Everybody’s a critic: Khrushchev’s thoughts on art

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In 1956 Khrushchev brought the “thaw” to the Soviet Union. The thaw was a policy of de-Stalinization which relaxed censorship and released millions of prisoners from the Gulag labor camps. In the following year Khrushchev asserted the importance of art remaining in line with the Soviet realist style in his article, “For a Close Tie between Literature and Art and the Life of the People.” Although Khrushchev’s style of punishment was not as brutal as Stalin’s, his approach to art was very similar:

“The main line of development is that literature and the arts must always be inseparably linked with the people’s life, must truthfully portray the wealth and variety of our socialist reality and vividly and convincingly show the Soviet people’s great work of transformation, the nobility of their aims and aspirations and their lofty moral qualities.”

Like Stalin, Khrushchev took issue with artists that portrayed Soviet life in an unflattering light. In the article, Khrushchev tried to distance himself from Stalin’s brutality while still maintaining control over artistic expression:

“The party has resolutely condemned the errors that were committed in all spheres of life, including ideological work, during the period of the cult of the individual, and it is consistently rectifying them. However, at the same time the party vigorously opposes those who try to make use of these past errors to resist the guidance of literature and the arts by the Party and the state …”

A few years later in 1962, Khrushchev took his critiques a step further when he openly mocked artists at an art exhibit at the Moscow Manege. At the exhibit, Khrushchev complained about the appearance of the paintings, insisting that they looked as if they were painted by donkeys. Khrushchev was also very disturbed by the fact that the state paid for these paintings. When addressing the painter Zheltovskii, Khrushchev, rather cruelly, said:

“You’re a nice-looking lad, but how could you paint something like this? We should take down your pants and set you down in a clump of nettles until you understand your mistakes. You should be ashamed. Are you a pederast or a normal man? Do you want to go abroad? Go on, then; we’ll take you free as far as the border. Live out there in the ‘free world.’ Study in the school of capitalism, and then you’ll know what’s what. But we aren’t going to spend a kopeck on this dog shit. We have the right to send you out to cut trees until you’ve paid back the money the state has spent on you. The people and government have taken a lot of trouble with you, and you pay them back with this shit. They say you like to associate with foreigners. A lot of them are our enemies, don’t forget.”

At the exhibit, Khrushchev also famously got into a heated debate with the sculptor, Ernst Neizvestny. Unlike the other artists at the exhibit, Neizvestny defended himself and the others against Khrushchev’s cruel remarks, asserting that Khrushchev knew nothing about art. Neizvestny may have earned Khrushchev’s respect, but that did not protect him from punishment. Neizvestny lost his status as and artist, and was forced to leave the Soviet Union to continue his work. Ironically, when Khrushchev died in 1971, his family asked Neizvestny to create the monument for his grave. Neizvestny sculpted Khrushchev’s smiling head in bronze within black and white stone to symbolize the contradictory elements of Khrushchev’s personality, and leadership.

khrushchevgrave

While Khrushchev sought to set himself apart from the brutality of the Stalin regime, he still suppressed artistic expression.

Images:

Iurii Krivonosov: Contemplative Khrushchev (1963). Retrieved from Seventeen Moments in Soviet History.

Ernst Neizvestnyi: Gravestone for Nikita Khrushchev (1971). Retrieved from 17 Moments in Soviet History.

Sources:

Geldern, James von. “Khrushchev on the Arts.” Retrieved from 17 Moments in Soviet History.

Khrushchev, Nikita (August, 1957). “For a Close Tie between Literature and Art and the Life of the People.” Retrieved from 17 Moments in Soviet History.

Nikita Khrushchev, Conversation at Manege Exhibit. December 1, 1962. Retrieved from 17 Moments in Soviet History.

Grimes, William. (2016, August 17). Ernst Neizvestny, a Russian Sculptor Who Clashed With Krushchev, Dies at 91. The New York Times. Retrieved from https://www.nytimes.com/2016/08/18/arts/international/ernst-neizvestny-a-russian-sculptor-who-clashed-with-khrushchev-dies-at-91.html

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Vasily Aksyonov and the stilyagi movement

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In the 40’s and 50’s an unexpected love of American culture blossomed in the Soviet Union. These young people were called “stilyagi.” The stilyagi were identified by their love of Western fashion and music. In Leningrad (and eventually Moscow) the stilyagi wore narrow trousers and long, unusually colored (by Soviet standards) jackets. They also wore their hair slicked back and hung out at jazz clubs. While the stilyagi alarmed some Soviets at the time, they did not pose a true political threat. James von Geldern from 17 Moments in Soviet History explains, “Yet their rebellion was purely stylistic, and had little explicit critique of the Stalinist order – either because of the fearsome penalties, or because intellectual horizons had become obscured.” The stilyagi did not have a wide base, but were rather made up of  the privileged youth in Moscow and Leningrad.

