Why does the Russian Revolution Matter? [by China Miéville]

[From The Guardian]

Besides anything else, the socialist uprising in Russia in October 1917 is an extraordinary story. The culmination of the transformative months of that year, beginning with February and the abrupt popular overthrow of tsar Nicholas II and his regime, it’s all intrigue and violence and loyalty and treachery and courage.

But what of that prevailing sense that these giant events occurred worlds away and eras ago? Since 1989 and the downfall of Stalinism, mainstream culture has consigned the revolution to the tomb and celebrated its interment – thereby concurring with the spurious claim of those sclerotic, despotic regimes draping themselves in its mantle that they represent something other than the revolution’s defeat. Are these giant events now just baleful warnings? Something else? Does the revolution even matter?

It matters. Because things were different once. Why could they not be again? Even as someone fascinated and inspired by the Russian revolution, of which this year is the centenary, when I am asked why it still matters, what comes to me first is hesitation. A silence. But as well as words, a key to understanding October 1917 is a certain wordlessness.

We may know in our marrow that it matters, but it feels defensive, sententious, dogmatic to glibly “explain” the revolution’s “relevance”: a too-quick-off-the-mark propensity to “explain” everything is not a problem of the left alone, but it’s particularly galling when coming from radicals committed, at least in principle, to rubbing history against the grain, counter-narratives, the questioning of received opinions, including their own. (One salutary impact of recent extraordinary political upsets – Corbyn, Sanders, Trump, the French presidential election, with more to come – has been the carnage of political givens, the humbling of the know-it-all.)

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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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The Soviet poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko (1933-2017) and the fate of the ‘60s generation

[From the World Socialist Website]

Yevgeny Yevtushenko, the best-known Soviet poet from the 1960s to the 1980s, died at 83 from cancer on April 1, 2017, in Tulsa, Oklahoma.

Yevtushenko, born in 1932 in the small town of Zima in Siberia’s Irkutsk region, became one of the leading Soviet poets of the “thaw period” under Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev. Those years were bound up with official condemnation of the “cult of personality” around Joseph Stalin and the widespread hope within the Soviet people that the country could be renewed on a socialist basis.

In one of his most renowned poems, “The Heirs of Stalin,” published in 1961 at the time that Stalin’s body was removed from the mausoleum in Moscow’s Red Square, Yevtushenko wrote:

Let someone repeat over and over again: “Compose yourself!”
I shall never find rest.
As long as there are Stalin’s heirs on earth,
it will always seem to me,
that Stalin is still in the Mausoleum.
[Translated by Katherine von Imhof]

Yevtushenko’s father was a geologist of Baltic German origin. His parents divorced when he was 7 years old. The boy’s original last name was Gangnus, but his mother changed it to her family name after they moved to Moscow at the end of the war.

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Renowned Soviet avant-garde art collection comes to Moscow

[From The Jakarta Post]

Vladimir Lysenko’s painted bull stares with flat black eyes like a double-barrel shotgun, one of his horns festooned in a mosaic of bright rectangles, the tip of his tail stretched toward a glowing orange globe that may be the sun.

Over the years, the painting has become one of the most renowned images of the artistic ferment that bubbled under the strictures of insipid Soviet social realism. But until recently, anyone who wanted to see it had to travel to an isolated, gritty city in Uzbekistan’s desert.

This month, more than 200 paintings from the Savitsky State Art Museum of Karakalpakstan went on display at the Pushkin Museum in Moscow, a rare traveling exhibit from the gallery widely regarded as having the world’s second-best collection of Soviet avant-garde art.

“This exhibition opens completely new, and not very well researched, layers of art that are linked to the international avant-garde,” said Pushkin museum director Maria Loshak.

The show also draws attention to the history of the Savitsky museum, which is as remarkable as the works it holds.

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Building the Communist dream: Imagine Moscow, an exhibition at London’s Design Museum, captures an architectural future that never was

[From Spiked]

In revolutionary climates, literally anything seems possible. Not only can streets, cities and states be renamed, even the calendar can be reorganised. Everything can be engineered towards the goal of reforming and reformulating existence.

The Bolshevik-led October Revolution ushered in a new era in what would become the USSR. Not only would political and economic systems be abolished and replaced by Communism, there would be a project to create ‘Soviet Man’, which would entail re-education of men and women previously shackled by the bourgeois capitalism that existed under Russia’s monarchical tyranny. The individual was no longer considered a private person with concealed (and potentially suspect) beliefs and selfish interests; Soviet Man would control the means of production and govern the state as part of a collective. But in return he must forgo his private self-interest.

