Boris Groys’ The Total Art of Stalinism
Vladimir Paperny’s Architecture in
the Age of Stalin: Culture Two
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.
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.
“In the Soviet Union today, the art of the Stalin period is officially no less taboo than the art of the avant-garde,” Groys thus remarked upon the release of his book in 1988. His friend Paperny had learned this the hard way eight years earlier, before Gorbachev introduced гласность, when the young architectural historian found himself unable to defend his dissertation “for political reasons.” Upon his immigration to the United States in 1981, the manuscript of his dissertation went “viral” through multiple photocopies and became a самиздат bestseller. Eventually it was picked up and assembled by the Russian-language ARDIS (Ann Arbor) Press in 1985.2 Needless to say, his daring reassessment of the Soviet avant-garde and the Stalinist aftermath had found few champions among the aging professorial elite of Moscow. (Twenty years after finishing his dissertation he was called back to Moscow to receive a PhD in «культурология».) Groys’ Total Art of Stalinism likewise caused something of a stir when it was published in the GDR toward the end of the decade, though for decidedly different reasons. In 1988 the East German government had more pressing matters to attend to than scandalizing works of art criticism. The Total Art of Stalinism instead drew the ire of liberal and social-democratic circles in the West, whom Groys mocked for their belief in “the myth of the innocent avant-garde.”3
Certainly, the contributions of Groys and Paperny provided welcome relief from the atheoretical morass of Soviet scholarship in the 1970s. Compared with the dull, fact-mongering account of early Soviet architecture delivered by his mentor, Selim Khan-Magomedov, Paperny’s Culture Two is a sweeping and grandiose work. Groys’ presentation of modernist, Stalinist, and post-Stalinist aesthetics in the USSR in The Total Art of Stalinism similarly proves an entertaining read, though it is perhaps a bit more formal in style. The sense of excitement that pervades these works is palpable; each page positively drips with discovery. More interesting than these stylistic considerations, however, is the substance of Groys’ and Paperny’s arguments. Finding little in the way of homegrown theoretical models to work with in the Soviet academy — where even the old-fashioned dogmas of Marxism-Leninism had fallen by the wayside — the two authors looked West for new ways of approaching their subject. In so doing, however, Groys and Paperny wrote almost as if in a vacuum. They borrowed their categories only secondhand, by hearsay, from discourses in which neither of them could actively participate. The objects under investigation were of a very different order, as well. It was altogether unclear whether ideas imported from the other side of the Iron Curtain could adequately grasp the realities of “actually-existing socialism.”
Paperny, for his part, adopted a loosely structuralist framework for his exposition of Culture Two, a trend of thought that held some currency among Soviet dissidents at the time. But he added a twist, applying this mode of analysis to Russian culture itself, a topic generally understood to be off-limits. At the outset of the book, Paperny thus posits as a heuristic device two dominant cultural tendencies at work within the Russian nation, the oscillation of which allegedly shaped the entire course of its history.4 True to the Weberian spirit of Wertfreiheit, he dubs the first of these “Culture One” and the second “Culture Two.” The former corresponds to the architectural avant-garde of the 1920s, the latter to the monumentalist gigantism and neoclassicism of the Stalin period (though he suggests the existence of both cultures stretches back even further). As Groys notes, Paperny appeals to the authority of none other than Lenin in establishing this division, citing his famous quip that “[t]here are two national cultures in every national culture.”5 Using this internal divergence in Russian culture as his basis, Paperny unfolds a breathtaking series of binary oppositions which he claims cover the entire range of features that distinguish the two cultures.6 For instance, while the modernists (Culture One) were oriented toward futurity and mortality, seeing themselves as ushering in a new and unprecedented epoch, the Stalinists (Culture Two) were oriented toward eternity and immortality, seeing themselves as the sum of all past epochs:
Culture One wanted to burn its limbs [Shklovskii (1919)], wash memory from its soul, kill its old [Maiakovskii (1915)], and eat its children — all this as an attempt to free itself from the ballast that was interfering with its surge into the future. In Culture Two, the future was postponed indefinitely. The future became even more beautiful and desirable [the architect Krasin (1937)], and the movement forward was even more joyous [state prosecutor Vyshinskii (1938)], but there did not seem to be an end in sight to that movement — the movement had become an end in itself.
