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

Leaders from the Old Intelligentsia

Anti-intellectualism was very strong in the Proletkult movement, as indeed it was in many institutions in the early Soviet years. Whereas central leaders' criticisms of peasants and the


petty bourgeoisie were often ignored, the negative language they employed against intellectuals struck a responsive chord among the membership. It evoked the deeply rooted resentment of the laboring masses against the privileged. In the words of a delegate at the first Proletkult national congress, "I know of only two classes—the oppressed poor and the rich exploiters."[35] The old intelligentsia, as a representative of the old elite, was easily consigned to the alien and hostile world of "the burzhui and their lackeys."[36]

However, this Manichaean worldview proved too simple to describe the complex social realities of Soviet Russia. The angry attacks on intellectuals, so common in the Proletkult press, were not consistent in their targets. Participants separated the intellectual elite into two camps; on one side was the hostile "bourgeois" intelligentsia, on the other a potentially friendly group of "socialist" or "revolutionary" intellectuals. Political sympathies, not social origins, determined an individual's assignation. Those who doubted the revolution were the enemies, but the ones who had proven their commitment to the working class through political work or longstanding involvement in proletarian cultural projects were often exempted from criticism.[37] They escaped condemnation through a metamorphosis from outsider to insider. This redefinition of friend and foe, based on attitude and function rather than on class standing, allowed Proletkult participants to entrust intellectuals with important positions without appearing to abandon the organization's principles.

The Proletkult's most important theorists contributed to this complicated use of social categories. Lebedev-Polianskii


was one of the most outspoken advocates of class purity. Intellectuals come to us, he said, and they have skills we need, but we should place them under strict controls.[38] Despite his own privileged background, he obviously excluded himself from the role of "suspect outsider." Bogdanov, another intellectual, argued for the integrity of the proletarian worldview, unsullied and unaltered by the manipulations of class-alien elements.[39] But he certainly did not question his own ability to articulate the thoughts of the proletariat.

Despite numerous rules regulating their involvement, socialist intellectuals took part in Proletkult leadership at all levels, from membership in the national central committee to advisory roles in factory circles. The most influential were those in the central organization, where intellectuals held some of the most important positions. They all had excellent revolutionary credentials. Like their worker-counterparts, they were members of the Communist Party, with the notable exception of Aleksandr Bogdanov.[40] Many also held high posts in other Soviet institutions.

The national Proletkult president from 1918–1920, Pavel Lebedev-Polianskii, was the university-educated son of a minor tsarist official. Born in 1881, he first attended a seminary school, went to the university to study medicine, and then turned to professional political work in 1903. In 1908 he fled Russia for Switzerland, joining the left Bolshevik Vpered faction. Lebedev-Polianskii did not return to Russia until 1917, when he officially rejoined the Bolshevik Party. He took on important positions in the new state, serving on the Petro-


grad soviet, the national soviet, and heading the literary publishing division of Narkompros, where he also edited a major educational journal.[41] In his role as national president and editor of Proletarian Culture Lebedev-Polianskii had the power to define the Proletkult's institutional identity.

Aleksandr Bogdanov was the Proletkult's main theorist and inspirational figure. A member of the Proletkult central committee and editor of Proletarian Culture , his influence extended well beyond his formal institutional position. His prolific writings on the themes of culture, science, and social organization earned him a following far outside the confines of the Proletkult. Bogdanov worked as a lecturer and educator in Moscow during the early Soviet years, giving his services to many different cultural groups, including the Socialist Academy.[42]

Other important intellectuals in the national organization included Anna Dodonova, who served on all national governing boards from 1918 until the Proletkult was disbanded in 1932. Born in 1888, Dodonova joined the Bolshevik faction in 1911. She took part in the October uprising as the secretary of the Moscow Military Revolutionary Committee and joined the cultural division of the Moscow soviet.[43] Vladimir Faidysh, a Moscow party member, also served on the Moscow Military Revolutionary Committee. Elected to the national Proletkult in 1918, he became vice president in 1921.[44] Fedor Blagonravov, an old Bolshevik, was a member of the Prolet-


kult central committee and helped to lead the Moscow organization.[45] Platon Kerzhentsev, another old Bolshevik and accomplished party intellectual, had a seat on the Moscow Proletkult executive committee and initially was one of the chief editors of Proletarian Culture . In addition to his work in the Proletkult, he held posts in Narkompros and the state news agency, ROSTA.[46]

