The Culture of Vertigo

The Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow (currently in temporary premises while the gallery itself is being refurbished) is dedicated to contemporary Russian painting and sculpture and includes marvelous sections on nineteenth and twentieth century art, most of which was buried from 1930 to the early 1970s. At the end of a series of corridors, one comes to an area popularly known as the Stalin room. In here the art is not impressionist, post-impressionist, surreal or expressionist (which the immediately preceding rooms are), but Social Realist, or perhaps, more accurately, Hagiographically Representationalist. Here are Stalin, Svetlana Alilueva (Stalin's daughter), General Timoschenko, Maxim Gorky, etc. as they would like to have looked (Gorky looks like a romanticized Mark Twain). Pride of place is given to an enormous painting of Stalin and his war cabinet, with Moscow unfolding through a vast window behind. It is every corporate director's dream of how he would like to be remembered (and, indeed, Soviet representational art was selling well in the last years of Thatcher's Britain, as the Business executives tried to find an aesthetic style that was commensurate with their perceived status).

Through the wall in the next gallery is a collection of contemporary paintings (for sale). Most of them are heavily symbolic, apocalyptic pieces, drawing on themes which go back beyond the nineteenth century. They evoke Redon, Schwabe, de Chavannes, Moreau, Delville and even further back to Bosch and Piranesi, but much more pessimistic, violent and based on a Russian sense of total disaster. All of them have been painted in the past five years, and, if it were not for the fact that they are painted in Russia, might be mistaken as promotion material for Western horror `B' movies. But the Draculas are Lenin, Stalin, Brezhnev, and Gorbachev. If, in another adjoining gallery, the geometrical and mechanistic work of El Lissitsky, which did so much to affect the architecture and industrial design of the Soviet Union, receives great prominence, here it might never have existed.

In the Hermitage gallery in Leningrad there is a special Picasso exhibition. Stalin, it is well-known, disliked Picasso and all forms of abstract art. And yet the Hermitage from the beginning of this century to the 1940s continued to buy Picassos. In the late 1940s Stalin ordered that they be sold to produce some ready hard currency. The gallery did so, but kept a record of where they went. This exhibition represents a lease back to Leningrad of those paintings that were formerly its own.

In Kiev, St.Vladimir's Cathedral, built in the late nineteenth-century in imitation Byzantine style to commemorate the 900th anniversary of Christianity in Russia, is a fully-functioning church of the Ukranian Orthodox church, although it served its time as a museum, and was damaged by the Germans in the Second World War. Virtually every art object in it is an imitation of traditional Byzantine works, and most were painted or recreated in the post-war period. The major exception is a Virgin and Child by Vasnetsov, a non-iconic symbolist portrayal from the inter-war years, which shows how Ukranian religious art might have developed in other circumstances. In these moments of uncertainty it is conceivable that its hour has come round at last.

The Byzantine, the symbolist, the social realist, the representationalist, the gothic, the mechanistic - these seem to be the competing styles of the Russian eye, here and there punctuated by the abstract-symbolism of a Chagall, who represented another culture burrowing into the Russian.

Culture, Perestroika and Glasnost: the case of the Writers' Union.

At the heart of the Soviet dilemma has been the problem of culture. Throughout the 1920s and 1930s the issues of education, intellectual freedom, workers' control of the processes of cultural production, the organization of the media, and the importance of ideology in determining the direction of Communism produced as many experiments, manifestoes, edicts and blood-letting as any of the economic issues. The classic experiments took place under Anatoly Lunacharsky's period as Commissar of Education (1917-1929). ("The people themselves, consciously or unconsciously, must evolve their own culture," he declared in 1917). This was echoed by Lenin's wife, Krupskaya: "We were not afraid to organize a revolution. Let us not be afraid of the people... Our job is to help the people in fact to take their fate into their hands"). The experiments were characterized by attempts to work with existing institutions and also to help to set up parallel ones, with Narkompros, the People's Commissariat for Education being both the guide and mediator. But Narkompros represented in many respects the democratic, culturist tendency in the Revolution. For all the problems he had with schoolteachers and university lecturers (they almost all went on strike), actors, writers and film directors, Lunacharsky believed in the liberating potential of education and culture, and fought for culture as an important (maybe the most important) element in constructing social change. He is one of the brightest lights in the early Bolshevik pantheon.