[Stalinism’s] movement “forward, ever forward” changed nothing: The…goal was still the same; therefore, there was no way to determine whether this was movement or rest…Movement in Culture Two became tantamount to immobility, and the future to eternity…The history of the building of the Lenin Mausoleum is a good example of how culture’s idea of the longevity…changed. In Culture One, the idea of a mausoleum evoked a temporary structure, one that was needed “in order to grant all those who wish to, and who cannot come to Moscow for the day of the funeral, a chance to bid farewell to their beloved leader.” Culture Two had no intention of bidding farewell to the beloved leader. The temporary wooden mausoleum erected in 1924 was replaced first by a more solid wooden structure [six months later], and then, in 1930, by one of stone built to last.7
Paperny’s schematization allows for a number of dazzling rhetorical flourishes such as this. And yet he is able to deploy this somewhat rigid conceptual apparatus in order to discern subtler tensions within Culture One and Culture Two. In a later chapter, he details the differences between individual avant-garde groups like the “formalist” members of the Association of New Architects [АСНОВА, (1923-1930)] and their “functionalist” rivals in the Society of Modern Architects [ОСА, (1926-1931)]. Paperny explains this bifurcation within the architectural avant-garde as mirroring the prior split within the spheres of visual media between Malevich’s Suprematism and Tatlin’s Constructivism. Whereas Malevich strove to erase all traces of verisimilitude or lifelike depiction from his paintings through a process of complete formal abstraction (i.e., “non-objectivity” [беспредметничество]), Tatlin aimed to embed his constructions within everyday life though their concrete materiality (i.e., “life-building” [жизнестроение]). The Suprematists sought to liberate art from its heteronomous condition by removing its slavish dependence on the outside world. The Constructivists, by contrast, sought to tear down the wall separating art from life and thus render the whole world artificial. This diremption within Culture One between the “efficacious” and “artistic,” Paperny argues, was exactly inverted with the onset of Culture Two’s call for Socialist Realism. “Having rejected both [non-objectivity] and [life-building],” he explains, “Culture Two began to affirm, on the one hand, the separation of art from life — the stage curtain and footlights — and, on the other hand, the necessity for an absolute similarity of art to life. [With Socialist Realism,] art and life now had to be partitioned by an impenetrable barrier, but the same thing had to exist on each side.”8
After Paperny left the country in 1981, Groys took what seemed to be the next logical step in positive theoretical development, delving into post-structuralism. The Total Art of Stalinism clearly reflects their influence, though Groys retains a clarity of expression that few among them ever achieved. Unlike Paperny, Groys is not interested in reifying the cultural opposition between early Soviet modernism and the Stalinism that succeeded it. Rather, his provocative argument — which sparked a great deal of outrage at the time — was premised on the idea that a direct line of continuity existed between the totalizing ambitions of the classical Soviet avant-garde and the accomplished totalitarianism (or “aesthetic dictatorship”) of Socialist Realism. According to Groys, in a specious sublation, Stalinist art was at once the culmination as well as the negation of the Soviet avant-garde.9 “Socialist realism was not created by the masses but was formulated in their name by well-educated and experienced elites who had assimilated the experience of the avant-garde and been brought to socialist realism by the internal logic of the avant-garde method itself,” Groys casually reports. “Under Stalin the dream of the avant-garde was in fact fulfilled and the life of society was organized in monolithic artistic forms, though of course not those that the avant-garde itself had favored.”10 Contrary to popular opinion in both East and West, Stalinist aesthetics represented the logical outcome of modernism in art and architecture. For Groys, the “total art” of Stalinism alluded to in the title of his book was thus hardly some alien force that descended to crush the avant-garde from without. Modernism already carried the germ of totalitarianism within itself.
