Revolutionary Acts: Amateur Theater and the Soviet State, 1917-1938, and: The Enemy on Trial: Early Soviet Courts on Stage and Screen (review)
- Kritika: Explorations in Russian and Eurasian History
- Slavica Publishers
- Volume 5, Number 2, Spring 2004 (New Series)
- pp. 415-427
- View Citation
- Additional Information
Kritika: Explorations in Russian and Eurasian History 5.2 (2004) 415-427
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Debates on the totalitarian regimes of the 20th century took on new life with the collapse of the communist regimes of Eastern and Central Europe and the USSR. While in Russia the driving force behind this evolution in research methods and topics was the desire to uncover the "true" history of the Soviet period, free from ideologically motivated manipulation of facts and interpretations, in the West methodological imperatives from outside the field of Soviet studies played an important role. These imperatives, which might be described as a "cultural shift," represent more than a tribute of Soviet studies to the intellectual vogue of historical writing in the last third of the 20th century. The cultural "lens" allows historians to revise the totalitarian model from a new perspective by studying the internal cultural mechanisms, language, and semantics that operated in Soviet society.
In today's Russia, the use of anthropological methods (focusing on Soviet rituals, holidays, and popular culture) and the history of "everyday life" are the most popular means of "humanizing" the Soviet historical narrative,1 whereas the impact of the new literary historicism or the study of theatricality is felt much less keenly. The Moscow-Tartu semiotic school, which theoretically [End Page 415] could have mediated between these new Western paradigms and the local tradition of scholarship, has become identified with Russian structuralism and proclaimed dead. Most Russian historians are poorly equipped to respond to specific "Western" theoretical challenges. As a result, the two books reviewed here, which exemplify the "cultural shift," are likely to be read differently by professional audiences in Russia and the West.
Lynn Mally, in Revolutionary Acts: Amateur Theater and the Soviet State, 1917-1938, uses the amateur stage to explore the inner mechanisms of early Soviet society, including its self-organization and creativity from "below" as well as the interaction between individuals and the authorities outside the context of direct compulsion. Mally examines the creative impetus that drove the Revolution of 1917 until it succumbed to state control in the early 1930s. She avoids the term "totalitarian" in describing the Stalinist regime, instead writing about changes in the reality and everyday experience of the masses, who were presumably engaged in a creative dialogue with the "regime."
Chronologically, the study opens with a description of amateur theater during the Revolution and the Civil War. The opening paragraph on the prerevolutionary origins of Soviet amateur theater (6-8), which draws on current literature, however, is not merely a formal introduction to the general discussion. Above all, Mally points out that some "old regime" amateur theaters survived the revolutions. Unfortunately, she does not trace the history of these collectives under the new regime, an extremely interesting topic that would have provided an excellent opportunity to transcend "1917" as a vital analytic boundary between two distinct "periods." The importance of this brief background becomes apparent toward the end of the book, as one of her major conclusions emerges: that the Soviet amateur theater of the 1930s was a partial retreat to the prerevolutionary paradigm of popular theater(narodnyi teatr). Early Soviet and popular theater shared a classical repertoire (especially the plays of Aleksandr Nikolaevich Ostrovskii), and in both periods participation in amateur theater was seen as an educational activity and a form of acculturation. Even the term "popular theater," displaced for a time by "amateur theater," regained its prevalence in the 1930s. At the same time, Mally sees crucial differences between the ideal of popular theater before the Revolution and in the 1930s, when amateur theaters lost all traces of...