Education, literacy, and the Russian Revolution
Tuesday, 21 November 2017 21:24

Education, literacy, and the Russian Revolution

Published in 1917 Centenary

Megan Behrent considers what we can learn from the great strides made in education in revolutionary Russia.

"All Russia was learning to read, and reading - politics, economics, history - because the people wanted to know. . . . In every city, in most towns, along the Front, each political faction had its newspaper - sometimes several. Hundreds of thousands of pamphlets were distributed by thousands of organisations, and poured into the armies, the villages, the factories, the streets. The thirst for education, so long thwarted, burst with the Revolution into a frenzy of expression. From Smolny Institute alone, the first six months, went out every day tons, car-loads, train-loads of literature, saturating the land. Russia absorbed reading matter like hot sand drinks water, insatiable. And it was not fables, falsified history, diluted religion, and the cheap fiction that corrupts—but social and economic theories, philosophy, the works of Tolstoy, Gogol, and Gorky." John Reed, Ten Days That Shook the World

There is no greater school than a revolution. It is therefore not surprising that some of the most innovative, radical, and successful literacy campaigns are those that are born out of revolutions - when, on a mass scale, people fight for a better society. In revolutionary periods, ideas matter as never before, and literacy needs no motivation as it becomes a truly liberatory endeavor. Thus, from the trenches of the US Civil War and the Russian front to the battle lines of El Salvador, there are innumerable stories of soldiers teaching each other to read newspapers in the midst of war and famine. One of the most inspiring examples of the revolutionary transformation of literacy and education is the Russian Revolution of 1917.

The Russian Revolution was a watershed historical moment. That workers and peasants were able to overthrow tsarism and create a new society based on workers’ power was an inspiration to millions of oppressed and exploited people around the world. At the time of the revolution, the vast majority of Russians were peasants toiling under the yoke of big landowners and eking out a meager existence. More than 60 percent of the population was illiterate. At the same time, however, Russia was home to some of the largest and most advanced factories in the world, with a highly concentrated working class. By October 1917, the Bolshevik Party had won the support of the majority of workers and established political rule based on a system of soviets, or councils, of workers, peasants, and soldiers.

The revolution itself, occurring in two major stages in February and October, took place in conditions of extreme scarcity. In addition to the long-standing privation of Russia’s peasants, the First World War caused further food shortages and disease. No sooner had the revolution succeeded than the young Soviet government was forced to fight on two military fronts: a civil war against the old powers just overthrown, and a battle against some dozen countries that sent their troops to defeat the revolution. As the Bolsheviks had long argued, the longevity and success of the Russian revolution depended in large part on the spread of revolution to advanced capitalist countries, in particular to Germany. Despite five years of revolutionary upheaval in Germany, the revolution there failed. The young revolutionary society was thus left isolated and under attack.

Despite these conditions, however, the Russian Revolution led not only to a radical transformation of school itself but also of the way people conceived of learning and the relationship between cognition and language. Indeed, the early years of the Russian Revolution offer stunning examples of what education looked like in a society in which working-class people democratically made decisions and organized society in their own interest. In the immediate aftermath of the revolution, education was massively overhauled with a tenfold increase in the expenditure on popular education. Free and universal access to education was mandated for all children from the ages of three to sixteen years old, and the number of schools at least doubled within the first two years of the revolution. Coeducation was immediately implemented as a means of combating sex discrimination, and for the first time schools were created for students with learning and other disabilities.

Developing mass literacy was seen as crucial to the success of the revolution. Lenin argued: “As long as there is such a thing in the country as illiteracy it is hard to talk about political education.” As a result, and despite the grim conditions, literacy campaigns were launched nationally among toddlers, soldiers, adolescents, workers, and peasants. The same was true of universal education. The Bolsheviks understood that the guarantee of free, public education was essential both to the education of a new generation of workers who would be prepared to run society in their own interests and as a means of freeing women from the drudgery of housework. Thus, there were attempts to provide universal crèches and preschools.

SovietWoman1920

What the October Revolution gave to the female worker and peasant, 1920 Soviet propaganda poster. (The inscriptions on the buildings read "library", "kindergarten", "school for grown-ups", etc.)

None of these initiatives was easy to accomplish given the economic conditions surrounding the young revolution. Victor Serge, a journalist and anarchist who later joined the Russian Communist Party, describes the staggering odds facing educators and miserable conditions that existed in the wake of the civil war: “Hungry children in rags would gather in winter-time around a small stove planted in the middle of the classroom, whose furniture often went for fuel to give some tiny relief from the freezing cold; they had one pencil between four of them and their schoolmistress was hungry.” One historian describes the level of scarcity: “In 1920 Narkompros [the People’s Commissariat for Education] received the following six-month allotment: one pencil per sixty pupils; one pen per twenty-two pupils; one notebook for every two pupils…. One village found a supply of wrappers for caramel candies and expropriated them for writing paper for the local school.” (Ben Eklof, Russian Literacy Campaigns,1861–1939 in Robert F. Arnove and Harvey J. Graff, eds., National Literacy Campaigns and Movements: Historical and Comparative Perspectives)The situation was so dire that “in 1921, the literacy Cheka prepared a brochure for short-term literacy courses including a chapter entitled ‘How to get by without paper, pencils, or pens." Nonetheless, as Serge explains, “in spite of this grotesque misery, a prodigious impulse was given to public education. Such a thirst for knowledge sprang up all over the country that new schools, adult courses, universities and Workers’ Faculties were formed everywhere.” (Victor Serge, Year One)

Historian Lisa Kirschenbaum describes the incredible gap between the conditions imposed by famine and what kindergartens were able to accomplish. On the one hand, these schools had to provide food each day for students and teachers in the midst of a famine simply to prevent starvation. And yet, as Kirschenbaum writes, “even with these constraints, local administrations managed to set up some institutions. In 1918, Moscow guberniia [province] led the way with twenty-three kindergartens, eight day cares (ochagi) and thirteen summer playgrounds. A year later it boasted a total of 279 institutions…. Petrograd had no preschool department in 1918, but a year later it reported 106 institutions in the city and 180 in the guberniia outside the city. Other areas reported slower, but still remarkable, increases.” (Lisa A. Kirschenbaum, Small Comrades: Revolutionizing Childhood in Soviet Russia, 1917–1932)

Within these preschools, teachers experimented with radical pedagogy, particularly the notion of “free upbringing,” as “teachers insisted that freedom in the classroom was part and parcel of the Revolution’s transformation of social life.” Kirschenbaum elaborates: “By allowing, as one teacher expressed it, the ‘free development of [children’s] inherent capabilities and developing independence, creative initiative, and social feeling,’ svobodnoe vospitanie [free upbringing] played a ‘very important role in the construction of a new life.’”

A central aspect of expanding literacy in revolutionary Russia was deciding in which language, or languages, literacy should be developed. Before the revolution, tsarist colonialism had forged a multinational empire in which ethnic Russians comprised only 43 percent of the population. A central political question for the Bolsheviks—the majority of whom were Russian - was how to combat the legacy of Russian chauvinism while also winning non-Russian nationalities to the project of the revolution. A full discussion of this history is beyond the scope of this chapter. But it is important to underscore how progressive Bolshevik politics were with respect to native language education.

Already in October 1918, the general policy was established to provide for native language education in any school where twenty-five or more pupils in each age group spoke the same language. Implementing the policy depended on a number of factors. For example, within Russia proper, where some national minorities such as Ukrainians and Byelorussians were already assimilated, few native-language programs were set up. Within Ukraine itself, however, the extent of native-language education was reflected in the rapid demand for Ukrainian language teachers and Ukrainian-language textbooks in the years following the revolution.

Nativizing language and literacy education for populations in the Caucasus and Central Asian regions of the old empire was a more complicated task. In part, the difficulty stemmed from efforts under tsarism to use differences in dialect to divide native peoples in these regions. In addition, in some cases the languages most widely spoken had not yet developed a writing system. Thus, part of nativizing education meant deciding which language should be used in school, and which system (for example, Cyrillic, Roman, or Arabic script, or something different altogether) should be used to write it. Despite these practical challenges, native language education became the rule rather than the exception. Again, a key indication is the number of languages in which textbooks were published, which grew from twenty-five in 1924 to thirty-four in 1925 to forty-four in 1927. As British socialist Dave Crouch summarizes: “By 1927 native language education for national minorities outside their own republic or region was widespread, while in their own republic it was almost total.” (Dave Crouch, “The Seeds of National Liberation”, International Socialism Journal 94)

At the same time universities were opened up to workers as preliminary exams were abolished to allow them to attend lectures. The lectures themselves were free, art was made public, and the number of libraries was dramatically increased. There was an incredible hunger for learning in a society in which people were making democratic decisions about their lives and their society. One writer describes: “One course, for example, is attended by a thousand men in spite of the appalling cold of the lecture rooms. The hands of the science professors . . . are frostbitten from touching the icy metal of their instruments during demonstrations.”

A whole new educational system was created in which traditional education was thrown out and new, innovative techniques were implemented that emphasized self-activity, collectivism, and choice, and that drew on students’ prior experience, knowledge, and interaction with the real world. Anna-Louise Strong, an American journalist who traveled extensively in Russia after the revolution, wrote about her experiences and recounts a conversation with one teacher:

“We call it the Work School,” said a teacher to me. “We base all study on the child’s play and his relation to productive work. We begin with the life around him. How do the people in the village get their living? What do they produce? What tools do they use to produce it? Do they eat it all or exchange some of it? For what do they exchange it? What are horses and their use to man? What are pigs and what makes them fat? What are families and how do they support each other, and what is a village that organizes and cares for the families?”

“This is interesting nature study and sociology,” I replied, “but how do you teach mathematics?” He looked at me in surprise.

“By real problems about real situations,” he answered. “Can we use a textbook in which a lord has ten thousand rubles and puts five thousand out at interest and the children are asked what his profit is? The old mathematics is full of problems the children never see now, of situations and money values which no longer exist, of transactions which we do not wish to encourage. Also it was always purely formal, divorced from existence.

We have simple problems in addition, to find out how many cows there are in the village, by adding the number in each family. Simple problems of division of food, to know how much the village can export. Problems of proportion,—if our village has three hundred families and the next has one thousand, how many red soldiers must each give to the army, how many delegates is each entitled to in the township soviet? The older children work out the food-tax for their families; that really begins to interest the parents in our schools.” (Anna-Louise Strong, The First Time in History)

Within schools, student governments were set up - even at the elementary school level - in which elected student representatives worked with teachers and other school workers to run the schools. In so doing, schools became places where students learned “collective action” and began to put the principles of the revolution in practice. As Strong described: “We have our self-governed school community, in which teachers, children and janitors all have equal voice. It decides everything, what shall be done with the school funds, what shall be planted in the school garden, what shall be taught. If the children decide against some necessary subject, it is the teacher’s job to show them through their play and life together that the subject is needed.”

She continues by describing a school for orphans and homeless children where basic needs such as food, clothing, and hygiene had to be met before any real learning could begin. Additionally, the students spoke more than a dozen different dialects, making the shared development of a common language one of the school’s first goals. But, as the writer describes, “those were famine conditions. Yet the children in this school, just learning to speak to each other, had their School Council for self-government which received a gift of chocolate I sent them, duly electing a representative to come and get it and furnishing her with proper papers of authorization. They divided the chocolate fairly.”

A more skeptical writer, William Chamberlin, a journalist with the Christian Science Monitor who passed on information to US intelligence, described a school in which students in the higher grades “receive tasks in each subject, requiring from a week to a month for completion. They are then left free to carry out these tasks as they see fit.” (William Henry Chamberlin, “The Revolution in Education and Culture” in Soviet Russia: A Living Record and a History). He continued:

"Visiting a school where this system was in operation I found the pupils at work in various classrooms, studying and writing out their problems in composition, algebra, and elemental chemistry. Sometimes the teacher was in the room, sometimes not, but the students were left almost entirely to their own resources. The teacher seemed to function largely in an advisory capacity, giving help only when asked. If the students preferred talk or games to study, the teacher usually overlooked it. Each student was free to choose the subject or subjects on which he would work on any particular day.

This absence of external restriction is a very marked characteristic of the Soviet school. The maintenance of discipline is in the hands of organizations elected by the students themselves, and while one seldom witnesses actual rowdyism in the classroom, one is also unlikely to find the strict order that usually prevails in the schools of other countries."

Chamberlin questioned Lunacharsky, the commissar for education, about whether such a model provided sufficient education in basic skills such as grammar and spelling. Lunacharsky replied: “Frankly, we don’t attach so much importance to the formal school discipline of reading and writing and spelling as to the development of the child’s mind and personality. Once a pupil begins to think for himself he will master such tools of formal knowledge as he may need. And if he doesn’t learn to think for himself no amount of correctly added sums or correctly spelled words will do him much good.” But, Chamberlin explained, it was hard to provide hard data on the success of the program, as “marks are proverbially an unreliable gauge of students’ ability; and Russia has no grading system.” Examinations were also largely abolished, including those that had previously been necessary to gain entrance into institutions of higher education. Why? Because “it was believed that no one would willingly listen to lectures that were of no use to him.”

Anatoly Lunacharsky

Anatoly Lunacharsky

The revolution inspired a wide range of innovative thinkers in education and psychology. Lev Vygotsky, known as the “Mozart of psychology,” created a legacy of influential work in child and adolescent psychology and cognition, despite being stymied and all but silenced under Stalinism. He began with a Marxist method and analyzed the way in which social relations are at the heart of children’s learning process. He wrote that he intended to develop a new scientific psychology not by quoting Marxist texts but rather “having learned the whole of Marx’s method” and applying it to the study of consciousness and culture, using psychology as his tool of investigation.

Vygotsky used this method to investigate the creation of “higher mental processes,” as opposed to more “natural” mental functions, which are biologically endowed. These higher mental processes are mediated by human-made psychological tools (for example, language), and include voluntary attention, active perception, and intentional memory. He also traced the dialectical development and interaction of thought and language, which results in the internalization of language, verbalized thought, and conceptual thinking. He argued that mental development is a sociohistorical process both for the human species and for individuals as they develop, becoming “humanized” from birth. Personality begins forming at birth in a dialectical manner, with the child an active agent in appropriating elements from her environment (not always consciously) in line with her internal psychological structure and unique individual social activity. For Vygotsky, education plays a decisive role in “not only the development of the individual’s potential, but in the expression and growth of the human culture from which man springs,” and which is transmitted to succeeding generations.

