The crisis of high modernism in the USSR

Maxim Gorky and OPOJAZ

In this article we will try to figure out the crisis of modern art in the Soviet culture. The main targets are Socialistic realism as the dominant cultural paradigm of the USSR and repressed Russian art theorists who had to research and promote the art of high modernism underground or abroad. About high modernism and the Russian art premises before the October revolution, see the previous article.

Isolation of the Soviet Union is a peculiar topic that concerns not only the political and economic spheres, but also cultural ones. The October Revolution of 1917 sparkled in order to unite the entire world under the red flag, overpassing religious and ethnical boundaries. It was a logical beginning of the triumphal path towards an ideal world freed from alienation, money and forced labor in any forms. Marx saw a communist state as a place, where people would know no ideology due to its needlessness and no censorship of art, because labor had to turn into free-flowing creativity. However, in the Soviet Russia things went otherwise.

Jules Perahim — Fighting For Peace (1950)

Socialistic realism and others

Here we approach to the core concept of the modernism crisis in the USSR. Socialistic realism was the dominant cultural paradigm in the Soviet Russia that determined the artistic flow of the country on the official level from the early 1920s until the late 1960s. Being founded by the most famous Soviet writer Maxim Gorky in 1906 as a critical reflection on the autocratic absolutism of the last Russian Emperor Nicholas II, Socrealism quickly got acquainted with peasants and workers. Almost at the same year, Lenin wrote “Party Organization and Party Literature”, where he predicted the fate of the Soviet art.

Literature must become part of the common cause of the proletariat, “a cog and a screw” of one single great Social-Democratic mechanism set in motion by the entire politically-conscious vanguard of the entire working class. Literature must become a component of organised, planned and integrated Social-Democratic Party work.
El Lissitzky — Beat the Whites with the Red Wedge (1919)

After the red revolution, the political and artistic movements forcibly merged into one direction. Modernistic styles such as constructivism and suprematism were well received in the unripe socialistic state and found their function as propagandist tools. The relatively innovative 20s formalized a proletariat culture with the efforts of a Soviet People’s Commissar of Education Anatoly Lunacharsky, who was responsible for the powerful Soviet tradition of literary criticism. Though personally, he tolerated modern art, in accordance with the gaining strength Party, Lunacharsky had to enlighten the illiterate nation and legitimize the rule of the party through cultural context. During his management disappear such avantgard art groups as Mir iskusstva, The Serapion Brothers, Imaginism and OPOJAZ.

The role of the artist turns out to be an ideologist, using traditional forms, not an experimenter. The next two decades are conditioned by the dominance of socialistic realism, which is officially received as the direct elongation of Europan [critical] realism, according to a soviet art theorist György Lukács. In 1934, when the soviet literary criticism had already turned into punitive tool, Maxim Gorky stated at the 1st All-Union Congress of Soviet Writers that Socialistic realism is the central art method. It demands of the artist the truthful, historically concrete representation of reality in its revolutionary development. The Marxist literary standards predetermined nature of the hero, environment and history for any publication. The last decades of socialistic realism were depicted in the thaw 50s and 60s, during which official art theorists, following the designations of Gorky, were unanimously claimed for obscurantism.

Maxim Gorky

The birth of socialistic realism is usually associated with the novel of Maxim Gorky “The Mother”, published in 1907. It is an educative novel that tells the story of a downtrodden and weary woman and her thorny path towards revolution. She helps her son to overcome and resolve hard financial conditions, caused by the injustice of capitalistic division of labor. Factories neglect the workers’ demands and share the profit in favor of greedy entrepreneurs. The mother joints revolution movement and conducts self-sacrifice propagandist activity by the distribution of agitational leaflets.

