Late Stalinism. The Aesthetics of Politics

Dobrenko, Evgeny
Anzahl Seiten
IX, 574 S.
$ 45.00
Rezensiert für H-Soz-Kult von
Anatoly Pinsky, Aleksanteri Institute, University of Helsinki

Evgeny Dobrenko’s Late Stalinism is likely the most expansive study to date of Soviet culture and thought between the end of the Second World War and Joseph Stalin’s death in 1953.[1] In this latest addition to his large and influential body of work on Stalinist culture, Dobrenko provides detailed discussions of late-Stalinist film, music, theater, literature, philosophy, linguistics, and biology. In his interpretation, late Stalinism was the “quintessence” of Stalinism (p. 5). Stalinism as a whole, meanwhile, was “the reaction of a patriarchal society to the process of modernization,” which did not reach completion under Stalin or his successors (p. 18). Dobrenko focuses on the aesthetics of this society in the early postwar years. It was in this period, he explains, that the Revolution came to an end and the Soviet nation was fully formed. The Soviet nation was now “a purely [Russian] nationalist-state project and almost exclusively ethnically based,” and its founding myth was not the October Revolution, but victory in the Second World War (p. 10). To ground his focus on aesthetics, Dobrenko relies on Frank Ankersmit’s Aesthetic Politics, and Ankersmit’s insight that “the political sphere cannot be understood without an aesthetic perspective since [the political sphere] is based on aesthetic modi, tropes, and figures” (p. 22).

Late Stalinism is a polemical book. Dobrenko draws a straight line from the late-Stalin era to the post-2014 Putin years. In his portrayal, both of these periods are marked by “modernized conservatism,” “anti-Americanism,” and an “aggressive international agenda,” among other unsavory features (p. 4). Along the way, Dobrenko expresses a fair amount of criticism of the producers and consumers of late-Stalinist culture and thought and some, too, of contemporary Russian society.

In his treatment of late-Stalinist aesthetics, Dobrenko contends that allegory and metaphor were displaced by metonymy and especially synecdoche as the dominant tropes. He includes a particularly interesting discussion of the leader cult in this regard. Stalin was no longer presented as similar to Lenin (that is, allegorized and metaphorized as Lenin), but had now been substituted for him (in synecdoche, “the part replaces the whole,” that is, Stalin replaces the earlier Leninist-Stalinist whole [pp. 123, 125]). For Dobrenko, the newfound significance of metonym and synecdoche serves an additional purpose: it allows him to emphasize that the “symbolic and the ideal” metonymically substituted for “the concrete and the real” (p. 125). This conclusion echoes his discussion of the entire Stalinist era in his 2007 Political Economy of Socialist Realism, in which Stalinism is cast as “a representational culture par excellence.” “Aesthetics,” he writes in the earlier book, “did not beautify reality; it was reality.”[2] In Late Stalinism, Dobrenko refines his previous argument; now, this phenomenon marks the late Stalin years above all. He thus continues a move away from the positions staked in his classic studies, The Making of the State Reader (1997) and The Making of the State Writer (2001). In these earlier works, Socialist Realism is first and foremost about the creation of readers and writers.[3] In Late Stalinism, as in Political Economy of Socialist Realism, Socialist Realism is about the creation of “pure art.”[4]

Dobrenko presents his arguments with verve and in a fluid style, and draws on a wealth of source material. The book contains a number of stimulating observations. For example, the 1952 campaign against “conflictlessness” in literature has often been seen as a precursor of the Thaw. In Dobrenko’s interpretation, however, the campaign brought “public discourse back on the course of confrontational awareness of the prewar and wartime model” (p. 176). It thus anticipated the 1953 Doctors’ Plot. In a chapter on the Cold War, he keenly distinguishes between cultural discourse intended for domestic and foreign audiences. As he shows, the writer Leonid Leonov produced nationalist propaganda for Soviet readers, whereas Ilya Ehrenburg wrote in a more internationalist key for Western consumption.

The overall argument of the book, however, raises some questions. Some readers may wonder, might it be ahistorical to speak of the “quintessence” of a set of ideas and of the consummation of a nation, if both are historically contingent phenomena? As regards the creation of a Soviet nation, to what extent is it accurate to portray this nation as an ethnic Russian nation-state? Also, can the Russian Revolution be said to have ended in the late Stalin years when, as scholars have shown (including Dobrenko himself in his earlier Aesthetics of Alienation), the 1960s witnessed a rebirth of revolutionary optimism, at least among the cultural intelligentsia and consumers of its products?[5] Finally, while important similarities exist between late Stalinism and contemporary Putinism, do important differences not exist as well?

The approach of the book, while innovative, raises an additional issue. Dobrenko leans on Ankersmit to examine the aesthetics of late-Stalinist politics. Yet his interpretation of Ankersmit is somewhat peculiar. For the latter, aesthetic politics is an approach to be prescribed to the properly democratic state. It is based on the principle that there is no one-to-one relationship between the represented and their representatives.[6] “Legitimate political power,” Ankersmit writes, “originates in this gap [between the represented and their representatives], hence the nature of political power is essentially aesthetic.”[7] Ankersmit distinguishes this aesthetic theory of representation from its mimetic counterpart, which characterizes the totalitarian state. The mimetic theory of representation, he explains, seeks to bridge the unbridgeable—the divide between society and the state.[8] Dobrenko’s concept of aesthetic politics appears to be a bit different. “Aesthetic politics,” he writes, “is possible when politics—along with power—is alienated, a situation that is inherent to the nature of dictatorship. And this is just the sort of aesthetics we deal with in Stalinism” (p. 23).

Overall, scholars of Soviet culture and thought are sure to find insights in Late Stalinism that will help them conceptualize the early postwar years and beyond. Indeed, the book itself might be read as a primary source with which to approach the history of the post-Soviet intelligentsia. A representative thereof, Dobrenko casts himself as alienated both from the Russian “masses” (a term used often in the book) and from the Russian authorities. In this regard, he resembles his esteemed predecessors, dating back to the nineteenth century. Meanwhile, like late- and post-Soviet intelligenty, he moves to reclaim the right to cultural commentary from those who have usurped this privilege. Alongside the continuity between late Stalinism and contemporary Putinism, this may be another relationship between the present and the past illuminated by Dobrenko’s provocative book.

[1] The book, despite its length, is an abridged version of the two-volume Russian original, E.A. Dobrenko, Pozdnii stalinizm: estetika politiki, Moscow 2020.
[2] Evgeny Dobrenko, Political Economy of Socialist Realism, New Haven 2007, p. xi, 4 (emphases in the original).
[3] Evgeny Dobrenko, The Making of the State Reader: Social and Aesthetic Contexts of the Reception of Soviet Literature, Stanford 1997; Dobrenko, The Making of the State Writer: Social and Aesthetic Origins of Soviet Literary Culture, Stanford 2001.
[4] One of the earlier books, The Making of the State Writer, does, however, provide a hint of the direction in which Dobrenko would head. See ibid., xxi, 294, 405. The move in this direction is also anticipated by his Aesthetics of Alienation: Reassessment of Early Soviet Cultural Theories, Evanston 2005, p. 126. On “pure art,” see Dobrenko, Political Economy of Socialist Realism, e.g., p. 202 (and anticipation of this discussion in The Making of the State Writer, p. 294).
[5] Dobrenko, Aesthetics of Alienation, p. 113.
[6] Frank Ankersmit, Aesthetic Politics: Political Philosophy Beyond Fact and Value, Stanford 1996, e.g., p. xiv.
[7] Ibid., p. 18.
[8] Ibid., p. 52.

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