Only in societies where art and literature are taken so seriously are they regarded as potent and dangerous. The Soviet conviction that culture matters was evident in the attention paid to even minor details of theatrical activity by the highest levels of the state bureaucracy. Unilateral decisions by theater staff were out of the question: every measure taken had to be scrutinized, discussed, and approved, starting with the theater’s Party committee and moving up through various censorship bodies before reaching the Politburo or the Central Committee.
Marx had held that in the communist utopia, artists as a separate caste would cease to exist. Conditions would be such that everyone would be free to be an artist: it was a world in which all workers were Sunday painters, poets, or actors. Lenin, more pragmatically and, perhaps, more cynically, did not trust to the organic evolution of this condition. The proletariat needed guidance by an intellectual elite. As early as his pamphlet What Is to Be Done (1902), he had stated that the economic struggle can “generate only a trade-union consciousness” in reforming existing society. To radicalize the movement and to provide a “revolutionary consciousness” that could create a new society, there needed to be a “vanguard party” of full-time “professionals” “from without” that would lead the proletariat to this end. True revolution required the “profound scientific knowledge … born in the brains” of Marxists sprung from the “bourgeois intelligentsia” (Lenin’s emphasis).
So, from the very outset of the Revolution, these two concepts were set on the road to a head-on collision. Lenin and his chief deputy in the art world, Lunacharsky, maintained the importance of the high culture of the past and the value of the bourgeois intelligentsia in preserving it until such time as the proletariat was mature enough (and socialist enough) to take over. Those further to the Left took the position that art had to be made by and for the proletariat and that all vestiges of bourgeois culture should be extirpated. Expediency and maximalism were at loggerheads. Neither side had a clear victory. At the same time, when Stalin eliminated that stalwart of the utopian position the Proletkul’t and repudiated the policy of “proletarianization” of the culture, he was also calling for writers to be “engineers of the soul” by submerging their need for individual expression in service to a greater cause. Both the bourgeois intellectual and the proletarian amateur were transformed into cogs in the machine for perfecting socialism. Creative activities, to be orthodox, had to contribute to building that movement; the best way to take part in the struggle was to join the Communist Party and trumpet its policies.
- Moscow Art Theater, Fyodor Schechtel, 1902 via Wikimedia Commons
Subsuming all artistic endeavor into one giant purpose had been stipulated in another of Lenin’s statements: “In the Soviet Workers’ and Peasants’ Republic, every educational endeavor, both in politics and in education generally—and in art particularly—must be permeated with the spirit of the proletariat’s class struggle for successfully accomplishing the aims of its dictatorship.”2 The theater, of all the arts the one that speaks most immediately to the public, therefore required intense supervision and repression. The reactions of spectators had to be foreseen and regimented so that the correct political lesson could be learned. Paradoxically, the twentieth-century Russian theater has long been considered, and with some justice, a cornucopia of invention, innovation, and unbridled creativity. The names Stanislavsky, Meyerhold, Mayakovsky, Tairov, Eisenstein, Bulgakov, Okhlopkov, Éfros, and Lyubimov are bywords for theatrical brilliance. Nevertheless, every action in the theater between 1917 and 1992, whether traditional or experimental, Party dictated or dissenting, amateur or professional, was taken in reaction to a political event, decree, or atmosphere. Unlike a painter who might hide his most personal creations in the cellar, showing them only to trustworthy visitors, the theater artist had to work out in the open. That so many extraordinary accomplishments saw the light of day is all the more remarkable given the obstacle course set in their path.
Lenin grew irritated by theater that seemed to shirk its civic responsibility; he blamed both the bourgeois Art Theater for wasting its talents on such sentimental trash as Cricket on the Hearth and the futurists for perversion and obscurantism. Such “deviations” had to be brought into line. In 1919 a decree was enacted to “unite the theatrical field,” and a Central Theatrical Committee was created as part of the People’s Commissariat of Enlightenment. This was part of a general trend as the Soviet government began to centralize, indeed, to overcentralize, every aspect of society, including the realms of art and culture. Political ideology became the touchstone of worth. Artists were refashioned as “cultural workers” and, as individuals, had to be subordinated to the collective. Companies were given more importance than stars, and the greatest merit was attached to works that furthered the social struggle. Ideology trumped aesthetics in matters of art.
Excerpted from The Soviet Theater: A Documentary History.
Copyright © 2014 by Yale University. All rights reserved.
Laurence Senelick is Fletcher Professor of Drama at Tufts University and a world-renowned scholar of Russian theater. His latest book, edited with Sergei Ostrovsky, is The Soviet Theater.
2 Vladimir Lenin, draft of resolution “O proletarskoy kul’ture” [On proletarian culture], in Sochineniya [Works] (Moscow: Gos. Izd-vo, 1926–27), 14:409.