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2 Institution Building: The Proletkult's Place in Early Soviet Culture
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Institution Building:
The Proletkult's Place in Early Soviet Culture

The Proletkult was conceived in the revolution and took root during the Russian Civil War. Its transformation from a local workers' organization into an important national institution was both enriched and complicated by the tumultuous political environment in which it grew. An ally of the new order, it expanded with the government's aid. At the same time, its outspoken demands for independence and power brought it into conflict with many other institutions, including the Communist Party and the state's cultural bureaucracy.

During the first years of the Soviet regime, all new institutions were in flux and in potential competition. In order to build a social base and justify their organization's existence, Proletkult leaders laid claims to a distinct constituency and a special role within society. In their view the Proletkult was to be the industrial proletariat's independent advocate in the field of culture, an agenda that was partially determined by the movement's prerevolutionary predecessors. However, the precise meaning of Proletkult autonomy and the limits to its authority were structured gradually through dissension and dialogue with its many cultural rivals. Its identity was also shaped by clashes between the national organization and its provincial affiliates, which were only too eager to interpret autonomy as an endorsement of local control.


Organizing Soviet Culture

The October Revolution led to an explosion in the number of new cultural groups and organizations. Independent clubs and societies sprang up, as did cultural sections for unions, soviets, factories, Komsomol groups, cooperatives, and the Red Army.[1] The state's educational apparatus financed theaters, meeting halls, and schools. Open lectures abounded on themes from religion to Esperanto. New festivals honoring revolutionary holidays, such as May Day, brought enthusiasts into the streets and the public squares. This remarkable expansion gave early Soviet culture a great vitality, although critics wondered if quantity was not completely eclipsing quality. To the theater director Prince Sergei Volkonskii, the population seemed to be gripped with some kind of organizational fever. Amazed by the mushrooming of new theaters, Volkonskii wrote: "Yes, if art consisted in numbers, it would be possible to say that the dramatic art flourished in Russia."[2]

The Soviet government recognized immediately that education and artistic creation were powerful channels through which to establish a new social and political ethos.[3] As soon as they took power, the Bolsheviks began a structural reorganization of national cultural life. Despite the precarious position of the regime, the state offered funds, physical resources, and food rations to a broad array of revolutionary cultural circles. At the same time, it denied support to institutions whose sympathies were suspect, even intervening to close them down.

The People's Commissariat of Enlightenment, known by its


Russian acronym Narkompros, burgeoned into a complex bureaucratic structure with seventeen different divisions. It sought to control state schools and universities as well as concert halls, theaters, and museums. The Red Army sponsored theaters, reading rooms, and literacy programs. The Central Economic Council (Vesenkha) hoped to control technical education, and the trade unions devised their own cultural divisions. City soviets financed and influenced local schools and artistic centers. In addition, a whole complex of educational societies and circles flourished under the loose collective control of several state bureaucracies.[4] Because the responsibilities of these new groups were not clearly defined, they quickly came into conflict.

All early Soviet institutions struggled against what was called "parallelism," the duplication of services by competing bureaucratic systems. The revolution raised difficult questions about governmental organization that were only slowly answered during the first years of the regime. Political activists disputed the authority of the central state, the role of the Communist Party within it, and the influence national agencies should wield over local groups. Altercations over scarce resources and institutional authority were intertwined with theoretical debates over the ideal structure of the new polity.

Cultural agencies competed for funds, staff, and control of a clearly defined constituency. Who, for example, would be responsible for the cultural life of trade unionists? Individual factories often had their own educational circles, some with long histories, which were separate from union programs.


Narkompros had an Adult Education Division (Vneshkol'nyi Otdel ) with special activities for workers.[5] The Central Economic Council wanted to direct workers' technical education, and the Proletkult hoped to gain them as candidates for its artistic and pedagogical projects.

Some disputes, such as the long-running battle between Narkompros, the trade unions, and the Central Economic Council over the purpose of workers' education, were political and philosophical. Narkompros, and particularly its leader, Lunacharskii, wanted school curricula to be broad and well-balanced enough to educate accomplished citizens. Trade unions and Vesenkha, however, were more interested in vocational training that would provide a competent labor force.[6] Other disputes were simply bureaucratic rivalries over power. Disturbed by these wranglings, Nadezhda Krupskaia, head of the Adult Education Division, continually warned cultural workers to avoid the waste and confusion engendered by competing parallel programs.[7] Yet even her solution—to have all other institutions, including the army, unions, and the Proletkult, remove themselves from the field of adult education altogether and give exclusive control to her division—was part of the problem.

