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Stalinism in art and architecture, or, the first postmodern style

Book Review:

Boris Groys’ The Total Art of Stalinism

Vladimir Paperny’s Architecture in
the Age of Stalin: Culture Two

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Originally published by Situations: Project for the Radical Imagination (Vol. V, No. 1). You can view a free PDF of the document here. Purchase it today!

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Last year, the English translations of two major works of art and architectural criticism from the late Soviet period were rereleased with apparently unplanned synchronicity. A fresh printing of
Vladimir Paperny’s Architecture in the Age of Stalin: Culture Two (2002, [Культура Два, 1985]) was made available in June 2011 by Cambridge University Press. Verso Books, having bought the rights to the Princeton University Press translation of Boris Groys Total Art of Stalinism (1993 [Gesamtkunstwerk Stalin, 1988]), republished the work in a new edition. This hit the shelves shortly thereafter, only two months after Paperny’s book was reissued.

Each book represents an attempt, just prior to the Soviet Union’s collapse, to come to grips with the legacy of its artistic and architectural avant-garde of the 1920s, as well as the problematic character of the transition to Socialist Realism and neoclassicism in the mid-1930s, lasting up until Stalin’s death in 1953. Not only do Paperny’s and Groys’ writings follow a similar trajectory, however: they intersect biographically as well. The two authors knew each other prior to their emigration from the USSR and still maintain a close personal friendship. But their arguments should not for that reason be thought identical. Paperny began his research much earlier, in the mid-1970s, and Groys’ own argument is clearly framed in part as a polemical response to his colleague’s claims.

Vladimir Paperny by Diana Vouba, Boris Groys by Luca Debaldo

LEFT: Vladimir Paperny, painted by Diana Vouba;
RIGHT: Boris Groys, painted by Luca Debaldo

Both can be seen to constitute a reaction, moreover, to the dull intellectual climate of official academic discourse on the subject during the Brezhnev era. In his introduction to the English version of Paperny’s book, Groys recalls the “background of almost total theoretical paralysis” against which it first appeared in 1979. “[I]t felt like breathing fresh air in the stale intellectual atmosphere [of Moscow] at the time,” he wrote.[1] Indeed, Eastern Marxism’s most talented aesthetic theorists after the expulsion of Trotskii were by and large conservatives — the repentant Georg Lukács or his equally repentant protégé Mikhail Lifshits, each an apologist for the Zhdanovshchina and hostile to modernism. After destalinization commenced in 1956, following Khrushchev’s “secret speech,” the tables were turned. Socialist realism and neoclassicism were out; the heroic avant-garde movements of the 1920s were back in (albeit in the diluted, vulgarized form typical of Khrushchev). With the rise of Brezhnev in the mid-1960s, the thaw came to a close. But full-fledged Stalinism was not reinstated, at least not in the realms of art or architecture. Now neither alternative — modernism nor Stalinism — appeared in a particularly favorable light. That they had existed was accepted on a purely factual basis, as part of the historical record. Expressing an opinion on either, however, much less an interpretation, was generally considered unwise. Continue reading

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Conversations on the Left: What is to be done?

Bhaskar Sunkara, James Turley, & Ben Blumberg

Platypus Review 57 | June 2013

On April 18th, 2013, the Platypus Affiliated Society organized a conversation at New York University between Bhaskar Sunkara, the editor of Jacobin, James Turley of the Communist Party of Great Britain, and Ben Blumberg of Platypus, to discuss the differences and similarities between their organizations. What follows is an edited transcript of the discussion.

