1937 – What is the connection between Stalin and Pushkin? – Part III

Dear Readers:

Continuing with this essay by publicist Vladimir Mozhegov.  Yesterday we learned something about Old Bolshevik Anatoly Lunacharsk, an interesting character in his own right.  Mozhegov mentions Lunacharsky’s friendship with poly-math Alexander Bogdanov, physician, philosopher, science fiction writer, and visionary.  Bogdanov was Lunacharsky’s mentor in many ways.  Both men were core members of the Russian Social-Democratic Party and Bolshevik faction in the years 1905-08.  People don’t realize, but in those days Lenin was not always the dominant figure he later became.  The Bolshevik intellectuals were quite a diverse bunch, including dreamers such as writer Maxim Gorky.  Lunacharsky, Bogdanov and Gorky followed the philosophy of Ernst Mach, of which Lenin highly disapproved.  They also promoted a rather eccentric view of culture as deterministic in human affairs (rather than economics, starkly put).  Bogdanov’s unique ideology was called “Cultural Socialism”.

Lenin yawns while playing chess with Bogdanov (left) and Gorky (center).

Lenin would have none of this pie-in-the-sky revisionism.  He took his Marxism straight up.  Nonetheless, they were all good friends, despite the quarrels and polemics.  Hey, life in the emigration could be boring, and any sort of intellecual stimulation was a treat.

Meanwhile, it is time to start mentioning Stalin.  Despite his reputation as uncouth (and years later, a very bitter Trotsky attempting to portray his rival as an uneducated oaf), Stalin was also an intellectual, in his own way.  He was well-read in Russian classical literature.  Like Lenin, Stalin adored the writings of Chernyshevsky.  He also liked Pushkin, and appreciated Dostoevsky.  Stalin even read books about philosophy.  One could not be taken seriously as a socialist in those days if one was not able to read and debate these works.  This was a time of intellectual ferment in all spheres of human knowledge.  Revolutionary socialists were expected to be brilliant.  The proletariat needed their leaders to be sharp as knives.

Stalin As Literary Critic

One of Stalin’s biographers, Boris Semenovich Ilizarov, wrote in his book, “The Secret Life of Stalin”, that Stalin owned an extensive library of classical Russian literature.  Many of the books were filled with annotations written in Stalin’s own hand.  Ilizarov, who was born in 1944 and is still alive, and still works as an official historian, studied Stalin’s copy of Tolstoy’s novel “Resurrection“.  The story is a horrific tale of a woman unjustly sent to prison; and in general a hellish narration of human suffering and debasement — in which the only ray of hope is the teachings of Christ.  Tolstoy writes hopefully that The Sermon On the Mount provides mankind with the tools for eliminating violence and evil.  In the margin Stalin annotated his thoughts:  “Ha ha!” 

Jesus: “Do unto others as…. You over there – stop laughing!”

Besides his personal love of classical literature, Stalin was also highly influenced, according to Mozhegov, by the attitudes and ideas of the Russian diaspora.  Stalin closely followed the trends of the Russian emigration, starting in the 1920’s.  Among these émigré types, Pushkin was a popular figure, even rapidly developing into a cult.  Which is not surprising, since Pushkin was an aristocrat, as were many of the émigrés themselves.  Aristocrats tend to stick together, especially against The Herd.

When the year 1937 rolled around, the Russian Diaspora were planning to publish heretofore unknown works by their favorite poet.  They were also planning to use Pushkin as their secret weapon against Soviet power.  As Chernyshevsky would have said:  “Oh my goodness, what is to be done?”

Why must everything be done for this guy Art?

Team Soviet needed to fight back by claiming Pushkin as their own.  Thus starting the war of the dueling Pushkins.  Was Pushkin a spiritual progenitor of the Russian Revolution?  Or a spiritual progenitor of the Russian Counter-Revolution?  In reality, both sides can make a credible argument.  Pushkin, like Shakespeare, or the Bible, was such a chameleon, that virtually anybody can find a passage in his works to prove whatever point they are trying to make.  For example:  In his youth Pushkin was a Decembrist, hence a revolutionary.  But later he became more politically conservative and pro-Tsar.  In Pushkin’s works, Russophobes can find passages critical of Russian life.  Russophiles can quote his patriotic poems such as To The Slanderers and Poltava.

The anti-Communist émigré community of that time was pushing a cultural trend known as Art for Art’s Sake.  An empty shell of an aborted idea which they countered to the openly political agitation of Communist artists.  Émigrés were offended by artists like Mayakovsky, or “Socialist Realists”, who inserted the Communist ideology directly into their works, in an “in your face” kind of way.  Usually émigrés preferred their political propaganda more subtle-like.  The émigrés had decided that Pushkin was a pure artist of this type, and that he was their hero.

Example of Communist art: “Young Steel Workers” by V. Malagis (1950), oil on canvas

Russian émigrés had to invent their own type of Art to counter Communist Art.

Even back in 1921 Lunacharsky saw what was going on in this arena, and decided to stake his claim on the Pushkinian heritage:  “We will not surrender Pushkin to the proponents of Art for Art’s Sake,” Lunacharsky wrote.  “We will not concede that, say, Nekrasov belongs to us, but Pushkin belongs to you.  They both belong to us!”

And with this slogan in mind, Stalin was preparing, in 1937, to astound the entire world with the scope of Pushkin-worship never before seen.  This crusade against the cultural emigration would decide the issue once and for all:  That Pushkin was a Soviet poet!

Mozhegov goes on to detail, step by step, the creation of the Stalinist Pushkin cult in 1937.  By the end of this process Pushkin had been transformed from clever waggish rhymester to Laurel-Browed Demigod.

[to be continued]

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3 Responses to 1937 – What is the connection between Stalin and Pushkin? – Part III

  1. Lyttenburgh says:

    “When the year 1937 rolled around, the Russian Diaspora were planning to publish heretofore unknown works by their favorite poet.”

    I honestly have to wonder – what works? After the Revolution of 1905 censorship (finally!) relented and allowed the publication of prviously “suppressed” works by Pushkin – including “A tale about Priest and his worker Balda” and all time’s favorite of any gimnazist “A tale of Czar Nikita and his 40 daughters”.

    Given that Pushkin’s descendants were also in emigration, perhaps, they were about to publish some letters and “work in progress” unfinished stuff?


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