Through applied research in interdisciplinary educational psychology, Vygotsky developed concepts such as the zone of proximal development, in which joint social activity and instruction “marches ahead of development and leads it; it must be aimed not so much at the ripe as the ripening functions.” (L. S. Vygotsky, Thought and Language) This view clashed with Piaget’s insistence on the necessity of passively waiting for a level of biological and developmental maturity prior to instruction. Vygotsky devoted himself to the education of mentally and physically handicapped children; he founded and directed the Institute for the Study of Handicapped Children, which focused on the social development of higher mental processes among children with disabilities. He also discovered characteristics of “preconceptual” forms of thinking associated with schizophrenia and other psychopathologies.

Vygotsky saw as the historical task of his time the creation of an integrated scientific psychology on a dialectical, material, historical foundation that would help the practical transformation of society. As he argued, “it is practice which poses the tasks and is the supreme judge of theory.” Although this task was incomplete upon his death, and both his work and the revolution itself were derailed by Stalinism (his work was banned under Stalin for twenty years after his death), he made great headway in this process, and laid a foundation for others who have been inspired to further elaborate upon and develop his ideas.

The immense poverty and scarcity of material resources after the Russian Revolution and the subsequent Stalinist counterrevolution distorted the revolutionary promise of education reform in the early years. Nonetheless, the Russian Revolution provides important examples of the possibilities for the creativity and radical reform that could be unleashed by revolutionary transformation of society at large - even amid the worst conditions.

While the adult literacy campaign’s accomplishments were thus limited, and much of the data is hotly contested as a result of Stalinist distortions, it had important successes. In its first year of existence, the campaign reached five million people, “about half of whom learned to read and write.” While literacy statistics are hard to find, it is worth noting that the number of rural mailboxes increased from 2,800 in 1913 to 64,000 in 1926 as newspaper subscriptions and the exchange of written communications substantially increased—a notable corollary of increased literacy. In unions, literacy programs were quite successful. To give one example, a campaign among railway workers led to a 99 percent literacy rate by 1924. Similarly, in the Red Army, where literacy and education were deemed crucial to ensure that soldiers were politically engaged with its project, illiteracy rates decreased from 50 percent to only 14 percent three years later, and 8 percent one year after that. On its seventh anniversary, the army achieved a 100 percent literacy rate, an immense accomplishment, even if short-lived, as new conscripts made continual education necessary.

Perhaps more important than any of the data, however, are the plethora of stories of innovation and radically restructured ideas of schooling, teaching, and learning as students at all levels took control of their own learning, imbued with a thirst for knowledge in a world which was theirs to create and run in their own interests.

Conclusion

The complete transformation of education and literacy during the Russian Revolution exposes the lies at the heart of American education - that competition drives innovation, that punishments and rewards are the only motivations for learning, and that schools are the great levelers that provide every child with an equal opportunity to succeed.

If we have anything to learn from the revolutionary literacy campaigns of Russia, it is that genuine learning triumphs in revolutionary situations that provide people with real opportunities for collective and cooperative inquiry and research; that literacy is always political; and that radical pedagogy is most successful when it actively engages people in the transformation of their own worlds - not simply in the world of ideas, but by transforming the material conditions in which reading, writing, and learning take place. Compare that to rote memorization of disconnected bits of information, bubble tests, and scripted, skill-based curricula that suck the love of learning out of children in our schools.

Radical educators should draw on these lessons wherever possible to fight for an educational system that is liberatory rather than stultifying, sees students as thinkers and actors rather than empty containers to be filled, and recognizes that collaboration and collective action are far more useful for our students than individualism and meritocracy.

But for most teachers, the opportunities to implement the lessons of these struggles are extremely limited as curricula are standardized and stripped of any political meaning, testing triumphs over critical thinking, and our jobs are increasingly contingent on how much “value” we’ve added to a test score.

It is no coincidence that the best examples of radical pedagogy come from revolutionary periods of struggle, as newly radicalized students and teachers put forward new visions of education and reshape pedagogy. As teachers, we know that students can’t just ignore the many inequalities they face outside of the school building and overcome these through acts of sheer will. Genuine literacy that emphasizes critical thinking, political consciousness, and self-emancipation cannot happen in a vacuum. The creation of a liberatory pedagogy and literacy goes hand in hand with the self-emancipation of working people through revolutionary transformations of society as a whole.

Under capitalism, education will always be a means of maintaining class divisions rather than eradicating them. To imagine an educational system that is truly liberatory, we need to talk about fighting for a different kind of society - a socialist society in which, as Marx described, “the free development of each is the precondition for the free development of all.” It is only by transforming our society to eradicate poverty, prisons, oppression, and exploitation in all its forms that we can fully unleash human potential and creativity.

Imagine a society in which teachers and students democratically decided what learning should look like and where learning was freed from the confines of a classroom. Imagine what true lifelong learning could look like in a world in which we were free to develop our own courses of study and unlock the creative potential of humanity. If we can learn anything from the history of education and literacy, it is that such a revolutionary transformation of society is both possible and urgently needed.

This article first appeared in Issue #82 of International Socialist Review (ISR Issue #82) and is an excerpt from the chapter “Literacy and Revolution” in the new Haymarket book, Education and ­Capitalism.

Farmer, be an athlete.
Tuesday, 21 November 2017 21:24

Sport and the Russian Revolution

Published in 1917 Centenary

Gareth Edwards considers the changing attitudes to sport that resulted from the Russian Revolution. 

In 1917 the Russian Revolution turned the world upside down, inspiring millions of people with its vision of a society built on solidarity and the fulfilment of human need. In the process it unleashed an explosion of creativity in art, music, poetry and literature. It touched every area of people’s lives, including the games they played. Sport, however, was far from being a priority. The Bolsheviks, who had led the revolution, were confronted with civil war, invading armies, widespread famine and a typhus epidemic. Survival, not leisure, was the order of the day.

It would be easy to characterise the Bolsheviks as being anti-sports. Leading members of the party, such as Leon Trotsky and Anotoli Lunacharsky, were close to those most critical of sport during the physical culture debates that took place in the early 1920s. In addition, the party’s attitude to the Olympics is normally given as evidence to support this anti-sport claim. The Bolsheviks boycotted the Games on the grounds they would “deflect workers from the class struggle and train them for imperialist wars”. Yet in reality the Bolshevik’s attitudes towards sport were somewhat more complicated.

In the aftermath of the revolution, sport would, unsurprisingly, play a political role for the Bolsheviks. Facing internal and external threats which would decimate the working class, they saw sport as a means by which the health and fitness of the population could be improved. As early as 1918 they issued a decree, On Compulsory Instruction in the Military Art, introducing physical training to the education system.

The position of women in society had already been greatly improved through the legalisation of abortion and divorce, but sport could also play a role by increasingly bringing women into public life. “It is our urgent task to draw women into sport,” said Lenin. “If we can achieve that and get them to make full use of the sun, water and fresh air for fortifying themselves, we shall bring an entire revolution in the Russian way of life.”

Go to the stadiums

Youth – to the stadiums! Golovanov, 1947

And sport became another way of conveying the ideals of the revolution to the working classes of Europe. The worker-sport movement stretched across the continent and millions of workers were members of sports clubs run mainly by reformist organisations. The Red Sports International (RSI) was formed in 1921 with the express intention of connecting with these workers. Through the following decade the RSI (and the reformist Socialist Worker Sports International) held a number of Spartakiads and Worker Olympics in opposition to the official Olympic Games.

Just as important was that participation in the new physical culture could be a life-affirming activity, allowing people to experience the freedom and movement of their own bodies. Lenin was convinced that recreation and exercise were integral parts of a well-rounded life. “Young people especially need to have a zest for life and be in good spirits. Healthy sport – gymnastics, swimming, hiking all manner of physical exercise – should be combined as much as possible with a variety of intellectual interests, study, analysis and investigation… Healthy bodies, healthy minds!”

But the Bolsheviks were never overly prescriptive in their analysis of what physical culture should look like. It was not for the party to decide what constituted the best system of sports or produce the correct line for the working class to follow. Rather it was for the mass of people to discuss and debate, experiment and innovate, and in that process, create their own sports and games. Nobody could foresee exactly what the play of a future socialist society would be like, but equally no one could doubt that the need to play would assert itself. As Trotsky said, “The longing for amusement, distraction, sight-seeing and laughter is the most legitimate of human nature.”

sports games soviet peoples

Sports Games of the Soviet peoples, Vlasov, 1928

The Bolsheviks approach was just one strand in the wider physical culture debate, which also included the hygienists and the Proletkultists. The hygienists, as the name implies, were a collection of doctors and health care professionals whose attitudes were informed by their medical knowledge. Generally speaking, they were critical of sport, concerned that its emphasis on competition placed participants at risk of injury. They were equally disdainful of the West’s preoccupation with running faster, throwing further or jumping higher than ever before. “It is completely unnecessary and unimportant,” said A.A. Zikmund, head of the Physical Culture Institute in Moscow, “that anyone set a new world or Russian record.” Instead the hygienists advocated non-competitive physical pursuits - like gymnastics and swimming -as ways for people to stay healthy and relax.

For a time, the hygienists influenced Soviet policy on questions of physical culture. It was on their advice that certain sports were prohibited, and football, boxing and weight-lifting were all omitted from the programme of events at the First Trade Union Games in 1925. However, the hygienists were far from unanimous in their condemnation of sport. V.V. Gorinevsky, for example, was an advocate of playing tennis, which he saw as being an ideal physical exercise. Nikolai Semashko, a doctor and the People’s Commissar for Health, went much further arguing that sport was “the open gate to physical culture” which “develops the sort of will-power, strength and skill that should distinguish Soviet people.”

In contrast to the hygienists the Proletkult movement was unequivocal in its rejection of ‘bourgeois’ sport. Indeed, they denounced anything that smacked of the old society, be it in art, literature or music. They saw the ideology of capitalism woven into the fabric of sport. Its competitiveness set workers against each other, dividing people by tribal and national identities, while the physicality of the games put unnatural strains on the bodies of the players.

In place of sport Proletkultists argued for new, proletarian forms of play, founded on the principles of mass participation and cooperation. Often these new games were huge theatrical displays looking more like carnivals or parades than the sports we see today. Contests were shunned on the basis that they were ideologically incompatible with the new socialist society. Participation replaced spectating, and each event contained a distinct political message, as is apparent from some of their names: Rescue from the Imperialists; Smuggling Revolutionary Literature Across the Frontier; and Helping the Proletarians.

The hopes of the revolution died, alongside thousands of old Bolsheviks, with the rise of Josef Stalin. The collectivist ideals of 1917 were buried, replaced by exploitation and brutal repression. Internationalism was jettisoned in favour of “socialism in one country”. As the values and imperatives of the society changed so too did the character of the country’s physical culture. By 1925 the Bolsheviks had already turned towards a more elitist model of sport. Around this time Stalin is reported to have said: “We compete with the bourgeoisie economically, politically, and not without success. We compete everywhere possible. Why not compete in sport?” Team sports reappeared, complete with capitalist style league and cup structures. Successful sportspeople were held up as heroes in the Soviet Union and the quest for records resumed. Many of the hygienists and Proletkultists who had dared to dream of new forms of physical culture perished in the purges.

Eventually sport became a proxy for the Cold War. In 1952 the Soviet Union was re-integrated into the Olympic movement, ensuring that the relative strength of East and West was measured at each Games in gold, silver and bronze. As the country was inexorably compelled into economic, political and military competition on the international stage, so it also found itself drawn into sporting competition with the West.

Just as it would be a mistake to judge the ideals of the Russian Revolution by the horrors of Stalinism, so we should not allow the latter days of Soviet sport to obscure those remarkable early experiments in physical culture. Today, sport is a plaything of oil sheiks and states, corporations and oligarchs. Corruption, controversy and doping are all rife. Sports fans are increasingly priced out of the games they love to watch and play; workers building the stadiums for global mega-events are, tragically, paying a much higher price. The need for a critique of the contemporary sports world is, if anything, even more urgent than it was 100 years ago.

Farmer, be an athlete.
Tuesday, 21 November 2017 21:24

Sport and the Russian Revolution

Published in Sport

Gareth Edwards considers the changing attitudes to sport that resulted from the Russian Revolution.

In 1917 the Russian Revolution turned the world upside down, inspiring millions of people with its vision of a society built on solidarity and the fulfilment of human need. In the process it unleashed an explosion of creativity in art, music, poetry and literature. It touched every area of people’s lives, including the games they played. Sport, however, was far from being a priority. The Bolsheviks, who had led the revolution, were confronted with civil war, invading armies, widespread famine and a typhus epidemic. Survival, not leisure, was the order of the day.

It would be easy to characterise the Bolsheviks as being anti-sports. Leading members of the party, such as Leon Trotsky and Anotoli Lunacharsky, were close to those most critical of sport during the physical culture debates that took place in the early 1920s. In addition, the party’s attitude to the Olympics is normally given as evidence to support this anti-sport claim. The Bolsheviks boycotted the Games on the grounds they would “deflect workers from the class struggle and train them for imperialist wars”. Yet in reality the Bolshevik’s attitudes towards sport were somewhat more complicated.

In the aftermath of the revolution, sport would, unsurprisingly, play a political role for the Bolsheviks. Facing internal and external threats which would decimate the working class, they saw sport as a means by which the health and fitness of the population could be improved. As early as 1918 they issued a decree, On Compulsory Instruction in the Military Art, introducing physical training to the education system.

The position of women in society had already been greatly improved through the legalisation of abortion and divorce, but sport could also play a role by increasingly bringing women into public life. “It is our urgent task to draw women into sport,” said Lenin. “If we can achieve that and get them to make full use of the sun, water and fresh air for fortifying themselves, we shall bring an entire revolution in the Russian way of life.”

Go to the stadiums

Youth – to the stadiums! Golovanov, 1947

And sport became another way of conveying the ideals of the revolution to the working classes of Europe. The worker-sport movement stretched across the continent and millions of workers were members of sports clubs run mainly by reformist organisations. The Red Sports International (RSI) was formed in 1921 with the express intention of connecting with these workers. Through the following decade the RSI (and the reformist Socialist Worker Sports International) held a number of Spartakiads and Worker Olympics in opposition to the official Olympic Games.

Just as important was that participation in the new physical culture could be a life-affirming activity, allowing people to experience the freedom and movement of their own bodies. Lenin was convinced that recreation and exercise were integral parts of a well-rounded life. “Young people especially need to have a zest for life and be in good spirits. Healthy sport – gymnastics, swimming, hiking all manner of physical exercise – should be combined as much as possible with a variety of intellectual interests, study, analysis and investigation… Healthy bodies, healthy minds!”

