Kyshtym-zilla

In 1957, there was a nuclear disaster in a city called Cheliabinsk-40 in the Ural Mountains of the Soviet Union, the blow came from an underground tank filled with radioactive waste. The “Kyshtym Disaster” is the third biggest nuclear disaster in history, according to the International Nuclear Event Scale, behind the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster in 2011 and the Chernobyl Nuclear disaster in 1986 (which takes the top spot). How is it that the “Kyshtym Disaster” is widely unheard of?

Within the Soviet Union there were ten of these ‘nuclear cities‘, those employed within these cities were to keep their activities extremely secret and would be paid high wages for their dangerous work. Aside from the high confidentiality of their employment, families who lived in these cities enjoyed a wide range of functions provided by the state such as housing, health care, and good educational opportunities. Though, these communities were extremely high risk not only because they were in the midst of nuclear plants but also because the Soviet nuclear program was rushed in order to compete with America’s nuclear weapons technology. Conditions within these cities were unsafe to begin with. Another contributor to the danger of the nuclear city was that workers at the plant would also dump nuclear waste into the Techa River, other solid materials that were dumped on the site polluted the air along with smoke that came from the plant itself.

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Warning sign at the Mayak Plant

The plant at Cheliabinsk-40, called the Mayak Plant, had six reactors which processed nuclear materials to create plutonium for nuclear weapons. Specifically, what happened on the day of the explosion was that one of the cooling systems at Mayak failed. These cooling systems were integral to the processing of nuclear material at the plant because liquid nuclear waste is extremely hot, and the cooling tanks were meant to prevent the dangers of overheating. When one of the cooling systems failed, radioactive chemical dust was created when the waste tank got too hot and surrounding water evaporated. The product of the cooling system failure was radioactive ammonium-nitrate, which was released into the air when the waste tank exploded.

Although 270,000 people lived in Ozyorsk (the true name of the city) only 11,000 of them evacuated within two years after the disaster. Residents and those near the plant began to see the effects of the blast when they noticed that their skin was falling off or when they started to get sores on their skin. In order to lessen panic and doubt that the city wasn’t safe, Soviet authorities spent 11 million rubles (about $150,000 today) on public relations and also forbade any more people from coming in, including soldiers and clean up workers.

The population who felt the effects of the disaster the most were the farmers surrounding the city, which were about 87 villages who were in the process of harvesting their crop for the year. Farmers in the village of Korabolka had seen the nuclear blast, and some even believed that a nuclear war had started. Effects were seen quickly as 300 out of 5000 villagers died of radiation poisoning. Another favored population within the disaster were ethnic Russian villagers who were relocated, the remaining ethnic Tartars stayed in the contaminated villages. Soldiers also relocated the most contaminated villages, though, relocation proved to be too expensive if it were to be done for all the villages in the area so many were left behind. Later on, the people at Korabolka would experience five times the cancer rate of those who lived in uncontaminated villages, other contaminated villages would have higher rates of cancer, genetic abnormalities, and other radiation-related illnesses. Soldiers who arrived at the farms after the blast instructed villagers to bury that year’s contaminated harvest, the villagers themselves took on the hard task of doing so.

It is evident that the Soviet government purposefully left the most affected populations in the dark of what really happened at Mayak. To no one’s surprise, the Soviets would also keep the disaster at Kyshtym (the closest mapped city to Ozyorsk) a secret to the rest of the world. The Soviet regime could not afford to have its nuclear failure out for everyone to see.

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Zhores Medvedev, Russian biologist and dissident

In 1976 a Russian biologist named Zhores Medvedev exposed the Kyshtym disaster to the world and also brought to light other problematic science-related issues within the USSR. In his article named “Two decades of dissidence“, Medvedev begins by explaining Stalin’s mishandlings of science in his regime, specifically, he explains that Stalin supported scientists who professed to be able to achieve something extraordinary. This led Stalin to support scientists who were unqualified and had aspirations that were completely unrealistic, in response, a dissident scientist movement began. To be apart of the movement was extremely risky because it meant going against state-sanctioned science.

Khrushchev’s de-Stalinization movement allowed credible scientists to have more wiggle-room in the USSR. Though, under Krushchev’s regime the most elite of scientists were nuclear physicists and aerospace  technologists, other scientists like geneticists were suppressed. Before the Kyshtym disaster, geneticists tried to warn nuclear physicists about the dangers of radiation and radioactivity on human populations. The lack of interest and scientific knowledge on radiation genetics and radiology became extremely evident in the aftermath of the disaster, when no one knew how to treat those who were affected by radiation from the blast. This forced the Soviet government to legalize genetics for radiology, radiobiology, and medicine.