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Vasily Aksyonov

Novelist Vasily Aksyonov was considered the literary voice of the stilyagi. In his book, In Search of Melancholy Baby (1985), Aksyonov described his first encounters with the stilyagi movement. Aksyonov revealed his early affection for American music, fashion, and film. He loved artists such as Bing Crosby and Louis Armstrong. Aksyonov also recalled watching classic American films, such as Stagecoach, under false names. Aksyonov and his peers were able to watch these films when the authorities obtained the films from Germany after the war. These films were shown under false names (for example, Stagecoach was called “The Journey will be Dangerous”) because the authorities did not want to pay royalties when showing the films. When discussing his love for American movies Aksyonov wrote:

There was a period when we spoke to our friends almost entirely in quotes from American movies. One such friend, after becoming a high-ranking officer in the Soviet Air Force, confided in me, “Comrade Stalin made a big mistake by letting our generation see those films.” My friend was right: they provided one of the few windows to the outside world from our stinking Stalinist lair.

Aksyonov also pondered the reasons for the stilyagi’s affection for all things American. Aksyonov explained that the romance for the revolution did not resonate with his generation. After watching Stalin purge their parents, and being saved from starvation by American foodstuffs in the war, the stilyagi saw America as an ideal alternative to the harsh Soviet way of life. Aksyonov realized that this obsession with America was idealized, but he recalled that it had roots in their “anti-revolutionary character.” He even said that he and his fellow stilyagi had more affection for the white soldiers of the civil war than the red soldiers.

Aksyonov had his own reasons for his disillusion with Soviet life. His parents were once high Communist Party officials, but were removed to concentration camps in 1937 during Stalin’s purges. He spent much of his childhood in an orphanage and later, in exile in Magadan with his mother. Aksyonov went to medical school in Leningrad, graduating in 1956. He initially worked as a doctor and pursued writing on the side. Aksyonov wrote many novels in his life but, “A Starry Ticket” and “Oranges from Morocco,” which depicted the stilyagi lifestyle, are what brought him fame. Aksyonov was exiled in 1980 when he bypassed censors by publishing his novel, “The Burn,” in Italy. Aksyonov moved to America and had a successful career teaching Russian Literature. He died in 2009 at age 76.

Images (in order):

http://www.messynessychic.com/2015/05/25/the-stylehunters-of-soviet-russia/

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vasily_Aksyonov

Sources:

James von Geldern, “Stilyaga.” Retrieved from: 17 Moments in Soviet History.

Vassily Aksenov, In Search of Melancholy Baby (New York: Random House, 1985), pp. 12-19. Retrieved from: 17 Moments in Soviet History.

Sophia Kishkovsky. (2009). “Vasily Aksyonov, Exiled Soviet Writer, Is Dead at 76,” The New York Times. Retrieved from: https://www.nytimes.com/2009/07/08/books/08aksyonov.html

Central planning meets film: The censorship of a mass medium

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In the Soviet Union, the 1930’s were characterized by massive state-led transformations in agriculture, industry, and culture. The revolution in culture represented a shift away from aesthetic values that existed in the previous decade. This shift did not occur on its own, rather it was carefully implemented by the state.

In 1930 the Soyukino, a bureaucratic entity designed to coordinate film production and release, was formed. The Soyukino was led by Boris Shumiatskii, and his goal was to eliminate the 1920’s trend of avant-garde film-making which was deemed elitist. Rather, Shumiatskii sought to ensure films were easily understandable to mass audiences. The avant-garde films of the 20’s were seen as a threat that would split the Soviet audience. This quickly inhibited popular avant-garde filmmakers such as Sergei Eisenstein from making films. For example, Eisenstein was able to create four films between 1924 and 1929, but was only able to create one film in the entire decade of the 1930’s (The Cinema of Stalinism: 1930-1941). In fact, the Soyukino drastically slowed the process of film-making in general. The censorship of the 1930’s made script-writing a difficult process. It wasn’t uncommon for films to be abruptly cancelled at any point during production.

