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Epic Revisionism

Russian History and Literature as Stalinist Propaganda

Edited by Kevin M. F. Platt and David Brandenberger

Publication Year: 2006

Focusing on a number of historical and literary personalities who were regarded with disdain in the aftermath of the 1917 revolution—figures such as Peter the Great, Ivan the Terrible, Alexander Pushkin, Leo Tolstoy, and Mikhail Lermontov—Epic Revisionism tells the fascinating story of these individuals’ return to canonical status during the darkest days of the Stalin era. 

    An inherently interdisciplinary project, Epic Revisionism features pieces on literary and cultural history, film, opera, and theater. This volume pairs scholarly essays with selections drawn from Stalin-era primary sources—newspaper articles, unpublished archival documents, short stories—to provide students and specialists with the richest possible understanding of this understudied phenomenon in modern Russian history.

“These scholars shed a great deal of light not only on Stalinist culture but on the politics of cultural production under the Soviet system.”—David L. Hoffmann, Slavic Review

Published by: University of Wisconsin Press


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pp. v-vii


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pp. ix-x

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pp. xi-xii

The origins of this volume date back to a routine electronic discussion group inquiry in 1997 about representations of Ivan the Terrible during the Soviet period. This chance intersection sparked a wide-ranging “virtual” discussion on the subject between the editors of this volume, located at the time at opposite ends of the globe in Claremont, California, and...

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A Note on Conventions

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p. xiii-xiii

The transliteration of terms, titles, surnames, and geographic locations in this volume follows a modified form of the standard practiced by the Library of Congress. Exceptions occur in quotations taken from other sources and in the relatively rare instances when contradicting existingp ractice would create unnecessary ambiguity (Eisenstein, not Eizenshtein;...

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Terms and Acronyms

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pp. xv-xvi

For a complete list of the terms, historical events, and personalities referred Glaviskusstvo Main Directorate for Literary and Artistic Affairs, the Glavrepertkom Main Repertory Committee, the theatrical censor at...

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Introduction: Tsarist-Era Heroes in Stalinist Mass Culture and Propaganda

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pp. 3-14

In late 1931, the popular German biographer Emil Ludwig conducted an interview with Joseph Stalin that drew attention to a rather unorthodox dimension of the party’s Marxist-Leninist ideology. Aware of the general secretary’s respect for a broad array of “historic individuals” from V. I. Leninto Peter the Great, Ludwig asked how such beliefs could be reconciled with...

Lev Tolstoi

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1. Tolstoi in 1928: In the Mirror of the Revolution

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pp. 17-38

The one-hundredth anniversary of Tolstoi’s birth, in September 1928, was the first large-scale, government-sponsored event during the Soviet era celebrating a pre-revolutionary writer. Tolstoi was feted throughout the year and throughout the country, from the rural peasant reading hut to the capital, where a seven-hour ceremony at the Bolshoi Theater inaugurated...

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2. Press Commentary on the Tolstoi Centenary Celebration

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pp. 39-46

Tolstoi’s jubilee in 1928 suffered from a lack of clear direction from the party. Indeed, the event revealed profound confusion over precisely how the great novelist was to be venerated in a revolutionary society. Ten years of iconoclasm in the arts had left many in the party and cultural elite yearning for what M. Gor’kii called a “return to the classics.” Yet Tolstoi’s...

Peter the Great

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3. Rehabilitation and Afterimage: Aleksei Tolstoi’s Many Returns to Peter the Great

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pp. 47-68

Aleksei Nikolaevich Tolstoi considered the literary investigation of history to be as deeply concerned with the present as with the past. It was this view that brought the former “fellow-traveler” author to the pinnacle of success in Soviet public life by the time of his death in 1945. As the contributions to this volume attest, during the 1930s and 1940s the Soviet political ...

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4. Aleksei Tolstoi’s Remarks on the Film Peter I

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pp. 69-74

In early September 1937, as movie houses all across the USSR were beginning to screen the historical film Peter I, a delegation of worker-correspondents from the Skorokhod Worker factory newspaper visited Aleksei Tolstoi at his dacha in Pushkin, an elite Leningrad suburb known until that year as Detskoe Selo. The interview that they conducted with...