Provincial organizations also placed nonworkers in very powerful positions. Ilia Trainin, a former Vperedist and friend of Lebedev-Polianskii, served on the executive committee of the Samara Proletkult in 1918. His writings are featured prominently in the Samara Proletkult journal, Glow of the Factories .[47] Vladislava Lie, a university-educated communist from a noble background, was the president of the Tver organization.[48] In the town of Belev, Tula province, local Proletkult members elected Valentin Nikolaitsev as their president in 1921. He was a party member, son of a school teacher and a forester, and had studied at Moscow University.[49]

These men and women from the socialist intelligentsia had long careers in cultural and political work behind them. They hardly intended to threaten the "pro-worker" stance of the organization. The Petrograd Proletkult under the leadership of the former worker Aleksei Samobytnik-Mashirov was not more sympathetic to the proletariat than the Tver Proletkult headed by the former noble Vladislava Lie. Indeed, sometimes intellectuals appeared to be the most passionate defenders of workers' interests.

Yet despite their revolutionary sympathies, these intellec-


tuals still exerted a problematic influence. Lebedev-Polianskii used the journal Proletarian Culture to shape the form and content of workers' writing, bemoaning the state of proletarian literature in numerous articles and reviews. He accused aspiring writers from the lower classes of lacking style, skill, and evidence of "real" class consciousness; however, he never seemed to doubt his own ability to chart the proper course for workers' poetry and prose.[50] Platon Kerzhentsev gave graphic instructions on how workers should organize their creative circles to emphasize proletarian collectivism.[51] In his job on the Proletkult central committee Bogdanov censured a division of proletarian education started by trade unionists in the Petrograd Proletkult. He argued that the division, which sponsored courses in mechanics and foreign languages, was not really pursuing proletarian culture at all.[52] Through their Proletkult offices intellectuals could articulate their own visions of proletarian culture, even though it sometimes meant telling workers what was best for them.

These influential leaders were joined by countless other artists and experts who worked as advisers and teachers in cultural sections and art studios. Although Proletkult rules permitted nonworkers in such posts, they were supposed to be limited to technical assistance and placed under the strict control of proletarian collectives. Staff members performed a variety of tasks, from occasional guest lectures to the management of cultural workshops.

Despite its abrasive anti-intellectual rhetoric, the Proletkult was in a strong position to attract a well-trained techni-


cal staff. Some were drawn by the organization's class-based ideology and saw their own participation as a way to prove their loyalty to the victorious working class. Others perceived the Proletkult as an educational institution similar to those popular before the revolution where they could put their talents to work in order to serve the people. And finally, many came to the organization just to find employment. The Proletkult had wages and rations to offer, and that alone was a very compelling motivation during the hard years of the Civil War.

"Who didn't teach in the Proletkult!" exclaimed the actor Maksim Shtraukh. His years as a student in the Moscow Proletkult theater brought him into contact with Stanislavsky, Sergei Eisenstein, Sergei Tretiakov, and many other illustrious theatrical personages.[53] Some of Russia's finest writers taught literature courses, including Andrei Belyi, Valeryi Briusov, Nikolai Chuzhak, Nikolai Gumilev, and Vladislav Khodasevich.[54] In music the Proletkult had the services of Aleksandr Kastalskii, Reinhold Glière, and Arsenii Avraamov.[55] Art classes were led by avant-gardists like Liubov Popova and Olga Rozanova and more traditional figures like the academician Timofei Katurkin.[56]

Many of these gifted artists and teachers were enthusiastic


supporters of the Proletkult and came with the express purpose of serving the working class and the revolution. As a music teacher in Kologriv explained, the Proletkult gave the intelligentsia a chance to pay off a centuries-old debt to the people by opening up the doors of art to them.[57] The same tone pervades the memoirs of Aleksandr Mgebrov, who headed the Petrograd Proletkult theater with his wife, Viktoriia Chekan. For Mgebrov participation in the Proletkult ended "long ordeals and a dissatisfying separation from the masses." With romantic enthusiasm he recalled, "Once again, as in 1905 when I stood with the workers on the barricades, I found myself side by side with the working class in its grandiose struggle for the future."[58] The Proletkult offered a dual advantage to sympathetic intellectuals like Mgebrov. It allowed them to settle past accounts and also let them feel as if they were helping to build the future.

