Stalinist Cosmopolitanism.

I’m reading Katerina Clark’s Moscow, the Fourth Rome: Stalinism, Cosmopolitanism, and the Evolution of Soviet Culture, 1931-1941, whose surprising thesis is that the Soviet 1930s, generally considered a time of socialism-in-one-country retrenchment in which contacts with the world beyond Russia’s borders were looked on with disfavor, actually involved a fair amount of such contact, and here’s a particularly surprising example:

The demise of RAPP [abolished in 1932] was for most writers liberating. The change was almost immediately reflected in Literaturnaia gazeta, where in recent years RAPP had been the driving force. Its editorial board was revamped—now to include Koltsov—and the amount of material it published about Western writers and intellectuals increased exponentially, with regular columns such as “Literary New York” and items on current developments in English culture by Prince Dmitry Sviatopolk-Mirsky, who had recently returned from London after twelve years in emigration.

Most striking were the intermittent articles extolling such members of the Western avant-garde as Joyce, Dos Passos, Picasso, and the French Surrealists. By 1935 a Pravda editorial, “The Style of Soviet Culture,” was citing Balzac, Goethe, Shakespeare, and Tolstoy as its models. And in 1932 Koltsov founded and edited a new journal, Za rubezhom (Abroad). “Boy” was not just meeting “tractor,” he was also encountering Western culture.

Who knew? Not me, anyway.

Addendum. A later paragraph that drives home the point:

The Soviets established their superiority over the Nazis in part with tremendous investment in publication of German books, boasting the largest publishing house of German books outside Germany (VEGAAR) and authorizing 250 titles in German a year at its height, not to mention a lot of German literature published in Russian or Ukrainian translation.

And both Joyce (Ulysses) and Céline were translated and published in the mid-’30s!

Comments

  1. And in 1932 Koltsov founded and edited a new journal, Za rubezhom (Abroad).

    It wasn’t the eponymous weekly newspaper we knew in the 70s & 80s (and parodied as “За рубь – ежом”, [а за три – хоть раком] ). Koltsov’s “Za rubezhom” was destroyed together with his organizer in 1938.

  2. French Surrealists dealt a devastating blow to Stalinist Cosmopolitanism in this famous episode

  3. The best way to check it out is probably Chukovskiy’s Diary. But I don’t have it and its not in the public domain.

  4. I have it (and wrote about it several times, starting here), but I’m not sure what you mean about checking it out. What should I look for?

  5. Chukovsky was a keen observer of literary life and he participated in the first congress of Russian writers, which was organized to keep writers of all stripes under one tent. I am sure he reflected the new attitude toward Western literature if there was actually any change.

  6. Well, in the entry for March 23, 1932, he writes:

    You see Goethe everywhere and in all possible misspellings. “Who is this Goethe fellow anyway?” a Komsomol girl asks. A good question. Nobody has ever mentioned Goethe to them before, they’ve done perfectly well without him, and all of a sudden the papers devote page after page to this unknown shock worker as though he were breaking all production records at some factory. It’s sick, really. Everybody’s trying to outdo everybody else in their praise of Goethe. Sitting in Khalatov’s waiting room, I hear nothing but “Have you got a ticket to the Goethe?” and each time with a different pronunciation.

    On April 2, he mentions that Pilnyak is being sent off to Japan (even though he would have preferred to “slip off to the country and work on a novel”). In the August 27, 1933, entry there’s discussion of Dos Passos, on Oct. 26 Marshak has “learned Italian and is much taken with Dante,” and on Jan. 20, 1934, there’s much discussion at a children’s book commission meeting of Dumas, Balzac, Coolidge, Cecil Rhodes, Brehm, and Olivia Schneider. I’d say that’s pretty solid confirmation of the new attitude toward Western literature.

  7. Well, OK, Japan has nothing to do with Western literature, but it’s still not Russia.

  8. Thanks! That’s pretty solid evidence. I knew that in 1932 the Party dropped its exclusive support for “proletarian writers”, but didn’t know that it also included bringing back foreign classics. They probably also revived interest in Russian 19th century stuff around that time, culminating in outrageously pompous commemoration of the centennial of Pushkin’s death.

