Soviet Power and the Media

Hans Günther and Sabine Hänsgen (eds.): Sovietskaia vlast i media. Sankt Peterburg: Akademicheskii proekt, 2006. 620 pp.

Sovietskaia vlast i media (Soviet Power and Media), a collection of articles edited by Hans Günther and Sabine Hänsgen, was published by Akademicheskii proekt in St. Petersburg in 2006. The publication was an outcome of an international conference of the same name, held within the framework of a research project on “The Political as a Space of Communication in History,” at Bielefeld University. The conference, as well as the subsequent publication, aimed at tracing the transformations of “the political” in the context of the introduction of new mass media, especially photography, cinema and radio, in the Soviet Union of the 1920s and 1930s. The project as a whole widened the narrow understanding of the term “political” into a broad sphere of interaction between politics, society, media and art.

The scope of the research was determined by the underlying thesis formulated in the foreword – that media are not merely neutral means of communication but rather that their development follows their own logic.(Hans Günther and Sabine Hänsgen (eds.): Sovietskaia vlast i media. Sankt Peterburg: Akademicheskii proekt, 2006, 5.)The analysis of media infrastructure must be oriented around research into the general communication of meaning in society, linking technological transformations with changes in the system of cultural values, as well as transformations in the structure of perception and cognition.

Many of the articles included in the publication relate the onset of new technological media in the Soviet context to the clash of two cultural modes and their largely contradictory aesthetics: on the one hand, the revolutionary avant-garde, on the other, socrealist mass culture. As argued by the editors, this binary model, defined by Vladimir Papernyj in his most influential book Kultura 2, became “the key to the conceptualization of the fundamental issues concerning the formation of Soviet mass culture.”(Ibid., p. 7.)

Detailed discussion of the development of the Soviet media system began with the Berlin lecture series Die Musen der Macht (the Muses of Power). These papers were subsequently published as Die Musen der Macht: Medien in der sowjetischen Kultur der 20er und 30er Jahre in 2003 was the first publication dedicated to the functioning of media in the Soviet context. Sovietskaia vlast i media, a loose follow-up to this initial volume, presents, for the first time to the Russian readership, a broad spectrum of media technologies and their role in Soviet culture of the 1920s and 1930s.

Basic social and geographical facts form the firstcontext for Soviet media; widespread illiteracy remained a problem in the Soviet Union throughout the first decades of the 20th century, and thus cinema came to play an important role in all-national political enlightenment. Furthermore, the sheer size of the country, which complicated the creation of a unified space of communication, accentuated the crucial importance of new mass media technologies. Kinofikacija (cinemafication) and radiofikacija (radiofication) were key milestones on the way to the full electrification of the country. Following Lenin’s famous formula, electrification became the metaphor for the spreading of communist ideology: “Communism means the Soviet power plus electrification of the whole country.”(Ibid., p. 9.) From many of the articles collected in the publication it follows that electricity (and the process of electrification) in the Soviet Union was a complex universal “metamedium,” a medium behind media that was a heavily charged instrument in the rhetorics and practices of the Soviet state ideology. Accordingly, it must be analyzed as such. (see e.g. Elena Petrushanskaia’s article)

Another of the key aspects of the Soviet media revolution that the publication examines closely is the onset of film sound,(Ibid., part II, section 1.) a crucial process in the early fusion of acoustic and visual media. The onset of film sound meant a redefinition of the cinematic medium, triggering an outpouring of theoretical reflection on the nature of the newly audiovisual medium among the Russian film directors and theoreticians of the time. The Soviet Union saw some of the most progressive experiments with the complex, asynchronous forms of sound-image relationships, even if these experiments were more frequently theoretical and speculative than practical, in spite of the famous sound conceptual works of Vertov (analyzed in Sabine Hänsgen’s article on theory and practice of early Soviet sound film) or Pudovkin. These experimental projects were soon annihilated by the socrealist narrative cinema, whose primary aim was the conveying of a clear, comprehensible, and unequivocal political message.

