One of the most creative periods of Russian culture and the most energized period of the Revolution coincided in the fateful years 1913–1931. During this time both the Party and the intellectuals of Petersburg strove to transform backward Russia into a nation so advanced it would shine like a beacon for the rest of the world. Yet the end result was the Stalinist culture of the 1930s with its infamous purges.
In this new book, Katerina Clark does not attempt to account for such a devolution by looking at the broad political arena. Rather, she follows the quest of intellectuals through these years to embody the Revolution, a focus that casts new light on the formation of Stalinism. This revisionist work takes issue with many existing cultural histories by resisting the temptation to structure its narrative as a saga of the oppressive regime versus the benighted intellectuals. In contrast, Clark focuses on the complex negotiations between the extraordinary environment of a revolution, the utopian striving of both politicians and intellectuals, the local culture system, and that broader environment, the arena of contemporary European and American culture. In doing so, the author provides a case study in the ecology of cultural revolution, viewed through the prism of Petersburg, which on the eve of the Revolution was one of the cultural capitals of Europe. Petersburg today is in the national imagination of modern Russia, a symbol of Westernization and radical change.
[Clark argues that] the cultural atmosphere that evolved in the Soviet Union during the 1920s and made the Great Terror of the late 1930s possible was actually created by the idealistic intellectuals and artists themselves… In developing this revisionist argument, Ms. Clark forces us to rethink the relationship of a totalitarian government to its subjects. She makes us ask the same question now being raised in Germany in connection with the 50th anniversary of the end of World War II: Who were the real victims and who were the real perpetrators?… In the course of her Herculean labors, she has sifted through piles of archival material, consulted all the leading authorities, viewed scores of films, read hundreds of novels and mastered a dazzling array of historical, theatrical, linguistic, and literary theories. What she has produced is a major contribution to the cultural history of this seminal period.
Petersburg is full of close readings of early Soviet texts, performances and artworks; and Clark is particularly sensitive to the subtle dialectic between utopian aestheticism and cultural Realpolitik shaping Soviet culture over the decade or so following the revolution.
This is a rich book…and very well documented. In particular, the author has evidently trawled through the issues of the weekly journal Mir Iskusstva (Life of Art) to very good effect, giving us a kaleidoscopic sense of the multitude of changing issues that constituted the visible surface of Petrograd/Leningrad intellectual life.
Turning away from traditional interpretations of early Soviet intellectuals as a uniform corps of resistant, tragic figures, Clark explores lesser known cultural activists of the Soviet new age who were challenged by the socialist order and pressed for their own agendas. Like her previous pathbreaking book on socialist-realist literature, Petersburg pries into the work of the hegemon by finding power, after Foucault, in all the least usual places. Little wonder that this volume, which at times approximates a Russian novel for its own daunting cast of characters and sea of detail, took the 1996 Vucinich Prize for best book in Russian Studies.
No one should think that Katerina Clark’s brilliant, provocative and extremely ambitious book is merely a history of Petersburg… Anyone who reads this book intelligently will have to reread Russian history in its light.
Ever since the traditional friend or fiend scheme, prevalent in Soviet studies so far, started to crumble, Western scholars time and again have asked for a reevaluation of Russian politics and culture of the 1920s. Katerina Clark’s new book on Petersburg as crucible of cultural revolution is an amazingly fresh and original answer to this request. It is also a fine example of how intense occupation with the methodological and theoretical approach of one scholar, in this case Bakhtin, can shape and remodel the view of a by now familiar period. Petersburg has long entered collective memory as one of the most mythopoeic places of Russian history. Yet it took a brilliant scholar like Clark to provide us with an all-encompassing, in-depth analysis of the city’s role in the formation of Stalinist culture, the role of its intellectuals, its artists, writers, architects, theater directors, composers, musicians, film-makers, linguists, and what have you; their theories, ideas, hopes, and desires for a renewal of society.
[R]eaders coming to [Clark’s] new book have reason to expect a provocative work that combines careful scholarship and intellectual rigor. In Petersburg: Crucible of Cultural Revolution, they will find all of that. Clark examines the complex cultural life of the years between roughly 1910 and 1930 in an attempt to answer the questions: how did Stalinist culture come about? Where did it come from? Did it ‘have’ to happen? Clark looks for her answers in a wide range of artistic issues, movements, disciplines and individuals, and her erudition is impressive. She moves freely from theater to mass spectacle to architecture, from the evolving field of linguistics (Marr) to Russian responses to Wagner and Nietzsche… Clark goes well beyond the cliché that Stalinist ritual was religious in nature… There is a small handful of Slavists whose work is always challenging, often controversial and occasionally changes the way the rest of us look at the Soviet period. As this book amply attests, Katerina Clark continues to be one of them.
Petersburg is a major work by one of the world’s leading scholars of Soviet culture. It manages to combine a deep and affectionate understanding of the mentalities of Petersburg/Leningrad intellectuals with a rare capacity for detachment and nonpartisan evaluation. Clark’s first book, The Soviet Novel, has had an enormous impact on the way Stalinist culture is studied in a range of disciplines (literary scholarship, history, cultural studies, even anthropology and political science). Her new book should be no less influential and stimulating to an equally wide range of readers.
Clark’s Petersburg briefly examines the city’s rich pre-Bolshevik culture and then lays out a detailed account of efforts in the 1920s to create a transcendent revolutionary culture, an environment in which radical politics and aesthetic iconoclasm could joyfully coexist and complement each other… Warmly recommended.
- 1996, Joint winner of the Wayne S. Vucinich Book Prize
- 377 pages
- 6-3/8 x 9-1/4 inches
- Harvard University Press
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