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Introduction
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Introduction

In October 1919 Petrograd, home of the Russian Revolution, was a devastated city. Severe food shortages had prompted the exodus of large parts of the population. To make a difficult situation even worse, the White Army general N. N. Iudenich began an assault on the city, bringing his armies almost to the suburbs. Yet this emergency did not stop a respected theater director from holding a lecture series on the history of art in an organization called the Proletkult, even though the audience changed constantly because of military mobilizations. At the same time, the Proletkult theater was preparing a performance for the second anniversary of the revolution, a play written by a Red Army soldier who had helped to storm the Winter Palace.[1]

This dramatic mix of political insecurity, physical privation, and cultural creation was not unusual in revolutionary Russia. Similar episodes can easily be found in contemporary journals and newspapers and in the memoirs of cultural activists. They illustrate quite graphically that the proponents of revolution were not willing to limit their goals to the establishment of a new political and economic order. They hoped to create a new cultural order as well.


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Of course culture is an ambiguous term with many different meanings, ranging from the shared values and assumptions of an entire society to a simple synonym for fine art. Bolsheviks held no common definition, and Lenin himself used the word in strikingly different ways. Sometimes he meant the accumulated knowledge of educated elites, other times the civilized accomplishments of modern industrial societies, such as cleanliness and punctuality.[2] Together with his Bolshevik colleagues, he realized that cultural transformation was an integral part of the revolutionary process, but precisely what this meant for the new government was not immediately apparent. The blueprints for building a socialist culture were no clearer than those for a socialist polity.

Revolutions invariably challenge the cultural foundations of society, whether the participants consciously acknowledge this or not. Russian revolutionaries, like their Jacobin predecessors, welcomed the challenge. The transformation of Russian culture was the topic of wide-ranging debates in the early Soviet years. All the key elements were open to dispute—the meaning of culture, the revolutionaries' power to change culture, and the consequences that such change would have for the new regime.[3]

In these discussions there was very little common ground. Politicians, educators, and artists all concurred that cultural reform in their vast country, with its large illiterate population, was an enormous task. They also rejected a tradition that sharply divided the culture of the privileged elite from that of


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the lower classes. But unanimity ended here. State leaders could not even agree on the pace of change. While Anatolii Lunacharskii, the head of the People's Commissariat of Enlightenment, constantly lobbied for more funds and supplies, Leon Trotsky, Commissar of Defense, questioned the wisdom of devoting too many resources to cultural problems as long as the state was not politically and militarily secure.[4]

Indeed, cultural activists did not even share a common vision of the old culture they wished to leave behind, let alone of the new one they hoped to found. For the most cautious the heritage of the prerevolutionary intelligentsia was a positive and inspiring force. It was enough to pass on select aspects of art and learning to the masses in order to lay the foundations for the new society. The most radical rejected this conservative course of dissemination. They perceived the revolution as a clean break, a chance to discover new artistic images and new patterns of social interaction befitting the revolutionary age.

The passion and turmoil of these cultural debates are missing from most Soviet scholarship of the revolution. Soviet works portray the early years of the regime as the first stage of the Soviet Union's "cultural revolution," a long process through which the masses finally gained the education and cultural sophistication denied them by the old regime.[5] According to the standard scheme the Bolsheviks easily defeated their cultural enemies, defined as the intellectual foes of egalitarianism, on the one hand, and, on the other, extreme radicals who rejected the value of all inherited knowledge. The


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state then went on to establish the basis for a literate, culturally unified society, one in which the benefits of art and learning were equally available to all. This interpretation, with its basic theme of continuous progress, obscures the many conflicts among supporters of the new regime, conflicts over such important matters as the kind of education and entertainment that were best suited for the population. It also glosses over the more profound question of whether state-sponsored enlightenment allowed any active, creative role for the people themselves.

A major argument of this book is that the struggle to found a new cultural order was just as contentious as the efforts to change the political and economic foundations of Soviet society. I aim to show this by examining a mass movement that stood in the midst of cultural debates in the early Soviet years. The Proletkult, an acronym for "Proletarian cultural-educational organizations" (proletarskie kul'turno-prosvetitel'nye organizatsii ), first took shape in Petrograd in 1917, just a few days before the October Revolution. It began as a loose coalition of clubs, factory committees, workers' theaters, and educational societies devoted to the cultural needs of the working class. By 1918 it had expanded into a national movement with a much more ambitious purpose: to define a unique proletarian culture that would inform and inspire the new society.

