythic version of its own revolutionary history; even senior writers were forced to change their works if they did not adhere to this doxology.*
To the sophisticated Western reader this no doubt seems a horrible perversion of the role of literature. But it did not appear so in Stalin’s Russia, where the overwhelming mass of the reading public was new to the conventions of literary fiction, and there was less awareness of the difference between the real world and the world of books. People approached literature, as they had perhaps once approached the icons or the stories of the saints, in the conviction that it held up moral truths for the guidance of their lives. The German writer Lion Feuchtwanger commented on this peculiar characteristic of the Soviet reading public when he visited Moscow in 1937:
Among Soviet people the thirst for reading is totally unimaginable. Newspapers, journals, books - all this is absorbed without quenching the thirst to the tiniest degree. Reading is one of the main activities of daily life. But for the reader in the Soviet Union there are, as it were, no clear divisions between the reality in which he lives and the world he reads about in books. The reader treats the heroes of his books as if they are actual people. He argues with them, denounces them, and he even reads realities into the events of the story and its characters.’7
Isaiah Berlin noted the same attitudes to literature on his visit to the Soviet Union in 1945:
The rigid censorship which, with so much else, suppressed pornography, trash and low-grade thrillers such as fill railway bookstalls in the West, served to make the response of Soviet readers and theatre audiences purer, more direct and naive than ours; I noticed that at performances of Shakespeare or Sheridan or Griboedov, members of the audience, some of them obviously country folk, were apt to react to the action on the stage or to lines spoken by the
* The most famous example is Alexander Fadeev. In 1946 he won the Stalin Prize for The Young Guard, a semi-factual novel about the underground youth organization in occupied Ukraine during the Second World War. Attacked in the press for under-rating the role of the Party leadership, Fadeev was forced to add new material to his novel. This enlarged version, published in 1951, was then hailed as a classic Socialist Realist text.
actors… with loud expressions of approval or disapproval; the excitement generated was, at times, very strong and, to a visitor from the West, both unusual and touching.98
In the cinema the state’s concern for art to play a morally didactic role was crucial to the rise of the Socialist Realist film. With the start of the Five-year Plan the Party expressed its impatience with the avant-garde directors, whose intellectual films never really drew a mass audience. Surveys showed that the Soviet public preferred foreign films, action-packed adventures or romantic comedies to the propaganda films of Vertov or Eisenstein.99 In 1928 a Party Conference on Cinema was held at which there were louds calls for film to play a more effective role in mobilizing mass enthusiasm for the Five-year Plan and the class war. The avant-garde directors of the 1920s -Vertov, Pudovkin, Kuleshov - were all condemned as ‘formalists’, intellectuals who were more concerned with cinema as art than with making films that could ‘be understood by the millions’.100Eisenstein’s October, which had been released on the eve of the conference, was bitterly attacked for its ‘formalist’ preoccupation with montage, for the lack of any individual heroes in the film which made it hard for a mass audience to identify with, for the typage casting of the Lenin character (played by a worker named Nikandrov), whose woodenness did so much to offend Party sensibilities, and - of special offence to Stalin, who ordered that his image be cut out after previewing the film at the studio - for the fact that it depicted Trotsky, the military leader of the October insurrection, who had been kicked out of the Party just three months before the conference began.101
But there were just as many criticisms of the leadership of Sovkino, the Soviet film trust under the command of Lunacharsky’s Commissariat, for failing to provide an attractive and more healthy Soviet alternative to the cheap entertainment films imported from abroad. As a propaganda weapon of the state, the Soviet cinema needed to be popular. ‘Our films must be 100 percent ideologically correct and 100 percent commercially viable,’ declared one Party official.102
In 1930 Sovkino was finally disbanded, together with the independent studios which had flourished in the 1920s, and the Soviet cinema was nationalized as one vast state enterprise under the centralized direction of Soiuzkino (Ail-Union Soviet Film Trust). Its chief apparatchik, Boris Shumiatsky, became the ultimate authority in the world of Soviet cinema (until his own arrest and execution as a ‘Trotskyite’ in 1938), although Stalin, who loved the cinema and frequently watched movies in his Kremlin cinema, kept a beady eye on the latest films and often intervened in their production.* Shumiatsky ran a sort of ‘Soviet Hollywood’, with huge production studios in Moscow, Kiev, Leningrad and Minsk reeling off a succession of smash-hit Soviet musicals, romantic comedies, war adventures and Western-modelled frontier films (‘Easterns’) like Chapaev (1934), Stalin’s favourite film.+ Shumiatsky drew up a Five-year Plan for the cinema which called for no less than 500 films to be made in 193 2 alone. All of them were to conform to the new ideological directives, which demanded optimistic pictures about Soviet life with positive individual heroes drawn from the ranks of the proletariat. Party-controlled producers and script departments were placed in charge of the production to ensure that all this entertainment was politically correct. ‘Life is getting gayer, comrades,’ Stalin famously remarked. But only certain types of laughter were allowed. This was the climate to which Eisenstein returned in 1932. For the previous three years he had been abroad - a semi-dissident ambassador of the Soviet cinema. He travelled to Europe and on to Hollywood to learn about the new techniques of sound, signing up for several films he never made. He enjoyed the freedom of the West, and he was no doubt fearful of going back to Russia, where Shumiatsky’s attacks on the ‘formalists’ were at their most extreme when directed against him. Stalin accused Eisenstein of defecting to the West. The NKVD bullied his poor mother into begging Eisenstein to return home, threatening her with some form of punishment if he failed to do so. In the first two years after his return Eisenstein had several film proposals turned
* In 1938, in the final stages of the editing of Eisenstein’s Alexander Nevsky, Stalin asked to see the rough cuts. The film-maker hurried to the Kremlin and, in his haste, left behind one reel. Stalin loved the film but, since no one dared to inform him that it was incomplete, it was released without the missing reel (J. Goodwin. Eisenstein, Cinema and History (Urbana, 1993), p. 162).
+ Stalin could apparently recite long passages of the dialogue by heart. See R. Taylor and I. Christie (eds.), The Film Factory: Russian and Soviet Cinema Documents, 1896- 1939 (London, 1994), p. SX4.
down for production by Soiuzkino. He withdrew to a teaching post at the State Film School and, although he lavished praise (in his public statements) on the mediocre films that were churned out at that time, he stood firm by the films which he had made, courageously refusing to denounce himself, as he was called upon to do, at the Party’s Second Conference on Cinema in 1935.103
Under pressure to produce a film which conformed to the Socialist Realist mould, Eisenstein accepted a commission from the Komsomol (the Communist Youth League) in 1935. He was to realize a film scenario that took its title, although not much else, from Turgenev’s ‘Bezhin Meadow’, a story about peasant boys discussing supernatural signs of death which formed one of the Sketches from a Hunter’s Album. The film was actually inspired by the story of Pavlik Morozov, a boy hero who, according to the version of his life propagandized by the Stalinist regime, had been murdered by the ‘kulaks’ of his remote Urals village after he had denounced his own father, the chairman of the village Soviet, as a kulak opponent of the Soviet campaign for collectivization.* By 1935, the Morozov cult was at its height: songs and poems, even a cantata with full orchestra and chorus, had been written about him. This no doubt persuaded Eisenstein that it was safe to make a film about him. But his conception of the film was deemed unacceptable. He turned it from a story about individuals to a conflict between types, between old and new, and, in a scene that showed the communists dismantling a church to break the resistance of the kulak saboteurs, he came dangerously close to suggesting that collectivization had been something destructive. In August 1936, with most of the film already shot, Eisenstein was ordered by Shumiatsky to rewrite the script. With the help of the writer Isaac Babel he recommenced shooting in the autumn. The church scene was cut and a speech in tribute to Stalin was added. But then, in March 1937, Shumiatsky ordered all work on the film stopped. In an article in Pravda he accused Eisenstein of depicting collectivization as an elemental conflict between good and evil, and
* In fact Morozov was murdered by the NKVD, which then executed thirty-seven kulak villagers, falsely charged with the boy’s murder for propaganda purposes. For the full story, see Y. Druzhnikov, Informer 001: The Myth of Pavlik Morozov (New Brunswick, 1997).
denounced the film for its ‘formalist’ and religious character.104 Eisen-stein was forced to publish a ‘confession’ of his mistakes in the press, although it was penned in such a way as to be read by those whose opinions mattered to him as a satirical attack on his Stalinist masters. The negatives of the film were burned - all, that is, except a few hundred stills of extraordinary photographic beauty which were found in Eisenstein’s personal archive following his death in 1948.105
The suppression of Bezhin Meadow was part of the continuing campaign against the artistic avant-garde. In 1934, at the First Writers’ Congress, Party leader Karl Radek, a former Trotskyite who was now making up for his past errors by proving himself the good Stalinist, condemned the writings of James Joyce - a huge influence on Eisenstein and all the Soviet avant-garde. Radek described Ulysses as ‘a dung heap swarming with maggots and photographed by a movie camera through a microscope’.106 This no doubt held a reference to the famous maggot scene in The Battleship Potemkin, in which Eisenstein zooms in on the offending larvae by filming them through the monocle of the commanding officer. Then, in January 1936, Pravda published a diatribe against Shostakovich’s opera Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk, which had been a great success, with hundreds of performances in both Russia and the West since its premiere in Leningrad in 1934. The unsigned article, ‘Chaos Instead of Music’, was evidently written with the full support of the Kremlin, and evidence suggests, as it was rumoured at the time, that Andrei Zhdanov, the Party boss in Leningrad, wrote it on the personal instructions of Stalin, who, just a few days before the article appeared, had seen the opera and clearly hated it.107
From the first moment, the listener is shocked by a deliberately dissonant, confused stream of sound. Fragments of melody, embryonic phrases appear - only to disappear again in the din, the grinding, and the screaming… This music… carries into the theatre… the most negative features of ‘Meyerholdism’ infinitely multiplied. Here we have ‘leftist’ confusion instead of natural, human music… The danger of this trend to Soviet music is clear. Leftist distortion in opera stems from the same source as the leftist distortion in painting, poetry, teaching and science. Petty-bourgeois innovations lead to a break with real art, real science and real literature… All this is primitive and vulgar.108
This was not just an attack on Shostakovich, although, to be sure, its effect on him was devastating enough that he never dared again to write an opera. It was an attack on all modernists - in painting, poetry and theatre, as well as in music. Meyerhold, in particular, who was brave and self-assured enough to speak out publicly in defence of Shostakovich and against the Party’s stifling influence on art, was subjected to denunciations of a feverish intensity. He was condemned in the Soviet press as an ‘alien’, and even though he tried to save himself by staging the Socialist Realist classic How the Steel Was Tempered in 1937, his theatre was closed down at the beginning of the following year. Stanislavsky came to his old student’s aid, inviting him to join his Opera Theatre in March 1938, although artistically the two directors were poles apart. When Stanislavsky died that summer, Meyerhold became the theatre’s artistic director. But in 1939 he was arrested, tortured brutally by the NKVD to extract a ‘confession’, and then, in the arctic frost of early 1940, he was shot.109
This renewed assault against the avant-garde involved a counterrevolution in cultural politics. As the 1930s wore on, the regime completely abandoned its commitment to the revolutionary idea of establishing a ‘proletarian’ or ‘Soviet’ form of culture that could be distinguished from the culture of the past. Instead, it promoted a return to the nationalist traditions of the nineteenth century, which it reinvented in its own distorted forms as Socialist Realism. This reassertion of the ‘Russian classics’ was a fundamental aspect of the Stalinist political programme, which used culture to create the illusion of stability in the age of mass upheaval over which it reigned, and which championed its version of the nationalist school in particular to counteract the influence of the ‘foreign’ avant-garde. In all the arts the nineteenth-century classics were now held up as the model which Soviet artists were expected to follow. Contemporary writers like Akhmatova could not find a publisher, but the complete works of Pushkin and Turgenev, Chekhov and Tolstoy (though not Dostoevsky),* were
* Dostoevsky was despised (though not read) by Lenin, who once famously dismissed his novel The Devils, which contains a devastating critique of the Russian revolutionary mentality, as a ‘piece of reactionary trash’. Apart from Lunacharsky, none of the Soviet leadership favoured his retention in the literary canon, and even Gorky wanted to get rid of him. Relatively few editions of Dostoevsky’s works were therefore published in
issued in their millions as a new readership was introduced to them. Landscape painting, which had been a dying art in the 1920s, was suddenly restored as the favoured medium of Socialist Realist art, particularly scenes that illustrated the heroic mastery of the natural world by Soviet industry; all of it was styled on the landscape painters of the late nineteenth century, on Levitan or Kuindzhi or the Wanderers, with whom some of the older artists had even studied in their youth. As Ivan Gronsky once remarked (with the bluntness one might expect from the editor of Izvestiia), ‘Socialist Realism is Rubens, Rembrandt and Repin put to serve the working class.’110
In music, too, the regime put the clock back to the nineteenth century. Glinka, Tchaikovsky and the kuchkists, who had fallen out of favour with the avant-garde composers of the 19 20s, were now held up as the model for all future music in the Soviet Union. The works of Stasov, who had espoused the cause of popular nationalist art in the nineteenth century, were now elevated to the status of scripture. Stasov’s championing of art with a democratic content and progressive purpose or idea was mobilized in the 1930s as the founding argument of Socialist Realist art. His opposition to the cosmopolitanism of Diaghilev and the European avant-garde was pressed into the service of the Stalinist regime in its own campaign against the ‘alien’ modernists.* It was a gross distortion of the critic’s views. Stasov was a Westernist. He sought to raise Russia’s culture to the level of the West’s, to bring it into contact as an equal with the West, and his nationalism was never exclusive of Europe’s influence. But in the hands
(continued) the 1930s - about 100,000 copies of all his works were sold between 1938 and 1941, compared with about 5 million copies of Tolstoy’s. It was only in the Khrushchev thaw that print runs of Dostoevsky’s works were augmented. The 10-volume 1956 edition of Dostoevsky’s works published to commemorate the seventy-fifth anniversary of his death ran to 300,000 copies - though this was still extremely small by Soviet standards (V. Seduro, Dostoevski in Russian Literary Criticism, 1846-1956 (New York, 1957), p. 197; and same author, Dostoevski’s Image inRussiaToday (Belmont, 1975),p. 379). * For example, in the foreword to the 3-volume 1952 edition of Stasov’s works (V. V. Stasov, Sobranie sochinenii v 3-kh tomakh, 1847-1906 (Moscow, 1952)) the Soviet editors made the extraordinary announcement that ‘the selection of materials has been determined by our attempt to show Stasov in the struggle against the cosmopolitanism of the Imperial Academy, where the prophets of ‘Art for Art’s sake’, aestheticism, formalism and decadence in art were to be found in the nineteenth century’.