The Epic Heroes

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5. Chronicle of a Poet's Downfall: Dem’ian Bednyi, Russian History, and

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pp. 77-98

Lenin’s well-known appraisal of the Russian people as “a nation of Oblomovs” epitomized the Bolsheviks’ views of the USSR’s largest ethnic group during the early years of the Soviet “experiment.”1 Yet as the contributions to this volume demonstrate, this view began to fade from fashion early in the 1930s as Stalin gradually freed himself from the weight of the existing...

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6.The Reaction of Writers and Artists to the Banning of D. Bednyi’s Comic Opera

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pp. 99-114

Public opinion was of considerable concern to the Stalinist regime, and both party and secret police officials were tasked with assessing what prominent social groups (e.g., the creative intelligentsia) thought about specific issues. Typically, informers would either eavesdrop on indiscrete conversations or directly engage people in provocative exchanges. Excerpts...

Nikolai Leskov

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7. The Adventures of a Leskov Story in Soviet Russia, or the Socialist Realist Opera That Wasn’t

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pp. 117- 134

The broad question to be considered in this essay is how authors, works,or even whole traditions of one period are assimilated into the culture of another, particularly after moments of cataclysmic change. I am concerned here with the reception of nineteenth-century Russian literature in early Soviet culture, but the general problem is by no means confined to Russia...

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8. The Official Denunciation of Shostakovich’s Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk District

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pp. 135-139

The unsigned editorial below appeared in Pravda on January 28, 1936, two days after Stalin attended a performance of D. D. Shostakovich’s opera Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk District.1 It is significant both as an illustration of the character and rhythm of Soviet cultural life and as an important episode in the biography of one of the most prominent com-...

Ivan the Terrible

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9. The Terrible Tsar as Comic Hero: Mikhail Bulgakov’s

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pp. 143-156

The “idealization” of Ivan IV in the Soviet Union was primarily a phenomenon of the 1940s. That decade saw the appearance of V. I. Kostylev’s three-part novel, Ivan the Terrible, A. N. Tolstoi’s two-part play of the same title, I. L. Sel’vinskii’s play, The Livonian War, and V. A. Solov’ev’s play, The Great Sovereign, as well as Sergei Eisenstein’s famous film. In historical...

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10. Terribly Pragmatic: Rewriting the History of Ivan IV’s Reign,

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pp. 157-178

The idiosyncratic valorization of Ivan the Terrible in Stalinist public life has long intrigued scholars concerned with Soviet historical mythology. Their work has illustrated how the first Russian tsar and his Muscovite domain...

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11. Internal Debate within the Party Hierarchy about the Rehabilitation of Ivan the Terrible

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pp. 179-207

The following is a draft of the only known official record testifying to the direct involvement of the party hierarchy in the campaign to rehabilitate Ivan the Terrible. This internal memorandum, written by A. S. Shcherbakov, the party’s ideology chief, assails A. N. Tolstoi’s play about the sixteenth-century tsar, which had been commissioned by the ...

Aleksandr Pushkin

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12. The 1937 Pushkin Jubilee as Epic Trauma

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pp. 193-213

One of the more bizarre proposals to commemorate the 1999 bicentennial of Pushkin’s birth was to replace the obelisk at Chernaia Rechka, the site of his fatal duel, with a chapel. A letter signed by the head of the Union of Russian Writers, V. Ganichev, repeated an old Petersburg rumor that the obelisk placed at Chernaia Rechka in 1937 had been illicitly taken from...

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13. Editorial Eulogy of A. S. Pushkin

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pp. 214-219

Lead editorials in Pravda traditionally signaled the nature and dimensions of the “general line” and were therefore closely read by everyone in Soviet society from rank-and-file officials to members of the creative intelligentsia. This piece, published at the height of the 1937 Pushkin commemoration, outlines the official Stalinist interpretation of Pushkin’s...