The Proletkult was controversial first of all because its participants believed that rapid and radical cultural transformation was crucial to the survival of the revolution, a position they presented in loud and insistent terms. The organization's national leaders, and many of its local followers, demanded that culture, however defined, be given the same weight as politics and economics. Despite the military insecurity of the new regime, its political instability, and the rapid economic disintegration caused by the revolution and Civil War, the Proletkult's leaders wanted the state to place considerable resources at their disposal. Without due attention to culture,


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they warned, the state's political and economic accomplishments would be built on very shaky ground.

The movement's participants not only underscored the importance of culture but also insisted on the primacy of a new culture that would express the values and principles of the victorious working class. Proletarian culture was an amorphous concept that signified many different things at once: the artistic creations and aspirations of workers; the expression of a revolutionary spirit; and, most broadly, the emergent ideology of the proletarian ruling class. Proletkultists themselves could not agree on common definitions, and the altercations in society at large over the value of prerevolutionary models in a revolutionary age also occurred within the movement. Meanwhile, the very notion of a specific class culture raised the ire of many critics, who questioned what such an adamantly proletarian organization could contribute to the creation of a classless society.

The expansive nature of the movement also placed it at the center of cultural debates. At its peak in 1920 the national leadership claimed some four hundred thousand members organized in three hundred branches distributed all over Soviet territory. Despite lack of funds and basic supplies, Proletkult participants founded a wide network of clubs, schools, workshops, choirs, theaters, and agitational troupes that performed on the fronts of the Civil War. The organization's ambitions were as broad as its following. Proletkultists were not just interested in proletarian artistic forms. They also wanted to create a proletarian morality and ethics. Child-rearing, family relations, and scientific education were all within their purview. Because of its far-reaching interests, the Proletkult inspired both admiration and animosity among other groups seeking cultural change, including the state's own educational agencies.

Perhaps most important, the Proletkult engendered controversy because it embodied a politically charged vision of the newly empowered Soviet proletariat. The most committed


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members took the idea of the "dictatorship of the proletariat" quite literally and accorded all proletarian institutions a privileged position in the new society. They saw the working class as an autonomous, creative force that should be given free rein to express and develop its ideas. In the opinion of Proletkult leaders the Soviet government could not operate as a single-minded advocate for the proletariat because it had to consider the needs of other classes. Therefore, they wanted the Proletkult to be completely independent from state cultural institutions. By making this demand they were challenging the state's authority to stand above and mediate between social classes. Indeed, Proletkultists insisted on independence from the Communist Party as well, claiming that their movement, as the representative of the proletariat's cultural interests, was just as important as the party, the representative of its political concerns. These bold demands for autonomy finally led to confrontation. By the end of the Civil War the Communist Party had taken away the Proletkult's independence and placed the organization under the tutelage of the state's cultural bureaucracy.

The Proletkult's clashes with the Communist Party have dominated historical scholarship both in the West and in the Soviet Union, earning it a reputation as an oppositional movement. This idea is reinforced by the fact that the Proletkult's most polemical principles—the primacy of culture and proletarian hegemony—can be traced to a group of left Bolsheviks who questioned Lenin's control of the party faction in the years between the Revolution of 1905 and the First World War. The most important of these leftists was Aleksandr Bogdanov, who produced a dazzling range of work on politics, economics, culture, and science before his death in 1928. Bogdanov believed that in order for a proletarian revolution to be successful, the working class needed cultural preparation. It had to devise its own class ideology and its own proletarian intelligentsia in order to take and wield power. Bogdanov's ideas on these matters outlined a distinct approach to revolutionary politics and tactics that was boldly at odds with Lenin's own.


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Soviet scholarship highlights the conflicts between Lenin and Bogdanov over the proper course of political and cultural change. Basing themselves on Lenin's generally harsh criticisms of the movement, Soviet researchers have been overwhelmingly negative. V. V. Gorbunov, the most important Soviet specialist in this area, has deemed the Proletkult a separatist, sectarian, nihilistic, and revisionist organization.[6] His highly influential work presents the Proletkult as a dangerous challenge to the political power of the Communist Party and a threat to the social and intellectual foundations of the regime.

In recent years this negative view has been tempered as scholars have attempted to reclaim at least part of this mass movement as a positive force in Soviet cultural history.[7] For example, Soviet authors are willing to concede that local or-


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ganizations sometimes served a positive role, especially when they ignored the narrow restrictions of proletarian culture and devoted themselves to basic educational work.[8] In one of the latest Soviet works, L. A. Pinegina goes even further in this revision. She insists that Lenin himself favored proletarian culture when it was defined as the cultural empowerment of the working class. In her view—still the exception rather than the rule—much of the Proletkult's activity was inspired by Lenin's vision, not Bogdanov's.[9]

