Moscow in 1937: Faith, Truth and Reality
1. André Gide and Lion Feuchtwanger
In the late 1930s, two prominent European writers, the French André Gide and the German Lion Feuchtwanger published books about their recent trips to the Soviet Union. Both writers belonged to minorities – Gide as a homosexual, Feuchtwanger as a Jew – and in the Soviet Union they were seeking solutions to the problems of their own countries: growing inequality, culture and intellectual freedom suffering under capitalism and emerging Nazism, private ownership as a barrier to rational organization of cities, discrimination against minorities. Both were pro-Soviet prior to the trips; Gide changed his mind, Feuchtwanger remained a sympathizer afterwards.
Gide belonged to a generation that had, in the words of Hanna Arendt, a “passion for equality and justice, the longing to transcend meaningless class lines, to abandon stupid privileges and prejudices.” Going to Moscow for him was not really a trip to a foreign country, it felt more like “coming home.” As Jacques Derrida later put it, Gide didn’t leave his country, he didn’t go to the USSR from his place, he went back home to the place that his place should eventually become like. The Soviet Union for Gide was a place of “an unprecedented experiment” capable of “sweeping along the whole humanity.” The price he was willing to pay for participating in this experiment was high: “if my life were necessary to assure the success of the Soviet Union,” he declared, “I would gladly give it immediately.”
Because of his strong Protestant background, Gide’s conversion to Communism had mostly been a religious experience. “It was not Marx who brought me to Communism,” he explained, “I made strenuous efforts to read him, but in vain.”  It was “love.” The Soviet Union became for Gide a new God, and this was emphasized by the epigraph he had chosen for the book – a Homeric hymn to Demeter. “Demeter used to lift Demophoon from his warm, soft cradle and, with seeming cruelty – though in reality inspired by a great love and the desire to transform the child into a God – she would lay him naked on a bed of glowing coals.” Queen Metaneira burst into the room, saved the child but lost the God.
The message of the hymn is clearly aimed at critics of the USSR: don’t interfere, a God is being born. In the end, Gide himself (consciously or not) played the role of god-slaying Queen Metaneira. The Soviet Union failed to live up to Gide’s expectations. “I doubt,” he concluded, “whether in any other country in the world, even Hitler’s Germany, thought be less free, more bowed down, more fearful (terrorized), more vassalized.” Appalled by Stalin’s trials, he put the USSR itself on trial. Originally, he believed that the “fate of culture was linked with the future of the Soviet Union.” He was willing to sacrifice himself for the sake of the Soviet Union. Now he decided to sacrifice the Soviet Union in order to save the faith. For his generation, what counted the most was “the readiness to make a sacrifice, not the object for which the sacrifice is made.”
People who came to Communism from religion were, to use the expression of Erich Fromm, “escaping from freedom.” Unbearable freedom and loneliness were the side effects of modernity, as thinkers from Nietzsche to Max Weber had testified. For the ex-believers, the attraction of Communism was the possibility of self-sacrifice because, as Richard Grossman aphoristically concluded, “it offered nothing and demanded everything.” They felt “something of the release which Catholicism also brings to the intellectual wearied and worried by the privilege of freedom.”
Lion Feuchtwanger came to Communism from another side – from Jewish intellectualism. Perhaps he shared Marx’s contempt for the Slavs and believed that “the West must bring enlightenment to the East, and the middle class to the proletariat.” He perceived events in Moscow in terms of a conflict between “a thinking minority” and “a stupid majority,” being totally on the side of the thinking minority.
Western intellectuals, especially those who came to Communism from religion, were faced with a gap between theory of Communism, on the one hand, and unpleasant facts about Soviet Russia, on the other. In a sense, they were dealing with the same set of problems as St. Paul and St. Augustine, trying to reconcile faith and reason, the intellectual tradition of Athens with the faith coming from Jerusalem (Moscow was often perceived as the New Jerusalem since at least Patriarch Nikon time). It was impossible for the left-wing intellectuals to repeat after Tertullian credo quia absurdum est simply because most of them had accepted Marxism as a scientific theory. Their sophistication, however, allowed them to build complex intellectual schemes to keep theory and Soviet practice separate, not letting them clash. In the words of Arthur Koestler, these intellectuals were “acrobats” keeping “dialectical balance” on a tight-rope in “various contorted positions.” At a certain point the tight-rope would snap. For some, as for anarchist Alexander Berkman, this point was suppressing of the Kronstadt sailors’ rebellion by the Bolsheviks in 1921, for others, as for Koestler, it was the sight of swastika hoisted on Moscow airport, in honour of Ribbentrop’s arrival in 1939, as well as the sound of the Red Army band playing Horst Wessel Lied, whose lyrics, by the way, included lines like “Kam'raden die Rotfront und Reaktion erschossen Marschier'n im Geist in unsern Reihen mit.”
For Gide the snapping point became his visit to Moscow in 1936. For Feuchtwanger, who was in Moscow a year later and observed pretty much the same facts as Gide, this point never took place. It did not really matter how much and how accurate information one had. What mattered was one’s ability to maintain “dialectical balance” on a tight-rope. Emotional, guilt-ridden Gide lost his balance almost immediately. The cerebral Feuchtwanger managed to keep it for the rest of his life. There was always a way to rationalize cruelties in the Soviet Union by even more cruelties elsewhere.
Sometimes, firsthand experience with Soviet Russia changed the observer’s mind, sometimes it didn’t. Stephen Spender, another fallen angel of Communism, tells a story about a British novelist Charlotte Haldane who in the 1930s, upon noticing a queue in London remarked: “Queues! How disgraceful. Such things would not be tolerated in Russia!” She later visited Russia and found that not only there were queues, but also there was unceasing “totalitarian scrutiny” and spying. “What mystifies me,” says Spender, “is why Mrs. Haldane should have to go to Russia to discover this. She could have deduced as much from a dozen books, of which she can hardly have failed to read one, Gide’s Retour de l’U.R.S.S.”
These words, written in 1950, show how influential André Gide’s book had become (even thought the reaction to it was, in some cases, extremely negative). Lion Feuchtwanger’s case, on the other hand, shows that meeting face to face with reality could be an eye-opening or an eye-closing experience, depending on the observer’s mindset.
Both Gide and Feuchtwanger came to Moscow to find “the truth.” Gide knew, of course, that “in Marxist doctrine there is not such thing as truth – at least in any absolute sense – there is only relative truth.” What he wanted was “to see matters as they are – not as we would wish them to be – or had hoped that they might be.” Ten years before him, another visitor to Moscow , a Jewish German writer Walter Benjamin, made a similar claim. “My presentation,” he wrote to Martin Buber about Benjamin’s future article on Moscow , “will be devoid of all theory.” He wanted to allow “the ‘creatural’ to speak for itself.” For both, Gide and Benjamin, Moscow became a point of some sort of a Big Bang creating a new kind of civilization.
If you ask a physicist what was before the Big Bang, the answer would be that the question does not have any meaning: before implies time, and both time and space were created by the Big Bang. We can see a similar kind of mental procedure when Walter Benjamin refuses to apply any abstract terms to the Big Bang taking place in Moscow . He wants to “write a description of Moscow in which ‘all factuality is already theory’ and which would thereby refrain from any deductive abstraction, from any prognostication, and even within certain limits, from any judgment.” For Benjamin, the new civilization being born in Moscow should be allowed to create its own method for describing itself.
