Stalin era intellectual culture - a challenge

Stalin era intellectuals were not necessarily Stalinist intellectuals, writes post-doctoral researcher Elina Viljanen in this long read.

Even today, research on Stalinism and the Stalin epoch has to face some problems, which are not exactly ordinary. The general popular conception of Stalin era culture still follows the so-called totalitarian school of interpretation. This school has been able to single out some important constitutive traits in Stalinism, and it has justly noted about the introverted nature of Stalin era society, science, and culture. However, it also overemphasized the determining position of the dictator as an architect of Soviet culture by depicting a single, top-down scheme: Stalin and his Stalinist government controlled every corner of society. Naturally, this outlook was sceptical towards the view that anything one could call an intellectual culture had the possibility to exist under Stalinism.

The “revisionist” interpretation, which has arisen partly as a reaction to the one-sidedness of the totalitarianism school, stresses that Soviet cultural political contemporaneity of the Stalin era was never as static and predetermined as the totalitarian school assumed. In practice, however, the mainstream of Western scholars studying Soviet intellectual history still primarily concentrate on the early fate of the avant-garde, on the suppression of idealist and religious thought and of modernist philosophies. It is certainly true that Stalinism produced precarious conditions not only for the adherents of old “bourgeois” culture, but also to the left-wing intelligentsia in its entirety. Nevertheless, it seems too sweeping a generalization to maintain that the critical intellectual culture of the Stalin era consisted only of the ‘desk drawer’ writings of such quite isolated intellectuals as the literary scholar Mikhail Bakhtin. Nowadays, when the Soviet era archives are largely open, we have much better material conditions for research, which has resulted in a continuous flow of new studies on the different aspects of the Stalin epoch.  

Critical new approaches launched in Helsinki

In January 2019, the Aleksanteri Institute hosted a symposium on the Stalin era intellectual culture. This was the first symposium of a new project “Stalin Era Intellectuals, Culture and Stalinism” by Professor of Russian philosophy Vesa Oittinen and myself. Our project recently received the 150th Anniversary Fund Grant from the Cultural Foundation. The January symposium also opened my individual post-doctoral research project in which I explore the musicology of the Stalin era, so far a very under-studied field.

The Aleksanteri Institute has a tradition in researching the problems of Stalinism. Already in 2002, Markku Kivinen, then the director of the Aleksanteri Institute, analyzed the deformation of the “Bolshevik project” during the Stalin era in his book Progress and Chaos. The roots of the present project, however, lie in the small-scale but international symposium on Stalinism that was held in 2011. This symposium approached the concept of Stalinism as an interdisciplinary question and produced a collection of articles Discussing Stalinism: Problems and Approaches (Aleksanteri Papers, 2015). Our second symposium shifted the focus from Stalinism to the culture of the Stalin era, and to its less explored corners: philosophy and the humanities. In general, the Stalin era culture has been a target of extensive study. So what is new in our project on this era?  

While there is much general multidisciplinary research that challenges the outlook of Stalin era culture as a monolithic and introverted totalitarian phenomenon, there is far less profound analyses about the intellectual content of this culture analyzed against Western intellectual history and in global context. We also lack a critical perspective towards the decades that immediately preceded the Stalin era. The generational, intellectual, ideological, cultural-political, and linguistic shifts that took place during the so-called Great Break at the turn of the 1930s gave birth to a wide range of new type of intellectual experiments under the cultural program of Socialist Realism. However, the analysis of culture under the Socialist Realism doctrine is not possible without a profound revaluation of the problems that the power elite met with the avant-garde in the course of the 1920s. In addition, the suppression of avant-garde in the course of 1920s was hardly complete. The early modernist avant-gardism of the Russian Silver Age took novel directions under the principles of “healthy” revolutionarism of the 1920s, continuing its chameleonic existence also in the 1930s. As a result, the legacies of the 1920s, its continuities and discontinuities in the Stalin era have not been sufficiently considered.

Stalinism can be viewed as the culture of politics or control politics of culture, but not as the culture of Stalin era.

Even though Stalinism must be perceived as an extremely negative – and, yes, totalitarian – tendency that sought to suppress critical thinking, our new project on Stalin era intellectual culture addresses not only the dissident intellectuals who opposed Stalinism and went ‘underground,’ but also the intellectual production in the field of humanities, which tried to carry further the critical ethos of cultural modernization and yet remained as part of a non-persecuted intellectual culture of the time. Thus, it can be said that Stalinism can be viewed as the culture of politics or control politics of culture, but not as the culture of Stalin era.