But the Bolsheviks were never overly prescriptive in their analysis of what physical culture should look like. It was not for the party to decide what constituted the best system of sports or produce the correct line for the working class to follow. Rather it was for the mass of people to discuss and debate, experiment and innovate, and in that process, create their own sports and games. Nobody could foresee exactly what the play of a future socialist society would be like, but equally no one could doubt that the need to play would assert itself. As Trotsky said, “The longing for amusement, distraction, sight-seeing and laughter is the most legitimate of human nature.”

sports games soviet peoples

Sports Games of the Soviet peoples, Vlasov, 1928

The Bolsheviks approach was just one strand in the wider physical culture debate, which also included the hygienists and the Proletkultists. The hygienists, as the name implies, were a collection of doctors and health care professionals whose attitudes were informed by their medical knowledge. Generally speaking, they were critical of sport, concerned that its emphasis on competition placed participants at risk of injury. They were equally disdainful of the West’s preoccupation with running faster, throwing further or jumping higher than ever before. “It is completely unnecessary and unimportant,” said A.A. Zikmund, head of the Physical Culture Institute in Moscow, “that anyone set a new world or Russian record.” Instead the hygienists advocated non-competitive physical pursuits - like gymnastics and swimming -as ways for people to stay healthy and relax.

For a time, the hygienists influenced Soviet policy on questions of physical culture. It was on their advice that certain sports were prohibited, and football, boxing and weight-lifting were all omitted from the programme of events at the First Trade Union Games in 1925. However, the hygienists were far from unanimous in their condemnation of sport. V.V. Gorinevsky, for example, was an advocate of playing tennis, which he saw as being an ideal physical exercise. Nikolai Semashko, a doctor and the People’s Commissar for Health, went much further arguing that sport was “the open gate to physical culture” which “develops the sort of will-power, strength and skill that should distinguish Soviet people.”

In contrast to the hygienists the Proletkult movement was unequivocal in its rejection of ‘bourgeois’ sport. Indeed, they denounced anything that smacked of the old society, be it in art, literature or music. They saw the ideology of capitalism woven into the fabric of sport. Its competitiveness set workers against each other, dividing people by tribal and national identities, while the physicality of the games put unnatural strains on the bodies of the players.

In place of sport Proletkultists argued for new, proletarian forms of play, founded on the principles of mass participation and cooperation. Often these new games were huge theatrical displays looking more like carnivals or parades than the sports we see today. Contests were shunned on the basis that they were ideologically incompatible with the new socialist society. Participation replaced spectating, and each event contained a distinct political message, as is apparent from some of their names: Rescue from the Imperialists; Smuggling Revolutionary Literature Across the Frontier; and Helping the Proletarians.

The hopes of the revolution died, alongside thousands of old Bolsheviks, with the rise of Josef Stalin. The collectivist ideals of 1917 were buried, replaced by exploitation and brutal repression. Internationalism was jettisoned in favour of “socialism in one country”. As the values and imperatives of the society changed so too did the character of the country’s physical culture. By 1925 the Bolsheviks had already turned towards a more elitist model of sport. Around this time Stalin is reported to have said: “We compete with the bourgeoisie economically, politically, and not without success. We compete everywhere possible. Why not compete in sport?” Team sports reappeared, complete with capitalist style league and cup structures. Successful sportspeople were held up as heroes in the Soviet Union and the quest for records resumed. Many of the hygienists and Proletkultists who had dared to dream of new forms of physical culture perished in the purges.

Eventually sport became a proxy for the Cold War. In 1952 the Soviet Union was re-integrated into the Olympic movement, ensuring that the relative strength of East and West was measured at each Games in gold, silver and bronze. As the country was inexorably compelled into economic, political and military competition on the international stage, so it also found itself drawn into sporting competition with the West.

Just as it would be a mistake to judge the ideals of the Russian Revolution by the horrors of Stalinism, so we should not allow the latter days of Soviet sport to obscure those remarkable early experiments in physical culture. Today, sport is a plaything of oil sheiks and states, corporations and oligarchs. Corruption, controversy and doping are all rife. Sports fans are increasingly priced out of the games they love to watch and play; workers building the stadiums for global mega-events are, tragically, paying a much higher price. The need for a critique of the contemporary sports world is, if anything, even more urgent than it was 100 years ago.

The Russian Revolution and Avant-Garde Architecture
Tuesday, 21 November 2017 21:24

The Russian Revolution and Avant-Garde Architecture

Published in 1917 Centenary

Jean Turner looks at the dramatic changes that took place in architecture following the Bolshevik Revolution, and the profound influence this had on the development of the world's first workers' state.

In the nineteenth century, as in all the other arts, Russians were examining new forms of expression in architecture, following a backlash against Peter the Great’s import of classical architecture to Russia and the rejection of Catherine the Great’s Age of Enlightenment. Designers returned to interpreting traditional Russian forms of building and decoration.

This took place in a fervour of intellectual debate on the correct principles of building. In her book Russian Avant-Garde Catherine Cooke describes the different centres of architectural theory: “[…] the Architecture School of the Imperial Academy of Arts in St Petersburg was a bastion of Classicism but it had two more radical rivals, the architecture department of the St Petersburg Building College and the Royal College in Moscow. In the 1850s and ‘60s it was teachers in these two schools, Apollinari Krasovsky in Petersburg and Mikhail Bykovsky in Moscow, who laid the foundations in Russia for a Rationalist view of architecture rooted in new technologies and social tasks.”

After the assassination of Alexander III by People’s Will (Narodnaya Volya), an authoritarian social order was imposed. However, a new class of industrialist and banking dynasties had arisen from among the freed serfs with strong nationalist and cultural prejudices based on peasant and mercantile values. Their chosen form of design emerged as Moderne, or Art Nouveau, personified by the work of Fyodor Shekhtel.

As in other countries at this time, women were demanding entry to universities to receive architecture training. Since all the colleges were involved in radical unrest against tsarist authoritarianism, it was feared that women, often being supporters of radical workers’ demands, would bring trouble to the universities.

Among five women at the Congress of Russian Architects in 1911, two - Elena Bagaeva and Luisi Molas - ran their own architectural school, using the Academy curriculum and professors from the College of Civil Engineering. In 1902 women’s construction classes were pioneered in Moscow by Ivan Fomin, William Walcot and others, and held at Shekhtel’s office premises. By 1917 women had their own polytechnics in Moscow and Petersburg with full five-year courses in architecture, structural engineering, chemistry and electro-mechanics, and had by decree achieved “the right to erect buildings”. However, the decree was only implemented, along with many other practical and educational freedoms, after the Bolshevik Revolution of October 1917.

The first two decrees of the new Bolshevik Government were the Decree on Peace, which took Russia out of World War I, and the Decree on Land, which nationalised all land and real estate, laying a new and unique foundation for Soviet architecture and planning.

Lenin handed Anatoly Lunacharsky control of the Commissariat of Enlightenment (Narkompros). This shaped a policy of public education, including a planned appropriation of the heritage of the old world alongside the new forms that had emerged in the arts and architecture. This view was later challenged in 1920 by Alexander Bogdanov’s Proletkult which argued that the proletarians themselves would create new forms of culture ab initio.

In November 1917 the Bolshevik Party called a meeting at the Smolny Institute of Petrograd’s progressive younger painters, writers and designers to discuss their potential collaboration with Soviet power. With equal speed, the new Commissariat harnessed the support of the more establishment artists such as Boris Kustodiev, Kuzma Petrov-Vodkin and Alexander Benois, charging them with the preservation of art works in public buildings and with creating a preservation policy for historic buildings.

Ivan Leonidov, model for the Lenin Institute, Moscow, 1927

Ivan Leonidov, model for the Lenin Institute, Moscow, 1927

Rebels such as Vladimir Mayakovsky, Alexander Rodchenko and Lyubov Popova, originally on the fringe of the respectable world of academia, began teaching in art schools and research institutions. The Higher Art and Technical Workshops (VKhUTEMAS) in Moscow produced the artistic movements of Rationalism and Constructivism. The Rationalists focused on aesthetic rationality and form; the Constructivists on technical rationality and science. The Suprematists Ivan Leonidov and Iakov Chernikov favoured individual buildings of an abstract geometric quality on open sites. Classicism was not totally rejected but took new forms, for example in the work of Ivan and Igor Fomin, and Vladimir Shchuko and Vladimir Gelfreikh who designed the Lenin Library.

Much of their first work was theoretical because the five years of civil war and foreign intervention had destroyed the economy. Traditional building industry materials were virtually unobtainable. Models of proposed public buildings and monuments, for example Vladimir Tatlin’s 1919 Monument to the Third Communist International, were produced in the materials available but without any possibility of construction. According to John Milner, Tatlin’s Tower was intended to span the River Neva.

Rusakov Workers' Club, Konstantin Melnikov, 1927-28

Rusakov Workers' Club, Konstantin Melnikov, 1927-28

During the civil war period, artists, actors and designers were at liberty to create propaganda productions for the new Soviet state. In the words of Alexei Gan, “the whole city would be the stage and the entire proletarian masses of Moscow the performers”. These productions became a focus of revolutionary design. Petrograd held an enormous festival for the first anniversary of the October Revolution that involved eighty-five separate design projects across the city by famous artists and designers, including Nathan Altman who decorated Palace Square with a temporary architectural sculpture.

No major reconstruction could begin until the problem of rapid production of building materials had been resolved. However, these propaganda projects and models were to form the basis of the now famous avant-garde buildings built between 1923 and the 1930s when Soviet architecture influenced the West, rather than vice versa. All were designed by Soviet architects, with the exception of a few by Le Corbusier and Erich Mendelsohn.

The emphasis was on the rapid building of communal housing and services, workers’ clubs, palaces of culture and department stores. These were intended to improve the education and living conditions of the working class and relieve women from domestic work, allowing them to take a full part in industrial production. In the First Five Year Plan (1928–32) top priority was given to building construction to support rapid development in the electrical, iron, steel and transport industries.

Narkmomfin

Narkonfin, Moisei Ginzburg and Ignaty Milinis, 1930 

Many of these iconic buildings are still standing, albeit some in a poor state of repair. However, they remain a tribute to the power of the Marxist-Leninist ideology that produced the world’s first workers’ and peasants’ socialist state, a state that became the patron of modern art and architecture for over seven decades.

This article was first printed in the SCRSS Digest, issue 3, autumn 2017: www.scrss.org.uk/publications.

 

 

The Russian Revolution and Avant-Garde Architecture
Tuesday, 21 November 2017 21:24

The Russian Revolution and Avant-Garde Architecture

Published in Architecture

Jean Turner looks at the dramatic changes that took place in architecture following the Bolshevik Revolution, and the profound influence this had on the development of the world's first workers' state.

In the nineteenth century, as in all the other arts, Russians were examining new forms of expression in architecture, following a backlash against Peter the Great’s import of classical architecture to Russia and the rejection of Catherine the Great’s Age of Enlightenment. Designers returned to interpreting traditional Russian forms of building and decoration.

This took place in a fervour of intellectual debate on the correct principles of building. In her book Russian Avant-Garde Catherine Cooke describes the different centres of architectural theory: “[…] the Architecture School of the Imperial Academy of Arts in St Petersburg was a bastion of Classicism but it had two more radical rivals, the architecture department of the St Petersburg Building College and the Royal College in Moscow. In the 1850s and ‘60s it was teachers in these two schools, Apollinari Krasovsky in Petersburg and Mikhail Bykovsky in Moscow, who laid the foundations in Russia for a Rationalist view of architecture rooted in new technologies and social tasks.”

After the assassination of Alexander III by People’s Will (Narodnaya Volya), an authoritarian social order was imposed. However, a new class of industrialist and banking dynasties had arisen from among the freed serfs with strong nationalist and cultural prejudices based on peasant and mercantile values. Their chosen form of design emerged as Moderne, or Art Nouveau, personified by the work of Fyodor Shekhtel.

As in other countries at this time, women were demanding entry to universities to receive architecture training. Since all the colleges were involved in radical unrest against tsarist authoritarianism, it was feared that women, often being supporters of radical workers’ demands, would bring trouble to the universities.

Among five women at the Congress of Russian Architects in 1911, two - Elena Bagaeva and Luisi Molas - ran their own architectural school, using the Academy curriculum and professors from the College of Civil Engineering. In 1902 women’s construction classes were pioneered in Moscow by Ivan Fomin, William Walcot and others, and held at Shekhtel’s office premises. By 1917 women had their own polytechnics in Moscow and Petersburg with full five-year courses in architecture, structural engineering, chemistry and electro-mechanics, and had by decree achieved “the right to erect buildings”. However, the decree was only implemented, along with many other practical and educational freedoms, after the Bolshevik Revolution of October 1917.

The first two decrees of the new Bolshevik Government were the Decree on Peace, which took Russia out of World War I, and the Decree on Land, which nationalised all land and real estate, laying a new and unique foundation for Soviet architecture and planning.

Lenin handed Anatoly Lunacharsky control of the Commissariat of Enlightenment (Narkompros). This shaped a policy of public education, including a planned appropriation of the heritage of the old world alongside the new forms that had emerged in the arts and architecture. This view was later challenged in 1920 by Alexander Bogdanov’s Proletkult which argued that the proletarians themselves would create new forms of culture ab initio.

In November 1917 the Bolshevik Party called a meeting at the Smolny Institute of Petrograd’s progressive younger painters, writers and designers to discuss their potential collaboration with Soviet power. With equal speed, the new Commissariat harnessed the support of the more establishment artists such as Boris Kustodiev, Kuzma Petrov-Vodkin and Alexander Benois, charging them with the preservation of art works in public buildings and with creating a preservation policy for historic buildings.

Ivan Leonidov, model for the Lenin Institute, Moscow, 1927

Ivan Leonidov, model for the Lenin Institute, Moscow, 1927

Rebels such as Vladimir Mayakovsky, Alexander Rodchenko and Lyubov Popova, originally on the fringe of the respectable world of academia, began teaching in art schools and research institutions. The Higher Art and Technical Workshops (VKhUTEMAS) in Moscow produced the artistic movements of Rationalism and Constructivism. The Rationalists focused on aesthetic rationality and form; the Constructivists on technical rationality and science. The Suprematists Ivan Leonidov and Iakov Chernikov favoured individual buildings of an abstract geometric quality on open sites. Classicism was not totally rejected but took new forms, for example in the work of Ivan and Igor Fomin, and Vladimir Shchuko and Vladimir Gelfreikh who designed the Lenin Library.

Much of their first work was theoretical because the five years of civil war and foreign intervention had destroyed the economy. Traditional building industry materials were virtually unobtainable. Models of proposed public buildings and monuments, for example Vladimir Tatlin’s 1919 Monument to the Third Communist International, were produced in the materials available but without any possibility of construction. According to John Milner, Tatlin’s Tower was intended to span the River Neva.

