Under the banner of Marxism journal, 1923-1931

Under the banner of Marxism [«Под знаменем марксизма»], 1923-1931

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So it seems some glorious madman has taken it upon himself to scan and upload the entire run of the early Soviet theoretical journal, named Under the Banner of Marxism [«Под знаменем марксизма»]. A stupendous Stakhanovite feat. Needless to say, whoever did this is a bona fide герой труда.

Using a comically outdated online platform, no less. It was posted somewhere in the ultradank universe of Russian Livejournal, which has more or less become a medium for blogging. On one such blog, evidently belonging to a Baconian Bolshevik — entitled Знание власть, or “knowledge is power” — I found it.

Predictably, the quality of the articles began to sharply decline by the end of the 1920s. Wilhelm Reich’s Dialectical Materialism and Psychoanalysis was published on its pages as late as 1929, however. You can download all of them, excepting the post-1931 issues (which can be found here), by clicking below.

Following those links, you can read the open letter Trotsky sent the editors of the first issue. Lenin himself singled out this letter in his own note, which was included in the double issue published next, while expressing the hope this venture would take the shape of a “society of materialist friends of Hegelian dialectics.” Abram Deborin, the stuffy Hegelian Menshevik and prominent critic of Lukács, edited the journal from 1926 through 1930, before being purged later in that decade.

Trotsky himself underscored the importance of the letter in The Stalin School of Falsification (1937), which, in pointing to the difference between the changed conditions of education of the younger members of the party from that of their older comrades, outlined the necessity of a new theoretical approach in order to safeguard the political experience accumulated within the party.

Despite the importance attributed to the letter by Lenin and Trotsky, Leszek Kolakowski, in his Main Currents of Marxism, considered the letter to be unexceptional. So much the worse for him.

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Meyer, Hannes  Interior view of Dvorets Sovietov (Palace of Unions) subway station platform, Moscow, 1935-1954

Bauhaus director Hannes Meyer’s adventures in the Soviet Union, 1930-1936

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I’ve posted about Hannes Meyer several times already. For those who don’t know, Meyer was the second Bauhaus director. He stepped in after Walter Gropius returned to his own private practice in 1928, and presided over the art and architecture school until he was forced out due to his Marxist convictions in 1930. Ludwig Mies van der Rohe replaced him. After his tenure came to an abrupt end, Meyer and a number of his students traveled to Moscow at the invitation of the Soviet government. Despite his enthusiastic support for the five-year plans then underway, and his unwavering loyalty throughout, Meyer eventually wore out his welcome in the USSR. Several of his colleagues were rounded up and arrested before he finally decided to return to Switzerland. Meyer didn’t stay long there, however, moving permanently to Mexico in 1938.

Today he is largely forgotten, though some have expressed interest in his legacy of late. Claude Schnaidt has provided probably the best comprehensive account of his work. It is not surprising that Meyer would be overshadowed by his predecessor Gropius on the one hand, and his successor Mies on the other. Both were more significant in the history of modern architecture, more groundbreaking or talented. Nevertheless, Meyer was quite innovative himself, as can be seen from his designs for co-ops and proposal for the League of Nations building in Geneva (1926). His skill in other media, such as photography and city planning, was also considerable.

Yesterday I discovered a rare article Meyer wrote in 1942, originally in Spanish, on the architectural profession in the Soviet Union. It was translated into English and published by Harvard’s student design magazine TASK in 1943. The article is interesting in several respects. First, because it displays no bitterness whatsoever at the Stalinist regime that forced Meyer into exile and many of his friends. Second, because the pioneering modernist implicitly repudiates many of his earlier positions on the role of architecture in modern society, criticizing the avant-garde architects at VKhUTEMAS and providing a “dialectical” justification for protopostmodernist eclecticism. Third, because it includes a number of facts and figures, which are interesting even though they are without a doubt inaccurate or misleading.

Alongside the article, which appears below, I’ve included a bunch of photos Meyer took documenting his journeys across the USSR. Enjoy.

The Soviet architect

Hannes Meyer
TASK magazine
February 1943

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I dedicate this unpretentious work to the composer Dmitri Shostakovitch, who, in the trenches of Leningrad, December 1941, put the final notes on his Seventh Symphony, rising in this classic form — score and weapon forged in hand — to the present duty of all democratic intellectuals in the entire world: the defense of our culture and of humanity.