The starting point of our project presents a critical stance towards the way the mainstream of Revisionists often address Stalinism as a “culture” per se. Scholars, such as Stephen Kotkin (1995) and David Hoffman (2001) represent a trend that identifies culture with politics. Our project, on the contrary, differentiates between the concepts of Stalinism and the culture of the Stalin era. In fact, to view Stalinism as a specific culture and civilization seems a rather totalitarian conception in itself. Kotkin’s view overlooks the individual theoreticians whose work and ideas survived through Stalinism.

Soviet Intellectual Histories? The Unwritten Pages

Who were the major theoreticians who contributed Stalin era intellectual life? What were the major intellectual currents and concepts that one way or another prevailed? How were they born and in what did they result? Finally, if during the Stalin era we find recognized intellectuals who not only sought to maintain in their intellectual output the seeds of critical humanism, international theoretical connections, and personal cultural utopias, and if such intellectual achievements took place despite Stalinism, what kind of achievements they were? What kind of ethical questions are involved?

The questions that form the core of our project are large and complex. The January symposium has a continuation in a form of a book workshop next year. I shall briefly introduce some issues that were discussed by presentations, which will be later published as articles.

In the January symposium, the invited research specialists and Ph.D. students from Russia, England, Germany, Finland, and France were asked to address important Soviet thinkers and cultural theoreticians against the backdrop of the cultural transitions under the fluctuating cultural politics of the 1930s and 1940s. For example, the question about the various ways the insecure political context shaped the output of individual theoreticians, remains far from answered. Furthermore, it is pertinent to ask, to what extent certain cultural phenomena and intellectual currents of the Stalin era were unique features that can be branded as Stalinist, and to which extent they contain features that are shared with other post-revolutionary societies? In addition, the internationality of humanities during the Stalin era has hardly been touched upon in the previous research. Finally, we ask, what would be a global perspective on Stalinism? What new outlooks and theoretical openings can we find towards the Stalin era and its cultural legacies or the concept of Stalinism in the contemporary global context?

Stalinization of Soviet Philosophy?

There was a clear generational and conceptual shift, which began in the 1930s due to abrupt policy change in Party politics. The turbulent events of Stalin’s so-called ‘Great Break’ (1928–1931) have often been seen as a turning point and the beginning of a Stalinist politics sensu stricto. A severe philosophical debate occurred at this turning point. In his presentation “Concept of ‘Menshevizing Idealism’ and the Stalinization of Soviet Philosophy,” Vesa Oittinen discussed how this shift occurred in Soviet Marxist philosophical circles. The hitherto little analysed philosophical debate of the 1930s was directed above all to undermining the interpretation of Marxism put forth by Abram Deborin (1881–1963), which dominated the Soviet intellectual scene until the end of the 1920s. Stalin had a role in this debate, which attempted to clear space for his personal authorship of Soviet Marxist-Leninist philosophy. However, Oittinen suggests that in reality, rather than having a creative role in the philosophical discussion, Stalin only “parasitized” upon the objective need to take a step further from the philosophy of the so-called Plekhanovites and Deborin.

Soviet era philosophers were, either uncritically accepted by the Soviets, or completely ignored by the Westerners for the heavy political burden.

One of the intellectuals of the new generation discussed in the January symposium was the philosopher and literary critic Mikhail Lifshits (1905-1983). Lifshits remains to this day an enigmatic figure. In no sense a Stalinist, he however characterized himself as a “man of the 1930s” (chelovek 1930-kh godakh) and responded, as Oittinen notes, positively to the anti-Deborin campaign. The contradictory figure of Lifshits may indeed give us some key clues to a deeper understanding of the anomalies of the Stalin era and its culture. The Russian philosopher Alexei Penzin’s (University of Wolverhampton) presentation showed that Lifshits was responsible, among other things, for formulating the critique of “vulgar sociology” and modernist culture – two critiques that characterize the intellectual debate of the 1930s and separate it from the previous decade. Oittinen, Penzin, and Sascha Freyberg (Università Ca' Foscari Venezia) pondered, in addition, what Lifshits might offer for current philosophical discussions. This is a new step, since previously the Soviet era philosophers were, either uncritically accepted by the Soviets, or completely ignored by the Westerners for the heavy political burden. In the context of the Stalinist direction of humanities, which strove towards the “great” uncritical unified historical narrative, Lifshits at least tried to write critical, if controversial, cultural philosophy.