These entangled agendas were further confused because national institutions exercised little authority over their local affiliates. Factory workers ignored the careful arrangements devised by central trade unions. Teachers rejected the de-


tailed curriculum proposals worked out by Narkompros. Complex deals dividing the responsibilities of national bureaucracies, such as those that were eventually arranged between Narkompros and the Proletkult, were disregarded by lower-level organizations. The revolution was initially a centrifugal force that challenged the traditional overcentralization of the old regime. In the postrevolutionary process of state construction central institutions increasingly attempted to reverse the trend, asserting more and more power over their affiliates. Nonetheless, there was still much room for local intransigence, if not local control.

In this contest for cultural influence the Proletkult started in a strong position. The regime needed allies, and Proletkultists were partisans of the new order. For this they were rewarded with funds, physical resources, and the benevolent protection of the cultural commissar, Lunacharskii. Yet as soon as the organization began to act, this early alliance was threatened because the Proletkult laid claim to areas of responsibility that other cultural organizations wanted for themselves.

Autonomy and Identity: Proletkult, Narkompros, and the Communist Party

Although the workers and intellectuals who met in Petrograd in October 1917 to lay the foundations for the Proletkult were preparing for revolution, they did not envision the consequences the impending upheaval would have on the structure they were creating. The Petrograd Proletkult had been shaped in opposition to the Kerensky regime's perceived cultural inadequacies. Now, when the Bolsheviks came to power, the Proletkult refused to give up its autonomy, much to the surprise of many advocates of the Soviet state. Its partisans insisted that an independent Proletkult would enhance the proletariat's position in the new political order.

Lunacharskii had already provided a justification for this


position when he insisted that there were four organizational forms of the workers' movement—political parties, trade unions, cooperatives, and cultural circles—and that the last was no less important than the others. In the same spirit Proletkultists—combining unions and cooperatives under the rubric of "economic organizations"—began to write about the three paths to workers' power through economics, politics, and culture.[8] In institutional terms this meant that unions, the Communist Party, and the Proletkult should pursue their own agendas, free from state intervention. Implicitly, it also denied the party any special power over Proletkult or union affairs.

The Proletkult's claims to autonomy (samostoiatel'nost' ) and its slogan of "three paths to workers' power" quickly became controversial. When the Proletkult lost favor with the Communist Party at the end of the Civil War, critics chose to interpret its initial demand for independence as an anti-Soviet, anticommunist posture. This negative or oppositional explanation has colored subsequent scholarship to such an extent that it is difficult to recapture what autonomy meant to Proletkult members. Because the organization's best known leader, Aleksandr Bogdanov, never rejoined the party after his ouster before the revolution, many commentators have assumed that the Proletkult's claim to independence was an implicit critique of the Communist Party's role.[9]

However, if we examine the Proletkult's demands for autonomy more closely, it becomes apparent that they were directed much more against the state than against the party. Proletkult theorists did not equate state and party power. For


them the Communist Party, like their own organization and trade unions, was an expression of proletarian class interests. The government, by contrast, had to take the needs of non-proletarian classes into account, and this necessity made it a suspect partner for workers' groups. In the minds of Proletkult theorists only pure working-class institutions could usher in the dictatorship of the proletariat. "In questions of culture we are immediate socialists ," proclaimed the editorial board of the central Proletkult journal Proletarian Culture (Proletarskaia kul'tura ). "We demand that the proletariat start right now, immediately, to create its own socialist forms of thought, feeling, and daily life , independent of alliances or combinations of political forces. And in this creation, political allies—the rural and urban poor—cannot and must not control [the proletariat's] work."[10]

Proletkultists were not the only ones to draw a sharp distinction between state and party authority as the new system took shape. The function of the Communist Party within the state was not predetermined in 1917.[11] As party members gained dominant positions in the central government, some revolutionaries, including Evgenii Preobrazhenskii, suggested that the party be disbanded altogether because it duplicated the structure of the state.[12] These ideas also found favor at the local level, where many activists initially assumed that the soviets would take precedence over the party bureaucracy.[13]


To be sure, some leaders envisioned the Proletkult as the Communist Party's equal, which lent a peculiar bravado to their statements. In this regard the most extreme was Pavel Lebedev-Polianskii, the first Proletkult national president. He insisted on a kind of symmetry between the Proletkult and the Communist Party; if no one questioned the party's need for independence, they should not question his organization's autonomy either. "If a proletarian political organization is necessary and its existence does not contradict the institution of Soviet power, then the Proletkult is also necessary as an independent workers' organization. Like the party, it will not contradict the basis of Soviet power, but rather will strengthen it."[14] There might come a time when the Proletkult was no longer necessary, but by then the Communist Party would not be needed either.

