Dmitri Shlain's Letter to Vladimir Paperny on Soviet Architectural Culture

May 4, 1997


Dear Vladmir:

I had your book in my possession for a few months now. Several times it made to the top of the must-read pile on my desk, but something or other would always push it further down. Well, I've finally pulled it out and read it. The book is a treasure chest, full of historical information and theoretical insights. I've learned a lot from your discussion and see how you can make a first-rate contribution to our collection on Russian artistic culture.

Your chapter focuses on the 19th and 20th centuries. However, I also gleaned some tantalizing snippets about the Russian architectural ethos in general scattered throughout your book. Perhaps your chapter on architectural culture could start with an introduction which spells out, however briefly, a few features distinguishing Russian architecture (e.g., its derivativeness and eclecticism, the difficulty of designating Russian architectural style, the absence of private customers and professionalism, the dominant role of the state, the periodic shifts from vertical to horizontal imagination, etc.). The subsequent discussion would give further substance to your theoretical insights. Of course, you might find more convenient a different approach. Still, I hope you would paint with a broad brush to give readers the feel of Russian architectural culture as a whole.

I have seen accounts of your book in the past, as well as several references to it in the academic literature, which turned out to be somewhat misleading. Some writers list you along with Boris Groyce as an exponent of the view that Russian artistic avant-garde engendered both Bolshevism and Stalinism. I see why certain statements in your book lend themselves to such a reading, but the distinction you make between culture 1 and culture 2 is far more subtle. Your analysis suggests a break between Futurism and Stalinism. True, you seem to agree that Futurism in Russian art is what Bolshevism is in Russian politics. I am not altogether comfortable with this second thesis either (to say that avant-garde aesthetics breeds Bolshevism is like saying that Renaissance condones atheism), but there is a certain elective affinity here. The notion that aesthetic modernism spells Stalinism and fascism, however, strikes me as far-fetched. And your book shows why. There are features in modernist aesthetics that are incompatible with Stalinism (and with Leninism, for that matter).

From my angle, the book's main strength is in the particulars. Rich and incisive, hilarious and macabre, the historical tidbits you brought together nourish the reader's historical imagination even when they don't neatly fit the general schema. Yes, you developed a powerful theoretical framework that gives your narrative a transhistorical, sociological dimension. But your paradigm, it seems to me, sometimes overpowers the historical particulars, or if you wish, historical details overflow the theoretical paradigm.

You wisely note in the introduction that yours is an "artificial construction" (p. 18). This is your way of saying that the theoretical schema doesn't purport to account for everything that happened in the 1930's and the 1940's. Max Weber used to call such theoretical constructs an "ideal type." The latter, in his words, "is formed by the one-sided accentuation of one or more points of view and by the synthesis of a great many diffuse, discrete, more or less present and occasionally absent concrete individual phenomena, which are arranged according to those one-sidedly emphasized viewpoints into a unified analytical construct." This analytical device disclaims all representational ambitions: ideal type doesn't represent, mirror, show desirability, state a general law, or statistically average reality. It offers an artificial measuring rod by which we can judge how much a concrete historical phenomenon approximates a pure type.

We can say that the ideal type method is a straw-man method practiced self-consciously. That is to say, we set up a straw man and then try to ascertain how much a real person resembles the caricature. The latter doesn't pretend to do full justice to a real man, but if it is good, it brings into focus some of his features, which are magnified and exaggerated for analytical purposes. Historical reality is always messier than its ideal-typical description, but even when it barely resembles the ideal type, it doesn't impugn the latter's viability. The ideal type of bureaucracy, as Weber formulated it, is marked by the separation of the office from office holders, the hierarchical nature of authority, the rational system of expertise, and formal rules which make deliberation outcomes predictable. Some of these features are present in Confucian China and Russia at the time of Peter the Great, but other features are conspicuously absent. In either case, we don't ask whether this ideal type reflects reality but proceed the other way around: we want to see how much a given reality approximates the type, without ever claiming that it is an ideal type.

This method allows us to conceptualize idiographic events, compare incommensurate historical periods, and develop alternative paradigms to describe a unique phenomenon. Many of the same particulars you mention could be described in terms of the struggle between Westernizers and Slavophiles, or pictured as the conflict between the liberal and conservative forces, or as an expression of the tension between legal rational and charismatic authority, and so on.

To be sure, this methodology has its own limitations and pitfalls. Those using ideal types are often tempted to maximize characteristics consistent with one's ideal type and gloss over others that don't fit. Your book is the case in point. Sometimes you seem to forget for a moment that things themselves don't suffer theory gladly, that historical reality owes no apology to an ideal type. You begin to sound like you wish to prove a specific era to be "really" an ideal type incarnate. Hence, the expressions like "культура 2 с негодованием отвергает" (р. 153), "культура 1 со свойственными ей эгалитарно-утопическими устремлением старалась всячески" (р. 154), "культура 1 не признавала этот проект своим" (р. 159), "культура 2 начала с полного запрещения напитков" (р. 166), etc. Such anthropomorphic locutions occur every time you switch from an ideal typical description to a historical statement of fact, implying in the process that an idiographic event owes its existence to an ideal type.

