Printer Friendly

Russia at Play: Leisure Activities at the End of the Tsarist Era.

Russia at Play: Leisure Activities at the End of the Tsarist Era. By Louise McReynolds (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2003. x plus 309 pp.).

Popular Theater and Society in Tsarist Russia. By Eugene Anthony Swift (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2002. xv plus 346 pp.).

Both of these excellent works deal with the decline of traditional forms of recreation and the rise of modern, urban entertainment in Russia. Both examine questions of production, distribution, performance, and audience, and focus almost exclusively on Moscow and St. Petersburg. Both draw heavily on Jeffrey Brooks' argument that "culturalists," or Kulturtraeger, in Russia sought to suppress traditional forms of entertainment and at the same time resisted the commercialization of art. McReynolds and Swift each situate theater, performance and audience in the context of rapid socio-economic change. While McReynolds shows that a large number of those who gained fame and wealth through commercial culture at the turn of the century were of peasant origin, she devotes her attention primarily to Russia's urban middle class and "middlebrow" culture. Swift, on the other hand, writes about factory workers and those who sought to civilize them. Although he looks at how "high" culture sought to reshape "popular" culture, he frequently reminds us that traditional summer pleasure gardens "were a synthesis of high and low cultures (even if seating arrangements at performances rigidly segregated the classes)" and that in late imperial Russia "the boundaries between elite and popular cultures [were] porous, imprecise and ever shifting."

The crux of Russia at Play is that new technologies of mass production and distribution led to changes in leisure time activities framed within the notions of disposable time and income; that new patterns of consumption empowered the new and diverse middle classes to impose their middlebrow tastes (especially melodrama) upon urban colleagues; and that the transformation of recreation allowed "those who partook" to satisfy (newly aroused?) desires for personal autonomy and self-fashioning. In a chapter on "legitimate" theater, she reviews the transformation of the stage according to the new "bourgeois aesthetic," which shifted attention from public to private setting and which treated empathetically strivings for individualistic gratification, whether sexual or material. Along the way, she makes astute comparisons between bourgeois drama in France, England and Russia, pointing out that, unlike western practioners of the "piece bien faite" (1) such as Victorien Sardou, Russia's Alexander Ostrovskii achieved lasting and deserved fame by "dramatizing the new attitudes toward both production and consumption sifting down through society." (33) McReynolds insists that Ostrovskii was not a social critic of bourgeois mores; he had personally undergone the "tribulations of his characters trying to negotiate between entrenched habits and fresh possibilities," (39) had understood and welcomed the marketplace in art, and empathized with the figures he created. In a fascinating chapter on the "sporting life," the author describes how relations between the classes played out and were altered by the commercialization of equestrian activities, the growth of amateur athletic societies (especially bodybuilding), yacht and bicycle clubs, and (dismally unsuccessful) soccer. A particularly engaging chapter ("The Actress and the Wrestler") portrays Maria Savina, "who turned herself from an impoverished orphan into tsarist Russia's premier actress" at the Alexandrinka theater, and who was "empowered" by her own "commodification" in the new commercial culture. McReynolds also vividly depicts circus/wrestling champions like Ivan Poddubnyi (a peasant from Odessa who grew "a thick mustache so that he would look the part of the Cossack that he was") (135), and the Estonian Georg Lurikh, who projected himself as both scholar and gentleman, and embellished his reputation as a ladies' man by advertising himself in publicity shots "sporting ... naught but a fig leaf." More seriously, McReynolds argues here that gender and class relations reconfigured class and gender hierarchies and bonds. In particular, the wrestling world fostered a homosociability that "reshuffled some of the past criteria for stratification," at the same time that it commodified virility and asserted a distinctively Russian masculinity over the "wild, debased" bodies of their antagonists from Central Asia, the Caucasus, or Africa. A chapter on the tourist industry as a "discursive construct of modernity" (157) surveys how Russian travelers from the time of Karamzin in the Napoleonic era to 1914 journeyed as a way to bring forth the "evolving sense of self" (161); in the process, they "inscribed" first themselves and then their history into geography and, in so doing, inscribed new lands into empire. Other chapters follow on restaurants and nightclub estrada ("small stage") performers on the "gypsy mania" which "selfishly appropriated a subordinate culture" into Russian musical fantasy life; on operetta (including stars such as the former serf Ivan Rupin, who turned himself into a "foreigner" by changing his name to Giovanni Rupini, and ex-chambermaid Anastasia Vial'tseva, nightclub singer of "cruel romances," whose early death prompted a "national outpouring of grief" with over 150,000 people following her cortege, drawn by six white horses, through the streets of St. Petersburg). She concludes with an essay on "Tsarist Russia's dream factories," silent motion pictures which arrived around the turn of the century. McReynolds ascribes special importance to motion pictures because they represent "modernity's consummate blend of industrial technology and personal experience," (253) and because they "bestow omniscience and intimacy concurrently" upon the spectator, thus enormously enhancing both impact and the potential for identification with the screen action. She believes that despite the small numbers involved, Russian cinema established a special, transformative relationship with women. In general, favoring mis-en-scene over montage sequencing techniques, Russian cinema emphasized slow-paced psychological development and stories of greed and vengeance and often refused to provide happy endings. The result was "a cinematic mode that was distinctively Russian" (276).