Not all of the organization's members defined their relationship to the party in such provocative terms. Instead they felt that the Proletkult could aid the Bolsheviks' cause. "Of course Communists play a leading role in the Proletkult," wrote one activist in Tambov. "But the Communist Party's hegemony is in essence a political dictatorship; its performance in the field of cultural construction leaves much to be desired. Therefore the Proletkult remains the pure dictatorship of the proletariat in the creation of socialist values."[15]

Proletkultists did not present themselves as opponents of the Communist Party. Indeed, the national organization had a high percentage of Bolsheviks among its leaders, including Lebedev-Polianskii. At the first national conference in 1918 over half the delegates were party members. By the 1920 conference the share had risen to two–thirds, and the only person on the national presidium who was not a Bolshevik was Bogdanov.[16] Prominent leaders included people with impeccable party credentials, such as the old Bolsheviks Anna


Dodonova and Fedor Blagonravov, who had helped to instigate the revolution in Moscow, and the union activist Vladimir Kossior, whose brother would later join Stalin's central committee.[17] Some participants, such as Karl Ozol-Prednek, a leader in both the Petrograd and the national organizations, even asserted that only party members should be allowed to join the movement.[18]

The Proletkult's first serious clashes over its autonomous status were with representatives of the state's cultural bureaucracy, not with the Communist Party. In fact, in these early altercations Lebedev-Polianskii suggested that the Proletkult would more willingly accept subordination to the party than to Narkompros.[19] Only as the distinction between party and state power became increasingly blurred was the Proletkult's opposition to state control increasingly interpreted as opposition to the Soviet system itself.[20]

Conflicts between the Proletkult and Narkompros began soon after the organization started operation. Already early in 1918 leaders of the Petrograd Proletkult refused to cooperate with efforts to create a citywide theater consortium, insisting that they would not align themselves with nonproletarian groups.[21] At the founding conference for the Moscow Proletkult in February 1918 delegates laid claim to vast areas of competence that extended far beyond any narrowly defined


cultural sphere. Speakers considered ways to improve workers' hygiene and expand the city's cafeteria system. Lecturers on educational issues endorsed measures to start labor schools, technical education courses, and to create a proletarian university for the city's workers. They also proposed plans to direct the education of all proletarian children.[22] The broad range of topics raised a host of organizational questions. Just where would the Proletkult's responsibilities end and the government's begin? Did it intend to satisfy all of the proletariat's cultural and educational needs? What would the role of Narkompros be?

State cultural workers were clearly alarmed by the Proletkult's ambitions. In the spring of 1918 Lunacharskii called a series of meetings to discuss relations between the government and the Proletkult.[23] State representatives argued that Proletkultists did not understand how the revolution had changed the political landscape. The new state was the expression of proletarian rule, even if it did have to consider the needs of other classes. Krupskaia worried that the Proletkult would detract workers from the important task of state construction and, because of its autonomy, turn into a haven for anti-Soviet forces. Dora Elkina was convinced that an independent Proletkult would duplicate the Adult Education Division's work. Even the sympathetic Lunacharskii wondered whether the Proletkult was really the proper organ to create a proletarian culture, as it had already attracted nonproletarians to its ranks.[24]

In these discussions the Proletkult was represented by Fedor Kalinin, head of the government's Division of Proletar-


ian Culture, which had been created by Lunacharskii in 1917.[25] Pavel Lebedev-Polianskii, chair of the organizing bureau for the national Proletkult, was also on hand to defend the organization.[26] They both contended that the government had no right to tell them what to do. Because the Proletkult and Narkompros had different purposes, they should be allowed to maintain separate institutional identities. If no one demanded that unions become part of the Commissariat of Labor, or that the Communist Party itself cease to exist because there was now a Soviet government, Lebedev-Polianskii argued, then no one should question the separate identity of the Proletkult from that of Narkompros.[27] Their forceful arguments, combined with disagreements among Narkompros representatives, won the advocates of autonomy an initial victory.

