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  • Mikhail Bulgakov, Mykola Kulish, and Soviet TheaterHow Internal Transnationalism Remade Center and Periphery
  • Mayhill C. Fowler (bio)

Most studies of Soviet culture are, without explicitly stating so, studies of culture in Moscow, taking what happened culturally in Moscow (and occasionally Leningrad) as metonymy for the cultural production and reception of the entire Soviet Union. The prevalent model of Soviet culture is therefore one of diffusion, which assumes that the best cultural products were created in Moscow and transported to or copied by the periphery. The diffusion model assumes the provinces as peripheral to Moscow or, to put it differently, the periphery as provincial.1

Explicitly or implicitly refuting the assumption of Moscow as metonym, studies of culture in the Soviet republics often present an alternate model, tracing a well-established teleological trajectory of qualitatively good non-Russian culture created locally under korenizatsiia (indigenization) followed by Russification spread from an increasingly oppressive center.2 Soviet culture [End Page 263] then exists in two parallel scholarships: one for Moscow, Leningrad, and “Soviet” culture nonethnically defined; and an entirely different one for the ethnically defined culture of the non-Russian republics. Ironically, both assume that Soviet culture emanated, for good or ill, in a single direction from Moscow, and both largely preclude culture traveling in the other direction, from the provinces to Moscow or Leningrad. More important, however, neither a Moscow nor a regional focus explains the obvious: Moscow came to be perceived as a center, and the provinces as peripheral. Might there be a larger model for the creation of Soviet culture that comprises both center and periphery in equal measure?

This article advances the suggestion that these two models—one focused on Moscow, the other on the regions—may exist in a larger paradigm by taking into account internal transnationalism inside the Soviet Union. The creation of Soviet culture can be inscribed into the larger postimperial Soviet space in two ways. First, what I call “internal transnationalism” accounts for different cultural processes unfolding in different regions in the Soviet Union yet also suggests that these different cultural processes were interrelated. Second, this interrelation may explain how artists, officials, and audiences came to perceive Moscow as a center and the periphery as provincial during the first two decades of Soviet rule. The internal transnationalism between Moscow and the regions is best understood as an “axis of cultural exchange,” as advocated by Philipp Ther. He proposes a “new mental mapping of Europe in which places and axes of cultural exchange, not the nation-state or other territorial units of analysis, shape the map of the continent.” Attending to internal transnationalism allows the historian to track the transformation of the artistic map of the former Russian Empire into that of the Soviet Union.3 [End Page 264]

Two Soviet playwrights anchor this case study in how internal transnationalism functioned: Mikhail Bulgakov (1891–1940) and Mykola Kulish (1892–1937). Each playwright constitutes a focal point in the study of Soviet or (Soviet) Ukrainian culture, yet the life and work of each traveled a much more itinerant path than that allowed by a single geographic focus. Their paths crossed textually through their plays Days of the Turbins (Dni Turbinykh, 1926) and Sonata Pathétique (Patetychna sonata, 1929), which were both inspired by the events of the revolution and civil wars. The production and circulation of Bulgakov’s and Kulish’s works requires a more expansive model for the analysis of Soviet cultural production, one that allows for different processes of artistic development in the republics and the center, yet one that allows these processes to shape each other. The case of Bulgakov and Kulish offers a snapshot of internal transnationalism in action.

Let me clarify the scope of this case study. Through Bulgakov and Kulish this article focuses on internal transnationalism specifically between Moscow and Soviet Ukraine. During the early Soviet period, the southwest borderlands, the region that included the former Jewish Pale of Settlement and became Soviet Ukraine in 1922, proved particularly fertile for the creation of Soviet culture thanks to the significant numbers of artists who came from the Southwest and moved to Moscow. Scholars have also noted that Soviet Ukraine enjoyed an...