Tri Logos

Bhaskar Sunkara: It is impossible to deny that the Communist Party of Great Britain’s (CPGB) Weekly Worker is an important publication. It is a publication that is right about many things, without a doubt more right than their peers on the British left, and their ideas deserve more engagement, so I am very pleased that Platypus has us together on this panel. There is no regular party publication on the American left that comes close to the Weekly Worker’s competence, especially considering the small size and resources of the CPGB. They have been consistently against the perversion of democratic centralism and lack of accountability by the leadership in groups like the Socialist Workers Party (SWP). I have been reading it for a couple of years and I think they have a really nuanced view of Trotskyism’s legacy. They also have a solid critique of Eurocommunism and other coalition politics. What I like most of all is their openness about their small size and their limited influence as an organization. For someone like me, who has been around the Left and its posturing, we at Jacobin think the Weekly Worker is far more refreshing and useful than organs that herald the coming of every new socialist movement as if it is going to resurrect the Left. Platypus’s approach is also sometimes useful on this point. Jacobin doesn’t share the same politics, but only because we are operating in different contexts. We aim to reach a different audience. Jacobin, as a political project, is a publication that cannot substitute for the role of a political organization or the role of a party. It also cannot have the uncompromising and coherent vision and perspective of a propaganda group. And it is subject to lots of different pressures and forces — such as the market and the petty-bourgeois culture of writing and publishing.

Our different orientations affect whom we are trying to reach. Jacobin was always two projects. It is something of an intra-left project: emphasizing a Marxist perspective towards organization building. But our main project has been an outwardly directed one: engaging with American liberalism. We have always been geared towards the general public. We are liberals articulating radical ideas and we do so in a way that is clear and accessible. If we have any measure of mainstream success, it is intentional. We have sought to be a terrain for deep theoretical debates. It has been said that we are visible reminders of a long-forgotten socialist tradition, which would define us politically somewhere in between Leninism and the Democratic Socialists of America. One result of this is that the level of politicization of Jacobin’s readership is not quite the same as the level of politicization of our editors, and you could probably say there is a lot more political parity between the readership and the editors of the Weekly Worker and the Platypus Review.

James Turley: The CPGB is not a party. It doesn’t exist; it is a name. The name comes from the older official communist party that has since wound up. The name represents an ideal that we look towards. The far left is divided into small propaganda circles and some of them deny that they do propaganda. The SWP would be a good example; the International Socialist Organization (ISO) is another. They think they are talking to the masses, but it is bad propaganda reaching a mass audience. The CPGB identifies openly as a propaganda group and so probably would the International Bolshevik Tendency (IBT) or the Spartacist League. So there is a very similar landscape out of which the CPGB of the 1920s was formed. The original CPGB was formed from one wing of the Socialist Labour Party, which was a kind of syndicalist sect, and the large majority of the British Socialist Party. At that time, it was a far-left Marxist sect rather than the mass party form that existed in continental Europe. Along with the South Wales committee, their forces together totaled about four to five thousand. If you add up the people in Britain today committed to some form of socialist revolution, you get a ballot figure of about five thousand. After 70–90 intervening years we are, in a sense, back where we started. That says something about the 20th century. Continue reading

Ladovsky green city

On massive vs. curvilinear structures

from a fragment by an
unknown modernist

Untitled.
Image: Nikolai Ladovskii, scheme for the
“green city” [зеленый город] in Moscow (1930)

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Not all forms of fatness are structurally equal. It’s one thing to be “curvy”; it’s quite another to be an amorphous blob.

Part of it consists in weight.
Another part in distribution.
Maybe it’s in their balance.

General plan of Moscow (1935): The shapeless Moscow amoeba

General plan of Moscow (1935): The shapeless Moscow amoeba accumulating layers, rings, and folds

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Le Corbusier’s project for the Palace of the Soviets (1928-1931)

The Radiant City: Elements for a doctrine
of urbanism for the machine age 
(1933)

Le Corbusier

The Main Auditorium: an audience of 15,000. Open-air platform: 50,000 people. And perfectly regulated acoustics. Small auditorium: 6,500 people. Huge crowds can move about at their case of the esplanade. Cars are on a lower level; the parking lot is beneath the auditoriums.

General ground-level plan: The natural declivities of the ground are left untouched. Automobiles are assigned a circuit on either side, in the open or underground. The circuit leads to the various entrances: an automatic classification of all visitors. Pedestrians never come into contact with cars. (There can be 25,000 people inside the Palace, and 50,000 more on the open-air platform).

Le Corbusier’s sketches of the Palais des Soviets

1932: Project for the Palace of the Soviets in Moscow

1928-1931 Moscow classified traffic system

The ground is devoted to movement: pedestrians, cars.

Everything above the ground (the buildings) is devoted to stability.