Relying on the standard post-structuralist procedure of deconstructing apparent opposites and revealing their hidden unities, Groys locates points where Stalinist and modernist aesthetics overlap and converge, the boundary-zones at which one bleeds into the other.11 This should not be taken to mean, however, that every difference between them is therefore collapsed into the undifferentiated space of Derridean “undecidability.”12 Groys is quite clear as to his decision concerning the question of artistic modernism versus that of Stalinism. At least when it comes to an historical evaluation, he rules unmistakably in favor of Stalinism. Groys even goes so far as to claim that Socialist Realism surpassed the early Soviet avant-garde at both an ideologico-political and aesthetico-formal level. “Viewed from the perspective of the avant-garde’s theoretical self-interpretation,” Groys maintains, “Stalinist culture both radicalizes and formally overcomes the avant-garde; it is, so to speak, a laying bare of the avant-garde device and not merely a negation of it.”13 In the end, he concludes, both the modernist and Stalinist projects in art were forms of utopianism — and as such ultimately irrational. Groys’ greater estimation of Stalinism as an aesthetic phenomenon owes simply to the fact that its irrationality attained to a higher degree of perfection.14
Though Groys passes on to describe the varieties of “postutopian art” that emerged in the Eastern Bloc following Stalin’s death, this cannot help but feel like an afterthought when measured against the overall scope and thrust of his argument. Indeed, none of Groys’ subsequent work has been nearly as important or groundbreaking as The Total Art of Stalinism. The text is not without its problems, however. For one, Groys’ thesis that the totalizing vision of the Soviet avant-garde somehow anticipated (or perhaps even directly inspired) the totalitarianism of the Stalinist regime is extravagant. At the same time, compared with his other insights, it seems intellectually lazy and clichéd. While it may still have possessed a modicum of ingenuity in the late 1980s, the tired postmodern complaint regarding “the modernists’ totalitarian claims” seems far too tendentious and convenient today.15 Once the initial shock of his argument linking the art of the Soviet avant-garde to Socialist Realism wears off, moreover, it becomes evident that Groys is taking a certain perverse pleasure in this petty act of iconoclasm. But the kernel of truth contained in his assertion should not be occluded on this account. Undeniably, Stalinism did absorb the experience of the lessons taught it by the avant-garde. However, it was Paperny, and not Groys, who made this point most emphatically. Stalinist architecture, whatever else one may say of it, was decidedly not simply a return to the traditionalist eclecticism of prerevolutionary building practices. To the architects of Stalinism, modernism itself — which had understood itself as abolishing all previous styles — appeared as simply one more style alongside all the others. The Stalinist architect, Paperny explained,
had to take everything, but nothing was to be left in its pure form. One had to “melt the old forms, to imbue them with new ideological content”…The content of the epoch was the completion of all traditions and the end of history…[I]n its built environment, all forms and all traditions had to be blended together…[Stalinism] wanted to include in itself not only all traditions but also the anti-traditionality of the preceding culture [modernism]. “We can learn a lot from Zholtovskii as the living bearer of the classical legacy,” wrote architect [Arkadii] Mordvinov. “There are significant achievements of the Vesnins, of [Moisei] Ginzburg — these achievements of contemporaneity we must also assimilate.”16
The representative buildings of Stalinist architecture — the wedding-cake skyscrapers of the “Seven Sisters” in Moscow, for instance — were far more monstrous than any of the traditionalist amalgams that preceded them. These colossal structures featured Dorian columns and towering heroic statuary cast in ferroconcrete. (Paperny even speculates that Stalin personally intervened in designing the infamous proposal for the Palace of the Soviets. He cites an argument recently advanced by the architectural historian Dmitrii Khmelnitskii, which holds that no trained architect could have produced such an abomination. Khmelnitskii suggests the official authors credited would have been incapable of “such powerful barbarism, such neophyte courage in dealing with form, function, and surface”).17 Despite its considerable explanatory power, however, Paperny’s conceptual schemas in Culture Two also have their shortcomings. Groys ascertained many of these in his criticisms of the book.18 Paperny is doubtless guilty of elevating specific historical determinations that manifested during the periods 1913-1933 and 1934-1954 to the status of general transhistorical determinants. The dynamics that were responsible for avant-garde and Stalinist cultural tendencies extended well beyond the borders of Russia.
Nevertheless, Groys’ and Paperny’s independent efforts to grapple with Western discourses like structuralism and poststructuralism prior to the fall of the Soviet Union produced far more interesting results than those that transpired afterwards, when such philosophical ambassadors as Jürgen Habermas, Jacques Derrida, and Jean-Luc Nancy graced Moscow campuses with their presence.19 Whether by sheer confusion or creative misprision, Groys and Paperny managed to transpose concepts from outside the narrow ambit of the USSR and utilize them to compose highly incisive, original studies on Soviet history. Having already settled their scores with Western thought, they were thus spared the patronizing charity of European scholars flooding Russia to reeducate the masses. After 1989, delegates were dispatched from France, Germany, and the US to emancipate the misguided Soviet youth from their adherence to the supposedly anachronistic tenets of Marxism, catching them “up to speed” in the latest theories of Foucault.
If the progress of theoretical innovation in the Soviet Union lagged behind that of the West, this was probably because the intelligentsia — straitjacketed by repressive state censorship — failed to keep up with the accelerated pace at which reality had taken place. Compared with Europe and the United States between the early 1920s and mid 1930s, the USSR experienced immense historical transformations within an extremely abbreviated timespan. But this effusive output was followed by a long spell of stagnation. Ironically, then, it can be noted that Paperny’s appropriation of French structuralism was in many respects a reappropriation. After all, apart from the influence of Saussure in Geneva, structuralism reached France largely by way of Prague, primarily through the work of the Russian émigrés of the Formalist school fleeing westward to escape persecution at the hands of Stalin. When Paperny chose to utilize a loosely structuralist methodology for his Culture Two, it was as if he was reclaiming a stream of thought that originated in the midst of the October Revolution but had subsequently been forced to develop abroad.
