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The Proletkult as Culture Bearer

Of all the criticisms leveled against the Proletkult, the charge of cultural nihilism was the most persistent. Alarmed observers listened to the Proletkult's most radical proponents and concluded that the organization really meant to toss out Russia's cultural heritage and start anew. When Lenin included this accusation in his list of Proletkult sins, it became enshrined in most Soviet scholarship.[21]


To be sure, there were extremists in the Proletkult who claimed to reject the accumulated knowledge of prerevolutionary society. "In the name of our tomorrow we will burn the Raphaels, destroy the museums, and trample on the flowers of art," wrote Vladimir Kirillov in "We," the most famous poem associated with the Proletkult.[22] However, this mood of exuberant destruction does not capture the movement as a whole. Bogdanov, much vilified in Soviet sources as a dangerous nihilist, urged workers to study their cultural heritage in order to discover what was important to them and what was not.[23] The programs he helped to structure in Capri, Bologna, and later in the Proletkult had substantial historical components designed to introduce students to cultural tradition and criticism.

The extremely quotable flamboyant statements uttered by some Proletkult participants were often tempered by a more modest recognition that they could not really expect to build their new culture from scratch. "There are no 'older brothers,' " proclaimed the writer Pavel Bessalko. "The workerpoet should create, not study." But he also acknowledged that a real proletarian artist needed to know the history of culture,


religion, and art.[24] The editors of the Smolensk journal Labor and Creation (Trud i tvorchestvo ) proudly insisted that they would destroy the useless culture of the past in order to build a new one. However, in the very same issue the head of the literary studio announced a contest for the best sonnet, that venerable old literary form, to be judged by a local professor.[25]

The label "culture bearer" surely would have offended Proletkult leaders because they associated it with the philanthropic efforts of the liberal intelligentsia. Nonetheless, much of the organization's work bore a distinct similarity to the activities of prerevolutionary cultural centers. Evenings of recitations, plays, and songs often included historical lectures. When the Petrograd theater studio gave a reading of Walt Whitman's poems, the director Mgebrov introduced it with a speech on Whitman's significance in world literature.[26] Musical performances were conceived as a way to train the tastes of the audience and were accompanied by lectures on the life and times of the featured composer. Proletkult publications sought to acquaint their audiences with the classics of world culture, as had self-education journals before the revolution. Tver's Proletkult contained articles on the works of Victor Hugo and Tiuchev. The Kologriv publication Life of the Arts (Zhizn' iskusstv ) commemorated the work of Chekhov. Even the radical Petrograd journal The Future published short pieces on Walt Whitman, Dobroliubov, and Nekrasov.[27]

The tried-and-true classics common in workers' and people's theaters before the revolution dominated local stages. The most popular plays were by Ostrovsky, Gogol, Chekhov, and, sometimes, Gorky. For example, the Polekova factory


Proletkult's repertoire consisted of works by these authors and also included one by Cervantes. In 1918 a small village organization in Tambov province reported proudly that it had just put on its first production of Ostrovsky plays.[28]

For those who were interested in founding a new proletarian theater this reliance on an older repertoire was disappointing. However, even the most iconoclastic experts acknowledged that Proletkultists needed to know and appreciate some of the classics. Platon Kerzhentsev, whose influential book Creative Theater (Tvorcheskii teatr ) went through five editions from 1918 to 1923, insisted that proletarian theaters should eschew prerevolutionary work as much as possible.[29] But because new plays were in short supply, he also drew up lists of acceptable classic works.[30] One list, compiled for the Moscow soviet theater commission, included plays by Aristophanes, Aeschylus, Shakespeare, Lope de Vega, and Schiller.[31]

Proletkult music studios tried to give their members a broad education. Some of Russia's finest musicians taught in the Proletkult, including Reinhold Glière in Petrograd, Grigorii Liubimov and Arsenii Avraamov in Moscow, and Dmitrii Vasilev-Buglai in Tambov.[32] Even the small town of Belev had two instructors who had formerly taught violin and voice at the Petrograd conservatory.[33] Local groups gave classes in musical theory, solo singing, and composition, along with


instruction in a range of instruments from the violin to the balalaika. In Tambov, which had a rich musical program, piano lessons were the most popular offering of all; over four hundred students signed up for them in the first months of 1919.[34] Although many choirs chose revolutionary songs, the classics were also represented. Choral evenings included works by Bach and Schumann, and orchestral performances often featured classical Russian composers like Mussorgsky.[35]