No similarity between the two. The ground beneath the buildings must be freed, for regular streams of cars and lakes of pedestrians. The streams flow directly to certain entrances; the pedestrians are widely scattered. This makes for a new economy of layout.

The streams of cars can flow in sunken beds or along elevated highways. Starting 5 meters above the ground, buildings take on definite shape. Distribution of traffic has been achieved below, on the ground.

Here, the dynamic functions: distribution of sorts of traffic.

(Pilotis on the ground level).

Here, the static function is expressed by offices, club, and auditorium. 1928. Palace of Light Industry (first called the Tsentrosoiuz) in Moscow. Now built.

Le Corbusier at a conference in Moscow, 1928

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Here, the dynamic functions: distribution of sorts of traffic.

(Pilotis on the ground level).

Here, the static function is expressed by offices, club, and auditorium. 1928. Palace of Light Industry (first called the Tsentrosoiuz) in Moscow. Now built.

Tsentrosoiuz: Plans, models, site visits

Master plan for the urbanization of the city of Moscow

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In 1931, Moscow officials sent me a questionnaire, admirably thought out, about the city’s reorganization. If only all cities would send out such questionnaires! Their lot would be improved.

The theoretical drawings of the “Radiant City” were made in order to answer this questionnaire. They form a theory of urbanization for modern times.

My “Answer to Moscow” caused an unexpected reaction: its technical aspects were hailed in flattering terms. But the cornerstone of my work was freedom of the individual, and this was held against me. Doctrinal vehemence prevented any worthwhile discussion. Capitalist? bourgeois? proletarian? My only answer is a term expressing my line of conduct and my ingrained revolutionary attitude: human. My professional duty, as architect and city planner, is to achieve what is human.

Charitable colleagues — Frenchmen, too, and far from being “Reds” — proclaimed to all who would listen or read, “that I wanted to destroy Moscow.” Whereas they themselves, if only they were called upon, would, etc.…

The plate which appears opposite (last in the “Radiant City” series), is not a program for Moscow’s destruction but on the contrary, for its construction. It shows zoning and axes of movement along which the city could gradualIy achieve a position of supple ease, expansion without difficulty, and so forth. This plate shows a specimen of urban biology.

So far, only the International Congress for Modem Architecture, the C.I.A.M. has required its members to seek the lines of vital communication which can bring a city into efficient contact with its surrounding region. (A task which will fall to the 5th Congress).

Corbu’s iconic model of the Palais des Soviets

Palace of the Soviets in Moscow

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The administration building, on the left, is independent of the ground. Not only is the ground freed but, moreover, the expanse of open space beneath the building forms a highly architectural frame for the landscape seen in the background.

On the right, impressive ramps lead the way to the open-air platform for 50,000 people.

By contrast, 15,000 can reach the main auditorium from ground level by means of a continuous inclined plane, becoming concave until it reaches the seats. No stairways, not even a single step can be tolerated in a public building — and certainly not “monumental” stairways!

Corbusier in the USSR
Space, Time, and Architecture (1941)

Sigfried Giedion

Le Corbusier’s Geneva plan remained a project, but the principles embodied in it were partially realized in the Tsentrosoiuz at Moscow (1928-34). The erection of the Tsentrosoiuz — now the Ministry of Light Industry — was retarded partly by the requirements of the Five-Year Plan and partly by the emergence of an architectural reaction. It was one of the last modern structures erected in Russia.

Le Corbusier with Sigfried Giedion and Gabriel Guervekian at La Sarraz for CIAM 1 (1928)

Le Corbusier with Sigfried Giedion and Gabriel Guervekian
at La Sarraz for the founding of CIAM (1928)

Le Corbusier’s design for the Palace of the Soviets (1931) fell within the period of Stalinist reaction. With the ceiling of the great hall suspended on wire cables from a parabolic curve, it was Le Corbusier’s boldest accomplishment up to that time. In 1931 the realization of this project or any of the other contemporary schemes, such as those by Gropius and  Breuer and by the sculptor [Naum] Gabo, was no longer conceivable in the U.S.S.R.

