July 2017

Susan E. Reid, “Still Life and the Vanity of Socialist Realism: Robert Fal’k’s Potatoes, 1955”

Still life occupied a position in the Socialist Realist canon so marginal that it could barely be called Socialist Realism at all. Although some artists attempted, in the Stalin era, to prove the genre’s credentials at least as a component of Socialist Realist visual culture, a number of its genre characteristics rendered it ill-suited and even antithetical to the mandatory tasks of “depicting reality in its revolutionary development” and demonstrating the role of the party-state and its leaders in achieving the radiant future. The paper focuses on the work of Robert Fal’k (1886-1958), an artist multiply marginalized in the Soviet art establishment--both as a person and through his work in the lowly, liminal genre of still life--yet nevertheless central to the story of Soviet art. It examines, from different perspectives, the quiet challenge his work seemed to present both to the vainglory of Soviet power and the millennial claims of Socialist Realism. In his Potatoes (1955) the genre characteristics of still life, which placed it in the basement of Soviet public culture, are so hypertrophied as to become a kind of unspoken worm’s eye critique of Socialist Realism and the faith in state-led progress that it represented. The article argues that, in the context of de-Stalinization, when the modernist assertion of autonomy of art and artist presented a perceived challenge to party control over the arts, Fal’k’s work alluded to the absence of the state and its powerlessness when faced with the ultimate projects of existence and of painting. Turning the tables on the Soviet state authorities that had marginalized it, his still life marginalized the state as irrelevant to art and life.

Luke Parker, “The Gambit: Chess and the Art of Competition in The Luzhin Defense

This article argues that Vladimir Nabokov’s 1929 novel The Luzhin Defense demonstrates the importance of literary competition, rivalry, and co-creation to the Russian interwar emigration, 1920-40. I look at the function of the novel in Nabokov’s career, placing it in relation to his contemporaneous articles and reviews, demonstrating how it can be understood as a strategic move effecting his transition, in publishing terms, from Berlin to Paris, and from relative obscurity to broad acclaim. Furthermore, The Luzhin Defense, though often considered to be a literary chess problem, in fact focuses on the notion of artistic careers in exile. I examine two such threads: the underappreciated artistic communion between the protagonist Luzhin and his great rival Turati; and the parodic portrayal of Luzhin’s father, who fails at length to write the kind of novel within which Nabokov places him. I propose the concept of underwriting to explain the role of Luzhin’s father, whose conspicuous failure (or underwriting) guarantees (or underwrites) Nabokov’s own successful entry into the premier journal of the emigration, Contemporary Annals in Paris. In my interpretation of Luzhin and Turati’s chess match, I introduce a little-known 1929 text comparing chess problems and chess competition by the contemporary (1927-35) chess world champion Alexander Alekhine, a fellow Russian emigre. In so doing, I show how Nabokov’s sympathetic yet wary portrayal of art as a sporting competition reflects his own broader strategy of co-creative opposition to his fellow writers in exile.

Anatoly Pinsky, “The Origins of Post-Stalin Individuality: Aleksandr Tvardovskii and the Evolution of 1930s Soviet Romanticism”

This article explores the origins of a post-Stalin ideal of individuality, the rise of which amounted to a crucial change in Soviet intellectual history. By ideal of individuality, I mean an internalization of the source of truth in Soviet epistemology, or a privileging of the ordinary individual rather than the Communist party leadership in answering key policy questions. The article places the emergence of this ideal on the background of the longer history of the self in modern Russia. In examining the rise of a post-Stalin ideal of individuality, the article takes on historiographies on the Soviet Union that locate the origins of a general turn to the individual in the relationship between state and society during the Second World War and late Stalin years, or in an ostensible post-Stalin rebirth of the spirit of the nineteenth-century Russian intelligentsia. In brief, these literatures uncover the origins of individuality in non-Soviet spaces or ideas, whereas this article highlights the influence of published discourse and thus the creative potential of Soviet ideas themselves. In this connection, I focus on the role of the Stalinist 1930s and more specifically a discourse of Soviet romanticism. In invoking romanticism, the article gestures to the shared intellectual traditions of Russia and the West. For the purpose of close reading, the article focuses on the Stalin-era past of a key figure of the 1950s and 1960s, Aleksandr Tvardovskii, the famous poet and editor of Novyi mir, the leading reformist journal of the period. Ultimately, the article calls for further research that situates the intellectual history of the post-Stalin Soviet Union in the context both of the entirety of the Stalinist past and of Western intellectual history.