Already here we may notice the pillars of the official art doctrine. First of all, the hero is often a common person from the working class. At the beginning he or she suffers due to an intractable problem (usually caused by capitalists) that does not allow the hero to enjoy life. Though, the protagonist is deeply depressed by the harsh financial condition, he finds enthusiasm from the people of the same situation and they together devote life for the better future. So, in the revolutionary development, the characters obtain new positive values and come to the assured happy end. No matter who are you, a criminal (as it was depicted in “The Pedagogical Poem” of Anton Makarenko) or an old mother, the path towards revolution fully unfolds talents and virtues of a person. Socialistic novel is an educator, it tells the story of how poor and illiterate workers become progressive revolutioners.

Everybody, my friend, everybody lives for something better to come. That’s why we want to be considerate of every man — Who knows what’s in him, why he was born and what he can do?

Secondly, the socialistic hero is maximalist, he does not see color tones, he lives in the world full of contrasts. This approach can be already seen in the early play of Gorky “Burgesses”, written in 1901, where the author stated “One must always speak firmly Yes or No!”. At first, Russian intellectuals got confused by the straightforward style of Gorky that presumptuously edifies through lush monologues. Still alive Anton Chekhov advised Gorky to soften clamorous declarations of the play. Such shift from the dubious and pensive superfluous man to the dazzlingly bright prophet was unexpected.

Mikhail Nesterov — Portrait Of Maxim Gorky (1901)

The traditional for the Russian literature superfluous man, representing a westernized and disillusioned person became literally superfluous in the whole Soviet culture. As a Russian art critic Andrei Sinyavsky noticed, this type of character was profoundly opposed to the Gorky’s hero. For the last one, there is a certain goal towards which are placed enemies. However, the Gorky’s hero understands enemies (officials, imperial counterrevolutionary) they are part of the same political context, obstacles that slower the upcoming revolution. But superfluous man is not an ideological/political enemy, he is existential enemy, who rejects the idea of utopia, calls into question any virtuous intention of the socialistic hero. In this way, the romantic character of the Russian literature of the 19th century turned into the most dangerous antagonist of the Soviet literature of the 20th century.

The soviet hero is a believer, he ignores the Nietzschean death of God and claims a purpose to build his own deity. It is notable how the confused in God search nation turned into the proletariat of God builders. In Gorky’s novel A Confession, the author reveals almost a biblical story, in which a paralytic woman lays at orthodox church and when a labor strike divinely passes near, the woman gets up on her feet. God is dead, but it does not mean that we can’t establish him beyond theistic framework. I suppose this negation of the Nietzschean deicide was caused by the friendship of Maxim Gorky and Leo Tolstoy. Tolstoy fiercely opposed Nietzsche, claiming that the German irrationalist is a mentally deranged person, who poisons Russian youth with obscure and dark books.


Obscestvo izucenija POeticeskogo JAZyka (The Society for the Study of Poetic Language) or OPOJAZ gave the birth to the influential school of literary criticism called Russian formalism. Established as a strictly scientific platform in 1917, OPOJAZ focused on deep research of poetry, seeing any literary work as a complex machine constructed of devices, by which everything has a function in the text.

Russian formalists organized an interdisciplinary circle consists of numerous academics. Among them were a pioneer of structural linguistics Roman Jakobson, historians of literature Viktor Shklovsky, Boris Eikhenbaum, Yury Tynyanov and a poet Osip Brik with some help of Vladimir Mayakovsky. All of them criticized the traditional view of literature as a special way of understanding images, whose essence depends on external social-political factors. On the contrary, Russian formalists perceived literalness as a taxonomy structure stuffed full of interconnected language forms used by the artist. The forms include fundamental grammar and syntax as well as additional literary devices such as rhyme, onomatopoeia, alliteration and assonance in poetry. The revolution effect of OPOJAZ in the 20s was departure beyond the opposition of the enigmatic imagery of symbolism, reinforced by language and the Aristotels’ mimesis that stood for direct imitation of reality. Russian formalists set the nature of literalness in correlation with language, avoiding imagery and reality.