Yet despite their abrasive tone, Kalinin and Lebedev-Polianskii took government fears of parallelism seriously. Working together with other Proletkultists associated with the new journal Proletarian Culture , they sought to define a separate sphere of cultural activity that would not duplicate Narkompros work. Already in the first issue of the journal in March 1918, Lebedev-Polianskii wrote that purely educational programs could be left to other groups. The proletariat obviously had to assimilate the accomplishments of past culture, but that was not the Proletkult's task. Its role was to awaken independent creative activity (samodeiatel'nost' ) within the working class.[28]

Proletarian Cuhure 's editorial board, which included Alek-


sandr Bogdanov, defined the Proletkult as a laboratory and compared its functions to those of the Communist Party. The party was a laboratory for political affairs where the direction of government policies could be planned. "The proletariat's cultural-educational organizations are also laboratories to realize the revolutionary-cultural program of the proletariat on a national level and then, of course, in the world."[29] By choosing this particular description, Proletkult leaders implied that the organization would be a controlled environment that served a restricted following and that studied carefully selected projects. By definition a laboratory was not open to everyone.

There are clear links to the Vperedist platform in this formulation of the Proletkult's mission. This is not surprising because key veterans of that prewar movement—Bogdanov, Lebedev-Polianskii, and Kalinin—all helped to shape it. Rejecting the idea that the Proletkult should educate the entire proletarian population, they hoped to capture the interest of a working-class vanguard particularly suited for their cultural laboratory. Let Narkompros take control of mundane educational concerns; the Proletkult would take charge of cultural creation.

However, this division of cultural terrain was not simply the result of prerevolutionary conceptions. It was reached through dialogue and conflict with Narkompros. The Proletkult's central planners were intelligent enough to realize that if the organization's independence was going to be respected, they would have to limit its power. Thus they backed away from expansive claims, directly contradicting the ideas of many local followers. Participants in Moscow and Petrograd advanced very ambitious schemes, with some members even demanding that the Proletkult become the "ideological leader of all public education and enlightenment."[30] The conception


of the Proletkult as a laboratory, with all the restrictions that this idea implied, tempered these demands and thus marked an astute trade-off with the government. The grandiose vision of the Proletkult as a rival to Narkompros was renounced in return for greater independence from the state.

Forging the National Agenda

The Proletkult was initially well supplied by the new government. In the first half of 1918 Narkompros gave it a budget of over 9,200,000 rubles, compared with 32,500,000 for the entire Adult Education Division.[31] The Petrograd organization received a large and luxurious building, located on a street off Nevsky Prospect, that had formerly been a club for nobles. It was soon rechristened the "Palace of Proletarian Culture," and the street renamed "Proletkult Street" (Ulitsa Proletkul'ta ), a name that remained long after the organization's demise.[32] This pattern was repeated in many other cities and towns. In Moscow the Proletkult took over the mansion of the industrialist Savva Morozov, located on one of the city's major thoroughfares.[33] In the area near Kologriv, Kostroma province, Proletkult groups moved into the manor houses of local nobles. The new Tambov organization occupied the elegant building of the Land Bank.[34]

The state also facilitated the creation of the national or-


ganization. The Division for Proletarian Culture in Narkompros, headed by Kalinin, became a major planning center. When the government moved from Petrograd to Moscow in March 1918, the new capital became the center for Proletkult activity. Five representatives from the Moscow group, including Bogdanov and the cooperative activist Stefan Krivtsov, joined the Petrograd leaders Lebedev-Polianskii, Kalinin, Platon Kerzhentsev, and others to plan the organization's first national conference.[35] They drew up the conference agenda, decided which groups should be represented, and sent agitators to the provinces to drum up local support. Through the Proletkult's expanding press, especially Proletarian Culture , they tried to popularize their vision of the Proletkult as an independent cultural institution designed to represent a distinct and limited constituency.

The preparations for the first national conference were elaborate. Soviet newspapers and Proletkult journals announced the agenda and guidelines for participation.[36] Kalinin's Narkompros division distributed mass mailings to provincial cultural circles, along with detailed instructions for propagandists who were sent out to solicit local support.[37] Vasilii Ignatov, the proletarian actor from Petrograd, turned up in Tula in August 1918 to get an endorsement from the provincial Communist Party.[38] In Ivanovo-Voznesensk a member of the organizing committee, E. P. Khersonskaia, appealed to local factory workers to elect delegates for the upcoming meeting.[39]

With much fanfare 330 delegates and 234 guests convened


in Moscow in September 1918, one of the most difficult stages of the Civil War. Two weeks earlier, a Socialist Revolutionary had tried to assassinate Lenin. Siberia, the Ukraine, and South Russia were in the hands of anti-Soviet forces, and the British had begun their occupation of Archangel. The Red Army had only started to make headway in its campaign along the Volga. Yet these national emergencies did little to mar the festive spirit of the gathering. Delegates enjoyed folk music and revolutionary songs performed by the Moscow organization's new orchestra and heard dramatic readings by the Petrograd Proletkult theater. Pravda reported that the auditorium of the Women's Higher Courses, where the conference was held, was filled to overflowing.[40] Although there is no extant list of conference delegates or the groups they represented, the conference proceedings indicate that they came mainly from working-class organizations—unions, factory circles, clubs, and cooperatives.[41]

