- Beau Monde on Empire's Edge: State and Stage in Soviet Ukraine by Mayhill C. Fowler
When a former professional actress becomes a historian and writes about theatre, the outcome is a great read. In this attractively designed book, Mayhill C. Fowler demonstrates both her unique understanding of how theatre works and her ability to provide sophisticated analysis of Soviet Ukrainian culture. She also writes beautiful prose.
For specialists on Soviet culture, this is an important revisionist book. With most of the literature in the field discussing developments on Moscow and Leningrad, a focus on the theatrical life in the provinces is already refreshing. There are important aspects of Soviet culture that can only be studied by going beyond the capitals, such as the creation of modern cultures for the non-Russian nations. Yet Fowler also uses her Ukrainian case study to challenge the overall Western understanding of Soviet culture. While Sheila Fitzpatrick and others have focused on patronage or informal interactions between state officials and artists, this book makes a convincing case that it was the existence of "arts officials" and "official artists" that distinguished the Soviet model of cultural management. The state's absorption of the arts resulted in the development of bureaucratic structures responsible for the cultural sphere and institutional mechanisms promoting artists within the system.
In the centre of the book's story, the reader finds the stage director Les Kurbas, a Ukrainian from the Austro-Hungarian Empire who crossed the border during the time of war and revolution in order to build a new Ukrainian theatre. It is the story of his theatre company – Berezil – and his circle of friends and collaborators, the people who wanted to generate a new type of Ukrainian culture. They rejected the folkish and village-centric Ukrainian theatre of the tsarist period in favour of an explicitly modern and urban theatre influenced by cutting-edge European trends. In 1929, Kurbas staged the first-ever review show in Ukrainian, Hello from Radiowave 477!, which was inspired by a German performance that was based on a Broadway play. But the tradition of a modernist cabaret-type review did not take root in Soviet Ukraine because Stalinist authorities had other plans for ethnic cultures.
Fowler may well be the first person to explain what these plans were. The 1930s brought further institutionalization of the official culture and attacks on "formalism" (a Stalinist code word for modernism). Most scholars of Ukrainian culture would focus on the repressions against the creative intelligentsia, and, indeed, Kurbas and many of his comrades did disappear into the Gulag, where nearly all of them perished. But Fowler demonstrates that the Stalinist attack on Ukrainian culture was not aimed at its destruction but, rather, at expunging from it the elements of modern mass culture because the mass culture of the Stalin age was to be Russian. Unlike the tsars, Joseph Stalin did not ban the Ukrainian culture; he just limited it to what Fowler aptly calls "folk orchestras and staid historical melodrama." A Ukrainian [End Page 222] cabaret, tango, or jazz could not exist. Although most Soviet jazz stars hailed from the Ukrainian South, they went to Moscow to play and sing in Russian, thus becoming part of mainstream Russophone entertainment, to the degree that it was allowed by Stalinist officials.
This book is cultural history at its best. Fowler's subtle reading of forgotten cultural events draws out their significance in a way that opens up new conceptual vistas. Her work makes a major contribution to Ukrainian studies and the field of Soviet cultural history; it can also attract a wider audience of theatre lovers, especially if University of Toronto Press puts out a paperback edition.
Departments of History and Germanic and Slavic Studies, University of Victoria