  9. Ngram shows that Goethe had an outsize importance and an especially sharp peak in the mid-1930s.

    It ought to be traceable to a very specific factor, Goethe’s 100 year anniversary of death marked in 1932, and Bukharin’s speech on the occasion (polyglote and history buff, the demoted-but-still-appreciated Bukharin spent most of the years between his purge from the top leadership ranks and eventual execution as the Chairman of the Academy of Sciences Committee on the History of Knowledge). Of course Stalin himself famously alluded to Goethe in his 1931 review of Maxim Gorky’s “fairy tale”, but it must have been just an ironic allusion made in jest? “Эта штука сильнее, чем «Фауст» Гете (любовь побеждает смерть)”, yeah right.

  10. Stefan Holm says:

    Maybe, Dmitry, it isn’t quite fair to Ngram-compare Goethe to Balsac, Dumas and Coolidge, since Russians traditionally have been more interested in German culture than in French or Anglo-American. I’ve read, that the German atrocities during WWII came as a real shock to many Russians from just that reason. What would a comparison to Herder, Hölderlin, Schiller, Heine, Remarque, Mann, Kafka, Hesse or Brecht show?

    In his speech at the party congress in 1930 Stalin said that it isn’t a question if there will be a military attack on the Soviet Union from the capitalist world, only when and by whom. He continued by saying: to survive we must do in ten years what took the capitalist countries up to 150 years to accomplish in terms of industrial capacity.

    Without any evidence I suspect, that he at that time was more concerned about the UK and Japan than about the poverty-ridden Germany. This said not to defend the horrors of the Yezhovschchina but to understand why things turned out as they did even in the cultural field in the thirties. Audiatur et altera pars as the Romans said.

    While I to some extent can understand the measures taken against the trotskyist opposition, the campaign against Bukharin and his followers is a complete mystery. As far as I understand ideas in his spirit today has made China the by far most successful country in the history of mankind when it comes to the number of people being raised from poverty to relative welfare during a given time.

  11. While I to some extent can understand the measures taken against the trotskyist opposition, the campaign against Bukharin and his followers is a complete mystery.

    That’s because you’re thinking of it in terms of ideology and/or practical results. To Stalin these things were subservient to the all-important factor, raw power. He got rid of anyone who was a potential threat to his control of Party and country; he used Bukharin against Trotsky, then got rid of Bukharin. Anyone who might have independent thoughts was a threat, especially if (like Bukharin) he had his own power base.

  12. I was surprised to see Heine beating even Shakespear in most years in Russian Ngram. No other German authors register in comparison. But Ngram may be a very poor measure of popularity of fiction authors with the readership? Doesn’t it mostly measure the stuff written about them, rather than by them?

  13. J.W. Brewer says:

    The “Stalinist Cosmopolitan” would be a striking name for a cocktail. For competition, one writer has opined that “The Bronx was the Bukharin of cocktails, denounced with unseemly enthusiasm as the Stalinist orthodoxy of the martini rigidified.” (I used to know some guys who referred to a particular drink they liked as a “Stalin” but quick googling does not confirm that this is a standardized name/recipe as opposed to perhaps specialized shorthand among certain regulars and certain servers at a particular watering hole.)

  14. I normally stay clear of discussions (among hatters and others) relating to Soviet/Eastern European history and/or literature, on the (reasonable, I think) grounds that I know far too little about it to contribute anything meaningful. Thus, following such discussions without contributing anything, and learning lots of new things in the process, is my usual M.O.

    But in this case I cannot remain silent: I am utterly astonished with our cyberhost’s comment on Marshak having learned Italian and being much taken with Dante. DANTE? In the Soviet Union under Stalin?!

    Considering how profoundly religious, how deeply Christian Dante’s entire OEUVRE is, I would have assumed that Dante would have been the LAST author (foreign or not) anyone in Stalin’s Soviet Union would have been allowed to read. Could somebody explain this amazing state of affairs? Was it that Dante, so far removed in time, whose Christianity was non-Orthodox, was simply too “exotic” to be deemed ideologically undesirable?

  15. But Heine has several poems enormously famous in their Russian translations. If only part of them have (from Heine) subhead it would do the trick.

  16. You can become a Communist only when you enrich your mind with a knowledge of all the treasures created by mankind.

    This was taken pretty seriously. of course, the question is what constitutes a treasure. But whatever the borderline cases were, Dante’s work was in it. He also condemned several popes and emperors to hell, which might have helped.

  17. Considering how profoundly religious, how deeply Christian Dante’s entire OEUVRE is, I would have assumed that Dante would have been the LAST author (foreign or not) anyone in Stalin’s Soviet Union would have been allowed to read.

