Abstract

A documentary photograph from the exhibition 15 Years of Artists of the RSFSR (Khudozhniki RSFSR za 15 let) that opened in Moscow in June 1933 shows the extent to which contemporaries perceived this show as a watershed, a moment when the last remnants of the bourgeois culture of prerevolutionary Russia definitively gave way to the proletarian culture of the rapidly modernizing Soviet Union. A clean-cut and athletic Soviet youth looks straight into the eyes of the refined symbolist poet, playwright, critic, and translator Mikhail Kuz'min as painted in 1926 by a fellow member of the artistic group World of Art (Mir Iskusstva), Nikolai Radlov. In this confrontation, Kuz'min seems to embody everything the Soviet Union had done away with. The height of his fame as a Symbolist poet was the 1900s and 1910s; in the early 1930s, he was still writing poetry, but was unable to publish and increasingly marginalized. In the painting's background, a mythic landscape set within an arched window typical of Renaissance portraits ties him to the Western humanist tradition. Kuz'min's bodily posture invites contact: Seated close to the picture plane with open arms, he appears to look out. Yet the poet also seems reserved and distant, perhaps because of his formal dress, and introspective: The lit cigarette at the level of his mouth and his semi-open book signal that he is preoccupied with a subject other than his interlocutor. The youth, on the other hand, has the confident, even somewhat condescending look of a master of the universe (khoziain zhizni), with folded arms and a slightly skeptical glance. Wearing a fashionable sports shirt on his fit body, he represents the ideal of the times: a healthy, physically strong, and ideologically prepared builder of a socialist society who, both literally and figuratively, embodies the Soviet future. Such an ideal is exemplified by Aleksandr Samokhvalov's contemporaneous painting Girl in a Soccer Jersey (Devushka v futbolke), which was displayed in the same exhibition and quickly became an iconic symbol of Soviet athletic youth. This seemingly antagonistic encounter between representatives of the Soviet past and future simultaneously reflects the change in the official rhetoric. By 1933 it was conciliatory in tone, having firmly replaced the open class conflict of the preceding years, and bourgeois specialists were not only welcomed back into the fold of Soviet society, they were offered privileges if they worked for the new state.

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