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Avant-Garde Art During The Soviet Revolution

Sunday, June 25, 2006

Re-writing History

By Melissa Major

The Russian word for surreal was only introduced in the late 1920s and only came to have its current meaning quite a bit later. It was at the end of this decade that the true misfortunes of the Soviet revolution were sweeping bitter winds across Russia. While America was uniting the bible and the dollar, Russia was in transformation – a time of great political chaos and social upheaval. Rations were scarce, the acquisition of money was difficult and the acquisition of goods necessary for survival almost impossible. Icy winds blustered off of the Gulf of Finland but the shops carried no warm clothes. There was only window after window full of flowers, corsets, dog collars, false hair – bourgeois items for which there was absolutely no demand. Lines of people waiting for their bread, sugar and tobacco rations started forming at four o’clock each morning.

Millions of people disappeared at the hands of the Soviet government, including the majority of Soviet officials themselves. No person was free from the fear of that sudden knock at the door, where tragic uncertainty was the invariable consequence. The whole country was spying on itself – the walls had ears.

Thousands awoke daily to the disappearance of their husband, wife, parent, child. And worse, they were forced into silence about the event, forced to burn or black out any pictures of disappeared individuals. The physical eradication of any of Josef Stalin’s perceived opponents by the secret police was followed by their obliteration from all forms of pictographic and literary evidence. Russian citizens, fearful of the consequences of being caught in possession of material considered ‘anti-Soviet’ or ‘counter-revolutionary’ were forced to deface their own copies of books and photographs, often savagely attacking them with scissors or disfiguring them with India ink. There is hardly a publication from the Stalinist period that does not bear the scars of this political vandalism. In effect, this is how Stalin ultimately achieved the power to change history. In fact, this warped version of history was still being taught in schools well into the 1980s.So how did it all persevere so long? Because art, sport, science, literature – everything – either propagated the great Soviet duty or was abolished. Millions internalized this empowering Soviet dream. And those who did not embrace the Soviet dream found themselves arrested, executed or as slaves in gulags, where cats, dogs and other people were the only food source. The country was surrounded by propaganda and signs crying “Death to the Enemies of the People!”

Literature during this time was in the process of being mutilated by vigorous government involvement in the arts. Satire was forcefully diminished and the State’s goal became clear: the creation of a unified literary voice and a mechanism to guarantee that the voice spoke accurately and on cue, in the specified style called socialist realism. All literary organizations were forced to disband, and in their place a new union was created: The Union of Soviet Writers, motivated by the “achievements of socialist reconstruction.” And when there was a divergence from this voice by a writer, they were not to be punished – not in the great Soviet Union. Instead, they were rehabilitated. Writers and academics alike came to expect arrest, exile and imprisonment. In essence, what may have been seen as standard absurdism in the west was daring and even dangerous in the Soviet context.

“OBERIU” – the Russian acronym for The Association of Real Art – was the last avant-garde group of literary artists that survived this period. Although most of the artists were arrested and died at the hand of the Red Army, some of their work managed to escape the shredders and fires of an unforgiving government. The work of OBERIU, including the works of Daniil Kharms, Aleksandr Vvedensky, Konstantin Vaginov and Nikolay Zabolotsky are considered by some to be the most important manifestation of Soviet avant-garde art during the late 1920s. Their non-conformist works, banned for so long, can finally be enjoyed all over the world.

The story of OBERIU is encouraging, desperate, frightening and significant.

Although it is a dramatization, the history, events and people of this play are all real and factual – with a twist. The writings of the OBERIU members have been intertwined into the events of the play, not only as work presented by the OBERIU members themselves, but they have also been placed as characters in their own stories. Their stories have also been twisted into the factual events of the play. My job as playwright was to tie together, with the imagination’s string, the actual, imagined and fictitious literary world of OBERIU, in turn telling their story and propelling a re-emergence of their work. The result is a mélange and a journey, and can sometimes delve into the ‘surreal.’

Whether or not a word for it exists.rojamassilem

Runs July 5 – 16, Factory Theatre Mainspace

Toronto Fringe Festival

4 Comments leave one →
  1. Melissa Major permalink
    Monday, July 3, 2006 5:20 pm

    For more “press” about the show, check out:

    Now Magazine:

    Globe and Mail:

    See you at the show!!

  2. Melissa Major permalink
    Monday, July 3, 2006 5:25 pm


  3. Wednesday, July 12, 2006 9:55 am

    I saw the show last night and I have to say it was quite good. Here’s a link to Eye’s page for the show featuring some audience reviews (the Eye review is nonsense). Scroll down to find mine:

  4. Sunday, March 13, 2011 1:58 am

    If you read Russian and are interested in early Soviet avant-garde theoretical journals, please visit my site to download some full-text digitizations I’ve been working on:

    1. OSA’s Modern Architecture (Современная архитектура) Free PDF Download/бесплатно скачать
    2.Digitizing Microfiche: Строительство Москвы и другие Советские журналы об архитектуре (Building Moscow and other Soviet Journals about Architecture)
    3. Строительство Москвы/Building Moscow Explained, Plus Some More Issues
    4. The Major Works of Iakov Chernikhov
    5. «Соцгород» Милютина (1930)

    These feature original writings by Moisei Ginzburg, Leonid Sabsovich, Mikhail Okhitovich, Nikolai Ladovskii, Georgii Krutikov, Nikolai Krasil’nikov, Nikolai Miliutin, and many more.

    This is the architectural more than the artistic component of the Soviet avant-garde, but they all collaborated.

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