Hannes Meyer
Mexico 11/15/1942
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The architect has always been intimately linked with his social environment. He is one of the human tools that serve the ruling power to fortify its position. Architecture besides its direct utility, has always served to maintain power. We find an architect serving the Pope, in Bramante, or the King, in Le Nôtre, or as a colonial functionary, in Tolsa, or as a privileged member of the bourgeoisie, in Tony Garnier. To this we must add that building’ is an activity profoundly connected with social-economic needs and the superimposed spiritual structure. And the architect is always of necessity a collaborator. He does his work together with economists and industrialists, with workers, artisans, and housewives. In Hindu tradition the future architect must first perfect himself as a carpenter, a mason, a painter, a sculptor, and an iron worker. Mature men of forty years are then known as “masters of architecture.”

In capitalist society architecture is numbered among the “liberal professions,” and this is why bankers, speculators, and other knights of the stock market can use the decorative cloak of architecture to cover the sores of the social body. — Architecture is not an autonomous art, as certain prima donnas of the drawing board would like to have us believe. The architect is born and finds his form in the womb of his society and is brought forth by a specific age and by a definite epoch. Hence we find the most capable and creative architects in the heart of the classical forms of society.

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The socialist society in the USSR, created by the October Revolution of 1917, is an experiment without precedent. For the first time in human history the people themselves own the factories and all the means of production. The land also has been nationalized. Private economy, until then in a state of anarchy, has been transformed into a planned and directed economy. Together with the great change in the position of intellectuals in the USSR, the position and the role of the architect has been completely altered. The architectural structure of the new state has itself been transformed.

Outside of the USSR it is very hard to form any clear idea of the present conception of architecture in that country. It is confusing to find in its publications buildings of the most diverse character, examples of classicism, and of conflicting trends. These efforts in search of a national ideal are described as backward by American architects, who are justly proud of their highly industrialized achievements. They describe the Soviet attempt to connect by way of dialectics the magnificent past of Russian architecture with the dynamic present as a new academicism. Because of their ignorance of social and economical matters, they can employ no other pattern than those found in their everyday surroundings. For this reason “glass construction,” which is the last word on this continent, over there, in a different environment appears completely out of place. Chippendale furniture, here an expression of conservatism, is there a step forward in the development of the highest quality in cabinet work.

Hannes Meyer, Palace of the League of Nations Continue reading

André Gide standing with Molotov and Stalin atop Lenin's Tomb in Moscow, 1936

Can a homosexual be a communist? Harry Whyte’s letter to Stalin, 1934

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Editor’s Note. 
The following is an excerpt from
Moscow (Ugly Duckling Presse, Brooklyn, 2013), the new book by New York-based artist Yevgeniy Fiks. Moscow, which will be officially released on February 15, documents gay cruising sites in Soviet Moscow, from the early 1920s to the USSR’s dissolution in the early 1990s. Photographed in 2008 in a simple but haunting documentary style, these sites of the bygone queer underground present a hidden and forgotten Moscow, with a particular focus on Revolutionary Communist sites appropriated by queer Muscovites. The book concludes with the first English-language publication of a 1934 letter to Joseph Stalin in which British communist Harry Whyte presents a Marxist defense of homosexuality in light of its re-criminalization in the USSR.

Given post-Soviet Russia’s recent turn towards aggressive official homophobia, we thought it might be illuminating for our readers to read Whyte’s letter. We thank Yevgeniy Fiks and Ugly Duckling Presse for their permission to reprint it in full here.

See also “Cruising Past: Moscow’s Forgotten Gay History.”

P.S., the image at the top is André Gide speaking before a crowd atop Lenin’s tomb in Moscow, 1936. Molotov and Stalin stand behind him. I am ironically including images below from the 1950s, celebrating the short-lived friendship between the USSR and PRC. Not only to travesty the shamefully homophobic legacies of Stalin and Mao (though that also), but because they’re some of the most unconsciously homoerotic images I’ve ever seen.

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Can a homosexual be a member of the Communist Party?
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Harry Whyte
Moscow, USSR
May 1934

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Comrade STALIN,

The content of my appeal is briefly as follows. The author of this letter, a member of the Communist Party of Great Britain, requests a theoretical grounding of the March 7 decree of the USSR Central Executive Committee on [the institution of] criminal liability for sodomy.[1] Since he strives to approach this question from a Marxist viewpoint, the author of this letter believes that the decree contradicts both the facts of life itself and the principles of Marxism-Leninism.

