Yes, you read correctly, that headline was not a typo. PUSHKIN, not Putin. My starting point is this very interesting essay by publicist Vladimir Mozhegov. “After all,” Mozhegov writes, “1937 was not only the year when Stalin’s purges of the Lenin-Trotsky Old Guard achieved their peak. It was also the 100th Anniversary of the death of Alexander Pushkin, an event which was celebrated in the Soviet Union of a scope never before seen.”
According to Mozhegov, Russian poet Alexander Pushkin (1799-1837) had not before enjoyed such acclaim in the Soviet Union. The year 1937 and the events celebrating his jubilee, placed him firmly at the top of the Soviet pantheon of artists and cultural figures.
Historians have noted the tendency in Soviet times, especially after the political ascendancy of Stalin, to “over-praise” certain individuals; to take certain national figures and heroes who are extraordinary in their own right; but then to push them even higher, into something like deities. In a previous series right here on my blog, we talked about the mummification of Lenin. Which obviously went too far in turning a clever and respected leader of his political party, into a type of immortal god-being. A similar thing happened with Pushkin in 1937, although without the physical mummification; since Pushkin had already been dead for 100 years. Pushkin always enjoyed popularity, of course, and was considered one of the greatest Russian poets and writers of his era. But it is indeed odd that during Stalin’s ascendancy, Pushkin was raised up above all others, including equally talented writers such as Griboedov.
Mozhegov sees this tendency as part of the “Russification” of Soviet culture which was taking place during that time. Recall that Stalin’s faction within the Communist Party had defeated Trotsky’s rival faction, after a vicious power struggle which inluded a multitude of domestic and foreign policy issues. On the domestic front, Stalin’s faction proposed building “Socialism in one country”. That country being the Soviet Union, led by Great Russia.
Trotsky saw this as a retreat from Leninist goals of world socialist revolution, in which Russia’s role was to be the vanguard, not the fortress. The years following Lenin’s death had seen a cluster of “push-back” or retrograde type phenomena which Trotsky dubbed “Thermidor“, in reference to the French counter-revolution which succeeded the French Revolution.
In other words, the Stalin faction had pragmatically given up on the notion of world socialist revolution, and decided to hunker down and defend what they had, against the coming storm. While also securing their own bureaucratic privileges and perks, naturally. Meanwhile, a war-weary people had to be fed, educated, and taken care of.
Part of the national consolidation consisted of a program of mass education and re-instilling of classical culture. Mozhegov doesn’t mention this but it was happening in all the Soviet republics, with various national figures resurrected from the past. Children taught about their ethnic/national icons. In Russia, this meant Russian cultural figures from past generations, even if they happened to be aristocrats and bourgeoisie. Much of this is positive; and in fact one of the more appealing features of Soviet life of that era, even to enemies, was the Soviet focus on culture: on the ballet, on art, literature, etc. About curating the archives and salvaging artifacts from the past. All of this is good and positive, there can be no doubt about that. But placing Russian culture at the very center of the socialist transformations — from a Marxist point of view, that is sheer nonsense, Mozhegov claims: “After all, Scientific Marxism rejects culture, especially the culture of previous formations, based on obsolete class structures. From the point of view of orthodox Marxism, Pushkin was an element of the bourgeois-aristocratic era, and as such he was supposed to be obsoleted.”
Hm…. I think Mozhegov is being too linear here. From what I understand, Marxism does not so much reject culture as analyze it. One can analyze something and still appreciate it. Was I not supposed to enjoy the ballet Swan Lake because the hero is a feudal prince? Still, it is not my aim to debate Mozhegov here on doctrinal points of Marxism, so much as to lay out his thoughts on the year 1937. And it is clear that he has a point, when it comes to the Stalin period and its obsessive rehashing and worshiping of classical culture. Once again, classical culture is a good thing, and one can’t get enough of it. So, Stalin deserves some kudos for that, even while receiving raspberries for killing off Lenin’s Central Committee. However, the point about obsessive worship of the man himself, i.e., Alexander Pushkin, is a valid one, in my view. And part and parcel of the Stalinist desperation to find acceptable heroes for the masses.
Mozhegov goes on to quote publicist Georgiy Petrovich Fedotov who wrote about the 1937 Pushkin Jubilee from his French exile, in an article entitled “Poet Of the Empire and Of Freedom”: “As the Empire returns, so also returns the Poet of the Empire.” A highly perceptive sound-bite, indeed.
Fedotov was better known, of course, as émigré philosopher Bogdanov. Born in 1886 in Saratov. During the 1905 revolution, Fedotov briefly engaged in revolutionary socialistic activities in his home town. He was arrested and exiled to Germany. He studied medieval European history at the University of Jena. For years Fedotov wandered around Europe, intermittently returning to Russia; and intermittently continuing his academic studies.
In 1918, back in Russia, Fedotov organized the philosophical circle known as “Rebirth” which published its own journal called “Free Voices”. From 1920-22 Fedotov taught the history of the Middle Ages at Saratov University. From 1922-25 a step up and a position at Petrograd (later Leningrad) University. Fedotov published many monographs in his field of medieval European History; but one piece, about Dante, was rejected by the censor.
In 1925 Fedotov took a sabbatical abroad to Germany, but never returned. From that moment on, he was an exile. He spent time in Germany and France. Eventually (1940) he ended up in the United States, where he taught theology at Yale University, in New Haven Connecticut.
In his pre-Soviet and Soviet years, Fedotov was both teacher and mentor to Anatoly Lunacharsky, devoted Bolshevik, friend of Lenin’s, and Art Critic. As a sidebar, both Lenin and Lunacharsky shared an appreciation for “classical” Russian literature and were not all that enamored of, say, Mayakovsky and the other Modernists. Nevertheless, these Old Bolsheviks took a De gustibus non est disputandum type approach. Lenin, for one, never took it upon himself to pass off his own opinions on art as official decrees. Meanwhile, a tolerant Lunacharsky served as the first Soviet People’s Commissar for Education in the new Communist government. According to Mozhegov, Lunacharsky fully subscribed to Bogdanov’s views, at least in those early revolutionary years. In the next segment we will see how Lunacharsky played a role in the “cultural counter-revolution” which returned figures like Pushkin, and even Dostoevsky, to a role of acceptable prominence within the Communist cultural pantheon.
[to be continued]