Rusakov Workers' Club, Konstantin Melnikov, 1927-28

Rusakov Workers' Club, Konstantin Melnikov, 1927-28

During the civil war period, artists, actors and designers were at liberty to create propaganda productions for the new Soviet state. In the words of Alexei Gan, “the whole city would be the stage and the entire proletarian masses of Moscow the performers”. These productions became a focus of revolutionary design. Petrograd held an enormous festival for the first anniversary of the October Revolution that involved eighty-five separate design projects across the city by famous artists and designers, including Nathan Altman who decorated Palace Square with a temporary architectural sculpture.

No major reconstruction could begin until the problem of rapid production of building materials had been resolved. However, these propaganda projects and models were to form the basis of the now famous avant-garde buildings built between 1923 and the 1930s when Soviet architecture influenced the West, rather than vice versa. All were designed by Soviet architects, with the exception of a few by Le Corbusier and Erich Mendelsohn.

The emphasis was on the rapid building of communal housing and services, workers’ clubs, palaces of culture and department stores. These were intended to improve the education and living conditions of the working class and relieve women from domestic work, allowing them to take a full part in industrial production. In the First Five Year Plan (1928–32) top priority was given to building construction to support rapid development in the electrical, iron, steel and transport industries.

Narkmomfin

Narkonfin, Moisei Ginzburg and Ignaty Milinis, 1930 

Many of these iconic buildings are still standing, albeit some in a poor state of repair. However, they remain a tribute to the power of the Marxist-Leninist ideology that produced the world’s first workers’ and peasants’ socialist state, a state that became the patron of modern art and architecture for over seven decades.

This article was first printed in the SCRSS Digest, issue 3, autumn 2017: www.scrss.org.uk/publications.

 

 

Pablo Picasso (in the beret) and scene painters working on set design for Leonid Massine’s Parade, staged by Serge Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes in Paris, 1917.
Tuesday, 21 November 2017 21:24

Dancing Up a Storm: the 1917 Revolution and Russian ballet

Published in 1917 Centenary

Carolyn Pouncy tells the story of how Russian ballet was modernised, democratised and eventually revitalised by the 1917 Russian Revolution.

Ask people unfamiliar with dance history where ballet originated, and many will say, “Russia.” Although the wrong answer—ballet originated at the court of Louis XIV, based on formal dance traditions already developed in Italy and brought to France with Catherine de Médicis—the perception reflects the outsized influence of Russian ballet since the arrival of Serge Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes in Paris in 1909. So it probably comes as something of a surprise to learn that ballet in Russia itself almost did not survive the October Revolution of 1917.

CPouncy Agrippina Vaganova Esmeralda 1910

Agrippina Vaganova in Esmeralda, St. Petersburg, ca. 1910

The problem was simple: from its debut, ballet existed as an aristocratic art form, supported by courts and, until the early years of the twentieth century, chronicling the adventures of princes and princesses, fauns and fairies, sylphs and spirits of various sorts. Its pirates were romantic corsairs, its peasants and shepherds were light-hearted flute players, its Gypsies were royalty in disguise or lost at birth. Everyone bathed often, and there was not a worker in sight.

Imperial autocracy, as a system, exaggerated these problems. The imperial theatres and their schools operated as government departments, intertwined with the tsar’s household in the most intimate fashion. Although the dancers came from lower on the social scale—and often subscribed to liberal politics, especially during and after the revolution of 1905—everything about their daily lives, from the moment they entered the doors of the academy on Rossi Street as children, to the guaranteed pensions they received in retirement twenty years later, separated them from the poverty that afflicted the vast majority of Russia’s population and linked them to the rarefied world of the aristocracy.

When the Bolsheviks completed their coup, the former imperial theatres faced numerous problems. Although the lack of state support for sets, costumes, salaries, and pensions had perhaps the most dramatic impact on the lives of individual dancers, perhaps a bigger loss for Russian ballet as a whole was the mass exodus of personnel before and after Great October.

Ballet in the Western world took off at this time, precisely because the fleeing dancers brought their expertise and their training with them. But those who remained behind, for whatever reason, found themselves in dire straits. Almost half of the dancers in the imperial theatres of St. Petersburg emigrated in the late 1910s and early 1920s, meaning that simply mounting a performance of a classic like Swan Lake, Giselle, or The Nutcracker became next to impossible.

Scarce food meant that the skilled dancers who remained performed in workers’ clubs that paid in bread. Scarce fuel left dancers bundled in clothes over their skimpy costumes, stripping off the layers in the wings just before they ran on stage and rushing back to cover up as soon as their divertissement finished. Each morning students broke the ice on the water sprinkled over the wooden floors to prevent skidding.

cpouncy bolshoi ballet school 1920s

Bolshoi Ballet school in the 1920s. Courtesy of Russia in Photos, https://russiainphoto.ru

Perhaps more devastating still was a problem unique to ballet, an art form that from its beginnings until the present day has been passed on by word of mouth from teacher to student. When so many dancers left, they took with them the living memory of steps, how roles were performed, and transferred that oral tradition westward. Those who stayed struggled to preserve what they recalled, even devising the first system of dance notation to record the old ballets.

The art itself suffered from the exodus, because the dancers and choreographers and musicians who left tended to be the ones with the best prospects abroad: stars like Anna Pavlova, Tamara Karsavina, Vaslav Nijinsky, and Michel Fokine. Those left behind were not always second-tier, but they had to train an entire new generation of students to replace those who fled.

Yet as we all know, ballet in the fledgling Soviet Union did not die. The first change came when Anatoly Lunacharsky, People’s Commissar of Education, convinced Lenin that “gentry culture” could have its place in the new Soviet state. Trends already underway toward more modern, less narrative ballets accelerated in the new cultural climate, finding their ultimate expression in the work of George Balanchine (another émigré) and Fedor Lopukhov, who stayed.

The rechristened state theatres continued to struggle, fending off constant accusations of backward-looking tendencies with melodramatic explorations of workers and factories, followed in due course with earnest (but seldom earnest enough) portrayals of national culture. Agrippina Vaganova and Vladimir Ponomarev revitalised the teaching methods at the Choreographic Academy in Leningrad, students such as Galina Ulanova and Marina Semyonova put those methods into practice, and in time the Soviet government of Stalin and its successors realised that ballet offered a ready means to impress foreign visitors, including ambassadors.

CPouncy

The final scene from The Flames of Paris (Plamia Parizha), one of the first "revolutionary" ballets, staged in 1932. Courtesy of Russia in Photos, https://russiainphoto.ru

The old ballets were restaged in new, more ideologically acceptable forms, without the archaic nineteenth-century mime. The Bolshoi and the Kirov troupes, carefully selected for political reliability, received permission to travel abroad, and Russian ballet once again became the touchstone of world dance - no longer as an aristocratic art form but as an integral part of a state-sponsored attempt to create a socialist society, a 'workers’ paradise'. 

The democratisation of Russian ballet which was hastened, if not caused, by the Russian Revolution, also had wider ripple effects on the history of ballet in Europe in the twentieth century. Rigid class structures were breaking down anyway, and all the arts - poetry, drama, film - reflected this, but the exodus resulting from the Revolution was a significant stimulus to the modernisation of the sometimes anachronistic art form of ballet, across the world.

 

Storming the Winter Palace
Tuesday, 21 November 2017 21:24

Black night, white snow: Alexander Blok's The Twelve

Published in 1917 Centenary

John Ellison discusses Alexander Blok's great poem The Twelve, and its links to the Russian Revolution.

I came fresh, utterly fresh, to the most famous poem by Alexander Blok - The Twelve - written in January 1918, and the freshest of poetic responses to the November Bolshevik revolution. Before reading it, I knew Blok’s name, but nothing of his work. The Twelve is so striking as to be impossible to drive out of memory.

In Russian, it runs to a little over a thousand words and is not ‘revolutionary’ in message in the wildest sense of that word. It carries no imprint of a sudden or superficial craze for radical change, but reflects Blok’s open-eyed rapport with the seizure of power by the Bolsheviks and their commitment to a socialist future.

He was born in 1880 in St. Petersburg and died, aged only 40, in the same city in 1921, after a lengthy illness. The Twelve, and a shorter poem in a conventional form - The Scythians - which was written immediately afterwards, are regarded as the last of his significant creative work. He grew up mainly in the households of his mother and of her parents. He was a child of the upper class academic intelligentsia, which did not exclude the ownership of country estates, or involvement with the Orthodox Christian Church. He inherited, besides privileged conditions of living, his mother’s tendency to imbue events with mystical significance and developed early on a heightened sensitivity to the world about him. Though he is often described as of the Russian ‘symbolist’ school, he should not, to judge by The Twelve, be regarded as confined to a particular poetic movement.

My picture of Blok as a boy, a man and a poet is extracted in large part from James Forsyth’s Listening to the Wind (1977). This is an engaging study which wears its scholarship lightly and reveals much.

One English translation of The Twelve with its own definite character is that by prolific socialist author Jack Lindsay. Introduced by Lindsay, it was published in a slim 1982 Journeyman Press edition. A special feature was its accompaniment, reproduced from the original Russian publication, by the remarkable illustrative line drawings of Yuri Annenkov, which accompany this article. Another popular translation, by English poet Jon Stallworthy and collaborator Peter France, can be found in 20th Century Russian Poetry, edited by a later generation Soviet poet, Yevgeny Yevtushenko, and published in 1993. These translators had previously, in 1970, published their version in The Twelve and other Poems. A third important translation is by Alex Miller. I located this in Soviet Russian Literature 1917-1977, compiled by Yuri Andreyev (1980), but Miller’s translation can also be found in a separate Selected Poems by Blok. One more distinguished English version (more recent – 2010) is that by American academic Maria Carlson.

JE

The Twelve sensationalises the revolutionary moment as much as celebrates it. A street patrol of twelve Red Guards marches in darkness, snow and wind in Petrograd. Their number is also the number, and not by coincidence (as is confirmed in the poem’s final lines), of the disciples of the founder of Christianity. These soldiers on street duty are no role models for rank and file revolutionaries. They are doing their duty according to their own standards, and their standards are not high. They look like jailbirds. During the patrol, one of them, helped by at least one accomplice amongst the others, carries out a murder. His former girl-friend, Katya, a prostitute, passing by at speed in a horse-drawn cab with her current lover Vanka, takes a bullet apparently aimed at Vanka. The patrol carries on marching.

At another moment during the patrol, rifle fire is directed at a building on the basis of suspicion only that enemies might be present there.

The Twelve, in my view, could be thought of as a scene in a play or film as much as a poem. It is in twelve parts or ‘cantos’, each distinguishable in style and flavour from the next. Its opening – borrowing Lindsay’s translation here - is incontestably atmospheric, dramatic, intense.

Black night,
White snow.
Wind O wind!
It knocks you down as you go.
Wind O wind –
Through God’s world blowing.

‘God’, and indeed ‘Christ’, and ‘holy Russia’, it should be said, are very much part of the poem, highlighting the obvious fact that the revolution just carried out has not detached the minds of Russian people (including Blok) from the world in which they had been previously living. At the end of the poem Christ – or a vision of Christ – leads the patrol. But this is Christ the founder of Christianity, not the Christ of ‘holy Russia’; it is Christ of the new world, not Christ of the old. Or is he better described as Christ of the old world, but resurrected as a torch-bearer of revolution? Is there here an implied unity of Christianity and communism? And is it so certain that the murderer, who is in a rage against both Katya and her lover, actually intended to kill him but not her? An intriguing feature of Blok’s work is its ability to make room for different interpretations, for mystery.

Another feature is his view of the natural world as a producer of an eternal music of its own. There is nothing cut-and-dried about Blok’s verse or about Blok himself.

Early on in The Twelve, only the title suggests that twelve people might be somewhere about. But the historical moment in which the action takes place is quickly captured through the sighting of a banner strung between buildings. This declares: ‘All Power to the Constituent Assembly’. Viewed, as the patrol moves forward, are an old woman believing the political banner would be better used for children’s clothing and shoes, a bourgeois with nose in his collar (standing, symbolically, at a cross-roads, his cross-roads, Russia’s cross-roads), a mutinous intellectual and an unhappy priest. Then a second mention of the Constituent Assembly is immediately succeeded by interchanges between an ‘Assembly’ of female prostitutes debating and fixing customer prices.

Slowly the Bolshevik militia identity of The Twelve emerges from the darkness and the snowstorm. It is announced: ‘Twelve men are walking’. And they have rifles. And one of them is playing over in his head an angry argument with his rival, Vanka, for the transferred affections of Katya. Then soon after, an order is barked out: ‘Keep a revolutionary step!’ (Stallworthy), ‘Keep in step with the revolution’ (Miller), or ‘Hold to the revolutionary pace’ (Carlson). Before long ‘the twelve’ are identified as Red Guards.

JE Jury Annenkov illustration to aleksander blok s poem the twelve 1918 1

The poem – or verse-play – is alive with contrasts. At one moment the group is, metaphorically, firing a bullet at holy Russia. At another there is a call from the marchers to God to bless them as Red Guard revolutionaries. Suddenly the cab appears, carrying Vanka and Katya, canoodling, and from the rejected and jealous Red Guard – now given the name of Petrukha – come memories of Katya and of knifing another envied rival in the past. Soon after, when the same cab with the same passengers comes past again, Petrukha apparently fires at his army officer rival Vanka but kills Katya instead. The other eleven, whether directly complicit in, or untroubled by, the crime, keep marching with Petrukha. And the shout to the Twelve is renewed: ‘Keep a revolutionary step!’ This garish sequence of events comes across as strange, startling, surreal, yet powerfully credible.

During the exposition a hungry and flea-bitten dog is picked out, tail between legs, as a symbol for the old world. The image is repeated in a later verse, after the presence of the bourgeois at a cross-roads has again been registered. Alex Miller’s rich translation of this verse reads:

The bourgeois stands there. As if hungry,
Just stands there like a question mark;
The old world, like a starving mongrel,
Cowers at his feet, too cold to bark.

I should come clean about my limited knowledge of the Russian language, having only a smallish stock of vocabulary in my head, but a lot more in a large Russian-English dictionary to extend it. Furthermore, James B. Woodward’s 1968 edition of Blok’s Selected Poems - in Russian - contains detailed notes in English as to the meaning of some colloquial, dialect and archaic Russian expressions employed. My understanding of Russian grammar is undeveloped. Nevertheless, some knowledge of the language has encouraged me to comment, reliably or not, on the English translations I have studied.

Jack Lindsay’s translation of The Twelve seems to me attractive and ingenious, but, while I marvel at the production of so many neat rhymes, at moments there is for my taste too much jingle and bounce. Meaning can be sacrificed or something invented to obtain a rhyme. This subtracts from the darkly volatile spirit of the original. An example is Lindsay’s translation of six words towards the close of the second section, which in the original occupy three lines, each ending with the same vowel sound, summarizing the essence of ‘Holy Russia’:

Rough-and-tumble dump,
Wood huts in a clump,
And a big fat rump.

