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Erinnerungen an Grundlegendes
(german language original version)
Schleebrügge Editor

Memories of Fundamentals
On the Cultural Environment in Russia 1920 / 1930 / 1940 ...

in: Schili-Byli. Russian Children's Books 1920 - 1940
MAK - Österreichisches Museum für angewandte Kunst
Ed.: Peter Noever
Exhibition catalogue german / english
Schleebrügge.Editor, Wien 2004

Further Contributions by Ilya Kabakov and Natalia Stagl.


“Not just to portray the world, but to change it.“
“For a Bolshevik, nothing is impossible.“

The cautious and skeptical thinker Kari Popper (1902-1994), who was highly mistrustful of every kind of Utopianism that tended towards the totalitarian, (1) never ceased to say that primary schools, especially, must offer the highest quality teaching and the best care, because the course set and the support given in early years are crucial to every individual's future. Because of the intensity demanded of them, teachers in primary schools should therefore earn at least as much as those in secondary schools or universities; if they should lose their dedication, it would be sensible to help them switch to other professions, he believed. Similarly, Hans Magnus Enzensberger also had alternatives to common educational practice in mind when he wrote his “Plea in Favor of Private Tutors" (“Plädoyer für den Hauslehrer“, 1982), which propagated doing away with school buildings to a great extent, and creating flexible budgets for mobile, untrammeled project teaching in small groups that would meet here and there – in homes, parks, museums and cafés. (2) What became symptomatic of education systems, however, was tedious, day-to-day routine. For even in countries which had become increasingly wealthy, initiatives to totally rethink educational methods and their effect on students' ideas about life and to introduce radical alternatives have continually fizzled out due to firmly entrenched school bureaucracies (including well-cemented school book cartels). Occasional interdisciplinary projects, personal computers, Internet expectations and an ostentatious thriftiness of the public sector, it seems, are considered adequate perspectives.

In contrast, the legendary Russian era of upheaval, despite its chaos, poverty, diffuse hopes, completely different needs, and a heterogeneity of ideas which were pitilessly canalized but also reversed by self-censure, has become highly significant for the development of radically modern ideas. Its relicts – and books for children should be taken just as seriously as other important projects – can make us aware of what was culturally possible in a short time under the most difficult conditions and, moreover, what transformations resulted from this. In some ways the initial situation corresponds to the conditions of poverty and devastation still existing in large parts of the world today, whether in Odessa, Calcutta, Cairo, Belgrade or Brooklyn. Even now, after the dissolution of the official East-West polarization, visualizing the past is still, not least because of the mutual after-effects of decades of Cold War propaganda on both sides, only possible by attempting partial reconstructions.

If we follow the reasoning and detailed cultural analyses of an expert on Russia like Boris Groys, we see that a plausible interpretation of the developments there can only be found if, instead of glorifying their beginnings, which of course had their heroic moments, we take into account “the artistic project of the era prior to Stalin and the Stalin era, namely the building up of a new life, and at the same time the artistic project of the present, the project of reflecting upon this experiment". According to Groys, popular views of there having been a radical break only strengthen the “myth of the innocence of the avant-garde", isolating it from the actual historical process. And the idea of progressing “from portraying the world to changing it", that is, the “avant-garde's dream of organizing all of societal life according to an overall artistic plan", was the driving force behind the paramount currents of what was still experimental thought around 1920, but just as much behind the stringently systematized phases which followed, even though the results were entirely different from what had been originally intended. (3)

The title of the MAK exhibition “Shili-Byii" – "Once Upon a Time" –, which presents books and magazines for children, mainly from the early decades of the 20th century in the Soviet Union, is not merely an allusion to fairy tales; there is also the definite implication that fairy tales should come true – but, at the same time, that they need not necessarily have a happy ending.