Here is a summary of the facts that are discussed in detail in the attached letter:

  1. On the whole, the condition of homosexuals under capitalism is analogous to the condition of women, the colored races, ethnic minorities, and other groups that are repressed for one reason or another;
  2. The attitude of bourgeois society to homosexuality is based on the contradiction between:
    1. capitalism’s need for “cannon fodder” and a reserve army of labor (leading to repressive laws against homosexuality, which is regarded as a threat to birth rates);
    2. the ever-growing poverty of the masses under capitalism (leading to the collapse of the working-class family and an increase in homosexuality).
  3. This contradiction can be resolved only in a society where the liquidation of unemployment and the constant growth of the material well being of workers fosters conditions in which people who are normal in the sexual sense can enter into marriage.
  4. Science confirms that an insignificant percentage of the population suffers from constitutional homosexuality.
  5. The existence of this insignificant minority is not a threat to a society under the dictatorship of the proletariat.
  6. The new law on homosexuality has provoked the most various and contradictory interpretations.
  7. The March 7 law fundamentally contradicts the basic principle of the previous law on this question.
  8. The March 7 law essentially calls for “leveling” in the realm of sexual life.
  9. The March 7 law is absurd and unjust from the viewpoint of science, which has proven the existence of constitutional homosexuals and has no means at its disposal to change the sexual nature of homosexuals.

Dear Comrade Stalin:

Although I am a foreign communist who has not yet been promoted to the AUCP(b),[2] I nevertheless think that it will not seem unnatural to you, the leader of the world proletariat, that I address you with a request to shed light on a question that, as it seems to me, has huge significance for a large number of communists in the USSR as well as in other countries.

The question is as follows: can a homosexual be considered someone worthy of membership in the Communist Party?

The recently promulgated law on criminal liability for sodomy, which was affirmed by the USSR Central Executive Committee on March 7 of this year, apparently means that homosexuals cannot be recognized as worthy of the title of Soviet citizen. Consequently, they should be considered even less worthy to be members of the AUCP(b).

Since I have a personal stake in this question insofar as I am a homosexual myself, I addressed this question to a number of comrades from the OGPU and the People’s Commissariat for Justice, to psychiatrists, and to Comrade Borodin, the editor-in-chief of the newspaper where I work.[3]

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All that I managed to extract from them was a number of contradictory opinions which show that amongst these comrades there is no clear theoretical understanding of what might have served as the basis for passage of the given law. The first psychiatrist from whom I sought help with this question twice assured me (after verifying this with the People’s Commissariat for Justice) that if they are honest citizens or good communists, his patients may order their personal lives as they see fit. Comrade Borodin, who said that he personally took a negative view of homosexuality, at the same time declared that he regarded me as a fairly good communist, that I could be trusted, and that I could lead my personal life as I liked. Somewhat earlier, when the arrests of homosexuals had only just begun, Comrade Borodin was quite disinclined to view me as a potential criminal; he did not regard me as a bad communist, and this was confirmed by the fact that he promoted me at work by appointing me head of editorial staff, which is the highest-ranking supervisory position with the exception of members of the editorial board. Somewhat later, when the December 17 version of the law already existed, but before the March 7 decree, I contacted the OGPU in connection with the arrest of a certain person with whom I had had homosexual relations. I was told there that there was nothing that incriminated me.

All these statements produced the impression that the Soviet organs of justice were not prosecuting homosexuality as such, only certain socially dangerous homosexuals. If this is really the case, then is there a need for the general law?

On the other hand, however, after the law was issued on March 7, I had a conversation in the OGPU in which I was told that the law would be strictly applied to each case of homosexuality that was brought to light.

In connection with the lack of clarity that exists in this matter, I turn to you in the hope that you will find the time to give me an answer.

Allow me to explain to you this question as I understand it.

First and foremost, I would like to point out that I view the condition of homosexuals who are either of working-class origin or workers themselves to be analogous to the condition of women under the capitalist regime and the colored races who are oppressed by imperialism. This condition is likewise similar in many ways to the condition of the Jews under Hitler’s dictatorship, and in general it is not hard to see in it an analogy with the condition of any social stratum subjected to exploitation and persecution under capitalist domination.

When we analyze the nature of the persecution of homosexuals, we should keep in mind that there are two types of homosexuals: first, those who are the way they are from birth (moreover, if scientists disagree about the precise reasons for this, then there is no disagreement that certain deep-seated reasons do exist); second, there are homosexuals who had a normal sexual life but later became homosexuals, sometimes out of viciousness, sometimes out of economic considerations.

