previous sub-section
4 Proletkult Leadership: The New and the Old lntelligentsia
next sub-section

Leaders from the Lower Classes

The Proletkult owed its existence in large part to the efforts of self-made artists and thinkers from the lower classes who had won their education with great difficulty in exile schools and adult education circles under the old regime. For these talented individuals the Proletkult was a showcase for their accomplishments and also a way to further their education in an environment designed to meet their needs. The most visible worker-leaders were those who served on the national central committee and presidium. Although proletarians always


shared these posts with nonworkers, they held a significant percentage of the top jobs, and their numbers grew over the years.

The first cohort of proletarian leaders, elected at the 1918 national convention, included Fedor Kalinin, Aleksei Samobytnik-Mashirov, Vasilii Ignatov, Mikhail Gerasimov, Vladimir Kossior, Vladimir Kirillov, Karl Ozol-Prednek, and Ilia Sadofev.[14] Except for the actor Ignatov and the union activist Kossior they were all writers who had tried their hands at creative work and criticism in a variety of socialist journals and newspapers. The careers of four—Kalinin, Kirillov, Gerasimov, and Samobytnik-Mashirov—will serve as examples of this accomplished generation.

Easily the most important was Fedor Kalinin, an influential contributor to Proletarian Culture , head of the Proletkult division in Narkompros, and admired friend of Bogdanov and Lebedev-Polianskii. He was also the brother of Mikhail Ivanovich Kalinin, the future president of the Supreme Soviet under Stalin. Born into a peasant weaver's family in 1882, Kalinin began factory work at an early age. By 1901 he already faced exile for political activity. He was released in time to take an active part in the Revolution of 1905, for which he received a three-year prison term. When his sentence was over, Kalinin began underground agitation for the Bolsheviks in Moscow. Because of his sympathies for the left Bolshevik faction, he made his way to the exile schools in Capri and Bologna, quickly distinguishing himself as a student and an organizer. He later joined Lunacharskii's circle for proletarian literature in Paris. While working at an airplane factory in France, Kalinin began to publish his thoughts on cultural creation in the journal Struggle (Bor'ba ) and the main journal of the Vperedists, Forward (Vpered ). His many writings on proletarian thought and culture earned him the title of "proletarian philosopher."[15]


Vladimir Kirillov was one of the best-known creative writers in the movement. His panegyric to proletarian power, the poem "We," is constantly cited as the prototype of Proletkult creation. Born in Smolensk in 1890, he went to a village school and began his working life as a shoemaker's apprentice. At the age of thirteen he left to join the merchant marines, later taking part in sailors' rebellions during the Revolution of 1905. For his role in the revolution, he received three years in exile. Once freed, he left Russia and traveled around the world, including an extended stay in the United States. Kirillov began his career as a writer while abroad, although he would not start publishing until just before the First World War. On his return to Russia in 1912 Kirillov refined his literary skills in classes at Countess Panina's famous People's House in St. Petersburg.[16] His first poetry collections, including Dawn of the Future (Zori griadushchego ) and The Iron Messiah (Zheleznyi messiia ), were put out by the Proletkult.

Another important organizer and writer was Mikhail Gerasimov. He was born in Samara in 1889, the son of a railroad worker. Gerasimov attended primary schools sponsored by the railroad and went to work at the age of nine. Like Kirillov and Kalinin, he quickly became involved in political activity and also faced imprisonment for his involvement in the Revolution of 1905. After his release Gerasimov resumed political agitation. Facing imminent arrest, he had to flee the country in 1907. He stayed in Europe for many years, where he continued his political work, even spending time in foreign prisons. In Paris he joined Lunacharskii's circle for proletarian literature and began to publish his work in socialist journals and newspapers. During the First World War, he volunteered to


serve in the French army, but was sent back to Russia for engaging in antiwar propaganda. In 1917 Gerasimov became a leading Bolshevik organizer in his native Samara, where he took charge of the city Soviet and helped to form the local Red Guard unit.[17]