The Kyshtym disaster is an episode in both world history and Soviet history on how the nuclear hubris of regimes can cost the lives of hundreds of people, and how its effects are felt after decades after an instantaneous blast. We may never know the true number of innocent people who were affected by the disaster, adding to the list of the many secrets from the Soviet Union that has continued to baffle the modern world.

CoachEstonian Music Festival

The spread of the plague has led to the cancellation of many long-awaited summer events, including the highly anticipated 2020 Tokyo Olympics and the famous 2020 Coachella Music Festival. Luckily, the Estonian Song and Dance Festival evaded these unforeseen circumstances this summer by holding their most recent festival last year, the festival has been taking place roughly every four to five years since 1923.

The first of the Estonian Song and Dance Festivals took place in 1869, more than 150 years ago (way older than the most popular American music festivals such as Woodstock, Burning Man, and Coachella). Johann Voldemar Jannsen, publisher of the festival, wanted the event to evoke a national Estonian movement where peasant culture could join the spheres of high culture. Slowly, the festival would include Russian performers, and by 1896 the festival permanently moved locations from Tartu to Tallinn, the capital of Estonia, while the number of both performers and attendees also grew in size. 

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Estonian Song and Dance Festival, 1910

1938 would be the last Song and Dance festival before World War II, it was conducted by composer Gustav Ernesaks. Six years later, Ernesaks wrote the music to “Mu isamaa on minu arm” (which translates into English as “My Fatherland is My Love”) with the poetry of Lydia Koidula, when he was deported in Russia. The patriotic song came to be seen as an unofficial national anthem. During the same year (1940), Estonia was at the frontlines of the war, and Soviet aircraft bombed Germans soldiers on the ground in Tallinn on March 4th. The bombings destroyed 20 percent of the buildings in the city, including the Estonia opera house and other culturally important national buildings; more than 600 civilians died while more than 70,000 fled to the west. 

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Estonian Song and Dance Festival, 1938

The first festival that took place after the war was in the summer of 1947, this would also be the first festival that would take place after being incorporated into the Soviet Union. Ernesaks would return and risk trying to keep the festival’s spirit of Estonian nationalism and tradition, while also being mandated to promote Soviet patriotism. As Jannsen intended for the festival, from its creation to its running under Soviet rule, the festival would continue to show the Estonian people that they had the right to express their own national culture, despite the assimilation policies of their rulers (during both the Imperial era and the Soviet Era). The festival was massively important to the Estonian people, this first festival after the war was attended by almost a fourth of its over one-million population. 

In countering this expression of Estonian nationalism, Soviet influences and powers tried to break up these sentiments by carrying Soviet slogans through marches in parades related to the festival and also tried to deter Estonians from aspects of their tradition, like not being able to wear their national folk dress and diluting the choirs and performers with Soviet musicians. Throughout the Soviet repressions, the Estonians realized the importance of their music festival, and each year at the closing of the festival the Estoanians would sing “Mu isamaa on minu arm” against Soviet wishes.

While “Mu isamaa on minu arm” was considered the unofficial Estonian anthem behind the pre-Soviet union Estonian anthem “Mu isamaa, mu õnn ja rõõm”, which translates to “My Fatherland, My Happiness and Joy”, the Estonians gained another national anthem with the addition of “Eesti NSV Hümn”, “State Anthem of the Estonian SSR”, in 1945. It was one of the only national anthems of the SSR (other than the Karelo-Finnish SSR and the Georgian SSR anthems) that did not mention the Russian People:

Ye roar, factories, and corn-fields, wave;

Reap, sickle, and beat out, hammer!

May the life of the Soviets throb in mighty swing;

May happiness be brought to people by good labor!

Among our Soviet nations and states

Estonia, march in the firm fore!

Though, after the fall of the Soviet Union in 1990, the Estonian people were not hesitant to readopt their original national anthem, “Mu isamaa, mu õnn ja rõõm”, one year later Estonia had its independence restored.

My native land, my joy, delight,

How fair thou art and bright!

And nowhere in the world all round

Can ever such a place be found

So well beloved as I love thee,

My native country dear!

Despite Stalin’s assimilation campaign to suppress national movements and take control of the international communist movement after World War II, the Estonians continued to fight for the right to celebrate their culture and traditions. The importance of the Estonian Song and Dance Festival is so significant that in 2003 the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization deemed the festival a “masterpiece of Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity”. It is interesting to see the entirety of a nation’s culture and tradition embodied into a summer music festival that takes place only every four to five years, it is even more intriguing to see the sentiments from changes of regimes reflected in national anthems. The most recent festival that took place in 2019, headlined as “My Fatherland is my Love”, exemplifies the spirit of the Estonian nation and heart of its traditions after half a century of Soviet rule, repression, and assimilation efforts. 

