New Babylon II

Posted 6th December 1999

Further to my post concerning Laurel Fay's omission of the information, provided by John Riley in DSCH in 1994, about the political furore surrounding the screenings of New Babylon in March 1929, I would like to support Allan Ho in his view that Fay not only disregards the politics of the state-mandated Left's reaction against New Babylon, but sets aside the aims of the artists who made the film, prominent among whom, of course, was Dmitri Shostakovich. This omission casts doubt not only on her understanding of the man who is nominally her subject, but also on her basic grasp of the politico-cultural context he worked in.

The creative organisation behind New Babylon was FEKS, the Factory of the Eccentric Actor, founded in Petrograd in 1922 by a group of young Jewish artists from the provinces, chief among them being the subsequent directors of New Babylon: Grigory Kozintsev (b. 1905) and Leonid Trauberg (b. 1902). Owing to the clash with the authorities in 1929 which caused the ban on New Babylon, FEKS and its work for stage and screen were effectively erased from official Soviet history, obliging Western scholars to piece together from available data what this turbulent group was about. Since doing so depends on understanding the dynamics of cultural life in the USSR of the 1920s (and since, till recently, the truth of this mythical Golden Age has been difficult to discern through the soft focus of nostalgia projected on it by Soviet disinformation and the credulity of Western arts pundits), FEKS has remained an enigmatic body, rendered more obscure by its apparent contradictions.

For example, Katerina Clark, in her 1995 book Petersburg, Crucible of Cultural Revolution, introduces FEKS as "the contemporary masters of parody" in early 1920s Petrograd: "The FEKS members, or FEKSy, were most representative of [the blend of Russian revolutionary culture with the Jazz Age] -- Westernism, co-option of Western lowbrow culture, Americanization, jazz, and a racy pace. They were young -- they saw the Great War as teenagers -- and they took these trends to an extreme." With their proclaimed enthusiasm for clowns, acrobats and circuses, the FEKSy inherited the pre- revolutionary shock tactics of Meyerhold as well as elements from Radlov's Peoples Comedy Theatre (which, Clark points out also called itself "eccentric"). She continues: "They were nevertheless careful to define themselves as younger and more truly avant-garde than such predecessors. In this endeavor they were joined by their Moscow friend and ally, Sergei Eisenstein (some claim that Eisenstein's theory of montage was really first conceived by FEKS)... The FEKSy were more radical than Eisenstein and went well beyond him in the area of epatage."

FEKS revered America as the home of Edison ("as emblem of electricity and inventor of the cinema"), of strident sounds, advertisements, and lowbrow culture, including jazz, film thrillers, and "Pinkertons" (the pulp genre of the detective novel). "Yet," says Clark, "they were also fervent revolutionaries, insisting that art be 'truly agitational, entertaining, and eccentric'." For her, these juxtapositions are "a conundrum": "In some senses, FEKS represents a sort of zany version of Constructivism -- Dadaist Constructivism, if you will". [Yet] the FEKSy did not, like many Dadaists, "look to the 'gratuitous gesture' as a paradigm for [their] system-confounding art; though they took the ideal of playful experimentation to an extreme, they were also absolutely serious about their pro-Soviet message." The extent of the contradictions in FEKS's work which Clark is struggling to reconcile is best illustrated by her account of their staging of Gogol's The Marriage:

[This production] affronted its audience of 1922 with a cacophony of competing sounds, flickering lights, and a confusion and profusion of action on the stage. Figures dressed in garish clothing exchanged shouts and reprises about topical issues; they sang couplets and acted out strange pantomimes with dances and acrobatic feats. The affianced pair from Gogol (in conventional theatrical guise) were mixed in with constructions moving about on wheels. Then, in a flash, the backdrop was changed into a screen on which was projected a clip of Charlie Chaplin fleeing from the cops. Actors dressed and made up in the same way as those on the screen burst onto the front of the stage to act in parallel play with the movie. A circus clown, shrieking ecstatically, turned on a salto mortale right through the canvas of the backdrop, while "Gogol" bounced around on a platform with springs from which he was propelled to the ceiling. [op. cit. 180]