Russian translation of Le Corbusier's 1925 classic, Urbanisme [Планировка города]

Russian translation of Le Corbusier’s 1925
classic, Urbanisme [Планировка города]

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The other Trotsky

Noi Abramovich (1895-1940)

Untitled.
Image: Noi Abramovich Trotskii, Leningrad 1929

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Not Lev Davidovich [Лев Давидович]. The architect, Noi Abramovich [Ной Абрамович], rather. No relation, obviously. It’s Bronshtein, remember?

Here are some examples of his work.

Designs

«О советской архитектуре»

* Из стенограммы отчета в Деловом клубе 16 февраля 1935 г. (Фонд ГМИЛ, архив Н. А. Троцкого).

Годы предреволюционной архитектуры в последний десяток лет, примерно начиная с 1908—1909 годов, проходят под знаком увлечения итальянским Ренессансом, увлечения классическими образцами. Это был новый расцвет в России — неоклассицизма. Он дал в России интересные образчики и целую плеяду очень интересных архитекторов.

С наступлением революции это увлечение классикой не могло продолжаться, оно должно было, естественно, приостановиться, революция толкнула на новые пути в поисках более революционного искусства. Этот неоклассицизм или пользование образцами классики казался течением реакционным. Хотелось чего-то нового, революционного. В это время на Западе возникают во всех областях искусства новые революционные течения: в литературе — футуризм, в Италии — Маринетти, в живописи — кубизм, супрематизм, в скульптуре — кубизм и в архитектуре возникает новое течение на основе кубизма и супрематизма — конструктивизм. Эти новые искания в области искусства и в области живописи, и литературы, и архитектуры казались тогда революционными. Казалось, что новые искания в области искусства соответствуют тем революционным настроениям, тем революционным чаяниям и пафосу, который был в те годы, и казалось, что это искусство может отразить пафос революционного движения и поэтому периоду увлечения классикой пришел конец.

[…] И архитектура должна была найти свои новые пути. Архитектура — искусство более консервативное, и в архитектуре это шло более длительно и начиная с 1923 и кончая примерно 1930 годом (в течение 7-летия) архитектура находится под влиянием конструктивизма. Кроме конструктивизма зародился целый ряд других побочных течений…

Примерно в 1930—1931 годах начинает чувствоваться увядание, начинает чувствоваться некоторая беспомощность и падение кривой увлечения этими стилями, начала ощущаться потребность более сильного, более эмоционального и выразительного. Дело в том, что эти «измы», затрагивая те или иные части архитектуры, в целом не охватывали задач архитектуры и поэтому не создавали большого стиля искусства. Первым пробным камнем нашей советской архитектуры этого 7-летия явился конкурс на Дворец Советов. Это чрезвычайно интересный момент. На этом конкурсе выявилась вся беспомощность и все бессилие нашей архитектуры дать то, что нужно нашему государству, нашему Союзу, т. е. передать тот пафос строительства, создать ту сильную монументальную архитектуру, которая нужна Союзу. […] Начиная с 1931 года и до сегодняшнего дня мы находимся в лихорадочном состоянии. […]

Realizations

Leninbulb banner

Leninbulb

Alternate poster design by Gustav Klutsis, "Electrification of the entire country!" (1921)

Alternate poster design by Gustav Klutsis,
“Electrification of the entire country!” (1921)

Vladimir  Lenin, “Preface” to I.I. Stepanov’s
The Electrification of the R.S.F.S.R. and
the Transitional Phase of World Economy


Written: 18 March, 1922
First Published: Pravda No. 64, March 21, 1922; Published according to the text in I. Stepanova The Electrification of the R.S.F.S.R. and the Transitional Phase of World Economy, Moscow, 1922, checked with the manuscript
Source: Lenin’s Collected Works, 2nd English Edition, Progress Publishers, Moscow, 1965, Volume 33, pages 245-246
Translated: David Skvirsky and George Hanna
Transcription/HTML Markup: David Walters & R. Cymbala
Copyleft: V.I. Lenin Internet Archive (www.marx.org) 2002. Permission is granted to copy and/or distribute this document under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License


Lenin: "Communism = soviet power [совласть] + electrification!"