    If they had been that allergic to religion in writing, they would have had to throw out virtually all pre-1917 literature—and of course the most fiery of the revolutionaries (like the RAPP folks) wanted to do just that (and smash the museums). But the people who ruled the country liked traditional “bourgeois” literature, music, and art, and they used whatever ideological fancy dancing was necessary to square their tastes with their revolution.

  18. But Heine has several poems enormously famous in their Russian translations. If only part of them have (from Heine) subhead it would do the trick

    from Ngram you can go directly to book search and you just don’t find these epigraphs or quotes in the 1930s. What you do find is that Marx/Engels/Lenin loved Heine, and that he continued to be revered as “the drummer of Revolution”.

    And you also find Tyutchev’s “Heine” poem, and occasional mentions in literary memoirs from Kuprin to Tscetaeva to Gorky.

  19. Yes, I did just that and see that my hypothesis fails. OK then, Heine stands on his own even in Russian.

  20. People aged over 30-40 in 1930s Soviet Union received education in Tsarist Russian schools and universities. So they have been perfectly familiar with foreign classical literature and even could speak foreign languages (old Russian gimnasium schools were very good at teaching languages, both classical and modern).

    Sometime in early 1930s, Soviet leadership suddenly realised that first generation of graduates of Soviet schools was utterly ignorant compared to their predecessors and took measures to correct this.

  21. The Soviets established their superiority over the Nazis in part with tremendous investment in publication of German books, …

    What kind of superiority over Germans is established by publishing German books ? Is this a cryptic reference to the book-burnings ?

  22. Not cryptic at all. “The Nazis burn books, we respect them!”

  23. Looks like there was an event held to commemorate Goethe’s 100 year death anniversary on March 22, 1932. http://lunacharsky.newgod.su/lib/ss-tom-6/volfgang-geete

    That must be the ticket reference.

  24. David Marjanović says:

    As far as I understand ideas in his spirit today has made China the by far most successful country in the history of mankind when it comes to the number of people being raised from poverty to relative welfare during a given time.

    That’s not Stalin, that’s Deng. “Becoming rich is glorious.”

  25. Stefan Holm says:

    David: I was referring to Bukharin’s enrich yourselves as something that might have inspired Deng. Stalin certainly didn’t approve.

  26. Yes, Bukharin might have been a Russian Deng, which of course does not mean that he would have been a knight in shining armor (as seen by his acolyte Stephen F. Cohen).

  27. That’s because you’re thinking of it in terms of ideology and/or practical results.

    “Nothing in Oceania is efficient except the Thought Police.” —Orwell, 1984

  28. A. J. Peacrown says:

    This reminds me that former Southern Pacific engineer Rootless Cosmo hasn’t commented on anything for a while. I hope he’s ok.

  29. David Marjanović says:

    Bukharin’s enrich yourselves

    Oh, I didn’t know about that.

    which of course does not mean that he would have been a knight in shining armor

    …and of course Deng had quite unpleasant sides to his personality, let’s say. Bit of a Type V antihero. …Oh crap, they’ve given up the numbering system; it’s under Nominal Hero now. 🙁

  30. Stefan Holm says:

    of course Deng had quite unpleasant sides to his personality

    Do you know anybody, by woman born, who hasn’t and whom we thus can allow to cast the first stone? Particularly men in power wouldn’t be there, were they all innocent. Leave the good guys – bad guys concept to Hollywood. These opinions are closer to the real thing:

    Whenever a man does a thoroughly stupid thing, it is always from the noblest motives.
    Oscar Wilde

    We would frequently be ashamed of our good deeds if people saw all of the motives that produced them.
    Francois de La Rochefoucauld

  31. Do you know anybody, by woman born, who hasn’t and whom we thus can allow to cast the first stone? Particularly men in power wouldn’t be there, were they all innocent. Leave the good guys – bad guys concept to Hollywood.

    I disagree. As far as I’m concerned, men in power are all bad guys; if they weren’t bad to start with, power corrupts them. (I leave concrete examples as an exercise for the reader.) I think the whole “we’re all human, let he who is without sin cast the first stone” approach is excellent when applied to ordinary people but a worthless enabling of bad behavior when applied to those in power. But then I’m an anarchist. If you want to sympathize with people responsible for mass deaths and repression, be my guest.