Solomon Volkov, in his fine study Petersburg: A Cultural History (1996), describes the same production as follows:

The poster had promised operetta, melodrama, farce, film, circus, variety, and grand guignol all in one. The whole thing was called "A Trick in Three Acts" and Kozintsev and Trauberg were its "engineers," rejecting the antediluvian term "director." The characters in this amazing Marriage were Albert Einstein, Charlie Chaplin, and three suitors who came on stage on roller skates: robots running on steam, electricity, and radioactivity. The latter explained, "Marriage today is ridiculous. The husband away, the wife suffers. Radium, a new force, works at a distance. A radioactive marriage is truly modern." The outraged public, suspecting it was being mocked, went wild. Kozintsev came out on stage and thanked the shouting patrons "for a scandalous reception of our scandalous work".

Volkov further describes FEKS's unusual methods and ideas:

The action of The Marriage was a cascade of acrobatic tricks, satirical couplets, tap dancing, foxtrot music, and sound-and-light effects. The performers had to be specially trained, because no one in Russia knew how to do all these things. The Factory of the Eccentric Actor prepared them in a marvelous old town house whose owner had fled to the West. Here seventeen- year-old Kozintsev and twenty-year-old Trauberg and their acolytes lived according to the motto borrowed from Mark Twain, "It's better to be a young pup than an old bird of paradise." [Here] is a description by Sergei Yutkevich, a leader of the early FEKS, of a visit by Annenkov, who was already a famous avant-garde artist and director, in a letter to Eisenstein from Petrograd: "Yuri Annenkov, a fine fellow, joined 'eccentricity', and our respect for him grew when he came to see us in striped pajamas (black and orange), in which he previously appeared in the circus, riding on the back of a donkey. Besides which, he can do handstands, tap dance, and draw smutty pictures. He wanted to get in on an exhibit of eccentric posters and we said 'Well, well, where were you before?'"... FEKS's experimentation resembled (in some cases outstripped) the attempts by Meyerhold and the early Eisenstein. In a huge hall with marble figures in niches along the walls reflecting in a multitude of mirrors, students dressed in "feksosuits" -- white shirts and black overalls with big breast pockets and wide shoulder straps -- boxed, tumbled, and danced the foxtrot to piano accompaniment. [op. cit. 301-2]

In the light of such accounts of Eccentricity, as FEKS called its own artistic movement, it's no wonder that Katerina Clark is puzzled by precisely how this gang of seemingly completely anarchic Russian dadaists related to Soviet ideology and its high (and almost entirely solemn) Leninist idealism. Volkov, while considerably more at home with the Petersburgian arts, having interviewed so many of its latterday stars, is no more inclined to expound on the subject of FEKS's politics than Clark. He does, though, refer to Lenfilm, the studio to which Kozintsev and Trauberg were affiliated, as "'a collective of committed individualists', as it was sometimes called". No one who understands Soviet cultural politics in the 1920s will have difficulty decoding this phrase. Individualism was the credo of those independent writers of the period who distrusted Soviet collectivism and, in various oblique ways (some not so oblique, e.g., Zamyatin's We), worked against it in their novels and plays. Was the eccentricity of FEKS, then, no more than an obstreperous and surreal "young man's" individualism? If so, can it be true, as Katerina Clark suggests, that these wearers of feksosuits were "absolutely serious about their pro-Soviet message"?

Volkov's account of FEKS arose from his interviews with Balanchine, whose ballet corps worked with Kozintsev and Trauberg at FEKS's Petrograd HQ. Though an expert on the Leningrad dadaist group Oberiu (Association for Real Art) who recognised FEKS as fellow absurdists, Volkov lacked other information on FEKS for the same reason that most writers have until recently: the Soviet documentary dearth on them. This is where Marek Pytel's book New Babylon: Trauberg, Kozintsev, Shostakovich (Eccentric Press, 1999), recently announced on DSCH-L by John Riley, is important.