Here Lindsay doubles the number of words in the Russian original (which, in an end-note, is translated literally by Woodward as ‘sturdy Russia with its peasant huts and broad bottom’) and produces a sing-song effect. Stallworthy’s version, on the other hand, has more thrust and economy:

Mother
Russia
With her big, fat arse!

Miller, too, certainly cuts to the chase:

Solid old
Solid old
Fat-arsed Russia!

My personal preference is for Carlson’s version:

…ancient, sturdy,
wood-hutted,
Fat-assed Russia!

Blok’s original, here and elsewhere, comes over as on fire with creative energy. It relies more on echo and assonance – on a succession of sounds in a musical relationship with each other - than on smart rhymes. Forsyth describes The Twelve as ‘a patchwork cantata of…popular poetry and song’, sources which Blok had long been practised in mining and deploying.

Miller’s translation appears to me to follow Blok’s own style with imagination and varied vocabulary which includes English slang. That of Stallworthy and France stands equally free, independent and impressive. (Both, incidentally, anglicize the names of the actors, while Lindsay and Carlson do not.) Carlson’s version may be, overall, more literal than the others, but in my view has depth too.

Take another example of translation variations from the fifth section. When Katya is first seen with her lover, Miller translates a four-line verse as follows:

Katie, have you clean forgotten
Him that hadn’t time to bolt
From my knife? Or does your rotten
Memory need a little jolt?

Stallworthy’s translation is comparable, but the message is more savagely dispatched:

Do you remember that officer –
The knife put to an end to him…
Do you remember that, you whore,
Or does your memory dim?

Thus Stallworthy, keeping the utterance crisp, does not trouble to address Katya by name, as the original does, and translates robustly as ‘you whore’ a word for ‘cholera’, which according to Woodward signifies ‘you curse’.

Lindsay’s translation here is liberal too, but perhaps less incisive than the others:

That captain of yours, have you forgotten?
When he grabbed you, you’d almost swoon.
I knifed him, yes, he’s dead and rotten.
Don’t tell me you forgot so soon.

Lindsay’s second line – ‘When he grabbed you, you’d almost swoon’, has no foundation in the original. It was incorporated, presumably, to add scenery and to ensure a rhyme with ‘soon’. More seriously, his translation in some places in my view departs too much from the raw yet concentrated quality of the original by rendering some utterances too tidily simplistic. But tastes differ.

In the sixth section comes Katya’s brutal death, a death for which, a moment later, she is blamed by killer Petrukha. His ethical standards plunge low indeed before he softens:

Miller: Well, Katie, happy? Not a word…
Then lie there on the snow, you turd!...

Stallworthy: Katie, are you satisfied? Lost your tongue?
Lie in the snowdrift then, like dung!

Lindsay: Happy now, Katya? I’d like to know.
Sprawl there, carrion, in the snow.

Carlson: Glad now, Kat’ka? ‘What not a peep…
Then lie there, carrion, on the snow!...

All four versions seem strong to me, and even reach beyond Blok’s actual words, as the original contains no word denoting ‘turd’, ‘dung’ or ‘carrion’, reminding us that mood, as well as actual words, must be reflected when rendering a poem from one language into another.

A feature of the Russian language is its inherent greater succinctness than is English. Because it has no ‘a’ or ‘the’, it relies, in putting nouns into singular or plural form, on adjusting their end letters. In relation to the numbers of words used in translating The Twelve, Miller’s is the shortest, though is more than half again as long as the Russian original. Lindsay’s is a fraction longer than that, and Stallworthy’s is longer still.

Self-identification with the Bolshevik revolution by Blok had its preamble, a dozen years earlier. In late 1905, during the failed attempt at revolution that year, he carried a red flag at the head of a procession, and in the same year his poem The Well-Fed Ones carried a denunciatory message arrowed at the privileged. The appearance of Halley’s Comet in 1910 encouraged him in expectations of renewed revolution, and by the summer of 1917, after the Provisional government installed itself in the wake of the abdication of Tsar Nicholas, he was keenly in step with the idea of socialist revolution.

Blok was ‘a son of the nobility’. Did he, however much sympathising with the Revolution, and however much seeing the world through the eyes of the Red Guards, also look down on them from above as social riff-raff? I have my doubts. If we consider Blok’s own personality and history, we should note, echoing the murderously jealous Petrukha, that he was capable of expressing violent feelings in poetry, and obsessive infatuations in life, the latter to the extent, when he proposed marriage to his future wife in late1902, of threatening suicide as the one alternative to her acceptance. If rough Red Guards had wildness and passion, so did Blok.

JE Jury Annenkov storming the winter palace 1920

It would be absurd, I suggest, to stress-test the poem for socialist purity of outlook. Its special blend of romanticism and realism expresses a personal vision, which has retained its potency for a whole century, and is likely to continue to do so. And the fact that Blok’s profound attachment to the revolution suffered later knocks in his last years, amid civil war, external military interventions, shortages, privations and censorship, cannot detract from his poetic response to it in January 1918. The Twelve evidences the truth of words that had once come from his pen: ‘The greatest thing that lyrical poetry can achieve is to enrich the soul and complicate experience…’ On 8 January, when he began the poem, he wrote this in his diary: 'All day – The Twelve – An inward trembling.' On 29 January, when the poem was finished, its final stanza having delivered the peaceful image of Jesus Christ ahead of the marching men, he recorded: ‘I hear a terrible noise, growing within me and all around me.’

The poem first appeared in early March 1918 in a Bolshevik newspaper. Jack Lindsay wrote in his introduction to his own translation that it had ‘an immediate and vast effect. Phrases from it were endlessly repeated; hoardings and banners all over Russia bore extracts’. It became ‘the folklore of the revolutionary street’.

In November 1918 The Twelve was published in its own right in Petrograd, adorned with Yuri Annenkov’s drawings. Forsyth states simply that it ‘became accepted as the essential expression of the Revolution, not only in Russia, where readers were either excited or disgusted by it, but also abroad’. The Twelve, extraordinary as it is, and inseparably connected with the Revolution, will continue to capture and enthuse readers before releasing them, charged with a memory which is not so easily released.

Kino eye two
Tuesday, 21 November 2017 21:24

'The most important of the arts': film after the Russian Revolution

Published in 1917 Centenary

John Green outlines the role of film in the Bolshevik Revolution, and the profound and lasting influence of Russian revolutionary film-makers on cinema not only in the Soviet Union but across the world.

According to the Bolshevik government’s first Commissar for Education, Anatoly Lunacharsky, Lenin remarked that, ‘Film for us is the most important of the arts’. What is particularly significant in this position is that Lenin not only clearly recognised film as an art at a time when many still considered it merely a form of cheap entertainment, but that he also recognised, even at this early stage in its development that it would have a huge and influential future.

The young Soviet Union was faced with a large population made up of many nations and ethnicities. Overwhelming numbers were illiterate and the means of communication in the country were undeveloped. The Bolshevik leaders were faced with the daunting task of explaining the revolution to the people and galvanising their latent energies, but they didn’t have the luxury of time or tranquil conditions in order to do so. The promise of the new medium of film – at that time still only a silent medium and used as a fairground entertainment only ­– was recognized immediately by those with imagination and vision.

The possibilities of cinema as a propaganda, agitational and educational tool intrigued the Soviet leaders. Their fascination with new technology in general as a means of transforming a backward society probably contributed as well. Lenin dictated this note to the Commissariat of Education, which was responsible for the cinema, with a request that it draw up a programme of action based on his directives. In an early conversation that Lunacharsky, the first Commissar for Education, had with Lenin, he recalls that Lenin uttered his oft quoted statement ‘that of all the arts the most important for us is the cinema.’

A declaration was issued by the People’s Commissariat for Education on the organisation of film showings. A definite proportion should be fixed for every film-showing programme. And while it recognised that film is very much a medium of entertainment, in programming it insisted that there must be a strong educational and propaganda component.

The Commissariat for Education also stressed that films ‘From the life of peoples of all countries,’ should be screened in order that film-makers should have an incentive for producing new pictures. ‘Special attention should be given to organising film showings in the villages and in the East, where they are novelties and where our propaganda, therefore, will be all the more effective.’ (First published in Kinonedelia No. 4, 1925).

The new young Turks like Sergei Eisenstein, Dziga Vertov, Vsevolod, Pudovkin and Alexander Dovzhenko took up Lenin’s challenge with alacrity. The young film medium, based as it was on mechanical proficiency and industrial expertise, captured the interest of the new generation of communist artists who realised that the new society they wished to construct could only be built on the basis of rapid industrial development and technological innovation. These pioneers grasped this new ‘entertainment medium’ with both hands and transformed it into a powerful means of communication. These directors were inspired by Marxist theory and saw that they could apply Marxist ideas to the making of films, but each film-maker did so in their own individual way. Eisenstein was, though, the only one to elaborate an all-embracing Marxist theory of film-making. He put this into practice in his own film-making, in terms of selection of camera angle, juxtaposition of images during the editing process, movement within the frame and later in terms of sound and music also. For the first time the ideas of Marx and Marxist theory were applied to film-making.

Eisenstein

Eisenstein was undoubtedly the most influential of the new young Soviet film-makers – a trained architect, he took to film like a duck to water. Seeing far beyond the idea of moving pictures, he developed a whole new science of film-making based on Marxist dialectics. Eisenstein was a pioneer in the use of montage, a specific technique for film editing. He, alongside his colleague and contemporary, Lev Kuleshov, were two of the earliest film theorists to argue that montage was the very essence of cinema, and, used effectively, could enable us to see and comprehend a deeper reality. Eisenstein’s essays and books – particularly Film Form and The Film Sense – explain his theories of montage in detail and provide a theoretical grounding for future film-makers.

By using a unique form of montage i.e. how the individual celluloid takes were spliced together, he demonstrated that meaning could be created by juxtaposing images rather than, as had been done up till then, splicing them in simple chronological sequence. By placing one image (in Marxist terminology, the thesis) immediately next to a very different or ‘opposing’ image (the antithesis), a new concept (the synthesis) is created.

He saw editing as the key to a film’s impact. Film was for him much more than just a useful tool in expounding a scene through a linkage of related images. He felt the ‘collision’ of shots could be used to influence the emotions and consciousness of an audience and that film could achieve a metaphorical dimension. While making films, he developed a comprehensive theory that he termed, ‘methods of montage’.

His iconic film Battleship Potemkin is probably the most famous example of this approach, but Strike (1924) was his first film. It depicts life at a factory complex in Tsarist Russia and the conditions under which the workers laboured. The plot is centred on the workers organising a strike which in response to repression escalates into a full-blown occupation. Such a blunt depiction of ruling class repression had never before been visualised in this way. But what makes this and Eisenstein’s other films so special is that the audience is not allowed for a minute to remain passive, but is drawn into the struggle and becomes almost part of it. It is difficult to imagine today when you look at old grainy prints of Battleship Potemkin, that audiences were so stirred by its imagery that they swarmed out of the cinema determined to make their own revolution. The ruling classes were so frightened of it that its public showing was banned for many years almost everywhere outside the Soviet Union.

JG strike

After the success of Strike (1924), Eisenstein was commissioned by the Soviet government to make a film commemorating the unsuccessful revolution of 1905. He chose to focus on the crew of the battleship Potemkin. Fed up with the extreme cruelties of their officers and their maggot-ridden meat rations, the sailors mutiny. This, in turn, sparks an abortive citizens' revolt on the mainland against the Tsarist regime. The film's centrepiece is the classic massacre on the Odessa Steps, in which the Tsar's Cossacks methodically shoot down innocent citizens. The image of a dying mother who lets go of the pram she is pushing, leaving it to career down the steps with the baby still in it, has become one of the most iconic and moving shots in the history of cinema.

He was the first cinematographer to develop a proper film language, one appropriate to the challenges facing the new Soviet republic. His best known films, Strike, Battleship Potemkin, October, Alexander Nevsky and Ivan the Terrible all bear testament to his contribution and the power of his imagery.

Many of his plans were, sadly never brought to fruition. During his unsuccessful sojourn in the USA, he proposed making a film of Bernard Shaw’s Arms and the Man and of Sutter’s Gold by Jack London but the ideas failed to impress Hollywood producers at the time and were vehemently opposed by anti-communist elements in the Hollywood hierarchy. The same happened with his proposal to film Theodor Dreiser’s American Tragedy. While there, though, he developed cordial relations with Charlie Chaplin who introduced him to the socialist writer Upton Sinclair. Their subsequent attempt to jointly produce a film in Mexico was also, in the end, unsuccessful although the footage they were able to shoot was later, posthumously, edited into the film, Que Viva Mexico.

With all this wasted effort, Eisenstein was getting itchy feet to return home, as the Soviet Film industry was, in the meantime, already experimenting with soundtracks on film. Also, in the wake of an increasing Stalinisation of the arts, his techniques and theories were coming under attack for ostensibly ‘ideological’ reasons and he was being accused of ‘formalism’ and he wished to counter such criticisms.

JG alexander nevsky

Back in the Soviet Union he embarked on his epic Alexander Nevsky with a musical soundtrack composed by Sergei Prokoviev. Unfortunately he died at the age of 50 so was unable to realise his mature potential. It is a moot point whether his specific cinematic language could have been adapted to a post-revolutionary period, and in a different historical context. But there is no doubt that his work has influenced numerous film-makers down the ages and still does.

Soviet film-makers and their use of film inspired film-makers and cultural workers throughout the world. What characterised them, in contrast to their many colleagues in the West, was that they viewed film, in the first instance, as an educational medium. They were more interested in the use of film in its educational, propaganda and informative roles than as pure entertainment. and saw the medium primarily as a means of promoting human betterment and the promoting of socialist values.

The influence of Soviet cinema

The influence of Russian film-makers can be seen throughout the succeeding history of film. US classics like Orson Welles’s Citizen Kane, with its adventurous camera angles, framing and editing would have been unthinkable without Russian cinema. The Italian Neo-realist wave leant heavily on its Russian forerunners. Directors like de Sica, Rossellini, Visconti and Rosi had all studied the way in which Soviet film-makers had been able to capture life on screen in a totally new, gripping and realistic way that superseded its former theatrical straitjacket. The films of the Hollywood greats like Billy Wilder, Charlie Chaplin, Alfred Hitchcock, John Ford, William Wyler, Howard Hawks and so on all reveal the seminal influence of these early Soviet film-makers.