Of course not everyone was so zealous. Prince Sergei Volkonskii, a lecturer in the Moscow Proletkult, did not attempt to conceal his doubts about the theoretical premises of the organization. Volkonskii had been the director of the imperial theaters before October; he lost his post and all his property in the wake of the revolution. His lectureship in the Proletkult was just one of many small jobs he took in order to survive. In his memoirs, written after he emigrated to the West, Volkonskii admitted that he was very impressed by the eager attention of his working-class students, but he never believed that there could be anything like a uniquely proletarian art form.[59] In the opinion of the actor Igor Ilinskii, who was briefly a participant in the Moscow provincial organization, "Only a very small group of theater people went to the


workers, to their uncomfortable, poor, and cold clubs out of a conscious commitment. . . . The majority went there only to get rations to supplement their paltry wages, which were shrinking because of the inflation."[60]

When intellectuals conveyed their reservations about proletarian culture, they could face close scrutiny from students and organizers. Both Volkonskii and Khodasevich, who openly questioned the Proletkult's mission, complained of harassment and intervention into their classes as a result.[61] However, those who offered their unqualified support could readily work their way up the organizational bureaucracy, taking control of cultural studios and serving on leadership councils. Mgebrov was not only the head of the Petrograd theater division but also an influential member of the local governing board.[62]

Whether they assumed official leadership positions or not, intellectuals' experience earned them cultural authority. For those participants who came to learn a specific skill like drawing or singing, studio instructors could exert more influence over their work than the local leadership did. Despite the supposed restrictions placed on them by governing collectives, instructors and workshop leaders had considerable freedom to shape their offerings according to their own understanding of what proletarian culture was.

As a consequence, artistic and educational programs differed radically from one organization to the next, and even one workshop to the next. In Moscow the music department was largely controlled by Aleksandr Kastalskii and Grigorii Liubimov, who had long histories in workers' artistic programs. Both believed that folk music was the best way to interest the masses in musical training.[63] In Petrograd, by


contrast, the music division was in the hands of a young composer, Ianis Ozolin, who thought the organization should create revolutionary songs. He and his supporters took a dim view of Moscow's programs, which they found too conservative.[64] In Kologriv, where the music studio was headed by a Petrograd conservatory graduate, Mariia Shipova, the approach was entirely conventional. She taught her students piano, violin, and songs by the classical Russian composers.[65]

This broad range of offerings was not unique to music. The Petrograd Proletkult was greatly influenced by Mgebrov's training in the symbolist theater of Vera Komissarzhevskaia. The main figures in Mgebrov's performances were allegorical ones such as those in the play Legend of the Communard , in which the heroes bore names like "Wisdom" and "Truth."[66] By contrast, the Moscow Proletkult theater was first led by Valentin Smyshliaev, who came from the Moscow Art Theater. His productions bore the unmistakable stamp of Stanislavsky's method acting.[67] In Saratov art courses were led by an avant-garde painter who advocated abstract art.[68] Moscow workshops were split acrimoniously between instructors who taught portrait painting and still lives and the aggressive


advocates of production art, who believed that conventional forms should be abandoned for techniques more closely tied to industrial production.[69]

The integral involvement of intellectuals in Proletkult work offered the movement many advantages, including an experienced staff and a broad range of artistic influences. As the scattered memoirs of Proletkult participants suggest, members sincerely appreciated the training they received.[70] But these valued skills themselves could prove confining when the old intelligentsia's conception of proletarian culture—whether realist, avant-gardist, or symbolist—determined the content of local work.

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