• Email
  • Single Page
  • Print

The Arts in Russia Under Stalin

The vast increase in literacy under the stimulus provided by the earlier period when Marxism was in ferment, as well as the immense circulation of Russian and to some degree of foreign classics, particularly in translation into the various languages of the “nationalities” of the USSR, has created a public the responsiveness of which should be the envy of Western writers and dramatists. The crowded bookshops with their understocked shelves, the eager interest displayed by the government employees who run them, the fact that even such newspapers as Pravda and Izvestia are sold out within a few minutes of their rare appearance in the kiosks, is further evidence of this hunger.

If, therefore, political control were to alter at the top, and greater freedom of artistic expression were permitted, there is no reason why, in a society so hungry for productive activity, and in a nation still so eager for experience, still so young and so enchanted by everything that seems to be new or even true, and above all endowed with a prodigious vitality which can carry off absurdities fatal to a thinner culture, a magnificent creative art should not one day once again spring into life.

To Western observers the reaction of Soviet audiences to classical plays may seem curiously naive; when, for example, a play by Shakespeare or by Griboedov is performed, the audience is apt to react to the action on the stage as if the play was drawn from contemporary life; lines spoken by the actors meet with murmurs of approval or disapproval, and the excitement generated is wonderfully direct and spontaneous. These are perhaps not far removed from the kind of popular audiences for which Euripides and Shakespeare wrote, and the fact that soldiers at the front have so often compared their leaders with the stock heroes of patriotic Soviet novels, that fiction is to them, as often as not, part of the general pattern of daily life, seems to show that they still look on the world with the shrewd imagination and unspoiled eye of intelligent children, the ideal public of the novelist, the dramatist, and the poet. This fertile soil, still so little plowed, in which even the poorest seed seems to sprout so quickly and so generously, can scarcely fail to inspire the artist, and it is probable that it is the absence of precisely this popular response that has made the art of England and France often seem mannered, anemic, and artificial.

As things are, the contrast between the extraordinary freshness and receptivity, critical and uncritical, of the Soviet appetite, and the inferiority of the pabulum provided, is the most striking phenomenon of Soviet culture today.

Soviet writers in articles and feuilletons love to emphasize the extraordinary enthusiasm with which the public has received this or that book, this or that film or play, and, indeed, what they say is largely true; but two aspects of the case are, not unnaturally, never mentioned. The first is that, despite all official propaganda, strongly felt and perhaps almost instinctive discrimination between good and bad art—for example, between nineteenth-century classics and the very few surviving literary masters on the one hand, and routine patriotic literature on the other—has not been wholly obliterated, and standardization of taste does not, so far at least, seem to have occurred on the scale which might have been expected, and which the best members of the Soviet intelligentsia (such as survive) still fear.

The second qualification is the continued existence, although under difficult conditions and in dwindling numbers, of a real nucleus of aging but articulate intellectuals, deeply civilized, sensitive, fastidious, and not to be deceived, who have preserved unimpaired the high critical standards, in certain respects the purest and most exacting in the world, of the pre-revolutionary Russian intelligentsia. These people, now to be found in politically unimportant government posts, universities, publishing houses, if not positively catered for by the state, are not vastly harried either; they tend to be gloomy or sardonic because they see few successors to themselves in the succeeding generation, and this is said to be mainly due to the fact that such young men or women as show any signs of independence and originality are ruthlessly uprooted and dispersed in the north or central Asiatic regions, as an element disturbing to society.

A good many of the young who showed signs of talent as independent artists and critics are said to have been swept away in 1937-1938 (“as with a broom,” as a young Russian said to me at a railway station, where he felt unobserved). Nevertheless, a few such are still to be found in universities or among translators from foreign languages or ballet librettists (for whom there is great demand), but it is difficult to estimate whether by themselves they are sufficient to carry on the vigorous intellectual life upon which, for example, Trotsky and Lunacharsky used to lay such stress, and for which their successors seem to care so little. The older intellectuals, when they speak with candor, make no bones about the atmosphere in which they live; most of them still belong to the class of what are known as “the scared,” that is, those who have not fully recovered from the nightmare of the great purges—but a few are showing signs of emerging once again into the light of day. They point out that official control, while no longer as fiercely devoted to heresy hunts as before, is so complete in all spheres of art and life, and the caution exercised by the timid and largely ignorant bureaucrats in control of art and literature so extreme, that whatever is new and original among the ambitious young naturally tends to flow into nonartistic channels—the natural sciences or the technological disciplines—where more encouragement to progress and less fear of the unusual obtains.

As for other arts, there was never much to be said for or about Russian painting—today that which is exhibited seems to have fallen below the lowest standards of nineteenth-century Russian naturalism or impressionism, which did at least possess the merit of illustrating, with a great deal of life, social and political conflicts and the general ideals of the time. As for pre- and post-revolutionary modernism, which continued and flowered during the early Soviet period—of that not a whisper, so far as I could tell.

The condition of music is not very different. Apart from the complicated cases of Prokofiev and Shostakovich (political pressure upon the latter seems scarcely to have improved the style of his work, although there may well be vigorous disagreement about this—and he is still young), either it is again largely a dull academic re-production of the traditional “Slav” or “sweet” Tchaikovsky-Rachmaninov pattern, now worn very thin (as in the case of the endlessly fertile Miaskovsky and the academic Glière), or it has taken to lively, shallow, and occasionally skillful, at times even brilliantly entertaining, exploitation of the folk song of the constituent republics of the USSR, along the simplest possible lines—perhaps, to put it at its lowest, with an ultimate view to possible performances by balalaika orchestras. Even such moderately competent composers as Shebalin and Kabalevsky have taken this line of least resistance, and have, with their imitators, become monotonous and tirelessly productive purveyors of routine music of remorseless mediocrity.

