Soviet Tomorrowland

Comrades, Soviets, prisoners – lend me your ears! I come to bury Stalin, not to praise him!

Stalin’s death on March 5th, 1953, brought about the new regime of Nikita Khrushchev, one of the heads of the Soviet Union. During the Twentieth Party Congress on February 25th 1956, Khrushchev, in bold manner, closed all doors of the Congress to the public and delivered his famous “Secret Speech,” which wouldn’t be so secret after all preceding several games of telephone. His words served as a first for the Russian people, speaking publicly, or in front of a large body of party members, of Stalin’s crimes, including: “arrests, deportations [to Siberia], and executions of Soviet Citizens.” Not only did the new head drag Stalin’s treatment of the people through the mud, but he also denounced his leadership during wartime, his use of “cult of personality,” and believed Stalin to be the downfall of Soviet agriculture (RR 540). Khrushchev is said to have initiated the “Thaw,” or the de-Stalinization of the USSR with his not-so-Secret Speech.

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Nikita Khrushchev’s Secret Speech, delivered at Moscow – February 25, 1956

A point Kruschev brought up was Stalin’s creation of the term, enemy of the people

“[…] this term made possible the use of the most cruel repression, violating all norms of revolutionary legality, against anyone who in any way disagreed with Stalin […]. This concept, “enemy of the people,” actually eliminated any possibility of any kind of ideological fight or the or the making of one’s views known on this or that issue, even issues of practical nature.”

An example of one of the offenders of Stalinist ideology and an “enemy of the state” included any kind of progressive persons that didn’t necessarily follow the party line, whether they be Western, capitalist, or of a bourgeois mentality. Unfortunately, this group of people included scientists that didn’t follow “Soviet Science,” who were of course either purged or sent to Siberia to work in the gulag, hindering scientific advancement for decades. This changed during the “Thawing” of Soviet Russia, scientists and other related intellectuals were free to research and spread knowledge on whatever they wanted, as long as the work was purely for the advancement of post-Stalin Russia and separate from Stalinist-ideology. Consequently, a new scientific community flourished in Akademgorodok, Siberia, otherwise known as the “Soviet Silicon Valley.”

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A picturesque image of the beauty of Siberian forests like those surrounding Akademgorodok

The scientific hub was created in 1957 by the man himself, Nikita Khrushchev, who approved of a space specifically for scientists and students in the field to conduct their research free of distractions. Akademgorodok was built deep in the Siberian forest, 30 kilometers away from the nearest city, Novosibirsk, plenty isolated from the rest of the USSR. It originally was “built as a woodland campus for Novosibirsk State University along with 15 institutes for the Soviet Academy of Sciences,” offering courses from nuclear physics to geology, building a bridge between research and education. This appeal to scientific advancement within the motherland that was previously repressed brought about around 65,000 scientists along with their families at most. The Soviet Silicon Valley has even found its way into a Guinness World Records for having the “The Brainiest Street in the World,” Academician Lavrentiev Prospect has well over 20 scientific research institutes in only 2.5 kilometers.

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“Nearly 20 research institutes including the one of thermal physics, of organic and inorganic chemistry, of catalysis, of nuclear physics, of semiconductor physics, of hydrodynamics, of cytology and genetics, of chemical biology and fundamental medicine, make up the brilliant collection of the brightest brains possible.”

The scientists and students at Akademgorodok were said to have been possibly a league above their counterparts in both Stanford and MIT, American colleges notorious for their standards in the STEM fields. In fact, a term associated with the linkages between education and research was “Phystech.” As for the actual living of the residents, Soviet designers and architects strove to retain the “natural beauty” of the surrounding forests, complete with animals like squirrels and birds, and mountains that would allowed for skiing in the winter. Other amenities that may have enticed scientists into living in the area included: sophisticated apartments, intellectual debates in bars and clubs, and even an artificial beach! One could say that scientists living in Akademgorodok lived better compared to scientists in Moscow. High ranking scientists with doctorates were allowed special services from food deliverers, like having “a wider selection of groceries than available to the general population,” though scientists often refused the favors on “moral grounds.”

