One of the lesser-known "gains of October" (an old Trotskyist formulation I can't quite shake) was free theater tickets.
This was, to be sure, a fairly minor point on the Bolshevik agenda; war, grain and the railway system were more urgent concerns.
A market in theater seats did in fact survive, if precariously, on the margins of Soviet culture. But it was doomed. Censorship
and heavy taxes took their toll on bourgeois stagecraft; so did the mass emigration of its clientele. And as Katerina Clark
shows in Petersburg, Crucible of Cultural Revolution, the urge to transform theater utterly had been brewing considerably
before 1917. Free and continuous access of the masses to dramatic performance was not simply a goal to be realized in the
glorious socialist future but an aspect of the revolution itself. "Within the theater one can engineer the interworking of
previously unsynchronized-alienated-sectors of people," Clark writes, "and many began to think one could use it as a basis
for affecting social space as well."
The "many" who "began to think" this way were not just stage professionals. The revolution unleashed an enormous interest
in performance throughout Russia, and countless amateur drama groups appeared, sponsored by unions, the military and youth
groups. This plebeian movement typically displayed more gusto than talent: Imagine a high school production of Richard
III, then multiply by 10,000. Still, this outpouring of creative energies made itself felt in practically every medium
in the years following the revolution. And if the resulting poetry, fiction and performances tended to be ham-fisted -- with
scripts by amateur playwrights being, it seems, particularly awful -- that could only be expected in a country struggling
to bring even basic literacy to the population.
This upsurge from below occupies only a passing place in Clark's study of the arts in Petersburg between 1913 and 1931.
Her attention falls, rather, on those currents among the intelligentsia that reached some mutually accommodating relationship
with the new regime -- in particular the avant garde, which, liberated from the demands of the box office, that implement
of philistine tyranny, seized the moment to enact its grandest visions of aesthetic insurrection. "Let every minute of our
life be theater," announced Nikolai Evremov, a director who saw man's "instinct to transform himself' at the root of all art.
No dramatic performance could have realized these messianic formulations more thoroughly than the mass spectacle Evreinov
produced in 1920, on the third anniversary of the October Revolution. In Petersburg, an audience of some 100,000 viewers gathered
to watch an open-air re-enactment of the storming of the Winter Palace. "Its cast of six thousand," Clark writes, "was made
up largely of members of the army and navy drama circles and even authentic army units, but it also included professional
actors, ballet dancers, circus performers, and drama students." The performance moved from the February revolution, through
the escapades of the bourgeois Provisional Government (here the clowns and acrobats came in), up to the events of October.
The taking of the Winter Palace required an enormous display of special effects: "Fifty windows in the upper story of the
palace were suddenly illuminated, and in them spectators could see a shadow play of tussling silhouettes."
There was machine-gun fire, and bombs bursting in air. Then silence -- followed by a sudden shift to the comic: "The
pathetic figure of Kerensky was seen scurrying off dressed in women's clothing." The show closed with fireworks and a military
parade. And the boundary between audience and spectacle-already very fluid, given the sheer scale-dissolved entirely as onlookers
and actors sang the "Internationale." It was, of course, propaganda, a ritualistic invocation of the regime's origins. Yet
it was more than that. A number of these open-air spectacles were performed in 1920, but they enacted a whole array of themes
found in manifestoes written prior to 1917 -- for example, the priority of gesture over verbal text, the incorporation of
elements of festival into dramatic performance, the new place of technology in the arts. Likewise, "trans-sense" poetry or
Futurist visual experiments sought to remake consciousness as deeply as Marxism did society.
Some rapprochement between avant-garde and Bolshevik vanguard became inevitable. And indeed, this "current of acceptual
millenarianism," as Clark puts it, makes the most extreme measures of War Communism look like mildly Fabian reforms.
To militate for an aesthetic apocalypse is one thing; working in the midst of an actual revolution is quite another. Clark
largely ignores the extensive debates on cultural and ideological questions within the Communist Party during the thirties
-- a matter much better treated in Sheila Fitzpatrick's The Cultural Front: Power and Culture in Revolutionary Russia.
But Petersburg is full of close readings of early Soviet texts, performances and artworks; and Clark is particularly
sensitive to the subtle dialectic between utopian aestheticism and cultural Realpolitik shaping Soviet culture over the decade
or so following the revolution.
Suppose, for instance, that the masses proved to have less appetite for seeing Vertov's documentaries than they did for
reading Tarzan or watching Douglas Fairbanks run around the screen without his shirt on. What then? One option (embraced
by some Formalists and Futurists) was to create suitably revolutionary forms of entertainment. Efforts to fuse Modernism and
mass culture did have some success, as in the case of the best-selling Mess-Mend (1924-25) -- sort of a Bolshevik
Tom Swift novel, with millionaires, kidnappers and inventions aplenty, which was serialized in pamphlets with Constructivist
artwork on the cover. But from other quarters -- and not always from the Communists -- came the demand to repress such tainted
cultural goods until the toilers had acquired enough taste to know better.
