Gramsci and the Russian Revolution

[From Jacobin magazine]

What did a young Antonio Gramsci think about the Russian Revolution?

Eighty years ago, on April 27, 1937, Antonio Gramsci died after spending his last decade in fascist prison. Recognized later for the theoretical work in his prison notebooks, Gramsci’s political contributions started during the Great War when he was a young linguistic student at the University of Turin. Even then, his articles in the socialist press challenged not only the war, but Italian liberal, nationalist, and Catholic culture.

At the beginning of 1917 Gramsci was working as a journalist in a local Turin socialist newspaper, Il Grido del Popolo (The Cry of the People) and collaborating with the Piedmont edition of Avanti!(Forward!). In the first months after Russia’s February Revolution, news about it was still scarce in Italy. They were largely limited to the reproduction of articles from news agencies of London and Paris. In Avanti! some Russia coverage used to come out in the articles signed by “Junior,” a pseudonym of Vasilij Vasilevich Suchomlin, a Socialist  Revolutionary  Russian exile.

To supply the Italian Socialists with reliable information, the leadership of the Italian Socialist Party (PSI) sent a telegram to Deputy Oddino Morgari, who was in Hague, asking him to go to Petrograd and get in touch with the revolutionaries. The trip failed and Morgari returned to Italy in July. On April 20, Avanti! published a note, written by Gramsci, about the congressman’s attempt to travel, calling him the “red ambassador.” His enthusiasm about the events in Russia was visible. Gramsci at this point considered that the potential strength of the Italian working class to face the war had a direct connection with the strength of the Russian proletariat. He thought that with the revolution in Russia, all international relations would be fundamentally changed.

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Remembering Soviet pop

[From Global Voices website]

Vesyolye Rebiata” (The Jolly Fellows), “Krasnye Maki” (The Red Poppies), and “Siniaia Ptitsa” (Blue Bird)—these are just a few of the bands that dominated Soviet mainstream music from the 1960s to the 1980s. While the West twisted, discoed, and boogied, the people of the Soviet Union were treated to a bland but charming, state-censored version of Western music: the so-called vocal-instrumental ensembles (VIAs).

During the post-war era, Western pop poured across Soviet borders via European radio airwaves and record smuggling. Despite expensive jamming efforts, the government was unable to prevent unsanctioned, bourgeois music from garnering a widespread audience inside the USSR. The Soviet leadership was alarmed by the music’s popularity not only because of its promotion of “decadent” Western values, but also because its popularity seemed to undermine Soviet culture’s supposed superiority.

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Dance of Steel

[From the Paris Review]

8th July 1927: US dancer Leonide Massine (1896 – 1979) holding a large hammer over the head of Russian dancer Alexandra Danilova (1904 – 1997) during a Ballets Russes production of ‘Le Pas d’Acier’ at His Majesty’s Theatre, London. Music by Sergei Prokofiev, choreography by Leonid Massine and designs by Yuri Yakoulov. (Photo by Sasha/Getty Images)

In Soviet Russia, getting a ballet off the ground was no mean feat, as Sergei Prokofiev learned the hard way.

In Russia, during the Soviet era, government control made the challenge of getting a ballet onto the stage no less onerous than being admitted into the ballet schools of Moscow or Leningrad. The daunting auditions of Soviet legend—teachers scrutinizing preadolescents for the slightest physical imperfection—found an ideological parallel in the required inspections by censorship boards at the Bolshoi and the Mariinsky–Kirov theaters. First, the subject of a prospective ballet was adjudicated in terms of its fulfillment of the demands for people-mindedness; the music and the dance would be likewise assessed. There would follow a provisional closed-door run-through to decide if the completed ballet could be presented to the public, after which it would either be scrapped or sent back to the creative workshop for repairs. Dress rehearsals were subsequently assessed by administrators, cognoscenti, politicians, representatives from agricultural and industrial unions, and relatives of the performers. Even then, after all of the technical kinks had been worked out, an ideological defect could lead to the sudden collapse of the entire project.

Bodies as well as plots were changed by politics. The traditional emploi that defined danseurs noble and demi-caractère endured, but emphasis was placed on bigger builds and altogether less softness in the curves. In sculpture, “Soviet man” became like a Greek or Roman demigod, the muscles stronger than steel. So, too, he became in ballet.

In 1927, Sergei Prokofiev and the choreographer Léonid Massine tried to make exactly this point about the heroic Soviet man to audiences in Paris. Their ballet Le pas d’acier, or The Dance of Steel, was brought to the Bolshoi Theatre two years later for a show-and-tell session, igniting a bonfire of communist apparatchik vanities. Resentful mediocrities from the Russian Association of Proletarian Musicians (RAPM) attacked the composer, who found himself in a terra incognita of unlettered sarcasm, baseless paranoia, and pointless rhetorical argument. The ballet had been seen in Paris, London, and Monte Carlo, but it would never reach the Bolshoi stage.

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Review of Masha Gesson’s *Where the Jews Aren’t*

A Promised Land in the U.S.S.R. Masha Gessen’s book about a failed Soviet experiment asks searching questions about Jewish identity.

[From the New Republic]

The twentieth century did not bring an end to Jewish wandering. I’m a case in point: All four of my grandparents, originally from Poland, survived the Holocaust and made their way to Israel. There my parents were born. But the socialist ethos of Israel in its early years did not sit well with my paternal grandfather, and he did not feel safe there. He had seen the destruction of the Warsaw Ghetto and the gas chambers of Majdanek. And having sent two of his sons to the Israeli army, he was not eager to send another two. His attachment to a Jewish state was strong, but his survival instinct was stronger. My grandfather continued to wander, looking for the safest place for his family to remain Jewish, moving to Los Angeles well into the middle of his life, where he started a factory in East L.A., and where I was born.

The idea of Israel as the glorious culmination of Jewish history has left these alternate endings in the shadows. But other notions of Jewish home and Jewish survival have always jostled against Zionism, both before there was a state and long after. At the end of the nineteenth century, as Jews and anti-Semites alike grew obsessed with the “Jewish problem,” debates and sub-debates proliferated about what a solution should look like. The Jews needed their own place? Fine. But did that place need to have its own political and military power? Did it need to be in Palestine? Was it reasonable or desirable to imagine a fantastical return to the glories of the temple period and the rebirth of an ancient language?
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1930s Russian Drawn Sound: Nikolai Voinov’s ‘Paper Sound’