If Benjamin was preoccupied with distortions brought by the observer, Gide was more concerned with the distortions created by the presenters. He was trying to break through the wall erected by what would later be called “comradely attention” and to get to “pure, untranslatable, sensuous immediacy” – to use Susan Sontag’s terminology – to “matters as they are,” to “the creatural” which “speaks for itself.” Half a century later, another French visitor to Moscow , Jacques Derrida, would face with a similar problem. My well-meaning well-educated Russian friends, he wrote, “locked me in a mirror circle of complicity, against which – accepting with gratitude everything that was helpful and valuable – I had, nevertheless, to defend myself.” Overcoming “comradely attention” has become a leitmotif for many travelers to Russia from at least the 16th century, from Sigismunds von Herberstein to Paul from Aleppo.
Lion Feuchtwanger’s book was written after Gide’s had been published, and many passages directly argued with Gide’s criticism. Gide, according to Feuchtwanger, couldn’t rise above “many minor discomforts that make daily life difficult there.” He concluded: “even so eminent a writer as André Gide had had his judgment warped by petty annoyances...”
Feuchtwanger was also seeking truth, but perhaps a different kind of truth. He also was trying to “penetrate the surface and see beyond any veil which it might be necessary to arrange for my benefit.” But if Gide was looking for “love,” if he felt he was “brother only to those who have come to Communism through love,” Feuchtwanger sought “reason.” For him, the whole Soviet experiment was based “on reason alone.” He took statistical data supplied by his hosts at face value – the state based on reason would never stoop to fake statistical data. According to this statistical data, “more and better food is available here per head of the population than in Germany and Italy.”  The fact that the 1930s was the time of one of the worst hunger crises in Russian history somehow escaped the traveler’s gaze. “Penetrating the veil” obviously required some other tools than reason, or at least some other kind of reason. The culture Feuchtwanger was dealing with operated on different principles where familiar words, such as truth and reason, had different meanings.
2. Moscow in 1937
In the 1930s, Moscow underwent the most dramatic changes in both its population and its appearance. It was the time of the highest rate of urbanization ever achieved in human history. Millions of peasants moved to Moscow and other large cities for two reasons: the vacuum created by purges and mass arrests in the cities and hunger created by forced collectivization in the country. This movement, in fact, started even earlier, with the defeat of the White Army in 1921. In 1922, American journalist Louis Fischer already noticed that Russian “cities seemed to be filled with people fresh from the forests and wheat fields.” In the 1930s, the process reached its peak. In the words of the writer Vasilii Grossman, “movement of millions of people resulted in that bright-eyed, high-cheekboned provincial people filled the streets of Leningrad, while in the barracks of labor camps Ivan Grigor’evich more and more often was meeting the sad Petersburgeans with their French sounding ‘r’s.”
The new population brought a new lifestyle, and the new lifestyle required a new appearance of the city. The grandiose reconstruction of Moscow started in 1931; in 1937 it was in full swing. Building were demolished, moved or redecorated. The new ones sprung up on the sites of the demolished ones. Old streets were widened; new ones were cut through the old parts of Moscow. On June 15, the First Congress of Soviet Architects finally opened after being delayed six times (the original opening date was March 1, 1936 ). The delays were caused by the desire to have all speeches drafted, edited and approved by various authorities before the opening. In September, the Soviet pavilion was opened at Exposition Internationale in Paris with Vera Mukhina’s sculpture The Worker and the Female Kolkhoznik crowning Iofan’s building. Later, the sculpture was transported to Moscow and reassembled at the entrance to the All-Union Agricultural Exhibition.
One of the major themes of the General Plan for Reconstruction of Moscow (1935) was water. Water was often mentioned in reference to ancient Iran where underground canals were vital to the survival of the city. To assure the survival of Moscow, the Volga-Moscow canal was completed in 1937. The White Sea – Baltic canal had been finished in 1933, and Volga-Don canal would be in 1952. The Moscow-river embankments were to become “major transportation channels and major architectural accents.” The tallest and the “best” building were supposed to stand there. Despite its inland location, Moscow was declared “the port of five seas.” This claim was based on a complex system of rivers and canals connecting, at least in theory, Moscow to the open seas.
1937 was the time of the Civil War in Spain. This war had a special significance for the left-wing intellectuals in the West, because for many of them it postponed their break with the ideas of Communism. To denounce Communism at that moment, as Richard Grossman remarked, “seemed tantamount to supporting Hitler and Chamberlain.” Some Soviet citizens took part in this war, in a sharp contrast to the official ban on such participation. Among them – the highly influential Pravda journalist Mikhail Kol’tsov who would later be depicted in Hemingway’s For Whom The Bell Tolls as Karkov.
In 1937, the struggle with “spies,” “wreckers” and “saboteurs” reached its peak. Only five years ago, in 1932, the word vrediteli (wreckers) only meant beetles that destroy crops. Now it signified people who consciously caused harm to other people, without any apparent goal. “Wreckers” were believed to have an innate and absolutely unmotivated tendency to do Evil. This is an evil that does no one any good. It is Evil for the sake of Evil. On January 23, 1937, the trial of the “anti-Soviet Trotskyist center,” which included the well known in the West writer and revolutionary Karl Radek, had started. Seven days later, most of the accused were executed. Radek died in a labor camp two years later.
On March 17, the official Emblem of the Soviet State (the one in effect until 1991) was approved. The new constitution was adopted in December 1936 – Feuchtwanger found it more democratic than any constitution in the West because it guaranteed freedom of opinion, press and meetings, Gide, predictably, said that these freedoms remained only on paper. The very name, the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (the only country in the world with a name that had no reference to any geographical place) was adopted in 1924, but in 1937 – with the new constitution, the new emblem and the totally new look of its capital – it acquired a new meaning.
In short, by 1937 the Soviet Union had firmly established itself as the new reincarnation of the powerful Russian Empire.
3. Stalin’s Cult and Growing Hierarchy
Lion Feuchtwanger was irritated by the absurdities of Stalin’s cult: “Stalin-worship, the immoderate cult which the population makes of Stalin, is one of the first things that strike a foreigner visiting the Soviet Union.” At his meeting with Stalin, he brought up all those “busts and portraits of him, of more than doubtful artistic merit, in places to which they don’t belong as, for example, the Rembrandt Exhibition.” Stalin replied “it is possible that the ‘wreckers’ may be behind it in an attempt to discredit him.” He quoted from a line from Krylov’s fable: “a servile fool is more dangerous than an enemy.” Feuchtwanger accepted the explanation but it wasn’t clear which version of it: whether it was wreckers, fools or some sort of a combination of both behind the cult.
André Gide was also shocked by Stalin’s cult. What shocked him even more was a discovery that Socialist residential buildings had maid’s rooms. He saw “the reappearance of social strata, of a kind of aristocracy.” He was disturbed by the data published by a French researcher on the gap between the salary of a Soviet worker (70-400 rubles) and a party official (1,500-10,000 rubles). He was appalled by Mikhail Kol’tsov’s lifestyle: “he’s got three [wives]. And two other apartments, not to mention special privileges for staying in the country. And three cars...” He was saddened “by the contempt, or at any rate the indifference, which those who are and feel themselves ‘on the right side’ show to ‘inferiors,’ to servants, to unskilled workmen, to ‘dailies,’ male and female workers by the day, and I was about to say to ‘the poor’.” He concluded: “I did not go to the USSR to meet with privileges again. Those that awaited me were flagrant.”
