Mirrors Of Moscow

by Louise Bryant

Lenin and his subordinates:

Anatol Vassilievitch Lunacharsky and Russian Culture


"Oh, happy earth! Out of the blood of generations
Life yet will blossom, innocent and wise,
And thou, my planet, shall be cleansed of lamentations,
A jade-green star in the moon-silvered skies."


THUS wrote the Soviet Minister of Education, Anatol Lunacharsky, in those remote days when a revolution was only a vague goal and when he could not believe that in his own lifetime a day would come when he would be torn from his quiet study and forced to put his dreams into practice, or as near into practice as dreams ever reach.

Reality is revolting and disappointing to any artist, but Lunacharsky possesses enough recuperative powers to overcome his artistic sensitiveness. If he had not had enough also of that saving grace of fanaticism which marks all leaders, he would have lacked the enthusiasm which has carried him through every battle for culture which he has had to wage since the dramatic crash of the Tsardom. Only once did he actually lose heart and Lenin overcame that attack of pamc by showering responsibility upon him. Given responsibility he showed more courage than men of coarser gram.

Lunacharsky's battles in the five years he has been in office have not been concerned with bullets. "Illiteracy," he told me once, "is the great curse of Russia; we must fight illiteracy like the plague." And he fought it like the plague. This delicate poet, who in appearance is more like a scholarly Frenchman than a Russian, who has the manners and elegance of another age, has left off composing sonnets to fight ignorance, superstition, drunkenness, prejudice, disease, dirt. . . . And he has been more bitterly attacked than any other official of the new Russian Government.

With practically nothing at his disposal he had to plan and execute a vast educational campaign. That is why his achievements are so extraordinary. When Fedore Chaliapin was here last winter, winning the heart of America by his sweet and wonderful voice, he and I talked a good deal about Lunacharsky and the difficulties which confronted him. "Remember," said Chaliapin, "if you have no pens and no paper and no ink, you cannot write; if you have no wood you cannot make a fire-in Russia all these things were literally true. Vader such circumstances, no matter how willing the government might be, art and education must suffer with the rest."

I will not go into figures here, but one can get an idea of what Lunacharsky has done. He has practically eliminated adult illiteracy from the cities, he has established thousands of schools. Only a very few of them, to be sure, are up to the required mark, . but every school opened is an achievement. And there is not a single part of Russia, however remote or however dark, where a school has not been started.

But establishing and maintaining schools and universities was only a part of the work allotted to Lunacharsky. He had to build new theatres, keep up the standard of the old and show himself worthy of that great responsibility Lenin bestowed upon him when he made him guardian of all the art treasures of Russia.

If Nikolai Lenin had been a mediocrity, he would never have appointed Lunacharsky guardian of the art of Russia, and Russian art would now be scattered to the four winds, swallowed up in private collections or enriching the pockets of speculators. A mediocrity will not admit his limitations even if he is aware of them, but Lenin somehow understands that a man cannot spend his life studying political economy and carrying on revolutionary propaganda, and at the same time be an art connoisseur. What is more remarkable is that he allowed Lunacharsky to tell him so. The story of Lunacharsky's appointment is interesting and characteristic of the Russi"an Premier's method of political generalship.

When the Red and White forces were struggling for the possession of the Kremlin in Moscow in 1917, a wire to Petrograd announced that the beautiful and fantastic church of Vassili Blazhanie on the Red Square had been razed to the ground. Lunacharsky, poet, scholar, playwright and revolutionist, as well as friend and follower of Lenin, wrote an open letter to the press in which he gave vent to his horror. He stated: "What is taking place in Moscow is a horrible and irreparable misfortune!" He wrote another letter to Lenin, renouncing all connection with the revolution. And he took to his bed, ill with shock and disappointment.

Lenin did not accept his resignation. Lenin never accepts resignations from men who are valuable to the state. Instead, he went to call on Lunacharsky, and an amazing conversation took place which was repeated to me by a friend of both men.

Lenin, with his usual directness, said to Lunacharsky, "Do not be overcome by this calamity. If this church is destroyed, let us build a bigger and a better one."