  32. I’d like to think that I’m a better person than Deng, but even if I’m not, I have never had the ability to order people shot.

  33. Mmm, I think that’s an overstatement of Lord Acton’s dictum:

    I cannot accept your canon that we are to judge Pope and King unlike other men, with a favorable presumption that they did no wrong. If there is any presumption it is the other way against holders of power, increasing as the power increases. Historic responsibility has to make up for the want of legal responsibility. Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men, even when they exercise influence and not authority: still more when you superadd the tendency or the certainty of corruption by authority. There is no worse heresy than that the office sanctifies the holder of it.

    It’s good to remember, too, that Acton wholeheartedly supported the rebellion of the Southern states in the name of liberty against the pretensions of the central government, entirely ignoring the fact that they rebelled in support of a fair greater curtailment of liberty. Anarchism in the defense of slavery is no anarchism at all.

  34. Stefan Holm says:

    men in power are all bad guys

    Few of us disagree. But what’s the alternative? After all we are a herding species, genetically programmed to follow leaders. I remember the foreword to a translation of the Prose Edda by Swedish uralist Björn Collinder. There he wrote (free from memory and in my translation):

    The 200 years long history (800-1000 AD) of the Icelandic free state is the most convincing example of all against the ideas of gentlemen like Bakunin, who claim that man copes best without authorities

    He was alluding to the fact that they were on the brink of deracinating themselves in a never ending chain of vendettas and finally in the year 930 decided to elect an authorative Althing to settle conflicts. So are modern nations without a functioning leadership but based on clan systems not enviable when it comes to the degree of violence. Think about your own ‘wild west’ – even if most (white) people are said to have died from pneumonia rather than bullets.

    A system with (preferably democratic elected) leaders at least leave us with scapegoats to blame for ‘mass deaths and repression’.

  35. J. W. Brewer says:

    To take a more recent Scandinavian example, it might well be the case that the men in power in Finland circa 1939 were in some abstract sense “bad guys,” and in that sense like Stalin (and his then-current set of henchmen, not to mention his deceased or jailed former henchmen), yet it seems entirely reasonable for most Finns to have thought the differences between their own ruling elite, on the one hand, and Stalin & Co., on the other, more noteworthy and relevant than the similarities, and that it was thus worthwhile to get involved in military conflict in order to remain under the rule of the first set of bad guys rather than the second.

  36. Mmm, I think that’s an overstatement of Lord Acton’s dictum

    Not sure what you mean. The fact that I alluded to Acton’s saying (without even mentioning his name) surely does not mean that I am committed to either an exact replication of every detail of his own usage or (still less) to anything else he ever said or believed. In particular:

    It’s good to remember, too, that Acton wholeheartedly supported the rebellion of the Southern states in the name of liberty against the pretensions of the central government, entirely ignoring the fact that they rebelled in support of a fair greater curtailment of liberty. Anarchism in the defense of slavery is no anarchism at all.

    I suppose it’s always good to remember things, but why exactly are you bringing it up in this context? Did I say anything that led you to suppose I might be in favor of the rebellion of the Southern states?

    Few of us disagree.

    Well, except perhaps for those of us who say “Leave the good guys – bad guys concept to Hollywood.” But perhaps I misunderstood you.

    But what’s the alternative?

    Not by job to prescribe. All I know is that the current system is wretched, and we will either evolve out of it or die off (in a development welcome to everyone else except perhaps the dogs). People opposed to slavery more than a couple of centuries ago (true, a minuscule number) couldn’t have told you how exactly societies that had come to depend on it would do without it, or how to get from here to there, but they knew it was wrong and said so, and that’s better than complacently accepting the status quo under the rubric of “Whatever is, is right.”

  37. We are evolving out of it. Tyranny is on a centuries-long retreat, and while this certainly does not mean that “every day in every way we are getting better and better”, the slogan of brainless optimism, I am much more optimistic about the long run than you are. My reasons for thinking so include not only science and philosophy (moral and political) but the arts as well. Almost three thousand years ago, Homer established once and for all that the death of a brave enemy is tragedy, not comedy, and while this truth is taking a long time to spread, it has never yet been forgotten.

    There’s an Old English counterpart to Acton’s dictum, “Man deþ swa he byþ þonne he mot swa he wile”, or “A man does as he is when he can do what he wants.” This means that power reveals character rather than altering it, and I think this is just as likely to be true. And while I don’t defend the bad actions of those in power, I really do try to hate only their sins.