Vladimir Lenin: “Communism = soviet
power [совласть] + electrification!” (1922)

I heartily recommend this book by Comrade Stepanov to all Communists.

The author has succeeded in giving a very able exposition of exceedingly difficult and important problems. He did very well in not writing a book for intellectuals (as is the practice among many of us who copy the worst manners of bourgeois writers), but for the working people, for the masses, for rank-and-file workers and peasants. To his book the author has appended a list of references for supplementary reading for the benefit of those who may find it difficult to understand some parts of it without further explanation. as well as for the benefit of those who would like to consult the principal works on this subject published in Russia and abroad. Special reference must be made to the beginning of Chapter VI, where the author splendidly outlines the significance of the New Economic Policy, and magnificently answers the “airy” scepticism that is displayed in some quarters about the possibility of electrification This scepticism is usually a cloak to conceal the absence of serious thought on the subject (that is, if it is not a cloak to conceal whiteguard, Socialist-Revolutionary and Menshevik hostility to all Soviet construction, which, in fact, is sometimes the case). Continue reading

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Black politics in the age of Obama

Cedric Johnson and Mel Rothenberg

Platypus Review 57 | June 2013

On May 6, 2013, the Platypus Affiliated Society  hosted a conversation on “Black Politics in the Age of Obama” at the University of Chicago. The speakers included Cedric Johnson, the author of Revolutionaries to Race Leaders: Black Power and the Making of African American Politics (2007) and The Neoliberal Deluge: Hurricane Katrina, Late Capitalism, and the Remaking of New Orleans (2011); and Mel Rothenberg, a veteran of the Sojourner Truth Organization and coauthor of The Myth of Capitalism Reborn: A Marxist Critique of Theories of Capitalist Restoration in the USSR (1980). Michael Dawson, author of the forthcoming book, Blacks In and Out of the Left, was unable to attend due to an emergency. What follows is an edited transcript of the conversation. Complete audio of the event can be found online.

Cedric Johnson: I want to demystify the Obama phenomenon, which dates back much further than the 2004 DNC, as it has unfolded over the past decade. I also want to demystify the notion of “black politics” generally.

I am not disappointed with Obama, because being disappointed would mean I had expectations that had not been realized. I certainly disagree with Obama, but he has done just about everything I expected him to do with respect to domestic policy, questions of inequality, or geopolitics. He has been fairly consistent.

The problem with the Obama phenomenon is that too many people got caught in the rhetoric of “change.” As a political slogan it was perfect: No matter where you were, you could find something you could connect with. This operated on at least three different registers. On one level, it simply meant a change to another party’s leadership. For some, simply turning the page on the Bush years counted as change. At another level, there was what might be called the Jackie Robinson effect: There were those who wanted to see Obama break the barrier and become the first black president. Finally, and this was the most dangerous, many believed that Obama was going to deliver some substantive revitalization of liberalism within the United States. The idea was that he would be the second coming of FDR. People have made the same argument more recently. Michael Eric Dyson made this case last year on Democracy Now!, in fact, urging support for Obama’s reelection bid. One or another of these arguments proved convincing for many who ought to have known better — not just liberals, but people who consider themselves Marxists or radical leftists. Continue reading

Photo by Sammy Medina

Corbu conference

Here are some photos I took from the international Le Corbusier symposium that took place on Saturday at the Center for Architecture, organized primarily by the architectural historian (and curator of the new MoMA exhibition on Corbu’s lifework) Jean-Louis Cohen. Also presenting at the conference were Kenneth Frampton, Mary McLeod, Stanislaus von Moos, and Peter Eisenman, to name a few. I’ll be posting a review of the event in a couple days. Enjoy!

Images from the conference

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The North Star to the rest of the Left: Disengage from Platypus, engage with [pseudo-]reformism

by Corey Ansel

Untitled.
Image: Goya’s Saturn Devouring his Son (1819-1823)
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NOTE: Just to be clear about my own relationship to Platypus as an organization, I must again remind readers that I am not currently a member, though I am obviously still sympathetic to its cause. Corey’s statement defends Platypus against a number of misperceptions and baseless accusations that are commonly leveled against it. Even if such accusations were true, however, I find it the height of hypocrisy that anyone, especially university professors, would refuse to participate in Platypus events on the ground that it supposedly “lends ideological support” to reactionary ideologies like Zionism or imperialism. This is all the more true given the fact that most of them hold positions at universities and routinely speak on campuses subsidized by the U.S. military (and all the foreign military forces it aids), in return for the advanced weapons technologies their research and development departments provide.

