1920's Bolshevik Culture

During the 1920s, the Bolsheviks were faced with the difficult task of helping their new regime survive and flourish despite all the difficulties that plagued Russia's economy and government. In order to further their program, revolutionaries proposed various compromises that constituted the New Economic Policies, or NEP. These policies allowed for a limited amount of economic competition, giving incentive for Russians to produce food and other goods. Additionally, the agenda of the 1920s did not ignore art and literature, and sought to incorporate the artistic avant-garde into an emerging 'Bolshevik Culture' that could be used to educate the populace. Eschewing bourgeois notions of art, the revolutionary leadership hoped to create a mass popular art that nonetheless did not condescend to its audience. The desire to create a truly modern revolutionary art led the Bolsheviks to tolerate different viewpoints, as long as they weren't reactionary; state authorities didn't dictate subject matter and permitted progressive art that didn't toe the party line. The policies of the 1920s permitted a good deal of cultural flowering; however, there was tension inherent in the system, and artists inevitably felt conflicted about their dual role as creator and educator.

In the wake of the revolution, the Bolsheviks had to fend off internal and external threats and solidify their regime. In order to do so, however, concessions had to be made, resulting in the NEP. In terms of food production, the earlier policies of war communism had drastically cut output and it was necessary to bend in order to give peasants a reason to produce food. "As long as the Bolsheviks insisted on the policies of war communism and did not allow free trade, the peasants had no incentive to produce, and certainly no incentive to part with the fruits of their labor" (Kenez 43). Additionally, a limited amount of private enterprise was allowed to exist. While the state controlled the larger-scale heavy industries, many smaller industries could be privately owned. Borne of this environment were the NEPmen, traveling traders who profited by facilitating the exchange of goods. "This social class was emblematic of the world of the 1920s... For most Bolsheviks the NEPman represented everything they disliked: petty bourgeois desire for property and profit, lack of ideological interests, and a middle class lifestyle" (Kenez 60). Private enterprise, most visible in the figure of the NEPman, may have been distasteful to many Communists; however, most viewed concessions to capitalist enterprise as necessary in order that Russia's economic situation stabilize and that the Bolsheviks consequently gain a political foothold.

The arts were a necessary component of the Communist project. The Bolsheviks saw the arts as playing an important role in the creation of a truly Communist society; a progressive, 'proletarian' art could educate the masses, weaning them from older, entrenched mentalities and allowing them to embrace Communism. "At this point the Bolsheviks were convinced that the values inherent in science and the arts were congenial to the principles of socialism. Culture was to be a helpmate in the building of socialism" (Kenez 65). In Literature and Revolution, Trotsky expressed a desire to utilize art as an educational tool. As the proletariat was entrenched in bourgeois tastes and values, it was the task of artists to provide a form of aesthetics that placed an emphasis on the simplicity and modernity that were connected to proletarian society. Such art could also communicate the ethos of the revolution to the masses in a way that could be understood and internalized, allowing the artist to "pull the republic out of the mud" (Mayakovsky 149). One of the most successful ways in which this art was brought to the masses was through the poster. Using mass production, agitprop posters with a modernist aesthetic served a utilitarian purpose. Renowned artists such as Mayakovsky, Rotchinko, and Dmitri Moore made pieces to be posted in Rosta windows, where they were easily visible to the masses. Their simple, graphic style was designed to communicate the revolution and its values to even the illiterate.

Significantly, artists whose message was progressive but not identical to the Bolshevik party line were still allowed to practice; they were viewed as poputchki, or 'fellow travelers', who were valuable in the production of an artistic tradition and were not persecuted. Gosidat, Russia's state-sponsored publishing house, was relatively lax in terms of censorship, and the moderate amount of censorship was restrictive rather than proscriptive. "The announced policy of Gosidat was to encourage the publication of works considered useful, remain neutral to those with no political significance, and oppose the publication of those whish were anti-Marxist. The censors were liberal, and in practice they rarely interfered" (Kenez 68). In addition, private publishers were able to remain in operation, as the government's paper monopoly was not enforced. Thus, as with many other small industries of the time, the publishing industry was allowed to coexist with state operations. Such policies allowed for a considerable degree of artistic and intellectual freedom.

In this fashion, the modernist avant-garde thus was allied with the forces of Bolshevism. However, there were inherent contradictions and problems within such an arrangement. The modernist artistic traditions appropriated by the Bolsheviks were inherently elitist, and this remained a source of tension. The avant-garde modernist aesthetics was resented by many hard-line Bolsheviks, who saw Russia's official artistic policy as betraying the class message of the Revolution. This 'Proletkult' favored an art of working class artists rather than that of the avant garde artistic elite. In addition, though censorship was relatively light, it nonetheless existed, and works by writers such as Zamyatin, a leader of the conservative 'Serapion Brothers' group, could not be published in their own country. His novel We, which depicts a stale post-Communist dystopia, was censored within Russia.

Even when their work was accepted, artists often felt conflict between their aesthetic aims and the political program that they served. Mayakovsky, though he was strongly rooted in the politics of Bolshevism, was nonetheless conflicted, particularly near the end of his life. "The dictatorship he had greeted so devoutly soon began to grate on his sensibilities. He felt increasingly oppressed by the Soviet bureaucracy and exasperated by its smugness and philistinism. After the terror and the Civil War, Mayakovsky's attitude toward the authorities alternated between submission and independence" (Mayakovsky 30). In 'An Extraordinary Adventure', his poem of 1920, Mayakovsky laments having to spend his time on Rosta posters; however, he is eventually reassured and is inspired to 'shine' and spread the truth. However, his play The Bedbug, written near the end of the decade, demonstrates a more cynical attitude towards his role as artist and propagandist. In the first act of the play, the character of Oleg Bard offers an unflattering portrait of the artist as an unscrupulous flatterer. In the play's dystopian second half, Mayakovsky pictures Russian society fifty years after his time; for him, it is utterly without life or art. "Only textbooks on horticulture have anything about roses, and daydreams are dealt with only in medical works - in the section on hypnosis" (Mayakovsky 291). Though there are books, they are all utilitarian texts and 'crude propaganda', not true art that could give Prisypkin "that melting feeling" (Mayakovsky 292) that he wants to experience. As was the case with Mayakovsky, the conflict between the artist and the revolutionary program was often internalized.

During the 1920s, the Bolshevik leadership made an attempt to employ an avant-garde aesthetic in with the aims of instilling a proletarian mentality. Such a program allowed for a fair degree of artistic freedom. However, the contradictions of the Bolshevik approach towards the arts persisted throughout the twenties. The conflict between an individual artist's aesthetic value system and the Bolsheviks' utilitarian one was evident in the conflicts of artistic groups as well as in the struggles of artists to reconcile these concerns.