William Henry Chamberlin | Soviet Russia: A Living Record and a History
EQUALLY far-reaching and perhaps equally significant with the political and economic transformations of the Soviet Union is the sweeping series of changes which the Revolution has wrought in the fields of education and culture. The Russian school of to-day differs from its pre-revolutionary predecessor not only in general aims and ideals, but in the character of the student body and in almost every detail of pedagogical method.
The old Russian school was essentially formal and conservative; the new Soviet school is vocational and utilitarian in general tendency and offers the widest possible scope for experimentation. The old Russian school was based on strict discipline; the Soviet school has gone far in the direction of eliminating the element of external compulsion in dealing with children. The former Russian educational system, especially in its higher stages, benefited predominantly children of wealthy and middle-class families. In theory at least the Soviet schools give preference in admission to children of workers and poorer peasants; and this theory, especially so far as working-class children are concerned, is being more and more realized in practice.
What sort of provision does the Soviet regime make for the increasing hosts of children who besiege the doors of the over-crowded schools every year ? Practically the entire educational system is supported, controlled, and directed by the state. There are a few private schools and special courses, but these must conform to all the rules laid down by the Commissariat for Education, which is the highest directing authority of the school system. All the universities and higher technical schools are state institutions. Schools are supported, in the main, from local funds, but each of the principal republics of the Soviet Union has a unified and centralized plan of management.
There are a few kindergartens, designed for children between the ages of three and seven, but these accommodate less than one per cent of the children who might be admitted. The schooling of the average Russian child begins at the age of eight and lasts, in the majority of cases, for the four-year period which is the regular term of what may be called the Russian elementary school. There are also the so-called "seven-year" and "nine-year" schools, which combine the functions of the American elementary and high schools. At the top of the educational pyramid stand the universities and higher technical schools, which accommodate about ninety thousand students in the Russian Soviet Republic, which possesses about two thirds of the population of the Soviet Union. There is one serious gap in this educational chain: the seven-year school gives quite inadequate preparation for the university, and even nine years is, generally recognized as too short a term of preliminary education.
The most striking and novel educational experiments are to be found in the lower and middle Soviet schools, rather than in the universities. Old-fashioned teaching methods, with every subject placed in a water-tight compartment and taught separately, have been completely discarded. The so-called complex system is very generally used with the younger children. This has nothing to do with the ideas of Freud, but consists of taking a single theme as the centre of attention and moulding all branches of instruction around it.
I witnessed a practical application of this method in a Moscow school, named after President Kalinin. The given theme was "The City of Moscow." The history lesson was based on past events in the life of the city. Some geographical ideas were imparted by taking the children to the Moscow River and showing them what are islands, shores, and peninsulas, etc. Arithmetic had its turn when the children turned out in a body to measure the block nearest the school and make various calculations regarding its relation to the city as a whole.
The excursion is often pressed into service as a first aid to the textbook and the schoolroom. So in this school on one occasion the children were taken to the roof of Moscow's highest skyscraper, a building of some twelve stories, in order to obtain a bird's-eye view of the city. From time to time they visited factories, museums, and historical monuments. The purely scholastic method is anathema in Soviet pedagogy. Every effort is made to give the pupils some concrete and visible representation of the things which they are studying.
The complex method is found impracticable for children in the grades which would more or less correspond to high school classes in America, because here more specialized attention to individual subjects is recognized as essential. For students in these higher grades the laboratory method, a Russian adaptation of the American Dalton Plan, is widely, although not universally, in use. Under this system the pupils receive tasks in each subject, requiring from a week to a month for completion. They are then left free to carry out these tasks as they see fit.
Visiting a school where this system was in operation I found the pupils at work in various classrooms, studying and writing out their problems in composition, algebra, and elemental chemistry. Sometimes the teacher was in the room, sometimes not, but the students were left almost entirely to their own resources. The teacher seemed to function largely in an advisory capacity, giving help only when asked. If the students preferred talk or games to study, the teacher usually overlooked it. Each student was free to choose the subject or subjects on which he would work on any particular day.
This absence of external restriction is a very marked characteristic of the Soviet school. The maintenance of discipline is in the hands of organizations elected by the students them-selves, and while one seldom witnesses actual rowdyism in the classroom one is also unlikely to find the strict order that usually prevails in the schools of other countries. Pupils in what would correspond to American high school and upper elementary school classes possess a degree of liberty comparable with that enjoyed by university students elsewhere. One of the boys in the school where the adapted Dalton Plan was functioning seemed to feel that this freedom had its draw-backs. With perhaps a little of the superiority of the fourteen-year-old philosopher passing judgment on the immaturity of children of ten and twelve, he said: -
"This method is quite good for us older students, who have learned to work without control. But some of the younger pupils abuse their liberty and waste a good deal of time."
What impressions does an outside observer carry away from a necessarily cursory view of the new Soviet schools ? There is little doubt that they are more interesting, both for teachers and for pupils, than formerly was the case. The excursions and outside interests, the experimental ways of working out problems, are calculated to grip the interest of instructor and student alike. The new methods tend to bring out the initiative and self-reliance of the children; and the naturally bright boy or girl, who may feel cramped under a more rigid and conventional system, has a good chance for rapid and original development.
On the other hand it seems open to question whether the radical changes in Soviet education do not place too great a burden of "self-determination" upon the sluggish or indifferent pupil. Then one is not always confident that in the rest-less and rather turbulent atmosphere of the Soviet classrooms a necessary minimum of exact and precise knowledge is being imparted with sufficient emphasis. To make school altogether a matter of drill and grind is an obsolete blunder from which progressive educators in every country are endeavoring to escape. But the directors of Soviet education, in a very natural and justifiable reaction against the excessive formalism and pedantry of the Russian pre-revolutionary school, seem, in rather typically Russian fashion, to have gone too far in the other direction and to have recklessly brushed aside some essentially stabilizing props.
After visiting a few Russian schools one is not surprised to learn that old-fashioned parents complain at times that their children do not write and spell correctly, even though they may hold forth with remarkable fluency on the problems of the Communist International, the topography of Moscow, the trade statistics of Persia, and other subjects unthought of in the curriculum of the old school. A high official in the Commissariat for Education, Mr. Epstein, after listening patiently to a few of the writer's tentative criticisms along these lines, replied substantially as follows: -
"Frankly, we don't attach so much importance to the formal school discipline of reading and writing and spelling as to the development of the child's mind and personality. Once a pupil begins to think for himself he will master such tools of formal knowledge as he may need. And if he does n't learn to think for himself no amount of correctly added sums or correctly spelled words will do him much good."