Although differing in many ways from Soviet scholarship, Western studies of the Proletkult have also concentrated primarily on the conflict between Lenin and Bogdanov. The earliest works looked mainly at the implementation of proletarian culture in the arts, especially literature.[10] However, an increasing number of Western scholars have begun to study Bogdanov's voluminous writings in order to find an alternative to Lenin's vision of socialist transformation.[11] When the Proletkult has appeared in these works, it has been presented


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as "Bogdanov's" organization, the social consequence of his complex ideas about culture and society. The Proletkult thus becomes a symbol for Bogdanov; its size is used to show the popularity of his ideas and the possibility for a different outcome to the revolution. Even those works that focus directly on the Proletkult have made the interaction of Bogdanov's theory and the Proletkult's practice their central theme.[12]

One cannot omit the altercations between Lenin and Bogdanov from a serious history of the Proletkult. Their philosophical and political disputes informed its inception and prefigured its demise. But in my view those scholars who reduce the Proletkult organization to Bogdanov's movement give it a coherence and simplicity that it did not have. They


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also place it too easily within the broader framework of an anti-Leninist opposition, a generalization that seriously distorts many participants' intentions.

In this book I examine the Proletkult as a complicated social and cultural movement with many conflicting programs. Rather than focusing primarily on the ideas of the leadership, I investigate its heterogeneous social composition and its varied cultural practices. Using the archival records and publications of both local and central organizations, I try to show the complex interaction between official pronouncements and their implementation.[13] Such an approach illuminates the diversity of this organization and shows what it shared with many other early Soviet institutions. It also reveals what the Proletkult's successes and failures can tell about the revolutionary process in general.

As an independent mass cultural movement the Proletkult was a unique phenomenon in the early history of Soviet Russia. Many of the problems it faced, however, were not unusual. Like other groups claiming a proletarian identity, it struggled to discover how to gain predominance in a country where workers were a rather small minority. The official solutions the organization devised, such as trying to limit its membership to the most experienced workers or excluding nonproletarians from its ranks, were ultimately not very successful. The Proletkult was "proletarian" only in the broadest sense of the word; it drew its major support from the laboring population at large, from industrial workers and their children, from white-collar employees and artisans, and even from the peasantry.

Proletkult participants had enormous problems articulating a role for experts and intellectuals in the new society, another common dilemma. If one judged from its most radical pronouncements alone, the movement seemed to ad-


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vocate an extreme form of workers' control. Insofar as intellectuals were needed, they should be drawn from the working class. Some members went even further, opposing any form of social hierarchy whatever. As all Soviet institutions quickly discovered, however, the creation of a new intelligentsia inevitably required the participation of the old one. The Proletkult devised ingenious methods to limit nonproletarian artists, teachers, and experts to minor roles. But in the final analysis the influence of these class-alien elements was not so easy to curtail. Although the Proletkult gained a reputation for antiintellectualism, intellectuals were in fact key actors who helped to define the form and content of proletarian culture.

Like the leaders of all other Soviet institutions, central Proletkult planners fought hard to weld their many local branches into a cohesive national structure. Their plaintive calls for more information and more compliance from provincial chapters were echoed in countless other organizations, from the Communist Party to the government's cultural bureaucracy. The Proletkult's cardinal principles, autonomy and independent action (samostoiatel'nost ' and samodeiatel'nost '), encouraged local creativity. And yet the central organization struggled constantly and often unsuccessfully to implement its decisions at the local level. Despite its most valiant efforts, resolutions made at the center never dictated the practice of the organization as a whole.

In this study I try to avoid the simple dichotomy of theory versus practice, which pits the ideas of leaders like Bogdanov against the day-to-day work of local circles. Certainly there were fundamental beliefs that tied the Proletkult together. Members shared a commitment to proletarian hegemony, institutional autonomy, and the centrality of cultural change. But all these ideas were open to myriad interpretations. National leaders themselves did not always agree on the best way to nurture a new intelligentsia or to create a cohesive


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movement. The malleability of the Proletkult's principles helped it to attract a large following.

Proletkultists passionately asserted the proletariat's central position in the new social order, but they did not agree on just what the proletariat was. For some it was synonymous with the industrial working class. They hoped the movement would find a following among the most culturally and politically advanced representatives of the factory labor force. For many others, not unlike the Populists and Socialist Revolutionaries of years gone by, the proletariat included all of the long-suffering Russian people, the narod . These advocates welcomed typists, house painters, and peasants without any sense of social contradiction. The broad appeal of the Proletkult's class-based language reveals the flexibility of social categories during this period of rapid social change.

Although institutional autonomy was highly valued by Proletkult members, it too was an ambiguous concept. At its most extreme, autonomy implied that such class institutions as the Proletkult would dominate government organs, an idea that certainly posed a challenge to the authority of the party and the state. But autonomy could just as easily be read as an affirmation of local control. Provincial circles insisted on their right to find their own solutions to local problems, solutions that sometimes meant forming close alliances with party and state organs. The Proletkult's endorsement of independence did not cement its institutional integrity; instead it encouraged heterogeneity.

