Soviet Culture and Power. A History in Documents, 1917-1953

By Varga-Harris, Christine | Canadian Slavonic Papers, September-December 2008 | Go to article overview

Soviet Culture and Power. A History in Documents, 1917-1953


Varga-Harris, Christine, Canadian Slavonic Papers


Katerina Clark and Evgeny Dobrenko with Andrei Artizov and Oleg Naumov. Soviet Culture and Power. A History in Documents, 1917-1953. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2007. xvii, 545 pp. Notes. Glossary. List of Documents. Index. $55.00, cloth.

Soviet Culture and Power is an intriguing collection of documents compiled by Andrei Artizov and Oleg Naumov, translated by Marian Schwartz, and interwoven with a stimulating narrative composed by Katerina Clark and Evgeny Dobrenko. Detailing the evolution of Soviet culture from the 1920s through the end of the Stalin era, it draws on archives that began to be opened up during the Gorbachev era, and in some cases, remain difficult to access; these include the Archive of the President of the Russian Federation, the Russian Archive of Contemporary Political History, the Central Archive of the Federal Security Service of the Russian Federation and the Russian State Archive of Literature and Art. Although Soviet Culture and Power incorporates only a third of the documents included in the compilation on which it is based - Artizov and Naumov's Vlast' i khudozhestvennaia intelligentsiia - for its intended non-specialist audience, the primary source excerpts it contains, together with the commentary that connects them, make for fascinating reading.

The premise of Soviet Culture and Power is that culture mattered immensely to the Soviet leadership as it was establishing itself during the 1920s through the Second World War. Literature, in particular, constituted a key arena for representing the Marxist-Leninist belief system that the new regime sought to entrench, as well as for staking its claim to legitimacy. As stated in the introduction, "Writing was a means for promulgating the Party's ultimate authorship of Soviet reality" (p. xii).

In addition to tracing the mandates assigned to culture, the collection provides a corrective to the notion that the state and Party merely interfered with culture. As Clark and Dobrenko demonstrate, the highest echelons of the political structure regulated and controlled it. Indeed, one of the most remarkable things revealed by the documents included is the enormous extent to which the Politburo and Stalin himself were involved in the development of Soviet culture. Even in the context of Party struggles, collectivization, terror and war, they appear engrossed in content analyses of controversial works like the Mikhail Bulgakov play Days of the Turbins or discussions over who should serve on the editorial board of a given literary journal. Clearly, the cultural was political.

Apart from illuminating the extent to which the cultural realm was controlled, Soviet Culture and Power allows the reader to become acquainted with the concerns and opinions of key intellectuals through personal letters, petitions and surveillance transcripts. Correspondence within the interstices of the personal and professional, for example, illustrates precisely how some writers postured themselves to serve the interests of the state and Party - and so became beneficiaries of a network of patronage presided over by Stalin (most notably Maxim Gorky) - while others were excluded from the privileges of the cultural elite (namely Mikhail Zoshchenko).

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