For example, in the sparsely texted children's book “Two Squares: A Suprematist Tale. In 6 Constructions“ conceived by El Lissitzky (1890-1941) in 1920, which is part of the MAK Library and Works on Paper Collection, a black square and a red square fly to earth from outer space to errect a new order. The struggle for the best solution ends after twenty pages with the disappearance of the black square; the red one remains, as a basis for things to come. The building instructions for constructing the new order consist in the simple message "further" – as an expression of the utopia of uninterrupted motion. Good and evil are presented to children through a finely tuned, abstract use of geometric forms, which avoids any type of personification and leaves a great deal open to the imagination. Religious dualisms remain latent, but take an active part in life on earth. Malevich's famous "Black Square" (1913/1915) no longer rests contemplatively within itself, but becomes part of a story. Malevich's terse language formula for his "black square" is: "the square = feeling, the white field = the 'nothingness' outside of this feeling.“ (4) El Lissitzky's extension of this is as obvious as references to his earlier efforts to revive secular Jewish culture through his children's books. What became the determining element in the intensive phases of these processes was the fixed idea of creating preconditions for building the world anew: with completely new signs, with an entirely new "alphabet", with the Old and New Testament and the Communist Manifesto – as intermediary stages – and Malevich's "Suprematism" as the final stage, as a future beyond human intellectual capacity, in which universal energies could be released to create a completely new way of life (Supremus = the highest; "Suprematism – The Non-Objective World", 1922). (5)

"The avant-garde itself was fully aware of the sacral significance of its practice", adds Boris Groys. The "Black Square", after all, first appeared in a collectively written, futuristic mystery play, "Victory over the Sun" (1913), the subject of which was "the artificial sun over a new culture, a new technological world". (6) The decisive factor for the temporary radicalization of El Lissitzky, who was actually an architect who had studied in Darmstadt, was a brief collaboration with Malevich at the public art academy in Vitebsk, a collaboration which Marc Chagall, who as cultural commissioner of the region had founded the academy in his home town, permitted, even though he did not think much of their efforts. The idea of extending their color-space concepts to three dimensions and multi-dimensional realities, and even of introducing this way of thinking in highly advanced categories of time to children, was an expression of this quite uncompromising maximalism. At the same time, however, opposing ideas were already being strongly articulated which were increasingly prohibitive towards "independents" as well as towards any "leftist" artists whose radicalism made them vulnerable to attack. This massive new movement considered a proletarian orientation towards the production of designs for the production process and pictures that were easily understandable to be more useful to Soviet society.

Viadimir Nabokov (1899-1977), who had grown up in what he called a "richly and intensively" cultured environment in St. Petersburg had, from the beginning, no faith in the possibilities propagated by the new regime; the entire family emigrated in 1919. In "Speak, Memory", he recalls how with very few exceptions, all the liberally-oriented creative thinkers – poets, novelists, critics, historians, philosophers etc. – left the Russia of Lenin and Stalin. Those who remained, he writes, either withered away or ruined their talent by conforming to the political demands of the state, for after most of the intellectuals had either fled the country or had been liquidated, the Bolsheviks succeeded, in a very short time, in doing what had been impossible for the Czars: subjugating people's minds completely and making them bend to the government's will. (7) Even those who at first were interested in the ideas of the Soviet state soon realized that emigration was the more promising option. Vassily Kandinsky (1866-1944), after having worked in the Commissariat of Public Enlightenment and having headed the "Free State Art Workshop" and the "Museum for Painting Culture", finally made this choice in 1921; Naum Gabo (1890-1977) and Marc Chagall (1887-1985) left one year later. Malevich (1879-1935), who returned to representational painting in 1928, Tatlin (1885-1953) and Rodshenko (1891-1956) remained ... Mayakovsky committed suicide in 1930; his funeral turned into a radical manifesto. El Lissitzky collaborated with Tatlin and the Constructivists – later disparaged by Malevich as "engineers of machine art" – in Moscow, went to Germany again in 1921, and later considered himself a representative of progressive Russian art in the West, but returned often to Moscow to work and teach and died there in 1941. Tatlin's famous design for a "Monument to the Third International" (1919/1920), later reconstructed as a model in Stockholm (1968), London (1971) and Moscow (1976), had been criticized by Leo Trotsky – who was declared an enemy of the state in 1929 – for its lack of functionality and, consequently, beauty, particularly in comparison to the Eiffel Tower. (8) The "First Russian Art Exhibition" in Berlin in 1922 had still given the impression that in the long term the direction taken would actually be determinant for all major developments.

