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  • Russia at Play: Leisure Activities at the End of the Tsarist Era, and: Popular Theater and Society in Tsarist Russia
  • Ben Eklof
Russia at Play: Leisure Activities at the End of the Tsarist Era. By Louise McReynolds ( Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2003. x plus 309 pp.).
Popular Theater and Society in Tsarist Russia. By Eugene Anthony Swift ( Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2002. xv plus 346 pp.).

Both of these excellent works deal with the decline of traditional forms of recreation and the rise of modern, urban entertainment in Russia. Both examine questions of production, distribution, performance, and audience, and focus almost exclusively on Moscow and St. Petersburg. Both draw heavily on Jeffrey Brooks' argument that "culturalists," or Kulturtraeger, in Russia sought to suppress traditional forms of entertainment and at the same time resisted the commercialization of art. McReynolds and Swift each situate theater, performance and audience in the context of rapid socio-economic change. While McReynolds shows that a large number of those who gained fame and wealth through commercial culture at the turn of the century were of peasant origin, she devotes her attention primarily to Russia's urban middle class and "middlebrow" culture. Swift, on the other hand, writes about factory workers and those who sought to civilize them. Although he looks at how "high" culture sought to reshape "popular" culture, he frequently reminds us that traditional summer pleasure gardens "were a synthesis of high and low cultures (even if seating arrangements at performances rigidly segregated the classes)" and that in late imperial Russia "the boundaries between elite and popular cultures [were] porous, imprecise and ever shifting."

The crux of Russia at Play is that new technologies of mass production and distribution led to changes in leisure time activities framed within the notions of disposable time and income; that new patterns of consumption empowered the new and diverse middle classes to impose their middlebrow tastes (especially melodrama) upon urban colleagues; and that the transformation of recreation allowed "those who partook" to satisfy (newly aroused?) desires for personal autonomy and self-fashioning. In a chapter on "legitimate" theater, she reviews the transformation of the stage according to the new "bourgeois aesthetic," which shifted attention from public to private setting and which treated empathetically strivings for individualistic gratification, whether sexual or material. Along the way, she makes astute comparisons between bourgeois drama in France, England and Russia, pointing out that, unlike western practioners of the "pièce bien faite"1 such as Victorien Sardou, Russia's Alexander Ostrovskii achieved lasting and deserved fame by "dramatizing the new attitudes toward both production and consumption sifting down through society." (33) McReynolds insists that Ostrovskii was not a social critic of bourgeois mores; he had personally undergone the "tribulations of his characters trying to negotiate between entrenched [End Page 1147] habits and fresh possibilities," (39) had understood and welcomed the marketplace in art, and empathized with the figures he created. In a fascinating chapter on the "sporting life," the author describes how relations between the classes played out and were altered by the commercialization of equestrian activities, the growth of amateur athletic societies (especially bodybuilding), yacht and bicycle clubs, and (dismally unsuccessful) soccer. A particularly engaging chapter ("The Actress and the Wrestler") portrays Maria Savina, "who turned herself from an impoverished orphan into tsarist Russia's premier actress" at the Alexandrinka theater, and who was "empowered" by her own "commodification" in the new commercial culture. McReynolds also vividly depicts circus/wrestling champions like Ivan Poddubnyi (a peasant from Odessa who grew "a thick mustache so that he would look the part of the Cossack that he was") (135), and the Estonian Georg Lurikh, who projected himself as both scholar and gentleman, and embellished his reputation as a ladies' man by advertising himself in publicity shots "sporting... naught but a fig leaf." More seriously, McReynolds argues here that gender and class relations reconfigured class and gender hierarchies and bonds. In particular, the wrestling world fostered a homosociability that "reshuffled some of the past criteria for stratification," at the same time that it commodified virility and asserted a distinctively Russian masculinity over the "wild, debased" bodies of their antagonists from...


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