of the Soviet regime he became a Russian chauvinist, an enemy of Western influence and a prophet of the Stalinist belief in Russia’s cultural superiority.
In 1937 Soviet Russia marked the centenary of Pushkin’s death. The whole country was involved in festivities: small provincial theatres put on plays; schools organized special celebrations; Young Communists went on pilgrimages to places connected with the poet’s life; factories organized study groups and clubs of ‘Pushkinists’; collective farms held Pushkin carnivals with figures dressed as characters from Pushkin’s fairy tales (and in one case, for no apparent reason, the figure of Chapaev with a machine-gun); scores of films were made about his life; libraries and theatres were established in his name; and streets and squares, theatres and museums, were renamed after the poet.111 The boom in Pushkin publishing was staggering. Nineteen million copies of his works sold in the jubilee alone, and tens of millions of subscriptions were taken for the new edition of his complete works which had been planned for 1937 - though because of the purges and the frequent losses of staff in which they resulted it was only finished in 1949. The cult of Pushkin reached fever pitch when Pravda declared him a ‘semi-divine being’ and the Central Committee issued a decree in which he was heralded as the ‘creator of the Russian literary language’, the ‘father of Russian literature’ and even as ‘the founder of Communism’.112 In an article entitled ‘Pushkin Our Comrade’, the writer Andrei Platonov maintained that Pushkin had been able to foresee the October Revolution because the spirit of the Russian people had burned like a ‘red hot coal’ within his heart; the same spirit had flickered through the nineteenth century and flared up anew in Lenin’s soul.113 As Pushkin was a truly national poet whose writing spoke to the entire people, his homeland, it was claimed by Pravda, was not the old Russia but the Soviet Union and all humanity.114
’Poetry is respected only in this country’, Mandelstam would tell his friends in the 1930s. ‘There’s no place where more people are killed for it.’115 At the same time as it was erecting monuments to Pushkin, the Soviet regime was murdering his literary descendants. Of the 700 writers who attended the First Writers’ Congress in 1934, only fifty survived to attend the Second in 1954.116 Stalin was capricious in his persecution of the literary fraternity. He saved Bulgakov, he cherished
Pasternak (both of whom could be construed as anti-Soviet), yet without a moment’s hesitation he condemned Party hacks and left-wing writers from the ranks of RAPP. Stalin was not ignorant of cultural affairs. He read serious literature (the poet Demian Bedny hated lending books to him because he returned them with greasy fingermarks).117 He knew the power of poetry in Russia, and feared it. Stalin kept a jealous eye on the most talented or dangerous writers: even Gorky was placed under constant surveillance. But after 1934, when full-scale terror was unleashed, he moved towards more drastic measures of control. The turning point was the murder in 1934 of Sergei Kirov, the Party boss in Leningrad. It is probable that Kirov had been killed on Stalin’s orders: he was more popular than Stalin in the Party, in favour of more moderate policies, and there had been plots to put him into power. But in any case, Stalin exploited the murder to unleash a campaign of mass terror against all the ‘enemies’ of Soviet power, which culminated in the show trials of the Bolshevik leaders Bukharin, Kamenev and Zinoviev in 1936-8 and subsided only when Russia entered the Second World War in 1941. Akhmatova called the early 1930s the ‘vegetarian years’, meaning they were relatively harmless in comparison with the ‘meat-eating’ years that were to come.118
Mandelstam was the first to be taken. In November 1933 he had written a poem about Stalin which had been read in secret to his friends. It is the simplest, most straightforward, verse he ever wrote, a fact his widow Nadezhda would explain as demonstrating Mandel-stam’s concern to make the poem comprehensible and accessible to all. ‘It was, to my mind, a gesture, an act that flowed logically from the whole of his life and work… He did not want to die before stating in unambiguous terms what he thought about the things going on around us.’119
We live, deaf to the land beneath us,
Ten steps away no one hears our speeches,
All we hear is the Kremlin mountaineer,
The murderer and peasant-slayer.
His fingers are fat as grubs
And the words, final as lead weights, fall from his lips,
His cockroach whiskers leer
And his boots gleam.
Around him a rabble of thin-necked leaders -
Fawning half-men for him to play with.
They whinny, purr or whine
As he prates and points a finger,
One by one forging his laws, to be flung
Like horseshoes at the head, the eye or the groin.
And every killing is a treat
For the broad-chested Ossete.120
Akhmatova was visiting the Mandelstams in Moscow in May 1934 when the secret police burst into the flat. ‘The search went on all night’, she wrote in a memoir about Mandelstam. ‘They were looking for poetry, and walked across manuscripts that had been thrown out of the trunk. We all sat in one room. It was very quiet. On the other side of the wall, in Kirsanov’s flat, a ukulele was playing… They took him away at seven in the morning.’121 During his interrogations in the Lubianka, Mandelstam made no attempt to conceal his Stalin poem (he even wrote it out for his torturers) - for which he might well have expected to be sent straight to the gulags in Siberia. Stalin’s resolution, however, was to ‘isolate but preserve’: at this stage, the poet was more dangerous to him dead than alive.122 The Bolshevik leader Nikolai Bukharin had intervened on Mandelstam’s behalf, warning Stalin that ‘poets are always right, history is on their side’.123 And Pasternak, though obviously careful not to compromise himself, had done his best to defend Mandelstam when Stalin called him at home on the telephone.124
The Mandelstams were exiled to Voronezh, 400 kilometres south of Moscow, returning to the Moscow region (but still barred from the capital itself) in 1937. Later that autumn, without a place to live, they visited Akhmatova in Leningrad, sleeping on the divan in her room at the Fountain House. During this last visit Akhmatova wrote a poem for Osip Mandelstam, the person whom she thought of almost as her twin. It was about the city they both loved:
Not like a European capital With the first prize for beauty -
But like stifling exile to the Yenisei,
Like a transfer to Chita,
To Ishim, to waterless Irghiz,
To renowned Atbasar,
To the outpost Svobodny,
To the corpse stench of rotting bunks -
So this city seemed to me
On that midnight, pale blue -
This city, celebrated by the first poet,
By us sinners and by you.125
Six months later Mandelstam was re-arrested and sentenced to five years’ penal labour in Kolyma, eastern Siberia - in effect a death sentence in view of his poor health. On his way there he passed the Yenisei river, the towns of Chita and Svobodny, and ended up in a camp near Vladivostok, where he died of a heart attack on 26 December 1938.
In her memoir about Mandelstam, Akhmatova recalls the final time she saw her friend, stripped of everything, on the eve of his arrest: ‘For me he is not only a great poet but a great human being who, when he found out (probably from Nadya) how bad it was for me in the House on the Fontanka, told me when he was saying goodbye at the Moscow train station in Leningrad: “Annushka” [which he had never used before], always remember that my house - is yours.” ‘126
Mandelstam’s seditious poem also played a role in the arrest of Lev Gumilev, Akhmatova’s son, in 1935. Since the death of his father, in 1921, Lev had lived with relatives in the town of Bezhetsk, 250 kilometres north of Moscow, but in 1929 he moved into the Punin apartment at the Fountain House and, after several applications (all turned down on account of his ‘social origins’), he was finally enrolled, in 1934, as a history student at Leningrad University. One spring evening at the Fountain House Lev recited the Mandelstam poem, which by that time he, like many people, knew by heart. But among his student friends that night was an informant of the NKVD, who came to arrest him, along with Punin, in October 1935. Akhmatova was driven to a frenzy. She rushed to Moscow and, with the help of Pasternak, who wrote personally to Stalin, secured lev’s release. It was not the first time, nor the last, that Lev would be arrested. He had never been involved in anti-Soviet agitation. Indeed, his sole crime was to be the son of Gumilev and Akhmatova; if he was arrested it was only as a hostage to secure his mother’s acquiescence to the Soviet regime. The mere fact of her close relationship with Mandelstam was enough to make the authorities suspicious of her.
Akhmatova herself was being closely watched by the NKVD during 1935. Its agents followed her and photographed her visitors as they came in and out of the Fountain House, in preparation, as archives have now revealed, for her arrest.127 Akhmatova was conscious of the danger she was in. After Lev’s arrest she had burned a huge pile of her manuscripts in full expectation of another raid on the Punin apartment.128 Like all communal blocks, the Fountain House was full of NKVD informants - not paid-up officials, but ordinary residents who were themselves afraid and wished to demonstrate their loyalty, or who bore a petty grudge against their neighbours or thought that by denouncing them they would get more living space. The cramped conditions of communal housing brought out the worst in those who suffered them. There were communal houses where everyone got along, but in general the reality of living together was a far cry from the communist ideal. Neighbours squabbled over personal property, foodstuffs that went missing from the shared kitchen, noisy lovers or music played at night, and, with everybody in a state of nervous paranoia, it did not take much for fights to turn into denunciations to the NKVD.