Both interdisciplinary and international, Sovetskaia vlast’ i media incorporates numerous scholarly approaches and methodologies, with contributions from Russian, German, American, French and other scholars. The dynamism, pluralism and polyvalence of early Soviet culture during the transition period of the 1920s and 1930s is reflected here in the wide range of disciplines represented, including literary theory, art history, film theory, philosophy, political and cultural studies.

The first part of the book is divided into five sections – General Aspects of Media Communication, Audio Media, Visual Media, Print Media and the Body in Theatre and Cinema.

General Aspects of Media Communication opens with Jurij Murashov’s article about the impact of radio on Soviet literature and culture during this period. Murashov shows the close association of radio, as a motif of progress, with the mythology of the October revolution. The article focuses on Mayakovsky’s early poetry, where radio plays a central role within his fundamental opposition between the spoken word’s immediacy and the silence of visual-graphic based literature, an opposition that amounts to an antinomy of the conservative eye versus the revolutionary ear.

The October events are also the subject of Walter Benjamin’s Moscow diary, in which he viewed Moscow through the eyes of persuaded representatives of the revolutionary culture.(Ibid, p. 39.) The diary was a phenomenological experiment for Benjamin, who intended it to be a form of pure observation, setting aside theoretization in favor of a direct recording of reality. The diary also provides Mikhail Ryklin with a prismthrough which to focus on the general surrender to self-imposed prohibitions in the society. Expanding his analysis from Benjamin’s text, he shows how the subtle mechanisms of self-censorship operated not only in the fields of cinema, theater and literature, but also extended deep into the private lives and the consciousnesses of revolutionary individuals.

Sven Spieker draws a significant opposition between two separate anthropological conceptions of media in the Soviet Union. On the one hand, Spieker discusses the understanding of media as prosthetic extensions of the underdeveloped human body and its senses – as was the conception of the classical avant-garde and, later, the kernel of Marshall McLuhan’s media theory. He positions this understanding against a model which identifies media with politically correct awareness, imposed by the Stalinist propaganda. Analyzing the media fictions of the Stalin era, Spieker defines the leader as the ultimate medium that stands behind media, transcending their technical dispositives – Stalin is the symbol of the Soviet power, acting from above as an archaic and mythologized instance that makes communication dependent on technologies.

Having established the general media context, the book turns to specific types of media, beginning with the increasingly popular topic of Audio Media.

Tatiana Goriaeva concentrates on the formation of the content and structure of early Soviet radio programming, revealing how radio relied on a systematic ethnic and social mapping of its audience. It was this mapping which allowed the later elaboration of the tactics of Soviet radio propaganda. The hopes for radio were high. It aimed, among other things, to become the surrogate of church and of its aesthetic appeal.

Vladimir Koljada focuses on the phonograph, specifically on the nationalization and ideological transformation of the phonograph industry after 1917, as well as on the increasing use of phonodocuments for the purposes of political agitation. New auditory genres came into being. Koljada gives the example of the “Soviet song,” a perfect symbiosis of art and propaganda, a catchy melody and text that implanted the necessary formulas in people’s consciousness faster and more effectively than any other media.(Ibid., p. 82.) Similarly, Anna Novikova analyzes the emergence of tendentious prototypic characters representing the “Soviet man” in radio plays and radio commentaries of the 1920s and 1930s.

Alexandr Sherel demonstrates the formative influence of some of the German pioneers of radio art on their Russian colleagues, focusing in particular on the mutual inspiration of Vsevolod Meyerkhold and Erwin Piscator. Both men were prolifically creative in the “specific aesthetic situation which originated in the crossing of cinema, theatre and radio in the 1920s.(Ibid., p. 104.)