Early Soviet cinema ‘led the world, and laid much of the groundwork for the practice and theory of film for the 20th century,’ according to Annette Michelson, Professor of Cinema Studies at New York University. At a lecture she gave in December 2003, she and Naum Kleiman, Director of the Moscow Cinema Museum, discussed the ways in which Soviet and Russian film have interacted with the American film industry.

Kleiman pointed out that Russian émigrés like choreographer George Balanchine and actor Michael Chekhov, in addition to their influential roles in the world of dance and theatre, were active in Hollywood. As Michelson pointed out, Eisenstein never made a film in the US, after Paramount Pictures invited him to Hollywood in 1935, but the then never took on any of his projects. Nevertheless, she argues that Eisenstein's use of montage influenced American film, and is visible, she says, in such well-known scenes as the shower sequence in Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho. Hitchcock and other American directors re-interpreted montage usage.

According to Michelson, ‘In the hands of those Americans who admired Eisenstein's work, [montage] became a kind of tried-and-true conventional, visual, rhetorical device for indicating the passage of time, or the passage from one country to another.’

Kleiman underlined that many US filmmakers in the 1920s and 30s had seen and admired Eisenstein's films. He noted that in the 1970s, Francis Ford Coppola had told him that he had found artistic inspiration in October and Ivan the Terrible. Both Kleiman and Michelson felt that Eisenstein's influence was even more noticeable in movies made outside Hollywood. Michelson argued that montage was an important intellectual and artistic device in independent films produced after the Second World War, such as those by Maya Deren. Kleiman also noted the influence of other Russian artists, such as émigré actress and producer Alla Nazimova. In his opinion, Nazimova's film Salome clearly reflected traditions of Russian literature, theatre and set design. This movie, along with other movies featuring Russian actors and directors, was seen by American filmmakers and influenced their future work in many subtle ways.

Workers' Film Societies

Elsewhere in the West, in response to the dramatic transformation taking place in the young Soviet Union and the new films emerging from the country, progressives grasped the opportunity to use this new potent medium in their own way. Communists here in Britain became centrally involved early on in setting up workers' film societies from the twenties onwards, as a means of creating opportunities for working people to watch Soviet and other progressive films. Ralph Bond, a foundation member of the British Communist Party, published in the Sunday Worker – a forerunner of the Daily Worker – an appeal for interested parties to get in touch to facilitate the setting up of a London Workers’ Film Society, and the response to this appeal surpassed all expectations.

The Soviet director, Sergei Eisenstein’s film Battleship Potemkin had an unprecedented impact on audiences everywhere with its revolutionary montage techniques and searing imagery. This was followed by other, equally powerful and iconoclastic films from the Soviet Union. However, these films were banned for public showing in many countries, including the UK, as they were deemed too inflammatory and seen as dangerous communist propaganda. 

The first workers’ film societies were set up to provide a means of showing such films (and they were also seen as a way of getting around the censor, as such films could be shown in private clubs without a licence). The first, founded in London in 1925, had as its object the ‘showing of films of artistic interest, which could not be seen in ordinary cinemas’. Such societies had already been active on the continent of Europe. However, before the new London film society even got off the ground it was already involved in skirmishes with the London County Council (LCC) over permission to show their selected films, even to members. (The LCC was London’s licensing authority for film screenings under the 1909 Cinematographic Act). In 1928, the LCC banned the showing of Battleship Potemkin, and then also banned a showing of Pudovkin’s The Mother. This led many progressive individuals, including J. M. Keynes, Julian Huxley, Sybil Thorndike, Bertrand Russell and George Bernard Shaw, to protest, but even they failed to have the ban rescinded.

When the London Workers’ Film Society’s tried to show two Soviet-made films at the Gaiety Cinema in Tottenham Court Road in November 1929, the cinema owner refused the booking at the last minute after pressure from the London County Council. Such run-ins between the LCC and the LWFS became regular occurrences. While the LCC adhered to its bans on the Soviet films mentioned above, it relented as far as permitting the LWFS to put on Sunday shows in the West End.

JG workers film

After the setting up of the London society, several others soon appeared around the country, and an attempt was made to create a national federation of film societies to facilitate easier access to films, better distribution and co-ordination. The Federation of Workers’ Film Societies (FOWFS) was founded in the autumn of 1929 and led to the creation of a network of local workers’ film societies all over Britain.

The Labour Party itself showed no interest in setting up workers’ film societies but with the success of the London Society, it became highly suspicious of the latter’s activities and denounced the society as being merely a communist propaganda vehicle.

The Communist Charles Cooper was a ‘movie enthusiast whose Contemporary Films opened new horizons for British cinema audiences. His early interest in film had led Charles to become, in 1933, secretary of the Kino group, an association of left-wing film enthusiasts who were determined to circumvent Britain's draconian film censorship, which was especially aimed at the new Soviet cinema. Kino organised 16mm screenings of Eisenstein's Battleship Potemkin for trade union and Soviet friendship groups, as well as producing a ‘workers' newsreel’ and agitational films such as Bread, in which a starving, unemployed worker is harshly treated by police and magistrates.

Although Eisenstein is undoubtedly the greatest and most innovative of all Soviet film-makers, his contemporaries should in no way be ignored, as they also made innovative and influential contributions to the film medium. Below I take a cursory look at the most significant.

JG DovzhenkoCamera

Dovzhenko
After returning to the USSR from a prisoner of war camp in Germany, Dovzhenko turned to film in 1926 after landing in Odessa . His second screenplay was Vasya the Reformer which he co-directed. He gained greater success with Zvenigora (1928) which established him as a major filmmaker. His following Ukraine Trilogy (Zvenigora, Arsenal and Earth) established his reputation worldwide. Its graphic realism was impressive and inspiring. After spending several years writing, co-writing and producing films at Mosfilm Studios in Moscow, he turned to writing novels. Over a 20-year career, Dovzhenko only directed 7 films.

JG pudovkin

Pudovkin
A student of engineering at Moscow University, Pudovkin, like Dovzhenko, saw active service during the First World War and was also captured by the Germans. During this time he studied foreign languages and did book illustrations. After the war, he joined the world of cinema, first as a screenwriter, actor and art director, and then as an assistant director to Lev Kuleshov.

Pudovkin adopted a very different approach to Eisenstein. While his films are just as revolutionary as the latter’s in terms of the content and their powerful impact, he took a more traditional approach to narrative. A student of engineering at Moscow University, Pudovkin, like Dovzhenko, saw active service during the First World War, also being captured by the Germans. During this time he studied foreign languages and did book illustrations. After the war, he abandoned his professional activity and joined the world of cinema, first as a screenwriter, actor and art director, and then as an assistant director to Lev Kuleshov .

His first notable work was a comedy short Chess Fever (1925) co-directed with Nikolai Shpikovski. In 1926 he directed what came to be considered one of the masterpieces of the silent era: Mother. In this he developed several montage theories, but in a different way to Eisenstein.

His first feature was followed by The End of St. Petersburg (1927) and Storm over Asia, about the impact of the Bolshevik revolution on what was then seen as a backward region. After an interruption caused by poor health, Pudovkin returned to film-making, with several historical epics: Victory  (1938); Minin and Pozharsky  (1939) and Suvorov (1941). The last two were often praised as some of the best films based on Russian history, along with the works of his colleague Eisenstein he was awarded a Stalin Prize  for both of them in 1941.

In 1928, with the advent of sound film, Pudovkin, Eisenstein, and Grigori Alexandrov signed the ‘Sound Manifesto’, in which the possibilities of sound are analysed, but always understood as a complement to image.

JG vertov

Dzigha Vertov
Vertov attempted to do for the documentary what Eisenstein had been doing in the fictional field. He was born in 1896 and is considered one of the ‘greats’ of early Soviet film-making, a director who concentrated on documentaries. He began by making newsreels but also developed his own theories about film-making that differed markedly from those of the fictional film-makers mentioned above.  His work and writing would be very influential on almost all future documentarists, particularly the British school around John Grierson, Basil Wright, Alberto Cavalcanti and Paul Rotha, but also later on the French Cinéma Verité movement.

After the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917, at the age of 22, Vertov began editing for Kino-Nedelya (Кино-Неделя, the Moscow Cinema Committee's weekly film series, and the first Russian newsreel), which first came out in June 1918. While working for Kino-Nedelya he met his future wife, the film director and editor, Elizaveta Svilova , who at the time was working as an editor at Goskino  She began collaborating with Vertov, and working as his editor but later his assistant and co-director on subsequent films, such as the iconic Man with a Camera (1929), and Three Songs About Lenin (1934).

Vertov worked on the Kino-Nedelya series for three years, helping establish and run a film-car on Mikhail Kalinin’s agit-train during the ongoing ongoing civil war between the Bolsheviks and the white Russian counter-revolutionaries. Some of the cars on the agit-trains were equipped with actors for live performances and printing presses: Vertov's had equipment to shoot, develop, edit, and project film. The trains were taken to battlefronts on agitation-propaganda  missions aimed at bolstering the morale of the troops, and to engender revolutionary fervour and commitment. In 1919, he compiled newsreel footage for his documentary Anniversary of the Revolution, and in 1921 he compiled History of the Civil War.

JG kino pravda

Kino-Pravda
In 1922, the year that O’Flaherty’s seminal Nanook of the North was released, Vertov started his Kino Pravda  series. It took its title from the Bolshevik government newspaper Pravda. Kino-Pravda (Film Truth) continued Vertov's agit-prop bent. The Kino-Pravda group began its work in a basement in the centre of Moscow. It was, as he himself described it, damp and dark. There was an earthen floor and holes one stumbled into at every turn. He said, ‘This dampness prevented our reels of lovingly edited film from sticking together properly, rusted our scissors and our splicers’. ‘Before dawn damp, cold, teeth chattering I wrap comrade Svilova in a third jacket’.

Vertov's driving vision, expounded in his frequent essays, was to capture ‘film truth’—that is, fragments of actuality which, when organised together, contain a deeper truth than can be seen with the naked eye. In the Kino-Pravda series, he focused on everyday experiences, rejecting ‘bourgeois concerns’ to film ordinary people, marketplaces, bars, and schools instead, sometimes with a hidden camera. The episodes of Kino-Pravda did not usually include re-enactments or stagings, although he did so on odd occasions. The cinematography is simple and functional. Vertov appeared to be uninterested in traditional ideas of aesthetic beauty or the perceived grandeur of fiction.

Vertov clearly intended an active relationship with his audience in his Kino Pravda series, but by the 14th episode the series had become so experimental that some critics dismissed his efforts as ‘insane’. Vertov responded to their criticisms with the assertion that the critics were hacks nipping revolutionary effort in the bud, and concludes his essay with a promise to ‘detonate art's Tower of Babel’. In Vertov's view, ‘art's tower of Babel’ was the subservience of cinematic technique to narrative.

With Lenin's admission of limited private enterprise through his New Economic Policy (NEP) of 1921, Russia began receiving fiction films from abroad, a situation that Vertov regarded with suspicion, calling drama a ‘corrupting influence’ on the proletarian sensibility. In this view, he was taking an extreme and, one has to say, very narrow viewpoint. By this time Vertov had been using his newsreel series as a pedestal to vilify dramatic fiction for several years; he continued his criticisms even after the warm reception of Eisenstein’s Potemkin in 1925.

By this point in his career, Vertov was clearly and emphatically dissatisfied with narrative tradition, and expressed his hostility towards dramatic fiction of any kind both openly and repeatedly; he regarded drama as another ‘opiate of the masses’ – a rather extreme position.

The Man with a Movie Camera

In his essay ‘The Man with a Movie Camera’ Vertov wrote that he was fighting ‘for a decisive cleaning up of film-language, for its complete separation from the language of theatre and literature’. By the later segments of Kino-Pravda, Vertov was experimenting heavily, looking to abandon what he considered film clichés (and receiving criticism for it); his experimentation was even more pronounced and dramatic by the time Man with a Camera was filmed in Ukraine.

Some have criticised the obvious stagings in this film as being at odds with Vertov's principle of ‘life as it is’ and ‘life caught unawares’, but its sense of realism is overwhelming. The film has become synonymous with the use of specifically cinematic technique, with the use of double exposure, fast and slow motion sequences, freeze-frames, jump cuts, split screens and tracking shots etc. He also uses footage played in reverse and the idea of self-reflexivity.

In the British Film Institute's 2012 Sight and Sound poll film critics voted Man with the Camera the 8th greatest film ever made and the work was later named the best documentary of all time in the same magazine. Although in the Soviet Union at the time it also had its staunch critics who called it ‘formalistic’ a criticism aimed at a number of Soviet film-makers and artists, including Eisenstein.

Like other Russian filmmakers, he attempted to connect his ideas and techniques to the advancement of the aims of the Soviet Union. Whereas Eisenstein viewed his ‘montage of attractions’ as a creative tool through which audiences would be better able to comprehend complex processes and thus the ideological content of the films, Vertov believed that Kino Eye would have an influence on the actual evolution of mankind, from being a flawed creature into a higher, more precise, form of being. ‘I am an eye. I am a mechanical eye. I, a machine, I am showing you a world, the likes of which only I can see’, he was quoted as saying.

There is no doubt that all these pioneering film-makers and theoreticians during the early years of the Soviet Union have had a lasting influence on film-makers worldwide. Despite the fact that many ‘movies’ made today for cinema and television today show all too clearly that their makers should perhaps return to school and learn from these masters, the better film-makers still reveal in their work the seminal influence of those early Soviet pioneers.

Witness to the Revolution
Tuesday, 21 November 2017 21:24

Witness to the Revolution

Published in 1917 Centenary

John Ellison sketches out the life of Maxim Gorky, the righteous, relentless witness of the revolution who evoked the wretchedness and terror of living under Tsarist violence.

The life of Maxim Gorky, author of three unforgettable volumes of autobiography covering his first two decades (‘Childhood’, ‘My Apprenticeship’, and ‘My Universities’), of an unforgettable play (‘The Lower Depths’) and of much else, reached the age of 49 less than a fortnight after Tsarist rule crashed out of history in March 1917.

His life and work cannot be separated from the revolutionary movement in Russia, before, during and after the events of 1917. He grew up detesting the inhuman conditions of life for most people (gross poverty, mass illiteracy, ignorance and superstition, the crudest of criminal justice arrangements, all blessed by a near-medieval system of government) and the correspondingly inhuman social behaviour these conditions spawned. He hated war. He came to live and breathe socialist convictions which stayed with him.

Gorky’s writing had made him famous in Russia before the end of the 1890s, and just as his name cannot be divorced from his role in the cause of revolution, so his life is in his works, fact and fiction alike. His work reveals his gift for close observation, his large repertoire of rich language (derived at least as much from life as from libraries), his astonishing memory, his hatred of cruel and abusive behaviour, and his passion for truth and social justice.