Jojo Russki

This past January, the Academy-Award winner for best adapted screenplay was Jojo Rabbit, directed by Taika Waititi, based on the book Caging Skies by Christine Leunens. Along with best adapted screenplay, the film was nominated for best picture, best supporting actress (on behalf of Scarlett Johansson), and best film editing. The Oscar win was also a victory in diversity in that the director, Taika Waititi, was the first indigenous director to be nominated in this category and the first indigenous person to win an Oscar. Jojo Rabbit garnered both critical acclaim and controversy because of its more ‘sensitive’ topics and the comedic nature of these same themes. The film takes place during World War II and is centered around a ten year old Hitler Youth named Johannes, he dreams of being a Nazi soldier and his imaginary friend is even Hitler himself. Young Jojo becomes confused when his mother, who is secretly anti-Nazi, hides a Jewish girl named Elsa in the walls of his own home. Jojo must literally choose whether he is friends with Hitler or Elsa in the midst of the Berlin bombings. As Yorkie says, Jojo’s second best friend, “Its definitely not a good time to be a Nazi.”

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Jojo Rabbit (2019) – Directed by Taika Waititi

How do we begin to understand the lives of children who were a part of youth movements of ‘evil’ regimes? For example, the Hitler Youth or the Red Guard of Mao Zedong? Do we view them as children who didn’t know any better under a national revolution? Or, do we view them as conscious persons who willingly took part in movements they knew were evil? Maybe a little bit of both?

Here we have another one of these youth program in a controversial regime called the Komsomol (or the All-Union Leninist Communist League of Youth) under the Soviet Party. Much like Jojo, the Komsomol also had something like summer camps, the video below was filmed at Artek Pioneer Camp, on the coast of the Black Sea:

The video was filmed in 1938 and opens up with Pioneer boys sunbathing (or tanning) right next to the coast. I guess young Russian boys enjoyed a nice, good tan, as evidenced by one of the camp faculty members telling the boys to flip over while laying on beach chairs and after their tan, the boys swim in the water. In the second part of the video the boys honor the camp by playing a variety of instruments like trumpets, by setting off a ‘celebratory’ fire, by marching along with a huge poster of Stalin in a parade-like style, and by standing in applause of the camp hosts. Important figures like Comrade Molitov, the president of the Council of People’s Commissars, visit the camp and familiarize himself with the children. Closing the video out, the children watch model airplanes fly and they play with flags. Camp Artek seemed like a more formal camp (which would definitely make sense as it was funded by the Soviet government) since both boys and girls were uniformed and had different outfits for different activities, it also seems as if boys and girls had to abide by some hair standards or they all coincidentally had the same haircut. With the clear shot at 53 seconds, one can see that the camp was host to a diverse group of boys and girls, reflecting the larger diversity of the Russian people.

Artek opened in 1925, the Crimean Peninsula was seen as the perfect place to build the camp between the mountains and the lagoon along the Black Sea, also in contrast to American camps, Artek was open year-round. Initially, the camp was used for health purposes for children who lived during the Russian Civil War; momentarily during World War II, the camp was relocated to Siberia, where pioneers contributed to production in the war industry and helped local hospitals. Afterwards, the camp was rebuilt and expanded its ‘clientele’ to include children from places like Italy, China, and Sweden, even important international figures like prime ministers would visit the camp. Some children even got scholarships to attend the camp, but scholarships were usually granted to children who were exceptional in the arts, academics, or athletics — once the Artek became more established and formal, it became hard for children to apply to go to the camp. At this point, Artek seemed to have shifted to a more academy-like system that one had to apply and be accepted to go to, rather than your average sleep-away camp (funded by the Soviet government, of course). When the USSR fell in 1991, the Ukraine took over the camp, and its quality declined.

Putting the camp and the pioneers into a Soviet perspective, what was actually the point of a program such as this?

The Pioneers (also known as the All-Union Lenin Pioneer Organization) was actually very closely related to the Komsomol. The Komsomol was meant to bring together different Russian youth movements that had been involved in the Russian Civil war, membership in the Komsomol later meant privileges in employment, academics, and especially within the hierarchy in the Soviet Party. Specifically, the Pioneers were “prep organizations” who would politically indoctrinate children and host recreational activities, these same Pioneers were supposed to later join the Komsomol. According to the Program of the Komsomol, written in 1936, members of the Komsomol were to: be politically educated (by studying the history of the Soviet Union and by studying political theories by Marx, Engels, Lenin and Stalin), educate other young people, help in schools and other children-related areas, provide physical training (“to attain the best sporting records for the USSR” and promote physical culture), to participate in socialist reconstruction (by taking part in the Bolshevik government), and to defend the socialist fatherland.