In Moscow folk music formed the core of musical education. The main director, Aleksandr Kastalskii, believed that folk songs were the best way to draw the masses to musical training.[36] Once attracted, participants would then be introduced to folk instruments, classical instruments, and a wide range of music classes. Moscow Proletkult students could choose from many different activities, including orchestras for folk instruments, an impressive program of classes in musical theory, and classical concerts.[37]

Fine arts studios also integrated a strong historical component. Instructors took students to museums to examine drawing, painting, and sculpture. In the workshop participants were taught to sketch live models, still lives, and landscapes. As in other media, the Proletkult gained the services of many impressive art instructors, such as the famous sculptor Sergei Konenkov and the well-known art professor Timofei Katurkin.[38] The range of art courses could be quite impressive, from


simple drawing classes to lessons in architecture and stage design.[39]

To enrich the work of beginning writers, literary divisions sponsored lecture series and seminars. Tambov studios gave classes in the theory of poetic creation, along with the history of drama and prose. In Moscow interested students could choose courses on the history of culture, the literature of the nineteenth century, and the history of the theater, among many other offerings.[40] Vladislav Khodasevich, a very disgruntled lecturer in the Moscow Proletkult, gave seminars on Pushkin's work.[41]

Many aspiring Proletkult authors took the nineteenth century classics as their models rather than the stirring themes of the revolution. In the pages of provincial publications one can find works that seem far removed from the social conflagration of the Civil War. A poem called "Here and There," published in Kologriv's Life of the Arts , sounded like the conscience-stricken call of the prerevolutionary intelligentsia. It contrasted the life of the decadent rich to that of the poor.

Here—a night without hope, a night without end.
There—a bacchanalian feast and wonderful dreams.
Oh, great, magnanimous, and eternal God,
When will we all become equals?[42]

Other authors avoided politics altogether. They composed lyric incantations of nature, filled with winter skies and passing thunderstorms. Leonid Tsinovskii, the self-educated son of Petrograd factory workers, was a Red Army propagandist,


Communist Party member, and Proletkult leader. In the midst of the revolutionary upheaval, he published these lines:

In pearl strands under a bridal veil,
In robes of woven silver,
The white grove of birch trees
Stands immovably frozen
As if bewitched by a dream.[43]

The prevalence of prerevolutionary forms in Proletkult workshops, publications, and public performances discouraged many of those who hoped to find the foundations for original, autonomous creative work. Lebedev-Polianskii, the Proletkult president, was very disappointed by the writing in provincial journals. Not only was it stylistically weak, but he also felt that it depicted the revolution in "purely democratic," nonproletarian terms.[44] The futurists, who believed themselves to be the real creators of revolutionary culture, faulted the Proletkult at every opportunity for its cultural conservatism.[45]

Without a doubt, Proletkult studios helped to inculcate respect for prerevolutionary high culture, thereby contributing to the elevation of that culture within Soviet society. Nikolai Roslavets, who taught in the Moscow organization, wrote a positive assessment of the movement's accomplishments in 1924, long after it had been discredited and had sunk into relative insignificance. In his view the Proletkult had attracted the best intellectuals and offered the masses serious artistic training. "Now we can say with conviction that precisely the Proletkult should be given the honor of saving Russian artistic culture."[46]


Nonetheless, it would be wrong to conclude that Proletkultists were merely engaged in a process of assimilation. Through their efforts students transformed the artistic material to which they were exposed. Participants made their "conservative" repertoire revolutionary by placing it in new contexts. Ostrovsky plays performed on an open stage for Red Army soldiers conveyed a different meaning than the same works put on by a professional troupe. Exposure to the arts in itself had an emancipatory power. As one woman worker from a Proletkult club in Kostroma explained:

In this fine building we pass the best days of our lives. We rest from daily labor and cares, studying all that is good and worthy, studying things we never knew or saw before. Comrade workers! Remember that we used to live as oppressed slaves. We did not understand what music was, what literature was, and many other fine things. Now in our club we workers study subjects that were once unknown to us. Now we understand that we are people like everyone else and that we have even more right to live than others because everything is made by our hands.[47]

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