Nikita Khrushchev visits the construction of Akademgorodok in Novosibirsk
Khrushchev visiting the building of the “Soviet Silicon Valley”

What made Akademgorodok so special as a scientific and academic space was that it was able to flourish in a way that it certainly could not have during Stalin’s regime, it could be argued that even during Khrushchev’s time it enjoyed certain liberties from being so far away from Moscow’s grasp, being a “modernist cultural centre.” Not only were scientists able to research or experiment on whatever they wanted, but other forms of intellectuals were able to take part in culture that was previously prohibited like read banned books and perform and see theatrical performances. Areas that were once considered pseudoscience (beliefs, theories, or practices that have been or are considered scientific, but have no basis in scientific fact) or “Soviet science” like cybernetics and genetics grew in an unprecedented rate in relation to scientific Soviet advancements. Even now, residents in the hub are physically and mentally separated from Moscow, allowing them to make decisions and determinations purely based on scientific experimentation and research and not on Soviet ideology. Akademgorodok is a perfect example of the “openness of exchange” the occurred with the “Thaw” brought about by Khrushchev.

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Akademgorodok, the “Last Soviet Utopia
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Dr. Lysenko-stein’s Monster

One could say that the state of post-World War II Soviet Russia was a very ‘Big Deal.’ A term coined by Vera Dunham, writer of In Stalin’s Time: Middleclass Values in Soviet Fiction, describes the social and democratic shift of Soviet society from “sacrificial and “heroic”” mindsets to a culture based on meshchanstvo (bourgeois culture), surrounding “self-satisfaction and self importance […] but totally devoted to the system that provides its life comforts.” It introduces two words, kultura and kulturnost, the former having to do with the intelligentsia and high culture, and the latter with conservative movements and self righteousness. Though, the larger concept of the Big Deal had to do with stomping out any hopes of democratization in the post-War period; Stalin’s regime promised its people that life would get better, but only though the return of Bolshevism. Characteristics of the Deal included: Stalin’s paranoia, xenophobia, anti-West, and anti-semitism. One such example of this retreat to Bolshevik ideology is the birth of ‘Soviet Science’ exemplified by Trofim Denisovich Lysenko, geneticist and ‘mad scientist.’

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In Stalin’s Time: Middleclass Values in Soviet Fiction — Vera Dunham

Lysenko denounced renowned geneticist Johann Mendel and even the theories of evolution by Charles Darwin, he regarded any study of genetics as “bourgeois” biology. What he particularly didn’t like about Darwin’s beliefs was that the concept of parent genes lending their characteristics down to their offspring was “reactionary and evil,” since they didn’t allow for change and reinforced the status quo. Because of his beliefs, the Soviet biologist brought famine among the Russian people and hindered biology for years by purging any scientists that criticized his work.

A key to his beliefs was that environment, rather than true genetics, had the ability to change the characteristics of their DNA. The Soviets began to reach out to Lysenko during the 1930s, his work started out by what is called vernalization — or “the application of cold and moisture to seeds,” which he claimed would change ‘winter harvest’ to spring harvest.’ Allowing for the reuse of winter seeds and plant for the spring if they were unsuccessful during the winter. The crazy argument that this would even be possible is like claiming that “dogs living in the wild give birth to foxes.” In their desperation, the Soviets were made to allow Lysenko to be the head of Soviet agriculture for increased food production; he was also called the “barefoot scientist,” coming from a poor background, which made him even more well liked in the party.