Architecture was to play a crucial role in the revolutionary intention to create Soviet Man. This is captured by Imagine Moscow, a new exhibition of art, textiles, posters and architectural plans at London’s Design Museum, which examines six Soviet architectural projects for Moscow, dating from the 1920s and 1930s.

The USSR of 1917 to 1926 was a land where the most radical of ideas were taken seriously and even encouraged by the new regime. It was also a largely rural economy with an impoverished, under-educated population. In its early years it was also fighting a bitter civil war. The imagination of urban intellectuals and city planners far outstripped the resources, knowledge and funds available for many projects, even those that were relatively modest. And the most ambitious plans were those most likely to be shelved.

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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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Yevgeny Yevtushenko obituary

[From The Guardian]

In the middle of a novel published in the Soviet Union in 1981, two young people are exchanging opinions about Russian poetry. After several names have come up, one asks the other, “And how about Yevtushenko?”, to which he gets the reply: “That’s another stage that’s already past.” An unremarkable exchange, of course, save that the novel (Wild Berries) was by the poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko himself.

It indicates several things about Yevtushenko, who has died aged 84: his unquenchable self-regard, his ability to laugh at himself, his appreciation of the vagaries of fame. It also reminds us that there was a brief stage when the development of Russian literature seemed almost synonymous with his name.

Notoriety of a political sort first came Yevtushenko’s way in 1956, with the publication of his narrative poem Zima Junction, which encountered heavy criticism. The poem had no anti-Soviet message, but touched on tender spots, such as confusion over the direction of the country after Stalin, that Soviet writers had mostly avoided. It provoked outrage in sections of the Soviet press.

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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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How the Soviets in 1960 imagined 2017: Interstellar travel, underground cities, and socialism everywhere

[From The Washington Post]

imrs-phpHumans can fly to the stars and harness the energy of the Earth’s core. Mankind has figured out how to control the weather. The Soviet Union is preparing for the 100th anniversary of the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution.

And the imperialists? Don’t worry: The remaining few of them have been driven off to a remote Pacific island.

This is the vision of 2017 laid out in a 1960 Soviet filmstrip that surfaced on the Internet at the turn of the new year, plucked from the family collection of St. Petersburg resident Sergei Pozdnyakov. Entitled “In the Year 2017,” the filmstrip recounts a day in the life of Igor, a boy who lives in a futuristic Moscow that reflects the idealistic and ideological mind-set of the authors — who, of course, had no idea their country would cease to exist in 1991.

The 45-pane filmstrip evokes a poignant note about the meaning of 2017 as Russia prepares to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution. President Vladimir Putin, who has overtly stated his aversion to revolution, has been trying to come up with a way to celebrate the one that defined modern Russia. It’s a far cry from what Soviet leaders thought this year would be.

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The Noise of Time by Julian Barnes review – Shostakovich in fear

[from The Guardian]

Grim humour abounds in this deftly written fantasia on the life of the composer in Stalin’s Soviet Union

There’s a moment in this fantasia on the life of Dmitri Shostakovich when the composer recalls Stalin’s visit to his 1932 opera, Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk. Stalin’s box was placed above the percussion and woodwind, and the performers, presumably from nerves, played far more loudly than Shostakovich’s score demanded. The resulting musical imbalance was what drove Pravda to describe the opera as “muddle instead of music”. “A composer first denounced and humiliated, later arrested and shot, all because of the layout of an orchestra,” as the novel, imagining the possibilities running through Shostakovich’s mind, puts it.

This is the book’s mise-en-scène: the composer standing outside the lift of his apartment block, a packed suitcase resting against his calf, waiting for arrest. He waits there so that the NKVD do not disturb his wife and children. The terror of the Stalinist Soviet Union is not something that needs to be dwelt too much on: Barnes’s chief interest is how genius compromises under power, whether it wilts or thrives or finds some cunning means of survival and expression. But the reader, too, can feel a clammy sweat break out early on, when Shostakovich is summoned for questioning at the Big House (we do not need to be told what “the Big House” is) in Leningrad. The composer had been friendly with Marshal Tukhachevsky, a much-decorated military man and keen amateur violinist, now deemed due for purging by Stalin. Shostakovich is asked to supply details of the plot to assassinate Stalin that must have been discussed at the soldier’s home, but he can remember no such plot.

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