‘The first thing that struck one about him,’ wrote French biographer Henri Troyat, ‘was an air of unsophisticated goodness.’

Gorky was initially hostile to Bolshevik rule. On November 20 1917 he wrote in his own newspaper ‘New Life’, with reference to the Lenin-Trotsky government now in power: ‘Sensible democratic elements must decide if they want to go on travelling along this road with plotters and anarchists.’ In the same article, and in others in the months to follow he fulminated against the suppression of freedom of speech, and (also associating these with the Bolshevik regime), terror and pogroms. Yet ‘New Life’ survived until its suppression in July 1918, and within months after that Gorky re-associated himself with the Bolsheviks for good.

He had been born with the surname of ‘Peshkov’, which in Russian means ‘pawn’ and only became ‘Gorky’ (which means ‘bitter’ – he aimed to tell ‘the bitter truth’) with his first published story in 1892. His birth on March 28 (new style) 1868 had been in Nizhny Novgorod. His first arrest was in 1889 and was on suspicion of participation in illegal printing. He was arrested again, two years later, as a result of attendance in the Crimea at a funeral service for hanged rebels. In 1898 he was detained for two weeks in Tiflis but, prosecution evidence being water-weak, the upshot was constant police surveillance. Arrested once more in 1901 (over his financial support for student radicals in Kiev), he was ordered into exile, finding a home in the Crimea. In early 1905 he was detained again (for his public appeal for struggle against the regime). By then he was closely associated with Lenin’s Bolshevik party.

Three years earlier, in 1902, Gorky’s great play, ‘The Lower Depths’, had been first staged in Moscow, and was accompanied by directions from the authorities that it must not be performed in working class theatres, and must anyway be performed only with the censor’s deletions. It was staged in London to critical admiration as recently as this year – uncensored.

Before the end of 1905 – the year of uprising and the defeat of revolutionary hopes – he was on his way to Europe, escaping arrest, having distributed weapons during the rising. He then made his home in Capri, returning to live in Russia in late 1913, with Tsarist censorship somewhat relaxed, and his first memoir volume ‘Childhood’ about to be published.

‘Childhood’ is unique for its recreation, in terrifying detail, of an upbringing in the author’s maternal grandparents’ household, following the death of his father, when the young Maxim was just four years old. The narrative steers away from dates and ages, but not from the horrors from which he carried scarring memories.

It opens, so it seems to the reader, with hammer-blows. He is in a room with his mother, while his mother combs the long hair of his father, who is lying dead on the floor with copper coins on his eyes and his kind face livid. The maternal grandmother is holding Maxim’s little hand. More swiftly happens – severe labour pains for his mother, followed by the birth, death and burial of his new brother.

Later days for the young Maxim were not especially joyful. In the home of his grandparents he received from his grandmother much love, many folk tales and religious precepts. But she – and Maxim’s mother – felt powerless to protect him from his grandfather’s ferocious revenge discipline.

The grandfather, having risen in the world from pulling barges in his youth, owned a thriving dye-shop which was to decline in the years to come. Lacking much respect for education or for adherence to humane standards of behaviour, he could be described as a self-made, rough-edged, middle class man. From him Maxim received many floggings for minor infractions. The first of these was savage enough to produce unconsciousness and several days’ convalescence. There was much quarrelling between Maxim’s grandfather and his two resident sons, Maxim’s uncles, and between these uncles themselves – one of whom had, the year before Maxim’s arrival in the household, beaten his wife to death.

The young Gorky witnessed his grandfather beating his grandmother, while his mother first withdrew from his own care and from the household, and then remarried. The remarriage introduced a new step-grandmother visitor to the home, a woman addicted to wearing green outfits. Gorky remarks: ‘Often the green woman would join us for dinner or tea or supper, sitting like a rotten post in an old fence.’

His mother died when Maxim was eleven, by which time the dye-shop – suffering from severe competition from rivals using more advanced technology – was on its knees. Put out into the working world, beginning in a shoe shop and taking one wretchedly paid job after another, Maxim witnessed endemic theft and violence, and, especially distressing, violence towards, and humiliation of, women. He never had toys, and was jealous of boys who did. Though he had formal schooling only until aged ten, interrupted by exclusions for mischief-making, he still managed to learn to read and write, and at the age of thirteen he read Balzac’s ‘Eugenie Grandet’, which was a revelation to him. Novels by Turgenev and Dickens were also to enchant him in his mid-teens.

‘Childhood’, as a memoir, is distinctive in the way the young Gorky’s savage experiences are offset by his irrepressible humanity and his desire to learn. Far into the narrative he muses:

I might liken myself as a child to a beehive to which various simple, ordinary people brought the honey of their knowledge and views of life, each of them making his own rich contribution to the development of my character. Often the honey was dirty and bitter, but it was knowledge, and so honey for all that.

The second volume, ‘My Apprenticeship’, in scene after scene puts on show ‘the hard, half-starved life that people had to lead and the crippling work they had to do’. Gorky wrote elsewhere in this volume of his childhood dream of how things could be changed:

…I thought how marvellous it would be to…steal from the greedy and the rich and to hand the money over to the poor; if only everyone were well-fed, cheerful and not envious of one another – perhaps they might stop howling at each other like wild dogs.

He was also drawn into sharing in the anger and violence around him. Yet, however grim his situation, Maxim had a child’s sensitivity to the world around him. ‘Black frying pans on the shelves reminded me of faces without eyes.’

His grandmother’s charitable disposition was a major influence. Hardly prosperous herself by this time, she took Maxim out at night, ‘creeping up to some small houses, very cautiously, cross herself three times, leave a five-kopeck piece and three biscuits on the window-sill and cross herself again…’ He also remembered ‘her squatting in front of the stove and muttering: “Kind house-goblin, please get rid of the cockroaches…” ’

During one summer Maxim became a freelance catcher and vendor of songbirds, trapping finches, tits and other birds, then caging and selling them profitably. Recalling this episode – in much circumstantial detail – he wrote of how as a boy he had loved the sun and its rays which ‘I tried to catch…when they jumped like a ball through a hole in the fence or among the branches.’

Through reading popular French novelists translated into Russian, Gorky was able to see, early in his teens, that things in France were different from things in Russia.

'It was clear to me that the Parisian cabdrivers, workmen and soldiers and all the ‘common rabble’ were not the same as in Nizhny, Kazan and Perm. They spoke more boldly to their masters and their relationships with them were much more easy-going…I particularly noticed that when they were describing wicked, greedy or loathsome people those authors did not portray the inexplicable cruelty which was so familiar to me and which I had seen so often.'

Later in the book he remarks on the shortness of many lives: ‘…nowhere else did people wear out so terribly quickly, for no reason at all, as in Russia.’

The third volume of memoirs, ‘My Universities’, begins with Gorky as a seventeen-year-old and with a new life begun, away from his grandparents, in and around university city Kazan. He realizes that in his situation entering the university is unrealistic, and finds he can earn a few kopecks humping things around on the wharves of the Volga river, and he gets acquainted with ‘stevedores, tramps and thieves’. The cellar of a house long ruined by fire, and the refuge of stray dogs and cats, becomes ‘one of my universities’. He is searching for a purpose in his life.

Before very long a cousin’s letter tells him of his grandmother’s death. She had been begging alms in the church porch, had fallen and broken her leg which, untreated, had become gangrenous and led to her death.

He is mostly the observer, not the subject of observation. But his feelings are embedded in his descriptions. He observes of a river locality: ‘A plaintive song floated over the water – somebody’s soul, gently smouldering.’ He is invited to join a small study circle, where discussion of the work of John Stuart Mill does not especially engage him, and at another time he is introduced to a ‘library’ in a room at the back of a grocer’s shop, where handwritten copies of books such as Chernychevsky’s ‘What is to be done’ are stored. Here, furious arguments between students from the University and others from the Theological Academy can be witnessed.

Meanwhile, in the bakery where Gorky is working, the men regularly visit brothels on pay day, ‘spitting disgustedly’ when they speak of the prostitutes. This behaviour attracted hatred from Gorky, while he behaved with circumspection when questioned by a police officer, hovering around ‘like a hungry bird of prey’, and demanding to know if he had read the dangerous author Tolstoy.

Gorky’s search for a purpose in life abruptly became confused, for at the age of nineteen he attempted suicide, shooting himself in the chest. This caused lung damage which was to trouble him increasingly in later life, and Gorky felt ashamed, even to be alive. The need to have a purpose was confirmed.

He moved to a village some thirty miles from Kazan, invited there to help in a shop by a returned political exile, but before long the shop was burned down by agents of hostile better-off peasants. Both the exile, whom Gorky admired, and Gorky himself, had to move on.

His recollections as a whole were painted, as it were, in primary colours. Gorky was not a writer famous for the subtle, delicate touches characteristic of Chekhov’s work, or for the complex meditations or insights notable in both Chekhov and Dostoevsky. Chekhov told him ‘that in my opinion you have no restraint’, and some readers may consider some lengthy passages in, especially, ‘My Apprenticeship’, could have benefited from more succinct presentation.

The three volumes as a whole are ‘extreme’ biography in the sense that they go far beyond ordinary recall. They are imaginative reconstructions, carrying vast amounts of dialogue and often moment-by-moment descriptions. Still, the memoirs are formidable, both as a collection of revelations about Gorky’s early life and about pre-revolutionary Mother Russia. They end with the beginning of his adult life, when he travels south, reaching the shores of the Caspian.

His first arrest in 1889 was followed by his first entry into the professional world, as a lawyer’s clerk. He returned to this work after travel to the Crimea and his second arrest. But large demand for the stories he had begun to publish led to well-paid work for newspapers and then to his marriage in 1896 and to the birth of a son, another Maxim, the following year.

In 1898 two volumes of Gorky’s short stories appeared, and his first novel soon after, which was in essence an attack on the greed of capitalists. He was becoming wealthy and famous, and got to know Tolstoy well in the early years of the new century when living near to each other in the Crimea, to which Gorky was then exiled. He failed to convert Tolstoy to Marxism, just as Tolstoy failed to convert him to Christianity.

The 1902 play, ‘The Lower Depths’ features more than a dozen characters living cheek by jowl in a doss house run by a landlord and his wife who are also thieves, who have the protection of the wife’s uncle, who is a police officer. The wife has been having an affair with a jailbird lodger, who rejects her in favour of the wife’s sister. Meanwhile a female lodger is dying, but before she dies blames her illness on beatings from her unfeeling husband, who also lives in the house. Another lodger, a widow, says about marriage that ‘it’s like jumping through a hole in the ice for us poor women’. Yet another character is an educated man who has come down in the world, but was once privileged enough ‘to have drunk coffee in bed with cream in it’, while another is an alcoholic actor.

Dark and depressing as the plot is – including three deaths – the play has enormous vitality, and there is a low-key but crucial upside, mainly because of one character. A man of sixty, a Tolstoyan Christian humanist and teacher, declares: ‘Prison doesn’t teach a man to be good, no more than does Siberia. Only another poor soul can do that. It’s true. One soul can teach good to another soul.’ He also speaks of an ideal country, ‘a virtuous land’, believed in as real by somebody he had met, but which he himself seems to acknowledge did not actually exist. It seems to be a metaphor for a socialism of the future. Before the play ends this moral figure has travelled on, but a lodger with fewer ethical credentials says: ‘Man is born – for something better.’

Later, after his participation in the 1905 rising, and having settled in Capri, came Gorky’s ‘class struggle novel’. This was ‘Mother’, completed in 1906, and banned in Russia after heavily censored publication of the first part. But it was published in Russian and in translation abroad. Lenin called it ‘an instrument of revolution’, which it was. Its worker heroes are sentenced to exile for what would in democratic conditions be regarded as legal anti-government activity, such as distributing leaflets and marching. The mother of one of them is then herself caught in a railway station waiting room with a cache of leaflets, and speaks out loudly at the point of arrest:

‘Poverty, hunger and disease – that’s what people get for their work! Everything is against us – all of our lives, day after day, we give our last ounce of strength to our work, always dirty, always fooled, while others reap all the joy and benefits, holding us in ignorance like dogs on a chain – we don’t know anything, holding us in fear – we’re afraid of everything! Our lives are just one long, dark night!’

The book ends with the mother being savagely beaten and choked by a policeman. Propaganda? Yes, but it is propaganda accompanied by passion and a powerful connection with the real world in which Russian factory workers lived and laboured.

From 1906 Gorky lived in Capri, until his return to Russia in late 1913. When the 1914 war arrived, he quickly decided to oppose it. In 1915 he wrote in his newly founded magazine ‘The Chronicle’:

The press must keep repeating to people that any war – except the war against stupidity is a disaster comparable to cholera.

In 1919, after his rapprochement with the Bolsheviks the previous autumn, he made a strong impression on the much younger fellow-writer and socialist Victor Serge:

His whole being expressed hunger for knowledge and human understanding, determination to probe all human beings to their depths, never stopping at mere appearances, never tolerating any lies told to him, and never lying to himself. I saw him immediately as the supreme, the righteous, the relentless witness of the Revolution…

Gorky was to return to live in Europe in 1921. He became concerned at the increasing censorship of literature in the Soviet Union, though in 1925 declared he could see no other possible regime for the Russian people. He returned to his homeland in 1928, identifying himself closely with the Stalin-led government, becoming, his biographer Henri Troyat wrote: ‘a kind of literary functionary’. Increasingly ill and lonely (his son died in 1934), his creative days were in the past. He had summarized his own limitations as a writer in a letter to anti-war French author Romain Rolland of November 1923. He wrote:

I am overloaded with real impressions. I am afflicted with an overdeveloped need to become acquainted with things, I am easily fascinated by their external characteristics. That makes me more of a story-teller than an investigator of the human soul and the enigmas of life.

Gorky’s great achievement lay in evoking in depth, with astonishing realist particularity, the wretchedness and violence inherent in the conditions of living in Tsarist times, and in doing so never to overlook the capacity of humankind for showing compassion and support for others, or the belief that another world was possible.

 

Witness to the Revolution
Tuesday, 21 November 2017 21:24

Witness to the Revolution

Published in Fiction

John Ellison sketches out the life of Maxim Gorky, the righteous, relentless witness of the revolution who evoked the wretchedness and terror of living under Tsarist violence.

The life of Maxim Gorky, author of three unforgettable volumes of autobiography covering his first two decades (‘Childhood’, ‘My Apprenticeship’, and ‘My Universities’), of an unforgettable play (‘The Lower Depths’) and of much else, reached the age of 49 less than a fortnight after Tsarist rule crashed out of history in March 1917.