Despite the increasingly complicated process of film-making throughout the 30’s, the Soyukino achieved its goal of releasing widely popular films. The above image shows an advertisement for the popular 1934 film Chapaev. The film was directed by the Vasilyev brothers. Chapaev depicts the life of a Red Army commander during the Civil War. In a 1934 editorial in Pravda, Chapaev is celebrated as a film that brings the glory of the revolution back to life. The editorial clearly states the purpose of art in this era of Soviet history: “It is precisely this role – that of the crystallized artistic reproduction of our country’s past – that Soviet art is called upon to fulfill alongside its other tasks.” The editorial also says that the film would be shown in every corner of the country. Chapaev represents the party’s mission to create films that support and glorify the Soviet cause. A clip from Chapaev can be viewed here.

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While Chapaev was a film that clearly stated the political values of the Soviet Union in the 30’s, it was not the only style of film approved by the Soyukino. Humorous musicals were also popular at this time. The above image is an advertisement for the 1934 film Happy-Go-Lucky Fellows, directed by Grigorii Aleksandrov. The film tells the story of a shepherd who is discovered for his singing ability and soon finds himself leading a jazz band in the capital. The film is lighthearted and features many musical numbers that captivated its Soviet audience. A clip from Happy-Go-Lucky Fellows can be viewed here. 

While the Stalinist era should be criticized for its extreme censorship, great feats were established nonetheless. This era brought sound and music to the cinema, independent from western influence. While the suppression of avant-garde films severely inhibited artistic expression and experimentation, films such as Chataev and Happy-Go-Lucky Fellows were able to create a defining moment in Russian film history nonetheless.

Images (in order):

A.P. Bel’skii: Advertisement for Chapaev (1935). Retrieved from: 17 Moments in Soviet History. 

I.V. Gersimovich: The Starlet Orlova (1934). Retrieved from: 17 Moments in Soviet History.

Videos (in order):

Georgii and Sergei Vasiliev: Chapaev (1934). Retrieved from: 17 Moments in Soviet History

Grigorii Aleksandrov: Happy-Go-Lucky-Fellows (1934). Retrieved from: 17 Moments in Soviet History.

Sources:

Geldern, J. V. “Popular Film Industry.” Retrieved from: 17 Moments in Soviet History.

Pravda Editorial, “The Whole Country is Watching Chapaev.” November 21, 1934. Retrieved from: 17 Moments in Soviet History.

“The Cinema of Stalin: 1930-1941.” Retrieved from: Film Reference.

Mounting tensions cause setbacks for the Bolsheviks

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1917 was characterized by massive change within Russia. Two revolutions took place in this year: the February revolution and the October Revolution. The February Revolution was triggered by riots over food shortages and bread prices on International Women’s Day. The revolution resulted in Tsar Nicolas II’s abdication, which officially put an end to the Romanov dynasty. The October Revolution resulted in the Bolsheviks seizing power. However, this was not so easily accomplished. In July, between the two revolutions, a series of demonstrations called the “July Days” took place in Petrograd. The violent results of these demonstrations were used to discredit the Bolsheviks. Lenin fled to Finland in the aftermath, and other prominent leaders, including Trotsky, were arrested.

The July Days began on July 3, 1917. The protesters were predominantly made up of factory workers, sailors, and soldiers. The uprisings were fueled by frustrations with the government ministers and opposition to the ongoing war (J. Llewellyn et al). Most accounts suggest that the demonstrations were spontaneous. Many of the demonstrators were angry that the Soviets had not yet taken power (Freeze, 286). Neither Bolshevik nor Soviet leaders were willing to lead a seizure of power during the time of the uprisings. The Provisional government was able to quell the rebellion with their loyal troops. The above image shows protesters scattering after the Provisional Government’s troops opened fire.

