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5 Workers’ Theater, Proletarian Culture, and Respectability 181 Not content to be entertained at either at the people’s theaters or their commercial cousins, some Russian workers attempted to be producers as well as consumers of culture. Beginning at the turn of the century, workers began to form drama circles and stage occasional performances for their fellow workers, usually with advice and coaching from middle-class professional or amateur actors. Although their activities were on a small scale, amateur workers’ theaters were an important part of the movement by Russian workers to establish networks of alternative cultural and education institutions during the years between the revolutions of 1905 and February 1917. The proletarian cultural and educational movement, best known by its Russian abbreviation as Proletkult, is often identified with the early years of Soviet power, but its roots are in the prerevolutionary workers’ movement.1 In seeking to explain the origins of Proletkult, scholars have tended to focus on Aleksandr Bogdanov’s theory of proletarian culture as elaborated in the decade prior to 1917. According to Bogdanov and his followers, there could be no social revolution without a corresponding cultural revolution. In order to prepare this cultural revolution, workers would have to develop their own proletarian culture to contest the hegemony of bourgeois culture. Guided by the revolutionary intelligentsia, an elite of worker-intellectuals would lay the foundations of a new, distinctly proletarian culture by creating their own science, philosophy, and art based on their class values.2 Such was the idea, which on the eve of World War I provoked heated debates among Social Democratic leaders over whether a genuinely proletarian culture could be created under the conditions of capitalism.3 But what did “proletarian culture” mean to the rank-and-file workers? What would distinguish it from “bourgeois” culture? What role would the intelligentsia play in the construction of proletarian culture? Although it is always more difficult to interpret the reception of an idea than the idea itself, the history of the prerevolutionary workers’ theater movement does suggest some answers. For most workers who engaged in creating theater groups, attended the performances of workers’ theaters, or read about them in the workers’ press, proletarian culture did not mean creating an entirely new culture from scratch. Instead, it meant appropriating the culture of the intelligentsia and using it for political purposes or simply for self-improvement and pleasure. For radical workers, theater could be a useful weapon in their social and political struggles. “Workers’ theater,” wrote a contributor to a Bolshevik mass-circulation daily in 1914, “awakens [class] consciousness more easily [than do lectures] and thereby prepares new cadres of conscious members of workers’ organizations.”4 The key issue was not so much the class origins of the plays performed as their ideological significance. After all, true art, the workers had learned from their intelligentsia mentors, was always supposed to be critical of the existing order, to expose social ills and suggest solutions to them. And in Russia there existed an enormous body of socially critical dramatic literature. Many of the classics of Russian literature and drama were interpreted as protests against social injustice, bureaucratic corruption , and the oppression of the weak by the strong, and such interpretations were only reinforced by the fact that so many classics had at some time suffered from prohibition by the censorship. A St. Petersburg workers’ drama circle organized in 1912, whose repertoire consisted exclusively of the same classic and contemporary literary plays that could be found on the stages of any theater in Russia, could thus state confidently that the plays it had selected were “absolutely ideological” (bezuslovno ideinye) in content.5 The dearth of proletarian dramatists and the virtual absence of socialist plays— a situation exacerbated by the stringent censorship restrictions on what could be performed in theaters attended by lower-class audiences—forced workers to draft the existing “bourgeois” dramatic corpus into the service of the proletarian cause. Apart from their potential for raising their audiences’ “class consciousness ,” workers’ theaters also had an important symbolic significance. To organize or attend a workers’ theater was an assertion of respectability, or kul’turnost’, not unlike taking evening classes or reading the “thick” journals of the intelligentsia. Such theaters were proof that working men and women not only aspired to the cultural heritage of the intelligentsia but were no less, or maybe even more, capable of appreciating art than were the upper classes. Reporting on a 1913 performance of Sofiia Belaia’s The...


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