Elena Petrushanskaia’s illuminating article uses the multilayered metaphor of “galvanization” to examine how media enable dissemination of cultural products. Electricity is presented as a complex Soviet mythologem: both an object of something approaching worship in the post-Oktober era, but also a medium of enlightenment in a literal sense, as well as politically and culturally. The electrification of art led not only to changes in the art system – introducing, to some degree, a classless and equal access to art through mass media like radio or cinema, but also to the electrification and mechanization of the art work itself – the invention of new instruments, new sounds, new conceptions of musical composition, all arising from the general fascination with the mechanical.

The opposition between the mechanical and the biological is explored by Julia Kursell in relation to N.A. Bernstein’s analysis of a piano keystroke conducted at the Moscow State Institute of Musical Studies (GIMN) toward the end of the 1920s. Bernstein’s meticulous examination of the physiology of movement (such as a keystroke) resulted from the post-revolutionary heyday of industrial psychotechnics and laboratory research on work. Simultaneously, the increasing mechanization of the art of music raised questions to be answered about the relationship – oppositional or analogous – between conscious artistic interpretation, realized through the complex movement of a human organism, and the mechanical performance of an apparatus. In Bernstein’s proto-cybernetic view, though, a human organism itself is conceived of as a machine.

The subject of Visual Media is introduced by Rosalinde Sartorti’s profound study of the aesthetic and ideological developments in early Soviet photography. Basing herself on Papernyj’s model, Sartorti shows how in photography too, Kultura 1 was superseded and overwhelmed by Kultura 2. The article implies, however, that in the case of photography, the model could be extended to Kultura 0, 1 and 2. The static, painterly perspective of pre-revolutionary photography (0) is first rejected by the new dynamism of constructivist vision that emancipates the medium of photography from the visuality inherent within painting. But constructivist photography is later accused of formalist fragmentation unacceptable for the votaries of socrealist aesthetics and the demand for a socrealist “totality of vision.”(Ibid., p. 2.)

Evgenii Dobrenko views Russian culture of this period in terms of the generalized (if oxymoronic) “belief in fact” firmly associated with the Soviet cult of production. The demand for “facticity” in art is reflected in genres like “literature of fact,” “kinopravda” (kinotruth), “the documentary sketch” and the “production novel.” The endless enumerations of the Soviet Union’s achievements develop into a specific narrative strategy permeating all artistic disciplines. In a similar tone, Galina Orlova interprets the significance of photography for the early Soviet epoch as primarily that of an evidentiary medium proving that the Soviet utopian project was being put to practice.

Ekaterina Degot shifts the attention to painting, propounding a radical anti-Papernyj thesis of a profound continuity between avant-garde and socrealist style in painting. They both, she suggests, share the capacity to paralyze the critic, the avant-garde, by means of the artwork’s inherent reflexivity on its own medium, the latter by erasing any traces of artistic style and thus achieving an “indescribable” painting manner, “a style without a style.”(Ibid., p. 208.) Soviet art, from its earliest beginnings, is seen as indifferent towards the concept of an original: it is based on mass distribution, a system in which the poster, cinema and photography flourish.

It is precisely this continuity between the epoch of the Russian avant-garde art and Soviet visual propaganda, according to Boris Groys, which prevents the unofficial visual artists of the 1960s and 1970s from building on the tradition of early constructivist photography. Groys traces the use of photography within Moscow Conceptualist art, in the work of Vadim Zacharov, Kollektivnyje dejstvija (Collective Actions) and Boris Michajlov. Above all, he analyzes how the principle of photography is applied within conceptual literature, examining literary collages and showing how the objectification of texts and the stylistics of cut and paste are techniques that follow the patterns traditionally used in photography.

In the section on Print Media, Maya Turovskaya pursues the development of the illustrated magazine, describing it as the medium that “played the role of a future small film screen, [and was in fact] its direct predecessor.”(Ibid., p. 242.) Using the examples of the Russian Ogonek and the German Berliner Illustrierte Zeitung, both established in the 1890s, Turovskaya examines the development of the themes covered by the journals in the course of the two totalitarian systems’ formation.