The organizational issues that had preoccupied conference planners were among the first items on the program. Lebedev-Polianskii used the opening address to outline his conception of the Proletkult's relationship to the state. He argued in favor of an autonomous Proletkult that would pursue carefully circumscribed cultural tasks.[42] His proposal, which had already been elaborated at length in Proletarian Culture , was opposed from two different sides. On the one hand were those whom one participant called the "maximalists," who believed that the planners' vision was much too modest.[43] On the other


hand were those who felt that the Proletkult should soften its claims for independence.

The maximalists objected that the lines drawn between Proletkult and Narkompros work were artificial. The Proletkult should not relinquish control over general educational programs because there could be no cultural creation without education. Some insisted that the new organization take control of all the cultural needs of the proletariat, leaving no responsibilities for Narkompros. They even proposed that the Proletkult assume responsibility for the education of all proletarian children.[44] Even more radical was the demand that the Proletkult take over Narkompros altogether. "Only the Proletkult, and no one else, can achieve a revolutionary culture," proclaimed the Petrograd art director, A. A. Andreev.[45]

Those on the other side, the "minimalists," showed little sympathy for Proletkult autonomy. Echoing the concerns of Narkompros workers, they feared that the Proletkult could ultimately weaken Soviet culture by making exaggerated demands on the new state's resources. Because there were so few cultural workers in the provinces to begin with, one delegate objected, the expansion of the Proletkult would only decrease existing groups' chances of survival. As one Moscow metalworker insisted, "We have a Commissariat of Enlightenment. We should unite around it and not create independent parallel organizations."[46] However, neither of these alternative approaches swayed the convention leaders or the majority of the delegates; resolutions worked out in advance by the planning committee were accepted with very few minor alterations.

Although Proletkult leaders had agreed to restrict the organization's powers, the cultural agenda they presented at the conference was still expansive. Bogdanov expounded on the need for a proletarian science, a topic he had already developed in his voluminous writings before the revolution. To realize this goal, he proposed to create a special proletarian


university where participants would fashion a proletarian encyclopedia, codifying working-class knowledge in the same way that the eighteenth-century French encyclopedia had done for the bourgeoisie. Cultural workers discussed ways to shape a proletarian music, art, literature, and theater through special artistic studios. They planned to popularize their creations through their own publications, exhibitions, and performances. Advocates of workers' clubs believed the Proletkult could create a new kind of proletarian collective where the old habits of daily life would be transformed. The delegates envisioned special circles to discover inventive ways to educate the young. They even hoped to found an international organization to spread the idea of proletarian culture from revolutionary Russia to the rest of the world.[47]

The sobering problem of funding was raised only once during the conference. Although the Proletkult was autonomous, it still expected Narkompros to foot the bills. The government would supply the central Proletkult with a subsidy, to be distributed among provincial affiliates. But because financial dependence on the state clearly contradicted the organization's claims to independence, the central leaders held out the hope that their affiliates would soon discover their own means of support. "All independent proletarian cultural-educational organizations receiving monetary aid from state organs when they start and expand their activities must strive to exist on their own funds."[48]

One of the most important results of the meeting was the election of a governing board for the national Proletkult. Delegates chose a central committee, an editorial board for Proletarian Culture , now the official journal of the national organization, and confirmed Proletkult representatives to Narkompros. Not surprisingly, the elections reflected already


existing power relations. Lebedev-Polianskii, who had served as both the chair of the conference organizing committee and the chair of the conference itself, was elected the first national president. The other officers, Fedor Kalinin and Aleksei Samobytnik-Mashirov as vice presidents and Vasilii Ignatov as secretary, had been involved in the Proletkult from the start. Aleksandr Bogdanov was chosen for the central committee and the editorial board of Proletarian Culture . The rest of the central committee members came largely from Moscow and Petrograd.[49]

The shape of the national organization was elaborated in discussions and resolutions. At its head was to be a central committee, chosen from an elected national council. More precise descriptions of the Proletkult hierarchy were approved at the first meeting of the national council in January 1919.[50] The basic Proletkult cell was to be the factory, where all workers interested in culture would congregate. Factory circles would unite to form a district (raionnyi ) Proletkult, and these would combine into a city organization. City groups would then unite at the provincial level, and from this broadly based pyramid the national organization would emerge.[51] At each stage Proletkult operations would be governed by a democratically elected council. This plan owed something to both party and union organizational structures and in fact proposed that the territorial divisions for the Proletkult be the same as those for unions. Although Proletkultists may have renounced their claims to control all of Soviet culture, they clearly had very ambitious plans; they envisioned a base in every factory in Soviet Russia.