Pytel began researching FEKS over twenty years ago while a student at the Slade, making it the subject of his 1978 thesis (unpublished). Meeting Trauberg on several occasions, Pytel subsequently researched everything ever published on FEKS as well as translating the original 1922 FEKS Manifesto and carrying on a long and detailed project to reconstruct the original, pre-censorship cut of New Babylon (matching it, so far as possible, shot for shot with Shostakovich's score, as FEKS and the composer intended it). Pytel is in no doubt that individualism was the inner orientation of FEKS throughout its film oeuvre (notwithstanding that, as Trauberg acknowledged, each film used an aesthetic method different from its predecessor). FEKS's films, insists Pytel, were indeed "revolutionary", but certainly not in any collectivist or proletarian sense:

To my mind, the three surviving FEKS period films focus on the sense of revolution in the individual. A humanist, pacifist sense pervades all three films. None of their heroes or heroines ever win. It's about how innocence and vulnerability get hammered every time. The crucial difference between the message of the full length original New Babylon and the last- minute re-edit which got premiered is that the former looks and feels like the two previous FEKS period films The Cloak [1926] and SVD [Soyuz Velikogo Dela, or the Society for the Great Cause/1928]; that is: a linear narrative with emphasis on the personal. The re-edit is something akin to a Proletkult version of [Eisenstein's] October [likewise re-cut]. This changes the meaning of both the film and of Shostakovich's music for it.

It would be wrong to pre-empt Pytel's interpretation of the original message of New Babylon -- for that you should buy his book, with its accompanying "25fps reconstructed European Export edit" video-transfer of the film itself -- but it's true to say, from his work on FEKs and his personal knowledge of Trauberg, that he believes New Babylon was in no sense a communist film, instead being conceived, like all of FEKS's work, as "psychologically revolutionary": a call to the individuality of each member of its audience to awake, "real-ize", and thence transform society in a way which the merely political revolution of Bolshevism could never do, even by totalitarian rule.

The latter, of course, was what Stalin attempted with his "revolution from above" of 1929-31, the psychological by-product of which was to be the fully "collectivized" and "proletarianized" Homo Sovieticus. Though FEKS was suppressed in the first stages of Stalin's revolution, it can be said to have embodied a sort of "anticipatory resistance" to Homo Sovieticus: an attempt, by dropping artistic depth-charges into the minds its audience, to propel them into self-awareness before they became robotised by Stalinist terror and propaganda. On the other hand, it would not do to idealise FEKS, no matter how bright and talented its members. They were also young men in a time of a "revaluation of all values" (NEP, 1921-8), and as excited by the moral chaos this induced as anyone else of their age. At least some of their work was done simply to scandalize, riotous epatage for the hell of it. Marek Pytel:

When I asked Trauberg what was the aim of New Babylon, he told me: "Scandal. In those days it was very easy; you just showed women with big cleavages. But what worked then is not necessarily what would work now." I later gave him a present of Kenneth Anger's Hollywood Babylon with Jayne Mansfield's rouged nipples spilling out her dress on the cover (first paperback edition). He blew me a kiss from across the room. When I showed him my 1978 thesis manuscript [on FEKS], he called me a "scholar". He also called me a "freebooter" after I showed him my working script of New Babylon. I took it as a great compliment. That's what FEKS were: "Freebooters."

This, of course, will upset those who accept the Golden Age version of the Soviet 1920s in which all avant-garde artists worked earnestly for communism and the Bolshevik revolution. However, the fact is that this Soviet-generated myth is no longer accepted in contemporary Soviet studies. Most of the primary research into Soviet history has been done in the West over the last thirty years. (For obvious reasons, such research was impossible within the Soviet Union until after c.1986.) The volume of Western Soviet studies is now vast and, in the 1980s generated a bitter war over statistical interpretation between revisionists and anti-revisionists (signifying the exact reverse of what these labels mean in Shostakovich studies). During the 1990s, that war simmered down and something of a spirit of co-operation ensued, partly brought about by the sheer profusion of primary research materials available under glasnost' and after the fall of the USSR.

