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