Aleksei Mashirov, who gave himself the pen name "Samobytnik" (from the Russian word for "original" or "distinctive"), was born in St. Petersburg in 1884. The son of an artisan, he was sent to primary school in the city and then, at the age of twelve, to a metalworking plant. His political commitments led to arrest and exile after 1905. On returning to St. Petersburg in 1908 Samobytnik-Mashirov joined the Bolshevik faction and began to write literature, taking classes in Panina's People's House. His poetry appeared in Gorky's first collection of workers' writing and in Pravda . A founder of the Proletkult in 1917, Samobytnik-Mashirov became president of the Petrograd city organization.[18]

These worker-intellectuals shared many common experiences. They were all approximately the same age and had left manual labor behind to pursue political and cultural work. Their history in the revolutionary movement also followed similar paths. Bolsheviks of long standing, they had taken part in the Revolution of 1905 and served time in prison and exile. There were also strong friendship ties between them. Kalinin knew Gerasimov from the exile schools; Gerasimov was a friend of Kirillov's; and Kirillov had studied with Samobytnik-Mashirov and another proletarian author, Ilia Sadofev, at the Countess Panina's People's House.

It is difficult to overestimate the importance of these four writers in the formation of the Proletkult. Kalinin and Samobytnik-Mashirov, together with Vasilii Ignatov and two other writers, Aleksandr Pomorskii and Aleksei Gastev, were key


organizers of the first Proletkult in 1917.[19] Kalinin, friend and former student of Lunacharskii's, provided the crucial links between the Proletkult and Narkompros. This circle of committed workers was also responsible for starting some of the most important local organizations. Kirillov and Pomorskii went to Tambov.[20] Gerasimov founded the Proletkult in his native Samara, where the local journal, Glow of the Factories (Zarevo zavodov ), bore the name of one of his poems.[21] Ignatov opened and led the Tula Proletkult and helped to initiate new organizations in the Caucasus.[22]

This first generation of Proletkult leaders was very anxious to make its mark as serious artists and thinkers, not amateurs who pursued their vocations on the side. They wanted the Proletkult's resources to be spent on developing the skills of the best representatives of their class, not on basic educational work to benefit the masses. The organization's first responsibility was to help the most talented, wrote Kalinin; they could then serve as role models for the others.[23] Such attitudes dulled their sensitivity to the problems of aspiring cultural activists who had not yet established themselves.

However impressive the qualifications of this cohort, their resources alone were not enough to sustain the organization.


Politically experienced workers were much sought after, and the Proletkult was rarely their only responsibility. Kalinin, for example, worked for Narkompros, the Communist Party, and the Red Army in addition to his responsibilities in the Proletkuh. He was killed by typhus in early 1920 while organizing a military newspaper on the Southern front. Kossior quickly put aside his Proletkult duties to assume party responsibilities in the Ukraine.[24] Others were disillusioned when the movement became too actively involved in general educational work at the expense of more specialized programs. Both Gerasimov and Kirillov left the Proletkult national leadership in 1920. Although they still kept ties to the movement, their primary energies went to two new cultural organizations, the Proletarian Writers' Union and the journal The Foundry (Kuznitsa ), that aimed to improve working conditions for professional proletarian artists.[25]

It was a sign of the Proletkult's vitality that new leaders from the lower classes stepped forward to take the place of the old. The national governing council elected in 1920 included Valerian Pletnev, a worker turned playwright, Pavel Arskii, a proletarian author who helped to lead the Petrograd organization, Georgii Nazarov, a former Petrograd metalworker, and another metalworker, Andrei Kozochkin.[26] These men were part of a new generation of proletarian leaders who worked their way up into the national organization through local governing boards.