Feuchtwanger disagreed: “André Gide is [...] surprised – and this time many others share his surprise – at the inequality of incomes in the Soviet Union . I myself am surprised at their surprise. To me it seems utterly reasonable that the Union should adhere to the Socialist principle of “each according to his achievements.” Apparently, Mikhail Kol’tsov’s achievements must have been really high to justify three cars and three wives (although only one wife was official). Gide, when asked by a fellow Frenchman how Stalin can tolerate such excesses, explained: “The men Stalin fears are the pure, are the clean.” Mikhail Kol’tsov, not surprisingly, disliked Gide’s book, and at the International Congress of Writers, which took place in Valencia and Madrid in 1937, Kol’tsov “excelled in improvising parodies of Gide’s book,” wrote Stephen Spender who also attended the congress. “However,” concluded Spender sadly, “this gift did not save him from disappearing entirely from the public view on his return to Russia.” If Gide was right about Stalin, then, apparently, having three wives was not sufficient to make one impure enough.
From a cultural historian’s standpoint, however, neither Stalin’s cult nor growing hierarchy had anything to do with socialist principles or Stalin’s personal fears. Hierarchy started growing in the late 1920s on many different levels simultaneously and seemingly spontaneously.
Right after the revolution of 1917, most planning actions in Moscow were primarily directed toward the destruction of the hierarchical (“feudal,” as it was called) concentric structure of the city. This struggle was completely abandoned in the early 1930s. Different parts of Moscow now called for varying architectural approaches. Some parts called for certain design ideas while others called for different ones. Some buildings were appropriate only for Moscow; better ones, for the central parts of Moscow and, of course, for the embankments.
A single architectural idea could now be correct or incorrect depending on the place it occupies in the spatial hierarchy and the place occupied by its creator in the hierarchy of people. For example, Ivan Leonidov’s project for a collective farm’s Palace of Culture received an uncompromisingly negative reception. This project, with a plan in the form of a five-pointed star, was placed without commentary in the section “Against formalism, simplification, and eclecticism.”  However, at the same time a project for the Red Army Theater by Karo Alabian and Vasilii Simbirtsev in the shape of a five-pointed star had already been approved. Here the same idea provoked a completely different reception: “They have created an expressive model for a building-monument, subordinating every element and its entire volume to the single law of a ‘crystallization structure’ based on the five-pointed star-an emblem which arouses clear associations with the idea of the Red Army. They have, at the same time, created a new, non-traditional form and organization for a theatrical building.”
In this case, the reason for such completely different assessments of the same architectural idea (a plan in the form of a star) was rooted, apparently, not only in the hierarchy of space but also in the hierarchy of people. Constructivist Leonidov could not be compared to the Secretary of the Union of Soviet architects Alabian, and still more, could not be compared to the real author of the plan for the theater of the Red Army, the first secretary of the Moscow Committee of the Communist Party, Lazar’ Kaganovich, whom Feuchtwanger respectfully called one of “fathers” (together with Stalin and Khrushchev) responsible for “beauty and grandeur” of Moscow. Kaganovich is believed to have simply placed his star-shaped inkpot on a blueprint, traced the star, and said, “Build it like this!”
3. The General Plan for Reconstruction of Moscow
The decision to create such a plan was made in June 1931, at the Plenum of the Central Committee of the party. Moscow was to have a “serious, scientific, five-year plan for expanding and building the city.” Among other measures, there were specific references to building the subway and the Volga-Moscow canal. The General Plan itself was adopted in July 10, 1935, by Sovnarkom and the Central Committee, the highest civil and party organs. In a noticeable departure from the language of a government decree of the previous decade, the plan was dealing with aesthetics. It required “a consistent architectural organization of squares, highways, embankments, and parks, utilizing best examples of both classical and new architecture, as well as all achievements of building technology, in the design of residential and industrial buildings.”
On July 18, 1931, Izvestiia published an announcement for an architectural competition for the Palace of the Soviets to be built on the site of the Cathedral of Christ the Savior that would be demolished a year later. In the fall, 160 entries, including 24 from abroad, were displayed in the Museum of Fine Arts in Moscow. On February 28, 1932, the first round was over, and first prize was divided among Boris Iofan, Ivan Zholtovskii and the American architect Hamilton. On May 10, 1933, Iofan’s project was declared “the basis” for the following rounds of competition. On June 4, 1933, Vladimir Shchuko and Vladimir Gel’freikh joined Boris Iofan to work on the “final” project.
In a procedure very typical for this culture, instead of selecting one of the three winning projects, all three were selected and had to be combined into a new design, which supposedly would possess the sum of values of the three but without their flaws. The same procedure could be seen in the General Plan requirements to combine classical and new architecture, as well as merging, in 1932, all competing architectural schools into one Union of Soviet architects.
Another project related to but not directly included into the General Plan was the All-Union Agricultural Exhibition. It was supposed to open on August 1, 1937, to mark the twenty year anniversary of Soviet power, as well as to demonstrate the successes of collectivization of 1929-32, and run for 100 days. Since construction deadlines for the exhibition were not met, a new timeframe was established with an opening date of August 1, 1938, with the exhibition now to run for five years. Soon it became clear that the new date was also unrealistic, and so the deadline was again postponed, this time to August 1, 1939. The running time for the exhibition was extended indefinitely. The major reason for this continued extension of the opening deadline was the discovery of “sabotage.” V. Oltarzhevskii, the chief architect of the exhibition, was unmasked as a “saboteur” and arrested. The case against him contained four points: (1) he spoke English with his secretary (he had spent several years in the US); (2) the exhibition had not a single statue of Lenin or Stalin; (3) the entrance gate was too plain, small and horizontal (“looked like a fence”), (4) in the hammer-and-sickle emblem, the hammer was aimed against the cutting edge of the sickle, which meant Oltarzhevskii was secretly broadcasting a message about a conflict between the workers and the peasants.
Lion Feuchtwanger attended the unfinished Agricultural Exhibition where he saw an elaborate model of the future Moscow. “One stands on a small raised platform,” he wrote, “before the gigantic model which represents the Moscow of 1945 – a Moscow which bears the same relationship to the present-day Moscow as the latter does to that of the Tsars, which was little more than a large village. The model is electrically lighted, and the increasing number of blue, green, and red lines show the course of the streets, underground railways and motor roads and demonstrate with what devotion to system of housing and communications of the great city will be constructed.”
Feuchtwanger’s reaction to the rebuilding of Moscow was unequivocally enthusiastic: “Never before has a city of millions of inhabitants been completely rebuilt with such meticulous regard for the laws of suitableness, and hence beauty, as this new Moscow. Innumerable tiny points and lines flash out to mark the sites of schools, hospitals, factories, stores, and theatres. The River Moscwa [sic], one is told, will in future follow such a course and this will be the line of the Moscwa-Volga Canal; here there will be bridges, and here a tunnel will be driven under the river; here will be streets for the quick transport of food, and here those for other transport, and from here will be controlled the water-supply of the city, its electricity and its heating. In all this there is more purposeful cohesion that anywhere in the world.”
Gide, on the other hand, was not impressed by Moscow architecture at all: “The buildings, with a few rare exceptions, are ugly (not only the very modern ones) and take no account the one of the other.” The Palace of the Soviet provoked a rather sarcastic reaction: “what is to be thought when, during a period of such dire distress [the money] goes to erect a Palace of Soviets (of the defunct Soviets) [...] A monument 415 meters (about 1,260 feet) high, surmounted by a statue of Lenin, 70 or 80 meters in height, made of stainless steel, one of those fingers is ten meters long [...] a finger ten meters long for a total height of 70 to 80 meters?... Let’s hope at least that Lenin is seated.”
This 10-meter long finger was discussed in the Soviet press, and none of the journalists ever questioned its anatomical absurdity. Perhaps, in this phallic finger, Gide’s saw traces of the fertility rites and the celebration of potency flourishing in the Soviet culture at that time – one can recall the gigantic sculpture Bull with hypertrophied genitalia at the All-Union Agricultural Exhibition, as well as the increasingly frequent use of the adjective sterile and impotent in architectural criticism. This sarcastic remark alone was enough to guarantee banishment of Gide’s book.