Mr. Epstein's argument doubtless has much to commend it and reflects the prevalent attitude in Soviet educational circles. But one can scarcely repress a lurking doubt as to whether the graduates of the Soviet schools may not feel a little handicapped when they come to grips with differential calculus and with difficult physical and chemical formulas where no amount of general mental and personality development can quite replace the need for acquired habits of hard, clear, exact thinking.
Indeed, there have already been some recessions from the more extreme application of modernist educational theory. In cases where the complex method does not afford adequate instruction in individual subjects the teacher exercises some latitude in arranging supplementary lessons in these subjects. The Soviet school is still in an experimental stage, and its final form may represent something of a blend of old and new pedagogical ideas.
Apart from defects which are perhaps inherent in the drastic innovations which have been introduced, at least in their early stages, the Soviet school system suffers acutely from lack of adequate material resources. Not that the Soviet authorities are neglectful or indifferent in their attitude toward educational needs. Appropriations for education in the Soviet Union are already almost double the amount which the Tsarist regime spent for this purpose on the same territory; and these appropriations have been steadily increasing from year to year.
But there is still a great disparity between the comparative poverty of Russia and the great tasks of popular enlightenment which the country has set out to achieve within the next few years: the elimination of illiteracy and the introduction of universal compulsory primary education. As a result of this disparity 30 per cent of the children of school age in the Soviet Union receive no education at all, while the remaining 70 per cent are taught in schools which are usually overcrowded, some of them working in two or even three shifts. Almost all the children in the cities and towns receive some education now; but more than a third of the country children are kept out of school for lack of adequate accommodation.(1) There are half again as many children in school as was the case in pre-war times.
Lack of funds hampers the carrying out of many new Soviet pedagogical ideas. Every school has over its doors the inscription: "Working School"; but it is a standing joke that very little work, in the sense of manual training, is actually taught, because of the lack of money for properly equipped workshops. In order to function with maximum success, the laboratory method, or adapted Dalton Plan, requires a larger supply of textbooks, reference books, maps, and other school paraphernalia than the average school is rich enough to buy.
Teachers are scantily paid. P. Vikhrov, writing in the official organ of the Soviet Trade-Union Council, Trud, of December 25, 1928, gives the salaries of elementary school teachers as 53.75 rubles, or 76 per cent of the low pre-war figure, in. the cities, and 45.89 rubles, or 66 per cent of the pre-war figure, in the country districts. Even worse, comparatively, is the plight of the secondary school teacher, who receives 73.74 rubles in the towns and 65.57 rubles in the country districts, both figures representing less than a third of the pre-war salary. Delay in paying salaries is a common complaint in the more backward rural districts. In the same article in Trud the statement is made that mass dismissals and transfers of teachers for such ostensible causes as failure to take part in public activity, or cherishing an " alien ideology," or representing an "anti-Soviet element" are frequent. The author suggests that, while it may be necessary to dismiss teachers who are out of harmony with the existing regime, such dismissals should be limited to individual cases and not assume the form of mass discharges or shifts.
Notwithstanding the handicaps of poverty, and the problems and difficulties that are inevitably associated with the introduction of a programme of sweeping innovation, the condition of the Soviet school system is improving and its standards of instruction have unmistakably advanced, as compared with the low-water mark which was touched several years ago. Its significance as a factor in moulding the new generation can scarcely be overestimated. The Russian children to-day are being put through a process of training quite different from anything that their grandfathers, or even their fathers, ever knew. It can scarcely be doubted that education is an important factor in moulding the character of nations, as well as of individuals; and in the light of this fact it is quite probable that many generalizations regarding the Russian character which held good before the Revolution will be liable to modification after the students of to-day graduate into active life. Certainly the qualities of semi-oriental fatalism, passivity, lethargy, often associated with the old Russian character and quite possibly fostered by the strict repressive atmosphere of the gymnasium will scarcely be stimulated by the regime of extreme freedom and experimental initiative which prevails in the Soviet schools.
In the universities and higher technical schools methods of teaching have not changed so strikingly as in the lower and middle schools. Greek and Latin have been practically abolished, being studied only by a handful of ethnological specialists. History, economics, and all the so-called social sciences are taught from a strictly Marxian standpoint. The lower schools are also supposed to impart a Communist flavor to their teachings so far as possible; but this tendency naturally becomes more pronounced with older students who are better able to grasp political and economic subjects.
In general, however, the most impressive feature of the Soviet universities is not so much the change in objects and methods of study as the transformation of the character of the student body. The pre-war Russian students were predominantly recruited from well-to-do and educated families. Children of workers and peasants were not barred from higher education; but force of economic circumstances, combined with the inadequate provision of preliminary education, kept them a small minority of the student body. There were stringent limitations on the number of Jews who might be admitted to the high schools and universities.
No racial admission lines are drawn by the Soviet universities, but some very strict class barriers have been set up, and to-day it is rare indeed for a rich man's son or daughter to enter a Soviet higher institution of learning. In this respect the wheel of fortune has swung full circle; the children of the most respected classes of the old regime, of the former nobility, of merchants and of priests, are visited with even stricter disabilities than were imposed upon Jews in Tsarist times. The offspring of the classes which come under the heading "toiling intelligentsia" - that is, engineers, doctors, teachers, etc. - receive more favorable consideration, and this also holds true for children of state employees.
But the main objective of Communist policy in the universities is to fill them up with workers and children of workers as rapidly as possible. Over the building of the Moscow University is written the slogan, "Science - for the Toilers," and the commissions which pass on candidates for entrance to the universities are trying to carry this slogan into practice by admitting just as many red-blooded applicants who can point to a pure proletarian origin as is possible without breaking down all required standards.
The 20,865 students who were admitted to the universities of Russia proper (excluding Ukraina, White Russia, and the Trans-Caucasus) in the autumn of 1928 were divided as follows, according to social origin: workers and children of workers, 41.6 per cent; peasants and children of peasants, 26.5 per cent; children of specialists and intelligentsia, 11.3 per cent; children of employees, 19.1 per cent; others, 1.5 per cent. The proportion of working-class students admitted at this time was higher than in any previous year.