In a provocative and insightful epilogue, McReynolds makes clear her own belief that the market ("commercial leisure") is to be preferred to the (Soviet) state in providing opportunities for pluralism and "self-exploration" through restaurants, tourism, sports, and film. According to her, "[t]his is the point: Russians in the late imperial era could play with far greater spontaneity than could their Soviet heirs," (299) whom she dismisses as Homo Sovieticus (or drones of the state). All in all, Russia at Play offers a rich palette, and goes a long way to dispel the persistent notion, driven home during the cold war, of a humorless, dreary and monotonous national culture.

Popular Theater and Society in Tsarist Russia deals with attempts by intellectuals, officials, and industrialists, who were anxious about disorder and immorality, to control and reshape popular culture by displacing traditional festivals and summer pleasure gardens (gul'iania and balagany) by a didactic "theater" designed to educate, discipline and uplift. Swift provides a succinct introductory chapter on traditional forms of popular entertainment, which he insists were not "tawdry" or "primitive." He then turns to the decline of the state monopoly over theater in the post-reform era (it ended in 1882) and the cultural politics of creating a "people's theater" (Swift employs a clear and precise terminology to distinguish between the variety of performance venues which proliferated at the time). Such politics included the initial prohibitions by the state, attempts to exploit commercial theater for didactic purposes, the efforts by the St. Petersburg Literacy Society, then by Moscow and St. Petersburg city dumas, and finally factory and temperance sponsors (the Guardianships of Popular Temperance became the largest sponsors of people's theater by the turn of the century). Swift argues that recreational programs organized by temperance societies spread throughout the empire, but that, especially in Moscow and St. Peterburg, enormous sums were spent on staging operas, plays and ballet for the lower classes. "Huge audiences" were attracted on a regular basis, and people's theaters became "firmly entrenched" in the cultural life of the two cities. Swift shows that the traditional summer gardens and festivals did indeed decline by 1900, partly to be sure because the authorities, fearful of widespread drunkenness and disorder, evicted such activities from their customary sites in the heart of the city, but also because of the success of people's theaters. Swift concludes that industrialists and officials were far more successful than the liberal intelligentsia in establishing theaters, but that "unlike their American counterparts" and "despite the opportunities ... neither the industrialists nor the [government] were imaginative or confident enough to even attempt to use theater to promite a coherent ideology." (236)

So what was the repertoire of "people's theaters" and what was the audience reception? Swift demonstrates that in themes, interior design, and style, people's theaters inherited a lot from traditional fairground theaters (162-3). Classics and literary plays had their place, as did patriotic pieces. Some care was given to avoid plays that depicted corrupt officials or incompetent rulers, or that emphasized social conflicts, but surprisingly, censorship played only a minor role: of 818 plays put before the censors, 702 or 86% were approved to be shown. To assess the impact of these theaters on those who attended, Swift draws upon a limited number of surveys conducted by theater sponsors. He displays familiarity with theories of reception, makes brief but tantalizing comments about problematizing notions of "taste," and examines the sustained popularity of melodrama. In his interpretation, melodrama appealed because of its "action-packed plots and sensational revelations," but also because it "offered both the fantasy of social reconciliation and the images with which to contest the social order." (226-227). Yet ultimately this part of the book is the least satisfying; the comments Swift makes about the diversity of popular tastes do not enhance our understanding of urban working class values. More rewarding are his conclusions about the difficulties audiences had in "mastering theatrical conventions" (realizing when one play had ended and another begun, or conversely treating each act as a separate play; showing more interest in special effects and new set than in content; accounts of "strange [inappropriate] laughter").