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Trofim Denisovich Lysenko, Russian geneticist that practiced “Soviet Biology”

His first use of power came from Stalin himself, Lysenko through Stalin put millions of people into participating in collective farms to modernize agriculture; vegetables like: “wheat, rye, potatoes, and beets, were ‘vernalized’ according to the geneticist’s teachings. Even bloc nations, such as Communist China, were affected by even bigger famines that found its roots in Lysenko’s teachings. Soon he found himself in deep heat when the son of party boss, Andrei Zhdanov, called attention to Lysenko’s flawed science. In the end, he got what was coming to him because in reality, Lysenko fully went after biologists, geneticists, or any other scientists that were finding the truths about his work or were publicly against his theories; many ended up arrested, within the gulags, or dead. And because of this, sciences related to: agriculture, ecology, medicine, and other vital areas.

After Stalin and after the reign of Khrushchev, Lysenko lost everything and orthodox genetics triumphed over Soviet biology; but even if, the scientist and his followers kept their place in Soviet hierarchy and continued to believe their idiotic theories.

Shall I Compare Thee to a Russian Winter?

Soviet culture before Stalin’s cultural revolution during the 1930s was effective in watering down love and romance, calling it a “bourgeois nonsense.” Though, the return of more traditional family values and more conservative concepts allowed the return of courting and romance right before the beginnings of The Great Patriotic War. And so emerges the story that we all know very well, between a girl and boy that are separated by the conscripts of war. In their fight, the men were made to defend the motherland and for their lovers, and the women in return kept busy playing their part in the war effort as factory and community leaders, and were even placed at the front. Rampant romance throughout war-time Russia led to a rise in illegitimate births, widows, and an absence of healthy young men to procreate the next generation of soldiers and workers. Though, what did remain from the generation of lovers were the words and sentiments of couples during the Great Patriotic War, which fully conveyed the anxieties and also hopes of one day being reunited.

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1943: Lover Boy poet, Konstantin Simonov, near the city of Ponyri at the Battle of Kursk; a victory for the Soviets

One such writer, Konstantin Simonov, was heavily influenced by the military, both his late father and his stepfather served in the Russian military, the latter would be arrested. After his stepfather’s arrest he began to study literature and showed an interest in poetry; though, his interests in the arts were in vain during Stalin’s Great Purges. In 1939 he was sent to Mongolia in support of the motherland during the Soviet-Japanese campaign, a while after was when he fell in love with actress Valentina Serova, the muse of his most famous poem, “Wait for Me.” When Hitler’s June 1941 invasion occurred, Simonov turned his attention towards his duty as a Soviet citizen by exhibiting patriotism through his pen. A good amount of his poems were dedicated to his lover Valentina, what troubled him was his conflicting devotions and motivations between loving Valentina and his duty as a soldier. As the war went on, Simonov’s work took a turn to a more pessimistic tone, from asking Valentina to wait for him and for their reunion, to his acceptance of Valentina’s eventual affair due to his absence and the real possibility of him being killed in action. While it seems pessimistic, the poet actually saw his acceptance of these truths as “part of the fortunes of war,” and rather exemplified the femininity of women and the comradeship of war. After Russia’s victory, Simonov actually ended up going home to Valentina, but the marriage was ultimately a failure. In 1957 the soldier turned war correspondent left the actress and remarried.

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The infamous Valentina Serova, Ukrainian-Russian actress; rumoured to have an affair with a patient while a hospital volunteer during her marriage with Konstantin Simonov

Unfortunately, the troubles of a romance during wartime is memory that is very familiar to current generations, whether it be from stories from older family members (of the millions of soldiers who fought during World War II) or from popular renditions of wartime romances. While these romances might be entertaining for audiences that enjoy a dramatic romance and a thrill for anticipating whether the soldier will come home to the beautiful girl or not, it is easy to forget that these events actually happened and not only on the big screen. Simonov’s “Wait for Me” expresses the real anxieties of being forced to become separated from one’s lover, and being unable to fully trust the loyalties of one’s “Valentina.”

