The Crisis of the Russian Avant-Garde in Iurii Olesha's Envy

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ABSTRACT: In this essay I will analyze Iurii Olesha's novel Envy (1927) as a reflex of the crisis within the Russian avant-garde. I will argue that Olesha's work can be viewed as the author's perception of the destruction of the avant-garde in the mid-twenties and its replacement by a radically different aesthetic system, i.e., Socialist Realism.

In Envy, the fatal clash between the pragmatic productivism and the earlier constructivism finds its representation in the struggle of the three machines (or constructions-postroeniia-to use the avant-garde term). These constructions are: the communal kitchen Chetvertak; a mysterious machine, Ophelia; and Anechka Prokopovich's bed. I argue that all the power struggles among the main characters of the novel are connected to these three machines. The main feature common to these three machines and their design is control over human life. However, if the first two-Chetvertak and Ophelia-are involved in the active struggle for power, the third-the bed-epitomizes passive aggression. The bed mocks their struggle and lies in waiting and finally devours the future discourse, because it is in the bed that the action of Envy comes to its end. Thus, I suggest that Chetvertak be seen as a later productionist creation, while Ophelia represents an earlier constructivist avant-garde conception. In relation to the first two machines, the bed represents socialist realism as a stagnating aesthetic vision and the dystopian pretense of paradise attained.

By the late 1920s, social utilitarianism and new aesthetic trends were emerging that combined utopian social ideas with a realistic mode of representation. In this essay I will analyze Iurii Olesha's novel Zavist'(Envy, 1927) against the backdrop of the crisis within the Russian avant-garde. I will argue that Envy can be viewed as the author's vision of the avant-garde's destruction and its replacement by Socialist Realism.1 While I use the paradigm of Ophelia, Chetvertak and Anechka's bed as a metaphor for the crisis within the avantgarde movement, it is not my intention to imply that a specific avant-garde work lies at the heart of Olesha's Envy. Rather, I see the avant-garde as an effective prism to probe the novel's subtleties.2

In his book The Total Art of Stalinism, Boris Groys asserts that the avantgarde movement paved the way, as it were, for Socialist Realism, which in a certain sense remained avant-garde but fused with the bureaucratic and repressive Soviet state system. In retrospect, the crisis of the avant-garde in the mid-1920s resulted from the dominant role that the Bolsheviks assigned it in the new Soviet state. The studies by Groys, Irina Gutkin, John Bowlt, Camilla Gray, Ol'ga Matich and other scholars show that the ideology of the early avant-garde, which is associated with such movements as Suprematism and Futurism, was strikingly different from the affirmative, socially-oriented tendencies of the ensuing Constructivism and "productivism" (proizvodstvennoe iskusstvo) of the 1920s.3 Sharing utopian, i.e., life-creating aspirations with the earlier trends of the avant-garde, the new generation of artists and writers claimed for themselves the roles of engineers, agitators, construction workers and other specialists"practitioners." As Gutkin explains, "The turn toward serving the needs of everyday life did, in fact, constitute a watershed in the history of life-creating aesthetics."4 In his book Po labirintam avangarda (In the Labyrinths of the Avant-Garde), V. S. Turchin states that the pervasive tendency to utilize art in effect signified the demise of the avant-garde as a philosophical and aesthetic system: "[In the Russia of the 1920s], Futurism, already marginalized by... Constructivism and `productivism,' was left with no future."5

The new Constructivist and productionist movement that dominated the official avant-garde of the 1920s associated itself with technology and industry. The ideologists of productionism maintained that the new socialist way of life challenged art with the problem of construction not as contemplative representation but as pragmatic function. …