This article discusses Jeffrey Brooks’ metaphor of an integrated ecosystem to describe Russian cultural history in the late imperial and early Soviet periods. Brooks’s Firebird and the Fox describes an interlocking cultural system marked by high-low interactions, as a rich Russian folkloric tradition based on fable and popular tales was reworked with remarkable creativity in what he calls an “age of genius.” In response, this article argues that this period of Russian cultural creativity can be seen as coinciding with the extended life-cycle of the Russian Revolution. The subversive, satirical humor and irony running through Brooks’s cultural “play-sphere” was complemented by another tradition: a didactic, instructional, enlightening “teach-sphere” that animated a wide range of intelligentsia and cultural forces shaping cultural evolution and cultural revolution. If the play-sphere highlights the rebellious distance between culture and power, the teach-sphere’s project of transforming the masses reveals their many commonalities. The essay reflects on how the intersections of culture and power shaped early Soviet culture, the avant-garde, and successive phases of Stalinist culture. While Socialist Realism promoted the theoretical declaration of a unified socialist culture, the persistence of differing elements of the cultural system raises the question of Soviet cultural syncretism.
The author of The Firebird and the Fox: Russian Culture under Tsars and Bolsheviks (Cambridge University Press, 2019) responds to comments of Michael David-Fox, Muireann Maguire, Kevin Platt, William Mills Todd, and Olga Velikanova. He expresses appreciation for the reflections provided and elaborates on several points raised by the commentators individually and collectively: the theoretical framing of the work and the importance of agency; continuity of culture over episodes of political disjuncture; the applicability of the term “cultural ecosystem;” an alternative treatment of the topic that would have accorded greater emphasis to political power and the life cycle of revolutions; and the relationship of the work to analysis of institutional history and cultural theory. He finds the five commentaries to be valuable companion pieces for readers of The Firebird and the Fox and stimulants to further scholarship.
The article examines the financial history of the Bolshoi within USSR’s mobilized wartime cultural industry as an example of a cultural institution highly placed in the Stalinist establishment and symbolic canon. It explores the income-outcome flows, personnel management, the impact of evacuation, notably on Bolshoi’s hard capital, and relations with supervising authorities. The theater’s perceived importance within the war effort conditioned unshakable financial support, a non-market protective environment, and lenient administrative treatment, contrasting with logistical and personnel challenges which the house only partly mastered. This relative stability stands in contrast with the absence of strong leadership, as the director’s position was kept vacant in stark difference to most European opera theaters. The shock of 1941–1942 was absorbed with internal adjustment measures and external subventions, and the Bolshoi’s budgets swelled towards the end of the war, indicating inflation and the house’s “most-favored-opera status”. The stable and conservative management still showed shortcomings, which the state chose not to punish. The opera’s symbolic and prestige capital trumped quantitative efficiency, creating a haven in the war economy.
The subject of this article is the collectivization of agriculture in Soviet Udmurtia at the turn of the 1930s. Situated in the Urals, Udmurtia was an autonomous region, largely agricultural, and with a developing industrial center, Izhevsk, as capital. The titular nationality of the region, the Udmurts, represented slightly more than 50% of the total inhabitants, while the rest was made up by Russians and other national minorities. Udmurts were mostly peasants and concentrated in the countryside, whereas city-dwellers and factory workers were mostly Russians. Due to these and other circumstances, collectivization in Udmurtia was carried out in a very specific way. The campaign began here in 1928, one year before than in the rest of the Union, and had possibly the highest pace in the country, with 76% of collectivized farms by 1933. The years 1928–1931 were the highest point of the campaign, when the most opposition and the most violence took place.
The local Party Committee put before itself the special task to carry out a revolutionary collectivization campaign in the Udmurt countryside, which should have been a definitive solution to its “national” backwardness and to all its problems, from illiteracy to trachoma, from syphilis to the strip system (that is, each family worked on small “strips” of land far from each other). The Party Committee failed to exert much support from the peasant Udmurt masses, which stayed at best inert to collectivization propaganda, or opposed it openly. However, the back of the Udmurt peasantry was finally broken, and Udmurtia was totally collectivized by the end of the 1930s.
