Les' Kurbas in 1918.

Les' Kurbas in 1918.

Reviews Exploring the topography of the power play. By concentrating on the periphery

Movers and Shakers of Soviet Ukrainian culture in the 1920s–1930s, “Beau Monde on Empire’s Edge. State and Stage in Soviet Ukraine”, Mayhill C. Fowler, University of Toronto Press, 2017.

Published in the printed edition of Baltic Worlds BW 2-3: 2018, pp 118-120
Published on balticworlds.com on September 6, 2018

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When “Soviet” culture of the 1920s is generally discussed in Western academia, the focus is most often on the culture produced in Moscow and Leningrad with the “Russian avant-garde” having star status. In her book Beau Monde on Empire’s Edge: State and Stage in Soviet Ukraine, Mayhill Fowler shifts her inquisitive historian’s gaze from the “center” and sheds light on the “periphery” — Kharkiv, at that time the capital of the Ukrainian Socialist Soviet Republic, the second largest city in Ukraine, which lies in the east of the country, only about a hundred kilometers from the border with Russia. As the author states, “Ukraine offers a parallel narrative, a story of cultural construction connected with that unfolding in Moscow, but diverging from it as well”. The book indeed offers an outstanding account of un-making the late imperial South East and the subsequent development of early Soviet culture in the newly created Soviet Ukraine.

Fowler concentrates on the periphery not only in the geographical or political sense, but also in the academic sense as she draws our attention to the artistic genre which is least studied by researchers — theater, in particular the theatric production process. Studying theater presents a real challenge for historians because the theatrical “products” are not available to the same degree as films and literature. Each theatrical performance is unique because spontaneity and improvisation are intrinsic features of theater. These features not only make it difficult to study theatrical production, they also complicated the controlling and planning initiatives of Soviet authorities, as Mayhill Fowler persuasively demonstrates.

Kharkiv in the 1920s was in a peculiar position. Art was flourishing there, and it became a center that drew the brightest and most innovative artists from the whole Ukraine. It was a truly diverse milieu, with artists speaking in Ukrainian, Russian, Polish, and Yiddish, united in their desire to create and experiment. Mayhill Fowler meticulously draws on sources in these four languages and presents her readers with a high-caliber academic work that reads like the most absorbing novel where the main characters not only create, but also love, hate, take revenge, and betray.

This book is a collective biography of artists who believed in the possibility of creating a culture that was both Ukrainian and Soviet. They were dreamers, “movers and shakers”, often coming from small towns all around Ukraine. It was exactly his dreams and beliefs that brought Les’ Kurbas, the outstanding theater director, to Kharkiv. His biography reveals a lot about the zeitgeist in Soviet Ukraine in the 1920s and early 1930s. Born in Galicia, educated in L’viv and Vienna, he envisaged Kyiv, and later Kharkiv as the cultural mecca for any creative individual. Thus, he moved to Kharkiv and established his theater Berezil’, a truly modernist project which drew talented and adventure-seeking artists. In the 1920s in Kharkiv, Les’ Kurbas could not only create a new theatrical language, he could also do it with the direct support of the state (because without the state no art was possible). What was special during this short period of time was that the party elites in Ukraine also shared the artists’ idea that the formation of a modern Ukrainian Soviet art was possible and indeed desired by Moscow.

Later, many of these elite became truly disillusioned when they realized that the center had rather different views on the kind of culture “Ukrainian” culture should be, namely less modernist and more folkloristic. Only the culture produced in the centers of Moscow and Leningrad was allowed to be all-Soviet, new, and modernist. In this regard, the book challenges the politics of korenizatiia — indigenization — which was a series of policies drafted in 1923 promoting affirmative action for non-Russian minorities. These policies reinforced ethnic separation and restricted the mobility of each culture in the symbolic hierarchy of peoples in the Soviet Union. “Indigenous” cultures had by definition a lower status than the “all-Soviet” culture in the center. While the art produced by artists in Moscow and in Russian was consideredto be  “all-Soviet” (although created by people of different origins), the “republican” cultures had to remain within the “local” limits.

By the early 1930s, not only were the dreams about new art destroyed, but also the lives of the dreamers. Almost all of the “main characters” of Fowler’s book were killed in Stalinist purges — the aforementioned visionary theater director Les’ Kurbas (1887—1937), the playwright Mykola Kulish (1892—1937), Andrii Khvylia (1898—1937), an apparatchik who wrestled for top awards for his Soviet Ukrainian artists in Moscow, and many others who appeared in the book. Some artists, like writer Mykola Khvyliovyi (1893—1933), ended their lives by suicide; some survived the purges but did not avoid the gulag, like Ostap Vyshnia (1889—1956), one of the most popular Ukrainian comic writers.