The emergence of a mass readership in Russia brought about another print instrument of social control – literature. Dirk Uffelmann’s article discusses the use of post-christian topics in the socrealist literary canon, particularly the transmission of the religious concept of sacrifice in Nikolai Ostrovsky’s didactic novel Kak zakaljalas stal’ (How the Steel Was Tempered).

The section The Body in Theatre and Cinema puts the focus on the grey area between art and not-art, which is variously termed “reality” or “life.” As well as Oleg Aronson’s comparative study of Meyerkhold’s biomechanics vs. Stanislavsky’s psychotechnics, the section includes Igor Chubarov’s study of “Theatricalization of Life.” Chubarov elaborates on Nikolai Evreinov’s concept of theater, which disapproved of a mimetic art understood as “reflection of reality” and which emphasized instead the existence of a human theatrical instinct, according to Evreinov, an instinct superior to religious or sexual drives. Theater was seen as the therapeutic option that offered an alternative life that allowed one to stage fantasies impracticable in personal or social life.

The “body in cinema” is addressed by Oksana Bulgakowa, who discusses the utopian belief that through cinema it is possible to “instruct” the masses about work habits, hygiene and bodily expression, a belief which was very popular with the Russian politicians, critics and artists of the early Soviet epoch. Cinema’s potential to record bodily movement and pass on everyday habits of motion and patterns was compared to the transmission of behavioral patterns from parents to children. This potential was couched in terms of the medium’s effect on the optical subconsciousness of a mass spectator. Whatever we might make of this utopian medial pedagogy, for the historically-minded viewer today this analysis raises an enticing question: to what extent can cinema record the “body of the epoch,” preserving lost or forgotten gestures and physical expressions?

One of the richest parts of this collection of articles focuses on the relation of Sound and Orality in cinema to the “power” of the collection’s title. Among the contributions related to film sound are Nikolai Izvolov’s account of the “History of Drawn Sound in the USSR,” which discusses the history of the artificial generation of sound from a technological as well as theoretical perspective; the “Question of Multilingualism In Early Soviet Sound Film” (Evgenii Margolit) and “Short Form Films as the Precursors of the Television Era” (Aleksandr Derjabin).

Valérie Posener’s contribution elucidates an obscure and under-researched phenomenon – the “commentators” and “lecturers” present at Russian film screenings of the post-revolutionary era. The multifarious roles in this loose category ranged from “cinema-declamators,” whose role derived from the tradition of popular storytellers, to the “red commentators,” who ensured the ideologically correct interpretation of films, to the “lecturers” who were an integral part of educational cinema, to “moderators” recruited from the cinema mechanics, who had, it appears, a simpler role – helping a peasant audience to understand the story.

The introduction of sound technology in cinema radically redefined spectatorship and the infrastructure of the production and distribution, but also, of course, had a direct impact on film form itself, transforming the place of language in the medium and, above all, the nature of the cinematic narrative. Sabine Hänsgen explores, in particular, the ways in which audio-visual technologies participated in sacralizing the invisible voice of the Soviet power. The well-known debates on (a)synchronous sound are juxtaposed with actual developments in synchronicity, and both are contextualized within the Soviet urge for a political-ideological “synchronization of the nation.”

The section on Dramaturgy deals with the interface of cinema and literature. From this perspective Ilya Kukuj examines the media nature of a screenplay, using the example of Lev Lunts’s “Things in Revolt,” and the Soviet dramaturgy of arts from above is insightfully demonstrated by Anke Hennig’s research into cinema dramaturgy in the 1930s.

Barbara Wurm conducts a subtle analysis of the notion of “figuration” (figuratio), linking it to the specific 1920s notion of “image.” She focuses on Tynianov’s conceptualization of figuration in his screenplays, which followed from his criticism of the notion of the “image” conceived of as an inherently static and visual phenomenon. Wurm carefully outlines how Tynianov polemically engaged with the inflation of the term “image” within the avant-garde reflection on intermediality and elaborated his own conception of anti-mimetic figuration.(Ibid., p. 415.) By means of this focus on the figure of Tynianov, she shows how the understanding and use of “image” shifted from the sphere of visuality to all art disciplines throughout the media revolution of the 1920s and 1930s, releasing a plethora of contradictory interpretations and semantic stratification of the term.