One product of this renewed primary research has been the documentary demonstration of hitherto unsuspected depths of popular socio-cultural autonomy and resistance to the Soviet regime among peasants, workers, and intelligenty, extending through the worst period of Stalin's repressions in the later 1930s (e.g., Sarah Davies' Popular Opinion in Stalin's Russia, Sheila Fitzpatrick's Everyday Stalinism). But the real bombshell dropped last year: Vladimir Brovkin's Russia After Lenin: Politics, Culture & Society, 1921-29.

Brovkin's primary research on the 1920s has found that, far from the Soviet myth of a people basically united behind "the great Party of Lenin", the Bolsheviks then occupied only the upper positions of power, were elsewhere thinly spread and, as the decade progressed, found themselves losing most of the support they'd managed to muster, mostly from the proletariat, during the Civil War (1918-21). The peasants would have nothing to do with them, urban workers were either apathetic or divided across a political spectrum ranging from revived SR/Menshevik groupings to varieties of far-right nationalism, and the Russian intelligentsia was so fundamentally alienated that, in 1927-8, the GPU reported that professors and students across Russia were campaigning against Communist candidates in local soviet elections.

Brovkin's chapter "The Komsomol and youth" is particularly remarkable in its documentary depiction of drunkenness and cynicism among Soviet youth. Here's part of his summing up:

The gap between the official representations of Soviet youth and reality was enormous. Instead of conscious proletarians building socialism under party leadership, Soviet youth showed hostility to NEP, denounced miserable living conditions, and openly attacked inequality, party privilege, and low wages. The Komsomol as a transmission belt of Communist ideology into urban working-class youth failed dismally in the 1920s. Very few were inspired to become class-conscious fighters for the party of Lenin. The trend was, in fact, in the opposite direction. In the realm of political ideas the Komsomol was a breeding ground for many "anti-Soviet" political and religious associations.

The 1920s saw the revival of interest in populism, liberalism, Menshevism, and religiosity. Dissident groups proliferated and religious associations eclipsed the official "transmission belt" in their popularity. Many espoused prejudice against Jews and other ethnic minorities.

The vast majority remained apolitical and could not have cared less about socialism. They craved entertainment, not politics; for vodka, sex, and foxtrot rather than for Lenin or the ABCs of communism. Attitudes to women were anything but socialist. Bolshevik "new morality" campaigns seem to have made things worse. Sexual contact became freer and the family structure weaker. Most youths were attracted to Western popular culture and music, ignoring Agitprop's message and propaganda. In their lifestyles, tastes, dress, and aspirations, Soviet youth espoused "bourgeois" values rather than some ephemeral proletarian consciousness.

Despite hundreds of thousands of rural members, the Komsomol remained a marginal force in the countryside. It attracted only those who wanted to leave and make a career in administration elsewhere. Moral standards alienated women, and anti-religious campaigns offended the rest of the rural community. The sheer numbers of young people affiliated with religious congregations and the Peasant Union dwarf the Komsomol's presence in the countryside. Ten years of ceaseless Communist propaganda among the youth in the conditions of a press monopoly, expenditure of enormous financial resources, and the absence of a legally tolerated opposition failed to generate enthusiasm or excitement. [op. cit. 132-3]

Everything in the FEKS Manifesto is consistent with the 1920s youth culture. What they stood for was what young people enjoyed (and vastly preferred to Soviet Communist propaganda): Chaplin movies, detective stories, clowns and cardsharps, pop songs, foxtrots, funfairs, fast cars, sex, free expression, and vodka -- mixed with a dry dislike of the business sharks of NEP, the privileges flaunted by the Party's place-men, the persisting fact of slum housing, the demand for greater productivity without wage rises, and the social programmes of "positive discrimination" which saw uneducated proletarians promoted over the heads of those genuinely qualified to occupy their posts. Like most young people, and most artistic groups of that era, FEKS resented the Bolshevik usurpation of power. As far as they were concerned, the revolution belonged to the people and should be (a) democratic and (b) an ongoing carnival.