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“Wait for me and I’ll come back,
Dodging every fate!
“What a bit of luck!” they’ll say,
Those that would not  wait.
They will never understand
How amidst the strife,
By your waiting for me, dear,
You had saved my life.
Only you and I will know
How you got me through.
Simply – you knew how to wait –
No one else but you.”
Konstantin Simonov, 1941;
(featuring a screencap from the 1957 “Cranes are Flying” about a timeless and ill-fated wartime romance between a Russian woman and her soldier beau)

 

 

 

Red Soviet Down

Stalin’s Soviet Union used film to capture Russian audiences in the 1930s and to further their agenda of cultural revolution. Cinema served as the most efficient and gleaming tool for the masses, it was the easiest and most ‘entertaining’ way to hold the attention of the Russian people in a way that socialist realist literature could not achieve. Stalin created specialized departments behind the idea of cultural revolution for the most important centers of media which included film and literature, the head of film was Boris Shumiatskii. In the wake of bringing soviet culture back to the proletariat (compared to the ‘weird aesthetics’ of the old intelligencia and the other pre-revolutionary thinkers), Shumiatskii wished to make cinema more entertaining and enjoyable for his audiences but also wished for it to be able to spread the Soviet 1930s agenda. The aim of 1930s popular culture was to still keep a rigid stencil of what Stalin wanted Soviet Russia to be, but to bring it more back to ‘tradition’ and back to the simple proletarian thinker.

Just like the RAPP (Russian Association of Proletarian Writers) and Union of Soviet Writers, the cinema community was centralized within its own union, which imposed its own agenda based on Stalin’s wishes and were strict on what films it would support and approve. Blockbusters of their time, Happy-Go-Lucky Fellows and Chapaev followed the guidelines of uplifting Soviet rule and being able to hold the attention of audiences. Chapaev in particular, focused on the different facets within the Civil War between the tsarist Whites and the Soviet Reds; with Chapaev as the infamous commander of a diverse band of revolutionary fighters. The film was based off of the novel written by Dimitrii Furmanov who was a Russian military officer during World War II and during the revolutions 1917. Interestingly, the glorified fighter he based his novel off of was also the same man that his wife had an affair with, the irony. Now Furmanov’s most famous novel about his wife’s lover will be forever remembered as a lively story about the “rough-cut” commander Chapaev, which made the film adaption one of Russia’s first blockbusters.

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The original film poster for Chapaev that was released during 1934 and was influenced by Stalin’s 1930s cultural revolution. Chapaev struck its audience so deeply that when children would play a game called ‘Reds vs. Whites,’ the most popular soldier to play would be none other than Chapaev.

The politics involved in Chapaev surrounded the Russian Commander and his subordinate Kylchkov. According to Furmanov, Chapaev was the brawn of the Civil War, a celebrated and dignified war hero, but also not particularly ideologically inclined to Soviet thought, though possessed revolutionary sensibilities. The other side of the same coin, Klychkov, served as the political brains of the operation, one of his duties as a member of Chapaev’s band was it point him in the right ideological direction; his greatest asset was his hold on the politics behind the party. Chapaev represented the mobilized peasants of the revolution and Kylchkov as the informed working proletariat. Both are equally important in order to bring forth revolution, which could be seen as the beauty behind the brains and the brawn.

An ode to Chapaev the Hero, sung by the Red Army Choir

 

Is this the Dziga you’re looking for?

Dziga Vertov, at birth named David Abelevich Kaufman, played a crucial part in revolutionary cinema during the rise of Lenin’s Bolsheviks during the 1920s and onto 1930s. Vertov was influential in the spread of the Russian Revolution in a time without instant and mass communication, where he would produce “revolutionary propaganda” in the form of cinema for the rural peasants. For whatever reason, the peasants were receptive to the films and in this way were able to understand what was happening in the cities (Barker and Grant, 365). In agreement of the cultures of the avant-garde and the artistic rebellion at the time, Vertov completely distanced himself from mainstream American and German-Russian cinema of his day, and himself had socialist leanings and even a scientific and almost robotic approach to his work.