Lunacharsky, in tears of anguish, explained to Lenin that such a thing was not possible; such a lovely, imaginative piece of architecture might never again be created. Lenin listened and went thoughtfully away. A few days later Lunacharsky was given charge of the entire art of Russia.

Up to that time, the valuable collections, as well as the buildings, had been in the hands of a revolutionary committee which also might very well have been of the opinion that art could be replaced by "bigger and better" things.

Lunacharsky did not take his task lightly. He issued another public declaration asking for the solemn co-operation of all loyal Russians. "Upon me rests the responsibility of protecting the entire artistic wealth of the people," he said, "and I cannot fulfill my duty without your help."

It will not be known for a long time against what strong and subtle forces he had to battle to guard that trust. There was movement after movement to sell such treasures as the Rembrandt Collection in the Hermitage at Petrograd o·r the historic paintings and tapestries in Moscow. But Lunacharsky, ever on the· alert, defeated every one of these attempts. He often fought bitter battles in his own party. Every possible sort of intrigue was manufactured against him. I remember times when he had to appear in public and defend himself against atrocious slander. Yet up to the present day he has saved absolutely everything except the pearls and diamonds of the royal family which, after all, were never of any particular artistic value. He saved even the Tsarist statues from the mobs that would have destroyed them, and stored them away in buildings for a calmer moment. He never lost his artistic perspective, art was always art and he "could look with a just regard upon the shattered corpse of a shattered kingn provided that the monument was executed by a talented artist.

Nikolai Lenin has the genius to read men well; he recognized instantly that a man who could be so affected by the rumored loss of a single historic buitding that he could scarcely bear to face life, would be the very man to defend passionately the art of the nation. And Lenin has continued to defend Lunacharsky against every charge brought by his enemies. These charges have often. been serious because they were brought by revolutionists who claimed that Lunacharsky was partial to the bourgeoisie in his eflorts to get extra rates for scientists and artists; that he was not a real Communist because he put art before political propaganda. There was a terrible period when the loyalty of all men was questioned whose allegiance was not wholly given to the defense from military attack at whatever cost to art or personal life. It was through that period that Lunacharsky had to guide Russian culture.

"Think what vitality the theatre had to possess," said Chaliapin, "to maintain itself through the revolution." "Think what hunger the Russian masses had for learning," said Madame Lenin, "that they could grasp even this hard moment to learn to read and study." Both these assertions are true, but in spite of that hunger and that vitality both forces might have gone down for some years, had it not been for the splendid leadership of Lunacharsky.

Even those ardent revolutionists who could see no further than the immediate moment are beginning to realize that the very fact that the Soviets have kept intact their national art gives them.a prestige which money could never buy; it is an indisputable evidence of their faith in civilization. And it is Lunacharsky who has managed to save for them this evidence of faith when hotheads would have cast it aside.

It always seems a pity that we are aware now of only the prominent political figures in Russia. If we can think back on the French guillotine days and the burning of libraries, the mad destruction of art, the sacking of palaces by angry mobs, we can understand that if there had been men in France in those days who could have held those mobs in check and made them want to read the books they were burning, made them turn the palaces into museums, Napoleon might never have worn a crown. In Russia the influence of the men who hold the political reins would be so much slighter and so much less significant if they were not backed up by men like Lunacharsky.

He had the art galleries heated in the most bitter of the fuel famine days and the immense crowds going in partly to keep warm strolled all day under historical canvasea and came to know all the great pictures of Russia. The Winter Palace became a Revolutionary Museum, one of the most unique museums in the whole world, the Palace of Nicholas II at Tsarskoe Selo became a Children's Home, as did every great estate in the provinces threatened with destruction by quarreling peasants.

It is interesting to note that the wives of three prominent revolutionists rendered Lunacharsky valuable aid in his difficult work, the wife of Trotsky, the wife of Gorky, and the wife of Leo Kaminev.

Madame Trotsky has under her direction all private art collections and all the small palaces; she hands a monthly inventory of these places over to Lunacharsky. In the last three years she has been very gradually and systematically removing the most valuable objects in the collections to the museums.

