The Soviet Utopia and the assimilation of Biblical Imagery
I was very struck by this fascinating article (“Building Blocks” from the latest Royal Academy magazine) about post-revolution architecture and art in the Soviet Union. Never having visited Russia itself (despite having travelled fairly extensively through its former cold war satellites), my presumption was that architecture in that era was full of monolithic, brutalising and depersonalised buildings. But it seems was that this was primarily the result of Stalinist totalitarianism and did not characterise the confidence of the brand new revolutionary state that held (to some extent) its ideals intact.
This article helpfully outlines some of the ways that this confidence was expressed. But what was particularly striking was its simultaneous rejection and adoption of a Christian, and indeed, biblical framework for understanding what was happening. The way that atheistic modernism adopted the same categories as a theistic worldview, assuming that they could remain intact even if the divine is removed, has always fascinated me. One of postmodernism’s nebulous strengths has been the way it exposed (emperor’s new clothes-like) the folly and impossibility of doing that.
The revolutionary zeal of the Bolsheviks wept Russian architects up in a great fervour of optimistic creativity. A classic example is the Shukhov tower, aka Shabolovka Radio Tower, built in 1922 (pictured). This is how the article describes it (without any apparent sense of irony!):
It became an icon of the revolution from the moment it was built in 1922. Photographed by the artist Aleksandr Rodchenko, it was displayed on postcards and posters as a symbol of the progress and modernity of the new Bolshevik country.
Viewed (and photographed) from below, it spirals into the sky like the Tower of Babel. The Biblical story of a united humanity after the Flood who aimed to ‘build a city and a tower, whose top may reach unto heaven’ and ‘make us a name, lest we be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth’ (Genesis 11:4) is relevant to the Russian Revolution with its goal of uniting the proletariat scattered across the world and teaching it – through the new medium of radio – the one language of Communism.
The structure is indeed inspiring. But however impressive, it does feel a bit like the relic of an optimism long eroded. But the article continues:
Biblical imagery was widely used in the art of the 1920s, by artists of differing beliefs. The painter Kuzma Petrov-Vodkin marked the first anniversary of the revolution with 1918 in Petrograd (1920), a painting of the Madonna in a red cape feeding the infant Christ. Konstantin Stanislavsky, the theatre director, staged Byron’s mystery play, Cain, at the Moscow Art Theatre in response to the fratricidal Civil War in Russia.
At the same time as annihilating Christian culture and beheading Orthodox cathedrals by ripping off their cupolas, Russia’s revolutionary culture was installing its own deities and building new temples. The chief among them was Lenin and his Mausoleum. After Lenin’s death in January 1924, a temporary wooden Mausoleum was built to enable the millions of pilgrims flocking to Moscow in minus 30˚C to bid farewell to their leader. The spot chosen for the Mausoleum was not accidental. It served as a common burial ground for the Bolsheviks killed in the first days of the Revolution, the ‘Martyrs of the Beginning of the World Socialist Revolution’ as the giant banners on the Kremlin described them. But it was also the spot where Lenin’s rostrum, designed by the Constructivist Vesnin brothers, stood in Red Square, and from which he famously addressed the crowds…
The way everything changed though had its inevitable architectural expression:
This artistic freedom, individualism and disrespect for hierarchy was incompatible with the totalitarian regime which began to emerge in the Stalinist Russia of the 1930s. Vladimir Paperny, the historian of Stalinist architecture and the author of the original and influential book, Culture Two: Architecture in the Age of Stalin, describes the transformation from the 1910s-20s to the 1930s-40s as a cyclical change from revolution to restoration and order, from purity to pomposity, from mobility to solidity, from egalitarianism to hierarchy. The evolution of the Lenin Mausoleum from a wooden memorial into a granite temple epitomised that transformation.
But after the soviet era, there has been an ideological vacuum – and therefore an artistic vacuum.
The end of the Soviet Union did not produce anything resembling the artistic energy released by the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917. The revolutionary events of August 1991 marked the end of a country not the birth of a new one. Having lived through the Bolshevik utopia, Russia had no desire to create another. The rhetoric of the 1990s was devoid of idealism or ideology. The new regime sought legitimacy by reaching out for the symbols and names of the pre-Revolutionary past, pretending that 70 years of Soviet rule was just a mishap.
In 2000 – at the time of the first Christmas service at the rebuilt Cathedral of Christ the Saviour – the new President Vladimir Putin restored the Stalin-era national anthem. There was no contradiction in this. He was simply incorporating Soviet symbols into the continuum of rebuilding Russian state power. Since then, new pseudo-Stalinist architecture has been built in Moscow, signalling a return to order and new Russia’s new wealth. Russia today, with its burgeoning consumerist society, has no desire to look back to its avant-garde past. During military parades the Lenin Mausoleum is now covered up by hoardings. But its aura remains. Twenty years after the end of the Soviet Union, Russia is unable to deconsecrate this spot and escape from its deadly grip.
It’s a fascinating article. And in so many ways reflects the tragic trajectory of the 20th Century. For which too few in Russia and Europe have any appropriate answers…