As for the second type, the question is decided relatively simply. People who become homosexuals by virtue of their depravity usually belong to the bourgeoisie, a number of whose members take to this way of life after they have sated themselves with all the forms of pleasure and perversity that are available in sexual relations with women. Amongst those who take to this way of life out of economic considerations, we find members of the petit bourgeoisie, the lumpenproletariat, and (as strange as it might seem) the proletariat. As a result of material necessity, which is particularly aggravated during periods of crisis, these people are forced temporarily to turn to this method of satisfying their sexual urges insofar as the absence of means deprives them of the possibility of marrying or at least contracting the services of prostitutes. There are also those who become homosexuals not in order to satisfy their urges, but in order to earn their keep by means of prostitution (this phenomenon has become especially widespread in modern Germany).

But science has established the existence of constitutional homosexuals. Research has shown that homosexuals of this type exist in approximately equal proportions within all classes of society. We can likewise consider as established fact that, with slight deviations, homosexuals as a whole constitute around two percent of the population. If we accept this proportion, then it follows that there are around two million homosexuals in the USSR. Not to mention the fact that amongst these people there are no doubt those who are aiding in the construction of socialism, can it really be possible, as the March 7 law demands, that such a large number of people be subjected to imprisonment?

Just as the women of the bourgeois class suffer to a significantly lesser degree from the injustices of the capitalist regime (you of course remember what Lenin said about this), so do natural-born homosexuals of the dominant class suffer much less from persecution than homosexuals from the working-class milieu. It must be said that even within the USSR there are conditions that complicate the daily lives of homosexuals and often place them in a difficult situation. (I have in mind the difficulty of finding a partner for the sexual act, insofar as homosexuals constitute a minority of the population, a minority that is forced to conceal its true proclivities to one degree or another.)

What is the attitude of bourgeois society to homosexuals? Even if we take into account the differences existing on this score in the legislation of various countries, can we speak of a specifically bourgeois attitude to this question? Yes, we can. Independently of these laws, capitalism is against homosexuality by virtue of its entire class-based tendency. This tendency can be observed throughout the course of history, but it is manifested with especial force now, during the period of capitalism’s general crisis.

Capitalism, which needs an enormous reserve army of labor and cannon fodder in order to flourish, regards homosexuality as a factor that threatens to lower birth rates (as we know, in the capitalist countries there are laws that punish abortion and other methods of contraception).

Of course, the attitude of the bourgeoisie to the homosexual question is typical hypocrisy. Strict laws are the cause of few nuisances for the bourgeois homosexual. Anyone who is at all familiar with the internal history of the capitalist class knows of the periodic scandals that arise in this regard; moreover, members of the dominant class who are mixed up in these affairs suffer to an insignificant degree. I can cite a little-known fact in this connection. Several years ago, one of the sons of Lord and Lady Astor was convicted of homosexuality. The English and American press omitted to report this fact, with the exception of the Morning Advertiser. This newspaper is owned by beer manufacturers, and it was in its interests to compromise Lord and Lady Astor, who had been agitating for the introduction of prohibition. Thus the fact of [Astor’s conviction] became known thanks to contradictions within the dominant class.

Thanks to its wealth, the bourgeoisie can avoid the legal punishment that descends in all its severity on homosexual workers with the exception of those cases when the latter have prostituted themselves to members of the dominant class.

I have already mentioned that capitalism, which has need of cannon fodder and a reserve army of labor, attempts to combat homosexuality. But at the same time, by worsening the living conditions of workers, capitalism produces the objective conditions for an increase in the number of homosexuals who take to this way of life by virtue of material necessity.

This contradiction is reflected in the fact that fascism, which employed the pederast [Marinus] van der Lubbe[4] as a weapon in its provocation, at the same time brutally suppressed the liberal-intelligentsia “liberation” movement of homosexuals led by Dr. Magnus Hirschfeld.[5] (See the Brown Book, which cites the Hirschfeld case as an instance of the anti-cultural barbarism of the fascists.)[6]

Another reflection of this contradiction is the figure of André Gide, French homosexual writer, leader of the antifascist movement, and ardent friend of the USSR. The general public in France knows about Gide’s homosexuality, for he has written about it openly in his books. And despite this, his authority amongst the masses as a fellow traveller of the communist party in France has not been shaken. The fact that Gide has joined the revolutionary movement has not hindered its growth or the support of the masses for the leadership of the communist party. In my view, this shows that the masses are not intolerant of homosexuals. Continue reading

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The hammer-and-sickle kitchen-factory in Samara (1931)

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Ekaterina Maximova’s 1931 fabrika-kukhnia [factory kitchen or canteen] on Maslennikov in Samara is a constructivist wonder in the shape of a hammer and sickle. Soviet “factory kitchens” were intended to provide proper nutrition to workers and liberate women from domestic slavery (i.e. the anonymous toil and drudgery of child-rearing and housework). Many such public kitchens were built and opened in the 1920s, but the one designed by Maximova is without a doubt the most spectacular.  As with most constructivist buildings in Russia, however, especially in the hinterlands, strategies to preserve this avant-garde monument have been less than adequate. Or more frequently, entirely absent.