Mary W. Cavender, “Hunting in Imperial Russia: State Policy and Social Order in L. P. Sabaneev’s Writing”

This article uses L. P. Sabaneev’s writing as a lens through which to examine hunting in Imperial Russia. I argue that Sabaneev’s narration of the history of hunting in Russia, his description of hunting practices and his arguments for stronger conservation laws and greater state enforcement of those laws illustrate the relatively unusual, among European societies, status of hunting for Imperial Russian elites. In brief, Russian sport hunters recognized the continuing importance of productive hunters in Russia, which, unlike many of the European states with which Russian elites were familiar, maintained enormous swathes of wilderness. While adapting technology and forms of hunting from societies to the west, in Sabaneev’s account, Russian elites ignored the status obsessions connected with hunting for other European elites. Moreover, Sabaneev’s arguments, in the Hunting Gazette, for greater attention to conservation on the part of the government, as the proper representative of all people, combined his ardent monarchism with the scientific and collectivist arguments often associated with progressive thought. The juxtaposition of these views found wide popularity, complicating our sometimes simplistic understandings of class and political tensions in late Imperial Russia.

Alun Thomas, “The Caspian Disputes: Nationalism and Nomadism in Early Soviet Central Asia”

Immediately following the Russian Civil War, new Soviet authorities sought to resolve a series of conflicts involving the nomadic communities living along the north and eastern shores of the Caspian Sea. To the north, beyond the Ural River, nomads competed with Russian farmers for pasturage. Further south, around the Garabogazkol Lagoon, nomads from different tribes were engaged in a cycle of violence and recrimination. Communist party members, working alongside local elites, interpreted all these conflicts as disagreements between nations and proffered solutions congruent with this analysis. Peace agreements were written and signed, borders drawn, and national territorial jurisdictions extended and defended. In both areas conflict was not resolved and nomadic hardship was in fact exacerbated. The Caspian Disputes and their incomplete resolution contain lessons on the Soviet state’s treatment of two minorities: non-Russian nationalities and nomads. For the former, we see the limited utility of a European conception of nationalism applied to Soviet Central Asia. For the latter, we see what influenced and complicated the relationship between nomad and state before the collectivization campaign endowed that relationship with a brutal simplicity. This represents a step toward a more comprehensive understanding of how Soviet power treated non-Russians, and how non-Russians influenced the structures of the Soviet State.

Elisabeth Schimpfossl and Ilya Yablokov, “Power Lost and Freedom Relinquished: Russian Journalists Assessing the First Post-Soviet Decade”

This article seeks a nuanced understanding of the troubled state that Russian journalism finds itself in today. As much as the Kremlin may be blamed as the source of these woes, it cannot be responsible for low ethical standards and lack of solidarity among journalists. This article explores what has hindered the journalistic community from developing stronger ethical standards over the past twenty-five years. Three significant events in the first post-Soviet decade serve as case studies: first, an early ethical code of conduct, the Moscow Charter of Journalists, produced in 1994; second, the 1996 presidential election campaign, which led to president Yeltsin's victory over the Communist Gennadii Zuiganov; and third, the so called “information wars” between oligarchs, culminating in the 2001 demise of the television channel NTV. In unique interviews, conducted by the authors, thirty-five Russian elite journalists and media managers assessed the role they played in major political events and how these events impacted the freedom of media in Russia today.