Swift's descriptions of the traditional, "festive, rowdy and noisy" Russian balagany or festivals, and of attempts by the Tsarist state, earnest intellectuals, and Russian industrialists to uplift workers through "popular theater" are not as exhilarating or engaging to read as are the life stories recounted in Russia at Play. Who wouldn't rather read about "Uncle Fatty," the wrestler turned screen star; Ivan Mozzukhin, the "sensitive" but ineffective "screen lover ... who might have gotten the girl in one reel but usually lost her by the last," (287), or Vera Kholodnaia, "the peerless product of Russia's dream factories," before she died at age 26 in the flu epidemic of 1918? Yet Swift's cautious and painstaking argumentation is sometimes to be preferred to McReynold's sometimes breathtaking conclusions. For example, she describes "screen lover" (and loser) Mozzukhin as "embodying the impotence of a society that had lost confidence in the political patriarchy and had not succeeded in replacing it with something more satisfying." (287); Another example: because Russian films tended to eschew happy endings (she writes, "Russia's movie studios manufactured dreams that audiences in other cultures would have considered nightmares" [290]), McReynolds concludes that the country's cinematic style "reflected society's ambiguous attitudes toward the status quo...." (276). Such provocative statements, unproven and unproveable, pepper the text.

At the same time, both authors, despite disclaimers, tend to deal almost exclusively with Moscow and St. Petersburg, strongly implying that the other provinces and cities of Russia, never mind the borderlands, had no life of their own. It might be argued that the face of modernity presented in the commercial art forms McReynolds so lovingly describes here was the future of Russia, which had yet to catch up to Moscow and St. Petersburg. Swift justifies his focus on Moscow and St. Petersburg by asserting that "it was here that the transformations of Russian culture and society were thrown into sharpest relief" (8-9). Yet the approach pursued by both authors implies a notion of linear cultural diffusion (both temporally and spatially) that flies in the face of recent scholarship of Russia aimed at the recovery of regional and provincial histories as more than pale reflections of developments in the capital cities. If we keep in mind, too, that McReynolds, in particular, is dealing with a very narrow sliver of the population, her claims that she is looking at how "modernity" arrived in Russia seem overdrawn. For example, it would be easy to infer from this volume that tourism had become a mass phenomenom by 1900 in Russia; in fact, by a multiple of at least one hundred, it was far more common for people to travel by foot as itinerant, seasonal workers, which may also have involved much refashioning of the self, but in a far rougher social context. Swift's stance on this question is bizarre: he criticizes an earlier monograph by Gary Thurston which dealt with rural theaters for peasants. According to Swift, Thurston's "broad approach to popular culture" (i.e., study of the peasantry) can be a weakness when looking at cultural change, "which moves at different places at different times." So how then can he assert that a focus on Moscow and St. Petersburg alone will throw events into "sharp relief"?

Nevertheless, both volumes contribute significantly to our understanding of late imperial Russia. In his first book, Swift, a student of the late Reginald Zelnik, has given us a worthy addition to that fine scholar's legacy. As for McReynolds, Russia at Play will surely consolidate her reputation as a major figure in the study of late Imperial Russian culture.


1. "structured in four or five acts ... lead(ing) toward a predictable outcome, set primarily in the parlours of the lead characters, and dealing with issues most relevant to the emergent bourgeoisie." (34)

Ben Eklof

Indiana University
COPYRIGHT 2005 Journal of Social History
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 2005, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Title Annotation:Popular Theater and Society in Tsarist Russia
Author:Eklof, Ben
Publication:Journal of Social History
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jun 22, 2005
Previous Article:Rebellion, Community and Custom in Early Modern Germany.
Next Article:Scotland and the Music Hall, 1850-1914.

Related Articles
Social Identity in Imperial Russia.
The Unsleeping Eye: A Brief History of Secret Police and Their Victims.
National Bolshevism: Stalinist Mass Culture and the Formation of Modern Russian National Identity, 1931-1956.
The Alcoholic Empire: Vodka and Politics in Late Imperial Russia.
Inventing a Soviet Countryside: State Power and the Transformation of Rural Russia, 1917-1929.

Terms of use | Privacy policy | Copyright © 2022 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters |