Cristina Vatulescu, Police Aesthetics: Literature, Film, and the Secret Police in Soviet Times

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Cristina Vatulescu, Police Aesthetics: Literature, Film, and the Secret Police in Soviet Times. 247 pp. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2010. ISBN13 978-080460805. $60.00.

Communist regimes were obsessed with intellectuals. Enormous resources were mobilized to ensure their obedient regimentation and transformation into "state artists." Lenin, who was himself a trained lawyer, held the intelligentsia in deep contempt, while trying to lure and enroll as many scientists and engineers as possible in support of Soviet power. Antonio Gramsci, in turn, described the Leninist vanguard party as a collective intellectual. Cristina Vatulescu's outstanding book focuses on the fate of the unregimented creative intelligentsia in Stalin's Russia and Stalinized Romania, the interplay between artistic creation and police supervision, coercion, and persecution. Drawing from secret police archives in Russia and Romania, this superbly researched and original book captures the tragic destinies of major artists caught at what Lionel Trilling called the bloody crossroads where politics and literature meet. The thesis of the book is clearly spelled out: "The secret police file emerged and acquired its overwhelming authority precisely at a time when the authority of literary texts was in deep crisis" (7). The book includes chapters on the nature of secret police files, their contents and their relationship to the two stages of surveillance and investigation; the invisible, often mysterious connections between the work of art, in this case Mikhail Bulgakov's The Master and Margarita, and the author's secret police file; the role of films and filmmakers (such as Dziga Vertov) in turning their professional output into an instrument for societal control of criminality ("kino policing"); cinematic representations of the Gulag done in collaboration with the secret police and the annexation of art by the voracious police-propaganda complex; and estrangement as an explanatory concept for understanding the relationship between literary theory and the secret police.

In fact, as Vatulescu demonstrates, secret police files were the hidden counterpart to real biographies and genuine creations. They were constructed counternarratives inspired by the official demonology. (1) Secret police officers became co-authors of these hidden "masterpieces." Isaak Babel', for instance, became a serial foreign agent of sorts, confessed to surreal charges, and was executed without a show trial. His main "guilt" was imprudent association with Evgeniia Ezhova and her fateful literary salon. (2) Others in the same accursed circle were not arrested, but undoubtedly they were closely watched by a myriad of enthusiastic informers. Stalin's personal literary interests and taste played a major role: this may explain why the "cosmopolitan" Ilya Ehrenburg (II'ia Erenburg) managed to survive, whereas others less involved with the West perished during the successive waves of terror, including the trial of the Jewish Antifascist Committee. (3)

An epigraph from Vladimir Nabokov at the start of the introduction captures in a disturbingly luminous way what the author defines as zones of intersection among literature, film, and secret police in totalitarian environments: "The history of Russia ... could be considered from two points of view: first, as the evolution of the police ... and second, as the development of a marvelous culture." Vatulescu develops provocative hypotheses regarding Soviet culture under Stalinism, including the role of the visual arts in constructing legitimizing discourses for the concentration camps. In other words, in some cases, before becoming zeks, some intellectuals were willing to endorse the Gulag through their work. (4) By placing the Romanian experience under scrutiny and exploring the cases of remarkable figures such as Constantin Noica and N. Steinhardt (both major thinkers arrested and jailed, both continuously watched by the Securitate), this book makes a major contribution to the comparative analysis of intellectual survival under communism. …


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