Lev was re-arrested in March 1938. For eight months he was held and tortured in Leningrad’s Kresty jail, then sentenced to ten years’ hard labour on the White Sea Canal in north-west Russia.* This was at the height of the Stalin Terror, when millions of people disappeared. For eight months Akhmatova went every day to join the long queues at the Kresty jail, now just one of Russia’s many women waiting to hand in a letter or a parcel through a little window and, if it was accepted, to go away with joy at the knowledge that their loved one must be still alive. This was the background to her poetic cycle Requiem (written between 1935 and 1940; first published in Munich in 1963).
* The sentence was later changed to five years’ labour in the gulag at Norilsk.
As Akhmatova explained in the short prose piece ‘Instead of a Preface’ (1957):
In the terrible years of the Yezhov terror, I spent seventeen months in the prison lines of Leningrad. Once, someone ‘recognized’ me. Then a woman with bluish lips standing behind me, who, of course, had never heard me called by name before, woke up from the stupor to which everyone had succumbed and whispered in my ear (everyone spoke in whispers there):
’Can you describe this?’
And I answered, ‘Yes I can.’
Then something that looked like a smile passed over what had once been her face.12’
In Requiem Akhmatova became the people’s voice. The poem represented a decisive moment in her artistic evolution - the moment when the lyric poet of private experience became, in the words of Requiem, the ‘mouth through which a hundred million scream’.130 The poem is intensely personal. Yet it gives voice to an anguish felt by every person who had lost someone.
This was when the ones who smiled
Were the dead, glad to be at rest.
And like a useless appendage, Leningrad
Swung from its prisons.
And when, senseless from torment,
Regiments of convicts marched,
And the short songs of farewell
Were sung by locomotive whistles.
The stars of death stood above us
And innocent Russia writhed
Under bloody boots
And under the tyres of the Black Marias.131
This was when Akhmatova’s decision to remain in Russia began to make sense. She had shared in her people’s suffering. Her poem had become a monument to it - a dirge for the dead sung in whispered incantations among friends; and in some way it redeemed that suffering.
No, not under the vault of alien skies,
And not under the shelter of alien wings -
I was with my people then,
There, where my people, unfortunately, were.132
Some time at the end of the 1940s Akhmatova was walking with Nadezhda Mandelstam in Leningrad when she suddenly remarked: ‘To think that the best years of our life were during the war when so many people were being killed, when we were starving and my son was doing forced labour.’133 For anyone who suffered from the Terror as she did, the Second World War must have come as a release. As Gordon says to Dudorov in the epilogue of Doctor Zhivago, ‘When war broke out its real dangers and its menace of death were a blessing compared with the inhuman power of the lie, a relief because it broke the spell of the dead letter.’134 People were allowed and had to act in ways that would have been unthinkable before the war. They organized themselves for civilian defence. By necessity, they spoke to one another without thinking of the consequences. From this spontaneous activity a new sense of nationhood emerged. As Pasternak would later write, the war was ‘a period of vitality and in this sense an untrammelled, joyous restoration of the sense of community with everyone’.135 His own wartime verse was full of feeling for this community, as if the struggle had stripped away the state to reveal the core of Russia’s nationhood:
Through the peripeteia of the past And the years of war and poverty Silently I came to recognize The inimitable features of Russia
Overcoming my feelings of love I observed in worship Old women, residents Students and locksmiths136
As the German armies crossed the Soviet border, on 22 June 1941, Vyacheslav Molotov, the Foreign Minister, gave a radio address in which he spoke of the impending ‘patriotic war for homeland, honour and freedom’.137 The next day the main Soviet army newspaper, Kras-naia zvezda, referred to it as a ‘holy war’.138 Communism was conspicuously absent from Soviet propaganda in the war. It was fought in the name of Russia, of the ‘family of peoples’ in the Soviet Union, of Pan-Slav brotherhood, or in the name of Stalin, but never in the name of the communist system. To mobilize support, the Stalinist regime even embraced the Russian Church, whose patriotic message was more likely to persuade a rural population that was still recovering from the disastrous effects of collectivization. In 1943, a patriarch was elected for the first time since 1917; a theological academy and several seminaries were re-opened; and after years of persecution the parish churches were allowed to restore something of their spiritual life.139 The regime glorified the military heroes of Russian history - Alexander Nevsky, Dmitry Donskoi, Kuzma Minin and Dmitry Pozharsky, Alexander Suvorov and Mikhail Kutuzov - all of whom were summoned as an inspiration for the nation’s self-defence. Films were made about their lives, military orders were created in their names. History became the story of great leaders rather than the charting of the class struggle.
Russia’s artists enjoyed a new freedom and responsibility in the war years. Poets who had been regarded with disfavour or banned from publication by the Soviet regime suddenly began to receive letters from the soldiers at the front. Throughout the years of the Terror they had never been forgotten by their readers; nor, it would seem, had they ever really lost their spiritual authority. In 1945, Isaiah Berlin, on a visit to Russia, was told that
the poetry of Blok, Bryusov, Sologub, Esenin, Tsvetaeva, Mayakovsky, was widely read, learnt by heart and quoted by soldiers and officers and even political commissars. Akhmatova and Pasternak, who had for a long time lived in a kind of internal exile, received an amazingly large number of letters from the front, quoting from both published and unpublished poems, for the most part circulated privately in manuscript copies; there were requests for autographs, for confirmation of the authenticity of texts, for expressions of the author’s attitude to this or that problem.140
Zoshchenko received about 6,000 letters in one year. Many of them came from readers who said they often thought of suicide and looked to him for spiritual help.141 In the end the moral value of such writers could not fail to impress itself on the Party’s bureaucrats, and conditions for these artists gradually improved. Akhmatova was allowed to publish a collection of her early lyrics, From Six Books. Huge queues formed to buy it on the day when it appeared, in a small edition of just 10,000 copies, in the summer of 1940, whereupon the Leningrad authorities took fright and, on the orders of Party Secretary Andrei Zhdanov, had the book withdrawn from circulation.142
In her patriotic poem ‘Courage’ (published in the Soviet press in February 1942) Akhmatova presented the war as a defence of the ‘Russian word’ - and the poem gave courage to the millions of soldiers who went into battle with its words on their lips:
We know what lies in balance at this moment, And what is happening right now. The hour for courage strikes upon our clocks, And courage will not desert us. We’re not frightened by a hail of lead, We’re not bitter without a roof overhead -And we will preserve you, Russian speech, Mighty Russian word! We will transmit you to our grandchildren Free and pure and rescued from captivity Forever!143
In the first months of the war Akhmatova joined the Civil Defence in Leningrad. ‘I remember her near the old iron railings of the House on the Fontanka’, wrote the poet Olga Berggolts. ‘Her face severe and angry, a gas mask strapped over her shoulder, she took her turn on the fire watch like a regular soldier.’144 As the German armies circled in on Leningrad, Berggolts’s husband, the literary critic Georgy Makogonenko, turned to Akhmatova to raise the spirits of the city by talking to its people in a radio broadcast. For years her poetry had been forbidden by the Soviet authorities. Yet, as the critic explained later, the very name Akhmatova was so synonymous with the spirit of the city that even Zhdanov was prepared to bow to it in this hour of need. Akhmatova was sick, so it was agreed to record her speech in the Fountain House. Akhmatova’s address was proud and courageous. She appealed to the city’s entire legacy - not just to Lenin but to Peter the Great, Pushkin, Dostoevsky and Blok, too. She ended with a stirring tribute to the women of the old capital:
Our descendants will honour every mother who lived at the time of the war, but their gaze will be caught and held fast by the image of the Leningrad woman standing during an air raid on the roof of a house, with a boat-hook and fire-tongs in her hand, protecting the city from fire; the Leningrad girl volunteer giving aid to the wounded among the still smoking ruins of a building… No, a city which has bred women like these cannot be conquered.145
Shostakovich also took part in the radio broadcast. He and Akhmatova had never met, even though they loved each other’s work and felt a spiritual affinity. * Both felt profoundly the suffering of their city, and expressed that suffering in their own ways. Like Akhmatova, Shostakovich had joined the Civil Defence, as a fireman. Only his bad eyesight had prevented him from joining up with the Red Army in the first days of the war. He turned down the chance to leave the besieged city in July, when the musicians of the Conservatory were evacuated to Tashkent in Uzbekistan. In between the fire fighting, he began composing marches for the front-line troops, and in the first two weeks of September, as the bombs began to fall on Leningrad, he worked by candlelight, in a city now deprived of electricity, to finish what would be his Seventh Symphony. As one might expect from his Terror-induced caution and St Petersburg reserve, Shostakovich was rather circumspect in his radio address. He simply told the city that he was about to complete a new symphony. Normal life was going on.146
* Akhmatova rarely missed a Shostakovich premiere. After the first performance of his Eleventh Symphony (‘The Year 1905’) in 1957, she compared its hopeful revolutionary songs, which the critics had dismissed as devoid of interest (this was the time of the Khrushchev thaw), to ‘white birds flying against a terrible black sky’. The next year she dedicated the Soviet edition of her Poems: ‘To Dmitry Dmitrievich Shostakovich, in whose epoch 1 lived on earth’. The two eventually met in 1961. ‘We sat in silence for twenty minutes. It was wonderful,’ recalled Akhmatova (E. Wilson, Shostakovich: A Life Rtemembered (London, [994), pp, 319, 321).
Later that same day, 16 September 1941, the Germans broke through to the gates of Leningrad. For 900 days they cut the city off from virtually all its food and fuel supplies; perhaps a million people, or one third of the pre-war population, died by disease or starvation, before the siege of Leningrad was at last broken in January 1944. Akhmatova was evacuated to Tashkent soon after the German invasion; Shostakovich to the Volga city of Kuibyshev (now known by its pre-revolutionary name of Samara), where he completed the final movement of the Seventh Symphony on a battered upright piano in his two-room apartment. At the top of the first page he scribbled in red ink: ‘To the city of Leningrad’. On 5 March 1942. the symphony received its premiere in Kuibyshev. It was performed by the orchestra of the Bolshoi Theatre, which had also been evacuated to the Volga town. Broadcast by radio throughout the land, it transmitted, in the words of the violinist David Oistrakh, who was listening in Moscow, ‘the prophetic affirmation… of our faith in the eventual triumph of humanity and light’.147 The Moscow premiere later that month was broadcast globally, its drama only highlighted by an air raid in the middle of the performance. Soon the symphony was being performed throughout the Allied world, a symbol of the spirit of endurance and survival, not just of Leningrad but of all countries united against the fascist threat, with sixty-two performances in the USA alone during 1942.148
The symphony was resonant with themes of Petersburg: its lyrical beauty and classicism, evoked nostalgically in the moderato movement (originally entitled ‘Memories’); its progressive spirit and modernity, signalled by the harsh Stravinskian wind chords of the opening adagio; and its own history of violence and war (for the Bolero-like march of the first movement is not just the sound of the approaching German armies, it comes from within). Since the Stalinist assault against his music in 1936, Shostakovich had developed a sort of double-speak in his musical language, using one idiom to please his masters in the Kremlin and another to satisfy his own moral conscience as an artist and a citizen. Outwardly he spoke in a triumphant voice. Yet beneath the ritual sounds of Soviet rejoicing there was a softer, more melancholic voice - the carefully concealed voice of satire and dissent only audible to those who had felt the suffering his music expressed. These two voices are clearly audible in Shostakovich’s Fifth Symphony (the
composer’s ‘Socialist Realist’ rejoinder to those who had attacked Lady Macbeth), which received a half-hour ovation of electrifying force when it was first performed in the Great Hall of the Leningrad Philharmonia in November 1937.149 Beneath the endless fanfares trumpeting the triumph of the Soviet state in the finale, the audience had heard a distant echo of the funeral march from Mahler’s First Symphony and, whether they recognized the march or not, they must have felt its sadness - for nearly everyone in that audience would have lost someone in the Terror of 1937 - and they responded to the music as a spiritual release.150 The Seventh Symphony had the same overwhelming emotional effect.