But Lunacharsky had serious problems with the Party. Narkompros at the beginning of the New Economic Policy (1922) had about 7% of the Union budget, almost all of which went to schools, universities and the Academy of Sciences, though it continued to have some control over music, film, theatre, the fine arts, and literature. Its main competitor for control of the Cultural apparatuses was Glavpolitput (the chief political department of the Commissariat of Communications, which had 10% of the budget), Vesenkha (the Supreme Council of the National Economy, which had 9% of the budget), and VTSIK (the All-Russian Central Executive Committee of the Congress of Soviets) which was responsible for the distribution of printed matter. Under NEP the budget for Narkompros (and its power) declined, to the extent that fees were charged for schooling. Glavpolitput progressively took over cultural funding and administration, and academic research was increasingly funded by VTSIK. Lunacharsky ceased to be commissar because the the high schools were put under Vesenka control. The cut and thrust of the debates that had characterized cultural policy in the 1920s were foreclosed, both because of the trials that took place in the 1930s, and because of the complete subordination of all cultural institutions to the Party, the economy and the war effort (from 1941-5). As is well-known, most of the major writers, theatre directors, film-makers, intellectuals and artists of the 1920s had been killed by 1940 or had been forced into exile. If a Marxist debate continued to exist, it was either directed discreetly towards the West (as in the work of Lukacs), or as masking terrorism and censorship in the East (as in the infamous attack by Zhadnov in 1947 on the satirist Mikhail Zoshchenko and the poet Anna Akhmatova). In education the debates on school pedagogy were increasingly influenced by the regimental ideas of Anton Makarenko, former NKVD organizer of labour colonies and camps for juvenile delinquents.

And yet `culture' continued to be made. In 1934 the First Congress of Soviet Writers was held in Moscow, following the dissolution of RAPP (the proletkult-based Russian Association of Proletarian Writers) and foundation of the Writers' Union of the USSR. By that time the centralization of the cultural apparatuses had been completed, with the control of printing, distrubution, publishing, radio, film and theatre firmly established at the centre. The concepts of `autonomy' of cultural bodies had long been discarded, with the Central Committee having absolute power of veto, even over the management of obscure literary journals in Leningrad or Alma - Ata (a prerogative that it periodically claimed, as when, in 1947, it decided to close the literary magazine Leningrad because of its `viperous' content). Thus the creation of the Writers' Union, as well as other cultural unions (Cinematographic Workers, Actors, Artists) took on the appearance of their being company unions to the one great State enterprise. However, after the death of Stalin, even more so after Khrushchev's speech at the Twentieth Party Congress, and progressively through the 1980s, the character of these institutions slowly changed. My visit to the USSR in October 1990 was concerned with monitoring those changes.

Probably the first break in the control of the Party over cultural ideas was the re-organization of the magazine Novy Mir in 1958, under the second editorship of the poet Alexander Tvardovsky. (Tvardovsky had been editor of Novy Mir from 1950-54, but was bumped in the early years of Khruschev). It was a curious change. Although initially sanctioned by the Writers' Union and unchallenged by the Party, mainly because Tvardovsky was a Party member and operated in the spirit of the Twentieth Congress, most of Tvardovsky's own writing was itself not published until the 1980s. Western (and Russian) writers debated whether Tvardovsky was "a Party man" or "an oppositionist." He was, of course, both. Novy Mir was not seen as an "opposition" journal until 1965, even though its policy and ostensible content had not changed since 1960. The Twenty-second Congress of the Party sanitized the democratic intent of the Twentieth Congress. Henceforth Novy Mir became the intellectual opposition within the Party, and, through the following years, acted as a force against intellectual and political stagnation.

But the institutions established in the 1930s also slowly changed. The Writers' Union, tied into a single sponsor, was strongly affected by Novy Mir's stance of democratic resistance. If the Leningrad Union's attempt at autonomy in the 1940s had been met with Zhdanovite obstruction, clearly Novy Mir survived it. The Union itself had adopted a policy which borrowed something from Proletkult, that the Revolutionary writer could only come out of the working or peasant class. With this went a concern with providing the writer with all the amenities that allowed him or her to write, including hospital care, meeting places, restaurants, working spaces and access to periodicals. The Union itself controlled 120 journals, at local and national levels. The price, of course, was that the writer (including screenwriters, journalists and playwrights) had access to the media in so far as the writer was considered essential to the smooth running of the system. When, as in the spectacular cases of Pasternak, Brodsky, Solzhenitzhyn, Sakharov, and several other people, the writer was declared persona-non-grata by the Party, the Writers' Union did not stand by its members, and frequently aided in censoring them. Its attitude to Novy Mir in the Fifties was that of unmitigated hostility, and was responsible for Tvardovsky being sacked as editor twice, first in 1954, and again in 1970, when the Khruschev thaw was overtaken by Brezhnev's heavy-handed, nepotistic politics.