Not to mention that the historical “Lenin,” unlike Richard Seymour’s epigonal pseudonym, didn’t hesitate for a moment to meet cordially and grant an interview to the Fabian socialist (and apologist for British imperialism!) H.G. Wells during the middle of a bloody civil war. 

Originally posted at the Chair Leg of Truth. My one editorial gripe would be that The North Star does not even insist that one engage reformists, since this would seem to suggest that a genuine reformism today exists. What exists today is rather a pseudo-reformism of sorts, which calls for “realistic” programs of reform to reinstate the welfare state or government-funded social programs, even when such programs are no longer viable. The reformists of yesteryear — Bernstein, Schmidt, and the lot — actually deserved to be taken seriously by the likes of Luxemburg. Anyway, for more on The North Star, a shitty webzine owned and chiefly inspired by the living fossil Louis Proyect, and two of its “leading lights,” please see:

1. Dario Cankovic’s report on the Platypus International Convention 2013 in Chicago
2. Ben Campbell’s Sidney Hook moment

For some responses to this hysteria written by Platypus’ president, Chris Cutrone, see:

1. On the so-called “rational kernel of racism”
2. Platypus’ “position” on “imperialism”

Apparently I was not the only person to learn a lesson or two from Homer Simpson in my childhood. It appears that The North Star is at it again, primarily its editor Ben Campbell, having taken to Homer’s immortal quotes to nourish a newly drafted letter calling for total and unconditional disengagement with the public fora and publications of the Platypus Affiliated Society: “Kids, you tried your best and you failed miserably. The lesson is, never try.”

In my article “Dissecting the Platypus,”1 published in issue #963 of the Communist Party of Great Britain’s Weekly Worker, I raised many political points about Platypus as a project that Ben Campbell and Chris Cutrone, the President of the Platypus Affiliated Society, were gracious enough to engage with in the letters’ page of the CPGB’s paper. Thus, I will waste no time attempting to continue my assessment of Platypus in the interest of leaving that dead horse be.

When it comes to a revolutionary regroupment of forces on the left, The North Star’s project is content to ‘try and try again’ in breathing air into the dead horse (or the “stinking corpse”, as Rosa Luxemburg put it) of the Second International. As of the time of this article, Ben Campbell’s letter calling for a disengagement with Platypus as a project due to its stated goalto make war on the existing (“dead,” fake/pseudo) “Left” and to overcome it” has been posted on Richard Seymour’s Lenin’s Tomb blog and been signed by just over a dozen well-known figures amongst the Marxian left.2 Not surprisingly, the list of signatories includes numerous pseudo-Marxists such as Sherry Wolf, a leader of the US-based International Socialist Organization (ISO) and Richard Seymour, a former oppositionist within the British Socialist Workers Party (SWP) who after breaking with the group, has recently decided to add another sect, titled the International Socialist Network (ISN), to the sectarian embarrassment that has become the ostensibly revolutionary left. Ironically, I have attempted to engage both politically and polemically to no avail. Continue reading

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Soviet auto-building in the 1930s

With a 1928 poem by
Vladimir Maiakovskii

Untitled.
Image: Poster on the side of a building in Leningrad
that reads “Automobiles are Workers” (1929)

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Image Gallery (captions coming)

“Letter to Comrade Kostrov”

Comrade Kostrov,
…………..I’m sure you won’t mind —
I know,
……..generosity’s one of your merits —
if part of the lines
…………..for Paris assigned
I’ll squander
…………..on petty lyrics.
Imagine:
…….a beauty
…………..enters a hall
framed
…….in necklace and furs,
and I
…….says to her
…………..with no preface at all
these very selfsame words:
I’ve
…….just come
…………..from Russia, comrade.
In my country
…………..I’m a figure. Continue reading