The filmmaker identified himself as a kinok, who wanted nothing to do with the glitz and glamour of the classic American cinema of the day. He wished to “flee, the sweet embraces of the romance, the poison of the psychological novel, the clutches of the theater of adultery (Barker and Grant, 367).” He believed that the revolutionary cinema should reflect the realities of revolutionary life, he deviated from the narrative view that other filmmakers chose to shoot in and decided to take a more documentary-type approach. His films , were called agitki, and were in a way the only outlet of revolutionary happenings in the cities to the peasants. What gave his films revolutionary significance and possibly Bolshevik and socialist support was that he wanted them to: (1) emphasize the need for industrialization, (2) support integration of man and machine, and (3) liberate the proletariat from labor and capitalism (365).

The Man with the Movie Camera, one of Vertov’s most famous films, strayed away from the clean cut, professional, and ‘made for entertainment’ type films shot during the 1920s. This chaotic and slightly disturbing scene in the film almost reminds me of the classic television show The Twilight Zone (filmed between thirty to forty years later), in such scenes when a character would realize that something was out-of-place or strange about their current state or situation.

What interested me about Dziga’s approach to cinema, was not that he wanted to show the revolution from a real perspective (which I could argue is the goal of many artists of their day), but that for him, the art of cinema was actually very scientific and formulaic for him. For some, there is a clear discrepancy between the arts and the sciences, but it seems almost as if Vertov took the traditional art out of the cinema and replaced it with science. He believed that “”Cinematography,” must die so that the art of cinema may live,” and not only this, he also didn’t want any part in things “foreign”, which included “music, literature, and theater (Barker and Grant, 366).” He would rather that he and the kinoks focus on diving into the four dimensions (the fourth being time) as inspiration for their work, and to focus on the manipulation of montages, freeze frames, acceleration, split screens, and reverse motion (367). This all ties back into what I believe is his closest tie to socialism, which is industrialization, and through Leninism it, industrialization, is needed in order to transition from Russia’s current economic/political state into socialism. His interest shows especially when he speaks of the creation of the perfect electric man, “In revealing the machine’s soul, in causing the worker to love his workbench, the peasant his tractor, the engineer his engine–we introduce creative joy into all mechanical labour… The new man (368).”

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Vertov filming The Man with the Movie Camera, which was called a “pointless camera hooliganism” by another Soviet film director, Sergei Eisenstein.

This all leads back to Lenin’s The Withering Away of the State, where he believes once administrative duties of the bourgeois work of “bookkeeping” and once “factory discipline” is so instilled within the people that it becomes instinctive, there will no longer be a need for the government; not to mention Lenin’s belief that industrialization and electrification will eventually lead to socialism (Barker and Grant, 335). In this way, I can see the connection between Vertov’s ideal of ‘machine men’ in the factories, Lenin’s Marxist/Socialist/Bolshevik belief that the bookkeeping proletariat mentality will destroy the state, and Marx’s theory of feudalism to capitalism to socialism, which Lenin believes will be only achieved through electrification and industrialization of the Soviet people.

Lady MacBeth of Mtsensk? Bad Romance.

Lady MacBeth of Mtsensk is a novella by the Russian novelist, Nikolai Leskov, that was published in 1865. Before his writing career, he traveled all over Russia as a clerk for a criminal court and got to experience contemporary Russian life, his travels allowed him to meet Russian people of different customs, ethnicities, and regions. This perspective on Russian society is what set him apart from other writers during his time, his published works would later be so controversial (against traditional Russian Orthodoxy) that they would be banned by the church.