The section Motives and Genres covers, among other things, the symbolic aspects of the infrastructure and electrification in the context of the new post-revolutionary organization of the Soviet territory. As Emma Widdis suggests, the lines of electro-broadcasting and railway networks formed the “metaphorical skeleton of the country,”(Ibid., p. 452.) while the structure of the skeleton reflected above all the ideological program of leveling the center and the periphery. Other articles pertain to the representation of “work” in the Soviet cinema of the 1920s and 1930s (Nadezhda Grigorieva), the “figure of the third” in the cinema of the 1920s-1960s (Shamma Schahadat) and the Soviet historical film under political rule (Anna Bohn).

In the section on Eisenstein, we observe how cinema became a means of not only raising political awareness but of effecting deeper psycho-physiological transformations, a viewpoint already taken by Oksana Bulgakova in her study of cinema as a recording medium and, to a certain extent, one that (re)produces the “body of the epoch.”

In the early Soviet cinema, representations of the collective body of the revolutionary mass prevailed over representations of the individual. Wolfgang Beilenhoff analyzes Eisenstein’s staging of the mass as a single organic collective body(Ibid., p. 528.) in Bronenosec Potemkin in a broader framework of the theory of the mass. According to Beilenhoff, Eisenstein established paradigms of cinematic visualizations of the mass and collectivity in its various symbolic meanings and formed the notion of the “face of the mass,” thus reconceptualizing face as a sign of individuality.

The archetype of the mother in Eisenstein’s General Line as well as Dovzhenko’s Earth is traced by Hans Günther. For Günther, General Line marks Eisenstein’s “reorientation from the avant-garde aesthetics of factography to the mythopoeticcinema of the 1930s.”(Ibid., p. 542.) Günther discusses Eisenstein’s ability, in General Line, to anticipate the myths emerging in Soviet culture in the first half of the 1930s, while critically reflecting on their archaic origins with a deep knowledge of the contemporary theory – ethnology, anthropology and psychoanalysis.

The last set of comparative studies is dedicated to several aspects of Russian and American cinematography. From this perspective, Sergei Kapterev explores the cultural context of the Soviet silent cinema, and Gudrun Heidemann addresses the issue of American ballet on the Soviet screen.

The genre of the Soviet film musical is the subject of Natascha Drubek-Meyer’s compelling research paper. Drubek-Meyer inquires: to what extent was the genre of the Soviet film musical, the “Red Hollywood”(Ibid., p. 578.) predetermined by the American prototype and the American history of the genre. She analyzes the positioning of the singing and dancing scenes within the narrative as well as the motivation of the transitions from one into another, basing her analysis on Rick Altman’s differentiation between diegetic sound, a realistic sound following from what is visible on the screen, and non-diegetic sound – the instrumental accompaniment. The different application of the “bridges” between these two levels in the Soviet and American film musical reveals a fundamental variance in their audio-visual structures.

On the whole, this profoundly structured and thematically rich publication presents a progressive conception of “old media” the definition of which embraces phenomena ranging from what is traditionally understood by the term “mass-media” to electricity, railway structure and even Stalin himself.

The coincidence of technological boom with the advancement of the Soviet ideological system in the 1920s produced complex relationships between the media and Soviet power. It is therefore highly relevant to focus on their mutual formative influence in research on the origins of the Soviet media system. Sovietskaia vlast i media exposes the ways in which the Soviet power determined what the primary functions assigned to media technologies would be at the very beginning of their development, in rhetorics and early theorization as well, as in practice. On the other hand, it is shown that the emergence of mass media, especially audio technologies, such as radio and phonography, created ideal conditions for the emergence of the disembodied and depersonalized voice of the Soviet power speaking to the masses.

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