This ethos encompassed revolutionary conviction but not in any revolution imposed and enforced from above. This (1921-28) was the only period in Soviet history in which it was possible to draw a distinction between "soviet" and "communist", even if that difference was delusory. In trying to claim back the revolution for the people, certain young radicals did draw this distinction -- only to collide with the GPU and Komsomol aktiv, who viewed such discrimination as heretical and counter-revolutionary. When Stalin came to power in 1928, he set about totalitarianizing the Soviet Union, eradicating any lingering sentimental distinction between "soviet" and "communist". There was to be only one socialism: Bolshevik/Leninist socialism. Vladimir Brovkin shows that the Bolshevik party was fighting for survival. It was a question of crushing politico-cultural pluralism or losing control of the country. This why Stalin ordained the policy of proletarianisation and encouraged the Cultural Revolution: not just to crush dissent in the intelligentsia, but to end dissent across all classes in general. Similarly, the collectivisation campaign was aimed at destroying deeper dissent in the countryside. October 1917 was a coup without any widebased support. What happened during 1929-31 was, in effect, a consolidating second (totalitarian) revolution.

The special interest for Shostakovich students is that it's likely that the Cultural Revolution itself, like the later cultural convulsions of 1936 and 1948, was sparked by a work involving Shostakovich: New Babylon. Its title reflecting both the sobriquet of 1870s Paris and the clamorous social and ethical pluralism of the Soviet Union of the mid-1920s, the film explosively fused the two genres Lenin considered the most important in terms of propaganda: film and music. Embodying the clash between free thought and what we now know to have been a fairly beleaguered Bolshevik government whose polices were failing and whose credibility among the majority of its citizens was at rock bottom, New Babylon was caught in the crossfire at the precise moment at which Stalin took political control. As such, this film may come to be seen as the inaugural event in the cultural transition from NEP pluralism to Stalin's "revolution from above".

Katerina Clark's idea that FEKS was seriously "pro-Soviet" is either a misunderstanding of a distinction between pro-soviet and pro-communist which was current only in the 1920s -- or a complete misreading of FEKS's essential apoliticism. Called to endorse Proletkult demands for the proletarianization of Soviet literature, Trauberg, speaking on 1st January 1929, fired back: "Re-education is an absurdity. We don't endorse reading a series of increasingly inferior hacks before reading the classics." Soon after this came the crackdown, and free speech ended. Newly camouflaged as Soviet artists, Kozintsev and Trauberg continued to work for Lenfilm -- "highly paid prostitutes", as they ironically noted. Trauberg had the last laugh, observing to Theodore Van Houten during the 1980s that his enemy Petrov-Bytov finished his days in an asylum.

As for Shostakovich, the New Babylon affair begins to look far more significant in his career than hitherto. His score for The Bedbug, while mostly composed after New Babylon, was premiered a month earlier, and thus started the succession of clashes he experienced with the Leftists of the Cultural Revolution during the next three years. But, perhaps because Stalin put more emphasis on cinema than on theatre, the scandal over The Bedbug was almost immediately superseded by that attendant on New Babylon. Following the Stalinist "rule of two", the film was linked, as a target of censure, with Eisenstein's October. Later in 1929, Zamyatin's We was likewise paired with Pilnyak's Mahogany, and, in 1930, The Nose was coupled with Lev Knipper's The North Wind. Of course, The Nose was as much a reflection of 1920s Soviet youth culture as New Babylon (for example, incorporating a prurient assault on a woman, this being one of the dominant sexual themes of the time: rapes and gang-rapes were constant news). Perhaps no opera could have achieved the impact of the "first" film-with-music; in any case, The Nose had to wait nearly two years to be performed -- whereupon more scandal ensued. No surprise, then, that Shostakovich slipped away to the Black Sea to dash off his Third Symphony (the quickest-composed of all his symphonic scores). Early in 1929, the times had suddenly changed. He needed to take rapid evasive action.

