What remains of Soviet culture?

By Boris Kagarlitsky

A decade after the official dissolution of the Soviet Union, the question of the Soviet heritage remains the topic of heated discussions in Russia and other post-Communist countries. Some people explain all the problems and disagreements as survivals from the Soviet past, and dream of a time when the collective memory will be wiped clean of the last traces of the Soviet experience. Others carefully cherish Soviet traditions, saving whatever can still be saved and preserving it. Among sections of radical youth there is a half myth, half fairy tale about life in the USSR, a version that mixes the truth with the idealised recollections of grandfathers and grandmothers who take their grandchildren to Communist demonstrations. As the grandchildren grow up, they do not become admirers of Stalin, but feel a robust loathing for the people who destroyed the country and impoverished its people. Even without the grandparents, they would have thought exactly the same, since their own experience of life proves to the younger generation, on a daily basis, that present-day Russia, Ukraine and Kazakhstan are societies that are not so much creating the conditions for future development, as squandering and destroying the inheritance from Soviet times. The most important questions remain at a certain distance from all these disputes: What was it that made Soviet culture unique and attractive? What is its place in history, and what did it leave behind?

The question of the uniqueness of the Soviet cultural experience is by no means an idle one. Ultimately, the cult of industrial labour, of selfless service to the state, of a healthy body and of family values is not peculiar to the Soviet Union between the 1930s and 1960s. In the late twentieth century, when the topic of totalitarianism again became fashionable, a great deal was written about the similarity between Soviet cultural norms and the aesthetic principles that held sway in Hitler's Germany. Nevertheless, a more detailed comparison of the Soviet and German official art of the 1930s reveals not just similarities, but substantial differences. The people depicted on the Soviet canvases are far more individualised; if it was enough for Nazi artists to depict racial stereotypes, for their Soviet colleagues it was important to show individual embodiments of a social ideal. Despite the monotonous topics (shock work, military service, sporting achievements, healthy children), Soviet art of the 1930s therefore makes for much more interesting viewing than that of Germany.

Meanwhile, drawing a superficial analogy between the USSR and 1930s Germany in fact explains nothing. The models of the "totalitarian aesthetic" that emerged in these countries did not appear out of a vacuum, and they cannot be understood without reflecting on their origins and their cultural context. This is where things become really interesting.

The same topics and images, and the same "stylistic context", are also to be found in US art, and in the works of the glorious British Empire. The architecture of Washington creates a striking sense of déjà vu in tourists from Russia. The broad avenues and massive pseudo-classical buildings with Corinthian columns are all reminiscent of the way Stalin reconstructed Moscow. Just as striking are the architectural parallels with London.

The general cultural and ideological context here is one of imperialism and industrialism. The cult of the state, given concrete form in the images of heroes (before the first world war, those of military commanders, and after it, of rank and file soldiers), is a traditional element in the European cultural heritage. Added to it in the twentieth century was the glorification of industrial labour, embodied in the images of miners and other workers. Accompanying them sometimes were collective farmers, but this does not contradict the poetic of industrialism, since the peasants with their sheaves of wheat (or fishers with their catch) are torn apart from nature, from their rural setting, and placed in a single productive context with the industrial workers. In this sense, the Rockefeller Centre in New York and the Revolution Square metro station in Moscow have their origins in the same view of life. It is significant that these workers and farmers appeared on the facades of Anglo-American buildings toward the end of the Great Depression (that is, at roughly the same time as classical Stalinist ideology and culture were taking shape in the USSR and Nazism was triumphing in Germany).

The aesthetic sources of imperial-industrial culture were the classicism and naturalism of the nineteenth century. It is no accident that people in the Soviet Union spoke of the "Stalinist Empire Style"—the parallels between Soviet architecture and the late classicism of the epoch of Napoleon Bonaparte force themselves upon you. The Empire Style was the aesthetic expression of the triumph of order over revolution. This order, however, did not condemn the revolution, but rested on its conquests while appropriating them and placing them at the service of the new post-revolutionary elite. The same can also be said of Stalinism. Having begun as the "Soviet Thermidor", to use Trotsky's phrase, Stalinism by the 1940s had transformed itself definitively into the Soviet form of Bonapartism. It is enough to compare the formal portraits of Stalin painted in the 1940s with the depictions of Napoleon in the official French art of the imperial epoch.