For it to achieve its symbolic goal, it was vital for that symphony to be performed in Leningrad - a city which both Hitler and Stalin loathed. The Leningrad Philharmonic had been evacuated and the Radio Orchestra was the only remaining ensemble in the city. The first winter of the siege had reduced it to a mere fifteen players, so extra musicians had to be brought out of retirement or borrowed from the army defending Leningrad. The quality of playing was not high, but that hardly mattered when the symphony was finally performed in the bombed-out Great Hall of the Philharmonia on 9 August 1942. - the very day when Hitler had once planned to celebrate the fall of Leningrad with a lavish banquet at the Astoria Hotel. As the people of the city congregated in the hall, or gathered around loudspeakers to listen to the concert in the street, a turning point was reached. Ordinary citizens were brought together by music; they felt united by a sense of their city’s spiritual strength, by a conviction that their city would be saved. The writer Alexander Rozen, who was present at the premiere, describes it as a kind of national catharsis:
Many people cried at the concert. Some people cried because that was the only way they could show their joy; others because they had lived through what the music was expressing with such force; others cried from grief for the people they had lost; or just because they were overcome with the emotion of being still alive.151
The war was a period of productivity and relative creative liberty for Russia’s composers. Inspired by the struggle against Hitler’s armies, or perhaps relieved by the temporary relaxation of the Stalinist Terror, they responded to the crisis with a flood of new music. Symphonies and songs with upbeat martial tunes for the soldiers to march to were the genres in demand. There was a production line of music of this sort. The composer Aram Khachaturian recalled that in the first few days after the invasion by the German troops a sort of ‘song headquarters’ was set up at the Union of Composers in Moscow.152 But even serious composers felt compelled to respond to the call.
Prokofiev was particularly eager to prove his commitment to the national cause. After eighteen years of living in the West, he had returned to the Soviet Union at the height of the Great Terror, in 1936, when any foreign connections were regarded as a sign of potential treachery. Prokofiev appeared a foreigner. He had lived in New York, Paris, Hollywood, and had become comparatively wealthy from his compositions for the Ballets Russes, the theatre and the cinema. With his colourful and fashionable clothes, Prokofiev cut a shocking figure in the grey atmosphere of Moscow at that time. The pianist Sviatoslav Richter, then a student at the Conservatory, recalled him wearing ‘checkered trousers with bright yellow shoes and a reddish-orange tie’.153 Prokofiev’s Spanish wife, Lina, whom he had brought to Moscow and had then abandoned for a student at the Literary Institute, was arrested as a foreigner in 1941, after she had refused to follow him and his new mistress when they left Moscow for the Caucasus.* Prokofiev was attacked as a ‘formalist’, and much of his more experimental music, like his score for Meyerhold’s 1937 production of Pushkin’s Boris Godunov, remained unperformed. What saved him, however, was his amazing talent for composing tunes. His Fifth Symphony (1944) was filled with expansive and heroic themes that perfectly expressed the spirit of the Soviet war effort. The huge scale of its register, with its thick bass colours and Borodin-esque harmonies, summoned up the grandeur of the Russian land. This same epic quality was to be found in War and Peace - an opera whose theme was obviously suggested by the striking parallels between Russia’s war
* Sentenced to twenty years’ hard labour in Siberia, Lina Prokofiev was released in 1 957. After many years of struggling for her rights as a widow she was finally allowed to return to the West in 1972. She died in London in 1989.
against Napoleon and the war against Hitler. The first version of the opera, composed in the autumn of 1941, paid as much attention to intimate love scenes as it did to battle scenes. But following criticism from the Soviet Arts Committee in 1942, Prokofiev was forced to compose several revised versions where, in direct contravention of Tolstoy’s intentions, the heroic leadership and military genius of (the Stalin-like) Kutuzov was highlighted as the key to Russia’s victory, and the heroic spirit of its peasant soldiers was emphasized in large choral set pieces with Russian folk motifs.154
As he was working on the score of War and Peace Prokofiev was asked by Eisenstein to compose the music for his film Ivan the Terrible, released in 1944. Cinema was the perfect medium for Prokofiev. His ability to compose tunes to order and deliver them on time was phenomenal. For Prokofiev the cinema became a sort of Soviet version of the operatic tradition in which he had been schooled under Rimsky Korsakov at the Conservatory. It gave new inspiration to his classical symphonism, allowing him free rein once again to write big tunes for grand mises-en-scene. Prokofiev’s collaboration with Eisenstein had begun in 1938, when, after the disaster of Bezbin Meadow, the film director was given one more chance to please Stalin with an epic history film, Alexander Nevsky (1938), about the prince of Novgorod who had defended Russia from the Teutonic knights in the thirteenth century. Prokofiev was asked by Eisenstein to write the score for his first film in sound. Under the influence of Meyerhold, the two were moving at this time toward the idea of a synthesis of images and sound - an essentially Wagnerian conception which they would apply to opera as well as to film.*
This theatrical ideal lies at the heart of their conception of Alexander Nevsky and Ivan the Terrible. These two epic film dramas are essen-tially cinematic versions of the great nineteenth-century history operas. In Ivan, especially, the scenes are structured like an opera, and Proko-fiev’s brilliant score would not be out of place in any opera house. The
* The two men worked together with Meyerhold on the production of Prokofiev’s opera Setnyon Kotko in 1939. The next year, following the signing of the Nazi-Soviet pact, Eisenstein produced Die Walkure at the Bolshoi in Moscow. See further R. Bartlet, Wagner and Russia (Cambridge, 1995), pp. 271-81.
film opens with an overture whose stormy leitmotif is clearly borrowed from Wagner’s Die Walkure. There are orchestrated arias and choral songs; liturgical chants; even, quite incongruously, a polonaise; and symphonic leitmotifs, or the sound of bells, which carry the emotions of the ‘music drama’, as Eisenstein describes it in a note outlining his new Wagnerian cinema. In the final colour scenes, where music, dance and drama are combined, there is even an attempt to reach a complete harmony of sound and colour, as Wagner had once dreamed.155
For Eisenstein these films represented a volte-face in artistic principles: the avant-garde of the 1920s had tried to take the theatre out of cinema, and now here he was putting it back in. Montage was abandoned for a clear sequential exposition of the theme through the combined effect of images and sound. In Alexander Nevsky, for example, the central idea of the film, the emotive clash between the peaceful Russians and the Teutonic invaders, is conveyed by the programmatic music as much as by the visual imagery. Eisenstein re-cut the film to synchronize the visual with the tonal images. In the famous battle scene on ice he even shot the film to match the score.156 Stalin was delighted with Alexander Nevsky. Its emotional power was perfectly harnessed to the propaganda message of heroic leadership and patriotic unity which the Soviet regime needed to boost national morale on the outbreak of war. Indeed, the subject of the film had such an obvious parallel with the Nazi threat that its screening was postponed following the signing of the Nazi-Soviet pact in 1939.
Stalin saw Ivan the Terrible as a medieval prototype of his own statesmanship. In 1941, as Soviet Russia went to war, it seemed a good moment to remind the nation of the lessons Stalin drew from Ivan’s reign: that force, even cruelty, were needed to unite the state and drive the foreigners and traitors from the land. The official cult of Ivan took off in the wake of the Great Terror (as if to justify it) in 1939. ‘Our benefactor thinks that we have been too sentimental’, Pasternak wrote to Olga Freidenberg in February 1941. ‘Peter the Great is no longer an appropriate model. The new passion, openly confessed, is for Ivan the Terrible, the oprichnina, and cruelty. This is the subject for new operas, plays and films.’157 One month earlier, Zhdanov had commissioned Eisenstein to make his film. But Eisenstein’s conception of Ivan the Terrible was far removed from the official one. The first part
of the film to emerge in his imagination was the confession scene (planned for the third and final part of the film), in which Ivan kneels beneath the fresco of the Last Judgement in the Cathedral of the Assumption and offers his repentance for the evils of his reign while a monk reads out an endless list of people executed on the Tsar’s command.158
From the start, then, Ivan was conceived as a tragedy, a Soviet version of Boris Godunov which would contain a terrifying commentary on the human costs of tyranny. However, because everybody knew what Stalin did with people who made parables like this, the film’s tragic nature and contemporary theme could not be revealed until the end.159 In Part One of the film Eisenstein depicts the heroic aspects of Ivan: his vision of a united state; his fearless struggle against the scheming boyars; his strong authority and leadership in the war against the Tatars of Kazan. Stalin was delighted, and Eisenstein was honoured with the Stalin Prize. But at a banquet to celebrate his triumph Eisenstein collapsed with a heart attack. Earlier that day he had put the final touches to Part Two of his epic film (not publicly released until 1958). He knew what lay in store. In Part Two the action switches from the public sphere to Ivan’s inner world. The Tsar now emerges as a tormented figure, haunted by the terror to which he is driven by his own paranoia and his isolation from society. All his former allies have abandoned him, there is no one he can trust, and his wife has been murdered in a boyars’ plot. The parallels between Ivan and Stalin were unmissable. Stalin, too, had lost his wife (she had killed herself in 1932) and the effect of her death on his own mental condition, which doctors had already diagnosed as paranoia and schizophrenia, no doubt contributed to the terror he unleashed.160
When Stalin saw the film he reacted violently. ‘This is not a film -it is some kind of nightmare!’161 In February 1947 Stalin summoned Eisenstein to a late-night interview in the Kremlin at which he delivered a revealing lecture on Russian history. Eisenstein’s Ivan was weak-willed and neurotic, like Hamlet, he said, whereas the real Tsar had been great and wise in ‘preserving the country from foreign influence’. Ivan had been ‘very cruel’, and Eisenstein could ‘depict him as a cruel man, but’, Stalin explained, you have to show why he had to be cruel. One of Ivan the Terrible’s mistakes was to stop short of cutting up the five key feudal clans. Had he destroyed these five clans, there would have been no Time of Troubles. And when Ivan the Terrible had someone executed, he would spend a long time in repentance and prayer. God was a hindrance to him in this respect. He should have been more decisive.162
Part Two of Ivan was banned by Stalin, but Eisenstein was permitted to resume production on Part Three on the understanding that he incorporate approved material from the previous film in it. On Stalin’s instructions, he even promised to shorten Ivan’s beard. At a screening of Part Two at the State Institute of Cinema, Eisenstein gave a speech in which he criticized himself for the ‘formalistic deviations’ of his film. But he told his friends that he would not change his film. ‘What re-shooting?’ he said to one director. ‘Don’t you realize that I’d die at the first shot?’163 Eisenstein, who had never lacked bravura, was evidently preparing an artistic rebellion, culminating in the confession scene of the film’s third and final part, a terrifying commentary on Stalin’s madness and his sins:
Tsar Ivan bangs his forehead against the flagstones in a rapid sequence of genuflections. His eyes swim with blood. The blood blinds him. The blood enters his ears and deafens him. He sees nothing.164
When they shot the scene the actor Mikhail Kuznetsov asked Eisenstein what was going on. ‘Look, 1,200 boyars have been killed. The Tsar is “Terrible”! So why on earth is he repenting?’ Eisenstein replied: ‘Stalin has killed more people and he does not repent. Let him see this and then he will repent.’165
Eisenstein took inspiration from Pushkin, whose own great drama Boris Godunov had served as a warning against tyranny in the wake of the suppression of the Decembrist revolt by Tsar Nicholas I. But there is a deeper sense in which his brave defiance as an artist was rooted in the whole of the Russian humanist tradition of the nineteenth century. As he explained to a fellow director, who had pointed out the connection to Boris Godunov:
’Lord, can you really see it? I’m so happy, so happy! Of course it is Boris Godunov: “Five years I have governed in peace, but my soul is troubled…” I could not make a film like that without the Russian tradition - without that great tradition of conscience. Violence can be explained, it can be legalized, but it can’t be justified. If you are a human being, it has to be atoned. One man may destroy another - but as a human being I must find this painful, because man is the highest value… This, in my opinion, is the inspiring tradition of our people, our nation, and our literature.166
Eisenstein did not have enough strength to complete his film. The heart attack had crippled him. He died in 1948.