The national structure now seemed secure. By building up


from factory organizations, the Proletkult meant to guarantee a proletarian following. Its autonomous standing was intended to protect the organization's unique class identity. Finally, the hierarchical framework outlined in the national charter aimed to give the central leadership enough power to set the standards and guidelines for local networks. But this elegant scheme failed at every level. As the Proletkult began its rapid expansion throughout Soviet-held territory, central leaders began to face some very disquieting circumstances. The careful arrangements they had made with Narkompros were ignored or misunderstood. The Proletkult's highly valued autonomy often proved difficult to realize, and local groups shaped their own agendas with little concern for national programs. The careful plans of Proletkult theorists were quickly rent asunder as the needs and desires of local followers began to assert themselves.

The Local Reception

"We are entering the beginning of a new Renaissance," pronounced one orator in Perm at a celebration to mark the opening of the local Proletkult in the summer of 1918.[52] His hyperbole conveys some of the enthusiasm that greeted the Proletkult in the first years of Soviet power. The popularity of this cultural movement astounded even its most optimistic supporters. New organizations sprang up "like mushrooms after a spring rain," to quote the cliché advocates used to describe its proliferation. Proletkult expansion was so rapid and chaotic that the central organization could not control or even successfully monitor it. New groups opened and closed in waves, victims of the Civil War, financial problems, or local struggles over cultural resources. To make things even more confusing, some circles called themselves Proletkults without having any ties to the center at all.


During the spring and summer of 1918 a few groups started operation in provincial cities and towns, inspired by press reports and the efforts of propagandists sent from Moscow and Petrograd.[53] But the real organizational upsurge began after the September conference, which received extensive coverage in the national press.[54] "The national conference opened up a new world of thought for us," wrote one participant from Ivanovo-Voznesensk. He and others returned home laden with masses of material and set to work to found local chapters.[55] A representative from the Tver province tailors' union became a strong booster back in his hometown. A performance by the Petrograd Proletkult theater troupe convinced him that the organization could make a difference in Tver's cultural life.[56]

The Proletkult quickly captured the imagination of many cultural activists, and the center already listed 147 local affiliates by the end of 1918.[57] Although this is not a completely reliable estimate, it still shows a remarkable increase in just a few months. As one participant remarked, the organization seemed to be growing by the hour, not by the day.[58] By the fall


of 1920 the national organization determined that there were some three hundred Proletkults in Soviet Russia.[59] The Petrograd journal The Future (Griadushchee ) claimed an even more impressive network, with 1,384 organizations in all.[60] These vastly different totals show the frustrating inaccuracy of Proletkult records, but the lower figure is a better estimate because it is the one that the national organization repeatedly used.

Provincial branches were not shaped according to a standard pattern. Ideally, they were founded at organizing conferences, such as the ones held in Petrograd and Moscow. However, some began operation without much public participation. On the peripheries of Russia or in the battle zones of the Civil War, new groups opened and closed depending on the success of the Red Armies. In Kiev there were three separate efforts to start a Proletkult from 1918 to 1920.[61] Central organizers sent out from Moscow helped to found a handful of provincial groups, but most were the result of local initiative. Workers who had been mobilized from one town to the next


during the Civil War also helped to familiarize the populace with the new organization, and Proletkult agitational troupes performing at the front sometimes inspired local audiences to start circles of their own.[62]

Local unions, factory committees, soviets, Communist Party sectors, and Narkompros divisions all helped to make the Proletkult popular.[63] In various combinations they contributed funding and supplies to help support new organizations. The Tula province soviet gave a small stipend from its budget in 1918 and early 1919.[64] The organization at the Lenin State Sugar Factory in Kursk province got part of its support from the Sugar Workers' Union.[65] The Tambov Proletkult received a modest 2,000 ruble donation from the city's party sector.[66] In the process of expansion local circles also made their own enemies. The Izhevsk Proletkult in Viatka province ran up against opposition from the local party committee, even though many of the leaders were party members.[67] In the Tver province town of Kashin trade union activists insisted that the Proletkult be subordinated to their cultural apparatus.[68]

A dazzling variety of motivations was at work in Proletkult formation. For some groups opening a Proletkult was a way to get funds for preexisting projects, but for others it was an expression of their wholehearted endorsement of the aims of


the central planners. As a result, an institution calling itself a Proletkult could have many functions—an entertainment center, a surrogate Narkompros division, a village club offering literacy classes, or a tightly organized and exclusive factory cell. The flexibility of the Proletkult's identity partially explains its popularity.