In the Soviet Union from 1917 to 1990, the political inequality of the nationalities’ representation in institutions of governance was overcome, non-Russians’ participation in the power structures increased, and Russians’ role in administration correspondingly decreased. The increased non-Russian percentage in governance was mainly due to the introduction of the democratic principle in government formation, according to which ethnicities should participate in proportion to their number. By 1990 in the USSR overall, Russians had a slight majority in all power structures, corresponding roughly to their higher share in the country’s population. In the union republics, however, the situation was different. Only in the RSFSR did all peoples, Russian and non-Russian, participate in government administration in proportion to their numbers, following the democratic norm. Elsewhere, Russians were underrepresented and therefore discriminated against in all organs of power, including the legislative branch. Representatives of non-Russian titular nationalities, who on average filled two-thirds of all administrative positions, predominated in disproportion to their numbers. Given these representatives’ skill majority in legislative bodies, republican constitutions permitted them to adopt any laws and resolutions they desired, including laws on secession from the USSR; and the executive and judicial authorities, together with law enforcement, would undoubtedly support them. Thus, the structural prerequisites for disintegration were established. Thereafter, the fate of the Soviet Union depended on republican elites and the geopolitical environment, because of the Center’s purposeful national policy, aimed toward increasing non-Russian representation among administrative cadres and the accelerated modernization and developmental equalization of the republics.
From the plethora of big and small achievements that the author celebrates in the book, my essay addresses such subjects as the continuity of cultural creativity in the 19th and 20th centuries, children’s literature, the sociology of reading, and the place of goodness in literature and life under Stalinism – all within the span of the 20th century. Sharing with the author my admiration of accomplishments of Russian and Soviet culture, I try here to historicize the themes and expand slightly on some of them, like perceptions of the cultural products.
Jeffrey Brooks’ book The Firebird and the Fox presents a synthetic account of Russian cultural history from the middle of the nineteenth century to the middle of the twentieth. Brooks describes culture as an “ecosystem,” persistent across seeming moments of historical rupture such as the revolutions of 1917, animated by certain overarching thematic concerns, and uniting readers and writers across a broad spectrum of levels of social life, from the newly literate popular masses to the educated elites, and forms of media, from prestigious belles lettres to popular illustrated weeklies, satirical journals and children’s literature. Drawing on the theoretical description of historiographical writing offered by Hayden White, this essay examines Brooks’ book in terms of its formal patterning as a comedic narrative and its poetic basis in the trope of synecdoche, which undergird its analytical efforts to integrate material across seeming historical and social divides.
Jeffrey Brooks’ new book, The Firebird and the Fox, draws on an unsurpassed knowledge of Russian literature and culture of all levels, from the folk and popular to the canonical and avant-garde. It divides the “age of genius” (1855–1953) into three periods: the emancipation of the arts (1850–1889), politics and the arts (1890–1916), the Bolshevik Revolution and the arts (1917–1950), each with its own configurations of popular and high culture and construction of creative artists, media, and readers. But three core themes overarch the periods and the exceptionally broad range of phenomena the book discusses: freedom and order, boundaries, art and reality. Throughout Brooks analyzes crossovers and intersections between cultural institutions, between genres and media, and – especially for the Soviet period – between the lines. His categories are at times sociological, historical, and literary. The book implies a theory of cultural production that gives unusual weight to the agency of creative artists. In conclusion readings of three works Brooks does not analyze (Dostoevsky’s Demons, Bely’s Petersburg, and Eisenstein’s Alexander Nevsky) illustrate the productivity of Brooks’ broad and humane approach to Russian artistic culture.
This essay responds to Jeffrey Brooks’ 2020 monograph The Firebird and the Fox, drawing attention to Brooks’ emphasis on a set of cultural symbols persistent during the historical period he surveys, and on the social activism which he identifies with leading Russian cultural figures such as Tolstoi and Chekhov. In support of Brooks’ argument, I present the example of Aleksandr Chaianov (1888–1937), a specialist in agronomy and amateur writer whose reputation as a driver of early Soviet agricultural policy was overshadowed by his arrest in 1930 and subsequent exile and execution. Chaianov’s social activism, as expressed in his short fiction and historical essays, took the form of reminding his readers about the cultural continuities between Russia’s past, present, and future.