A powerful aid in this process of proletarianizing the higher schools is the institution of rabfacs, or special workers' high schools. Here students are accepted on a strictly class basis, three years of actual work in a factory or on a farm being a primary requirement. There are two types of rabfacs: day schools, which require the full-time attendance of their students, and night courses, which workers may take while they are still employed. The students in the day rabfacs receive a small money allowance from their trade-unions as a means of support during their four-year period of training.
Out of the 26,400 students in the day rabfacs and the 10,080 students in the night rabfacs come more than a third of the first-year students in the universities. Comparatively few workers' children finish the regular secondary schools; but whenever they do they receive preference in admission to the universities, provided that they pass the entrance examinations. The poorer students in the universities, especially if they can demonstrate their proletarian origin, are eligible for money allowances, ranging from twenty-five to forty-five rubles a month. These are far from munificent sums; but, together with the cheap meals in the university dining rooms, and dormitories, bare and usually very crowded, which are furnished at little or no charge, they make it possible for the students to continue their work with little or no aid from their families.
The flooding of the universities with working-class students, with little or no inherited background of culture and study, is as sweeping, far-reaching, and debatable an experiment as the introduction of the most modern educational theories in the lower and middle schools. It is really very difficult to pass judgment on its success, from the academic standpoint up to the present time. Marks are proverbially an unreliable gauge of students' ability; and Russia has no grading system.
There are few if any genuinely impartial witnesses in the case. The Communist educational authorities naturally are inclined to take the most optimistic view of the situation, to attribute failures in the work of the higher schools largely to the lamentably defective education which Russian children received during the period of blockade and civil war and the very first years of the New Economic Policy. On the other hand some of the older professors and students who belong to the pre-war propertied and educated classes are so prejudiced against the new type of working-class student that they are inclined to paint the preparation and achievements of these academic newcomers in too dark a color.
An official in the Commissariat for Education estimated that the average student requires a period of five or five and a half years to cover a four-year university course, and that 35 or 40 per cent of the students who enter the universities graduate. I do not know whether these figures compare favorably or unfavorably with similar statistics in other countries; and in any event it would be dangerous to draw any too sweeping conclusions without being able to gauge precisely the standards of required scholarship.
Very possibly the comparative success or failure of the "class policy" in Soviet education can only be determined by life itself, by the quality of work of the future engineers, doctors, economists, chemists, and other specialists who are now being turned out under the new system. One's views regarding the inherent justice or injustice of the policy must inevitably be colored by one's own class sympathies. That systematic discrimination in favor of children of working-class and, to a lesser extent, of peasant origin often creates a bitter personal tragedy for the middle-class student who cannot get the higher education to which he feels entitled by his natural gifts is unmistakable and undeniable. Before the War a similar situation existed in regard to bright Jewish students, who often found themselves passed over in favor of duller but irreproachably Orthodox fellow subjects.
On the other hand the whole Bolshevik Revolution is based on the class principle, which in turn involves the application of the American proverb that "to the victors belong the spoils." The Communist worker feels that it is only natural justice if he, or more often his son, should receive preference over the offspring of classes which may be regarded as bourgeois, or semi-bourgeois.
The proletarian element among the students is especially strong in the institutions and courses which deal with engineering subjects. The Communist Party has set as its goal that 65 per cent of the engineering students shall be of working-class origin. There is a much higher percentage of students from other classes in the courses dealing with art, literature, and pedagogy.
Professors in the universities, like the teachers in the lower and middle schools, are poorly paid, the standard rate for six hours of teaching per week being 150 rubles a month. This leads to a peripatetic tendency on the part of a good many professors, who arrange their schedules in such a manner that they can teach simultaneously in Moscow and in one more of the provincial universities. Former professors of history, economics, and kindred subjects who cannot adapt themselves to the Marxian requirements of the present day have in many cases been replaced; there have been comparatively few changes among the professors of mathematics, science, and other subjects which cannot very well be drawn into political controversy.
There is a strong urge for higher education in the Soviet Union; and the universities cannot accommodate even half of the applicants for admission. In the Moscow universities and higher technical schools, out of twenty thousand applicants only six thousand could be accepted, in view of the physical limitations of dormitories, classrooms, and laboratories. Efforts are being made to divert at least part of the unsuccessful candidates into technical institutes, where they are trained for the middle posts in the industrial and commercial life of the country.
Besides the basic educational institutions which I have described, the primary and secondary schools, the rabfacs and the universities and technical institutes, Russia has several types of specialized schools. There are schools directly attached to factories, where young workers between the ages of fourteen and eighteen, who are not permitted to work full time, receive training in general subjects, with special emphasis upon the trades which they may wish to learn. There are the so-called "schools of peasant youth," country high schools with a strongly vocational bent, where the peasant boys are taught to combine study with agricultural pursuits.
The various republics making up the Soviet Union give instruction in their national languages; and, as education is not one of the subjects reserved for All-Union control, Ukraina, Trans-Caucasia, and White Russia are able to carry out their programme without referring directly to Moscow. However, such features as the introduction of ultra-modern pedagogical methods, the creation of rabfacs, and the application of the class principle in selecting university students are common to all the republics. The structure of the educational system in Ukraina is somewhat different from that of Russia proper, the Ukrainians laying more stress on narrow specialization in the organization of courses.
The Soviet Union is obliged to face the problem of educating not only its children but also a very large part of its adult population. At the time of the Revolution the part of the Russian Empire which is now included in the Soviet Union was over 60 per cent illiterate. This illiteracy was unequally distributed, being least in the large cities and greatest in some of the remote Asiatic regions of the Caucasus and Central Asia.
The Soviet Government has aimed from the beginning at the introduction of general literacy; and substantial progress has been made in this field, although an enormous amount of work remains to be done. The Red Army administers educational along with military training; and no recruit is permitted to return to his home without knowing at least how to read and write. The trade-unions instituted courses to teach their own members. A society called "Down with Illiteracy," working in harmony with the Commissariat for Education, did some general work in the same field. With the aid of these and other agencies, over seven million adults have been taught to read and write since the Revolution; the number of pupils in the primary schools greatly increased, as has already been noted; and the percentage of illiteracy is now only a little above 40.