Even more than in the realm of aesthetic theory, it was the Soviet Union’s extraordinary rate of artistic and cultural development itself that far outstripped that of its Western counterparts after the revolution. The successive patterns of artistic and architectural growth in the twentieth century in the West were played out in microcosm during first few decades of the USSR. Only later would they be recapitulated elsewhere. “Charles Jencks called the explosions that took place on 15 July 1972, in St. Louis, Missouri ‘the end of Modern Architecture,’” Paperny wryly observes. “In Russia, attempts to end modern architecture took place much earlier.”20
Indeed, both Groys and Paperny seem to recognize that Stalinism in art and architecture was not simply part of some antimodern reaction. It was also significant sense “postmodern,” somehow existing after the fact but still bound up with modernity. Groys states this in unambiguous terms: “[B]eginning with the Stalin years, at least, official Soviet culture, Soviet art, and Soviet ideology become eclectic, citational, ‘postmodern.’”21 Students during the Brezhnev era like Groys and Paperny may have suffered from a rather backwards intellectual climate, but it took Europe and the US decades before they arrived at the postmodern condition — an outcome the Soviet Union had already reached in 1930s under Stalin.22 The avant-garde movements in art and architecture that participated in the early Soviet project had been able to seize on the revolutionary political conditions in that country to pose the questions of modernism in their most radical possible form. When they were answered in 1934 with resounding defeat, this allowed traits that would later become associated with postmodernism to appear in the USSR before surfacing in the West.
The ongoing social and political crisis of society after the millennium has cast doubt upon the adequacy of the postmodern response, however. “Modernist excesses created postmodernism in architecture, a distant relative of postmodernism in philosophy, that cousin who was not very bright and died young,” Paperny caustically remarks.23 But the real problem reaches back further: Might the death of modernism and the emergence of postmodernism in the West (which Jencks dates to 1972) have in fact resulted from the prior defeat of modernism and the emergence of Stalinism in the East (around 1934)? And might the defeat of the artistic and architectural avant-gardes in the East not in turn attest to the prior failure of world revolution after World War I? What if modernism itself was merely a symptom of the unfinished task of emancipation?
It is quite possible, of course, that Henri Lefebvre was right in his 1962 reflections on modernity: “[M]odernity is like a shell to hide the absence of praxis in the Marxist sense, and its failure…Modernity reveals this lack. Modernity will be the shadow cast on bourgeois society by the thwarted possibility of revolution, a parody of revolution.”24 Modernité, a neologism Baudelaire coined around the revolutions of 1848, was nothing other than bourgeois society in distress. When the revolutions of 1917-1923 failed to resolve this impasse, modernity itself was thrown into crisis. The residual utopianism of the avant-garde carried modernism through into the 1930s in the East and into the 1960s in the West. After this point, however, its program stalled out. “Like the ghost of the Revolution which never happened over here [the West], like the ghost of the Revolution which was never completed over there [the East], modernity is in permanent crisis,” Lefebvre continued. “It is riven with contradictions, and in the absence of the radically revolutionary negativity which — according to the initial Marxist project — would have transformed life, these contradictions are wreaking havoc.”25
Groys’ Total Art of Stalinism and Paperny’s Culture Two, in their own ways, attempt to understand a world that exists after modernism, in which these contradictions remain unresolved but where they have in the meantime been suppressed. Insofar as the crisis of modernity and modernism were experienced in the Soviet Union both earlier and in a more acute (because more political) form than in the West, the authors’ bold analyses of Stalinism in art and architecture — the first postmodern style — shed light on the present. Today, as postmodernism itself enters into crisis, the modernist antagonisms it sought to bury beneath the soil now threaten to reemerge from their subterranean depths, where they have continued to seethe quietly all these years.
1 Groys, Boris. “Introduction.” Architecture in the Age of Stalin: Culture Two. Translated by John Hill, Roann Barris, and Vladimir Paperny. (Cambridge University Press. New York, NY: 2011). Pgs. xv-xvi.
2 Cooke, Catherine. “Review of Architecture in the Age of Stalin: Culture Two.” The Slavonic and East European Review. (Vol. 81, № 3: July, 2003). Pg. 572.
3 Groys, Boris. The Total Art of Stalinism: Avant-Garde, Aesthetic Dictatorship, and Beyond. Translated by Charles Rougle. (Verso Books. New York, NY: 2011). Pg. 6.