The cult of the public space, as opposed to the private one, was also a tribute to the principle of empire. The public space was aestheticised, while the private one was not. Like the palaces of past kings and emperors, the famous Moscow metro stations were not just works of art. They were a compensation for the godforsaken barracks and communal apartments where citizens carried on their private lives. But unlike the palaces of the eighteenth century, the halls of the Moscow metro stations belonged to the masses. The marble was fake, but it was accessible to everyone. It is significant that from the 1960s, when Soviet society began to recognise the value of the individual space (the embodiment of which became the "separate apartment"), the Moscow metro became functional. The palatial stations were replaced by spacious but anonymous halls with purely functional purposes. If there was still a certain aestheticisation of the space, this was merely a tribute to the past.

If the classicist tradition embodied the imperial, Bonapartist principle, the naturalistic tradition helped to realise the ideals of industrialism. In the Soviet Union people often spoke of "socialist realism" as being descended from the "critical realism" of the nineteenth century. In practice, however, socialist realism was a continuation of naturalism. The origins of the Soviet "social" novel, or of the "novel of production", are not to be found in Dickens's Oliver Twist or in Balzac's Comédie Humaine. A positive attitude to the classics of the Victorian epoch was no more than a concession to the formal "Marxism" of Soviet art criticism. Because Marx was an admirer of Dickens and of the "brilliant school of English realists", these very people had to be cited among the "forerunners". In essence, the attitude of Soviet critics to "critical realism" was the same as their attitude to Marxism: a declarative respect and reverence, accompanied by a total ignorance of what each was really about.

Zola's Germinal, by contrast, comes to mind at every turn, and one is also struck by the influence of French naturalism on Gorky's novel A Mother, which was declared to have been the first work of socialist realism. If the "critical realists" for whom Marx had such a high regard tried to understand the nature of social relations, understanding them primarily as relations between people (even if these people were "typical representatives" of their classes), the naturalists were interested in the process of work itself, or in movements of great—and in essence, de-individualised—masses of people. This was the art of the epoch that saw the triumph of industrial machines and mass production, the painting and literature of the epoch of the steam engine. It could be said that the trends which triumphed in the Soviet art of the 1930s were not at all a reflection of the uniqueness of the "communist experiment", but on the contrary, of the inclusion of Stalin's regime in a common process of development, with the only difference being that trends which had emerged only in the US or Britain were expressed to the fullest extent in Russia, including totalitarianism, in order to place everything on an absolute scale.

These trends, however, did not triumph without a struggle. If Nazism in Germany had to extirpate the artistic tradition of expressionism, Soviet art in the period of the revolution and throughout the 1920s was dominated by various forms of artistic avant-gardism, linked in thoroughly organic fashion with the general political context of the revolution. The Soviet avant-garde of the revolutionary era and German expressionism had a common socio-cultural basis. They were anti-bourgeois and radical. Hitler and his supporters had no ideological problems with suppressing artistic radicalism, since the Nazi party had never hidden its conservative roots, merely seeking to augment its conservatism with social demagogy and corporatism. With Stalinism, things were different. Counter-revolutionary in its essence, Stalinism could not repudiate its revolutionary origins. This was the duality which underlies all "Thermidorean" and "Bonapartist" regimes. The new elite has no need of the revolutionary activism of the masses, and does its utmost to suppress this activism, imposing the "order" needed to guarantee its privileged position. But at the same time, it cannot legitimise itself except by stressing its continuity with the revolutionary past. As its foreign policy successes increase, this revolutionary legitimisation is little by little forced out (though not entirely replaced) by a new one—this time, imperial. This imperial ideology, however, cannot be openly counterposed to the revolutionary tradition.

