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In the Studio and at the Front: The Locus of Proletkult Creation

Proletkult cultural practice was expansive and indeed extended beyond the fine arts to club work, science, and efforts to transform the fabric of family life.[1] Nonetheless, training in the arts formed the core of Proletkult local activities. The Proletkult united a vast array of programs, including lecture series, seminars, studios, exhibitions, theaters, orchestras, and even workshops in circus technique. Each local organization was supposed to have at least four artistic sectors in theater, music, literature, and art, popularly known by the abbreviations teo , muzo , lito , and izo .

Offerings varied widely from place to place, determined by local funding, the tastes of members, and the skills of their instructors. Some organizations, particularly those in the two capitals, had an impressive array of famous artists to assist them. In others participants were on their own. Better endowed groups sponsored a broad range of classes and lectures, but poorer circles could only afford very limited programs. The Tula Proletkult music section had a symphony orchestra, a brass band, an orchestra for folk instruments, and special classes in solo and operatic singing. By contrast, the


small and embattled Archangel Proletkult could only support a choir.[2]

Theater led all other artistic forms in popularity, a phenomenon hardly limited to the Proletkult. Many bemused and critical intellectuals, such as the writer Viktor Shklovskii, marveled at the general craze for theater among the Russian lower classes. "No one knows what to do with drama circles. They are propagating like protozoa. Not the lack of fuel, nor the lack of food, nor the Entente—no, nothing can stop their growth."[3] The stage's attraction was partly because of familiarity; the extensive network of people's theaters in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries had already paved the way. Drama was also a collective form that proved particularly well-suited to the agitational tasks of the revolution and Civil War. Often performed without costumes or sets, popular theater required little more than a bare room and the imaginations of the actors and the audience.

The Proletkult's musical sectors also inspired large followings. Here too familiarity was part of the appeal; choral singing was a standard part of Russian elementary education.[4] Some Proletkultists consciously based their work on Russian folk music as a means to attract participants. Others built their repertoire around popular proletarian tunes that had played an important part in workers' social and organizational lives before the revolution.[5] Choirs, the most common


musical grouping, required very few resources, especially if the repertoire was based on well-known songs.

The literature and fine arts sectors were generally smaller and less stable. Unlike theater and music, these forms were not inherently performing arts that encouraged group participation. Instead painting, drawing, and writing depended on individual talent and initiative in a more central way. They also relied on precious paper, an extremely rare commodity during the Civil War. One instructor complained that his art classes were having a difficult time because there were not enough pencils, erasers, or paint, and there was no paper at all.[6] Writing circles in the provinces often could not publish their work because paper was in short supply, and they also complained about the dearth of trained teachers. The Rybinsk Proletkult, which had a very lively theater, did not even open a literature section during the Civil War. "A [literature] studio is essential but has been delayed because we lack a good instructor," the local president lamented.[7]

The heart of Proletkult artistic activity was the studio, or workshop, where members gathered to develop their creative skills. Although the central leadership was very concerned about the form and content of studio work, local circles had no standard structure. Some operated like open classrooms, where interested participants could come and go as they pleased, but others required entrance auditions and recommendations from current members. One aspiring proletarian actor in a Moscow Proletkult drama studio was initially almost rejected because his examiners did not believe his reci-


tation of a Nekrasov poem showed sufficient artistic taste.[8] In Petrograd theater workshops quickly developed a hierarchical structure. At the lowest level were district and factory groups, followed by citywide studios, which were open only by audition. At the top was the central Proletkult theater, which paid its actors the minimum wage for factory workers in return for their full-time participation.[9]

Ideally, workshops were run collectively by the students, who set the curriculum and determined their creative direction. Scattered reports describing the internal workings of studios reveal that group presentations and critiques were a common pedagogical tool. One intellectual observer, after watching members of Moscow literary studios read and discuss their work, concluded: "In Proletkult studios a new, comradely, unified artistic environment is taking shape and precisely such an environment . . . usually is the soil that nurtures the sprouts of a new, young art."[10] The Kostroma Proletkult leadership demanded that theater studios be run entirely by the participants. "The artistic professionalism of the old theater must be exchanged for the work of proletarian drama collectives."[11]

These descriptions of collective work notwithstanding, many Proletkult studios were organized as conventional art classes, where trained instructors taught their charges the basics of drawing, singing, and acting. Valentin Smyshliaev, a Proletkult theater expert who came from the Moscow Art Theater, schooled his students in the principles of Stanislavsky's method acting. A piano teacher in Kologriv took role


in her classes and kept a close record of her students' progress. In Tambov the musician Vasilev-Buglai shaped the Proletkult's first choir from the remnants of a church chorus. He not only planned what the choir would sing, he also arranged to give his students classes in political economy.[12]

At the end of the Civil War the Proletkult was harshly criticized for its "isolated laboratory methods," which supposedly cut off its work from the population at large. However, Proletkult studios were never really laboratories in any meaningful sense of the word. To begin with, artistic collectives were not stable enough to form a cohesive creative environment. Both the staff and the student body changed constantly because of wartime recruitments, housing and heating crises, and uncertain funding. A Moscow district art studio first opened in 1918 with almost one hundred students, but as the winter descended most abandoned the unheated quarters. A few months later only a dedicated core of twenty-five was left that was willing to brave the cold.[13] Leaders of the small Parfenev Proletkult in Kostroma province complained that their most talented instructors and members had departed for the front in the summer of 1919.[14]

The word "laboratory" implies that studio work was carefully monitored and perfected before it was brought to light, but this was not the case. Instead participants presented their creations to the public at every opportunity. Art studios, for example, made posters, banners, and emblems for unions and helped to decorate agitational trains and boats. In the summer of 1919 the Tula art workshop published a proud production report announcing that its students had made five


hundred posters for the Communist Party, fifty-two for the teachers' union, and three for local cooperatives. In addition, they had produced one hundred portraits of revolutionary leaders. The Tambov Proletkult, which offered very extensive and well-staffed art classes, directed all of its energies to poster design during the Civil War.[15]

Agitational tasks dictated much of the organization's artistic production. Local studios not only made posters and banners but also took part in revolutionary festivals. Proletkult workshops were integrally involved in staging the first celebrations in 1918. On May Day in Petrograd Proletkultists took charge of the Smolnyi Institute and the surrounding square, focal points of the day's festivities. They also planned the opening of their main center, the Palace of Proletarian Culture, to coincide with the holiday. The Moscow Proletkult was just as visible at the first anniversary of the revolution. It decorated central parts of the city and provided entertainment for the high point of the celebration, Lenin's unveiling of a monument to the martyrs of the revolution.[16]

Not restricting themselves to the home front, Proletkult studios took to the road to perform for Red Army troops. The larger organizations in Petrograd, Moscow, Tambov, and Tula organized special "front studios," well equipped with rousing


theatrical and musical repertoires that toured the front lines during the Civil War.[17] An aspiring young actress, P. N. Zubova, went south with the Moscow Proletkult's Second Front Troupe in the fall of 1920. She recalled her adventures with a sense of excitement, even though she slept on floors in train stations and never got enough to eat.[18] These trips were not without danger. Kotia Mgebrov-Chekhan, the nine-year-old son of the directors of the Petrograd Proletkult theater, was killed as the Petrograd troupe was touring the Western Front.[19]

This ebullient cultural activity did not result in a coherent cultural program. Even the most sympathetic observers remarked on the incipient, preparatory nature of most Proletkult production during the Civil War. As one reviewer of an art exhibit concluded, the paintings did not yet display a new form of cultural creation. Instead, they were "the rich black soil from which a new art will grow."[20]

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