Architecture in its turn is engaged either in the admirably done restoration of old buildings and occasional supplementation of these by competently executed pastiche, or in the erection of vast, dark, bleak buildings, repulsive even by the worst Western standards. The cinema alone shows signs of genuine life, although the golden age of the Soviet film, when it was genuinely revolutionary in inspiration and encouraged experiment, seems, with some notable exceptions (for example Eisenstein and his disciples, still active), to have yielded to something cruder and more commonplace.

In general, intellectuals still seem haunted by too many fresh memories of the period of purges succeeded by rumors of war, succeeded by war and famine and devastation; regret as they might the flatness of the scene, the prospect of a new “revolutionary situation,” however stimulating to art, could scarcely be welcome to human beings who have lived through more than even the normal Russian share of moral and physical suffering. Consequently there is a kind of placid and somewhat defeatist acceptance of the present situation among most of the intellectuals. There is little fight left even in the most rebellious and individualistic; Soviet reality is too recalcitrant, political obligation too oppressive, moral issues too uncertain, and the compensations, material and moral, for conformity too irresistible.

The intellectual of recognized merit is materially secure; he or she enjoys the admiration and fidelity of a vast public; his or her status is dignified; and if the majority long, with an intensity not to be described, to visit Western countries (of whose mental and spiritual life they often entertain the most exaggerated notions), and complain that “things are screwed up too tight in this country,” some, and by no means the least distinguished, tend to say that state control has its positive aspects as well. While it hems in creative artists to an extent unparalleled even in Russian history, it does, a distinguished children’s writer said to me, give the artist the feeling that the state and the community in general are, at any rate, greatly interested in his work, that the artist is regarded as an important person whose behavior matters a very great deal, that his development on the right lines is a crucial responsibility both of himself and of his ideological directors, and that this is, despite all the terror and slavery and humiliation, a far greater stimulus to him than the relative neglect of his brother artists in bourgeois countries.

Doubtless there is something in that, and certainly art has, historically, flourished under despotism. It may be a particularly unrealistic moral fallacy, so long as glory and high position are the rewards of success, that no form of intellectual or artistic genius can flourish in confinement. But facts, in this case, speak more loudly than theory. Contemporary Soviet culture is not marching with its old firm, confident, or even hopeful step; there is a sense of emptiness, a total absence of winds or currents, and one of the symptoms of this is the fact that creative talent is so easily diverted into such media as the popularization and the study, sometimes both scholarly and imaginative, of the “national” cultures of the constituent republics, particularly those in Central Asia. It may be that this is merely a trough between high crests, a temporary period of weariness and mechanical behavior after too much effort spent on crushing the internal and external enemies of the regime. Perhaps. Certainly there is today not a ripple on the ideological surface. There are appeals to cease reading the Germans, to cultivate national Soviet (and not local or regional) pride, above all to cease to uncover non-Russian origins of Russian institutions or alien sources of Russian thought; to return to orthodox Leninism-Stalinism, and to abstain from the vagaries of non-Marxist patriotism, which luxuriated during the war; but there is nothing remotely resembling the fierce, often crude, but still sometimes profoundly and passionately felt ideo-logical Marxist controversies of, say, Bukharin’s lifetime.

Yet this account would be misleading if it did not include the fact that, despite the difficult and even desperate situation in which persons of in-dependent temper and education at times find themselves in Russia, they are capable of a degree of gaiety, intellectual as well as social, and of enthusiastic interest in their internal and external affairs, combined with an extravagant and often delicate sense of the ridiculous, which makes life not merely bearable to them but worthwhile; and makes their bearing and their conversation both dignified and delightful to the foreign visitor.

Certainly the present aspect of the Soviet artistic and intellectual scene suggests that the initial great impulse is over, and that it may be a considerable time before anything new or arresting in the realm of ideas, as opposed to steady competence and solid achievement firmly set by authority within the framework of established tradition, is likely to emerge from the USSR. The old Russia, the condition of which preoccupied and indeed obsessed her writers, was, in a certain obvious sense, an Athenian society in which a small elite, endowed with a combination of remarkable intellectual and moral qualities, rare taste and an unparalleled sweep of imagination, was supported by a dark mass of idle, feckless, semi-barbarous helots, about whom much was said, but, as Marxists and other dissidents justly observed, exceedingly little was known, least of all by the men of good will who talked most about them and, as they supposed, to them and for their benefit.

If there is one single continuing strain in the Leninist policy it is the desire to make of these dark people full human beings, capable of standing on their own feet, recognized as equals and perhaps even superiors by their still disdainful Western neighbors. No cost is too high for this; organized material progress is still regarded as the foundation on which all else rests; and if intellectual and indeed civil liberty is considered to hamper or retard the process of transforming the Soviet peoples into the nation best equipped to understand and cope with the technologically new post-liberal world, then these “luxuries” must be sacrificed; or at least temporarily shelved.

Every citizen in the Soviet Union has had this brought home to him with varying degrees of force, and if some perform an inward act of protest, it remains inarticulate and ineffective. Nevertheless it is doubtful whether this remorseless course can be kept up quite so rigorously beyond the life of the fanatical and single-minded generation which knew the Revolution. The principal hope of a new flowering of the liberated Russian genius lies in the still unexhausted vitality, the omnivorous curiosity, the astonishingly undiminished moral and intellectual appetite of this most imaginative and least narrow of peoples, which in the long—perhaps very long—run, and despite the appalling damage done to it by the chains which bind it at present, still shows greater promise of gigantic achievement in the use of its vast material resources, and, by the same token, pari passu, in the arts and sciences, than any other contemporary society.

  • Email
  • Single Page
  • Print