It seems that, after making a major political choice – confirming or denying the role of the Soviet Union as a Savior of the West – the two writers started to see beauty and ugliness in a completely different light. For Gide, man-made things in Moscow looked ugly: “The goods are hardly less than repulsive. You might almost think that the stuffs, objects, etc. were deliberately made as unattractive as possible in order to put people off, so that they shall only buy out of extreme necessity and never because they are tempted.” This anti-asceticism is surprising from someone who only recently was ready to sacrifice himself for an idea. It shows the profound effect that the Moscow experience had on Gide’s whole worldview. Feuchtwanger, on the other hand, saw “beauty,” “cohesion” and functionality: “there are many things which are attractive in design and price – writing lamps, fuel containers, cameras, and gramophones.” Cameras, by the way, exact replicas of the German Leica, were produced at that time at a labor camp factory and bore the name FED, an abbreviation of the KGB founder Felix Edmundovich Dzerzhinsky’s name.
4. Creative Organizations
On April 23, 1932 , the Central Committee of the party adopted a resolution “On restructuring of literary-creative organizations” which liquidated all creative organizations in the field of literature replacing them with single Union of Soviet writers. The resolution required that “analogous changes be made in other arts.” Consequently, the Union of Soviet architects was created around June 18, 1932. A year later, the Unions of Soviet composers and artists were created. The first Congress of Soviet writers took place on August 17, 1934. The first Congress of Soviet architects finally opened on June 15, 1937. Congresses of other creative professions took place much later: Congress of Soviet composers, in 1948, and Congress of Soviet artists, only in 1957.
The Union of Soviet writers was the organization which generously sponsored both Feuchtwanger’s and Gide’s trips. “When I think of the expenses it incurred on our behalf,” remarked Gide, “I doubt whether the gold-mine of my author’s rights which I am leaving them will be sufficient to reimburse them. Evidently, they counted on other results than this from such generous treatment. And I think that part of the resentment shown against me by the Pravda comes from this – that I have not been a very ‘paying proposition.’” One example of this lavish treatment was a luxurious private railroad car, which Mikhail Kol’tsov provided for Gide and his French companions for traveling across the country. Once again, Gide was shocked by the inequality: he discovered that the car was locked and he could not communicate with ordinary Soviet passengers from other cars.
A similar level of expenses for foreign guests, as well as similar disappointments, took place at the Congress of Soviet architects. Frank Lloyd Wright, speaking at the congress on June 24, 1937, strongly criticized the project of the Palace of Soviets: “This structure – only proposed I hope – is good if we take it for a modern version of St. George destroying the dragon.” In the published Russian translation these words were omitted. (Gide also noticed that translations of his speeches were “touched up and ‘improved.’”)
The Belgian guest to the Congress, architect Vervaeck, complained that he had been constantly “followed by so called sleuths” and that, therefore, “there was no difference between USSR and bourgeois countries.” Members of the organizing committee in their report to authorities, in turn, complained, “Our embassies did not treat inviting such a guest to the congress seriously enough.” In other words, so called sleuths should have started following Vervaeck much earlier.
Let’s take a closer look at this procedure of merging different elements into one whole. Competing literary movements of the 1920s – LEF, Pereval, Serapion Brothers, RAPP – were combined in a single Union. Architectural groups – OSA, ARU, VOPRA – also were merged into a single Union. Instead of choosing one the culture of the 1930s usually selects all, which sometimes takes the form of none. OSA leader Moisei Ginzburg was shocked to discover what seemed to him illogical demands: “This loss of taste,” he wrote in 1934, “is aggravated by those who are saying: we are against both the imitators of classical forms and the contemporary Constructivists. This statement is very confusing by itself, but when they add: we are also against eclecticism, then one can’t help but think that this is a battle against everybody and not for architecture but for an abstraction.”
This necessity to liquidate smaller groups to create a bigger all-encompassing one could be interpreted on different levels. On the one hand, it seemingly confirms Hanna Arendt thesis that a totalitarian states need to atomize elements out of which they build themselves. “Totalitarian movements are mass organizations of atomized, isolated individuals,” she wrote. “Mass atomization in Soviet society was achieved by the skillful use of repeated purges which invariably precede actual group liquidation.” On the other hand, Ginzburg’s confusion indicates that culture’s requirements could not be interpreted logically.
I think that both, the liquidation of old groups and the impossibility of logical interpretations of culture’s requirements stem from the same source, namely a peculiar form of synergism. There is a belief that combining conflicting elements makes the new entity stronger than the sum of its parts. That’s why none of the competing architectural styles and movements was given preference. That’s why the final project of the Palace of the Soviets combined entries by three different architects – Iofan, Gel’freikh and Shchuko.
In architectural terms, it meant eclecticism – but not the Russian eclecticism of the 19 th century. It meant that all styles of all epochs and nations should, like in a Russian fairy tale, be “melted and imbued with gold.” This is how it must work in the Palace of the Soviet design: “All of the many centuries of the culture of human art will enter into this people’s building. From the golden, glazed tiles of Moorish Spain to the architecture of American glass. From Byzantine mosaics to contemporary plastics. The old art of the tapestry, carving in black oak, the revival of the fresco, the lighting engineering achievements of photo-illuminations, the folk craft of Palekh – it is impossible to enumerate the entire wealth of artistic decoration. Amidst porphyry, marble, crystal and jasper, the high technology of comfort of the twentieth century will function imperceptibly.”
By 1940, the time this description was written, Constructivism had been denounced; most of former Constructivists confessed and repented. Still, looking at a section drawing of the proposed Palace of the Soviets, one can clearly see the Constructivist structure of the building. Constructivism (as well as any other architectural movement) was dangerous by itself, as a singular architectural idea. As a part of a glorious whole, it was harmless and useful.
5. Political Trials and Mass Arrests
Even though purges and mass arrests did not start in 1937, that year’s trials attracted international attention because the accused were members of the “Lenin guard.” Most notably, they included Kamenev, Zinov’ev, Piatakov and Radek, all well known in the left-wing circles in the West.
Few of the former supporters of the Soviet Union remained such after the trials and the “saboteur” witch-hunt. Lion Feuchtwanger, however, personally attended the trial of Pitakov and Radek and became convinced that it had not been staged. “When I saw Piatakov, Radek, and his friends, and heard what they said and how they said it,” Feuchtwanger wrote, “I was forced to accept the evidence of my senses, and my doubts melted away as naturally as salt dissolves in water. If that was lying or prearranged, then I don’t know what truth is.” At his meeting with Stalin, he asked about Karl Radek. Stalin confirmed that he and Radek had been friends. “You Jews,” continued Stalin, “have created one eternally true legend – that of Judas.” Feuchtwanger was touched by this answer. “It was strange to hear a man,” he said, “otherwise so sober and logical, utter these simple, emotional words.”
It’s worth recalling that it was Karl Radek who in 1926 crushed the hopes of Walter Benjamin for being accepted in the Soviet Union. Radek read Benjamin’s article on Goethe and made fun of the fact that the expression “class struggle” was repeated on one page 10 times. He shouldn’t have. It was precisely the idea of the “growing class struggle under socialism” which was Stalin’s justification of political trials as well as his main contribution to Marxism.
Karl Radek came to Russia in 1905 not speaking a single word of Russian. His fate harks back to the times of Vasilii III when Byzantine theologian Maxim the Greek was invited to Moscow to correct prayer books and later was exiled to Volokolamskii Monastery, as well as to the Petrine epoch when an English engineer Bertrand Perry came to build sluices and was executed by the czar – a story told in Andrei Platonov’s Epifanskie shliuzy.