The percentage of literacy varies for people of different ages and classes. It is highest (68.9 per cent) for people between the ages of sixteen and thirty-four, and lowest (27.5 per cent) for people over fifty. In these comparative figures one can see progress. At the same time there are more than twenty million illiterates between the ages of eight and fifty in European Russia alone. And obviously general literacy is unattainable while almost a third of the children are unable to get any schooling.
One of the most tireless workers in the cause of eliminating illiteracy is Lenin's widow, Nadyezhda Konstantinovna Krupskaya. She threw out the slogan: "The Carthage of illiteracy must be destroyed." Largely under her inspiration, the Union of Communist Youth launched a "cultural drive," directed predominantly against illiteracy. Groups of Young Communists entered all the districts of Moscow and other cities and towns, making a house-to-house canvass for illiterates and instituting courses for them. Many individual members of the Union pledged themselves to teach at least one person to read and write.
The programme of the Commissariat for Education calls for the elimination of illiteracy in 1934. By that time it is hoped also to introduce general compulsory elementary education, an obvious prerequisite to universal literacy. I am personally inclined to regard this forecast as a little too optimistic, unless much greater financial resources are made available. The task of making the Asiatic peoples of the Soviet Union and the womenfolk of the Russian peasants generally literate is nothing short of stupendous. However, it seems certain that in the course of the next decade illiteracy, if not entirely wiped out, will at least be reduced to small proportions. In this field the Soviet Union is steadily passing from Asiatic to European educational standards.
To a greater or smaller degree the Revolution has laid its impress upon every branch of Russian intellectual life. This new influence is perhaps most marked in literature. Soviet literature is nationalistic, not in any chauvinistic sense, but in the sense of being, to a considerable extent, isolated from foreign cultural trends and drawing its themes, in the majority of cases, from the revolutionary and post-revolutionary Russian life. Without a fairly intimate knowledge of the social upheaval through which Russia has passed and the new psycho-logical types which it has created one can have only a very imperfect comprehension of the spirit, and even of the sub-stance, of many new Russian novels and poems.
In contrast to the period immediately preceding the Revolution, when mystical and aesthetic tendencies predominated, contemporary Soviet literature is generally naturalistic in character. In variety of theme and sophistication of thought it has gained considerably since the period of civil war, although as a whole it still makes the impression of something new and unformed, rough and uncouth.
In the matter of style the Soviet writers have gone through something of an evolution. In the first years every old literary form was regarded as antiquated and even "bourgeois." Futurism reigned in poetry, and prose writers vied with one another in seeking new, strange, unusual words and phrases. Now there has been a reaction against this tendency. The classics are no longer despised as models, and even those critics who are strictest in demanding i00 per cent Communist ideology in literature are willing to tolerate old forms of writing, provided they express properly new ideas.
The Soviet authors may be divided into two camps: the proletarian writers, who adhere to the theory that literature must primarily promote the realization of Communist aims and ideals, and the poputchiki, or " traveling companions," who have developed under Soviet influence but who claim for themselves more individual freedom in the choice and handling of themes and characters. Being less cramped by theoretical dogma, the poputchiki, as a group, display greater freshness and range of talent, although some individual works of the proletarian school are both interesting and well written.
It is perhaps a symptom of the essential newness of Soviet culture that Russia to-day seems to possess more than the normal share of "one-book authors," of writers who fail subsequently to live up to the promise of a single outstanding work. So a very cursory review of the conspicuous achievements of new Russian literature requires the mention of more authors and fewer books than might be necessary in the case of another country.
By the sketches included in his book, Cavalry Army, [The present title of the book is "Red Cavalry" -- editor] I. Babel has established himself as an author of unusual, although some-what uneven talent, and it is only to be regretted that he has not followed this up with anything on a larger scale. Babel, a Jewish intellectual, found himself in the ranks of General Budenny's roughriding cavalry army, largely recruited from the wild horsemen of the Cossack steppes of southeastern Russia, which was an important instrument in the victories of the Red Army over the Whites and the Poles. Without revulsion, without sentimental glorification, with the blended pity and irony that one often finds in high literary art, Babel set down his more vivid war experiences.
Some episodes in Babel's work are really unforgettable. There is the tale of the woman who appeals to the subconscious chivalry of a carload of dissolute soldiers by appearing with a baby in her arms; the deceived soldiers throw her from the car and shoot her when they find that the baby is nothing but a bag of salt, with which the woman is speculating. There is an almost epic piece of description of how the Cossack son in the Red Army kills his captured father in revenge for his younger brother, whom the father has killed earlier. Babel does not shrink from the element of horror that is never far absent in pictures of war; but he is not obsessed or overmastered by it. At his best he may be compared with De Mau-passant, working on a greater and fresher store of wilder human passions.
In contrast to Babel, whose outlook is always materialistic, stands Boris Pilniak, who carries into Soviet literature some of the mysticism so characteristic of an earlier generation. Pilniak's best-known work, The Bare Year, is so chaotic in form and so difficult and unusual in phrasing that it makes far from easy reading. Yet it conveys quite vividly the atmosphere of the "bare years" of famine and civil war; the author shows the elemental destructive force of the Revolution in an obscure provincial backwater.
Peasant life is a favorite theme with the poputchiki, just as scenes of life in the Red Army and in the industrial working-class homes predominate in the writings of the proletarian authors. The Russian village is shown in varied lights in the works of three of the more talented poputchiki, Lydia Seifulina, Vsevolod Ivanov, and Leonid Leonov.
Seifulina, who is half-Tartar by origin and a former village teacher, depicts in Virinea the stirring of the village after the Revolution, the emergence of peasant Bolshevik types who refuse to listen to mentors from the educated classes, but insist on going their own way. Some Soviet critics feel that in this novel, strong in the direct, straightforward character of its heroine, somewhat rough in style, full of close-to-the-soil muzhik expressions, the peasant, for the first time, is self-depicted, instead of being described from outside or from above.
Ivanov's theme is the partisan war of the Siberian peasants against the White government of Admiral Kolchak. His Armored Train 14-69, which has been successfully presented as a play by the Moscow Art Theatre, is perhaps the most striking of his tales, reaching a climax when a Chinese who is fighting in the ranks of the peasant insurgents throws his body across the rails to halt the advancing armored train of the Whites. Along with the regional atmosphere of the Siberian forests and swamps, Ivanov interprets very effectively the undisciplined, haphazard character of peasant uprisings, swelling in some cases to formidable proportions from quite trivial original causes.