Viktor Shklovsky assisted on the notion that so called poetic language represents the roughening of the contextual surface with devices (language forms). This roughening causes defamiliarization, the moment, when literary language distinguishes itself from ordinary one by the presentation of the world from a new perspective, new combination of devices. Art is not the shortest way from A to B like a line segment, but it is more like an arabesque, the intricately woven storyline. Requiring experimentation with language in order to disclose new forms of expression, it draws the boundary between poetic and practical languages. But this experimentation does not concern content (story), it only modifies form (plot). Story events have their own chronological sequence, even so, the author always may construct the plot or the sequence in which those events are presented.

Simultaneously with Russian formalism, appeared a partially similar, but American tradition of literary studies New Criticism. Among these new critics was the famous representative of the American high modernism Thomas Stearns Eliot. If Joyces’ Ulysess is an embodiment of the high modern novel, then Elliot’s The Waste Land is the poetic reincarnation, published in the same year. As Colin MacCabe notices, the obscure poem cunningly transforms by means of abrupt shifts of speaker, location, and time mixed by depersonalized stream of consciousness. Though New critics and formalists were two distinct groups, both of them didn’t consider social-political factors as the crucial ones in literature. Actually, Eliot as well as formalists, saw the artist as a scientist, but who deals with the complex composition of emotions and feelings.

There are many people who appreciate the expression of sincere emotion in verse, and there is a smaller number of people who can appreciate technical excellence. But very few know when there is an expression of significant emotion, emotion which has its life in the poem and not in the history of the poet.

Before his immigration to the USA, Roman Jakobson was a vice president of the Prague linguistic circle, where he defined a new linguistic tradition called Structuralism, giving rise not only to the extensive research of language, but to the universal and interdisciplinary methodology that anatomizes the Western thought of the 20th century. For example, a French anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss, who applied structuralism to anthropology by examining at the heart of human cultures common and repetitive structures of symbolic communication. He changed the focus from family as the central figure to system of families and their interactions. But I would remark that his method is mostly inherited from the works of the first structural linguist Ferdinand de Saussure.

In the USSR, the bureaucratic apparatus denied Russian formalism. The first reflection can be seen in a book of Lev Trotsky “Literature and revolution”, published in 1924. There the Russian revolutionary states the minor role of formalism:

As it is represented at present by Shklovsky, Zhirmunsky, Jacobson and others, it is extremely arrogant and immature. Having declared form to be the essence of poetry, this school reduces its task to an analysis (essentially descriptive and semi-statistical) of the etymology and syntax of poems, to the counting of repetitive vowels and consonants, of syllables and epithets. This analysis which the Formalists regard as the essence of poetry, or poetics, is undoubtedly necessary and useful, but one must understand its partial, scrappy, subsidiary and preparatory character.

Trotsky admitted use of formalism, but in the condition of necessities and purposes. He could not accept the idea that ethical content is a part of form and style. For Trotsky, a novel/poem had to be articulated through sociologism, the concept according to which the explanation of social phenomena can be achieved only within the framework of sociology. The writer must concern psychological and social dimensions and sometimes look aside, fixing the linguistic form of text.

Maxim Gorky’s approach was more intransigent. In his article About Formalism written in 1936, he comprehends the role of forms in art, referring to Plato, for whom the form is active, really existing force that fills up from the environment. Not language-games make literature as Ludwig Wittgenstein presumed earlier, working on a larger scope, but man and his reflection.

In aesthetics — the doctrine of beauty — formalists argue that beauty is reduced and reflected by means of a harmonious combination of sounds, colors, lines that please sight and hearing by themselves, regardless of what is expressed…
… Formalism as “style”, as “literary technique” is often used to cover up the emptiness or poverty of the soul. A person wants to speak with people, but he has nothing to say. By tedious, long-winded, though sometimes beautiful, cleverly chosen words, he says all what he sees and can not understand.

Mayakovsky— from “I” (1913)

On pavement stones
Of my trampled soul
Steps of madmen
Plait soles of harsh words.
Where the cities
Are hung
And in a cloud noose 
Crooked turrets
Of towers
I walk
alone sobbing
that on the crossroads
are crucified the tsar’s cops.

In the next article we will see the development of Marxist art criticism by Gregory Lukacs and an authentic school of Michail Bachtin that was denied because of its wayward approach.