His life and work cannot be separated from the revolutionary movement in Russia, before, during and after the events of 1917. He grew up detesting the inhuman conditions of life for most people (gross poverty, mass illiteracy, ignorance and superstition, the crudest of criminal justice arrangements, all blessed by a near-medieval system of government) and the correspondingly inhuman social behaviour these conditions spawned. He hated war. He came to live and breathe socialist convictions which stayed with him.

Gorky’s writing had made him famous in Russia before the end of the 1890s, and just as his name cannot be divorced from his role in the cause of revolution, so his life is in his works, fact and fiction alike. His work reveals his gift for close observation, his large repertoire of rich language (derived at least as much from life as from libraries), his astonishing memory, his hatred of cruel and abusive behaviour, and his passion for truth and social justice.

‘The first thing that struck one about him,’ wrote French biographer Henri Troyat, ‘was an air of unsophisticated goodness.’

Gorky was initially hostile to Bolshevik rule. On November 20 1917 he wrote in his own newspaper ‘New Life’, with reference to the Lenin-Trotsky government now in power: ‘Sensible democratic elements must decide if they want to go on travelling along this road with plotters and anarchists.’ In the same article, and in others in the months to follow he fulminated against the suppression of freedom of speech, and (also associating these with the Bolshevik regime), terror and pogroms. Yet ‘New Life’ survived until its suppression in July 1918, and within months after that Gorky re-associated himself with the Bolsheviks for good.

He had been born with the surname of ‘Peshkov’, which in Russian means ‘pawn’ and only became ‘Gorky’ (which means ‘bitter’ – he aimed to tell ‘the bitter truth’) with his first published story in 1892. His birth on March 28 (new style) 1868 had been in Nizhny Novgorod. His first arrest was in 1889 and was on suspicion of participation in illegal printing. He was arrested again, two years later, as a result of attendance in the Crimea at a funeral service for hanged rebels. In 1898 he was detained for two weeks in Tiflis but, prosecution evidence being water-weak, the upshot was constant police surveillance. Arrested once more in 1901 (over his financial support for student radicals in Kiev), he was ordered into exile, finding a home in the Crimea. In early 1905 he was detained again (for his public appeal for struggle against the regime). By then he was closely associated with Lenin’s Bolshevik party.

Three years earlier, in 1902, Gorky’s great play, ‘The Lower Depths’, had been first staged in Moscow, and was accompanied by directions from the authorities that it must not be performed in working class theatres, and must anyway be performed only with the censor’s deletions. It was staged in London to critical admiration as recently as this year – uncensored.

Before the end of 1905 – the year of uprising and the defeat of revolutionary hopes – he was on his way to Europe, escaping arrest, having distributed weapons during the rising. He then made his home in Capri, returning to live in Russia in late 1913, with Tsarist censorship somewhat relaxed, and his first memoir volume ‘Childhood’ about to be published.

‘Childhood’ is unique for its recreation, in terrifying detail, of an upbringing in the author’s maternal grandparents’ household, following the death of his father, when the young Maxim was just four years old. The narrative steers away from dates and ages, but not from the horrors from which he carried scarring memories.

It opens, so it seems to the reader, with hammer-blows. He is in a room with his mother, while his mother combs the long hair of his father, who is lying dead on the floor with copper coins on his eyes and his kind face livid. The maternal grandmother is holding Maxim’s little hand. More swiftly happens – severe labour pains for his mother, followed by the birth, death and burial of his new brother.

Later days for the young Maxim were not especially joyful. In the home of his grandparents he received from his grandmother much love, many folk tales and religious precepts. But she – and Maxim’s mother – felt powerless to protect him from his grandfather’s ferocious revenge discipline.

The grandfather, having risen in the world from pulling barges in his youth, owned a thriving dye-shop which was to decline in the years to come. Lacking much respect for education or for adherence to humane standards of behaviour, he could be described as a self-made, rough-edged, middle class man. From him Maxim received many floggings for minor infractions. The first of these was savage enough to produce unconsciousness and several days’ convalescence. There was much quarrelling between Maxim’s grandfather and his two resident sons, Maxim’s uncles, and between these uncles themselves – one of whom had, the year before Maxim’s arrival in the household, beaten his wife to death.

The young Gorky witnessed his grandfather beating his grandmother, while his mother first withdrew from his own care and from the household, and then remarried. The remarriage introduced a new step-grandmother visitor to the home, a woman addicted to wearing green outfits. Gorky remarks: ‘Often the green woman would join us for dinner or tea or supper, sitting like a rotten post in an old fence.’

His mother died when Maxim was eleven, by which time the dye-shop – suffering from severe competition from rivals using more advanced technology – was on its knees. Put out into the working world, beginning in a shoe shop and taking one wretchedly paid job after another, Maxim witnessed endemic theft and violence, and, especially distressing, violence towards, and humiliation of, women. He never had toys, and was jealous of boys who did. Though he had formal schooling only until aged ten, interrupted by exclusions for mischief-making, he still managed to learn to read and write, and at the age of thirteen he read Balzac’s ‘Eugenie Grandet’, which was a revelation to him. Novels by Turgenev and Dickens were also to enchant him in his mid-teens.

‘Childhood’, as a memoir, is distinctive in the way the young Gorky’s savage experiences are offset by his irrepressible humanity and his desire to learn. Far into the narrative he muses:

I might liken myself as a child to a beehive to which various simple, ordinary people brought the honey of their knowledge and views of life, each of them making his own rich contribution to the development of my character. Often the honey was dirty and bitter, but it was knowledge, and so honey for all that.

The second volume, ‘My Apprenticeship’, in scene after scene puts on show ‘the hard, half-starved life that people had to lead and the crippling work they had to do’. Gorky wrote elsewhere in this volume of his childhood dream of how things could be changed:

…I thought how marvellous it would be to…steal from the greedy and the rich and to hand the money over to the poor; if only everyone were well-fed, cheerful and not envious of one another – perhaps they might stop howling at each other like wild dogs.

He was also drawn into sharing in the anger and violence around him. Yet, however grim his situation, Maxim had a child’s sensitivity to the world around him. ‘Black frying pans on the shelves reminded me of faces without eyes.’

His grandmother’s charitable disposition was a major influence. Hardly prosperous herself by this time, she took Maxim out at night, ‘creeping up to some small houses, very cautiously, cross herself three times, leave a five-kopeck piece and three biscuits on the window-sill and cross herself again…’ He also remembered ‘her squatting in front of the stove and muttering: “Kind house-goblin, please get rid of the cockroaches…” ’

During one summer Maxim became a freelance catcher and vendor of songbirds, trapping finches, tits and other birds, then caging and selling them profitably. Recalling this episode – in much circumstantial detail – he wrote of how as a boy he had loved the sun and its rays which ‘I tried to catch…when they jumped like a ball through a hole in the fence or among the branches.’

Through reading popular French novelists translated into Russian, Gorky was able to see, early in his teens, that things in France were different from things in Russia.

'It was clear to me that the Parisian cabdrivers, workmen and soldiers and all the ‘common rabble’ were not the same as in Nizhny, Kazan and Perm. They spoke more boldly to their masters and their relationships with them were much more easy-going…I particularly noticed that when they were describing wicked, greedy or loathsome people those authors did not portray the inexplicable cruelty which was so familiar to me and which I had seen so often.'

Later in the book he remarks on the shortness of many lives: ‘…nowhere else did people wear out so terribly quickly, for no reason at all, as in Russia.’

The third volume of memoirs, ‘My Universities’, begins with Gorky as a seventeen-year-old and with a new life begun, away from his grandparents, in and around university city Kazan. He realizes that in his situation entering the university is unrealistic, and finds he can earn a few kopecks humping things around on the wharves of the Volga river, and he gets acquainted with ‘stevedores, tramps and thieves’. The cellar of a house long ruined by fire, and the refuge of stray dogs and cats, becomes ‘one of my universities’. He is searching for a purpose in his life.

Before very long a cousin’s letter tells him of his grandmother’s death. She had been begging alms in the church porch, had fallen and broken her leg which, untreated, had become gangrenous and led to her death.

He is mostly the observer, not the subject of observation. But his feelings are embedded in his descriptions. He observes of a river locality: ‘A plaintive song floated over the water – somebody’s soul, gently smouldering.’ He is invited to join a small study circle, where discussion of the work of John Stuart Mill does not especially engage him, and at another time he is introduced to a ‘library’ in a room at the back of a grocer’s shop, where handwritten copies of books such as Chernychevsky’s ‘What is to be done’ are stored. Here, furious arguments between students from the University and others from the Theological Academy can be witnessed.

Meanwhile, in the bakery where Gorky is working, the men regularly visit brothels on pay day, ‘spitting disgustedly’ when they speak of the prostitutes. This behaviour attracted hatred from Gorky, while he behaved with circumspection when questioned by a police officer, hovering around ‘like a hungry bird of prey’, and demanding to know if he had read the dangerous author Tolstoy.

Gorky’s search for a purpose in life abruptly became confused, for at the age of nineteen he attempted suicide, shooting himself in the chest. This caused lung damage which was to trouble him increasingly in later life, and Gorky felt ashamed, even to be alive. The need to have a purpose was confirmed.

He moved to a village some thirty miles from Kazan, invited there to help in a shop by a returned political exile, but before long the shop was burned down by agents of hostile better-off peasants. Both the exile, whom Gorky admired, and Gorky himself, had to move on.

His recollections as a whole were painted, as it were, in primary colours. Gorky was not a writer famous for the subtle, delicate touches characteristic of Chekhov’s work, or for the complex meditations or insights notable in both Chekhov and Dostoevsky. Chekhov told him ‘that in my opinion you have no restraint’, and some readers may consider some lengthy passages in, especially, ‘My Apprenticeship’, could have benefited from more succinct presentation.

The three volumes as a whole are ‘extreme’ biography in the sense that they go far beyond ordinary recall. They are imaginative reconstructions, carrying vast amounts of dialogue and often moment-by-moment descriptions. Still, the memoirs are formidable, both as a collection of revelations about Gorky’s early life and about pre-revolutionary Mother Russia. They end with the beginning of his adult life, when he travels south, reaching the shores of the Caspian.

His first arrest in 1889 was followed by his first entry into the professional world, as a lawyer’s clerk. He returned to this work after travel to the Crimea and his second arrest. But large demand for the stories he had begun to publish led to well-paid work for newspapers and then to his marriage in 1896 and to the birth of a son, another Maxim, the following year.

In 1898 two volumes of Gorky’s short stories appeared, and his first novel soon after, which was in essence an attack on the greed of capitalists. He was becoming wealthy and famous, and got to know Tolstoy well in the early years of the new century when living near to each other in the Crimea, to which Gorky was then exiled. He failed to convert Tolstoy to Marxism, just as Tolstoy failed to convert him to Christianity.

The 1902 play, ‘The Lower Depths’ features more than a dozen characters living cheek by jowl in a doss house run by a landlord and his wife who are also thieves, who have the protection of the wife’s uncle, who is a police officer. The wife has been having an affair with a jailbird lodger, who rejects her in favour of the wife’s sister. Meanwhile a female lodger is dying, but before she dies blames her illness on beatings from her unfeeling husband, who also lives in the house. Another lodger, a widow, says about marriage that ‘it’s like jumping through a hole in the ice for us poor women’. Yet another character is an educated man who has come down in the world, but was once privileged enough ‘to have drunk coffee in bed with cream in it’, while another is an alcoholic actor.

Dark and depressing as the plot is – including three deaths – the play has enormous vitality, and there is a low-key but crucial upside, mainly because of one character. A man of sixty, a Tolstoyan Christian humanist and teacher, declares: ‘Prison doesn’t teach a man to be good, no more than does Siberia. Only another poor soul can do that. It’s true. One soul can teach good to another soul.’ He also speaks of an ideal country, ‘a virtuous land’, believed in as real by somebody he had met, but which he himself seems to acknowledge did not actually exist. It seems to be a metaphor for a socialism of the future. Before the play ends this moral figure has travelled on, but a lodger with fewer ethical credentials says: ‘Man is born – for something better.’

Later, after his participation in the 1905 rising, and having settled in Capri, came Gorky’s ‘class struggle novel’. This was ‘Mother’, completed in 1906, and banned in Russia after heavily censored publication of the first part. But it was published in Russian and in translation abroad. Lenin called it ‘an instrument of revolution’, which it was. Its worker heroes are sentenced to exile for what would in democratic conditions be regarded as legal anti-government activity, such as distributing leaflets and marching. The mother of one of them is then herself caught in a railway station waiting room with a cache of leaflets, and speaks out loudly at the point of arrest:

‘Poverty, hunger and disease – that’s what people get for their work! Everything is against us – all of our lives, day after day, we give our last ounce of strength to our work, always dirty, always fooled, while others reap all the joy and benefits, holding us in ignorance like dogs on a chain – we don’t know anything, holding us in fear – we’re afraid of everything! Our lives are just one long, dark night!’

The book ends with the mother being savagely beaten and choked by a policeman. Propaganda? Yes, but it is propaganda accompanied by passion and a powerful connection with the real world in which Russian factory workers lived and laboured.

From 1906 Gorky lived in Capri, until his return to Russia in late 1913. When the 1914 war arrived, he quickly decided to oppose it. In 1915 he wrote in his newly founded magazine ‘The Chronicle’:

The press must keep repeating to people that any war – except the war against stupidity is a disaster comparable to cholera.

In 1919, after his rapprochement with the Bolsheviks the previous autumn, he made a strong impression on the much younger fellow-writer and socialist Victor Serge:

His whole being expressed hunger for knowledge and human understanding, determination to probe all human beings to their depths, never stopping at mere appearances, never tolerating any lies told to him, and never lying to himself. I saw him immediately as the supreme, the righteous, the relentless witness of the Revolution…

Gorky was to return to live in Europe in 1921. He became concerned at the increasing censorship of literature in the Soviet Union, though in 1925 declared he could see no other possible regime for the Russian people. He returned to his homeland in 1928, identifying himself closely with the Stalin-led government, becoming, his biographer Henri Troyat wrote: ‘a kind of literary functionary’. Increasingly ill and lonely (his son died in 1934), his creative days were in the past. He had summarized his own limitations as a writer in a letter to anti-war French author Romain Rolland of November 1923. He wrote:

I am overloaded with real impressions. I am afflicted with an overdeveloped need to become acquainted with things, I am easily fascinated by their external characteristics. That makes me more of a story-teller than an investigator of the human soul and the enigmas of life.

Gorky’s great achievement lay in evoking in depth, with astonishing realist particularity, the wretchedness and violence inherent in the conditions of living in Tsarist times, and in doing so never to overlook the capacity of humankind for showing compassion and support for others, or the belief that another world was possible.

 

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