Despite the pressures from outside which began very soon after the revolution, including massive military interventions in the civil war, and despite the rigid policy directed against "class enemies" and "deviants" on the domestic front, instances of international cooperation continually occurred on many levels. Particularly impressive, especially in view of the world-wide economic depression of the time, were the active attempts to mobilize know-how, to institute classless modernity or to create equal opportunities for women. In architecture, urban planning, design, typography, graphic art, film, theatre and even in adult education and gigantic industrial projects, powerful energy fields developed, which attracted international interest. Le Corbusier built the Centrosoyus Palace in Moscow (1930) and participated, alongside Watter Gropius, Hans Poeizig, the Perret brothers or Naum Gabo in the competition for designing the Soviet Palace (1931-1933), in which 272 projects were entered from all over the world. In 1935 Alvar Aalto designed the Finnish embassy in Moscow. Hannes Meyer, dismissed from his position as Bauhaus director for political reasons in 1930, moved to the Soviet Union for several years, as did Margarete Schütte-Lihotzky and Ernst May. The modernity of the industrial sector in the USA, with the scientific management of Taylorism and Henry Ford as models, was considered worthy of emulation. In 1924 Stalin postulated that the core of Leninism was a combination of Russian revolutionary energy and American performance drive. (9) American manufacturers, industrial architects and engineering consulting firms were involved to a great extent in the intensive technology transfer that both sides later preferred to keep shrouded in secrecy; in 1927 the Ford company proudly announced that 85 per cent of all trucks and tractors in Russia had been build by Ford. (10) Up until the last days of the Soviet Union, one of its declared goals – under the motto "for a Bolshevik, nothing is impossible" – was to surpass the USA economically, to make Russia into a kind of "better America. (12) Two of the declarations in the Soviet constitution: "Everybody according to his ability, everybody according to his work" and: "Socially useful work and its results determine a person's status in society" (article 14 of the 1977 version) have long fitted into the guidelines of every corporate identity; we need only substitute the name of the respective organization for "society".

It seems bitterly ironic that the children's book published by Ossip Mandelstam (1891-1938) in 1926, which is included in this exhibition, has the cryptic title "The Kitchen" and is about a rich variety of food in a hard-working world. The pictures show the stages of cooking a sumptuous breakfast; a distinvtive wall clock is intended to encourage industriousness and punctuality. Since his first volume of poetry "Kamen" ("Storne", 1913), Mandelstam, who along with Nikolai Gumilev (executed in 1921) and Anna Akhmatova (1889-1966) was one of the foremost voices of "Acmeism" (which Mandelstam once laconically defined as a "longing for world literature", by which he also meant "world culture"), had been pushed more and more outside the main vein of Russian literature in the course of the power struggles that ensued after Lenin's death on January 21, 1924. He was arrested, banished, arrested again for counterrevolutionary activities and died shortly before the beginning of World War II on the way to the notorious Siberian labor camps in Kolyma. According to Mandelstam's widow Nadeshda, Stalin's demand that nothing be published which deviated from the official policy, which appeared as a simple letter in the newspaper "Bolshevik" in 1930, sufficed to make it clear to the activists of the Soviet apparatus, including their artists, what course they had to follow. From 1932, as in Nazi Germany with its professional bans and book-burnings, only writers who belonged to the official Union of Soviet Writers were able to get their work published; from 1934, socialist realism – the "picture of the new people" – became the prescribed doctrine to which all writers had to conform. (12)

The fact that the illustration of children's books was for a long time the official profession of some of today's foremost artists such as llya Kabakov and Erik Bulatov (both born in 1933) and that many writers were able to publish "only" children's books, could be taken as proof of how highly a sound education for children was valued, but it is, above all, evidence of possibilities for survival – children's books as a refuge for absurd humor, humor as the unconquerable opposing force of every kind of totalitarian. (13) The illustrations by llya Kabakov published in "Geology for Everyone" (Moscow, 1974; German edition "Geologie für jeden" Berlin 1980; text: Anatoli F. Chlenov) in the Brezhnev era show the world from its practical side; everywhere ore and coal are being mined and oil drilled; the search for natural resources by means of the most modern methods using airplanes and satellites is presented to children "from age eight and up" as a great achievement of mankind.

