Zubok Speaks on Russian High Culture, Stalin’s Role In It

Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.

by Se Eun Gong

Author Vladislov Zubok spoke on Wednesday about high culture in the life of Russians. He focused on the cultural changes from time of the tsars to the rise of Putin. Zubok, a noted historian, is an associate professor of history at Temple University and the author of Zhivago’s Children.

Zubok spoke about Russia’s tumultuous cultural past and the bleak cultural future. Prior to the Russian
Revolution, Russia had approximately 122 million inhabitants. Of those, only about 100,000 had degrees from the few universities that existed. Because of this, most members of the intelligentsia (educated members of society, typically of noble descent) embraced the Russian Revolution, hopeful that it would lead to a period of enlightenment. Instead, the revolution led to violence and an economic collapse that prompted many of the intelligentsia to turn to Lenin and Trotsky’s new regime; others emigrated to England and Germany.

Zubok, however, proudly shared that many emigrates came back to Russia “like moths go to a fire.” When they did return in the 1930s, times had changed. Josef Stalin was in power and surprisingly, new cultural doors had opened. The Union of Soviet Writers had become a portal to getting published. Although all literature had to be approved by Stalin, high culture flourished during this period. Stalin was an avid reader, unlike his Cold War successor Khrushchev, who Zubok claims could “barely read.” Stalin welcomed literature, although censorship was ever-present.

Zubok explained that getting published during Stalin’s reign was an “either or. You either get published not at all or you get published for millions. Culture was tailored to one reader; Stalin.” Stalin’s regime could publish literature on enormous levels, and authors clamored to send their works to the regime. Some of the works rejected by Stalin’s government were published anyway, in more tolerant countries. Boris Pasternak’s novel Doctor Zhivago was written during Stalin’s regime, though it was banned in the Soviet Union. Pasternak’s novel became the inspiration for Zubok’s most recent novel, Zhivago’s Children.

In his novels, Zubok often discusses the differences between Hitler’s and Stalin’s regimes. He touched on that theme during his lecture, saying “Stalin’s cultural project was much more refined that Hitler’s.” Where Hitler stifled culture, Stalin encouraged it. Zubok pointed out that during Stalin’s reign, financial assistance was given to “approved” authors and, interestingly, to the ballet. Zubok noted that Stalin saw culture as a way to improve Russia’s standing in the world and to take advantage of the scores of talented Russian artists.

For students who know little about the plight of the Russian intelligentsia, this picture of Stalin as a cultural force is surprising. A sophomore said it was “unusual how he emphasized Stalin’s cultural contributions to literature. I didn’t know he was such a supporter of culture. It was interesting that Stalin encouraged people to write, even if there was censorship. The other leaders didn’t do that.”

Zubok not only emphasized Stalin’s cultural success but Khrushchev’s cultural failures. He said that Khrushchev had “no language to address the priests of high culture.” When the Soviet Union finally collapsed in 1991, that high culture lost state support and finally crumbled. Zubok sees no hope of rekindling it: he said that high culture, the “weapon with which you can shape the world and mankind,” is no longer alive in Russia. Instead, it has become diluted. “Diluted vodka is much worse than undiluted vodka,” Zubok said, laughing, as he opened the floor to questions.

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