The Leningrad to which Akhmatova returned in 1944 was a shadow of its former self. For her it was a ‘vast cemetery, the graveyard of her friends’, Isaiah Berlin wrote: ‘it was like the aftermath of a forest fire - the few charred trees made the desolation still more desolate’.167 Before the war she had been in love with a married man, Vladimir Garshin, a medical professor from a famous nineteenth-century literary family. He had helped her through her son’s arrest and her first heart attack in 1940. On Akhmatova’s return to Leningrad she was expecting to be with him again. But when he met her at the station there was something wrong. During the siege Garshin had become the chief coroner of Leningrad, and the daily horror which he experienced in the starving city, where cannibalism became rife, stripped away his sanity. In October 1942 his wife had collapsed from hunger on the street and died. He had recognized her body in the morgue.168 When Garshin met Akhmatova at the station, it was only to tell her that their love affair was over. Akhmatova returned to the Fountain House. The palace had been half-destroyed by a German bomb. Her old apartment had large cracks in the walls, the windows were all smashed, and there was no running water or electricity. In November 1945, her son Lev came to live with her, having been released from the labour camp to fight in the war, and he resumed his studies at the university.
During that same month Akhmatova received an English visitor. In 1945 Isaiah Berlin had just arrived as First Secretary of the British Embassy in Moscow. Born in Riga in 1909, the son of a Russian-Jewish timber merchant, Berlin had moved in 1916 with his family to Petersburg, where he had witnessed the February Revolution. In 1919 his family returned to Latvia, then emigrated to England. By the time of his appointment to the Moscow embassy Berlin was already established as a leading scholar for his 1939 book on Marx. During a visit to Leningrad, Berlin was browsing in the Writers’ Bookshop on the Nevsky Prospekt when he ‘fell into casual conversation with someone who was turning over the leaves of a book of poems’.169 That someone turned out to be the well-known literary critic Vladimir Orlov, who told Berlin that Akhmatova was still alive and residing in the Fountain House, a stone’s throw away. Orlov made a telephone call and at three o’clock that afternoon he and Berlin climbed the stairs to Akhmatova’s apartment.
It was very barely furnished - virtually everything in it had, I gathered, been taken away - looted or sold - during the siege; there was a small table, three or four chairs, a wooden chest, a sofa and, above the unlit stove, a drawing by Modigliani. A stately, grey-haired lady, a white shawl draped about her shoulders, slowly rose to greet us. Anna Andreevna Akhmatova was immensely dignified, with unhurried gestures, a noble head, beautiful, somewhat severe features, and an expression of immense sadness.170
After conversing for a while, Berlin suddenly heard someone shouting his name outside. It was Randolph Churchill, Winston’s son, whom Berlin had known as an undergraduate at Oxford and who had come to Russia as a journalist. Churchill needed an interpreter and, hearing that Berlin was in the city, had tracked him down to the Fountain House. But since he did not know the exact location of Akhmatova’s apartment he ‘adopted a method which had served him well during his days in Christ Church’. Berlin rushed downstairs and left with Churchill, whose presence might be dangerous for Akhmatova. But he returned that evening and spent the night in conversation with Akhmatova - who, perhaps, fell in love with him. They spoke about Russian literature, about her loneliness and isolation, and about her friends from the vanished world of Petersburg before the Revolution, some of whom he had since met as emigres abroad. In her eyes, Berlin was a messenger between the two Russias which had been split apart in 1917. Through him she was able to return to the European Russia of St Petersburg - a city from which she felt she had lived apart as an ‘internal exile’ in Leningrad. In the cycle Cinque, among the most beautiful poems she ever wrote, Akhmatova evokes in sacred terms the feeling of connection she felt with her English visitor.
Sounds die away in the ether,
And darkness overtakes the dusk.
In a world become mute for all time,
There are only two voices: yours and mine.
And to the almost bell-like sound
Of the wind from invisible Lake Ladoga,
That late-night dialogue turned into
The delicate shimmer of interlaced rainbows.171
’So our nun now receives visits from foreign spies,’ Stalin remarked, or so it is alleged, when he was told of Berlin’s visit to the Fountain House. The notion that Berlin was a spy was absurd, but at that time, when the Cold War was starting and Stalin’s paranoia had reached extreme proportions, anyone who worked for a Western embassy was automatically considered one. The NKVD stepped up its surveillance of the Fountain House, with two new agents at the main entrance to check specifically on visitors to Akhmatova and listening devices planted clumsily in holes drilled into the walls and ceiling of her apartment. The holes left little heaps of plaster on the floor, one of which Akhmatova kept intact as a warning to her guests.172 Then, in August 1946, Akhmatova was attacked in a decree by the Central Committee which censored two journals for publishing her work. A week later Andrei Zhdanov, Stalin’s chief of ideology, announced her expulsion from the Writers’ Union, delivering a vicious speech in which he described Akhmatova as a ‘left-over from the old aristocratic culture’ and (in a phrase that had been used by Soviet critics in the past) as a ‘half-nun, half-harlot or rather harlot-nun whose sin is mixed with prayer’.173
Akhmatova was deprived of her ration card and forced to live off food donated by her friends. Lev was barred from taking his degree at the university. In 1949, Lev was re-arrested, tortured into making a confession and sentenced to ten years in a labour camp near Omsk. Akhmatova became dangerously ill. With rumours circulating of her own arrest, she burned all her manuscripts at the Fountain House. Among them was the prose draft of a play about a woman writer who is tried and sentenced to prison by a writers’ tribunal. It was an allegory on her own tormented position. Because the tribunal consciously betrays the freedom of thought for which, as fellow writers, they are meant to stand, its literary bureaucrats are far more terrifying than the state’s police.174 It is a sign of her utter desperation that, in an attempt to secure her son’s release, she even wrote a poem in tribute to Stalin.* Lev was only released, after Stalin’s death, in 1956. Akhmatova believed that the cause of his arrest had been her meeting with Berlin in 1945. During his interrogation Lev was questioned several times about the ‘English spy’ - on one occasion while his head was being smashed against a prison wall.175 She even managed to convince herself (if no one else) that their encounter was the cause of the Cold War. She ‘saw herself and me as world-historical personages chosen by destiny to begin a cosmic conflict’, Berlin wrote.176
Berlin always blamed himself for the suffering he had caused.177 But his visit to the Fountain House was not the cause of the attack on Akhmatova, nor of Lev’s arrest, though it served as a pretext for both. The Central Committee decree was the beginning of a new onslaught on the freedom of the artist - the last refuge of freedom in the Soviet Union - and Akhmatova was the obvious place to start. For the intelligentsia she was the living symbol of a spirit which the regime could neither destroy nor control: the spirit of endurance and human dignity that had given them the strength to survive the Terror and the war. Zoshchenko believed that the decree had been passed after Stalin had been told of a literary evening at the Polytechnic Museum in Moscow during 1944 at which Akhmatova had received an ovation from a 3,000-strong audience. ‘Who organized this standing ovation?’ Stalin was said to have asked - a question so in keeping with his character that nobody could possibly have made it up.178
* She later requested that it be omitted from her collected works.
Attacked by the same decree as Akhmatova was Mikhail Zoshch-enko. Like Akhmatova, he was based in Leningrad, a city whose spiritual autonomy made Stalin suspicious. The suppression of these two writers was a way of demonstrating to the Leningrad intelligentsia its place in society. Zoshchenko was the last of the satirists -Mayakov-sky, Zamyatin and Bulgakov had all perished - and a major thorn in Stalin’s side. The immediate cause of the attack was a children’s story, ‘Adventures of a Monkey’, published in Zvezda (one of the journals censured in the decree) in 1946, in which a monkey that has escaped from the zoo is retrained as a human being. But Stalin had been irritated by Zoshchenko’s stories for some years. He recognized himself in the figure of the sentry in ‘Lenin and the Guard’ (1939), in which Zoshchenko portrays a rude and impatient ‘southern type’ (Stalin was from Georgia) with a moustache, whom Lenin treats like a little boy.179 Stalin never forgot insults such as this. He took a personal interest in the persecution of Zoshchenko, whom he regarded as a ‘parasite’, a writer without positive political beliefs whose cynicism threatened to corrupt society. Zhdanov used the same terms in his vicious speech which followed the decree. Barred from publication, Zoshchenko was forced to work as a translator and to resume his first career as a shoemaker, until Stalin’s death in 1953, when he was re-admitted to the Writers’ Union. But by this stage Zoshchenko had fallen into such a deep depression that he produced no major writings before his death in 1958.
The attack against Akhmatova and Zoshchenko was soon followed by a series of decrees in which a rigid Party line was laid down by Zhdanov for all the other arts. The influence of Zhdanov was so dominant that the post-war period became known as the Zhdanovsh-china (‘Zhdanov’s reign’). Even though he died in 1948, his cultural policies remained in force until (and in some ways long after) the Khrushchev thaw. Zhdanov’s ideology reflected the Soviet trium-phalism which had emerged in the communist elites following the victory against Hitler and the military conquest of eastern Europe in 1945. The Cold War led to renewed calls for iron discipline in cultural affairs. The terror of the state was now principally directed at the intelligentsia, its purpose being to impose an Orwellian conformity to the Party’s ideology on all the arts and sciences. Zhdanov launched a series of violent attacks against ‘decadent Western influences’. He led a new campaign against the ‘formalists’, and a blacklist of composers (including Shostakovich, Khachaturian and Prokofiev), who were charged with writing music that was ‘alien to the Soviet people and its artistic taste’, was published by the Central Committee in February 1948.180 For the composers named it meant the sudden loss of jobs, cancellation of performances and their virtual disappearance from the Soviet repertoire. The declared aim of this new purge was to seal off Soviet culture from the West. Tikhon Khrennikov, the Zhdanovite hardliner at the head of the Composers’ Union, stamped out any signs of foreign or modernist (especially Stravinsky’s) influence on the Soviet musical establishment. He rigidly enforced the model of Tchaikovsky and the Russian music school of the nineteenth century as the starting point for all composers in the Soviet Union.