Leonov, who is one of the most cultivated of the modern Russian authors and derives more directly than most of them from classical models, describes the village from still another angle in his Badgers, where the peasants are shown in revolt against the Communist grain requisitions. Leonov has his own approach to the Revolution, depicting it in Badgers as a struggle between the conscious, organizing will of the Communists and the elemental anarchical resistance of the grey peasant masses.
A young poputchik of unmistakable talent is Constantine Fedin. If one were asked to choose a modern Russian novel which could be read with understanding without any great knowledge of the revolutionary background, Fedin's Brothers would perhaps be as good a selection as any. Fedin is the harbinger of a tendency which is likely to grow stronger with the passing of time in Russia, that of interpreting fictional characters in terms of universal human passions, with only incidental reference to social and political environment.
Among the works of the avowedly proletarian writers, A. Fadaev's Break-up must take a high place. Taking as his theme the defeat and disintegration of a Red partisan detachment in Siberia, he makes out of his figures, not pegs for propaganda theses, but genuine and convincing human beings. His broad, sweeping descriptive style has been compared with that of Tolstoy; and while that likeness holds good only with considerable reservations, he is undeniably one of the more promising of the younger contemporary novelists.
The veteran Bolshevik author Serafimovitch, in The Iron Flood, commemorates an almost unknown Anabasis of the Russian civil war, the retreat of an isolated Red Army in the North Caucasus over desert country amid the greatest hard-ships of famine and typhus. In Cement, a proletarian writer, Fyodor Gladkov, shows that the problem raised in Ibsen's Doll's House has not altogether disappeared in Soviet Russia; the hero, a Communist worker who has returned from service in the Red Army to take over the management of a factory, finds it difficult to reconcile himself with the fact that his wife, in his absence, has developed a great variety of public interests of her own.
Modern poetry, on the whole, is less significant and interesting than modern Russian prose. The finest poem inspired by the Bolshevik Revolution remains "The Twelve," written by Alexander Blok, one of the mystical poets of the pre-revolutionary generation who felt the torrential sweep of the Revolution and paid it an extraordinary, enigmatical allegorical tribute in this poem, where the shadowy figure of Christ bearing a red flag appears at the head of the twelve wild, carousing soldiers of the Red Guard as they march through the streets of deserted Petrograd. The poem has remarkable beauty and vividness of language; and if one hears it declaimed by the great actor of the Moscow Art Theatre, Vassily Katchalov, one realizes that the Revolution has here given birth to a work of genuine genius.
Sergei Essenine, peasant, alcoholic and ill-fated lover of the dancer Isadora Duncan, who committed suicide three or four years ago, is the most lyrically gifted of the younger generation of Russian poets. In his poetry one feels the play of strong contending forces, which doubtless helped to wreck his life. On one hand Essenine feels a pull of sympathy for the Revolution; on the other hand he remains a peasant rebel; he cannot bear to think of the Russian village, as he knew it, losing its old shape and personality under the pressure of the new mechanization.
The futurist poet, Vladimir Mayakovsky, has little of Essenine's instinctive flow of melodic verse, but his work, on the formal side, shows considerable inventiveness and originality. His influence is visible to some extent in the writings of a trio of the younger Soviet poets, Zharov, Utkin, and Bezimensky, who all strum their lyres to the tune of vast enthusiasm over the new social order.
By all means the best-known Soviet poet among the masses is Demian Byedny, or Demian the Poor, a name which may have suited him in pre-revolutionary times, but which seems a trifle inapplicable now, when he is one of the most liberally paid authors in the Soviet Union. He is an out-and-out propagandist versifier, without literary pretensions; his best qualities are perhaps a rough sense for humor and parody and a faculty for adapting quickly popular expressions. He is an indefatigable writer on topical themes, and his daily poems were regarded as a valuable aid to the morale of the Red Army in the civil war.
If there is a new school of writers in Russia to-day, there is also a new and greatly enlarged reading public. The desire for knowledge that has unmistakably made itself felt among the masses since the Revolution, the reduction of illiteracy, the organization of many workers' clubs, each with its reading room and library, the institution of much new educational work in the army, all these factors have increased the number of people who read books and go to theatres. This is clearly reflected in the statistics of book production. In 1927, 32,648 new books were published in 221,257,941 copies, whereas in 1913, in the Russian territory now included in the Soviet Union, there appeared 26,850 new books in 99,942,603 copies. The number of copies has increased much more than the number of new books, another fact which testifies to wider reading habits. The Commissar for Education, Mr. Lunacharsky, remarked to me: -
"In pre-war times a promising new novel could count on a sale of three or four thousand copies. Now editions of twenty and twenty-five thousand are not uncommon."
An investigation of the Moscow trade-union libraries revealed a few suggestive facts about the reading tastes of various classes of the population. Workers, it would seem, read mostly Russian authors, while office employees prefer translations from foreign writers. In Russian literature the workers display more preference for the classics than do the employees, who are more inclined to read modern authors. Maxim Gorky is the most popular classical author, with Turgeniev, Tolstoy, and Dostoevsky following in the order named. It is quite likely that the distribution of Tolstoy's works has increased as a result of the jubilee edition of his works which was published in connection with the one-hundredth anniversary of his birth.
Among foreign authors, Russian readers prefer Mark Twain, Upton Sinclair, Jack London, and Sinclair Lewis of the Americans; Galsworthy, Wells, and William J. Locke from England; Stefan Zweig, Heinrich Mann, and Bernhard Kellermann in Germany. The study of the Moscow libraries indicated that Russian and foreign novels (the latter in translation) were almost equally in demand.
Anyone who has heard the impassioned eloquence which a bearded izvoschik can impart to an argument with a fellow cabman, the almost lyrical zeal with which a vendor of indifferent fish from the Moscow River cries his wares, or the infinite tonal variations with which the skilled Russian beggar pleads his cause can scarcely escape the conclusion that the Russians are a people naturally endowed with considerably more than the average share of histrionic art. And the Russian theatre to-day, as was also the case in pre-war times, is one of the best in the world..