Soviet culture was forced to preserve an inner continuity, and this was one of its main virtues. The above-noted comparison between Nazi and Stalinist painting speaks for itself. The advantage possessed by Soviet socialist realism lay in the fact that for all its totalitarian features, it did not break completely with the artistic and ideological traditions of the early years of the century and of the 1920s. These traditions, meanwhile, were full of liberating energy. Stalinism appropriated the revolutionary energy and directed it into a channel determined by the new ruling elite. By virtue of this, the revolutionary impulse was preserved, though in a distorted and perverted form.

So long as the revolutionary impulse was alive, the Soviet cultural tradition remained alive and well. In this sense, the 1960s provide a sort of parallel with the 1920s. The death of Stalin was followed not merely by a political liberalisation, but also by a liberating of the cultural and ideological potential that still survived in the Soviet tradition. This is the secret behind the mysteriously fascinating quality of the 1960s in the USSR. The period was no longer heroic in any sense, but it was dynamic, and charged with emotion to an improbable degree. The 1960s, however, not only showed that the initial impulse of Soviet culture was still alive, but also how weak it had become. The period saw a last outburst of cultural passion, followed by its final exhaustion.

The essence of the 1960s lay in an improbable combination of a critical attitude toward Soviet reality with an acceptance of this reality. The thinking of the creative intelligentsia was conflictive, but not oppositional. Just as the Stalin era had seen an astonishing mix of terror and enthusiasm, the Khrushchev period synthesised mass discontent and equally massive support for the system. In this respect, the intelligentsia was still part of the people. The conflict gradually intensified, changing from sporadic to continual resistance; meanwhile, the aesthetic demarcation outstripped the political one. It was no accident that Khrushchev's clash with avant-garde artists came to represent a crucial stage in the development of Soviet political life.

The Brezhnev and Gorbachev eras, with all their differences, marked the death and decay of the Soviet cultural tradition. The official normative aesthetic was restored, and alternative trends were suppressed. The members of the intelligentsia were offered a choice between conformism and dissidence, unlike the situation in the Khrushchev era, when non-conformism could be combined with acceptance of the principles of the state system. The fact that the conformism was purely formal was beside the point. The art critic Leonid Batkin called this "ritual self-defilement". There was no obligation to display belief in the ideal. All that was important was to make regular displays of loyalty. The norms of Stalinist classicism had not been restored, but artistic experimentation was suppressed. As a result, the official art became more and more formal and soulless. Everything that was alive became oppositional to one degree or another, but at the same time gradually lost its connection to the cultural and ideological tradition that had earlier nourished it. The search for new ideas was no more fruitful than the search for a new aesthetic. It amounted to a desperate attempt by Soviet citizens to cease being Soviet, without becoming anything else.

The cultural crisis of the 1990s is often depicted in economic terms: there was no investment in the cinema, the subsidies to the theatres became miserly, major exhibitions became a rarity, and so forth. But the crisis of identity that had broken out was far more drastic than the shortage of money. Moreover, the seriousness of this crisis was in direct proportion to the efforts of the creative intelligentsia itself to put an end to the Soviet tradition, the only one it possessed. This fanatical thirst for destruction (perhaps the last element that remained alive in all of revolutionary culture) was not just an extremely powerful emotional principle, but also became the sole unifying idea, in the process making it impossible for other creative ideas to emerge. It was assumed that the ideals of the free market would automatically give rise to a new culture. Such naive notions could appear only among the Soviet population, with no experience of the market, and hence unaware that the market and bourgeois rule are hostile to culture as a matter of principle (this was why all the waves of innovation in Western culture during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries were based, in one way or another, on anti-bourgeois sentiment).

The collapse of Soviet culture also spelled the end of the anti-Soviet opposition in culture. The 1970s and 1980s interest in the underground quickly began to disperse as these cultural phenomena ceased to be an underground (this was equally true of the "new avant-garde", with its semi-legal art exhibitions and samizdat novels). It was not that these works of art were bad; many of them were good. But they had fulfilled a certain politico-cultural function, which vanished along with the Soviet order.

