The Cultural Revolution: proletarian culture in Sormovo, 1917-1921

By Laura Sumner

The Russian worker, except for the very top of the class, usually lacks the most elementary habits and notions of culture’  – Leon Trotsky [1]

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“Red Sormovo”: The entrance to the Sormovo Factory

After the October Revolution the Bolsheviks faced a series of grave political, economic and social challenges. Despite the urgent pressures of economic breakdown and political instability, the Soviet state continuously upheld educational and, more generally, cultural transformation as essential in securing the future of the Soviet state.

The study of the Sormovo factory complex in the Early Soviet Period reveals how national cultural policies and discourses played out in a local context. Sormovo’s history is exceptional because it was a metalworking factory that had national significance despite being far from the ‘centre’. It was a small factory complex district in Nizhegorod province, around 200 km east of Moscow, and by 1917 it was one of the largest industrial enterprises in Russia.

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Industrial skyline of north-central Sormovo (Source: Wikicommons)

The factory complex was nationalised in 1918, when it began producing munitions for the Soviet state. The tradition of labour activism in Sormovo and the continued support for the SRs (Social Revolutionary Party) after 1917 meant Sormovo workers were the focus of the Soviet cultural enlightenment programme on a national and local level.

 

Bolshevik cultural discourse was founded on the vague Marxist notion of proletkul’t (proletarian culture), which had attained mystical heights within the Bolshevik party before 1917, though it lacked clear definition. When they seized power in 1917 the Bolsheviks hotly debated how Russia’s ‘backward’ workers were to achieve proletkul’t, and formulated a two-pronged cultural policy which focused both on formal education in institutional settings and informal education through agitprop (agitational propaganda). There was a pervasive belief by the state and local Bolsheviks in Sormovo that education was the key to winning over the provincial population and transforming Russia into a socialist state.

As the head of Narkompros (People’s Commissariat of Enlightenment), Anatoly Lunacharsky sought nothing less than the re-shaping of human behaviour through education. His stated purpose was the creation of ‘a conscious worker, a citizen with theoretical, as well as general, educational preparation’ who would willingly participate in the building of a socialist Russia.[2]

Lunacharsky abolished admission requirements for higher education in August 1918 and established Rabfaki (worker faculties) specifically designed to prepare workers for university. He stressed that learning in schools and universities was to be anti-authoritarian and de-centralised and teachers and pupils were promised minimal outside supervision.

In Sormovo, Lunacharsky’s educational policies led to the proliferation of educational and technical courses for metalworkers. There were local events including poetry reading and art shows, where the Bolsheviks aimed to establish a link between workers and students with Bolshevik sympathies in Sormovo. On a national level there was continuous correspondence between the Board of Education in Moscow and the Sormovo factory.

Sormovo’s skilled metalworkers were recruited for both technical and educational courses with some specific aims in mind. An advert for a two-week party school was sent to Sormovo in 1919. In the instructions for the local party members running the course, it was explained that their obligation was to educate listeners in the ‘Marxist outlook’ and to get workers to understand the ‘point of view of the party in all matters of life’.[3]

The Civil War intensified the state’s cultural mission because it perpetuated the belief in cultural utopias that were linked directly to the survival of the state. Cinema was one of the most innovative and wide reaching aspects of Bolshevik propaganda. Short propaganda films (agitki), which dealt with a particular topic in a strongly visual but simple manner, were delivered to the provinces on trains and ships.

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Agitprop steamer ‘the Red Star’, in Saratov, 1921 (Source: The Avant Garde in Russia, 1910-1930: New Perspectives, Baron & Tuchman, 1980)

One of the most famous agit-steamers was the ‘Red Star’ which spent three months in 1919 sailing down the Volga, carrying high level Bolsheviks including Narkompros’ representative, Nadezhda Krupskaya .[4]

It ported in Sormovo in July 1919, and the local Bolsheviks used the arrival of these prominent Bolsheviks to promote their policies and raise their popularity in an area dominated by SRs. A meeting was held during which ‘The Internationale’ was sung by local students, and Krupskaya spoke at length about the role of Sormovo workers in the revolutionary movement. This must have been an impressive spectacle for the Sormovo workers.

 

A free cinema was set up in the steamer where five agitprop films were shown. These included ‘October Revolution’, ‘Daredevils of Revolution’ and the educational agitki ‘Labour Commune’.[5] This cultural event in Sormovo reveals the reach of Bolshevik agitprop during the Civil War –  on its two voyages in 1919 and 1920 the ‘Red Star’ showed more than 400 films to over 500,000 people.[6] The activities of the ‘Red Star’ also reveal how important the support of the Sormovo workers was to the Bolsheviks at a time of extreme political and economic struggle.

The propaganda machine of agitprop and the increasing centralisation of educational courses after 1918 did not leave much room for the popular initiative Lunacharsky envisaged in the creation of proletkul’t. In their use of education, cinema, theatre, festivals and mass rallies, the Bolsheviks created a powerful cultural discourse that depicted a world of sharp contrasts, of rich and poor, old and new and good and evil. They provided entertainment for workers but also carried the stark warning that if the workers did not support them, they were against them.

Sormovo was a space of intense political struggle throughout the Civil War but in the first few years after 1917 the local Bolsheviks continued to believe that cultural events and propaganda would win the hearts and minds of Sormovo workers. Cultural transformation was not just a discourse in the Early Soviet Period, but it was a sustained policy and practice that reached the far corners of Russia.

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View of Logoprom Sormovo, 2013 (Source: Wikicommons)

 

Laura Sumner is a third year ESRC funded History PhD student at the University of Nottingham. Her research ‘Ideology and Identity: ‘Knowing’ workers in Early Soviet Russia, 1917-1921’ explores discourses about worker identity in the Early Soviet Period with a focus on the factory complex Sormovo in Nizhegorod Province. You can find her on Twitter:

References

[1] L. Trotsky., The Problems of Everyday Life (New York, 1973), p. 20.

[2] A. Lunacharsky, P. Grigorev and A. Tolstov ‘On the Foundation of the Soviet Educational System: Personal Memoirs’ (1918) in W.G. Rosenberg (ed.), Bolshevik visions: first phase of the cultural revolution in Soviet Russia (Ann Arbor, 1990), p. 320.

[3] GOPANO, f.1, op.1, d.1.

[4] Nadezhda Konstantinovna Krupskaia (Lenin’s wife) was the deputy to the People’s Commissar for Education until 1920, when she was appointed chair of the education committee. Krupskaia was described by Lunacharskiy, the chair until 1920 as “the soul of Narkompros” (Fitzpatrick, 1970: 54).

[5] Nizhegorodskaya Kommuna (8th July 1919).

[6] R. Taylor, ‘The Birth of the Soviet Cinema’ in A. Gleason, P.Kenez and R. Stites (eds.) Bolshevik Culture: Experiment and order in the Russian Revolution(Bloomington, 1989), p.196.

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