Immense national pride in the cultural and political superiority of Soviet Russia went hand in hand with anti-Western feeling during the Cold War. Absurd claims for Russia’s greatness began to appear in the Soviet press. ‘Throughout its history’, declared Pravda, ‘the Great Russian people have enriched world technology with outstanding discoveries and inventions.’181 Absurd claims were made for the superiority of Soviet science under the direction of Marxist-Leninist ideology, which led to the promotion of frauds and cranks like the pseudo-geneticist Timofei Lysenko, who claimed to have developed a new strain of wheat that would grow in the Arctic frost. The aeroplane, the steam engine, the radio, the incandescent bulb - there was scarcely an invention or discovery which the Russians did not claim as their own. Cynics even joked that Russia was the homeland of the elephant.*
This triumphalism also found expression in the architectural style which dominated plans for the reconstruction of Soviet cities after 1945. ‘Soviet Empire’ combined the neoclassical and Gothic motifs of the Russian Empire style that had flourished in the wake of 1812 with the monumental structures that trumpeted the magnificence of
* Andrei Sakharov records a joke in scientific circles at that time. A Soviet delegation attends a conference on elephants and delivers a 4-part report: (1) Classics of Marxism-Leninism-Stalinism on Elephants; (z) Russia - the Elephant’s Homeland; (3) The Soviet Elephant: The Best Elephant in the World; and (4) The Belorussian Elephant - Little Brother to the Russian Elephant (A. Sakharov, Memoirs (London, 1990), p. 123).
the Soviet achievement. ‘Stalin’s cathedrals’, the seven elephantine wedding-cake-like structures (such as the Foreign Ministry and the Moscow University ensemble on the Lenin Hills) which shot up around Moscow after 1945, are supreme examples of this ostentatious form. But metro stations, ‘palaces of culture’, cinemas and even circuses were also built in the Soviet Empire style, with massive forms, classical facades and porticoes, and neo-Russian historical motifs. The most striking example is the Moscow metro station Komsomolskaia-Kol’tsevaia, built in 1952. Its huge subterranean ‘Hall of Victory’, conceived as a monument to Russia’s military heroes of the past, was a model of the Russian baroque. Its decorative motifs were largely copied from the Rostov Kremlin Church.182
Soviet pride in Russian culture knew no bounds in the post-war period. The Russian ballet was pronounced the best, the Russian classics in literature and music the most popular in the world. Russia’s cultural domination was also imposed on the satellite regimes of eastern Europe and on the republics of the Soviet Union, where Russian became a compulsory language in all schools and children were brought up on Russian fairy tales and literature. Soviet ‘folk’ choirs and dancing troupes made frequent tours to eastern Europe, whose own state-sponsored ‘folk’ ensembles (the Lado and the Kolo in Yugoslavia, the Mazowsze in Poland, the Sluk in Czechoslovakia and the Hungarian State Ensemble) sprang up on the Soviet design.183 The stated aim of these ‘folk’ groups was to promote regional and national cultures within the Soviet bloc. Soviet policy, since 1934, had been to foster cultures that were ‘national in form and socialist in content’.184 But these groups had little real connection with the folk culture they were meant to represent. Made up of professionals, they performed a type of song and dance which bore the clear hallmarks of the ersatz folk songs performed by Red Army ensembles, and their national character was reflected only in their outward forms (generic ‘folk costumes’ and melodies).
The long-term plan of Soviet policy was to channel these ‘folk cultures’ into higher forms of art on the lines set out (or so it was believed) by the Russian nationalists of the nineteenth century. Russian composers were assigned by Moscow to the Central Asian and
Caucasion republics to set up ‘national operas’ and symphonic
traditions in places where there had been none before. The European opera house and concert hall arrived in Alma Ata and Tashkent, in Bukhara and Samarkand, as pillars of this imported Soviet-Russian culture; and soon they were filled with the strange sound of a wholly artificial ‘national music’ which was based on native tribal melodies notated in the European style then placed in the musical framework of the Russian national movement of the nineteenth century.
The Russian composer Reinhold Gliere (the composition teacher of the young Prokofiev) wrote the first ‘national opera’ of Azerbaijan, mixing old Azeri melodies with European forms and harmonies. Gliere also composed the first Uzbek opera, Gulsara (1937), an epic Soviet tale of women’s liberation from the old patriarchal way of life, with Uzbek folk tunes harmonized and orchestrated in the style of Berlioz. The Kirghiz opera was established by two Muscovites (Vladimir Vla-sov and Vladimir Fere) who orchestrated Kirghiz melodies (notated by the Kirghizian Abdilas Maldybaev) in their own imaginary Kirghiz national style with lots of raw and open harmonies. The Russian founder of the Kazakh national opera, Evgeny Brusilovsky, continued writing Kazakh opera until the 1950s, long after a new generation of native-born composers had emerged from the conservatory in Alma Ata. The campaign against the ‘formalists’ encouraged many composers to flee Moscow and Petersburg for the relatively liberal atmosphere of these remote republics. Alexander Mosolov, perhaps better known as a composer of experimental music in the 1920s, moved via the gulag to Turkmenistan, where he remained until his death in 1973, a composer of national Turkmen music in the style of Borodin. Maximilian Steinberg, Stravinsky’s closest rival in St Petersburg in the 1900s and teacher to the leading avant-garde composers (including Shostakovich) in the early 1920s, ended his career as People’s Artist of the Uzbek Soviet Socialist Republic.185
As the Cold War became more intense, and Stalin’s own paranoic fear of ‘internal enemies’ and ‘spies’ increased, his regime’s suspicions of all foreign influence turned to hatred of the Jews. This anti-Semitism was thinly veiled by Soviet (that is, Russian) patriotic rhetoric, but there was no mistaking that the victims of the vicious inquisition against ‘cosmopolitanism’ were predominantly Jewish. In January 1948, the well-known Jewish actor Solomon Mikhoels, chairman of the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee (JAFC), was killed by state security troops. The assassination was carried out on the strict personal instructions of Stalin, who, three days before the brutal killing, had summoned all the members of the Politburo, denounced Mikhoels in a fit of rage and, in a way that suggests that this was to be a symbolic murder,* specified that ‘Mikhoels must be struck on the head with an axe, wrapped up in a wet quilted jacket and run over by a truck’.186
The murder of Mikhoels was linked to the arrest of several dozen leading Jews accused of taking part in an American-Zionist conspiracy organized by the JAFC against the Soviet Union.+ The JAFC had been established on Stalin’s orders in 1941 to mobilize Jewish support abroad for the Soviet war campaign. It received enthusiastic support from the left-wing Jewish community in Palestine, so much so that Stalin even thought he might turn the new state of Israel into the main sphere of Soviet influence in the Middle East. But Israel’s growing links with the USA after 1948 unleashed Stalin’s lifelong hatred of the Jews.187 The JAFC was abolished, its members all arrested and accused of plotting to turn the Crimea into an American-Zionist base for an attack on the Soviet Union. Thousands of Jews were forcibly evicted from the regions around Moscow and despatched as ‘rootless parasites’ to the Siberian wilderness, where a special ‘Jewish Autonomous Region’ had been established in Birobidzhan: it was a sort of Soviet version of Hitler’s Madagascar, where the Nazis had once thought to export the Jews. In November 1948 the Central Committee decided that all the Jews in the Soviet Union would have to be resettled in Siberia.188
In the cultural sphere the ‘ugly distortions’ of the avant-garde were put down to the influence of Jews like Eisenstein, Mandelstam,
* Stalin’s father had been murdered by an axe wrapped in a quilted jacket; and his likely killer, an Armenian criminal who had worked with Stalin for the Tsarist secret police in Tiflis in the 1900s, was killed on Stalin’s orders, sixteen years later in 1922,, when he was run over by a truck (R. Brackman, The Secret File of Joseph Stalin: A Hidden Life (London, 2001), pp. 38-43).
+ Even two of Stalin’s own relatives by marriage, Anna Redens and Olga Allilueva, were arrested for their Jewish connections. Explaining the arrest of her two aunts to his own daughter, Stalin stud: ‘They knew too much. They blabbed a lot’ (S. Allilueva, Only One Year (New York, 1969), p. 154).
Chagall. The offensive was personally instigated by Stalin. He even studied linguistics, and wrote at length about it in Pravda during 1949, with the aim of denouncing the ‘Jewish’ theory, originally advanced by Niko Marr in the 1900s, that the Georgian language had Semitic origins.189 In 1953 Stalin ordered the arrest of several Jewish doctors who worked for the Kremlin on trumped-up charges (the so-called ‘Doctors’ Plot’) of having poisoned Zhdanov and another Politburo member, A. S. Shcherbakov.* The tirade in the press against the ‘murderers in white coats’ produced a wave of anti-Jewish hatred, and many Jews were evicted from their jobs and homes. Jewish scientists, scholars and artists were singled out for attacks as ‘bourgeois nationalists’, even if (as was so often the case) they were more Russian than Jewish. The fact that they had ‘Jew’ written in their Soviet passports was enough to condemn them as Zionists.+
Jewish film directors (Leonid Trauberg, Dziga Vertov, Mikhail Romm) were accused of making ‘anti-Russian’ films and forced out of their studios. Vasily Grossman’s novel Stalingrad, based on his work as a war correspondent, was banned principally because its central character was a Russian Jew. The Black Book (first published in Jerusalem in 1980), Grossman’s still-unrivalled memoir-based account of the Holocaust on Soviet soil, which he assembled for the Literary Commission of the JAFC, was never published in the Soviet Union. When Grossman started writing in the 1930s, he thought of himself as a Soviet citizen. The Revolution had brought to an end the Tsarist persecution of the Jews. But in his last novel, the epic wartime story Life and Fate (first published in Switzerland in 1980), he portrayed the Nazi and Soviet regimes, not as opposites, but as mirror images of each other. Grossman died in 1964, a quarter of a century before his
* One of these prominent doctors was Isaiah Berlin’s uncle Leo, who was accused of passing Kremlin secrets to the British through his nephew on his visit to Moscow in 1945. Severely beaten, Leo attempted suicide and eventually ‘confessed’ to having been a spy. He was held in prison for a year and released in 1954, shortly after Stalin’s death. One day, while still weak from his time in prison, he saw one of his torturers in the street ahead of him, collapsed from a heart attack and died (M. Ignatieff, Isaiah Berlin: A Life (London, 1998), pp. 168-9).
+ All citizens of the USSR had a Soviet passport. But inside the passport there was a category that defined them by ‘nationality’ (ethnicity).
masterpiece was published in his native land. He had asked to be buried in a Jewish cemetery.190
’I had believed that after the Soviet victory, the experience of the thirties could not ever come again, yet everything reminded me of the way things had gone then’, wrote Ilya Ehrenburg (one of the few senior Jewish intellectuals to emerge unscathed from the Stalin era) in Men, Years - Life (1961-6).191 Coming as it did after the release of the war years, this new wave of terror must have felt in some ways more oppressive than the old; to try to survive such a thing the second time around must have been like trying to preserve one’s very sanity. Ehrenburg visited Akhmatova at the Fountain House in 1947.
She was sitting in a small room where her portrait by Modigliani hung on the wall and, sad and majestic as ever, was reading Horace. Misfortunes crashed down on her like avalanches; it needed more than common fortitude to preserve such dignity, composure and pride.192
Reading Horace was one way of keeping sane. Some writers turned to literary scholarship or, like Kornei Chukovsky, to writing children’s books. Others, like Pasternak, turned to translating foreign works.
