Hello, Revolutionaries! This is our video for Week 11, Day 1. Our subject is Soviet Revolutionary Rituals, and our teaching assistant is Maggie.
We’ll start, as usual, with announcements. I’m looking forward to discussing your Research Questions and List of Sources with each of you on Monday and Tuesday this week. After that meeting, you should plan to start working on your three-page rough draft. Those are due on Friday, April 24 on Sakai. So, that gives you about a week and a half to work on them. I’ll send those back to you with written comments as quickly as I can. If you want to set up another virtual office hours meeting on Teams to discuss my written comments, we can do that, too. Just email me, and we can set it up.
This week, we’re making our final visit to the Soviet Era, to explore Soviet cultural revolution. Today, we’re focusing on the 1920s, which is going to fill in a gap for us. In our unit on Political Revolution, we discussed the Revolutions of 1917 and the Civil War, which ended in 1921. Then, in our unit on Social Revolution, we jumped to the First Five Year Plan, which ran from 1928-1932. We talked some at that point about the development of the Soviet economy in the 1920s, and how the shortcomings of the New Economic Policy, including a lack of social mobility, set the stage for industrialization, collectivization of agriculture, and the creation of Stalin’s new elite. But while those political, economic, and social developments were brewing, what was going on with culture? That’s what we’re going to explore today.
Based on you reading of “What Is To Be Done?”, it may not surprise you that Lenin didn’t have very strong ideas about culture. He was ultra-focused on politics and making the revolution a success. But there were other people around—Party leaders and sympathetic artists—who did have dreams for what Soviet culture should be like. The problem was, while everyone agreed that Soviet culture must be radically different from the past, beyond that they had quite different agendas. Because Lenin was preoccupied with the Soviet Union’s struggle for survival, the various factions that developed around the culture question got to spend the 1920s debating each and experimenting with different ways of implementing their ideas. This situation continued through most of the decade. After Lenin’s death, while Stalin worked on consolidating his power over his rivals, he also gave culture a pass. The period of experimentation ended with the coming of the First Five Year Plan. We’ll talk about what came next and how the state developed an official Soviet aesthetic next time. But today, we’re exploring some of the many experiments with revolutionary culture in the 1920s.
In doing so, we are examining two different areas of “culture.” Our secondary source, Richard Stites’ article “Bolshevik Ritual Building int h 1920s,” deals with culture defined as how people mark important moments in their lives. As Stites notes, the Bolsheviks were staunch atheists, but they made their revolution in a country where the vast majority of the population were practicing Orthodox Christians. This created a dilemma regarding how the new government ought to handle the urge for religious ritual—whether or not to replace it, and if so, how. The types of secular rituals the Bolsheviks tied to create and how ordinary people related to them raises some interesting questions about the Soviet state’s relationship to “the masses,” in whose name they made their revolution. We’ll talk about that more in a minute.
The other area of culture we’re working with today is culture defined as the arts. In this realm, two groups quickly formed around very different styles of art, and they spent the 1920s arguing vehemently with each other, while creating experimental artworks. The first group called itself the Avant-Gardists. They wanted to create works that were wildly experimental, using new sounds and visual juxtapositions, completely rejecting and invalidating the “bourgeois” art of the 19th century. They wanted to bring the sights, sounds, and technologies of workers’ lives into the realm of culture to make a brand new type of art that would speak directly to workers and validate their experiences. We have three sources on the avant-garde perspective: an essay by the visual artist Boris Arvatov, a podcast about Arseny Avraamov’s Symphony of Sirens, and Alexandre Mosolov’s The Iron Foundry.
The second group with a new vision for Soviet culture in the 1920s called itself the Proletarians. They were not proletarians, themselves; they were trained artists. But they claimed to speak in the name of the proletariat, to know what workers actually wanted, which, they asserted, was not what the Avant-Gardists had to offer. In their view Soviet culture must be “proletarian” in the sense of being immediately intelligible and appealing to workers, and ideally created by workers themselves, not professionally trained artists. We have two sources on the Proletarian perspective: “The Ideological Platform of the Russian Association of Proletarian Musicians,” and song that I’ve added to your list, Alexander Alexandrov and Vasily Lebedev-Kumach’s “Life Has Become Better.” You may recognize the title of this song from Stalin’s “Speech at the First All-Union Congress of Stakhanovites,” which he gave in 1935. The song was written later than the 1920s, but it is a good representation of the “Proletarian” style.
I think that’s all the contextual information we need. Now on to some discussion questions.
Leah’s Discussion Questions
1. All of our sources today speak to the Bolsheviks’ desire to use culture as a tool for creating a new type of person, the New Soviet Person, who thinks and acts differently from anyone who came before. Why do you think this was important to early Soviet thinkers? How does it shape our understanding of the Bolsheviks as revolutionaries that they didn’t want to just take power, they actually wanted to create a new culture? Is this a necessary part of revolution, or does it go too far?