André Gide did not endorse the trials. He described the political atmosphere in Moscow in the following terms: “One ends by suspecting everything and everyone. The innocent talk of children may be your ruin. One doesn’t dare speak in front of them. Everyone watches everyone else, watches his own words, is himself watched.” He had a few meetings with Nikolai Bukharin who was already falling out of grace. The last time Gide saw him, Bukharin asked for a private meeting. Mikhail Kol’tsov overheard the conversation, took Bukharin aside, and said something. “I don’t know what he said,” writes Gide, “but during the whole of my stay in Moscow I did not see Bukharin again.” As a footnote we should add that both, Bukharin and Kol’tsov, were arrested in 1938. Bukharin was executed immediately after the trial, Kol’tsov, in 1942.
6. War Preparations
Moscow in 1937 was a capital of a nation preparing for war – this was obvious to both writers. “Many of Stalin’s decisions,” observed André Gide, “in recent times almost all of them – have been taken entirely with a view to Germany and are dictated by fear of her. The progressive restoration of the family, of private property, of inheritance can thus be reasonably explained; the citizen of the Soviet Union must be encouraged to feel that he has some personal possessions to defend.”
Gide was introduced to a hero worker, a Stakhanovite. He had succeeded, Gide wrote, “in doing the work of eight days in five hours (or else the work of five days in eight hours; I forget which).” Gide was unimpressed. “I have heard,” he wrote, “that a party of French miners who were traveling in the USSR went to look over one of the mines. In spirit of good fellowship they asked to relieve a shift of Soviet miners and then and there, without putting themselves out in the least, and without even being aware of it, turned out to be Stakhanovites.” His conclusion: “Stakhanovism is a marvelous invention for brisking up idleness (in old days there was the knout). Stakhanovism would be useless in a country where the workers all work. But out there, as soon as they are left alone, they become slack.”
Feuchtwanger strongly objected: “These observations of Gide’s astonish me. I, for my own part, must say that it was, on the contrary, the very activity and industry of the people of Moscow which impressed me [...] I have never come across so many indefatigable, industrious people as in Moscow [...] The American hustle, which I failed to discover in New York and Chicago I found in Moscow . An end should definitely be made of the polite fiction of Russian indolence.”
Indolent or not, the Stakhanovite movement was clearly aimed at raising productivity in the face of imminent war.
Gide’s list of measures aimed at preparing the country for war could be extended almost indefinitely. Gide was disturbed by the new Soviet laws banning abortions and criminalizing homosexuality but he did not see them as pre-war measures. Obviously, they were. So were the measures aimed at tightening work discipline. In his famous “six conditions” (June 23, 1931) Stalin emphasized the necessity of tying workers to their working places: “We cannot tolerate free flow of the work force anymore.” Measures tying down the work force culminated in the decree of 1935 forbidding the “expulsion” of collective farm workers from collective farms, which in effect meant the reestablishment of serfdom; the decree 1940, banning “the unauthorized departure of laborers and white-collar workers from business establishments and institutions”, which in effect meant forced labor; and finally, the law of January 18, 1941, (six months before the Nazi invasion) which made being late to work by twenty minutes a matter for the criminal courts.
On June 26, 1937, after the First Congress of Soviet Architects was adjourned, another, secret, meeting was arranged to which none of the foreign guests was invited. An officer of the Air Defense, someone named Utkin, spoke to the Soviet architects and presented military requirements for a city’s air defenses. After reading the transcript of his speech (which was never published) it becomes clear that most of the measures for reconstruction of Moscow were dictated by military considerations. “We are very much behind in this area,” said Utkin, “we have to catch up, surpass, and do it in a very short period of time.” Utkin insisted on having “wide streets which help liquidate fires and prevent chemical weapons from staying in one place” – many Moscow streets were widened at this time following the guidelines of the General Plan. Utkin spoke about perfecting the water supply – the Moscow-Volga canal was built precisely for this purpose. Utkin spoke out for the surfacing of streets to facilitate decontamination – and all of Moscow was covered at this time with asphalt; Utkin demanded the “development and improvement of an underground infrastructure” – the construction of the underground palaces of the Moscow metro fulfilled this demand.
The Palace of the Soviets was never built. Instead, a circle of seven replicas was erected along the Garden Ring road. Just as the prototype itself, they all were hierarchical, but in place of the Lenin’s statue, they all had steeples – clearly Lenin could not be replicated. In those steeples, as every Muscovite firmly believed, some anti-aircraft devices, radars perhaps, were hidden. The seven skyscrapers became the seven border guards of Moscow protecting it from enemies just like the real border guards at the state borders. The number seven symbolically represented the number of gates in ancient Jerusalem as well as the number of hills on which Jerusalem (and allegedly Moscow) was built.
Feuchtwanger believed that the war between the German Fascism and the Russian Communism was inevitable because of their different attitudes towards intellectualism. He quoted from the official German calendar: “A true German can never be an intellectual.” This attitude created, he though, an irresolvable conflict with the Soviet people, for whom “to be an intellectual constitutes the goal of the aspirations of every one of the Soviet people, peasant, worker and soldier.” He was convinced that “mathematics and reason, the hall-marks of the Soviet Union, are especially evident in the elaborate plan for the reconstruction of Moscow.”
The whole Soviet experiment was understood by Feuchtwanger, as we know, in terms of a conflict between a “thinking minority” and a “stupid majority.” The implication was that the thinking minority was the Soviet leaders who force the stupid majority of the Russians into a rationally organized Socialist state. The average Soviet citizen, according to Feuchtwanger, is happy to follow the leaders and “lives more contently, in deeper harmony with his lot” than people in the West. It was impossible to organize Western cities on a rational basis, believed Feuchtwanger, because of the evils of private ownership. He quoted the Préfet Haussmann who couldn’t fully implement his plans for reconstruction of Paris the 1880s because of the resistance of private owners. In Moscow, fortunately, “the planning is not hindered by the fact that it must be adapted to existing evils. Everything is an essential part of an intelligently conceived plan.”
Haussmann’s project was constantly used as a negative example in the Soviet architectural press. “It is well known that Haussmann’s re-planning of Paris,” wrote L. Perchik, one of the creators of the General Plan for Reconstruction of Moscow, “had as one of its major goals depriving the workers of the opportunity to build barricades in the narrow and curving streets, inaccessible for artillery.” On this point, there was a complete agreement between the “fathers” of reconstruction of Moscow and the German writer.
There is some evidence that Stalin might have agreed with Feuchtwanger on the issue of “stupid majority” as well. My parents have told me how on a May Day parade, Stalin was standing on top of Lenin’s mausoleum in front of the microphone, ready to start his speech. Assuming that the microphone was off, he said to his entourage pointing at the approaching columns of organized demonstrators: “Here come the sheep.” The microphone, as it turned out, was on, and the phrase was broadcast to the whole country. Needles to say, the “saboteur” sound engineer was immediately arrested.
From a cultural historian’s standpoint, however, Feuchtwanger’s discourse on intellectualism seems hardly relevant. The beginning of the 1930s in Russia was marked by a strong tendency of anti-intellectualism, which could be seen, for example, in Stalin’s 1931 article “Some questions of history of Bolshevism” where he stated that certain issues cannot be discussed and must be accepted as axioms. “Libel must be stamped out, and not turned into a subject for discussion,” he insisted. “Who, but hopeless bureaucrats, would rely only on paper documents?”