Something of a purge of the union leadership took place in the late 1970s and early 1980s, and the ambience at least allowed for the admission that other writers existed than those who had been officially sanctioned by the Union in the past. But what really affected the attitudes of the union executive, once again, were issues which were beyond its immediate control. Perestroika and Glasnost provided the context within which the monopoly that the Union had on publishing, distribution and accreditation were broken. The growth of independent publications and publishing houses in the late eighties and the emergence of separatist movements in Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia, Georgia, Moldavia and, in particular, Ukraine challenged the raison d'etre of the Union. The circulation of Union publications declined sharply in the mid-eighties, leading to some internal questioning. (Was the Union really representing ideology, writers, workers?) Today there is certainly a major segment of the Union that supports `Pamyat' (a nationalist group that announces that Russia must be for the Russians, and that all foreign influences - Jewish, American, Lithuanian, British, or Asian must be purged to clean the Russian soul: it is certainly anti-Semitic and anti any minority nationality). In 1986 a new organization, the `April' Group, Composed largely of Western-oriented intellectuals, emerged to challenge the hegemony of the Union. It almost immediately gained control of the executive of the Leningrad Writers' Union, and by 1990 claimed that thirty percent of the members of the Writers' Union of the USSR supported it. Politically it was backed in Moscow by the city council who in 1991 granted it a lease on premises. Since 1990 the Union has been affiliated with the international organization PEN, though not necessarily for the best of motives: it allows delegates access to international travel, which is increasingly denied under present austerity programmes, though obviously PEN is an organization which does not want just any delegate.

In Kiev the Writers Union was by 1987 controlled by the separatist group Rukh (in fact the founding meeting of Rukh took place in the headquarters of the Union, the former home of the Czar's Governor of Greater Kiev, Count Ignatieff, and the president of Rukh, Ivan Drakh, is a former recipient of the State Prize for poetry). Thus the notion that the Union had a symmetrical relationship to the Party was increasingly called into question (if the Party relationship mattered, it was whith members of the Party rather than the Party as a monolithic whole, a process which had started with Tvardovsky's wheeling and dealing with Krushchev in the 1950s). Statistics in 1989 show that 60% of the Union membership were members of the Party, a figure which is very close to that of the USSR Congress. (Much more revealing, however, is the fact that only 14% of the membership are women).

While I was in the Soviet Union in October of 1990, I interviewed Alexander Prokhanov, the secretary-general of the Writers Union of the USSR (who is also a military novelist and editor of the Union's monthly magazine, Soviet Literature), members of the April group, and members of the Ukranian and Leningrad Unions, as well as some playwrights, journalists and theatre directors. In addition I went to Poland and interviewed some journalists and attended the Helsinki World Assembly and the People-to-people media conferences in Prague. Several things emerged out of these encounters, which might put the relationships between the writer, the unions, the publishing and media industries, the political processes, and the economy into sharper focus.

It might be prudent to start with the interview with Prokhanov, because Prokhanov (a `non-Party man', as he said to me) represents the new `conservative' bent within the Union, and also (and, perhaps, therefore) the representative of a system that looks like being phased out. Prokhanov is probably the epitome of the kind of person who has become prominent in the Union (and possibly in the higher reaches of the Government) since perestroika destroyed the flimsy reserves of Marxist rhetoric that were left after Brezhnev reduced the Party to being the agent of a Czaristic nepotism. In spite of his military writings, he is not an expansionist imperialist, in the sense that he wants to impose on the rest of the world Russia's view of itself (he sees the futile war in Afghanistan as providing the origins of perestroika). He is, however, troubled by the `intellectuals', who are out of touch with the spirit of the country. The Writers' Union has a mandate - to make them realize their political responsibilities, and to maintain the continuity of an ongoing commitment to the working-class and peasant writer. He is particularily fierce on the `April' group, those whose God is Vaclav Havel, `a caricature of a President': "If I had the power, I would demand of the April group that they apologize for all the nasty things they have said about me. I have given them every opportunity to write and publish and meet. I am a democrat, but my patience is wearing thin." And then he becomes very eloquent in saying what he would do if he were cultural Czar:

If I had full dictatorial powers, I would construct a cultural Empire. I would build a new pyramid. I would search in all the cultures for mutual goals, and create a mystic structure that would unite them all. As Cultural Dictator, I would have many faults, including repeating the crimes of Stalin. But everyone would be united for a common purpose.

Prokhanov is the once and future king, and his shadow hovers over all other deliberations of writers, theatre directors, film-makers. He is the populist, anti-intellectual who sees a role for writers as part of a "well-oiled machine." Thus the long debates of the 1920s, the theoretical issues of proletarian versus bourgeois writing, phenomenological Marxism versus structuralism, even Party loyaly versus opposition, are reduced to maintaining law and order. I asked him whether he was a Marxist. "I am not a member of the Party. I am a Conservative. Marx, Hegel, Kant, Freud... do they really address the issues of the survival of our culture? All of them might provide useful tools in understanding what is happening to us, but I'm afraid I do not have those tools. I am simply a writer, a small cell in a big machine."

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