Walter Benjamin, commenting on this type of belief in progress during a visit to Moscow for several weeks at the end of 1926 / beginning of 1927, noted: "removal of the opposition from managing positions" – "reactionary turn of the Party in cultural matters" – "switch from revolutionary work to technical". While in Moscow, Benjamin attended the theatre a great deal and met with a number of leading figures of cultural life. He was trying to decide whether he should join the Communist Party like so many important intellectuals of his time and was weighing the pros and cons: one thing that spoke in favor of joining was "organized, guaranteed contact with people", against it was "the complete sacrifice of personal independence". He was fascinated by things that other people did not even notice. For example, he enthusiastically bought Russian toys; he took the time to examine the children's book collection of the state publishing house (Gosizdat); his research also included an exhibition of drawings by the mentally ill – all this obviously because he was considering producing a documentary work on the subject "The Imagination", which, however, he never wrote." (14)

An American journalist made a major contribution to the worldwide popularization of the revolution: it was John Reed, who became a friend of Lenin, leader of the "Communist Labor Party" in Chicago and a leading member of the Communist International ("Ten Days That Shook The World", 1919). He died in Moscow of typhus in 1920. Later news reporters, such as Egon Erwin Kisch, co-founder of the "Association of Proletarian Revolutionary Authors", who died in Prague in 1948, or Joseph Roth (who, as Waiter Benjamin reports, came to Russia as an "[almost] dedicated Bolshevik" and left it "as a royalist" (15)), saw things less one-sidedly, but usually with a modicum of curious sympathy. Bertolt Brecht, who had visited the Soviet Union a number of times, emigrated from his place of exile in Finland in the spring of 1941, shortly before the German attack on the USSR, without stopping longer than necessary in Moscow, by way of the Trans-Siberian Railway and then by ship to the USA. Soon accused of "un-American activities", he left the country again in 1947, at a time when the escape of NS war criminals (ranging from Eichmann to "militant Catholics" such as Ustasha fuehrer Ante Pavelic) from various countries to overseas destinations, organized by anti-Communist and anti-Semitic networks extending as far as the Vatican, was in full swing. What had earlier seemed to be irreconcilable fronts were forming new polarities.

The First World War, with its millions of dead, the gassing, the violence of new weapons and the hopeless situation that followed had been experienced as a previously unimaginable rupture between old and new, which had the lasting effect of reinforcing utopias as well as brutal destruction, with a constant intermingling of "right" and "left", of phrases and terror, of people's power and fuehrer cults. Not only in Russia, but also, briefly, in Budapest and in Munich, so-called "Räterepubliken" appeared in imitation of the soviets; the idea of liberal democracies found little support; authoritarian power structures – Mussolini, Stalin, Hitler, Japan – increasingly gained the upper hand. The fact that with regard to wealthier parts of Europe we can still speak of a century characterized by social democracy (i.e. liberal welfare states), makes it seem, in retrospect, as if a willingness to compromise had led to a sublimation of earlier radicalism. How the fascination with the Soviet Union, so widespread at first, later became concentrated in a core of hardliners, becoming a kind of tangible "otherness" in a general cultural and political sense, an anti-capitalist, but for the democratic left wing irrelevant, instance of authority, is part of this story, analogous to the latent revival of more or less radical "rightists", who, in stereotyped fashion, have always considered themselves a sort of moral reserve. However, any attempt to use all the questionable currents and happenings of the Soviet era, including its similarities with the authoritarian and nationalistic power structures of the West, the incredible show trials, the millions in the camps of the Gulag, to counterbalance the horrors of the other side is a negation of the immeasurable suffering, from within and from without, of the population in Russia at the time, and is a totally inadmissible qualification of the aggressively expansionist, racist, industrialized murder machinery of the Third Reich. The European Union, extended in 2004 to the borders of these regions of disaster, will require decades to meet the challenge of achieving a truly sustainable new positioning of relations and a stable economic balance.