It is difficult to determine precisely why people chose to join the Proletkult rather than one of the many other cultural circles available, but proximity surely must have been a factor. In some areas Proletkult organizations began work before state educational agencies and offered the most comprehensive local programs.[69] In large cities like Moscow and Petrograd the Proletkult sponsored a broad network of neighborhood clubs in working-class districts. When the Moscow organization tried to consolidate its clubs into larger and more effective units, participation sank dramatically.[70] Some people may have become members by default. The leadership of the Tula Armament Factory's cultural commission, begun before the October Revolution, petitioned to become a Proletkult organization in 1919 in order to gain additional funds for its theater.[71] As a result, factory theater enthusiasts were transformed into Proletkultists, perhaps without much personal commitment.

The Proletkult's organizational principles clearly inspired local participants. Some embraced Proletkult autonomy and enthusiastically endorsed the movement's independent stance toward the state.[72] The presidium of the Kostroma Proletkult proclaimed that the Narkompros Adult Education Division, as a government organ staffed mainly with intellec-


tuals, could not represent the proletariat's needs as well as a working-class organization.[73] According to one commentator small rural towns opened up Proletkults alongside Narkompros divisions because the organizers hoped the Proletkult would offer something better suited to local needs than public education alone.[74] Even Krupskaia, no friend of the Proletkult, conceded in early 1919 that the rival institution held great popular appeal. "It is characteristic that the public turns to the Proletkult and not the Commissariat because we are not tied to the masses."[75]

Despite the center's elaborate organizational goals, it exercised little control over the Proletkult's rapid growth. Requests for money, materials and, most of all, for leaders and staff members came from all kinds of cultural groups. The overwhelmed central committee responded by sending out copies of Proletarian Culture , the Proletkult's organizational plan, and the printed protocols of the first conference. But the committee did not have enough staff to assign to local organizations. Indeed, key leaders were frequently mobilized to the front, including Lebedev-Polianskii himself.[76] Even if the new circles requested help, in most cases they would at best receive a stipend and a packet of materials that they were left to decipher and implement themselves.

With or without central guidance, local enthusiasts devised their own interpretations of the Proletkult's mission. Some clearly saw it as a continuation of the adult education circles that had begun well before the October Revolution. A Kaluga


educational and self-help society that had been established in 1914 now applied to the central Proletkult for aid. The society's chairman insisted that he had worked for the Proletkult's aims since his group had started, even though it was obvious that his circle did not cater exclusively to the working class[77]

The educational division in the small town of Novosil, in Tula province, believed that the Proletkult continued the tradition of people's houses, local cultural centers with long prerevolutionary histories. The division president forwarded reports to Narkompros explaining that the low cultural level of the population in his district could be remedied if they started an active cultural center. The local population had nowhere to go and nothing to do with its free time. The solution was to build a Proletkult center. In fact the town really needed two centers, a small wooden Proletkult right away and a large brick one for future activities.[78]

Even under the best of circumstances, the careful distinctions between Proletkult and Narkompros work were difficult to implement. Some organizers refused to give up their maximalist claims to cultural control. Vasilii Ignatov, national leader and head of the Tula organization, was a particularly brazen offender. He had helped to formulate very ambitious programs for both the Petrograd and the Moscow organizations. When he moved on to Tula in early 1919, he insisted that the Proletkult take control of all city and provincial theaters and cinemas and even seize all available photographic equipment for its projects.[79] To solve potential disputes with Narkompros, he proposed to take charge of the Proletkult and


the local Adult Education Division simultaneously, a suggestion that was categorically rejected by the national organization.[80]

In other cases Narkompros workers were guilty of violating Proletkult autonomy. In Izhevsk the Proletkult was started by the head of the local Adult Education Division, who ran it as the artistic subsection of her own department. She formed a choir and a small theater group, both of which were open to the population at large. Participants included workers, teachers, and white-collar employees.[81] Dissatisfied with this arrangement, several local workers sent a representative to Moscow to gather information about how the organization should be structured. When the representative returned, armed with issues of Proletarian Culture , the dissatisfied workers decided to establish the Proletkult on an independent footing. They held a local conference and elected the metalworker and party member Andrei Kozochkin, one of the critics of the first organization, as their president.[82]