Again zooming out, the Komsomol was a part of the “Socialist Construction” of the 1930s to promote both the education of children (and in some part the revival of the family) and physical fitness. Stalinist culture in this era was defined by the ‘sovietization’ of traditional Russian lifestyle (within the family and popular culture) and individual exceptionalism in a multiplicity of areas such as industry and physical fitness (Freeze, Chapter 11). Outright soviet revolution and the importance of class consciousness definitely took the passenger seat, not necessarily the back seat, but not the driver seat of this era in Soviet history.

Now circling back to our question of the place of children in ‘evil’ regimes, I believe that we might have to give kids the benefit of the doubt in these cases. If some adults can’t tell that they are being manipulated by their government, I don’t think it’s fair to impose that same judgement on children. I would probably question a ten year old boy if he told me that his summer camp was the work of authoritarian propaganda. On the other hand, I would probably also question a boy if Joseph Stalin was his imaginary best friend.

On the Nilov-Brick Road

As a child, I always had an interest in both Arabic and Gothic architecture, in my eyes, both were at two different ends of architectural design and aesthetics. I have yet been able to see any Middle-Eastern Mosques or Gothic churches of Europe in the flesh, but I did come really close to the former kind in the most interesting, and unusual settings.

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The Arabic Coast during sunset, at Tokyo Disney Sea

This picture was taken at Tokyo Disney Sea, a branch of the Disney Amusement Parks in Tokyo, Japan that includes themes and features from the books of Jules Verne (take Journey to the Center of the Earth, for example), from the Little Mermaid, and from the Indiana Jones Franchise. My favorite area of the park was the Arabian Coast, taken straight out of the Disney film Aladdin, which was also my favorite Disney movie. Being at this fictional Arab-inspired display was often emotional for me, I loved the bright colors, the domes, and just simply the aesthetic that I wasn’t able to see in everyday life.

While looking through the pictures of Prokudin-Gorsky, I came across a very familiar sight.

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View of the monastery from Svetlitsa

The bridge leading up to the dome-d buildings that seemed to be surrounded by a body of water reminded me a lot of my precious Arabic Coast. Included in my interest for Gothic and Arabic architecture, is my curiosity for traditional Russian architecture. Much like the paradox that Russia is, it doesn’t fit the European aesthetic (for me this would be either Gothic, Greek, or Roman) and it doesn’t really fit the Asian aesthetic either (for me what comes to mind are imperial palaces or Buddhist temples). The unique, and picturesque monastery found in this photo is on Stolobnyi Island and is surrounded by Lake Seliger, the location is found northwest of Moscow.

Prokudin-Gorsky took this picture of the monastery in 1910, five years removed from the 1905 Revolution, and seven years earlier than the Revolution of 1917 (which took place during World War II). The photographer and his work were seen as innovations at the time because he employed his knowledge in chemistry to produce colored photos before colored photography existed. By using three different colored glass filters, Prokudin-Gorsky was able to emulate colors; his mission in using his specialized technique was to travel the entirety of the Russian empire on behalf of Tsar Nicholas II in order to show peoples of the empire the diversity and complexity of itself. 

The photographer was sent to Norway after the 1917 Revolution, and never returned after the Soviets took power; as Prokudin-Gorsky and his work were caught in Russian history, so would be the monastery of Nilov. The edifice was ‘predicted’ by Saint Nilus, the saint traveled to the island of Stolobniy in order to continue his monastical works in seclusion. Upon his deathbed, Nilus predicted that the island would be the home of a new monastery; after his death in 1594, coenobite (“a member of the monastic community”) Herman founded the monastery. In more contemporary history, after the October Revolution the Soviets had the monastery closed, in the inspiration of the “Program of the Socialist Revolutionaries” that religion would be a private rather than a public affair. Afterwards, the land would serve as a commune, a children’s labour colony, a hospital and prisoner of war camp during World War II, then again a children’s home, and lastly a nursing home. After the Cold War the land was given back to the Orthodox Church and has been a functioning monastery and popular tourist site ever since.

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A 20th century depiction of the Nilov Monastery 

What drew me to Prokudin-Gorsky photo was the almost heavenly presence of the monastery surrounded by the lake, and the architecture attributed to unique Russian aesthetics which added a level of mystery to the photo. After standing for over four-hundred years, the monastery has added and taken down different elements to its dominion, in the same manner it is interesting how the presence of Russian orthodoxy in Russian society and the purpose that the monastery has played (as a religious edifice, hospital, and tourist destination) have all been transient and changing as well. If Disney was interested in bring in a… new demographic, it could very well look into the pictures of Prokudin-Gorsky for inspiration for a ‘Pre-Soviet Revolution Land’.

Comrade Disney’s Soviet Tomorrowland… Akademgorodok

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.”

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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.

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

Dr. Lysenko-Stien’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 who 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, 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.

 

 

Bad Romance. By Lady MacBeth of Mtsenk.

Lady MacBeth of Mtsensk is a novella by the Russian novelist, Nikolai Leskov, that was published in 1985. 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 peopleof 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.