2. In his article “Bolshevik Ritual Building in the 1920s,” Richard Stites explains that Soviet leaders figured out early on that they needed to come up with something to replace religious festivals and rituals in ordinary citizens’ lives. At first, they tried counter-festivals designed to parody religion and educate the masses in rationalism. But both the Komsomol Christmas of 1922 and the Komsomol Easter of 1923 were disasters in different ways. Stites claims the problem with these events was that “if the performances were salted with antireligious skits, they descended back to carnival; if they were not, they were dull.” (Stites, 298) What is your take on this problem? Could the Bolsheviks have come up with an effective secular replacement for these festivals? If so, what could they have done differently? If not, why not?
3. The Bolsheviks also sought to replace the Church’s life cycle rituals, particularly baptism, weddings, and funerals. Stites tells us that the most successful of the three was Octobering, which replaced baptism. Can you analyze the Octobering ritual? From the Bolshevik point of view, how does it work to not only replace the role of God, but correct other prejudices engendered by religion? Look through the list of revolutionary names on pp. 300-301. Which are your favorites and why? What values do these names convey? What do you think parents would be thinking in giving their child one of these names? Consider Stites’ meditation on the significance of names and naming: how would Octobering with these names help to create a cultural revolution?
4. Octobering, Red Weddings, and especially Red Funerals all ultimately fail to catch on. Why don’t they work as substitutes for traditional baptisms, weddings and funerals? What do the Bolsheviks gets wrong about rituals? What should they have done instead?
5. Unfortunately, we can’t listen to Arseny Avraamov’s Symphony of Sirens. (If you’ve listened to the podcast, you’ll know why!) Even so, what is the story of this piece of music? In what way does it make sense as the music for the new Soviet culture? In what ways does it not make sense? Maynes tells us that “Avraamov thought music was the ultimate communal experience.” Would you characterize this piece as communal? Why or why not?
6. Listen to Alexander Mosolov’s Iron Foundry. What do you hear? (Brainstorm a list as you listen!) What emotions does it evoke in you? What images does it evoke? What features of the musical language identify this piece as avant-garde? How does it incorporate the sounds of the new Soviet life? Do you think factory workers would like to listen this piece? Why or why not?
7. Now listen to Alexandrov’s “Life Has Become Better!” Again, brainstorm a list of sounds, emotions, and images that come to you. How would you describe this piece? What aspects make it proletarian? How is it different form Mosolov’s Iron Foundry? Which do you think would be more appealing to workers and why?
8. Now that we’ve got the sounds in our heads, let’s look at the theories behind them. Start with Arvatov’s “The Proletariat and Leftist Art.” Arvatov begins by laying out the difference between “bourgeois art” and “proletarian art.” Read the first paragraph of the essay. Can you explain this difference, in your own words? Why doesn’t proletarian art exist yet? How will we recognize it when it comes into being?
9. As if that weren’t enough, it turns out there’s a third kind of art: Leftist art, which is the real subject of this essay. Make a close reading of the second full paragraph on p.239 (“Leftist are on the other hand…”) Can you unpack Arvatov’s ideas here? How is Leftist art different from the other two types, and how will it enable proletarian art to develop? Compare this to Lenin’s idea of the Vanguard Party in “What Is To Be Done?”. With this theory of Leftist art, is Arvatov being a good Leninist, or is he just finding a way to justify the art he likes to make?
10. One of the major differences between the Avant-Gardists and the Proletarians was on the issue of intelligibility. For the Proletarians, if workers don’t immediately understand a piece of art, then it doesn’t serve their interests. Look closely at the last paragraph on p.238 and the first paragraph on p.239 (starting from “They shout…”) How does Arvatov counter the Proletarians’ claim? Does he convince you that Leftist art can serve the proletariat’s interests?
11. Finally, let’s turn to the “Ideological Platform of the Russian Association of Proletarian Musicians (RAPM).” Points 1 and 7 together make a bold assertion about the goal of art. How does this fit with the Bolsheviks’ goal of using culture to create a new society? Would the Avant-Gardists necessarily disagree? Do you agree that this can be a goal of art? Do you agree that it is always the goal of art?
12. The Proletarians agree with the Avant-Gardists that there is “bourgeois art” and “proletarian art.” But the Proletarians have a different explanation for the phenomenon that Arvatov calls “Leftist art.” Make a close reading of Points 6 and 9. What point is RAPM making here? How does this demonstrate the difference in perspectives between the two camps? Which way would you characterize The Iron Foundry: Leftist art or bourgeois decadence?
13. On the last two pages, RAPM sets out its vision for the future development of proletarian art. What role do they give to themselves? How does this differ from the role Arvatov gives to the Avant-Gardists? Which side do you expect to emerge triumphant from this debate? Which side has a better strategy? Which side promotes better music?