The most basic principle of all was a shared belief in the centrality of cultural change. But what kind of culture and what kind of change? Proletkultists' answers to these questions were as varied and contradictory as those that were circulating in society at large. The organization attracted educators who hoped to reorganize universities on the basis of a vaguely defined proletarian science. It also gained the services of music teachers who wanted to share the work of the masters with the masses. Within its confines peasant children


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learned Tchaikovsky's operas, workers performed Chekhov on factory stages, and urban youths discovered the principles of production art taught by the avant-garde. For many participants proletarian culture meant simply that the proletarian revolution would bring culture to them. The content of that culture, its audience, and its transmitters were all open to interpretation.

Proletkultists were inspired by a utopian vision of the society of the future. This vision is apparent in the titles of their local journals—Petrograd's The Future (Griadushchee ), Kharkov's Dawn of the Future (Zori griadushchego ), Tambov's Culture of the Future (Griadushchaia kul'tura ), from which this book takes its title. To be sure, utopianism in itself does not constitute a unified worldview, and Proletkultists put forward many conflicting plans for the ideal culture.[14] Not surprisingly, most of the organization's work never measured up to the visionaries' expansive claims, and one of the most frequent criticisms directed against the movement was that its accomplishments were much more modest than its grandiose predictions. Although this is certainly true, I still hope to capture the utopian spirit that encouraged Proletkult members, however briefly, to view piano lessons and literacy classes as major steps toward the creation of a new society. Their sincerity and enthusiasm need to be appreciated before we can begin to assess their failures.

My focus is on the period from 1917 to 1922. In these years the Proletkult was able to gain a national following and a major voice in cultural debates. Then, as a result of its changed status and funding cutbacks at the end of the Civil War, it rapidly declined to a small and restricted core of members. The final chapter outlines the organization's fate


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from 1923 until it was finally disbanded in 1932. In this period we are in a very altered cultural landscape, one in which the Proletkult was at best a minor player.

The period of the movement's greatest influence, 1918–1920, coincides exactly with the years of the Russian Civil War. With its peculiar combination of hardship and utopia, devastation and creation, the war helped to further enthusiastic revolutionary goals. This was, in the words of an early Soviet scholar, the "heroic phase" of the Russian Revolution.[15] All social and economic institutions appeared to be malleable and open to the most radical change. The Proletkult's euphoric promises of a new culture captured this combative, optimistic spirit.

The Proletkult's marked decline starting in the first year of the New Economic Policy can be explained in part by the Communist Party's opposition to the movement and its subordination to state organs. Faced with severe funding cutbacks and sharp restrictions on its activities, it lost most of its local network and the majority of its followers. In most Western scholarship the Proletkult's collapse is treated as the inevitable result of the Bolshevik consolidation of power.[16] The party leadership under Lenin was not willing to tolerate a large and independent workers' movement, especially one associated with the politically suspect Bogdanov. Like other groups that advocated proletarian autonomy—such as factory committees, unions, and workers' groups within the party—the Proletkult did not survive the Civil War without radical alterations.

However, government hostility alone cannot explain the Proletkult's demise. Its participants themselves were at odds over how best to realize a proletarian culture, and much of


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their energies were devoted to internal disputes. The central leadership intervened in the work of local affiliates, denying them resources and even closing them down when it did not approve of their activities. Although the organization constantly criticized state programs, it still relied on the government for almost all its support, making it an easy target for cutbacks. Moreover, Proletkultists' vision of a utopian future, which inspired and united the movement, was itself a fragile construct. It depended on the heroic spirit fostered by the Civil War and on an expansive interpretation of proletarian power. The realities of NEP Russia, with its fiscal restraints and commitment to class compromise, could not sustain the same enthusiasm.

Proletkultists often overstated the importance of their institution and its powers. Nonetheless the popularity of this organization shows that cultural aspirations were also part of the reason that intellectuals, workers, and peasants went to the barricades and battlefields. Participants in the Proletkult sought not only new political and economic institutions but also a fundamental reorganization of the cultural foundations of society. Indeed, they believed that without such changes the revolution would be incomplete. "The Proletkult is a spiritual [dukhovnaia ] revolution," proclaimed the worker-poet Ilia Sadofev in 1919. "For the old, dark, capitalist world, it is more terrifying, more dangerous than any bomb. . . . They know very well that a physical revolution is only a quarter of the Bolshevik-Soviet victory. But a spiritual revolution—that is the whole victory."[17]


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