Madame Kaminev, Trotsky's sister, is the head of Prolocult, a movement which aims at a new culture, especially in the theatre, which is free from Greek or other influences. It is Madame Kaminev's theory that such a culture, springing from the workers and peasants and unspoiled by the imperfections and influences of former civilizations, will do much to stimulate and renew art in general, which she believes has become decadent.

Marie Andreeva (Madame Gorky), who is herself an actress of note and was at one time a star in the famous Art Theatre in Moscow, had charge of N arodny Dom, a people's theatre, which was started under the Tsar and is continued under the Soviets. Marie Andreeva recently made a tour of Europe to study the theatres.

But it is Stanislavsky, the director of the MosGow Art Theatre, who has rendered Lunacharsky the greatest assistance. Stanislavsky is conceded to be the greatest stage director in the world. Under his guidance, all the great Russian playwrights for the last generation have blossomed. It was Stanislavsky's firm conviction that the Russian people must maintain the theatres, hundreds of theatres, during the revolution, in order that they might not find a life of hunger and cold too monotonous for a desire to live. With his brave little company he has managed to keep his theatre in the capital at the very highest pitch. He established and kept under his direction three other theatres in Moscow and he has put on a number of new operas. Absolutely nothing seems to discourage him. The loss of his personal fortune, which had been very great, and even the loss of his beloved workshop which was turned into a Chauffeurs' Club, did not destroy his calm. "It is never Lenin or Lunacharsky, big men, who are to blame for these mistakes of the Soviet Government," he told me. "It is always the little foolish, frantic men. When they took my workshop I wrote to Lenin. He did everything he could and when he was outvoted by Kaminev and the Moscow Soviet, he managed to get me another place, really just as good but lacking the old atmosphere."

Many tales could be told about· Lunacharsky. The most typical, I think, and the one that shows his persistency is the story of the Hermitage museum, which Catherine the Great founded in Petrograd.

When the Germans were knocking at the gates of Petrograd in 1917 the historic tapestries in the Winter Palace and the entire Hermitage collection were sent by dead of night to Moscow and stored in the Kremlin. One day in the winter of 1921 I called at Lunarcharsky's office. He was in a fine state of happiness. "I have great news for you," he exclaimed. "To-day we sent the Hermitage collection back to Petrograd—intact! I wonder if you can realize what that means? I wonder if the world will know how nearly those precious things came to destruction? How wonderful it is, after all, that in another month one can go to Petrograd and behold everything arranged as it has been for centuries.

"Yes, there have been times when I did not think it possible to save the collection, not because there were reckless revolutionists who always brought up movements to sell one part or another, but by a much worse destruction. Can you imagine my anxiety when fighting, actual fighting, was going on in palaces where the old porcelains were stored? We had put the Rembrandts and other canvasses in the Kremlin cellars, and I was in constant terror that rats would gnaw them. Sometimes I was afraid to go down and look. But I feel that the worst days of such struggles are over for us. I am happy that Russia has demonstrated to the world that Russians are not barbarians. We have saved our art in spite of hunger and disease and death."

Lunacharsky has a rare grace of spirit and while he is himself a modernist and wants to bring art as close to the people as bread, he never allows his own feelings to intrude on the feelings of his fellow artists. Himself a writer of note, he has sacrificed his own writing to save art and the creators of art. A devout revolutionist, he can allow the intricate designs of the Tsardom, the great black eagles, insolent against the sky over the turrets of the Kremlin, to remain, because they are part of the original designs of the old palaces. He can bring himself to regild the church roofs from his scanty funds although he is not at all religious, and he could faithfully gather old ikons and make of them a marvelous little collection in one of the new museums. Only such a man could have held together the temperamental army composed of the artists of Russia. Such men as Lunacharsky give the revolution the balance which prevents its collapse.

Periods of transition are always bitter and more than bitter for delicate creative souls. Once I mentioned Lunacharsky's tact in handling artists to Helena Soochachova, the young and beautiful star at the Moscow Art Theatre. She smiled and thus characterized him: "Ah, Lunacharsky," she said, "he is a great gentleman, he is, no doubt, the great gentleman of the revolution. That is the secret of his success and the reason his political enemies cannot defeat him and we artists cannot desert him-because he struggles so magnificently and is a man sans peur et sans reproche."