Nikolai Sukhanov, a Menshevik, recorded his account of the July Days in his book The Russian Revolution, 1917: A Personal Record. Sukhanov compares the disorder in the city to the chaos of the February revolution. Sukhanov remarks that while the workers of Petrograd were more organized than they were in February, the demonstrations lacked a greater degree of “consciousness, discipline, or order.” Sukhanov also discusses Lenin’s indecisiveness during the July Days. While reading the account, it seems that the outcome could have turned out differently had Lenin taken a stronger leadership role. While discussing Lenin’s encounter with the demonstrators from Kronstadt, Sukhanov says: “He didn’t demand any concrete action from the impressive force standing in front of him; he didn’t even call on his audience to continue the street demonstrations-even though that audience had just proved its readiness for battle by the troublesome journey from Kronstadt to Petersburg.” However, others suggest that Lenin believed that unplanned uprisings were likely to fail (J. Llewellyn et al). Sukanov ends his account of the July Days by expressing admiration for the frustration and passion exhibited by the proletariat during the demonstrations.

The Provisional Government was able to suppress the demonstrations, but they could not eliminate the general lack of confidence in their ability to solve the mounting problems within Russia (Freeze, 286). However, the government was able to blame the disorder on the Bolsheviks for some time, which allowed them to restore the perception of order and authority (Freeze, 286). For instance, in a report by the public prosecutor from July 22, 1917, denies that the July uprisings were spontaneous. Instead the prosecutor claims that the demonstrations were orchestrated by Bolshevik leaders. The report also suggests that Lenin and other leaders were German spies, and published anti-war propaganda to aid the Germans in the war.

The public prosecutor’s report hurt the Bolshevik’s image. After the July Days, it seemed that the Bolsheviks were finished. However, this could only buy the government time, as it was still incapable of fixing the ever-present issues within Russia. In a matter of three months the Bolsheviks would be able to seize power in the legendary October Revolution.

Image:

K. Bulla: Petrograd, July 4 1917 (1917). Retrieved from: 17 Moments in Soviet History

Sources:

Freeze, G. L. (2009). Russia: A History. New York: Oxford University Press. P. 286.

J. Llewellyn et al, “The July days” at Alpha History, http://alphahistory.com/russianrevolution/july-days/, 2014, accessed [2/11/18].

N. N. Sukhanov, The Russian Revolution, 1917: A Personal Record (London: Oxford University Press, 1955), pp. 444-446. Retrieved from: 17 Moments in Soviet History

Robert Paul Browder and Alexander F. Kerensky, eds., The Russian Provisional Government, 1917: Documents (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1961), pp. 1373-76. Retrieved from: 17 Moments in Soviet History

 

A shifting world captured in an industrial town

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From 1909 to 1915 Sergei Mikhailovich Prokudin-Gorskii embarked on a journey commissioned by Tsar Nicholas II to capture the Russian empire. With his innovative technique for capturing colored images, Prokudin-Gorskii was able to preserve a world that was beginning to change. In this particular photo, called Three Generations, Prokudin-Gorskii was able to capture a cultural shift by studying the different dress and hairstyles worn by A.P. Kalgonov (left) and his son and granddaughter. This photo and many others are available at the Library of Congress.

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This photo was taken in the industrial town of Zlatoust in the Ural mountains. Kalgonov’s son and granddaughter worked at the Zlatoust Arms Plant. A view of the plant is shown above in the Prokudin-Gorskii’s photo titled General view of the Zlatoust plant and Trinity Cathedral. The arms plant supplied the Russian military with weapons since the early 1800’s.

The drastic differences in dress and hairstyles between Kalgonov and his son and granddaughter are what makes this photo particularly fascinating. Kalgonov fashions a traditional style whereas his son and granddaughter wear more modern and western styled clothing and hair. This generational shift in style can be attributed to a series of reforms in the mid to late 1800’s which jump-started the modernization and westernization of Russia. Some of these social reforms included emancipating serfs, and allowing non-nobles to receive an education. This led to non-nobles having access to civil and military service. This photo illustrates younger generations disillusioned by traditional Russian culture, who are  creating a modernized Russian culture.

While Prokudin-Gorskii was aware of the differences between Kalgonov and his son and granddaughter, he could not predict the revolution which was soon to come. Prokudin-Gorskii completed his mission of capturing Tsar Nicholas II’s empire, but he was also able to capture a world that would soon be lost.

Sources:

Sergei Mikhailovich Prokudin-Gorskii. Three Generations, 1910. Digital color rendering. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress, LC-DIG-ppmsc-03952 (24)

https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/in-sight/wp/2016/04/19/what-russia-looked-like-before-1914-in-color/?tid=a_inl&utm_term=.3bea80c73561

http://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/prk2000000753/

“Russia: A History,” Gregory L. Freeze.