The novella is set during 19th century in Mtsensk, Russia, and revolves around the life of Katerina Lovovna, the wife of the merchant Zinovy Borisych. Pretty much reflective of the life of a ‘higher’ class Russian woman of the 19th century, Katerina lounges around her house and is subject to extreme boredom, especially since it is revealed that Katerina is infertile and cannot bare a child. The real story begins when Zinovy, the merchant husband, momentarily leaves the household to deal a mill that has broken down out of town, Katerina takes this as an opportunity to strike up an affair when her husband’s new clerk, Sergei, who has a prominent reputation for being a womanizer. Long story short, Katerina falls deeply in love with Sergei, to the point where she is willing to kill her father in law, Boris Izmailov, who hears about his daughter in law’s affair, and she is also willing to kill her husband himself when he unexpectedly returns. The couple then murders a nephew of Boris, when it is revealed that the boy would inherit a fortune from his death; unlucky for both Katerina and Sergei, the suspicious townspeople peek through a window and find them smothering the boy with a pillow. Sergei admits to their crimes in court, and both are sent off to walk and work in Siberian camps. If all her misfortune wasn’t enough, Sergei then gets to know multiple women in their work camp, often taunting Katerina, who cannot find it in herself to get over her love for him. At the end, Katerina becomes so overwhelmed with Sergei and his girlfriend’s low jabs at her being worthless and undesirable that she drowns herself with Sergei’s girlfriend in her arms.

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A scene from the opera-adaption of Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk at the Royal Opera, produced by Dmitri Shostakovich which premiered during January 1934

Lady MacBeth interested me because the way Leskov described Katerina falling in love with Sergei, especially in the way he described Katerina beginning to grow sick of Sergei, was filled with imagery and strong emotion that made me feel like I also loved, and hated, Sergei. One scene that really stuck out to me was in Chapter IV when Katerina and Sergei were laying down under the apple trees. At the time, the couple had just killed Boris, they were openly dating in front of the Izmailov staff, and Zinovy was on his way home. While sitting under the tree Katerina was fishing confessions out of Sergei of their love and of his ‘pinning’ for her, it seemed as if she could tell that she was way more into him than he was into her. Despite Katerina being irritated by the lack of attention she was getting from Sergei at the moment, Leskov’s description of the setting was very vivid, and set the mood and tone for what would later be a sensual night, after what would be an awkward, but dreamy, situation:

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“The moonlight coming through the leaves and flowers of the apple tree scattered the most whimsical bright spots over Katerina Lvovna’s face and whole recumbent body; the air was still; only a light, warm breeze faintly stirred the sleepy leaves and spread the subtle fragrance of blossoming herbs and trees. There was a breath of something languorous, conducive to laziness, sweetness, and obscure desires.” – The Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk, Chapter VI

The aspects that drove the story were the boundaries on Katerina’s life and the expectations that people had of her as the wife of a Russian merchant in the 19th century. (1) The inability and lack of freedom she had as a woman of class exposed her to absolute boredom, boredom that she hadn’t experienced before as a free peasant maiden.  Being a woman of class allowed her to: stay at home, eat, and sleep. (2) One thing that could’ve saved her from boredom, and something that she was expected to do for her husband, was have and take care for a child. She couldn’t even do this because she was infertile, and in this way she was completely useless to her husband since she couldn’t provide him an heir. (3) Not to mention, the arranged marriage with her husband, that was meant to get her out of rags, was devoid of love, which was acknowledged right before Katerina and Sergei killed Zinovy. This loveless marriage and life of boredom is most certainly a factor in why she got involved with the handsome Sergei. (4) Katerina by just being a merchant’s wife got herself into trouble, throughout the novella Sergei loves mentioning how she is a merchant’s wife. The class and wealth coming with a merchant status definitely attracted Sergei, this is even more evident after the couple is sent to Siberia, when Katerina is nothing but a prisoner Sergei is no longer interested in her. If Katerina was put in an entirely different context, a different time and a different place, the novel wouldn’t be the novel that Leskov intended to write about Russian culture and society.