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Kritika: Explorations in Russian and Eurasian History 6.4 (2005) 673-716

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In the Name of the People

The Manège Affair Revisited

University of Sheffield
Russian and Slavonic Studies
Arts Tower, Western Bank
Sheffield S10 2TN
United Kingdom

On 1 December 1962, Nikita Sergeevich Khrushchev and other members of the party leadership went to Moscow's Central Exhibition Hall, or Manège, to view an art exhibition, 30 Years of the Moscow Artists' Union. The first secretary ranted against some of the work shown there in terms of filth and fecal messing, decadence and sexual deviance, concluding, "gentlemen, we are waging war on you." Following the visit, a series of meetings between the artistic intelligentsia and the Central Committee Ideological Commission reasserted party control over the arts along with the central principles of Socialist Realism, partiinost´ and narodnost´. As the ensuing campaign reaffirmed, art belonged to the people and must be understood by the people.1

The story of the "Manège Affair" is well known, and Khrushchev's comments have been published many times.2 If Stalin was the supreme architect [End Page 673] of Socialist Realism, as Boris Groys would have it,3 then Khrushchev emerges here as the premier art critic and first among viewers. As he declared: "My opinion is the same as that of the people. I don't understand, and they won't understand."4 The founding myth of the unity of the people and the Party was reasserted; as first secretary of the Party that represented the people, his judgment was their judgment.

Here, though, it is not Khrushchev's views on art, pronounced in the name of a fictional, unified people, that concern us so much as how actual Soviet viewers responded both to the exhibition and to the official interpretation he imposed on it. By the time Khrushchev visited it and had his say on Saturday, 1 December, the exhibition had already been open to the public for a month and had been seen by over 100,000 visitors; they continued to stream in after his intervention.5 If "art belonged to the people," what did "the people" think?

Based on a reading of the original visitors' books for the exhibition 30 Years of the Moscow Artists' Union—MOSKh for short—this paper will show that "public taste" was far from unified in the Thaw—if, indeed, it ever had been.6 In this period of re-evaluation of values, the "public" and its "culture" were as divided as the Party and the art world themselves. [End Page 674]

The encounter in the Manège between the post-Stalin regime and fine art has gone down in history as the beginning of the end of the cultural Thaw. As Priscilla Johnson argues, "At bottom, the issue appears to have been one of authority and control."7 It was not, however, simply about the relationship between the Party and the artistic intelligentsia, as she implies—although struggles for cultural authority were indeed at its heart. It was at least as much about power struggles between two main factions within the art profession, which for brevity and at cost of oversimplification I call conservatives or neo-Stalinists, and reformers or modernizers.8 The power base of the latter was MOSKh, whose jubilee exhibition in the Manège demonstrated, in the eyes of their conservative adversaries, that its liberalism and revisionism had reached new and intolerable extremes. The Manège Affair was, furthermore, about the struggle for authority between Party and people; many viewers were, as we shall see, quite prepared to take issue semi-publicly with the Party's judgment and with its arrogation of the right to judge art. It was, finally, a struggle among viewers representing different elements of Soviet society. It is on this aspect that I want to focus here.

Defining "the Public": The Social Mandate

According to Pierre Bourdieu, "public opinion" does not exist, but its effects are, nonetheless, real. The...


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