Relying on documents was the issue, which became the “snapping of the tight-rope” for the Italian writer Ignazio Silone. In 1927 he was at the session of the Communist International in Moscow . He was asked to sign a statement condemning Trotsky’s recent letter to the Party without seeing the letter itself. When he objected, the Bulgarian Vasil Kolarov was commissioned to give Silone a crash course of the new understanding of documents: “Do you think I’ve read the document? […] this isn’t a question of documents […] we aren’t in an academy here […] One’s got to choose.”
Documents were rejected together with bureaucrats and abstract theories. A government decree of 1934 claimed that history was taught in schools incorrectly, “instead of teaching civil history in a lively, absorbing form, pupils were presented with abstract definitions of social-economic formations.” Karo Alabian speaking at the Congress attacked professor Sheleikhovskii’s book The Transportational Foundation of the Composition of a City Plan for his use of “logarithms, integrals, and other mathematical attributes,” because all these attributes serve only “as a means of showing off, as a smoke screen, to hide his false conceptualization,” for it is not necessary, “to possess great knowledge or great wisdom to understand the essence of such types of scientific calculations.”
“Anyone who loves geometry is impious before God,” proclaimed an ancient Russian teaching. The world view expressed here was manifested in the execution (11 February 1691 ) of the builder of the Zaikonospasskii Monastery, Sylvester Medvedev, accused, in particular, of being preoccupied with geometry. It appears that in the 1930s, contrary to what Lion Feuchtwanger thought, Russian attitude towards intellectualism went back it its traditional mode.
9. Truth and Reality
Hanna Arendt, in The Origins of Totalitarianism, saw the object of a totalitarian state in replacing some universal common-sense reality by irreality. Referring to Plato’s Protagoras she wrote: “The most striking difference between ancient and modern sophists is that the ancients were satisfied with a passing victory of the argument at the expense of truth, whereas the moderns want a more lasting victory at the expense of reality.” For many philosophers of the late 20th century, the existence of such reality would be questionable. As Mikhail Ryklin observed, as soon we are able to see differences between Stalinism and Nazism, this universal common sense reality disappears. The most profound of these differences, in my view, is self-reflection.
The Nazi ideologists knew what they were doing and were able to formulate their intentions and methods with amazing clarity. True, some elements of their program remained secret but not from the ruling body. Stalinist culture was based on a complete impossibility of self-reflection. True methods and objectives were opaque even for the people on the very top. This culture was using many words, it was notably verbose, but words and their meaning were separated with an impenetrable wall. The culture was not lying; it simply had a different understanding of both truth and reality. The statistical data provided to Feuchtwanger was not wrong or fake; it existed in a different space, which was the reality for those who operated in it. In this reality, there was no such thing as a logical contradiction – the official ban on participating in the Spanish Civil War did not prevent Kol’tsov and many others from going there, cutting down all the trees on the Garden Ring road in Moscow did not contradict vigorous greenery campaign, the physical destruction of examples of Russian architectural tradition did not contradict the proclamation of this tradition as the singular source of creativity.
Various reasons have been cited for the lack of success in constructing the Palace of the Soviets – the poor quality of the soil under the foundation, a lack of high-grade steel, the danger that the figure of Lenin would be lost in the clouds, Stalin’s secret desire to have Lenin’s statue replaced by his own – but another, more general explanation can be suggested: the primary construction of the primary city should possess a level of perfection too high to be embodied in a real building. If ordinary Moscow buildings were built, then the primary building must remain an unrealized ideal, marking the transition to another level. In Stalinist reality, the Palace of the Soviets truly existed and could be destroyed only together with this reality.
André Gide was proud that the Soviet authorities were not able to “buy” him, that he remained free and did not become a “paying proposition.” The Soviet attempts to influence his opinion were too crude. Twelve years later Gide participated in a much more subtle and sophisticated attempt by another world power to influence the political climate of the world, and this time he was much less perceptive. He collaborated on a book entitled The God That Failed [95 that, as it was revealed later, had been financed and distributed by the CIA.
The aim of Frances Stonor Saunders’ book Who Paid The Piper? where these revelations were made, was once again to find truth, to come “as close as possible to the truth,” to redeem “the truth for truth’s sake,” which for Saunders meant participating in the “disenchantment of the world.”[96 The book is not about a visit to the Soviet Union but about the people who had visited the Soviet Union and became disenchanted. Saunders is now disenchanted with their disenchantment. She doesn’t have any illusions about the nature of Stalinism or about the integrity of the anti-Stalinist movement. She has one illusion, though, and it is the belief that following the money trail can explain much in the complex intellectual history of the 20th century. The intellectual drama with such participants as Arthur Koestler, George Orwell, André Gide, Hanna Arendt and Isaiah Berlin (each of whom had brilliant insights not only into the nature of Stalinism but also into the nature of human mind in general) is hereby reduced to a district attorney’s speech using all available means to paint a negative image of the accused: Arthur Koestler was “a violent rapist,” Irving Kristol was a “political neurotic,” Nicolas Nabokov inherited “hypocrisy” from his father. It is as if somebody writing a book on Francis Bacon, for example, would only concentrate on the bribes Bacon accepted, leaving aside his philosophy as something of a secondary importance.
If theoreticians of totalitarianism, Hanna Arendt for one, believed in the existence of some universal common-sense reality, which totalitarian states tried to replace with their irreality, journalists of Frances Stonor Saunders generation believe in some universal common-sense moral law. I suspect that this unanalyzed and undefined moral law boils down to some sort of political correctness, which anti-Stalinists (“Yale-educated, pipe-smoking” boozers and womanizers) had apparently violated.
In the 1930s, the Soviet methods of manipulating intellectuals were rapidly improving. A retired Russian literary critic Mark Polyakov currently residing in Princeton, New Jersey, has told me a story[97 of his distant relative German Chaikovkii (or Herman Tschaikovky) who in 1937 as a young NKVD (KGB) officer – handsome, with charming manners and fluent German – was assigned the role of Feuchtwanger’s translator. “Follow him everywhere,” was his boss’ directive, “and prevent him from contacts with unreliable people.” Three days later, the boss told him to stop: “Don’t bother. We have practically bought him. A few more rare books, and he is ours.”
Feuchtwanger was a fanatic of book collecting. During his lifetime, he collected three vast libraries, two were confiscated by the Nazis, the third one is now safe in Los Angeles where he lived from 1941 till his death in 1958. According to Polyakov, the rare books he was given in Moscow were incunabula, the Hebrew and European books published after the Gutenberg invention and before the 16th century. It was perhaps much easier for someone to became charmed by Stalin having authentic Incunabula in his hands. It seems that the authenticity of the books has helped Feuchtwanger to accept the authenticity of the show trials.
There is, however, another possible explanation of Feuchtwanger’s uncritical acceptance of Stalin and the trials. His novel The Pretender, written just before his trip to Moscow, provides a hint. It’s a story of a former slave pretending to be the slain Roman emperor Nero. Senator Varron, depicted by Feuchtwanger rather sympathetically, cynically supports the pretender, a pawn in Varron’s political game. To convince the mob that the emperor is real, Varron, with the help of his allies – the sophisticated and cunning Oriental kings Philipp, Maluk and Artaban, also depicted sympathetically – devise a nasty plan to damage one of the Euphrates sluices and to accuse Christian fanatics of this sabotage. “Here, in the East,” says Varron, “the more straightforward the matter, the more complicated and tricky tools you have to use for the people to believe in it.” His associates Knops adds: “The more flagrant the lie, the sooner the mob will believe in it.” Varron agrees.