Valerian Pletnev was the most important, elected to the post of national president in late 1920. Born in 1886, Pletnev was a joiner by trade and claimed nineteen years at the bench. A Menshevik until the revolution, Pletnev was an eloquent


defender of workers' literature in one of the earliest disputes on proletarian culture before 1917.[27] He was a key participant in the Moscow Proletkult theater and became a member of the local executive committee in 1919. By 1920 he gained a place in the national Proletkult presidium. His numerous plays, focusing on the history of the revolutionary movement, were widely produced in workers' theaters by the end of the Civil War.[28]

Pavel Arskii, another member of this new cohort, was elected to the national governing board from the Petrograd organization. Like Pletnev, he had a few publications to his credit before 1917. Mobilized during the war, he took part in the February Revolution and had helped to storm the Winter Palace, although he did not join the Bolsheviks until 1918. An early member of the Petrograd Proletkult, Arskii contributed poetry to Proletkult journals and wrote plays for the Petrograd theater. His first literary collection, Songs of Struggle (Pesni bor'by ), was published in 1919.[29]

The Petrograd worker Georgii Nazarov, elected to the central committee in 1920 and again in 1921, was another national leader who gained recognition for his work in local organizations. A machinist by trade, he was the head of the cultural commission of the Baltic factory committee in Petrograd in 1917. Although Nazarov had participated in cultural circles before the revolution, the Proletkult developed both his dramatic and his organizational talents. When the director Aleksandr Mgebrov started a theater at the Baltic factory,


Nazarov was a star student. He followed Mgebrov to the Petrograd Proletkult and there came into contact with the energetic theater organizer, Vasilii Ignatov. Nazarov went to Tula with Ignatov, where he took control of the local Proletkult theater and joined the executive committee. In 1922 Nazarov returned to Petrograd to assume the job of Proletkult president.[30]

The lathe operator Andrei Kozochkin from the Izhevsk organization also rose rapidly from the ranks to assume a position of responsibility. A Proletkult first opened in this factory town under the guidance of the Narkompros division. However, workers from the local metalworking plant were dissatisfied with its nonproletarian leadership and decided to restructure it. Kozochkin, himself the son of a metalworker, was part of the new organizing committee. Without any special training for the job, he took charge of the theater studio. He was soon elected president of the Izhevsk Proletkult and in this capacity was chosen to serve in the national central committee as a candidate member in 1920 and a full member in 1921.[31]

This new generation did not come to the Proletkult with established reputations, as Kirillov had done. Although they were all members of the Communist Party, their credentials were newly minted compared to someone like Samobytnik-Mashirov, who had worked on the prerevolutionary Pravda . With less revolutionary and party experience they also had fewer commitments to other institutions. Kozochkin, for example, held no posts outside the Proletkult.[32]

These national leaders were the most visible but by no means the only examples of Proletkultists from the lower


classes who rose to high positions. Lower-level organizations rarely provided detailed biographical information on their staff. However, if the delegates to the 1921 Proletkult congress are any indication, the number of workers in leadership positions increased the further down one moved on the hierarchical ladder. Of the thirty-four delegates serving as executive officers in local organizations, only fourteen (41 percent) had working-class occupations. However, figures for presidium members, who served on the large collective governing boards, show a different picture: twenty-four of thirty-three representatives (73 percent) were from the working class.[33]

The same definitional problems that complicated debates about Proletkult membership recurred in discussions on leadership. What exactly was a proletarian leader? Judging by factory employment alone, someone like Kalinin would not qualify because his time at the bench lay far in the distant past. Nor would V. M. Blinkov, the self-educated baker who headed the Saratov literary studio, qualify nor Anton Chuvinok, an office worker who sat on the Tula Proletkult presidium.[34] But clearly for many participants lower-class origins, or evidence of proletarian sympathies, were just as important as a current factory job. This opened up the leadership to a very broadly defined proletariat. At the same time, it made it much easier for intellectuals to justify their place in this working-class movement.

previous sub-section
4 Proletkult Leadership: The New and the Old lntelligentsia
next sub-section