If Lifshits was a figure that even today deserves some of our “positive” intellectual curiosity, the eminent historian of Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales, Professor Jutta Scherrer opened up the violent content of Maxim Gorky’s writings on “proletarian humanism,” a key word in official Soviet discourse from the 1930s to the 1980s. Listening to Scherrer’s presentation, I was reminded of an article by a Soviet organist and musicologist Arseni Kotlyarevski (1910-1994) who in 1939 analyzed Mikhail Yudin’s (1893-1948) composition Requiem in Memory of Kirov (1935). It is a good example of how the ideas of Stalin era cultural theoreticians were applied in arts on one hand, and how the cultural theories were brought into Stalinist discourse on the other, all within the cultural production of Socialist Realism. Thus, I shall dwell on it a little.

Yudin, the Soviet Bach, had composed a perfectly acceptable new Soviet oratorio for children’s voices, mixed chorus, and orchestra that used direct quotes from Kirov and Stalin.

In Yudin’s Requiem, the direct imitation of religious practices in a new tendentious ideological context results in rather grotesque images. As if the whole musical work would be just a poor parody of religion or alternatively, Soviet politics: “The memory of you [Kirov] is immortal, our ardent leader, because you gave your life for the cause of the working class,” Koltyarevski writes in his essay quoting Yudin’s original text. However, grotesque was a feature of forbidden bourgeois aesthetics during the Stalin era, and an open dissidence was out of question in the context of Stalinist terror. Yudin, who is also known as the Soviet Bach, had composed a perfectly acceptable new Soviet oratorio for children’s voices, mixed chorus, and orchestra that used direct quotes from Kirov and Stalin. The peculiar rational logic loyal to the Stalinist ideology of culture by Kotlyarevski’s analysis hints that he was neither a Stalinist idiot nor a dissident, but a musician who wanted to earn his music history degree in the difficult situation of Stalin’s terror.

Kotlyarevski’s article ranks among those who tried to adapt the oratorio genre in the Soviet context and therefore he concentrated on explaining to the reader which aspects of the old tradition of oratorio by Bach and Händel were valuable for the Soviet audience. Discussing those values – the mass character and ethical value – Kotlyarevski enters the general discussion of the new Soviet humanism, which he characterizes as “the most beautiful characteristic of our epoch.” Expressing the ideas of Soviet humanism of a person who had recently been executed as a disloyal criminal, Nikolai Bukharin (1888-1938) Kotlyarevski prefers to quote Stalin instead: “...Yudin always eventuates the organic unity of individual and collective. That collective is Soviet society, which consists ‘of free hard workers of the cities and villages – workers, peasants, intellectuals’ (Stalin, ‘Conversation with Roy Howard’).”  

Coming thus back to Scherrer’s presentation, she describes the juxtaposition of beauty and hatred towards the enemies of the proletariat in Gorky’s idea of a Proletarian Humanism, which he developed in a politically-turbulent European context. This dramatic juxtaposition was useful for Soviet musicians and music critics who tried to fulfill the new programmatic demands of the Socialist Realist aesthetics as critics and musicians. By demanding traditional narrative musical elements, Socialist Realism strove to take off the autonomy of music that the aesthetic theory of modernist musicology had given it via a proto-semiotic concept of intonation (intonatsiia). No words were necessary to accompany music, only a trained ear who can understand the intonational language, musicologist Boris Asafiev argued throughout the 1920s. Intonational analysis plays also part in Kotlyarevski’s essay, which claims that the songfulness of Yudin’s composition is deeply popular (narodno) and the intonational forms (obrazy) of Yudin’s composition capture everything familiar and dear to Soviet people. However, Koltryarevski’s otherwice positive analysis also criticizes Yudin’s composition for sounding too much like trauermusik. Life was dynamic and it was getting better after all. Thus, Koltyarevski talks in a good Socialist Realist fashion about the lack of dramatic conflict between the third section of the requiem which describes people’s grieving feelings by Kirov’s coffin, and the fourth section, which is called: “Death to the enemies of the working class.” Thus, it seems that we find in Koltrayevski’s article a call for a musical application of Gorky’s proletarian humanism with Buharinist content and Stalinist form. Scherrer’s article will be important in the field.