Since the Revolution there have, I think, been two broad changes in the Russian drama, one for the better and one for the worse. There has been a wave of experimentation with new production methods, some of them crude and unsuccessful, but others containing considerable elements of interest and vitality. On the other hand the quality of the new plays has deteriorated. Looking back over the repertory of the Art Theatre in the first period of its existence, in the early years of the present century, one realizes what the Russian theatre of to-day misses through the absence of contemporary authors of the stature of Chekhov, Gorky, and Andreyev.
Every foreign student of the drama who comes to Moscow is apt to be struck first of all by the variety of methods of dramatic representation which one may witness in the city. These methods range from the height of classical realism, achieved in the Moscow Art Theatre, to the furthest extremes of expressionism and constructivism. Space forbids me to do more than summarize what seem to be the most important tendencies in contemporary Russian dramatic art.
The Moscow Art Theatre is still an unrivaled interpreter of the Russian classics; it has also shown great flexibility in adapting itself to the demands of the new audience and the new period. It is a far cry from Chekhov's Sea-gull, the first play which the Art Theatre presented, to Vsevolod Ivanov's Armored Train 14-69, a revolutionary work abounding in the most violent sort of physical action, which represents their latest production.
The evolution of the Art Theatre toward the inclusion in its repertory of an entirely new type of drama, where external action outweighs the internal psychological elements which have always predominated in the tradition of the Theatre, has been associated with the development of a group of young actors. One cannot yet distinguish in this young group individual personalities comparable with the giants of the older generation, such as Katchalov and Moskvin; but its ensemble work leaves little to be desired.
So now one may see a comedy of Ostrovsky or Aleksei Tolstoy's historical tragedy, Tsar Fyodor Ivanovitch, played by the "old guard" of the Art Theatre, by Katchalov and Moskvin, Luzhsky and Leonidov, sometimes even by the founder of the theatre, Stanislavsky himself, although his health is failing now. And on the following night, in the same building one may experience a sharp sense of contrast by watching the younger members of the troupe perform Armored Train 14-69 or Bulgakov's Days of the Turbins to an accompaniment of shooting, of troops entering a conquered city, of a train moving across the stage, of many other accompaniments which were quite unknown in the pre-war Art Theatre. One thing binds these two different types of production together: the vividness and fidelity of the acting.
One finds an entirely different technique exemplified in the draughty, barnlike structure which serves as the theatre of Vsevolod Meierhold. This producer, who before the Revolution was known as an ingenious, resourceful, and original stage-director, cast in his lot with the Communists from the beginning of the Revolution and carried out a series of very iconoclastic experiments which aimed to change the method and even the nature of the conventional theatre. Meierhold ruthlessly banished curtain, footlights, elaborate costumes, everything calculated to create the theatrical illusion, to separate the actors from the audience. Scenes were shifted in full view of the spectators; pulleys, ladders, and scaffolding, the symbols of an industrial age, were substituted for conventional stage background; Meierhold trained his actors to be athletes,' if not acrobats, and to express every emotion through some corresponding physical gesture, in accordance with the so-called theory of bio-mechanics.
The plays which Meierhold presented with this unusual technique were mostly devoted to revolutionary propaganda and satire, although one French farce, The MagnanimousCuckold, proved both amusing and lively in this novel setting. Unlike the Art Theatre, which is admired by all but the most fanatical devotees of novelty at any cost, Meierhold's Theatre has always been a centre of the most violent controversies and differences of opinion.
Meierhold has found staunch supporters among the younger generation of playgoers and critics, who regard him as a pioneer in the new field of proletarian art. Foreign theatrical students, tired of old forms of staging and acting, have also bestowed enthusiastic praise upon him. On the other hand the old Russian intelligentsia, as a general rule, regards his theatrical experiments with little esteem; and this is not altogether due to indifference or aversion to the element of political propaganda which he infuses into most of his productions. There are Communists of unimpeachable Marxian orthodoxy who are bored or irritated by Meierhold's application of the theory of bio-mechanics; and high officials of the Soviet Government, when they go to the play, are more apt to be seen in the Art Theatre than in Meierhold's dramatic experimental laboratory.
Although Meierhold is often hailed as a prophet of proletarian drama, actual manual workers are not, I think, especially attracted by his performances, and on one occasion a worker wrote to a newspaper to complain that, while his factory was well supplied with free or cheap tickets for Meierhold's Theatre, the workers would appreciate it more if they could obtain readier access to playhouses where they really enjoyed them-selves, such as the State Opera House and the Art Theatre. Meierhold rallies around him rather the young Communists with advanced aesthetic views; and they came to his support recently when the unsympathetic branch of the Commissariat for Education which controls the theatres proposed to close his establishment because of the heavy deficit which it had incurred.
Another deviation from the naturalistic tradition of Stanislavsky is exemplified in the Kamerny Theatre, which is under the direction of Alexander Tairov. Here the idea that the actor, rather than the play, is the thing is pushed to its furthest limits. Tairov once summed up the guiding principle of his theatre to me in the following two sentences: -
"The Art Theatre teaches the actor to forget that he is on a stage. We teach him to remember that he is on the stage during every moment of his playing."
One naturally finds in the Kamerny Theatre a great concentration upon facial expression and gesture and upon all the external accessories of the actor's trade, such as costume, lighting, stage arrangement, etc. At times the element of artificiality seems a little too strongly developed; yet the Kamerny Theatre has unmistakably developed a very gifted body of actors, who are perhaps at their best in the more intelligent type of musical comedy or light operetta.
Limitation of space prevents me from going further into descriptions of individual Russian theatres. It may be said generally that the Soviet theatre possesses in high degree the qualities of vitality and diversification; and there are several other playhouses which, in technique, if not in originality of ideas, deserve to rank with those which have already been mentioned. Acting has been very consider-ably popularized since the Revolution; and a wide network of amateur theatres has sprung up around the workers' clubs, which usually possess their dramatic circles, while there are said to be twenty thousand amateur theatrical groups in the peasant villages.