Another limitation stems from your decision to stay with ideology and official pronouncements. You center on decrees, laws, editorials, and mostly leave out culture's nonofficial and nondiscursive manifestations, which often have little to do with official declarations. This is a conscious decision on your part, and you have the right to delimit your study in this way. Moreover, you frequently allude to the discrepancies yourself. For instance, the emphasis on the "living man" as opposed to "an abstraction" was formulated in the 1920's, yet it is attributed to culture 2. Constructivist motifs in architecture were denounced in the 1930's, yet widely used in practice. The horizontal and nativist spirit of the 1930's didn't preclude the directives to build Moscow as "a capital of a modern European kind." Once again, your rhetoric highlights the strategy of maximizing consistencies and minimizing inconsistencies in historical particulars under study. You would say, "и не случайно, что через четыре месяца после торжественного въезда старую столицу появилась Табель о рангах" (p. 140); "Не случайно С. А. Лисасгор . . . так упорно отстаивал свое право на имя" (pp. 190-191); "И не случайно же система Станиславского была окружена в культуре 2 таким ореолом" (p. 300). Sounds like nothing happens by chance in culture 2. I think a good deal of this dynamics had to do with Stalin's whim rather than with some cultural imperative.

When you come across an anomaly, you would engage a different rhetoric: "В самой идее совета жен парадоксальным образом слились инерция культуры 1 . . . и гаремная традиция Востока" (р. 154)," or "Но, парадоксальным образом, параллельно с этим процессом на другом уровне шел бурный процесс развития, связанный с расколом" (р. 138). The tone of such disclaimers is somewhat defensive, as you are determined to explain the anomaly away. In a couple of places, when no ready explanation exists, you remember that yours is a theoretical construct and point out that your schema doesn't purport to explain all the contradictions, that both cultures borrow from the same bag of metaphors and stylistic devices, and that each era only approximates a type.

Your decision to limit yourself to verbal culture and gloss over action and emotions is reinforced by your conviction that "суждение, которое в данной культуре не высказанно и, более того, не может быть высказанно, фактически не существует в данной культуре" (р. 134). I beg to differ. There is more to culture than editorial headlines and official decrees. The fact that certain sentiments didn't find their expression in state decrees doesn't make them any less real. We can glimpse those unofficial actions, feelings and thoughts in the letters, diaries or lore that survived from that era. I don't think that we should read such counterideological sentiments out of a historical era. Ginzburg didn't care for the architectural trends in the 1930's. Bulgakov was hardly blind to the realities of socialist literature in the same time period. And Mandelstam felt all sorts of ambivalent emotions about reality he was sucked into. In 1934 he wrote a verse denouncing Stalin, in 1937 – praising him. Flesh and blood people rarely act in a manner that fits a pure type. There are plenty of contradictions and inconsistencies here, which go to the heart of culture as an embodied, emotionally charged, somatically fleshed-out reality. It is hard to get to this form of cultural existence when we confine ourselves to official texts.

Well, what I appear to be saying is that if I were writing a book on the subject, I would have done it differently. But then I would have missed all the marvelous insights and asides which gave your project its verve and grace. It is a fine, fine volume. Surely, you would have written it differently today, but it wouldn't have necessarily been a better book. It bears the imprint of an era to which we all belonged (in the early 70's I paid homage to this tradition myself in an essay on the genetic code of Russian culture, which was spurred by the same need to explain why Russia was different and why it was time to leave it). I hope you will forgive me my somewhat didactic tone. I have my own biases which shine through in my comments on your project.

I've read with interest your two short stories. Not much to offer by way of feedback here, as I lack proper literary background. I detect a certain creative tension in your stories, the tension between a somewhat cerebral, ascetic structural framework and the emotionally charged and instantly recognizable situations. It works. I couldn't help wondering, though, what would happen if you tried a more conventional type narrative to go over the same emotional terrain. To be sure, this is a silly question to ask, for it would be an entirely different story. But still. . . .

Thanks for sending me your book and other materials. They occasioned various thoughts which I hope to share with you at some future point. I am still waiting for a reply to my grant proposals in support of Nevada Conference on Russian Culture. Two of them didn't pan out. One was sent to the Eurasia Foundation, which turned out to support only projects inside Russia and neighboring states. Another grant was sent to the Nevada Humanities Committee, and it had been turned down because the project was too academic for the agency. Fair enough. There are five more proposals pending in other agencies and foundations. I should know the results within a month or two. If money is there, we should be able to get together sometime around November 23-26. I'll let you know. One way or another, I hope you will make it here some time. You can stay at my home, we could roam the desert and sample the postmodern landscapes of Las Vegas.

Best wishes.

Dmitri Shalin

P.S. My daughter loved the T-shirt you sent me, although she was disappointed she couldn't wear it to school.

P.P.S. Did I tell you that your agency catalogue is breathtaking? Such a whirlwind of colors, images and textures – it sets my spirit free. I'd give a lot to be able to express myself in this media.