From the Russian perspective, at any rate, there is no lack of insights into the internal, ultimately irreversible power play during the first phases of this development. For because, according to Boris Groys, the Russian avant-garde, unlike the powerless avant-garde of the West, had joined forces with the Bolshevist regime and participated in the "red terror" against the – as in other places – "aesthetically conservative" intelligentsia, which "at the time was a perfectly normal, liberal, rather leftist and progressively oriented, thoroughly civilized social class of the European type", the "physical elimination of this class" could be considered by the artists who were co-operating with the regime to be a "clearing of the terrain for their own work". Malevich, for instance, was pleased "about the establishment of the dictatorship of the artist over the artistic institutions, which allowed him to force all of society to adopt a life within his total art project". (16) Nabokov considered such views to be mere wordplay, for in his opinion, the more radically „a Russian“ behaved politically, "the more conservative he was artistically"; in other words, he was convinced that "the connection between avant-garde politics and avant-garde art was of a purely verbal nature" but that Soviet propaganda willingly exploited it. (17) Malevich's "conservative" turn in later life seems to correspond to this. Even if the verbal radicalism of such statements is qualified as poetic exaggeration and detached from realization fantasies, it remains evident that the usual admiration for the formal omits important dimensions and associations, for the art institutions were fully integrated in the strategy changes of all fields of art, that is, in the transformation of art into culture. Moreover, Boris Groys writes, "the Stalinist culture followed Western innovations much more attentively than is commonly supposed, and selected those which it considered to be the most vigorous, optimistic and healthy, that is, the totalitarian tendencies of the Western culture of the time. What the Stalinist culture misrepresented as being its very own proves, on closer examination, to have been borrowed directly from the West. Even a superficial look at Stalinist culture reveals great stylistic similarities with, for example, Nazi Germany." (18) Taking this idea a step further, one could say that the Stalinist policy with regard to "degenerate art" also followed Western models; interestingly, however, in Russia the works that were sifted out were usually preserved. In any case, contradictions here and there or things that are difficult to understand should not be too disturbing. Demonstrations of power and temporarily negative, often scarcely noticed "side effects" (the collateral damage of today's military jargon) have often been accepted without hesitation on the artistic level as well. That is why Boris Groys is of the opinion that the greatness of the Russian avant-garde, which he agrees is undisputed, "cannot be separated from their readiness to assume historic responsibility for their era and all its crimes". (19) Whereas in the field of literature Bulgakov, Akhmatova, Pasternak or Mandelstam "are now generally canonized", "all Russian experts today – with the exception of a few Western-oriented enthusiasts who tend to agree with the theories of Western experts – still consider the revival of the avant-garde neither necessary nor desirable". (20) According to Groys, this is also a reason why analyses of the successions of suprematism, constructivism, socialist realism, official and unofficial art as well as the stretching and circumvention of censure barriers have only been possible since the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991. Unlike the West in Russia prevailing views are still strongly affected by the fact that "since the mid-1930s a very specific, uniform artistic style has molded and shaped all aspects of social life" and a specific concept of art as "a means of communication addresses the observer". (21)

If, as shown in a recent TV portrait of the New York Museum of Modern Art (which was established in 1929 and given ist own building in 1939 – two dates which have other well-known historical relevance), even experts of this institution have no reservations about calling art in the early Soviet Union an "enormously optimistic experiment", the fact that these works have all found homes in museums seems to have eliminated every memory of the political use made of everything "abstract" during the era of the Cold War – as "free" art beloning to the West. Such sterilizing categorizations can only be counteracted by a perception of the thought processes and circumstances that underlay them. "In the history of our species, in the history of Homo sapiens", emphasized Joseph Brodsky in his Nobel Prize acceptance speech of 1987 – a plea for painstaking differentiations of expression that remain open to further development in thought and ideas – "the book is an anthropological development, similar essentially to the invention of the wheel. Having emerged in order to give us some idea not so much of our origins as of what that sapiens is capable of, a book constitutes a means of transportation through the space of experience, at the speed of a turning page. This movement, like every movement, becomes flight from the common denominator, from an attempt to elevate this denominator's line, previously never reaching higher than the groin, to our heart, to our consciousness, to our imagination. This flight is the flight in the direction of 'uncommon visage', in the direction of the numerator, in the direction of autonomy, in the direction of privacy. (22) Viadimir Mayakovsk said similar things. "We know: the future belongs to the camera, the radio feuilleton, cinematic journalism", he stated, for example, in the pre-television era; but even in view of mass audiences, a book addressed to a small number of readers can be highly necessary, as long as it is not directed towards "consumers" but rather towards "producers". (23) Some of the examples collected in this volume may have been intended for such "producers", no matter of what age – for "in a certain sense all art is, ultimately, a matter of orientation“ (Nabokov). (24)