What's most striking about this new view of New Babylon is Shostakovich's relationship with FEKS. This considerably sharpens our perception of him, reinforcing the contentions of those then acquainted with him that he had no serious interest in politics, and certainly none in ideology. [See Witnesses for the Defence.] His opus list of the period (as I argued in The New Shostakovich and as Elizabeth Wilson concurred in Shostakovich: A Life Remembered) is, under a superficial appearance of Soviet conformity, essentially individualist (trending towards a more considered form of dissidence in the mid-1930s). To judge by his attitude to Bezymensky's verses and his own feelings expressed to Tanya Glivenko whilst composing it [see Recent Commentary], Shostakovich imbued his Second Symphony with no genuine Soviet ardour. The Nose, Tahiti Trot, New Babylon, The Bedbug -- all were individualist works, accordingly attacked by Bolshevik critics, or their Leftist cohorts. Shostakovich hated the libretti for The Golden Age and The Bolt, neither of which he appears to have thought much of as compositions. The Shot, Virgin Land, and Rule, Britannia were hack works knocked out for TRAM in order to gain brownie points with the proletarian groups. Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk is arguably the most extreme of all of Shostakovich's individualist pieces. That leaves the Third Symphony, which is not hard to interpret as (a) opportunistic and (b) darkly foreboding and pessimistic.

Incidentally, Solomon Volkov, in St Petersburg, gives a clue as to how Shostakovich might originally have become aware of FEKS. In 1924, the Leningrad magazine Teatr published a satirical attack on the impresario Akim Volynsky. This wasn't signed, but everyone knew the authors were Kozintsev and Trauberg. Shostakovich's own run-in with Volynsky -- mentioned in Testimony and Wilson's Shostakovich: A Life Remembered (p. 60) -- may have drawn his attention to FEKS's satire on his employer, a man he was then about to sue. He would also presumably have approved FEKS's membership of the Gogol cult and enjoyed their advertised address: "Eccentropolis (formerly Petrograd)." John Riley (in DSCH Journal 1 [Summer 1994], p. 34) records a claim by Kozintsev that Shostakovich had, during his time at the cinema piano, accompanied FEKS's third film The Devil's Wheel (1926). Trauberg thought not, and it would have been very late in Shostakovich's accompanying days. (Apart from being a funfair attraction, the "devil's wheel" was also a colloquial reference to the life of disaffected Soviet youth in the mid-1920s: listless and underpaid at work, bored with political indoctrination, longing to get away from factory or office to "polish" the street all night, strolling, talking, drinking, fighting and fornicating before snatching a few hours sleep, and back to work.)

Laurel Fay's shallow treatment of New Babylon confirms what I've suspected: she reads no Soviet history and has little idea of what's been going on in Soviet scholarship over the last fifteen years. In effect, her book seems to be an attempt to turn the clock back in Shostakovich studies to 1978 -- before Testimony. Few music critics will grasp this, since most of them know no more history than she does; but, in time, what amounts to a historical whitewash and a grotesquely distorted view of Shostakovich will become more obvious.

--Ian MacDonald

NOTE. Vladimir Brovkin is NATO research fellow, adjunct professor of history, and scholar in residence at the American University, Washington DC. A colleague of Sheila Fitzpatrick and Richard Pipes, he is the author of The Mensheviks after October: Socialist Opposition and the Rise of the Bolshevik Dictatorship (Cornell UP, 1987); Dear Comrades (Stanford, 1991); Behind the Front Lines of the Civil War: Political Parties and Social Movements in Russia (Princeton UP, 1994); The Bolsheviks in Russian Society: Revolution and Civil Wars (Yale UP, 1997); Russia After Lenin: Politics, Culture and Society, 1921-29 (Routledge, 1998).

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