- "Writers Live Only in Moscow and Leningrad"?Navigating Soviet Spatial and Cultural Hierarchies, 1941–45
"How has it come to be," Nikolai Tikhonov mused at a January 1944 plenum of the Writers' Union Presidium, "that major writers can only live in the capital?"1 This critical comment expressed an unacknowledged truth about Soviet culture. By 1941, despite a mandate to be rooted in "real life" (the vast majority of which occurred outside the two capitals), Soviet literature, music, and art were created primarily in Moscow and Leningrad by a group of comparatively privileged individuals, many of whom belonged to the Soviet elite. Regional cultural achievements rarely won the same levels of Union-wide recognition. Soviet culture, as one scholar has put it, circulated "centripetally."2 The years 1941–45 witnessed an extraordinary seeming inversion of this scenario, as thousands of cultural producers found themselves evacuated out of Moscow and Leningrad in 1941 to regional cities all over the Soviet Union, lest the state lose a group of crucial resources (or worse, give them the opportunity to defect). These evacuations were a mark of privilege; the state consciously chose to prioritize evacuating the intelligentsia over other civilians, although the war forced it to resort to demonstrating its favor in a manner that carried the connotation of severe punishment in Russian history. [End Page 285]
As Tikhonov implied, no writer wished to live outside the two Soviet capitals. But for the creative intelligentsia, the Soviet landscape outside of Moscow and Leningrad was not undifferentiated. When forced to evacuate, cultural producers strongly preferred to live in a certain type of city—a regional or republic capital.3 Larger institutions and renowned individuals categorically refused to be redirected to smaller cities, and minor institutions relegated to less desirable cities sought to trade up for a better locale. Such maneuvering began well before experience could bear out that one place was better than another, indicating the existence of a preexisting hierarchy of preference. The state, in its turn, backed elite institutions' and prominent individuals' demands to remain in certain areas.
I argue that evacuation to "second-tier" cities and towns posed a unique challenge to cultural producers' self-conception and their professional self-worth by distancing them from the crucial audiences for their work, that of the authorities. To receive recognition as meaningful work in support of the war, the intelligentsia's work depended on acknowledgment and approval from authorities, preferably at as high a level as possible. Artists worried that removal to a minor city might negate their professional identity, reversing the established Soviet process of "becoming an artist" that was integrally tied to location in Moscow and Leningrad.4 The specter of unemployment in their specialty given limited regional infrastructure reinforced this fear. Creative elites therefore themselves sought to remain as physically "close" to centers of power as possible, hotly contesting their relegation to second-tier cities. In seeking to improve their location, cultural producers attempted to maintain their relevance to the Soviet war effort and thereby to reaffirm their own artistic and political status.
The evacuation of "workers of art" in 1941 became an exercise in matching categories of people to the correct geographic locale, to ensure that the "most valuable" people went to the "best" locations and thereby to avoid wasting resources. Since regional capitals, as centers of power, had the infrastructure to support the evacuating creative elite, they became the preferred evacuation destinations. Initially, 1941 appears to be an inversion point, reversing the established centrifuge that siphoned talent out of the regions and [End Page 286] republics and concentrated it in Moscow.5 Instead, by 1945 the evacuations had reconfirmed and even strengthened existing social and geographic hierarchies by concentrating and embedding cultural capital in a handful of major regional centers, improving their infrastructure, bringing these cities closer to Moscow, and solidifying their status while further differentiating them from other regional towns.
Though the idea of Soviet social hierarchies is not new, I contend there is a crucial link between Soviet geographic and cultural hierarchies, which mutually reinforced each other.6 Spatial hierarchies that arose initially from imperial legacies and social and economic policies were eventually...