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14. The Pushkin Jubilee as Farce

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pp. 220-229

There is probably no better illustration of popular ambivalence regarding the Pushkin commemoration of 1937 than the two pieces by Mikhail Zoshchenko that we offer below. A satirist specializing in short stories, Zoshchenko was by some reports the second most widely read author in the Soviet Union during the 1920s.1 Most of his works are written in...

Aleksandr Nevskii

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15. The Popular Reception of S. M. Eisenstein’s Aleksandr Nevskii

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pp. 233-252

The authors of this volume argue that as Soviet ideology came to emphasize a more pragmatic, populist agenda in the mid- to late 1930s, seemingly innocent celebrations of Russian history and culture like the centennial of Pushkin’s death in early 1937 quickly matured into more explicitly russo-centric propaganda. That fall’s publication of A. V. Shestakov’s new text-...

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16. Aleksander Nevskii as Russian Patriot

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pp. 253-258

In the 1920s, Mikhail Kol’tsov was a leading film critic for Pravda with strong ties to members of the “Left Front” of the Russian avant-garde visual arts movement like Dziga Vertov. Kol’tsov’s association with Eisenstein dates to his favorable review of the director’s first feature film, Strike.Yet by the mid-1930s Kol’tsov was increasingly known as a newspaper...

Ivan Susanin

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17. Reinventing the Enemy: The Villains of Glinka’s Opera

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pp. 261-275

In February 1939 the Bolshoi Theater in Moscow staged Mikhail Ivanovich Glinka’s opera Ivan Susanin for the first time in the Soviet era. Contemporary critics lavishly praised the work, and during its first season the Bolshoi performed the opera no less than twenty-six times. 1 Ivan Susanin went on to enjoy widespread acclaim throughout the Soviet period and beyond....

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18. Official Praise for Ivan Susanin

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pp. 276-280

B. A. Mordvinov’s feature article on the 1939 debut of Ivan Susanin epitomizes the official Soviet line on the rehabilitation of this classic work of nineteenth-century nationalist culture, despite the fact that the author was a famous actor and director rather than a professional journalist or propagandist.1 Published in Pravda, the most authoritative forum in...

Mikhail Lermontov

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19. Fashioning "Our Lermontov" Canonization and Conflict in the Stalinist 1930s

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pp. 283-308

The Stalinist regime inducted pre-revolutionary literary “classics” such as M. Iu. Lermontov (1814-1841) into the Soviet literary canon during the 1930s in an attempt to use tsarist-era culture to legitimize itself both historically and politically. Such a revised narrative of the past represented the Soviet state as a historical inevitability and allowed the regime to flatter its ...

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20. A Rare Voice of Caution

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pp. 308-312

This book review appeared in 1939 on the eve of celebrations marking the 125th anniversary of Lermontov’s birth and is remarkable for its dissonant tone. At a time when canonizers were straining to fit Lermontov into a palatable ideological model (primarily by declaring him a“poet of the people”),1 A. Ragozin dared to challenge the promiscuous...


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21. An Internationalist’s Complaint to Stalin and the Ensuing Scandal

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pp. 315-323

As the contents of this volume have argued, Russian national heroes,imagery, and iconography were deployed during the mid-to-late 1930s to enhance the effectiveness of Soviet propaganda, despite the fact that this strategy threatened to eclipse the stress on internationalism and class-consciousness that had characterized nearly two decades of Soviet mass ...

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Conclusion: Epic Revisionism and the Crafting of a Soviet Public

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pp. 325-337

The late 1930s were turbulent for the USSR. Fascist Germany loomed tot he west; Old Bolsheviks were accused of treachery and executed; peasants migrated to the city in waves, driven by fear and opportunity. On the positive side, a new constitution was adopted, Soviet explorers investigated the polar wastelands, and massive construction projects went up through-...

Archival Repository Abbreviations

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pp. 341-342


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pp. 343-345


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pp. 347-355

E-ISBN-13: 9780299215033
Print-ISBN-13: 9780299215040

Publication Year: 2006