Each position -- proletarian camp versus highbrow censoriousness -- might be rationalized in Marxist terms. Yet they are
utterly incompatible. When the party intervened in aesthetic matters, the outcome was by no means assured. Decisions were,
at times, ad hoc, with ideology being no sure guide. The interventions were cumulative, though; and the interplay between
the arts and the state resembled a chess game, to use Clark's own analogy from her The Soviet Novel (1981).
With time, the range of pieces and available strategies narrowed. And each player had to spend more time contemplating the
other's next move.
Clark's analysis leaves off in 1931 -- by which poit the chess match of cultural revolution had reached its endgame.
Only a few independent writers' and artists' organizations remained. They were all abolished the following year, their members
absorbed into nationwide "unions" in the various creative fields. Over the next year or so, all remaining questions on the
relation between culture and the revolution received a final, definitive answer. By 1934, Socialist Realism was the official
(and exceptionally cheerful) Soviet aesthetic.
The artist was, as the leading cultural ideologist put it, an engineer of the soul. Similar imagery had appeared in Futurist
manifestoes of earlier years, as when Sergei Tretyakov called for "the production of new human beings through art, which is
one of the tools of such production." But with the arrival of the Five-year Plans, such metaphors became literal, particularly
in that exemplary piece of Socialist Realist hardware, the production novel.
This, certainly, was art by blueprint. At its center was the "positive hero" -- so called to distinguish him from that
gallery of neurotics, malingerers and web-spinners in earlier Russian fiction. Arriving at some factory or collective farm,
he finds it in bad shape. The workers and poor peasants earnestly desire to build socialism. They are warm and colorful, the
salt of the earth. But until the positive hero comes on the scene, they are out of luck.
The positive hero rallies the masses under the leadership of the Bolsheviks. True, they face obstacles -- perhaps
even sabotage by party members of bourgeois origin. A beloved character or two may die. Yet so moved are the toilers by the
correctness of the hero's line that they reach, then exceed, their quota. There is much rejoicing. By the end of the novel,
the positive hero may or may not fall in love, but he will almost certainly give a speech.
It was an art of unrelieved, almost morbid heroism. Who could stand it?
And yet it was heroism, albeit of a different sort, that I hoped to find in Intimacy and Terror, a selection
of ten diaries kept by Soviet citizens during the mid-thirties. Social historians have taught us to listen to the forgotten
voices of rebellion from below; the cultural-studies folk insist that everyday life is the scene of countless tiny short
circuits within the grid of social power. And so, during a period of enforced consensus in the public sphere (I thought),
wouldn't keeping a diary be, in its own small way, an act of resistance?
Call this romanticism; call it worse. As I read Intimacy and Terror, this dim notion quickly melted away. One
diarist, the satirically minded Andrei Arzbilovsky, did write as an act of private rebellion, which probably got him
executed more quickly than might have happened otherwise. But intrepidity, even on a modest scale, is hardly the predominant
note in this often moving book, its pages filled with all the things exiled from the utopia of Socialist Realism: fear, defeat,
private misery and compromises with a reality that soon proves intractable.
Stepan Podlubny, a medical student and sometime informer to State Security, waits in line for hours to learn the whereabouts
of his mother -- who was "invited" to go down to the Moscow Civil investigation Departinent "for a minute." (This invitation
had come at 4 in the morning.) Weeks later, he still doesn't know, and the entries grow longer as the diary becomes a way
to occupy his attention. "Anyone one fine day can turn into a scoundrel," he writes. "Even my most faithful friend this diary
here, could betray me, all it has to do is fall into the hands of some official."
As indeed happened to the diary of Andrei Arzhilovsky, which was confiscated when he was detained on suspicion of being
part of a "counterrevolutionary kulak sabotage organization." The investigator who reviewed the diary underscored particularly
objectionable passages in red. He had plenty to choose from. "It was especially pleasant to stand in line for bread and peas
today," Arzhilovsky writes. "Yes, you might suspect that it's the people who talk most about socialism who are actually the
ones laughing at it the most." A few days later, he notes that propaganda workers will soon be organizing a study of the Soviet
Constitution, "as if there wasn't enough to be depressed about." Stalin's 1935 declaration, "Life has become better, comrades,
life has become happier," particularly amuses him. Shortly after his arrest in 1937, Arzhilovsky was executed by firing squad.
Lyubov Shaporina is not really a political woman. She grieves the death of her small daughter, and runs a puppet theater
for children. Her son dabbles in experimental painting; she worries about him. The revolution itself she considers a Jewish
plot to "eat the Russians for dinner," but the first Moscow trial promises a taste of revenge: "Just you wait, my dearies,
the Russian people will show what it's made of yet." After a year, with the trials still continuing, she begins to worry:
"Now the present day denies the day that has passed, yesterday's leaders are shot today, everything that remains from the
day before is destroyed in the minds of the young."