The Pretender is a book about a conflict between a thinking minority (senator Varron who loves Orient and his Oriental allies) and a stupid majority (the rough and primitive Roman warriors and bureaucrats). There are no good and bad guys in the story, only clever and stupid. It seems as if Feuchtwanger was looking at events in Moscow in similar terms. The sophisticated and cunning Oriental (Georgian or Ossetian) king Stalin was forced to devise sabotage acts and to send some Marxist fanatics to trials in order to convince the stupid mob that the emperor (himself in this case) was real. Feuchtwanger (who, perhaps, saw himself on this trip as some sort of a Roman senator) felt that he had to be clever and to support the pretender. Incunabula helped, of course, but he would have done it anyway.
The book Moscow 1937 and his meeting with Stalin did not help Feuchtwanger’s fate in the US . He was constantly questioned by the FBI and had never received American citizenship. Surprisingly, his fate in the Soviet Union was not cloudless either. A few years later after its publication, Moscow 1937 was removed from the libraries, and in 1947, in the middle of the “anti-cosmopolitan” campaign, the author was denounced as an agent of Anglo-American imperialism. Among other things the article in the Novyi Mir magazine could not forgive him was demanding “total and complete freedom in dealing with historical facts and historical truth.” Paradoxically, the same accusation was made by some anti-Stalinists: in Moscow 1937, Feuchtwanger had sacrificed truth for political expediency. In the end, Feuchtwanger was rejected by practically all sides: by the Nazis, by the anti-Stalinists and later by the Stalinists themselves.
It looked as if by quoting Krylov’s famous line – “a servile fool is more dangerous than an enemy” – Stalin meant Feuchtwanger himself.
The article in Novyi Mir did not spare André Gide either. In a sarcastic reference to his novel Counterfeiters, Gide was defined as “the notorious counterfeiter of culture and morale [...] the unsurpassed virtuoso of lie and black libel.” The article also lambasted the anti-Stalinist writers (who would later become the subject of Frances Stonor Saunders’ book): “these writers have paid a heavy price for the American support and advertising: they betrayed their people and their homeland in the name of their bootlicking service to the American expansionists.”
If not for certain crudeness of language, these lines would fit nicely into Who Paid the Piper. Saunders and other critics of the CIA would, no doubt, deny sharing a political platform with hard-core Stalinists. There is, however, a certain double standard in their position: their outrage is aimed in one direction only, they have nothing to say about millions of dollars pumped by the KGB into cultural affairs in the West (the American Communist party alone was receiving about a million dollars a year). This is a pose of Western superiority: we didn’t expect those barbarians in the East to act like moral human beings, but our guys should have behaved.
Gide’s books had the dubious honor of being condemned by at least two powers, by the Soviet State and by the Catholic Church. On April 2, 1952 , the Supreme Sacred Congregation of the Holy Office issued an official decree condemning all Gide’s works. With the Pope Pius XII’s approval, they were entered in the Index of Forbidden Books. The language of this condemnation sounded very much like Stalin-Zhdanov’s decree on Akhmatova and Zoshchenko: “He appears like a kind of impotent Racine , cold, sometimes bored. His music seems on first appearance to be something superior, but it is bent and adapted, most often, to such a degraded inspiration, to his ever-renewed perfidy, to his impure sterility.” Impotence, coldness and sterility, as we remember, were the major faults that the Stalinist epoch found in the “formalist” literature, art and architecture of the 1920s.
Gide’s and Feuchtwanger’s books started to reappear in the Soviet Union only in the 1950s. In 1955, Anatolii Sofronov, the editor-in-chief of Ogoniok magazine, with a group of other high-ranking Soviet writers, visited Feuchtwanger in his Spanish-style Villa Aurora in Los Angeles . A State Department representative objected to this visit saying that Feuchtwanger was suspect of being “red.” Sofronov proudly retorted: “For us he is just one of the greatest living writers.” Needless to say that Stalin had been dead for almost three years by that time, Khrushchev was already working on his anti-Stalin speech full of shocking revelations, and the Soviet reality was rapidly crumbling.
“Do they read my books in the Soviet Union ?” Feuchtwanger asked Sofronov. “You bet,” was the answer. “The translation of you Goya was released recently [...] The publisher is going to send you your honorarium.” Feuchtwanger was pleased: “then I will be able to buy some rare books.”
In Stalinist reality consumption was symbolic, there was no room for mercantile relationships. Food items displayed at the Agricultural Exhibition were capable of feeding the whole country in almost the same way, as Jesus’ five loaves of bread were capable of feeding five thousand people. The rare books used to be given in exchange for the writer’s heart. Now the writer was going to be paid in real money (or at least promised to be paid), and the rare books had to be purchased with this money. This is the end of the epoch.
German Chaikovskii, like so many of his NKVD-KGB colleagues, was arrested in the 1952s and spent some time in the GULAG. When Polyakov met him in the 1960s, after Chaikovskii’s release from the camps, the latter looked shabby and ill, having lost his imposing manners as well as his teeth and hair. Chaikovskii was very happy to see Polyakov and insisted on telling him the Feuchtwanger story. He also wanted to tell the truth.
The unfinished 16-storey high part of the skeleton of the Palace of the Soviets was dismantled during World War II. In 1958, the foundation of the building was converted into a huge, 129.5 meters (425 feet) in diameter, public swimming pool. In the 1990s the idea of restoring the original Konstantin Ton’s cathedral emerged. Various proposals were discussed in the media. The most interesting one was by Yuri Seliverstov who proposed to restore the Cathedral as an empty metal frame outlining the shape of the demolished building – a symbol of humility, memory and repentance. This writer also made a proposal (slightly ironic, perhaps). I suggested to preserve the swimming pool but to add a transparent inflatable plastic cover in the shape of a full-size Palace of the Soviets, including the statue of Lenin.
None of the symbolic proposals was accepted, and the “pseudo-Russian” Cathedral, “a good imitation of bad 19th century eclecticism,” to use an expression of one foreign architect, was restored in its entirety. “Architects lacking inspiration and the understanding of the meaning of church building are always substituting spiritual elements with decorative ones. A typical example of such costly absurdity is the Cathedral of the Christ the Savior that looks like a huge samovar around which the whole patriarchal Moscow has gathered cheerfully.” These words have been written over a century ago, and they still make sense. Once again, abstract ideas were rejected for the sake of “lively, absorbing forms.”
Some elements of the 1930s Zeitgeist are clearly coming back. Another symptom of this comeback is the recent plan to put Vera Mukhina’s sculpture The Worker and the Female Kolkhoznik on a new pedestal in 2005. The pedestal, to be designed by Zurab Tseretelli, will be the same height as the original 1937 pavilion (35 meters) and will contain a shopping mall – a temple to the new god that already seems to have failed Russia.
1. André Gide, Retour de l’U.R.S.S. (Paris: Gallimard, 1936) and Retouches à mon retour de l’ U.R.S.S. (Paris: Gallimard, 1937). All quotations are from the English editions: Return From The U.S.S.R. (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1937) and Afterthoughts. A Sequel To Back From The U.S.S.R. (London: Martin Secker and Warburg Ltd., 1937). Lion Feuchtwanger, Moskau 1937, ein reisebericht für meine freunde (Amsterdam: Querido verlag, 1937). All quotations are from the English edition Moscow 1937. My Visit Described For My Friends (London: Victor Gollancz Ltd, 1937).
2. Hanna Arendt, The Origins of Totalitarianism (London: George Allen & Unwin Ltd, 1958), 329.
3. Jacques Derrida, Moscou aller-retour (Éditions de l’aube, 1995), 64. This book was originally published in Russian: Jacques Derrida v Moskve: dekonstruktsiia puteshestvia (Moscow: Kul’tura, 1993).
4. Quoted in Enid Starkie, “André Gide,” The God That Failed. Six Studies in Communism (London: Hamish Hamilton, 1950) , 176.
