Bolshevik festivals, 1917-1920 by James von Geldern

By James von Geldern

Within the early years of the USSR, socialist festivals--events entailing huge, immense cost and the deployment of hundreds of thousands of people--were inaugurated by way of the Bolsheviks. Avant-garde canvases adorned the streets, employees marched, and complicated mass spectacles have been staged. Why, with a civil battle raging and an economic system in ruins, did the regime sponsor such spectacles?In this primary finished research of how fairs helped construct a brand new political tradition, James von Geldern examines the mass spectacles that captured the Bolsheviks' historic imaginative and prescient. Spectacle administrators borrowed from a practice that integrated tsarist pomp, avant-garde theater, and well known celebrations. They reworked the ideology of revolution right into a mythologized series of occasions that supplied new foundations for the Bolsheviks' declare to strength.

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Some artistic styles decorate better than others. The realism dominant in late nineteenth-century Russia was uniquely inappropriate to the task. Realists drew or wrote about things, they filled their work with ideas, they frowned on playfulnessall of which are designed to spoil a festival. The fin-de-siécle symbolist movement reacted to realism with consternation. How, the symbolists asked, can truth be depicted realistically, when it is intangible, objectless, ethereal? Eventually, with the arrival of a second generation of symbolists, the antirealist impulse bred an interest in older styles of theater associated with festivals and fairgrounds.

All eyes were directed upward; in the pure morning blue, still moist with the tears of night, a small dark spot appeared. Now it was dark, now bathed in the rays of the sun. It was He, descending to us from the sky, Hethe new Jehovahin an aero, He, as wise and as lovingly cruel as the Jehovah of the ancients. Nearer and nearer He came, and higher toward Him were drawn millions of hearts. 20 Festivals, as Zamiatin notes, are a powerful tool of social manipulation. They engage spectators in a symbolic, yet highly tangible, vision of reality.

Clearly, the Bolsheviks invested valuable resources in festivals for the purpose of indoctrinating the population with new ideas and legitimizing the October Revolution. Subsequent commentators have taken the intention as the result. ''21 Intention, though, should not be mistaken for execution; that position presupposes a systemic consistency never present in Russian society, certainly not during the Revolution. It assumes the existence of a single, monolithic ideology; a knowledge of that ideology by local festival makers; the willingness of artists to transmit the message objectively; the capacity of festivity to convey a political ideology without distortion; the absence of alternative interpretations of the message; the ability or willingness of the spectators to understand it.

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