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Archnadzor noted in an article from March 2008 that “if this building had appeared in a capital, it would have been esteemed and entered the textbooks of architectural history long ago.” (Though the sad state of similar constructivist buildings in other parts of the former USSR should call this assumption int0 question, with the exception of Melnikov’s oligarch-sponsored pieces and Kharkov’s polished Gosprom façade). Most of Maximova’s original design — both the interior and exterior — has unfortunately been destroyed in the course of the extensive reconstructions and modifications it underwent over the 20th century.

In an effort comparable to many countries’ pre- and post-WWII preservation measures, the factory had already been extensively refurbished by 1944. The entire front façade was remade, and covered the face of the building like a sarcophagus built in the classical style. Some internal changes and coverings were also made. In 1998-99 the building was once again transformed, this time into a shopping center. Threatened by demolition several times since, the building now houses stray dogs and the homeless.

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Its function and purpose highlight several aspects of the era’s industrial art. These architectural concepts were ideally employed for factories, workers’ clubs, canteens, garages and modern working-class housing projects, airy and sunlit, and even in Moscow a quarter built purposely to maximize sunlight exposure in all the flats; art became a practicality, industrialized, and intended to serve or otherwise stimulate the masses. Housing projects were designed as a vessel to attune Soviet citizens to the perks of communal living.

The hammer and sickle layout must seem an ideological extravagance, a symbolic excess, but similar projects were realized in Moscow and Leningrad: a school in a vaguely similar hammer and sickle shape, or a Red Army theater in the shape of a star. Maximova’s building thus “demonstrated the progressive aesthetic, engineering, and ethical ideas of the Soviet avant-garde.” It was also one of the first buildings in the Volga area with concrete lift slabs/floor structure, a showcase of modern, creative technology.

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The factory kitchen itself was located in the hammer, from which three conveyor belts brought the food to the canteen in the sickle. There were two floors, with airy mezzanines and staircases, and the building also housed a sports facility, reading room as well as the kitchen’s administration. The interior and plan design formed an integral, dynamic part of the building’s aesthetic impact; however, these aspects are rarely considered by the city council when it comes time for renovations, considering their lack of expertise.

In the TV-program Dostoianie respublika, it is mentioned that neither federal nor local government is willing to lend aid to these decaying structures. Another tragic example of this is Moisei Ginzburg’s Narkomfin building in Moscow, which appears on the UNESCO list of endangered buildings, while it is literally falling apart (often with people inside, as Owen Hatherley observed during a recent Moscow excursion). Back in 2008 there were again plans of transforming the Samara kitchen-factory, this time into an office center, but by February 2010 the restoration plans stagnated. Today the building faces destruction once more.

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Creepy Christmas Lenin [Ленин на ёлке]

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Just in time for the holidays.

Needless to say, these creepy Christmas portraits were not Lenin’s idea. One can only guess how horrified he would have been if he had lived to see them. Christmas was abolished as an official holiday by the Bolsheviks starting 1918, roughly a year after the October Revolution. By 1935, however, Stalin’s government decided to reintroduce Santa to the children of the USSR. Poskrebyshev, a member of the Central Committee, enacted the reform.

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Well, to expand a bit, it wasn’t Santa quite as we’d think of him. It was based on the old Russian version — Ded Moroz [дед Мороз], that is — different from Western Santas in several ways: 1. he isn’t jolly/fat; 2. rather, he’s tall and somewhat menacing. Some important modifications were made for (anti)ideological reasons: 1. ded Moroz no longer wore blue, as he had been turned red by communism; 2. now he wore a more festive hat instead of a boyar’s cap, as this would have harkened back to the feudal past.

Anyway, sometimes Santa was entirely superfluous. Lenin was all you needed. “I don’t know how to break it to you, little Vadim. God’s not real, and was never born, but I brought you some gifts anyway.”

Thanks to Anatolii Krasnopivtsev for the original post in Russian, which I just happened across today. Enjoy!

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A. Laptev, We build from cardboard [Строим из картона] (1932)

Rad Borislavov

One of the lofty goals of Communist Party and education officials was to create “harmonious human beings” by instilling Soviet morals and work habits into the minds of young children. While literacy rates in the first decade after the October Revolution were remarkably low, reading was soon to become the single most important way of socializing and educating children in the Soviet Union. An important but lesser-known aspect of Soviet 1930s education involved do-it-yourself books. These were conceived as an interactive medium that invited children not only to enjoy reading, absorb information and reflect, but also to develop practical skills needed for the construction of a Communist society.