Mayhill Fowler highlights not only the work and lives of the artists, playwrights and actors, but also the “managers of culture” who played a role no less significant than that of the artists themselves. The Soviet way of governing culture made it necessary to include in this study the people who influenced the development of the arts on the all-Soviet level as well as in Soviet Ukraine. “There was no Montmartre, London coffee-shops, or salon where dandies talked art in the Soviet Union. Rather, art was discussed in the state apparatus, in state-owned apartments, or in the editorial boards of state owned newspapers, among other locations frequented by state officials as much as by artists” (p.16), as the author accurately describes it. Thus, the “list of characters” also included such statesmen as Vsevolod Balyts’kyi, NKVD secret police chief, Lazar Kaganovich (1893-1991), First Secretary of the Communist Party of the Ukrainian SSR, and even Joseph Stalin himself (1878-1953). Such a peculiar situation in artist-state relations gave birth to a special hybrid species, the “official artist”, who had a position in the party, who could decide on the fate of art and artists, and who was himself also an artist, such as Oleksandr Korniichuk who was both an ardent partisan and a productive and widely read writer.

The apparatchiks formed groups of their protégés around themselves. It was their choice that decided which art would be made available for the masses (thus gaining the opportunity to be known by the general public). In this way, intricate ties were woven between authorities and artists. Mayhill Fowler’s account demonstrates how Soviet power in the early 1920s formed a unique system of cultural production where the cultural products were evaluated not by the audience but by the political machine itself. As in other spheres of the “planned economy”, culture was perceived to be equally subjected to plan and control. State power, often in the form of one or two people, decided what would be published, staged, and seen.

The book’s main argument is that from the very beginning of its existence, the topography of power played the major role in the Soviet system — the closer to the center, the better the chances of being a successful “all-Union” artist. In this respect, the author’s concentration on the parallel fates of two different artists in each chapter of the book serves as a vivid demonstration of her main argument. For instance, Yevgenii Petrov and Mykola Kulish, who were both born in the Ukrainian South, had different life paths depending on their closeness to Moscow — the former became an  “all-Soviet” artist living (and acknowledged) in Moscow, famous for his books written together with Ilya Il’f, while the latter wrote modernist plays which were staged in Berezil’ theater in Kharkiv, was arrested, and was executed in Sandarmokh. In another example, while Les’ Kurbas moved from Kyiv to Kharkiv, Mikhail Bulgakov moved to Moscow. The Days of Turbins was performed in the Moscow Art Theater and seen by Stalin at least fifteen times. Kurbas’ works in Berezil’ in Kharkiv were seen and controlled by Balyts’kyi and Postyshev. When they were considered too modernistic, the performances were closed, Kurbas was arrested, and executed in Sandarmokh.

Closeness to Moscow did not guarantee survival of the purges, but this topography shows the place of culture and the artist’s status in the periphery and in the center. Culture in the periphery had to remain “provincial”, and ensuring that it did so was the state’s main aim. Artists such as Kulish, Kurbas, and Khvyliovyi hindered “provincialization”. Mayhill Fowler states that the situation in Ukraine was not unique. The same process of provincialization and de-provincialization also took place in other republics, like Georgia. In this respect, it would be enriching to include in the account the instances when culture was produced in some Russian provinces, not in Moscow or Leningrad. Did the provincialization and de-provincialization process take place there too? From the account it is clear that the issue was not only language, but also the topography as such. Did it also apply to Russian-language productions in the territory of Russian SFSRs far removed from Moscow and Leningrad?

This book has appeared at a special moment in Ukrainian history when the researched period plays an important role in the memory scape of the country. The artists who are the subject of the book are generally referred to in Ukraine as “Executed Renaissance” (Rozstrilyane vidrodzhennia). This term was coined in 1959 by Jerzy Giedroyc, a Polish intellectual, referring to writers and artists who were active in the Ukrainian Socialist Soviet Republic and who were executed or repressed by Stalin’s totalitarian regime. Therefore, the term “Red Renaissance” is also used. The “Executed Renaissance” is considered to be a Ukrainian artistic avant-garde which surpassed national boundaries in art and created new modernist artistic forms. Since 2014 leading publishing houses in Ukraine such as Osnovy, Smoloskyp, and Tempora have published series of books and anthologies dedicated specifically to these writers and artists of the 1910s—1930s.1 In this respect, Mayhill Fowler’s book presents an elaborate theoretical and contextual account which can help to locate the artists and their art in a specific time and a specific locality. It should be interesting for both academic and non-academic readers. ≈


1 See: Kyivski neoklasyky: antolohiia 1910—1930, ed. Natalia Kotenko, Kyiv: Smoloskyp, 2015, 920 s.; Beladonna: lubovnyj roman 1920h rokiv, Kyiv: Tempora 2016; Postril na shodah: detektyv 1920h rokiv, Kyiv: Tempora, 2016; “Rozstriliane Vidrodzhennia” antology, Kyiv: Osnovy, 2015.

Movers and Shakers of Soviet Ukrainian culture in the 1920s–1930s, “Beau Monde on Empire’s Edge. State and Stage in Soviet Ukraine”, Mayhill C. Fowler, University of Toronto Press, 2017.