There is a visible disproportion between the high average dramatic capacity of the Russian theatre and the quality of most of the modern plays which are offered for their production. One of the most popular and certainly the most controversial of the new playwrights is Mikhail Bulgakov. His Days of the Turbins, a drama of the civil war in which some of the anti-Bolshevik officers are represented not as dehumanized monsters, but as gallant and personally sympathetic figures, futile defenders of a lost cause, plays season after season to crowded houses at the Art Theatre, where many an old "bourgeois" family comes to shed tears over the vivid representations of terrible, heroic, and pitiful scenes, which, to the Russians, still seem close at hand. Another play by Bulgakov, The Apartment of Zoikina, presented by the Studio of Vakhtangov, one of the best of the smaller Moscow theatres, is rather a sharp topical satire on Soviet life; and a third production, Deep Red Island, is a rollicking satire on censorship, which derives special point from the fact that Bulgakov him-self has had considerable experience of Soviet censors. Days of the Turbins had to be substantially modified before it was presented, and one of his new plays, Flight, a picture of the life of the Russian emigres, is delayed pending some final decision as to whether it may be given.
The work of Bulgakov naturally suggests the whole problem of censorship in the Soviet Union. Both literature and drama are subject to this form of preliminary control, the censoring functions in regard to literature being exercised by Glavlit, which also rules on the admissibility of foreign books and periodicals, and in regard to the drama by the Repertory Committee. Mr. Anatole Lunacharsky, who in his capacity of Commissar for Education exercises a certain amount of super-vision over the general intellectual life of the country, defined the objects of Soviet censorship to me as "the elimination of everything that is counter-revolutionary, pornographic, and mystical." He added that he personally was always inclined to apply these definitions only in the most liberal sense, and that the censorship was more criticized for being too lax than for being too severe.
Certainly far more latitude is permitted in purely cultural fields than in such subjects as politics and economics, where no deviations from Marxism are tolerated. The Soviet censor-ship, like every other, occasionally inevitably makes itself ridiculous. Some time ago the Repertory Committee, in a burst of zeal, forbade Wagner's Lohengrin as "religious and mystical," took Schiller's Mary Stuart offthe boards on the ground that it was monarchistic, and proposed to cut a scene out of Tchaikovsky's opera, Eugen Onegin, on the ground that it showed too idyllic relations between peasants and land-lords. This elicited a sharp protest from a fairly prominent Communist, Larin, who went so far as to nominate the Repertory Committee for a humorous prize which was being offered for the discovery of the biggest Soviet fool. In this case the Repertory Committee retreated to a certain extent, because the prohibition of Lohengrin was rescinded, and Eugen Oneginis still given in unmutilated form.
Rimsky-Korsakov's opera, The Tale of the Unseen City Kitezh, a work of extraordinary and unquestioned musical beauty and power, excited much heart-searching in censoring circles because of its profoundly religious spirit and its numerous scenes of mass prayer. A commission of three high educational authorities was actually appointed to attend performances and gauge their psychological effect upon the audiences.
The opera was given during parts of two seasons, but has now been omitted from the repertory of the State Opera House.
In general the rule is laid down and pretty faithfully upheld that censorship must keep its hands off recognized classics. It is difficult to estimate how much censorship affects modern Russian literature, because it is impossible to judge the amount and merit of work which is forbidden. In this matter there are two conflicting tendencies, of which sometimes one, some-times the other, seems to take the upper hand. Mr. Lunacharsky and some other prominent figures in Soviet cultural life take a sympathetic and tolerantly intelligent attitude toward the work of young non-Communist writers and protect them from persecution and hostile discrimination so far as possible, recognizing that art is likely to lose vitality if it is too tightly compressed within dogmatic limits. On the other hand there is no lack of fanatical upholders of 100 per cent Marxism in literature and art, quick to pounce on the slightest symptom of an unorthodox attitude toward the Soviet social order. A Communist publicist, Fritche, on one occasion declared: -
"A critic is not a man of learning, but a fighter, who must tear the mask from the face of the class enemy."
And P. M. Kerzhentzev, another stalwart upholder of pure proletarian canons in art, is quoted as saying in a literary discussion at the Communist Academy: -
"Literature for us is a weapon of political education. We are convinced that in regard to the great majority of the poputchiki we can exert influence by methods of ideological persuasion. In regard to those, writers who are organically foreign to us, we do not renounce other methods of struggle, such as taking individual plays off the repertory, forbidding the printing of their works, etc."
As a matter of fact direct censorship probably has a less hampering effect upon the development of the non-Communist writers who come under the label of poputchiki than those "methods of ideological persuasion" to which Mr. Kerzhentzev refers. It is pretty obvious that if a man who does not think or feel as a Communist is induced in some way to write as if he were one, both his personal integrity and his artistic creation are likely to suffer in the process. One of the secondary writers of the present day has described this problem with sympathy and talent in his short story, "The Problem of Non-partisanship."
In no field of art does the Soviet Union stand so high by comparison with other countries as in that of the moving picture. The organizing and imaginative genius of a number of gifted producers, among whom S. Eisenstein and V. Poduvkin are the most prominent, the natural histrionic talent of the Russians, the frequent choice of dramatic historical episodes for scenarios in preference to the banal and standardized Hollywood love stories - all these factors outweigh Russia's poverty and technical backwardness and place the country well to the fore, so far as cinema production is concerned.
What are the characteristics of Soviet moving-pictures ? Subordination of the individual to the mass, building of productions about ideas rather than about single actors, strong sympathy with Communist principles, careful attention to the reconstruction of even minor details in historical settings - these traits are in greater or less degree common to the majority of outstanding Soviet film productions.
Eisenstein, whose "Potemkin" is perhaps the best known Soviet film abroad, carries the idea of exalting the mass at the expense of the individual to its extreme limits. In "Potemkin," which deals with an actual episode in the 1905 Revolution, one does not see naval officers and sailors as separate characters; one is shown only the revolt of one class or caste against another. The essential spirit of mutiny has probably never been so vividly and faithfully represented on the screen. Eisenstein's "October," an effort to depict the Bolshevik Revolution, is less effective than "Potemkin" because the subject is too overwhelmingly vast to be reduced within a manageable compass.
Whereas Eisenstein presents only historical figures in his "October," Poduvkin builds his film of the same period, "The End of St. Petersburg," around the story of a raw peasant lad who from an unconscious strikebreaker develops into a president of a soldiers' committee and a revolutionary agitator. His more recent production, "The Descendant of Genghiz Khan," also goes further than the work of Eisenstein in employing the motives of romanticism and interest in an imaginary hero. Poduvkin is a master of revolutionary symbolism and irony; in his "End of St. Petersburg" one sees in quickly alternating succession the excitement on the bourse as the stocks of war industries rush upward, and the column of soldiers, herded on to a ghastly death in the trenches.