    But I think you might like this dialogue between the young radical and the old:

    “What shall we do now that we’ve worked so hard to get Obama elected?”

    “Watch the bastard every minute, of course.”

  38. Stefan Holm says:

    J.P. The history following the civil war in Finland (1918) is a tragic one, which after half a century though ended well.http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Finnish_Civil_War

    After the victory of the ‘whites’ some 20000 ‘reds’ were executed or starved to death as imprisoned. This divided the Finnish society for more than 40 years. In the sixties I got to know a lot of immigrants from Finland in my home town – poor people looking for jobs and almost everyone a (grand) son or daughter of the ‘reds’. Their hatred against the lahtari, ‘slaughters’, ‘butchers’ (with an obvious Gmc loanword) was after nearly forty years total.

    They told me about their childhood and youth in Finland, where every village was divided into two halves. Two separate grocery shops, one for ‘us’ and one for the ‘lahtari’, two sport clubs and so on. When a Soviet icehockey or bandy team met a Finnish one we always cheered on the Soviet one, my friends told me.

    The reunion had started during WWII. Russian bombs didn’t discriminate between reds and whites. But that wasn’t the real breakthrough, since everybody knew, that Finland (as during the civil war) was allied with Germany (just like the Swedish speaking upper class of Finland).

    No, the real breakthrough came with the publishing (1959-63) of a trilogy of Finland’s history during the last 100 years by Väinö Linna. The title of the trilogy is Täällä Pohjantähden alla, ‘Here under the Polar Star’. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/V%C3%A4in%C3%B6_Linna
    The novel follows the destiny of a family from the late 19th c. until the 1950:s and opened the eyes of a people, whose 19th c. history had been a taboo to even mention in public. As a Swede I’m ashamed that Linna never got the Nobel Prize. But I know why. The Swedish elite has never accepted the loss of Finland to Russia in 1809. Neither has it accepted, that the Finns themselves celebrate this year as the year of their independence.

  39. Wow, I had no idea; I mean, I knew about the international history, of course, but not about the inter-Finnish enmity and the taboo on 19th-century history. Thanks for that primer!

  40. As far as I can make out, while the Reds lost the civil war, the Whites immediately thereafter lost the peace, as all their political hopes collapsed along with the German Empire. With no effective outside support for either faction (the 1920s Soviet Union, though technically on the winning side in WWI, was in fact too weak to threaten Finland’s independence militarily), centrists actually rose to power, for once unbeholden to either set of extremists. However, the Whites kept control of the national discourse until the 1950s, as Stefan has noted above.

  41. There were lots of Finnish exiles in Soviet Union where Stalin gave them their own republic to rule (Soviet Karelia) and they kept dreaming of triumphal return to Helsinki.

    And apparently they managed to persuade Stalin that Finnish people hated their government and would rise in revolt at the first sight of Red Army troops.

  42. Their hatred against the lahtari, ‘slaughters’, ‘butchers’ (with an obvious Gmc loanword) was after nearly forty years total

    I didn’t realize that it was so divisive – it makes sense once the scope of mass terror becomes clear. Any large population group which perceived being targeted for a wholesale extermination is bound to keep a very strong memory and fear of repeat for longer than one generation. To a degree this is happening with Ukraine right now, where the grandchildren of the totalitarian combatants of WWII still identify the grandchildren of their grandparents’ killers with the renewed mortal threat.

  43. J. W. Brewer says:

    Ah, but Stefan knew the descendants of the Finnish “Reds” who were smart enough not to move to the USSR proper. Sweden for its part has so successfully rebranded itself as an unimperialistic unthreatening welfare state (Abba and Ikea and Volvos, blah blah blah) that it is hard for Americans, at least, to grasp the plausibility of deep-rooted historical resentment against onetime Swedish dominance, although I once had a Norwegian-American classmate who talked about the glorious “overthrow of the yoke of Swedish tyranny” in 1905, which was treated as (and quite probably meant as) a joke.

  44. I knew a Swede who hated Russians, because they defeated king Charles XII in the battle of Poltava in 1709!

    The Scandinavians do have strong memories…

Trackbacks

  1. […] Hat notes some signs of cultural cosmopolitanism in the Stalinist Soviet literacy […]

Speak Your Mind

*