Compared to other children’s books, do-it-yourself books often encouraged young children to view themselves as responsible adults and engaged citizens. Their topics were numerous and wide-ranging and yet overwhelmingly geared toward the achievement of practical goals at hand and the learning of useful skills for the future. Their themes range from the application of technology in the context of Stalinist industrialization, military preparedness, the importance of voting, and understanding how machines work, to arithmetic, drawing, printing, and making figures of cardboard and wood. Published during the First Five-Year Plan, these books were clearly unified by the particular urgency attributed to the cultivation of practical technical skills and knowledge during that period of accelerated industrialization.

Do-it-yourself books are invariably multicolored, engaging and include easy and simple instructions. They often start with a list of required materials and tools and end with an exhortation to their young readers to build on what they have already learned. Some of the books have a simple plot with characters that walk the reader through the steps of assembling an object. Most lack a plot but sometimes go well beyond the construction of toys. For example, Kak my delali Avroru [How We Made the Cruiser Aurora] asks children to model various objects associated with the historic events on the eve of the October Revolution and then to use these toys and re-enact them in groups. These re-enactments hearken back to the massive theatrical commemorative events of the October Revolution organized on a huge scale during the early 1920s by avant-garde theater directors. Continue reading

Моссельпром Родченко

Mossel’prom [Моссельпром], 1923-1925

Mosselprom

Mossel’prom [The Moscow Association of Enterprises Processing Agro-Industrial Products] was built by the architect David Kogan between 1923 and 1924.  A ten-storey commercial building, it was one of the tallest structures in Moscow built during this period.

It became notorious through Vladimir Mayakovsky’s advertising slogan: “Everything for everyone — at Mosselprom.” 1924 saw the release of the film The Cigarette Girl of Mossel’prom by Iurii Zhelyabuzhskii, which featured the building.

The façade was renovated in 1997.

alexander-rodchenko-mosselprom-building-webmosselprom 1923Мы думаем, что снимок сделан между 1925−1928 годами

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Cruising past: Moscow’s forgotten gay history

Agata Pyzik
Calvert Journal
July 17, 2013
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In honor of Pride Week, which just passed here in New York, I thought I’d repost this excellent article by Agata Pyzik. Agata is a journalist who writes for the Guardian and author of the recently released Poor but Sexy: Culture Clashes between East and West, which I cannot recommend highly enough. (My review of it should be published shortly; until then, check out Sebastian Truskolaski’s piece over at Review 31, which gives a great overview of the work). Though Pyzik’s article here takes the form of a review of Yevgeniy Fiks’ photo collection Moscow, it clearly is part of a broader reflection on sexual politics and the Left.

Lately, you see, I’ve been somewhat dismayed by the number of LGBT activists online who’ve expressed admiration for communist leaders like Stalin and Mao. Meanwhile, they explicitly rejecting “revisionist” or anti-Stalinist currents such as Trotskyism, revolutionary strains of anarchism, and left communism. Despite being solidly part of the leftist tradition, perhaps even its most historically significant iteration, Stalin and Mao were both cultural conservatives who passed legislation banning abortion and criminalizing homosexual intercourse. Stalin appended the law to the 1934 Soviet Criminal Code under Article 121, which stated that

…sexual relations between men are punishable by prison terms of up to five years hard labor…

Officially, homosexuality was associated with “bourgeois decadence” and immorality, and pathologized as a mental disease harmful to social morality. How any of this squares with their LGBT activism is beyond me. The RCP-USA, I know, held a similar stance until just the last decade, when it apparently underwent an “internal cultural revolution” (whatever that means). For the most part, though, I don’t even see this issue being addressed.

By contrast, the entry on homosexuality in the Great Soviet Encyclopedia just three years earlier was extremely liberal in its tolerance given the standards of the time. While its author, M. Sereinski, did consider it an “unnatural” form of attraction, he was largely sympathetic to the plight of gay men and women who were persecuted in other countries for supposed immorality. Sereinski appealed to the authority of the prominent sexologist Magnus Hirschfeld and the father of psychoanalysis Sigmund Freud, two early advocates for decriminalization. He asserted that many of history’s greatest geniuses — he names Socrates, Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci — exhibited homosexual tendencies, and further lamented the fact that many attempted suicide due to the social stigma attached to it. “Soviet law does not recognize so-called crimes against morality,” he explained. “Our legislation, based on the principle of social defense, punishes only those cases in which the object of the homosexual’s sexual interest is under age.”  