The years covered by these diaries saw, besides terror, enormous changes in the texture of daily life: industrialization,
the growth of mass media such as radio and film, shifts in the relation between city and country. Precious little of it could
be discussed in public at any level above the slogan. Withdrawal into the circle of the self, into the narrow space of the
diary, cannot be treated as a political decision, but it is, in some sense, an aesthetic act. And the greater the distance
between permissible expression and actual feeling, the more deliberate that act becomes. In assembling Intimacy and
Terror, the editors have produced a Dos Passos-like narrative collage.
But no diarist here projects his own experience and personality with such peculiarly novelistic thoroughness as Leonid
Potyomkin. His diary is strewn with knots of official verbiage -- recited without irony, and often enough, without
sense. He greets 1935 with "a new year's toast to the great successes in the cultural and scientific enrichment of culture,
and science and the potentialities of life." Attending a lecture on Beethoven, he absorbs the authorized Marxist understanding
of the composer and leaves "with life seething up inside me. If I saw my brunette right now I would enchant her with the flame
of my tempestuous cheerfulness."
A few pages of this is humorous. A few more, and readerly anxiety sets in. During military training, Potoyomkiin notices
that his "pure, clear, resolute voice turbulently concentrates the attention of the platoon. I explain. I point out shortcomings.
I motivate people with my mood. With a single glance I cast boldness and daring into the eyes of a man and I see igniting
in them the flames of our shared joy in his desire to carry out the order better."
He is, in a word, a creep. But more: He is, at least in his own mind, the positive hero of a Socialist Realist novel.
The diaries in Intimacy and Terror leave off at the gate of the labor camp. Across some three decades, no fact
of Soviet life was so carefully evaded by public discourse as this. Only after 1956 did a "literature of the camps" develop, of
which Alexander Solzhenitsyn remains, for better or worse, the laureate. A portion of this literature was published during
the era of the de-stalinization campaign; but most such memoirs and essays were destined for the author's drawer. Mikhail
Baitalsky started writing his own contribution to the genre, Notebooks for the Grandchildren, in 1958, after being
released from a second term of "corrective labor." His crime had been that of Trotskyism, compounded by the offense of being
a Jew. (And it seems a particularly bitter irony, given the contempt for Trotskyists and Jews shown in the pages of The
Gulag Archipelago, that Baitalsky served time in the same camp portrayed in The Cancer Ward.)
Baitalsky is, so far as is known at present, the only Soviet Trotskyist from the twenties whose memoirs have survived.
He finished the main body of the manuscript in 1970, then added a long introductory essay in 1976. But as his friend Roy Medvedev
writes in the foreword, "He did not expect to see it published during his lifetime. He wanted only to preserve it in a safe
place." A copy reached Marilyn Vogt-Downey, the translator, not long before Baitalsky died in 1978. Posterity being sometimes
perverse, the Notebooks appear now in English while the original text remains unpublished in Russia.
Baitalsky wrote for Izvestia before being sent off to a labor camp for the first time in 1935, and his virtues
as a memoirist are those of an accomplished journalist: skill at narration, clarity in analysis and ease in shifting between
these modes. These all make for a lucid, even engaging, book about hell. Baitalsky spent a portion of each of his two sentences
at Vorkuta -- where, during 1936-37, more than 900 Trotskyist prisoners were executed following a hunger strike. Among the
executed were friends Baitalsky had known since they were in the Komsomol together in 1920. Sitting down to eat, suffering
from scurvy like most of the other prisoners, Baitalsky "spat out several teeth; they fell out when they got stuck in the
Baitalsky's account of life in the camps is, inevitably, the core of the memoir. But its significance is no longer primarily
as a source of information. "The manuscript ended up being the history of one individual," he writes in his introduction.
"Call it a confession if you want."
"Confession," in this context, means not a catalogue of particular offenses but a scrutiny of one's attitudes
and their history. And this leads him back to the revolution -- to the enthusiasm of his comrades in the Komsomol, all of
whom "said the words `world revolution' as often as children say `mama.'"
His friends who died before the firing squad at Vorkuta had been among them. But others from the Komsomol who had once
been no less revolutionary took another path. Baitalsky mentions meeting one of these old friends years later. "The main thing
that he clings to with all his strength," he writes, "is pride in the qualities he had in those young, ardent years. He does
not want to admit to me or to himself that it was precisely these qualities that, through a series of rather simple transmutations,
fostered his internal readiness to accept everything, positively everything, up to and including the execution of his closest
It is easy to imagine the form Baitalsky's thought might take under the pen of someone without a deep sense of this as
tragedy -- someone for whom it is terrible that revolutions eat their children, but only to be expected, since that is
what revolutions do. Conversely, pure denunciation, the hurling of a few Trotskyist slogans, would be understandable. That
the author could recognize what he had in common with a man who acquiesced in the extermination of their friends -- "pride
in the qualities [they shared] in those young, ardent years" -- is what makes Baitalsky's Notebooks a document of
considerable moral as well as historical significance.