When local Proletkults started work before Narkompros divisions were formed, they were tempted to take charge of comprehensive educational programs far exceeding the limitations set by the central leaders. In Vladikavkaz, a major battle zone of the Civil War, a Proletkult opened in 1918 before Soviet power was firmly established in the area. The new organization was composed of representatives from the local soviet, Socialist Revolutionary and Communist parties, the teachers' union, the theater workers' union, and the central bureau of labor unions. It operated an art school and a workers' club, but the most lively sections were those for agitation and preschool education. The Proletkult sent organizers out into the surrounding mountains to gather support for Soviet power. It opened literacy classes for the local population and


sponsored very successful courses for children.[83] In this instance the Proletkult functioned as the local pro-Soviet educational institution.

In distant Vladivostok the Proletkult also served a very broad educational function. It was founded in 1920 by the proletarian writer Aleksandr Alekseevich Bogdanov (no relation to the central leader), who had gone to Siberia as a Proletkult organizer.[84] Bogdanov was driven further east by Kolchak's forces and ended up in Vladivostok in early 1920. With the help of unions, the Communist Party, and the leftist intelligentsia, he quickly organized a Proletkult. The zemstvo government in power gave its qualified support, and the new organization assumed a similar role to the one the Petrograd Proletkult had claimed in 1917, serving as an educational and cultural base for the city's working-class population. It sponsored lecture series, classes, festivals, and artistic workshops. Local teachers gave their services, as did two well-known futurist poets residing in the city, David Burliuk and Nikolai Chuzhak. Because Vladivostok was entirely cut off from Moscow by the war, this circle existed without the aid or even the knowledge of the central organization.[85]

The pyramidlike structure envisioned by central planners—where factory Proletkults banded together to form citywide groups, and these combined into provincial Proletkults—never materialized. Many factory organizations operated independently, without any ties to city or provincial bodies; city-level Proletkults were formed in areas with no factories; and there were even some provincial organizations with no infrastructure at all. This chaotic situation enormously complicated the center's efforts to transmit funding


and information and of course to establish control over the rapidly growing enterprise. Indeed, much of the central committee's time was spent trying to discover just what was going on in the provinces. Although the Proletkult's expansion was an impressive accomplishment, it was not clear just what was being created—a loose cultural alliance or a self-conscious and purposeful force in the new state.

In the first years of the Soviet regime Proletkult advocates struggled to define a coherent identity and a secure national structure. Most of their problems were not unique. All early Soviet institutions confronted the confusion of parallelism, learning to defend their constituencies from rival groups. Similarly, all new central bureaucracies found it hard to shape a smoothly working national network, and the dislocations of revolution and war greatly complicated the task. We can add to this list the familiar complaints of poor staffing, funding, and communication, grievances that fill the protocols of all institutions from village soviets to national commissariats.

In some respects the Proletkult was in a very fortunate position. Because of Lunacharskii's intervention, its independence, however limited, was protected by its closest competitor, Narkompros. Thus national leaders could quickly lay claims to a distinct place within the confusing array of cultural institutions. The deals they struck with Narkompros were intelligent ones. The Proletkult would not be just another cultural organization; instead it would be a creative "laboratory," with all the exclusivity that this implied. It would cater to a specialized proletarian audience involved in cultural creation and leave standard educational duties to groups that served the general population. And yet the potential for confusion, misunderstanding, and resentment in these arrangements was enormous. Although the Proletkult was formally autonomous, at the local level it depended on the good-


will and support of potential rivals to secure a stable base. Many of the conflicts supposedly resolved at the national level were played out again and again in the provinces.

The Proletkult also faced peculiar difficulties raised by its ambitious cultural agenda. Demands for autonomy and independent action (samostoiatel'nost ' and samodeiatel'nost ') evoked a sympathetic local response. But such beliefs necessarily fed centrifugal forces, taking power away from national organs. These principles not only legitimated the national Proletkult's challenges to the state's cultural bureaucracy; they also encouraged participants to shape their own institutions to serve local needs.

New Proletkults were formed for many reasons—to continue educational projects conceived long before the revolution or to agitate for a Soviet victory in the Civil War. In the process participants devised an impressive array of cultural programs, from traveling theatrical studios to literacy classes, and they also opened their doors to a very broad audience. Proletkult theorists' commitment to creative independence unwittingly sanctioned this diversity and undercut all efforts to create a cohesive national movement.


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