What has been the post-revolutionary development in other spheres of intellectual and artistic life ? Russia has never occupied a foremost place in painting and sculpture; and while there has been a visible widening in the scope of themes chosen by modern artists (the factory and the field are very much to the fore in any exhibition of new Russian painting), there does not seem as yet to be any work so challenging as to require detailed analysis and consideration. The technical excellence in engraving seems higher than is the case in painting and sculpture, perhaps for the materialistic reason that there is always a market for engravings, whereas the collective patron in the shape of the Soviets, trade-unions, and other public bodies has not adequately replaced the wealthy art connoisseur of the past.
Russia is fairly well represented in modern music, but its two most distinguished representatives, Stravinsky and Prokofiev, live abroad; and this is also true of the composer-pianist Rachmaninov and of the great singer-actor, Fyodor Chaliapine. The performances at the State Opera House, often distinguished by the artistic quality of the stage settings, are lacking as a rule in first-rate singing. The repertory is predominantly national: there is a good representation of Rimsky-Korsakov, Tchaikovsky, and Moussorgsky, with a few of the better-known French and Italian operas and one or two of Wagner's for variety. Little has been produced in the way of novelty, if one excepts a spirited ballet, "The Red Poppy," which presents a series of episodes from the Chinese Revolution as seen through Soviet eyes. The opera in Lenin-grad is more modernistic in tendency and has given a number of works by Ksenic, Prokofiev, and other living composers.
Scientific work in Russia was almost suspended during the time of blockade and civil war, but has now revived and in some respects even expanded, although it is still hampered by lack of the necessary facilities for contact with foreign countries. Especially significant have been the researches of the Leningrad Professor Pavlov in the field of conditional reflexes. Although Pavlov distinctly belongs to the old school in his intellectual tastes and permits himself perhaps more liberty than any other person within the Soviet frontiers in expressing disapproval of certain phases of Bolshevik theory and practice, his experiments, showing how far conduct is affected by reflexes, are interpreted by the Communists as furnishing new scientific proof of their materialistic interpretation of life. So the Soviet authorities have thus far ignored Pavlov's critical out-bursts and supplied him quite liberally with funds for his laboratory.
Professor Lazarev has achieved distinction in psychophysiology, and there has been substantial progress in the scientific exploration of some of the more remote parts of the Soviet Union. The programme of intensive industrialization on which the Soviet Government has embarked places a premium upon the development of the applied sciences; and a number of experimental institutes in chemistry, physics, and other fields, which have grown up under the Supreme Economic Council, have done valuable work.
What have been the fruits of the Russian cultural revolution, which finds so many forms of expression, in the adoption of new educational methods and standards, in the change in the very character of the student body, in the post-revolutionary tendencies of art and literature ? It is my impression that Russian national culture has acquired a much wider quantitative base, while sustaining a certain amount of at least temporary qualitative deterioration.
"Dark" was a favorite, expressive, and not altogether inaccurate adjective for the Russian masses before the Revolution, with their high percentage of illiteracy and their consequent isolation from the most elementary ideas of science and culture. There are still plenty of dark corners in the Soviet Union; but the generally progressive effect of the Revolution in the field of popular enlightenment is, I think, unmistakable. Not only have the book, the theatre, the lecture on cultural or scientific themes, become accessible to far larger numbers of people; not only has there been a substantial diminution of illiteracy; but the mental attitude of the masses has changed, has become more Westernized. In the peasant districts, for instance, one can still find much ignorance, poverty, dirt; but one seldom now encounters such purely superstitious manifestations as were more or less common in Tsarist times, when the peasants would be frightened by the appearance of a new mechanical machine or would attack doctors in times of cholera epidemic on the suspicion that they were poisoning the wells.
The effect of the Revolution on the small highly educated class which inevitably exerts a determining influence upon the quality of every national culture has been quite different. The old Russian intelligentsia, with all its faults, so often depicted and satirized by Russian classical authors, was one of the most broadly cultured in the world. It is still not uncommon, among the older generation of educated Russians, to find an eminent mathematician who is also a distinguished amateur musician, or a talented writer who has received a thorough medical education.
It is perhaps too soon to judge the new Soviet intelligentsia. But, so far as one can observe, it gives every sign of being much more narrowly specialized in its interests. Superior, perhaps, to their predecessors in will and energy, the Soviet students as a rule give the impression of being inferior in breadth of erudition, in the capacities of reflection and analysis. It could scarcely be otherwise, because the first generation of a new class that has come into power can scarcely fail to be cruder and rawer, culturally, than its predecessor.
During a visit to the Ukrainian city of Kiev, the third in size in the Soviet Union, I was struck by the contrast between the leading newspaper of pre-revolutionary Kiev and the present newspaper of the city. The old Kievskaya Misl, which I consulted for historical information, was a ripe, mature news-paper, comparing favorably with the best European newspapers in the quality and amount of its foreign news and literary reviews, in the philosophic character of its leading articles. The modern Kiev newspaper was largely given over to reports of meetings, propagandist articles, urging the success of this or that or the other governmental measure, local details of factory and village life. Its contact with the outside world was restricted to a few short, dry telegrams from the official Soviet Telegraphic Agency; it had little or no intellectual atmosphere.
Yet in this externally unpromising newspaper I found at least one item which seemed to reflect the progressive influence of the Revolution. It described the opening of a new evening course for workers, and told how an old night watchman had shown great interest in learning about Giordano Bruno and had carefully written down the name of this mediaeval martyr of science. And a woman of the formerly well-to-do classes with whom I became acquainted remarked that her servant had asked her an unusual question: "When did the Middle Ages begin ?"
Which is more important, to issue well-edited newspapers for the cultivated minority or to scatter broadcast seeds of interest in Giordano Bruno and the Middle Ages among people who most probably in pre-war days would have been totally illiterate ? I shall not attempt to answer this question. But I think it may be said with safety that the process of leveling, of ironing out or at least reducing the great differences and contrasts so characteristic of Old Russia, is quite as marked in the cultural field as in the social and economic life of the Soviet Union.
(1) According to a recent school census, there are 11,372,507 pupils and 337,435 teachers in the Soviet primary and secondary schools. There are schools for 98.4 per cent of city school children of school age, and for 65.3 per cent of country children. There are 1194 pupils to every 10,000 of population in the urban centres and 675 per 10,000 in the country districts.