I’m reading an excellent history of Soviet culture in (primarily) the 1920s, Katerina Clark’s Petersburg: Crucible of Cultural Revolution, and I just got to this discussion of a feature of mid-’20s Soviet life hitherto unknown to me:
The masses were not going to the very cultural institutions which, in theory, the Revolution had freed them to enjoy. The highbrow theater was perilously underattended and, as surveys at the time established, people weren’t even going to the workers’ theaters or reading proletarian literature (Cement‘s popularity, anomalous in those days, was undoubtedly a factor in its official endorsement). The bogeyman of intellectuals, proletarian culture, really represented a small fraction of cultural production at this point, and an even smaller percentage of cultural consumption. Everyone was watching American films.
Nineteen twenty-five was not only the year of Cement and Potemkin, but also the year when such films by Douglas Fairbanks as Robin Hood, The Thief of Baghdad, and other Hollywood versions of the exotic adventure movie absolutely dominated the Soviet screen. The overwhelming majority of the new films shown at this time were from the United States, outnumbering even Soviet productions four to one. Fairbanks and his actress wife Mary Pickford — the king and queen of the Western public — were the heartthrobs of the Russian populace, and when they visited Moscow in 1926 they were virtually mauled by frenzied mobs of fans.
Such Western films represented to many of those in authority the filthiest of that muck in the “Augean stable” which an enlightened Soviet government had to clean out. Reviewers of Fairbanks’ films were generally quick to point out the misguided representation of class relations in his historical romances. Yet Soviet movie houses continued to show Western films….
Such ambiguous actions on the part of the state in regard to the “Augean stable” are patent in perusing any issue of the journal the Life of Art from 1925. Frequently, on the front cover of a given issue would be a photo of Fairbanks, Buster Keaton, or some other Hollywood star, usually from his or her latest movie. Then, immediately inside the cover, the editorial would rail against this kind of art, and call for cleaning up the cinemas and producing healthy, proletarian art. The ensuing pages would more or less continue the theme, but the supplement at the end frequently carried movie chitchat about the latest exploits of the exotic Hollywood stars, and possibly of emigre figures such as Anna Pavlova and Chaliapin as well. Clearly, the journal had to sell, and material about the Hollywood stars would ensure that they did just that.
Life of Art (Zhizn’ iskusstva) was the leading Leningrad cultural and theatrical journal, in this incarnation running from 1923 to 1929.