Pasternak’s Russian translations of Shakespeare are works of real artistic beauty, if not entirely true to the original. He was Stalin’s favourite poet, far too precious to arrest. His love of Georgia and translations of Georgian poetry endeared him to the Soviet leader. But even though he lived amid all the creature comforts of a Moscow gentleman, Pasternak was made to suffer from the Terror in a different way. He bore the guilt for the suffering of those writers whom he could not help through his influence. He was tortured by the notion that his mere survival somehow proved that he was less than honour-able as a man - let alone as a great writer in that Russian tradition which took its moral values from the Decembrists. Isaiah Berlin, who met Pasternak on several occasions in 1945, recalled that he kept returning to this point, and went to absurd lengths to deny that he was capable of [some squalid compromise with the authorities] of which no one who knew him could begin to conceive him to be guilty’.193
Pasternak refused to attend the meeting of the Writers’ Union at which Akhmatova and Zoshchenko were denounced. For this he was expelled from the Union’s board. He went to see Akhmatova. He gave her money, which may have led to the attack on him in Pravda as ‘alien’ and ‘remote from Soviet reality’.194 After all his optimism in the war Pasternak was crushed by the return to the old regime of cruelty and lies. He withdrew from the public scene and worked on what he now regarded as his final message to the world: his great novel Doctor Zhivago. Set amidst the horrific chaos of the Russian Revolution and the civil war, it is no coincidence that the novel’s central theme is the importance of preserving the old intelligentsia, represented by Zhivago. In many ways the hero’s younger brother, the strange figure called Evgraf, who has some influence with the revolutionaries and often helps his brother out of dire straits by making calls to the right people, is the very type of saviour figure that Pasternak himself would have liked to have been. Pasternak regarded the novel as his greatest work (much more important than his poetry), his testament in prose, and he was determined that it should be read by the widest possible audience. His decision to publish it abroad, after it was delayed and then turned down by the journal Novyi mir, was his final act of rebellion against the bullying of the Soviet regime.*
Shostakovich found another way to save his sanity. In 1948 he was dismissed from his teaching posts at the conservatories in Moscow and Leningrad - his pupils were also forced to repent for having studied with the ‘formalist’. Fearing for his family, Shostakovich admitted his ‘mistakes’ at a Congress of Composers in April: he promised to write music which ‘the People’ could enjoy and understand. For a while, Shostakovich contemplated suicide. His works were banned from the concert repertoire. But, as in former times, he found a refuge and an outlet in the cinema. Between 1948 and 1953, Shostakovich wrote the music for no less than seven films.195 ‘It allows me to eat’, he wrote to his friend Isaak Glickman, ‘but it causes me extreme fatigue.’196 He
* Smuggled out of Russia and first published in Italy in 1957, Doctor Zhivago became an international bestseller, and Pasternak was nominated for the Nobel Prize in 1958, but under pressure from the Writers’ Union, and a storm of nationalist abuse against him in the Soviet press, he was forced to refuse the prize. Pasternak died in 1960.
told fellow composers that it was ‘unpleasant’ work, to be done ‘only in the event of extreme poverty’.197 Shostakovich needed all the money he could earn from this hack work. But he also had to show that he was taking part in the ‘creative life of the Party’. Five of the film scores he composed in these years were awarded the prestigious Stalin Prize, and two of his songs from Alexandrov’s Meeting on the Elbe (1948) became hits, with enormous record sales. The composer’s own political rehabilitation and a modicum of material comfort for his family were secured.
Yet all the time Shostakovich was writing secret music ‘for the drawer’. Some of it was musical lampoon, like Rayok, or The Peep Show, a cantata satire on the Zhdanov era, with music set to the pompous speeches of the Soviet leaders, which finally received its premiere in Washington in 1989.* More than any other artist, Shostakovich laughed (inside) to save his sanity: that was why he so loved the writings of Gogol and Zoshchenko. But most of the music which he composed at this time was deeply personal, especially that music with a Jewish theme. Shostakovich identified with the suffering of the Jews. To some extent he even assumed a Jewish identity - choosing to express himself as a composer in a Jewish idiom and incorporating Jewish melodies in his compositions. What Shostakovich liked about the music of the Jews, as he himself explained in a revealing interview, was its ‘ability to build a jolly melody on sad intonations. Why does a man strike up a jolly song? Because he feels sad at heart.’198 But using Jewish music was a moral statement, too: it was the protest of an artist who had always been opposed to fascism in all its forms.
Shostakovich first used Jewish themes in the finale of the Second Piano Trio (1944), dedicated to his closest friend, the musicologist Ivan Sollertinsky, who had died in February 1944. It was composed just as the reports were coming in of the Red Army’s capture of the Nazi death camps at Majdanek, Belzec and Treblinka. As Stalin
* It is not entirely clear when Shostakovich wrote Rayok. Sketches of it seem to date from 1948, but with the constant threat of a house search, it seems unlikely that he would have dared to compose the full score until after Stalin’s death (see further M. Yakubov, ‘Shostakovich’s Anti-formalist Rayok: A History of the Work’s Composition and Its Musical and Literary Sources’, in R. Bartlett (ed.), Shostakovich in Context (Oxford, 1000), pp. 135-58).
initiated his own campaign against the Jews, Shostakovich voiced his protest by adopting Jewish themes in many of his works: the song cycle From Jewish Poetry (1948), courageously performed at private concerts in his flat at the height of the Doctors’ Plot; the Thirteenth Symphony (1962), the ‘Babi Yar’ with its requiem, the words composed by the poet Yevtushenko, for the Jews of Kiev who were murdered by the Nazis in 1941; and virtually all the string quartets from No. 3 (in 1946) to the unforgettable No. 8 (in 1961). The official dedication of the Eighth Quartet was ‘To the Victims of Fascism’, but, as Shostakovich told his daughter, it was really ‘dedicated to myself’.199 The Eighth Quartet was Shostakovich’s musical autobiography - a tragic summing up of his whole life and the life of his nation in the Stalinist era. Throughout this intensely personal work, which is full of self-quotation, the same four notes recur (D-E flat-C-B) which, in the German system of musical notation, make up four letters of the composer’s name (D-S-C-H). The four notes are like a dirge. They fall like tears. In the fourth and final movement the grief becomes unbearable as these four notes are symbolically combined with the workers’ revolutionary funeral lament, ‘Tortured by a Cruel Bondage’, which Shostakovich sings here for himself.
On 4 October 1957 the first beeps from space were heard as Sputnik I made its pioneering flight. A few weeks later, just in time for the fortieth anniversary of the October Revolution, the dog Laika ventured into space in Sputnik II. With this one small step, it suddenly appeared that the Soviet Union had leaped ahead of the Western world in science and technology. Khrushchev made the most of the success, claiming that it heralded the triumph of the communist idea. The next year a red flag was planted on the surface of the moon, and then, in April 1961, Yury Gagarin became the first man to leave the earth’s atmosphere.
The Soviet system was defined by its belief in science and technology. After 1945 the regime made a huge investment in the scientific establishment, promoting not just nuclear physics and other disciplines that
were useful to the military but academic sciences and mathematics, too. The state made science a top priority, elevating scientists to a status on a par with that of senior industrial managers and Party officials. The whole Marxist core of the system’s ideology was an optimistic faith in the power of man’s reason to banish human suffering and master the forces of the universe. The Soviet regime had been founded on the sort of futuristic visions imagined by Jules Verne and H. G. Wells, whose writings were more popular in Russia than in any other country of the world. Wells was one of the first Western writers to visit Soviet Russia, in 1919, and even then, in the midst of the country’s devastation from civil war, he found Lenin in the Kremlin dreaming about journeys into space.200
Russia had its own prodigious range of science fiction which, unlike that of the West, formed part of its mainstream literature from the very start. Science fiction served as an arena for Utopian blueprints of the future society, such as the ‘Fourth Dream’ in Chernyshevsky’s novel What Is to Be Done? (1862), from which Lenin drew his communist ideals. It was a testing ground for the big moral ideas of Russian literature - as in Dostoevsky’s science-fiction tale, ‘The Dream of a Ridiculous Man’ (1877), in which the vision of salvation through scientific and material progress advanced by Chernyshevsky is dispelled in a dream of Utopia on a perfect twin of earth: the cosmic paradise soons breaks down into a society of masters and slaves, and the narrator wakes up from his dream to see that the only true salvation is through Christian love of one’s fellow human beings.
Mixing science fiction with mystical belief was typical of the Russian literary tradition, where the path to the ideal was so often seen in terms of the transcendence of this world and its mundane realities. The Russian Revolution was accompanied by a huge upsurge of apocalyptic science fiction. Bogdanov, the Bolshevik co-founder of Proletkult, took the lead with his science-fiction novels, Red Star (1908) and Engineer Menni (1913), which portrayed the communist Utopia on the planet Mars sometime in the middle of the third millennium. This cosmic vision of socialist redemption fuelled the boom of science fiction writing in the 1920s, from Platonov’s Utopian tales to Aleksei Tolstoy’s bestselling novels Aelita (1922) and The Garin Death Ray (1926), which returned to the Martian theme of science in the service of
the proletariat. Like its nineteenth-century antecedents, this fantastic literature was a vehicle for the great philosophical and moral questions about science and conscience. Zamyatin’s science fiction drew from the Russian tradition to develop a humanist critique of the Soviet technological Utopia. His dystopian novel We derived much of its moral argument from Dostoevsky. The central conflict of the novel, between the rational, all-providing high-tech state and the beautiful seductress I-3 30, whose deviant and irrational need for freedom threatens to subvert the power of that absolutist state, is a continuation of the discourse which stands at the centre of ‘The Grand Inquisitor’ in The Brothers Karamazov about the unending conflict between the human needs for security and liberty.*
Science fiction largely disappeared in the 1930s and 1940s. Socialist Realism left no space for Utopian dreams, or any form of moral ambiguity, and the only science fiction that was not stamped out was that which extolled Soviet technology. But the space programme of the 1950s led to a resurgence of science fiction in the Soviet Union, and Khrushchev, who was a devotee of the genre, encouraged writers to return to the traditions of the pre-Stalin years.
Ivan Efremov’s Andromeda (1957) was perhaps the most important work in this new wave, and certainly one of the bestselling (with over 20 million copies sold in the Soviet Union alone). Set in a distant future, when the earth has been united with the other galaxies in a universal civilization, it portrays a cosmic paradise in which science plays a discreet role in providing for all human needs; but what emerges above all else as the purpose of existence is the eternal need of human beings for ethical relationships, freedom, beauty and creativity. Efre-mov was bitterly attacked by communist hardliners: his emphasis on spiritual values was uncomfortably close to a fundamental challenge
* It may be that the title of Zamyatin’s novel We was drawn at least in part from Dostoevsky - in particular from Verkhovensky’s words to Stavrogin (in The Devils, trans. D. Magarshack (Harmondsworth, 1971), p. 42.3) where he describes his vision of the future revolutionary dictatorship (‘[W]e shall consider how to erect an edifice of stone… We shall build it, we, we alone!’). Perhaps more obviously, the title may have been a reference to the revolutionary cult of the collective (the Proletkult poet Kirillov even wrote a poem by the title of ‘We’). See further G. Kern, Zamyatin’s We: A Collection of Critical Essays (Ann Arbor, 1988), p. 63.
to the whole materialist philosophy of the Soviet regime. But he was not alone. Science fiction was rapidly becoming the principal arena for liberal, religious and dissident critiques of the Soviet world view. In Daniel Granin’s Into the Storm (1962), the physicist hero is a humanist, a Pyotr Kapitsa or an Andrei Sakharov, who understands the need to harness science to spiritual human goals. ‘What,’ he asks, ‘distinguishes people from animals? Atomic energy? The telephone? I say - moral conscience, imagination, spiritual ideals. The human soul will not be improved because you and I are studying the earth’s magnetic fields.’201
The science fiction novels of the Strugatsky brothers (Arkady and Boris) were subversively conceived as contemporary social satire in the manner of Gogol and, drawing much from Dostoevsky, as an ideological critique of the Soviet materialist Utopia. That, to be sure, is how they were received by millions of readers in the Soviet Union who had grown accustomed from years of censorship to read all literature as allegory. In Predatory Things of the Century (1965) the Strugatskys portrayed a Soviet-like society of the future, where nuclear science and technology have delivered every conceivable power to the omnipresent bureaucratic state. Since there is no longer any need for work or independent thought, the people are transformed into happy morons. Sated with consumer goods, the citizens have become spiritually dead. This same idea was taken up by the dissident writer Andrei Sinyavsky in his Unguarded Thoughts (1966), a collection of aphoristic essays which renounce science and materialism for a Russian faith and native soil-type nationalism that could have come directly from the pages of Dostoevsky.