An exception was the rock culture of the 1970s and 1980s, which continued to develop after being legalised. Here, big money played the same corrupting role as in the West. By the 1990s the rock idols of the previous decade, such as Andrey Makarevich, had been corrupted and turned into models of snobbery and mindless adherence to bourgeois values. The heroes of the early 1990s, whether Alisa, DDT or Lyube, had also compromised themselves, often losing the capacity for originality. But with striking speed they were replaced by new names and faces. In this respect, the picture differs little from what applies throughout the world. Show business is able to commercially appropriate a counter-culture and at the same time to destroy it (the works of Tom Frank describe this process brilliantly). But at the same time as it loses particular heroes, the counter-culture gives birth to others, whom it will also, most likely, lose before long. There is a nutrient medium which is capable of reproducing itself and of giving birth to ever new creative leaders. At least in the early stages, the self-affirmation of these leaders requires them to throw down a rhetorical challenge both to the official norms and to the "bought-off" and "corrupted" representatives of the older generation. This permanent revolt is the normal mode of existence of the counter-cultural milieu; to swallow the milieu completely would not be to the advantage even of show business, since show business itself is not capable of coming up with new creative ideas.

Why has it been the musical counter-culture that has survived and developed, against a background of the crisis and collapse of everything Soviet, from the censored cinema to samizdat literature? Probably because the musical counter-culture was never totally and organically associated with the Soviet tradition. It emerged in the early 1970s, and was never linked to the continuation or rebirth of the revolutionary impulse. Arising under the influence of Western rock and roll, it was imported along with mini-skirts, jeans and other manifestations of the Western protest movement of 1968-1972. The anti-bourgeois point of this protest remained hidden from most young people in Eastern Europe, but the appeal of the style was irresistible. The anti-bourgeois sentiment was replaced by a simplified and at times, quite vulgar nonconformism, this time aimed against the conservative bureaucracies. From its very beginning, Russian rock thus found its own completely organic justification, and its own enemy. It became totally adapted to Russian (or Ukrainian) soil, but significantly, never defined itself as part of Soviet or even anti-Soviet culture. It simply developed in this period and on this territory.

After the collapse of the Soviet Union, the key question was: what remained? To declare that the cultural heritage of the twentieth century had been completely lost was not merely unjust, but simply did not correspond to reality. Nothing vanishes without trace, especially in the field of culture. The material inheritance from the Soviet period continues to shape our perceptions of the environment and landscape, though both are changing radically. It is of fundamental importance to understand what is yet to come. The cultural child of the French Revolution was romanticism, although the revolution itself unfolded within the aesthetic of classicism. Romanticism represented the response of art to the defeat of the revolution and the subsequent fall of the empire. Romanticism in itself, however, was not only radical, but in many of its manifestations, revolutionary.

To draw mechanical analogies, especially in the field of culture, is pointless. Nevertheless, a rethinking of the Soviet experience in new aesthetic forms is a sort of "objective" cultural task, in the sense that after the disintegration of the USSR, society is far from having drawn up a balance sheet of the Soviet past. Just as the French Revolution was defeated but by no means brought to a close in 1814 and 1815, the Russian Revolution has not come to its final conclusion with the collapse of the USSR and the restoration of capitalism. Present-day Russian life is full of a sense of incompleteness, and even a decade after the fall of the USSR, society continues to describe itself as post-Soviet or post-Communist. The revolution, with its shocks and prodigious developments, forced out recollections of the Bourbons and Romanovs in the space of five or six years.

The Soviet experience also remains a crucial factor in mass consciousness because the new reality does not provide its own solid and socially acceptable everyday experience, meaningful enough to force out the past. The ghosts of Robespierre and Napoleon continued to haunt French and European consciousness right up until the time of the Paris Commune. The spectres of Lenin, Trotsky, Stalin, and even of Khrushchev and Brezhnev, remain part of mass consciousness throughout the expanse of the former USSR. Meanwhile, like the images of the revolution and the empire in the nineteenth century, they are being transformed with the advent of a new generation.

Boris Kagarlitsky is a contributing editor of Links. His books include Square Wheels: How Russian Democracy Got Derailed and The Mirage of Modernisation.