In December 2012, Russian social websites were buzzing with a story from a Moscow writer who had been part of a delegation to the Committee of Culture of the Russian State Duma. During the meeting, a young woman with “steely eyes” had suddenly “drilled out”: “You must understand: art should be the expression of party values!”. Since the Committee, like the Duma itself, is essentially an instrument of the policies of United Russia, Russia’s ruling party, this pronouncement caused understandable alarm among those who do not support the party’s views. The parroting of Soviet-era jargon by a person who was probably in primary school when the old regime collapsed served more to threaten than to amuse.
Yet members of Russia’s creative community can probably rest safe in their beds. The current Russian government may hanker for the centrist control and supposed consensus of the Brezhnev era, from which it takes the buzzword “stability”, but it has so far not taken the essential step of providing funding to match its ideological ambitions. Efforts to condemn artistic events (such as the exhibition by the Chapman Brothers at the Hermitage in 2012) are considerably less effective when the financial support for institutions also comes from sponsors beyond the government. In turn, the stark dwindling of state largesse since the early 1990s has had a retrospective impact on the way that the cultural politics of the Soviet period are understood. The view that creative artists – not just talentless hacks – could be beneficiaries of Soviet government and Party institutions, and at some level collaborators in, and indeed creators of, the artistic policies that regulated their lives, is now widely accepted. It is generating a thorough-going reassessment of the arts, particularly the performing arts, which are vulnerable to economic pressures in any society, and where the issues of artistic autonomy are therefore especially vexed.
If in the 1970s and 80s, study of the relationship between creative artists and the Soviet government and Party institutions mainly focused on repressive mechanisms (with excellent work on literary censorship by, for example, Martin Dewhirst), recent research has turned to the work of the creative unions, to patronage networks, and to the importance of key officials in shaping ideological concerns and policy decisions. There is much left to do; there is, for example, no complete biography of Platon Kerzhentsev, who played a vital role in the development of Soviet agitprop in the 1920s and 30s, and who figures significantly in Marina Frolova-Walker and Jonathan Walker’s new collection of documents, Music and Soviet Power, 1917–1932. But such books as Jan Plamper’s study of the impact of the Stalin cult on the visual arts, The Alchemy of Power (see TLS, June 29, 2012), or Katharina Kucher’s Der Gorki-Park: Freizeitkultur im Stalinismus 1928–1941, have joined earlier work by scholars of Soviet film, literature and culture such as Katerina Clark, Denise Youngblood and Sheila Fitzpatrick, in reassessing the nature of the accommodation made by Soviet intellectuals with what people might now hesitate to call “the system”, given that the unpredictability and instability of Soviet power relations are among the principal contentions put forward.
Frolova-Walker and Walker specifically mention Sheila Fitzpatrick’s work as an influence on theirs, and their introductory articles follow her in emphasizing the fluidity of musical politics in the 1920s. In the late 1920s, the main story (as usually in accounts of the decade) is the rise of the formidably aggressive organizations of a “class war” orientation, such as the Russian Association of Proletarian Musicians (RAPM). However, as Frolova-Walker and Walker’s selection of materials and their incisive, lucid framing sections make clear, there are no heroes in this narrative. Nikolai Roslavets, a leading light in the Association for Contemporary Music (ASM), happened to be married to a senior officer in the GPU, the Soviet secret police force, and close associate of Felix Dzerzhinsky, which assured him protection – until he and Natalya Roslavets split up. While shouts of “class war” were shrill and hence easily heard, more conservative forces in the arts were quietly building their own institutional power bases. At the end of 1931, the composer Mikhail Gnesin made a brave stand against bullying from RAPM – but the crucial turning point in his opposition to the Association came when he wrote what in other contexts might be called a “denunciation” to Stalin, reporting frankly on what he saw as wrong in the world of music. This was an example of a general pattern by which, as the editors of Music and Soviet Power put it, “the rigours of these years had made [musicians] much more amenable to Stalinisation”.