5. Ibid., 173
6. André Gide in The God That Failed , 179.
7. Gide, Afterthoughts, 21.
8. Derrida., 73.
9. The God That Failed , 179.
10. Arendt, 328.
11. Richard Grossman, “Introduction,” The God That Failed, 11.
12. Ibid., 12.
13. Ibid, 13.
14. Arthur Koestler in The God That Failed, 81.
16. A letter to Martin Buber of February 23, 1927, in Walter Benjamin, Moscow Diary (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1986), 132.
18. Susan Sontag, Against Interpretation and Other Essays (London: Eyre & Spottiswoode, 1967), 9.
19. Derrida, 25.
20. Feuchtwanger, 10.
22. Quoted in Enid Starkie, 171.
23. Feuchtwanger, 8.
24. Ibid., 16.
25. Louis Fischer in The God That Failed, 203.
26. Vasilii Grossman, Vse Techet ( St. Petersburg: Oktiabr’, 1989). Quoted from the Internet edition
27. Sobranie zakonov i rasporiazhenii raboche-krest’anskogo pravitel’stva SSSR (1935), no. 306, 537-547.
28. In the late 1970s, Literaturnaia Gazeta, which occasionally managed to publish semi-dissident jokes in its Humor pages, was making fun of this clain in the following fake news announcement: “Engineer Ivan Sidorov has made an important discovery: he found that his bathroom, through the system of water and sewage pipes, could be considered a port of five seas” (I quote from my memory).
29. Grossman, 14.
30. In 1932 Index to Sobranie zakonov i rasporiazhenii raboche-krest’anskogo pravitel’stva SSSR, the word vrediteli was used only in its agricultural sense.
31. Ibid., 85.
32. Ibid., 94-95.
33. Ibid., 95. Feuchtwanger, who did not know Krylov, misquoted him but Stalin, who liked using quotations from Russian literature, clearly meant “usluzhlivyi durak opasnee vraga.”
34. Gide, Afterthoughts, 92.
35. Gide, Return, 39.
36. Gide, Afterthoughts, 39.
37. The narrator in For Whom The Bell Tolls says that he likes both Karkov’s wife and lover.
38. Gide, Afterthoughts, 104.
39. Ibid, 40.
40. Ibid., 58.
41. Feuchtwanger, 49.
42. Gide, Afterthoughts, 104.
43. Spender in The God that Failed, 252.
44. For a more detailed account of this process see my book Architecture in the Age of Stalin. Culture Two (Cambridge University Press, 2002), 70-104.
45. Arkhitektura SSSR no. 4 (1936), 3.
46. Ia. Kornfel’d, “Tsentral’nyi teatr Krasnoi Armii,” Arkhitektura SSSR no. 8 (1940), 30.
47. KPSS v resoliutsiiakh, v.2, (Moscow, 1953), 660-665.
48. L. Perchik, Bol’shevistskii plan rekonstruktsii Moskvy (Moscow: Partizdat, 1935), 42.
49. As it turned out, this project was not final, and the Institute for the Palace of Soviets continued turning out proposals until the early 1960s.
50. Clearly a Polish name, which in Polish would be spelled Oltarzewski.
51. Alekseev, S. A. Istoriia stroitel’stva i proektirovaniia Vsesoiuznoi sel’skokhoziaistvennoi vystavki 1939 (VSKhV). Manuscript (copy in the author’s personal library).
52. Feuchtwanger, 35.
53. Ibid., 36.
54. Gide, Return, 16.
55. Gide, Afterthoughts, 54-55.
56. Gide, Return, 18.
57. Feuchtwanger, 18.
58. Iz istorii sovetskoi arkhitektury. Dokumenty i materialy, v. 2, 1926-1932 (Moscow: Nauka, 1970), 163.
59. Gide, Afterthoughts, 61-62.
60 He later managed to overcome this obstacle by insisting that the doors are unlocked (Return, 11-14)
61. RGALI (Rossiiskii gosudarstvennyi arkhiv literatury i iskusstva), fond 674, opis’ 2, ed. khr. 50, 27.
62. Gide, Return, 46.
63. In the archive, his name is given in Russian only. It could be spelled Vervaeck – a common Belgian surname.
64. RGALI, fond 674, opis’ 2, ed. khr. 22, 300. It’s not clear where exactly this report was sent, there is only a draft in the archive.
65. Arendt, 323.
66. Nikolai Atarov, Dvorets Sovetov (Moscow: Moskovskii rabochii, 1940), 19-29.
67. Feuchtwanger, 135.
68. Ibid., 128.
69. Walter Benjamin, Moscow Diary (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1986), 81.
70. Gide, Afterthoughts, 32-33.
71. Ibid., 78.
72. Gide, Return, 48.
73. Ibid., 22-23.
74. Feuchtwanger, 47-48
75. Sobranie zakonov (1936), no. 34, 309.
76. Ibid. (1934), no. 1, 5.
77. I. V. Stalin, Sochineniia, vol. 13 (Moscow: Gosudarstvennoe izsatel’stvo politicheskoi literatury, 1951), 51.
78. Sobranie postanovlenii i rasporiazhenii pravitel’stva SSSR (1938), no. 18, 115.
79. Ibid. (1940) , no. 16, 358.
80. Ibid. (1941) , no. 4, 63.
81. RGALI, fond 674, opis’ 2, ed. khr. 39, 77-80.
82. Feuchtwanger, 108.
83. Ibid., 34.
84. Ibid., 45.
85. Ibid., 38.
86. Perchik, 99
87. Seichas barany poidut.
88. Stalin, v. 13, 84.
89. Ignazio Silone in The God that Failed, 114.
90. Sobranie zakonov (1934 ), no. 26, 206
91. RGALI, fond 674, opis’ 2, ed. khr. 30, 60.
92. Quoted in V. O. Kliuchevskii, Sochineniia, 8 vols. (Moscow: Izdatel’stvo sotsial’no-ekonomicheskoi literatury, 1956-9), vol. 3, 296.
93. Arendt, 9.
94. Mikhail Ryklin, Prostranstva likovaniia. Totalitarizm i razlichie (Moscow: Logos, 2002), 10.
95. Gide’s chapter was a compilation of his two books published in 1936-7 made “with his help and approval,” as Enid Starkie noted in the introduction, see The God That Failed, 177.
96. Frances Stonor Saunders, Who Paid The Piper? The CIA And The Cultural Cold War (London: Granta, 1999), 6.
97. I have heard two slightly different versions of the story. One version I heard directly from Mark Polyakov in 2001. The other version is on a videotape made by his daughter-in-law in 2002.
98. One fifth of the collection is still at his house Villa Aurora, the rest has been donated by his widow to the University of Southern California.
99. Lion Feuchtwanger, Der falsche Nero: Roman (Amsterdam: Querido, 1936). All quotations are from the English edition: The Pretender (New York: Viking Press, 1937).
100. R. Miller-Budnitskaia, “Cosmopolitans from the Literary Hollywood,” Novyi Mir no. 6 (1955), 282.
101. Ibid., 290-1.
102. Ibid., 282.
103. Italics are mine. For the full text of the decree see website:
104. Alatolii Sofronov, “U Liona Feikhtvangera,” Ogoniok no. 51 (December 1955), 15-16.
105. Monumental Propaganda. A traveling exhibition organized by Independent Curators Incorporated.
106. Quoted in Ryklin, 114.
107. Evgenii Trubetskoi, “Umozrenie v kraskakh,” Filosophia russkogo relogioznogo iskusstva XVII-XX vv. (Moscow: Progress-Kultura, 1993), 208.