Science fiction films were equally a vehicle for challenging Soviet materialism. In Romm’s Nine Days (1962), for example, some scientists engage in long debates about the moral questions posed by atomic energy. They philosophize about the means and ends of science as a whole - to the point where this very verbal film begins to resemble a scene out of Dostoevsky in which characters discuss the existence of a God. In Andrei Tarkovsky’s masterpiece Solaris (1972) the exploration of outer space becomes a moral and spiritual quest for self-knowledge, love and faith. The cosmic traveller, a scientist called Chris, journeys to a space station in the distant galaxies where scientists
have been researching the mysterious regenerative powers of a huge burning star. His journey becomes a more personal quest, as Chris rediscovers his capacity to love, when Hari, his ex-lover, whom he had driven to suicide through his emotional coldness, is brought back to life, or a mirage of it, by the powers of the star. Hari’s sacrifice (she destroys herself again) releases Chris from his emotional dependence on her and allows him to return to earth (an oasis which appears in the burning star). In a spirit of atonement he kneels before his father to beg forgiveness for his sins. The earth thus emerges as the proper destination of all journeys into space. Man ventures out not to discover new worlds but to find a replica of earth in space. This affirmation of the human spirit is wonderfully conveyed in the scene on the space station where Hari looks at Bruegel’s painting Hunters in the Snow which helps her to recall her former life on earth. The camera scans in detail over Bruegel’s painting as Bach’s F minor Choral Prelude, interspersed with the sounds of the forest and the chimes of the Rostov bells, rejoices in the beauty of our world. Solaris is not a story about space in the literal sense of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001, with which it is so frequently compared. Whereas Kubrick’s film looks at the cosmos from the earth, Tarkovsky’s looks from the cosmos at the earth. It is a film about the human values in which every Christian culture, even Soviet Russia’s, sees its redemption.
In his cinematic credo, Sculpting in Time (1986), Tarkovsky compares the artist to a priest whose mission it is to reveal the beauty that is ‘hidden from the eyes of those who are not searching for the truth’.202 Such a statement is in the tradition of the Russian artist stretching back to Dostoevsky, Tolstoy and beyond - to the medieval icon painters such as the one whose life and art Tarkovsky celebrated in his masterpiece, Andrei Rublev (1966). Tarkovsky’s films are like icons, in effect. To contemplate their visual beauty and symbolic imagery, as one is compelled to do by the slowness of their action, is to join in the artist’s own quest for a spiritual ideal. ‘Art must give man hope and faith’, the director wrote.203 All his films are about journeys in search of moral truth. Like Alyosha in The Brothers Karamazov, Andrei Rublev abandons the monastery and goes into the world to live the truth of Christian love and brotherhood among his fellow Russians under Mongol rule. ‘Truth has to be lived, not taught. Prepare for battle!’
Tarkovsky said that Hermann Hesse’s line from The Glass Bead Game (1943) ‘could well have served as an epigraph to Andrei Rublev’.204
The same religious theme is at the centre of Stalker (1979), which, in Tarkovsky’s own description, he meant to be a discourse on ‘the existence of God in man’.205 The stalker of the film’s title guides a scientist and a writer to ‘the zone’, a supernatural wilderness abandoned by the state after some industrial catastrophe. He is straight out of the Russian tradition of the Holy Fool. He lives alone in poverty, despised by a society where everyone has long ceased to believe in God, and yet he derives a spiritual power from his religious faith. He understands that the heart of ‘the zone’ is just an empty room in a deserted house. But, as he tells his travelling companions, the basis of true faith is the belief in the Promised Land: it is the journey and not the arrival. The need for faith, for something to believe in outside of themselves, had defined the Russian people, in their mythic understanding of themselves, since the days of Gogol and the ‘Russian soul’. Tarkovsky revived this national myth as a counter to the value system of the Soviet regime, with its alien ideas of rational materialism. ‘Modern mass culture’, Tarkovsky wrote, ‘is crippling people’s souls, it is erecting barriers between man and the crucial questions of his existence, his consciousness of himself as a spiritual being.’206This spiritual consciousness, he believed, was the contribution Russia might give to the West - an idea embodied in the last iconic image of his film Nostalgia (1983), in which a Russian peasant house is portrayed inside a ruined Italian cathedral.
It may seem extraordinary that films like Stalker and Solaris were produced in the Brezhnev era, when all forms of organized religion were severely circumscribed and the deadening orthodoxy of ‘Developed Socialism’ held the country’s politics in its grip. But within the Soviet monolith there were many different voices that called for a return to ‘Russian principles’. One was the literary journal Molodaia gvardiia (Young Guard), which acted as a forum for Russian nationalists and conservationists, defenders of the Russian Church, and neo-Populists like the ‘village prose writers’ Fedor Abramov and Valentin Rasputin, who painted a nostalgic picture of the countryside and idealized the honest working peasant as the true upholder of the Russian soul and its mission in the world. Molodaia gvardiia enjoyed
30. ‘The Russian bouse inside the Italian cathedral’. Final shot from Andrei Tarkovsky’s Nostalgia (1983)
the support of the Party’s senior leadership throughout the 1970s.* Yet its cultural politics were hardly communist; and at times, such as in its opposition to the demolition of churches and historic monuments, or in the controversial essays it published by the nationalist painter Ilya Glazunov which explicitly condemned the October Revolution as an interruption of the national tradition, it was even anti-Soviet. The journal had links with opposition groups in the Russian Church, the conservation movement (which numbered several million members in
* It had the political protection of Politburo member Mikhail Suslov, Brezhnev’s chief of ideology. When Alexander Yakovlev attacked Molodaia gvardiia as anti-Leninist on account of its nationalism and religious emphasis, Suslov succeeded in winning Brezhnev over to the journal’s side. Yakovlev was sacked from the Party’s Propaganda Department. In 1973, he was dismissed from the Central Committee and appointed Soviet ambassador to Canada (from where he would return to become Gorbachev’s chief ideologist).
the 1960s) and the dissident intelligentsia. Even Solzhenitsyn came to its defence when it was attacked by the journal Novy mir (the very journal which had made his name by publishing One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich in 1962).207 In the 1970s Russian nationalism was a growing movement, which commanded the support of Party members and dissidents alike. There were several journals like Molo-daia gvardiia - some official, others dissident and published underground (samizdat) - and a range of state and voluntary associations, from literary societies to conservation groups, which forged a broad community on ‘Russian principles’. As the editor of the samizdat journal Veche put it in his first editorial in 1971: ‘In spite of everything, there are still Russians. It is not too late to return to the homeland.’208
What, in the end, was ‘Soviet culture’? Was it anything? Can one ever say that there was a specific Soviet genre in the arts? The avant-garde of the 1920s, which borrowed a great deal from Western Europe, was really a continuation of the modernism of the turn of century. It was revolutionary, in many ways more so than the Bolshevik regime, but in the end it was not compatible with the Soviet state, which could never have been built on artists’ dreams. The idea of constructing Soviet culture on a ‘proletarian’ foundation was similarly unsustainable -although that was surely the one idea of culture that was intrinsically ‘Soviet’: factory whistles don’t make music (and what, in any case, is ‘proletarian art’?). Socialist Realism was also, arguably, a distinctively Soviet art form. Yet a large part of it was a hideous distortion of the nineteenth-century tradition, not unlike the art of the Third Reich or of fascist Italy. Ultimately the ‘Soviet’ element (which boiled down to the deadening weight of ideology) added nothing to the art.
The Georgian film director Otar loseliani recalls a conversation with the veteran film-maker Boris Barnet in 1962:
He asked me: ‘Who are you?’ I said, ‘A director’… ‘Soviet’, he corrected, ‘you must always say “Soviet director”. It is a very special profession.’ ‘In what way?’ I asked. ‘Because if you ever manage to become honest, which would surprise me, you can remove the word “Soviet”.’205
From beneath such ruins I speak,
From beneath such an avalanche I cry,
As if under the vault of a fetid cellar
I were burning in quicklime.
I will pretend to be soundless this winter
And I will slam the eternal doors forever,
And even so, they will recognize my voice,
And even so they will believe in it once more.210
Anna Akhmatova was one of the great survivors. Her poetic voice was irrepressible. In the last ten years of her long life, beginning with the release of her son from the gulag in 1956, Akhmatova enjoyed a relatively settled existence. She was fortunate enough to retain her capacity for writing poetry until the end.
In 1963 she wrote the last additions to her masterpiece, Poem without a Hero, which she had started writing in 1940. Isaiah Berlin, to whom she read the poem at the Fountain House in 1945, described it as a ‘kind of final memorial to her life as a poet and the past of the city - St Petersburg - which was part of her being’.211 The poem conjures up, in the form of a carnival procession of masked characters which appears before the author at the Fountain House, a whole generation of vanished friends and figures from the Petersburg that history left behind in 1913. Through this creative act of memory the poetry redeems and saves that history. In the opening dedication Akhmatova writes,
… and because I don’t have enough paper, I am writing on your first draft.212*
* Akhmatova informed several friends that the first dedication was to Mandelstam. When Nadezhda Mandelstam initially heard her read the poem and asked her to whom the dedication was addressed, Akhmatova replied ‘with some irritation’: ‘Whose first draft do you think I can write on?’ (Mandelstam, Hope Abandoned, p. 435).
The poem is full of literary references, over which countless scholars have puzzled, but its essence, as suggested by the dedication, is foretold by Mandelstam in a prayer-like poem which Akhmatova quotes as an epigraph to the third chapter of her own poem.
We shall meet again in Petersburg
as though we had interred the sun in it
and shall pronounce for the first time
that blessed, senseless word.
In the black velvet of the Soviet night,
in the velvet of the universal void
the familiar eyes of blessed women sing
and still the deathless flowers bloom.213
Akhmatova’s Poem is a requiem for those who died in Leningrad. That remembrance is a sacred act, in some sense an answer to Mandelstam’s prayer. But the poem is a resurrection song as well - a literal incarnation of the spiritual values that allowed the people of that city to endure the Soviet night and meet again in Petersburg.
Akhmatova died peacefully in a convalescent home in Moscow on 5 March 1966. Her body was taken to the morgue of the former Sheremetev Alms House, founded in the memory of Praskovya, where she was protected by the same motto that overlooked the gates of the Fountain House: ‘Deus conservat omnia’. Thousands of people turned out for her funeral in Leningrad. The baroque church of St Nicholas spilled its dense throng out on to the streets, where a mournful silence was religiously maintained throughout the requiem. The people of a city had come to pay their last respects to a citizen whose poetry had spoken for them at a time when no one else could speak. Akhmatova had been with her people then: ‘There, where my people, unfortunately, were.’ Now they were with her. As the cortege passed through Petersburg on its way to the Komarovo cemetery, it paused before the Fountain House, so that she could say a last farewell.