4 “[I]t must be conceded that Culture One and Culture Two do not exist in reality. They were invented by the author…The concept of Culture One is constructed here primarily based on materials from the 1920s, whereas Culture Two is based on materials from the 1930s to 1950s, and at a certain point the reader may get the impression that Culture Two is really what happened between the years 1932 and 1954.” Paperny, Vladimir. Architecture in the Age of Stalin. Pg. xxiii.
5 Lenin, Vladimir Il’ich. Critical Remarks on the National Question. Translated by Bernard Isaacs and Joe Fineberg. Collected Works, Vol. 20: 1913-1914. (Progress Publishers. Moscow, USSR: 1976). Pg. 32.
6 These thirteen pairs are then further arranged under three overarching polarities: “Melting-Hardening,” “Mechanism-Humanism,” and “Lyric-Epic.” The first term in each pair corresponds to Culture One, the second to Culture Two: A. Melting-Hardening: 1. Beginning-Ending, 2. Movement-Immobility, 3. Horizontal-Vertical, 4. Uniform-Hierarchical; B. Mechanism-Human: 5. Collective-Individual, 6. Mechanical-Living, 7. Abstraction-Name, 8. Good-Evil; C. Lyric-Epic: 9. Mutism-Word, 10. Improvisation-Notation, 11. Efficacious-Artistic, 12. Realism-Myth, 13. Business-Miracle.
7 Paperny, Architecture in the Age of Stalin. Pgs. 15-17.
8 Ibid., pgs. 207-211.
9 “[T]he art of Socialist Realism represents not only the organic continuation of the avant-garde but also its culmination and in some sense its completion.” Groys, Boris. “Stalinism as Aesthetic Phenomenon.” Translated by Alla Efimova and Lev Manovich. Tekstura: Russian Essays on Visual Culture. (University of Chicago Press. Chicago, IL: 1993). Pg. 120.
10 Groys, The Total Art of Stalinism. Pg. 9.
11 Groys therefore claims “Stalinist poetics is the immediate heir to constructivist poetics.” Ibid., pg. 36.
…….“In essence, Stalin was the only artist of the Stalin era; in this sense, he was a successor of Malevich or Tatlin to a much greater degree than the later museum stylizations of the avant-garde.” Groys, “Stalinism as Aesthetic Phenomenon.” Pg. 127.
12 I.e., “neither one [thing] nor the other and both at once, undecidable.” Derrida, Jacques. Dissemination. Translated by Barbara Johnson. (The Athlone Press. London, UK: 1981). Pg. 259.
13 Groys, The Total Art of Stalinism. Pg. 44.
14 Ibid., pgs. 64-65.
15 Ibid., pg. 11.
16 Paperny, Architecture in the Age of Stalin. Pg. 247.
17 Paperny, Vladimir. “Destruction and Modern Architecture.” Ruins of Modernity. (Duke University Press. Durham, NC: 2010). Pg. 50.
18 “Stalinist culture…falls outside the entire historical process.” Groys, The Total Art of Stalinism. Pg. 64.
19 Buck-Morss, Susan. Dreamworld and Catastrophe: The Passing of Mass Utopia in East and West. (MIT Press. Cambridge, MA: 2002). Pgs. 220-223.
20 Paperny, Architecture in the Age of Stalin. Pg. 1.
21 Groys, The Total Art of Stalinism. Pg. 108.
…….More recently, Groys has taken this notion even further concerning Stalinist revivalism in Russia today: “[T]he revival of Soviet Stalinist aesthetics [is] an effect of postmodern taste.” Groys, Boris. “Beyond Diversity.” Art Power. (MIT Press. Cambridge, MA: 2008). Pg. 163.
22 Paperny even likened this to the popular postmodern architectural thought-figure of the “decorated shed.” “Robert Venturi in his Learning from Las Vegas (1972) attempted to break up with the form-follows-function doctrine, advocating what he called ‘decorated sheds,’” Paperny explained. “Stalinist architecture broke with this doctrine 40 years earlier. Constructivist buildings, and later steel structures of skyscrapers, were decorated with Greek, Renaissance, Gothic, [and] Russian folk elements. Stalin’s высотки [high-rises] were in fact decorated sheds.” Paperny, .” Art Margins. (MIT Press. Cambridge, MA: 2005).
23 “Practically no architect whose name has been associated with postmodernism wants to admit the relation.” Paperny, “Modernism and Destruction in Architecture.” Pg. 55.
24 Lefebvre, Henri. “What is Modernity?” Translated by John Moore. Introduction to Modernity: Twelve Preludes. (Verso Books. New York, NY: 1995). Pg. 173.
25 Ibid., pg. 236.