Rising interest in contemporary Russia and abroad

Why should we take a look at thinkers such as Lifshits, Asafiev, or Gorky right now? Of course, my own interest as an intellectual- and cultural historian is to understand more profoundly how Stalinism affected people’s thinking on one hand, and how intellectuals contributed, fought against, or just lived by it on the other. Another reason is that these thinkers form an important part of Russian intellectual history, which is in “use” and in “process”. For example, Lifshits ranks among the philosophers whose works are being republished in the contemporary Russia and now even abroad.

Whereas after the collapse of the Soviet Union, various works of Russian idealist philosophers and forbidden Soviet nonconformists were rehabilitated and republished, by now we have also witnessed for some time a rising interest in also those Soviet Marxist thinkers whose output swung between the accepted and unaccepted during the Soviet era. Finally, Stalinism is not only related to Stalin’s person. Stalinism was a form of politics, whose long shadow reaches us still today. To understand the beginnings and consequences Stalinism we should look beyond the era of Stalin’s rule. As Susan Ikonen’s (University of Helsinki) speech on post-Stalin Soviet literature showed with her abundant materials, the grip of Stalinist cultural practices far from ended with the dictator’s death. It had created not only a tremendous trauma, but forms of behavior that materialized in various forms of Stalinist practices in the post-Stalin years. Here Ikonen’s almost completed Ph.D. thesis on Soviet history will challenge the previous research on the Thaw-period.

The ideas elaborated during the Stalin era should be placed in a long history of Russian philosophical and cultural thought and viewed against transnational development.

Stalin era doctrines such as Socialist Realism has also its pre-history in the 1920s, as my own research on Soviet cultural theory of music and Liisa Bourgeot’s (University of Helsinki) paper on philosopher Gustav Shpet (1879-1937), emphasized. Here we must be careful not to misinterpret and overemphasize the role of these early Soviet cultural theoreticians in terms of creating a Stalinist doctrine. The creation of Socialist Realism as a doctrine was a strictly political invention, although it created, as demonstrated above in the words of Evgeny Dobrenko (2001), “a boundless sea of artistic production” in the 1930s and 1940s. Instead, our papers discussed the sub-theme of the symposium: Continuities and Discontinuities of Intellectual Traditions, by which we try to go beyond the fast changing political doctrines. The ideas elaborated during the Stalin era should be placed in a long history of Russian philosophical and cultural thought and viewed against transnational development. For example, what would be a global view on Stalin era intellectual life? Professor Craig Brandist’s (Director of the Bakhtin Centre, University of Sheffield) pioneering paper on Stalin-era philology, oriental Studies, and the question of India approached this question. Brandist’s fascinating presentation showcased that we can also find some forgotten positive corners in the Soviet intellectual life of the Stalin era. The Soviet challenge to British and French oriental studies, which made common cause between colonialism and Brahamnism, proved particularly attractive to Indian anti-caste socialists, and there were a number of attempts to make common cause between the Communist and anti-caste movements. Brandist also emphasized the way in which in certain areas intellectual and political trends were far from united during the Stalin era.

The objective of the current scholarship on Soviet thought is not to dispense justice and moralize from the position we are now, but to view the Soviet era as part of our intellectual history. Despite the brutality of the politics, the Stalin era is not a separate entity. In addition, contemporary research strives to give a more nuanced picture of the Stalin era culture, without merely dwelling on victims and collaborators of Stalinist politics.

Not for lazy readers

Previously Western scholars have dismissed Soviet intellectuals with a shrug as dealers of worthless political propaganda. In fact, Soviet intellectual history forms a tremendous intellectual challenge for us all and requires international and transcultural analysis. The totalitarian ambitions of Soviet politics perhaps strove for total control, unity and simplicity, but produced everything but that; distorted realities in which many interesting ideas were wrapped by complexly twisted intellectual practices. The Soviet political system was also part of a global community. Not least because of the general striving towards social unity by Soviet politics, Soviet intellectual history is a cross-disciplinary field that requires interdisciplinary cooperation on one hand. On the other, one must know thoroughly and critically one’s own disciplinary history and discursive customs; both Russian and Western versions.

Our symposium participants came from the fields of literature, philosophy, musicology and history, but in addition all the scholars work in multidisciplinary scholarly communities and they are forced to cross their disciplinary borders in their daily work. From the point of view of analyzing contemporary Russian culture in its wider meaning, there are a great need of scholars who have serious knowledge of the intellectual currents of the Soviet period, including the ability to contextualize across ones disciplinary borders, skills to read through political rhetoric, sensitivity to recognize that not everything come down to ideology, and objectivity to see that the beauty of art appeared in some contexts as a ruthless political weapon.