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  • Remembering the Avant-Garde:Moscow Architects and the “Rehabilitation” of Constructivism, 1961–64*
  • Stephen V. Bittner (bio)

In 1962 and 1963, the leaders of the Soviet Communist Party directed the most furious campaign against artistic freedom since the late Stalin period. For much of the creative intelligentsia the campaign was unexpected. Many thought that the 22nd Party Congress in October 1961 had heralded the beginning of a new period of "aggressive de-Stalinization."1 Nikita Khrushchev, after all, had used the congress to widen the scope of criticism against Joseph Stalin, and to make the important rhetorical leap from Stalin's mistakes to Stalin's crimes. He questioned Stalin's role in Sergo Ordzhonikidze's suicide and in the arrest of the Red Army leaders prior to World War II, and threw his support behind the construction of a monument in Moscow to honor the memories of those who had fallen victim to Stalinism. Other party officials detailed the activities of Viacheslav Molotov, Georgii Malenkov, and Lazar' Kaganovich (the so-called Anti-Party Group) in the purges, and demanded that Stalin's body be removed from the mausoleum on Red Square.2 In the months following the Congress, reform-minded [End Page 553] intellectuals were quick to act: landmark works by Evgenii Evtushenko and Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn appeared in print; Evtushenko and Vassilii Aksenov were elected editors of the Union of Writers journal Iunost'; and activists in the Union of Cinema Workers and the Academy of Fine Arts pressed for accelerated reform. Between December 1962 and March 1963, however, in a series of meetings with prominent representatives of the creative intelligentsia, Khrushchev and Leonid Il'ichev, a Central Committee Secretary and former Agitprop chief, denounced the liberal onslaught. Defending the Party's role as chief arbiter in the cultural sphere, they reasserted the primacy of traditional ("socialist-realist") manners of artistic production. Young Turks like Evtushenko and Andrei Voznesenskii fared particularly poorly, but the campaign had a wide reach, and even moderates like Il'ia Ehrenburg and Dmitrii Shostakovich were implicated. The result was not a complete rout of the liberal forces in the cultural sphere, but it did portend a political atmosphere that was significantly less congenial for innovative art and critical reappraisals of the past than that which had existed in the months immediately following the party congress.3

Contemporary observers in the West noticed early on that Soviet architects appeared to escape the brunt of the campaign. On 4 December 1962, only three days after Khrushchev denounced an exhibit of modern art at the Manezh Hall in Moscow, an editorial in Izvestiia cited his comments at the opening of the Palace of Pioneers on the south side of the capital, an austere glass and concrete structure which was unmistakably modernist. "It's hard to arrive at a common opinion in judging a building like this one," Khrushchev reportedly remarked. "Tastes differ, after all. You can't please everyone. Some like it, others don't. Myself, I like your palace. I'm expressing my own opinion."4 One commentator interpreted the editorial as a sign of the ambivalent attitudes toward modern art that existed even at the top of the party.5 (Evidently, the editors of Izvestiia hoped to show that Khrushchev was not the complete rube in aesthetic affairs that much of the creative intelligentsia imagined him to be.) A month later, in a survey of Soviet graphic arts, Alain Besançon claimed that architecture, with its prefabricated and standardized components, was at the vanguard of the Soviet [End Page 554] aesthetic, and as such was clearing the way for the development of other types of artistic modernism in the Soviet Union.6

Besançon might be accused of overstatement, but his observation unwittingly captured much of the irony of the situation. At the same time that modernism was under attack in the graphic arts and liberals were in retreat in literature, Moscow architects spoke openly about the "rehabilitation" of Constructivism, and looked enthusiastically at the experiments of the 1920s and early 1930s in search of inspiration. This was an extraordinary development, and one that was indicative of the degree of political change that had taken place during...


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