PS: It is well-known that one of the most memorable scenes of recent times connected with children's books has to do with US President George W. Bush. When news of the attacks of September 11, 2001 was whispered in his ear in a class-room of the Emma E. Booker Elementary School in Sarasota, Florida, which he was visiting on a good-will tour at the time, he remained – for seven minutes, according to all the conscientious reports – lost in thought, obviously in order to collect himself or to win some time, staring into a book that for this reason has now become famous: "My Pet Goat". Dozens of Internet pages are filled with speculations as to which edition it might have been. The framed epigram in the background of this much-broadcast scene is a reminder of something essential: "READING MAKES A COUNTRY GREAT!“

(Translation: Beverly Blaschke)



Note: All footnotes in this text refer to the German-speaking sources used by the author. With the exception of the excerpt from Joseph Brodsky's acceptance speech on receiving the Nobel Prize (referred to in footnote 22), the English version of which was taken from the official Nobel Prize online source, quotations were re-translated into English. English editions of the works cited, if available, are indicated in brackets.

1 Karl Popper: Die offene Gesellschaft und ihre Feinde (The Open Society and its Enemies), first English edition London 1945, first German edition Bern 1957; Munich 1977.

2 Hans Magnus Enzensberger: "Plädoyer für den Hauslehrer"(1982), in: H. M. Enzensberger: Politische Brosamen, Frankfurt am Main 1985. p. 161 ff.

3 Boris Groys: Gesamtkunstwerk Staiin. Die gespaltene Kultur der Sowjetunion, Munich 1988, pp. 17, 12, 19, 14.

4 Kasimir Malewitsch. Edited by Evelyn Weiss, Cologne 1995, p. 127.

5 Kasimir Malewitsch:Suprematismus-DiegegenstandsloseWelt(1922), edited by Werner Haftmann, Cologne 1989.

6 Boris Groys: Gesamtkunstwerk Stalin, loc cit., p. 72.

7 Vladimir Nabokov: Erinnerung, sprich. Wiedersehen mit einer Autobiographie (Speak, Memory. An Autobiography Revisited, New York 1966), Reinbek near Hamburg 1991, pp. 377, 381.

8 Boris Groys: Die Erfindung Rußlands, Munich 1995, p. 115.

9 Josef W. Stalin, quoted in: Thomas P. Hughes: Die Erfindung Amerikas. Der technologische Aufstieg der USA seit 1870 (American Genesis. A Century of Invention and Technological Enthusiasm, 1879-1970), Munich 1991, p. 255.

10 Thomas P. Hughes: Die Erfindung Amerikas (American Genesis), loc cit., pp. 156, 276.

11 Boris Groys: Gesamtkunstwerk Stalin, loc cit., pp. 49, 67.

12 Nadeschda Mandelstam: Das Jahrhundert der Wölfe, Frankfurt am Main 1971/1991, pp. 285, 298f.

13 Boris Groys: Die Erfindung Rußlands, loc cit., p. 207.

14 Walter Benjamin: Moskauer Tagebuch, Frankfurt am Main 1980, pp.19,120,108,144,77,82.

15 lbid., p. 43.

16 Boris Groys: Die Erfindung Rußlands, loc cit., p. 95f.

17 Vladimir Nabokov: Erinnerung, sprich, loc cit., p. 357.

18 Boris Groys: Die Erfindung Rußlands, loc cit., p. 54.

19 Ibid., p. 101.

20 Boris Groys: Gesamtkunstwerk Stalin, loc cit., p. 37.

21 Boris Groys: Die Erfindung Rußlands, loc cit., pp. 146, 103.

22 Joseph Brodsky: Das Volk muß die Sprache der Dichter sprechen. Rede bei der Entgegennahme des Nobelpreises für Literatur, in: Joseph Brodsky: Flucht aus Byzanz. Essays, Munich 1988, p. 14.

23 Wladimir Majakowski: Werke, edited by Leonhard Kossuth, Frankfurt am Main 1980, Vol. V.2., Publizistik. Aufsätze und Reden, pp. 328, 299.

24 Vladimir Nabokov: Erinnerung, sprich (Speak, Memory), loc cit., p. 293.


© Christian Reder, Berverly Blaschke (Translation) 2004