Author of The Soviet Novel, a classic analysis of socialist-realist fiction of the 1930s, ’40s, and ’50s, and a professor of Slavic literature at Yale, Katerina Clark here reads the text of High Stalinism. In Moscow, the Fourth Rome—a series of linked essays following an adroitly plotted historical narrative—she recounts a scandalous episode in art history, while making a significant contribution to the understanding of 1930s European political culture and providing a lucid guide to the late-’30s period of mainly Soviet collective mania.
Clark ranges from literature to cinema to theater to painting to architecture (noting, for example, that the same adjectives—simple, restrained, calm—were used to describe both social-realist architecture and the positive heroes of socialist-realist literature). She neither glosses over nor dwells upon the parallels between Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia typically drawn by exegetes of totalitarian art. Instead, her book begins by establishing the Stalin regime’s remarkable cultural ambitions, including the elevation of intellectuals and writers. Putting the symbiotic relationship between literature and politics at the heart of official culture (epitomized by the 1933 renaming of Moscow’s central thoroughfare after the author Maxim Gorky), Clark emphasizes the degree to which, however self-servingly, the system known as Stalin promoted internationalism. Indeed, helped in no small part by the spectacle of Nazi book burning, the Soviet Union further advanced itself as the protector of Western culture.
Moscow begins by analyzing the vanguard culture of the First Five-Year Plan, which built up Soviet industry and collectivized agriculture, and was much in vogue in the aftermath of 1968, first in France and later in the English-speaking world. The key figures are the celebrated filmmaker Sergei Eisenstein and three multitalented cosmopolitan journalists: Ilya Erenburg, Mikhail Koltsov, and Sergei Tretiakov. The latter was dispatched to Berlin in 1930 to recruit artists to the Soviet cause—notably Bertolt Brecht, Hanns Eisler, and the artist John Heartfield. While there, he also influenced fellow traveler Walter Benjamin, whose 1934 lecture “The Author as Producer” Clark sees as derived from Tretiakov—as was the 1930 Brecht-Eisler musical drama The Measures Taken, an avant-garde proletaratorio arguing the necessity for a revolutionary group to liquidate an individual member for the good of the cause.
The Measures Taken, per Clark, was “more Stalinist . . . than Stalinist literature itself.” Be that as it may, in 1931 Stalin sounded the aesthetic retreat with a mandate that Soviet writers and artists think more positively and “Show the Country Its Heroes!” The avant-garde was displaced by a new sort of neoclassical idealism. Under this heroic idea of official culture, Lenin, for instance, was understood as more than a historical figure; he was conceptualized as a world-historical actor fulfilling a destined role. This theatrical sense of history coincided with the plans for a new Moscow, including the metro later called the People’s Versailles, the effort to develop a comprehensive Marxist aesthetic theory (hello, socialist realism), and the publishing of authoritative texts, starting with Marx and Engels’s The German Ideology. In official portraits, Clark notes, Stalin was typically associated with writing—the author of authors. With this meta-intellectual in charge, culture became a value (“‘married,’ rather than subjugated to Marxism”); the aesthetic assumptions of the Soviet ’30s, Clark suggests, were, in some ways, even more utopian than those of the ’20s.
Western intellectuals, led by Georg Lukács, who left Berlin for Moscow in 1933, unabashedly advanced their own cultural traditions as the forerunners of the new Soviet literature. Lukács reintroduced Hegel and championed Sir Walter Scott, downplaying economic or class considerations to emphasize the aesthetic. Although this cultural neoconservatism was ascendant, the avant-garde was not yet dead. Tretiakov got ten chapters of Ulysses translated in International Literature, despite Central Committee member Karl Radek’s 1934 speech “James Joyce or Socialist Realism?” Moscow includes a wonderful subchapter on the visit of the Beijing opera artist Mei Lanfang and the various aesthetic lessons drawn from his performances by the surviving radicals Brecht, Eisenstein, and Tretiakov.
Artistic experiment was marginalized, but cosmopolitanism remained a value. Soviet internationalism (and a corresponding interest in national minorities) peaked in the mid-’30s, after Paris replaced Berlin as the center of Comintern European operations. Among the exhibits Clark cites are Ilf and Petrov’s best-selling travel book Little Golden America (1936); the Moscow State Yiddish Theater’s extraordinarily popular production of King Lear (1935); and the movies Three Songs of Lenin (1934), with its emphasis on Soviet minorities, and The Circus (1936), which not only showcased minorities but also dramatized the Soviet Union as a refuge for the oppressed. (The 1936 Seekers of Happiness, in which foreign Jews find a new life in a Yiddish-speaking but multinational Birobidzhan, is another instance.) Soviet involvement in the Spanish Civil War sustained an official sense of international solidarity—especially among intellectuals—into the era of the Great Purge trials.
Western antifascists were loath to denounce the Soviet Union so long as the Popular Front was maintained. Back in the Fourth Rome, however, the new hard line was evident in early 1936 with the scandal of Shostakovich’s opera Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk, denounced both for its formalism and the “naturalism” (a code word for explicit sexuality) that was said to have personally affronted Stalin. The antiformalist campaign also targeted the avant-garde theater of Vsevolod Meyerhold; that which Lukács labeled “expressionism”; and also, as Clark points out, architectural classicists. Narodnost’, meaning popular or folk, was the new catchphrase. The Stakhanovite movement was launched that same winter, with the new superheroes of labor held up in opposition to the supervillains who were, as was repeatedly said, “unmasked” in the course of the hypermelodramatic, heavily scripted show trials that began later that year.
The “imperial sublime” arrived at the decade’s end. With the cult of personality in full efflorescence, national consolidation was accomplished amid hysteria and panic. Untamed nature was emphasized; the nation was now conceptualized in terms of its vast spaces, with “height” as the central symbolic value. Aviators rivaled the Stakhanovites as national heroes. Clark points out that the dramatic aerial rescue of a Soviet polar expedition coincided with the show trial of the last old Bolshevik (and Stalin’s erstwhile ally), Nikolai Bukharin. Her narrative ends, more or less, on the night of December 13, 1938, with the arrest of Stalin’s most ardent internationalist, Koltsov, shortly after he had delivered a talk at the Writers Union that, ironically, had been in praise of Stalin’s Short Course. Literary sins might now be a capital offense.
Was there ever a place where culture was more a matter of life and death? Clark steers clear of undue theorization, although a vulgar Marxist might wonder what base determined this fantastic superstructure. Was it the Second Five-Year Plan? A reaction formation in response to the Third Reich? Stalin’s enigmatic personality? The nature of Communism? Or, given the theocratic roots of Russian culture, was it simply a historical inevitability? The evidence is here for the parsing.
J. Hoberman's books include The Red Atlantis: Communist Culture in the Absence of Communism (Temple University Press, 1998).