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Homophobia has never been in a “better” state in Russia than it is today. The horrific murder of 23-year-old Vladislav Tornovoy in Volgograd this May — he was raped with a bottle, castrated, and stoned — shook the public. But not enough, it seems: little has been done to prevent a repeat. One of the murderers admitted the reason for the killing was the “provocative” dress of the victim and his sexual orientation, which, apparently, “hurts patriotic feelings.” The authorities did have to admit it was a hate crime and to acknowledge Russia’s homophobia problem; but this is a problem that the government themselves have exacerbated with the recent introduction of a new nationwide law “against the propaganda of homosexuality.”

Russian history does not, however, present an uninterrupted line of hellish homophobia. The Bolsheviks legalized homosexuality soon after seizing power in 1917, at the same time establishing equal rights for women. And, although homosexuality was banned in the Thirties as part of Stalinist retrenchment, the Soviet landscape did accommodate spaces of social dissent and revolution in which gay men could express their sexuality together.

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These spaces — the city’s hidden topography of gay life — have recently been brought to light in the work of New York-based Russian photographer Yevgeniy Fiks. A self-proclaimed “post-Soviet artist,” Fiks sees it as his duty to react against the collective amnesia surrounding the Cold War period; previously he commemorated the overlooked history of communism in New York. At first glance, Fiks’ plainly titled new book, Moscow, could be just an ordinary photo album of public places in the Russian capital: we see parks, squares, boulevards, riverside embankments and public toilets. We admire the splendid architecture of the capital, its greenery and its striking constructivist-classicist constructions and we are impressed by the care taken by the Soviet authorities to make even toilets look beautiful. The pictures emanate a sense of peace and silence. But the way in which we see the locations depicted in these photographs is transformed when we learn that each and every one of them was a Soviet cruising ground.

What we suddenly perceive in these pictures is the eye of the original viewer. Yes, there are a lot of public toilets, but we now see these facilities in a different way, as sites that enable spontaneous relations between adults. These prohibited actions had to take place in hiding, away from prying eyes; paradoxically, this was only possible in public. Fiks has ordered the photos chronologically according to the period in which certain haunts were popular, from the Twenties to the Eighties, which means here we’re looking at the complete history of Moscow cruising. But the timescale seems to leave one question unanswered, quite deliberately: what about the years after the transition from communism? Fiks’ photographs seem to distance the author from Soviet, and specifically, Stalinist, times, and to reclaim the public space for a different version of history (not one much promoted in official versions of the Soviet past) and to reclaim homosexuality from today’s horrifically homophobic climate.

As well as a sui generis chronicle, Moscow is also a specific “work of mourning,” in which pleshki — the Russian name for cottaging sites — become unorthodox repositories of collective memory, what Pierre Nora called “lieux de memoire.” Nora’s idea has been influential in Holocaust studies as a term to describe places of extermination and it is striking that the places photographed by Fiks feel completely empty and abandoned, reinforcing the sense of the disappearance and silencing of the victims of homophobia. And these places were dear to many: they acquired a private slang terminology in which the statues of Lenin and Marx that were present in every Russian city were affectionately referred to as “Auntie Lena” and “Director of the Pleshka,” both out of familiarity and as a way of queering them. To use Situationist terminology, gay men were carrying out a détournement of these areas and symbols of revolution — a sort of satirical, subversive reappropriation that demonstrated that there was no real conflict between communist ideology and alternative sexual orientations.

The current spread of far-right, homophobic sentiments cannot be overlooked and marked down as just another effect of the years of communism; instead it must be seen as part of the failed transition to capitalism. The persecution of people with alternative sexual identities must be a serious PR blow to Russian liberals who’d like to see Russia as a potential market, free from the “eastern barbarism” that this part of the world is still often associated with. If homosexuality had been banned in Soviet Russia, anti-communist liberals would have a perfect argument, linking homophobia and the Soviet past; but it wasn’t, or at least not initially. In the Bolsheviks’ original conception of communism, sexuality wasn’t there to be policed by the state; it was there to revolutionize the citizen, with love seen as a public good. Continue reading

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On the first socialist tragedy

Andrei Platonov

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It is essential not to thrust oneself forward and not to get drunk on life; our time is both better and more serious than blissful delight. Everyone who gets drunk is sure to be caught, sure to perish like a little mouse that messes with a mousetrap in order to “get drunk” on the fat on the bait. All around us lies fat, but every piece of this fat is bait. It is necessary to stand in the ranks of the ordinary people doing patient socialist work — that is all we can do.

The arrangement of nature corresponds to this mood and consciousness. Nature is not great and is not abundant. Or her design is so rigid that she has never yet yielded her greatness and her abundance to anyone. This is a good thing; otherwise — in historical time — we would long ago have looted and squandered all nature; we would have eaten our way right through her and got drunk on her right to her very bones. There would always have been appetite enough. Had the physical world been without what is, admittedly, its most fundamental law — the law of the dialectic — it would have taken people only a few centuries to destroy the world completely. More than that, in the absence of this law, nature would have annihilated itself to smithereens even without any people. The dialectic is probably an expression of miserliness, of the almost insuperable rigidity of nature’s construction — and it is only thanks to all this that humanity’s historical development has been possible. Otherwise everything would long ago have come to an end on this earth — like a game played by a child with sweets that melt in his hands before he has even had time to eat them.

What is the truth to be seen in the historical picture of our own time?

It goes without saying that this picture is tragic — if only because true historical work is being carried out not on the whole of the earth but only on a small, and greatly overburdened, part of the earth.

Truth — in my opinion — lies in the fact that “technology decides everything.” It is indeed technology that constitutes the theme of our contemporary historical tragedy — if technology is understood to mean not only the entire complex of man-made production tools but also the social organization that is based on the technology of production, and if ideology too is included in this understanding. Ideology, incidentally, is located not in the superstructure, not on some “height,” but somewhere within, in the heart of society’s sense of itself. To be more precise, unless in our concept of technology we also include the technician himself — the human being — our understanding of the question will remain obtuse and leaden.

The relationship between technology and nature is tragic. Technology’s aim is “Give me a fulcrum and I shall overturn the world.” But nature’s construction is such that she does not like being outmaneuvered. With the right moment of force it is possible to overturn the world, but so much will be lost in the journey and in the travel time of the lever that in practical terms the victory will be useless. This is an elementary example of the dialectic. Let us look now at a fact from our own time: the splitting of the atomic nucleus. It is the same thing. The hour will come when we expend n quantity of energy on the destruction of an atom and in return receive n + 1 — and we will be ever so pleased with this meager increase, because this absolute gain will have been obtained by virtue of something like an artificially induced change to nature’s most fundamental principle: the dialectic itself. Nature stays aloof, she keeps us at bay; a quid pro quo — or even a trade with a mark-up in her own favor — is the only way she can work. Technology, however, strains to achieve the opposite. It is through the dialectic that the external world is defended against us. And so, however paradoxical this may seem: nature’s dialectic is both humanity’s enemy and its instructor. The dialectic of nature constitutes the very greatest resistance to technology; the aim and function of technology is to deny, or at least mitigate, the dialectic. Up until now its success in this has been modest, which is why the world cannot yet be kind and good for us.

And at the same time, the dialectic is our only instructor and our only means of defense against the premature and senseless destruction involved in childish delight. Just as the dialectic is itself the power that has created all our technology.

In sociology, in love, in the depth of a human being, the law of the dialectic functions no less immutably. A man with a ten-year-old son left the boy with the boy’s mother — and married a young beauty. The boy began to long for his father and patiently, clumsily hanged himself. A gram of delight on one end of the lever is balanced by a ton of graveyard earth on the other. The father took the rope from the boy’s neck and soon followed him into the grave. What he wanted was to get drunk on the innocent beauty; he wanted to bear love not as a duty, not as an obligation with a single wife, but as pleasure. Don’t get drunk — or it will be the end of you.

Some naïve people may retort that the contemporary crisis of production overturns this point of view. It does not overturn anything. Imagine the extremely complex technical equipment of the society of contemporary imperialism and fascism, the grinding exhaustion and destruction of the people of these societies — and it will become only too clear at what price this increase in the forces of production has been achieved. Self-destruction in fascism, war between states — these are the losses entailed by increased production, these are nature’s revenge for it. The tragic knot is cut — but without being resolved. What results cannot — in the classical sense of the word — even be called tragedy. Without the USSR, the world would be certain to destroy itself in the course of no more than a century.

The tragedy of man, armed with machine and heart, and with the dialectic of nature, must in our country be resolved by way of socialism. But it must be understood that this task is an extremely serious one. Ancient life on the “surface” of nature was able to obtain what was essential to it from the waste products and excretions of elemental forces and substances. But we mess about deep inside the world, and in return the world crushes us with an equivalent strength.

Translated by Robert Chandler, Elizabeth
Chandler, Jonathan Platt, and Olga Meerson

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